Thursday, February 28, 2013

February Quick Picks and Pans

Stingray Sam (2010) This space opera/western/musical hybrid springs from the mind of writer/director Cory McAbee (who also appears as the titular character).  It’s not a feature film in the strictest sense – comprised of a string of episodes which harken back to serials of the 30s and 40s, albeit with a postmodern spin.  Each episode (accompanied by a different song) chronicles the adventures of Stingray Sam (sort of a mash-up between Roy Rogers and Flash Gordon) as he traverses the cosmos with his capricious buddy, The Quasar Kid (Crugie – yep, just Crugie) on a quest to rescue a girl.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s not really the point.  It’s best to just roll with it, and take in the sights and sounds, accompanied by David Hyde Pierce’s wry narration.  There’s nothing else like it, except maybe McAbee’s similarly themed The American Astronaut. Stingray Sam is a bewildering, but oddly captivating cinematic fever dream that’s worth seeking out.

Rating: ***½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Asphyx (1973) This unique little British horror flick feels a bit like a Hammer film, although Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are conspicuously absent.  Robert Stephens (in a role that would have been perfect for Mr. Cushing) stars as Sir Hugo Cunningham, a man who finds a potential path to immortality by developing a means to capture the spirit (an asphyx) that appears at the moment of death.  His efforts to cheat death predictably backfire, with disastrous results.  While The Asphyx suffers from stagey set design and Stephens’ over-the-top acting, it’s still fun to watch, thanks to a novel premise, along with interesting asphyx effects, which remind me of Ghostbusters.  Check it out.

Rating: ***.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Burke and Hare (2010) Right director, right cast, but wrong direction.  Director John Landis’ Burke and Hare is well-made but unsatisfying.  While I can’t completely dismiss the film, I can’t help but feel Landis missed the perfect opportunity to create a much better movie.  The story about two notorious grave robbers turned murderers (played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) needed to go much darker or much lighter, but ends up somewhere in the middle.  Instead of capitalizing on the more horrific aspects of Burke and Hare’s misdeeds, the film practically paints them as misunderstood folk heroes.  They’re far too sympathetic to be villains, and the comedic elements are far too broad.  What results is a big disappointment.  Sadly, this limp effort doesn’t herald John Landis’ much-deserved comeback.

Rating: **½.  Available on DVD.

Zombie Lake (aka: Le Lac des Morts Vivants) (1981) Depending on your point of view, the prolific director Jean Rollin is an acquired taste or a certifiable hack.  Based on Zombie Lake, which features Nazi zombies rising from the dead, it’s easier to state a case for the latter assertion.  The only conclusion one can make after watching this film is that Rollin was more interested in depicting nubile young women than prompting terror in his audience.  For starters, he apparently didn’t know the basic rules about zombies and their lust for human brains and entrails. Instead, the film’s zombies have a vampire-like thirst for blood (unsurprising, considering Rollin’s fondness for vampires in earlier film efforts).  Zombie Lake features some of the worst zombie makeup ever committed to celluloid, and the underwater shots were obviously done in a pool.  The film sinks to new levels of ineptitude in a “tender” scene between a young girl and her deceased Nazi father, which might only serve to induce uncontrollable fits of laughter.  You have been warned.

Rating: *½.  Available on Blu-ray (really!), DVD and Netflix Streaming

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Classics Revisited: Harold and Maude

(1971) Directed by Hal Ashby; Written by Colin Higgins; Starring: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles and Charles Tyner; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **** ½

“I haven't lived. I've died a few times.” – Harold

It’s interesting to note a common thread running through several of the films that I have chosen for this column.  Many were not favorites with audiences or critics at the time they were released, but eventually found their audience.  What was considered a misstep became highly regarded after the fact.  Of all the films I’ve covered, Harold and Maude is perhaps the toughest sell on account of its premise – a 20-year-old man falls in love with an 80-year-old woman.  Taken at face value, it’s probably enough to stop most filmgoers dead in their tracks.  That’s unfortunate, since anyone dismissing the film without looking beneath the surface would miss a deliciously witty, dark comedy that’s ironically life-affirming.

Bud Cort shines in his career-defining role as the lugubrious Harold.*  His pallid complexion (which becomes increasingly lifelike as he interacts with Maude), somnambulistic demeanor and wide-eyed expressions stand out in every scene.  He drives an old hearse, attends funerals for recreation and stages several elaborate suicides – all of which is an effort to thwart his long-suffering mother’s (Vivian Pickles) attempts to integrate him into the rest of the world.  His preoccupation with death is a conscious ploy to disengage from society, as he summarily turns away each of the potential mates she has selected for him.  Harold’s tendency to tune out, rather than tune in is at the root of his fascination with death.  It’s easier to play dead than suffer the travails of life. 

* Fun fact: A surprising list of names were considered for the role of Harold.  According to producer Charles B. Mulvehill, Elton John was approached for the film, but he wasn’t interested.  Ultimately, director Hal Ashby auditioned six actors, including Bud Cort, Richard Dreyfuss and Bob Balaban.

If Harold’s mother represents conformity, then Maude (Ruth Gordon) exists as her polar opposite.  The 75-year-old Gordon provides the film’s other standout performance, exhibiting more energy than many actors half her age.  While others (including Harold’s mother) strive to blend in with society, Maude lives to stir the pot.  A brief shot, where a Nazi concentration camp tattoo is revealed on her arm, provides some insight into her motivations and her shadowy European past.  Maude has experienced more pain and tragedy in her life than she can stand, and has since rejected the awful memories and negativity that can only serve to tarnish the present.  She chooses to live life as a free spirit, beyond judgment and conventional morality.*  Maude finds a kindred spirit in Harold, their relationship kindled by their mutual love of funerals.  She facilitates Harold’s emergence into a new identity, as he eschews his false one. 

* Fun fact number two: Despite her character’s penchant for driving off in other peoples’ cars, Gordon herself did not drive.

Cat Stevens’ (aka: Yusuf Islam) lively soundtrack deserves special mention.  His songs are such an integral part of Harold and Maude, that it’s impossible to imagine the film without them.  While he didn’t create a whole soundtrack from the ground up (most of the songs were cobbled together from two of his then recent albums, with a couple of new ones thrown in), the songs are seamlessly woven throughout the scenes.  The infectious “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” will dwell in your head (in a good way) for days.

So what about the big pink elephant in the room – Harold’s love affair with Maude?  Yes, there’s implied sex (mercifully left to our imagination), but the film isn’t really about that, but two souls enjoying an intense, albeit brief, convergence.  Their relationship is handled discretely and at its core, what they share together is actually quite sweet. 

Ashby originally wanted Harold to kill himself at the end, which would have been the antithesis of everything that led up to that point.  By the film’s conclusion, Harold has established a new, more authentic identity.  He remains a singular presence, rather than a pre-programmed drone.  Harold and Maude’s themes resonate as strongly today as they did when the film debuted.  Through Harold and his bumpy transgression, we’re reminded that facing the inevitability of life is as important as facing the inevitability of death.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cinematic Dregs: Super Mario Bros.

(1993) Directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton; Written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runte and Ed Solomon; Starring: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis and Fiona Shaw: Available on DVD.

Rating: * ½

Q: “What is the worst job you've done?”

A: “Super Mario Brothers.”

Q: “What has been your biggest disappointment?”

A: “Super Mario Brothers.”

Q: “If you could edit your past, what would you change?”
A: “I wouldn't do Super Mario Brothers."

(Excerpt from Bob Hoskins interview, by Rosanna Greenstreet, The Guardian)

Compared to many of my contemporaries, I wasn’t entirely captivated by the Super Mario Brothers video game franchise.  Sure, I owned a Nintendo Entertainment System, and had at least a passing familiarity with Mario and his pixelated world, but I never considered myself a rabid fan.  This is a circuitous way of stating that I didn’t have an unrealistic set of expectations, nor did I care to judge the dubious source material as canon.  Instead, I chose to assess Super Mario Bros. on its relative merits as a motion picture.  With this in mind, I asked myself: Was the movie really as bad as its reputation suggested?  In a word, yes.

By many accounts, Super Mario Bros. was a troubled production from start to finish. While three writers received credit for the ragged patchwork quilt of a screenplay, up to nine purportedly worked on it.  The frequent script changes became a source of frustration for the cast and crew, who seemed to have checked out long before the film was completed.  Add to this fetid brew the relatively inexperienced husband/wife directing duo of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who apparently had a much darker vision for the film, and you have a recipe for disaster (You can read more about the film’s myriad production woes here).

The cast of Super Mario Bros., with the exception, perhaps, of Dennis Hopper, appear to just go through the motions.  Hopper has the closest thing to a standout performance in Super Mario Bros. as the villainous King Koopa.  He takes ‘over the top’ to a new level, delivering phrases such as “muster the goombas,” with absurd conviction.  Bob Hoskins, as Mario, seems to be channeling his Eddie Valiant character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit,* with his faux Brooklyn accent.  He does the best he can with what he has to work with, resulting in a professional, if unspectacular performance.  Similarly, John Leguizamo, as Mario’s younger brother Luigi,** does little to distinguish himself.  Samantha Mathis, as Princess Daisy, and Luigi’s nominal love interest, is a bland heroine.  She’s introduced at the beginning of the film as a paleontologist, but this thread is dropped early on as she exists solely to be Koopa’s passive hostage.   

* Another tenuous link to Who Framed Roger Rabbit is Alan Silvestri’s score, which seems to borrow liberally from that 1988 film.

** Hoskins, more than 21 years Leguizamo’s senior, probably would have been better off playing his father.

The filmmakers made poor choices at every turn, starting with the appearance of the movie.  The alternate-universe world that King Koopa and his reptilian-evolved kin inhabit resembles a Blade Runner-esque dystopia, choking under its urban sprawl – a far cry from the cartoonish, kid friendly world depicted in the Nintendo game series.  Mario’s cute pal Yoshi is transformed into a semi-realistic dinosaur, appearing more ferocious than cuddly.  It’s always a bad sign when I’m watching the counter on my DVD player, wondering when the movie will end, instead of being engrossed by the action on the screen.  The action sequences are bewildering instead of exciting, with the lead characters running around pointlessly, seemingly without an objective in mind.   Much like Howard the Duck, Super Mario Bros. mistakes frenetic activity for comedy (when all else fails, add a confusing chase scene to the mix).  All of this left me wondering who the intended audience was.  It’s too lowbrow to interest adults looking for sophisticated entertainment, and too dark for families expecting light entertainment, while fans of the video game would be disappointed by the few concessions to the source material.  In the end, the film simply came off as a joyless and cynical cash grab, banking on the built-in audience from the Nintendo game.

With few exceptions, most filmmakers don’t deliberately set out to make a bad flick.  Everyone doesn’t aspire to be David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but at the very least, he or she probably wants to leave the audience entertained.  Even by these modest goals, Super Mario Bros. fails miserably.  The film’s basic plot (something about Princess Daisy bridging the gap between two worlds) is needlessly muddled, and begs the question why the story couldn’t be grounded entirely in the fantasy universe.  We don’t care about the real life problems of cartoonish characters such as Mario and Luigi, and how they interact in New York City versus Koopaville (I didn’t make that up).  We just want to see them traipsing through a candy-colored fantasy world and have goofy adventures. 

While Super Mario Bros. didn’t singlehandedly establish the stigma of video game-inspired movies as an inherently inferior product, it helped reinforce the perception.  Are these films necessarily an artistic dead end?  Although the poor track record of video game movies seems to confirm this assertion, the law of averages suggests that a worthwhile product might eventually surface, with the right convergence of dedication and talented filmmakers (think a million monkeys on a million typewriters). When will it happen?  20 years after Super Mario Bros., we’re still waiting.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Blog Update: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Hot on the heels of Japan-uary II comes… a breather.  I never intended to take a break this month, but it’s been a little tougher getting motivated than I anticipated.  Rest assured, however, I’ll be back shortly with more reviews, rants and who knows what.   

Last year, my pageviews continued to increase substantially, and 2013 is shaping up to create some new personal milestones.  I look forward to introducing new theme months, while continuing my focus on neglected classics and hidden treasures (aka: The Once Over Twice).  This month also heralds the return of Cinematic Dregs, plunging into the abyss to find some of the most maligned films in movie history.  Thanks to everyone who’s supported me so far.  Keep those comments coming, and stay tuned.  To paraphrase All About Eve’s Margo, fasten your seatbelts and hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy year.