Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November Quick Picks and Pans

Eega (aka: Makkhi) (2012) I’m not good at making New Year’s resolutions.  In the rare occasion when I make resolutions, I tend to not adhere to them.  At the beginning of the year, in the presence of my co-workers, I vowed to watch more Indian films (and yes, this was met with the requisite level of befuddlement you would expect).  Needless to say, I failed miserably, not because of a lack of source material, but quite the opposite.  I felt adrift in a rich sea of film history, in an oar-less rowboat without a compass.  This year was shaping up to prove another empty promise unfulfilled, when I decided to watch the Telegu film Eega – and what a title to start with.

Eega reminded me of The Fly, if that grim film had been re-imagined as a charming fantasy/ musical.  It starts out as a conventional love triangle story, but things quickly take a bizarre turn.  Nani (played by none other than Nani) is a young working class man, infatuated by Bindhu (Samantha Ruth Prabhu), the girl who lives across the street.  Sudeep (played by Sudeep – who else?), a rich corporate jerk, wants Nani as his conquest, and doesn’t want anyone standing in his way.  He murders Nani, but that’s not the end of the story.  Nani is reincarnated as a fly, and vows revenge against Sudeep, while looking for a way to convince Bindhu he’s alive.  Eega features fun musical numbers, inventive fly’s eye cinematography and computer-generated effects that serve, rather than hinder the story.  It’s the perfect movie to watch in a bad mood.  If this one doesn’t pick up your spirits, nothing will.

Rating: 4 stars.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming (as Makkhi).

The Secret of Kells (2009) This beautifully animated film by co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey is steeped in ancient Irish mythology and resembles the illustrations from a picture book.  It’s a triumph of enlightenment over savagery – when an abbey is threatened by Viking invaders, a young monk ventures outside the walls of his enclave to obtain ink for a magical book.  He befriends a mysterious girl living in the surrounding forest, who aids him on his quest.  The true highlight of this film is the gorgeous animation, which appears to take its inspiration from tapestries, old books and stained glass windows.  It’s a breath of fresh air for those accustomed to the Disney mold. 

Rating: 3 ½ stars.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Bay (2012) This found footage eco-horror film covers familiar territory, but seems fresh, thanks to Director Barry Levinson’s spirited take on the material.  An intrepid television news reporter (Kether Donohue) presents leaked footage from a disastrous July 4th weekend in a small Maryland coastal town.  As the result of pollution in the bay, people become hosts for gut-munching parasites.  Although a filmmaker of Levinson’s caliber could easily have cast well-known actors in the roles, he chose to use unfamiliar faces, which adds to the veracity of this better than average example of the sub-genre.  Of course, your enjoyment requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief.  A conceit of such movies is that the characters must keep shooting video, even when things get really bad.  At some point, you’ll probably still wonder why they wouldn’t drop the damn camera and run.

Rating: 3 ½ stars.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Room 237 (2012) Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 says more about human nature than it does about Stanley Kubrick’s masterful, albeit flawed interpretation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining.  The film consists of interviews with several devotees who have scrutinized the film backwards and forwards (literally, in one instance), to the point where patterns and recurrent themes emerge.  Room 237 takes you down the rabbit hole with their dubious theories, including: Kubrick’s supposed confession of his complicity with the U.S. government in faking the moon landing footage, the film’s hidden themes about genocide of Native Americans, or continuity errors that are really intentional statements.  I can’t help but feel Kubrick would have found these various interpretations laughable, which leads to the main problem with Room 237.  We never hear from film historians or individuals who worked with Kubrick to refute these theories.  As a result, we’re left with the uneasy feeling that the lunatics are running the asylum, and we’ve been led around in circles. 

Rating: 3 stars.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Here Comes the Sun(shine)

Somebody out there likes me (well, my blog at least)!  Vern, owner and evil mastermind of the blogs VideoVanguard and Video Vortex, has honored me with the coveted Sunshine Award.  I’m awed and amazed that anyone would take time out of their day to read my little ‘ol blog, and for that I’m eternally grateful.  Before I pay it forward, however…

Ahoy mateys!  Thar be rules here:

1. Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog.
2. Link to the person who nominated you.
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself (use these or come up with your own).
4. Nominate 10 bloggers.
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated. 

1. Most shameful movie confession?

I’ve never seen a Laurel & Hardy film, despite the fact that I once worked at a mom and pop video store (the long-defunct Video Valley in Granada Hills, California) which featured the comedic duo in their logo.  And yes, I hope to remedy this gross oversight as soon as possible.

2. Favorite animal?

Dolphin.  I know I’m looking at them with rose-colored glasses, but they always seem to be having such a great time, frolicking in the waves.

3. Favorite non-alcoholic drink?

Coke or Dr. Pepper, depending on which day of the week you ask me.

4. Favorite music?

Punk, new wave and post-punk (Ramones, XTC, Talking Heads, etc…), along with 60s psychedelia.

5. Favorite TV-show?

For classic TV, it’s a tie between Star Trek and Twilight Zone.  My favorite show of the moment is Game of Thrones, although I don’t have HBO, and must wait for Season 3 on Blu-ray, so please don’t spoil it for me.

6. Favorite movie-going memory?

Seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on opening weekend at the Mann National in Westwood, California, with my older brothers.  The film broke in the middle, and chaos ensued as hundreds of angry Trekkies stormed the box office.  We had to wait until a new 70 mm print was delivered, and ended up watching it twice.  Good times!

7. Movie most people love that I dislike?

I’m sure I’ll take some flak for this, but I just can’t stomach Larry Blamire’s cult favorite The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.  It might have worked as a short subject, but stretched to feature length, it’s a tedious exercise, and not nearly as entertaining as many of the 50s genre films that it mocked.  I wondered if I was the only person who felt this way until I read the late great Roger Ebert’s book Your Movie Sucks, and practically wept tears of joy when I discovered this title on his list of scorn. 

8.  Favorite short film?

Back before Star Wars became a parody of itself, there was Hardware Wars by writer/director Ernie Fosselius.  (“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye.”)

9. My passion?

Spending quality time with my family, riding rollercoasters whenever I get a chance (Hey, I’m very immature for my age), photography, writing my blog, and fostering a commitment to lifelong learning (I work at a university).

10. Favorite soundtrack?

Repo Man, because Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.


Congratulations, fellow nominees!  Enjoy your moment in the sun, or if you’re not really into awards, simply bask in the glow of adulation from a fellow movie blogger.

Michaël Parent, Le Mot du Cinephiliaque: http://cinephiliaque.blogspot.com/
Goregirl, Goregirl’s Dungeon: http://goregirl.wordpress.com/
Matt Poirier, Direct to Video Connoisseur: http://www.mattmovieguy.com/
Page, My Love of Old Hollywood: http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/
David Arrate, My Kind of Story: http://mykindofstory.wordpress.com/
Victor De Leon, Vic’s Movie Reviews: http://vicsmovieden.wordpress.com/
Maynard Morrissey, Maynard’s Horror Movie Diary: http://www.horrormoviediary.net/
Rich, Exploitation Movie Review: http://exploitationmoviereview.blogspot.co.uk/
Dave B., 2,500 Movies Challenge: http://www.dvdinfatuation.com/
Ryan C., Trash Film Guru: http://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com/

Sunday, November 17, 2013

West of Zanzibar

(1928) Directed by: Tod Browning; Written by Elliott J. Clawson; Titles by Joseph Farnham; Based on the play Kongo, by Chester De Vonde and Kilbourn Gordon; Starring: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan and Warner Baxter

Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“There is something about this that is like a disease, and I suppose I never will be able to stop.  I would like to retire and get away, but probably won’t.” – Lon Chaney (On acting – excerpt from 1928 New York Times interview, from The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, by Michael F. Blake)

I’d like to take a moment to thank the sensational classic bloggers Monstergirl from The Last Drive In and Fritzi of Movies Silently for hosting the Chaney Blogathon.  Check out this multi-blog retrospective of Lon Sr. and Jr., and their priceless contribution to the world of film.

Long before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp forged a multi-picture director/actor relationship, there was Tod Browning and Lon Chaney.  West of Zanzibar represented Browning and Chaney’s ninth collaboration, following heels of presumed lost films London After Midnight and The Big City.  Thankfully, this film did not meet the fate of its predecessors, and exists for future generations to enjoy.  The bare-bones Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD has no extras or chapters, but I’m not really complaining. The image quality, while far from pristine, is still quite serviceable.   

West of Zanzibar is a perverse tale of revenge set amidst an exotic locale.  The opening scene takes place in Browning’s favorite milieu, the circus,* where Phroso the magician (Chaney) performs with his beloved wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden).  Much like his stage act, however, their blissful marriage is nothing but an illusion.  Anna is having an affair with Crane (Lionel Barrymore), and plans to leave her husband.  After a tussle with Crane, Phroso suffers a permanent spinal injury that renders his legs useless.  A year later, his wife returns with a baby daughter in tow, but by the time Phroso reaches her, he discovers Anna dead in a church (the reason for her demise is never made clear).  He vows vengeance against the man who ran off with his wife, and left him a crippled shell of a man.  Phroso follows Crane to Africa, while keeping the girl, Maizie (Mary Nolan) under his watchful eye, employed in a brothel for the first 18 years of her life.

* Fun fact: A freak show scene was filmed, but excised from the final print, involving Chaney in a duck suit.  While the scene was cut, the duck suit would live on, albeit in a slightly modified form, four years later in the conclusion of Browning’s infamous Freaks, worn by Olga Baclanova.

West of Zanzibar features yet another powerful performance from Chaney as Phroso, a man consumed by hatred and the lust for revenge.  Every square inch of his scowling face conveys intense self-loathing, and a desire to carry out his ghoulish scheme to get even with Crane.  It’s easy to forget that Chaney had full use of his limbs, based on the way he drags his legs like useless, ancillary appendages.  In an impressive demonstration of the actor’s control and agility, he climbs down a rope ladder and collapses at the bottom like a ragdoll, never leading on that his legs could easily support his weight. Chaney’s performance as Phroso is reminiscent of his role as crime boss Blizzard in The Penalty.  He barks orders to his accomplices while coldly calculating Crane and Maizie’s horrible fate.  He’s a thoroughly contemptible man in most regards, bereft of a conscience, yet you can’t help but feel sympathetic for him by the end.  It’s a testament to Chaney’s skills that he’s able to convey his character’s transgression from blind hatred to compassion, and finally redemption, in which he must make the ultimate sacrifice.

Phroso, referred to as “Dead-Legs” by the native tribesmen, ingratiates himself to the locals as a shaman, warding off evil spirits through his magician’s tricks and a tribal mask.*  The film depicts the  tribal people as ignorant, pidgin English-speaking cannibals that accept his “magic” at face value.  While this unenlightened view of indigenous people does little to dispel myths about African tribal cultures, it helps establish the danger that lies in store for Crane and Maizie.  Phroso is orchestrating a deadly reunion between father and daughter, which takes advantage of the tribe’s custom of burning the wife or daughter when a man dies.

* At least to this modern-day reviewer, the mask resembles the muppet Gonzo the Great. 

West of Zanzibar’s uncompromising vision reminds us that revenge is a dead end, in which evil begets evil.  None of the characters leave the film unscathed.  The most innocent character, Maizie, is the one who suffers the most damage.  The film not only showcases Chaney’s formidable acting ability, but serves as a reminder that Browning and Chaney were one of the greatest pairings in film history. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dick Miller: Cult Icon

“I really never got excited about the size of a part.  I didn’t realize the staying power of stars, when you got top billing, and then you’ve got to go a little lower, a little lower.  But maybe that’s why I’ve been around so long.” – Dick Miller (excerpt from 2012 A.V. Club interview, Caelum Vatnsdal)

I’m excited to take part in the What a Character Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club.  Be sure to check the blogathon roster for profiles of classic character actors who occupied little screen time but made a big impression.

Roger Corman is credited with discovering a wealth of talented actors and filmmakers over the years – the list is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood’s cream of the crop.  Perhaps Corman’s greatest find, however, is a name that’s frequently overlooked – the incomparable Dick Miller.  He possesses one of the most recognizable faces in film, yet few associate the face with a name.  His relative anonymity has enabled him to work consistently in movies and television for well over half a century in nearly 200 roles, while keeping a low profile.

The Bronx native arrived in Hollywood under the auspices of becoming a screenwriter,* but earned a living through his myriad of brief but memorable character roles.**  In his first outing for Corman, Apache Woman, Miller was called on to play a Native American and a cowboy in the same movie.***  Miller became a mainstay among Corman’s voluminous stable of performers in the 50s and 60s, which included Jonathan Haze, Beverly Garland, and a young Jack Nicholson.  Over the years, he appeared in numerous Corman films, but with few starring roles.  One notable exception was the Corman-directed cheapie, A Bucket of Blood.  That underrated film, which skewered the beatnik scene and avant-garde art world, introduced audiences to Walter Paisley, a nebbish turned accidental artist.  The Walter Paisley character name would prove to be a durable running gag, reappearing in many of Miller’s subsequent film appearances. 

* Miller co-wrote the screenplay (with Ken Metcalfe) for the 1974 Corman-produced blaxploitation flick TNT Jackson , but the less said of this, the better.

**Witness Miller in The Little Shop of Horrors as the scenery and flower-chomping Burson Fouch

*** According to Miller, “So I played a cowboy and Indian in the same movie and just about shot myself in the end because I was part of the posse that was sent out to shoot my Indian.” (from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome)

Arguably no one utilized Dick Miller to such great effect as Corman protégé Joe Dante, who referred to him as a “good luck charm.”  A Dante film just didn’t seem complete without Miller’s ubiquitous presence.  His first collaboration was fast-talking Hollywood agent Walter Paisley in the micro-budgeted Hollywood Boulevard.  My personal favorite is the cantankerous, xenophobic Murray Futterman in Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  Some great runners up are skeptical occult book shop owner Walter Paisley in The Howling, and resort owner/entrepreneur Buck Gardner in Piranha (“What about the goddamn piranhas?”).  Rumor has it (from one source, at least) that Miller has been coaxed out of retirement to appear in another soon-to-be-announced Dante movie.  Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of this decades-long partnership.

While his name is forever associated with Corman and Dante, he wasn’t a commodity exclusive to those filmmakers.  Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, he appeared for other prominent directors as well.  Some notable examples are the doomed gun store proprietor in James Cameron’s The Terminator, and a junkyard owner in Pulp Fiction (although he didn’t make the final cut).  Miller also made his mark on the small screen, with a recurring role in the Fame television series.

What defines a Dick Miller performance?  Although Miller would likely scoff at the suggestion he has a specific technique, his no-nonsense approach demonstrates his knack for getting a lot from very little.  Most of his characters are unpretentious, irascible, working class individuals, with whom the audience can easily relate.  You can always sense his humanity, even if the role he’s playing is unsavory.  The roles have a past and a present, and seem three-dimensional, despite the lack of screen time.

I never get tired of spotting Dick Miller in a film.  Even if the movie is crap, he’s always a welcome presence.  More often than not, he elevates the material of whatever he’s in, simply because he doesn’t differentiate from the size of the parts.  Big or small, he leaves an indelible mark.  I’d like to think the final chapter of this venerable character actor hasn’t been written.  The upcoming Elijah Drenner documentary, That Guy, Dick Miller should help increase the visibility of this fascinating, versatile performer, so he can take center stage, where he belongs.