Thursday, February 27, 2014

February Quick Picks and Pans

A Band Called Death (2012) This fascinating documentary by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett chronicles the story of Death, an African American proto-punk band from 1970s Detroit.  Told primarily through the recollections of the two surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby Hackney, we learn about the band’s short-lived rise and fall.  More than just a profile of a band that was ahead its time, it’s a tale of family solidarity and Dannis and Bobby’s unwavering devotion to their brother (and leader) David’s unique vision.  The greatest tragedy is that their groundbreaking album didn’t see a release until 35 years later, long after David had passed away.  Hearing snippets of Death’s raw, energetic music made me wonder how many more untold stories existed about tapes in someone’s attic, just waiting to be discovered.  A Band Called Death is highly recommended for punk fans, or anyone who loves stories about bands struggling to be heard.

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

Broken Flowers (2005) Bill Murray stars as Don Johnston, a middle-aged bachelor stuck in a malaise.  After receiving an anonymous letter from an ex-girlfriend stating he has a 19-year-old son, he sets out on a reluctant quest to revisit his past.  Armed only with a list of possible candidates, he hits the road in a rented car (“I’m a stalker in a Taurus.”) to find the identity of the letter writer.  Don re-visits four ex-girlfriends, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton, re-kindling old passions, anxieties and animosities.  Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s film is more bitter than sweet, leaving the audience with a queasy, unsettled feeling as we share Don’s discomfort.  Jarmusch avoids any pat resolutions to Don’s quest, proving it’s better to leave some things where they belong, in the past. 

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

Birth of the Living Dead (2013) George Romero and other cinematic luminaries (including producer Gale Anne Hurd and critic Elvis Mitchell) discuss the creation of his seminal low budget zombie film, Night of the Living Dead.  Director Rob Kuhns links the socio-political climate of the late 60s with scenes in the movie, and the impact on the American movie-going public.  Using a combination of archival footage, film clips and news stills, Kuhns pieces together the events and creative forces that influenced the production.  There are some insightful tidbits, but I wish there had been a few more first-hand accounts from surviving members of the cast and crew.  It’s a fun, albeit slight, glimpse into the chaos behind the scenes, leaving one wanting more.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

Frankenstein’s Army (2013) Anyone who’s ever walked through a Halloween horror maze knows what they’re getting into with director/co-writer Richard Raaphorst’s World War II found footage movie.  Set during the waning months of the war, we follow the exploits of a group of Russian troops as they encounter a secret Nazi installation tucked away in the German countryside.  Instead of facing enemy soldiers, they must contend with the terrifying creations of a mad scientist.  The innovative and ghastly creature effects are one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses.  While I was fascinated by the boundless creativity of the effects team, the story takes a backseat to showcasing the monsters. I also question if it was the best choice to make this a found footage movie, instead of straightforward horror flick.  The sets and costumes look authentic, but Frankenstein’s Army loses some of its veracity because the filmmakers chose not to display it in black and white (despite the fact that color film would have been exceedingly scarce), and the aspect ratio is widescreen, rather than 1:33 to 1.  Nitpicks aside, it’s still good for a few well-earned chills.

Rating: ***.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cinematic Dregs: Ice Cream Man

(1995) Directed by Norman Apstein (aka: Paul Norman); Written by: David Dobkin and Sven Davison; Starring: Clint Howard, Justin Isfeld, Anndi McAfee; Available on DVD

Rating: ** ½

“Not every day is a happy, happy, happy day.”

– Ice Cream Man (Clint Howard)

Somewhere between good and awful cinema lies a (ahem!) sweet spot where good bad movies dwell.  Today’s specimen is a prime example of such a flick – like the frozen confection in the title, nothing about it could possibly be good for you, but you’re compelled to consume it anyway.  Ice Cream Man is at once better than you’d expect, thanks to Clint Howard’s over-the-top performance, and just what you’d anticipate from a direct-to-video effort, replete with B-list actors, iffy production values, and a sloppy narrative.

Poor Clint Howard.  With a few notable exceptions, he’s enjoyed scarce opportunities to be the headliner, typically being relegated to some bit parts in Roger Corman films or having a bone thrown his way by his brother Ron.  On the other hand, Clint has always managed to compensate for his relative lack of screen time with a memorable presence (for my money, he’ll always be fondly remembered as the diminutive Balok from the classic Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver”).  Any time he’s had the opportunity to become the lead is cause for celebration.  In fact, Howard is the only reason to see this movie.  He plays the deranged, gravel-voiced* titular character as if it were his birthright.  After his release from a mental institution, the Ice Cream Man makes it his mission to spread his own version of cheer, driving a shabby, vermin infested truck through a suburban neighborhood.  Unlike his peers, however, he believes in including a little something extra, incorporating body parts in his frozen treats like a latter-day Sweeney Todd.  Howard puts his all into the role, and obviously had a great time as the deranged ice cream vendor.  The scenes without Howard suffer by comparison, failing to convey the same level of maniacal energy.  While waiting for his next appearance you might be better off occupying your time with some other activity, such as washing dishes, clipping your nails, or brushing your dog/cat (you get the picture). 

* In order to obtain the desired vocal properties, Howard would roll the car windows up during his 20-minute drive to the shoot, and scream at the top of his lungs (TNTMonstervision appearance).

Compared to Howard, everyone else seems to be acting in an alternate dimension.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a group of spunky neighborhood kids who are determined to reveal the Ice Cream Man’s true nature.  I can’t help but think this was  the filmmakers’ attempt to create a Goonies/Monster Squad vibe, but it all comes off half-assed, thanks to the child actors’* bland performances.  One aspect that doesn’t disappoint with regard to the supporting players is the impressive array of has-beens,** including Jan-Michael Vincent, David Warner, Olivia Hussey and David Naughton.  Warner, ever the consummate professional, does his best to convince us we’re watching a quality production, lending a disproportionate level of dignity and gravitas to his role as a town minister. 

* One of the film’s oddest choices involves a token fat kid named Tuna (JoJo Adams), which isn’t strange by itself, unless you consider that the actor was clearly wearing baggy clothing stuffed with padding to simulate being overweight.  This begs the question: Were the filmmakers incapable of finding an actual portly actor for the role?

** Fans of 80s TV staple The People’s Court should keep their eyes peeled for a cameo by Doug Llewelyn as a grocery store manager.

Despite the prologue at the beginning of the movie, where a pre-teen Ice Cream Man witnesses his mentor’s murder, writers David Dobkin and Sven Davison never adequately explain how or why he became homicidal. Throughout the film, his motives for killing remain vague and inconsistent.  Granted, no one’s going to watch a movie about a murderous ice cream man for logic or consistency, but it would have been a nice touch.  Instead, we’re left with a flimsy setup for the main character to kill people off in bizarre ways.  Admittedly herein reside some of the film’s dubious charms (Spoilers Ahead!).  Highlights include: the Ice Cream Man serving a scoop of rocky road with eyeballs for marshmallows; killing a local trollop, and adding her to his latest flavor (all that remains are a few pieces of jewelry and a diaphragm); and the pièce de résistance, a stupid but inspired shot of David Naughton’s head on a waffle cone.

According to IMDB, Ice Cream Man was director Norman Apstein’s (aka: Paul Norman) only non porn flick (in this case, the “money shots” are deaths).  Like many cult movies, the final result is a mixed bag that will tickle some and annoy others.  It’s good for a laugh or two, but the scenes without Howard drag.  Rest assured, Howard did his best to deliver on the film’s premise, even if the rest of the flick is lackluster by comparison.  I’m not a big proponent of watching movies (or doing much else) while inebriated, but in this case, it could only help with the slow spots.  Watch responsibly.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fantastic Planet (aka: La Planète Sauvage)

(1973) Directed by René Laloux; Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor; Based on the novel Oms en Série by Stefan Wul; Starring: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart and Jean Valmont; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“…when the idea is good, it is suggestive and makes one dream.” – René Laloux (from the documentary, Laloux Sauvage)

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” is an apt description for director/co-writer René Laloux’s hallucinatory odyssey, Fantastic Planet.  The groovy late-60s – early-70s aesthetic of the French-Czechoslovakian co-production* is a stark contrast to the hyper-real and cutesy animations that dominate the landscape of many modern domestic animated efforts.  For his first feature film, Laloux chose a decidedly surrealistic direction, painting a convincing alien landscape that’s part nightmare, part dream. 

* Production of Fantastic Planet began in 1967, but was delayed due to the USSR’s subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  The project eventually resumed a few years later, culminating in the film’s eventual release in 1973.

The story takes place on the home world of the Traags (or alternately, “Draags”), an advanced race of giant humanoids.  The adult Traags spend most of their time meditating, while their children keep humans (referred to as “Oms”) as pets.  We follow a young Om named Terr, as he journeys from slavery to freedom.  After a group of careless Traag children kill his mother, the infant Terr is adopted by Tiwa, a young female Traag.  She cares for Terr, but keeps him on a short electronic leash to prevent his escape.  He inadvertently begins to learn at an exponential rate, thanks to a headset device that Tiwa wears during her learning sessions.  Before long, Tiwa’s parents forbid her from bringing Terr along on the sessions, but his path to enlightenment has already begun and the Traag’s stranglehold on the Om population is about to come to an end.

While the Traags regard individual Oms as a novelty, they consider the greater population of wild Oms that roam the planet an infestation.  The Traags’ attempts to control their numbers occur with increasing frequency, an act of genocide against a species they don’t understand.  In one scene, a Traag council meeting, we catch a glimpse into the history of the Oms, and how they ended up on the Traag home world.  By the time the Traags arrived on Earth, human civilization had crumbled, and devolved into a feral state.  Although humanity has been reduced to its primitive roots, one of the Traag elders observes that the Om “may well surprise us one day.”  Indeed, it’s the Traag’s arrogance that is their undoing, as revealed in one scene (echoing Gulliver’s Travels), when the diminutive Oms attack and overcome their massive oppressor.

During his formative years Laloux worked in a psychiatric hospital,* which influenced his artistic sensibilities and tendency to view things from a skewed perspective.  Using designs by artist Roland Topor, he paints a psychedelic landscape where strange beasts roam and hidden dangers abound for the Oms.  Fantastic Planet’s distinctive style falls somewhere between the psychedelic imagery of Yellow Submarine and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations.  It may appear jarring to modern eyes (the animation isn’t as fluid compared to the typical product from Disney or other American studios), but according to Laloux, “The technique raised the issue between movement and graphics at the expense of movement,” (from Laloux Sauvage) compared to domestic animation, which favors the reverse.  The painstaking process involved thousands of detailed drawings on paper instead of animation cels. 

* During his four-year tenure, he taught an art class to the patients, and collaborated with them to create his first animated short film, Tic-tac (1957).

Laloux isn’t interested in over-explaining things, which only makes the alien setting more believable.  Although there is a cursory narration to guide the viewer, much remains an enigma.  Unlike the majority of modern animated tales with too many answers and not enough questions, Fantastic Planet stimulates our imagination by letting many sequences play out without the benefit of explanation.  The filmmakers value the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks.  Fantastic Planet is a spectacular artifact from an age that was unafraid to take chances, representing a convergence of artistic integrity and a wealth of ideas.  It’s a unique trip, worth taking again and again.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Blog Update: Farewell Japan-uary III, Hello Monster March

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time (sorry, dear readers).  I’m dragging my feet again, instead of exploring cinema’s obscure and darkest regions.  It’s tough coming down from the high of a theme month.  Now that the dust has settled, and I’ve made my way through Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, I’ve accepted that Japan-uary III has come and gone.  Along with the cruel reality of February, comes the promise of more eclectic explorations of  cinema just around the corner, with Germany Month in June, Silent September II, Horror Month, and... you guessed it, Japan-uary IV next year.   

So what’s next, you might ask (Well, I might at least)?  As much as I’d like to take credit for the idea, my next theme month, Monster March, was suggested by my 9-year-old daughter.  She’s not into scary flicks like her dad, but we find a common ground with classic creature features, particularly from the 30s and 50s.*  While I can’t promise that all of the title choices will be daughter friendly, Monster March will focus on the creepy-crawlies, the misunderstood creatures and the aberrations of nature that form the basis of a good monster movie.

* She enjoys The Bride of Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon, so I know I did something right. 

As always, stay tuned for more updates.  If you have ideas you’d like to share, just want to vent, or have an upcoming blogathon, don’t keep it inside.  Comments, emails, and tweets are encouraged and appreciated.