Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June Quick Picks and Pans

White Dog (1982) Co-writer/director Samuel Fuller’s tale of pets and prejudice (co-written by Curtis Hanson and based on a novel by Romain Gary) was deemed too volatile by Paramount when it was completed, and was promptly buried before it saw a release. It eventually made it to theaters nine years later in limited release, but remains seldom seen. When a young actress (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs into a dog with her car, she takes him home and nurses him back to health. She soon learns there’s more to the dog’s history when she discovers he’s been trained to attack black people. In a last-resort effort, she enlists the aid of animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield), who makes it his personal mission to cut out the ingrained behavior like a cancer. The story is told in broad strokes, filled with some implausible situations, yet, the core ethical/moral dilemma shines through, like a modern-day fable. The story follows an inevitable trajectory, leading to a sobering ending.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD.

Under the Skin (2013) I admired Under the Skin for its artistic integrity, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Scarlett Johansson stars in this arthouse sci-fi/horror hybrid as an attractive, albeit emotionless woman who roams the city streets in a delivery van, picking up single men. She lures them to her home with the promise of anonymous sex, where they’re dissolved in a liquid substrate that oozes from the floorboards. The ritual repeats with a series of different men, from different walks of life. Although the film successfully maintains an eerie sense of dread, it plods along at a glacial place, and remains as emotionally distant as its main character. Johansson deserves kudos, however, for her icy performance, and for branching out from the usual Hollywood claptrap. Ultimately, the film’s message, if any, gets obscured. Whether this little Scottish independent production is a cautionary tale about dating, or judging by surface appearance, or something similar, is anyone’s guess.

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

Jack’s Back (1988) Writer/director Rowdy Herrington’s (Roadhouse) murder mystery aims high, but never quite lives up to the promise of its lurid subject matter. James Spader stars in a dual role as identical twins Rick and John Wesford. While investigating a series of murders fashioned after Jack the Ripper, medical internist John is killed. Rick follows his twin’s footsteps, attempting to unravel the mystery. Considering the macabre template of the original murders, it fails to generate much in the way of suspense or thrills. Spader is likable in the lead role(s), and Robert Picardo is good as a psychiatrist. It’s too bad the story never gets out of second gear. Jack’s Back would have been a decent television movie when it came out, but as a theatrical production, it lacks the punch the premise demands.  

Rating: **½. Available on Netflix Streaming (as of today’s date)

The Dark Backward (1991) This sporadically amusing film from writer/director Adam Rifkin has all the trimmings of a cult film, but never quite hits the mark. The story takes place in some sort of ill-defined post-apocalyptic landscape where all of the consumer products are dominated by one brand. Judd Nelson stars as the nebbishy Marty Malt, a garbage collector who moonlights as an inept stand-up comic. One day, a third arm grows out of his back, and he suddenly becomes a hit. One of the biggest problems with the film is it works a little too well convincing us he’s a terrible comedian, but falls flat with the surrounding comic scenes. The rest of the movie is an endurance test, seeming at least 20 minutes too long. Bill Paxton appears as Marty’s obnoxious buddy Gus. Normally, Paxton’s appearance in a movie is a good thing, but in this instance, I wanted to punch him in the face. Wayne Newton as a sleazy agent isn’t much better.  One of the only bright spots is James Caan as an unscrupulous, money-grubbing doctor. The Dark Backward comes close, but no cigar.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Cinematic Dregs: The Thing with Two Heads

(1972) Directed by Lee Frost; Written by: Lee Frost, Wes Bishop and James Gordon White; Starring: Ray Milland, “Rosey” Grier, Don Marshall, Roger Perry and Chelsea Brown; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Genius must be prolonged. Philip, I want to transplant my head on a healthy body.”

 – Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland)

“Honey, I know you don’t like to answer a lot of questions, but how did that happen?”

– Lila (Chelsea Brown)

After a nearly one-year absence, I decided to revive Cinematic Dregs, an ongoing exploration of the crème de la crap from film’s nether regions. Yes, there are many excellent blogs that already handle this sort of thing, but I couldn’t truly call myself eclectic if I didn’t throw some of the more questionable celluloid offerings into the mix occasionally. A hearty “thanks” goes out to the good people at Olive Films for supplying a screener copy of today’s dreck du jour from the weird and wild early ‘70s.

The Thing with Two Heads handles some of the most volatile, ethically challenging issues plaguing our society, in the silliest way imaginable. The basic premise is sound: what if an individual from the upper echelons of society is forced to cohabitate with someone from the lowest rungs? Of course, since this is a product of American International Pictures, we can’t expect a sublime meditation on race relations and classism. Instead, we’re treated to clunky dialogue and wacky hijinks.

It’s a testament to Ray Milland’s professionalism that he treats the material with far more gravity than it deserves. Milland stars as the cantankerous Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, director of the Kirshner Transplant Foundation, a brilliant surgeon and unabashed racist. He demonstrates a revolutionary new procedure to transplant a head onto another body, using a gorilla* as a test subject. Unfortunately for the host body, this means amputating the original head, once the body has had sufficient time to accept the transplant. Max, who happens to be suffering from a terminal illness, sees this as a suitable means to an end, and sets out to find a new body for his head. When his health takes a turn for the worse, his assistant, Dr. Philip Desmond (Roger Perry), is forced to make a last-minute decision, and strikes a deal with the Lt. Governor to secure a death row inmate for the experimental procedure. It’s interesting to note the filmmakers attempted to create some semblance of veracity for the scenes depicting surgery (the film credits two medical advisors, Dr. Cadvan Griffiths and Rod Steele). Well, at least they devoted screen time to show the medical team sterilizing Max’s basement for the secret procedure.

* Fun fact: The dual-noggin simian was created and performed by a young Rick Baker.

“Rosey” Grier plays convicted murderer Jack Moss. On his way to the electric chair, he figures he has nothing to lose by volunteering for a medical experiment that will eventually prove fatal. In his mind, he’s just bought himself 30 more days to prove his innocence. Of course, the physicians neglect to reveal the details of their little experiment to him, other than stating it’s a “transplant.” It should come as no surprise that neither Max nor Jack is particularly keen on the new arrangement. Max is horrified to discover he’s become, by proxy, the very thing he despises, while Jack is mortified to learn his body now has an unwelcome new appendage.* They spend the rest of the movie bickering at each other and trading insults. The mind reels over the missed opportunity for a sitcom here, but all I could think of was how uncomfortable it must have been for both performers to play the two-headed person.

* Jack’s girlfriend later inquires, “Honey, I was wondering… Do you have two of anything else?”

Not about to take things lying down (or sedated), Jack finds the opportunity to make his getaway. This leads to a chase scene on cars and dirt bikes that drags on a bit too long (I suppose the producers figured, “We hired the stunt men on motocross bikes and police cars for the whole day, and damn it, we’re gonna use ‘em!”). You have to respect how Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend Lila (Chelsea Brown) seems so nonplussed about the whole affair. When she answers the door and sees her fugitive boyfriend sporting an extra head, does she gasp with incredulity, or shriek in horror? Nope. She simply responds, “You get into more shit,” as if acquiring the head of a rich racist white dude was just another one of his schemes. (Spoiler alert!) Perhaps the biggest stretch, apart from said cranial transplant, is the happy ending as Jack and his cohorts drive off, presumably continuing the search for the guy who framed him. The question of his innocence is never firmly resolved, and they seem blissfully unaware of the massive police dragnet that likely awaits them before they cross the county line. 

The Thing with Two Heads is the sort of head-scratching exploitation classic that could only spring from one decade. Call it ridiculous, misguided, or ham-handed, but I had a great time with it, making this edition of Cinematic Dregs the most enjoyable yet. Just don’t think about it too much. No, really. Don’t. This schlock masterpiece only reminded me there are so many bad movies and so little time. Yep. Cinematic Dregs is back. And like a film-blogging Tom Joad, wherever the rich tapestry of film history is being abused, I’ll be there.          

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In Memoriam: Christopher Lee

“It’s a paradox of success that when it comes one often begins to wish it had taken some other form. I was more than happy to borrow the shoes of Chaney and Lugosi and Karloff and Rathbone and Veidt… At the same time, I didn’t want the shoes to wear me.”
– Christopher Lee (excerpted from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)

“…I did feel sometimes that the industry went too far in its preference for midgets. To me anybody under six foot is a midget. The reader is more than likely a midget. I am surrounded by midgets. Their midgetry is enviable.” – Christopher Lee (ibid)

Perhaps I could be forgiven for believing Christopher Lee to be invincible, considering his storied history and prolific work ethic. When I heard of his passing last week at the age of 93, his death seemed almost untimely. So much has already been said about his World War II exploits and myriad talents outside of acting that I see no reason to repeat them here. There are plenty of places where you can read about and marvel at his impressive resume. Instead, I prefer to reflect on what he meant to me.

The first time Lee entered my consciousness was as kid during the late ‘70s, staying up past my bedtime to watch his appearance on Saturday Night Live. What resonated most was his comedy sketch with Gilda Radner, as Death sat down with a little girl to explain why he had to take life. Later in the show, he introduced the performer Meatloaf with the gravity typically reserved for introducing heads of state. At that point, I knew Lee was a man who commanded respect, and his name was forever embossed on my brain. I gradually discovered his impressive filmography over the years. His commanding presence could render a bad film watchable, and elevate a mediocre film to loftier heights. Even if he detested the material, as in the latter Hammer Dracula outings, he always remained the consummate professional.   

Lee considered it a blessing and a curse that he would be forever associated with his work for Hammer Films, especially for his ruthless, sensual, animalistic interpretation of Dracula. His Dracula was Karloff, Lugosi and Price rolled into one; at once eloquent and debonair, possessing an old-world charm, but ready to strike like a feral beast. Although he was frequently typecast as the villain, he was more than the sum of his monster roles. Once in a while, Lee was permitted to break out of the mold, and stretch his acting chops in underrated roles such as Sir Henry Baskerville, or the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin. It’s ironic that Lee was cast as the assassin Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, when he was once considered to play James Bond (a role he was arguably born to play). Lee was re-purposed in the ‘90s and ‘00s in roles that bordered on self-parody, although he was certainly in on the joke. Joe Dante employed him for Gremlins 2 as Dr. Catheter, enabling him to take a comic turn on his more sinister roles. Tim Burton cast Lee as characters that celebrated his roles of yesteryear, as in Sleepy Hollow and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Who else, but Lee could utter the world “caramel” with such menace?) George Lucas and Peter Jackson later cast him in straightforward villainous roles, representing a return to form. Regardless of the many transgressions of the Star Wars prequels, Lee was a welcome presence as the shadowy Count Dooku, and only he was capable of conveying Saruman with such malevolence.

The term “living legend” is often casually thrown about for any actor who reaches a sufficient age, but in Christopher Lee’s case, he earned it. He was a man truly larger than life. In reference to the second quote above, I suspect anyone, regardless of physical height, would have appeared small in stature compared to the great Sir Lee. As a lifelong film fan and genre enthusiast, I feel as if I lost a great friend and guide into a different era of filmmaking when professionalism and craftsmanship mattered. The world of cinema has lost an irreplaceable treasure, a gentleman’s gentleman. We’re fortunate, however, that Lee has left behind a formidable legacy of film roles, which could easily take a lifetime to fully explore.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Jaws 2

(1978) Directed by Jeannot Szwarc; Written by: Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler; Starring: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton and Jeffrey Kramer; Available on DVD.

Rating: **½

“I kept saying from the beginning, we must show the shark a lot. Because that image of the shark coming out of the water for the first time, it’s already happened. That is never going to happen again.” – Jeannot Swarc

A huge thanks goes out to Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings, for hosting the Beach Party Blogathon, a five-day celebration of surf, sand and summer at the movies. I’m honored to be invited to the party. Don’t worry; I brought a cooler full of assorted beverages, and extra sunblock in case anyone forgot. While we’re on the subject of memory loss, I re-visited the mostly forgettable follow-up to Steven Spielberg’s 1975’s mega-blockbuster, Jaws, appropriately titled, Jaws 2 (Warning: multiple nautical puns abound).

Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck considered several different directors for Jaws 2, including Spielberg. Ultimately, John Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly) was selected, but left the project early on, due to creative differences. Jeannot Szwarc, a veteran director of many television projects (including several Night Gallery episodes) and the William Castle flick Bug, stepped in to helm the film. Shooting took place in Martha’s Vineyard, Florida and Catalina Island in California.  

It’s undeniably fun to see many of the actors from the first movie reprise their characters, especially Roy Scheider as the unshakable Police Chief Brody. Lorraine Gary returns in the thankless role of Brody’s wife, Ellen. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really have much to do this time, except stand by her husband for support. Once again, Murray Hamilton appears as Mayor Vaughn (why he wasn’t voted out by now, is anyone’s guess), still arguing to keep the beach open when Brody suspects another great white shark is patrolling the waters around Amity. Jeffrey Kramer also continues his role as Deputy Hendricks. While it’s a kick to see these supporting characters return, it’s a shame the script does little to expand on the original roles. As a result, the new scenes almost feel like outtakes from the 1975 film.

Scheider does a laudable job as Brody, although Szwarc confessed Scheider wasn’t initially enthusiastic about revisiting the role. Regardless of his behind-the-scenes apprehensions, Scheider settles back into the character well, and seeing Chief Brody again is like spending time with an old friend. He still carries his big city, world-weary cynicism around like a second sidearm, and despite the fact that he lives on an island, he’s still harboring (Get it? “Harboring?” Yeah, this review is rough.) a fear of the water. This time around, he’s the boy who cried shark, when he suspects Amity has another big problem on its hands. In one scene, he flips out when he thinks he spots the dreaded Carcharodon carcharias, and creates a panic on the beach. Naturally Mayor Vaughn and the town council don’t take too kindly to the false alarm. Of course, we (and Brody) know the real creature still lurks somewhere.

As much as Brody is welcome in Jaws 2, there’s a conspicuous absence of the two characters that made the original film a classic, Quint and Hooper. Brody is the perfect foil for these larger than life individuals, an everyman the audience can relate to. If Brody was Jaws’ heart, then Quint was its soul, embodying a profound respect for the unforgiving nature of sharks. Hooper helped imbue the film with a sense of wonder, tempered by a sense of humor. Without this dynamic between the three men, or other colorful characters to play off of Brody, Jaws 2 seems a hollow, perfunctory exercise. 

Arguably, the greatest concern with Jaws 2 is the treatment of its main attraction. In the former film, the shark took on mythical proportions, becoming an almost unstoppable, barely seen force of nature. The tone is established with the brilliant, visceral opening when a lone swimmer is attacked by an unseen menace, rising from the inky depths of the ocean. What ensues is a tense battle between man and nature. No single scene in Jaws 2 can compare to the poetry of Jaws’ little moments, which build the mystique of the ocean predator: Brody flipping through pages of grisly depictions of shark attacks, a shot of the Orca framed by shark jaws, or Quint’s show-stopping monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis victims. All of these scenes add up, elevating Jaws above your run-of-the-mill creature feature. The filmmakers dispense with the original’s “less is more” approach, favoring “more is more.” By attempting to top the original attacks with increasingly implausible situations (the aquatic beast tackles a water skier, and later takes down a rescue helicopter), the shark becomes just another monster. It all leads up to a ho-hum confrontation between the antagonist and a bunch of goofy adolescents on sailboats (including Brody’s two sons).  

Depending on what side of the shark cage you’re on, Jaws 2 was either one of the most anticipated, or unnecessary sequels of all time. By not rocking the boat, so to speak, the filmmakers delivered a competent, if unremarkable second chapter. In the film’s defense, probably no follow-up could have lived up to the unreasonably high expectations set by Jaws. Maybe that’s why the follow-up seems more like a feature-length dénouement than a brand new installment of a franchise. Szwarc, to his credit, did a workmanlike job with the hand he was dealt, and moves things at a good pace. John Williams’ score doesn’t sound as if he was simply going through the motions, but instead builds upon his previous work, incorporating the ubiquitous “Jaws” theme, and expanded the overall scope. Another high point is Scheider’s nuanced performance as Brody, slipping into the role again like a comfortable pair of slippers, which almost, but not quite, saves the movie. However, if you lower your expectations a notch, Jaws 2 is reasonably entertaining. It’s certainly worth a look for completists and Brodyphiles (Is that even a thing?), but casual fans might be better served watching another 1978 film that beat the Jaws sequel at its own game for less than a 20th of the budget, the Roger Corman-produced/Joe Dante-directed Piranha. Or better still, this could be the perfect time to re-watch the 1975 original.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I Am Legend Redux

“…He could still see them out there, the white-faced men prowling around his house, looking ceaselessly for a way to get in at him. Some of them, probably, crouching on their haunches, like dogs, eyes glittering at the house, teeth slowly grating together; back and forth, back and forth.” – from I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

(Caution: Some spoilers lie ahead, so proceed with caution.)

Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend chronicles one man’s attempt to endure after a global plague has wiped out most of humanity, and turned the remaining population into vampires. While the humanoids roam the streets at night looking for blood, Robert Neville stays barricaded in his personal fortress, along with the last trappings of a dead civilization. During the day, Neville turns the tables on the nocturnal predators, by locating their hiding places and destroying them.  

Aside from the vampires, Neville’s biggest adversaries are isolation, depression and the hopelessness of being the last human (presumably) on the planet. He was powerless to save his family as they succumbed to the plague; now he labors to find a cure for what might remain of the human populace. But his efforts are too little, too late. The world has moved on, with a third human/vampire hybrid species poised to assume dominance. They represent the future – a future that has no use for Neville, or humankind as it once existed.

So far, three versions of the novel have been filmed, although we probably won’t have long to wait until another movie attempts to adapt the material for a new audience. How do the existing versions measure up?

The Last Man on Earth (aka: The Damned Walk at Midnight) (1964) Directed by Ubaldo Ragona; Written by William F. Leicester, Logan Swanson (aka: Richard Matheson), Ubaldo Ragona and Furio M. Monetti; Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli and Giacomo Rossi Stuart; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

This Italian-American co-production is the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel to date. Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan (for some reason, the writers decided to change his last name from Neville). He’s on a one-man crusade to rid the world of vampires created by a plague that devastated the human race. He ventures outside to scavenge for supplies and hunt the nocturnal creatures by day, and hides inside his fortified house at night. He spends his days creating wooden stakes, hanging garlic and mirrors, and searching for a cure for the disease.

Price captures the isolation and despair of Matheson’s protagonist. His tragic past is told in flashback, as he loses his wife and daughter to an unstoppable plague. His former friend and co-worker, turned walking dead, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) taunts him (“Come out, Morgan”), and remains a constant reminder of the world that vanished.

The filmmakers retain the simplicity of the original story, keeping the main character front and center, as our guide to a nightmarish landscape. The film retains the novel’s plot twist, as well as its bleak ending. We’re left with little solace for Morgan and his plight. Humanity, as it existed, is gone and a new species is about to take its place. Not only is The Last Man on Earth closest to the spirit of the source material, it sets the standard for subsequent remakes.

The Omega Man (1971) Directed by Boris Sagal; Written by Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington; Starring: Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Zerbe and Paul Koslo; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

Charlton Heston stars as Dr. Robert Neville, one of the last individuals left alive after a world-wide plague. Thanks to a self-administered injection of serum, he’s immune to the disease. He continues his research in his personal fortress/arsenal, safe from the attacks of nocturnal mutants. Although The Omega Man was released seven years later, it seems more dated, compared to its predecessor, with its multiple late ‘60s/early ‘70s pop culture references. Also, we never learn about Neville’s past, and the mutants are portrayed in more black and white terms. But Heston creates a memorable performance, as Neville tries to maintain his sanity and decorum (watch him sporting some groovy threads that would make Austin Powers jealous). His dialogue with himself is funny and poignant. Rosalind Cash is also appealing as the plucky human survivor Lisa.

Co-writer Joyce Hooper Corrington stated she chose to stray from the original novel’s concept of vampires, instead, focusing on a man-made plague and the consequences of biological warfare. While most of the world’s population was killed outright, some humans remain, along with a horde of vengeful albino mutants. Led by the charismatic zealot Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), they vow to rid the world of the last vestiges of the old society, including technology, books and artwork.

The film’s ending, involving a blatant Christ-figure allegory, strays from the original’s conclusion, and provides a glimmer of hope for humanity. A serum derived from Neville’s blood holds the key to fighting the plague. The few human survivors leave for a mountain retreat, away from the mutant-infested city, and off to an uncertain future.

I Am Legend (2007) Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Written by: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman; Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Willow Smith; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *** 

The third version of Richard Matheson’s novel experienced a long, torturous road to production. At one time Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to star and produce, with Ridley Scott directing, but the project failed to materialize. Nearly 40 years after The Omega Man, a new version of the venerable novel finally surfaced, with Will Smith in the lead role as Robert Neville. While Smith might not have been an obvious choice, he does a commendable job inhabiting the role, as a man tortured over the loss of his family, and continuing his work to find a cure. The film includes some obvious nods to The Omega Man, with Neville carrying on conversations with mannequins and racing through abandoned city streets (in this instance, Los Angeles is replaced by New York) in a new Mustang.

As in The Omega Man, the plague was created by us. Instead of biological warfare, however, the plague was a byproduct of a virus intended to cure cancer. Most of the world’s remaining population consists of nocturnal sub-human creatures. Neville continues his experiments using the creatures as guinea pigs. The weakest aspect of the film is its treatment of Neville’s adversaries. Instead of an organized faction, they’re feral, barely intelligent, and loosely organized. In contrast to the other two films, the creatures are rendered in sub-standard CGI, and appear alike with no discernible personalities or distinguishing features to tell them apart. As a result, the audience has no sympathy for the creatures. We see little reason for their existence, except as video game monsters for the hero to destroy.

Although the finished product is clearly the result of Hollywood meddling and corporate interests (even though it’s after the apocalypse, product plugs still abound), there’s still room for some introspection. In one scene, Neville and another human survivor (Alice Braga) debate science versus faith, with both viewpoints receiving ample respect. Unfortunately, the filmmakers hedge their bets (and dilute Matheson’s novel in the process), with a forced hopeful ending, as if they feared the commercial ramifications of audiences leaving on a downbeat note.