Sunday, September 30, 2018

September Quick Picks and Pans

Patch Town (2014) In this imaginative low budget fantasy from director/co-writer Craig Goodwill (based on his short film from 2011), people born from cabbages are transformed into dolls (due to probably copyright infringement, Cabbage Patch Kids are never expressly mentioned, but the comparison is unmistakable). When their owners tire of them, they go back to their factory of origin, where the dolls are transformed back into people, as laborers for an oppressive, totalitarian corporation, led by Yuri (Julian Richings). Jon (Rob Ramsay) remembers his past as a little girl’s doll, plotting his escape in a quest to find her again. He’s joined by Sly (Suresh John), his wife Mary (Stephanie Pitsiladis), and their adopted baby daughter. Goodwill blends fairy tale elements, music, and dystopian themes to create a one-of-a-kind experience. I’m not sure who’s the intended audience, but I admired the effort to make something that’s obviously not by committee.  

Rating: 3 ½ stars. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Big Bad Mama (1974) Angie Dickinson stars in this Roger Corman-produced/Steve Carver-directed Depression-era action/comedy as Wilma McClatchie. Along with her two daughters, she embarks on a crime spree from East Texas (which looks suspiciously like Southern California) to Southern California. She’s joined by bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) and William J. Baxter (William Shatner), an oily con man (Shatner reminds us of two things he should never attempt: Southern accents or sex scenes). It’s a good-natured drive-in fare that never takes itself too seriously. Filled with ample amounts of sex, action and comedy, Big Bad Mama delivers on its modest aims. Since it’s a Corman production, watch for some of his regulars, including Dick Miller and Paul Bartel.

Rating: 3 stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Into the Night (1985) John Landis’ comedy/intrigue hybrid is short on laughs or thrills, but it has its moments. Jeff Goldblum plays Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer with insomnia and an existential crisis. He goes on a late-night drive to get away from his cheating wife, and crosses paths with Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman with a shady past. In true femme fatale fashion, she’s on the run, with stolen emeralds in tow. Ed unwisely chooses to help her out, and becomes entangled with the same people who aim to kill her (including a ruthless killer, played by David Bowie). Into the Night’s greatest claim to fame is the amazing number of cameos (Landis must have phoned everyone he knew in the business), including famous directors and industry professionals (Roger Vadim, Rick Baker and Jim Henson – the list goes on). Unfortunately, the numerous appearances only serve to reveal the film’s biggest weakness; the material is stretched too thin, without enough story to sustain momentum over its nearly two-hour runtime. Between the cameos and the continuous gallery of memorable L.A. locations, there’s enough to keep the viewer somewhat occupied, but given the assembly of talent, it could have been so much better.

Rating: 3 stars. Available on DVD

Liquid Sky (1982) Tiny invisible aliens in a tiny flying saucer arrive in New York City, and set up base on top of a penthouse apartment. They watch over Margaret, played by Ann Carlisle, who appears in a second role as Jimmy, a junkie fashion model. There’s also a German scientist (Otto von Wernherr) tracking the aliens, who reminded me vaguely of Werner Herzog. Meanwhile, anyone who attempts to have sex with Margaret dies, courtesy of the aliens that feed off endogenous opiates in her brain. The film is a brightly colored, incoherent, plotless mess. It seems to be saying something about the New York art scene, but what it is, I have no idea.

Rating: 2 ½ stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Short Take: Kidnapped

(1917) Directed by Alan Crosland; Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; Starring: Raymond McKee, Joseph Burke and Robert Cain;

Available on: DVD from Amazon

Rating: ***½

“O Alan, this last hour my legs have been fainting under me; I’ve a stich in my side and I canna breathe right. If I die ye’ll forgive me, for in my heart I liked ye fine – even when I was angriest!” – David Balfour (Raymond McKee)

What’s longer than a Quick Pick, but shorter than a full-length review? Introducing a new semi-regular feature, Short Takes, providing an abbreviated look at movies. Like the old beer commercial, it tastes great but it’s less filling.

If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to spend a night at the movies a century ago, have I got the DVD for you: Kidnapped: A Complete 1917 Night at the Movies, produced by Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently.* It’s the next best thing to stepping into a time machine.  

* Her site serves as a constant reminder that I don’t cover nearly enough movies from the pre-talkie era.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped was produced by Thomas Edison’s Conquest division and directed by Alan Crosland. According to the press release, Sandy Hook, New Jersey conveniently stood in for the Scottish coast. Our youthful protagonist, David Balfour (Raymond McKee) stands to gain a large inheritance, but his no-good Uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke) has other plans. After David fails to meet an untimely end (with Ebenezer’s help), the old creep sells him off to brigands on a merchant ship. David might be a young buck, but he proves on several occasions that he’s no fool. He joins forces with Alan Breck (Robert Cain), a fiery Scotsman with a heart of gold (he’s as quick-tempered as he’s handy with a sword). Their love-hate relationship is a precursor to a century’s worth of buddy movies.

Because this is a complete night at the movies after all, the feature is accompanied by four shorts. There’s something for everyone, starting with “Friends, Romans and Leo,” a comic tale set in Rome, featuring a debt-addled emperor, his daughter and her love-struck slave, and a surprising encounter with a lion. “Little Red Riding Hood” presents the classic story, simply told, and presented in silhouette. “Quaint Provincetown, Cape Cod,” depicts an idyllic travelogue, and a fascinating window into the past, showcasing the colorful port town and its people, where fishermen and artists rub elbows. In the final short, “Microscopic Pond Life,” what you see is what you get, with close-ups of various microscopic organisms, along with a brief description of their respective characteristics. Call me crazy (I know many have), but I dug this one, which appeals to the closet science nerd in many of us. Caution: no one will be seated during the unveiling of the protozoa.

Kidnapped is a fun popcorn flick that hits all the right notes, with swashbuckling action, adventure, deceit and camaraderie. The transfer, taken from 16mm elements, is surprisingly sharp, belying its advanced age. Add the four shorts, and you’ve got a whole evening’s entertainment (just add popcorn and the beverage of your choice). You can purchase it here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Twice Upon a Time

(1983) Directed by John Korty; Written by John Korty, Charles Swenson, Suella Kennedy and Bill Couturié; Starring: Lorenzo Music, Judith Kahan, Marshall Efron, James Cranna, Julie Payne, Hamilton Camp and Paul Frees; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Our mistake, I suppose, was to try to make a film that would appeal to everybody, all ages. There was a lot of slapstick in it, but it was much too sophisticated for four- and five-year-olds. We did our first sound mix at Lucasfilm up here in Marin, then finished in Los Angeles. George (Lucas) gave us a lot of great editorial feedback, mainly in the postproduction stages. But nobody knew quite how to sell it.” – John Korty (from George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin)

Twice Upon a Time was one of the final films from the financially strapped Ladd Company (which always prized quality over quantity), and barely appeared in theaters. Like many other people, I missed Twice Upon a Time* during its all-too-brief theatrical release, but belatedly discovered its charms on TV. I first experienced it on tape (probably recorded from HBO) sometime in the late ‘80s, and immediately knew I was watching something special. I was hooked by its quick-witted dialogue, bizarre gallery of characters and trippy animation. Despite the clout of executive producer George Lucas, this unique confection failed to make the splash that it deserved, but gradually gained a small but fervent following over the years.   

* Fun Fact #1: According to the DVD commentary, featuring several of the original animators, the film’s original title was The Rushers of Din.

Director John Korty originally intended to use traditional cel animation, but opted for a more “modular” approach with a process called Lumage (derived from “luminous images”). The animators manipulated translucent pieces of paper that were backlit to create a unique look. The animated sequences were combined with black & white live action footage to further convey a one-of-a-kind visual experience. A crew of young filmmakers* labored round the clock in a house** in Mill Valley, California, to create the modestly budgeted film.  

* Fun Fact #2: Among the film’s esteemed alumni are Henry Selick who served as sequence director, and 19-year-old David Fincher, special photographic effects.   

** Fun Fact #3: The house where the filmmakers worked was nicknamed “Das Boot,” because (not unlike the crew of the eponymous U-boat) 50 animators shared one bathroom.

Twice Upon a Time subverts the classic fairy tale story, starting with its primary characters. In a lesser film, Ralph, the All-Purpose Animal (voiced by Lorenzo Music) and Mum (who speaks in pantomime) would likely have been relegated to sidekicks, but here, they’re the protagonists. They’re nominally assisted by narcissistic Rod Rescueman (James Cranna) and empty-headed Flora Fauna (Julie Payne), while the sarcastic Fairy Godmother (Judith Kahan), or FGM, remains a semi-benevolent presence. They’re opposed by Synonamess Botch, “Nightmare Producer Extraordinaire,” (Marshall Efron), who lives in his castle, and manufactures nightmares.

Ralph and Mum are tricked by Botch into stealing the spring from the cosmic clock (the “mainspring”), so time can stop long enough for him to plant his nightmare bombs. Once the bombs are detonated, the land of Din (our world) will be immersed in bad dreams for perpetuity. He’s assisted by his henchmen, Scuzzbopper (also voiced by James Cranna), a fool, and Ibor, a gorilla/cyborg with a TV screen on its chest that talks in pop culture snippets.* The hero story is further turned on its end, because the “glamorous” characters fail to provide a beacon of hope. Rod Rescueman is little more than a narcissistic, musclebound dim bulb, and the equally vacuous Flora Fauna is so blinded by visions of fame that she’s stuck working in Botch’s nightmare studio (watch for references to King Kong and Safety Last, among others). Ralph and Mum take up the slack and rise to the challenge in the face of adversity, providing hope for misfits and downtrodden everywhere.

* Fun Fact #4: Because this is a Lucas production, after all, watch for clips from The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The film shares several similarities with Yellow Submarine, particularly with the blending of live action and animation. It also boasts a cast of colorful characters that rival its psychedelic predecessor. Ralph, The All-Purpose Animal, as his name suggests, can transform into any creature, to suit the given situation (this opens the door for many comic opportunities). Botch, a villain you love to hate, could have rubbed elbows with the Chief Blue Meanie. They share a mutual love of chaos and discord (witness the scene when Botch proudly shows off his collection of stretched cats and bat heads). His henchman Scuzzbopper pounds away on an enormous typewriter, creating a tome that would likely have impressed Jeremy, the Nowhere Man. Twice Upon a Time also shares Yellow Submarine’s penchant for snappy dialogue and prolific use of puns (such as the dream-making Figmen of Imagination). While the film doesn’t measure up to Yellow Submarine in the music department, the unremarkable but earnest songs, performed by Maureen McDonald (“Twice Upon a Time,” “Life Is But a Dream,” and “Out On My Own”) and Bruce Hornsby (“Heartbreak Town”) do the trick to propel the story along.

It’s unfortunate that Twice Upon a Time was scarcely a blip on the radar when it first appeared. As we’ve learned, however, wide public acceptance or box office receipts has no correlation with the relative worth of a movie. It deserves to be appreciated, re-evaluated, and loved by a new generation. As much as I dislike the term “fun for all ages,” which implies insipid or unchallenging entertainment, Twice Upon a Time can be enjoyed by such a wide range of audiences because it works on so many levels. With its abundance of unbridled imagination and irresistible good-natured attitude, it’s just the antidote for these increasingly cynical times.