The Horror Movie Empire Debacle

I guess it’s time to address my small part in the Horror Movie Empire debacle. By which I mean you can add me to the number of people apparently ripped off by the online vendor. Even so, I’m going to say “ripped off” is a term I use reluctantly. I can be more confident and truthful in saying I’ve been let down by them, because I still harbor a ragged hope that I’ll get my goods, though finding my mailbox devoid of any such thing day by day diminishes that hope bit by bit.

If you’re lucky enough to have avoided this mess, or the blog posts or the forum threads: Horror Movie Empire, back in December of 2011, ran a rather extraordinary sale on Blue Underground DVDs and Blu-Rays: ten bucks for Blus, seven for DVDs. I ordered six in all, and I wasn’t the only one: HME said they hadn’t expected such a big response, which was, I suppose, the first sign of trouble.

I had dealt with HME before. I rolled the dice on their “Blu-Ray grab bag” and got Dead-Alive, which I didn’t own on Blu, so, hey, score (the fact that I could have gotten it cheaper from Amazon than the grab bag price is irrelevant. Caveat emptor is going to get more and more relevant as this thing goes on). The delivery time was a bit slow, but I had been warned about that.

So. I put in my order on that sale. At that price, I was picking up mainly discs I likely would not have normally, for the purposes of shoring up my education on various film genres, by which I mean a couple of respected horror movies I hadn’t liked when first released, and felt the need to revisit in my older, theoretically wiser state. One movie that I knew was coming up for a Daily Grindhouse podcast. The only movie that was actually on my “must have” list was the Blu-Ray of Zombie, which has gotten high praise.

Then I sat back to wait, remembering his fabled slowness. And wait. And wait. We’re now looking at 100 days of waiting. My order number was in the 2100’s. I have seen complaints numbering in the 3300’s. That’s… what? At least a thousand orders after my own? That’s a lot of people and a lot of money.

As bit of (I guess) commiseration, I have a saved Twitter search using HME’s twitter handle. I check it daily to see the questions, the demands, the vitriol. All of which goes without reply (much like my e-emails).

I’m not placing a link for the site here. It’s significant – but no real help – that a Google search will net you their dismal rating on the Better Business Bureau site. It also has a page by Noel Mellor of FilmRant under the similar URL of horror-movie-empire.com which he hopes will eventually supplant HME’s top search status, with the title heading “Horror Movie Empire – A COMPLETE RIP OFF”. Mellor’s page allows people to sound off about their experience. The last posting to the site is a week old at this point, is titled “A New Hope” and contains actual correspondence from the frustratingly silent owner/operator of HME. Will Noel get his discs? Will I? I guess we’ll see.

If nothing else, I’ve been aware for some time that the universe is a well-oiled machine designed to humiliate me. As this is the case, I am hoping that by finally putting my complaints into print, I will find a package in my mailbox this afternoon, causing me to write a wordy retraction.

Yep, that’s me. Still naive after all these years.

EDIT: So what’s on the front page of HME’s site today? (and a tip of the hat to Geoff Hunt for pointing it out):

YET ANOTHER EDIT: In all fairness, I must report that by the end of 2012, I had received each and every disc I ordered. It took nearly a year, but it finally happened. Now let us put this all behind us, and never click on that site again.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Paths of Glory

My attempt to go through Stanley Kubrick’s filmography continues… well not apace, certainly, but it continues. I was able to watch his fourth film, Paths of Glory, Sunday evening, after a fair amount of postponement and anticipation, and ooooh big surprise: I liked it.

After the critical, if not box office, success of The Killing, Kubrick and producer Jack Harris decided they wanted to do a war movie; Kubrick apparently read the novel by Humphrey Cobb when he was a teenager, and the two men began work. Once again Jim Thompson worked on the screenplay, a chore eventually taken over by another novelist, Calder Willingham (who would later turn in screenplays for The Graduate and Little Big Man). This was while they were under contract to MGM. After a major shake-up in the studio (in which Dory Schary and our boys got the boot), the project seemed to be in limbo, except another star with a reputation for being a maverick was interested in the script: Kirk Douglas. Douglas’ own production company, Bryna (named after his mother) helped ramrod the project through United Artists.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a WWI French officer commanded to do the impossible: take his regiment across No Man’s Land and capture The Anthill, a fortified German position that has repelled all comers for months. When the attack inevitably fails, three men from the regiment are picked, supposedly at random, to be tried and executed for cowardice. Dax insists on defending the men himself, only to find himself up against a wall of confustication; the outcome of the trial is never in doubt, and three men are executed by firing squad.

There is no denying that Paths of Glory is an anti-war movie, but there is also little denying it is a pro-soldier movie. The villains in this piece are not the Germans – we never see a German soldier – but the commanding officers, themselves lodged in a magnificent mansion far away from the dismal trenches populated by men they seem to hardly regard as human beings, more as chess pieces. Even then, that road isn’t an easy one to navigate. General Mireau (George MacReady), who will become our major heavy, starts out well enough. When his superior Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) asks him to take The Anthill, Mireau at first demurs, citing the impossibility of the goal, that the toll on his men would be too high. But then Broulard mentions that there may be a promotion for the man who takes The Anthill.

Mireau’s concern for his men evaporates at that point, even ordering his artillery to shell his own trenches when company B fails to leave its protection for the second wave of the assault. The artillery officer refuses, and Mireau immediately orders him to place himself under arrest. Afterwards, still stung at his loss of face and seeking to deflect blame, Mireau wants a hundred of the men executed for cowardice. Broulard manages to talk him down to the three men, later opining that the execution will be “good for morale”.

The unfeeling mechanics of the trial are made even more stark by the assault on the Anthill, lead by Dax himself. Noisy, messy and grueling, it’s well made and shot and seems to go on far longer than it actually does – and in another of those pieces of genius staging, when Dax and his company pauses after this long, tortuous push, for the first time in the sequence, the camera flicks toward their objective, the Anthill… and it still seems impossibly far away. After numerous casualties, they have still only reached the edge of the French wire.

If the court-martial scenes are an exercise in frustrating futility, the mood switches to grim naturalism in the stockade where the condemned men await the sunrise and their death. Ralph Meeker, a couple of years after Kiss Me Deadly, gets to show his range as Paris, a corporal chosen for the trial because he witnessed a drunken superior accidentally kill one of his own men during a night patrol; Timothy Carey brings his usual off-kilter performance to Ferol, picked because he is a “social undesirable”; and as Arnaud, a man chosen by lot for the trial, even though he has two decorations for bravery under fire, is another familiar face I was racking my brain to recognize – it’s Joe Turkel, a quarter-century removed from Blade Runner and The Shining.

The film falls back to seemingly impersonal and mechanical for the firing squad scene, which is another masterpiece of staging and pacing, monstrous in the dissonance between what can only be called the pomp and circumstance of the event versus its actual callousness, most typified by the treatment of Arnaud, who sustained a serious skull fracture when he assaulted a priest in their cell. Unconscious and not expected to live in any case, his stretcher is tied to the stake in the killing field, and the sergeant pinches his cheeks to try to awaken him – General Mireau wants him conscious for his execution.

Mireau will find himself under investigation for ordering the shelling of his own troops, and Boulard will offer Dax Mireau’s post. Upon finding that Boulard thinks Dax has done all this in order to be promoted to Mireau’s position, we get the patented Kirk Douglas tantrum, somewhere between a shout and a sob, as the colonel finally tells the general what he thinks of the whole affair and the general in specific. Boulard realizes that Dax is an idealist and tells the colonel he pities him “like one pities the village idiot.”

According to James Harris on the Criterion Blu-Ray, there was, at one point, a happy ending, doubtless because  it was felt that maybe it would be best for the box office. When it was switched back to the original ending, with the soldiers unsaved from the firing squad, he concealed it from the suits by sending them an entire script, rather than just the changed pages (when the suits saw the completed movie, they apparently didn’t mind). The ending we do get is all the more moving for its bittersweet qualities, even more so because it is an addition by Willingham that Kubrick at first hated, then accepted as he realized how to stage it. The remaining members of the regiment are crowded into a bar, noisy, boisterous. The MC of the club hauls a… prisoner? We’re never quite sure of her status, except she is young, pretty and German, “A pearl cast adrift on the tides of war.” She is, in fact, the only German we see in the picture. Urged on by the host, she sings a song, and the jeers and catcalls of the regiment slowly die down as they listen to her, singing in German. Quietly, the men, sit, rapt. One by one, they begin to hum along with the tune, since they don’t know the words. A few brush tears from their eyes. I do the same.

Outside the club, Dax stands, listening. His sergeant arrives with the news that regiment had been ordered back to the front, at once, an order no doubt prompted by his earlier tantrum. Dax tells the sergeant to let the men have a few more minutes, then walks grimly to his office.

It is quite a remarkable picture, and once again a resounding critical success, if not a financial one. It was banned from several European countries for quite some time, which verified United Artist’s worries about putting up the money for it. But many people point to this as their favorite Kubrick movie, or their favorite anti-war movie. It’s not quite flawless, but it is damned good, and the fact that it still resonates over a half-century later certainly confirms its status as a Great Film.

It also meant that when Kirk Douglas was having problems with Anthony Mann on the set of Spartacus, he would fire the director and ask for Kubrick to replace him. We’ll see how good an idea that was when I somehow manage to carve three hours out of my schedule to watch it next.

Time Off From the Movies (With Movies)

I guess that was a pretty good Spring Break -y’know, outside of the unpaid vacation premise – in that it was pretty low impact. I watched a movie a day, wrote about them. That’s about as close to Nirvana as I’m likely to currently get. Well, all good things, etc, as my family returned from their vacation, I lost my sovereign status over the TV, and found myself trying to care for a wife that had, as usual, pushed herself too far for too long. Shooting video in a thunderstorm system that had spawned three tornadoes the night before. Getting soaked to the skin and wondering if my current sniffling is due to something more pernicious than my usual rampant allergies.

You know, Life’s Rich Pageant.

I’ve managed to get two movies in so far this week, mainly because the Super Soaker day was so long, I was in danger of logging too many hours in my work week, and had to take Thursday off. Though I’m fairly itching to get on with the Stanley Kubrick Project – next up is Paths of Glory – it turned out to be neither of the movies.

First up was Vigilante, the 1983 William Lustig flick, watched for an upcoming Daily Grindhouse podcast. (And knowing that, I placed it on The Other List. I am gaming my own system) It would be pretty easy to dismiss this movie as a Death Wish rip-off, but since Death Wish was made in ’74, that doesn’t wash – you don’t do rip-offs ten years after the fact (you wait twenty, apparently, and call it a remake – but that’s a rant for another time). It’s been pointed out that Vigilante is more like an homage to the Italian revenge flicks that proliferated after the success of Death Wish, making it, at best, an homage to an homage. Or something.

The tragically under-used Robert Forster is a New York mechanic whose working buddies (including Fred Williamson) have gotten tired of the situation on the streets and have formed a sort of vigilante hit squad. For the most part, they seem to satisfy themselves with beating the living crap out of rapists and drug dealers, but it’s obvious they are soon going to be taking it to the next level. Forster isn’t having any of that, even after his wife is stabbed multiple times and his son shotgunned to death by a street gang – he still believes in the courts. Of course, that faith is quashed when a corrupt judge gives the leader of the gang a suspended sentence, and Forster himself winds up going to the pen for a month for contempt of court when he tries to assault said judge. Once out, Forster tells Williamson he is totally down with this vigilante stuff.

Vigilante is way too episodic for its own good; once Forster goes to prison, the movie splits into two movies, one about Forster, the other about Williamson. The two movies intersect when the new Vigilante Squad plus One busts into an apartment so Forster can personally plug the gang leader. After that, Forster splits from the Squad, which leaves Williamson’s movie unfinished. Forster’s movie does come to a literally explosive end, but I am still left wondering about some plot threads left over from Williamson’s flick.

There’s no denying that the movie is well cast and well made; some of the photography, in fact, is damn well gorgeous – it’s not every day you see an exploitation flick shot in Panavision. I’m always down with watching Forster, and this is one of the best things I’ve seen Williamson do; he still gets to be quite the badass, but he’s a conflicted badass. You can see he doesn’t really like what he’s doing, but he finds it necessary, and soldiers on.

Can’t really recommend it, unless you’re a Forster, Hammer, or Italian Revenge fan. In that case, go for it.

I watched Vigilante  on Netflix Streaming, and as a side project to that, remembered that there were various websites that laid out when movies were expiring on that service. Found to my shock (or something like it) that two Luis Bunuel movies were going offline on April 1, and as they were a part of my goal to get better educated about film, they got pushed waaaaay up the queue.  First up: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

This was my first full-length Bunuel; I had seen Un Chien Andelou years before, his short in collaboration with Salvador Dali, but none of his long-form stuff, so I wasn’t quite sure of what I was getting into. Bunuel is best known as a surrealist, but Charm is, I think, more appropriately absurdist rather than surrealist. I am down with the absurd, as the kids say, I get it, and, as such, I really enjoyed it.

A marvelous cast is led by Fernando Ray, who plays an Ambassador from the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, who is smuggling cocaine in his diplomatic pouch. He and his two French friends (and their spouses and one sister) will keep trying to sit down to a meal, but never quite get to it due to a series of increasingly bizarre and chaotic events.

And that is about the most concise and sensate synopsis I can manage. Going into too much detail would take longer than watching the movie and serve no real purpose; I’m kind of a lunkhead when it comes to these things, and have to have any symbolism that prances by explained to me. I’ll try to just point out some of my favorite bits:

In the scene where Ray starts pulling bags of coke out of his pouch, one of his compatriots points out there’s a pretty girl on the sidewalk in front of his office, selling mechanical cat and dog toys. Ray’s response is to take a sniper rifle out of a nearby cabinet and shoot one of the dogs. (He explains that she is a terrorist from Miranda spying on him, but still…)

The ladies are at a stylish restaurant (complete with string quartet)  for what appears to be brunch. They order tea and switch places because the young sister cannot stand the sight of cellists. After being told that the restaurant is out of tea, they order coffee, and a young army lieutenant joins them. He tells them the tale of how he poisoned his stepfather while young. The ladies accept this without batting an eyelash, all smiles. Then they are told the restaurant is out of coffee.

Later, in a similar scene, their dinner party is interrupted by a squad of soldiers who will be using the estate for war games. Of course, they are invited to join in for dinner, but just as they are starting their meal, a messenger arrives and advises the colonel that the opposing army has started the war early. Before they leave however, they all sit to hear the messenger relate a dream he had the night before. Afterwards, everyone is captivated. One soldier says, “Now tell the train dream!” “Oh, yes, yes!” cry the ladies, but the Colonel demurs, “No, no, we must get to the war.”

Dreams play an increasingly important part in the proceedings, as the more outrageous and violent incidents are terminated by a character awakening from a dream. In fact, one states that he was having a dream about another character having a dream – that’s the complexity with which Bunuel layers his imagery. It’s not as confrontational or frantic as the cascading imagery in Head, but it is so much more, well, bourgeois. As one can tell from the sarcastic title, these are terrible people being terrible because it is their right to be terrible, even to the point where being terrible is blase. So much of this movie is striking and haunting, I feel I must recommend it highly, even knowing that it is not for all markets.

I’m going to have to find time this week for the other Bunuel movie in danger of expiring, That Obscure Object of Desire. And possibly carve out some time to break into Paths of Glory. These are good problems to have.

Pause For Station Identification

So each year everybody on staff at Channel 16 submits what they feel is their best story of the year to the Telly Awards, which ” honors the very best film & video productions, groundbreaking online video content, and outstanding local, regional, & cable TV commercials and programs, ” unquote.

Don, our Station Manager, played it perfectly yesterday. We were all in a small office, while the TV Production students were working on their show out in Master Control. Don said, sadly, “Well, we heard from the Telly folks today, and unfortunately, none of us got anything.”  Then he brightened and pointed to me. “Except for you. You got a Bronze Telly. Congratulations!”

Okay, Don, you got me.

This was special to me for two reasons: the most obvious is, this was my third year submitting, and secondly, this year I ignored all suggestions and went with my gut on which story I should submit:

Calling this state of affairs unreal is almost an understatement; outside of the accolades of my peers, there has been no notable impact on my life. My oatmeal tastes the same this morning, I did a video shoot for one of our staffers who came down with bronchitis, and I’ll still grumble my way to the Mystery Cafe show tonight: all as usual. I did, at least, sleep very well last night, which is uncommon enough.

And when you get right down to it, that “accolades from your peers” stuff is pretty darned nice.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Killing (1956)

One of the very positive things to come out of Killer’s Kiss is Kubrick’s meeting with Jack B. Harris, a young TV producer looking to break into movie production. The result of that partnership was what both men felt would be their calling card in Hollywood, The Killing.

Please note – this scene does not appear in the movie. Sorry to disappoint.

Based on a paperback Harris found one evening, it’s a story about a well-planned robbery at a horse track, and how it still goes wrong. Having a bit of a budget to work with – admittedly, a small one, but much more than he ever had to work with before – Kubrick starts assembling a dream crew. A crime writer he’s always admired, Jim Thompson, works on the screenplay. Once Sterling Hayden signs on, Kubrick calls on his encyclopedic knowledge of film and pulls together a gang of interesting, reliable character actors – Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey. He gets a real Hollywood cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, though that was largely a result of film union rules. Predictably, the two did not get along very well.

The result: a quantum leap forward.

Sterling Hayden is Johnny Clay, a small-time hood just out of the pen. He’s spent the time planning out a way to rob a horse racing track and get away with two million dollars. He puts together a group of “not exactly criminals” but guys in the right positions to make his plan work, and moreover, reasons to make it work: a ticket clerk with a greedy wife, a bartender caring for a sickly spouse, a cop who owes a loan shark big time. There are also two actual criminals, who will handle the distractions necessary for the plan. Clay pays them a flat fee, knowing they’re professionals and will carry out their part without many questions and aren’t likely to give the cops the time of day.

Clay’s plan is complex, but not so complicated there’s room for things to go wrong. Part of the draw of the movie is that time becomes more fractured as we get closer to the heist, going back in the day over and over again to see the disparate parts come together. Of course, there’s one big kink in the plan, and of course, it’s a dame. This is noir we’re talkin’, after all. The ticket clerk (Elisha Cook Jr. at his Elisa Cook-iest) makes the mistake of mouthing off about upcoming big money to his feckless wife (Marie Windsor), who in turn tells her boyfriend, small-time hood wannabe Vince Edwards.

I still think of Vince Edwards as Ben Casey. Seeing him in roles like this always disorients me.

Crime fiction lives and dies on its character work; the very best employs unique takes on this end of human potential and the shapes it takes. I’m a very bad completist, I didn’t seek out a copy of Lionel White’s novel to find out how much of the final product is him and how much is Thompson; the extras on the Criterion disc indicate that the framework is mainly White, but things like the relationship between Cook and Windsor gained greater prominence under Thompson. The guy who Clay hires to start a one-man riot in the racetrack bar, a nigh-incomprehensible Kola Kwariani, is practically a movie in himself, a thoughtful bruiser Clay tracks down at his job in an “Academy of Chess and Checkers”.

I do think, however, the weirdness of the sniper character Timothy Carey brought with him.

The ability to actually build sets gives Kubrick the freedom to move the camera in ways he never could before, when he was trapped in actual apartments or forests where he couldn’t lay track, even if he could have afforded it.  A long dolly shot  the length of an apartment, through several rooms, the camera apparently passing through walls, is so damned good it gets used twice, once in daytime, once at night. There is one pretty obvious rear projection shot, but it’s 1956, and those were the norm.

It was the non-linear quality of the heist that the suits did not much care for and that animosity was likely the reason it didn’t open well, without much of an ad campaign or chance to build word of mouth. It wouldn’t be the last time that the powers that be not only didn’t get Kubrick, but were openly dismissive. Critically, the film was a success, though, and got Kubrick and Harris the calling card they needed.  The next stop would be Paths of Glory, and a legend would begin to unfold.

So, yeah, short version: I dug it.

Wu Xia (2011)

I suppose when you spend a fair amount of time pondering a film’s title rather than addressing any shortcomings, that’s a good sign. That’s where I am with Peter Chan’s 2011 Wu Xia.

In early 20th century provincial China, Liu Jinxe (Donnie Yen) has a simple, but good life: a papermaker in a small village, he has a wife and two sons. The quality of his paper has brought a bit of prosperity in the village. But when two traveling criminals decide to rob the general store, and set to brutalizing the aged owners, Liu desperately steps in, and after a hectic donnybrook, both criminals are dead, seemingly more by accident than anything else.

But there are things that do not sit right with assistant inspector Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro).  From an examination of the corpses and the scene of the fight, he begins to suspect that the seemingly peaceful and thoroughly average Liu is not only a martial artist of no small skill, but also a criminal on the run from past crimes. Determined to see justice done, Xu finally bribes a judge for the warrant to arrest Liu, unwittingly alerting the very man from whom Liu is actually hiding – the head of the notorious 72 Demons (Jimmy Wang Yu).

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that the plot to A History of Violence?” Well, yeah, sorta. The insertion of Kaneshiro’s character adds a different air of uncertainty to the proceedings. The scenes of Xu reconstructing the fight from the smallest of clues is a fascinating bit of special effects wizardry, as the detective walks through slow motion footage of the fight, observing the carnage. Xu Baiju is an expert in physiology and acupuncture, using the needles to stave off the effects of a poison he was given in a case gone wrong many years before. Also, since that case, he has been haunted by his own doppelganger, who urges him on to satisfy justice. It’s that bit of instability that casts doubt on Xu’s actions.

Kaneshiro plays this sort of brainy character with arcane knowledge well; he was superb as the master strategist Zhuge Liang in John Woo’s Red Cliff. He and Yen play well off each other, and it has to be said that Donnie Yen’s gentle everyman portrayal adds another level of uncertainty to the investigation. Tang Wei, last seen in Lust, Caution, is alternately lovely and heartbreaking as Liu’s wife, Ayu, who hasn’t delved too deeply into Liu’s past, fearing that he will vanish from her life, as did her first husband. Seeing her character deal with each new twist in her life is particularly moving.

The movie’s plot is classic slow burn material; the gloves do not truly come off until nearly an hour and fifteen minutes in, when two representatives of the 72 Demons (one of which is the welcome return of another kung fu favorite, Kara Hui) attack the village and Liu must drop his pretense of normalcy and intervene before more people die. It’s a truly electric moment, given that build-up, and the ensuing battle does not disappoint; sadly, I feel the movie never truly reaches that height again, not even in the final fight with Wang Yu, which contains a nicely ironic riff on his earlier career, but also ends with a device so close to an almost-literal deus ex machina that it’s hard not to feel cheated… cool as it admittedly was.

That should not defer you from seeing this – it’s an exceptionally good movie. The cinematography is beautiful, the countryside rendered in lush color, the period design in the village excellent, and the direction, superb. Peter Chan has worked his way up from comedy through horror (Three Extremes II) and into this sort of thoughtful foray into violence – he also directed The Warlords, another excellent movie that I likely would have waxed eloquent over if I hadn’t just seen Red Cliff.

As to my head scratching over the title; wuxia, as you might know, is actually the name of a genre in Chinese culture, the sort of story with righteous martial artists doing righteous things. That’s not, strictly speaking, what this movie’s about. I think the title came more as a result of the success of the previous year’s Jianghu (in the West, Reign of Assassins), which is the term for that “world of martial arts” we keep hearing about, the alternate universe where wuxia stories take place. The agreed-upon international title of Wu Xia is Swordsmen, although, again, not so descriptive of what happens. Dragon is the title given as the “IMDb Display Name”, whatever that means. That title either makes me think of the Bruce Lee bio pic or, God help us, a Clive Cussler novel.

So Wu Xia it remains, Wu Xia I shall call it. A Donnie Yen movie which, like Legend of the Fist, does not give us much in the way of Donnie Yen doing what we love seeing Donnie Yen do, but unlike that Andrew Lau snoozefest, uses that lack of action to good effect.

The List: Crime Time

Yeah, I swore I’d start taking these movies one at a time, but that didn’t work out so well, did it. The reason why can boiled down to two words: The Godfather.

I didn’t see The Godfather when it was first released, back in ’72. Couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted: it was rated R, and my folks had no desire to see it. It wouldn’t be until I was out on my own, in the 80s, when I was demonstrating to my then-roomate, the late Red Mitchell, what he had been missing in the way of cinema by being a football hero through high school. I brought him into the ways of The Maltese Falcon and The Quiet Man, among others… and then he was shocked that I had never seen The Godfather. One trip to the video rental store later, and we rectified that.

Look, I don’t have to tell you this, but oh my God is that movie ever good.

Like apparently any movie based on a best-selling novel, Godfather had a troubled production (not the least of which was the real-life Mafia trying to shut the movie down), but when it was released, it was a bona fide sensation, a cultural phenomenon. Watching it again after nearly 25 years on Blu-Ray, the “Coppola Restoration”, I see that it is still no wonder. Coppola and Brando both have a very uneven track record; but both men are firing on all cylinders in this, and the rest of the cast is similarly at the peak of their powers. It is one of those three-hour movies that doesn’t feel that long, at all.

Again, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know; moreover, I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know. When you get right down to it, I’m a guy who likes to watch movies and then write about them a little. Didn’t go to film school, didn’t read any books on critical analysis. There’s nothing new I can bring to this party, except personal observation. And my personal observation is: I wasn’t as blown away as I was the first time I saw it. That is to be expected. My reverence for it, though, did not slip an inch. This is an American classic that deserves to be called an American Classic.

Which would have made for a brief, if honest, post.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum we have the second movie in my Stanley Kubrick Project, Killer’s Kiss.

Um, the gal on the right? I'm afraid I missed that part...

To call the plot of Killer’s Kiss slight is no mean jab, it’s the honest truth; it doesn’t even fill the 67 minute running time – there’s filler in the form of a complete boxing match and a ballet number while Gloria (Irene Kane) tells the tale of her sister and father to the sympathetic Davey (Jamie Smith). The rest of the movie is about Davey, a washed-up boxer, trying to help his neighbor Gloria, a taxi dancer, to get out from under the thumb of her boss, small-time hood Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera, the MVP of Kubrick’s first movie, Fear and Desire).

There are, of course, complications. This is noir, after all. Rapallo’s goons, sent to rough up Davey, pick the wrong guy and accidentally kill him, leaving the boxer under suspicion for the murder. They then kidnap Gloria because she can finger them, and Davey tries – not too successfully – to rescue her.

If it’s not too beefy in the plot department, where Killer’s Kiss excels is in the photography. Kubrick had done a number of photo spreads of Chicago for Look magazine, and his vistas of New York in the mid-50s – unglamorous, decaying – distills what noir is frequently about, as he sets his camera far back and low so the city becomes monolithic, perched above and ready to devour the characters. Kubrick’s photojournalist eye captures images without commentary, the seediness of the reality telling far more than any commentary layered upon them possibly could. There’s a reason that the Turner Classic Movies All Night bumper has three shots from the movie: The guy in the ticket booth, the dolly across the Dance Hall, and the blonde taking off her dress – that’s Gloria.

Kubrick’s still trying to work out his storytelling chops (he would, in the future, eschew original screenplays and go strictly for literary adaptations), but in the visual department, he’s already firing on all cylinders. Gone are the coverage errors that required clumsy editing solutions in Fear and Desire. Davey’s pursuit across the rooftop of a massive storehouse is done in long shots, emphasizing his aloneness as Rapallo and his thug close in; this leads to the final fight scene in a mannequin storeroom that trades in the empty space of the roof for an enclosed space that is, at the same time, crowded and yet just as empty. It’s a surreal, exciting climax, that along with the amazing cityscapes, gives the viewer a very nice preview of the director’s capabilities.

So the first two Kubrick movies: definitely tyro efforts, but there is a very clear improvement in his use of the medium; both worthwhile, for entirely different reasons.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Fear and Desire (1953)

In one of my fits of monthly hubris, I decided that I would watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s movie in chronological order. I do stuff like that all the time, and sometimes I even finish it. Yeah, like that time I decided to read Dave Sim’s Cerebus, all 300 issues of it. I may try to finish that one day, if my bile levels ever descend from the toxic levels those last couple of volumes created. Then, I’m a very happily married man, so as far as Sim is likely concerned, I am irrevocably corrupted.

Cripes, I go off on tangents so quickly, I really should have the ADD demographic sewn up by now. Now, as to where I was going originally: why Kubrick? The only answer I have, I am afraid, is why not? On a purely practical level, I have a box set of his movies that stretches from Spartacus to Eyes Wide Shut, which only left me three movies to chase down, since I already had a copy of Paths of Glory. Over the years, I’ve seen some, but not all, of his movies, and generally enjoyed them. And, in the form of The List, it’s my goal this year to watch more movies which, in the mainstream, are considered “good”, not merely the ones with the best gunfights.

Kubrick’s first movie is called Fear and Desire, and it is an arty, ultra-low-budget war movie. We are not told which war or where; in fact, the opening narration tells us “These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.” Got that?

Four soldiers – a looey, a sergeant and two privates – are stuck behind enemy lines after a plane crash, which economically happened before the movie started. They plan to float down a river to friendly territory, but events keep complicating matters. A local girl stumbles upon them, and they have to take her hostage. A nearby farm house is found to be acting as a garrison, with an enemy general on station, and Sarge starts getting obsessed with the idea of killing the general on the way out.

Now that, at face value, could easily be a Roger Corman war picture; a plot that keeps things moving, a pretty girl shoehorned into the proceedings. Kubrick and screenwright Howard Sackler had a different idea, though. In this “any war”, we are privy to the inner monologues of our soldiers, first as they hike through the enemy forest, and we hear them all at once, four men’s thoughts rising to a fearful cacophony. Sgt. “Mac” has several of them, as he floats on the raft toward a suicide mission for which he himself has chosen, argued, even begged. When the unstable Private Sidney (an amazingly young Paul Mazursky) is left to guard the girl, his private monologue becomes public, ludicrous and pathetic.

Probably the cap on the artsy part comes when Lt. Corby (Kenneth Sharp) and Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit) sneak up on the house to kill the general and his aide while Mac draws the sentries to the river to shoot him up; The General and the Aide are played by… Kenneth Sharp and Stephen Coit. The two men are stalking and murdering themselves.

Aaah, I’m being a horse’s ass, but I’m not alone. Kubrick himself eventually disowned the flick, and it’s rumored he tried to have all prints destroyed, but I haven’t found any real evidence of that. There is evidence he seriously downplayed any showing of it in later retrospectives. He was being too tough on himself, but then, there’s no surprise in that from a notorious perfectionist. You do catch glimpses of genius working its way out at various points, but you also see Kubrick the editor cursing Kubrick the cinematographer, as he has to employ rapid, out-of-place close-ups to cover holes in the coverage.

It’s certainly no worse than a lot of zero-budget first films I’ve seen, and better than many. Of the many questions I have to ask, the most significant one is: Every article about Fear and Desire lists the movie’s length at 72 minutes. My copy – the Eastman House print – ran a few seconds over an hour. So the question here is: Huh?

The List: The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Well, it’s late Sunday and nobody has died yet (knocking on wood) so my movie from The Other List of the day was The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a Korean Spaghetti Western from director Kim Jee-Woon, perhaps most notorious around these parts for A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil.

In 1930s Manchuria (a canny choice for a substitute wild west), there’s a plan involving a double cross for a map to an unknown treasure somewhere in the Gobi Desert. A small-time thief steals the map before the hit man hired to do the job can reach it, and both men are being pursued by a bounty hunter. There’s our three title characters, very much along the lines of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Also looking for the map is a gang of Manchurian bandits and the Japanese Army, as if things weren’t already going boom enough.

It also makes me wonder what the modern action movie would do if Santa Esmerelda had never done their cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.

The most expensive Korean film ever shot at the time, there is no doubting the production values on display here; from the opening train robbery to a couple of settlements that are destined to go up in explosions and gunfire, the design and execution is top-notch. Kim really gets his money’s worth from his steadicam and various cranes. The camera work is fluid and frequently dizzying, swooping along with the action like a bird of prey.

If there is anything I would criticize, it would be the movie’s length: at a little over two hours, I – remarkably – got tired of things blowing up real good (same thing happened to me with Terminator 2). There are at least two extended scenes that could be scissored without ruining the overall movie, but… that’s not up to me. It’s a bit lengthy, but still quite enjoyable.

As I ponder this, I realize this movie may be the first casualty of my push to watch films of a higher caliber (to use an unfortunate but all too appropriate turn of phrase). Sheer, zestful entertainment like The Good, The Bad, The Weird was the sort of movie I lived for, and to see it done this well should have me turning cartwheels and calling up people to insist they view it. But good as it is, it’s about as deep as a shell casing; I find I want more dimensions from the movies I watch. The Good The etc. is a very good action movie, it aspires to be nothing more than a very good action movie, and that’s admirable.

I’m just greedy.

The List: Americathon (and some Moebius)

An odd thing, this watching movies because someone has died. I mean, it seems wholly justified to watch Head after the departure of Davy Jones a couple of weeks ago, but I woke up this morning to the sad news of the death of French artist Jean Giraud, better known, perhaps, under his signature as Moebius. His stories were one of the reasons I kept buying Heavy Metal after the readable Ted White years, and long long after the allure of thinking “That’s a really well-drawn breast” had worn off. His stories, besides being brilliantly drawn, were puckish, unusual, and often mind-blowing. And much as I respect his body of work, there is no way in hell I am going to watch the Heavy Metal movie in his honor. Maybe some day, I should examine why I hate that movie so much. Maybe.

The one movie I do possess which would be more in line with my current viewing template is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, for which he did design work and has a story credit. That, however, is on laserdisc. Current duties prevent me from setting up my mothballed player. He did concept art for Tron and Masters of the Universe, but again, no way in hell. There is Alien, and The Fifth Element (which is everything the Heavy Metal movie should have been, but was not), but I’ve seen both of those too recently.

The movie which would be most appropriate only exists in a parallel dimension: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune. I’ve had a strange yen of late to watch the Lynch version again, but that is nowhere near the same thing. I guess I should dig out my copy of The Lost Incal, the impressively whacked-out comic series Moebius did with Jodorowsky – that would be a much better tribute than watching a flick only tangentially associated with his genius.

Anyway.

Yesterday (Friday the 9th, as I write this) brought the news that Peter Bergman of The Firesign Theatre had passed away. It literally stuns me that people only ten years younger than me will say “Firesign what? Who-?” Perhaps Firesign was too distinctly of its era, but I can’t really get my head around that. Funny is funny, and it’s not like the four guys who made up Firesign were overtly political or topical. Perhaps it was the fact that their best work was pretty much in the form of long radio plays, strange science-fiction constructs with pyrotechnic wordplay. Their occasional forays into video were pretty hit and miss, running the gamut from brilliant (Nick Danger and the Case of the Missing Yolks) to disappointing (Eat or Be Eaten).

Well, Number One on The Other List was Americathon, which the box assures us is “Written by Firesign Theatre veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman”. The movie credits claim that the “Adaptation” was by Proctor and Bergman from their play, with a screenplay by director Neal Israel, Michael Mislove, and Monica McGowan Johnson. Such mongrelized credits are not uncommon in Hollywood, but it does cause one to wonder just who is to blame for Americathon.

With a phrase like that, you can assume I was somewhat disappointed.

Now, the movie starts well enough, if you can get past the literal lynching of then-President Jimmy Carter. By 1998, America has run out of gas, oil, and money. It owes 400 billion dollars to multi-billionaire Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who wants his money in 30 days or he’ll foreclose on the country. Our hero, media expert Eric McMurken (Peter Riegert) wakes up in his car. You see, he lives in a trailer park where all the trailers have been replaced by cars. He gets on his bike and goes to work, on a street, and finally a highway, populated only by bicycles of every make, skateboards, and joggers. Even a passing firetruck is actually mounted on a bicycle.

The freeway actually vacant of any powered vehicles is a pretty bracing sight, and sets you up to hope for great things. The president is Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), an EST graduate who was elected purely on his last name. He and his First Old Lady are in the Western White House, a condo sub-let in San Diego. McMurkin is called in to help find a media solution to the current crisis, and that ultimate solution is a telethon to raise 400 billion in 30 days.

A villainous Presidential advisor, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard), though, is in cahoots with the United Hebrab Republic (Israel and the UAE having made peace once they realized they both liked blonde shiksas), which wants to buy America once it’s been foreclosed upon. Vanderhoff attempts to sabotage Americathon first by hiring faded matinee idol and egomaniac Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to MC the show, then insisting only government-cleared acts perform, resulting in five days of ventriloquist acts. Ultimately, the money is raised, thanks to Rushmore’s getting wounded live and on the air by Hebrab terrorists attempting to kidnap McMurkin, and Birdwater himself ponying up the last $100,000 because he really liked the show.

I’d love to say Americathon was a glorious mess, but it’s really just a mess. I can see Proctor and Bergman’s sense of absurd insanity peek through every now and then – Birdwater, for instance, made his fortune by foreseeing the great Clown Shoe craze of the 80s, and then high-fashion roller-skates once the gas started giving out. China turning into a major capitalist power is accurately predicted, though it is fast food that powers its rise to prominence. Meat Loaf appears as “Oklahoma Daredevil Roy Budnitz”, whose act on Americathon is dueling “The Last Living Car” with an array of hand weapons. It’s outrageous sketch comedy like that the central concept cries out for – and sadly, never gets.

The real standout for me – at least in the realm of high weirdness – is Vietnamese Puke Rock star Houling Jackson (Vietnam, incidentally, has reinvented itself as the gambling mecca of the world). Zane Buzby plays Houling, and she is terrifying. Roosevelt, of course, falls immediately in lust with her, as she is the extreme polar opposite of his First Old Lady (the extremely lovely girl next door type, Nancy Morgan). Buzby literally chews up and spits out any scene she’s in; she went on to a fitful acting career, and a much more successful – and, I hope, satisfying – career directing sitcoms. I mean, really: I started out thinking what the hell and ended up wanting more of her.

But past that, past isolated bits, Americathon plays out like a TV comedy sketch that goes on too long (so another thing it accurately predicts is SNL movies). The subplot with the Hebrabs never quite reaches its full potential, which would have helped leaven the comedy with some dramatic tension.

For some reason, in my head, Americathon is always connected to the previous Summer’s movie, FM. You never really hear about FM anymore, either; it was up against a re-released Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and sank without a trace. But it did have a very successful soundtrack album – hell, that Steely Dan “No Static At All” song will still crop up occasionally on Classic Rock stations. Americathon tried to till that soil itself, with a theme song by the Beach Boys and a puzzling appearance by Elvis Costello. I had quit my job at the record store about the time the Americathon album came out, but I recall a pretty high-profile release.

So really, it would have been a better tribute for Bergman had I dug out my VHS of the aforementioned Nick Danger or the re-dub jobs of J-Man Forever or Hot Shorts. Those were hilarious, and a lot more indicative of the man’s talents and strengths.

The Boys circa 1971. Peter's the handsome chrome dome on the left. RIP, fella; you done good.

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