A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.


What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Lolita

The ad copy for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is pretty incisive: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer seems to be, by changing everything except the broadest strokes of the novel.

There are some books it is simply insane to try to adapt to film, and chances are, someone has gone ahead and done it anyway. David Cronenberg did Naked Lunch, Joseph Strick did Ulysses. Lolita, with its extremely volatile subject matter and Unreliable Narrator, certainly fits in that category. Is it even possible to emulate the Unreliable Narrator in a movie setting? The best I can think of is Rashomon, but that’s an ill fit at best. I suppose That Obscure Object of Desire comes closest.

After the unpleasant difficulties with the making of Spartacus, we can see Kubrick going in the most opposite direction possible. The story is small in scope if not in locations; it is a comedy (a very dark one) as opposed to drama, and it is shot in black and white, which can also be seen as an attempt at distancing the audience from what is happening onscreen. In 1962, even Roger Corman was making movies in color; this was a deliberate stylistic choice. This was the first time a Kubrick production was based in England, perhaps hoping for an easier time with their film censors.

Of course, the most obvious change is increasing the title character’s age from 12 to 14, and having her portrayed by a well-developed 16 year-old, Sue Lyon – all necessary to even attempt the movie, in that pre-MPAA rating period. Even had the possibility of an “R” even been available, I can still remember the furor over Jody Foster’s underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, ditto Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, both in the much more permissive 70s.

Humbert Humbert in this version is identified only as “divorced”, the death of his boyhood sweetheart and subsequent attempts to rekindle that relationship with girls her age, his obsession with “nymphets” is scrubbed away; Humbert sees Lolita in her two-piece bathing suit, and that is it. All that is missing is a cartoon BO-I-I-I-NG sound effect. “Lolita”, as I recall, is Humbert’s pet name for the girl, who is actually named Dolores. This too, is pitched by the wayside, perhaps to avoid confusion. I can easily see moviegoers scratching their heads and saying, “What? I thought her name was Lolita?”

So, remaining is the novel’s longing, Humbert’s scurrilous use of Lolita’s mother to gain access to the girl, and his subsequent tyrannical attempts to completely control her life, for fear he will lose her; of course, he does, and she resurfaces three years later, married, pregnant, and needing money. As was the case with Paths of Glory, an ersatz happy ending with Humbert actually marrying Lolita was considered – and it makes my head ache to try and figure out the legal and moral maneuvering that would take – but what we are left with is a modified version of the book’s ending. We are told Humbert’s fate, but not Lolita’s. Also remaining are Nabokov’s potshots at American pop culture, which Kubrick probably endorsed.

If we are talking about the major changes made, it becomes necessary to talk about the greatly expanded role of the writer, Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Though his presence is apparent in the book, he becomes a definite mover and shaker of the events in the movie, and though I never thought I would say this, Sellers actually becomes quite tiresome in this, effecting disguises to generally mess with Humbert until, as in the book, he receives his comeuppance. Annoyingly.

The rest of the cast is marvelous. James Mason as Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Lolita’s doomed mother, and Sue Lyon are all superb as unlikable people who are still very familiar and retain some degree of sympathy.

It is to be expected that even our favorite artists have an off-day, or, to put a finer point on it, do something that doesn’t particularly resonate with us. Hell, I actually find the concept of someone turning out something I consistently love to be somehow frightening, inhuman. I think I have finally found that lead slug in my Kubrick experience. It was the first time I found myself glancing at the time repeatedly, counting the minutes left, thinking “Two and a half hours? Really?“.

Well, next up are two of my favorites, Dr. Strangelove and 2001, so I can feel better about Peter Sellers and life in general. Except for the fact that life tends to suck in Kubrick movies.

Indonesian Double Feature

It seems that most of this year I’ve had two movies relentlessly hyped to me, and surprisingly, one of them wasn’t The Avengers. Well, Avengers has been relentlessly hyped, but honestly,  something that high-profile hardly even registers on my admittedly off-kilter radar these days. I’m sure I’ll see it, but… well, it’s odd for me to think of a comic book movie as mainstream, y’know? What strange world is this?

No, there were two movies that were pretty much marketed straight to me, that just burrowed under my skin and stayed there until I could see them. One was The Cabin in The Woods, which I wrote and squeed about earlier this week, and the other was the movie that finally came to be known as The Raid: Redemption.

The setup here, as you can see, is very simple: It’s Die Hard with a SWAT team instead of Bruce Willis and a building full of coked-up crackheads and gangsters instead of a crew of mercenaries.  That’s an efficient delivery system for some of the most brutal, intense hand-to-hand fighting scenes I have seen in any movie. The end credits list something like twelve doctors and paramedics and at least half that many massage therapists. They earned their money on this movie, and so did those stuntmen.

The camera work is frequently stunning, but several times, it’s just as annoying. In the fight scenes it follows the frenetic action perfectly – there’s even a time or two that the camera looks around quickly after an opponent is felled, just as any character in the fight would.  Unfortunately, that carries over into the still scenes, as the shaky cam seems to take over arbitrarily, like a prize fighter bouncing on his heels to keep warmed up. Still, frantic as the violence becomes, the viewer is never in doubt as to what is happening, never puzzled about the geography in which all this is taking place, MICHAEL BAY AND EVERYBODY IN HOLLYWOOD WHO FANCIES THEMSELVES AN ACTION FILMMAKER PLEASE TAKE FUCKING NOTE.

Generally, every time I see a movie that proclaims itself to be wall-to-wall action, it becomes wearisome by the final half-hour. The Raid, however, doesn’t do that. The pacing is skillful, and the fights constantly switch the odds. It never get boring, and at a lean 100 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The “Redemption” part of the title was apparently added when it was decided that The Raid would be the first movie of a trilogy. It’s going to be interesting to see where director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais take this from here.

Speaking of Evans and Uwais, I had the evening free and remembered that their first movie together, Merantau (2009) was on Netflix Instant. Fully aware there was no way it could be as frantic as The Raid, I fired it up.

Merantau is a more typical martial arts movie, very firmly in the country-martial-artist-comes-to-the-big-city-and-winds-up-fighting-crime mold, along with The Big Boss and Ong Bak, just a lot grimmer. Uwais is the rural fellow hoping to find a job in Jakarta teaching silat, his martial art of choice, but his country morals and chivalry keep getting him involved in stopping a human trafficking ring led by two white devils. Unlike in Ong Bak, Uwais doesn’t pull out any cutesy Jackie Chan physical stunts, he is too concerned with kicking ass. (This is not to denigrate Chan or Jaa in any way. As I said, this is a fairly humorless movie.)

Relentless or not, things still get pretty intense; it’s rare that Uwais is ever up against only one person – in fact, the movie has the class to let him lose his first major fight. But after that, with a damsel in distress, he gets up and proceeds to lay the field to waste.

The major difference you are going to find between Merantau and The Raid is the camerawork. The handheld shakycam is nowhere to be found here, it’s all smooth dollies and Steadicam. A second major difference is the vibrancy of colors; Jakarta is a very colorful city, even (or perhaps especially) in the lower-income and seedy urban areas where Merantau takes place. That is another major difference from The Raid, where the color scheme is drab, drawn from crushed dreams and urban decay.

A unique thing in Merantau‘s favor is the two main bad guys, the white devils (Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson) can not only fight, they can act as well, and you don’t usually get that combination in Asian film (especially in Chinese movies, my usual flavor). That really adds to the quality of the movie, that this much care is put into its construction; those parts aren’t huge, but they are important.

The best part of seeing Merantau almost immediately after The Raid is seeing the repertory company forming; Doni Alamsyah is still playing Uwais’ brother, and the comparatively small Yayan Ruhian is still playing a badass ready to give the hero a run for his money (as Mad Dog in The Raid he’s absolutely a force of nature).

So that was a day well spent. Indonesian action flicks have come a long way from The Stabilizer and Jaka Sembung and The Devil’s Sword. If there’s a major renaissance in their film industry, I welcome it, and I am definitely looking forward to whatever Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais have for us in the future.

Movie Ketchup

It seems to be a corollary of my life that every time I manage to get a long weekend, the week after is going to start at an accelerated rate and just continue to speed up from there.  How I managed to get last week’s entry on the Good Friday Crapfest is beyond me, but it got done.  In this welter of work, the Stanley Kubrick Project may have gone by the wayside, but I did manage to watch five movies, none of which I wrote about here.

I’ll try to not be too wordy.

First off was The Stabilizer, a 1986 Indonesian action flick that pairs boundless enthusiasm with limited skill. New Zealand English teacher-turned-action-star Peter O’Brian, plays Peter Goldson, The Stabilizer. On loan from the FBI, Goldson is that special breed of person who will stabilize the balance between good and evil. He does this by punching and shooting bad guys and driving various vehicles through walls. He’s there to get Greg Rainmaker, international scum, who raped and killed Goldson’s girlfriend by stomping on her with his oversized golf shoes.

If there is one thing The Stabilizer is, it’s action packed, and some of that action is pretty okay.  Slow spots are minimized, and you know you’re never more than a few minutes away from another sloppy fight or heavy machinery crashing through a wall. This is accompanied by near-constant unintentional laughs, making this the perfect Crapfest movie. Unfortunately, they won’t let me show it, no matter how many times I point to the box that says, “The Drunken Master’s Grand Theft Auto!” I’m sure Lloyd Kaufmann took the day off after writing that blurb, it’s so perfect.

Yes, Troma distributed the disc here in America, and a gesund on them for doing it. That’s the main reason I’m not allowed to show it, though. There’s an odd, unofficial No Troma rule, apparently, which extends even to stuff they didn’t make, so I might as well not even bring up movies like Sugar Cookies or even a movie Rick has been agitating for, Mad Dog Morgan.  Ah well:

This was watched for a Daily Grindhouse podcast, still being edited as I write this. My major contribution was confusing Judd Omen with Jon Cypher, as I mentioned his character at the end of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in the prison bus, shouting, “Great movie Pee-Wee! Action-packed!

Which is really all I can say about The Stabilizer.

Late one night I watched American Grindhouse on Netflix Instant. It purports to be a history of the American Exploitation Movie, narrated by Robert Forster. It starts out very strongly, with clips from silent movies that I had no idea had survived, moving through the talkies up until the last decade (it’s a 2010 movie). Sadly it starts getting sketchy in the 70s, as subgenres start proliferating, and a lot seems glossed over. But it’s never boring, and a good primer for the uninitiated; those of us swimming through this stuff all our lives aren’t going to find much new.

Fittingly, the trailer will suck you right in:

Watching Spartacus had left me wanting more Hollywood epics, if only for comparison’s sake, so it was lucky for me that Daily Grindhouse asked me to review one of the new Twilight Time Blu-Rays, Demetrius and the Gladiators. But that meant I needed to watch The Robe first, as one is the sequel to the other.

For all you heathen dogs: The Robe is the tale of the Roman who won Christ’s clothes in a gambling match held at the foot of the cross. That guy is Marcellus Gallio, a debauched Tribune, played by Richard Burton. Travelling with him in his political exile in Jerusalem is his slave, Demetrius, played by Victor Mature. Demetrius becomes a devout Christian and runs off with The Robe while Marcellus is consumed by guilt over what he’s done. The Roman eventually tracks down the wily Greek, only to find himself converted to Christianity, and eventually martyred for his belief by Caligula, Emperor of Overactors, though that means it’s kind of a crock that there is no Saint Marcellus.

The Robe doesn’t feature a whole lot of budget-gobbling crowd scenes, so a lot of the time it feels like the expanded frame of this new-fangled CinemaScope is going unused, though there are great, painterly moments – the scenes on Golgotha, for instance. There are a couple of action scenes, quoted in that trailer, but they are far outnumbered in screen time by proselytizing. There is definitely more reverence on display than rambunctiousness.

Richard Burton’s taciturn portrayal of Marcellus doesn’t truly sell the character’s conversion (frankly, the script doesn’t do him any favors in this regard), and he’s rather overshadowed by Victor Mature. Michael Rennie is marvelous as Peter, and Jay Robinson’s time as Caligula is thankfully short. Jean Simmons is Jean Simmons. In all, I guess it was a pretty good Easter movie.

And then the Extremely Busy Week started. I survived it somehow. In celebration of that fact, I treated myself to lunch at the Star Cinema Grill and The Cabin in The Woods. I had the theater to myself.

I am going to scrupulously avoid saying anything about this movie except that I loved it. You know how tween girls were about Titanic? That’s me with The Cabin The Woods.

I now see that Lionsgate has scrupulously disabled embedding on all of the YouTube trailers for Cabin. Thanks a lot, guys, I’m not really sure what that accomplishes.

It’s amazing how little that trailer gives away. The Cabin in The Woods has the best blend of horror and comedy that I have seen in ages – since, ironically enough, Evil Dead II – and every serious horror fan who hasn’t seen it already, should see it now.

Yes, I’m aware that there are also people who say it’s stupid and it’s over-hyped and they want that hour and a half of their lives back. These people are big dummy stupidpants.

So then I got to watch Demetrius & the Gladiators, which I found to be one of the few sequels that was better than its predecessor. Better compositions, better balance between sermonizing and sword-slinging, it’s like a mirror image of The Robe. Demetrius’ fall from faith is a lot better handled than Marcellus’ conversion, and you’ve got actors like Ernest Borgnine and William Marshall shoring things up. Susan Hayward deserved a better script, and… oh boy, Jay Robinson gets more screentime.

While I was writing this, I see the review went live, allowing me to see every single mistake I made. Oh, well. Such is life on the Internets.

To top all this off, I finished my story for this week early, and now I’m wrapping this up. So I think it’s time to finally treat myself to The Raid: Redemption. Hi-keeba!

The First Crap of Spring

So there were a bunch of us who had Good Friday off, for a variety of reasons. Enough of us – back in February, we did it with only four people, and frankly, it has been done with three. At any rate, it was time for an impromptu Crapfest.

We were pretty determined to take it easy, and the first hour – Rick and I arrived at Casa Dave at 3:00 – was spent on the patio, watching Dave grill and smoke these Flintstone-style brontosaurus ribs he had hand-rubbed the day before. Alan made a surprise appearance, having been given the day off at the last minute, and when Paul arrived – his first Crapfest in a while – we began.

How Dave’s ribs tasted: artist’s representation

Well, first, we had some of those ribs. Let me say I am not a great fan of pork ribs, but Dave’s alchemy had wrought magical changes in this meat. The very last scene in Lynch’s Eraserhead, where Henry embraces the Girl in the Radiator in heaven, all white light and one sustained, heavenly note? That was the first bite into these ribs. And every subsequent bite thereafter.

Then we began.

At one of those Crapfests, in the faraway land of 2011, while we were watching 70s variety TV and watching Dave scream with horror, Paul had brought up the subject of Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, an ABC special done in the In Concert time slot. Basically, it’s Alice’s then-current album, Welcome to My Nightmare, done in long video form… in 1975. Well, I dug up a copy – it had ever only been released on VHS – and here is Vincent Price making damned sure the producers got their money’s worth:

(Or rather we would if the YouTube version of Scrooge hadn’t scoured any excerpt from that special off the Innernets. Somebody give me lots of money so I can start hosting videos on my site.)

Shorn of commercials, The Nightmare is only an hour long, and frankly, even then, it comes close to wearing out its welcome (and mind you, this is an Alice Cooper fan talking here). But just when it reaches that point, it ends, so the worst thing that can be said about it is I have been walking around with Alice Cooper music stuck in my head ever since. Not such a bad thing. (again – Alice Cooper fan)

But then, as Dave arose to change discs after the end credits rolled, something happened… somebody had put something on the disc after Alice Cooper. Something horrible. Who could have done such a thing?


Yes, it was the full infomercial for Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs, shot with two cameras, a simple video switcher and probably two hours in a studio with three or maybe four interpretive dancers – we kept losing track. Mr. Fisher is still around, and still selling music – give him a shot.

You know, I was expecting the “stop” button to be hit after a couple of minutes, the joke told. But no, you guys surprised me: you stuck it out through the entire zodiac. Respect.

I also suspect that the desire to go through the whole thing was fueled by Dave’s heavy sighs and eye-rollings. And also when his wife, Ann got home and Dave was heard telling her, “No, we are not running it back so you can hear your sign!”

After that… well, the whole thing was so impromptu, we hadn’t really established a battle order. I had brought a stack of DVDs, and Dave had brutally gone through it and arranged them in order of *harrumph* quality (and totally dissed my copy of Wicked World, autographed by Barry “Things” Gillis!). When it was commanded we watch something with “lots of kicking”, it was time for The Magic Blade. Here, have a window-boxed, spoileriffic trailer:

Ti Lung plays Fu Hung-hsieh, a complete badass who may not have been based on The Man With No Name, but he is certainly wearing the only poncho in the World of Martial Arts. He also carries a remarkable custom sword that is a combination of a machete and a tonfa. If that isn’t enough for you, he’s come back to fight Lo Lieh’s character, Yen Nan-fei, a year after their first duel; the rematch gets postponed when somebody tries to kill Yen repeatedly, and Fu as well. As ever, somebody is trying to take over The World of Martial Arts, and is eliminating all competitors in his quest to obtain the legendary Peacock Dart, a sort of martial arts neutron bomb. And he’s doing it with a small army of colorful henchmen, with names like The Wood Devils and Devil Granny.

If, like me, your major exposure to old school Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks had been Chang Cheh’s blood-and-thunder exercises with the Venoms, the films of director Chor Yuen are a bracing breath of fresh air. Largely doing film adaptations of the pulpy wuxia novels by Ku Long, these are like detective novels infused with distilled Chinese martial arts flicks, and they are amazing. I started really getting into Hong Kong martial arts flicks with Chang’s Kid With the Golden Arm, when I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I was watching a comic book made flesh, all superhero battles and internecine conflict; Chor Yuen and Ku Long’s universe embraces that fully, right down to the colorful noms de guerre of the bad guys. Black Pearl, Iron Flute, The 5 Poison Kid, Serpent King… and in my limited time, I can’t find the exact reference, but I recall a villain translated as something like Venomous Eddie, the Stun-Dude.

I am thankful Image Entertainment put out a nice DVD of this using the Celestial Pictures restored print, but with the added option for the English dub. Those old, familiar voices I’ve heard for years. Best of all, if you want to severely injure your friends, use the “But still” drinking game. One of the phrases used by English dubs to fill up lip movement is “But still”, and The Magic Blade has a metric ton of them. Guaranteed alcohol poisoning by the end of the flick.

We had our second wind now, and while Rick warmed up the delicious pulled pork he had brought (which would be enriched by a variety of fruit salsas – amazing stuff) we filled the time with movie trailers from the 42nd Street Forever: Alamo Drafthouse Edition, wherein I discovered that Dave had never seen Message From Space, which I found astounding in someone who had been the Ultimate Star Wars Nerd until the prequels broke him of that behavior – and that Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard looks incredible:

Then, our bellies full and far too torpid to make a run for it, Dave decided it was time for his contribution. Keep in mind, now, that Dave is a vengeful monster, probably still smarting over Astrology Songs. Hell, probably still smarting over Things and Darktown Strutters. Therefore, he began the 1997 unsuccessful TV pilot for The Justice League of America. Never shown in America, it was instead shipped over to Europe, because we hate Europe.

(First, HD trailer, my ass, second of all… isn’t that the theme from the infinitely superior animated series?)

If you were smart enough to not click on that, here’s an overview, of sorts. Our licensed DC heroes are The Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Fire, and Ice – all turned into young twenty-somethings, so it’s a sort of proto-Smallville, though I didn’t hate that series as much as I hate this idea. You see, they’re almost all sharing a house, and there are, therefore, pseudo-Big Brother interludes where the heroes, in their civvies, talk humorously about being superheroes.

Besides the obvious – who are these guys, who supposedly guard their secret identities jealously, making these interview tapes for… well, there’s a plethora of things wrong. The Flash here is Barry Allen, supposedly dead for twelve years in continuity, and chronically unemployed. We never see his origin because that took place on his freaking job as a police forensic scientist. And well, also because they stole his origin for Ice’s origin. A guy trying to get a date with Fire’s secret identity recognizes her as the heroine on TV largely because all she does is smear some makeup under her eyes. Dave, when he wasn’t giggling like the Riddler at our pain, was complaining about the off-model costumes or moaning that Green Lantern was being a dick. That, at least was to expected, because it was Guy Gardner.

Well, not all of us were too stuffed to run away, because Paul and Alan, who are always our designated wusses, slinked out during this. If you are not a Designated Wuss, you can check out the whole heavy-sigh-inducing thing on YouTube. I do not recommend it.

So we remaining three needed a bit of fresh air afterwards, and I convinced Dave to put on Point Blank, because Lee Marvin being a badass can heal many wounds.

I’ll be frank: since the last time I’d seen Point Blank,I’d read the source novel, The Hunter, by Richard Stark aka Donald E. Westlake, and I’d conflated the two; the movie is quite definitely drawn from the book, but the novel is leaner, meaner, more tense. John Boorman directed the movie, and there’s quite a bit of Boorman angst and psychedelic melancholy at play here, way more than I remembered. But it’s a good flick, a good way to decompress, and man, Lee Marvin really does want his money, which became our riff for what was left of the evening. “That guy must really want his money.”

It was late, we started packing up, and Dave found a showing of Mortal Kombat on cable. Rick said goodnight, but I remained through the end. Hey, it was Mortal Kombat, and if you can’t understand that, then I’m afraid you can’t understand Crapfest, either.

That Obscure Spartacus of Desire

Events have been conspiring against me, as Hamlet would say (in one of those tiresome modern translations my wife purchases for her students).  I did catch That Obscure Object of Desire before Netflix lost the rights to it, then I laid aside three hours to watch Spartacus Friday night. Hey, the IMDb says it’s only two hours, 41 minutes long, that’s plenty of time! Except that, oopsie, what I have is the restored Blu-Ray, which weighs in at three hours, 18 minutes – but it is not a slog by any means.

First things first: That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Bunuel’s last film. I find myself once again stymied by Bunuel. I’m glad I saw Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie first, as, in a way, it prepared me. Just as the title characters in that earlier film never quite get their meal, Desire‘s protagonist – once again, the wonderful Fernando Rey – will never commiserate his relationship with Conchita, a pretty Spanish girl easily twenty-five years his junior. The reasons why become increasingly odd, an escalation over the course of months, maybe years, with Rey always trying to use his wealth to close the deal.

The most famous device employed in Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – both beautiful in different ways. A lot of brain time gets spent trying to figure out what each actress represents, and they frequently switch within the same scene. Apparently Maria Schneider was going the play the role, alone, but quit – some say simply announcing that she couldn’t play the role the way Bunuel wanted it, some say after a horrendous fight. Some also say, quoting from Bunuel’s memoirs, that he hired one actress on the spot to re-shoot the footage Schneider had already shot, and the other actress later, which doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense; another quote from his book claims he was getting drunk at a bar and trying to figure out how to salvage his movie when the idea of using two actresses hit him.

In all, this confusion and duality of legends is really of a piece with the movie. Rey is relating the tale of his doomed relationship to his traveling companions on a train, which doubtless makes this the very definition of an Unreliable Narrator. Or possibly not, as it has to be said that Rey never has a clue as to what makes Conchita tick, and therefore, neither do we; she seems as mutable as the status of which actress is to play her at any given moment. In that way, I’m going to say that Bunuel has absolutely nailed the befuddlement of any male who has ever said or done the wrong thing and has no clue why it was the wrong thing.  And, like many a man before and since, he is too busy – or too stupid – keeping his eye on the prize to try to figure anything out. He doesn’t want marriage, he wants a mistress, he wants sex. And he always seems this close

Which is grossly simplifying and glossing over much more. Bunuel doesn’t make popcorn movies. He makes movies that engage on many levels, and you must pay attention, if only to see what will astound and confound you next.

And then there is Spartacus.

Ah, Spartacus. No obscure symbolism here. Well, not on the level of Bunuel, anyway. Straightforward, glorious story of the Third Servile War, with some historic jiggery-pokery by Howard Fast in his novel and Dalton Trumbo in his screenplay. Legend has it that Kirk Douglas was royally peeved by not getting the title role in Ben-Hur, and Spartacus was going to by-God show them, producing the movie himself through his Bryna Productions. That’s a big chip to be carrying on your shoulder, and it wasn’t long before Douglas fired the first director, Anthony Mann – apparently the only footage Mann shot that’s still in the finished picture is at the very beginning, in the salt mines. Douglas remembered that guy who directed him before, and that movie turned out pretty well. Stanley Kubrick, and Paths of Glory.

I suppose that could have been a case of Be Careful What You Wish For for Kubrick; he’s at the helm of a big Hollywood picture, but he has no real control. He’s a hired gun, and he doesn’t like it. There were apparently many fractious discussions between Kubrick and Douglas, with Douglas generally getting his way. And the astounding thing is, none of that is on the screen. This is a good, solid movie, still standing head and shoulders above most of the comparatively turgid movies that came out in the Epic Cycle of the 60s. It’s a testament to both men’s ultimate professionalism that this is the case.

Can we all just agree that Charles Laughton owns any movie he's in and just get on with our lives?

Yet I still can’t get over the feeling that it would have been better had Kubrick had more control; there is a scattered quality throughout the narrative, as if the story gets bored with one set of characters and moves quickly from the gladiators to the senate, and then thinks nah, that was a bad idea, and moves back again. Apparently, the high-power stars were re-writing the script daily, to emphasize their own roles. Again, all hail to Kubrick and editor Robert Lawrence for making the movie as cohesive as it is. And what stars! The sort of actors you could likely leave to their own devices, if need be – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov… Olivier and Laughton were said to hate each other, which Kubrick put to good use. The scenes between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons), once freed of the gladiator school, feel a little too plastic, too self-consciously Hollywood… at least until the last time we see them together, and, just as in their early scenes, some genuine emotions show.

There is a lot of exceptional detail in the settings, which I’m going to mark on the Kubrick side; and probably my favorite scene takes place before the ultimate battle, as Spartacus’ slave army faces the approaching Roman legions, the masses of men changing formations as they approach the line, preparing for battle, the sun shining off shields. That ain’t CGI, baby, that’s a ton of extras, and it is breathtaking. It’s practically in real-time, with only cuts to Spartacus and Olivier as Crassus on their respective rises, watching the battle lines form. I am put in mind of people bitching about how 2001 is boring because it’s so slooow and waaaaah why can’t something blow up. Phooey on them. Like I said, breathtaking, and in this instance, tension-building in the extreme.

I literally hadn’t seen Spartacus since the mid-60s, and then it was on TV. I remembered only two scenes from it: the Gladiator Instructor painting Spartacus’ body to demonstrate the Quick Kill, Cripple, and Slow Kill zones, and the end, which I thought royally sucked because the hero died. Nowadays, of course, I can see and appreciate more than that. I know now that Howard Fast started writing his novel while he was jailed for refusing to give names to the House UnAmerican Activities Commission, and that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was still on their blacklist when shooting started; when Crassus starts waving around papers that contain “names of all enemies of the state” there’s a certain bitter, dark resonance to it.

There’s a ton of good stuff in Spartacus; there’s a reason the Criterion Collection once put it out on DVD. The fact that at this remove I can detect the lack of the director’s touch should not deter anyone from seeking it out. As I said, tremendous cast, good story, high production values. Like anything thus far in the Stanley Kubrick Project, I feel quite confident recommending it.

Next up: Lolita about which I have heard some… not-encouraging things. Never seen it, but it does have the look of Kubrick going in exactly the opposite direction from Spartacus as far as he could. Whether or not this is a good thing, we shall see.

I do try to keep an open mind.