Movies: Vampire Ronin in Black… 3

In keeping with my tradition of oblique references to current releases: I saw Men in Black 3 last night. It was entertaining, and that’s pretty much the extent of what I took home from it. Josh Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones imitation is a gas, and overall, it’s a far better Men in Black II than Men in Black II ever thought of being. Also, I guess Will Smith doesn’t do the rap for his own movies anymore? Huh.

Well, after our Memorial Day Crapfest, I continued with my movie watching, but attempting to switch gears to movies of (harrumph) quality wasn’t quite going to happen, so strong was the hangover from Crapfest. (Admittedly, while waiting to come down from my caffeine high that night, I watched Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. at 2:00am, a definite step up in value) My next Kubrick film is Barry Lyndon. It is sitting patiently by my movie-watching chair. I never got to it.

My wife took off to the beach with a friend and fellow teacher, and I settled in to watch one of those movies I had managed to miss for years (and was therefore on The Other List) John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Man, John Frankenheimer. You watch The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds, then watch, say Prophecy and The Challenge and wonder, “What happened?” (Due diligence: I have not yet seen The Island of Dr. Moreau, and so cannot comment on its quality with any veracity). Ronin proved that Frankenheimer still had it, even in 1998.

The Ronin of the title are mercenaries, specialists for hire in the extra-legal landscape of modern Europe. Robert deNiro is Sam, an ex-CIA strategist on the run, Jean Reno is Vincent, a “tour guide” who… appropriates things. Sean Bean is a Irish thug who gets tossed out of the team for being a jackass, which is startling, because I expected him to be killed, what with being Sean Bean and all. Stellan Skarsgard is Gregor, the electronics dude. That’s a solid core for a good cast, topped off by Jonathan Pryce as the man pulling the strings on the team. Their mission is to steal a metal briefcase from a heavily-guarded courier. They don’t need to know what is in the case, but they do know a lot of people, like “The Russians”, want it.

Ronin has a lot of cool espionage planning, supplanted by double and triple crosses, and a number of high-speed chases through crowded European streets. It’s a pity that Frankenheimer never got the chance to direct a Mission: Impossible movie, since Ronin feels like what the MI movies should have been, but rarely were (the return to a team dynamic in Ghost Protocol was, for me, very welcome).

You would think that after that, I would be more inclined to some Kubrick. But no, I felt I had spent long enough without seeing an actual horror movie, so I put a Blu-Ray of long-ago purchasing into the player, Vampire Circus.

Vampire Circus dates from a very troubled time for Hammer, a period where a lot of the movies felt like wheel-spinning. The gothic horror was feeling pretty tired, the dollop of sex appeal that made the 50-60s Hammers so notorious was now also so commonplace in the market that their movies were beginning to wallow in gore and breasts, upping the quantity in desperation.Vampire Circus has some new personnel at the helm – well, new to Hammer, anyway – and the fresh outlook and propensity for boobs and blood creates a perverse minor gem.

Our jerk vampire count this time is Count Mitterhaus, who is sleeping with the local Schoolmaster’s wife. She does unneighborly things like luring little girls into Mitterhaus’ castle so he can extremely creepy toward them and then bite them. This excites Mrs. Schoolmaster into doffing her clothes and bedding the Count. Into this cozy little scene comes the local villagers, who eventually manage to stake the count and burn down his castle, but not until after he cursed the village and the Mrs has run off.

15 years later, the village is being swept by a plague, and the neighboring villages have enacted roadblocks guarded by riflemen to keep the infected within. Nonetheless, a small gypsy circus manages to make it through and sets up to entertain the trapped villagers. If you paid any attention to the movie’s title, you know who populates this circus. The villagers aren’t so smart, though, even when a pair of acrobats keep turning into bats in mid-air.

The only other time I had attempted to watch Vampire Circus was on TV, and only a few minutes was enough to convince me that it had been cut to ribbons for that medium and I would be better off waiting until I could see it uncut; there are several instances of nudity, including the segment that you always see a photo of when reading about this movie: the tiger dance, featuring a woman who is almost completely naked except for green tiger-striped makeup. Since this is the only time we see the dancers in the movie (except for their dead bodies at the end), I have to assume that this was their act in real life. Um, wow.

Well, why break with tradition.

It’s a fun enough movie, one of the off-Dracula Hammer vampire riffs like Kiss of the Vampire combined with a few elements from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. There are a few familiar faces: David Prowse as the Strongman, of course, and (shockingly) Lalla Ward as one of the vampire acrobats, and not looking very different from her run on Doctor Who as Lady Romana. A few other familiar character faces, and a Shakespearean body count. All the things one would want from a Hammer horror movie.

Well, my wife was back the next day, and found me watching, not Barry Lyndon, but Deadmau5 in concert. This, I think, puzzled her more than anything else.

That’s good. I don’t puzzle her near often enough. Also, my son: “How do you even know who Deadmau5 is?

Hmph. Punk kids.

Crapfest: Hercules Against Disco Streetfighting Bees

Saturdays off from The Show are not all that uncommon, but prior notice of an upcoming dark night is, so when I found out I was at liberty Memorial Day weekend, I of course set about to bullying my fellows to gathering for a Crapfest. To my surprise, this worked. Saturdays are always easier to gather for these things.

I arrived a bit late – I was still recovering from some major dental work on Thursday, and running the technical end of the graduation exercise for my wife’s school that morning. While waiting for the others to arrive,  host Dave, Alan and Rick were playing some Wii golf game that had Tiger Woods in it. Knowing sports video games as I do, I realize that narrows it down to about a hundred and fifty games.

In any case, Paul finally arrived, and the tournament was cut short. I’m reasonably certain Dave was winning, as he had been playing the game obsessively for the last few weeks. While snacks, or the evening meal and so forth were being prepared, I put on what was left of my Tom Jones set.

This lead to some consternation. There is nothing to inflame the crap purist quite like injecting some quality into his evening. I laughed at them, for they did not realize that starting with a bit of quality only makes what comes worse. Like Alan Moore’s flower from the northern bank of Heaven set to bloom in the fields of Hell, it only makes the suffering worse.

Or, you can look at it this way: I like making Paul happy, and as this disc had Tom Jones jamming with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, he was very happy.

However, jealous forces – and in these tales, there are always jealous forces – were at work, and Dave, finally not able to stand the quality anymore, cut off Aretha in mid-scat and started the first movie of the evening, Mr. Hercules Against Karate.

It is damnably hard to find information on this 1973 wreck. We know it was directed by Antonio Margheriti, which means I got to say things like, “Wow, it’s hard to believe this was by the same guy who did Yor, Hunter from the Future!” What we have here is a couple of Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer clones, who are working on an oil derrick in Australia. The Bud Spencer clone is not and never will be called “Mr. Hercules’ – in fact his name is Percival – but he is outlandishly strong, and wrecks everything he touches, leading to both he and Not Terrence Hill – “Danny” – getting fired, but eventually hired by a Chinese man voiced by Paul Frees to get his ten year-old son back from his wife, who ran away to Hong Kong with a kung fu instructor named Hung Lo.

Yes, Hung Lo. The guy hiring them is named Ha Chu, which will present us with many “Gesundheit!” jokes. These are the jokes, folks, and should give you some idea of what we were subjected to for the next hour and a half.

Percival and Danny destroy things wherever they go, nonchalantly and unapologetically. They are, in fact, massive jerks, and frankly we were rooting for Karate. Unfortunately, Karate is represented by Hung Lo’s henchmen, led by (ahem) Skrew Yu, and they are not up to the task. Which brings us to an odd point: Hung Lo brings in a “Samurai” to equalize things, and he punishes failure by plucking out eyeballs. Kinda gruesome, for a comedy.

Anyway, eventually our “heroes” run out of things to break and asian extras to throw around, they’ve got the kid and the police have Hung Lo and the kid’s mom (who for some reason wears heavy geisha makeup and may have been played by David Bowie), and the movie still goes on for fifteen, twenty years, while Dave wails, “The movie was over! IT WAS OVER! WHY IS IT STILL GOING?”

Incidentally, remember what I said about quality accentuating the pain? Paul’s spirit audibly broke five minutes into Mr. Hercules Against Karate.

There was a call for something featuring actual martial arts afterward. The assembled masses were given a choice: Sonny Chiba or Disco Godfather.  They chose Disco Godfather. Given what we had just seen in Mr. Hercules, it was a pretty safe bet that a Rudy Ray Moore movie would  have at least a thousand times more, and better, martial arts. There is, in fact that very thing  just in the trailer:

The first indication of trouble here arises at the very beginning, the MPAA rating screen, which tells us that his movie is rated PG. Wait a minute… a Rudy Ray Moore movie rated PG??? He never gets to say “motherfucker” even once, which leads one to ask, Can this truly be called a Rudy Ray Moore movie?

Rudy Ray is playing Tucker Williams, a former cop who gave up the force for the glamorous life of a disco owner (and Godfather, needless to say). The crux of the matter here is PCP, especially when a promising young basketball player has a “whack attack” in the disco. It took me three-quarters of the movie to figure out the guy was Tucker’s nephew. This, even though Tucker’s old boss informs us, “There are three things that make Tucker mad. Number one is messing with his family.” He never bothers to tell us what the other two are, so we should just really watch our steps.

Social relevance has a tendency to get in the way of our story here, in that achingly 70s way. There’s a lot of time spent at an anti-PCP rally, and a young girl who’s stuck in psychosis after her whack attack. Her mother, pastor and a bunch of bible-toting parishoners crowd into her room, and will spend most of the movie praying and shaking, and generally making the poor girl feel like she’s in hell. That… doesn’t seem all that helpful, really.

Rudy Ray finally takes the fight to the local angel dust factory, leading to the best scene, where a guy jogging by sees Rudy Ray confronted by a bunch of thugs. ‘They’re runnin’ an angel dust factory here!” says Rudy Ray. “Well, then, let’s kick their asses!” says the man, who proceeds to do so. Luckily that was Howard Jackson, Rudy Ray”s martial arts instructor! What a coincidence! (which seems to happen in every Rudy Ray movie)

Rudy goes ahead of his backup and gets captured, and dosed with PCP, oh no!  (The most surprising thing about this turn of events was the discovery that all PCP users have the same hallucination!) The successful local businessman who was running the operations makes the mistake of crossing paths with the whacked-out Rudy, who kills him with his bare hands. The movie ends with the insane Rudy screaming into the camera. (oh, yeah, incidentally: spoiler alert)

Not at all what I expected. Doggonit, I never did get to ask him what I was supposed to put my weight on!

This is, I suppose, Rudy Ray’s serious movie, his message movie. Intriguingly, Rudy is actually pretty good in this venue. You can also see a whole lot of inspiration for Black Dynamite in several scenes. I think we were expecting something more along the lines of say, Dolemite or Petey Whitestraw, but no, this movie is very serious in tone. I wonder if Rudy Ray fans were similarly disappointed, which might explain why the flick got re-released as Avenging Disco Godfather.

Well, enough delays. It was Chiba time. Chiba Fever had been slowly building since the last Crapfest, when the previews for The Bodyguard wowed everybody. I brought both that movie and The Streetfighter, which won the vote thanks to its reputation.

Sonny Chiba is Terry Tsurugi, who was to continue our streak of unlikable badass protagonists and proceed to paint that streak a mile wide. To call Terry mercenary is an understatement. He saves a killer from execution in the very beginning, and when his clients can’t pay the other half of his fee (and the guy half of the pair kills himself trying to beat Tsurugi), our Streetfighter hero sells the girl half of the duo into prostitution. At this point, we decided Tsurugi was perhaps something of a jerk.

Well, the mobsters he sells the girls to (whom we are told are Yakuza, and that the Yakuza run the Triads, and they are all run by the Mafia, which I am sure was surprise to all of them) try to hire Tsurugi to kidnap a girl who just inherited Exxon, or something. He turns down the job, and eventually winds up helping to protect the heiress, because he “hates punks worse than anything!”

Yeah, this movie has the devastating X-ray punch, as seen later in Story of Ricky. Tsurugi does indeed fight dirty as hell, culminating in an episode where the heiress gets kidnapped, and unfortunately finds herself in the care of the single black man in the Yakuza/Triad/Mafia, who is the Vice President in Charge of Rape (“That’s racist!” Rick helpfully informed us.) Tsurugi swings in through the window, and rips off the guy’s member with his bare hands, because if there’s anything he hates worse than punks, it’s a punk’s junk.

There was more than enough carnage on hand (on hand! get it!) to satisfy all, and many were the “Whoas!” and “AAAAAAA!”s uttered in the course of the movie. Stuff like this is why it was such a gas seeing Chiba do comedy in Kill Bill Part 1.

Paul now exercised his Wuss Clause and left. Which is just as well, because he didn’t get to see my charity bite me on the ass. You see, in the e-mail roundabouts preceding the Crapfest, Rick, after enduring the 93rd e-mail beatdown of his crusade to get us to show The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, e-sobbed that his life would be complete if he only had a copy of The Savage Bees.

Flashback: This goes back a few years, when Rick was exclaiming about a movie where bees were covering a volkswagen and it was rolled into the Astrodome, where the cooling system was turned way down and the bees were frozen. This might have happened while we were watching the godforsaken director’s cut of The Swarm. Anyway, like a lot of movies seen in our youth, it was misremembered. That wasn’t the Astrodome, it was the Superdome, and it wasn’t The Swarm, it was The Savage Bees, a made for TV movie.

I had a copy of it. I made Rick a copy of it, so his life would be complete. And after every movie, he would hold up the DVD and say, “Bees! I have a movie with thousands of bees!” until Dave shoved me bodily aside and finally put the DVD in. That will teach me to be charitable.

The horrifying African killer bees (“That’s racist!” Rick helpfully explained) sneak in on a Brazilian Banana Boat (“It’s a bad Brazilian Banana Boat, with bees!” “Balderdash!”) and keep swarming closer and closer to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I was severely disappointed that no one ever said “We can’t shut down the Mardi Gras!” Now there were some pretty good bee stunts, I will admit. Somehow our heroes get the entire swarm to light on that VW and slowly drive it through New Orleans (“We’re lucky this is Ash Wednesday! It’s the quietest New Orleans will ever get!”) into the Superdome, which is chilled down to 45 degrees, the exact temperature that puts bees to sleep. And that’s the end. What?

Alan decided the general direction given to any scene was “Milk it! Millllllllllllllk it!“, and oh yes, there were more extended takes here than during a Bergman film. Ben Johnson and Michael Parks are our heroes, with Horst Bucholz providing the requisite doomed bee scientist. Good cast, at least. A fairly decent cooldown movie.

And then we sort of disbanded before anything else terrible could be inflicted on us. I’m older and slower, and stood around talking with Dave for a few moments, then, when we opened the door, found Rick there, waiting, arms outstretched, just outside the door. “Willllllllllllllllllliams!!!

Yeah, I was parked behind him. That moment made it all worthwhile.

Movie Catchup, June Edition

A very busy week, made suddenly very complicated by a sudden call to complete a long-delayed dental procedure. That is why I haven’t been around.

Monday, Tuesday: city meetings, where I run audio. Wednesday: story for June video magazine due. Also work all evening doing slide slow for my wife’s graduating class this Saturday. It was urgent I get the damn thing done because it is now Thursday morning, we just finished shooting the stand-ups for the magazine, and in three hours I’m going to be in a dental chair getting four or five damaged, increasingly worthless teeth extracted and an immediate denture slapped in. This is something I have never experienced, and I have no idea what sort of condition I will be in tonight. Soup is almost certainly on the menu.

I have the freaking order of the slideshow done, but was frustrated from roughly 10pm to midnight last night because I could not get any sort of music file to play in it. I’ve been using Open Office for the last couple of years because I couldn’t afford Microsoft Office. Last year I managed this trick just fine in OpenOff’s version of Power Point, Impress. This year I’m suddenly being told that any file format – even the ones specifically mentioned in the Open File dialog – are “not supported”. Surfing around forums proves no help. Turns out if I just tell it to embed, save it to a Power Point show and then use Microsoft’s free Power Point viewer the music plays just fine. A bulky, cumbersome workaround, which means I’m timing blind, and still not finished, so hopefully I won’t be too wrecked tonight. Graduation is Saturday morning.

But yeah, I still managed to watch some movies, somewhere in there. Mainly because my landline shorted out and I was without the Net for three days.

I saw Avengers again, this time with my family. Still amazing, still flawless entertainment. I’m still embittered that every bit that would have made me go woohoo had been spoiled for me by the time I actually saw it – where are the Internet outages when you really need them? – but I got to see my wife and son react to them, so that was cool. Had to spend most of the end credits explaining to my son who… that guy at the end was (I still tread carefully for you, dear reader), and I wonder how many nerds had to explain that to non-nerd companions. I checked, and in my copy ofThe Marvel Encyclopedia, he only gets one-sixth of a page.

In any case, my wife is the very definition of a non-comics nerd, and she thought the movie was amazing. Which it is.

My other movies were at the other end of the scale, budget and amazing-wise. Saturday morning I was up at a Godforsaken hour because that’s what your body does to you, and I watched While the City Sleeps, a Fritz Lang-directed piece of newspaper noir from 1956. Lang is always worth watching, and the layered story here is pretty good. First off, a news media magnate kicks off after insisting that his various outlets sensationalize a murder where the killer left the message “Ask Mother” scrawled in lipstick on a wall. Then, his son (Vincent Price!) arrives to take over, without much of any experience in the trade. He creates a new position, Executive Director, and tells the heads of the three branches: Wire Service, Newspaper, and Photos – that whoever solves the case of the Lipstick Killer gets the job.

The cast is great: George Sanders as the Wire honcho, Ida Lupino as a conniving society columnist, Dana Andrews starring as a Pulitzer-winning TV news analyst who used to work the crime beat, and slowly finds himself sucked into the investigation. Toss in Howard Duff as the detective in charge of the case, and you got your very solid detective thriller cast. Andrews finally tucks into the case with glee, eventually putting his girlfriend in danger; it’s pretty amazing to see so many of the threads of the unsub-killer genres being used at this early date, as Andrews and Duff begin profiling the killer. And even if detective stories with a dollop of soap opera aren’t your thing, who could possibly pass up a chance to see Vincent Price in Bermuda shorts?

I also have to say that seeing a story involving journalistic integrity made me absolutely wistful. Man, fuck NewsCorp.

My viewing of While the City Sleeps was also movie number 15 on The List, so goal achieved on watching half of them before Summer hit. Huzzah.

The other movie seen during the outage was chosen at random, something I’d had for a while: You’ll Find Out, which is a parody of Old Dark House movies starring Kay Kyser (and his College of Musical Knowledge), and three guys named Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre.

Kyser is sort of a blip on the landscape these days, but he was pretty darn successful in his day, famous enough that he and Moe-bedecked comedian Ish Kabibble crop up in Looney Tunes. His radio show, a combination variety and game show, was quite popular. It’s unsurprising that he’d make the crossover to movies. It’s also a little unfortunate.

Admittedly, You’ll Find Out is his first movie. Maybe he got more confident, Ish Kabibble less annoying. But I doubt it.

Okay, so Kyser and his band are playing at the 21st birthday party of his manager’s fiancee. Of course, she lives with her eccentric aunt at a creepy old house accessible only by a single bridge, which will mysteriously blow up in the course of the movie. Somebody’s been trying to kill the fiancee, possibly Boris as the old family friend, Bela as the psychic who’s been getting lots of money from the superstitious aunt, or Lorre as a psychic-busting scientist. Or, given that it’s Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre, it’s probably all three. Oh, sorry. Spoiler.

When I was a kid, I was always pissed off that You”ll Find Out kept getting scheduled in the late night horror movie slot. I thought that perhaps now, as an old-timer, I could better appreciate it. Well, nottttttttt really, it turns out. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not a forgotten gem, either. Our big three bad guys act like they’re in a different picture entirely, and I kinda wish I had been watching that movie. The musical numbers are good, but achingly white. I dearly wished Cab Calloway could have dropped by for at least one number. And as I pointed out on Twitter, the final number employs a device used by Lugosi for ghostly voices to make it appear Kyser’s vocalist is singing through the band’s instruments, making it the first instance of auto-tuning, in the year 1940.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get my jaw ripped out.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange before, but the odd thing is, I can’t recall exactly when. This fuzziness is particularly irritating because I am then also uncertain I had actually seen it, although I was intimately familiar with the visuals, and the script. We’ll see if I can cut through this muddle later, as I try to examine Clockwork and its effect on my life.

Journalistic integrity out of the way: A Clockwork Orange is the tale of Alex, a young man in a near-future, depressed England, who, with his mates, lives a life of “What’ll it be, then?” Bored, facing no future prospects whatsoever, they spend nights beating up other gangs, beating up tramps, stealing cars, invading homes and raping and beating their occupants. When Alex savagely puts down an uprising in his ranks, the offended gang leave him for the police when their next bout of burglary goes bad. Alex spends the next two years in prison for murder (of a 14 year sentence), and finagles his way into a program that will supposedly cure him of his anti-social tendencies, and get him released from prison in two weeks time.

“The Ludovico Technique” involves shooting Alex full of drugs that -among other things – induce nausea while he is forced to watch movies of violence, rape, and war. This instills in him a Pavlovian response whenever confronted with violence or, shockingly, a nude woman – immediate, immobilizing nausea. The Minister spearheading the project declares him “The Perfect Christian” – always willing to turn the other cheek. What they have produced, however, is The Perfect Victim. Alex is released into a savage world that he once negotiated so effortlessly, and finds himself again and again in the clutches of those he had wronged before: the tramp, his old gangmates now in uniform as police officers, even the now-paralyzed and widowed victim of the home invasion, who uses Alex’s own beloved Beethoven – now rendered an instrument of torture due to its inclusion on the soundtrack of one of the movies shown to him in the clinic – as a means to drive him to attempt suicide.

Alex survives, and somehow, while he is still in a coma, doctors manage to reverse the effect of the Technique. Alex now finds himself back to his normal, depraved state, with one important addition: He now has political clout.

Apparently, after 2001, Kubrick was planning to do a movie on Napoleon. Then Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer hit theaters in 1970 and… well, suffice to say, that movie met its Waterloo at the box office. So Kubrick did what he had often done before: he headed in the opposite direction.

After the mega-expensive and expansive 2001, he decided to prove he could do a low budget movie – much to the dismay of his producer, no doubt. Clockwork is shot using mainly natural light, and a tiny Lowell light kit, which is good for student films but a far cry from most productions. There was only one set built – the Korova Milk Bar. And if the future seems very 70s, with shiny mylar surfaces and bright colors, purple and yellow and blue wigs, a future with Selectric typewriters and vinyl records and very tiny cassettes – well, it was the 70s.

A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 to an England which was in a state of social turmoil, truthfully, not too terribly far off from the world of the movie. The effect was dramatic; on the one hand, it was a top money-maker for Warner Brothers. On the other, as video games had not yet been invented, Clockwork Orange was identified as the root cause for all evil in the land. ‘Twas ever thus, and continues to this day: People on the docket for hideous crimes claim they did it because they saw it on TV, or in the movies. Kubrick himself received several death threats against himself and his family, and at that point, he requested Warner Brothers remove it from distribution in the UK; it was, in fact, impossible to see it in a theater there until after Kubrick’s death.

I do not think its sudden disappearance made much difference in the level of crime and violence in the country. But that’s rather beside the point, now.

When first released in the US, Orange received an X rating from the MPAA; this was later amended to an R, probably due more to the pornography industry taking over the disastrously un-trademarked X rating than any real loosening of moral standards. In the intervening years, it has to be said that its reputation as a violent movie has been overtaken by broadcast TV. There isn’t even all that much blood in Orange. What is there is quite a bit of female nudity, which in close proximity to the violence is unsettling, and the primary reason the all-out assault of the first half-hour of the movie still packs a punch. But it is still a diminished punch, in this day and age, and it becomes much easier to regard the movie as the jet-black comedy it was always intended to be.

If there is a message in Clockwork Orange, it’s that the removal of free will removes the essence of what it is to be human. The prison chaplain complains that the cure has removed from Alex the ability to consciously make the moral choice between good and evil, and therefore redemption is impossible. It is significant that, back during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, Terry Southern handed Kubrick the American version of Anthony Burgess’  A Clockwork Orange, which for some reason excised the final chapter, in which a more adult Alex, having reformed his gang, nonetheless makes the decision to disband it and attempt to build an actual future for himself. Kubrick’s movie omits that chapter, too, and Burgess never truly forgave him for that.

I know I normally scoff at the idea of entertainment being a direct cause of violence in the real world. However. My best friend in high school, as I got to know him better, I discovered was a Clockwork Orange fanatic. Had the whites, the bowler, the false eyelash, everything. He had recently moved to town from a nearby college burg, and his friends back there had a similar bent. Now here is the thing: though he had seen the movie – several times, I must assume – it was only that first half hour he chose to concentrate upon. The other two hours, with Alex suffering the tortures of the damned (and an incredibly game Malcolm MacDowell suffering too, I must say)? Not even on the radar, I fear.

This puzzles me. At the time, I had not seen Orange, and in that period before VCRs (hell, even something called HBO was still a few years away), I wasn’t going to anytime soon. I found one of those books that was an illustrated screenplay, a couple of black-and-white screen shots per page, and that may be why I am so familiar with the imagery. Of course, my friend played the soundtrack constantly, so that may also play into why I feel I had seen it before.

Time passed, we drifted further and further apart, and eventually parted ways in college. But that still troubles me; why did he feel that was something to emulate? What had Kubrick touched on there, what nerve had he plucked? Because I don’t think my friend was alone. Hell, I know he wasn’t alone in that desire to play dress-up, to imitate that swagger, that aggression. I just can’t imagine why, and I think I’m glad that I can’t perceive it.

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)

Well, I knew it was going to be a different experience.

2010 is, of course, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which was itself a collaboration between Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. 2010 exists as a movie mainly because Clarke wrote a sequel – in fact, he wrote three, two of which have not been made into movies. But apparently it was written with much the same back-and-forth with the director as 2001, made perhaps a bit easier by advances in telecommunications made in the meantime. Seeing director Peter Hyams fire up a Kaypro to communicate with Clarke in the “Making Of” featurette is a nostalgia trip all its own.

That Clarke wrote sequels to his novel doesn’t particularly bother me – both Kubrick and Clarke were pretty realistic in their regard for each others’ work as being different interpretations in different mediums of the same ideas. I do kind of question the necessity of a movie sequel, when 2001 is a fairly well self-contained cinematic experience. But I get really confused when I try to think about that too much, because I really like 2010. Not as much as I like 2001, but I still like it. So, of course, when I watched 2001 as part of the Stanley Kubrick Project, it was almost inevitable that I would wind up revisiting 2010.

2010 is a much more humanistic story. Gone is the substrata of humanity trying to function in a high-tech world, replaced by an increasing desperation as the earth comes closer and closer to nuclear war. Heywood Floyd, magically transformed into Roy Scheider, has to hitch a ride on a Soviet (!) spacecraft to reach the derelict Discovery before its increasingly erratic orbit smashes it into the moon Io. Accompanied by an American engineer (John Lithgow) and the man who created HAL 9000 (Bob Balaban), the idea is to reboot the craft and computer, find out what happened, and maybe figure out what the hell that two kilometer-long monolith is doing, also in orbit around Jupiter. This is made difficult by the worsening political state on Earth and the fact that a post-human Dave Bowman (still Keir Dullea, who looks like he hasn’t aged a day) keeps popping up in impossible places.

If the urgent need to evolve has been replaced by the even more urgent need to avoid a planet-destroying war, the urge to deliver splendid visuals at least remains. Visual effects had come a long way in the fifteen years since 2001‘s debut, though, to the original film’s credit, not that far. It may have been Richard Edlund who mentioned back during Star Wars that they were able to have ships flying across the face of planets, something that had been impossible during 2001; Edlund is the FX supervisor here, and boy howdy do they fly across the face of planets here. A favorite segment is the aerobraking sequence, where the ship does a untried maneuver to save fuel while still putting them in the correct orbit around Jupiter.

This also provides one of the better character moments: Floyd, having no duties during the maneuver, is strapped into his cubicle, stewing because unlike the Russians, he has nothing to distract him from the upcoming danger. Seconds before they start skimming Jupiter’s atmosphere, a similarly off-duty female cosmonaut appears outside his cubicle, obviously freaked out. They crowd together on Floyd’s bunk, riding out the aerobraking, which is a harrowing, noisy experience. When it’s over, they slowly part, but the cosmonaut turns back to give Floyd a quick peck on the cheek. As the woman I was dating at the time pointed out, they didn’t try to make anything of that moment later, and she was glad of that. So was I. It was a good, human moment.

And therein lies the major difference between this and its predecessor: “good human moments”. There is an easy warmth about the movie as the Soviets and Americans learn to work together. It is an almost completely different style of story, though still drawing upon the basics of the 1968 movie. This is the sort of thing that can make you crazy, if you try to think about things like continuity too much. Theoretically, each movie should exist in a vacuum; that is very hard, if not impossible, to do with a sequel. Aliens is a different sort of movie from Alien, but both easily exist within the same universe; 2010 and 2001… not so much.

It is a very solid movie. Peter Hyams is a director I do not enthuse over, but I do really like his work occasionally. The cast is exceptional, from the aforementioned American crew to Helen Mirren as the Russian Captain. Even HAL gets some redemption, this time around. This is a movie that could easily not have existed, and not been missed, but I’m rather glad it does, headaches and all.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

I was only ten years old when the country was gripped by Bonnie and Clyde mania. Okay, that’s overstating it, it was nothing like the previous year’s Bat-mania, but it was pretty significant. Songs were written about them, women were wearing berets,  and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became the go-to tune for car chases. As I said, I was ten, and Bonnie and Clyde was rated M, so that was a no-go. This seems peculiar in that it wasn’t long after that I saw The Moonshine War (rated GP, which is what the M rating turned into) at a friggin’ kiddie matinee.

This is the biggest problem with waiting this long to see Bonnie and Clyde: I have seen most of the movies that came after. Corman had St. Valentine’s Day Massacre out almost immediately; Moonshine War and Bloody Mama shortly after. John Milius’ Dillinger, an unjustly ignored movie, came in 73. And these are just the gangster-oriented movies that owe a debt to Bonnie and Clyde. Seeing the Corman-produced flicks is easy, they crop up on cable and even broadcast channels often. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Bonnie and Clyde.

The original script was very influenced by the French New Wave, and was, in fact, meant to be directed by Francois Truffaut. The naturalistic acting, the frankness on sexual matters, and the realism of the violence all become inevitable once this is understood- but it is almost impossible, having seen the cinema that descended from it, to comprehend exactly how much of a bellwether this was for American movies, how it starkly signaled a changing of the guard. Jack Warner hated the movie and tried to bury it, perhaps because he didn’t understand it because this wasn’t the sort of gangster movie Warner Brothers had been known for – the criminals were the heroes, for God’s sake! Perhaps possibly because he feared it as a harbinger of a new age he equally could not understand. That’s how I wound up seeing The Moonshine War on a Saturday afternoon – the Rialto just ran the same thing they did in the evening, because the Hayes Code supposedly kept the entertainment toothless, as it had for decades.

Bonnie and Clyde‘s timing was fortuitous, perhaps accidentally so; casting the young outlaws as anti-establishment counter-cultural crusaders as the anti-war movement was getting up to speed in America. But the chipping away at “The Code” was, at least planned and deliberate, fueled by the adult-oriented European movies that were all the rage; Clyde Barrow, in the original script, is bisexual; in the finished product, that is replaced by chronic impotence, at least until he realizes that Bonnie has immortalized him in poem, at which point he successfully, triumphantly makes love to her. That would not have been so overt even a year earlier, if attempted at all, and the resistance against an earlier scene, in which Bonnie attempts to pleasure him orally was severe (admittedly, the angles are so wrong in the scene, it looks impossible anyway, but still). And then there is the blood, quite a bit of it.

It’s a violent movie about a violent subject, and Penn states it was the first time that audiences ever saw a gun fired and result of the bullet hit in the same shot. Sergio Leone likely beat him to that, but it was the first time in an American movie. Hell, it’s even in the theatrical trailer! Quick cutting, slow motion, hundreds of blood squibs: all two years before The Wild Bunch.

The best comparison I can come up with is – unsurprisingly, if you know me – from comic books. Watchmen was fresh and bracing when it first came out in 12 issues. Nobody had ever taken on these superhero tropes in quite that way. It was astonishing, a game changer. When the inevitable movie came out in 2009, a lot of people read it for the first time, and they didn’t see what all the shouting was about; in the twenty-plus years since, everything that was new and radical about it had been appropriated by the mainstream; the rebel had been co-opted. This is the major problem I encountered when I watched Bonnie and Clyde for the first time last night; it was constantly reminding me of other movies, when other movies should be reminding me of Bonnie and Clyde.

But that is not to slight the craft in evidence here – Bonnie and Clyde is still a great movie, and feels like it could have been made last month, it has aged that well. The professional actors on display are all tremendous: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder, Evans Evans, Dub Taylor. It is a movie well worth watching – I just wish I had seen it sooner. Like 40 years sooner.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Dr. Strangelove & 2001

Work pressures were a bit high last week, so I’m behind with this write-up. Monday was long and complicated, so tiring that I needed a kung fu movie that evening. Wing Chun is on Netflix Instant, and its rather light and breezy tone was a soothing balm (as is Michelle Yeoh). Much editing in a shorter than usual time was required over the next couple of days, and finally, story finished, I had time to write up The Grapes of Death, which was the sort of movie I used to write up on a regular basis. Friday I had camera duty, and in the evening I finally watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I gave up on the MI franchise after number two, since even the presence of John Woo did not wash away the bad taste from the first movie. But I really liked Ghost Protocol, so I guess I should check out the J.J. Abrams entry.

I also found myself doing something out of my regular evening routine, perhaps in answer to the work pressures: Ripping and putting music on an MP3 player I bought almost a year ago. Tiny little thing. Put an even tinier 15GB card in it. After several nights, I am close to actually approving it – I’m already tired of the CDs I burned for the car, Houston radio still sucks, and the Slacker app on my phone has a tendency to play three songs and then crash. This will be much better for commutes.

Now, while ripping a lifetime of Yello and Juno Reactor, I was aware that some of the music would not be wife-approved. Well, you just shrug and press “Next Song” or something. So what has she complained about as being “too weird” thus far? Kate Bush and Uriah Heep. Really? “Sweet Lorraine” is weird?

Anyway, Back to movies. Two weekends ago, I entered the patch of Stanley Kubrick’s movies which are most familiar to me: the ten-year stretch that starts with Dr. Strangelove and ends with A Clockwork Orange, what might, in a narrow sense, be called his science fiction years. I didn’t get as far as Orange, but what I did watch filled two evenings very well. I had come to his previous six films with very little, if any, previous experience, so watching Strangelove and 2001 yielded quite different experiences.

I think the last time I had seen Strangelove was back in 2001, when the Special Edition DVD came out. My first exposure to it was back in the late 60s, when it showed up on TV. I’m still trying to recollect how it affected me at that time. I wasn’t culturally aware enough in ’64 to measure its impact then – hell, I was six years old when Kennedy was assassinated, and only remember being pissed off that his funeral pre-empted all the Saturday morning cartoons. The impact of it must have significant, even though its release was pushed back to 1964 from its original November of ’63 date, and some lines hastily re-recorded to remove allusions to Dallas and the like. All you have to do is take a look at the (admittedly bizarre) contemporary nudie -cutie Kiss Me Quick and its main character, Dr. Breedlove, to get an inkling of its cultural significance.

Dr. Strangelove was released to a nation still reeling from the death of its President, and which could still recall, in memory yet green, the Cuban Missile Crisis. That year also saw the release of Fail Safe, which is practically the same story done straight, which has always bemused me. Something in the zeitgeist, or in the water, as Col. Jack D. Ripper would say. Apparently the original intention was for Kubrick to do the movie as a serious thriller, but somewhere a left turn was taken, a light bulb went on, and Kubrick brought in Terry Southern to make the script more overtly satirical. As the world didn’t need two Fail Safes, this was a remarkably cagey move. I want to add here that I really like Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, too – it’s a great thriller that hasn’t aged too badly – but Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a bit.

Kubrick’s typically canny casting gets a workout on this flick; casting a cranky naturalistic actor like George C. Scott and then urging him to overact (and speaking as a Scott fan, I love seeing this side of him), convincing Sterling Hayden to come out of retirement, resurrecting Slim Pickens’ career when Peter Sellers couldn’t manage a convincing Texas accent (or was injured, depending on which version you believe). Peter Sellers does what he does best, magnificently underplaying two of his three roles (I found him annoying in Lolita, but I have to admit his German psychiatrist schtick in that is quite good), and providing a truly iconic turn as the title character. Strangelove remains eminently quotable nearly fifty damn years after its premiere; for something that was meant as a satire of a particular slice of time, that is a fine achievement.

2001, on the other hand, I hadn’t seen in much longer. I think my last viewing was when I bought it on laserdisc in the early 90s… and there was damage to the film elements during the “trip” sequence! Oh, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the discerning cinephile (I can’t imagine a DVD from a major studio being released in that shape). So, here I am, watching it for the first time on Blu-Ray. And I have to say, it did not disappoint.

A lot of criticism is directed toward 2001 that feels it is slow and boring. I also feel this is where Kubrick gets the lion’s share of his reputation for being “cold” and “cerebral”. I don’t think any of these are true. And while people prepare to tell me how wrong I am, I’ll continue on with my feelings.

It was Kubrick’s desire to create a wholly visual movie. Much is made of the fact that the first spoken dialog doesn’t occur until nearly a half-hour in. The space sequences take their time, to be sure; part of that is due to Kubrick’s choice of score, the grand, majestic “Blue Danube” waltz, but it also serves to impress the vast distances involved in the story once we leave prehistoric times. I expect space travel to be slow and cautious.

The very limited dialog serves another purpose, too. Kubrick always managed to get actors who could make the most odd sentences seem natural. Heywood Floyd’s homey domestic banter as he arrives on the space station seems out of place in the antiseptic pop art corridor; that will continue on, in the moonbus, as the workaday normalcy of packed sandwiches (with what looks to be white bread, of course) struggling to make things typical in a pressurized tube full of air moving through a vacuum. Conversation on the Jupiter mission is sparse; 18 months along in their trip, astronauts Poole and Bowman likely ran out of things to say to each other long, long ago.

The effort to remain human in these high-tech surroundings and vehicles is a continuing theme, and if the audience is starting to feel bored, that should cause some sympathy for Poole and Bowman, killing time by sketching what little they can see of their fellow crew members in the cryosleep pods, perpetually losing chess games to the super-intelligent HAL computer (easily the most talkative member of the team). Like the primitive ape creatures in the prologue, there is a need to advance here, a sense of not truly belonging in the world as it had developed, of being on a dangerously low rung of the food chain. A need to evolve, which will be enabled by the mysterious monolith.

Viewers in the “slow and boring” category will feel a certain amount of fellowship with studio executives who left the premiere feeling it was the biggest pile of trash ever. It was going to be quietly pulled from release after the initial two weeks, but the theaters asked to keep the prints longer; word of mouth had gotten ’round, and that magic demographic “young people” were lining up to see the movie, some many times over. 2001 got the subtitle “The Ultimate Trip”, eventually used on its posters.

I think we know who I side with in that little dichotomy. 2001 punches my sense of wonder in all the right places. Even if you don’t like it, even if you find it slow and boring, it commands respect as the first: a rare instance of adult science-fiction, and a game changer in terms of visual effects. Stunning stuff that would not be attempted again until Silent Running (directed by Douglas Trumbull, 2001‘s effects supervisor), and then not until Star Wars opened the gates. The complex, industrial structures of the spacecraft instead of the smooth rocketships of the 50s, the constant video readouts, the instrumentation lights that are so bright they project their own images onto actors’ faces, the sheer attention to detail to which movies like Alien and Outland owe a terrific debt. All due to Kubrick.

And now I want to see 2010 again, although it is a completely different film experience. And if you know how I feel about Peter Hyams, you’d know that is a tremendous achievement, too.

The Grapes of Death (1978)

I try to impose a bit of organization on my time, and sometimes it even works. I’m not insane about it, because that would make me insane; I am able to put aside blocks of time for The Show, for the various City functions at which I run audio, interviews and events I am videotaping. Past that, life is too chaotic to plan more than two, maybe three days out, usually in the form of “I will watch Movie A Friday night, and then Movie B on Sunday night.” That gives me some free play during the day, and that is when stuff like this happens.

I check on Instant Watcher occasionally, mainly to see if anything I want to see on Netflix Instant is about to expire and vanish from the realm of possibility. This phenomenon once bit a Crapfest on the ass when Dave’s choice,  Jaws: The Revenge suddenly vanished from his queue. So I learned to keep tabs on this sort of thing, which is how I finally saw The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Not to mention Marwencol, which I didn’t write about, and I find that odd. Hm. “Marwencol is a good, interesting documentary.” There. I feel better now.

The upshot of the last 200 words is that, on Saturday last, I found myself adrift and saw that Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort) was expiring on Instant. My sole experience with Rollin to this point was Requiem for a Vampire years ago, and since it was dubbed into English, it was likely one of the alternate versions, like Caged Virgins. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable, either. But Rollin is held up as a minor visionary in the horror field, so I started buffering Grapes.

Okay, so the setup is we have a vineyard in France where the manager is mixing his own pesticides, and it’s making his workers sick. His advice is to wait for the new airtight masks which are arriving tomorrow, and then we’re off to our heroine, Elisabeth, who is traveling by train to meet him at the vineyard. Elisabeth and her friend have the train car all to themselves, as they are “Holidaying in October!” Until the train stops briefly at a station, one guy gets on, starts oozing green pus and blood from facial lesions, and murders Elisabeth’s friend.

Elisabeth pulls the Emergency Stop, which is sort of reasonable, but then engages in what is only the first of a litany of questionable actions she will commit throughout the movie: rather than running to the front of the stopped train, where the engineer and his assistant, at the very least, would be getting off to see what the hell the emergency is – and since Mr. Pus walks toward the back of the train, and doesn’t see her – we can only assume that Elisabeth runs off perpendicular to the train, into the woods. This is, to be sure, standard horror movie protagonist idiocy, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

And that’s what she gets for being blind!

You saw this coming, or read it in the many breathless blurbs about the movie: the pesticide resulted in a tainted batch of wine which was premiered at the local Wine Festival, and everyone who has been drinking it is turning into pus-spewing homicidal maniacs. After escaping from a house lorded over by one such murderous pus-fiend, she lucks onto an entire village of them, in which she commits the second and third of her extraordinary blunders: first, there is a blind girl she finds wandering around outside the village. Entering the village, she refuses to tell the girl what she sees, which is the aftermath of the maniacs killing (I presume) all the non wine-drinkers and beer drinkers. The blind girl, however, can smell burning buildings and keeps putting her hands on bloody faces, quite understandably does not trust this woman who keeps telling her everything is alright, and escapes into the night at her first opportunity. To be messily butchered.

“You’re wondering if I’m normal.”

The third instance is when she finds a woman in a house who is apparently unaffected by the madness (played by Brigette Lahaie, a fixture in French movies involving nudity) and is holed up in the mayor’s house. Elisabeth demands that they escape from the village right freaking now, although it is the middle of the night. Yes, that is the perfect time to get away from roving maniacs: when you can’t see them.

It gets established that the wine affects women more slowly than men, so of course Lahaie is insane, just not spewing pus yet, and throws Elisabeth to the maniacs. She’s rescued by two guys from a local road-building crew who show up with a shotgun and dynamite. They eventually make it to the vineyard, where Elisabeth’s fiance is still holed up, fighting off madness and blaming himself (and rightly so). It all ends up in a downbeat ending that makes you hate everyone involved.

Grapes is usually held up as a novel take on the zombie movie, which it is – if one ignores Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) wherein an ultrasonic pesticide substitute makes the dead rise, or George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) in which a leaked nerve gas turns people into violent maniacs. I also seem to recall that Grapes is regarded as minor Rollin, at best – but I could be misremembering that.

Here’s the thing: Rollin is best known for mixing eroticism with horror. In Grapes this takes the form of exposing a woman’s breasts – in Lahaie’s case, much more than that – and then bloodily doing away with the owner of said breasts. I admit it, I am male, and have the usual male regard for breasts. I like them. I like looking at them. I do not like seeing terrible things happen to, or around breasts. This probably does not make me the ideal target audience for this movie.

Or a whole lot of movies. I don’t like the Ilsa movies, for instance; generally speaking, I have no use for movies that simply function as catalogs of atrocities, but this is likely the true basis of that disdain.

Add to that the fact that I called it quits with zombie movies some ten years ago, and The Grapes of Death was doomed before that first scene even unspooled.