Crapfest: The Milestone

Due to the arc of my life’s pursuits, I don’t have normal nightmares. In high school you usually get the didn’t-study-for-the-test nightmare. Instead mine were about missing the bus for a speech tournament. I aged into the actor’s nightmare of here’s-the-script-show-starts-in-twenty-minutes. What about the blocking? We’ll get it to you, plenty of time Oops, places!

So it came to pass that I actually had a dream about showing up to a Crapfest, but forgetting my movies. That was understandable, since I had apparently spent most of the day driving hazardous cargo through some dangerous roads in a third world country (Sorcerer comes back to haunt you at the weirdest times). So I immediately left to get the movies, which is when the meteor struck a few blocks away.

I’m still kind of pissed that I didn’t go to investigate that meteorite, no, the movies were too important.

Me, trying to drum up excitement for our 200th movie

I have only myself to blame. I had noticed that on the Letterboxd page I use to keep track of Crapfest offerings, we were approaching our 200th flick, and started drumming up that event like Kroger Babb with a new movie showcasing the miracle of childbirth. In the interest of transparency: Dave does not like that I count short subjects. Letterboxd does not have a means of crediting us for viewing five out six episodes of Pink Lady & Jeff, the very first episode of Hee HawBattle of the Video Games or Movin’ With Nancy. Yes, a definite case can be made it was not our 200th movie, but screw it, I was having fun.

How much fun? The 200th movie was on a flash drive, and I had altered the file name to, simply “200th Movie” to keep its identity a secret. There is a bag of DVDs, full of lamentable movies, that I used to bring to every Crapfest before moving to the Flash Drive of Doom; I brought this once more to provide a Bag of Red Herrings. I had one of those clickers that are used to count crowds at sporting events and the like so there would never be any doubt what number movie we were on. That’s how much fun.

We had the band back together again: Myself, Host David, Rick, Erik, Alan, Paul, and my son Max. Dave’s friend Eric-with-a-C had been threatening promising to come for some time, was apparently going to actually make it this time, so the movie Dave had on for background noise while we arrived was allowed to play out, to give Eric-with-a-C time to arrive, and that is how The Great Gabbo became Movie #195.

The Wrong Eric arrived early.

This is a 1929 early talkie. Erich von Stroheim is the title character, a stage ventriloquist who “does the impossible” by drinking and smoking while his dummy, Otto, sings a song. (a version of “the impossible” which seems to be the standard of ventriloquism these days, eh?) Gabbo also has a serious problem in that the only way he can interact with other people is through the dummy. This severely messes up his relationship with his assistant Mary (Betty Compson), who eventually leaves Gabbo’s abuse to become a singer. She still works at the same theater with the increasingly famous Gabbo, until he finally manages to tell her of his love for her, but haha, in the intervening years she’s secretly married her dance partner, who was actually nice to her. Gabbo loses it and rants at his audience, gets fired, downer ending.

One of my many friends smarter than me, Mark Konecny, pointed out that the early movies’ relationship to Russian and Yiddish theater traditions was rarely stronger, and indeed, Gabbo seems more interested in presenting lavish musical production numbers than its tale of an insane ventriloquist. One of these production numbers, now lost to time, was done in a process called MultiColor. That still didn’t help its box office at the time, as the movie was not, shall we say, well-received.

Here, have a taste of what we did not realize was going to set the tone for the evening:

Eric-with-a-C had not yet arrived, so we started without him. Sort of.

As you may recall last time, we started out with Who Killed Captain Alex?, a $200 action flick from Uganda that utterly gripped the Crapfest audience. VJ Emmie, who kept up amazing commentary during its hour length, plugged the sequel, Bad Black, about 45 minutes in. I haven’t been able to find Bad Black anywhere, even on Wakaliwood’s YouTube page, but I did find its opening sequence, promising a premiere at the 2016 Fantasia Fest. Here is movie #196, and thankfully, VJ Emmie is there:

Also thankfully, there are no production numbers. There were, however, plentiful production numbers to be had in some Beatles cartoons. There was still no Eric-with-a-C, you see. I try to stock the Flash Drive of Doom with some filler, and this was from the third season – 1967 – after Revolver had been released. Suddenly Saturday morning TV had a half hour where children could be exposed to dime-store psychedelia:

STILL NO ERIC-WITH-A-C so we moved on to #197, the truly horrific and embarrassing 1944 short, Eliza on the Ice, which showed even Mighty Mouse was not exempt from not-so-casual racism: (you’ve been warned)

Had I known the bent the evening was going to take, I would made a special effort to track down one of the operetta-style Mighty Mouse cartoons, which were much better made, and ten (if not a hundred) times less offensive. But Eric-with-a-C finally arrived in the middle of this, and we proceeded to make him regret it.

We nipped into Erik (with a K)’s dinner offering, a spicy pork dish called (concentrates extra hard to get the spelling right) puerco pibil, served over coconut rice, and daaaaamn. Possibly the last good memory we would have of that evening. We moved on to #198, a movie which Erik had tried to get on the agenda several times, and on this night of nights, he finally succeeded: Birdemic: Shock & Terror.

Featuring the SCREENSAVER OF DEATH

As you all know, I watched Birdemic years ago. In fact, I think at least half, if not more, of the attendees had also already seen it. But here is the miraculous democracy of Crapfest: it meant each of these people got to experience the usually solitary pleasure I often derive from the event. It’s an experience honed from years of going to film festivals for the Cinema of Diminished Expectations like B-Fest and the late, lamented New Orleans Worst Film Festival. (edit: holy shit, apparently it’s back?) The joy of knowing what’s coming, and hearing the lamentations of the uninitiated around you. Paul was especially vocal in his dismay, and that was appreciated.

What’s that you say? There are no musical numbers in Birdemic? Pfft! You have apparently forgotten the singer who croons an entire fucking song to our young lovers in an empty Irish bar. So empty his band isn’t even there. Maybe it’s a sparsely attended Karaoke Night? Anyway, here’s the most entertaining version of it I could find:

Speaking of movies that hadn’t quite made it to the screen over the years, there was one Dave had been toying with showing many times, and by thunder, if I was going to hog the #200 slot, then #199 was going to be 1978’s Rabbit Test.

Yes, this was Joan Rivers’ first (and only) movie in the director’s chair, also Billy Crystal’s film debut. After his very first sexual encounter, he finds out he is pregnant (because the woman was on top, duh), and the twists that puts in his life. At first a celebrity, then excoriated as a devil (because male pregnancy will result in overpopulation), there’s material for a thoughtful flick there. In other hands.

What you get is a fairly chaotic, often wacky, and even occasionally funny movie where the biggest draw is picking out all the TV personalities who are onscreen (crossovers like that were fairly rare at the time). Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Imogene Coca, Alex Rocco, Norman Fell, George Gobel, Keene Curtis, Fanny Flagg, Richard Deacon (wearing a toupee!), Tom Poston, Peter Marshall (announcing The Hollywood Squares has gone bankrupt because Crystal’s pregnancy rendered a lot of wrong answers suddenly right), Michael Keaton in a tiny role, and I’m pretty sure I spotted Dick Sargent and William Smith as Secret Service agents. It’s the most amazing lineup of minor celebrities I’d seen since The Phynx.

Was there a production number? Why, of course! Crystal goes on a world tour, meets the Queen of England (Charles Pierce) and The Pope (Jack Fletcher). Try to hang on through this scene, as we meet “A. Touch of Darkness”:

Did you make it through Jimmy Walker’s parody of Willie Tyler and Lester, with Billy Barty in blackface?

Compare with Eliza on the Ice. In 34 years, we didn’t make it very far. If at all.

Anyway.

Is it time? Is it the 200th movie? It is? Does it have production numbers? Of course! Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you…

Yes, The Apple. It had been repeatedly requested by Alan and Rick, and I thought it was time. Eric-with-a-C was unimpressed. Eric-with-a-C was however, impressed that when we named it Crapfest, we were serious about it. Too bad he hadn’t come all the times I had brought an actual good movie. Also, Eric-with-a-C was the one who recommended Teen Witch, so some payback might have been involved.

If you are unfamiliar with The Apple (I guess that’s possible), it is a notorious rock musical produced by Golan & Globus early in their career – the poor bastards thought this was actually going to be their ticket to Hollywood, not something Enter the Ninja. In the far-flung future of 1994, the devilish Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) actually controls the world through his Boogalow International Music (BIM). Everyone loves his acts, and everyone has to wear the BIM mark at all times, in the most naked Mark of the Beast metaphor outside a christian scare movie. Dudes, when I said devilish, I meant it. He is almost foiled by a folk-singing young duo from Moose Jaw, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), so of course he has to corrupt them and bring them to the Dark Side. However, on the signing day, Alphie can see what is really going on:

…and doesn’t sign with BIM. The rest of the movie is a musical struggle for Bibi’s soul, until, at the end, God flies down in a golden Rolls Royce and takes all the nice people away, the Disco Rapture. The end.

To say that The Apple bombed would be understatement worthy of a saint. It was hated and reviled, driving Menahem Golan to almost commit suicide. Check out the movie’s Wikipedia page – the story of its genesis as a too-expensive-to-produce stage show, about the musical business itself as a 1984 dystopia, until the Go-Go boys got their hands on it. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff. The entire opening number, “Paradise Day”, which cost $1 million to produce, was dropped, supposedly because Golan wanted to “not get too extreme with the religious overtones” (which is laughable when you see the movie as released), most certainly not because it was legendarily dreadful. I believe I first heard of The Apple through one of the Golden Turkey books, and saw the videotape once in the Sound Warehouse rental department. Was tempted, but probably rented Shogun Assassin again instead.

Then came B-Fest 2005, where a group of fans sponsored its showing. This was the ideal venue for my first viewing – in a reasonably packed house, with a bunch of people who loved movies (especially that kind), buzzed on caffeine and their own creativity. There was dancing in the aisles. Lyric sheets were handed out for singalongs. Everybody did the BIM. I bought the DVD on Amazon upon my return. That was the source for the Crapfest showing.

And this is where it gets weird, because honestly, I had never watched it again. And at Crapfest, it seemed kind of… streamlined. I recalled a Phantom of the Paradise-style subplot where one of Boogalow’s other clients sang a version of “Speed” and that song was BIM-ed up and given to Bibi (That’s right, we got to hear “Speed” twice). Those were missing. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, there was an original preview print floating around, with those scenes and longer cuts for other songs. It’s been played at places like Alamo Drafthouse. So hey there, all you cool cats from 13 years ago: we got to see something special.

And remember: all this is coming from a guy who hates musicals.

So there we had it. Our 200th movie. It was time to pack up and go home, right?

Oh, hell no. It was still relatively early.

As is traditional, every poster for this movie is ten times more awesome than the movie itself.

So Dave put on 1985’s Warriors of the Apocalypse, also known as Searchers of the Voodoo Mountain, because I swear to God he is on a mission to make us watch every Italian post-apocalyptic Road Warrior rip-off ever made. At least this time it was a Filipino post-apocalyptic Road Warrior rip-off, so that was theoretically refreshing.

This post-apocalypse couldn’t afford any dune buggies though, so our plucky band of warriors just walk around the rocky landscape in order to find other, supposedly less-savory bands of warriors to attack. In the skirmish that opens the film, a badass Filipino comes to their aid. They find out their new friend has fresh food to eat, and that he comes from the Valley of Life, just past Voodoo Mountain, and oh yeah, he’s 130 years old. Why, of course he’ll take them there!

Somehow these brainiacs had managed to miss that there were some mountains nearby with a jungle inside them, which has to be one of the nicest post-apocalyptic settings ever. There is the problem that they keep running into natives who want to run them through with spears, but fortunately our heroes have explosive bullets. Those don’t help them too much with the dwarves who keep coming back from the dead, though.

The guy in the center is Captain Hat, my & Max’s personal hero.

They are eventually led to a lost village of scantily-clad white women, but they have to wait until the full moon before the fertility gods will allow them to do what comes naturally. I’ll save you a lot of time and pain and reveal that there is still an atomic reactor under the village, which is why they have nice things like immortal dwarves and a queen with laser eye beams pew pew pew. Also, any men that our Filipino pal brings in from the outside world will get press-ganged into working the reactor (after they get the women pregnant to continue the tribe), resulting in a bunch of radiation-burned sorta mutants to rise up at the end. The Queen decides to raze the entire village and kill everybody with her eye blasts pew pew pew. Which seems only reasonable.

There was almost certainly a production number in there somewhere, as all lost civilizations made up of mostly women have to do one sometime. Frankly, this movie put certain parts of my brain to sleep, so that may have been wishful thinking or an hallucination.

But come on! Pew pew pew!

Surely that would be enough for everybody, you would think, Surely. Ha! You do not know this crowd! It was time for a movie with no production numbers whatsoever! It was time for… Gary Busey: Action Hero!

Bulletproof was made the year after Lethal Weapon, and the year before the motorcycle accident that arguably turned Busey into a non-superpowered Incredible Hulk. It’s produced by Fred Olen Ray, and directed by Steve Carver, who among other action flicks, gave us Big Bad Mama, two guys who are okay in my book.

As you noticed, Busey is the original McBain, a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules (you probably also noticed a cleaned-up Danny Trejo in that clip). After the utterance of his catchphrase, above, he had our audience in the palm of his hand, by which I mean everybody finally shut up and actually stayed awake for the whole thing.

(The movie is called Bulletproof because that’s McBain’s nickname. Everytime he’s shot, he digs the bullet out himself and saves them in a mason jar)

I’m positive that is actually Busey.

Another thing we will find out is that McBain is ex-CIA. You see, there is a gathering of insurgents in Mexico, some of them Cuban and even (gasp!) Arab. And the magnificent plan cooked up by the spooks is to task Colonel L.Q. Jones to command a convoy delivering an experimental supertank code-named “Thunderblast” to “accidentally” stray into Mexico, and get captured. Since the Army captain in charge of the Thunderblast team is Darlanne Fluegel, McBain’s old flame (plus he also accidentally shot her husband in a dust-up with some mobsters), they will convince McBain to sneak into Mexico and, being McBain, kill everybody. Problem solved!

Yes, this is a remarkably stupid plan. I’m kind of pissed that it actually works. Eventually.

Good cast. Didn’t mention R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Rene Enriquez, William Smith (again!) and Thalmus Rasulala as McBain’s cop partner who actually does not get killed! (Radical!) Yes, this movie is stupid as hell, but it’s also entertaining as hell.

Don’t get used to that, Eric-with-a-C.

Look, I know what you folks are here for:

Who the hell wears a fur hat in Mexico? EVIL SOVIET BASTARDS, THAT’S WHO!

So we are now officially at 202. Only 98 movies to go to 300!

Sleep well. Butthorns.

There Are No Metaphors in Halloween Hell

Oh, hai there.

I’m medicated again.

It’s a sad truth in modern America that sometimes you try to go without your meds in order to pay other bills. Blood pressure pills seem pretty necessary, but we can probably go without this statin that’s seemed to have no effect for five years, we can probably tough it out without the mood elevator.

Until a week ago when I realized that I temporarily had a little extra money and likely the best thing I could do was get the refill on the mood elevator I had put off for two or three months. And I have to say that waking up the next morning without thinking of suicide was quite refreshing. (My doctor says it takes two or three days for the pill to take effect, but I’ve not found that to be the case. Maybe my serotonin imbalance was minor enough that it only needed a nudge in the right direction. In any event, one less dragon to fight)

While my writing has been the most visible casualty of the crushing mantle of despair, I haven’t exactly been slacking. Still watching Prestige TV With A Capital P, though Real Life work has put a crimp on the time allowable for that. Having finished the current seasons of Legion and The Expanse, my sense of symmetry told me I needed to find two other series to accompany the second season of Westworld, so it was time to start Sense8 and the first season of Luke Cage. I’d been putting Cage off to watch the Netflix Marvel series in order, but hit my usual getting-sick-of-Netflix-series-around-episode-8 wall with the first season of Daredevil. Really enjoying these series so far, although I’m only two episodes in of each.

DON’T DO IT DON’T DO IT DON’T YOU DO IT

Noted Canadian war criminal Doug Tilley (he made me watch Science Crazed) asked me to guest on one of his podcasts, Eric Roberts is the Fucking ManHe then asked me to be a participant in my own damnation by having me select the Eric Roberts movie we would be discussing. That’s harder than you might think – Roberts’ IMDb page lists 513 actor credits, with probably 200-300 in the last few years. He’s like the modern-day John Carradine.

I discounted all the movies where he played “The Devil” – there are several – as that meant he was likely on set for twenty minutes or so. But there was one that drew my eye, and that was Halloween Hell, where he is listed as playing “Count Dracula”. And it was on Prime Video. You can listen to that episode of the podcast at the site above, but you’re already here, so I might as well use my notes and grumble about the stuff I never got to in the podcast. (ERITFM likes to clock in at an hour, which is something I appreciate in a podcast, my fanboy love for The Projection Booth notwithstanding)

We start with a bunch of kids wandering through a warehouse with a video camera (you are going to become very familiar with this warehouse). They find a misshapen black statuette with Sculpey fangs (ditto the statuette). These teens are three guys and two girls, basically the Scooby Gang without the budget for a Great Dane with a speech impediment. One girl freaks out and tries to run, resulting a door magically slamming shut and The Demon (I think it’s a Type IV) appearing from the statuette and offing the kids one by one.

  1. We start with a disembowelment, shot at floor level, behind the victim. Classic movie cheat.
  2. A throat slash. First appearance of CGI blood, notable for its neon color.
  3. The demon presses a face mask on a girl’s head, then pulls it away, revealing that the other side of the mask was coated with blood. Oh, wait, I think he was supposed to be pulling her actual face off.
  4. The last girl starts flailing around on the floor and screaming while hoses pump blood through her clothes. This will be our first example of death by overacting.
  5. The last guy almost gets away, but the Demon shows up and get our B-movie deal sealed by my old favorite: facial lacerations are fatal.

Blah. Blah.

Eric Roberts tells us those deaths were “years ago” and remained unsolved. He then informs us that he is Count Dracula, and he is hosting a once-in-a-lifetime Internet event: He has the statuette, carved by Haitian slaves “from lava from the depths of Hell”. It houses a demon, and there will be six contestants who will spend 24 hours in a camera-festooned room with it, those 24 hours being midnight-to-midnight on Halloween. Each will earn $100,000 for getting through the day. The cost for the pay-per-view is a mere $24, “One dollar for each hour.”

The contestants are basically what used to be defined in Dynaman as “six good-looking young friends from all walks of life”:

  1. Nerd Boy, who wants the money to open his own high tech company and become Bill Gates
  2. Gothia, a Russian import and stripper exotic dancer, needs $100,000 worth of clothes and make-up
  3. Jessie – “The All-Star’s sweetheart”, who is given no motivation for the money
  4. Toby – who wants the money to start his country music singing career
  5. Rose – an undocumented immigrant who wants the money to go to nursing school and help her brother open a car repair shop (no stereotypes here)
  6. Mr. Jones – our token black who intends to use the money for an independent film

It’s the tusks that get me.

The statuette is in a room in that damnable warehouse which has been tricked out with the entire contents of somebody’s storage locker where they stuffed their Halloween decorations each year for the past decade or so. This is, I guess, meant to be ironic, but god it is cheesy.

Toby the country boy was obviously instructed to go over the top and given no further direction. When you do something like that to an actor, they keep trying to find the top, and getting no further instruction, keep going further and further out. In short, Toby looks like he’s being prepped to be the first to die, just to give us some relief. However, as Mr. Jones points out, “The Brother Man is always the first to go.”

This brings us to another bizarre sidetrip: Dracula is also running a website where you can bet on who will die and in what order. The janitor for the building where Drac is hosting his part of the show logs on to bet that Mr. Jones will be the first to die, causing the Demon to manifest and kill him by making blood gush from his scalp. In a few scenes, a woman will come in looking for the janitor, find his body, and she will be our next Death by Overacting.

Neither of these scenes are long enough to actually qualify as the sort of padding you do when your picture is not an agreed-upon length for distribution. It asks the question, is this happening to everyone who bets on the site? If it is, it would certainly mean more money for Dracula, since he’ll never have to pay out, but that’s never explored. If the Demon can just manifest anywhere, why the hell is the statuette even necessary?

Back at the reality show: we’re basically trying to make what is known as a “submarine film” here, with all the action taking place in a single room. The thing about those are they’re cheap, but you need to have crackling dialogue, something interesting for the characters to do. We don’t get the former, and for the latter, we have Toby singing a song, and strip poker. At least Friday the 13th had the class to switch that up with strip Monopoly.

(At one point, one of his “brides”, either “The Dragon Lady” or “Nectar-feel-ya”, asks Dracula “Where did you get him?” about Toby. “Texas! Where else?” which led me to a hearty “Fuck you movie!” which had been building up for at least a half-hour. Then I realized I could pinpoint within 30 miles which town Toby came from)

“You’re getting CGI everywhere!”

Mr. Jones does indeed get his throat slashed, with a fair amount of CGI blood sweetening so they don’t get the couch he’s lying on messy. Rose demonstrates why she needs to go to nursing school by attempting CPR on a guy with a cut throat. Jessie stabs herself in the eye with some dagger that was obligingly stuck in the wall. Toby and Nerd Boy start yelling to be let out or an ambulance to be called, allowing Roberts to have the best line of the whole movie, “Children of the night! What music they make!”

Now luckily, as our cast keeps getting whittled down, Nerd Boy, before showing up, had gone to a “Voodoo Lady” to find out about demons. “Voodoo Lady” is never given a name, so I dubbed her “Mama Machina” (first name Deus, middle initial X). She gave him some “magnets” (which look more like those stick-on lights for your closet you see on late-night TV)  and a steel urn to capture the Demon.

Guh.

This was written and directed by Ed Hunt, who I was familiar with from Starship Invasions, which I admit I had only seen because it was shown at a Crapfest. He also did Bloody Birthday and The Brain, which are both better regarded (I’ve seen neither, though). This is his first movie since 1988, make of that what you will.

Roberts makes sure Hunt gets his day rate’s worth. Almost all the rest of the money went for that Demon makeup, which is pretty damned good – which is fortunate, because he gets more screen time than Roberts. Also thrifty is the design choice that from the waist down he’s CGI flames, a type III floating torso, as Ray Stantz would say. As for the rest… I’ve seen worse. The script does them no favors.

Really, the tagline of this blog should be, “I’ve Seen Worse”. That doesn’t mean you have to.

 

 

Let Us Remember Crapfest

These are mine and you cannot have them.

If there is one thing that doing Crapfests for mumblemumble years has taught us, they are best with a fighting chance at having the following day off. Therefore, the Sunday before Memorial Day was deemed excellent, and all participated except Paul, who was busy dealing with Real Life. Erik was back, with his burrito bowls, which meant that I ate better than I had all week, and that was a week in which I had made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and roast asparagus. In trying to support his efforts, I had made a bean salsa that was well received, and if nothing else, in the time while the chicken and other ingredients for the Bowls were cooking, I rediscovered the youthful joy making of my own nachos with this salsa and the chips and queso Rick had brought.

But, although I am sitting here with a smile of gustatory nostalgia on my face, you are saying Can the balloon juice, professor, what about the movies? You obviously do not care for the finer things in life, but then, neither do we, which is why we have Crapfests.

Max is home for the Summer, and this fest brought Max’s very first contribution, Who Killed Captain Alex? It is very difficult to describe Who Killed Captain Alex? with mere words. It is a Ugandan action movie, shot on a reported budget of under $200. Some of the guns are obvious toys, but most are carved wood and other odds and ends slapped together and painted black. One character, a mercenary from Russia (who is quite obviously not from Russia) has a bandolier of bullets which are patently sharpened sticks. The whole thing is very like when a bunch of friends get together and make a movie for a goof, and director Nabwana IGG treats it almost the same – he rendered it off to a DVD master and then wiped his computer clean so he could make another one, because it was obviously never going to be seen by anyone outside his village.

Enter the Internet.

About the hardest thing our little group of Wakaliwood virgins had to deal with was the Video Joker, VJ Lemmy, who keeps up a running commentary on the movie. As the Wikipedia entry on The Cinema of Uganda informs us (you can tell I was impressed by Who Killed Captain Alex? because I was moved to do research):

Audiences go to video halls where narrators called “video jokers” translate the dialogue and add their own commentary.

so Lemmy is basically a one-man MST3K. At one point he exclaims, “This is how we watch movies in Uganda!” and apparently it is. He also tells us what movie we are watching every ten minutes or so, which seems absurd on the surface but is likely for the benefit of folks who just walked into the video hall a few minutes before. Lemmy is subtitled in yellow, while the movie’s dialogue is in white.

You want a plot? Come on. Okay, the Tiger Mafia is in control of Kampala, so the government sends in their best soldier, Captain Alex, to take control of the commandos and stop the Tiger Mafia and their leader, Richard. Alex’s men arrest Richard’s brother after a pitched battle, and Richard – after learning about it from a special TV bulletin – declares war to get his brother back. Captain Alex is killed, but nobody knows who did it, so his brother – a Ugandan Shaolin Monk – takes on the case.

(Erik: “I wonder if his name is Bruce.” (five minutes later) “Holy crap, his name is Bruce.”)

That’s a great gun, dude.

It’s also only sixty minutes long.

The thing is, those action scenes are actually pretty good. The muzzle flashes and spurting blood may be introductory-level After Effects digital hoohah, but it’s all heartfelt, decently edited, and the CGI helicopter fights at the end… well, they have to be seen to be appreciated.

Have you been good? Do you truly deserve this? Okay, then.

Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re reading this at work (naughty!) and don’t have a hour. Fine. here:

For those of you did watch the full-length video – no, we have no idea who killed Captain Alex. Nobody does. That’s why it’s art.

The food was ready. We ate (not for the first or last time that evening), and Erik brought out his entry: The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is better known around these parts, Turkish Star Wars.

It is called that because, rather famously, it nakedly rips off space battle footage from Star Wars and waves it in your face. Herein lies the very first problem, and probably the reason my only other attempt to watch this movie, many years ago, resulted in failure. We have a lot of cultural baggage associated with that footage, of course – we know who’s flying those ships, what the histories are behind them. The Man Who Saves the World makes no attempt to tell us which of the many vessels whizzing about are being flown by our two heroes, Turkish superstar Cüneyt Arkin and Aytekin Akkaya. They get shot down despite being our heroes, wind up on a desert planet ruled by a spiky Darth Vader wannabe, and aaaaaah who cares. Visit the Wikipedia page for the plot, because that’s the only way I – and hundreds (if not thousands) of others, including the guy who translated it into English – could figure out what was going on. Arkin also has the screen-writing credit, so blame him. Blame him early and often.

Spike Vader has a bunch of Cylon knock-offs and some life-size muppets who are disturbingly easy to pull apart and beat with their own disembodied arms and legs. There’s a mute woman and a prophecy and the most impractical freaking design for a magic sword ever (that comes with its own brain) which Arkin winds up melting down for armored gloves so he can relive his Lion Man glory days, anyway.

This makes me long for the high-tech majesty of Police Robot L in Starcrash.

Turkish cinema of the period (obviously) had a very noncommital and abusive relationship with International Copyright Law, and when we saw the movie was not going to meet us halfway with any sort of actual plot, the survival game became identifying what movie the soundtrack was lifted from at any given moment, Raiders of the Lost Ark being the main victim, but it was joined by Flash Gordon (even ripping off Max von Sydow’s laugh at one point), The Black Hole, and Silent Running.

It also had the first appearance that evening of the character I only refer to as “The Hippie from Birdemic”, a character who appears to offer an info dump that may or may not contain anything pertinent to the story, but certainly fills out the running time. This time it’s a priest who babbles on and on about Islam and lost tribes. Then we’re back to a welter of stolen space warfare and I think the good guys won, maybe.

Now it was time for Dave’s entry, or as he put it, “You don’t get to go yet, because Max counts as you.” This might seem reasonable, but it was still no excuse to put on 1978’s Matilda. Dave has seemingly become the guy who brings up movies played ad infinitum in the afternoon on HBO and Cinemax back in the day (see his earlier selection, Teen Witch).

Clive Revill, Elliott Gould and Art Metrano try to figure out how to get out of this movie.

Elliott Gould would like to forget that he plays down-on-his-luck fight promoter Bernie Bonnelli, who lucks onto the title character, a boxing kangaroo that can take on and best all comers. This leads into a plot where Gould has to convince Boxing Commissioners to allow sanctioned matches, as portrayed by Roy Clark (was it Alan or Rick who observed “This is probably the type of movie that won’t let Roy anywhere near a guitar”? Whichever it was, he was far too right), avoid the bumbling henchmen of mobster Uncle No-No (Harry Guardino), and completely screw over the worldview of his love interest (Karen Carlson), who works for the ASPCA, but eventually admits that exploitation of animals is A-OK, especially if that animal is a man in a suit.

A boy and his demon.

The “Hippie in Birdemic” character was under our noses the entire time in the person of Matilda’s caretaker, Billy Baker (Clive Revill) who reveals that if a boxing kangaroo is ever actually hit, it will never box again just before the climactic match with the world heavyweight champion. Nice timing, Clive.

You might have noticed I have spoken little of our title character. As mentioned, Matilda is a man (Gary Morgan) in a costume. This is spectacularly obvious from the get-go, no effort is made to conceal this fact, although Morgan does bounce up and down in every scene in a nod to method acting. The costume doesn’t even have the decency to try to mask Morgan’s legs, which, being human, the knees bend in the wrong direction. The head is immobile, impassive. If Quint were describing it, he would mention that it has “dead eyes, a doll’s eyes” which doubtless roll up when the kangaroo gets its first taste of blood.

Max found it frankly terrifying.

“Fook ‘im oop, Matilda!”

The IMDb does cough up this bit of trivia:

Producer Albert S. Ruddy once said of this movie: “We debated over using both a real kangaroo and an actor in costume and opted for the latter as cross-cutting proved too jarring for the viewer. However the costume was a $30,000 investment that paid off as it not only allowed freedom of movement, but we were able to program it with transistors to allow us to direct the actor’s tiniest gesture”.

If by “tiniest gesture” you mean “absolutely none”, then that is not a totally delusional quote. Matilda does manage to get in a few ear twitches and blinks, but doesn’t manage a curl of the lip until after the final fight. Maybe it took that long for the operators to get the hang of those $30,000 transistors.

Here, try to ignore that Robert Mitchum is somehow involved in this, and that in that final shot Matilda is staring DIRECTLY INTO YOUR SOUL:

So now it was my turn, and after Turkish Star Wars and Matilda, I was not about to apologize for what I was going to do, and what I was going to do was R.I.P.D.

I could tell you the plot of R.I.P.D., but it would be easier to just say “take the plot of Men in Black, substitute dead people for aliens, Ryan Reynolds for Will Smith, Jeff Bridges for Tommy Lee Jones, Mary-Louise Parker for Rip Torn, and omit the talking pug.” It is fair to say that this movie was the point at which America was actively begging Hollywood to stop trying to make Ryan Reynolds happen. I guess that path eventually leads to the Deadpool movies, but man, that period was rough going.

This is also the year that Jeff Bridges decided he was going to use all his funny voices.

Here’s that mercenary from Russia to remind you of back when we were having fun.

R.I.P.D. was one of the few times I’ve brought a movie to Crapfest without viewing it first; Max knew I had a copy (bought used, and I scrawled “Please! We’ll pay YOU!” over the price tag. Great fun at parties!) and asked that I wait until his return to show it. It’s not a truly baaaaaad movie, just excessively predictable, and kinda pathetic in that way that you can’t even make fun of it. How the hell you manage to do that with a movie that stars Jeff Bridges and features James Hong and Kevin Bacon is beyond me (please, nobody bring up Seventh Son). And now Alan hates me because he paid money to see it in the theater.

Aaaah, he probably hated me anyway. Also, Erik has unfriended me on Facebook.

It was decided that we could cram in one more movie before we all turned into pumpkins, and Dave thoughtfully provided The Great Bikini Off-Road Adventure. A return to Crapfest basics, as it were (as I told you last time, the roots of ancient Crapfest can be found in huge marble tablets that read, simply, T&A) .

We’re in Utah, and Uncle Duke’s (Floyd Irons) jeep tour business is in trouble, and you can bet it’s all due to the company that wants to strip-mine the desert (boooo!) He asks his niece Lori (Lauren Hayes) for advice (since she just got her “lawyer license”), as he needs to come up with ten grand in a month to stave off Evil Capitalists Inc. Lori and her vacationing girl pals take over the jeep tours, then discover that they can charge twice as much when they conduct the tours in their bikinis ($8! The Community Center is saved!). Then each tour ends up basically being a Playboy video, so God knows how much they’re charging by that point. Maybe as much as ten bucks!

Blackface Dynamite! Ask for it by name!

There’s an Evil Capitalist henchman whose job it is to sabotage the jeep tours, but fortunately for our heroes, he’s taken Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack for his role model. Fortunately for him, the dynamite he keeps slinging around and inevitably sitting on is not the lethal variety, but cartoon blackface dynamite.

Soooo there’s a lot of boobage, some largely inept villainy, and a last-minute plot injection to get us to the finish line, when the Hippie from Birdemic informs us that a rock about to be dynamited by two more inept and theoretically comedic Evil Capitalist henchmen is a protected cultural artifact! There has also been an Indian shaman who shows up every now and then to gather the cast-off bikini tops; his appearances are always announced by that dramatic twang that opens Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm of the Heat”. He does some questionable magic to save the rock. Everybody lives happily ever after, and that included us, who went home satisfied, well-fed, and still hating Ryan Reynolds.

(Not so) Amazingly, YouTube does not have a trailer for this, but here is the very same version Dave employed. Join us in saying “Hi-Fi!” everytime those words appear.

“Hi-Fi!”

 

 

 

The Catch-Up: Somewhere in There Was a Crapfest

I guess the title says it all, eh? I unfortunately had a Saturday off, so a Crapfest was thrown together. Due to its thrown-together nature, a couple of the regulars couldn’t make it: Erik and Paul, leaving David, Alan, Rick, my son Max (having arrived that same day for Spring Break), and myself. Erik usually handles the meal for the evening with great aplomb, and Alan stepped in to fill the void with an exceptional chili with several different meats: beef, steak, venison, narwhal, sasquatch, and I believe I detected the slight tang of unicorn.

Yes, obviously a Jackie Chan movie.

Alan made up for that largesse by bringing Cannonball Run, claiming that it was due to the fact that Max had likely never seen it (he hadn’t) and so it began.

(There was an odd dynamic about this Crapfest – David, Alan and Rick have known each other since high school, so this event was largely a chance for them to catch up and shoot the breeze. Not much movie watching was accomplished by that side of the room.)

Now Cannonball Run – if, like Max, you were not alive during that period of HBO/Cinemax showing it 24 hours a day – is a supposedly comedic retelling of a high-stakes and illegal transcontinental race that actually existed. The first half of the movie shows the gathering of the contestants and star Burt Reynolds’ and Dom DeLuise’s quest to find the vehicle that will score him the million dollar prize. He finally settles on a souped-up ambulance (director Hal Needham had actually run the race in just such a vehicle), but he needs a doctor and a patient to make the ruse work (so did Needham), Enter the movie’s MVP, Jack Elam, who so effortlessly upstages everybody that I wanted him to get a standalone sequel. The patient role is supplied by Farrah Fawcett and her nipples (the bar where Reynolds first spots her must have been very cold). The fact that Fawcett is essentially kidnapped and transported across state lines by Reynolds and crew is only one of the problematic aspects of the movie.

Our last chance against Thanos.

Among the other participants: Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman as racers who use their spandex outfits to get out of any traffic stops (until they run into a female cop); Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as gamblers disguised as priests; Jamie Farr as a sheikh who just sort of vanishes; Jackie Chan as a Japanese driver with an experimental high-tech car (being cast as Japanese reportedly pissed Jackie off); and Roger Moore as a guy who thinks he’s Roger Moore and has a different girlfriend in every scene (who, when they are allowed to talk, are all voiced by June Foray).

He, too, would like to hit Dom Deluise.

This section of the movie concerns the dirty tricks played by the racers on each other and the various subterfuges to avoid the law. The whole thing has no significant plot to speak of, just an excuse for comic vignettes (and, to be fair, some pretty damn good stunts). I’d only seen this movie piecemeal over the years, and my experience of it this time remains just as piecemeal. I was wondering if Needham’s comic chops had improved since The Villain, and…

Well, most of our amusement that was not Jack Elam-based was shouting at the screen for Reynolds to hit Dom DeLuise again.

This pissed off David enough (really, anything pisses off Dave enough to justify his choices) that he sprang Incubus on us. Not the Cassavetes horror movie, the Shatner Esperanto one. (Paul later admitted that a contributing factor to his non-attendance was the possibility of Shatner, so there is a Crapfest insider trading scandal brewing)

Kia (Allyson Ames) is a succubus who lures men to their doom at Big Sur (although the ambience is 16-17th century European). They’re all wicked men, though, so she finds the work boring, and wants to test her mettle against a good man – Marco (Shatner). The results are disastrous – Kia passes out from the exertion and the innocent Marco carries her into a church to recover. The succubus world regards this as an act of rape and they summon the Incubus (Milos Milos) to deal with him. Kia turns to the light side of the force to protect Marco (Polo) and is attacked by Black Phillip (a cameo which I must admit surprised me). The end.

Talky films are death at a Crapfest, and talky films in a foreign language, well… This is where the kaffee klatsch nature of the other side of the room truly kicked in. Most of the time was spent in using Google Translate to find out what “Shatner is a dickbag” is in Esperanto (Shatner estas pikilo, if you were wondering) and other such wonders while occasionally asking Max to explain what was going on in the movie.

Incubus is actually fairly intriguing, and I’m still not sure why Esperanto was used, except that it was 1966 and stuff was starting to get weird. Shatner was reportedly an enthusiastic supporter of the man-made language, but everybody in the flick learned their lines phonetically, and the more serious Esperanto community is very critical of their skills. Shatner, being Canadian, is habitually defaulting to the French pronunciation for several words, for example. It remains a curiosity at best, but it is far better than its reputation, its inclusion in Crapfest, and the trailer below would have you believe.

And everybody who complains about Woody Allen’s earlier mature films being overly imitative of Ingmar Bergman really needs to see Incubus. Or ĉiuj, kiuj plendas pri la antaŭaj maturaj filmoj de Woody Allen, kiuj tro multe imitas de Ingmar Bergman vere bezonas vidi Incubus, if you will.

It was my turn, and I admit that I phoned it in. If you look at the chronological listing of Crapfests, you will note that its origins lie in the realm of R-rated drive-in movies, or to use the (appropriately) vulgar, T&A. If I was into the introspection thing, I might wonder if I took the lazy route because I knew there would be fewer people to hurt with my choice. In any case, I brought Orloff and the Invisible Man, a movie which I hate, but it has to be admitted, has lots of T&A. There is one lengthy sequence where a servant girl undresses for bed to convince her loutish boyfriend to go grave-robbing, and when he agrees, undresses again to don her grave-robbing clothes. It also has the most luxuriant thatch of pubic hair seen this side of actual vintage porn. All ignored, probably because they were still translating stuff like “luxuriant thatch of pubic hair” (luksa tegmento de publikaj haroj) into Esperanto on their phones.

Hell, even the big pay-off, that the Invisible Man is actually a guy in a cheap gorilla suit, went unnoticed.

Bah.

The Original

Dave wrapped things up with the definite high point of the evening, and I wasn’t even displeased about having to watch Revenge of the Sith againIt’s a bit of internet lore about a (bootleg?) version of the movie with subtitles translated into Chinese, then translated back into English via Google Translate (there it is again), with hilarious results. This is the origin of the “Do Not Want” meme.

That’s good enough, but someone went to the trouble to actually re-dub the movie using these mammocked subtitles. The result is astoundingly disorienting at first, because it’s really well done – the guy they found to dub Christopher Lee is spectacularly on-target. Yoda may have somehow become an old woman, but that’s part of the fun. The other part of the fun was figuring out what certain repeated phrases meant – “Sector Ratio” for “General Kenobi” and the Jedi Council’s transformation into “the Presbyterian Church”.

The rest of the fun was listening to the other side of the room bitch about how many years they had looked forward to the final showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan and the many ways in which they were dissatisfied with what they got. “Do not want!” indeed.

We will be having another Crapfest this coming Sunday, with hopefully better attendance and a better choice from me (no promises). Max will be bringing his first selection, and new vistas of hurt will open for everybody, I am sure.

 

 

The Catch-Up: Interlude

“So how did that grand experiment you alluded to in your last blog post go?” asked nobody. (C’mon, pay attention to me! It’s not like our country is being burnt to the ground or anything)

That experiment was: while I’m catching up on reviews of movie watched during my hiatus, watch episodes of some TV series on Friday nights instead of three or four movies, alleviating the buildup. Simple.

(Hold for laughter)

Have you seen me?

Cold turkey didn’t work this time. Last week’s entry, in fact, wherein I excoriated Batman v Superman (and trust me, I cut myself short), prompted a bit of discussion on Facebook where there was some spirited defense of Man of Steel (there was also a complete lack of name-calling and similar drama because my friends are not dicks). There was enough that I thought maybe, just maybe, I should peek back in on that disc to see if I had actually missed anything.

And I couldn’t find the disc. That bothered me more than it should. After all, I’ve gone on record as actually hating that movie, I shouldn’t be surprised that I was lackadaisical about its location in my collection. My database says it’s still there, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve lent out or even given away a disc that I had no further use for, without noting it. I am, in fact, annoyed at myself for being annoyed that I can’t find a movie I hate.

That’s three discs, people! THREE!!!

So I defaulted to another Facebook thread from a week or two earlier, wherein I stated (on the subject of worst Marvel movie) that I would watch The Incredible Hulk again before another viewing of Iron Man 2. So, since I couldn’t watch one hated movie, I watched another. And it’s the 3-Disc Special Edition, bitches. I am serious about this stuff.

My opinion of The Incredible Hulk remains unchanged; I think it’s a pretty good Hulk movie. This opinion may be suspect, in that I’m not a Hulk fan. But I’m also not a Spider-Man fan, and I still recognize that the first two Raimi movies and Homecoming are good Spider-Man movies. The tropes are all there: Thunderbolt Ross continuing to run operations that are guaranteed to make Bruce Banner’s heartrate skyrocket and become the Hulk; the seeking of a cure that only winds up creating more Gamma monsters; and, of course, wanton destruction.

The CGI is ten years old, and is adequate, largely unembarrassing. As the second movie in the MCU, this is valuable mainly for the things it does not have. I couldn’t help but think about how – were the movie made more recently – certain action sequences would have been slicker, better staged and paced. There would be more humor. But it’s not terrible. It’s a shame that the MCU has ignored the movie, retaining only William Hurt’s General Ross, and tossing Liv Tyler’s Betty, The Abomination and The Leader down the memory hole. There was a mention of the Battle of Harlem in one of the Netflix Marvel shows, and that seems about the extent of admission of the movie’s canon-icity.

Also it doesn’t get near enough credit for running the Hulk’s origin story under the opening credits. That’s something we all know, and that saved ten-fifteen minutes or more screen time.

And then I could finally get down to the Great Experiment.

The second season of Legion is even trippier than the first, and sometimes self-consciously so. I don’t mind that at all – the trippiness is what I’m here for. Having not read the comic book, I can’t testify as to how much is derived from the comic and how much madness is coming from Noah Hawley. But in a lot of ways Legion is what I wanted from Twin Peaks: The Return and often got, but in a continuous, high-pressure firehose stream.

Not much Aubrey Plaza or Jemaine Clement yet, though. Sad!

Who knew I’d end up really liking Bobby?

The third season of The Expanse remains solid science-fiction, which is to say solid drama with a nice hard science background. The crew of the Roci remain the unluckiest SOBs in the solar system, and they just renamed the ship, so that’s going to take a while to adjust. Relationships continue to grow and evolve. The penultimate episode of season two gutted me, and the next day Syfy announced it was not coming back after season three. Double Whammy! There’s lots of fan turbulence over its cancellation, so maybe I’ll get to enjoy it past this season. That would be a good thing. (Good Things Do Happen Dept: while I was typing this, Amazon announced they would be carrying Season 4)

Westworld is going to be a hard sell for me, but the first season’s premiere episode is a good start. It’s – no surprise – based on the 1973 movie, concentrating more on the androids and the technicians of the Delos parks. The basis for the events in that ’73 flick seem to be laid out in this episode, and much more. I’m impressed with the amount of screwing with audience perception that’s going on, and appreciate the attention being paid to the day-to-day operation of the park (though that also leads me to some questions that may or not be answered in future episodes. Guess we’ll see).

I like Bernard, so I figure he’s not long for this world.

Why should this be a hard sell to me? I don’t have a good history with these prestige TV series. I’ve yet to actually finish a Netflix series – 8 episodes seem to be my limit. Miss me with Game of Thrones, the first episode landed with a dull thud. The record holder so far is Deadwood, with two seasons under my belt before I got exhausted. Westworld, though, has presented me with enough hard science fiction puzzle boxes to give me hope.

One of the questions I had immediately was if this version of Delos only had the Westworld attraction, but I see from some social media that Shogunworld has entered the series. Of course social media is also coughing up entries that amount to “Y’all are still watching Westworld?!” This doesn’t dismay me. I stuck with Lost until the bitter end. I still have hopes for Westworld.

So the Grand Experiment was a success, mostly. Besides the fact that I’m here writing about what I watched instead of catching up on those older reviews.

Crap.

 

The Catch-Up, Part Two (Speaking Of Edition)

I may have accidentally stumbled onto how I can actually set an endpoint to this Catching Up business, and hasten the phenomenon of actually seeing a pinprick of light in this seemingly endless tenebrous tunnel: I’ll watch TV.

See, Friday nights that I don’t have a show are the nights where I can settle into my movie chair and watch three or more movies in a row. This is by necessity more than inclination: scheduling rather than solicitude. Last Friday, as a bit of a warm-up, and because it’s now in its second season and cropping up on my timeline again, I decided to watch the first episode of Legion before moving on to stuff on my Movie Watchlist. You know, find out what the shouting was about.

This is my brain on Legion.

I am not a binge watcher. I like to watch an episode of a TV series, then think about it for a while (you know, the way the format was originally intended).

Last Friday I watched the first six episodes of Legion‘s first season before dragging myself to bed at 2am.

Hey, everybody from my timeline a year ago saying how great and confounding and downright amazing it was, you were right. So now I will kowtow to my magic DVR and – unless showrunner Noah Hawley sucks me in again, no promises – alternate it with episodes of the recently-cancelled The Expanse which I have been hoarding like bullets in a Mad Max movie. I guess I should find some way to lay my hands on the first season of Westworld, too. Maybe this will stem the ever-regenerating list of back-filed reviews waiting to be written.

Speaking of which:

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Well, what you have here is your bona fide classic, re-issued in a stunning blu-ray by Warner Archive. Spencer Tracy is one-armed WWII veteran John MacReedy, who gets off the train at the titular town, claiming he’s “only going to be here a day”. Black Rock is a desolate little desert community that’s incredibly tense about this stranger’s arrival. And that’s all I’m gonna tell you, because I find myself in the odd position of not wanting to talk about a 60 year-old movie. There are two mysteries at play in Bad Day, and unraveling both is essential to your enjoyment of the film. Director John Sturges makes sure we are in the same boat as the movie’s characters: we know as much about what Black Rock is hiding as MacReedy, and we know as much about MacReedy as the townspeople – which is nothing in both cases. And the solutions are pretty satisfying.

If nothing else, the cast alone should convince you this movie needs to be watched. Besides Tracy, there’s Robert Ryan as the town boss, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as his two bully boys, Dean Jagger as a worthless drunk of a sheriff, and Walter Brennan as the town doctor and undertaker. That’s five Oscar winners right there. Anne Francis runs the local garage, and John Ericson is her brother who runs the hotel.

Francis’ presence as the sole woman in evidence in Black Rock is the one detail that gnawed on me during my viewing; finding out later that  Sturges cut out all background characters to make Tracy seem even more isolated and outnumbered didn’t do much to diminish that gnawing, but it at least made it more understandable.

Shot in CinemaScope, Bad Day really forces you to confront the remoteness of the location (odd that leery MGM suits insisted that a standard 4:3 version be shot simultaneously) (and even odder that it was accompanied by a 4 track stereo soundtrack on a movie with almost no score). That blu-ray does it full justice, and if you don’t have access to an actual repertory house theater, that’s the way to go.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

And speaking of Warner Archive…

The opportunity to see a feature film directed by Chuck Jones was irresistible. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a well-regarded children’s book; it’s the tale of latchkey kid Milo (Butch Patrick in the movie), whose school has crushed him into a youthful pile of ennui. Finding a magic tollbooth in his living room, he drives a toy car though it (in the movie, turning into a cartoon), and journeys to the land of Dictionopolis, where he gets involved in your standard heroic quest to save the kingdom, rescue princesses, and learn the value of knowledge. The book is a clever affair, full of puns and wordplay, and has been justly compared in that respect to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

An actual problem in its translation to screen is that Juster’s novel, which is itself a satirical take on the state of education, somehow becomes drab and preachy, even if the color palette becomes brighter. There is too much HERE IS YOUR LESSON, STUPID KIDS, and far too little allowing Jones to inject some humor into the proceedings. I thought I was going to really enjoy this during the first self-conscious song during the live action sequence, where our Sandpiper-esque chorus croon about “What will happen to Milo” but then we descend into Dictionopolis and thereafter every song is absolutely dreadful, only compounding the misery.

It’s really a shame when you’ve got some heavy hitters in the voice department doing their usual best – Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler, Hans Conreid, Les Tremayne. The movie was actually completed in 1968, but MGM’s ongoing financial woes delayed its release, with minimal promotion, until 1970. I was honestly watching TV with an eye towards movie trailers in those days, and I recall only a 10 second ad for The Phantom Tollbooth, featuring Butch driving through that gate and turning into a cartoon. I guess it was effective enough that I remember it fifty years later. MGM closed its animation department almost immediately after the release.

Juster reportedly hated the movie. I can see why.

Chuck Jones’ legacy as a creator of quality shorter fare is unassailable, at least.

The Ritual (2017)

Speaking of people shouting about things (we were two movies ago): this was getting a buzzy moment on social media when it cropped up on Netflix, so yeah, sure, why not? You may have noticed, I do like a good horror movie.

Hm.

You’ve got five friends (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton and Paul Reid) out for a lengthy hike/camping trip to honor a dead friend (tragic backstory that will get mined thoroughly, you can be sure). One gets injured, cutting the trip short, but instead of heading back down the trail they used, it is decided to cut through the forest, which will only take one day instead of two.

Everyone who thinks this is a bad idea, raise your hands.

Of course, things like compasses don’t work in the woods, there are strange runes on the trees, a night in an abandoned cabin yields weird nightmares, and there is something in the woods following them.

As I said, I like a good horror movie. This means in the past decade I’ve watched a lot of movies with people wandering around lost in some creepy woods. It’s like my Dracula fatigue: I’m in almost desperate need of something besides Blair Witch with a dash of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-house”. Most of the reviews I’ve sampled don’t like the third act, which is the only part I really liked – it’s the point at which The Ritual finally gains its own identity. It just arrives too late for me to recommend it.

Speaking of wandering through creepy woods:

Annihilation (2018)

  • This is director Alex Garland’s follow-up to his 2014 Ex Machina, which, as is traditional, I will be watching later in the year.
  • A meteor crashes to Earth, bringing with it “The Shimmer”, an expanding field that changes the environment as it expands. Five women (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) go into the Shimmer in an attempt to find out why the earlier teams never came back – except for one (Oscar Isaacs), Portman’s husband, who is now dying for unknown reasons.
  • Smarter people than me quickly pointed out that this is basically Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.
  • That’s a very strong cast all bringing their A+ game to a story that requires some really questionable decisions on their characters’ parts.
  • It also has some king-hell horror movie moments.
  • The strongest of these, known as “The Screaming Bear”, is a creature straight out of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a predator that speaks in the voice of its last victim.

It may be this last item that got my goat and refused to give it back, in combination with The Ritual: I’ve lost count of the number of writing projects I’ve given up because I finally decided they could be seen as derivative of other works, not original stuff dredged up from my psyche. I should apparently get over myself and write those damned stories, because other people that do get them made into movies (even if Garland didn’t re-read Jeff VanderMeer’s novel before writing the screenplay).

Annihilation is still worth a watch, even if I can’t give it the enthusiastic referral I had hoped.

Oh, hey, speaking of not-enthusiastic referrals:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (2016)

My pal Dave told me that this version added some character beats that actually made him feel better about the movie. So blame this on Dave.

  • It does.
  • The movie is still a goddamn mess.
  • So much of a mess that anybody that comes to me complaining that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mess for trying to set up the MCU’s Phase Three is going to be strapped to a chair and forced to watch this Clockwork Orange-style. All three hours and two minutes of it.
  • I was really hoping for some illumination as far as what the hell Luthor’s endgame was supposed to be because I’m a gullible sap.
  • I can only assume that every time I see people on the Interwebs talk about how this was the best movie of the year, they are speaking in such heightened irony that I almost can’t hear it, but my dog can.

Zack Snyder v Superman (2016, Warner Brothers)

I am never, ever going to get over my essential bitterness toward Zack Snyder’s interpretation of these characters. From Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel to his pre-production statement of “This Batman kills”, those are major violations of the ethos of the characters I grew up with. Yes, this is a fat old fanboy moaning that his childhood has been violated, but for a better reason than “girls have cooties” (obligatory jab at Star Wars “fandom”, come at me, bro). Superheroes are aspirational characters, and the MCU’s Captain America has been a better Superman than Henry Cavill has ever been allowed to be (at least until Justice League). A major part of that aspiration has been going to great lengths to avoid taking life.

Gosh, this getting ranty.

*sigh* At least it gave us Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Even if it did murder Jimmy Olsen. And Mercy (again). And…

Crap. Should have quit while I was ahead.

Well, now I’m into the beginning of March of this year. That’s something.

The Catch-Up, Part One

Now that I’ve opened the floodgates, it’s time to see if I can’t successfully clear out my backlog of commentary. Probably most of these are going to be capsule-type instead of my usual incisive in-depth criticism (hold for laughter).

For instance:

Geostorm (2017)

  • Guys, I am still not sold on Gerard Butler as a leading man.
  • The science on display here is so incredibly suspect they might as well call it magic.
  • If you’re an aficionado of  Devlin and/or Emmerich scenes of vehicles outracing natural disasters, you’re in luck, because Devlin pulls that shit twice.
  • Similarly, if you feel movies are sorely lacking in characters saying the title over and over again, boy, do I have a flick for you.
  • Since there has to be a human villain behind the events, and Morgan Freeman isn’t in the cast, it’s going to be incredibly obvious who it is from the get-go.
  • Still, if you’re pining for an Irwin Allen-style multi-character disaster flick, you could do worse. For instance, by actually watching an Irwin Allen-style multi-character disaster flick.

The Beast (1975)

Trying to get back into my once-lofty goal of watching all the high-falutin’ pieces of world cinema I had been ignoring for decades, I pressed play on this one, which got some newfound infamy a few years back with a blu-ray release. I knew only two things going in: one, it had originally been conceived as a chapter in director Walerian Borowczyk’s earlier Immoral Tales (which I’ll be watching later, because, remember, I tend to back into filmographies – I prefer to think of it as a motif, rather than a pathology), and two, it’s, shall we say, somewhat explicit.

So I spent about the first twenty minutes of the movie fearing I was going to spend the rest of my life thinking of it as Horse Dong: The Movie. This prodigous member has such prominence in our first act.

If all the furor around The Beast had led you to expect a salacious re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, you are going to be mighty confused by all this horse-dongery, but there is some method here. The story proper takes place in the present day (or at least 1975). The noble l’Esperance family is in decline, and their only hope to avoid financial ruin is a long-arranged marriage with the wealthy industrialist Broadhurst family. The daughter, Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) is to wed the brutish Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti), who is more at home in the family stables (where, you know, the horse dongs live). Lucy is pretty gung-ho about this, unaware that the flowery romantic letters she has been receiving are actually written, Cyrano-style, by Mathurin’s father, Pierre (Guy Tréjan). And that is only the most minor of the machinations Pierre is juggling to make this wedding happen.

Before a fractious dinner, Lucy is told of a mysterious encounter centuries earlier between the Countess Romilda l’Esperance (Sirpa Lane) and the infamous Beast of Gévaudan. That night, wearing the platonic ideal of a sheer nightgown, Lucy has visions of Romilda’s story (after contemplating her polaroid of everybody’s favorite horse dong). We see Romilda follow a lost lamb into the woods, only to find it devoured by The Beast, who has yet another titanic tallywhacker. It chases Romilda as the surrounding bushes and trees are suddenly complicit in tearing off her clothing, and roughly rapes her. She decides she likes it and apparently proceeds to screw the Beast to death. Take that, oppressor!

During breaks in this vision, the barely and then not-at-all clad Lucy keeps sneaking into Mathurin’s room, where he is sleeping off a tremendous drunk, before she is startled off and returns to more visions of furry pr0n. All this is leading up to a series of revelations that will doom that arranged marriage, the l’Esperance family, and the manipulative and even murderous Pierre.

Booga booga!

When you finally stop thinking of this as Horse Dong: The Movie and start getting into the actual story, it becomes a pretty scathing absurdist comedy, like Buñuel but with a better emotional core, and Borowczyk really impressed me with his careful setup of several unexpected jokes. Every woman below the age of 30 in this movie is eventually going to be extremely naked, so it would be easy to cynically dismiss this as a porno film for people who would like to pretend that they had just seen an art film. But The Beast has a lot more to offer, and it is rather amazing to contemplate that such a movie, so explicit and yet so artful, even exists.

And now, true to my usual self-destructive bent, I guess I should track down the sequel-in-Sirpa-Lane-only Italian cheapie The Beast in Space, and throw away all that goodwill.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

  • What, you were expecting a full-blooded review? I’m gonna have to watch it again for that, and this is a three-hour movie.
  • I liked it. I liked it better than the original, which I found very pretty (and undeniably influential) but completely unengaging.
  • My favorite form of science-fiction uses a technological advancement to facilitate the story, and the best instances of this explore how the advancement changes society, and all the different ways that advancement is utilized. Making the protagonist a replicant trying to rise above his origin, and interacting with other replicants trying to do the same, is great.
  • That improved AI subplot is also really good, and affecting.
  • To muddy the waters a bit, the Netflix series Altered Carbon does an excellent job of extrapolating how society will find different ways to exploit and fuck up a good idea. But like seemingly all Netflix prestige TV series, I lost patience around episode 8.
  • When I first saw Blade Runner, my date, at the end (with the footage taken from The Shining), asked, “Why would anyone live in that city if this was outside?” 2049 does a better job of answering that with its blighted wastelands of a dying Earth.
  • If Roger Deakins hadn’t finally gotten his Oscar for this, there should have been rioting in the streets.
  • What a cast. I would have liked to see what David Bowie could have done with the Jared Leto role, but I actually rather liked Leto in this.
  • One day I will have the time to watch this again. I look forward to it.

The Recall (2017)

  • This is for all the people who say “I really miss when you used to review crappy movies.”
  • Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but five friends (RJ Mitte, Jedidiah Goodacre, Laura Bilgeri, Niko Pepaj and Hannah Rose May) head out to a weekend at an isolated lake house.
  • At the traditional Texas Chainsaw rural gas station, they encounter The Hunter (Wesley Snipes), who doesn’t much care for snot-nosed whitebread kids.
  • Wouldn’t you know it, there’s an alien invasion that weekend.
  • These aliens have been here before; they abduct humans, make some improvements, then release them. No one knows why, and this time they’re abducting even more.
  • Well, whaddaya know, The Hunter is one of those former abductees – an astronaut kidnapped off the ISS, and he’s been booby-trapping the woods against the aliens’ return. Of course, this means a team-up with the kids.
  • SPOILER ALERT
  • The kids all get abducted and altered, anyway.
  • Speaking of which, Eduardo Sanchez’s Altered did this much better.
  • Good thing they now have super powers, because after the aliens go away, the government is rounding up all the abductees and killing them.
  • The end.
  • The CGI is… not entirely successful, shall we say. Practical effects in the abduction sequence are similarly a mixed bag. Again, Beyond Skyline did this stuff much better. I also suspect they had a lot more money, though.
  • Speaking of money, I have a sort of rough respect for a crew that has to light night scenes in a forest and finally just says fuck it and starts setting up white lights where they couldn’t possibly be.
  • Wesley: good to see you onscreen again, man. I hope your next movie serves you better.