Monday, February 4, 2013
Matt’s Week in Dork! (1/27/13-2/2/13)
It’s lean days for this Dork. And I’ll admit, I don’t think my head is in the game. Still, got a few solid selections in and got some reading done. So all is not lost. Without intention I spent a lot of time in Asia with my movies this week. Japan, China, Indonesia. That and more time with British science fiction. But that’s not new.
Maverick: “Gums his food and his women.” Remember the good old days, when we didn’t know Mel Gibson was a belligerent nut-job? I could have gone forever without finding out. The 90s were a bad decade for a lot of folks for a lot of reasons. Few suffered quite as much as 80s action icons. Arnold, Van Damme, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Stallone, and yeah, Mel Gibson. Somehow everything had this made for TV blandness about it, and the larger than life personas of the previous decade seemed like they were on tranquilizers or something. Non-threatening scripts, non-threatening cinematography, no nudity of course (or very, very little), no blood or gore, and the f*%#ing music of f*%#ing Randy Newman. As Raul Duke would say, this is what the world would look like if the Nazis won the war. Out of this came Maverick, a movie re-envisioning of the classic TV series. There’s nothing essentially wrong with the film, and maybe that’s what’s wrong with it. It’s extremely OK. What’s the word? Banal. It never displays the kind of balls it takes to be really good, or to dramatically fail, which leaves it in a kind of default ‘something I’m watching’ state, which was sort of what that whole decade was like. It has a cornucopia of ‘that guy’ actors with great Western faces, and I love Jodie Foster. But she feels completely wrong here. The Danny Glover cameo is painful but Graham Greene’s appearance is a highlight. The story? Meh. Characters? Meh. It’s the 90s, man. I guess I should just be glad Julia Roberts wasn’t in it.
The Time Machine: “All the time in the world!” H.G. Wells wrote two of my all time favorite books, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Both have inspired countless works and been adapted in various ways many times. Neither has ever really gotten its due on film. But this George Pal adventure film is a pretty good attempt, even if it misses many of the best aspects of the book. Wells did not tend to feature romantic subtext. And in fact, it would have been somewhat inappropriate in The Time Machine, as the simple folk the Time Traveler encounters in the distant future are little more than humanoid sheep or passive children. In this version, they’re more like vacuous, beautiful, Aryan 20 somethings in Jessica 6 outfits. Unlike The Island of Dr. Moreau, which desperately called for the sexual tension so conspicuously absent from the novel, I’m still not sold on it in The Time Machine (though it did give filmmakers an excuse for dressing Samantha Mumba in that crazy mesh getup in the lackluster remake, and that earns a lot of forgiveness). Whatever the case, our dashing, turn of the century inventor catapults himself through time, seeing the disintegration of civilization by prolonged war until he arrives in an almost unfathomable future. The exploration of this new world has always been my favorite part of the film. Much like the first 30 minutes of Planet of the Apes, or the first 45 minutes of Alien, or that middle 20 minutes of Beneath the Planet of the Apes where they’re in the underground, the exploration of an alien environment and all its potential danger and wonder pulls me in. And though I know the movie must move on, I’m always a bit sad when it ends, like my playtime has been spoiled by the inevitable setting of the sun and call to supper. The production design is interesting and the music the right brand of crazy. Rod Taylor is a great leading man, and I’m always a little sad he wasn’t in more quality movies (sure, he’s got a few really good ones, but not enough for me). The whole thing is more upbeat than Wells’ novel, but that’s no shock, as I don’t think Hollywood could handle his less than optimistic outlook on humanity’s future. I do still hold out some hope, however misguided, that one day both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine will get a more loyal adaptation. I know that print and film are two very different means of storytelling, but I think both novels could be done better, for sure. In the meantime, this is a darned cool sci-fi adventure film.
House of Bamboo: “You better go.” In post-War Japan, a G.I. is murdered and zzzzzzz… The footage of Japan is a fascinating glimpse into the state of things in the wake the second World War. It doesn’t matter what Fox’s DVD box says though, this is not a Noir film. At least it does deal with hoodlums and crime. But all in the bright light of day, in vibrant color. Robert Stack is the lifeless dolt who blunders his way into trouble after trouble, but he’s got a secret. Seriously, Stack seems to be purposefully trying not to project anything that might accidentally be seen as charisma. Robert Ryan is the criminal boss picking at the bones of a city trying to build itself up. And his journey from successful boss to cracked nut is kind of fascinating. Other than Robert Ryan, the film’s only real selling point is as a visual record of a particular time and place that doesn’t focus on (but doesn’t ignore) the tourist hot-spots. I can’t help but wish filmmakers could go back in time and make a better film so I could enjoy the setting more. Run Don’t Walk is still many years away, and much of the character seems to have changed by then.
Doctor Who: The Krotons: After scouring the English countryside for the weirdest looking people possible for the guest cast, this story about crystal-robots keeping human slaves and occasionally eating their brains is fairly well done, but a bit formulaic. Granted, this is early enough in the series that perhaps it’s more of a formula establishment, but whatever the case, it feels like pretty familiar territory for this Who fan. Still, I’m always glad to see one of the all too rare Patrick Troughton stories. Zoe and Jamie are cool companions. I like that Zoe does a lot less screaming than other female companions. She’s possibly the Doctor’s intellectual equal (maybe even superior), but much more rational and cool headed. And Jamie ain’t too bright, but he’s clever, strong, and resourceful. All in all, a perfectly fine, if not especially memorable story.
Challenge of the Masters: “The Death Kicks? Killing Spear? Those techniques come from the North!” Gordon Liu has such a strange, child-like, almost alien way about him. He makes for an extremely charming lead, even when he’s playing kind of a tool. I love all the completely ape-nuts contests you can find in martial arts films. The firecracker contest that is so important in this movie seems about as reasonable perfectly safe as one of those Dan Ackroid Christmas gifts from that old SNL skit (what kid doesn’t want a bag o’ broken glass?). But I dig these crazy mellow Kung Fu masters. The good ones are so chill. Some mole-faced bastard has to come along and cause a ruckus. Still, that results in killer kung fu in several wild battles. Spears, fists, plant pots. And everything is so dusty! And it’s true what they say, “although your breath control’s good, it can’t beat my death kick.” As expected, nay, demanded, there are lots of weird training rituals that our hero must work through. And there’s some rockin’ spear fighting, which is a favorite of mine, and not a weapon I see used a lot, at least not in key fights where the techniques are prominently featured. It’s also one of the few martial arts films that seems to do more than talk the talk when it comes to the philosophy. The ending is genuinely in tune with the ethical teachings.
Lady Terminator: “That’s an authentic reproduction.” So, the movie starts out with a chick who can’t get no satisfaction, killing the dudes who don’t… uh, make her happy. Then a guy shows up, does his bit, and steels a snake out of her lady business (it bites the wangs off the guys that don’t please her), which then becomes a dagger. She’s having none of that, so curses his descendants before going to the bottom of the ocean to join forces with evil. You know. That old story. Fast forward to the present day where we find a scientist, a cop, and a rock star on a collision course with an evil goddess and her penetrating snake. Combining dreadful acting with even more dreadful dubbing, they manhandle an inept script like it’s their job. Presaging the crafty creation of Tara Reid’s Alone in the Dark scientist (She is wearing GLASSES, man! Of course she’s a scientist.), our dim-bulb nymphet anthropologist has all the subtlety and naturalness of a porn star (“But…I didn’t order any …pizza?!). Indonesia went movie making mad in the early 80s. Unfortunately, they didn’t go in too much for quality in writing, production, or acting. Our lady terminator also has magic undies, which only appear when she’s facing the camera, but are absent when she’s facing the other direction. And I guess you don’t need robots from the future. You just need a snake in your hoo-hah to be an unkillable machine of death. There are hints of better films, like Layer of the White Worm, Cat People, …The Terminator (OK, not hints, but blatant rip-offs in the case of The Terminator), etc. But it fails in just about every way possible. Snake, though. He has to be the coolest Debbie Gibson haired, giant nosed, girly bird-man in a Canadian tuxedo I’ve ever seen. If this movie worked really hard, it might eventually rise to amateur hour at the Half-Ass Hotel Jamboree. Sadly, like all too many movies filmed in Southeast Asia, it is not only extremely derivative, it’s also crushingly dull. Although the spiraling insanity of the climax, especially Snake’s part in it, makes the movie worth a watch. I recommend gathering friends, as without their helpful MST3K banter, you might not stay conscious until the last ten minutes, where it gets kind of amazing.
OK, on Friday night, thanks 100% to co-Dork Brad, I got to the AFI Silver to see House of Frankenstein, hosted by local celebrity Count Gore De Vol. Not being from this area, I sadly don’t have the history with the man and his show that I am sure I would have had growing up here. In my own hometown, we had Eddie Driscoll and the Great Money Movie. And I know, around the country there were various local stations with their own crazy character for horror, sci-fi, or crime movies. The Count was very fun, and there was lots of footage from his old shows (what was with all the Penthouse pets?). This was his 40th anniversary as the Count, and House of Frankenstein was his first film. There were games, guests, and ghoulish good times. And one lucky winner gets to co-host an episode of his web show. It’s one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen to date at the AFI. Maybe the biggest.
House of Frankenstein: I love Boris Karloff more and more as the years go by. I don’t think he ever really let it get him down, but the fact that he was type cast as a horror movie villain-type is too bad. He was a heck of an actor, with a lot of subtlety that could have added strength to many other films, drama, comedy, whatever (check him out in Targets!). Still, within the genre, he flexed a great deal of muscle, playing a range of characters from the pathetic, to the sympathetic, to charming, to the absolutely diabolic. House of Frankenstein was pretty late in the Universal Monsters run, and it was obviously a gimmick. Let’s see how many monsters we can clumsily work in. But, it’s a lot of fun and Karloff is a great villainous protagonist, on a trek across the continent with evil science on the mind. After totally screwing over Dracula, he manipulates the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster in a fiendish plan to put brains in dogs or something. And all the way, his hunchbacked manservant and former fellow inmate does his bidding. But when Hunch gets his heart broken by a fickle Gypsy vixen, all hell will break loose. It’s not a great movie. But this and House of Dracula were both fun and they sort of paved the way for Toho’s Destroy All Monsters.
Mothra VS Godzilla (aka Godzilla VS The Thing): Less the allegory for atomic weapons, Godzilla has become more of an embodiment of uncontrollable nature. The movie starts with a tremendous storm that wreaks devastation upon the region. Out of that comes Godzilla, like a continuation of the storm; impersonal, dangerous, but without purposeful malice. Then there are the tiny twins and their magical connection of a gigantic moth and the brutalized survivors living on a bombed out island. Will a couple of brave reporters be able to convince them to work their songstress magics in an effort to direct one giant monster against another? One of the best classic Godzilla films, it features many of the elements that make the series so much fun to watch. Good human drama, a fast pace, excellent use of music, cool sequences of miniature destruction, and a sense of wonder and awe. It also deals with director Ishiro Honda’s frequent theme of the Brotherhood of Man, the idea that love and understanding between all the world’s peoples could reshape and heal our future. For what in many ways is a disaster film, it has an uplifting message, and it’s no surprise that these films resonated so strongly with young and old.
Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks: When the Tardis suddenly looses all power, The Doctor and Sarah Jane are stuck on a desolate, ugly world. Lurking about are awkward somethings in dirty robes that blend in with the terrain. And blue-suited invader types who can’t get their ship to take off. To top it off, a sophisticated city of light shines like a beacon on the horizon, but promises death to anyone who goes near. All in all a pretty standard set-up for a classic Who story. And then, the twist. Sadly, the title of the story arc kind of gives that away. But then, another twist! Multiple factions, various interests, trouble of all kinds. Oh, Doctor. The music is weird, with a kind of goofy, humorous tone. The story does have some interesting ideas, and like a lot of the better ones, uses the standard situational set-up to good effect by playing with your expectations. Sarah Jane is much better here than she frequently is during this era, not nearly as screamy and whiney. The guest cast is very good, and their stories play out in different ways than you might expect. The thing, the Root, I think it’s called, that guards the city is pretty cool, too. It reminds me of the gun-head from the War of the Worlds ships, but acts kind of like a snake. Though yes, you can see the wires, I thought the scene where it comes out of the water to kill the slave guy was darned effective.
Sapphire and Steel: This was an odd one for me. I saw the first story (the first disk) a few years back, and it didn’t really click with me. I’m not a Joanna Lumley fan at all, and David McCallum seemed to be phoning in his usual dour terseness. Little character development, a rather shocking slow pace, and a lot of obscurity. Why did I watch another disk? No idea. I didn’t much care for it either and gave up. For some reason, a few months back, I decided to try watching it again, and I’m glad of it. The series as a whole has some issues. And a LOT is left unexplained and unexplored. The deeper nature of the elements, their goals and greater purpose, remain vague. They seem to work for someone/thing. They seem to be tasked with repairing breaks or imperfections in time. And they don’t seem to be human. What is causing the time imperfections? Is it directed? Sometimes there seems to be a force at work against them, others it seems to simply be random or natural. The pace never increases, remaining a snail throughout. But the ideas and general haunting strangeness make the whole thing kind of grow on you. There is an essential Britishness about it, in its stubborn refusal to go where you expect, to reveal the truth, and to have easy answers, or to have a relatable, likeable cast. Due to strange subject matter and time of production, I am sometimes reminded of the more kid-aimed Tomorrow People, though that show was less inscrutable. I don’t know that I can recommend it to most people, but if you like UK sci-fi, if you like the surreal, if you don’t mind working for it, you might want to check this one out. And what an ending! I would love to see someone do a serious reworking of this show’s concept. Limited cast, extremely limited location. You could do it on a small budget. You just need the writing.
Tokyo Drifter: “A drifter needs no woman.” From the ultra-stylized opening, you know this isn’t your average film. Right away I was reminded of lower budget crime films from the States, like Killer’s Kiss or Murder by Contract. But swingin’ 60s Tokyo has a look and feel all its own. Contrasting black and white with some crazy vibrant colors cranks up the wild and strange. And the accompanying jazz is perfect. This is the Japan James Bond should have arrived at in You Only Live Twice. Director Seijun Suzuki was apparently quite the pain in studio boss’s ass, making movies they just didn’t get. But you can’t accuse them of being dull. I really can’t talk up the madness of the color usage enough. Sin City used some similar techniques, but it feels totally different here, more theatrical, more surreal. Not to mention the equally surreal, seemingly always going on, go-go dancing. And the crazy old-time bar fight? OK.
Sunday morning, I finished Penn Jillette’s book Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!, which I received as a Christmas gift. Heh. Anyway, I’d picked it up to look at the introduction, figuring I’d put it on my ‘to read’ pile for the upcoming months, and ended up blowing through like 60 pages. So, it’s sat on my end table serving as my early morning coffee book for the last month and it’s been great (sadly, it did get a mouthful of coffee spit on it at one point due to the stupid set-up of the human repertory and digestive system). Definitely worth seeking out and reading.
And on Saturday morning, I finished My Year of Flops, which is a great book for film buffs who aren’t stuck in the Art House mode.