Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Monday: Twilight Zone: The Movie

The final Movie Monday of the year is 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie!

As people who I'm friends with on Facebook can attest, I've been systematically going through the entire original Twilight Zone series, in order, episode by episode, and then putting up brief, one or two sentence reviews of each as I work my way through the seasons. There are a lot more Zones that I have never seen than I thought, so it's been really, really fun exploring the show all over again.

So to wrap up the year of Movie Mondays, I thought I'd revisit the infamous Twilight Zone: The Movie, released two decades after the show went off the air. I remember seeing it in the theaters during it's original run, and caught it on cable once or twice, but otherwise haven't seen it in probably close to another twenty years. Does it hold up? Did it ever? Let's see:
The film opens, sans credits, on a dark road. We hear some music, but it's rock and roll, something never heard on the original show. It's...Credence Clearwater Revival?

We meet two unnamed guys driving along that dark road, singing along. The guys are played by Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, passing the time during the lonely drive:
They start singing TV theme songs to one another, which turns into a discussion about some of their favorite shows, including...The Twilight Zone! After trading some of the more memorable episodes (one of which is actually an Outer Limits, as Brooks points out), Aykroyd asks if Brooks "wants to see something really scary." Brooks agrees, stopping the car. Aykroyd turns around, and when he turns back, he's turned into some sort of demon! He attacks Brooks, and the camera pans up into the sky.

We then heard a familiar voice...not Rod Serling, but that of Burgess Meredith, who of course was also very associated with the original series. He provides the classic narration, and then we find ourselves in a cruddy bar, where three working stiffs are having a drink. One of them is Bill Connor (Vic Morrow), who is angry that he didn't get the promotion he wanted at work. Real angry. So angry he loudly denounces all the "others" that supposedly run America over the more deserving whites, which attracts the attention of the other, non-white patrons. After his friends try to calm him down, he storms off into the night, only to find himself in...Nazi Germany?

Connor, understandably confuses, begins an ugly journey through world history, where he is mistaken for the type of people he denounced so loudly just a few minutes ago. After escaping the Nazis, the Klan, and the American forces in Vietnam, Connor wakes up in a train, alongside other victims of the Nazis. He sees his friends come out of the bar, and he screams for help, but they can't hear him as he is driven away to a concentration camp. His screams are unheard as his drinking buddies wonder where their friend disappeared to.

This segment, known as "Time Out", is probably the most famous, because of what happened: due to a series of miscommunications and rule-dodging, lead actor Vic Morrow and two child actors (who do not appear in the final film) were killed during a helicopter crash. That scene was supposed to represent the character's evolution, which would presumably lead him to some sort of happy, or at least less angry, ending. But with all that material removed, the segment ends on a totally downbeat note (not sure the whys or hows of it being filmed, since it's clearly Morrow and not a stand-in), which seems a little harsh by Zone standards. Sure, Connor is a total racist a-hole, blaming all his problems on others (thank the Lord we've all moved on from that, eh?), but it's not exactly clear that he deserves this level of comeuppance.

Sure, some of the original shows were this nasty, but they were pretty rare--usually Serling and his writers liked to offer some sort of redemption. Instead, this first segment ends on a supremely down note. Not that any story, no matter how good, would be worth the life of three people, but it seems all the more tragic that a story this...pointless made its participants pay such a heavy price.

We move on to the second story, "Kick The Can", set at a retirement home, where most of the participants are lonely and sad, ignored by their families. A Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) arrives, offering the residents a chance at youth. But not the metaphorical kind: during a game of the aforementioned Kick the Can, the elderly people suddenly become children again!

After frolicking in the yard and getting a chance to relive their childhoods, the former seniors realize that they'd be giving up their entire lives if they stayed this way. They all return to their former selves, except for one: a British man who decides to leap out the window, off on a whole new life. Mr. Bloom leaves, heading off to another retirement home.

This segment, directed by Steven Spielberg, is almost universally considered the weakest of the four, and it's easy to see why: most genre fans, heck, even most people, do not want to see stories about old people. The reasons are obvious, and watching all these nice folks be so sad and lonely is tough to watch. Spielberg is in Full Schmaltz Mode here, and this story, coming as it does right after the very dark "Time Out", is jarring. It's not as bad as I remember it being--my memories was that it was interminably long, but it actually moves pretty briskly. Still, it's just too mushy to really click, which was the same problem a lot of the Zones had when they went for a similar tone.

Third is "It's A Good Life" directed by Joe Dante. A young woman (Kathleen Quinlan) befriends a little boy at a greasy spoon she stopped at while on a cross-country drive. She accidentally hits him with her car, and offers to take him home. When they get there, the young woman notices this is a really, really, really odd family: the parents and siblings are creepily cheery, catering to the young boy's every whim: TVs playing cartoons are nearly everywhere, and the dinner they eat is all candy and ice cream. When she gingerly suggests that a growing boy needs nutrition, the whole family follows the kid's lead when he agrees that yeah, maybe, candy all the time isn't a great idea.

Things shoot into the stratosphere of weird when the boy's uncle (Kevin McCarthy, another TZ veteran) is forced to do a magic trick, which ends with him pulling a giant monstrous rabbit out of a hat. The boy, you see, has magic powers, and has been keeping all these people trapped in this house for years: they are not his real family, but some of sort of nightmarish copy. She tries to leave, but the young boy begs her to stay. Suddenly the boy goes from sweet to monstrous, like banishing his older sister Ethel into a cartoon, where she is eaten alive (the sister is played by future Bart Simpson Nancy Cartwright, which gives the whole bit an even creepier, if unintentional, vibe). The boy's powers grow out of control, but he is brought back to some sort of sanity by the gentle commands of the young woman, who doesn't treat him like a monster. The story ends with the two of them going off together, a surprisingly gentle ending for such a scary story.

And it is scary. Joe Dante does an amazing job bringing cartoons to life, but through a hellish, terrifying prism. This kid can literally do anything, but he lacks the imagination, and probably the inner rot, to become a serial killer or something like that. Still, what he is capable of doing is creepy enough: I remember having the crap scared out of me seeing what he did to his other "sister": the only shot we see of her is sitting in front of a TV, staring dead-eyed at the screen in a dark room. She doesn't say much because, well, she doesn't have a mouth anymore. *shudder*

The final segment is a remake of the classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", directed by George Miller and this time starring John Lithgow. Lithgow's character, John Valentine, is not the best flyer in the world: our first shot of him is holed up in the airplane bathroom, gulping sedatives and sweating like a pig. Of course, things are only to get worse for our Infrequent Flyer: there's a man on the wing of this plane!

After a two mediocre segments and one very good one, "Nightmare" delivers on the promise of a big budget Twilight Zone movie: Miller, Lithgow, and company take a classic Zone segment and ramp up the tension a hundred fold. With the help of some superior effects (this is an actual slimy gremlin as opposed to some day player in a onesie, like the original), this final segment is one long gut-punch, and it ends the movie on an exhilarating, genuinely frightening series of notes. Lithgow, sometimes given to chewing the scenery unmercifully (hey, no wonder they got him to replace Shatner!) is perfect here: he knows there's no creature on the wing of the plane, and also knows he just shouldn't even look out the window. But he just can't help checking one...more...time...

The final shot of the movie ends where it began, sort of, with John Valentine being carted off in an ambulance. As the airplane crew marvel at the deep, claw-like tears in the side of the plane, the ambulance driver--Dan Aykroyd again--puts on some CCR and asks his passenger if he "wants to see something really scary." Rod Serling's voice is then heard, and we pan back up into the skies...

Like almost all anthologies, Twilight Zone: The Movie is judged via individual grades. "Time Out", I'd say, is two stars, "Kick The Can" is one star, "It's A Good Life" is three stars, and "Nightmare" is  four stars. The wraparound stuff is fun, too--using famous comedians like Aykroyd and Brooks to deliver laughs then horror was a great idea. I grew up on SNL, and I can distinctly remember being completely unnerved when Elwood Blues himself turned into a monster!

Overall, the movie is worthwhile because the last two segments are so good that they make up for the general weakness of the first two. The film does have a darker, nastier feel to it than the series ever did; for every dark, dark episode like "And When The Sky Was Opened", you had half a dozen more gentle ones like "Mr. Dingle the Strong." Rod Serling, for all his cigarette smoking grimness, I'd argue was mostly an optimist, about human nature at least, while the movie feels like a typical post-Watergate downbeat exercise in nihilism. Poor John Valentine, deemed a crazy man, isn't even going to get a break once he's on the ground!

There's been rumors of a new Twilight Zone movie; but once I heard that the plan is to just feature one story I got the sense that it's just a cash-in, a way to make a horror/sci-fi movie and slap a recognizable "brand" on it. I guess we'll see. For this movie though, I'd say if you haven't seen it and are a TZ fan, it's worth seeing at least once. And then go back and watch "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" again.

This post has been submitted for your approval. See in 2013!


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Movie Tuesday: White Christmas

This week's Movie Tuesday selection is the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas!

I'm posting a special Christmas-themed "Movie Monday Tuesday" column, focusing on a holiday movie that I discovered earlier in the month and completely fell in love with: Michael Curtiz's White Christmas.

Now, of course, it's kind of absurd using the word "discovered" when talking about a movie like this, as if it's some rare artifact, when it couldn't be further from reality: White Christmas was the #1 box office hit of the year, starred one of the most legendary singers of all time, featured a title song that is still the second biggest-selling song of all time, and directed by one of the most successful movie directors in Hollywood history (in this case, the aforementioned Curtiz, who also helmed a couple of films you might have heard of, like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Casablanca). White Christmas is considered by pretty much everyone a bona-fide movie classic. But, until this Christmas season, I had never seen it. How is that possible?

I guess that's because, of all the movie genres out there, the Musical is one of the last left for me to embrace. I usually find the music to be unappealing at best, and the whole idea of people breaking into a song, then going back to traditional dialogue, off-putting. When going through AFI's list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, checking out the couple of dozen I had not ever seen, I put off The Sound of Music for last, knowing it would be the film equivalent of eating brussel sprouts. And I hated every minute of that film's 473-minute running time (approximate). So I generally always attributed the Musical as something I just wasn't interested in.

But, for whatever reason, I started appreciating the artistry behind some of the genre's best more and more. I reviewed Vincent Minelli's The Band Wagon for this very column, and while the music still didn't do much for me, I really loved how visually beautiful the film was. I had a similar experience with the movie version of The Tales of Hoffmann, a filmed opera that no less than George Romero credits as the reason he got into movie-making! Clearly I was missing something.

So when my better half and I started our yearly tradition of watching nothing but Christmas movies between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I wanted to expand our playlist a bit, and when I saw that White Christmas was on Netflix WI, I thought why not give it a shot?
The films stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as two Army buddies, serving under the gruff-but-decent General Waverly (Dean Jagger) overseas in 1944. Crosby is Bob Wallace, a famous singer, and he and Kaye (playing Private Phil Davis) are putting on a Christmas show for their fellow G.I.s, who all long to be home. Waverly is being transferred to a new command, but when a new commander demands that the Christmas show be cancelled--this is a war, after all--Waverly gets him purposely lost just long enough for the show to go on. Waverly's men are fiercely devoted to him, even composing a song for the show in his honor.
Soon after, the unit comes under fire, and Phil saves Bob from being crushed by a falling brick wall, getting hurt himself in the process. Later, in the hospital, Bob thanks Phil for saving his life, and Phil uses the opportunity to pitch himself as a singing partner for Bob. Bob initially refuses, but finally relents when he reads a top-flight song Phil has written. Cut to a montage of the newly-christened "Wallace & Davis" becoming a hugely popular singing/comedy act.
The boys meet two sisters, Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), who also have a singing act. They fall in Instant Like, and after helping them out of a jam, they all head for a Vermont lodge where the Haynes Sisters are planning to perform. Except, the inn is a giant flop; there's no snow, meaning no customers. At the same time, the boys learn that the inn is owned and run by the former General Waverly, now retired and looking to make this business venture work. Assisting him there is his grandaughter and assistant/clerk Emma, played by the incomparable Mary Wickes.
Bob and Phil decide they want to help their former top kick, but how? Along with Betty and Judy, they plan to throw a live Christmas Eve show at the inn, filling it with paying customers. Of course, there are lots of complications: while Phil and Judy acknowledge how much they like each other and essentially run (dance, really) with it, Bob and Betty have a little more trouble, leaving the other two to scheme to get them together. Also, they have to keep General Waverly in the dark about their plan, because he's a proud man and might not want their help.

The plot works just fine--it's sweet and warm, the perfect kind of story for a patriotic Christmas movie--but obviously what the film is most famous for is the music. White Christmas is stuffed to the brim with numbers, many of them classics: Bing's "White Christmas" opener, the Haynes' song "Sisters" (which Dan and Phil have a go at as well, featuring a couple of flubs that director Curtiz chose to leave in), a torch song called "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me", the annoyingly-catchy "Snow", "Choreography" (a parody of Martha Graham), and about half a dozen others. 

One of the revelations in this movie to me (other than how awesome it is generally) is Vera-Ellen, by far the least known of the four stars. She was primarily a dancer, not an actress or singer, so she takes the lead during the numbers that require the most intense hoofing, and man oh man does she pull it off. There's a song called "Mandy" ("Mandy/There's a minister handy/And it sure would be dandy/If we'd let him make a fee/So don't you linger/Here's the ring for your finger/Isn't it a humdinger?") that is mind-boggingly complex, with her in the lead:
She is simultaneously sweet, funny, and very sexy in the movie, no easy feat. Vera-Ellen didn't have much of a career after White Christmas; she appeared in just one more film before retiring.

As you might guess, everything ends up all right in the end. The movie ends with the show going on at the inn, featuring yet another classic tune, "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army", featuring our fantastic foursome singing the praises of life in the service:
(There's an almost meta moment in this song; the original lyric featured a mention of Bing Crosby; his name was replaced in the song by Jack Benny, presumably because it would have seemed odd to have Bing singing a lyric about himself).

Growing up, I had hard time considering older film comedies to be worthy, since the humor tended to be so dated (I made an exemption for Abbott & Costello, whose films I adored from an early age), but of course over time I realized how wrong I was. And White Christmas is very, very funny: Crosby and Kaye have a great chemistry (so much so I'm amazed they never did another movie together) and there's a greater amount of sarcasm than you'd typically associate with a big Hollywood musical.

Reading back over this post, I realize I'm rambling. That's because I cannot coalesce all the things I love about White Christmas into a coherent whole. It's funny, has great music, is very sweet, and, thanks to Michael Curtiz's sharp eye for composition and the gorgeous Technicolor, it looks like gangbusters.

I don't think a day has gone by since Thanksgiving that I haven't watched the movie; and I don't think I'm going to stop even after the holiday season passes. White Christmas really is every bit as good as it's reputation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Monday: Santa Claus

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1985 holiday classic Santa Claus: The Movie!

Okay, I'm purposely being kinda Scrooge-like in sarcastically referring to this movie as a "classic"; actually, Santa Claus: The Movie was a fairly notorious flop, coming from the blockbuster producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who of course gave us the Superman movies. But I wanted to do something Christmas-y for Movie Monday this year, and I had never seen the movie, and it was on Netflix WI, so...

Santa Claus: The Movie (I love how awkward that "The Movie" part of the title is) opens in the 14th century, focusing on a woodcutter named Claus and his wife, who regularly deliver toys to the children of a local village with the help of their reindeer. One night, the Clauses get caught in a particularly bad snowstorm:
It looks as though the nice couple and their reindeer are about to freeze to death, when they are rescued by...elves? Yes, elves, led by Patch, played by Dudley Moore:
The Clauses are taken to a glowing castle at the very top of the North Pole, filled with other elves. They are told it their destiny to provide the world's children with toys every Christmas Eve, which the elves will make. On his the eve of his first trip, Claus is renamed "Santa Claus" by the oldest elf of all, known as the Ancient One (Burgess Meredith):
Time passes, and of course Santa Claus becomes a legendary figure. When we find him again in modern times, Santa is growing increasingly tired, his workload now massive because of the world's ever-growing population. Two of the elves, Patch and Puffy, compete to become Santa's assistant. Patch has built a machine that makes toys at a faster rate, and wins the job, with no one knowing that the toys produced are shoddy.
Speaking of shoddy merchandise, around this time a toymaker known as B.Z. (John Lithgow) who is the subject of a congressional hearing over his dangerous, cheaply made toys:
When a bunch of Patch's toys fall apart on Christmas Day, he grows depressed, and leaves Santa's workshop. He ends up in New York, where he meets B.Z. and agrees to help him, not realizing B.Z. is only doing this to make a buck.

B.Z. is thrilled with Patch's inventions, like a lollipop that allows kids to fly (the Salkinds loved making people fly in their movies) and decides to market these items in March, in an attempt to create a "Christmas 2", which he will be face of--not only will it rehabilitate his image, but it will make him rich. Rich, I tells ya!

Patch invents a flying craft called the Patchmobile, which he plans to use to deliver his toys. Thanks to two scrappy kids who befriend Santa, he regains his faith about kids needing him, so he chases after Patch to stop him from distributing some magic candy canes that which will burst into flame if heated. Wait, what?
Santa catches up to Patch, with the help of some amazing flying acrobatics by the reindeer. All is forgiven, and Patch agrees to come back to Santa's workshop, along with one of the kids, Joe. Since Joe is an orphan, he is adopted by the Clauses and will live with them.

Meanwhile, B.Z., attempting to escape the police, eats some of the flying candy canes, which cause him to uncontrollably take off into the sky, and eventually into space:
sg B.Z. dies a slow death from asphyxiation*, Santa Claus: The Movie comes to and end. Merry Christmas everyone!

I was fourteen when Santa Claus: The Movie came out, feeling a bit too mature (hollow laugh) to see what was clearly a kids movie, so I didn't buy a ticket. But I remember being curious about it, simply because it was being done by the men who did the Superman films, which loomed large in my imagination (still do). Over time, the film's rep (along with the Salkind's) fell precipitously, so I basically just forgot about it entirely.

It's easy to see why: Santa Claus: The Movie is a gaudy mess. It's heart is in the right place, but it's simultaneously too dark and too silly to ever work. Who the hell wants to see a movie featuring a Kris Kringle riddled with self-doubt? David Huddelston (as Santa) does okay with what he's given, but the whole "inner life of Santa" angle seems misplaced. And at the other end of the movie is Lithgow, who is chewing the scenery as if all of it is made of gingerbread. He's sweaty, mean, and unpleasant, and having him essentially die at the end of the movie (*I was kidding about the asphyxiation of course; he'd mostly like freeze to death before suffocating) seems to violate every rule of Christmas movies, where the bad guy (Scrooge, the Grinch, etc.) has a change of heart and gets into the spirit of the season.

You could see why the Salkinds thought this was a good idea: they brought The Three Muskeeters successfully to the screen, topped that by taking on the Superman what was next? Who's "bigger" than Superman? Santa Claus is one of the few fictional(?) characters who is more widely known than the Man of Steel, and there were no rights fees to pay. A match made in heaven! 

Unfortunately, I think when you look back at their work, it's clear that when they hired a highly skilled director (as they did with Richard Donner), their throw-money-at-the-screen bombast could work. But when they tapped someone a little less talented, their movies just sank like stones. Santa Claus: The Movie was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who also helmed the insta-turkey Supergirl. Considering how badly that film flopped, you'd think the Salkinds would not have been so ready to hand the keys of another big-budget franchise to him; but they did. So no Santa Claus II for anyone!

Fun Fact: To further underscore how off the rails the Salkinds could be, apparently they originally approached John Carpenter--John Carpenter!--to direct Santa Claus: The Movie. Amazingly, he didn't turn down the offer immediately, even offering his choice of Santa (Brian Dennehy). But he and the Salkinds couldn't come to terms, and he left the project.

Just as odd, the Salkinds also offered the role of B.Z. to Harrison Ford! I simply cannot picture Han Solo himself playing a Donald Trump-esque evil toymaker, so I'm guessing they just went for the biggest movie star of the time, which Ford arguably was in 1985.

The mind reels at some alternate universe version of Santa Claus: The Movie, directed by John Carpenter and starring Harrison Ford. Kids living in that other dimension probably got to enjoy a truly bizarre Christmas classic.

For those who are gluttons for punishment, you can learn about this film's comic book adaptation (yes, there was one!) over on my blog All in Black and White for 75 Cents!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Monday: Burke & Hare

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 2010 horror/comedy Burke & Hare!

I remember getting wind of this movie a year or two ago, and I was really excited over it: it starred Simon Pegg, who I'm a fan of, it was horror comedy, generally a genre I enjoy (and Pegg himself had great experience with, via Shaun of the Dead), and it was directed--after a decade-long hiatus--by John Landis!

I can say without any real hyperbole that I grew up on John Landis movies. As a kid, I watched Animal House, The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, and Spies Like Us so many times that I can still parrot large chunks of dialogue from each ("Are you the police? No, ma'm, we're musicians"). Landis' career took a slide by the end of the 1980s, and for long periods of time he simply didn't make any movies at all. He had done some documentaries and some super low-budget things, but this was a period piece with big stars! A return to form!

I was not heartened by the fact that the film never seemed to play in theaters, instead going right to DVD. Not a good sign, but I'm familiar with the nightmarish vagaries of film distribution not to immediately dismiss a movie just for that. But then I promptly forgot about the movie, until I saw it on the shelf of my local library (just like what happened with Get Low). So I grabbed it!

Based on a true story, Burke & Hare is about two lowlife shysters (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively) in Edinburgh. Via narration by the local hangman (Bill Bailey, who appeared in Spaced and Hot Fuzz with Pegg), we learn that all corpses that meet the hangman's noose are shipped off to Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) who uses them for dissection. His rival Dr. Monro (Tom Curry), who wants Knox's job, since he is reduced to working on just the amputated parts of the living.

Thanks to a forged letter, bodies are then ordered to be redirected to Monro, leaving Knox high and dry. When the elderly border of the Inn owned by Hare's wife (Jessica Hynes, also from Spaced) dies, Burke and Hare decide to bring the body to Knox, who pays them for it. They realize there's money in this!
At the local tavern, Burke meets a young woman named Ginny (Isla Fisher) and is immediately smitten (understandable). She and her friends are all prostitutes who want to get out of that life, and Ginny's idea is to stage an all-female version of Macbeth. You see, Ginny considers herself an actress:

For Hare's part, he wants to use the money to open a funeral parlor (the idea of his wife's). He mentions this new racket to a real crook named McTavish, who kidnaps Hare and threatens him, saying he and Burke must pay half of their pay to him, for "protection."

This leads Burke and Hare to get a little more creative about where to get two bodies a week, going from grave robbing to out-and-out murder. Knox knows when a body has come to a natural end or not, but decides to look the other way as long as the bodies keep coming. Eventually, all these people dying gets noticed by the local law enforcement, who discover its the work of Burke and Hare, and arrest them. Helen and Hare's wife are also arrested.

The two are made an offer, that if one of them confesses, the others will go free:
Burke decides to confess, on one condition: that he and Ginny get to spend the night in the same cell. The police agree to this, and the two finally get to make love. The next day, Burke is hung, offering only this as his final words: "I did it for love."

The film ends where it began, with the hangman telling us what happened to everyone else after Burke was hung:
...the final scene is of a real-life medical museum, where Burke's skeleton still hangs. The End.

Burke & Hare sure does look great: the period detail is just right, and the amount of talent on screen is impressive: in addition to Pegg, Serkis, Wilkinson, Hynes, Fisher, and Bailey, there are roles, big and small, for Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine (both from American Werewolf in London), Ronny Corbett, Hugh Bonnveville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey), Stephen Merchant, even the legendary Ray Harryhausen!

The only problem is, for a horror comedy, Burke & Hare is neither scary or funny. There's lots of gross stuff, dealing with dead bodies and all, but there's never one moment that is remotely tense, and the humor is so broad and silly that I realized I didn't laugh a single time during the entire 95 or so minutes. As the film rolled on, I found myself shocked at how dull it was, despite being performed by people I am a huge fan of.

I can only guess the fault lies with the screenplay, and the direction. Landis mixed horror and laughs successfully in AWIL, so why Burke & Hare falls so flat is a bit of a mystery. When I think about it, it might be because the two main characters are too clownish to be taken seriously, yet what they do is so bad you can't really absolve them of guilt and truly root for them. Serkis' scenes with Hynes are so over-the-top and silly they reminded me of sketches from the old Carol Burnett show...then they'd be followed by some grisly bit about a corpse. It just doesn't work.

Which is too damn bad, because I was and still am a huge fan of Landis' work, and would love to see him return to mainstream movies. But looking at the general reaction to Burke & Hare (36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it seems as though this movie is not going to be the one that does the job.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Movie Monday: A Bay of Blood

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1971 gore-a-thon A Bay of Blood!

You may be saying to yourself "I've never seen 'Bay of Blood'"--and you might be right. But considering that the movie has been marketed under more than half a dozen different titles--Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Ecology of Crime, Chain Reaction, Carnage, Last House on the Left Part II, New House on the Left, and Blood Bath--maybe you did see this movie and just didn't realize it.

A Bay of Blood was directed by Mario Bava, so you know the movie isn't going to be dull, no matter what else it might be. After watching a fly buzz around and plunk itself into a lake, the camera finds its way to a dark, quiet mansion that houses a wheelchair-bound old woman. She's clearly lonely, as she seems to spend many hours staring out the windows.

The solitude is broken when someone throws a noose over her neck and hangs her, watching her slowly choke to death:
There's lots of shots of the killer, hiding their face, and at first it seems like this is going to be a murder mystery. But then we pan up and see who it is, an older man (Giovanni Nuvoletti). Then the film takes another abrupt turn, as the older man is stabbed to death by a third person:
The older man's body is dragged out of the house, leaving the woman hanging. The next day, the police find a suicide note "written" by her, with no evidence of the second murder. What's going on here?
Two other people arrive, a real estate agent named Frank and his lover Laura. We learn they plotted with the older man to kill his wife, so they could all get their hands on her vast fortune and land. They seem unaware that their partner has been murdered, which means there's even more suspects!
This sets the stage for a nearly unending stream of people wandering their way into the movie, all of them either murderers, murder victims, or both. A group of young hippies (or whatever the Italian equivalent were) come joy-riding by and decide to stick around:
...Speed Buggy nooooo!

One girl goes skinny dipping, where she literally bumps into the corpse of the older man. She runs out of the water in terror, only to be chased and stabbed with a hook. Inside the mansion, one of the young men is killed, followed by the couple, who are flagrante delicto. They are so delicto, in fact, that they keep having sex five-ten seconds after they've been stabbed straight-through with a spear:
It turns out the killer is Simon (who we are first introduced to by biting a live squid to death with his teeth), the son of the rich older woman. He was in a triple-cross with Frank to kill off the older man, although I will admit it took me reading about the movie on Wikipedia to figure all this out.

That's because A Bay of Blood (or Twitch of the Death Nerve, or...) isn't about the mystery, because after a while it grows so byzantine that there's no way you can keep it all straight. No, this movie is about the blood, and how many different ways Bava can show the human body can be mutilated. The film features many close-up scenes of the carnage. Upon release, it was greeted with howls of disgust from critics, which I imagine what Bava was going for.

Anyway, by the time everyone has killed everyone else, we're left with Renata, a long-lost daughter, and her husband and their kids. Having killed everyone else, they stand to inherit everything. Except they are both gunned down by:
...their own kids! The young boy and girl seem indifferent to what they've just done, and go off to play. The End.

I guess you could say Bava was trying to make a point about violence, about how the deeds of the adults of course trickles down to the next generation, who will probably end up even more monstrous than the previous. More likely is that since the film is, essentially, one big ghoulish joke, ending the movie with such a downbeat, nasty final scene is only fitting. Other than the old woman at the beginning, everyone in this movie is rotten to the core.

As I am wont to do with the films I pick for Movie Monday, I looked up reviews for A Bay of Blood to see what, if any, the general consensus is. A lot of people consider it to be a horror classic, and maybe if you had seen a movie this heartless in 1971, it would rock you to your core. But seeing it in 2012, A Bay of Blood's impact can't help but be dulled; but of course that's not Bava's fault (the same way John Carpenter can't be blamed for the ten thousand cheap slasher pics that followed in the wake of his classic Halloween).

A Bay of Blood is enjoyable for its WTF attitude, and if you are a gorehound some of the murder scenes are enjoyable, if that's the right word.

Fun Fact: The makers of Friday the 13th Part II completely lifted the whole "spear through the people having sex" murder almost verbatim. Though, from what I remember, they didn't retain the couple continuing to have sex after the stabbing, an example of being able to play the notes, but not the music.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie Monday: Get Low

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 2010 drama Get Low!

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Bill Murray. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, and he undoubtedly is one of the biggest stars to come to prominence on that show. And his near-limitless talent has shown itself in some of the most interesting films of any SNL alum, from gut-busters like Stripes and Ghostbusters to quirky off-beat indies like Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

Unfortunately, it seems like Mr. Murray just isn't interested in working in movies all that much anymore, so when he does choose to be in something, I always make the effort to see it. In the case of Get Low, that was hard, because it only played in art houses and, even then, it came and went very quickly, despite the name cast. So I sort of forgot all about it, and then when I saw it on the shelf of my local library, I grabbed it.
The film opens with a shot of a house on fire. There's some yelling from inside it, and then we see the silhouette of someone escaping the flames, and running into the night. After a fade out, we meet Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a man who seems to live a hermetic existence deep in the woods. Two young boys come by, dying of curiosity, and after they throw a rock at his window, he scares them off.

The local preacher (Gerald McRaney) arrives to tell him the news of an acquaintance of his has died, and shortly thereafter Bush surprises everyone in town by showing up, horse, buggy, and all. He tells the preacher that he wants to the church to throw a funeral--for him. The preacher has a hard time understanding why someone would want to throw their own funeral, and despite Bush's giant wad of cash to pay for it, turns him down, saying he can't buy his way into Heaven.

Overhearing all this is Buddy (Lucas Black), who works for the local undertaker Frank Quinn, played by Murray:
Quinn is frustrated with the business ("People in this town just don't die"), and when he hears about Bush's giant bank roll he sees dollar signs. He and Buddy take a trip out to Bush's house and offer to throw him a funeral, down to the last detail. Buddy is concerned that Bush might just be senile and that he's being taken advantage of, but Quinn convinces him to go along.

Quinn shepherds Bush through town, getting him a new suit, a haircut, even going on the local radio station to announce the funeral:
Bush wants everyone to come, everyone who "has a story" about him. To sweeten the pot, he offers a raffle. For every ticket bought, you get a chance to win Bush's vast plot of land after he dies!

The money starts to pour in, bags of it, which Bush lets Quinn store for him (which he does inside a very expensive coffin). Buddy continues to have, er, grave concerns over all this, as does Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who its clear once had an affair with Bush. After visiting the grave of a woman named Mary Lee, Bush walks in the freezing rain to Mattie's door, where they discuss their troubled past:
The "funeral" is thrown, and it attracts thousands of people, and with all the noise and bunting, it feels more like a concert than a funeral. Quinn makes a speech and then turns the mike over to Bush.
Bush reveals the deep, dark truth as to why he's doing what he's doing, and why he's lived like a hermit for so many years. It brings many in the crowd to tears, including Mattie Darrow. Having finally exorcised the demons that have haunted him, he can now "get low" (aka, die in peace), and while he's alone back at his house, we get a glimpse of what it waiting for him in the next world.

With such an amazing cast, I sort of wondered how Get Low could have made such a small ripple when it was released. From what I remember the reviews were mostly positive, so what happened exactly?

Now that I've seen it, I can better understand--Get Low is a classic near-miss. It has all the elements: great acting, unusual premise, and it looks great. But it never quite comes together to make a satisfying whole. First off, Duvall's character--despite being based on a real guy--is never really convincing as anything other than someone only found in movies. He's so ornery, so disagreeable, such a PITA most of the time that I don't believe anyone would put up with him for this long. They'd most likely just say "forget you old man" and go on with their lives. Duvall is, of course, one of the greatest actors of all time, but even he can't make this guy totally real.

Also, the film wastes a lot of time with the Buddy character, who hems and haws about what he's doing. We know that the big funeral/party is going to come off, so having a character constantly saying "I don't think this is a good idea" is just a walking, talking roadblock. It also doesn't help that this boss, played by Murray, is so funny and captivating: the movie really comes to life when he's on screen, and we really don't get to see that much of him. I wonder what the movie would have been like if they had a found a way to morph the Buddy and Quinn characters into one, giving us the chance to see more of Duvall and Murray together (as it stands, they have one scene featuring just the two of them).

Finally the big scene at the end where Bush confesses is very hard to buy. A guy who has said less than ten words to his neighbors in thirty years all of a sudden has the ability and desire to spill his innermost secrets to thousands of strangers? Again, it makes for a dramatic finale to the movie, but it's just really hard to take. (Strangely enough, I can picture Murray as Bush doing this; I wonder what Get Low would have been like if he had been the lead?)

I realize I'm probably being too negative on Get Low; it's not a bad movie at all and of course it features some amazing actors. It just feels like it could have been a small masterpiece; instead we gave to settle for merely Pretty Good. And if Bill Murray is only going to do a movie once a year or so, I want it to be worth his time!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Monday: The Stranglers of Bombay

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1959 Hammer thriller The Stranglers of Bombay!

I knew that Hammer had produced lots of non-monster-centric movies, but this was one I had never heard of until I saw a trailer for it on Trailers From Hell (one of my favorite sites). To be blunt, the thing that really drew me in was the presence of an actress named Marie Devereux, whose bust was so massive that I was shocked she even got to be in the movies at all--here mere presence seemed, to me, something that could not get past the censors of the day. So the combination of sex and violence (inherent in the title, of course) made me think The Stranglers of Bombay was going to be a lurid, squalid little movie--and you know I'm always up for that!

The film stars Guy Rolfe as Capt. Harry Lewis, an officer of the British East India Company, which was not a government agency but was so massive and powerful it might as well have been.

Thousands of natives have been disappearing without a trace, and Lewis wants to know why. He consults his superior, Col. Henderson (Andrew Cruikshank), but is rebuffed--he is more concerned with company business, like why many of the company's caravans are disappearing. Hmm, maybe there's a connection?
Henderson opens an investigation, partly to shut Lewis up. Lewis assumes he will be put in charge, but is passed over in lieu of Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson), who is pretty much a clown. Lewis tries to present his case to Smith, but when he is ignored he resigns his commission to investigate the case on his own.

Of course, we do know that there is a creepy Thugee cult operating, since we ge to see them and their creepy practices, like when they punish some more unruly members by gouging their eyes out with hot pokers:
The cult uses strangling as its preferred method of killing, due to the belief in a story that when their god Kali fought the demon Raktabija, every time the demon spilled a drop of blood, it turned into another demon Kali had to fight. So strangling is the way to go!

Lewis' houseboy, Ram Das, believes his brother has been drawn into the cult, and goes to search for him. Ram Das subsequently disappears, but Lewis (and his wife) learns he met a bad end when Das' severed hand is delivered to the Lewis' home:
About halfway through the movie, I was wondering when The Good Stuff was going to start. Sure, there was the eye-gouging scene (which really doesn't go past what you see above) and the severed hand, but for the most part the movie was Lewis arguing with his superiors, and it was all talk talk talk.

Finally, though, Lewis is captured by the cult, and tied to the ground. A cobra is let loose and it approaches as a mute member of the cult (Marie Devereaux, and her boobs) watches:
This is a pretty good scene, since you can tell that it's the actor, not a stuntman, who is getting so close to the cobra. You kind of wonder how they do it until once brief moment where a pane of glass can be seen, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, not bad.

Sadly, the absurdly pneumatic Ms. Devereux is barely in this movie--as you can see above, when God was giving out Cup Sizes, she got in line three times. Despite (or maybe because of) the low-cut top Hammer gives her, she's barely in the movie at all. Her scene watching the cobra attack Lewis is the only really good glimpse we get of her. Harumph!

Captain Smith continues his bumbling ways, even allowing the cult members (pretending to be innocent travelers) to join a new, larger, supposedly more secure caravan, which leads to more murders in the middle of the night. Lewis' pet mongoose helps his escape the cobra when it kills the snake, which the cult takes as a sign that Kali is displeased with them. So they let Lewis go.

He joins up with Lt. Silver (Paul Stassino), but little does he know that Silver is also a cult member! At one point he sees a scar that is the mark of the cult and shoots Silver. Lewis is then caught again by the cult, and set to die by fire. But he is rescued by Ram Das' brother who, under the control of the cult, killed Ram. Overcome by guilt, he frees Lewis, who finally convinces Henderson to send in the troops to wipe out the cult.

Lewis ends up fighting the cult leader George Pastell, the result of which leads to the High Priest tossed onto his own funeral pyre:
The cult is wiped out, and the film ends with Henderson giving Lewis a promotion for his efforts. The End.

I went into The Stranglers of Bombay expecting a fun, lurid, bloody little thriller, filled with heaving bosoms just like a lot of their monster films. And while we get a little bit of that here, there are so many scenes of British guys talking that, to me, it really makes the film drag. We know early on that the Thugee cult is real, so watching a bunch of characters argue about that fact is just wasting everyone's time.
Apparently the film is somewhat accurate, historically--a cult like this really did exist, and was supposedly responsible for thousands, possibly millions, of deaths. And the British East India Company systematically wiped them out. Hey, we all gots to make a buck

Check out the aforementioned trailer to The Stranglers From Bombay and I think you'll see why I was so excited to see this movie. I guess you can argue it did its job:

Fun Fact: This film is a bit of a Movie Monday Triple Play: it stars Guy Rolfe, who starred in Mr. Sardonicus, as well as Allen Cuthbertson, who co-starred in Captain Nemo and the Underwater City!

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