Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Five Million Years to Earth

US release poster

A long time ago (before Doctor Who took off on journeys through time and space), the definitive British sci-fi program were the three mini-series of Quatermass. Written by Nigel Neale, the Quatermass TV shows provided some of the finest and most thought-provoking science-fiction of the 1950s.

They also resulted in two very so-so movies with American actor Brian Donlevy inexplicably cast as the determined leader of the British rocket program. Aside from the odd casting, the two movies (Quatermass Experiment aka The Creeping Unknown and Quatermass II aka Enemies From Space) were half decent but severely hindered by their attempt to reduce a three hour plus storyline into 80 minutes of film. Lots of major points kept getting left out of the movies.

But the movie version of Quatermass and the Pit (US title Five Million Years to Earth) is different. Neale wrote the condensed version himself, carefully stripping the original TV storyline to its most basic and major points. With Andrew Keir as Prof. Quatermass, the film came much closer to capturing the very intense (and intensely English) drive of the character. It also had a surprisingly strong directorial approach from Roy Ward Baker and this is the single finest job of the man's otherwise lackluster career.

The result is a spooky, extremely intense and utterly crazed drive into a modern apocalypse about to be unleashed by ancient alien forces.Influenced by such thinkers as H. G. Wells and Carl Jung, Quatermass and the Pit remains of the single most unique alien invasion movies ever made and has been a major influence on many later films and novels. It is the closest thing you will find to a cerebral roller-coaster ride with an ending that lingers long afterwards in the memory.

Link to free version on YouTube

Assault on Precinct 13

In 2005, somebody got the really dumb idea of remaking this movie as a serious political statement flick about police corruption. God what fools these mortals be.

The original 1976 production of Assault on Precinct 13 is B movie making the way it was meant to be. Lean, tight, and straight to its own weird and wild point. This early low budget indie production by John Carpenter (made between Dark Star and Halloween) takes the basic premise of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead (just replace zombies with the Blood and the Crips) and then throws the whole mix into a Los Angeles ghetto with lots of guns and ammo.

Add in some surprisingly solid performances by Austin Stoker as a straight-laced cop fresh out of the academy and Darwin Joston (doing a strong impersonation of Robert Mitchum) as a condemned prisoner with a thing for existential statements (as well as bits of dialogue freely lifted from Once Upon a Time in the West) and you have a drive-in movie that is almost too good for the drive-in.

It is also one of Carpenter's finest movies. Just don't expect to go anywhere near an ice cream truck after seeing this sucker.

And yes, there is the major trivia point. It is actually Precinct 9, Distinct 13. But Precinct 13 looked a lot better on the poster.

Assault on Precinct 13 on YouTube for free

Sunday, July 8, 2012



If there is a patron saint for the Cinema of the Damned, it is Erich Von Stroheim.  Despite a directing career that barely spanned a decade and resulted in a mere nine films, Von Stroheim remains one of the most legendary filmmakers of the American silent era.

Also one of the most controversial.  In the course of his career, Von Stroheim would get fired from virtually every studio in Hollywood.  Heck, he even got punched out by Louis B. Mayer after making a crude comment about one of MGM's female stars.  He relished his image as the "terrible Hun" and created a mythic personality as an extremely decadent offshoot of the old Hapsburg Empire.

Of course, it was all bunk.  In truth, Von Stroheim was born without the Von to a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna.  But when he started his acting career in New York during World War One, he found steady employment by posing as an American nightmare of German/Austrian behavior.  He was also really good at it.  So good in fact that his "Von" persona became his own and it took years for biographers to successfully peel away the layers of fabrication that surrounded the man.

Ironically, Von Stroheim is today best known to many viewers for his two most famous acting roles in Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion:

and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.

But Von Stroheim was first and foremost a director.  He was even a visionary and combined an imposing sense of brilliance and self-destructiveness, all packaged in his own unique brand of Naturalism.  His demand for realism would extend to such details as making sure that the performers underwear would be historically correct.  In studio folklore, Von Stroheim's excessive approach resulted in the first million dollar production (Foolish Wives 1922).  In truth, it wasn't quite that costly but Universal decided that it made for good publicity.  Besides, it was close to the mark.  After all, he was basically building a complete reconstruction of Monte Carlo on the back lot.

Von Stroheim's masterpiece is Greed, his 1924 adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris.  He claimed that instead of a script, he simply filmed directly from the novel.  Actually, the movie is longer than the book as Von Stroheim added and extended scenes and chapters.

The result ran past 9 hours and MGM had a duck fit.  Von Stroheim was fired and Rex Ingram was brought in to drastically re-cut the film to a modest 2 hours running time.  Ever since, the effort to restore the movie toward its original cut has become a holy quest.

Which is why it is important to take advantage of the YouTube presentation of the 4 hour restoration of this movie.  At this point, it is the closest yet to Von Stroheim's original intentions.  Greed remains one of the major achievements of the American cinema.  An intense and harsh and brutal classic that brims with a strange primitive force. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

The President's Analyst

It's hard to know when you are ahead of your times. Just ask Theodore J. Flicker. 1967 seemed like a pretty good year for an extremely satirical film about the CIA, FBI,crazy gun culture, insane politics, race relations, and the entire concept of the Cold War as a half-bogus game.

But the movie The President's Analyst came and went with barely a whisper. Too bad. Though it is not one of the major cinematic high points of the 1960s, it is certainly one of the decade's funniest and strangely accurate reflections of the era. Besides, it also had the ironic ability to tick off J. Edgar Hoover which is a greater honor than any twenty Oscars.

 It's a pretty straight forward tale about a New York shrink (James Coburn) who is recruited by a government agent/hit man (Godfrey Cambridge) into becoming the personal analyst to the president. Along the way, Coburn has a nervous break down while fleeing from assassins sent after him by every nation on earth, goes on a hippie excursion through the Great Lakes region and finds himself getting a new patient courtesy of a KGB agent (Severn Darden) who discovers that he needs his doctor more than his country. He also has to keep one step ahead of the near midgets from the FBI who carries some of the biggest guns ever seen in the pre-Dirty Harry age.

Oh yeah, that was the part that especially ticked off J. Edgar. The bureau director in the movie is a diminutive and tightly wound borderline psycho who only hires agents who are shorter than himself and routinely issues orders in the name of the "as yet unborn." Hoover was not amused and placed the production under FBI surveillance.   

The President's Analyst plays like a Mad Magazine parody of the social turmoil of the late 1960s. The film also contains an incredibly good performance by Cambridge who remains one of the most under appreciated performers of the period. Cambridge had originally been a dramatic actor who turned to stand up comedy as his "day job" and is able to smoothly shift between farce and seriousness without ever batting an eye. Also on display in a brief role is the young William Daniels whose skill at theater of absurdity is in full force as a liberal who will put away his guns as soon as the conservatives surrender their weapons.

As a director, Flicker is occasionally clumsy with his transition cuts and the movie has a slightly uneven sense of pacing. But Flicker was, most likely, the only filmmaker around who could follow his own crazy logic. The result is brash, often hysterically accurate, and one of the few movies that can match the warped humor of something like Dr. Strangelove.

Besides, this flick is also the definitive cinematic statement about the phone company. In some ways, the ending is more accurate now than it was then.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

O. C. and Stiggs

A friend once told me that he had seen this movie six times and still couldn't decide if it was any good.  Actually, he wasn't even quite sure what it was even about.  In all honestly, he wasn't even certain if he had actually seen it.  I just thought he was being difficult until the third time I watched O. C. and Stiggs and realized that I was having the same reaction.

 So it is definitely not a film for someone who is looking for a quick and easy story.  Or even for people seeking clear cut characters and obvious motivations.  Heck, it's not even for folks wanting some simple sex and violence.  It's less a movie and more of a photographic hit off of a joint.  Maybe.  Originally intended (at least by the producers) to be a smart-ass teenage sex comedy, O. C. and Stiggs is low on the sex, extremely high on a very off-center sense of satire and off-beat observations, strikingly nonlinear and exceptionally weird in its tribute to the fleeting pursuit of happiness against the arid landscape of Arizona.

 This was director Robert Altman's last commercial mainstream film before he bolted to Paris for his long state of exile from Hollywood.  Made in 1985 and given an extremely limited (and belated) release in 1987, the movie can be partly viewed as Altman's final flipping of the bird to the American studio system.  Ironically, O. C. and Stiggs was produced by MGM, the same studio that Altman aggravated years earlier with his production of Brewster McCloud (an even more odd ball fantasy that shares many features in common with O. C. and Stiggs).

 Loosely adapted from a series of stories published in the National Lampoon, O. C. and Stiggs follows the strangely meandering exploits of two Arizona teenagers who have dedicated their lives to outrageously annoying their Republican neighbor (Paul Dooley), buying liquor from their favorite wino (Melvin Van Peebles) and routinely relaying their experiences by phone to their favorite African dictator whose private number they inexplicably have on speed dial.  Meanwhile, they make periodic visits to the area's craziest Vietnam vet (Dennis Hopper parodying his role from Apocalypse Now) who lives in his bunker out in the desert, waiting for the next surprise attack from the Vietcong.  There is also some odd sub plot involving the mysterious death of a local mechanic named Bugs Bunny and his slutty wife who may (or may not) be acting out a few riffs from a James Cain novel.

 None of these plot lines are really connected to each other and Altman is totally uninterested in making such connections.  Instead, he has adopted an open ended and very free flowing narrative (somewhat like he did in Nashville) and the viewer either accepts it or not.  Unlike the original stories, the movie invokes a more sympathetic and oddly gentle approach (to some of the characters) despite its own warped sensibility (and warp more than twisted may be the right word).  At its best, the film is less a gross-out than a supreme weird-out as it seesaws between an amused engagement and a total WTF mindset.

 So if you are in the mood for an excessive dose of hip irony, check it out.  Just don't get too carried away trying to figure it out.  Even the experts are still baffled.  By my fourth viewing, I only knew that I think maybe I kind of like this flick but have no clues why.

 Just remember what Hooper tells the kids when they question him about being in Vietnam.  "Was I really in Vietnam?  Does Ho Chi Minh eat Rice Krispies?"

 Say no more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Name Is Bruce

Some people are born to greatness and some people will never have to worry about that issue.  Bruce Campbell will never have to worry.

Oh sure, he is a cult legend.  Campbell is the king of the modern B movie.  He is the heir to the throne of Dick Miller.  But most of all, Campbell could use a real job.  As he demonstrates in My Name Is Bruce, monster hunting just ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This crude, lewd, and oddly endearing horror/comedy is Campbell's back-handed tribute to his own bogus legend.  The whole movie plays like a dinner theater crew's recreation of Plan Nine From Outer Space as it staggers (and so does the heavy drinking Campbell) through a screwy yarn that might have been written down on the back of cocktail napkins.

While working on another crappy straight-to-video production, Campbell is kidnapped by a neo-goth fan and finds himself stuck in the town of Gold Lick (population 399 and dropping fast).  Seems that some local teenagers have accidentally brought to life the Chinese god Guan-Di and Guan-Di is not a happy camper.  He is determined to slaughter everyone in sight for the century old death of 100 Chinese workers in a cave in..  Since Campbell is a little slow on the draw, he assumes that the whole thing is a birthday joke being staged by his lousy agent (Ted Raimi in one of several roles).  Besides, he is hoping to get lucky with his fan's lonely mother.

Largely made for hardcore Bruce Campbell fans, everything bad said about My Name Is Bruce is basically true.  The movie is as cheap looking as the booze Campbell keeps sneaking while preparing for the "hunt."  The script is almost as stupid as the type of films it is poking fun at.  The general acting level covers a range from A to...well, A.

But if you get the movie on a DVD and watch it with a good pizza and several beers, well, it actually moves along as a pretty OK fun flick.  Heck, I am actually looking forward to the sequel.

Besides, Bruce Campbell does not need greatness.  He is his own kind of guy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Big Lebowski

OK, there is sometimes no predicting anything and sometimes, stuff just simply happens.

That is probably the best way to describe the strange journey of The Big Lebowski as it progressed from a quick box office death in 1998 to its current status as a modern cult classic. Quirky and unpredictable, The Big Lebowski moves about with a strangely focused sense of rambling narrative order. Along the way, the movie succeeds in turning bowling into a central metaphor for life and reminds us all that a good rug is hard to find (and keep).

The plot of The Big Lebowski is the shaggiest shaggy dog story ever conceived, playing like a lost tale by Raymond Chandler as re-written by Hunter S. Thompson on a whimsical day. Beginning with the Dude (Jeff Bridges finally discovering his perfect persona as the coolest loser in all of LA) being mistaken by thugs for the other Lebowski (the rich guy with the same name), the movie quickly discovers its major motif when the nitwit knee-breakers demonstrate just how pissed off they are by ruining Dude's rug (the one that ties both the room and movie all together).

Convinced by his bowling mates (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) that the rich Lebowski owes him for a new rug, the Dude sets off on a quest that runs lazy circles around missing wives, rich pornographers, German Nihilists, and some of the more bizarre moments of male behavior traits.

Which may explain the original hostility this movie encountered from critics in 1998. Mostly, American film critics are pretty much a white male club of geeky guys who spend more time cloistered in dark rooms than even mushrooms. By in large, they hated this film. On the other hand, the film picked up a noticeable female following, despite being anything but a "chick flick."

When I finally saw the film (in 1999), I realized that the movie was sort of mocking an odd collection of distinctly innate male behavior patterns. My own reaction was something along the line of "OK, so is this, like, you know, a problem?" That is probably the real secret of the film's success. Somewhere, some how, it is directly hitting at a subconscious world that is extremely masculine and completely half-nutty. Sort of a man's man movie that isn't exactly for the average guy even while locating itself in a manly world minus all of the self-justifying heroic stuff.

Instead, we have the Dude who stumbles through a messy life by staying focused on his rug and the ever elusive prospect of the upcoming bowling championship, both of which are threatened by his pal Walter's (Goodman) sense of rigid rules, unfocused temper, and destructive sense of helpfulness. The movie kind of functions as an anti-buddy-buddy film and the Dude and Walter seems united primarily by their mutual need to defeat the Jesus (John Turturro) at the final game that never exactly happens.

Along the way, The Big Lebowski unloads enough Freudian symbols to send Freud himself running out of the theater (I never knew that bowling was so erotic). It also keeps peppering the tale with weird references to the Gulf War and David Huddleston, as the rich Lebowski, delivers a hoot of a parody of Dick Cheney.

It's a modern classic, kind of. It may even be one of the finest films yet made by the Coen brothers. It can take several viewings before you even get a clue as to what is going on.

And just remember one of the most important things we learn: "This is not Vietnam. There are rules in bowling."