Movie Reviews 333 – 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

February 23, 2018

I’ve watched all kinds of bizarre and uncategorizable movies over the years but the one that always stuck out first for me was 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Is it a western? A fantasy? A comedy? A fable? It’s all of these and more.

The movie begins with the elder chinaman Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) riding on a golden donkey who flicks his thumb to produce a flame that he then uses to light his yandaiguo pipe as a precariously balanced fishbowl rests on the saddle front. Dr. Lao, owner and operator of a travelling circus, has ridden in from the dusty great plains and enters the old western town of Abalone. His first stop is the local news printshop where he wants some of his circus event posters to be printed. As he awaits being served he overhears the first rumblings of trouble in the town as the newspaper owner/editor/writer Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) is visibly angered by a visit from Clint Stark (Arthur O’Connell) who chides the editor for some negative press he has been writing. The local business man Stark has buying up all the houses and real estate that he can lay his hands on while having the mayor in his pocket. Cunningham fears for the towns future although is isn’t quite sure what game Stark is really playing. And while Cunningham seems to be the only one who wants to hold the town together, the only person that seems to have the same mindset is Angela the lovely, widowed town librarian (Barbara Eden) who is cold to Cunningham’s advances.

The movie plays out as a sequence of scenes played out in the confines of the tent circus. The stars are Dr. Lao’s menagerie of mythical figures and creatures including the Abominable snowman, Merlin the magician from King Arthur’s court, three ancient Greek figures; Pan (god of love), Medusa the Gorgon who turns all who look at her into stone and blind fortune teller Apollonius of Tyana, and finally a slithering, talking serpent (whose face looks exactly like Stark).  Most of these play out scenes with the cast of human characters, digging deeper into their real issues and problems. Angela for example loses her inhibitions after being mentally aroused when she stumbles upon Pan, while the root of Stark’s greed is deconstructed by the serpent. Viewers will be quick to note that all of Dr. Lao’s charges are in fact played by Randall which was quite a formidable feat for the actor.

Unsurprisingly, this movie was directed by George Pal best known for his special effects laden classics of the era that include The War of the Worlds, Destination Moon and The Time Machine. Also notable is that Charles Beaumont was the writer, a man very familiar with the bizarre as a Twilight Zone regular. Alas, this is one of those movies in which my memories were better than my recent viewing experience. Most of the special effects are still fine but the overall story and the delivery now suffer a bit with my more mature adult assessment. But the movie is really a comedy which excuses the candy coated ending. Still a fun watch even if only for the the special effects and gags.

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Movie Reviews 332 – Saturday Night Fever (1977)

February 16, 2018

This is as much a confessional as it is a movie review. Why? Because until this week I had never seen Saturday Night Fever before. Most of my readers would think “So what?”, correctly assuming that the majority of films I review here are new to me. So why is the fact I have never seen this particular film in the 40 years since it’s release such a big deal?

The answer lies in part based on my ‘hood’, high school and heritage. The disco mania of the era was a global phenomenon to be sure, but nowhere was it embraced as energetically as within adolescent Italian circles.Growing up Italian – well half Italian to be precise – in a predominantly Italian neighborhood and attending a Catholic high school where about 95 percent of the students were Italians, it was a given that I had seen this film. In this sphere it was considered sacrilegious not to and I suspect a shock to some of my friends from that era who may be reading this now and discovering I had fallen in this regard. That is not to say there was not a staunch rocker, anti-disco clique as well, but they were certainly in the minority. How Italian was John F. Kennedy Comprehensive High School in Montreal in the late 70’s? This was a milieu where you couldn’t throw a rock and not hit a Tony or Maria. (For the record, there were twenty guys named Tony and twenty girls named Maria in my graduating year alone. Trust me, I counted them all in my yearbook.) And being what it was, the vast majority of those students lived and breathed the disco lifestyle – and quite honestly, many of them still do. These kids went to see this movie over and over at the theater, some perhaps a dozen times. My brother was a DJ and his copy of the vinyl LP soundtrack to this film had to be replaced more than once due to the sheer number of ‘spins’ these tracks got. The clothing, hairstyles,  the Italian horn and ‘cornuto’ gold pendants and even those ‘pointer’ shoes all the guys wore reflected that mirror-balled, vainglorious lifestyle.

I’ll be honest that in stating I’m not even sure why I drew the line watching this movie when surrounded by so many devotees. Given what little I knew of the movie one of the reasons I avoid it was that I assumed it would have little or no substance. But I have to admit I was wrong in that particular regard.

Ostensibly the story is about Tony Manero (John Travolta), a young man living under the shadow of his pious priest brother while working a menial job at a hardware store by day. When not begging for salary advances at work he gets hounded at home by his parents for his lack of ambition. His salvation presents itself at night on the dance floor of his local discotheque where his lithe feet and his good looks reward him with women swooning over his every step. Vain and self centered at first, Tony begins to question his friends, values and future. While a lot of this is fluff delivered in a Brooklynese accent as thick as my mother’s spaghetti sauce – and with the exception of the lead, some fairly cringe worthy acting skills – there is more going on here under the surface. The story is buttressed with episodes of unrequited love, parental expectations, responsibilities of adulthood, unplanned parenthood, turf wars and just a smattering of religion.

But the true charm of watching this movie today is the nostalgic time-trip it delivers. Amidst the retro Farrah Fawcett and Rocky posters is a fun look back at what I can only describe as an ‘interesting’ time period for which some attitudes and priorities still perplex me. The music, obviously a large part of this feature and primarily delivered by the Bee Gees, is memorable and even still catchy (at times) after all these years and despite not being my choice of genres.

A few last observations about this movie worth noting. First, you may want to look for a brief appearance of Fran “The Nanny” Drescher in some of the scenes. And lastly, I have to ask: Why was there a strip bar within the discotheque? Because that’s not how I remember them at all. Had I known, perhaps I would not have waited forty years to watch the damn movie.

Movie Reviews 331 – The Shaft (2001)

February 9, 2018

I didn’t think much of The Shaft other than the standout name of Naomi Watts as one of the stars listed on my DVD cover. But as I dug into the film there was what seemed like a constant barrage of cult favorite actors that kept appearing and giving me hope (Ron Perlman, Michael Ironside, and Dan Hedaya) that things would pick up.

The plot centers on the fictitious Millenium building (more on that name later), a beautiful Art Deco high-rise that is really a stand-in for the Empire State building, in which the elevator system becomes a deathtrap and seems to have a will of its own. But maintenance worker Mark Newman (James Marshall, better known as the dimwitted private in A Few Good Men)

is wary of the elevators and isn’t convinced that the recent spate of injuries and deaths are accidental at all and at the prodding of an ambitious tabloid journalist (Watts) investigates the events.

The explanation lies with a former military scientist (Ironside) who once dabbled in dolphin based organic computer chips and has managed to convince the elevator company executive (Perman) to secretly adopt the technology in the elevators for this particular building which will some day inexplicably make them millions. As corny as the plot sounds, the execution adds even many more head scratching moments, unclear scenes and nonsensical dialogue exchanges.

The film does deliver on some fairly gruesome and cringe inducing kill scenes, but not enough to make it worth our while to sit through the rest of the infantile proceedings despite the notable cast. But where the intended drama fails the movie manages to achieve some level of unintentional spookiness because of the subject matter, the city, the role of the building, some fortuitous dialogue, and the very specific year in which it was made. You see this was made in 2001 just before the tragic events of 9/11. As it would happen, the film cityscapes includes many prominent views of the twin World Trade Center towers (not especially surprising in itself) but also remarks on terrorism and even specifically mentions Osama Bin Laden’s prior failed attempt on the WTC years earlier. The choice of naming this fictitious building Millenium adds just that much more creepiness and makes it almost uncomfortably prescient. Another irony and ominous portent of things to is that the original title of the film was simply: Down, which could apply to the building as well as just an elevator.

Conspiracy theories and eerie prophecies aside, the end credits could not come soon enough and I got more entertainment value listening to Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator during those credits than from the movie itself. Now if you really want to enjoy horrific elevator films, then I recommend two, both titled “Elevator”, one from 2008 and the other from 2011.

Watching this movie, I felt myself subjected to the title itself. Getting “The Shaft” that is.

Where is Richard Roundtree when you need him?

January Movie Marathon – 2018 Edition

February 1, 2018

My January 31 film Marathon (2018 edition)

After a particularly film filled January two years ago when I noticed that I somehow managed to watch 31 films in the 31 days of Januar. Since then it’s become something of an annual tradition for me to try to step up to the same challenge. Knowing that I was going to be out of town for both the first three days and the last four days of the month and not being able to watch even one film those 7 days, I didn’t think my odds were going to be good for a repeat this year. It meant I would have to watch 31 films in a mere 24 days. But I doubled my efforts with a slim hope that I could somehow pull it off. And pull it off I did, not only managing to watch them, but managing to watch an extra movie for good measure and all done by the 27th of January.

And these were the random eclectic picks fom my shelves with one being a current theatrical release I saw at an actual theatre:

  1. Irma La Douce (1963) –  Director Billy Wilder reunited his cast of Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine from The Apartment made three years earlier. Nearly as funny and just as touching, this one has goody two shoes Lemmon falling for street walker MacLaine.
  2. Black Christmas (2006) – Not nearly as good as the original Canadian classic, but not nearly as bad as I thought it would be either. Adds a bit more to the lore of “Billy”.
  3. The Runaways (2010) – Biopic of the rock band that included Joan Jett and Cherie Currie as they rose to fame, and just as quickly crashed and burned before Jett had a second resurgence. Interesting movie but could have been better with some tighter editing.
  4. Heavenly Creatures (1994) – Two rural teenage girls, living in a world of their own end up killing the mother of one when they face being separated. Early Peter Jackson film which recounts the brutal 1954 New Zealand murder case.
  5. My Amityville Horror (2012) – Documentary which chronicles Daniel Lutz’s (the son living in the infamous Amityville home) account of the controversial alleged events. While there are a few interesting pieces of information, it does little to validate supernatural claims.
  6. The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – Director Walter Huston’s interpretation of the Rudyard Kipling story. With Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the lead roles entertainment (and madness) is assured.
  7. Kung Phooey! (2003) – Low budget comedy that successfully hits every chinese stereotype joke imaginable. A good ribbing at a clash of cultures, that would probably not pass the PC threshold today. Good on all those who participated in this and dared to be funny while laughing at themselves.
  8. Hang ‘Em High (1968) – Clint Eastwood western where an overzealous gang of vigilantes try to hang him thinking he’s a cattle rustler. When he’s proven innocent he’s also hired as a marshall and then starts to round those that tried to kill him. Not his best western by far but it’s still Clint.
  9. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) – The fact that it’s a Planet of the Apes movie should be enough. For those living under a rock this is the final of the trilogy that began with Rise and Dawn.
  10. The Tenant (1976) – Roman Polanski thriller about a man who rents an apartment where the former dweller committed suicide and the becomes subsumed in her previous life. Full review here.
  11. Grimm Love (2006) –  This film explores the real life German case of the Rotenburg Cannibal in which a man searched for and found another man willing to be eaten alive. Not the low budget film I thought it was although it was needlessly told as flashbacks from the point of view of a psychologist trying to delve into the case.
  12. The Shape of Water (2017) – Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy and while our eyes are meant to embrace his personal take on a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” it’s  Sally Hawkins that steals the show and Michael Shannon that is the beast.  13 Oscar nominations. Nuff said!
  13. Feed (2005) – A look at the phenomena of men feeding women to the point of mortal morbid obesity. Australian cop scouring the internet for sexual predators comes across disturbing video and then does his own followup to find the man behind it all. Both interesting and disturbing.
  14. White Heat (1949) – One of James Cagney’s best as as a psychopathic gangster who will stop at nothing and where he utter the classic final line “Look Ma. I’m on top of the world”. And he certainly was.
  15. Full Metal Yakuza (1997) – Early display of madness by director Takashi Miike. Full review here.
  16. Reeker (2005) –  A group travelling across the desert to get to a rave end up stranded and accosted by a ‘reeking’ mystical creature. Full of holes in logic and plot points but what was even worse was the kludged ending that tries to explain what really happened. Even Michael Ironside could not save this one.
  17. 28 Days Later (2002) – One of the earlier zombie films that spurned the craze at the start of the millenium and certainly one of the better ones out there. Despite denials to the contrary, this is where Robert Kirkman stole the idea of a man waking up in a hospital to find out there was a zombie outbreak while he was out cold.
  18. 28 Weeks Later (2007) – The aftermath of the apocalypse in 28 Days Later in which humanity believes it is OK to resettle London. Not nearly as good as 28 Days Later but certainly different.
  19. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Bill Murray seems to enjoy being in Wes Anderson movies but perhaps he should have skipped this one. Lots of decent jokes in a facsimile of a Jacques Courteau character passed his prime, but a lot of luls as well.
  20. Payback (1999) – Decent Mel Gibson thriller about a small time con taking on the underworld to get back  the 72 grand he feels they owe him. If the long list implausible events are bothersome they will be made up by Lucy Liu as the sadomasochist hooker.
  21. Hannah and her Sisters (1986) – Although highly lauded this is far from Woody Allen’s best films.  Full of neurotic, paranoid, doubting, cheating, conniving, morose, and brooding characters. Everything you would expect from Allen but without many actual laughs.
  22. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – Director Robert Rodriguez rounded up the Who’s Who of Mexican actors (Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Ruben Blades, Eva Mendes) and then added Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe to complete his Mariachi trilogy. But I prefer his simpler, lower budget but more charming {El Mariachi}.
  23. Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1938) – This very old Tarzan film with Bruce Bennett in the starring role really had a low budget and sketchy production values. Not surprised to later learn this was a cropped together from a serial. The only thing mildly interesting was Tarzan fighting animals.
  24. Easy “A” (2010) Being about a highschool girl who leverages a rumor about her virtue to gain social status you’d think this was a brainless comedy. But this is way better and deeper than it sounds. Emma Stone’s first starring feature.
  25. The Breakfast Club (1985) A reference about this movie in Easy “A” above was enough for me to plunk in my disc. I don’t need much to remind me to rewatch this brat pack classic. I could watch it again right now.
  26. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) Full review here.
  27. The Iceman (2012) Chilling biopic of real life convicted hitman Richard Kuklinski. Winona Ryder plays his unsuspecting wife, but star Michael Shannon shines as the tormented killer. My second Michael Shannon movie this month and I can’t understand why I’ve never heard of him before.
  28. Moscow on the Hudson (1984) Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects when visiting New York city with a circus troupe. His earliest role where he is more serious than just a comic, and honestly that was what he did best. Slightly dated but worth a rewatch.
  29. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) The unlikely teamup of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as officers in a WWII submarine bent on taking on a ship in the particular deadly Japanese “Bunjo” strait works largely because of director Robert Wise.
  30. 13: Game of Death (2006) A Horror from Thailand of all places that is actually pretty cool if you disregard the lame ending. A hapless, down on his luck musical instrument salesman is led on a game in which each successful harder challenge puts more money in his bank.
  31. Four Rooms (1995) This is a film with four distinct stories taking place in a Hollywood hotel glued together by the bellhop who figures in each story. Four directors directed the segments including one from Quentin Tarantino and one from his bud Robert Rodriguez. Both have thankfully done a lot better.
  32. The Rat Pack (1998) I watched a Brat Pack movie so why not finish off with a movie about the Rat Pack that inspired the name? An all-star cast tells their story but it wasn’t the fluffy glitter extravaganza I expected. This one actually deals with the deeper issues like race, politics and the men behind the facade.

 

 

Movie Reviews 330 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

January 26, 2018

Tobe Hooper really raised the bar when he directed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre which arguably is one of the best horror movies ever produced. The introduction of the dysfunctional family of cannibals rewrote the book on horror movies and became an instant classic.

Being one of his first movies Hooper went on to have a decent run of genre movies during the following years but never eclipsed TCM. I don’t know what motivated him to do this follow up, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a dozen years after the first but one thing that is clear is that he did not just go back to familiar ground despite this story being presented as events and characters that supposedly follow the original TCM but takes place a number of years after.

Gone was the profound darkness and drama, biting edge horror and human depravity. And in came the … comedy?

The family, now identified as the Sawyers, are led by Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) who promotes the family’s swine meat business across the state driving his winnebago while sons Bubba ‘Leatherface’ (Bill Johnson) and Chop-Top (Bill Moseley) man their cavernous underground bunker home hidden under an abandoned amusement park.

When two drunken frat boys driving their way to a college football game decide to call in to the local radio show to mess with DJ “Stretch” (Caroline Williams) during her overnight show, the Sawyer boys saddle up to them on the road for a little deadly fun. The ensuing carnage is all caught on tape in the studio and Stretch begins to investigate. Her path soon crosses that of Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper) who has been on the Sawyer trail since the disappearance of his nephew, the wheelchair bound boy in the first movie.

At Lefty’s urging Stretch plays the explicit audio tape on-air which brings Leatherface and Chop-Top to the station where they kidnap her and her engineer L.G. (Lou Perryman) and bring them to their hangout. It is up to Enright to come and save the day as the Sawyer hold a family feast with Stretch as the guest of honour.

The comedic elements include Leatherface being taunted for having a girlfriend when he becomes reluctant to do the family’s bidding and when ‘grandpa’ who can barely move is awarded the privilege of dealing the death blow to Stretch. When Enright arrives it becomes one giant multi-chainsaw battle of wits and twits (siding more on the latter) with labyrinthine chases within the hodge podge architecture of the abode. Part of the charm in this film also lies in the elaborately decorated sets, the feature being the Sawyer ‘home’ and it’s many tunnels, funnels and garbage strewn decor. The makeup and special effects are also particularly impressive under the hands of master Tom Savini.

Don’t get me wrong this is a fan favorite for many and taken on it’s own it is a fun movie. But fun is the key word and those who watch it expecting the gruesome horror of the original will be disappointed.

 

Movie Reviews 329 – Full Metal Yakuza (1997)

January 19, 2018

As a huge fan of director Takashi Miike, I know that his output can be uneven and that his topics and are as varied as his targeted audiences.  But I felt confident that with a title of Full Metal Yakuza (original title Full Metal Gokudô) that this would be one of his films that are more up my alley than Yatterman for example which was his take on his favorite Japanese kid show growing up. Better known for his explicit horror films like Audition and his violent gang films like Ichi the Killer the title suggested more of an over-the-top blend of the two.

The film features Kensuke Hagane (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), a menial wannabe mobster who starts at the bottom of his adopted Yakuza family, literally washing floors at clan leader Tosa’s (Takeshi Caesar) headquarters. He slowly makes his way up the ladder only to fail miserably with his first tangible assignment as a ‘protection’ collector and then ends back to washing duties. But Kensuke’s humiliation does not end there as his fighting skills fail him when confronted by a gang of youths who beat him to a pulp as well as being constantly derided by his girlfriend for his lackluster lovemaking skills. He does have something close to a friend in his partner when he is on guard duty, but even he tends to mock Kensuke at every opportunity.

After his boss Tosa is incarcerated for a number years for having attacked a group of rivals in broad daylight, Kensuke and he are ambushed on Tosa’s first day of freedom when summoned to a supposed yakuza meeting. Tosa is killed and Kensuke is riddled with bullets and clearly must die due to his injuries. Instead he awakens in a ramshackle lab with his head wired and without any apparent torso. His remains and that of Tosa were stolen by a crazed scientist (Tomorô Taguchi) who salvaged parts of both bodies and then added improved cybernetic elements. The new and improved Kensuke is now a powerful metallic monstrosity.

As Kensuke slowly discovers the powers of his new and improved body – which incidentally includes Tosa’s heart – he goes on to avenge some of his previous exploiters. But soon afterwards he begins to draw into himself, question his life and future, and eventually seeks solitude at a beach. There he meets Tosa’s former girlfriend Yukari (Shoko Nakahara), herself grieving over the loss of her lover. And when Yukari is kidnapped by the rival gang, Kensuke’s rescue is like a high octane homage to Tosa’s battle years ago.

Miike, well known for his egregious use of billowing fountains of squirting blood (later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill) makes good use of this staple here. But this is far from Miike’s best films, while at the same time well rounded providing action, gore, comedy and even a love triangle of sorts. While the special effects are sometimes laughable – particularly in the case of the cybernetic costume – others aren’t as flimsy or dated. It is however more a comedy in many respects but risqué at times such as the when Kensuke inherits Tosu’s apparently bountiful manhood (sadly pixelated on my DVD).

While this is a must see for Miike fans, it may only be a fun curiosity for those who enjoy these Asian mind blowing action movies. Hitting so many notes as it does, you’re bound to enjoy something.

Movie Reviews 328 – The Tenant (1976)

January 12, 2018

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a young Polish man seeking an apartment in Paris when he stumbles upon a vacant unit and immediately tries to secure it for himself. He learns what while it is empty, Simone, the current leaseholder, hasn’t technically relinquished it but in fact attempted suicide by jumping out on the windows and is now in the hospital. As he makes arrangements to rent it out his concerns that the former tenant may return are rebuffed by the lethargic concierge (Shelley Winters) and the landlord (Melvyn Douglas) whose only concern seems to be the reputation of his establishment.

Posing as a friend he visits Simone in the hospital in order to determine her true health prospects and finds her in traction, bandaged like a mummy and with evident serious injuries. He also meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), a vivacious and ravishing woman who is also visiting. In the next few weeks the two strike up a flirtatious relationship while Trelkovsky maintains the pretense of having known Simone.

But all’s not well in his new apartment. The other tenants constantly complain about every bit of noise that Trelkovsky makes. And the one shared bathroom common for all the tenants is actually across the courtyard and every time Trelkovsky looks out his window he can see the other tenants just standing, mesmerized in there. But strangest of all is how Trelkovsky’s life begins mimicking that of Simone who has now passed away. Every time he asks the shopkeeper downstairs for his brand of cigarettes he is told they have run out and is offered another brand, that which Simone used to smoke. The coffee shop insists that he try out a breakfast and snacks formerly favored by her. Drawn into her life, Trelkovsky wavers between trying to stem the influences and drowning ever deeper into Simone’s shadow.

The Tenant is one of those films in which the viewer has to decide what is real and what may just be in our protagonist’s mind. A world of blurred realities or a descent into madness? And in typical Polanski style, other topics such as xenophobia, sexual perversion and paranoia are touched upon in this dark and atmospheric thriller. Previously a title that I never heard off, it was a delightful viewing although perhaps not as rich as the other two Polanski films of this supposed ‘apartment’ trilogy, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

Movie Reviews 327 – Phase IV (1974)

January 5, 2018

Phase IV is one of those older science fiction movies that once held a fond place in my heart as it was one of those films that seemed to play over and over in the days of limited local television channels. When I started devouring science fiction literature I was not averse to reading novelizations and was delighted to read noted science fiction author Barry N. Malzberg‘s adaptation of the script. But there was one more compelling reason that I have been wanting to rewatch this film again, one that may surprise even a few friends. It all has to do with the fundamental element of the story: Ants!

Just about a year ago my son developed a keen interest in ants and by that I mean the desire to have living ants as ‘pets’ although as you can imagine this is not an endeavor one can easily satisfy. He, and then I myself did a tremendous amount of reading and also used what is becoming more and more the educational tool of choice; YouTube videos, to learn everything we could. The information out there is astounding especially given that the very multitude in species of ants leads to differing habitats, nourishment requirements and other environmental factors to be considered. Even after devouring all the information we could I tried to temper his expectations as I worried that the hardest part, and the one necessary requirement to even begin, namely that of finding a recently mated fertile queen, may prove to too hard. But I need not have worried as my son demonstrated a keen eye and managed to find not one but six queens of varying species that were soon laying eggs which quickly progressed to larvae, pupae and then workers ants. But enough of our myrmecological ventures. Suffice to say that with all these ants in my head (and in my house) I wanted to revisit this movie not having seen it in thirty odd years.

The plot consists of some celestial event taking place that at first leaves no lasting after effects as far as anyone can tell.  Only after some time has passed does Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) note some odd behaviour in ants, particularly in one desert region. The ants, usually solitary as colonies now seem to be not only cooperating, but exhibiting other unexpected characteristics.

After alerting the authorities a lab is quickly established and Hubbs is sent in with only a mathematical pattern researcher James Lesko (Michael Murphy) as an aide. There they take note of towering smooth surfaced monoliths created by the ants and who have also evidently increased their foraging abilities to now include fully grown livestock.

Impatient to wait for other observable activities Hubbs decides to destroy the monoliths resulting in the ants attacking the lone farm remaining in the area and ending up with the sole survivor, a young girl (Lynne Frederick) being rescued by the scientists. When the scientists try to quell the formic uprising with a yellow chemical agent the surviving ants quickly develop yellow ants that are immune to the mixture. With the battle now in full swing the exhibit ever more sophisticated attacks on the compound while the three isolated occupants try to decipher crude messages received from the ants with the survival of mankind at stake.

The feel of the movie is one that I’ve always felt rivaled that of The Andromeda Strain, another early 70’s science fiction favorite. But alas, seeing it now again the acting feels shoddy and the script is not as rich as I hoped or remembered it to be.

Culminating with a semi-psychedelic ending befitting the era, the movie toys with the question of who is the observer and which species is really under a microscope. The emotional detachment to death exhibited by Hubbs, somewhat crazed, imitates that of the ants themselves. While the plot lacks any real depth and is ambiguous on many fronts (we’re never clear on the global extent of ant uprising for one) the mix of close up ant footage is still remarkable after all these years. I can only imagine how many takes and attempts it took to capture some of the more ‘purposeful’ actions we see them doing. The very solitude nature of colonies and aversion to mingling of species that the plot points out being uncharacteristic is shown on screen, which must have taken great effort and patience to film. They also somehow managed to get symbols neatly placed on the heads of a few ants hinting at either a caste or other distinction (aside from species) but sadly these are never further explored or explained.

One of the real oddities of this film is that it was directed by Saul Bass which may ring a bell, but not for his directorial efforts. Bass, trained as a graphic designer, was the first to define and then master of the concept of sophisticated opening sequences for films. He is much better known for creating some of the most memorable sequences including many for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest) as well as dozens of others and also for many movie poster designs inspired by those sequences.

Movie Reviews 326 – Nightmare City (1980)

December 29, 2017

Released in North America as City of the Walking Dead, Nightmare City or Incubo Sulla Città Contaminata if you prefer the original Italian title, is the zombie movie that isn’t a zombie movie. Directed by Umberto Lenzi who just passed away in October of this year, it was one of many films, many from Italy, that rode the zombie wave after the success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and it’s sequels. But unlike the Italian triumvirate of horror directors (Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci) Lenzi was not yet an established creator, just coming into his peak period here as a matter of fact, and as such he had a much smaller budget was forced make concessions to producers that would hurt this film in particular.

This film is about some mysterious accident at a nuclear lab and TV reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) decides to pop by the airport to try to get an interview with a scientist scheduled to arrive to help with the situation. As he waits for the scientist at the airport a plane comes zooming in without responding to air traffic controllers. Once landed and at a stop on the airstrip and with a small army ready and waiting, the communications silence continues until the door bursts open and a horde of zombie like people, including the scientist, burst out and attack everyone in sight.

Dean barely makes a getaway but the contagion quickly spreads as those bitten come back alive to join the throng and his only concern at that point is getting to his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) a surgeon at the local hospital. Once reunited the couple make their way across the countryside while the requisite bumbling military led by General (Mel Ferrer) consistently underestimate the situation.

The trial and tribulations of both Dean and his wife along with the military attempts to quell the outbreak are punctuated by some marvelous and blood and gore which is the only thing that eases the pain of the acting throughout. Well that and cutbacks to the TV station which seems to broadcast nothing but an around the clock Disco Dancing show until the leotard and legging clad bosomed dancers get mauled when the demon swarms arrive.

The extras on my DVD included a marvelous short documentary in which Lenzi explains how producers saddled him with Stiglitz when he wanted Franco Nero or John Saxon among other more talented actors. He also explains how he did not want this to be yet another zombie flick per se and considered the infected ones as radiated victims, a notion which is sometimes supported by the burnt and exposed flesh makeup. But even back then it was impossible to avoid the zombie classification and the deal is sealed when even the script points out the fact you’ve got to “aim for the head”.

Often maligned in the pantheon of zombie flicks of the era, one does have to endure a lot of silliness to get through this one. But I felt the spectacle was worth it given the few scenes and shots that do work. It’s more that a fair splatterfest with sliced, diced and exploding heads. Mind you, with movies like this my barometer of excellence isn’t much higher than the IQ of those Walking Dea… I mean nuclear victim. Whatever.

A shout out to Jeff and Chris, the boys at the “Really Awful Movies” podcast for using the opening newscast dialog in the intro of their own show. “Top of the news this evening is speculation concerning the real facts behind the department of health announcement about a radioactive spill supposed to have occurred yesterday at the state nuclear plant.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Movie Reviews 325 – The Elia Kazan Collection

December 22, 2017

Invoke the name Elia Kazan within film circles and you’ll get two distinct first impressions. It will either be the plaudit of “Great director” or the condemnation as “The man who named names.”

The history of the US House of Representatives “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) trials that razed Hollywood (and later similarly tinged Kefauver hearings on the comic industry) has always fascinated me. Senator Eugene McCarthy ushered in the “McCarthy Era” post World War II red scare targeting Hollywood elite to rat out on any anyone in the industry that were either sympathizers or card carrying members of the communist party. While most of those called to testify defied the committee, including Kazan himself when he first appeared, others did comply. But when called a second time Kazan did the unthinkable. He gave names. And to make matters worse and what probably cemented this act was him taking out a full page ad in the New York times the following day to rationalize his actions. His infamous testimony was an act that haunted him for the rest of his life.

I’ve associated Kazan with HUAC nearly as long as I have known of his directorial career. But as one who found myself condemning his actions, I’ve learned over the years that as all things in life and politics, the situation was not as simple as some make it out to be. For one thing he was not the only one to name names, but certainly one of the few to have faced the brunt of retribution. Even Tinseltown nobility the likes of Edward G. Robinson seemed to thrive unscathed despite doing the very same thing. The stigma remained for the rest of his life including when he finally received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Awards when a number of those in attendance silently sat through the ceremony while others stood and clapped.

But let’s get back to his directorial efforts. Unlike Kazan’s name eliciting different reactions from a sociopolitical point of view, any discussion of his cinematic achievements are unanimously complimentary. His films have garnered a slew Oscar wins and nominations that few other creators can claim. Moments like Marlon Brando’s tortured soul crying at the top of his lungs “Stella! Stelllaaah!” in A Streetcar Named Desire or Brando lamenting his missed opportunities in life in On the Waterfront are some of the most recognized moments in cinema history.

Kazan’s films are, with few exceptions, emotion filled stories of human angst and turmoil. Whether it be love, justice, or politics the character centric stories are gut wrenching with few respites if any at all. Not surprisingly given that Kazan also has the distinction of being one of the creators of the New York’s Famed Actors Studio and it was he that actually brought in Lee Strasberg, the name usually associated with the group and who I’ve always assumed was responsible for its creation.

The Elia Kazan Collection reviewed here is a magnificent box set representing the very best of Kazan’s illustrious career. Released in 2010 by Fox Studios it presents fifteen great films on eighteen discs as they were released chronologically.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

The first film in the set which immediately became one of my favorites without having seen the others. A great portent of things to come. An early turn of the century story of how the matriarch of a family endures every hardship thrown at her. Also a tale that draws upon the pros and cons of those living the artistic carefree lifestyle opposed to those in constant worry and full of responsibility.

 

Boomerang (1947)

A delightful murder case courtroom drama with political influence undertones. Now a staple plot in many movies, this was one of the innovators on that theme and a decent one at that. Apparently most of the story is based on an actual case. This is one of the least enjoyable films in the set for my personal tastes but that is only because the other films were so strong in comparison.

 

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

This must have been considered a very daring movie on release, tackling anti-semitism head on and not merely using analogy to present the issue. And having Gregory Peck as the jew certainly helped Kazan getting his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars and seven nominations in total.

 

Pinky (1949)

Another movie that broke taboos and barriers, this time the story of a lighter toned African American woman (Jeanne Crain) who can ‘pass’ for white. The film deftly address the different attitudes by having the woman return to her southern home after living up north while earning a degree in nursing and falling in love with a white man. The usual bigotry by the townsfolk is not however the central story as the woman, at the behest of her mother, is asked to tend to the elderly white neighbor (Ethel Barrymore).

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

When an outbreak of a pulmonary plague breaks out in the rat infested shipyards of New Orleans, an officer of the US Health department (Richard Widmark) works alongside local detectives to trace the origin and infectious carrier. But the rats aren’t limited to the four legged vermin, and the wharf has just as many shady characters to fit the profile. One of the few Kazan movies that does not focus on human emotions and works just as well as a pure action flick. Another Oscar winner, but this time for the writing. Ironically actor and comic Zero Mostel who plays one of the hapless gangsters would himself be blacklisted by HUAC two years after this film. But no, Kazan was not the one the named hiw to the committee

 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

One of Kazan’s classics and where he first makes use of the talents of both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, calibre actors that he would return to often and for whom they would give some of the best performances of their lives. Vivien Leigh plays southern belle Blanche DuBois who having fallen on hard times visits her sister (Kim Hunter) and brother in-law (Brando) who are just scraping by while she maintains the pretense of wealth. Known for the aforementioned wailing “Stella! Stelllaaah!” segment, the film has so much more. This is the movie that made Brando and swept the Oscars but ironically both Kazan and Brando did not win in their respective categories.

 

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Another film starring Brando, this time as the real life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who along with Pancho Villa fought for reform and justice. The film explores Zapata’s disillusionment when after the rebellion he finds that not much has changed and having to endure seeing his own brother (Anthony Quinn) complicit with the continued corruption.

 

Man on a Tightrope (1953)

Another film based largely on actual events in post war Czechoslovakia. Fredric March stars as Cernik, the current operator of a travelling circus that was created and owned by his family but that was then nationalized by the communist government. Aside from corrupt officials constantly harassing him, spousal infidelity and an uncontrollable daughter, Cernik has to deal with a spy within his troupe. This all intertwines, culminating in a mad dash to escape the Iron Curtain. Another great surprise for myself as I’d never even heard of this gem before.

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

A Hollywood classic known for Brando’s backseat diatribe to his brother (Rod Steiger) exclaiming “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando as Malloy, a once promising boxer but now an enforcer for a mob boss (Lee J. Cobb). He is unintentionally involved in the murder of a man about to snitch on the mobster and then falls for the murdered man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) looking for answers. As dock workers are threatened and exploited they reluctantly turn to the local priest (Karl Malden) who is as hard pressed for answers are is Malloy. Simply a fantastic film with stellar acting by everyone that swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and eight wins.

 

East of Eden (1954)

Not being much of fan of James Dean no matter how big an icon he is supposed to be, it took me while to warm up to this tale of a lost young man trying to satisfy his devout father (Raymond Massey), establish a relationship with his wayward mother (Joan Van Fleet) all in the face of sibling rivalry. I was more impressed by the cinematography than the story, but it does have its moments. No sign of Brando here but one can see that Dean was groomed for the same type of tragic character.

 

Baby Doll (1956)

Archie (Karl Malden), an older, lecherous and failed cotton gin owner marries the barely legal “Baby Doll” (Carroll Baker) and then anxiously and perversely awaits the approach of her twentieth birthday, the day until which he promised the girl’s father he would abstain from consummating the marriage. As the households furniture is repossessed, and with Baby Doll threatening to leave, Archie compounds his troubles by setting fire to the gin of his main competitor, the business savvy Italian Vacarro (Eli Wallach). But when Vacarro pokes around  Archie’s premises looking for proof of the vandalism he finds his opportunity for revenge lies with  Baby Doll in more ways than one.

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

If the only perception you have of Andy Griffith is his role as the soft spoken sheriff in Mayberry you’ll have a complete revelation here are he portrays a boisterous, womanizing southern con who uses his guitar and preach worthy voice and lyrics to entrance the nation as well as the reporter who discovers him (Patricia Neal). Behind the simple minded entertainer lurks a demon with more than simple fame within his sights. A rare film with Walter Matthau in a minor role, this one was another appreciated surprise for me.

 

Wild River (1960)

The monumental Tennessee Valley Authority that was created manage the multi state land and water reforms after the great depression and the mass flooding of Tennessee river meant there would be a significant impact for anyone within the affected areas . The burden of dealing with the handcuffed landowners results in one particular manager throwing in the towel and giving opportunity to an eager replacement (Montgomery Clift). Coming in with nothing but the best intentions he is sent in to convince the last holdout of a farm that will be sunk by the rising ( waters. But the stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) cannot be persuaded even as her own daughter (Lee Remick) falls for bureaucrat.

 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

If you believed as I did that Natalie Wood was an overrated actress this one will change your mind. On the other hand it also reinforced my contention that laconic Warren Beatty can be a dullard at times.. But it’s a solid story about following one’s dreams and not caving into parental plans.

 

America America (1963)

His most personal film, a semi-biographical depicting his family history as immigrants from Turkey via Greece, adapted from Kazan’s own book. Casting mostly unknown actors including that of the lead, it takes a bit of getting used to, but at the same time does have its charms.

 

The DVD box set also includes a disc with Martin Scorsese’s American Masters tribute A Letter to Elia (2010) which made for a nice retrospective of Kazan’s career from the very evident adoration and personal admiration of Scorsese, a great director in his own right and the man chosen to give Kazan that last Oscar.

I do have to mention a few other things about this particular box set for those that are considering buying it. The set contains two books, the first being a landscape 100 page hardcover on Kazan and his movies and the second a book containing the DVDs along with a short synopsis of each film.  Even before I bought mine (fairly cheaply I might add) I’d heard that some other owners had issues with some of the discs operating correctly. The individual DVDs are placed in ‘pockets’ on thick cardboard pages within the DVD book. Some have speculated that the discs may have gotten scratched when inserting or removing the discs. I had no such issues and my set was a used one so I assume the discs were all used at least once before I got the set. But it is something you may want to check out if getting the set second hand.

If you’re looking for a poignant story with great characters you really can’t go wrong with any of these, whether the be the blockbusters everyone is familiar with or any of the lesser known titles. It time to move on from the controversy and recognize without hesitation this true master film maker.