Sunday, August 31, 2014

Netflix of the Witch: ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, THE CRAFT, THE PUNK SINGER

Conjuring-from top: Fairuza (The Craft); Kathleen Hannah (Punk Singer);
Sianoa Smit-McPhee (Cheerleaders)
I summon thee, Netflix, unholy ghost streamer.
The Craft and now All Cheerleaders Die wait within you. 
Teenagers sleeping over and swapping blood, giggling over the Ouija, 
love spell chanting and stiff-as-a-boarding,
magic of entrained hormonal unconsciouses,
north, south, west, east - money spell - rah rah rah.
It soon gets out of control, 
sometimes with summonings true to the ancients or Aleister,
sometimes made up for the moment by lazy L.A. hacks,
always with boys, and traffic,
If no one else, it will scare your mom.


Director Andrew Fleming, 
you made The Craft and Bad Dreams!
Andrew Fleming, you seem respectful of women!
Hail to thee Andrew Fleming! Solid and respectful if perhaps a tad pedestrian.
 Lucky McKee, you made ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, MAY and SICK GIRL,
feminist yet quietly misogynistic. Is there a difference?
Don't both overestimate woman's power? 
Don't both underestimate women's power?
Woman's power is nature's power,
darkness, Kali, Shiva, Destruction
Inhale the embers of my burning math book sacrifice!



Kathleen Hannah,
your 'music' like tattoos on Kali's iron fists,
your younger cuteness like Hopi from Love and Rockets!
Rail on against the murphs, frat boys, douches, and dickheads.
Set us free from their ungodly wally presence, Kathleen Hannah!
Without bitterness, without preachiness, 
without self-righteous food co-op sanctimony,
but with fierce tribal howling, smite them!
Kathleen Hannah, make slam dancing safer for women, 
inspire legions of xeroxed fanzines
and flinch not as the AOR vultures circle,
or as the nutcases from woodwork creep,
 or even as nervous exhaustion hides a wrongly-diagnosed disease.



Smite your enemies with thy shrill feedback screams, Kathleen!
 Let your documentary move me to liberal arts tears.
Guide my hand in smiting too the skittering wally snickerers.
The backwards baseball cap wearing tools of America,
deafen them, Kathleen Hannah!
We are with thee, streaming The Punk Singer!
Praying, Chanting for your Blinding Ashes-Rising!

--Hail to thee Netflix, for having this worthy trilogy--but release more classic shit - what happened to all that obscure AIP gold, like Cult of the Damned?  It's gone, man. And instead we get the fucking Blacklist??--
In order of release date then...

THE CRAFT
1996 - dir. Andrew Fleming
***
Andrew Fleming hasn't made many films but he has a rare gift of getting the ambiguity of hallucinations exactly right: the way snakes seem to be writhing in every shadow as the underlying reptilian cortices of the DNA serpent-tongue universe entwine and unwind within your fever or alcohol-or-opiate withdrawal or mushroom-overdose or lack of sleep-wracked brain melts its tubes. Little turkeys with straw hats dancing in the shattered scream-filled shadows of Bellevue's alcoholic ward, the rats and the bats in the walls, oh my yes! Terrifying but soothing compared to the convulsions... lost my train of thought, but Fleming never does!


The Craft's photography is a little flat, as was the style for teen films of the era, and still is, alas, with the L.A.locations (lots of homeless) casting dour focus on the girls and the rather straight-lined moral justice. The swim team black girl (Rachel True) wishes the blonde racist taunter Christine Taylor's hair off, but Taylor's ensuing anguish makes her more sensitive to her past taunts and she apologizes, so True feels bad; Neve Campbell's horrible back scars magically disappear so now she's smokin' hot but turns vain and obnoxious; poor white trash punk Fairuza Balk gets rich but her mom wastes the money on a jukebox, etc. Before new girl Robin Tunney showed up , though, they were just goofing around with spell books and stolen candles and getting nowhere, since she's a real witch, descended from her witch mom who died in childbirth, she gives them a magick power boost which they're too immature to handle.


For her wish, poor Robin Tunney doesn't think to wish for deliverance from her crippling phobias and deliverance and instead indulges her masochistic attraction to one of those backwards baseball cap wearing tools (Skeet Ulrich). Later she lets Balk walk all over her with snake 'glimmers' and some Voodoo god of everything named Manon. Apparently the witchery consultant didn't want them to invoke a real spirit, lest they offend a Wiccan or two, or encourage young girls to summon things they wouldn't be able to control, the way the proliferation of Ouija boards in the seventies led to a glut of summoned demons we're still suffering from today.


With a tight script that never wastes a word on pointless chit-chat, and a stable cast rounded out by Pedro Almodovar regular Assumpta Serna as the white witch new age bookstore owner, there's some troublesome stretches of Tunney running around her house whining and puling, and believing in the snake and bug hallucinations, wherein we root for Balk's then-deranged stalker; and the almost DC comics-level morality hanging under all the karma has a troublesome subtextual implication that teenage girls can't be trusted with that level of unholy power, presuming they'll throw it away on petty revenge, vanity, financial gains and douchebag boys with their  snickering at everything and their prepubescent attempts at mustaches. Maybe that's true, but it's not why we're here. We want to see the douchebag boys get thrown out of a second story window, and to see Fairuza tear it up (and she does, she's a real witch in real life and her summoning scenes have a solid orgasmic power), we don't want to see Tunney trailing after the mayhem in horror, so girls watching will know that taking revenge against snickering date rapists is wrong, since you might hurt them. Fuck that. I'll see it again in a few years though, since it's short, fast, and cool overall. It's not quite as grrl-empowering as Night of the Comet, but then again what is?

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****
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THE PUNK SINGER 
2013 - dir. Siri Anderson
****
A labor of love from some chick named Siri Anderson, The Punk Singer is an adorable little scrapbook-style montage of the life and bands of Kathleen Hanna, the girl who wrote "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on Cobain's wall thus inspiring the big #1 track of 1991. Cobain was enamored of her smart mix of sexual provocateur (strutting around stage in sexy clothes) and angry feminist ranting (about the evils of the male gaze). Critics argued it was mixed signals, which was missing the point: just by being a straight white male, we became part of the performance, the target and the subject. We had the same eerie frisson listening to rap, which was also coming up in the world in 1991. In a world of pop culture aimed right at us 18-35 year-old straight white males, bands like Bikini Kill, NWA and the Geto Boys gave us a new thrill - that of being the target of rage--endangered, threatened, exposed, even from across the new medium called CD, while we drove to or our pharmaceutical corporation mailroom temp jobs. 


Hanna's fearless, raw, fuck you attitude was truly empowering to women, and the anemic ectomorphs who loved them (inciting imitators and rivals - Courtney Love famously cold-cocked her backstage). She'd get in the face of the mesomorphs who'd come to punks shows to mosh and stand in front of the stage to leer at her sexy bod. The film captures many great moments of her calling these mesomorphs out, including ordering them to the back of the room so girls could come up front in safety instead of forced to dwell out of skinhead elbow reach. On a larger scale, Hanna had some fame as the founder of the riot grrl movement via her many 'zines, her bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, the Julie Ruin. She married Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and is currently recovering from Lyme disease misdiagnosed as exhaustion from a hectic schedule. The documentary's pretty short, too, and never repeats itself or wears out it's welcome. Hanna's in good hands with Anderson, and Horovitz seems a very compassionate husband. Their home, by a riverside is modern yet homey. Can the pitter patter of little feet be far behind? That's a joke, son! Power to the childless! 

ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE
2013- dir. Lucky McKee
*** 
That alt-emo quasi-feminist horror maven Lucky McKee (May, The Woods) and less successful writer director Chris Silverton (I Know Who Killed Me) be at it again in this bigger budgeted updated remake of their 2001 shot-on-video collaborative debut, a kind of Pretty Little Liars for the the Deathdream set. A year after the accidental death of the cheerleader squad captain, the hierarchy of a local high school goes into disarray: the late girl's beau, the narcissistic football captain, aptly named Terry Stankus (Tom Williamson), goes up against scheming lesbian hottie Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) for the affection of a pretty blonde (Brooke Butler). Maddy's own ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is a witch who follows her around and keeps the rune stones in play. Smash car and a few cuts later and Leena's fishing the cheerleaders out of the lake and bringing them back to life. Now they're cold zombies with different colored gems in their bodies who feel each other's orgasms and blood lusts. Parts are more successful than the whole: the blood is tacky cartoon CGI and the glowing colored rocks are corny and there's an excess of all the wrong people getting hurt (Stankus does a lot of really abhorrent stuff but dies only once) but the whole thing has a nearly Russ Meyer-level of gonzo recklessness--we never know quite what's going to happen next--and allowing Maddy lots of vicious insult hurling at Stankus, Leena a lot of twisted witchy faces which--with her pale skin, black hair, and inch thick black eyeliner--make her quite the future camp horror icon-in-pupae form.


There's wry sense of subtle romantic humor, such as when Leena opens up her vein to feed her beloved undead Maddy and romantic music swells and wind blows through her hair in slow-mo real Harlequin paperback style; the little sister seduces the doofus virgin football guy in her older sister's body, so he believes all vaginas are cold as marble, etc.  But there's stupid shit too, like Leena leaving her rune stones in her locker, sans lock, for anyone to steal. Still, despite the vaguely skeevy aspects of hot girl-on-girl action as a turn-on for guys rather than a genuine lesbian love story (unsurprising considering it was written by two dudes), there's some sharp insight to lesbian trials and tribulations, such as how if you're a lesbian you can swoon for a hot chick you see walking by at the gym before you realize it's just you in the full wall mirror (which happened to a lesbian pal-o-mine), and just as you cannot escape your reflection you can never escape your ex, or her ex, and so on into a long daisy chain of former-lovers peering sullenly over each others' shoulders, or hooking up with each other to get back at you or your current girlfriend, all at your own dinner party. In other words, same gender equals double the problems and also more opportunities than in conventional boring ass straight relationships. I'm happy to say straight ass relationships get a bad showing in All Cheerleaders Die, much more than in the more conventional Craft. Though the boys are all just as skeev though not all are as date-rapey as Stankus. The scene where Maddy tears into him with a hurl of insults recalls similar scenes in Russ Meyer films, like Supervixens, and are a gas but he wreaks six pounds of misogyny to every wreaked vengeance ounce, and even the murders are undercut in intensity due to the blood's Tex Avery elasticity.


I like a lot of stuff about this energetic film--such as great roving camera that is seldom in the right place at the right time--and look forward to 'part two.' But in the anticlimactic retribution relative to the rampant misogynistic violence makes this a bit like disproportionate payback to the abuse in Jack Hill's Foxy Brown as opposed to Jack Hill's awesome Coffy; another drawback is the ridiculous slow-mo CGI blood, making it seem like this movie at one point wanted to court a teen market rather than the Alamo Drafthouse crowd. Still, Smit-McPhee has Fairuza Balk-and/or-Multiple Maniacs-era Divine cachet, despite her 'killing people on school grounds is wrong' ethos and the film is way better than the average found-Netflix dreck, albeit in the end, dreck it is, unsteady on its feet as it tries to serve too many demographics at once. Lucky, don't be afraid to get a woman co-writer, the way Deborah Hill did for Halloween or Gale Ann Hurd for The Terminator, or Karen Walton for Ginger Snaps. That way we won't have to pretend to be appalled by your male gaze eye candy, in case Kathleen Hanna is watching our every lustful eye movements from her crystal oculus. That little hottie really has our number, but McKee, you're a very sick girl.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shatner on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, DEVIL'S RAIN


William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a future without currency, determined player of crisis-bound priests and rock-like teachers, and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' In the following two films you will see him drink from a flask on frozen airplanes, and bare his chest to preserve a books and drop and lose a protective amulet the minute a Borgesian glimmer spell rolls its 20 sided serpent die his way... He's a relic from when hunky sci fi guys were brainy, had resonant voices and a certain catlike nimbleness. A tad macho and impulsive, but able to draw on cooler minds to guide him. Shatner is his name. He never lived with common people, but common people are all we have now. The Emmys prove that more every year. And the winner is, American Family.

Not in the late 60s-early 70s it wasn't! And we kids couldn't have been happier about it, even we didn't want to see kids onscreen unless they were going to be terrifying - Bop Bop! 


I know there are those hardcore Trekkies who are annoyed by Shatner's nimble macho fey arrogance as Kirk, who prefer the dry baldness of Patrick Stewart. They probably also hate There will be Blood and W.C. Fields. I am not one of them. Maybe it was growing up watching Trek with my dad in syndication as a wee nipper. But to me Shatner can do no wrong. Even his terrible toupee is all right with me. Always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice, his unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. 

Such  dopey films like the one included here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, he went for broke, lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of the cowboys-vs.-Satanists, cowboys vs. marauding spiders, and bearing torches on planes 37,000 Feet in the air, with a flask ever at the ready. 
HORROR AT 37,000 FEET
1973 - TVM / CBS
***
The 70s TV movie had to borrow from at least three currently popular themes of the hour, so here we get the ancient curse, the social commentary, and the ensemble disaster movie cast format (a welcome form of actor equity: faded stars, child actors, nearly-ran starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures --see also: Day of the Animals). They board a jumbo jet luxury "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar, and a dog. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! And the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once giving the impression of movement.


The result is a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of literal monster or concrete threat. The strange fascination with sub zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes Chuck's whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types (look it's Buddy Ebsen!) awaiting their line in the script with the reserved confusion of a Sartre play directed by Rod Serling's nephew after too a night of too many olives in martinis.


The sparse passengers include a wild-eyed single lady (the dog's owner, though she seems to forget all about him after awhile, or perhaps just wasn't brave enough to try and compete for the camera's attention against all those other needy hams). She's the best thing about the film, and she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past, her eyes alight with ancient magick. Chuck Connors is the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the quintessential priest who lost his faith (I was shocked when a hot stewardess in a short skirt wanted to confiscate his flask - when meanwhile he's also helping himself to the bar without paying, which doesn't bother her at all). Once he's drunk enough, Shatner laughs ruefully at their collective fate, though snaps to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice after first trying to pacify the spirit with the kid's doll as effigy. Will they commit the ultimate transgression or will the dawn come up in time? We'll find out after this brief fade out where commercials once played, dissipating whatever tensions may have accrued.


It all moves pretty fast and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can notice the way one of the actresses has a Rosemary Woodhouse buzz cut and sweat sheen, and another looks like Carrie White (though that film was still three years away). Naturally unless you were around in the 70s and remember these kinds of TV events, you're far less likely to care. But those of us who were kids will be glad to know the DVD of this looks way better than most. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful treatment. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths for its profaning the profane and blurring the Kate Jackson!
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THE DEVIL'S RAIN
1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
***
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain - and it's not, um, a great movie, but for kids from the 70s The Devil's Rain is an unholy and powerful relic, its TV spots an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975. I was eight and had a bizarre childhood dream about them and even now there's a lingering prepubescently perverse erotic charge associated with imagining acid rain hitting me and my coven and melting us all down like so much birthday candle wax. We'd heard Devil's Rain was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and convinced it was only a dream through hypnosis, and they'd arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic gone to the devil with touchy feely cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. So in rode devil films, a parallel subconscious repository that all of us, down to the smallest most impressionable infant, knew was only fantasy, yet a fantasy so powerful it spilled over into our collective subconscious, leading to witch hunts in the 1980s and the rise of nervous micro-managing overprotective brand parenting.


That feeling of these films having some supernatural power is gone, but as a kid growing up in the Satanic 70s just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give you sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable terror. And when we imagined the effects of the then brand-new acid rain, the Devil's Rain is what we imagined.


Turns out in real life the film is dreamy strange, with daytime afternoon Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, Shatner hamming it up worse than Vincent Price at the end of Pit and the Pendulum, and a nice 'start in the middle' approach to narrative (it's never really explained why or how Shatner's family's holding onto the Corwin's magic Satanic bible until a flashback) and an old deserted western ghost town making a surprisingly effective setting for a Satanic takeover, with an old church covered in black and the crosses replaced with pentagrams. Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback (via looking into coven member John Travolta's dead black eyes) and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner. The big climactic melting rain sequence goes on for what seems like an hour; it was the big 'money shot' of the film, even on the posters, so the director clearly wanted to get his money's worth. I got mine, the DVD is a must at $6.98, even if  most critics lambast the film, urging their slavish followers towards the admittedly superior and similar Brotherhood of Satan. I love that film too but I never saw commercials for it as a kid, so there's no perverse unconscious charge.


Got to admire a film that gives Hieronymus Bosch a name credit in the titles. What, were his lawyers all up in arms? Anton LaVey was a consultant, whatever that means (he knew which way to point the pentagrams? I've never considered him an authority, except at self-promotion). This movie gets no love from critics (20% approval on rotten tomatoes,) but I think they're being harsh. A nice buzz and low expectations is key to any Satanic film, and the whiskey-loving LaVey would agree. Still, Rain was infamous enough it destroyed director Robert Fuest's career --though he'd also made the more well-received And Soon the Darkness and Dr. Phibes neither of which I like as well as this. Got no Shat!!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lee Tracy!


Alongside Warren William, Lee Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams' whose like the Big Bad Wolf personified, known for playing sneaky industry captains and unscrupulous womanizers, Tracy's bag was Hollywood press agents and snoopy reporters, gossip columnists, and crime beat morgue haunters. he takes some getting used to by the casual observer, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, newsprint panache, and cackling amphetamine patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era:


THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN
1932 - N/A 
I haven't seen this but I heard its ducky, or as the pundits say 'pre-code racy'- Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls who rises and falls (like Suzy Lenox or Blond Venus) on the social ladder while Tracy probably journalizes her or tries to stab her with a pen. Can't wait to see them both bleed newsprint even if Dvorak was never meant to be a platinum blonde. Flash! Directed by Michael Curtiz!


THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH 
1932 - **1/2 
Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first, as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, so probably lacks gallow's wit. There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, who by then has let fame go to her harridan head, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, i think, and the dialogue is great (Sample: secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity." / Tracy: "Such language!"). Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist, he was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.


LOVE IS A RACKET
1932 - ***1/2
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it like a punch to the gut.


TURN BACK THE CLOCK
1933 - N/A
Another one I haven't seen, but it's from my favorite movie year, 1933 and one of my favorite screenwriters, Ben Hecht. Lee Tracy imagines what his life would be like if he made different choices, got to avoid the mistakes etc. etc. Don't we all fantasize about that? But seldom do we do it during the Great Depression when our tobacco shop is failing on us. Even if it is MGM, man, it's Hecht!


BOMBSHELL
1933 - ****
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy as, what else?, an unscrupulous publicity agent.


BLESSED EVENT
1932 - ***1/2
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.


DINNER AT EIGHT
1933 - ****
I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.


DR. X
1933 - ***1/2
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.

And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

CLEAR ALL WIRES
1933 - ***
Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933! He's the kind of dirt digger who travels the world worming his way into the dens of the most dangerous men and angering the snobby New York Times journalist who's always too late for the big story because he's too busy trying to arrange Tracy's downfall. It's kind of silly but there's typically big-budget MGM scenes as Tracy and entourage head to Russia to report on the 15th Anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Una Merkel as a flighty baby-talking mistress who follows Tracy around at hotels across the street is very reminiscent of both Susan Alexander Kane and Marcello's mistress in 8 1/2. Benita Hume is a known fellow reporter whose had an off-on affair with Tracy. After awhile  you'll wonder how Tracy ever survived so long by making so many self-defeating choices, i.e. when in a dangerous country, don't antagonize a reporter who's fond of manipulating governments into throwing you into jail, and if you must cart around a baby-talking Merkel, make sure it's not your boss's. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Micro-Manager Munchausen: THE STRAIN, SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE



Heroes used to dread their appointed hour before danger, they'd dart around asking for help from civilians, blame poor marksmanship, or their Quaker faith, or Ingrid Bergman sticking them for the cost of a train ticket back in Paris, or all the droids or cows needing repair, as their flimsy excuses to hold off. But now, in today's crowded sci fi/horror climate, well, just try and stop them. And many do. Cops, parents, ex-wives, children, all regard our Munchausen Chicken Little with resigned frustration as he urges them to hear his pleas, especially if he's a deadbeat dad with a history of micro-management heroism that's already cost him his wife, house and perhaps even joint-custody because he's so busy trying to solve every little crisis he passes on the street (proximal morality). These crazy 'heroes' run around like William Shatner with gremlins on the plane, grabbing lapels of bewildered pedestrians and blocking ambulances and yelling "don't you get it?!" into the faces of overstretched EMTs. They've only ever been the villain in two movies, STRAW DOGS and THE LEGO MOVIE --and in one most people presume he's the hero and in the other he eventually sees the light and lightens up. But in two major TV events this summer--THE STRAIN, the new FX show from the mind of acclaimed sci fi horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, and SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE, the Syfy original sequel far inferior to the original (no mean feat)--the micro-managing dads are just as, if not more, obnoxious. Even as the world ends or CGI sharks fly through the air, they run around with an air of humorless unshaven urgency. STRAIN's NYC health officer Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) refuses to listen to his superiors when dealing with a vampire plague-infested plane. Most passengers dead, four survivors anxious to get home and start spreading the 'news' and he wants to contain them in a makeshift hazmat lab. Meanwhile a savvy old Jew pawnbroker tries to advise Dr. Goodweather on what's going on, but he has man arrested for having the sword in an airport terminal. So right off the bat, you want to slap him and our urge to see the world wiped out while he bangs on the window is nigh insurmountable.


It doesn't help that the bad guys (led by Thomas Eichorst, left) are fairly cool: they honor their deals, pay in cash, do their research, spend more time and money than Tootsie on make-up and black market organs, and their world to see the world end is genuine, indicative less of greed or some mundane reason than simply of being turned on by the forthcoming apocalypse. Hell, I say let these long-tongued vamp zombies have a crack at planet custodianship --they couldn't possibly leave it worse off than when we left it.

Goodweather disagrees, or rather hasn't thought that far ahead, being obligated by his little taste of power as CDC agent to grab those passing lapels, even to the point of ignoring the edicts of his superiors and winding up under arrest, but while inviting himself to tromp all over the rights of others he also attempts to juggle into his busy schedule a hearing over joint custody for his 'yawn' little son. There's a word for this type of guy, Munchausen by-proxy, or rather, as I call them, 'dad of great adventure'. They can't admit their insecurity and ambivalence about their roles as second class citizen in the modern family unit, yet are unwilling to abandon trying to fill whatever diminished emasculated role their child's mom will allow.

Naked white/grey monsters are always played by limber dancers
Anyway, we know from the start that Goodweather's right to want to quarantine these survivors--there wouldn't be a show if there wasn't good reason--but at the same time, we would hate to be unable to get home after a lengthy cross-Atlantic flight, forced to wait in a sterilized plastic cube for weeks while he tinkers with out blood samples. Plus, why would we root for Goodweather to stop the spread of a plague? l I love a lot of del Toro's art design; I admire his willingness to kill children, but I've always winced when he goes too far with his saintly family mere-life bullshit! And the whole business with the giant worm tongue leaping out of the monster's faces is so familiar, thanks to his using it in MIMIC and BLADE II. Even Paul W.S. Anderson has picked them up for RESIDENT EVIL.


Meanwhile there's this idiot woman who's husband is infected and he's barking at her to run, their dog's blood dripping from his mouth and she just stands there like a moron, frozen in 'terror' well within striking range of his forked tongue. He's telling her to run and we're screaming at the screen for her to run and she just stands there as if waiting for a cue until we wonder how she ever lived past the second episode. But then the next scene she's burying the dog and after the neighbor complains because he still hears growling she pushes him into the shed to feed her husband so we're back into thinking she's awesome. It's that kind of show, and typical of del Toro, for every corny Mexican soap moment there's two kickass touches, or vice versa.


Last year, The Asylum (the offshoot of Concord which was the 80s version of New World, i.e. 70s Roger Corman) gave us the surprise meme hit SHARKNADO (see: Wronger than the Storm). Now we got the the sequel, bound for much tweeting and therefore of great interest to fading actors in need of being seen by the young 'constant-texter' generation lest they fade away entirely. Thus, every middle aged B-lister realizes it's the ideal spot to cameo their new chewed-up faces and bloated bodies and thus stand a better chance of being recognized at next year's Comic-Con. Aye, matey, to trod bravely before the green screen curtain and be eaten in style, knowing for sure your every flubbed line will earn a hundred winky tweets...

But there's the rub, for in courting camp what crap may come.

Chicken Little of the Sea
What's most glaring right off is how the decision to drop it all down into NYC is a big mistake --NYC doesn't need alarmist west coasters with hero complexes running amok. Letting Fin into our city is like allowing flash bulb photography during your unveiling of Kong, the 8th wonder of the world. There's just no room on our crowded streets for one lone nutball to run loose on Broadway without inflicting millions in damages. We start off right in the thick of it as Fin (Ian Zering) and his re-united family (ex-wife Tara Reid but they're working it out, and his son and daughter) stalked by a sharks on a plane. Fin ever the hero, gets the plane down safely, but no one bothered to tell him that NYC is blessed with a stalwart network of first responders, and anyone who mentions needing to build a bomb in public should be arrested at once, not helped. Unlike most sensible people, Fin doesn't find shelter, or take an Ambien and go to sleep 'til it's all over, he runs around trying to find the other members of his traveling party and components for his homemade bomb --which he plans to throw into the wind.

I know our cops have problems with quick response in certain neighborhoods but not, my friends, in midtown, so their lack of presence is suspicious. No one is attacked unless seen first by Fin as he races past, clocking them for B-list celeb status (included in his posse, slightly used versions of: Vivica Fox, Kelly Osbourne, Judd Hirsch, Judah Friedlander, Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Rae Cyrus, Rachel True, Andy Dick, Mark McGrath), at which time they're either devoured by a passing shark, or rescued by his quick thinking and thus obligated to join his panicky parade. While Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, and Al Roker look on from the TV screen, rolling with the sharknado concept as a fact barely worth an eyebrow raise (just avoid making seal-like movements and you're safe, no big deal), Fin is determined to save us in spite of ourselves.

His rescuing-addiction was perfect for LA in the original because he had to protect the valuable clientele of his beachfront bar, and it's at a beachfront bar, we can imagine, that the notion of a sharknado first developed in some slushed screenwriter's mind. Who amongst us hasn't drunk deep from a sandy beer after a long day body surfing and imagined how badass it would be if sharks came through the window with a huge wave and started chasing people around the pool table, or swam in the air, or that the rec room floor was water so you had to jump from couch to couch? That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing, and as a deadbeat dad his desire to rescue his family was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time forward momentum, stretching the action across L.A. from the beach to the hills, over the course of one well-modulated real tidal wave of inland momentum and the vibe in the getaway car was like one of those great drunken parties wherein everyone at the bar becomes instant tribe and marches off to some second location, singing at the top of their lungs: John Heard was the drunken regular (John Heard); barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left), who brandishes a shark scar and a shotgun; and wingman Jaason Simmons, racing with the inward tide of a gigantic wave rolling in first through the bar windows, and then up the hill, filling the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten, such as his daughter's douche bag boyfriend (and there was much rejoicing) as the shark water fills living rooms but leaves driveways merely damp as if from a distant rain machine.  And a slightly busted by L.A. sun and time and too much make-up clogging the pores, Tara Reid, as the embittered ex-wife who still has some vague torch for old Fin - setting up a weird comedy of remarriage).


In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it, as a Corman film it conjured up the good old days of movies like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, or CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. In short, it turned its budgetary limits into an asset, which SHARKNADO 2's NYC location simply will not permit. New York is too real, too concrete, there's no time for grandstanding or defying gravity. Without the setting of surreal LA enhancing the CGI phoniness, this sequel is less like a surprise so-bad-it's-great entry amid a deluge of crappy CGI monster-bad weather hybrids and more a 'too aware everyone is tweeting about me' shitshow, as prefab and empty as a string of commercials for Shark Week during a Jay and Silent Bob film edited for content and watched on TNT by a mid-life crisis-having divorcee pothead after coming home alone from lunch at the Wal-Mart parking lot Hooters. Are we kids or what?

But we still have the original and the great untold shark story present in Tara Reid's weary face as the wife who steps back in, leaving the far more interesting Nova out of the sequel. There's no escaping her as she recovers in the hospital while Fin runs around building bombs and leaving suspicious packages, and hers, as well as most of the cast in the sequel, provides the real scary story, one of transformation and horror: a hundred young and glowing b-list actors went into the sun twenty years ago and came out looking like bad taxidermy. Botox and collagen took the rest. Anyway, they delivered the bomb.