Apr 14, 2010

Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

This silent short has popped around for a few years in a bid for Reefer Madness-style camp status, as the video box proclaims it to be the first film ever made concerning cocaine.  Back in the days when it was still rare to purchase videos at consumer level, I saw this in Woolworth's, but there was no way in Hell I was going to pay fifteen bucks for a twenty-minute video.  However, thanks to the DVD Age of VHS Clearance Sales, little baubles like this can be found at a pittance of a price.  So if you can find it, it's an amusing effort featuring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a detective who investigates the strange goings-on at a beach resort.  Apparently, some evil stuff is being smuggled via these floating plastic fish things that people ride on in the water.  Along the way he gets to save silent screen star Bessie Love from the bad guys.  The cocaine angle is not in the exposé, but rather Doug's own habit (his character's name is "Coke Ennyday"!)-- he injects himself with the stuff every few minutes of screen time, and pantomimes the effects of the drug before barely removing the needle!  As the "plot" unravels, it gets more and more ridiculous (look at the ways in which Doug hides from the bad guys-- apparently they cannot hear because it is a silent movie, or they have no peripheral vision).  Alas, this story (written by future horror master Tod Browning!) turns out to be a pitch offered up by the real Douglas Fairbanks to some incredulous producers-- it seems he also wants to be a screenwriter, too.  This mildly amusing short is topical, but time has not been kind to it. 

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 13, 2010

J-Men Forever (1979)

This midnight movie favourite is a surprisingly well-thought out compilation of the great old serials of yore courtesy Phillip Proctor and Victor Bergman, alumni of The Firesign Theatre. The sole new footage is some black and white scenes with Proctor and Bergman, who try to sort out the dilemma of evil people from the moon who attempt to take over the world, first by rock and roll, then by cannabis! (I'm sure a lot of the film's cultists wouldn't have objected). In any case, this is an infectious What's Up Tiger Lily for the serial crowd, in which some classic moments are re-dubbed and edited together for this crazy story. It features Captain America, Captain Marvel, The Spy Smasher, etc. in an effort to thwart the bad guys, led under the wing of the diabolical Lightning Bug (who apparently has a penchant for disguises, which is why so many different serial villains, from The Crimson Ghost to The Scorpion, appear under the same name. Ha ha). Although this attempt at stringing together all these superheroes and supervillains gets to be a bit much at the end (in a way, it becomes just as episodic as the serials it plunders), the effort is there, and for the most part it's damned funny. I love how they use a lab experiment from one film which results in an explosion cribbed from another source. Although the film is re-dubbed, in a way it begs more comparison with Carl Reiner's underrated Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which also succeeds in telling a complex story from a wide range of source material.

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 12, 2010

Iguana (1988)

This, one of the least-seen of all of renegade auteur Hellman's quirky pictures, is a beautifully shot, characteristically slow, admittedly bizarre allegory based on a novel by Albert Vasquez Figueroa. Everett McGill plays the title character, so named because of his deformity: half of his face has reptilian scales. After he is beaten by his shipmates, he escapes to a remote island where he begins to run his own empire of cruelty over anyone unfortunate enough to grace his path. Survivors of a shipwreck who wash up on shore become his unwitting slaves, and most tellingly, Carmen, a recent widow (the very photogenic Maru Valdivielso) becomes the recipient of his sexual violence. To be sure, this film is not always pleasant, but it is never exploitative. Hellman's picture is nonetheless respectful and literate. (On paper, this is quite a story.) Some long early scenes with Carmen, before she crosses Iguana's path, may seem meandering, but slowly you realize that this film is equally about her. Iguana also chronicles her subservience to men, and the consequences which result from this behaviour. As Iguana, McGill, is strikingly good- he finds the conviction to the character's warped sense of the world. Still, for its interesting story, and lovely photography (which itself is contradictory to the anything-but-lovely human behaviour within) it is however a chore to sit through because it is very slow. It's worth a rent (available in widescreen from Anchor Bay), but it is definitely one of the director's lesser efforts.

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 11, 2010

The Gong Show Movie (1980)

It is a crying shame that no-one at Universal/MCA wised up and released this title, after the success of the Chuck Barris bio-pic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. True, The Gong Show Movie may not be as polished as the later film, but this too emerges as a telling portrait of "Gong Show" host Chuck Barris. And despite the fact that this bloated home movie stars Barris before and behind the camera (he even co-wrote the script with underground legend Robert Downey Sr., of all people), this movie is not a self-congratulatory ego trip.

This almost plotless movie instead features Barris as a world-weary, disillusioned screw-up. The story, such as it is, peripherally concerns his rocky relationship with his girlfriend (Robin Altman), or his consistent badgering by his producer over the show's sagging ratings. Every once in a while, Chuck decides to screw it all and jam with his country-and-western band! But otherwise, this blur of a movie deals with Barris and his uneasy kinship with the losers which nonetheless feed his career.

Amusingly, just like Alan Freed in American Hot Wax, he is virtually accosted in every other scene by some hopeful lowlife with some half-baked act for fleeting stardom. (Even a passerby wino auditions for him!) Like Phil Tucker's no-budget Broadway Jungle, this is a rare film which so callously explores/exploits hapless no-talents and their pathetic bids for fame; both films suggest that their creators are among them.

Finally, Chuck takes off to find sanctuary in the African desert, then the film morphs into a bizarre musical as his co-stars appear to tell him how much they need him! Now there is no doubt- Chuck Barris and these pathetic morons are co-dependent. This is why the film is filled with so many impressionistic bits of these contestants on and offstage-- "The
Gong Show" is their lifeblood, too; this movie is equally about them. Suddenly, all of the ragged unfocused moments in this desperate movie begin to make sense.

The weakest aspect of this comedy is that the gags are predictable. However, once in a while, there is a second gag thrown on top which makes for some special moments. For example, The Unknown Comic wakes up in the morning with a bag over his head, as does (predictably) the girl in bed next to him. Then, unexpectedly, the camera pans up to see a painting of him in the nude, with a paper bag covering a certain part of his anatomy!

Plus, the film has extraneous segments of "Gong Show" contestants on the air, in longer, randier sequences most assuredly cut for original broadcast. Most famously, the ubiquitous Jaye P. Morgan bares her breasts. These overlong, wheezy moments nonetheless illustrate Barris' out-of-control lifestyle.

For all of its misfires and tired gags, The Gong Show Movie nonetheless remains one of the boldest acts of career suicide since The Monkees' Head, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most telling portraits of neurosis among celebrity life.

(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 10, 2010

Four Times That Night (1969)

Four Times That Night is completely inessential for the Mario Bava enthusiast. But if you're an enthusiast and must see everything that the master directed, as do I, then you'll probably want to see it anyway. But whatever you do... rent it first, before you decide to plunk down some hard-earned cash to purchase it.

This is one of those efforts in the late 1960's which Bava directed with complete indifference. Like any other Italian genre filmmaker, that country's greatest fantasy director nonetheless had to do his share of work in other subgenres, like sword-and-sandal, or even spaghetti westerns. This, his sole contribution to the "saucy sex farce", may be worth a look for the curious, but it is clear he had little interest in this project (typified by the sledgehammer use of the "let's get this over with quick" zoom lens). For the record, it is a feeble "Swingin' 60's" version of Rashomon, in which four points of view are offered over whether pretty virginal Tina was sexually assaulted at Gianni's groovy pad, and to a lesser extent, how Gianni got those scratches on his forehead.

Tina's version, given to her mother who frets over her daughter's torn dress, asserts that Gianni attempted to ravage her, yet she managed to escape by locking him in the bathroom. The scratches came from a self-defense maneuver. Gianni explains to some lonely bachelor friends that he brought the girl over to her place and even this man whore was quickly expired by the girl's unending appetite for sexual fulfillment. The scratches, in this version, are the result of the throes of passion. Most depraved of all, is the recount by the doorman of Gianni's apartment building, who tells his leering friend of that night's exploits. From this peeping tom's vantage point, he could see that the pair were visited by a male-female couple of neighbours, each of whom nonetheless cruise for members of their own sex. (We see this couple peripherally in the previous versions, as well as the doorman, who is busily cutting out nude pictures). This tasteless segment not only features some grotesque sexual stereotyping, but it ends with an offensive gang-bang sequence. Here is flashback filmmaking at its sloppiest. From the pervert's vantage point in the tree, we are nonetheless led to believe that he can not only hear their dialogue from so far away, but even fill us in on a flashback sequence within this flashback, in which the lesbian explains how she switched to same-sex preference.

Then we shift to the fourth, most idiotic and most bizarre sequence, given by some onscreen narrator, who poses as a psychiatrist, I guess, but his function is eerily similar to Bela Lugosi's in Glen or Glenda. First he rambles on about how all or none of the previous accounts could be true, which he then compares to the ambiguous accounts of the story of Noah's Ark! Okay then.

As infantile, morally ambiguous and skin-deep this effort is, I do concede that Four Times That Night is beautifully shot. With its pastel colouring and, otherworldly art decoration (ie- the swing in swingin' Gianni's living room), this and other Bava pictures of the period impeccably capture the 1960's "mod" pop-art world like no other. This exaggerated time capsule is nonetheless evocative of its period. That said, it is a good-looking package with nothing inside.

(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 9, 2010

Code Name: Alpha (1967)

What Stars Do When They're Broke: Case File #4751.

Once former swashbuckling star Stewart Granger got long in the tooth for his costume dramas, he went to Europe for a long career of second-string genre efforts like this one (which was also known as Red Dragon). This tired attempt to cash in on the James Bond craze is worth a glance for the actor's first scene. After we see some generic spy goons get shot in the opening, we cut to a model train set on a rug, in which one of the cars is carrying a drink over to the appreciative secret agent man! A mildly novel way of riffing on the cocktail-swilling stereotype of these intrepid souls. Granger's drinking habit is soon interrupted by this assignment to find the killers in Hong Kong, and he is paired with sexy super agent Rosanna Schiaffino (think of Yvonne Craig crossed with Natalie Wood). And because the formula of the genre commands it, naturally Granger tries to put the moves on his new partner, but no dice. Seeing him trying to score with this sharp-featured gal is a lot like watching someone in a zoot suit trying to pick up some punk girl at a New York Dolls concert at CBGB'S. Anyhow, the usual red herrings and foiled murder attempts abound, with an amusing subplot where this young lady actually manages to wangle herself into a job as the secretary of the main suspect they are tailing! (Somehow I'm reminded of Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest.) This is also noteworthy for the location footage in Hong Kong, but the obvious sledgehammer English-dubbing gives the setting a slightly surreal effect. (The cheapo budget label VHS copy I saw was also slightly out of sync.) For comic relief, Granger gets paired with an Anglophone who apparently can translate Chinese, but that's okay, because everyone they meet speaks English! Culminating in a not-bad finale on a burning boat, this isn't a bad time-waster from yesteryear, perfect for a Saturday afternoon when you've seen the movie on A&E three times already. What the hell, rent it.

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 8, 2010

Beyond Therapy (1987)

As long as Robert Altman continued to breathe, he was a movie-making machine, God bless him. This little curiosity is definitely second-tier Altman, but it is one of many of said films which today are deserving of another look. People detested this romantic comedy (based on Christopher Durang's play) when it came out, but I was rather fond of it. I was happy not to be disappointed after viewing it again after so many years. This amusing satire of 80's hang-ups centers around some befuddled Anglophones in Paris. Jeff Goldblum (with tight curls, trendy stubble, and white pastels, looking like he just came from a Kenny G concert) is a bisexual who has a blind date in a restaurant with Julie Hagerty, which of course turns to shambles. They each confide their troubles to their psychotherapists (Glenda Jackson, Tom Conti, respectively) who are only two rooms apart from one another. The room adjoining their offices is reserved for when the two doctors get so turned on that they meet for some hot and heavy sex. The fact that these strangers are nonetheless coincidentally linked by their copulating psychotherapists is not some contrived convenience-- as always, the director makes a mockery of such contrivance-- instead, in the big small world of Robert Altman, points like these become Shakespearean dramatic irony. As with any Altman film, there is enough subplot for a few films-- one of the few threads also concerns Goldblum's jealous boyfriend (an over-the-top, flamboyant Christopher Guest) which to some may seem politically incorrect, or stereotypical, however, Guest's character is strangely moving. I've never much cared for Julie Hagerty as an actress (Airplane! and Lost in America included), however this may the best showcase for her wispy neuroticism. All of this "romantic comedy" culminates in a big dinner at the central restaurant with one weird dream sequence. As always, in Altmania, the result matters less than the experiment. Even a little truffle like this has more moxey than anything from a generic Hollywood poseur half of the man's age.

(originally published in ESR #9; slightly updated for this blog)

Backs Turned (1957)

One has to marvel at Something Weird Video's knack for digging out the most subterranean of obscurities-- case in point, this oddity from pre-Bay of Pigs Cuba (distributed on VHS under the title Cuban Confidential, with lurid box art to make it seem like it is some heavy-breathing melodrama-- which it is not). This spin on Celine's Journey To the End of The Night finds a listless bureaucrat who takes the day off of work to walk around the Cuban city and countryside wondering why there is so much lack of consideration for the human condition. "Why was this child allowed to die?" is typical of the many existential lines that are muttered in this rambling narrative. For a while, it almost seems that this effort is some kind of surreal, dreamlike treatise, as the protagonist wanders in a cemetery, witnesses a baby dying in a hospital, and even chats with an inmate who is sentenced to death row. It doesn't work as surrealism, nor can one perceive this as grittily realistic, witnessed by the improbable scene where he would be allowed to visit a condemned man in his cell. As it stands, the movie is stilted and thuddingly amateurish. Since this was backed by American producers (ironically, in hindsight), they had the foresight to solve dubbing problems with such an easy cop-out as the man who appears at the beginning and end, sitting in patio furniture, telling us how we're all the same, all while his back is to the camera! (I'm not sure if that's what the title means.) This essay on dehumanization is more interesting for the backgrounds: it's worth a look for the tertiary view of pre-Castro Cuba. However, for what this film is trying to do, Tomas Guittierez Alea's Death of a Bureaucrat succeeds exponentially better.

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 7, 2010

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

I could just picture this little effort as being one of those wonderful discoveries that you would find in a Thursday night fall double-bill at The Nostalgic Cinema, if it was still open. Turhan Bey (the Turkish actor who was a matinee heartthrob even when he was cast as a no-gooder) is a phony psychic who claims he can communicate with a grieving woman's dead husband. Her sister naturally thinks the medium is just exploiting her in order to make a quick buck. This derivative B movie may seem familiar now, due to bigger pictures made before and after it, but today it remains a lovely treasure. It is worth seeking out alone for the great scene when, during a seance in which the woman's defenders will finally reveal the medium to be a phony, suddenly the voice of the dead husband is heard... and even Bey is shocked!!

What this movie obviously lacks in originality it makes up for with a startling command of mise en scene which transcends the modest production. Every single scene is an exercise in style: expressionistic lighting and shadows elevate this movie into a genuinely captivating moodpiece. The look of this film may be more attributed to the great cameraman John Alton than to its director. Bernard Vorhaus never had a distinguished career in Hollywood; especially since he was soon to be blacklisted. Alas, this sleeper remains a "What if...?"

The Amazing Mr. X is a perfect film to accidentally discover on the late show at 4AM.... well, since that's unlikely anymore, and since it's even more unlikely that your neighbourhood 100-seat theatre (if you still have one) will program it for some appropriately rainy fall night, this is therefore a movie you kind of find all for yourself in the back shelf of your favourite mom and pop video store... if you still have one.

(originally published in ESR #9)

Apr 6, 2010

The Third Floor Drive-In.... Sixth Season Opener

Well, it appears that spring has finally sprung-- and as such the holiday weekend was spent cleaning and spraying to re-open the Third Floor Drive-In for its sixth season. Over the past year or two, we've learned that it's better to start drive-in season earlier in the year, before the mosquitoes begin to wise up.

The evening commenced with some vintage drive-in lobby ads, trailers for Grayeagle and Shadow of the Hawk, followed by the main feature:

Fun was had by all!