Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ray Harryhausen RIP—and the Movies of April 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)
The Last of the Old School Special Effects Masters has passed away. Now Harryhausen joins Albert Whitlock, Derek Meddings, L.B. Abbott and a small handful of others creating special visual effects for the Afterlife—all without computers!

Big Ray was no hired hand, though:
Harryhausen’s was the rare case of the special effects man determining the path of the motion picture routinely—essentially acting as a hands-on producer (even the directors usually hired by him and partner Charles H. Schneer were non-entities: so as not to interfere?). His individualized, specific form of stop-motion animation is intractably tied to the movies they were in and vice versa.

There is a certain tone to Harryhausen’s flicks, combined with an extravagant but classical sense of fantasy that puts his name directly on the same level as George Pal and Walt Disney as the Masters of Family-Friendly Fantasy. You might consider it a level of “cheese” in Harryhausen’s wholesome enterprises, but it is extremely earnest, and absolutely charming—and drips with the hard work of one solitary man.
The trouble with CGI is that it’s so commonplace. It’s everywhere—and boring. There was a time when a special effects nerd would get excited that an ad on TV used claymation, or that stop-motion was used to sell Armor-All! Now food morphs routinely.

RH behind the scenes on one of my favorites, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers
And in the old days—shut up, kids, grandpa’s talking!—effects in films could usually be measured in frames, before they’d cut away to the star and romantic interest gazing in awe/fear/etc.

It’s almost a good thing that Ray Harryhausen hadn’t worked since 1981. He ended at essentially the top of his game technically, with a film, Clash of the Titans, that wasn’t perfect, but was a box-office champ and eventually became a well-remembered “classic,” constantly shown on TV.

Big Ray spent his last 30 years basking in glory, getting touted hither and yon, often making cameos in other director’s films, many for John Landis. It’s too bad he didn’t get to do any animating during this time, but looking at how much SPFX has changed—and how much audiences have lost their suspension of disbelief—I feel anything Harryhausen could have done in this time would not have been appreciated or understood; or given due praise like his classics from the 1950s to early-1970s.
Big Ray unleashing the Kraken!

The Ymir from
20 Million Miles to Earth
(great title, superb monster)
gets recognition on the cover of
The Monster Times!
Hmmm, lots of sci-fi this month—at first… But a very healthy dose of genre product throughout—remember, it’s there where truths can be found.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006; Mamoru Hosoda) A fun movie from Japan about an awkward tomboy, Makoto, who gets time travel powers—and totally wastes them in ways that make sense to a goofy teen girl: Shifting time to relive fun moments, especially hanging out with good friends.

More of a YA story; with its measured pace, the film allows the viewer to relive the uncomfortable craziness of teen love, with characters who are scared of their emotions; acting like real people—which is wonderful coming from an anime.

Robot & Frank (2012; Jake Schreier) This is unique sci-fi, and a welcome relief to intergalactic battles and epic quests. In the near future, Frank, a curmudgeonly ex-jewel thief with early-onset Alzheimer’s gets a helper robot—which is soon learning to crack safes. With a little trimming, this film could be a very poignant episode of The Outer Limits, examining painful human situations through the beautiful lens of genre. As is, the film is ultimately heartbreaking, and worth sticking through till the end.

Not Harryhausen, but a vile and slick extraterrestrial from 2006’s Altered
Altered (2006; Eduardo Sanchez) Backwoods alien-abductees try and get revenge on the nasty ETs that probed them, but honestly, it is a glaring sign of human hubris that trailer park yokels think they can repel an intergalactic scout force. What, they do? How? Whaaaa? Really? Oh, boy…

This picture is not as good the second time around; but worth it for the gore—once you get used to the shocks, the story is pretty stupid. But great nasty aliens and super-icky gore. Well-done Z-movie (if you don’t scrutinize the script), with plenty of shocks and gore that you only have to watch once. Did I mention the gore?

Shining Backwards & Forwards (2011-2012) John Fell Ryan’s unique transposing of the Kubrick classic upon itself, but reversed. Sometimes sublime—especially the halfway mark of Halloran’s face—but sometimes just silly.
And if you’ve seen the film as many times as I have, the whole endeavor could be a tad…tiring.
Seen through the auspices of the essential Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn! 

My favorite dragon!
From Harryhausen's Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
The Kids Are All Right (2010; Lisa Cholodenko) Humorous fluff that thinks it’s deep: A better-than-average Hollywood film about the turbulence a kid’s looking up the identity of their sperm-donor father can cause. Full of awkward human moments, the performances all feel naturalistic without being affected.

The fact that the family is headed by a couple of lesbians seems almost secondary to me; and interesting in its acceptance.
Lesbians have boring middle class lives, too.
Just because you’re lesbians doesn’t mean you’re perfect.
It helps the sitcom vibe that the dykes are both beautiful and financially well-off, quite SoCal bourgeois—which means this flick has no real bearing on reality. This family is insulated by money, class and beauty. Still, an amusing film, if forgettable.

The First Men in the Moon
Das Millionenspiel (The Millions Game) (1970; Tom Toelle & Wolfgang Menge) What started out as a spoof of game shows becomes the missing link between an entire sci-fi/action subgenre and its literary source: Robert Sheckley’s story “The Seventh Victim,” made into a well-remembered 1960s film The Tenth Victim.

Much, much better than The Hunger Games or The Running Man, smarter than Battle Royale (but not as gory or action-packed) and Rollerball—but equal to Death Race 2000,
The Valley of Gwangi
The Millions Game is how it would really happen, including ridiculous advertisements, as a man is hunted down on live, government-approved network TV. The situation wouldn’t hold up if the film (and its TV show) didn’t pack on the details, getting the “game show” vibe just right, from the unctuous host, to the bizarre dancers in the musical numbers, to the replaceable assistants, to all the background on the “contestant.”

Primer (2004; Shane Carruth) Another offbeat look at time travel and its inherent conundrums.
Nope, I didn’t “get” it—but I liked it. The earnestness of the engineers shines through; that they are always busy, whether talking, building or planning, certainly helps and keeps the pace up.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
Sahara (1943; Zoltan Korda) Excellent! Bogie takes on the Afrika Korps—and wins! Wonderfully fatalistic wartime propaganda, aided by a great cast and a very fast pace, the film is a good twist on the “lost patrol” subgenre that focuses on competent men focusing against a common foe. Man, this flick is square-jawed.

This Ain’t California (2012; Marten Persiel) Cool documentary about East Berlin skatepunks. Dude, when compared to kids dealing with official nastiness like the Stasi, US angst-ridden youth are losers.

Nature Calls (2012; Todd Rohal) What could have been a mediocre comedy is saved by how smart (or rather, sly), rude and fast-paced this flick is. Standouts are Patton Oswalt (bringing genuine sensitivity to his character), Rob Riggle (who’s patented the deranged/dangerous shrieking Man-Boy caricature) and the late Patrice O’Neal as an angry dad whose kids think he’s a zombie, all aided by a transgressively potty-mouthed brigade of pre-teens.

Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story (2007; Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville) Incredible documentary about the rise and fall and sort-of rise of the legendary Stax Records: “Soulsville!”
The best, highly recommended; with an incredible soundtrack and some great performances captured on film! Whew!
And make sure to watch Stax/Volt in Norway (it’s usually an extra DVD that accompanies Respect Yourself: more fantastic perfs).

As great a pop culture icon as they come: the immortal Michigan J. Frog.

One Froggy Evening (1955; Charles M. Jones) A singing frog “ruins” a man’s life in this philosophical morality tale.
I’d like to apply a level of malevolence to the actions of Michigan J. Frog, but I can’t: we are never given any evidence, like a sly look, or a raised eyebrow, that the singing amphibian is out to “get” anyone. The critter exists in a time-space nexus where only the currently-imprinted human gets the musical show. Michigan just absolutely cannot perform when others are watching; that’s all, like some cats are always hiding when guests are around.

The amphibian is an object of both temptation and salvation—because while it would suck not being able to share it, having a singing-dancing pet frog would be pretty cool—except for when he won’t shut up, and that’s when you invite company over.

But why are the men tempted? They see something almost miraculous and the first thing that comes to their minds is money and wealth. The frog might have danced for others if these workmen had thought of taking the croaker to a room full of crippled kids or burn victims. After all, the singing and dancing is not completely in their heads—that cop who busts the shlub in the wintery park heard somebody singing.

The immortal Michigan J. Frog could have said (sang?) to them, “This is something that can only be enjoyed when you are alone; do that, and all will be well. Besides, why are you trying to exploit my talent? Learn to sing yourself!”

Quasi-psychedelic lunar city from Harryhausen's
The First Men in the Moon 
But these frog-finders still wouldn’t have listened, being creatures of their social environments, corrupted so much as to ignore spiritual value. Leaving the construction site, the shlub tiptoes past—hardly even glances at—a big, bright red “DANGER” sign: he was warned, but now will pay. The escape from suffering that he thought money would bring was right in his hands the whole time—but he just couldn’t see it. Sigh…

Relentless (1989; William Lustig) The wonderful Spectacle Theater of Brooklyn had a special evening of legendary grindster William Lustig’s films featuring this film and Maniac Cop (below), with the jovial and loquacious director providing Q&A before and after the movies. Relentless is a cops vs. serial killer flick that’s fun if you’re a Lustig fan: he brings a real “Fuck You, I’m From New Yawk” attitude to his treatment of Los Angeles cops and their way of doing things. Also, I like Lustig’s subtextual message that the police force is like an infectious poison: Judd Nelson’s psycho is the son of a brutal, mega-fascistic, quasi-survivalist nutjob homicide detective, and when Nelson is rejected from the police academy, he wants revenge! Hey, didn’t this sort of thing just happen recently in Southern California…?

Maniac Cop (1988; William Lustig) Lustig and writer-producer Larry Cohen and conceived of this slice of grindhouse genius in an afternoon, after realizing how awesome the title was.

Ray & Medusa
Largely shot in Los Angeles, but set in NYC (with a few marvelous stolen shots of boozing policemen from a St. Patrick’s Parade), director Lustig really gets a cop-fear vibe working as a giant maniac dressed as a cop goes around killing anybody—but especially innocent civilians unfortunate enough to cross his path. It turns out the Maniac Cop was some Dirty-Harry-type who used to falsify evidence regularly, and after he was busted, he was shanked in prison—only to be revived by the jailhouse sawbones. Aided by his mousy, but right-wing girlfriend, Maniac Cop has been staying ahead of the police, slaying more random citizens.

In its roundabout B-movie way, Maniac Cop questions the need for an armed security force that never seems to be around when you need it, nor answerable for its actions: blaming and killing others before even beginning to question whether its actions are as righteous as it claims.

Sinister (2012; Scott Derrickson) Great stuff! Really moody and creepy supernatural thriller, that I think I like more than Insidious (even though that movie has more scares).
Ethan Hawke is a down-on-his-luck writer of true crime books who’s moved his wife and kids into the house where an entire family was killed (by hanging) and one child disappeared. Hawke’s researching a book on the crime, and desperately hopes it will jumpstart his career—and home life: both are a mess; it’s been 10 years since his last hit, his wife is hardly supportive, and his kids are brats.
We learn that Ellison, Hawke’s character, never became a writer out of burning need, but as a quick route to easy cash, and the success of his first book proved him right—for a while.

The writer makes a nightmarish Faustian bargain when he discovers super-8mm movies of a whole slew of crimes dating back to the 1960s (including the one he’s researching that happened in his own backyard)—and he doesn’t call the police.

Things only get more and more ghastly in this demonic thriller, with many well-earned chills and a high level of macabre weirdness—there’s a seriously transgressive vibe to many of the murders—and a really delicious twist (you may know it’s coming, but not how it’s done). With some swell cameos by James Ransome as a smarter-than-he-looks deputy and an uncredited Vincent D’onfrio as a jovial occultist, Sinister is a dense and unnerving B-movie, with a deep desire to scare you, worthy of being discovered. If it ends up on Nflix InstaVue, I’ll watch it again.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
The Night God Screamed (1971; Lee Madden) Reviewed HERE.

Giant God Warrior Appears In Tokyo (Kyōshinhei Tokyo ni Arawaru) (2013; Higuchi Shinji) Not sure of its origins but who doesn’t love short films about gigantic kaiju mecha-warriors attacking?

Directed by Brian De Palma (2009; Joel Bocko; video essay) Worth seeing for the unique, possibly unconscious juxtapositions in De Palma’s films. Hardly 10 minutes; check it out, film fans!

Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988; John Hillcoat) A grim and violent, yet also experimental and incredibly prescient film about the future of the “prison industrial complex.” The convicts have more and more “rights” taken away arbitrarily, until hate and mayhem is the only answer. This then gives the owners of the jail the opportunity to ask the State for more money and power to better “control” the situation (that they created in the first place).
Meanwhile it’s to the shareholders’ benefit to routinely release messed-in-the-head, potentially violent parolees (usually made that way by the awful conditions of the prison) because anything “criminal” they do will frightened the “normals” into demanding sterner laws and tougher sentences—and more prisons.
A disturbing, angry film that still packs a punch.

Behind the scenes with Ray and my favorite dragon
Felidae (1994; Michael Schaak) Various felines around the city are being brutally murdered, and Francis, the new cat in town, is determined to get to the bottom of it. Don’t let the somewhat unimaginative animation turn you off; it is only there to lull you into complacency: soon you’re in blood-splattered, genocidal-plot territory with a very complicated scheme to alter the evolution of cats. It’s like a German-language cat mash-up of Steven Soderbergh’s underrated Kafka (1991) and Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), with cats in the leads—and worth hunting down, if anything because it’s so unique.

The Silence of the Forest (2003; Bassek ba Kobhio & Didier Ouénangaré) After getting educated in France, a noble-minded young man returns to his unnamed African nation hoping to change things for the “better.” Ten years later, he’s a bitter minister who splits from the whole scene by joining a pygmy tribe deep in the jungle. But the man keeps trying to impose “civilized” values on the “natives,” only festering tragedy. An angry, bitter—almost hopeless—film that offers no solutions, whose protagonist despite his claims, may not be that decent a person.

Bone Sickness (2004; Brian Paulin) If someone was trying to make the worst Lucio Fulci movie possible, this would be it. Shot-on-video trash—that I fell asleep during…

Mysterious Island (and photo below)
The Hurricane (1937; John Ford) reviewed HERE

Red Spirit Lake (1993; Charles Pinion) Longer review forthcoming.

We Await (1996; Charles Pinion) Terrence McKenna’s San Francisco Cannibal Massacre is more like it! Longer review forthcoming.

The Bay (2012; Barry Levinson) Very moody, with lots of well-earned shocks, but overall kind of, um, watered down. Told through “found footage” (a subgenre I really like), we see a small town get infected by the larva of isopods from the bay—that have mutated from eating the genetically-enhanced chicken run-off dumped in the water. There are plenty of gross moments, but the movie isn’t sick enough, doesn’t go for the jugular like it should. It lacks a sense of desperation and serious outrage. And the young reporter’s exposition-heavy narration should have been edited out; silence would have been better.

Books Read in April 2013
War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film by Marc Di Paolo
Despite a title that threatens to suck all the air out of the room (a legacy of its history as a textbook; Di Paolo teaches at Oklahoma City University), this is quite the pageturner, with plenty of research, attitude and heart: the author believes in the transformative power of art, even pop culture “junk”/termite art like comic books.

Sticking to the post-WWII English-speaking world (sorry, no cultural deconstructions of manga here; that in itself is its own encyclopedic tome), fans of Zizek’s lectures (lively affairs compared to his often dry texts) will enjoy WP&S’s constant political/comic book cross-referencing, examining the neoconservative beliefs of Tony Stark/Iron Man, or Bruce Wayne’s latent feudalism (it’s about inheritance). On the flip side, Di Paolo rehabilitates Superman as a transcendent New Dealer, and casts a new light on Wonder Woman and Spiderman, borderline anarchist and passive-aggressive social climber, respectively.

It will help if you’re somewhat familiar with the various superheroes of pop culture (because this book includes England’s Dr. Who and 24’s Jack Bauer—as diametrically opposed political viewpoints as you might guess), as well as the major players in the creation of contemporary comics are. If you’ve never heard of at least Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore or Steve Ditko, don’t start here. That’s why this thick book is so darn cool: it’s for insiders, people already in the know—fanboy and post-fanboy alike, and it expects you to already have a working knowledge of the biz and its major characters—I wasn’t familiar with a variety of the plotlines Di Paolo makes reference to, but I knew enough, and he provides just enough detail, that I could keep up. Ben “The Thing” Grimm’s self-exile rather than register with a crypto-fascist superhero regulation is vibrant political protest even if you’re not familiar with the specific story.

If you grew up with comics, or consider them a valid storytelling form, and you enjoy quasi-leftie contemporary pop-culture critical theory, then War, Politics and Superheroes should be on your shelf.

A longer review of this highly recommended volume will be appearing in Film International in early 2014.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Part one of a trilogy, this YA novel is enjoyable enough, a sort of Logan’s Run for teenagers: When you’re 16, you are ordered to get surgery that makes you the socially-acceptable norm for beauty, or a “Pretty.” But some kids don’t want it, and split their perfect cities of the future for the desperate wastelands beyond the suburbs, becoming renegades.

Cool, fun book that follows Tally, a rather disagreeable protagonist, as she’s blackmailed into finding and betraying the renegades, or “Smokies.” It’s to Westerfeld’ credit that you are compelled to read, read, read even as you want to throttle Tally about a dozen times. Like the similarly-themed post-dystopian/bread & circuses soft-fascism of Suzanne Collins’ novel of The Hunger Games, the author presents a controlled world where the lead must internalize almost everything, and play multiple roles to advance in the “game.”

I’m recommending this as a stand-alone, and I don’t intend to read its follow-ups, because the open-ended conclusion of Uglies makes it seem deeper, like a Philip K. Dick adventure for adolescents, with a superb commentary on “what is real?”—as opposed to a marketing ploy.

Metalzoic by Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill (graphic novel)
A zillion years in the future, the reversing of Earth’s magnetic polarity has given metal life, and it has evolved into critters akin to those on the African plains and jungles: elephants, giraffes, snakes and so on. This graphic novel follows a brutal android proto-gorilla as he, well, conquers the world. Dense, scratchy art by Kevin O’Neill (pre-Marshal Law and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is the prime reason to pick up Metalzoic for a thousand reads—while the script is fun, it’s smart enough to know when to get out of the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment