Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Girdler Binge: The Manitou (1978)

William Girdler’s final film, The Manitou (1978), is just about the craziest knock-off of The Exorcist (1973) yet fashioned, and as a result, the director’s most entertaining cinematic effort.  

Every frame seems infused with the director’s gonzo desire to push the limits and dazzle the audience, and accordingly The Manitou zig-zags merrily between inventive special effects sequences and over-the-top moments of bloody horror. What the movie sacrifices in coherence, it thus gains in terms of jaw-dropping spectacle.

Underneath it all, the film's story and its consequences are utterly ridiculous, but that fact doesn’t stop Girdler from going for broke with his dedicated, throw-everything-out-and-see-what-sticks approach to the material. Because of the director’s non-conventional, open and inventive approach to the material, Girdler stages some moments -- such as a creepy séance and a levitating old lady -- with real ingenuity. 

The Manitou is in no way a great movie, which seems to be my refrain this week on the blog (see: The Legend of Boggy Creek), and yet it ably demonstrates how Girdler was growing with each opportunity behind the camera, and gaining a sense of confidence in his work.  

Writing of The Manitou, film scholar John Brosnan observed in Starburst #8 (1979) that it is “basically very silly.” 

He added “it’s too slow in places; it lacks an internal logic, the dialogue is often embarrassing…but in the long run none of this matters because the movie succeeds in being entertaining.”  

He also notes that the last thirty minutes of the film are a high point, a “mind-blowing barrage of special effects, each one more outrageous than the last.” On all these points, he is absolutely correct.

I thus maintain that Girdler’s early death (in a helicopter accident…) was not only a terrible personal tragedy, but a loss for the genre. I just can’t help but believe that had the Kentucky filmmaker lived, he would have made some very memorable genre movies in the 1980s; films that we'd all be talking about and reviewing on blogs to this day.

As it stands, The Manitou -- so visually-daring and yet also bizarre story-wise -- is Girdler’s last hurrah. The film is weird and wild -- incredibly variable in quality -- and a lot of fun. And that description perhaps, is the best epitaph for Girdler’s career in movie horror. 

“It kind of…moves, sometimes.”

A woman named Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is admitted to a San Francisco hospital because of a strange, expanding growth on her back.  

At first, the growth is believed to be a tumor, but Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar) and Dr. McEvoy (Paul Mantee) determine that it is not actually a growth, but a fetus.

Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) a fortune teller and friend of Karen’s is disturbed that the constantly-growing fetus-thing can’t be removed by any conventional means. Dr. Hughes attempts surgery, but cuts his own hand during the operation. Later, a hospital laser grows crazy and starts blasting the operating theater during a second removal attempt.

After consulting with a medium and a historian Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), Erskine recruits Native American medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to fight the thing growing inside of Karen.  

As it turns out, this weird “baby” is the reincarnated form of an ancient, evil medicine man called Misquamacus. Misquamacus is angry because x-rays have mutated him, and he emerges from Karen’s back deformed, hideous, and seeking power.

Planning to take over the world, Misquamacus summons several manitou -- evil spirits, including the Lizard God, The North Wind, and Satan himself.

But, as Harry realizes, every object in the world possesses a manitou, and he hopes to harvest the hospital’s equipment to strike back against Misquamacus before he grows invincible.

“Love is one of the strongest medicines there is.”

The Manitou
 features several notable trademarks of the 1970s cinema, including the possession/exorcism scene (familiar not just from The Exorcist, but also Girdler’s Abby), the “birth” or hospital delivery scene gone wrong (It’s Alive), and finally, the zippy laser beams of George Lucas’s Star Wars.  

On that last front, the movie's final battle witnesses a (topless) Strasberg perched atop her hospital bed, shooting colored lasers from her finger-tips at a hovering Misquamacus. The battle takes place not against the backdrop of the San Francisco hospital, but the entire cosmos itself.  All the universe is the (weird) background for this story...

That’s just the final touch, however, in Girdler’s crazy kaleidoscope. 

My favorite scene in the film is the one in which a little, blue-haired old lady arrives to have her fortune read at Harry’s apartment, and is suddenly possessed by Misquamacus. 

Without warning, this senior citizen busts a move, commencing a Native American rain dance (which alone is a sight to behold...), and then levitates through Harry’s apartment, out into the upstairs hallway.  

Finally, the spirit hurls her down the stairs, taking much of the staircase banister with her body, absolutely pulping the construction. The scene escalates from off-kilter to bizarre to I-can’t-quite-believe-what-I’m-seeing insane in just a few minutes.  And the levitation effects still hold up.

Another moment that is splendidly orchestrated finds Harry attempting a séance with his friends, including a medium. 

During the séance, Misquamacus appears, but not in any conventional sense.  Rather than using wispy opticals or visual effects to represent the spirit, Girdler tries something truly original instead.  The black-top of the table at the center of the séance is replaced, invisibly, with a pool of black oil, and very slowly (and creepily…) Misquamacus’s head rises from the table (a real head, covered in the oil) to face his supplicants. The demon sort of “shapes” himself out of the table, and it isn’t an effect that I've seen used before in this particular setting.

But there’s still more. One whole ward of the San Francisco hospital is transformed into an Arctic wasteland, covered in ice and snow. 

And then there’s the incredible moment when the computer manitou -- battling Misquamacus -- explodes and Dr. Hughes suddenly explodes with it on screen. He just goes up in flames.

Even the birthing scene is a great gross out moment. Misquamacus casts of Karen like an old sweater and splatters onto the hospital floor before slithering away, off-screen.

In my review of The Manitou in Horror Films of the 1970s, I termed Girdler’s last effort a “fun house of film gimmicks,” and today that description seems appropriate. It looks to me like the filmmaker and his team had a ball thinking of the wackiest, most unconventional ways to attack the horror sequences. Not all the effects work, but the creativity is admirable.

I haven’t read the novel by Graham Masterson upon which the film was based, but I must presume that it made sense, and connected its narrative together well. The same cannot be said of the cinematic version. 

For example: why was Karen picked as the “mother” for this resurrection?  Why do some Manitou oppose Misquamacus, while other support his cause? More importantly, what is his cause, really?  If he is powerful enough to summon Satan as a minion, he must be fearsome and strong, and yet he is undone by…the power of love?

In the end, however, such questions matter not.  This “Manitou,” as one character notes, “has momentum…”

The sad thing is that with The Manitou proving such a hit, Girdler had momentum in his career too. I would have loved to see what the filmmaker did with that that currency, and I wonder still, sometimes, of the strange destinations he had planned for future audiences.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Girdler Binge: Three on a Meathook (1973)

The quaintly titled Three on a Meathook (1973) from director William B. Girdler is a full-on homage to -- or perhaps rip-off of -- Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, Psycho (1960).  

Like that film (and like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974] as well), the film is loosely based on the exploits of real-life, mid-western serial killer Ed Gein. Girdler’s version of the macabre tale, however, is shot in Louisville, Kentucky, and on a budget of just twenty-thousand dollars. Still, Girdler actually apes the Master’s moves in some key sequences here, though to little avail.

The fledgling artistry evident in the best moments of the admittedly uneven Asylum of Satan (1972), is, alas, not present here to any significant degree. Perhaps this is so because Three on a Meathook arises from a more naturalistic school of horror filmmaking, and Girdler doesn’t seize opportunities to make his film particularly stylish. 

In fact, the film is relatively short on close-ups, which saddles Three on a Meathook with a distant or remote quality. This approach makes it difficult to invest in the characters, and without investment, fear cannot blossom.

Worse, the film grinds to a halt during the protagonist’s stop at a Louisville dive, where a local band performs not one but two songs in their entirety. In a film just eighty-minutes in length, that’s a lot of time to lose on a musical interlude.

Never reaching a real fever pitch of tension or suspense, Three on a Meathook proves interesting mostly in a few nicely orchestrated death scenes, particularly one shocking moment involving a decapitation.  

Other than that, however, the film showcases a sort of developmentally-arrested Girdler, a director still finding his way with actors and visualizations. Call it a sophomore slump.

“Let this boy keep his evil to himself.”

In Kentucky, four young women get together at a lake resort for the weekend. When their car breaks down, the friendly local, Billy (James Pickett) offers to help them, letting them stay on his farm for the night. Billy’s strict father, Pa Townsend (Charles Kissinger), doesn’t approve of the arrangement. He worries about Billy’s behavior when he is near women. The boy has never been the same since his mother died years earlier.

By night, an unknown assailant brutally murders all four young women, some in their sleep. Pa blames Billy for the blood-bath and promises to clean up his mess. A guilty-feeling Billy goes to see The Graduate, and then visits a bar to drink away his blues. There Billy meets and falls in love with a free-spirited bartender, Sherry (Sherry Steiner).  He wants to invite her back to the farm, over Pa’s objections.

Sherry and a friend, Becky (Madelyn Buzzard) stay at the Townsend Farm, but Becky is butchered, and a frightened Sherry finds the corpses of the dead girls in the barn…on a row of meat-hooks.  

Soon, she is accosted by Billy’s father, who is behind the killings…but for a strange and sinister purpose.

“I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

William B. Girdler has sometimes been termed the movie “rip-off” king because his movies almost universally ape a famous formula or particular film. His Abby (1976) is the “black” The Exorcist (1973). His Grizzly (1976) is essentially Jaws (1975) on land, and so forth. Similarly, one can make the case that Three on a Meathook follows this example.  It is -- no bones about it -- the director’s version of Psycho.

To start with, both films commence with a camera pan across a modern metropolis. In the case of Psycho, it’s Phoenix, AZ, and here it’s Louisville, KY.  

Then, immediately following this exterior pan we move into a hotel room, where a sexual liaison is already occurring.  Girdler is able to show more flesh here, however, than Hitchcock was permitted in 1960.  Girdler’s lovers are seen locked under the sheets together, topless. The man is mounting the woman. When the woman emerges from the coupling, she performs the rest of the scene without a bra.

Then, four women go on a trip (as Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane undertook a trip…), and end up at the abode of terror, in this case not a motel, but a farm.  

In both instances, the boy-ish host, either Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) or Billy offer to feed the hungry guests, and in both cases a murder soon occurs in the bathroom.  

Here, the shower is not the location of the brutal murder however. A bath-tub does the trick instead. Intriguingly, four victims die during this sequence, and the best moment occurs not in the bathroom, aping Psycho, but in a hall-way where a lightning-fast and well-executed decapitation offs the last victim, and captures the attention.

After everyone in the initial victim pool is dead, a new female lead is introduced (Sherry, in this case, rather than Vera Miles’ Lila Crane). As she goes cross close to Billy, we are left to wonder as to the identity of the killer.  Is it his father?  Or is it his mother, whom we are told died when he was ten years old?

After the murders are resolved, we get, almost note-for-note, Psycho’s talky “restoring order” ending, in which a psychiatrist explains at length the details of the case.  Just as Simon Oakland discussed Norman Bates’ schizophrenia in Psycho, the psychiatrist character here goes on at great length about Pa Townsend’s psychosis.

And finally, in time for the last shot, we get the composition of an imprisoned madman, not Norman, but rather Pa Townsend. This is where they will spend the rest of their days…incarcerated.

From A to B to C, Three on a Meathook leads right back to Psycho. The movie’s “clever” twist, however, is an inversion of Norman’s story. Whereas Norman’s mother was really dead (and stuffed in the fruit cellar) but Norman was pretending she was alive by becoming her, Billy’s mother is believed to be dead, but actually alive.  

You see, she suffers from “cannibalistic tendencies” and Billy’s father, Pa, has been murdering passersby (and blaming Billy…) so as to procure meat for his beloved wife.  

The idea here is not bad: to ape Psycho relentlessly and for as long as possible and then, at the final surprise juncture, reverse a key plot point. But again, Girdler doesn’t do much with his narrative or his twist-in-the-tale that is commendable or even memorable.

The thrill of watching a film like Three on a Meathook, even today, comes from the fact that the film was made outside of Hollywood proper. Accordingly, you are never quite sure how far it will go, or what you will see. Hollywood decorum doesn’t matter in the Girdler-verse, and so you could see something that simply wouldn’t be allowed in an establishment film. 

For me, that moment of spiky, nasty invention comes with the aforementioned decapitation. I’ve included the still of that moment, which does it no favors since a photograph reveals how the trick was accomplished.

But on film it all happens so fast and is so nasty in conception, that the moment is momentarily shocking.  The film could have used more moments like this one, and less like the unnecessary musical interlude.  The decapitation gag, rough as it is, deserves a mention because Girdler always sought to give audiences their money’s worth, and took apparent glee in creating weird and experimental effects.  The apex of that trend comes in The Manitou (1978) which boasts some very inventive, very ingenious and very weird visuals, but you can trace a line backwards from there to Three on a Meathook. Everyone starts somewhere.

Outside the decapitation gag and a nicely-shot “discovery” moment of revelation with three corpses on the aforementioned meat-hooks, however, the film feels flat and remote, as if we’re watching the whole thing from a distance. 

This approach actually diminishes the sense of horror, rather than augmenting it.  If Girdler could have aped any characteristic of Hitchcock’s, it should have been the master’s devotion to formalism, and the desire to make the audience feel -- through film grammar -- real terror.  Similarly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays like some surreal, bizarre version of Alice in Wonderland, in a world where order is unsettled, and never restored. By comparison to either masterpiece, Three on a Meathook is very, very flat.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Girdler Binge: Asylum of Satan (1972)

Shot in Louisville, Kentucky, reportedly on a budget of just $50,000 dollars, Asylum of Satan (1972) is director William Girdler’s first feature film. He made it when he was just twenty-four years old.

As is the case with all of the director’s films, Asylum of Satan possesses notable gaps in logic, and the director makes some astoundingly poor choices about the monsters he chooses to visualize on camera. The film’s depiction of the Prince of Darkness is horribly inexpressive and phony-looking, and yet it receives considerable screen-time.More than that, the cheap Devil mask/head succeeds in scuttling the film’s crimson-hued climax.

Beyond these readily-apparent missteps and limitations of budget, however, it feels sometimes during the film like Girdler is actually onto something interesting, at least from a visual perspective. His best conceit is that of an asylum that seems to span two different or competing realities, and notably this leitmotif requires no visual effects or make-up at all, only set re-decoration. Accordingly, the double-nature of the film’s setting, Pleasant Hill Hospital, may be Asylum of Satan’s most memorable achievement.

From one perspective, some viewers may also enjoy Asylum of Satan as a kind of 78-minute dirty joke, given the film’s final revelation or punch-line. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to know if this is a case of a plot point that is unintentionally or intentionally humorous. 

Regardless, the film’s final revelation remains unforgettable.

In Asylum of Satan, concert pianist Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) is unexpectedly transferred to Pleasant Hill Hospital -- a sanitarium -- by her regular physician, Doctor Nolan. She vehemently protests, but is told by an employee at the asylum named Martine (Charles Kissinger) that she will be glad to be treated by Doctor Specter (also Charles Kissinger), a “great man” whose specialty is pain.

Lucina meets Dr. Specter and promptly demands her release from custody, but he insists that she has had a nervous breakdown, and that she must recover in the isolation of the asylum. Specter also performs a physical examination of the lovely Ms. Martin and notes that her skin remains “unblemished…by sin.”

While Lucina’s boyfriend, Chris  Duncan (Nick Jolley) goes in search of her, and attempts to get the police, led by Lt. Walsh (Louis Bandy) to raid the asylum, Lucina’s fellow residents are killed one at a time, by insects, by fire, and by poison snakes in the swimming pool.  

As she soon learns, Lucina is to be Dr. Specter’s final sacrifice to Satan, one that will grant him eternal life for the delivery of virgin…

A legitimately great shot pops up early in Asylum of Satan. An unconscious Lucinda is carried on a stretcher up the stairs to her room by several paramedics. At the same time, a dark shadow, his features indistinct, silently watches her go. The positioning of the characters in the frame, with the dark figure intruding but un-moving,creepily suggests menace, and furthermore that, on occasion, Girdler is able to catalyze his instincts to make a shot that really carries psychic weight, at least purely in terms of imagery.

At another juncture, some kind of hideously deformed creature emerges from Room 319 in the hospital, lunging out of the dark at the camera. The moment is odd and frightening, and it goes unexplained. The creature’s make-up doesn’t hold-up to the scrutiny the camera’s gaze provides, so terror dissipates. But for the first few seconds, the fear generated by this set-up is palpable.

Alas, so many other moments fail to come off as Girdler no doubt hope and intended, and largely because, at this early junction in his career the director still seems to be calibrating what things should be seen on camera and for how long.  

For instance, the crippled female resident who is killed by bugs gets the worst treatment perhaps. Fake, jiggly insects -- creepy crawlies? -- land on her face, and there is no illusion of life, just the suggestion of jello or gelatin. Similarly, the final scenes of the film that depict a Satanic Mass that goes on for far too long.

And when the Devil himself shows up, it is in in a guise that inspires no fear, no dread. Yet Old Scratch remains in our sight, moment after agonizing moment.

As I noted in my introduction, there’s no reason, really, to show all this stuff, because Girdler does far better with the movie’s central location: an asylum that is sometimes an immaculate, state-of-the-art-facility, and sometimes a dilapidated, ruined place of EVIL. The environs shift back and forth unpredictably and without reason, and are thus, if not disturbing, at least discomfiting. The idea of the asylum being two places also fits in nicely with Lucina’s nervous breakdown. She could be imagining the horrors she encounters.

And though it is undeniably odd that Charles Kissinger should play both Lucina’s female hostess Martine and her male doctor, Specter, the double performance by the actor also contributes to this plot line about two universes operating on parallel tracks. This idea has been repeated in horror films and television since Asylum of Satan, but notably, and to great effect in (the brilliant) Silent Hill (2006).

What works effectively about many of the asylum scenes is Girdler’s choice to explain very little regarding the imagery. Instead, Lucina ends up in a dining hall with the other asylum residents, surrounded by hooded figures with hidden faces. These hooded figures all sit frozen in wheelchairs for some reasons, and are completely silent. On their plates: eggs still in the shells, untouched.  It’s such a weird and visually disturbing set of images that tension and intrigue are generated. 

Are the eggs there to represent souls? Why aren’t the people moving? Who are they?  Are they even, truly, present? Why is one of the hooded figures burned?

Meanwhile, the nurses in the institution all deliberately lack any emotional affect, and seem like drones or zombies. And creepy Dr. Specter has a peep hole in his medicine cabinet through which he watches Lucina disrobe. All these touches together work nicely to suggest a realm of darkness and diabolism.

It’s all creepy and slightly surreal, and even Kissinger’s stilted, declamatory manner of speech seems to play towards rather than against Asylum of Satan’s prevailing mood of strangeness. I often write about how many effective horror movies (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take on the qualities of a dream, or a waking nightmare. Asylum of Satan is obviously nowhere near the same class of filmmaking,but occasionally it attains that kind of abject, disturbing weirdness that critics like me tend to covet in the genre.

From a certain perspective, Asylum of Satan is really and truly a dirty joke. The devil’s henchman, Specter, goes out of his way to procure a virgin for the Devil, only for the Devil to detect, almost immediately, that she has already been deflowered.  On one hand, this seems like wicked, droll commentary about the youth-revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the difficulty of finding someone virginal.

On the other hand, as I noted in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s, there’s no clear “tell” that Girdler is pulling a gag or intends for the discovery to be played as tongue-in-cheek. Lucina’s *ahem* condition is played, for lack of a better word, straight.  

Also, it isn’t entirely clear to me, on this re-watch, why Specter missed that Lucina is, uh, sexually experienced since he performed a full medical exam on her.  We know she wasn’t deflowered at the asylum, but rather beforehand, because we get a flashback of Lucina and Chris making love after a walk in the snow on a wintry day.

I have a tremendous fondness for Girdler and his films, but it isn’t always easy to forge an affirmative case for his artistry. However certain shots and set-ups in Asylum of Satan work pretty well, and more than that, make the case that the director has a good eye….or was working to develop one. I limit that observation mostly to Lucina’s arrival in the sanitarium, and that weird scene in the cafeteria from Hell.  

Unless you’re really into horror films and horror film history, Asylum of Satan may not be your thing. The acting is weak, the dialogue is pretty atrocious, and the end is opaque in the sense that it isn’t clear how it is to be interpreted.  

But, again, every now and then the movie engineers a moment of creepy frisson, and thus keeps audiences tuned in.  In some ways, William B. Girdler’s first film, Asylum of Satan remains as schizophrenic as its two realities. 

On one hand, Girdler wants to show you everything, and “everything” -- like the bugs or Satan, himself -- doesn’t look so hot. 

On the other hand, he pulls back in terms of the explanation for the monster in room 319 and regarding the cafeteria of egg-eating cultists. In those moments, the film seems to achieve genuine idiosyncratic nuttiness.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger (1980-1982): "The Runaway"

In the year 1980, CBS television began airing on Saturday mornings The Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour (1980 - 1982), a beloved animated series from Filmation Studios that would also come to feature Zorro before the end of its run

The Lone Ranger segments were titled "The New Adventures of The Lone Ranger" and featured the baritone William Conrad (credited as J. Darnoc) as the voice of the masked man.  Many of the stories explicitly involved the development of late 19th century technology, particularly the ascent of the trans-continental railroad.

In the first episode of the series, "The Runaway," The Lone Ranger and Tonto (Ivan Naranjo) are bound for Grand Junction, Colorado and some trout fishing when they learn of a train in trouble.  It has been hit by bandits, who stole the bank company payroll.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto apprehend the bandits, but are asked to ride shotgun for a second train, of even greater importance.  This train -- described as a "milestone of railroad progress" -- houses the first fully-refrigerated train car to travel west.  It is carrying beef and fresh vegetables, and bound for Denver.  

But even more important than these food items, the car will be carrying a "perishable serum" that is needed to save a life in a Denver hospital.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto agree to babysit the serum, and not unexpectedly, bandits hit the train during its run.  

Ironically, the very presence of the Lone Ranger has convinced the outlaws that there must be a lot of money aboard the train, or some other great treasure.  Fortunately, Tonto and Lone Ranger save the day and deliver the medicine to Denver.

Like every episode of "The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger," this episode features a fun scene transition: the Lone Ranger's black mask whirls towards the camera, and moves us from one setting to the next.  

Another regular feature is an educational coda or lecture, at the end of the action, about the historical importance and/or accuracy of the preceding story, delivered by the Lone Ranger himself.  Here, the masked man talks about the importance of "refrigeration," and how it changed the world of the 1880s.

Crisply written and performed, "The Runaway" could very well have been an episode of the original TV series (1949 - 1957), with its accent on thrills and action.  The story is straight-forward, and there is a clear-cut sense of right and wrong in terms of the characters' behavior.  All the typical Lone Ranger elements are here, from the opening narration which describes his mysterious history and nature, to the closing and rousing call of "Hi Yo, Silver, away..."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Guest Post: The King of Staten Island (2020)

The King of Staten Island Proves There Are Few Lost Causes

By Jonas Schwartz

Actor/writer Pete Davidson, during his time on Saturday Night Live and within his very public life, has built the persona of a millennial slacker, one medicating with weed to maintain, and lacking the motivation to conform to society's standards. His comedy is unfiltered and child-like, most represented by his character Chad on SNLwho agrees to everything because he's too stoned to comprehend. Matching up with comedy superstar director Judd Apatow for The King of Staten Island, Davidson tweaks his characterizations and breathes humanity into them to form a tender and hopeful protagonist in a surprisingly winsome dramedy semi-autobiography, co-written by Davidson with Apatow.

Man-child Scott (Davidson) is a veritable loser and freeloader, with no purpose or drive to move beyond his stale life of stoning, amateur tattooing his own and his friends' bodies, and living at home with his mother. His firefighter father died on the job when Scott was young, and his mother (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei) has become an enabler. Scott can't commit to his girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) and uses his aliments and tragedies as crutches to live out his Peter Pan fantasy. His sister (Maude Apatow, the director's daughter) has long tired of his crap and worries about going off to college and leaving her sibling and mother in a co-dependent mess. The introduction of an interloper (Bill Burr), a slightly duplicitous and volatile firefighter who starts to date Scott's mother, sets Scott on a collision course where he'll have to either grow up or completely spin out. 

Like Shia LaBeouf, who earlier this year psychoanalyzed his own childhood with his dad by writing and starring in Honey Boy, Pete Davidson gives the impression that through his script, he has taken a long hard look at his life and how his own childhood traumas have crippled him in ways, exploring how to escape a box into which he may feel he has locked himself. Davidson, who lost his own firefighter father on 9/11, takes a stock character, one with whom he has tinkered on SNL, and smartly roughens out the edges. The quips and sarcasm remain, but the pain underneath is thoroughly and courageously explored. Carrying a major motion picture for the first time, Davidson commands the screen, inviting the audience into Scotty's chaos. His character doesn't just drift through life aimlessly (Davidson recognizes that would make a dull protagonist for a 2+ hour film), but instead has a death wish (In the opening scene, he has an anxiety attack that almost leaves him, and several others, dead). Without including grandstanding scenes of rage, Davidson allows Scott to bubble up inside, only to explode ineptly, in several very funny fight scenes. 

The humor is more character-based than punchlines, which gives the film depth and keeps it from coming off like a sitcom. As in all Apatow films, The King of Staten Island is brimming with quirky characters and off-beat situations, like an after-hour fight club in a family restaurant, a portfolio of tattoos gone awry, and sardonic female insights on The Purge series.

Each actor makes an impact, no matter how small the role. There are no angels or devils in Davidson and Apatow's script and the actors take advantage of those nuances to show the ugly side of decent people, revealing the internal damages that cause them to act inappropriately. Davidson exudes confidence in his story and in his understanding of Scott. Marisa Tomei is winning as Scott's mother, giving her character her own growth and independence just when you think her lovelorn character would blow wherever the wind would take her. As Scott's gang of reject thieves, Lou Wilson, Ricky Velez and Moises Arias are hilariously hapless and inept, but bond as a group that would never sell each other out. Burr is hard-edged as Ray, Tomei's suitor, manipulative and incompetent, but capable of tenderness. Burr cares about his character and makes sure that Ray's intentions are loftier than his execution. As a fireman from Ray's house, Steve Buscemi quietly steals the film as a wise mentor both to Scott and Ray. 

Unexpectedly funny and kindhearted, The King of Staten Island fleshes out Pete Davidson's talents and proves that his insight and compassion is a perfect antidote for these disjoined times. 

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA

Tarzan Binge: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Watching The Legend of Tarzan (2016), I was struck with the nagging confirmation of a feeling I have felt growing for some time, but tried not to voice -- at least not often -- for fear of sounding like an old curmudgeon.

What is that thought? 

Superhero franchises are killing the movies.  

Every studio in town views a famous long-lived pop culture property -- like Tarzan, for example -- not as an opportunity to tell a meaningful story, or to craft a fun, unique adventure.  

Rather, every such movie is now an opportunity to compete with Marvel, or DC, and create another superhero series. 

Every such movie is now a major tent-pole under construction. Formula has replaced original thought.  Famous characters can now be cut-and-pasted into pre-existing superhero templates, regardless of their literary or film/TV source material.

The Tarzan character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs boasts a long and storied history both in literature and film. There are different kinds of stories the franchise can tell, from the plunder of the natural world (and Tarzan’s defense of it), to the exploration of forgotten “lost worlds.”

There was no reason why the new film had to merely be Spider-Man (2002) in the jungle, but that’s what the 2016 edition ultimately feels like; right down to the valedictory coda of a CGI Tarzan swinging from vines high over his (non-urban) jungle.

In eighty-something years of cinema, Tarzan films have never really had to “ape” (pardon the term) something else; something popular, to meet the approval of general audiences. 

Until now.

This new film gets a lot right about the character and his world, yet for every notable triumph, there’s still the inescapable feel that Legend of Tarzan is a blockbuster cartoon (replete with CGI jungle animals) set firmly in the superhero mold. It’s all incredibly two-dimensional, just like most modern superhero films. 

When compared with the humanity and sheer eroticism of the Weismuller/O’Sullivan pictures, or the dignity of Greystoke (1984), this generic, homogenized “superhero” retelling is a disappointment.

The Legend of Tarzan, for example, gives us the haunted, brooding protagonist of personal pain and angst, seeking to find his place and responsibility in the world. It also gives us his “origin” flashback, so we understand the source of his pain.  

And then the film sends the protagonist on a quest that concerns, not surprisingly, the vengeance trope.

Specifically, a villain called Chief M’Bonga (Djimon Hounsou) desires revenge against Tarzan for killing his son. This is actually a two-for-the-price-of-one revenge trope because Tarzan killed that young man out of revenge for a crime against his family.

Like so many superhero films, it’s all a big fat revenge circle, as if vengeance is the sole motivating force of the human race; heroes and villains alike.

The film also lurches between play-it-straight angst and self-reflexive humor, uncertain of how to translate Burroughs’ material to 2016.  

It settles on the simplest path, I guess.

The filmmakers made this movie, look, sound, move, and breathe just like every popular superhero film since the summer of 2008. 

That template is old and tired. Much more tired than any of the Burroughs Tarzan stories, which imagine characters of myriad motivations and agendas, and worlds of wondrous imagination and potential. 

This Tarzan surely could have pumped new life into a story that has resonated in the culture for 100+ years.  

Instead, The Legend of Tarzan just follows the pack. It’s not horrible -- and I hope I can enumerate why -- but it is sadly predictable and familiar.

Eight years after he left the jungle, John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is invited to return to the Congo at the invitation of the Belgian King.  

An American diplomat, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of the king’s motives and invitation, and asks Clayton -- also known as Tarzan -- to accept. He fears that the King is using slave labor, in violation of international accords and agreements.

Tarzan agrees, and his wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) also wishes to join the expedition, and return to her childhood home.

In truth, the invitation is a ruse set up by the Belgian king’s liaison to Congo, Rom (Chrisophe Waltz). 

He wants to possess the diamonds of Opar, but the leader of the people in that region, Chief M’Bonga (Honsou) refuses to permit the taking of the diamonds unless Tarzan is handed over to him for his vengeance. 

Rom seeks to capture Tarzan, hand him over to M’Bonga, and acquire the diamonds for his king, whose empire is virtually bankrupt and therefore relying both on slave labor and mercenary armies.

Once in the Congo, Jane is captured by Rom, and Tarzan must team with Williams and re-acquaint himself with the ways of the wild -- and his Mangani family too – if he hopes to save his beloved life.

The Legend of Tarzan gets so much right about the Burroughs character and his universe, and I appreciate that fact.  

Here, for example, Jane is an American (as she was in the novels), not British. And Tarzan is an educated, well-spoken man, not the clichéd “Me Tarzan, You Jane” savage popularized in the 1930s films.  

Similarly, this is the first Tarzan film that I can remember which actually names the Mangani, and notes that they are not mere gorillas…but something else.

In short, there’s an authentic and dedicated attempt to adapt Burroughs’ work in a faithful way.

Delightfully, the film also uses real historical people as characters in the drama. Rom was a real personality, for instance, and so was George Washington Williams.  

Rom is widely believed to be the role model for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart for Darkness (1899) for example, and Christoph Waltz gives the movie’s best performance. Some of his throwaway touches (like one suggesting OCD), add remarkable layers to the despicable character. 

I was lukewarm on Waltz’s Blofeld in SPECTRE (2015), but the actor veritably steals this film, making Rom a potent threat despite the fact that he is not physically-intimidating.

But it is actually the character of Williams who is treated in a mostly-historically-accurate fashion. Notation is made of Williams’ military service in the Civil War, in Mexico, and in the Indian territories.  And when the character references Williams’ familiarity with pain, he is no doubt referring to a spell in which Williams was badly wounded and hospitalized for an extended period. 

The historical figure, Williams, has basically been imported into a Tarzan story…and he fits, because of his efforts to end slavery in the Congo Free State. 

Alas, the movie simultaneously sees fit to have Williams make comments about how his mission is “screwed” and how he is not about to “lick the nuts” of a dominant Mangani alpha ape.  

These moments stick out like a sore thumb, and take one right out of the film’s reality. They are pandering, unfortunate attempts to build relatability with a juvenile 21st century audience.

And therein lies the movie’s greatest problem. 

On one hand, it works hard to be faithful both to the historical period (and the politics of the Congo Free State circa 1890) and the Tarzan mythos. 

And on the other, The Legend of Tarzan wants to play the mythos in a tongue-and-cheek fashion. 

Remember how Man of Steel (2013) didn’t even want to use the name “Superman” seriously, without cracking a smile?

The Legend of Tarzan is like that, only worse. 

The movie makes self-aware jokes about the terminology “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” and even goes “meta” about Tarzan’s trademark jungle yell, noting that it doesn’t sound like Rom expected…but better.  

One on hand the movie is serious -- or superhero-dour as I call it -- about its world, and on the other, it wants to poke fun at it.

The only consistent approach the movie settles on is the desire for audiences to interpret it as a superhero origin/introduction story.

In terms of the characterizations, Skarsgard is fine as Tarzan, but generally unmemorable. The script requires Tarzan to be sad and emotionally removed for much of its running time, so he can rediscover himself in the jungle.  Even Tarzan’s sperm doesn’t work until he gets away from being Greystoke in England and back to being Tarzan in the jungle.

I’m not joking.

Margot Robbie’s Jane has pluck, but let’s just say she’s no Maureen O’Sullivan. Robbie doesn’t have the easy grace or charm of that still-remarkable interpretation.  That Jane chose the jungle, and loved that choice. This Jane has agency, but not at the level the character demonstrated in the 1930's, which says something, I suppose about how our entertainment has changed -- or degenerated -- in eighty years. There’s no scene in this movie that can match the innocent eroticism of Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Again, there are aspects of the film that I appreciate and admire. 

I like that the 1930s theme of Africa’s exploitation by white civilization has been retained from the MGM pictures, and in historically accurate fashion, for the most part.  No whitewashing, thank you.

I also appreciate the movie’s color palette, which actually has a thematic point.In England (where Tarzan is cut off from himself) and in Opar (where M’Bonga has done the same thing, essentially), the color palette is dead and cold: a silvery, lifeless blue.  

But in the jungle, the color scheme is green and vivid; alive and magical.

I dislike, strongly, the use of CGI gorilla, elephants, lions, ostriches and other animals for the action scenes. These scenes are all “dead” in terms of the sense of menace or danger.  If you go back and watch the MGM Tarzan films of the 1930s, there was definitely some fakery like rear projection and stock footage, but there were also real stunts, where animals and human beings existed in the same frame, and in close proximity.  The animal scenes, like so many in this film, are cartoons that lack a sense of gravity and mass, and therefore reality.

Tarzan is a great character, finally, because he possesses so many contradictions. He is a man of the wild, and yet a man of great intelligence. He is a man who understands the law of the jungle, and yet can also be, notably, gentle (both with Jane, and with the animals he encounters). 

But the superhero-dour template requires Tarzan to go through familiar beats. He is lost, then found. He is sad, then finds purpose in defeating the bad guys.

These beats are so well-trodden at this point, that Legend of Tarzan can’t really show audiences well the contradictions of the man.  

“Tarzan” is simply a well-known name to be fit into a formula, and made a new, moneymaking brand.
Just like every other modern superhero brand.

This Tarzan had the opportunity to recreate a long-beloved character for the 21st century.

But have no doubt, this Lord of the Jungle will remain lost in the pack.