Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television -- Mark 2

Written in 2003 and published in 2004, my original Encyclopedia of Supeheroes on Film and Television (McFarland) won a prestigious New York Public Library "Best of Reference" award for '05, and earned a starred review from Library Journal.

Now, come summer of 2008 -- the book is back with a vengeance in a second edition; pictured left.

The massive book (over 700 pages now...) still features entries on seventy-something superhero characters of film and television from 1951-2003; but this new volume also includes new entries that represent the "superheroes triumphant" phase of the latter part of this decade.

I've thus had the opportunity to include such films as The Incredibles (2004), Blade: Trinity (2004), Catwoman (2004), Hellboy (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Elektra (2005), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), Sky High (2006), Superman Returns (2006), X-3: The Last Stand (2006), Zoom: Academy of Superheroes (2006) and Superman: Doomsday (2007). I've also been able to include detailed new TV entries (many with complete episode guides) on Blade: The Series, Heroes, Painkiller Jane, Teen Titans, and Who Wants to be A Superhero?.

The update also gets to finish off the lengthy episode guides on such now-defunct series as Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mutant X, and developing long-lived programs like Smallville (the book features a guide of the first seven seasons of the CW show).

I've also dug deep into superhero history to pinpoint productions I didn't incorporate the first time around, which in this case includes, Bibleman (!), My Secret Identity (1988) The Pumaman (1980) and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983).

Finally, I was able to make at least some notation of upcoming genre films not yet released when I turned in my manuscript in winter of 2008. These titles include The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man.

The book's introduction, conclusion, appendices have all been re-purposed to include the last five years of superhero history as well. The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television - Second Edition is at the printer's right now, and scheduled for release September of this year. You can pre-order from McFarland here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friedkin Friday: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): A Game of "Chance"

What? You were expecting a review of Cruising?

Our first lesson in Friedkinism is this: leave your expectations behind. They'll do you absolutely no good. So I've decided - in the spirit of Friedkin's approach to directing actors - to be "spontaneous" and switch the featured film for our inaugural segment.

I'll also occasionally be firing off shot guns while I write this post, just to make certain you're still paying attention (and that I get an authentic reaction from you...).

No, seriously, I just screened To Live and Die in L.A. a few nights ago. First time I've seen it in twenty years, I suppose. And basically, I'm just bowled over because it's so damn good; so damn effective. Considering the quality of To Live and Die in L.A., I realized that it's likely the perfect film to kick off our Friedkin Fest.

And, -- based on the comments left here on the blog and also in my personal e-mail -- it's also the film that immediately jumps out for viewers when you utter the name Friedkin. Therefore, it may be the best "entrance" film into the Friedkin canon; whereas Cruising (1980) -- for all it's deep, lugubrious, morally shadowy commentary -- is going to repel as many readers (and viewers) as it attracts. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

Now on with the show. We'll get to Cruising soon, so don't worry if you've already watched it.

Basically, you can study To Live and Die in L.A. from a variety of angles, and it still emerges as an amazing and deeply-layered crime/action movie. For those who need a reminder, it's the involving story of a reckless young Secret Service agent, Richard Chance (William Peterson) and his obsessional quest to bring down a counterfeiter (and painter) named Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe).

So much is encompassed in the names of these primary characters. "Masters" is indeed a master-of-the-game, a clever, careful criminal who has never been beaten (and who exacts bloody vengeance against those who cross him...), and Chance - of course - is the perfect moniker for a law enforcement official who doesn't adhere to the rules, but (unwisely...) gambles on a sort of "ends justify the means," scorched earth strategy.

As the movie's title indicates, the film is set entirely in a city not of Angels, but of Alienation: 1980s Los Angeles. This film is really, in an important sense, a neo noir, since it clearly fulfills many of the basic criteria of the film noir form. For instance,
we've got location shooting (no studio sets). More importantly, the themes and narrative involve common noir obsessions: a morally questionable protagonist (Chance), who - ensconced in a de-humanizing urban setting -- conducts a criminal investigation in which many, many lines of propriety and decorum are crossed.

The line between justice and revenge, for instance, is clearly breached here. The line between order and chaos too. And most importantly, the line between legality and illegality. The film's ostensible hero, Chance, is an edgy, manic sort and even in his "normal" life he is always treading on the line between life and death. In his off-duty hours, he bungee jumps off a bridge to fulfill his self-destructive desires; to test his sense of immortality. The "rules" of the game, to Chance, have become unimportant. When Masters kills his partner and escapes from justice scot free, Chance determines to get the counterfeiter and doesn't "give a shit" how he does so. He is above the law.

As Chance teeters over the edge, his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) grows nervous about his willingness to break the rules. At least at first anyway. At the same time, Chance carries on a loveless sexual relationship with an informant, the desperate but gorgeous Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), who informs him of an upcoming deal that may present an opportunity for Chance to acquire the front money he needs (denied by his prissy superior...) to bring down Masters. And so begins a harrowing spiral into crime, violence, death, not to mention a hair-raising ride on a freeway (in the wrong lane, naturally...).

To express the important leitmotif of decorum or propriety shattered, Friedkin himself breaks a number of screen taboos here. In a sex scene, for instance, he features full-frontal male nudity. That may be something we are more accustomed in 2008; but it was a surprise, certainly, in conservative 1985.

More bluntly, about twenty-minutes before the end of the film, Friedkin includes a plot twist that involves our hero (Chance) and a shotgun blast at point-blank range. We see, straight-faced, in relatively close-shot, something happen to this "hero" that nobody -- and I mean nobody -- could have seen coming. It is so shocking, so bracing, so unexpected and against the grain that the viewer is left stunned, rudderless and absolutely flabbergasted. This action violates a key rule of Hollywood filmmaking; a key facet of movie "decorum," and so we detect how form reflects content in the film. Friedkin doesn't just tell us, he shows us just how dangerous Chance's world is. And he does so in the most visceral, powerful terms imaginable. For a kick, watch the laughable alternate ending available on DVD; the "happy ending" the studio wanted to force down Friedkin's throat. Thankfully, he resisted, and the result is a one-of-a-kind film.

Besides "blurring the lines" between protagonist and antagonist, a common Friedkin conceit (one also featured in Cruising), Friedkin suffuses To Live and Die in L.A. with the theme of (in his own words) a "counterfeit" world. There is no better metropolis in the world in which to make this particular point (about counterfeit emotions, counterfeit relationships and counterfeit politics...) than Los Angeles, a city that thrives on the power of illusion. In the film, it is not merely that the crime of counterfeiting is being examined; but also the "counterfeit" belief that there is a real difference (in this particular scenario) between criminal and law enforcement official, between good and bad. Similarly, Chance's intimate relationship with Ruth is a counterfeit, as the final scene of the film involving Vukovich demonstrates. Even Masters' relationship with his girlfriend is deliberately counterfeit; her real sexual inclinations (again, as the ending suggests...) go towards women, and one woman in particular. But "the appearance" of her interest in men is what is seen; both in sex tapes with Masters; and in her "deployment" (as a diversion) against a lawyer who has betrayed Masters. Nothing is true. Nothing is honest. In one scene, this girlfriend, played by Debra Feuer, even appears briefly to be a man.

This is an entirely appropriate metaphor for To Live and Die in L.A. to explore because in the 1980s (when the film was created) we also had a counterfeit President running the country. Ronald Reagan, lest we forget, was an actor first...a man who practiced his trade in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Furthermore, he was a counterfeit person in the sense that what he pretended to be wasn't what he actually was. A family values president? Well, he was actually the first divorced Commander in Chief in our nation's history. A man of the religious right? Ironically, he didn't attend Church regularly (certainly not to the degree of either Carter or Clinton...). A happy "warrior?" Reagan never went overseas during World War II, and never served in the Army (unlike, John Kerry, for instance...). except in movie. And in fact, Reagan actually lied about his wartime experience, claiming to have photographed the Nazi War Camps after they were liberated. If he did, he did so from Hollywood.

Reagan also claimed he wanted to cut taxes; but he approved the largest tax hike in history up until that time. Reagan similarly said he wanted to shrink the Federal Government, but again, it ballooned under his administration (it took Clinton a "tax and spend" liberal, finally, to shrink it...). You could go on and on, pinpointing the absolutely huge gulf between the counterfeit public image of Reagan (which persists to this day...) and his actual polices and performance in office. It's no surprise then, considering this, that Ronald Reagan is a supporting "player" just below the surface in To Live and Die in L.A. In the very first scene, we hear the Prez talking on the television about "taxation without representation" and the "second American revolution." No doubt he was talking about cutting taxes....while actually raising them.

Later, we see Reagan's photograph hanging prominently on a wall in the background. The Secret Service -- not incidentally the branch in which Chance serves -- in addition to arresting counterfeiters is also tasked with the protection of the President of the United States. This double duty proves the unit's absolute hypocrisy (which is an echo of the amoral Chance's hypocrisy). On one hand, we see the Secret Service stamping out counterfeits (bills); on the other, it enables and safeguards them (Reagan). Thus, we see Friedkin's cultural critique stretches far beyond the confines of L.A., beyond the confines of law and order, and into the realm of the national discourse. It is truly, as the director establishes, a counterfeit world. Nothing is genuine. Not emotion. Not love. Not the law. Not even the political dialogue. An actor is President, for heaven's sake!

No, the only thing that is real, as the film makes death itself. "To live and die."

One cynical facet of this film is that every public official on screen is pretty much either dirty or incompetent. Again this reflects the reality of the 1980s: there were more indicted officials in the Reagan Administration than any in history...a record it holds even after Clinton. To wit, Chance crosses the line, robs an undercover FBI agent, and is responsible for his death. Vukovich is an accessory to the crime, certainly. And Chance's boss in the service is an idiotic, bureaucratic thug. The judge Chance visits (to get a prisoner released...) is surly, harried and unfriendly. I submit that this is part of Friedkin's critique: there's no safe harbor for a "pure" person in this world. If there's even such a thing as a pure person. And that's where the theme of alienation enters the picture. Nobody trusts anyone.

Chance may be fucking Ruth, but he doesn't trust her, and she doesn't trust him. Vukovich proves untrustworthy too, ratting out Chance to a lawyer played by Dean Stockwell. Masters doesn't trust the men he does business with. Chance's superior doesn't trust Chance. Even Chance's original partner doesn't trust Chance enough to include him on a bust. Everybody is alienated from everyone else because all the relationships in the movie, as we've seen, are false; are counterfeit.

I've been asked occasionally why I like and admire Friedkin so much, and the answer rests primarily in his approach, in his style. I deeply respect his insistence on making important moments in his films as real as possible. I can theorize that this arises from his early background in documentaries; but whatever the motive, Friedkin is able to invest critical scenes in the picture with a deep authenticity and reality. He does so, on a simple level, by not calling "cut" when a scene appears to be finished. Seriously.

One of the best scenes in To Live and Die in L.A. involves Chance's illicit abduction of the undercover F.B.I. man under a freeway bridge. Chance grabs the agent's silver briefcase to steal the money inside, but the case is locked. So a desperate Chance then batters the briefcase against a bridge pillar until the lock breaks...and a phone book (but no money!) falls out. According to the "making of" documentary, the shot was supposed to include the actors simply walking to the pillar. That's where they were going to cut. But Friedkin didn't stop the scene, didn't call cut, and everything that came after was - essentially - undirected. Real. It was the actors reacting in the moment to the situation, going with their gut instincts, "knowing the character" and - importantly - Friedkin trusting them enough to respond "in character." and truthfully. It plays as an incredibly tense, and "real" sequence. There's the aura of real life about it, not Hollywood fakery. Chance absolutely goes 'round the bend smashing that brief case against the pillar, and this was all an invention of the in-the-moment Peterson. It's a snapshot of the character's tenacity and obsession.

Friedkin is also able to make the strange and foreign seem absolutely compelling in this never ending quest for accuracy and authenticity. A real-life counterfeiter worked on the film to supervise the scene involving Dafoe's production of fake twenty-dollar bills. Importantly, Friedkin takes us through the entire counterfeiting process in step-by-step chronological fashion, from the mixing of paint to the whirring of machinery spitting out the bills on sheets of metal. It's all vetted in beautiful inserts and close-ups, in a compelling music-video-style montage.

This is, quite simply, something that needn't have been included in a simpler, less elegant film. But again, this accuracy (and attention to detail), is a crucial component in excavating an important and subtle part of Masters' persona. He is so meticulous himself (like Friedkin), that the criminal burns his own paintings, apparently because he thinks they are not any good. He is an artist, and the act of making counterfeit bills appear "perfect" is an art unto itself for him. That may be the reason he does it. What I'm trying to say is that Friedkin's attention to detail makes us understand Masters' obsessions better. It illuminates a side of Masters that is fascinating and unusual. A lesser director may not have made the connection between between Masters the criminal and Masters the artist. But the visualization of Masters' "art" (counterfeiting) establishes that link.

Friedkin is known to many film buffs for the amazing car chase in The French Connection, but he tops himself in To Live and Die in L.A. The chase showcased here is one of the great action sequences in film history, not merely because Friedkin boasts a meticulous eye for detail, but because the chase sequence -- set on the "wrong" lane of a busy highway -- so clearly mirrors Chance's mind-set at that point in the film. Like the car he is driving, Chase is also, shall we say, headed the wrong way: having crossed the dividing line on the road and become a lawbreaker.

We also detect (through close-ups of Peterson's intense eyes...), that this chase and pursuit contributes (and enhances) Chance's (wrong...) sense of immortality. In the act of breaking the law, of being on the edge, he is experiencing "the thrill" akin to the one he gets from bungee jumping. A
trenchant cross-cut from Chase behind-the-wheel to Chase in the act of bungee jumping, cements that connection.

This action scene is fast-paced, brilliantly-constructed, and jaw-dropping in intensity. But the point of it is character enhancing (just like the counterfeiting montage): Chance has become what he hates. He is now just like Masters, breaking the law and loving every minute of his success. Later, we even learn that the people chasing Chance were not thugs, but FBI agents. Chance merely shrugs it off. The lines have been blurred.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss at least a little the brilliant musical score that underlines and enhances the action of To Live and Die in L.A. It is composed and performed by the British New Wave band Wang Chung. How's that for a blast from the past? One might snicker in remembrance of Wang Chung and that time in the 1980s, but the group has contributed a heart-pounding yet simultaneously heart-less sound to accompany Friedkin's images. The music is part of the counterfeit world in the sense that it is synthetic, or unnatural. A beat that never stops; a push that never stops pushing. It's like Chance's heart-beat, his need for one more thrill, never stopping, never slowing down.

The 1980s are often called the decade of "greed is good," a catchphrase which is just another way of saying that the ends justify the means. To Live and Die in L.A., set in a "counterfeit world" of false emotions and false intimacy, is a film about characters who live -- and die -- by that edict. It's an unromantic, unglamorous view of the Reagan Age, but one crafted with genius and provocative flair. This is Friedkin at the absolute top of his game, and one of the top ten films of the 1980s (and about the 1980s).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starcrash (1979)

Star Wars proved such an enormous blockbuster in 1977 that intrepid filmmakers around the globe went stark-raving crazy for galactic swashbuckle and before you could say "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." voided into international cinemas a series of new cosmic sagas, as well as bald imitators and slavish rip-offs. Some were great. Some...not so much.

In America, we had Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica. From Canada came The Shape of Things to Come (1979). Why, even James Bond himself went to outer space in Moonraker (1979); Walt Disney followed suit and went 20,000 leagues closer to the event horizon in The Black Hole (1979).

Finally, direct from Italy came the swashbuckling but utterly inane Starcrash, also known as The Adventures of Stella Starr. It's an anti-classic, I guess you'd say. It's so bad that it's...amusing.

Directed in utterly scatter shot fashion by Lewis Coates (really Luigi Cozzi), Starcrash follows rogue "star buggy" pilot Stella Starr (Caroline Munro) on a perilous stellar journey. As the movie commences, Stella is captured by Imperial forces when she and her enigmatic Pathfinder navigator, Akton (Marjoe Gortner) investigate a derelict escape pod/launch near "the border of the Haunted Stars."

Turns out, an Imperial Ship (the Murray Leinster), while investigating a "phantom planet," was attacked there by a gaggle of awkwardly super-imposed blob monsters, or something like that. Anyway, before this tantalizing mystery can be fully investigated, Stella and Akton are captured by their perpetual nemeses, bald Thor and Southern-fried robot policeman, Elle.

Stella and Akton are quickly arrested and remanded to separate penal colonies. Before long, however, the Emperor (Christopher Plummer) comes-a-callin' with a mission only the talented amd widely-known Stella can possibly undertake. She is tasked to solve the mystery of the space blobs, uncover the concealed weapon of "Evil Count Zarth-Arn" (ruler of the "League of Dark Worlds") and -- if she has time -- rescue the Emperor's missing son, who captained the ship that was assaulted by the blotchy blobsters. Got it?

I hope so, because thus begins an incredible cosmic clash between the forces of good and evil. Elle and Stella grapple with Amazon warriors on one planet, facing down a giant robot with equally giant mechanical breasts (and nipples). The giant robot throws a giant knife at Stella on an alien beach, and she dodges it just in time...

On another world, Stella and Elle face a dangerous environment where the temperature drops "thousands of degrees"(!) in an instant. After being frozen, Stella is thawed out, fortunately, under the auspices of badly-botched time-lapse photography.

Finally, our heroes head to the Phantom Planet, where they grapple with hostile cavemen. These cavemen leap into the frame with great power and fanfare (courtesy of off-screen trampolines), but are quickly dispatched by Simon, the Emperor's son, who is wearing a Zardoz mask that shoots laser beams from the eye slits.

Together, the heroes then learn that Zarth-Arn's blobs are actually part and parcel of his impressive new "doom weapon," which
creates monsters (or at least blob monsters) based on the fears of men. Then, Stella, Simon (David Hasselhoff) and the apparently-mystically-powered Akton are captured by Zarth-Arn, Cackling wildly (literally -- he cackles), Arn (Joe Spinell) abandons the protagonists in a subterranean control room (with two robot sentries) to die a horrible death. Akton battles the robots with a green light saber (I'm not kidding), before he fades away (just like Ben Kenobi), following a flesh wound.

All looks grim for Stella and her entourage until the Emperor arrives just before the planet can be destroyed (forty-eight seconds before, to be precise...) and with a wave of his hand, he orders time to be halted. "Imperial battleship: halt the flow of time!" he commands imperiously, and gosh darn it, time is indeed stopped, giving Stella and her cohorts time to escape. Wow, I wish I could command such power...

With the flow of time taking a much-needed hiatus, the Emperor orders an attack on Zarth Arn's space station, a vast facility shaped like a human hand and adorned with cathedral windows. There's a massive space battle next, and things look bad for the Emperor and Stella until the Emperor suggests a final tactic. "There's only one solution left...," intones Plummer solemnly, "...starcrash."

With a little help from Elle, Stella then crashes a conveniently-evacuated floating city into Zarth Arn's space station, killing the surprised villain. Finally, The victorious Emperor delivers a Shakespearean soliloquy from the throne of his gold-plated spaceship. "The stars are clear. The planets shine. We've won..."

My my my, where to begin... ?

Okay, Starcrash is an absolutely innocent film that combines, in awkward proportion, ingenuity with idiocy. The film successfully captures a fun pulpy vibe with its colorful snow planets, sexy women, silly robots and the simple Manichean narrative of pure good versus pure evil. It's virtually impossible to hate the movie because it seems to have been created by enthusiastic eleven year-olds. It is so earnest and happy, you feel downright curmudgeonly for pointing out all the examples of blatant stupidity.

Take for instance, Akton's enthusiastic reception of enemy pursuit at the film's beginning. "A ha! Looks like the cops!," he says cheerily, apparently pleased to be followed and arrested. And Stella almost constantly wears a smile, no matter what else she's doing. It's nice to like your job, of course, but a result of all the happy, scrappy hero swashbuckling is that a feeling of menace is lost.. If the characters are having such a good time, why worry about the pudgy, cackling Zarth-Arn?

The special effects in Starcrash are frequently inventive, if also decidedly terrible, but I'm not going to diss them here too much, because the special effects, costumes, sets and locations are all serviceable (and interesting) enough to make for a very cool space movie. It's easy to forgive a weak effect here or there, if other elements of the story are right.

But they're not.

And as much as I like and admire Caroline Munro as a cult icon, the biggest finger (maybe one on Zarth Arn's spaceship...) should be pointed directly at her. To put it politely, she doesn't craft a character for Stella. Like, at all. Munro is undeniably beautiful, but there is absolutely nothing behind Munro's pretty eyes to indicate she is inhabiting a character, and wasn't just present on set for the ride. Who is Stella? What's her background? Why is she a criminal? Where did she learn to pilot? What's her world view? Philosophy? If she's a criminal, what's her crime? How does she feel always being pursued? Recruited by the Emperor? Those are the questions that one asks, looking into the empty, glazed eyes of Miss Munro, which essentially equate to a giant black hole in the middle of the movie. Munro manages to snarl a few times and widen her eyes a lot, but other than that, she's entirely limited in her responses.

The screenplay doesn't help matters for poor Stella. In fact, Stella does precisely nothing in this film. I mean, really. She's supposed to be our lead and the greatest pilot in the universe, but what does she actually do? Well, she gets arrested. Later on, she gets into trouble with the Amazons and the giant nipply statue...but Elle rescues her. Then, she is frozen solid on the ice planet...but Elle and Akton rescue her again. Then, when faced with the evil sentry robots, Akton and Simon save Stella. She just literally...stands there. In the back of frame, doing nothing at all.

Stella is a totally passive heroine and does absolutely nothing to move or motivate the storyline. All the men around her do the heavy lifting for her. She might as well sit on a cosmic sofa and eat bon-bons, for all the action she instigates in the film. If these are "the adventures of Stella Star," the script should have involved her more heavily in the decision-making. Then again, it's tough to compete with a.) a man who knows the future so is prepared for every situation (tough actin' Akton) and b.) an Emperor who can stop time with the wave of a hand. Being a good pilot kinda pales in comparison, no?

I love the dialogue in this film too. I mean, it's utterly atrocious, but god is it fun. One of my favorite lines is "Remember what the Amazon Queen said." Another is Plummer's brilliant, out-of-the-blue order to stop time. I also appreciate Akton's line: "I must obey destiny." Best of all is Stella's line, which mirrors the impressions of viewers: "I thought I was going to go insane."

in terms of presentation, it's not necessarily that the special effects in Starcrash are bad; it's that they are badly abused. The editing is terrible. Scenes seem to stop at random, swept away by random "wipes." Another problem: the film opens with the trademark Star Wars shot. A vast spaceship cruises in view of the camera, and then seems to stretch on, forever and forever. It was a good shot in Star Wars. And it's a good shot here. But then, it is followed in Starcrash by four additional shots of the same spaceship going by the camera. Slooooowly. The second shot is from above; the third is from the side; the fourth shot is a full shot of the ship near a planet, and the fifth shot is from above again. Jeez, talk about overkill. If the editor had used two shots instead of five to suggest the scope of this massive space vessel, the viewer would not have had the time to notice that someone forgot to paint the miniature; or that it seems to be put-together entirely from model kit parts.

Less is more, Starcrash. Less is more.

Again -- proving that in Starcrash ingenuity goes hand-in-hand with idiocy -- there's a near-great moment at the climax of the film, when the Emperor launches torpedoes at Zarth Arn's space station. The torpedoes breach the hull (and windows) of the station, land in the control room, and out pop heavily-armed infantrymen, ready for combat. Lasers flash everywhere! It's incredibly cool to see. But...what about explosive decompression? I am certain that Starcrash knows what explosive decompression is, because it remembers to adorn Stella in a spacesuit every time she leaves her ship. So, what are we to make of the fact that these space torpedoes break windows, but there's no explosive decompression? And, are infantry-carrying torpedoes really necessary when the Emperor can stop time? Just saying...

On and on this could go. How detailed should I be? Should I comment on the fact that during her stint of hard labor on a penal colony, Stella Star is allowed to remain dressed in her trademark gear of go-go-boots and dominatrix bikini?

Should I mention the fact that Akton boasts a number of special powers and weapons that always seem to show up at the precise moment they're needed (I know, I know...he can see the future, he just can't tell anybody...). Should I comment on the sound effects that accompany the stop-motion sentry robots, which sound suspiciously like coins jingling around in a washing machine? Should I mention the overall hokey nature of the film? That everybody comments on "the Evil Count Zarth Arn" as if that's his actual title? Or that I want to know where I can apply for membership in the League of Dark Worlds? (What's their mission statement?)

Starcrash is such a terrible movie, it makes Bo Derek's Tarzan The Ape Man look like high art. But, by point of contrast, Starcrash is never dull and never pretentious. On the contrary, this is an absolutely terrible movie made with total zeal, naivete and enthusiasm. The results speak for themselves, but I sure do love that enthusiasm. All bad movies should be this happy with themselves.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Whitman Trek

Don't Forget to Vote For The House Between!

This is the final week to vote in the Sy Fy 2008 Genre Awards for The House Between! Remember, you can vote once a day thru July 25th.

If you're a fan, now's the time to show it. Make your vote count by going to Sy Fy Portal, and clicking on the Twilight Zone-ish icon on the upper right hand side of the screen. From there, the ballot will pop-up...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Friedkin Fest '08

On Friday, I'll be debuting a new feature on the blog called Friedkin Friday, where I gaze back at some of the truly exceptional cinematic work of William Friedkin, an Oscar-winning director who happens to be one of my favorites. In particular, I'll be looking at some of Friedkin's more controversial, lesser-known works (in other words, not The Exorcist or The French Connection, at least to start). So I'm headed towards the likes of Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Rampage (1988) and Jade (1995), specifically.

In fact, I'll be kicking off Friedkin Friday with a review of the notorious Cruising, a much-reviled film about an undercover cop (Al Pacino) frequenting the Big Apple's gay leather bars (of the pre-AIDS era) in search of a serial killer. If you haven't seen the film yet, queue it, watch it and get on board. Seriously, I'd love to have the readership here join me in gazing back at Friedkin's impressive, controversial and colorful film oeuvre, so pick up any of these titles and start thinking about what makes a Friedkin film unique or special.

I know that for me, I appreciate the almost documentary-style approach Friedkin adopts in key scenes. Remember Regan's visit to the hospital in The Exorcist? Or the close-up montage of the counterfeiting process in To Live and Die in L.A.? The attention to detail is amazing; as is the feeling "you are there."

Also, Friedkin boasts the nickname "Hurricane Billy," and this is appropriate since his films do frequently hit you like a hurricane, especially in the meticulously-constructed action sequences. The sheer audacity, complexity, and pace of the highway car chase in To Live and Die in L.A. pops to mind, but I could be making the same claim for The French Connection.

I also appreciate Friedkin's attention to detail and accuracy, whether he's making a film about counterfeiting or the leather fetish scene. He's remarkable at capturing the vibe of a place: a city, a night-club, Iraq even. Furthermore, Friedkin's films feature a deep-seated sense of moral ambiguity (some might say cynicism or pessimism) that I find fascinating to watch (and again, that may go back to his history as a documentarian).

What leaps to mind when you think of a Friedkin film? I'd love to see your comments. But definitely tune in here Friday for a review of Cruising.

Monday, July 21, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quest for Fire (1982)

I ordered this Jean-Jacques Annaud classic from Netflix last week to wash away the funk left by Roland Emmerich's silly and lugubrious 10,000 BC, and I'm glad I did.

This is how a prehistoric film should be done; no question about it. This is an exciting, action-packed adventure with memorable characters and an inspiring message about human nature.

I've admired Quest for Fire ever since I saw it in the theater back in 1982, but it's good to know for certain that the movie holds up well even after twenty-five years. This is a film that is authentically epic in scale (like 10,000 BC sought to be); one that attempts accuracy in the language of its cave-man protagonists (grunts and groans all the way around...); but which also isn't historically inaccurate in a way that makes you laugh or wince. The cave-men here don't wander into Giza and find the pyramids under construction. Thankfully.

Thematically, Quest for Fire -- based on the novel by J.H. Rasny - offers a unique narrative and commentary about man's unique capacity to change (I was going to say his ability to "evolve"); to adapt to new technologies and new developments in his always-difficult existence. That life, as we see here, was nasty, brutish and short.

Set some "80,000 years ago," this "science fantasy adventure" (as it was billed in the original theatrical trailer) specifically concerns the primitive Ulam tribe. Annaud's observant camera introduces us to this Cro-Magnon clan and the rhythms of primitive life, and it almost feels like we're watching a documentary for the first fifteen minutes or so. We see the tribes' people sleep (together, in a large communal cave), share a meal, even mate (there's precious little romance in this quick act...), and, finally, tend to their fire.

That last bit is especially important. The Ulam lack the capacity to make the fire for themselves, so they have assigned a Fire Keeper or guardian to keep a small flame eternally lit. Why? Fire ("the great mystery" according to the film's opening card), is the one thing that keeps the tribe alive. It provides warmth; light, and the means to cook food. Without it, the Ulam would descend into darkness, cold and despair. Yet they don't understand fire. It's a thing to be captured; to be found. To be sought.

Then, one day, the lurking Wagabu (a tribe of primitive homo erectus) launch a surprise attack on the Ulam, and it's like a Stone Age 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The sanctuary of the Ulam cave is breached. Men are killed (in extremely violent and bloody fashion) and women are dragged away. And the sacred fire is nearly extinguished. The Fire Keeper manages to keep the flame lit for a short time, but soon it winks out, leaving the Ulam tribe -- now wandering in a primordial, misty bog --- little hope for continued survival. Accordingly, three of the best warriors in the tribe, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) are tasked with a seemingly-impossible mission: to find fire and bring it back to the tribe.

The quest begins, and on this incredible odyssey across a wild landscape, the three men encounter sabre-toothed tigers (which chase them up a tree...), mastodons, and other terrors of the Paleolithic Age. In the film's most frightening scene, the Ulam triumvirate confronts the Kzamm, a neanderthal tribe of cannibals. Our heroes attempt to steal fire from these monstrous, hulking creatures, but it's a botched attempt.

Still, during the struggle, Naoh and the others manage to free Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a beautiful female of the advanced Ivaka tribe. Adorned solely in body paint (otherwise totally nude), Ika is resourceful, bright and one of us...a homo sapien. She introduces the Ulam warriors to the concept of laughter (not to mention the wonders of the missionary position...), and soon becomes the team's most valuable player; at least until, homesick, she decides to return to her tribe. Heartbroken by her departure, a smitten Naoh follows Ika back to her people, and after a series of ritual humiliations (including public sex with a line-up of very obese women...), is introduced to a world of new technology. The Ivaka, you see, can make fire. It is an art they teach Naoh. Also, the Ivaka can craft arrows, make pottery and build free-standing shelters. It's a brave new world.

After some time living happily as an Ivaka, Naoh is coerced by Amoukar and Gaw to return to their people. Ika, who has fallen in love with Naoh, goes with them on the trip. In the end, Naoh vanquishes a rival in his clan, and Ika teaches the Ulam to make fire. No longer is it "magic;" something beyond the grasp of their understanding. Now it is simply...a tool.

The last scene of the film, a beautifully staged, evocative medium shot, reveals a pregnant Ika cradled tenderly in Naoh's strong arms, as they look skyward expectantly, bathed in moonlight. The next generation will be one born with the knowledge to make fire; to build shelter; to carry light spears/arrows. Mankind has taken a big step forward and we have witnessed the journey.

Even today, the human animal gets a lot of things wrong, no question. We pollute our environment and we wage war, specifically. But Quest for Fire reminds the viewer that the human experience is always evolving; that a new technology could be invented or discovered, one that makes our struggle for immortality that much closer to reality; that makes our burdens that much lighter. You can watch, in Quest for Fire, how Naoh integrates new weapons, new science, into his primitive life...and is the better for it.

This theme got me thinking about my own relatively uneventful life, and I realized suddenly that twenty years ago, I had never logged on the Internet, blogged a post, written an e-mail or used a cell phone. And ten years before that, I had never sent a fax. Just in the span of my adult life-time, the way I "live" has changed radically. I guess I'm like Naoh after a fashion (we all are...). In just the span of this film, the dark, mysterious world of the Ulam becomes significantly brighter because of interaction with the Ivaka and their technology.

This is nothing less than the story of the entire human experience: the great and unending quest to make our lives less uncomfortable; less difficult. I don't use the word "comfortable" lightly. I don't mean that we're lazy. I mean that the flow of human history is to make survival (and our children's survival) less a risk and more a guarantee: with science, with technology, and hopefully with wisdom. That's why it hurts me so much to see the anti-intellectual, anti-science nuts gaining so much traction in this country's discourse today. If man had let superstition win out in the prehistoric past....we never would have survived. We never would have learned to make fire. We would have died out in that swamp.

The march of progress, however, isn't always great or easy for everyone. The Fire Keeper in Quest for Fire, for instance, is out of a job in the Ulam Tribe, his skills no longer needed. This may be the first case of downsizing in history...

I also find it immensely interesting that it is a woman who - basically - brings civilization to Naoh's people in this film. She teaches Naoh how to make love as well as make fire. And, watching the final scenes of the film, you have to countenance the idea that she also teaches him the critical (and in my experience, female...) quality of patience. Where - I wonder - would mankind be without womankind?

Visually arresting, and loaded with gory action sequences, Quest for Fire is a fascinating adventure that considers with great verisimilitude "what might have been" in our long ago past. The shots that book-end the film: nearly identical pans across a desolate dark valley lit by a single fire, serve to remind us how hard our journey has been; that mankind's survival over the ages is not a miracle; not a gift from non-existent deities. But rather the result of our own resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of a harsh and dark environment. Don't praise God. Don't praise fire. Or magic. Praise the human spirit. It got us where we are today.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 20: Run Joe Run (1974)

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Tarzan The Ape Man (1981)

"We're here for your pleasure. Not ours," states Bo Derek (as prim and proper Jane Parker), in her husband (John Derek's) sexual-skewing interpretation of the Tarzan mythos, Tarzan The Ape Man (1981).

Naturally, she's talking about the reasons why women are put on this Earth (for men's pleasure; not their own...), but she might as well be discussing the reasons this film looks the way it does. It was produced -- seemingly -- entirely for male consumption and pleasure. After all, the film is a lingering, loving tribute not to Edgar Rice Burroughs' seemingly immortal jungle man character, but to Derek's legendary and statuesque, perfectly-sculpted body and her character's tantalizing sense of sexual "innocence."

I realize the purists (and just about everybody else...) hated Tarzan the Ape Man when it was released back in the early 1980s, but I have to tell you: it's an absolute riot, and thoroughly entertaining (if not always intentionally so...). The basic idea of this "re-imagination" (before the term re-imagination was even a glint in Tim Burton's eye...), is a depiction of the Tarzan story re-framed and re-parsed from Jane's naive perspective; and as a sort of soft-core travelogue across gorgeous, picturesque, wild Africa.

Accordingly, the film's photography (of bodies and exterior locations...) is never less than beautiful (some might say stunning), and there's no studio fakery to break the illusion of a sojourn into the bush, so-to-speak. In terms of bad movie history, the torch of bad-actors starring in soft-porn genre films is passed from John Phillip Law (Barbarella), playing a photographer named Holt, to chiseled Miles O'Keeffe, portraying Tarzan. That baton-passing alone is a cinematic milestone, I'd estimate.

Richard Harris (who also starred with Bo Derek in Orca back in the disco decade), plays Jane's father in this version of Tarzan, and he takes his performance waaaay over-the-top. Mr. James Parker is a central character in the screenplay, however, which concerns Jane's journey of self-discovery. Yes, she must select one of the two Alpha males in her life: either bad old Dad or hunky, heroic Tarzan. Since this battle of the -- ahem -- larger-than-life men is the crucible of the narrative, both male characters are depicted by director John Derek in - how shall I say this? -- distinctly phallic terms.

For instance, Mr. Parker informs Jane that her mother almost died "during conception." You read that right. Not child-birth, mind you, but conception. That the act of love-making. "I held her too long; I loved her too hard," he explains regretfully, providing way too much information about a scene I don't want to envision. Jeez.

Later, Holt (a milquetoast) explains to Jane that it takes a very "big" (!) man -- her father -- to go into wild Africa in search of a mythical inland sea, which is tucked secretly away behind a giant stone protrusion in the land, an outcropping of insurmountable rock that Bo and the others must scale. Uh huh.

Finally, there's an absolutely incredible, shameless, downright brazen composition in which Harris is seen to be polishing a large chrome cannon (placed in the frame around his crotch level). The cannon, not surprisingly, is pointed due north. When Bo Derek approaches Harris and his gleaming cannon, she arrives from the submissive position in the frame, from below...studying the shining cannon wide-eyed...

Even Richard Harris (who regrettably plays his first scene without pants...) and his silver cannon, however, can't compete with Tarzan in the phallus department. The Ape Man (always wearing a tiny loin cloth...) reveals his worthiness by freeing Bo not just from another phallic symbol, a gigantic boa constrictor, but by rescuing her from a deflowering at the --errh-- hand of a semi-retarded savage local who had planned to make Jane his bride.

The set-pieces in Tarzan The Ape Man are not really what you would expect of a Tarzan movie; confirming the fact that this movie is really about sex, not adventure. The few action sequences are filmed in agonizing slow-motion and look more like coitus than combat. Take the snake scene: it's an over-long montage in slow-motion photography, with close-ups of Bo and Miles writhing, gasping and twisting in muddy water. Foreplay never looked so great. But it takes too want to get to the main event.

There's also an incredible scene in the middle of the film, one set at an "inland ocean" in which Jane decides - out of the blue - to take a bath. Yes! We are then treated to a lingering scene of Bo Derek swimming in a shiny blue sea; the waves lapping against her supple, gorgeous flesh. She poses in the sand, her clothes clinging transparently to her flesh. It's quite intoxicating...until a wandering lion shows up. Tarzan shows up too, and a love story (of sorts) commences.

Harris, who actually gets to voice a line of dialogue I've always wanted to say to my wife ("I wallow in me. I enjoy every syllable I say."), soon confronts daughter Jane over her new interest in the hunky ape man. "Do you understand what he wants?" He asks.

Yeah Dad, I think she understands.

Later, Tarzan abducts Jane and one of his chimpanzee entourage tosses her a banana at a well-timed moment. Clutching the banana close to her mouth, doe-eyed Jane says the words we've longed to hear from her. "I'm still a virgin." She then adds "I don't know whether that's good or bad..." (Hmmm, I'm thinking...good!). Tantalizingly, Jane sucks a little on the banana...


Later in a film that feels like all promises and no delivery, Jane teaches Tarzan to smile. She puts her fingers to his lips. He responds in kind. Then, as if he was born to it, Tarzan reaches quickly under Jane's (see-through) shirt and begins to vigorously massage her nipples. At this point in the film, Kathryn looked at me, and said "what is it with men? Why do you men automatically go for the breasts?" I won't repeat my answer here. But it was good.

The film climaxes (if you'll pardon my choice of phrase), with Bo Derek topless again, covered head-to-toe in glistening white paint; rescued in the nick of time by Tarzan from the Special Ed Savage. As for poor Daddy, he's finally undone by the King of Phallic Symbols: gored by an elephant tusk. As he dies, he continues to blabber endlessly. "Your life is going to be a marvelous adventure," old Dad says to his daughter, just as she is about go off and be deflowered by Tarzan.

I'll say...

Then, as the end credits roll, we are treated to the oddest threesome in cinema history. Tarzan, Jane and an eager orangutan frolic and wrestle at length, their limbs and bodies intertwined.

Well, whatever floats your banana, Tarzan.