30 April 2007

Ellison Wonderland

Harlan Ellison has long been one of my favorite authors--he might just be my absolute favorite. Just don't call him a science-fiction writer (though he's gladly accepted many Hugo and Nebula awards), or he'll knock your block off...as he reportedly did to one of Frank Sinatra's mouthy bodyguards back in the swingin' 60s (confirmed in Gay Talese's famous "Esquire" expose "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold") when he was one of Hollywood's rising angry-young-wunderkinds who before the age of 30 had already written a bad movie (the camp classic "The Oscar" with Stephen Boyd), some of television's classic "speculative fiction" teleplays ("The Outer Limits", "Star Trek", "Alfred Hitchcock"), and was campaigning to write for "The Flying Nun" because in his words, he wanted to "nail" Sally Field...

Not to mention an impressive number of short stories (literally in the hundreds), novellas, and novels that redefined "science fiction" (indulge me just this once, Harlan) as a legitimate literary vehicle for something other than spaceships and rayguns. This is the man who conceived and edited the "Dangerous Visions" anthologies--absolutely essential reading that still shocks today with its collective audacity, imagination, and blissful shunning of any middle-brow notion of "taboo", and likely your only chance to experience rare tales from such giants as Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Robert Bloch, William S. Burroughs, and Kurt Vonnegut under a single cover.

I could go on for paragraphs about the brilliance of Ellison's "Repent Harlequin Said The Tick Tock Man", "Croatoan", "Shatterday", "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream", "A Boy And His Dog", just in case some of you only know him as the guy who wrote the "Star Trek" episode with Joan Collins in it, or as the creator of the schlocky Canadian s.f. series "The Starlost" (which really isn't quite as bad as you remember it)...

But instead, I'll alert you to a new documentary that's due later this year (it was just screened a few days back for the Writers Guild in LA) which could serve as an ideal introduction to his unique persona and creative voice, and confirmation to the devoted that Ellison is, indeed, alive and hoping to make up for more than a decade of inactivity, due largely to health problems (he's now past 70, after all) and a lengthy lawsuit with AOL.

"Dreams With Sharp Teeth", from writer/director Erik Nelson, is part straight biography, with a bit of Spalding Gray thrown in, as much of the film is devoted to Ellison performing his own works (in the 70s, he'd pioneered the "audio book" with a series of successful spoken word albums) amidst comments from friends, family, and peers.

In the meantime, we're all still waiting for the long-promised third "Dangerous Visions" anthology (35 years late, although Ellison assures us it's on-the-way), and for ABC to run their "Masters Of Science Fiction" series, which stars John Hurt and Brian Dennehy in an adaptation of Ellison's "The Discarded" (Stephen Hawking will serve in the Rod Serling role in the miniseries...).

Here's the doc's official site and trailer.

29 April 2007

John Carpenter On Media Violence

Well, here we go again...another violent tragedy involving high school or college-age males and with it, the inevitable kangaroo court of finger-wagging and laughably overwrought hyberbole targeted at the usual media culprits--video games, action movies, blah, blah, blah--and a few new players: YouTube, and a relatively obscure Cannes award-winning, art-house hit from South Korean director Chan-Wook Park. If it's one thing that unites hard-hearted Conservatives and bleeding-heart Liberals alike, it's not the environment, it's not peace in the Middle East: it's the "moral imperative" (thanks for that, Kathy Lee Gifford) to eradicate the spawn of Rockstar Games from the face of the earth.

But towering over them all is the (alleged) granddaddy of ever social ill of the 20th century (and it would seem, this one as well): horror films. We could take the easy route and blame the French, as the the first horror flick (at least on record) was Le Manoir du Diable, directed by FX pioneer Georges Mèliès in 1896. While it lasted a mere two minutes, according to cement-heads like Michael Medved, its shockwaves can still be felt today...

But the first American entry--and let's face it, these arguments are first and foremost attacks on U.S. pop culture--was a 10 minute adaptation of "Frankenstein", produced in 1910 by Edison Studios with Charles Ogle as the Monster. And you armchair History Channel buffs know what happened next: World War 1, the Stock Market crash of 1929, the Nazi invasion of Poland--damn you, Thomas Edison, how do you sleep at night! First the lightbulb and now this?!

On April 26th The Tribeca Film Festival hosted The Kid Slays In The Picture, an evening's discussion on the brouhaha and representing the motion picture industry was none other than personal fave John Carpenter, who knows a thing or two about the genre, having created such modern classics as "Halloween", "The Fog", and "The Thing".

Carpenter was his usual gruff but eloquent self--obviously, he's had a lot of practice defending his talent and livelihood over the years:

"... the whole point of this is that censorship never works. You cannot destroy an idea. You can't destroy it. You can hide it, you can try to cover it up, but you can't destroy it. It will be there and it will bubble up again."

"...and the reason for a lot of these movies is the culture that we live in -- it's what you've been saying. The events that are going on in our world. I think it's pretty clear, when we start seeing torture movies, why do you think that is? Look at what's happened. I personally love the Saw movies...they [the audience] can identify with this person trying to save their own life -- identify with a person being tortured. That's what our government doesn't seem to understand -- identify with people being tortured, not the torturers..."

Is there a film he's felt went too far? The answer may surprise you:

"The two roughest movies I've ever seen, ever, there was a WWII film called Death Mills. It was a documentary about the concentration camps. It's beyond words. The second is Blood of the Beasts, a Georges Franju documentary about a Paris slaughterhouse...I'm a wimp that way."

Here's the link to a rather puny transcript of the event, which also featured Lionsgate exec Peter Block, and Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer, but that seems to be all there is for now.

(For what it's worth, I spent most of this past weekend drawing concepts for an upcoming horror project, and I went to bed last night with a clear conscience...and the only film that's ever made me want to commit violence was David Seltzer's "Lucas", with Corey Haim and Charlie Sheen...)

Paolo Verzi's New Film

Yes, there was a time when I hadn't heard of him, either...
I got a call from a colleague back in the spring of 2000 offering me a storyboard gig on an Italian comedy that was going to incorporate Toronto in its usual role as a double for Manhattan. That very evening, the film's director, Paolo Verzi, was hosting a free screening of one of his films at The Royal Ontario Museum for the crew so that everyone could get better acquainted with his sensibility and the tone he was going for with this particular production, "My Name Is Tanino".

The film, Ovosodo (translation: "Hard Boiled Egg") was absolutely hilarious--I laughed constantly and marveled at its cinematic invention. Why hadn't I heard of this guy? I knew a thing or two about current Italian cinema--Maurizio Nichetti and Carlo Carlei were favorites--and yet somehow, Verzi's works remained off-the-radar to the North American scene.

Verzi was a delight to work with--we communicated back and forth via a harried translator--and he was such a talented artist I wondered why he'd hired me at all (he scribbled a bang-on caricature of yours truly during one of our story sessions). But it was often hard for him to finish a sentence, as he was constantly on the phone with his producers and financiers--extremely vocal sessions that would usually result in a stream of multi-language profanity and violent desk and chair kicking that on more than one occassion had me slinking out of the room.

Suffice to say, the film was "problem-plagued", to use the polite industry vernacular, and managed to get finished (miraculously!) in a form less-than-intended--my storyboards for its planned epic climax, set to Frank Sinatra's "My Way", in which an Italian naval vessel pulls into New York Harbor to take the title character back home to serve out his mandatory military sentence--got axed. The one scene I did that remained in the film can be found on my online portfolio here. "My Name Is Tanino" played a lone date in Canada: Toronto's 2002 Italian Film Festival. And to think that it starred current It-Girl Rachel McAdams in one of her first roles!

Well, the good news is that Verzi's back with new film that's a bit different from his usual Chuck-Jones-Meets-Woody-Allen-Meets-Fellini slapstick romps: "Napoleon And Me" is still a comedy, concerning a "what-if" scenario during the failed French emperor's exile on the Italian isle of Elba. The film stars Elio Germano as young man hired to be Napoleon's secretary while harbouring a desire to assassinate him, "Cache" star Daniel Atieul as a certain Monsieur Bonaparte, and the stunningly beautiful Monica Bellucci--every movie should have one--as "baroness floozy", according to the review.

You can read that review from Tribeca here, courtesy of the informed folks at Cinematical.

24 April 2007

Bore Worms And Brian Blessed In Dolby 5.1!

"Flash Gordon" is finally getting the deluxe DVD treatment, and it's about bloody time.

Yes, fans of Mike Hodges' underappreciated broad n' baroque 1980 space fantasy (which he'd inherited from Nicholas Roeg) can rejoice and retire their (now out-of-print) barebones Image DVD: even though it's an odd 27 years later, Universal Home Video is prepping a 2-disc special edition for release this coming August. Can't wait? Check out the Alex Ross cover art here (the ultra-talented comics icon Ross is an obvious and avowed fan--his logo says it all).

Weird synchronicity: first I scored free tickets to the Queen musical, and then the "Flash Gordon" theme shows up in the Will Ferrell comedy "Blades Of Steel", which I caught two days later..and now this news. In the words of Dr. Zarkov: "Check the angular vector of the moon!"

Not a lot of details yet on special features, other than an "appreciation" of the film by Ross, an interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (a camp pioneer--he wrote most of the Adam West "Batman" TV series, and "Barbarella" for Dino De Laurentis), and a chapter from one of the original Buster Crabbe serials.

But even if the disc extras are puny, there's a line of cool action figures, bobbleheads, and plushies coming from Bif Bang Pow! Yes, you can now own your very own cuddly Max Von Sydow...(and keep scrolling to check out the company's line of figures from "The Big Lebowski"--what, no "Autobahn"?)

13 April 2007

No, I'm Not Pulling A Heist...

Shutting down for a week, folks, as I'm off to Las Vegas for NAB 2007.

12 April 2007

And So It Goes...

News of the death of the great Kurt Vonnegut traveled fast today, and certainly, there have been no shortage of eloquent tributes written, broadcast, and posted, with more to come as his legacy becomes finite but will no doubt play a huge part as to how some future, hopefully more sane generation, will regard the 20th century.

Vonnegut's official site www.vonnegut.com has gone dark with just a single, and very sweet, tribute page accessible, sketched in his own hand (you could buy the lithographs of his art there previously--presumably, it will be relaunched in another form at a later date, once the family has had time to mourn and his business affairs have been taken care of).

Here's Lidia's thoughts on the man and his works:

"At some point, some time in my teenage years, someone lent me Breakfast of Champions. I can’t remember who that person was. I can’t remember the day it happened, or what I was wearing (although it’s safe to say it was probably black). And I can’t remember for the life of me why this person thought I would want to read this book.

I gave it back to them the next day. I read it in one sitting. Then I went to the library and took out everything else they had that had Kurt Vonnegut’s name on it. And so started my one great literary love.

When you meet people and they learn your interests, they always ask you, “what’s your favourite movie?” or “who’s your favourite band?” or “what 10 records would you take with you to a desert island?” and I could never answer any of those with any certainty. But not so for “who’s your favourite writer?”. That, without even a second thought, was always Kurt Vonnegut. Dark humour? Check. Pointed satire? Double check. Flights of fancy and a wild imagination? On the money. No one else has ever, or since, been so directly in line with my own views, my own feelings, my own life. And I am counting movie makers, musicians and artists in that.

There’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t already been said in the obits and retrospectives and tributes that have poured out today. What I want to say is that one of my greatest regrets in life is that I never had the opportunity to stand in a line with a couple of favourite books in hand, get his distinctive autograph, and just say thanks.

So, thanks, Mr. Vonnegut. I’m going to miss you..."
Esquire's online site has just posted his 1985 short story "A Dream Of The Future (Not Including Lobsters"). Read it here.

Happy Birthday, Minnie (8 Years!)

One of my two feline muses, "Minnie" (proper name: Miniature, on account of her size when we first got her at eight weeks of age) turns eight years old today and she's still adorable. How can you resist those amber eyes and that down-soft fur? On today's planner: a little Fancy Feast, a little hammock lounging, some patio inspection, some ferocious fighting with her sister Maggie--sigh, in my next life I'm coming back as a cat...

Farewell To The Master...

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

More to come on why he matters more now than ever before...

11 April 2007

"I Woke Up Early The Day I Died": I've Seen It, You Probably Won't!

In honour of the sudden interest in…er…less than “prestigious” motion pictures, I thought I’d repost my 1998 review of a film that--to my knowledge--has never been released beyond a few festival screenings. Based upon an unfilmed screenplay by the late Ed Wood Jr.,--yes, the notorious transvestite visionary behind the immortal “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and immortalized onscreen by Johnny Depp—“I Woke Up Early The Day I Died” headlined Billy Zane, Christina Ricci, and Jonathon-Taylor Thomas (!) in a perhaps too-calculated stab at “so bad it’s good” hipsterdom…

The sign of an utter dearth of creative ideas in Hollywood? A heartfelt all-star tribute to the final vision of a misunderstood artist? How the hell should I know? What I can tell you is that for whatever reason, “Demon Knight” star Billy Zane decided to not only to headline, but also produce, this whacked-out screen realization of an unfilmed script by the notorious “bad movie” visionary Edward D. Wood Jr. If you don’t recognize that last name, I suggest you may have clicked on the wrong URL.

Wood conceived of this paranoid-noir back in 1974, based on his 1960 script “Night Of Silence”. Ever the iconoclast, Wood intended from the beginning that the film contain no dialogue and utilize only sound FX and music, possibly in honor of Grade-Z peers Coleman Francis (“The Beast Of Yucca Flats”) and Art J. Nelson, Jr. (Lake Tahoe’s only monster movie “The Creeping Terror”). The project was nearly a reality, with Aldo Ray set to play the Thief, John Carradine pegged to portray the undertaker, and John Agar and David Ward all but cast as policemen.

Director Arlis Iliopulos had to convince widow Kathy Wood that he’d remain true to her husband’s “artistic vision” and promised he would not add dialogue to what was Ed’s pet project up until "the day he died” in 1978. Iliopulos then immediately approached friend Billy Zane (on the set of “Titanic”), who signed up immediately.

It’s impossible to evaluate “I Woke Up Early The Day I Died” as a good or a bad movie, because it was clearly never meant to be a “real” movie in the first place. But you’ve got to admit that for most of us, this one surpasses Universal’s much-lamented “Psycho” remake as the shameless curio of the year.

Zane hams it up in full throttle Buster-Keaton-meets-Tod-Slaughter mode as the “Thief” suffering from Roderick Usher syndrome (he’s sensitive to noise and high pitched sounds rattle him to crime). He tracks down his misplaced fortune across an ecletic roster of cameos that includes: Ann Magnuson (Loan Office Clerk), John Ritter (mourner/ carnival cowboy), Christina Ricci (jailbait hooker), Summer and Rain Phoenix (barmaids), Bud Cort (thrift shop owner), Mailia Nurmi (the original “Vampira”), Tippi Hedren (deaf mourner), Eartha Kitt (nightclub performer), Will Patton (suspicious priest), Andrew McCarthy (cop), Steven Webber (another cop), Ron Perlman (bagpipe playing gravedigger), Jonathon Taylor-Thomas (kid on the beach), and Sandra Bernhard (mourner/stripper).

The filmmakers have faced a difficult task here: to create the oft-attempted-and-usually-failed “deliberately bad movie”. We’ve all see these things crash and burn, haven’t we? “Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes” anyone? Or Stephen King’s self-confessed “moron movie” “Maximum Overdrive”? Luckily, Iliopulos’ cheesy process shots, non-existent continuity, unconvincing stock footage, and cheap effects DO manage to suggest vintage Ed Wood circa “Orgy Of The Dead”.

Iliopulos’ best visual touch is his periodic inclusion of actual excerpts from Wood’s script superimposed over shots in a blotchy typeface, complete with “Ext” and “Int” cues, page numbers, and stage directions. And the Thief’s escape from an asylum while clad in nurses’ drag, is an immortal Ed Wood moment. Every script from this man must’ve been a desperate cry for help.

If I could change one thing about “I Woke Up” (just one thing, some would ask?), it would be its soundtrack (supervised by Zane). Save for Eartha Kitt’s performance of “Wherever I Lay My Heart”, the film is driven by an adrenaline surging wall-to-wall trip hop and techno music assault. Wood would’ve raided the public domain music library for something a little more genre-specific (although the droning “Jail Bait” refrain immediately refutes that theory!). The film could do with more of the sleazy sax and cheesy music stings, a little less Soho “rave”.

Not a bad try overall, Arlis and Billy. But for a follow-up, may I suggest Wood’s “Mice On A Cold Cellar Floor” or “Bob Steele Of The Border Patrol”?

Late breaking (2007!): Who knews? The film's "official" site is still up and you can play the Flash-based "Makeover Game" here.

09 April 2007

"Someone's Watching Me": The Elusive Masterpiece (The John Carpenter Effect: A Blog-A-Thon)

"I don't like television for several reasons--censorship mostly. In television they want you to be homogenized. They want zero point of view."
-John Carpenter, 1980

Considering his obvious disdain for the idiot box, John Carpenter managed to create one of his most effective, and unjustly rare, psycho-shockers with the 1978 NBC Movie-Of-The-Week "Someone's Watching Me!", the other "lost" Carpenter film (along with his USC short "The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy") which for reasons unknown has still not been released on home video nearly 30 years after its initial, and wildly successful, broadcast.

Don't let the hysterical title and cheesy exclamation point put you off; this is no USA Network howler with Patty Duke fighting off the high school rapist guidance-counselor. Carpenter's boob-tube rival to his own "Halloween" transcends its prime-time limitations and scores as one of the scariest made-for-TV efforts ever.

Originally intended as a feature for Warner Bros. entitled "High Rise", the studio thought the concept was too "small" for the big screen, but ideal for their MOW division. The project provided Carpenter with many firsts: his first network television movie, his first experience with a union crew, and his first wife, Adrienne Barbeau.

The simple-but-surefire premise allows the writer-composer-director to indulge in what he's always done best: to take strong characters, isolate and entrap them, and force them to rely on their wits survive the night against a faceless enemy. Lauren Hutton plays Leigh Michaels, a 29 year-old New York television director who relocates to Los Angeles to start life anew after a relationship has soured. Moving into the ominously named "Arkham Towers" (a nod to H.P. Lovecraft, obviously), Leigh vocally struggles to become comfortable with the single life and soon finds work directing live television at KJHC-TV. She finds a friend in the openly gay Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau, taking a real chance in the pre-"Ellen" late-70s), but remains opaque and standoffish to others, especially men. Reluctant to become intimate with nice-guy UCLA Philosophy professor Paul Winkless (David Birney), Leigh finds companionship in another perverse way. From her first day in the building, she's been receiving round-the-clock telephone calls from an anonymous man who claims he's watching her very closely. Soon, gifts begin to arrive, under the auspices of a phony travel company. One of these gifts is a telescope.

Convinced that her invisible stalker lives in a nearby tower, Leigh begins to pinpoint a suspect with the aide of Sophie and Paul, but the investigators, led by Det. Hunt (Charles Cyphers), have nothing tangible on which to build a case ("I can't bust a guy for dialing a couple of wrong numbers!", Hunt explains). An oddball tenant (Len Lesser, "Seinfeld"s Uncle Leo) is charged and banished from the city. But the caller resurfaces and ups the ante. Sophie is murdered as Leigh watches helplessly from the neighboring complex. Leigh discovers surveillance equipment planted around her apartment, and with Paul's help, tracks down her man through the public works department. Eventually, Leigh will have to stop running and face her stalker. But that would mean having to "get close"...

Hutton's "Leigh" is clearly the model for Barbeau's later "Stevie Wayne" from Carpenter's 1980 ghost story "The Fog". Like Leigh, Stevie prefers to cast off the remnants of her old life by moving to a new environment (Antonio Bay from Chicago), immersing herself in her in a semi-voyeuristic profession (radio broadcasting), and maintaining male-female relationships from afar (phone-flirting with weatherman Dan O'Bannon).

Additional Carpenter signatures appear throughout "Someone's Watching Me", and it's fun to see him sharpening his skills as he gains confidence while moving into the mainstream. Clearly, the character Carpenter identifies with most is that of the caller, Herbert Styles. The phantom-like killer is no more or less a "shape" than "Halloween"s Michael Myers is, seemingly omnipresent, darting into shots from out of nowhere, and only briefly displaying his face before falling to his death. The killer's campaign of terror against Leigh is not unlike Carpenter's intentions as a fear-maker: Styles isn't out to simply KILL Leigh, rather he wants to control her as he manipulates her lighting, records her audio, provides her with props, and even composes her in the lens of his telescope.

A master of widescreen compositions, Carpenter had to compensate for the cramped, square TV frame with a constantly moving camera and inventive editing, including complex combinations of subjective POV's, overhead shots, and Hitchcockian cross-cutting over multiple locations ala "Rear Window" (also evidenced in his superior "Masters Of Horror" episodes "Cigarette Burns" and "Pro-Life").

Two chilling sequences stand out: knife-wielding Leigh's pursuit of a suspect through an underground garage, and the stylish murder of Sophie in her friend's apartment as Leigh watches through a telescope in the killer's lair. Regrettably, the string-heavy score by Harold Sukman (modeled heavily on Bernard Hermann, perhaps at the director's request) is too overwrought and renders some of Carpenter's subtler moments shrill and obvious.

Sure, we all know someone who "claims" to have seen it, but the sad reality is that this minor gem is about as easy to find as Jerry Lewis' "Day The Clown Cried". Until the folks at Warner appreciate the loyalty and the buying power of the Carpenter fanbase (there are several online petitions going), the truly committed will have to make due with sporadic late-night showings and the bootleg "gray market" (which is where I finally scored my copy after a literal 12 year quest---but trust me, you can get it on the web).

Be sure to check out the other offerings at The John Carpenter Effect: A Blog-A-Thon, hosted by The Lazy Eye Theater.

08 April 2007

Happy Easter!

Sorry kid, but "The Easter Bunny Hates You!" (check this out--it shoulda been in "Grindhouse".
Photo courtesy of The House Next Door

07 April 2007

Updated: North American Moviegoers Want SHORTER Insipid Crap?

To quote an often-cited but anonymous source: "Every society gets the culture it deserves". And then there's that movie mogul's famous axiom: "The audience, individually, is an idiot. Collectively, they're a genius". I think it's actually the other way around, Louis B. Individually, members of the audience can be discerning, experimental, and willing to partake in those secret, unprestigious (non-PBS approved) pleasures that art and entertainment can safely explore, and what keeps the creative fields exciting and progressive. Art thrives on the forbidden--just ask Igor Stravinsky, John Coltrane, Henry Miller, or Sam Peckinpah (who probably had more fans than they thought in their days when the critics cried foul and they were dismissed as heretics and/or pornographers).

But collectively, it's like Jim Jones spiked the kool-aid with Jethro Bodine's Idiot Juice and served it up with a free Roots discount coupon.

This past weekend, "Grindhouse" opened to mucho fanfare, offering a gloriously inventive and entertaining riff through the glory, gory days of 1970s "B" cinema. For a single admission price, it offered a complete feature film each from an A-list director at the top of his respective form, and fake trailers from some of the most inventive minds in current horror cinema, which, last time I checked, had made something of a comeback. It's the best film school someone could take in without having to fork out tens of thousands of dollars tuition and four years of one's life (as I did). It was predicted to take in at least $25 M--instead, it barely grossed a fifth of that.

And it opened in fourth place. Behind the latest infantile family comedy. Starring Ice Cube. Which is a sequel.

Now, I thought audiences didn't want sequels. Or remakes. Or revamps of TV shows. Or films in which musicians try to act. That's why--to hear the bicoastal wail of the vox populi--theatre attendance is down and downloads are up. It's the movies' fault. 'Cause, we all know--of course--that the films bit-heads are torrenting in copious quantities are the sophisticated likes of Orson Welles' "The Magnificient Ambersons" and Yasujiro Ozu's "Floating Weeds" because that's not what Hollywood is offering today...

Well, what people say and what people do have a funny way of never really lining up, in life, in anything really, and especially in the stuff they read, listen to, and watch. Granted, this isn't a movie for everyone. It's long--three plus hours. It's got a hard "R" rating, which most theatres probably don't enforce anyway, but why drop off the kiddies if there's a risk you'll have to drive right back to pick them up and take them to Blockbuster? And it's a long weekend--a religious holiday, no less--and we all know that the population's priorities by and large side with spiritual nobility and taking in anything offering Rose McGowan as a stripper and Bruce Willis oozing pulsating pustules is akin to writing "Heil Hitler" on a Joseph Ratzinger commemorative plate.

As a guy who really, really loves this kind of material in a sincere and totally non-ironic way (the best "art", IMHO, has always been found in the margins), I suppose I'm being more than a little shrill and Cassandraesque in my lament. Filmgoers crave the shared experience (as do music mavens, book club devotees, Elizabethan poetry grads)--that's why they meet in anything that calls itself a festival or a forum and harp on about minutia that in the grand scope of life, don't mean a damn thing--and I think it'd be a great thing indeed of more people took chances and "got" this stuff, instead of hiding behind the safe, antiseptic facade of middlebrow, critic-approved fare that ultimately, denies them of the visceral jolt lacking in what passes for sophistication these days.

Tell you what: if "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film" outgrosses "The Reaping" next weekend, all is forgiven and I'll publicly recant my statement.

Updated: A reader brought to my attention that the running time of "Grindhouse" is a major inhibiting factor in its box-office grosses--the simple fact is, shorter films like "Are We Done Yet?" can be played more times during the course of a day and thus generate more dollars per screen. I'll wait to see some more of the math on its opening then--but it's still distressing that those who bemoan the current state of cinema failed to show...

06 April 2007

Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon: "Viva Knievel" (1977)

Not exactly a “grindhouse” epic, but a period nugget like no other and inspired trash of the highest pedigree guaranteed to induce audible winces and frequent eyeball-rubbing. Forget rose-tinted, warm-n-fuzzy boomer pablum like "Almost Famous", the real essence of the 70’s can be chrystalized in the seemingly endless pageant of the “Me” decade’s dubious celebrities. Game show mainstays like Brett Sumner and George Gobel. Husband and wife variety acts like Shields And Yarnell and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Newton Davis. And proto-"reality tv" publicity hounds like stuntmen The Human Fly and the immortal Evel Knievel.

I hereby offer 1977’s “Viva Knievel” as my contribution to the Trashy movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon.

A little backstory: in 1952, 14-year Robert Craig Knievel was picked up for stealing hubcaps in his hometown of Butte, Montana, and incarcerated with another petty crook named Knaufel. The local paper declared that "Awful Knawful and Evil Knievel" had been caught. Robert, visionary that he was, changed the spelling and a unique era in American pop culture was born.

Having "mastered" the art of conventional motorcycle racing (so he sez), Evel came up with the notion that long distance cycle jumping was not all that dissimilar to broad jumping: start the charge from a distance, and then build up speed to a great launch over a ramp. He began experimenting with jumping a dozen cars, then gradually increased the number to over 19. During his career, Evel would jump shark tanks (pre-Fonz), rattlesnakes, and, unsuccessfully, the fountains at Caesar's Palace in 1967 (a mishap that rendered him comatose for a month).

In 1977, no less an entertainment behemoth than Warner Brothers perhaps felt that Evel’s towering pompadour and star-spangled jumpsuit (straining against a prodigious gut) to be a logical extension of "Star Wars" science-fiction mania, and unleashed the astonishingly asinine “Viva Knievel” on a coked-out public (Evel’s life story had already been immortalized on celluloid before with the highly-fictionalized "Evel Knievel", directed by Marvin J. Chomsky in 1972, starring George Hamilton).

Directed by Gordon ("In Like Flint") Douglas, "Viva Knievel" opens with a Quinn-Martinesque hook as a prowler sneaks into a home for orphaned boys. A child awakens, and his face fills with the sort of glow that we wouldn't see again until years later when Henry Thomas stared in awe at an otherworldy bipedal Reese's Pieces junkie. The boys rise, and behold, ‘tis Evel himself, in a funky blue leisure suit and collar as wide as a stealth fighter, risking the wrath of the nuns so he can break in and hand out Evel Knievel Action Figures to the wayward youths, all the while slapping 'em "high fives". Evel obviously fancied this film a religious parable as well (heck, he already had the televangelist hairdo): in a standout moment, a boy rises from his bed, and shambles towards Evel on crutches. "You know when you walked away from that accident?" beams the ersatz Tiny Tim "I figured, if you could do it, so could I! You're the reason I'm walking Evel! You're the reason!" he exclaims, before tossing away the crutches!

For those of you with the intestinal fortitude, things get even better: Enter RED BUTTONS as a sleazy promoter, trying to fill up dangerous seats too close to the stadium jump ramp! Who roughs him up to tell him to clean up his act? Why, Evel's loyal grease monkey of course, described by Buttons as "a gorilla". And just who do you think played this hairless ape (remember, this is 1977)? William Smith? Don Stroud? Nope it's GENE KELLY, of course! Swiggin' booze from the bottle, dropping the 'g's from his sentences, and lamenting his estrangement from his son at the Military Academy, Kelly was most definitely NOT the model for Nicholas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas".

The remaining costars are true 70’s polyester-embalmed staples: MARJOE GORTNER as Evel's former partner; CAMERON MITCHELL as a mob thug; LAUREN HUTTON as a "photojournalist"; and a pre-Zucker/Abrams LESLIE NIELSEN as the crime boss. His dastardly plot: kill Evel while he's performing in Mexico, steal his van, fill it with drugs, and drive it back to the USA undetected across the border.

In run-on sermons right out of "Dragnet", Evel continually preaches from the pulpit on everything from teen drug use to the evils of alcoholism. He delivers this beauty to the spectators early in the film:

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure to be with you in Long Beach today. Y'know I see a lotta young people here in the stands today, and before I make the jump, there's something I want to say to you, that's been bothering me for a long time. I go to Indianapolis every year, to see the Indy 500. I go there with friends to drive and race. Every year when they go to qualify, they usually have to go as fast as they possibly can to get a front row position. They put nitro in their cars sometimes, instead of fuel that's intended to be in the cars, so they do go faster. And they do. For about 5 to ten laps. And then they blow all to hell! And you people, you kids, if you nitro in your bodies, in the form of narcotics, so that you can do better--or think you can do better, you will, for about 5 to ten years, and then you'll blow--ALL TO HELL! "

Needless to say, Evel saves the day by using his wits and his airborne "stratocycle". Gortner flies to Italy to do "Starcrash" with David Hasselhoff; Lauren Hutton goes on to "The Eyes Of Laura Mars"; Leslie Nielsen does a couple of Quinn Martin Productions until he gets the call from ZAZ; and Gene Kelly hoofs it with Olivia and ELO in "Xanadu".

"Viva Knievel" belongs in the pantheon of hoary vanity vehicles ranking (and I mean rank) somewhere below Muhammad Ali's "The Greatest" but above Hulk Hogan's "No Holds Barred" and possibly tied with Marty Robbins' shocking moonshine expose "Hell On Wheels".

Evel’s career barely survived this sorry spectacle. The next year, he retired at age 50 after 12 years as a self-proclaimed American folk hero (1967-1978). But his own son Robbie would go on to exceed his poppa's record: 22 vehicles in one launch. Pop’s since had a liver transplant (guess he "blew all to hell"), been busted for illegal arms possession, and was married in Las Vegas.

This past spring, Evel did what all washed-up celebrities eventually do (even his “paid programming” career was over a loooong time ago): he converted to Christianity and made a big public deal about it on Robert Schuller’s “Hour Of Power”.

Doesn't Schuller run an orphanage...?

Lindsey Buckingham At The Danforth Music Hall

It took Lindsey Buckingham 14 years to release his latest album "Under The Skin", and it was that long ago when he last took to the Toronto stage as a solo performer to promote "From The Cradle"(The Phoenix Concert Centre, July 1993). Thankfully, fans were able to catch him when he reunited with Fleetwood Mac in 2004 to promote "Say You Will", whom he'd left abruptly in 1986 when they reunited for their "Tango In The Night" album (the band continued with Billy Burnett and Rick Vito subbing for Buckingham). Unfortunately, that last tour was hardly a return to vintage form, as Christine McVie retired from the group shortly before recording the album.

Buckingham (joined later by his touring band) treated fans to an intimate and comprehensive concert at the Danforth's Music Hall theatre last night, to which spirited (and vocal) devotees of varied age brackets were treated to nearly two hours of solo hits ("Trouble"), Fleetwood Mac classics ("Go Your Own Way", "Tusk", "Second Hand News", "Never Going Back Again") and a few surprises, like an unexpected barn-storm through "Holiday Road"--his jaunty theme for "National Lampoon's Vacation"--as the first encore.

Despite his success with Fleetwood Mac (1977's "Rumours" was the number one top-selling album of all time until "Thriller") Buckingham's been a tough sell outside of his enduring supergroup. Perhaps it's that his musical persona is a tough one to define--his albums are tuneful but experimental (and admittedly, prone to the odd maddening indulgence), autobiographical but enigmatic and unusually structured, with any "hit" likely accidental rather than calculated. For someone who otherwise is an accomplished singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer and, on occassion, a veritable hit machine, Buckingham wears his eccentricity like a badge of pride--by his own admission during the set, much of his songwriting is "strange". He's secured his place as a 70s rock icon and "boomer" figurehead despite himself.

That was all perfectly fine for the rambunctious audience crowd, who shouted out titles ("we'll take requests later", Buckingham quipped) and everything short of marriage proposals. Now that Buckingham is--amazingly--57, he could probably play "Big Love," "Never Going Back Again" , "Go Your Own Way" in his sleep, but he approached each number as a showpiece for his distinctive, complex guitar arrangements and his meticulous finger-work and instinctive improvisation was something to behold, but fueled with passion and sincerity so that it didn't come off as showy grandstanding of technique-for-its- own-sake.

Without Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie on harmonies, Buckingham had to rely on some pre-recorded overdubs and the vocals of band members Brett Tuggle (bass/keyboards) and Neil Haywood (guitar) to simulate the Byrds-and-Brian Wilson influenced sonic layers of the recordings. Songs like "Big Love", "Go Insane", and "Tusk" were stripped of the 80s electronic excesses that have dated the album versions and sounded fresher--and better--than ever. For me, the highlight number was an extended interpretation of 1975's "World Turning", from Buckingham's first album as a member of Fleetwood Mac, that highlighted the percussive acrobatics of tour drummer Walfredo Reyes, who pulled off that rarest of things in making all of us briefly forget all about Mick Fleetwood.

Buckingham closed the evening promising the audience that he'd be back sooner next time, and that a new solo album would be due "sometime next year" (yeah, right). I read today that he's also planning to record and tour again with Fleetwood Mac, and that Christine McVie would be returning. Here's looking forward to yet another chapter in rock's longest-running soap opera, which may have to tide Buckingham's fans over for another 14 years...

04 April 2007

The Legacy Of Bob Clark (1941-2007)

Bob Clark, the veteran director who created a great many of Canada's most successful feature films, died today in California under truly tragic and senseless circumstances: while driving with his son Ariel (just 22 years old) on the Pacific Highway at about 2:30 am, Clark's vehicle was struck head-on by an SUV that swerved into his lane. Clark and his son were both killed, while Hector Valazquez-Nava--the driver of the other vehicle--lived, only to be arrested for gross vehicular manslaughter, driving without a license, and driving while under the influence of alcohol.

(This comes on the heels of outrage across Canada over the wrist-slap handed to Peter Leon Howe of New Brunswick, who in July of last year, drank an entire case of beer and a half-bottle of whiskey and slammed his car into cyclist Robbie McRitchie, killing the 23 year old. Howe, with a blood alcohol level of 140 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood--nearly twice the legal limit--fled the crime scene, and was sentenced to a mere two years of house arrest, a long way from the maximum sentence of 14 years in prison...)

While most of Clark's most famous works were produced in Canada under the "tax shelter" system of the 1970s, the man himself was a native of Louisiana, who was educated in Michigan and then Miami, where he met his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Alan Ormsby.

His early successes were in the horror genre, beginning with 1972's "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" (his onscreen credit read: "Benjamin" Clark), starring co-writer Ormsby as a director who leads his cast and crew to a secluded island to enact a satanic ritual, only to inadvertently raise the dead who, of course, are hungry for the usual stuff. An obvious response to George A. Romero's "Night Of The Living Dead"--it achieved nowhere near the cult status of its inspiration, but it's a lot of fun and surprisingly low-key by today's standards (gotta admit, as a kid, "Orville" freaked me out).

His followup was the darker, and more politically-charged, "Deathdream" (1974), one of the first films of its era to respond to the subject of the Vietnam War explicitly. An update of Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw , it dealt with a family whose son perishes in the war overseas and is brought back to life with the expected gruesome results. It featured the first onscreen work of makeup/FX legend Tom Savini, who would later collaborate with Romero on "Dawn Of The Dead" and many of the 1980s' more notorious splatter films, including the first "Friday The 13th" entry. A coproduction between the U.S. and Canada, "Deathdream" was shot in Florida but its post-production was done up north. When Ormsby struck a deal to finance a new thriller, Clark brought the production to Canada to piggy-back on the "Deathdream" arrangement and save some money.

That film was 1974's "Deranged", which Clark produced (Ormsby directed) in Oshawa, Ontario (standing in for Michigan, although someone forgot to remove the Ontario plates from all the vehicles). The loose biography of Ed Gein--the serial killer/cannibal who inspired Robert Bloch to created "Psycho"s Norman Bates-- is largely a one-man show for Roberts Blossom (you might remember him from "Christine" as the old coot who sells Keith Gordon the car), who gave a memorable, totally out-there performance as the troubled "Ezra Cobb" in a truly disturbing entry that combined graphic violence with a documentary style.

Clark stayed in Canada to direct his next shocker, one that became a pioneering classic: "Black Christmas", shot at The University Of Toronto, starred Olivia Hussey, then newcomer Margot Kidder, and "2001"s Keir Dulleau. Chances are you already know it, and while often-imitated, IMHO it's lost none of its power or innovation: one of the first uses of the roaming POV shot, the taut cross-cutting between the sorority girls under seige and the cop hot on the killer's trail, and the sucker-punch "twist" ending in which the maniac gets away. According to Clark, a young John Carpenter did meet with him to conceive a sequel that would be set on, you guessed it...October 31st. Whether Carpenter truly cribbed from his style guide or not, Clark regarded "Halloween"s apparent homages and blockbuster success with humour and humility...

"Murder By Decree" (1979), is, IMHO, Clark's "other" true masterpiece, the Genie-award winning thriller that had Sherlock Holmes and Watson on the trail of Jack The Ripper and in the process expose a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the British monarchy. Evocative period detail, some truly knuckle-whitening suspense set pieces, and superb performances across the board--esp. leads Christopher Plummer and James Mason--make this one a unique and complex spin on some familiar lore and a true benchmark in Canadian cinema.

"Tribute" followed the next year, to equal acclaim. A drama based upon the play by Bernard Slade, it was lauded for its fine performances between estranged father and son Jack Lemmon and Robby Benson (Lemmon was nominated for a Genie, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, winning for the former).

Clark's next was a change of genre that became his biggest sensation, and one of my least favorites of his (which I know puts me in the minority): "Porky's", shot in Florida in 1980 with Canadian funds and suffice to say it became an inexplicable hit the size of which filmmakers can only dream about, no matter what country they work in. One of the first in the tiresome 80s "coming of age" sex romps (you know, the kind that frequently cast 30-year olds as horny teenagers), it spawned two sequels and Howard Stern has been planning a remake for years. (Updated April 4/07: This week's issue of "Entertainment Weekly", in a grim coincidence, features a lengthy article on the "Porky's" series)

Clark returned to Toronto in 1982 for another complete 180 in tone and subject matter: "A Christmas Story"--the delightful first-person account of a boy's surreal Yuletide misadventures based upon the tale by Jean Shepherd (set in Cleveland, some exteriors were shot there) which, despite lacklustre box-office became a perennial holiday classic.

He worked in the U.S. for the remainder of his career, ping-ponging between forgettable (and regrettable) mainstream comedies like "Rhinestone" (yes, Sly and Dolly's C&W effort), "From The Hip", "Loose Cannons", and the--ulp--"Baby Geniuses" saga. He contributed to special edition DVDs of his early thrillers and seemed content to crank out works that many of his fans felt were beneath his gifts. Clark acted as executive producer to studio fare like "The Dukes Of Hazzard" remake and the recent "re-imagining" of his own "Black Christmas", and was prepping a remake of "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" that was due to shoot this spring.

I prefer to remember Clark for his hits rather than his misses, as a genre pioneer, and an inspiration to those of us who feel that Canadian cinema can aspire to more than dreary period melodramas and tiresome arthouse fodder. Even in his sloppiest work, he trusted his instincts, experimented in different genres, never forgot his audience, and managed to create a classic or two along the way.

(I'm indebted to Caelum Vatnsdal's fine book "They Came From Within: A History Of Canadian Horror Cinema" for details on the production of "Deranged" and "Black Christmas").