31 July 2007

"De Düva" (The Dove): So Long, Ingmar...

Everyone knows I'm a movie buff, but I must admit I was never much of a disciple of those European auteurs who were (and are) the darlings of boomer film critics who refuse to admit that anything good was made after the 60s and 70s.

The late Ingmar Bergman certainly deserves his canonization as an influential and thoughtful filmmaker, but truth is, his leisurely-paced exercises in monochromatic Euro-angst have left me--for the most part--cold, unmoved, and hopelessly bored (although I will admit that my tastes have "matured" somewhat over the years and I've warmed up to "The Seventh Seal" and "The Virgin Spring", if only because the former was parodied in "Bill And Ted" and the latter provided the basis for Wes Craven's "Last House On The Left"). Plus, every other damned poseur in my first year film class seemed to think they were the only person who knew who Sven Nykvist was.

Go ahead and blame the influence of too many horror movies and comic books on shaping my sensibility (it's not that I don't like existentialism, it's just that I prefer mine with a healthy dose of gunplay and reanimated corpses), or, as I do, blame SCTV's brilliant parody "Whispers Of The Wolf" on Count Floyd's "Monster Chiller Horror Theatre", which ruined Bergman's "Persona" and "Hour Of The Wolf" for me (c'mon, I'm not alone) for life.

So rather than revised my personal history and refashion myself as a mournful Bergman latecomer, I'd like to pay tribute by reminding readers of the existence of another great parody, one done with a great deal of affection, entitled "De Düva" (The Dove), which was produced in 1968 and nominated for an Academy Award. It stars the much-missed Madelaine Kahn in what the IMBD lists as her first professional role, and was directed by George Coe, who later joined the original launch of "Saturday Night Live" and today is a character actor who's appeared on everything from "King Of Queens" to "Bones" to "Gilmore Girls" to "Smallville".

You can check out the brilliant short here (and see the Grim Reaper play badminton) at Bergmanorama.com (requires Windows Media Player).

And a nod to Slate for the tip...

Dario Argento Returns For "Midnight Madness"

Great news today for fans of one of the horror genre's true visionaries: Dario Argento, the Italian master of trippy, gore-soaked fantasias, will premiere his long-awaited"Mother Of Tears" (La Terza Madre) as part of the Midnight Madness program at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.

This is the conclusion of his "Three Mothers" trilogy that began in 1977 with "Suspiria" and was left hanging after the botched release of 1980's thematic followup "Inferno". In "Mother", archaeology student Sarah (portrayed by Asia Argento--yes, his daughter) releases the demonic forces of a powerful witch which erupt into a wave of suicide and crime in advance of her resurrection.
The film also stars European genre vet Udo Kier (Andy Warhol's "Frankenstein", and recently, in Rob Zombie's faux "Grindhouse" trailer "Werewolf Women Of The S.S.") and Daria Nicolodi, Dario's ex-wife (and Asia's mother), who appeared in his earlier films and in Asia's directorial debut "Scarlett Diva".
In the early years of the Midnight Madness program Argento was a staple: his "Opera", "Trauma", and "The Stendhal Syndrome" screened at the original Bloor Cinema venue, and the thrillers he produced for Michel Soavi ("The Church", "The Sect") debuted there, too. For years, Argento's films were butchered by American distributors and spottily released under crappy titles and lousy ad campaigns.
In recent years, Argento has kept a low profile, but has worked steadily--last year's TV movie "Do You Like Hitchcock?" was a return to his giallo roots, as was the Michael Mann-esque police procedural "The Card Player". He also found time to venture to Canadian shores to shoot two episodes in Vancouver for Mick Garris' "Masters Of Horror" series: "Jenifer" and "Pelts".
Argento will also be a guest at Rue Morgue's "Festival Of Fear" this coming August.
It'll mark a reunion between Argento and fellow guest George A. Romero, who together produced the original "Dawn Of The Dead" and co-directed the underrated Edgar Allan Poe tribute "Two Evil Eyes". Romero has a film in the Midnight Madness program this year, too: "Diary Of The Dead", the official fourth installment in his zombie saga that began with 1968's "Night Of The Living Dead".
Argento's films aren't always perfect--narrative "logic" isn't a concern and he seems to delight in deliberately polarizing and frustrating the audience--but each is always gorgeously designed and a feast for the senses, and ala works of Hitchcock or DePalma, manage to feature at least one extended set piece that's a marvel of timing and intensity.
Here's a list of the entire "Midnight Madness" lineup. Argento, plus Romero, plus Stuart Gordon, plus Takashi Miike? September can't come quick enough...

30 July 2007

A Colortini For Tom (Tom Snyder 1936-2007)

Sad news for longtime late-night TV followers: Tom Snyder, the veteran TV host/interviewer who will likely be immortalized by Dan Aykroyd's "Saturday Night Live" parody, died yesterday of leukemia at the age of 71. His fractured, rambling, and off-the-cuff demeanour infuriated many and charmed others--count me in the latter camp. Snyder was fascinating to watch no matter who was on the show--an hour with him was one part fireside chat, one part curmudgeonly rant, and one-part celebrity shill session (the latter part often the least important of the evening).

I was just old enough to catch Snyder for the first time on the tail end of his "Tomorrow" run on NBC (before he was cancelled to make way for "Late Night With David Letterman"). He'd occassionally throw to Rona Barrett for some Hollywood dish, but mostly, it was all Tom for the hour. Chainsmoking against a dark set, dressed like a high school math teacher, and sporting a flappy comb-over that he was able to maintain for decades, Snyder could be counted on to digress into some marathon account of his "Mother Snyder"s various situations, his favourite LA steakhouse, or the fact that he couldn't get "The Great Escape" on home video, and to laugh heartily at his own frequently perplexing jokes and non sequitors.

Mind you, he could serious and insightful when the mood, or the subject, suited him (he began his career as a journalist in Philadelphia). Witness his still-historic confrontation/interview with Charles Manson, conducted from Manson's cell at over two evenings in 1981 (Manson would profess a desire to become a "welder" upon his release from prison).

Music and movie junkies in an era pre-MTV, pre-Entertainment Tonight, and pre-internet could regularly find the likes of John Lydon, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, Roger Corman, and Harlan Ellison joining Snyder on his spartan set. "U2" made their U.S. debut on his show. In fact, for many punk/New Wave devotees, Snyder's program--other than Canada's essential "The New Music"--was the only North American broadcast forum that paid any attention to the burgeoning scene at all (Wendy O. Williams' appearance was perfectly parodied on SCTV's "Fishin' Musician").

(Snyder will appear in the upcoming Harlan Ellison documentary "Dreams With Sharp Teeth", currently in production).

So in the words of Mr. Snyder, tonight let's "fire up a colortini, sit back, relax and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air..." and check out these great clips:

Conan O'Brien hosts a terrific overview of Snyder's NBC years (featuring Lydon, Hitchcock, Ali, Bono, Manson). Click here.

Snyder clashes with Lydon circa PIL here.

"The Clash" and Snyder get along here.

Iggy Pop in top form with Snyder here.

Snyder talks with the some of the original "Star Trek" cast and Harlan Ellison rails against Roddenberry and everyone here (Snyder is utterly baffled by the concept of a "Star Trek" convention, and check out James "Scotty" Doohan's funky duds!)

Man, do I miss this show...

29 July 2007

24 July 2007

Rare Carpenter Film Finally On DVD

Before he directed the horror classic "Halloween", John Carpenter wrote and directed a little-seen TV movie for NBC with the hysterical title "Someone's Watching Me!" (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title). A then-modern day riff on "Rear Window" that also anticipated Ira Levin's "Sliver", the thriller (written and shot as "High Rise") starred Lauren Hutton as a tv director stalked by a psychotic admirer. Lauren's coworker, a rare openly gay character in the late 70s, was played by Adrienne Barbeau, whom Carpenter married (they did two more films together before divorcing in the mid-80s). Carpenter-regular Charles Cyphers ("Assault On Precinct 13", "Halloween", "The Fog") also had a role.

For a TV movie with all of the limitations of commercial breaks and prime-time censorship, "SWM"showcased Carpenter's suspense skills in top form, even without the benefit of the widescreen frame and his own distinctive musical score.

I spent years tracking this thing down on too many convention tables, ultimately scoring a dub thanks to a fellow Carpenter fan on a Compuserve movie forum. To my delight, it held up really well, even if there are few unintentional laughs, chiefly the presence of Len Lesser, aka "Seinfeld"s Uncle Leo, in a key role.

Well, latecomers to the Carpenter camp have it easy: DVD Drive-In has announced that on September 25, "Someone's Watching Me!" will receive its first official home video release in any medium (but in this case, thankfully, the standard DVD format) as part of its "Twisted Terror Collection". No word yet on whether or not the director will contribute a commentary track (he usually does...).

Milton Subotsky's Amicus anthology "From Beyond The Grave", Oliver Stone's "The Hand" (his second feature film, starring Michael Caine, forever ruined by the SCTV sketch "My Bloody Hand"), Wes Craven's "Deadly Friend" with Kirsty Swanson (one of his worst films, IMHO), Manny Coto's "Dr. Giggles" starring Larry Drake, and Sean S. Cunningham's underrated psycho thriller "Eyes Of A Stranger", starring the unlikely combination of "The Love Boat"s Lauren Tewes and Rip Torn, round out the series. You can buy 'em individually or as a boxed set (I'll opt for buying them one at a time--"Deadly Friend" and "Dr. Giggles" aren't worth revisiting, let alone owning).

I was originally commissioned to review "Someone's Watching Me!" for Troma-regular Trent Haaga's "Tapehead" cult movie site some time back. You can read my comments here when I reposed the piece as part of this year's John Carpenter Blog-A-Thon...

10 July 2007

"Kill Da Wab-bit!..."

Remember that "Seinfeld" episode when Elaine says to Jerry: "It's so sad--all your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons"? I'm reasonably sure I yelled back at the screen: "so what the hell's wrong with that?...(big head)".

The Chuck Jones classic "What's Opera Doc?", turned 50 years old on July 6th, and for many of us of a certain age, it's pretty much the sum total of what we know about Der Ring des Nibelungen by some German dude named Wagner.

Steve Watt, curator of Toronto's "Animation Connection" gallery (and, he points out, owner of an actual animation cel from the short) writes in The Toronto Star:

It is the antithesis of the routine cartoon. In place of snappy one-liners we see Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny singing their parts with complete sincerity and commitment. The backgrounds are beautifully textured paintings. The score is powerful and moving. Bugs cuts a striking figure in a metallic brassiere before Madonna was even born. It's audacious and decadent and beautiful and bold and everything the vast majority of cartoons would never dare to be.

He makes a solid argument that it could be "the greatest cartoon ever...a piece of such grandeur will never be repeated".

Jones had told Watt that because they (the legendary "Termite Terrace" team of Warner Bros. animators) made cartoons to "humour themselves", and that the studio executives didn't care what they did as long as "they stayed on time and on budget". Instead of kicking back and cracking out formulaic shorts, they devoted their considerable talents into such iconoclastic and ground-breaking experiments as "Opera", "One Froggy Evening", "Duck Amuck", "The Rabbit Of Seville" to name but a few...

Watt's appreciation can be read in its entirety here at The Toronto Star.

And here's a very thorough scene-by-scene analysis at Barbara Thomas' Thomasville Central.

But why settle for egghead analysis when you can watch those seven perfect minutes here on YouTube?

05 July 2007

And You Thought Roeper Was A Dick...

It's always fashionable to trash contemporary American cinema--these days, all it takes to seem high brow is to tsk tsk at the mere mention of "Dude, Where's My Car?" (which is now soooo 2000...)--but only the seasoned elitist prig knows that in order to truly earn his/her PBS tote bag one must proclaim that American movies were-and-are inferior from their very inception.

Yessir, to a particularly odious breed of swaggering a-hole, Maya Deren and Brett Ratner are cut from pretty much the same (cheese) cloth...

The insufferable jack-ass pictured here is one Ronald Bergan, a film instructor, author, and reviewer (and I would offer, possibly a virgin, impotent, and suffering from IBS, so sources tell me) who must've broken a snaggled-tooth on a popcorn kernel from his "Surf's Up" Happy Meal this week in order to pen this doozie the Britain's Guardian Unlimited:

"By the highest standards of cinema, American films fall short. There are no living American directors who can compete in innovation and depth with the likes of Theo Angelopoulos, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard(the list goes on)...It has always been thus, but to a far lesser extent. The only American-born film directors that truly belong in the Film Pantheon are John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles..."

Ah, but what about the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, the discriminating and well-versed cineastes/TCM subscribers amongst you have countered? The era in which such acknowledged visionaries such as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder and of course, Alfred Hitchcock, produced their greatest critically-lauded and audience-friendly works?

Sorry, but Bergan's got that covered, too: those artists--he proclaims with laughable authority (presumably having been with them as they stepped off the boat at Ellis Island)--"brought what they had learnt in Europe with them to America".

And true to form, the article is illustrated by a still from the Jim Carrey vehicle "Dumb And Dumber", another dated and woefully obvious reference that's about as representative of American cinema as "Carry On Up The Khyber" is of the U.K. film industry(Lesson number 1 in being a fatuous armchair intellectual: always define your object of scorn by its worst possible example)...

Bergan never informs us at to what those "highest artistic standards" actually are, then again, I'm exactly the kind of sci-fi loving, sequel-going, comic-book-reading moron the Evil Empire caters to and am thus too hopelessly infantile to figure it out. And as a part-time, semi-professional reviewer, I've been known to give positive notices to Eli Roth and Rob Zombie thrillers and would rather cough up a lung before sitting through five minutes of any Godard wank-fest, so it's likely I'll never be invited into the Pundit's Inner Circle unless I trade in my Ray Harryhausen boxed set for the annotated works of Marguerite Duras.

If I seem to be taking all of this a bit too personally, it's because Bergan's tirade distills four years of the kind of blithe, anti-Hollywood, artsy-fartsy dogma crap I was force-fed daily by most of my instructors while studying Fine Arts and Film at York University in the 1980s. In short, for me, it's the equivalent of a 'Nam flashback. You've seen "The Deer Hunter"? Try watching "Battleship Potemkin" frame-by-frame with a hand-coloured Russian flag throughout the 80-minute black & white film and you'll plead for the sweet relief a round of Russian Roulette could bring!

Honestly, I thought we'd moved past this easy anti-populist nonsense: we survived breakdancing movies and "Missing In Action" sequels and other lamentable trends that were supposed to have already killed off film as an art form and here in the 21st century, Spielberg and "Blade Runner" now show up on the AFI list, animated cartoons are no longer considered purely kiddie fare, and films about caped superheroes have elicited stronger critical kudos than the last four Meryl Streep weepies. Hell, the Hobbits even cleaned up at the Oscars, beating the usual "important" disease-of-the-week melodrama...

No doubt tomorrow, there will be those out there quoting liberally from Bergan's article, hoping to impress...well, someone. Just in time to dismiss the new Robin Williams wedding comedy and the expanded opening of "Transformers". Kindred spirits, thankfully, seem to be in short reply, judging from the readers' responses that follow the essay. "Pointless, snobby", "you were being ironic, weren't you?", "banal observations", "xenophobic intellectualism", are some of the kinder remarks...

As for Bergan's influence on my movie-going habits--I don't think I've ever looked more forward to a glorified toy commercial featuring giant robots so much in my life...

©Robert J. Lewis 2007

01 July 2007

That Kid From "Waking Life" Digs "Body Snatchers"

I'm not one of those film purists categorically against remakes--this is the time of year when the pundits trot out the usual dogma bemoaning sequels, prequels, and remakes insisting, of course, that these aren't what audiences want, when box office tallies (even if they are lower this year) say otherwise (my guess is that "Rush Hour 3" will outgross Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn").

Director John Huston once said there was nothing wrong with remakes, as long as they remake bad movies and leave the good ones alone (he should know, his version of "The Maltese Falcon" was the third attempt at the famous Hammett detective yarn in a single decade). That pretty much sums up my opinion on the subject, although occassionally, a perfectly fine film that has become dated and is very much of-its-time has provided fodder for an interesting screen reinterpretation.

Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" is a stellar example. It stands completely on its own as a thriller, but could arguably be termed a sequel to Don Siegel's original 1956 classic (based upon Jack Finney's novel), in that its star, Kevin McCarthy, contributes a memorable cameo in the first act. What's more, the remake speaks to its own time: much as the original was response to McCarthy (Joe, not Kevin)-era paranoia, Kaufman's alien hordes preyed on 1970s "me-generation" vanity--disciples of EST, psychoanalysis, and the burgeoning cosmetic surgery industry who had already surrendered their individuality before the pods even appeared. Credit for this must be given to screenwriter W.D. Richter, who also adapted the Frank Langella Broadway revival of "Dracula" for John Badham, wrote "Big Trouble In Little China" for John Carpenter, and directed the cult gem "Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension".

There was a third "Body Snatchers" that few remember: it was directed by Abel Ferrara in 1993 and released to little fanfare, critical acclaim, or box office. Set on a U.S. army base, it took a more action-oriented approach to the material (it runs a lean-n'-mean 85 minutes), eschewing subtext for some solid thrills. It also provided Meg Tilly with one of her last onscreen roles before she retired from acting to devote herself to motherhood and writing.

The latest version, simply titled "The Invasion", stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and is due later this summer. It's already mired in controversy due to reports of budget overruns, reshoots, and bad test screenings, so the hatchets are already out for it--but I think the trailer is promising, which you can check out here (Updated July 3: the newly released one-sheet can be viewed here).

Wiley Wiggins--yes, the young actor from Richard Linklater's "Dazed And Confused" and "Waking Life"--is also a perceptive critic on the subject of film and new media and has been keeping a blog on the various happenings in the Austin film scene. This week, he reports on an Alamo Drafthouse screening of Kaufman's "Invasion", which he calls "most unique, the most immediate, and the most relevant. In that science fiction uses broad Rorschach blots to show us our own fears, hopes and conflicts, this film seems to hold the mirror closer than most..."

Wiggins' program notes can be read here (thanks to David Hudson's GreenCine Daily for the tip...)