Monday, August 31, 2009

Summer Rerun: F For Fake (1974).

The busy minions at Desuko World HQ are taking a well-deserved summer vacation, so in the meantime, enjoy these favorite posts from the past. [Originally published Nov. 27, 2007]

The Scoop:
Orson Welles was the consummate trickster. Already a successful theater director, he burst into the public eye in 1939 with his infamous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, a pioneering piece of pseudo-documentary hucksterism. From there it was onto the capital of illusion, Hollywood, where he began a film career in which he repeatedly played with the audience's notions of the boundaries reality and imagination, and celebrated the power of magic.

In the documentary "F For Fake," which would ultimately prove to be his final directorial effort, he turns his lifelong fascination with trickery and illusion toward investigating the case of notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and his equally notorious biographer (and Howard Hughes diary forger) Clifford Irving. As they tell their stories for his camera, Welles interweaves his own philosophizing on the power of fraud and the nature of art. Plus, as if that weren't enough, the careers of Hughes and Welles himself get mixed in for good measure.

And then there's the final 20 minutes or so, in which Welles detours into telling the story of Oja Kodar, which transcends all the indulgence and trickery that came before.

The result is an essay, really, more than a film -- but one that is sprawling and fascinating.

In the end, "F For Fake" becomes a fitting tribute to his career -- both thought-provoking and self-serving, dishing out equal parts brilliance and self-indulgence. And utterly ignored by the mainstream.

Best Bit:
There's lots of good, quotable stuff here, but the discourse on the cathedral at Chartes stands out.

Side Note:
The excerpt of "War of the Worlds" that Welles includes is actually a recreation, not the original broadcast, and even includes some rewritten lines.

Companion Listening/Viewing:
Welles' original "War of the Worlds" (1939) and "The Blair Witch Project" (1999).


Take a Look:
The trailer:

The Chartes monologue:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Summer Rerun: Watchmen (2009).

The busy minions at Desuko World HQ are taking a well-deserved summer vacation, so in the meantime, enjoy these favorite posts from the past. [Originally published March 31, 2009]

The Scoop:
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen" was released in 1985, it became a landmark in the emerging genre of graphic novels and has cast a long shadow. Not only did it enlarge the storytelling possibilities in the comics field, but its effects have also been felt in the larger popular culture, particularly the way films and television shows have handled superhero themes. It was also very much a product of its times, delving deep into the Cold War anxieties of the mid-1980s.

All of which make any sort of film version of "Watchmen" especially problematic. As written by David Hayter ("X-Men") and newcomer Alex Tse and directed by Zack Snyder ("300"), the film is full of thunder and excitement, but runs up against a few walls.

The story takes place in a darker, alternate version of 1985 America in which costumed adventurers and vigilantes are common place and, after their halcyon days in the 1940s, have become increasingly distrusted by the public for enforcing the oppresive policies of the U.S. government, led by Richard Nixon in his fifth term as president. Against the backdrop of escalating nuclear tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the hero-turned-military-mercenary The Comedian is murdered. As the sociopathic vigilante Rohrshach tries to solve the crime, he and his former compatriots (including Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias) uncover corruption and a global power grab.

The novel's genius lies in its multi-layered storytelling, which is rich in symbolism, literary allusions and a wonderfully fleshed-out cast of supporting characters. The history of this alternate world is also richly detailed, providing a running commentary on the main story and rewarding careful attention. All these elements combine to debunk the idealized superhero mythos, turning a cynical eye to the corruption possible when so much power is concentrated in the hands of flawed human beings. It is a world that is less about Superman and more about Travis Bickle.

Accordingly, a faithful film adaptation is a pretty tall order. The Cold War paranoia has lost much of its edge in the nearly quarter century since its release, as had the shock of the novel's innovations. The filmmakers do their best to honor the source material, but come up with a mixed bag.

For the sake of brevity and to not alienate those who haven't read the novel, the filmmakers sweep aside much of the complex backstory for the film. While this serves to keep the focus on the current generation of heroes, it also diminishes the psychological realism of the piece. Consequently, a lot of the characters' actions exist in a vaccuum, and much of Moore's original message is lost. Almost all of the cast of minor characters is lost, too, making the proceedings seem so much thinner and one-dimensional.

And then there's the violence. While the novel and the film are each especially violent, they wind up being two different creatures. Snyder and his writers toned down many of the more brutal passages of the book in favor of Snyder's patented garish fight choreography. Limbs shatter and blood gushes in gruesome slow motion. It's hypnotic and balletic, but ultimately just eye candy. The amoral brutality that Moore used to illuminate his hard-edged characters is replaced by empty and gratuitous exercises in CGI wizardry.

But it's not all bad. The novel's greatest weakness -- its convoluted, inorganic ending -- is given a minor revamp here to better effect. It's still not wholly satisfying, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. There is also terrific cinematography by Larry Fong (a veteran of "300" and "Lost") that vividly brings to life some of the best parts of Gibbons' original artwork.

The acting, too, is solid. With the exception of a wooden turn by Malin Ackerman as the second Silk Spectre, this is a talented ensemble. Billy Crudup (as Dr. Manhattan) and Jackie Earle Haley (as Rohrshach) are particularly great.

In total, "Watchmen" is not completely successful, but it's not a failure, either. Just be sure to read the book first, to fully appreciate the story's rich possibilities.

Best Line:
"Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon."

Side Note:
Having been in development for decades, "Watchmen" has had numerous actors, writers and directors attached to the project at various times. Among the directors considered were Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greenglass and Michael Bay. Among the candidates to play Rohrshach were Robin Williams, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig and Doug Hutchinson.

Companion Viewing:
"V For Vendetta" (2005) and "The Incredibles" (2004).

Official Site.
Watchmen Wiki.
The Annotated Watchmen.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Trailer #2:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summer Rerun: Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993).

The busy minions at Desuko World HQ are taking a well-deserved summer vacation, so in the meantime, enjoy these favorite posts from the past. [Originally published April 6, 2007]

The Scoop:
One would think that this was just another hack-job horror sequel -- and one would be right, up to a point. But his film has a little something extra which makes it stand out from the crowd.

A rebellious teenager (J. Trevor Edmond) gets into a fight with his Army officer father ("Emergency's" Kent McCord) -- who works at a top-secret base studying the gas that turns corpses into the living dead -- and runs away with his girlfriend Julie (Mindy Clarke). They don't get too far before Julie gets fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. Of course, her dunderheaded boyfriend has the brilliant idea of breaking into dad's lab and using the gas to bring her back to life. The results are unique -- she appears to be okay, but slowly begins showing signs of encroaching zombie-ism. There are some great scenes in which Clarke and director Brian Yuzna communicate the poignancy of the ongoing transformation and its effect on the couple's romance. Unfortunately, these alternate with scenes filled with the purest, lamest horror sequel clichés. Imagine two screenwriters -- one an Oscar winner, the other a brain-dead moron -- being asked to write scripts on the same premise, then randomly splicing the two scripts together and allowing all the seams to show. The result would be something like this movie. Still, Clarke is pretty sexy and does a decent job with the "good" material -- plus, the scene where she prepares to kick evil zombie butt by piercing herself with scrap metal has a certain S&M kick to it.

This film also manages to somehow to have three "endings" -- two scenes that would've been perfectly good resolutions to the story, and one which really is the end. If it had closed after the first "ending," the film might arguably be called a sleeper classic. Even if they had finished with the second "ending," the filmmakers could have saved some face. Unfortunately, they let the final act drag out far too long.

Best Bit:
The piercing scene.

Side Note:
Clarke was a regular on "Days of Our Lives" and has made guest appearances on "Seinfeld," "Sliders" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

Companion Viewing:
George Romero's orginal living dead trilogy -- "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), "Dawn of the Dead" (1979) and "Day of the Dead" (1985) -- as well as the first "Return of the Living Dead" (1985).

The Flesh Farm.
Robert Llewellyn's Classic Films.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Guest Blog: Answers to Vince's Quiz.

Remember the quiz that Vince from Vince's Quiz so graciously guest blogged for us? Well, here are the answers! He chose the stars of the films listed in my Blogger profile as my favorites. Rascally guy...

1. Hal 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) (2001: A Space Odyssey)

2. Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now)

3. Jack Webb (Dragnet)

4. Cary Grant (His Girl Friday)

5. Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H)

6. Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction)

7. Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs)

8. Carrie Fisher (Star Wars)

9. John Goodman (True Stories)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Summer Rerun: 200 Motels (1971).

The busy minions at Desuko World HQ are taking a well-deserved summer vacation, so in the meantime, enjoy these favorite posts from the past. [Originally published Jan. 6, 2009]

The Scoop:
Part rock opera, part tour exposé, part vanity project, part absurdist theater, part experiemental music video -- Frank Zappa's "200 Motels" can be a tough nut to crack.

Zappa and the early-1970s version of his band, the Mothers of Invention, had an ongoing fascination with the life of a touring rock band. This fascination found its way into their music, and their shows became increasingly elaborate musical theater pieces full of songs, skits and jokes centered around sex, drugs and other outrageous behavior. It was all based on things they had done themselves, or on the stories that made the rounds among other groups. This exploration of the lifestyle finally culminated in "200 Motels."

Beneath all the madness and surrealism of the film, there is a plot of sorts -- Zappa (played by Ringo Starr) and the Mothers (who all play themselves) roll into the generic American town of Centerville looking for a good time. There, they cross paths with a pair of groupies (Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall), the devil (Theodore Bikel), a nun (Keith Moon) and a host of other strange characters.

Many of the situations come right from the Mothers' tour experiences, and much of the dialogue is based on transcripts of conversations captured by Zappa and his cassette recorder during downtime on the road. The result is surprisingly genuine, despited the intentionally stilted delivery of the troupe of non-actors and Zappa's notorious ironic detachment from his material.

Musically, the work here comes from one of Zappa's most fertile periods, and it finds following two different creative strands. With the Mothers, he creates some straight-ahead, powerful blues rock that would not sound out of place alongside the Allman Brothers, Zeppelin or even Sabbath. These songs are interspersed with FZ's more experimental compositions, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. These pieces represent a turning point in his avant garde career, both looking back to the studio-bound "sound sculptures" of his early albums and also foreshadowing the orchestral work he would do in earnest a decade later.

For Zappa neophytes, "200 Motels" (both the film and the soundtrack album) is probably not the best introduction to the man's work. But for fans it is essential and rewards close, repeated viewings.

Best Line:
"The fuckin' devil's got an English accent. I seen him three weeks ago on TV. So you know, you can just take this big needle here and hang it in your ass as far as I'm concerned!"

Side Note:
Offerall and Pamela Miller (who plays the Interviewer) were members of the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously), a groupie collective/performance art troupe/singing group whose music was produced by Zappa. Miller would go on to become Pamela Des Barres, author of the infamous memoir "I'm With the Band."

Companion Viewing:
"Head" (1968).

Understanding 200 Motels.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Welcome to Centerville (a real nice place to raise your kids up)!

Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group) performs "Lonesome Cowboy Burt":

Friday, August 14, 2009

Summer Rerun: Targets (1968).

The busy minions at Desuko World HQ are taking a well-deserved summer vacation, so in the meantime, enjoy these favorite posts from the past. [Originally published Dec. 14, 2006]

The Scoop:
While "Targets" presents the story of a moral crossroads, it also represents a cinematic crossroads -- the end of the brilliant Boris Karloff's career and the start of Peter Bogdanovich's.

In his writing and directing debut, Bogdanovich crafts this cautionary, semi-autobiographical tale of aging horror movie star Byron Orlok (played by Karloff), who decides to leave the business when he realizes his life's work can't compare to the real horrors taking place on America's streets everyday. The clips of Orlok's past work are taken from the classic performances of Karloff, and to complete the real-life parallels, Bogdanovich even casts himself as the young director making Orlok's last film. There is also a parallel plot concerning a troubled young man who goes on a shooting spree that is sadly all too familiar in our post-Columbine world. These two plot strands cross when the young shooter takes refuge in a drive-in theater that turns out to be the site of Orlok's last public appearance before retirement.

This film offers an interesting exploration of the role of the entertainment media in the social upheaval of the late-'60s (it was released in the late spring of 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, but before the shooting of Robert Kennedy) that has grown even more prescient today. And Bogdanovich challeges the viewer by filming from the point of view of the shooter, putting the audience in the killer's shoes.

Despite his obviously failing health, Karloff gives the strongest, most human portrayal of a career marked my more depth than most horror actors'. In a perfect world, this swan song performance would've been recognized with an Oscar. Instead, the poverty-stricken Karloff followed his performance here with appearances (confined to a wheelchair) in a quartet of bad Mexican cheapies, filmed over the course of a couple weeks, before dying in 1969. But forget those duds -- this is the true, final summation of one of the truly great acting careers in film.

Best Line:
Karloff's summation, "Is that what I was afraid of?"

Best Bit:
The staging of the freeway shooting scene.

Side Notes:
1) Bogdanovich originally offered the lead role to Vincent Price, who turned it down. 2) The film showing in the drive-in at the end of the movie is "The Terror" (1963), in which Karloff costarred with a young Jack Nicholson. 3) The victim who dies in the phone booth is none other than Mike Farrell, who went on to a more distinguished career in television, starring in "M*A*S*H" and "Providence."

Companion Viewing:
Two of this film's cinematic descendents -- "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Natural Born Killers" (1994).


Take a Look:
A kinda spoiler-y TV spot:

Here's Boris Karloff spinning a classic scary tale:

And then there's this...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest Blog: Vince's Quiz.

Today we have a guest blog from Vince, the proprietor of Vince's Quiz. He's a man of few words, so let's get right to it. Leave your guesses in the comments. And, if you want to try for the extra credit, you can guess why he chose these nine in particular. Answers to follow in a couple of weeks, or sooner if there are a lot of guesses. Good luck!

Who are these actors ? / Qui sont ces acteurs ?










Friday, August 07, 2009

Red Zone Cuba (a.k.a., Night Train to Mundo Fine) (1966).

The Scoop:
This is yet another Coleman Francis/Anthony Cardoza turd, only this time it is apparently Francis' grand artistic statement.

Back in the '60s and '70s, just about anybody could get John Carradine to appear in their film for about the cost of a ham sandwich, so Francis apparently blew his budget on that, and then wasted the whole thing in the first two minutes of the movie. In the opening scene, Carradine turns up as a grizzled railway worker who is telling this story to a nondescript bystander. After this incredibly short day's work, Carradine disappears from the movie forever, but not before croaking the horrendously awful theme song.

From there, the real story starts. An escaped convict (played by the auteur himself, who also wrote, directed, produced and edited this red-baiting debacle) gets mixed up with five or six revolutionaries who try to invade Cuba. After an excursion that makes the Bay of Pigs look like an epic triumph, our intrepid non-heroes get captured, and a couple of them try a semi-daring escape before getting hunted down by a half-hearted posse back in the States.

At least, that's what the plot seems to indicate. Mostly, "Red Zone Cuba" just meanders from scene to scene, without much differentiation between one setting and the next. In fact, if this film is to be believed, Cuba is just a little town in the California desert. And I think the guy with the cigar and glued-on beard is supposed to be Fidel Castro.

Best Line:
"I'm Cherokee Jack!"

Side Note:
Apparently Cherokee Jack's plane is still in use, and is currently being flown out of a small airport in Alaska.

Companion Viewing:
"The Beast of Yucca Flats" (1961) and "Invasion U.S.A." (1952).

The Agony Booth.
Daddy-O's Drive-In Dirt.

Take a Look:
Just try to entertained. I dare you:

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pandora's Box (1929).

The Scoop:
Silent screen legend Louise Brooks had her signature performance as Lulu in this German masterpiece. She entices, she allures, she arouses, and today, 80 years later, she still breaks hearts, both male and female alike.

Brooks' performance, still among the sexiest and most charming ever in screen history, anchors G.W. Pabst's tearjerker about a reckless party girl who gets her comeuppance at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Once you get beyond Louise Brooks, the rest of the film is fairly conventional, but very well executed. Based on a pair of popular German plays by Frank Wedekind, some of the subject matter went beyond the bounds of what Hollywood was doing at the time, although the basic "rise and fall of an evil, heartbreaking woman" plot -- and the troubling view of women's sexuality it presented -- was a cliché even by that point. But there are also good performances by Fritz Kortner and Francis Lederer, as the father and son who get ruined by Lulu's lust. And director Pabst does a superb job of holding it all together and bringing out the best in his leading lady. And as if that wasn't enough, her haircut became iconic and started a fashion trend.

The strong-willed Brooks, who was beginning to make a name for herself in Hollywood, fled to Germany to make "Pandora's Box" out of frustration over the lack of good roles available back home. The powers that be in Hollywood never forgave her for that, though, and this movie, which launched her to superstardom, also marked the effective end of her acting career.

This film, and Brooks in particular, contain all the elements of which greatness is made, and provide a marvelous swan song for the silent era.

Best Bit:
Lulu and Alice's dance.

Side Note:
Countess Anna, played by Alice Roberts, is believed to be the first lesbian character depicted in film. Roberts didn't realize her character was gay until filming began, and although she wanted to walk off the film, she was persuaded to stay and not break her contract.

Companion Viewing:
"It" (1927).

Lenin Imports.
Senses of Cinema.
Silent Volume.

Take a Look:
Watch it on the YouTube installment plan, beginning here: