Monday, April 24, 2006

'This laser gun can melt anything -- except you, honey'

The above is a direct quote from Danger: Diabolik, a movie that put a smile on my face that is only now starting to subside. Don't be swayed by its absurdly low rating at IMDB, 'Diabolik' is in a category all its own. That's partly to blame because it's a French-Italian production set in England, combining equal parts Batman and James Bond, drenched with the sharp style only the tail-end of the mod era could dare dream of.

There are movies based on comic books made every year, but 'Diabolik' is one of the few movies that feels like it is a comic book, and looking at it on paper, many would have suggested 'Diabolik' be produced on a paper medium. Here is our story: the lead character is anti-hero/criminal/playboy/terrorist Diabolik (John Phillip Law, who amazingly is of no relation to Jude Law), who confounds authorities with heists while dressed in his traditional leather catsuit and eluding them in various Jaguar XKE's to his underground lair (identical to the Batcave -- if it was designed by Ferrari) where he can cavort with Eva (imagine Goldie Hawn, but sexier, and Italian). Before the movie's over, Diabolik will have stolen $10 million in cash, a priceless emerald necklace and England's gold reserve. He will also demolish England's federal finance buildings -- seemingly out of spite and reduce a government press conference to hysterics using 'exhilirating gas.'

I was intrigued at the possibilities of 'Diabolik' after seeing that DVD Savant named it the most impressive DVD of 2005, but never imagined it would be this much fun. In addition to the aforementioned zany plot, you get high-speed chases on winding Italian roads, lots of maniacal cackles and the quirkiest Ennio Morricone score you've ever heard. The script is littered with clever, rhythmic word plays ('I was expecting you, Inspector') and the lavish sets are crammed with fun details (as he drives into his gargantuan lair in the beginning, try and spot a whole floor of spare Jags).

It's rare you find movies this good that have the 'bad guy' essentially as the main character, one who is not looking for any sympathy, just a lot of money for he and his femme fatale to roll around in. 'Diabolik' isn't trying to say anything, but it's one helluva snap shot from a creative time when movies like this could be made without trying to be too silly.

So why is 'Diabolik' so lightly regarded? By 1968, you couldn't make a movie like this with a straight face in the U.S., and it was still a gamble in Europe. The last good Connery 007 came out in '67 (You Only Live Twice) and the first of the spy spoofs was released in '66 (Our Man Flint, and even it sequel In Like Flint in '67), so at the time there wasn't exactly a salivating audience for something as wild as 'Diabolik.' It probably didn't help how obvious it was that 'Diabolik' was trying to cash in on the 'Batman' TV series which debuted in '66.

But with such a great DVD release, 'Diabolik' deserves to be recognized now. On the cheap ($12.99) disc, you get a commentary from Law and director Mario Bava's biographer and a couple of featurettes. The best extra shows how 'Diabolik' has established some sort of legacy: the Beastie Boys' video for 'Body Movin' (click here to watch the video) which uses footage from the movie and inserts the rappers in their own scenes. The video is on the disc, as well as commentary from the Beasties.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Suspended suspension of disbelief

It's the reason you don't bat an eye when Superman reverses the Earth's axis to go back in time a few minutes; it's why you accept the idea in The Abyss that a person can breathe water if they really want to; it's how you got that idea in your head that if you find yourself being chased on a rooftop, it would be a good idea to jump to that next building. The suspension of disbelief is central to any performing art, but this does not mean that your audience will buy whatever far-fetched device you throw at them. This is why I present to you my favorite 'you have got to be fucking kidding me' moments, which failed due to either sub-par direction and effects, or simply dumb thinking, and ended up being unintentionally hilarious.

Robocop 3
If you've seen Robocop 3, you probably know where I'm going with this. With the decision to make a PG-13 Robocop, certain sacrifices had to be made. There would be no more of Robocop shooting a would-be sniper through his scope or an acid-drenched thug being turned to mush by a speeding car. Instead we would have scenes like the beginning, which seems designed to provide a James Bond-style intro. We find Robo's partner (Nancy Allen, who at this point was probably wondering how a career that started out with being a regular collaborator with a young Brian DePalma could have degraded to this) in trouble again, but help is on the way. However, instead of just coming to her aid, Robocop decides to give the baddies some shock-value by driving to the top of a nearby parking structure and plunging over the edge. The intentions are semi-good, but here's where it spirals out of control: after driving off a 15-story building, Robocop's car lands on all four wheels, looking a lot like it was dropped from a crane 10-feet off the ground. Robocop then uses his new machine-gun hand to cut a hole in the ceiling of the car so he can have a big entrance. It's a fitting intro to a movie full of 'doh!'s.

An obvious choice for sure, but it's notable because way back in 1994 there was no need to question what it looked like for a bus to jump over a gap in a freeway. It had never been done before, so we just accepted how it looked. Now, buses jumping over freeway gaps is old news, so when we see the signature scene from Speed, we say 'hey, why does the front of the bus shoot 15 feet in the air right as it goes over the edge? And how is it able to land on its back wheels?' I had thoughts similar to these when I saw 'Speed,' but decided to give it the benefit of the doubt because movie-goers had been waiting a lifetime to see a bus jump. What makes this even more frustrating for me is that it would have been better if the bus hadn't made the jump. It would have been a much better stunt if the bus had fallen short and landed on the roadway below, desperately trying to keep the speed above 70 (or was it 60?) as it careens out of control. (Perhaps more embarrassing than the jump is Keanu Reeves' last line, which should go down as one of the worst 'I just killed the bad guy line,' when he proudly utters: 'Yeah, but I'm taller!' after decapitating Dennis Hopper).

To Live and Die in L.A.
This entry refers not to the actual movie of To Live and Die in L.A., but rather the alternate ending included in the DVD, which would have been a disaster of epic proportions if it had been tacked on to the theatrical release. In this alternate ending, our hero William Petersen is killed just like in the original, but instead of showing his partner taking over his beat we flash to an FBI outpost in Alaska, with Petersen's character very much alive and wearing a sheepish grin as we pan out from Alaska into the credits. What?! 'Oh I get it, you see he took a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest, but he actually secretly survived and then got transferred to Alaska so he would be safe from the gangs.' Just awful. This is comparable to having a new ending in Citizen Kane, where we instead see Kane in disguise in the Andes sledding on Rosebud as he winks at the camera.

Alien: Resurrection
This is not about any individual horrible scene in a completely horrible movie, but rather its entire horrible plot. The makers of Alien: Resurrection would like us to believe that in the future they find out that DNA, in addition to containing all of our genes, also conveniently stores all of our memories and life experiences. This explains how Ripley could be incinerated in Alien 3, but as a clone of herself in Resurrection, she is able to recall how to kill the aliens and how the creatures tormented her in three previous movies. Resurrection is an even worse sequel reach than Escape From the Planet of the Apes ('Okay, they destroyed Earth in the second one, but what if two apes had found a way to go -- back in time!').

Live and Let Die
Bond movies naturally fit into this list, but in Live and Let Die, they truly set an astronomical standard which would never be topped. One of the weapons of at Bond disposal is some kind of anti-shark pellet that causes inflation to Macy's Parade levels of hilarity. Of course in the final battle, we know that Bond will use this on the villain, which he does, but the filmmakers run into a problem here: in 1973 it was completely impossible to show a person inflate and explode on film. They go around this problem by inserting a balloon which may or may not resemble the villain, we never know because the film conveniently turns very grainy and the shot is so quick we must use circumstantial evidence to decipher just what happened.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Zombies down under and Spielberg's folly

For a short time, I had an Australian rooommate in college. He delighted me with some beyond-Paul Hogan-and-Yahoo Serious Aussie knowledge, such as how Volkswagen Buses are called 'combies,' aboriginees are called 'abbies' and the folk from the rural northwest are their version of rednecks. He neglected to reinforce my confidence in what Australian filmmakers can do with a measly budget and some inspired ideas: a rare opportunity for them to show us Yanks up. Over 25 years ago this fact was brought to life with Mad Max (which has a long overdue post coming up . . . hopefully) and forever stamped with Rabbit-Proof Fence. But who knew that those Tropic of Capricorn-straddlers (I ran out of synonyms, sorry) could come up with a zombie movie so original and fun -- and without the aid of Bruce Campbell?

I speak of Undead, which I finally saw yesterday. Funded without any studio aid, 'Undead' has a story -- and even a look-- that feels like a video game, and I mean that in the best possible way. For such a funds-strapped project, 'Undead' is filled with clever SciFi channel-grade CGI effects which never detract from its bold story, but give it a more fun atmosphere. The Spierig Brothers took an approach to 'Undead' that should be a prerequisite of any zombie movie: come original and don't apologize. Instead of putting its characters in a series of backed-into-the-corner surrounded by zombies moments, 'Undead' uses zombie battle scenes sparingly -- because it actually has a story to tell. Instead of a chemical truck overturning and awaking the dead, you get a superb interstellar mystery that twists believeably around and back until the final shot.

What originally drew me to this movie a couple years ago was a description of its hero: Marion is your average Aussie loner, but he carries three shotguns fashioned together to allow for easy tri-shotgun shooting and reloading. Neat. 'Undead' also carries my new favorite zombie-slaying scene, ever: our other hero is trying in vain to fight off zombies with a broom handle in a hardware store, when the end of itself accidentally attached through the hole of a buzz saw blade. With the blade at a slight angle, our femme fatale embarks on an artistic zombie butchering, climaxing with an Australian flag floating to the floor behind her.

I was excited to see 1941 because it seems to have risen -- in some circles at least -- to the exclusive club of elite failures inhabited only by the likes of Heaven's Gate, Cleopatra and the Edsel. At this point in Steven Spielberg's career -- having just made two super hits both critically and commerically in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws -- he entered the rare realm of being able to do any project he damn well wishes, a luxury he would enjoy for the rest of his career. With this power, Spielberg unleashed an overweight and wrought lead zeppelin of a would-be comedy/historical epic.

Just watching '1941,' it's obvious that it was one of the red-headed stepchildren of the late 70s, Star Wars-era Hollywood, when studios were gradually growing eager to throw around previously-unheard of budgets. This is one of the main problems with '1941,' its stubborn intent on using as many big-name actors in scene after scene of overflowing sets and over-the-top mayhem. The latter can be used for great effect (see 'The Blues Brothers'), but here it just becomes tiresome. For example, in one completely needless scene, Dan Aykroyd's character observes that an air raid is about to commence in Los Angeles, but the lights are still on, so he and others opt to destroy all the neon lights and street lamps in downtown L.A. This is neither funny, nor interesting, and it probably cost about $5,000,000 of shooting time and effects.

'1941' decides from the opening shot that it's going to be a zany, outrageous comedy filled with many people running into things which later explode. The intentions are sometimes good -- such as Robert Stack's general announcing to a crowd at an air base that there will be no bombing on American soil, only to have a stray B-52 bomb roll into his podium -- but even that joke takes so much time to setup that it leaves you literally waiting for the predictable punchline, and when it arrives, it doesn't even matter. Spielberg fills the movie with about 10 too many characters and 4 too many storylines. Aykroyd and John Candy have promising roles, but never have enough screentime to do anything interesting. John Belushi's character is funny and is plenty of scenes, but is pretty much giving us the same joke every time. Even my man Warren Oates, has a fun role, but we only see him for two scenes. Hell, I wouldn't have even known Christopher Lee was in the movie if I hadn't seen the credits because his character is always seen in darkness and all we can really make out is his chin.

Maybe Spielberg needed to get this one out of his system, he would never again attempt a straight comedy in his career.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cinematic snackfare

There are countless unwritten rules in film: Blood must be the color of raspberry syrup; Christopher Walken must be cast in the role of Christopher Walken; every Nic Cage movie must have a 'Nic Cage Freakout Scene'; any movie that uses the intro to Norman Greenbaum's 'Spirit in the Sky' as music in its preview will suck and . . . the film must be at least 90 minutes long. Like the first two rules listed, it was not always this way (and in those cases, it needn't be either: blood is rarely that dark and Walken was once capable of playing a straight character). There was a time when movies regularly ran below 90 minutes, sometimes waaaaay below.

These days, a film that clocks in at 60 or even 70 minutes would be labeled a short, but as the movies I'm about to detail will show, it is possible to make a feature film without going to far past an hour. When watching one of these wonderfully brief movies, you don't find yourself looking at your watch wondering when it will end, rather you gaze at your watch and wonder just how they're going to wrap up everything in the next 10 minutes. Here are my picks for the best of the brief:

The Unknown (1927, 63 minutes)
Tod Browning was the Tim Burton or David Cronenberg of the early years of film. Freaks was made over 70 years ago and is still unnerving. The Unknown is a perfect title for a movie that is quite unlike anything else. In an era that oddly saw many movies made about clowns (see He Who Gets Slapped, Laugh Clown Laugh -- also with Lon Chaney), this is the most bizarre -- following an 'armless' performer (Chaney) who uses his feet to throw knives and sees an opportunity in fellow performer Joan Crawford, who just happens to fear being touched by men. But the macabre truth is that Chaney's character is actually a murderer on the run who has disguised himself in the circus and definitely does have arms -- but in an attempt to show his love for Crawford -- has them amputated. As with the best silent movies, 'The Unknown' has a perpetual dream-like quality to it

6000 Enemies (1939, 62 minutes)
Yes, this flawed-but-entertaining Walter Pidgeon movie checks in at a scant 62 minutes, which was very short in the talkie era. 6000 Enemies takes on a familiar plot, which had been told many times at the time in Hollywood and perfected in James Cagney's Each Dawn I Die: the tale of the wrong guy in prison. In the case of 'Each Dawn I Die,' Cagney plays a railroaded journalist, while Pidgeon portrays a D.A. What made '6000 Enemies' an average movie in its day makes it all the more watchable today. Made during the 'production code' era of Hollywood when studios -- particularly MGM -- went out of their way to make 'clean' movies. For example, Pidgeon's character is sent to prison and surrounded by thousands of criminals he sent there, but the worst they can think up to get back at him is yelling insults like 'the jury rests!' and sometimes shooting him rude stares. What's more, after the D.A. proves his mettle in a prison boxing match, the cons are more than happy to accept him as a friend. This could have easily been a very poor 2-hour movie, but as a 60-minute blazer it's nearly comical watching a 20-minute climactic courtroom scene shoved into a 20-second montage, or how the primary villain is seen in only two brief scenes.

The Public Enemy (1931, 83 minutes)
Though it is the longest by far in this crop, The Public Enemy makes the cut simply because it packs an overflowing plot (the life and death of a criminal) into such a tidy package. This is what made James Cagney, the pint-sized big mouth tough guy (i.e. the first Joe Pesci), a legitimate star. 'The Public Enemy' is best known as 'the grapefruit movie,' because of a scene when Cagney's character grows ever frustrated with his dame, so he grabs the nearest object -- a grapefruit -- and shoves it in her face (and yes, this was also parodied by The Simpsons, in Brother From the Same Planet). Cagney plays a young hood who grows to be a bootlegging baron, which clashes with his straight-laced brother -- especially when he serves his family a keg on the dinner table. 'The Public Enemy' would not really be classified as a mob movie today, rather it is closer to gangsploitation movies like Menace II Society, following a good kid who goes bad.

The Narrow Margin (1952, 71 minutes)
I saved this for last, because The Narrow Margin is a true filet mignon film (i.e. not a damn ounce of fat on it). This unforgettable noir thriller sets a torrid pace from the start and doesn't let up. Detective Walter Brown (the lantern-jawed, gravel-throated Charles McGraw) has problems: his mission is to transport a key mob witness crosscountry on a train, but his partner was just murdered, his cargo is an anxious and thankless dame, and in between fighting off an inquisitive tike, a mysterious fat man and his own nerves, he has to somehow make it through the trip while a mob hitman is onboard wanting blood. Watching this again, I could not help myself from singing 'Train Kept a Rollin' in my head (the Aerosmith version of course), but Steven Tyler never had lines in his song such as 'nobody likes a fatman except his grocer and his tailer' or 'this case is headed straight for the cemetery.' It seems impossible that 'The Narrow Margin' could jam this many shady characters and switcheroos into 71 minutes. Whenever I hear someone say they don't like any black and white movies, this is the one I pop in.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Submitted for your approval

On the surface, it may seem like a dream for Twilight Zone fans that every season of the legendary show is now available in new definitive editions. But even a die-hard fan like myself has to admit that these overpriced ($120 msrp!?!) monstrosities should only appeal to completists. It's not that the sets are not put together well (they include a lengthy list of extras and one of the seasons even includes the spectacular 'Twilight Zone Companion' book), but it's the fact that TZ, taken in as seasons, is overloaded with absolute clunker episodes.

Having seen almost every TZ episode, I've estimated that only about 30 percent of them are worthy of your time and there is a fairly large percentage of episodes that barely pass as watchable. When TZ was at its best it presented original stories featuring great acting, directing and maybe even a score by Bernard Herrman or Jerry Goldsmith. But far too many of the episodes feature recycled stories or -- as is the case with many bad TZ eps -- terrible acting and directing. One of my favorite episodes, A Piano in the House, has a fairly unengaging story but is made entertaining by the the actors and the choices made by the director in filming a luxurious, crowded party of the elite.

If you've never seen a truly horrid TZ episode, here's an example of just how bad it can get: the episode Four O'Clock is about a man with a parrot who believes he has the ability to shrink all his enemies to the height of two feet, and all of this will occur at four o'clock, as he tells us many times. But when the time arrives, it is he that shrinks, as his parrot tells him that his feathered friend was the one with the power all along. Ho ho! There are few episodes this bad, but many linger at around this level of quality, which is why you don't need to shell out over $100 for a season set, especially when you can buy the previously released DVDs comprised of four episodes, which now retail for about $6. And I am here with a helpful guide on how to build your TZ collection with only the best episodes, for less than a quarter the price of one of the season sets.

The Twilight Zone, Volume 11
Notable episodes: The Dummy, Living Doll, The After Hours
Pound for pound, this is probably the best $6 TZ disc out there. The After Hours is one of the few truly terrifying episodes out there, about a store's mannequin who has lost her way. The Dummy and Living Doll are scary in their own right, with both also having influenced everything from Child's Play to Treehouse of Horror III.

The Twilight Zone, Volume 8
Notable episodes: Third From the Sun, To Serve Man, The Shelter
To Serve Man is probably the best TZ episode, though not necessarily my favorite, and its 'punchline' was famously skewered by The Simpsons in the original Treehouse of Horror. To Serve Man is helped by easily the best-ever TZ score (Herrman, of course) and also the acting by Richard 'Jaws' Kiel and Lloyd Bochner (one of Lee Marvin's many kills in the wonderful 'Point Blank'). But it's the story that makes To Serve Man so riveting even today (be sure and watch for Russia's representative at the U.N., why is he the only rep who takes out a sandwich to eat while an intelligent alien is addressing the room?). Third From the Sun is a fun and well-directed bit with a nice ending and The Shelter is enjoyable enough, especially since it was wonderfully parodied by The Simpsons in Bart's Comet (noticing a trend here?).

The Twilight Zone, Volume 7
Notable episodes: Shadow Play, The Hitch-Hiker, Perchance to Dream
My favorite of the $6 discs, with Shadow Play being one of my most-loved episodes. It's a gripping, original tale wrought with philosophical questions, a great performance by the late Dennis Weaver and one of the best TZ endings. The Hitch-Hiker also has a great ending and Perchance to Dream stands as one of the more original and unforgettable TZ works (certainly the best of the 'dream' episodes).

More Treasures of the Twilight Zone
Notable episodes: The Masks, Eye of the Beholder, The Howling Man
There were two 'Treasures' discs released in the original lot of TZ DVDs, and this one is not to be missed, although it does still retail for about $15. It's worth it though, as it contains my all-time favorite episode, The Howling Man, one of the series' most famous moments in Eye of the Beholder (the pig people plastic surgery one) and an underrated little masterpiece in The Masks. The Howling Man is worth the price of admission alone, as it's a timeless horror tale about a traveler in Europe who unwittingly releases Satan himself from the clutches of a monestary. It's quite unlike any other TZ episode, perfectly written and directed with a brilliant, 'fuck yeah!' ending. 'Eye of the Beholder' is the much-copied story about a beautiful woman who is viewed as a freak by a society where ugly is the norm. The Masks is underrated as good TZ episodes go, with a truly twisted plot and unforgettable setpieces (where can I buy masks like that??).