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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

And now for something completely different...

So, I know I haven't been posting a lot lately. Part of it is because I've been busy, but part of it is just exhaustion and boredom. So I want to change things up a little, with a special experiment.

About a month or two ago, I read a movie script by a friend of mine named Brock Wilbur. He's an amazingly talented writer/musician/actor, and the script he wrote, called Your Friends Close, combines all those sides of him into a dark, funny and eerie screenplay that's a science-fictional version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Now he's trying to raise some money to shoot this thing himself with the help of his friends. Now, I'm not involved with the actual film in any way. I'm not in it, I'm not working on it. I just happened to read the script and really liked it. I already donated to the film on Kickstarter, but I don't have enough money to make this film happen myself.

So here's what I'm going to do. Has there been anything on movies or comic books or theatre that you've wanted me to post about? Something I mentioned once but never followed through on? Then here's your chance to read that long-promised post. Here's all you have to do:

1. Donate at least $30 to Your Friends Close' Kickstarter page.
2. Then post the name you donated under (if it's different than your blogspot screenname) and the subject/topic you want me to blog on.
3. I'll write at least 500 words on the topic you want me to write about.

That's it. I'll probably be posting more content at some point, but think of this as your chance to hear my opinions about something you're interested in.

And remember, I know the people involved in this movie, but I'm not getting any benefit out of this, other than getting to watch an awesome indie film eventually.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE PETRIFIED FOREST plus Nazis should really be more exciting, shouldn't it?

ESCAPE IN THE DESERT (1945)
d. Edward A. Blatt
Starring: Phillip Dorn, Jean Sullivan, Irene Manning and Alan Hale (yes, the father of the Skipper from Gilligan's Island)

While I don't really count myself as nostalgic for long-gone ages in most respects (no contact lenses, lots of diseases, and racism and sexism out the wazoo), I usually have a rather rose-colored vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whatever the faults of the system itself, it certainly produced some classics, and even the more mediocre efforts of the era usually have a professional sheen and charm that help them go down easy. On the other hand, this vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood escapes Sturgeon's Law (that 90% of everything is crap) by grading on a curve. After all, while a select few masterworks are lost to time, a lot of the material that Hollywood put out in those days that is still missing is lost or locked in a vault for good reason. It's just not that good. 

But every now and then, while trawling TCM's listings, I'll come across something that reminds me of that. In this case, I watched an obscure film called Escape in the Desert. Directed by a man whose main credits on IMDB are as dialogue director, and starring actors and actresses with few other credits, there's very little of that professional sheen or charm to make up the weight.

The story is about Phillip Artveld (Phillip Dorn), a Free Dutch soldier who is hitchhiking across the US on his way to San Diego. Unfortunately, his journey across the American Southwest happens to coincide with an escape by Nazi POWs, and a crotchety old man (Samuel S. Hinds) makes a citizen's arrest after picking him up. The misunderstanding is soon cleared up, but the upshot is that he's stuck at the old man's gas-station, which is run by his grand-daughter Jane, who wants nothing more than to escape the desert (Jean Sullivan), and Jane's suitor/sometimes-boyfriend/all-around idiot Hank Albright (Bill Kennedy). Oh, and then the real escaped Nazis show up.

Now, you probably couldn't guess from the plot description alone, but this is a rewrite/remake of The Petrified Forest. You know, that little picture that starred Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. The same film that gave Humphrey Bogart his start as the Golden Age's number one bad-ass in the role he originated on Broadway as Duke Mantee. Oh, and a play whose ending suggests that the brutish, violent thug and the disillusioned humanist are two sides of the same coin?

As you can imagine, the film is, to put it lightly, problematic. The people behind the cameras are straining to twist the story into something it isn't, and there's no one on either side of the camera to make it work. Certainly Hollywood has completely changed the message of a story while adapting it it, with Key Largo also making an odd ideological transformation from a reactionary stage play response to the Spanish Civil War to a cinematic defense of intervention in the Second World War (with an ending stolen from To Have And To Have Not). The difference is, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson all worked to sell it. 

When you have an ersatz dialogue director running the show with the rather inexpressive Phillip Dorn and the blandly pretty Jean Sullivan as your leads, the odds are against you.

And I'm not even a big fan of The Petrified Forest. While I rather enjoy Bogie's gangster, the script is pretentious, Leslie Howard comes off as the annoying dandy the Nazis in 49th Parallel accused him of being, and I can see Bette Davis still trying to figure out her technique. But still, it's Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. And the script, for all it's faults, at least follows someone who is having a crisis of faith and comes to a big decision at the end.

Whereas Escape in the Desert has Phillip believing in the war but being slightly tired of fighting it. The narrative is explicitly set after the liberation of Holland, so he's not even chickening out of fighting, he's just doubting the wisdom of liberating colonial possessions that the Dutch really wouldn't get to keep anyhow (or at least, how you can cynically argue it in retrospect). There's not even a sense of conflict between Phillip as a warrior being mistreated by the people he's fought for. The guy gets kidnapped, held at gunpoint and punched because he's not like them. Hank, who might be shirking military service (the point is never quite made clear), even calls him a coward. But he never shows any resentment over that. I'm not expecting Stallone in First Blood-type reactions, but still... heck, go back to Key Largo, where there's a tension between Bogie's returning warrior and the people on the home front whose comfort and groundedness he resents.

So the only conflict is basically, will Phillip capture the Nazis? And we already know he'll survive since the story is a flashback. And the Nazis aren't really worthwhile villains. I never expected to type that phrase, but there's never even a two-dimensional level of characterization like the Nazis in 49th Parallel had. 



At least it's reassuring to know ours is not the only age that has a problem with ill-conceived remakes of popular films.


The Petrified ForestKey Largo (Keepcase)

Friday, June 3, 2011

"What does katana mean?" "It means 'Japanese sword'."

SAMURAI COP (1989)
d.  Amir Shervan
Starring Robert Z'Dar, Matt Hannon, Matt Frazer and Gerald Okamura


Now let me start off by saying: I like bad movies. Some people think the "so bad it's good" designation for some movies is a snobbish thing, born out of some cruel, classist impulse to mock people whose artistic values are not your own. That bad movie fans just get a kick out of seeing stuff they're "better" than.

Now, in all fairness, as Rob Schrab said at the Cinefamily screening of Samurai Cop, sometimes seeing a deliriously crappy film is a reminder that, if you just remembered to properly light a scene, you're a friggin' modern-day Orson Welles compared to the guy who made Birdemic.

But at the same time, these movies certainly bring me joy, and 9 times out of 10, they make me laugh harder than almost any Hollywood (intentional) comedy has in years. I certainly have fond and grateful memories of Timechasers and The Apple and those other treasures of the cinematic trash dump. I could tell you more about those films than something like Atonement or On Golden Pond.

Of course, there are any number of bad films that have one delirious moment of "holy s**t, is this actually happening", and another hour of ho-hum mediocrity. Even Ed Wood produced some clunkers that are merely dull. So when the movie gods (or Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, who are like unto a god) hand me something like Samurai Cop, I have to tell you all about it.

Because, even among crappy movies, this is a wonderfully crappy movie. It is slightly more technically competent than Manos: Hands of Fate, in that there actually is a story and the right equipment seems to have been purchased and utilized in filming. But beyond that, this is the kind of film that instills in you a respect for the most basic elements of film-making.


This character, here, for example, must have inspired Dean Lerner on Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.

For example, I've called a film visually uninteresting before, but even the most static, talky actor-turned-director piece looks like a Pressburger/Powell film compared to Samurai Cop, which seems to forget that you can do something other than medium shots on a camera. Not to mention that those medium shots often have people half in frame, half out of frame. 

And we've all seen ropey special effects work, but how often do you see gunfights where the squibs go off five seconds AFTER people duck? It's a wonder that anyone gets shot in this universe, since you clearly have to wait for the bullets to hit you.

But this is a film that fails on every single level. From a conceptual failure to follow-through on the title (he's really more of a karate cop who can use a sword, not a samurai), to deathless dialogue (like the quote in the title) to sex scenes that appear to be choreographed by middle school boys, there's a lot to enjoy and laugh about.

And, sure, I know that sounds condescending, but this is a bad film that rewards re-watching, as every new viewing gives you an appreciation of how much it fundamentally misses the mark.

Even the most jaded bad movie watchers will have to admit Samurai Cop hits that sweet spot of 'so bad it's good" for every minute of viewing. This is a film where Robert Z'Dar comes across as an understated and subtle actor compared to the wooden mannequins and strippers inhabiting the other roles. 



This is not even the most disturbing image of Robert Z'Dar you will take away from this film. Trust me.


Anyway, I don't want to spoil for you all the amazing badness. Just trust me and check it out. 


Or, just watch this clip for a taste.


Samurai Cop The AppleBirdemic: Shock and Terror (Blu-ray)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And we're back! (almost)

Whooo... That was quite a crazy couple of weeks.

I just wrapped shooting on the first film I've ever had made out of something I wrote. The shoot was wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better cast and crew. We did run into problems, but people kept their cool and we worked around them. And from the dailies I've seen, this project is going to be amazing. I'm not just saying that because I wrote it. The people involved took my words and ideas, and without rewriting them, made them their own.

It's a good sign, I think, when you're laughing at jokes on set that you wrote months ago and have written and rewritten several times.

Back to real blogging soon!