Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shatner on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, DEVIL'S RAIN, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS


Hail to thee, mighty Shatner! Hail Kirk, Hawksian organizer of men! Hail committed ham player of crisis-bound priests and rock-like teachers. Hail Shakespearean Arizona sheriff 'Dances with Tarantulas!'

Hail, bearer of torches and flasks on frozen airplanes, keeper of unholy books and amulets, Though too stupid not to drop and lose said amulet the minute a Borgninian glimmer spell rolls its 20 sided serpent die his way...

All show biz. Shatner is a relic from when hunky sci fi guys were brainy and nimble, a tad macho but able to draw on cooler minds for perspective. Shatner. You never lived with common people, but common people are all we have now. The Emmys prove that more every year. And the winner is, American Family.

Not in the late 60s-early 70s it wasn't! And we kids couldn't have been happier about it, even we didn't want to see kids onscreen unless they were going to be terrifying - Bop Bop! 


I know there are those hardcore Trekkies who are annoyed by Shatner's nimble macho fey arrogance as Kirk, who prefer the dry baldness of Patrick Stewart. They probably also hate There will be Blood and W.C. Fields. I am not one of them. Maybe it was growing up watching Trek with my dad in syndication as a wee nipper. But to me Shatner can do no wrong. Even his terrible toupee is all right with me. Always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice, his unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. 

Such  dopey films like the one included here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, he went for broke, lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of the cowboys-vs.-Satanists, cowboys vs. marauding spiders, and bearing torches on planes 37,000 Feet in the air, with a flask ever at the ready. 
HORROR AT 37,000 FEET
1973 - TVM / CBS
***
The 70s TV movie had to borrow from at least three currently popular themes of the hour, so here we get the ancient curse, the social commentary, and the ensemble disaster movie cast format (a welcome form of actor equity: faded stars, child actors, nearly-ran starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures --see also: DAY OF THE ANIMALS). They board a jumbo jet luxury "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar, and a dog. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! And the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once giving the impression of movement.


The result is a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of literal monster or concrete threat. The strange fascination with sub zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes Chuck's whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types (look it's Buddy Ebsen!) awaiting their line in the script with the reserved confusion of a Sartre play directed by Rod Serling's nephew after too a night of too many olives in martinis.


The sparse passengers include a wild-eyed single lady (the dog's owner, though she seems to forget all about him after awhile, or perhaps just wasn't brave enough to try and compete for the camera's attention against all those other needy hams). She's the best thing about the film, and she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past, her eyes alight with ancient magick. Chuck Connors is the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the quintessential priest who lost his faith (I was shocked when a hot stewardess in a short skirt wanted to confiscate his flask - when meanwhile he's also helping himself to the bar without paying, which doesn't bother her at all). Once he's drunk enough, Shatner laughs ruefully at their collective fate, though snaps to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice after first trying to pacify the spirit with the kid's doll as effigy. Will they commit the ultimate transgression or will the dawn come up in time? We'll find out after this brief fade out where commercials once played, dissipating whatever tensions may have accrued.


It all moves pretty fast and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can notice the way one of the actresses has a Rosemary Woodhouse buzz cut and sweat sheen, and another looks like Carrie White (though that film was still three years away). Naturally unless you were around in the 70s and remember these kinds of TV events, you're far less likely to care. But those of us who were kids will be glad to know the DVD of this looks way better than most. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful treatment. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths for its profaning the profane and blurring the Kate Jackson!
-----------

THE DEVIL'S RAIN
1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
***
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain - and it's not, um, a great movie, but for kids from the 70s THE DEVIL'S RAIN is an unholy and powerful relic, its TV spots an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975. I was eight and had a bizarre childhood dream about them and even now there's a lingering prepubescently perverse erotic charge associated with imagining acid rain hitting me and my coven and melting us all down like so much birthday candle wax. We'd heard DEVIL'S RAIN was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and convinced it was only a dream through hypnosis, and they'd arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic gone to the devil with touchy feely cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. So in rode devil films, a parallel subconscious repository that all of us, down to the smallest most impressionable infant, knew was only fantasy, yet a fantasy so powerful it spilled over into our collective subconscious, leading to witch hunts in the 1980s and the rise of nervous micro-managing overprotective brand parenting.


That feeling of these films having some supernatural power is gone, but as a kid growing up in the Satanic 70s just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give you sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable terror. And when we imagined the effects of the then brand-new acid rain, the Devil's Rain is what we imagined.


Turns out in real life the film is dreamy strange, with daytime afternoon Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, Shatner hamming it up worse than Vincent Price at the end of Pit and the Pendulum, and a nice 'start in the middle' approach to narrative (it's never really explained why or how Shatner's family's holding onto the Corwin's magic Satanic bible until a flashback) and an old deserted western ghost town making a surprisingly effective setting for a Satanic takeover, with an old church covered in black and the crosses replaced with pentagrams. Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback (via looking into coven member John Travolta's dead black eyes) and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner. The big climactic melting rain sequence goes on for what seems like an hour; it was the big 'money shot' of the film, even on the posters, so the director clearly wanted to get his money's worth. I got mine, the DVD is a must at $6.98, even if  most critics lambast the film, urging their slavish followers towards the admittedly superior and similar Brotherhood of Satan. I love that film too but I never saw commercials for it as a kid, so there's no perverse unconscious charge.


Got to admire a film that gives Hieronymus Bosch a name credit in the titles. What, were his lawyers all up in arms? Anton LaVey was a consultant, whatever that means (he knew which way to point the pentagrams? I've never considered him an authority, except at self-promotion). This movie gets no love from critics (20% approval on rotten tomatoes,) but I think they're being harsh. A nice buzz and low expectations is key to any Satanic film, and the whiskey-loving LaVey would agree. Still, Rain was infamous enough it destroyed director Robert Fuest's career --though he'd also made the more well-received And Soon the Darkness and Dr. Phibes neither of which I like as well as this. Got no Shat!!


See also: KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS! 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lee Tracy!


Alongside Warren William, Lee Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams' whose like the Big Bad Wolf personified, known for playing sneaky industry captains and unscrupulous womanizers, Tracy's bag was Hollywood press agents and snoopy reporters, gossip columnists, and crime beat morgue haunters. he takes some getting used to by the casual observer, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, newsprint panache, and cackling amphetamine patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era:


THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN
1932 - N/A 
I haven't seen this but I heard its ducky, or as the pundits say 'pre-code racy'- Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls who rises and falls (like Suzy Lenox or Blond Venus) on the social ladder while Tracy probably journalizes her or tries to stab her with a pen. Can't wait to see them both bleed newsprint even if Dvorak was never meant to be a platinum blonde. Flash! Directed by Michael Curtiz!


THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH 
1932 - **1/2 
Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first, as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, so probably lacks gallow's wit. There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, who by then has let fame go to her harridan head, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, i think, and the dialogue is great (Sample: secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity." / Tracy: "Such language!"). Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist, he was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.


LOVE IS A RACKET
1932 - ***1/2
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it like a punch to the gut.


TURN BACK THE CLOCK
1933 - N/A
Another one I haven't seen, but it's from my favorite movie year, 1933 and one of my favorite screenwriters, Ben Hecht. Lee Tracy imagines what his life would be like if he made different choices, got to avoid the mistakes etc. etc. Don't we all fantasize about that? But seldom do we do it during the Great Depression when our tobacco shop is failing on us. Even if it is MGM, man, it's Hecht!


BOMBSHELL
1933 - ****
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy as, what else?, an unscrupulous publicity agent.


BLESSED EVENT
1932 - ***1/2
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.


DINNER AT EIGHT
1933 - ****
I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.


DR. X
1933 - ***1/2
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.

And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

CLEAR ALL WIRES
1933 - ***
Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933! He's the kind of dirt digger who travels the world worming his way into the dens of the most dangerous men and angering the snobby New York Times journalist who's always too late for the big story because he's too busy trying to arrange Tracy's downfall. It's kind of silly but there's typically big-budget MGM scenes as Tracy and entourage head to Russia to report on the 15th Anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Una Merkel as a flighty baby-talking mistress who follows Tracy around at hotels across the street is very reminiscent of both Susan Alexander Kane and Marcello's mistress in 8 1/2. Benita Hume is a known fellow reporter whose had an off-on affair with Tracy. After awhile  you'll wonder how Tracy ever survived so long by making so many self-defeating choices, i.e. when in a dangerous country, don't antagonize a reporter who's fond of manipulating governments into throwing you into jail, and if you must cart around a baby-talking Merkel, make sure it's not your boss's. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Micro-Manager Munchausen: THE STRAIN, SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE



Heroes used to dread their appointed hour before danger, they'd dart around asking for help from civilians, blame poor marksmanship, or their Quaker faith, or Ingrid Bergman sticking them for the cost of a train ticket back in Paris, or all the droids or cows needing repair, as their flimsy excuses to hold off. But now, in today's crowded sci fi/horror climate, well, just try and stop them. And many do. Cops, parents, ex-wives, children, all regard our Munchausen Chicken Little with resigned frustration as he urges them to hear his pleas, especially if he's a deadbeat dad with a history of micro-management heroism that's already cost him his wife, house and perhaps even joint-custody because he's so busy trying to solve every little crisis he passes on the street (proximal morality). These crazy 'heroes' run around like William Shatner with gremlins on the plane, grabbing lapels of bewildered pedestrians and blocking ambulances and yelling "don't you get it?!" into the faces of overstretched EMTs. They've only ever been the villain in two movies, STRAW DOGS and THE LEGO MOVIE --and in one most people presume he's the hero and in the other he eventually sees the light and lightens up. But in two major TV events this summer--THE STRAIN, the new FX show from the mind of acclaimed sci fi horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, and SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE, the Syfy original sequel far inferior to the original (no mean feat)--the micro-managing dads are just as, if not more, obnoxious. Even as the world ends or CGI sharks fly through the air, they run around with an air of humorless unshaven urgency. STRAIN's NYC health officer Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) refuses to listen to his superiors when dealing with a vampire plague-infested plane. Most passengers dead, four survivors anxious to get home and start spreading the 'news' and he wants to contain them in a makeshift hazmat lab. Meanwhile a savvy old Jew pawnbroker tries to advise Dr. Goodweather on what's going on, but he has man arrested for having the sword in an airport terminal. So right off the bat, you want to slap him and our urge to see the world wiped out while he bangs on the window is nigh insurmountable.


It doesn't help that the bad guys (led by Thomas Eichorst, left) are fairly cool: they honor their deals, pay in cash, do their research, spend more time and money than Tootsie on make-up and black market organs, and their world to see the world end is genuine, indicative less of greed or some mundane reason than simply of being turned on by the forthcoming apocalypse. Hell, I say let these long-tongued vamp zombies have a crack at planet custodianship --they couldn't possibly leave it worse off than when we left it.

Goodweather disagrees, or rather hasn't thought that far ahead, being obligated by his little taste of power as CDC agent to grab those passing lapels, even to the point of ignoring the edicts of his superiors and winding up under arrest, but while inviting himself to tromp all over the rights of others he also attempts to juggle into his busy schedule a hearing over joint custody for his 'yawn' little son. There's a word for this type of guy, Munchausen by-proxy, or rather, as I call them, 'dad of great adventure'. They can't admit their insecurity and ambivalence about their roles as second class citizen in the modern family unit, yet are unwilling to abandon trying to fill whatever diminished emasculated role their child's mom will allow.

Naked white/grey monsters are always played by limber dancers
Anyway, we know from the start that Goodweather's right to want to quarantine these survivors--there wouldn't be a show if there wasn't good reason--but at the same time, we would hate to be unable to get home after a lengthy cross-Atlantic flight, forced to wait in a sterilized plastic cube for weeks while he tinkers with out blood samples. Plus, why would we root for Goodweather to stop the spread of a plague? l I love a lot of del Toro's art design; I admire his willingness to kill children, but I've always winced when he goes too far with his saintly family mere-life bullshit! And the whole business with the giant worm tongue leaping out of the monster's faces is so familiar, thanks to his using it in MIMIC and BLADE II. Even Paul W.S. Anderson has picked them up for RESIDENT EVIL.


Meanwhile there's this idiot woman who's husband is infected and he's barking at her to run, their dog's blood dripping from his mouth and she just stands there like a moron, frozen in 'terror' well within striking range of his forked tongue. He's telling her to run and we're screaming at the screen for her to run and she just stands there as if waiting for a cue until we wonder how she ever lived past the second episode. But then the next scene she's burying the dog and after the neighbor complains because he still hears growling she pushes him into the shed to feed her husband so we're back into thinking she's awesome. It's that kind of show, and typical of del Toro, for every corny Mexican soap moment there's two kickass touches, or vice versa.


Last year, The Asylum (the offshoot of Concord which was the 80s version of New World, i.e. 70s Roger Corman) gave us the surprise meme hit SHARKNADO (see: Wronger than the Storm). Now we got the the sequel, bound for much tweeting and therefore of great interest to fading actors in need of being seen by the young 'constant-texter' generation lest they fade away entirely. Thus, every middle aged B-lister realizes it's the ideal spot to cameo their new chewed-up faces and bloated bodies and thus stand a better chance of being recognized at next year's Comic-Con. Aye, matey, to trod bravely before the green screen curtain and be eaten in style, knowing for sure your every flubbed line will earn a hundred winky tweets...

But there's the rub, for in courting camp what crap may come.

Chicken Little of the Sea
What's most glaring right off is how the decision to drop it all down into NYC is a big mistake --NYC doesn't need alarmist west coasters with hero complexes running amok. Letting Fin into our city is like allowing flash bulb photography during your unveiling of Kong, the 8th wonder of the world. There's just no room on our crowded streets for one lone nutball to run loose on Broadway without inflicting millions in damages. We start off right in the thick of it as Fin (Ian Zering) and his re-united family (ex-wife Tara Reid but they're working it out, and his son and daughter) stalked by a sharks on a plane. Fin ever the hero, gets the plane down safely, but no one bothered to tell him that NYC is blessed with a stalwart network of first responders, and anyone who mentions needing to build a bomb in public should be arrested at once, not helped. Unlike most sensible people, Fin doesn't find shelter, or take an Ambien and go to sleep 'til it's all over, he runs around trying to find the other members of his traveling party and components for his homemade bomb --which he plans to throw into the wind.

I know our cops have problems with quick response in certain neighborhoods but not, my friends, in midtown, so their lack of presence is suspicious. No one is attacked unless seen first by Fin as he races past, clocking them for B-list celeb status (included in his posse, slightly used versions of: Vivica Fox, Kelly Osbourne, Judd Hirsch, Judah Friedlander, Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Rae Cyrus, Rachel True, Andy Dick, Mark McGrath), at which time they're either devoured by a passing shark, or rescued by his quick thinking and thus obligated to join his panicky parade. While Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, and Al Roker look on from the TV screen, rolling with the sharknado concept as a fact barely worth an eyebrow raise (just avoid making seal-like movements and you're safe, no big deal), Fin is determined to save us in spite of ourselves.

His rescuing-addiction was perfect for LA in the original because he had to protect the valuable clientele of his beachfront bar, and it's at a beachfront bar, we can imagine, that the notion of a sharknado first developed in some slushed screenwriter's mind. Who amongst us hasn't drunk deep from a sandy beer after a long day body surfing and imagined how badass it would be if sharks came through the window with a huge wave and started chasing people around the pool table, or swam in the air, or that the rec room floor was water so you had to jump from couch to couch? That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing, and as a deadbeat dad his desire to rescue his family was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time forward momentum, stretching the action across L.A. from the beach to the hills, over the course of one well-modulated real tidal wave of inland momentum and the vibe in the getaway car was like one of those great drunken parties wherein everyone at the bar becomes instant tribe and marches off to some second location, singing at the top of their lungs: John Heard was the drunken regular (John Heard); barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left), who brandishes a shark scar and a shotgun; and wingman Jaason Simmons, racing with the inward tide of a gigantic wave rolling in first through the bar windows, and then up the hill, filling the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten, such as his daughter's douche bag boyfriend (and there was much rejoicing) as the shark water fills living rooms but leaves driveways merely damp as if from a distant rain machine.  And a slightly busted by L.A. sun and time and too much make-up clogging the pores, Tara Reid, as the embittered ex-wife who still has some vague torch for old Fin - setting up a weird comedy of remarriage).


In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it, as a Corman film it conjured up the good old days of movies like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, or CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. In short, it turned its budgetary limits into an asset, which SHARKNADO 2's NYC location simply will not permit. New York is too real, too concrete, there's no time for grandstanding or defying gravity. Without the setting of surreal LA enhancing the CGI phoniness, this sequel is less like a surprise so-bad-it's-great entry amid a deluge of crappy CGI monster-bad weather hybrids and more a 'too aware everyone is tweeting about me' shitshow, as prefab and empty as a string of commercials for Shark Week during a Jay and Silent Bob film edited for content and watched on TNT by a mid-life crisis-having divorcee pothead after coming home alone from lunch at the Wal-Mart parking lot Hooters. Are we kids or what?

But we still have the original and the great untold shark story present in Tara Reid's weary face as the wife who steps back in, leaving the far more interesting Nova out of the sequel. There's no escaping her as she recovers in the hospital while Fin runs around building bombs and leaving suspicious packages, and hers, as well as most of the cast in the sequel, provides the real scary story, one of transformation and horror: a hundred young and glowing b-list actors went into the sun twenty years ago and came out looking like bad taxidermy. Botox and collagen took the rest. Anyway, they delivered the bomb.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pre-Code Capsules: STAMBOUL QUEST, MAN IN POSSESSION, JEWEL ROBBERY, ONE WAY PASSAGE, THE WORLD CHANGES

THE WORLD CHANGES
1933 - dir. William Wellman
***
One of the punchier gutsier entries in the 'tycoons through the ages' sagas that unfurled tight and fast on the pre-code Warner's lot, this tale of the bug-eyed entrepreneur Chicago stockyards' founder reeks of greatness. It begins in the 1850s when Aline MacMahon and Donald Cook settle in the Dakotas, so isolated that they don't even learn about the Civil War until its over. Paul Muni plays their ambitious son who leaves for Texas to round up wild steer and drive them north to the railroad, setting up stockyards with Guy Kibbee in Chicago because from there they can ship east and west on the railroad; but Muni keeps maximizing profits and re-investing until he invents the the refrigerator car, so all the slaughtering can be done at home (as opposed to shipping live cattle) and the stench and profits rise and rise. McMahon looks on dolefully from afar, for truly no man was ever meant to have that much money, anymore than cattle aren't meant to grow up knee deep in their own shit.

She's right, it is monstrous, and Muni's kids grow up snotty and spoiled and his snob wife (Mary Astor) goes Lady Macbeth over the realization her privileges are paid for in enough oceans of abattoir run-off, shit and blood commingling and Muni wading in with a bucket to collect the pools of fat off the surface to feed back to the stock. The stench of her husband's clothes reaches even their tony suburb, and every morning he's still stomping through the manure and mud and measuring ways cattle can be crammed in closer and closer to make more and more money and more and more. And Chicago gets bigger and bigger and one is very grateful this isn't in color or smell-o-vision.

Only at Warners and only in the pre-code era would a film about the industrial revolution be so anti-capitalism and pro-local growers, and not preachy or sentimental even as the century turns. I'm sure the film was labeled communist propaganda in the 50s and forbidden for re-release except maybe in the Soviet Union. Muni (later blacklisted) gets hammy in spots but his energy is infectious; every nuance and spittle-flecked outburst is measured from zero to sixty like inexorable slow strangle clockwork as we watch him age through the Great Depression and in the end Aline McMahon swoops in to rescue the only two grandchildren who seem COME AND GET IT divided by UGETSU-level ready to return to McMahon's old school co-op. If you're a fan of McMahon from her frequent gold-digging with Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers, this will be an eye-opener, her grace and good humor as the frontierswoman is such that not only can you believe a whole community would spring up around her,  you have a hankering to leave the city yourself, and find your own patch of land and some goats to call your own.  If only Monsanto would loosen our chains, but that won't happen 'til the last gasp of the earth is copyrighted and God sued for infringement. Seven generational thinking man. Our great great great great great great grandchildren will one day appreciate our careful recycling of paper and plastic through all eighteen of their mutant orifices. And Paul Muni and Paul Robeson will rise from their graves, like a thousand automated plowshares, like the commie rats they are!
--------
ROAD TO SINGAPORE
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green
***1/2
Deep in the sweltering tropics a colony of W. Somerset Maugham-style prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh (William Powell); he left Rangoon with one of the colonist's wives and has returned alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) is the imported wife realizing her uptight doctor husband (Louis Calhern) isn't a man and a lover but "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... " But is Phillipa in love with Hugh, or just using him as a tool to pry her out of her husband's grave-like surgeon hands? That they have the language to bring this point up themselves let's you know this is more 'adult' than the average soapy triangle. It's one of those adultery in the tropics stories that comes ripped from the commonwealth country club ala Maugham's THE SEVENTH VEIL and THE LETTER, wherein the heat of the tropics and a cold British husband leave a wife ripe for infidelity, and the censors are just relieved the other man is white. And what else are the ceaseless throb of native drums for if not to loosen white people's inhibitions?


Powell is great in a complex role where he's not entirely sympathetic; as the husband, Calhern nails the ferocity of the cuckolded, too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness. As his younger sister, Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches, and Kenyon is surprisingly warm and sultry once she lets her hair down, the lighting is rich in that exotic pre-code way where palms and ferns cast long shadows, and the panama hats glow, and the hiss and muffling of the primitive sound recording compels everyone to speak slow and measured and some people don't go for that. But I love it -1931 is the great herald of what's the come, the air is thick with black and white magic, the girls with their little Norma Shearer arms bare and wearing sexually draped lingerie, backless gowns, and/or post-sex kimonos. What the speaking and movements lack in dramatic fluidity though, they make up for in daring. Marriage wasn't just a sacred institution in uptight southern states back in 1931, and being unafraid to leave a bad marriage and run off with William Powell without having to shoot yourself later showed real courage (for both character and studio) rather than loose morals.

MAN IN POSSESSION
1931 - dir. Sam Wood
***1/2
The title is a quaint term for a deputy sheriff's assistant in London, since part of the job is remaining at a house that is in foreclosure or otherwise unable to pay its debts, making sure the debtor doesn't try to sell their stuff and run off with the money. Since it's based on a PJ Wodehouse play you can guess the rest: Robert Young stars as a well-groomed but criminally under-funded Cambridge alum, whose fist assignment is at the posh house and furnishings of an allegedly rich socialite (Irene Purcell) about to marry his brother. Naturally they fall in love. "I'd lie for you, I'd steal for you, I'd even work for you," was the line that got the biggest laugh out of me, but my jaw was on the floor after the surprisingly frank sexual hook-up. Purcell has lovely little bare arms, reminiscent of Norma Shearers. They loved little alabaster arms back in those days - and she's pretty damned sexy. There's a really risque fade-out and loads of clues making light of the fact that 'the butler indeed did it.' It's a great PG Wodehouse story given pre-code treatment and a play-ish but nonetheless engaging style.


Wodehouse can be tough to get just right in American hands, it's 90% Noel Coward and 10% Benny Hill. As he proved the same year with Shearer in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES, Young takes to such terrain absurdly well, like he never quite, but almost, gets the jokes, which is the perfect tone for Wodehouse. The small but tight cast includes C. Aubrey Smith as the harumphing mercantile class father and his Reginald Owen as one of those stuffy stooges with an umbrella that would eventually be played strictly by Ralph Bellamy. Beryl Mercer is the long-suffering mother; Charlotte Greenwood is a surly maid and Alan Mowbray the rich womanizing Sir Charles. He deserves better than to be dicked around just because he dicks around. After all, he tips Purcell's servants handsomely and bankrolled 'The Dump,' Godfrey Parks' nightclub, and if the whole concept of a cultured gentleman winding up getting married to his butler doesn't remind you of MY MAN GODFREY (1936) then go see it again at once. Alan Mowbray, the best friend a bum ever had.

JEWEL ROBBERY
1932 - dir. William Deterle
***1/2
Directed by William Dieterle with maximum class and reefer humor, JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) is a gem about a dashing jewel thief who catches the eye of bored thrill-seeking diplomat’s wife (Kay Francis) in scenic pre-Nazi Vienna. It’s the high class people doing naughty things sort of European froth that Hitler’s war machine would soon blow off the beery surface of the earth's frail mug, but here it still sparkles and bubbles and everyone is high, literally, since Powell passes out joints to his robbery victims. You’ll think you’re high too when you see longtime sourpuss character actor Clarence Wilson smoke one of these thinking it’s an ordinary cigarette, and Francis will blow your mind with her weird V-shaped smile and eyes that glaze over with the thought of being kidnapped by the dashing Powell. Their chemistry is so electrically charged you feel like they’re almost kissing each other even when they’re on opposite ends of the room.

ONE WAY PASSAGE
1932 - dir. Tay Garnett
***1/2
The chemistry between them was so good in JEWEL ROBBERY it's small wonder Warners re-teamed them the same year in ONE WAY PASSAGE. Almost a sequel to the first film, with Powell a caught criminal sailing home to face execution and meeting Francis and falling in love... unaware her character is dying and only has a few weeks to live. The chemistry between Francis and Powell is electrifying yet urbane and smooth, like a very expensive cognac warmed by the fire.

Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make mothers out of each other before the love wears off and once again grow lost in unconscious consumerism and vehement, self-righteous denial. This film by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to their deaths like it’s just another ocean voyage. One of the best recovered jewels in the TCM canon, it’s a testament to humanity’s lack of progress in the past 70 or so years that characters this warm, dashing, cool, romantic, witty, sweet and clever– “whole” people full of confidence, bravery and emotional gravitas--are so rare in movies. Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies trying to make mothers out of each other so they can cry in a lap again and not have to grow up and thus, presumably, avoid having to face their own mortality. ONE WAY PASSAGE, by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to death like it’s just another ocean voyage. Aline McMahon and Frank McHugh are the comedic second leads and great as usual, with Warren Hymer the cop who turns out to have a heart, et al.'

STAMBOUL QUEST
1934 - dir. Sam Wood
**1/2
If you're a fan of TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) imagine if that annoying college boy in Carole Lombard's train car--the one Barrymore convinces to stomp off, "without a word, like the Reverend Henry Davidson... in RAIN."-- only pretended to leave, and proceeded to keep ardently wooing until finally, against her better sense and our wishes, she falls in love with him. That's STAMBOUL QUEST, a film that dances ably along the censor's razor (the code took effect sometime in '34 so most films that year are either way racy or suddenly chaste). STAMBOUL seems somewhat risque so maybe it made it under the wire. Loy wears a fabulously slinky dress in the climax, which leaves us with at least for awhile the happy notion that Brent really has been shot by a firing squad. Hinting at the steep 'price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence, we learn right off what a conniving ruthless intellect she is when she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer (Ramon Navarro in MGM's MATA HARI with Garbo; Victor McLagen or Von Sternberg's far-cooler 1931 version, DISHONORED). Of course, Frauleine Doktor' jinxes herself with pronouncements like that. Too bad for us it's the naive whimsicality of George Brent that woos away from trapping double agents, and he treads all over her machinations with his muddy American bungler feet. Ah well, Loy's gorgeous and operating several levels of above everyone else in the picture before falling for him. Maybe next war.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Top 25 Favorite Films


April 12, 2014 Postscript: RIP to a great lady, say hi to the boys, we'll see you all soon
Bogey and Bacall - Hollywood's Coolest Couples


I've been going to bed really early lately, sometimes five or six AM. And any film lover knows movies at dawn have their own rare magic, illuminating inner truths not usually seen within earlier screenings, just as two opposing mirrors might illuminate rarefied sights such as the back of one's head, the better to appraise one's hair, freeing the gaze from its familiar angles in ways the day's medicine cabinet mirror glance of prime time doth not afford. Films I've seen a thousand times are alien and strange at this black magic hour, are delivered from their familiarity and made new and wondrous. I would bring on my desert island these gathered here, though if I haven't been living on a desert island lately I never will be. So keep your VERTIGO, your CITIZEN KANE, your RULES OF THE GAME and GONE WITH THE WINDs. They make me sick. I've been sick all week, reaching the end of a decade-long mid-life crisis--my tethers coming to an end at once. So if e'er was a time to build a raft from these timbres, it's now, for these films have proven of late still lighter than air, and still potent enough to remind me why I drank in the first place and that anything that kills you makes you cool first, unless you were behaving like an idiot to begin with.

1. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
dir. Howard Hawks

I'll never go to bed early again, not when I can re-watch THE BIG SLEEP over and over, flipping the disc (there are two versions) and pondering the mystery of who actually killed Owen Taylor and what what exactly transpired in that sexy bookstore between "closed for the afternoon" and the rainy evening; and why Hawks + Bogart + Bacall + Chandler = infinite cool. All I need to know is that Bogie and Bacall both radiate such alchemically rich magic both separately and together (as long as Hawks is there, too) that time stands still and the fine print of the plot fades into the dripping shadows of time like the chuckling gasp of a post-poison Harry Jones. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down. Even knowing it would be her last. (See Anima Scythe).



Latest viewing notes, post-reshoot version: I understand now that my adult tastes were formed around this film and that it left me with no love of outdoor scenes actually filmed outdoors. Hawks keeps the exteriors inside: the street around Geiger's house, and Huck's Garage and the house in the back, Bogie prowls around them like Hawks with a train set with the basement lights off in the dead of night; his face like the moon above the scene. Bacall glows right off the screen thanks to all that dark; even CASABLANCA has sunny LA exteriors around the WB set to dampen the dream-like mood with hangovers and bazaars, but SLEEP never leaves the darkness, and all the women have jobs or are on the make, or are into drugs, gambling, decadence, smoking, drinking their lunch from a bottle, and falling onto a guy's lap while he's standing up. It's paradise. Hawks' greatest film, it leaves me with zero tolerance for the ditzy housewives, Norman Rockwell mailmen, and apple-cheeked kids of MGM, may they all rot in hell for their code-poisoning. why couldn't there have been Hawks-Bogart adaptions of all Chandler's books, all filmed just like this? I would cut off my left foot for that. I wouldn't need it.

2. THE THING (1951)
dir. Christian Nyby (Howard Hawks)

It was starting on a local TV station one afternoon in 1981, the exact moment we connected the first VCR. It was like landing on the moon. I taped it and I watched it obsessively, even though it was missing several scenes (I edited out the commercials). When those scenes showed up later I was as excited as I would ever get - that is until 1997 when the Army preview cut of BIG SLEEP surfaced. If I have courage in my life it's for the sense of brotherhood in this film - there's such a great rapport between Hendry and his crew that I really want to be all I can be in the Air Force, at the North Pole, in 1951, forever and ever.

3. OVER THE EDGE (1979)
dir. Jonathan Kaplan

When a peer group is captured correctly on film, as in Wellman, Hawks, or Linklater, you get a feeling of the power and joy of belonging, a power and joy most adults hiding behind the evening paper at home have no recollection of. They condemn it in their children as dangerous and refuse to discuss the matter further, searching their kids' sock drawers for drugs rather than just asking to get high with them. EDGE wasn't shelved for two years before being released under the radar, and I found it by accident on TNT one afternoon, surprised it got ***1/2 and soon enthralled and drunk by it in ways I was too young to understand. Now I know I was seeing a movie where the kids were genuinely dangerous, instead of just screwing in cars and kidnapping the school mascot and being 'edgy' in that edgeless rote misogynist PORKY'S way. (See Vandal in the Wind)

I don't recall these skulls in the movie, but they're on a BAM notice for the film
and are damned cool. 
4. SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)
dir. Josef Von Sternberg

Second only to OVER THE EDGE as far as sending up the harbingers of decency and parental micro-managing, it's got great quintessential pre-code Paramount jazz music score, and the cream of the crop of character actors including Eugene Palette and Gustav von Seyffertitz and Anna May Wong, so sexy and exotic and makes such a fine pair with Dietrich in her black feathers and veil that they seem like a pair of 60s Carnaby Fashion models wandering into the 30s via a Donald Cammell time warp.The whole first half of this film is a glorious ribbing of censors, colonialism, and British prudery, only to reverse the flow by having the Henry Davidson harumpher turn over to Shanghai Lily's side of things, and to emerge victorious. The middle chunk occurs at a midway between Peking and Shanghai depot that Chinese revolutionaries wherein Warner Oland barters with Shanghai Lily, incurs the vengeance of Anna May Wong, and otherwise sets himself up for trouble at a second floor railway station bathed in veils after veil of mosquito net walls. I taped it by accident when a whole festival of JVS/MD films were on PBS and I was a monster-hungry high school nerd and I became a fan all just from the one scene where the frumpy boarding house matron tries to give her card to Anna May and Marlene ("What kind of a house did you say?"). A great movie to watch on a hot summer night with a fan blowing on you.


Finally, it's the ultimate rationale for why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade. Without all the smoke and mirrors no one would ever stay together of their own free will. The man wants to fuck and run and it's the woman's task to devour him like a Venus flytrap luring the unwary fly. She mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow. It is accomplished.

5. THE LADY EVE (1941)
dir. Preston Sturges

Every viewing brings new things, reflecting the mythic undercurrents of the eternal - check the scene where their faces are pressed to each other, her hand (at left) occupying the far left of the screen, like a cobra bouncing back and forth through his hair. When he learns she's really a card sharp we only feel bad for her for a second - soon drowned in a ship's bellowing horn; her "I feel a lot better all ready" at seeing the check alive and well further cement us to her hip in admiration and re-bonding her to the magnificent Gerald. Love is for chumps and when a grifter falls in love with a chump we sense our hackles rising, but which are we?

Eric Blore shows up in the next scene "Sir Alfred at the moment by my child" - he only has to introduce them all to his new name once and they instantly remember and we wouldn't see such quick thinking until Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. ("Good old Horace, ho what a card player.") The next moment, the morning birds are chirping and the lovely bullfrog voice of Eugene Palette comes in "tomorrow we'll be sobURRR" - and you belong body and soul to this movie. The portly butler from ANIMAL CRACKERS shows up trying to supervise the preps for a party. And even as a royal dame from Great Britain, visiting during the Blitz as they often did to drum up support, Stanwyck's Lady Eve isn't some stuffy caricature but a lively fun girl who jokes of her misunderstandings and cultural confusion trying to navigate the NYC subway, and earning her keep by sweeping the whole crowd off their feet and saving Palette from another dull evening ("take my arm and we'll fight our way through") Unlike Cary Grant in screwballs where he's either in on or not with the joke, Fonda is deliberately sincere, giving that measured earnestness in his voice talking about seeming to go way back, or presuming his superiority at cards."You don't understand psychology," as if he's navigating his way towards an unblinking monologue in GRAPES OF WRATH. Demarest of course as his bodyguard is paranoid but he's also right, and in the psyche scheme he's the superego, tripping Hopsy up time and again, the suspicious and egocentric angle - with Palette as the Fisher King and Piggy as the sage, magus, trickster yoda. Eve as the anima of course but she's also the princess--many guises: "Women change their names so often anyway it doesn't seem to matter" (recalling issue with license in MIRACLE (even though she used a fake name she can't remember, Hutton wont violate her vow);"The fish was a poem!"

I need him like the axe needs the turkey; the final image even is loaded - the snake sleeping like a contented penis by it's two huge apple balls, rattling it's baby rattle --the warning implied that desire's quenching leads only to more problems ahead with screeching children - problems which Sturges has no interest in (thank goodness, Sturges films are mostly child-free). I even love the James Harvey Criterion liner notes where he discusses the way childhood innocence survives only in the form of the Ralph Bellamy effect, creating prudes with small town homey Fordian nonsense galore, but that cynicism in turn must turn back towards the innocent, to find both fresh meat and something to aspire to lest it turn sour in a more cosmopolitan but just as dispiriting way. Oh what a dream!

6. SCARFACE (1932)
dir. Howard Hawks

My favorite comedy, it's like the Marxes if there were all Chicos and sociopathic killers; Mr. Camonte's secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) getting so mad he almost shoots the phone, wondering 'bout the word 'education' - the uneasy chill of Camonte's clowning and smiles with his innocence and corruption and nothing in between...  the insert scene at the DA's office - seems like Hawks took the DA scene out of SLEEP because they put this one in."But what can we private citizens do?" The rant about "they offered their services two years ago!" The cops are dour "When I think what goes on in the minds of these lice I want to vomit!" snarling and bitter, the reporters snarky and half-crazed from hot ink fumes. The gangsters half mad from giggles, unable to stay out of hiding to bowl. Hecht's black comic Broadway witticism all over a scene at the theater seeing RAIN."This a girl Sadie... she's been a-what-a you call 'disillusioned.' Ann Dvorak's jazz baby seductive dance (even the music rocks like Satchmo), Karen Morley calmly accepting Tony's light instead of Lovo's, and on and on.

7. NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964)
dir. John Huston

There's certain movies so much like my life I can't tell them apart. This is one movie like that, though I first saw and taped it on a TNT colorization, where it saved my life (details here); "I'm a New England spinster who's pushing 40." "Well who the hell isn't?!" Sure it's pretentious in parts but so is my life; when one is a romantic at heart one risks all for love even if or especially if it means your certain doom. And there's Sue Lyon luring you over the falls like a mirage in the mist.

Like OVER THE EDGE it is clearly on the side of the drunks and deviants, a punch in the snoot to the Tab Hunter beach movie (the fight with the beach boys and Hank). It's written by a gay man from the Southern 50s and the Ava Gardner part is meant for Ana Magnani where it would make more sense that Shannon's 'settling' to stay in paradise rather than take the long swim. And there's the old poet, ranting during the luncheon: "Love's an old remembered song a drunken fiddler plays / stumbling crazily along crooked alleyways."

My band and I loved this film in the 90s when the (colorized TNT version I'd taped) was a post-gig come-down favorite which we'd quote liberally: "strike the iron's hot, while its hot." It's a film for all kinds of romantic dysfunction, including abstinence and impotence and as one who's been both I respect that "nothing human disgusts (Deborah Kerr), Mr. Shannon... unless it's unkind... or violent."  That line has become my creed, and a good way to imagine AA meetings, the 'talking cure' the way sharing intimate personal tragedy and strangeness with others helps calm us down. "I had a spook like yours once, I used to call him the blue devil" / "Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect, and the tricks they use to dispel their panic. Everything we do to give them the slip and so keep on going." Well, this movie is mine, this my trick, this movie my life raft that's never deflating, even sans colorization, sans band, sans Cialis, sans alcohol, sans... everything.

Dir. A. Edward Sutherland

I had to pick one W.C. Fields movie, or Marx Brothers, so it was this. It's not perfect but I love it and can watch it incessantly. Peggy Hopkins Joyce is the pre-code equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith, and Burns and Allen do their schtick, and W.C. Fields is at his most feral, alcoholic, and assertive. I guess NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is a favorite as well, but it's tough to put on this list because of all the lengthy Gloria Jean musical numbers, which even she doesn't seem to like doing. Bela Lugosi is the Russian buyer for the radioscope.. "Kansas City is lost, I am here!

9. TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934)
dir. Howard Hawks

Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY. Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses. Contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde with hands curled in pre-strangling mode one moment, lowering them them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest to meet a backer that wants to finance his play "from a religious angle" the next. In a split second after split second, Barrymore's whole soul morphs and erupts into entire plays worth of indelible moments bashed together in long single shot takes where Hawks just uses the edges of the image as the train dimensions and lets these cats with their tails tied together have at it. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a better locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.

10. DR. STRANGELOVE (1962)
dir. Stanley Kubrick

Had to pick one desert island Kubrick. THE SHINING is maybe better, or has more class, but this has a sterling deep black comic magic that's in some ways far more terrifying, especially with the mad genius of Peter Sellers in full flower.


---- I suppose this is the mark for desert island discs. but if in a pinch I might even take some of these first:

11. DRACULA (1931)
dir. Todd Browning

This movie has my DNA stamped into it - it's a part of me and that's a fact. I've performed it in a one man ten-minute rooftop sideshow, screened it (in a 'Castle Films' reel) at druggy outdoor parties at half speed, been Drac for Halloween countless times, and I could give a shit that the film's so disjointed, that Whale's two FRANKENSTEIN films are so much better. This is the groundbreaker, the one everyone has seen once at least, and it used to be on all the time on UHF TV (without the girl being thrown in the lake cut out). Lugosi is the quintessential undead, the one from which all others flow. He is immortal. He's a part of me. His unworldly power is still startling, not that he's scary so much as magnetic. When he tries to control Van Helsing wiht his will you think to yourself Lugosi really does have ESP ability, you can see the shimmering auric tentacled drawing Van Helsing to him across the room. I even love the quiet, the lack of film music, making this seem like it was forgotten, that the camera just happened to be on during someone's 5 AM laudanum fever dream. Mina Harker - unearthly; David Manners - anemic - dwight Frye - hammy,

Lastly a recent uncovering (thanks to Mick LaSalle) of the existentially morbid WWI aviator films written by John Monk Saunders, I've been better able to situate the film in terms of drunken chilled moments at the flight control HQ bar or the consoling arms of Parisian meter maids. Lucy's recitation of the "Hurrah for the next who dies" toast in DRACULA connects to the same toast in EAGLE AND THE HAWK and DAWN PATROL (similar toasts and surrealist gusto in ACE OF ACES); and Helen Chandler wafts through LAST FLIGHT like the ghost of Mina Harker's soul now that Drac has her body. There may have been better movies, but this one's still never been bested. In its unearthly quiet and sheer perverse oddity it's like a British opiate addict WWI pilot's fever dream of what's going on in the mansion of his fiancee back home while he's battling the Hun. Next time you watch it just let it set in your mind that everyone involved with this film is long dead... that's true for most 1931 films but this one feels like it, it's a ghost transmission made from beyond while the actors were still alive (a formality); how's that for ghoulish existential truth? Black and white film - the ultimate vampire bite.

12. GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)
dir. John Carpenter

John Carpenter is always at his best when trying to remake RIO BRAVO, and this here is RIO BRAVO on Mars meets the old school bad guys and cops binding together to fight an alien source that he explored earlier in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, another favorite. I would never leave the planet without it. The greatest film of the 22nd century, it's genius has yet to be fully appreciated, but if PLAN NINE had a baby with THE THING, it would be GHOSTS. And Ice Cube and Natasha are a dynamite team.

13. TREASURE ISLAND (1934)
dir. Victor Fleming

A stock of top shelf eccentric character actors as the salty pirates; a real ship on real seas, Beery hobbling masterfully about like he's seldom been t'land. Poetic and darkly hilarious "this molasses is sweeter than serpent sedative!" - Great effects, sets and so forth, I personally love old Jim Hawkins and I generally hate kid actors, so there you go. When old scalawag Long John rows away at the end, there's a strange elegiac tone almost akin to the end of THE MISFITS. We're saying goodbye to charming rogues who could advise and guide wide eyed innocents in the ways of social scheming, all the things the code was worried that kids would learn. After this no Long Johns, certainly they couldn't escape at the end, to plunder happily ever after, and certainly not be around as a sage to children. Too damn bad.

I love this film for myriad reasons but one that jumps to mind is its gleeful shucking of romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkin’s going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It aint like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners… no sir. You root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail, “they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em” – but you also root for smooth talking Silver, played with great dog-eared goofiness by Wallace Beery and his rawther repulsive looking band of brigands.

There’s a real palpable sense of bonding between Hawkins and Silver here (Beery had won an Oscar working with Cooper in THE CHAMP earlier) which takes the place of a usual dull romance as the film’s central “evolving” relationship. Basically what we see is that Silver wins out, evil as he is, because he’s good with children. He knows how to stoke the fires of Hawkin’s imagination and together they come out ahead even as everyone is dying all around them. You have to appreciate as well the sight of a young boy shooting a pirate and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing and all the crap you’d have to go through with the ratings board and parent organizations in today’s hellishly overprotective climate. Other highlights? Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, telling horrible tales of warming his rum with the blood of slaughtered royalty and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Lots of great wind effects.

14. OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
dir. James Whale

With numerous viewings the death and age elements kick in -- the way the 'that's fine stuff' rant by Rebecca Femm to Gloria Stuart (who's laserdisc commentary track led to her being cast in TITANIC) leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) And the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas nd Bill's (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); the arrival of them like a dose of earthy lower grade humor, the blue collar full of good cheer taverner vs. the rich yobbos; the end point of madness and the beginning point of savagery, the way Laughton becomes the backbone of Britain; and the introduction of Roderick Femm, played by the elderly real life old lady of the stage Elspeth Dudgeon: "Morgan is a savage, I apologize" - he's a wise old gentleman  "my eldest son, Saul," cementing the biblical links.

15. MACBETH (1948)
Dir. Orson Welles

I love Orson Welles so why haven't any of his films made it into my favorites aside from this? Because in the end so many are just about his genius and the way material never makes any sense once he's tried to sheathe his genius within it. I picked this one because if I ever see it enough times to have it memorized the way I have some of the Hawks on this list, then I'll be sitting pretty and sounding like a four dollar swell, especially if I have booze on this desert island, since I had my last big alcoholic relapse bender in 1998 watching this movie round the clock on my old VHS dupe, taking furious notes on how it's the ultimate in relapse movies, Shakespeare's packed prose worming deep into the guilty conscience like a dozen tell-tale heart press agents. And in Shakespeare the material finally matches his booming grandeur in ways that make noir frames like TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI seem buckled and warped. We don't have that problem in MACBETH, the sturdy B western sets are meant to buckle all they want. On the great new Olive blu-ray we can finally see the dirt on the sky in the painted backdrops, hear the original indecipherable brogues and savor the way Welles' Genghis Kahn make-up drips under heat of the kliegs and weight of the IVAN GROZNIY crown. There's no place like home, and this rattle trap B western soundstage rings like his bedroom during an October childhood slumber party. I prefer it to all the other Shakespeare movies, particularly Olivier's, which tend to be far too bourgeois (though I like his '65 OTHELLO). The only other actor to match Welles' though in titanic booming ferocity in the Shakespeare realm is Barrymore's RICHARD III, which we're blessed with at least a clip of from 1929's YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS,  

16. HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1944)
dir. Howard Hawks
"A home with mother... in Albany, too."

17. EL DORADO (1966)
dir. Howard Hawks

There are some who would think me crazy to prize this over RIO BRAVO but I can sum it all up in two words, Arthur Hunnicutt. Walter Brennan has sass in RIO BRAVO but Arthur H. seems like the real McCoy. Only Richard Farnsworth or Sam Elliott even comes close. Though it's played more for comedy here, the 'sobering-up from a two month bender' feels truer--not in spite of being funnier but because of being funnier--than Martin's sobering up in BRAVO, though that sobering up captured the sudden and mysterious way some random song or word will stop the shakes all at once, like the passing of a storm. But Mitchum looks and acts closer to how I felt when I went through it, for misery like that is nothing if not hilarious--especially to the person suffering through it (if he can't laugh at it, he'll wind up in the asylum like Don in LOST WEEKEND or dead like Black Dog in TREASURE ISLAND). I'd much rather have James Caaan, Hunnicutt and Robert Mitchum in my corner as gunfighters (and drinking buddies / friends) than a teen pretty boy (Ricky Nelson), a short Italian (Dean Martin) and cackling Brennan, though they're all great too, don't get me wrong, I would love to have been with Hawks on the set of BRAVO but EL DORADO is the movie I most want to live in. The Mitchum and Wayne combo is fun, the anachronistically cool side chicks pop up as regular as they do in BIG SLEEP, the colors of sky and interior are almost comic book eye-popping, lots of warm yellows and deep purples thanks to cinematographer Harold Rossen (much better than the drier, faded dustiness of BRAVO). Add some great paintings under the credits, and even a cool Hawksian in the bad guys section for a change (Christopher George) and I'm in heaven. Though there's no musical interlude there's Poe recitations, clanging church bells, a groovy Nelson Riddle electric bass in the suspense parts. The whole second 2/3 seems filmed mostly at night, probably on a set but I like that better anyway, no trail dust or bugs and the HD transfer on Netflix is eye-popping clear.

18. RED RIVER (1948)
dir. Howard Hawks

dir. Eddie Cline

20. THE SHINING (1980)
dir. Stanley Kubrick

dir. Sidney Lumet

dir. Mike Nichols


23. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson


24. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)
dir. Ernst Lubitsch
(note Miriam's subliminal bat wings, above)

25. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1941)
dir. Jacques Tourneur (prod. Val Lewton)

=====
---------------------------------------
RUNNER UPS:

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
3. The Hurt Locker (2009)
4.  Rio Bravo (1959)
5. Animal Crackers (1931)
6. Cat and the Canary (1939)
7. The Black Cat (1932)
8. The Fog (1980)
9. Masque of Red Death (1966)
10. The Birds (1962)
11. Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)
12. The Black Swan (2010)
13. Dazed and Confused (1994)
14. Nothing Sacred (1937)
15. Gimme Shelter (1970)
16. Psycho (1960)
17. Morocco (1931)
18. Monterey Pop (1968)
19. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
20. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1966)
21. To Have and Have Not (1944)
22. Casablanca (1942)
23. The Black Raven (1944)
24. Touch of Evil (1959)
25. Persona (1966)

FAVORITE SHORT: