Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unclean Cults: Land of the Lost and Howard the Duck

This week, two attempts to translate cult favorites to the language of film, with gibberish the results.

When do you first get the feeling that Land of the Lost is in trouble? Not counting when you first saw the trailer. When? Immediately.

In the movie's first post-title scene, crackpot scientist Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell) is flogging his new book on "The Today Show" and his interview with Matt Lauer, playing himself, isn't going well. Lauer gets the movie's first laugh and I wondered if Ferrell and director Brad Silberling really meant for Matt Lauer to set the pace.

Dr. Marshall believes that movement between dimensions and alternate universes is possible, but he doesn't attempt a field test of his tachyon gizmo until encouraged by Holly, a hot young science student from England (Anna Friel). They experience "the greatest earthquake the world has ever known" and, along with a redneck doofus named Will (Danny McBride) wind up in a place where anything dreamed up by sitcom writers can happen.

After flopping down on a patch of lost-land desert containing a Viking ship and what could be Amelia Earhart's plane, they meet Cha-Ka, a Sleestak, sort of a 2001 australopithecine reject (Jorma Taccone). From there, the movie is essentially a series of sketches and concepts, most of which don't work very well stretched out over 93 minutes.

So what do we get? Lots of aimless running and screaming—the farce's traditional demand for "louder, faster, funnier." Two of out three, anyone? There are some CGI dinosaurs. Several gags based on bodily excretions, especially numbers one and two. Some of the throwaway gags worked for me. As the tachyon gizmo first hums to life we see Dr. Marshall looking down at it, his face lit by a soft blue light. "It's beautiful," he gasps in a moment that perfectly parodies Paul Freeman's Dr. Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark just before his head melts.

If only TV writers Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas could have come up with more stuff like that, Ferrell wouldn't have to fall back on re-cycling his standard movie persona. Yes, earlier movie comedians have mined one character for all s/he was worth, but audiences saw them only once or twice a year. With basic cable, On Demand and DVD, we can see Will Ferrell, or any movie star, so often it's easy for them to become over-exposed.

Matt Lauer ends the movie with another solid laugh. Who knew? Maybe Land of the Lost isn't really a Will Ferrell picture at all. Maybe it's a Matt Lauer movie and Ferrell just hogs most of it. Maybe theyshould have cut out all that unfunny Ferrell stuff for the DVD. That would leave us with a five-minute movie full of LOL material instead of an intermittently amusing 93-minute one. Sounds good to me.

And now for something almost exactly the same, the movie equivalent of The Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic, the non plus ultra of big budget bad movies, the one, the only . . .

Howard the Duck.

Re-visiting older films you once panned is good for the critic's humility. You frequently find that The Movie in Question isn't as bad as you thought it was. Maybe that's because you've seen so many even stinkier floppiles since the initial viewing. Maybe you're just mellowing. Maybe senility is taking over.

Well, I'm here to announce that I am not mellowing and senility is not yet my dominant mental condition. Howard the Duck is just as bad as it ever was. Time has not blossomed nor custom improved its unique blend of over-production and cheap-jack special effects, nor its lousy acting, insulting script, and hapless direction. If you were watching "Jeopardy" and the category was "Rotten Movies," the correct response to every clue would be Howard the Duck.

Adapted from the super comic book created by Steve Gerber, this mess of a movie was produced by George Lucas, who apparently learned nothing from the derision he received over the little people in teddy bear costumes in Return of the Jedi in 1983 and allowed Ed Gale, whose subsequent career included stunt doubling Chucky in the Child's Play series, to don a risibly unconvincing duck suit. Howard, who is transported against his will from the Duck Planet to Earth, is supposed to be a master of Quack Fu but can barely waddle around.

Arriving on Earth, he is abused, laughed at and smacked around—no one has sense enough to grab him and rush him to the nearest Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. Finally, he comes to the rescue of second rate rock singer Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) who takes him home with her and, maybe, falls in love with him. Together, and with the help of lab tech Phil Blumburtt (a hideously overacting Tim Robbins) they save the world from an invasion of Dark Lords of the Universe, led by a possessed Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones).

The opening getting-to-know-you segment lasts way too long, the Dark Lords section is played too straight, and the film's last two reels are nothing but explosions, screaming, and the kind of stop motion animation that was amazing in King Kong but was sadly antiquated by 1986. The picture was directed by Lucas' buddy Willard Huyck and written by Huyck and Gloria Katz. Why the hell didn't they get Steve Gerber to at least chip in? The man, who died in 2008, was a terrific comic book satirist. Maybe Lucas and Co. were just set on turning out a family comedy instead of the R rated burlesque of comics, movies and life in general the picture would have had to be in order to duplicate the real Howard. The missed opportunity is as painful as a kidney stone the size of a duck egg.

But one good thing came of it all. The film's box office failure was so severe it forced Lucas to sell the Lucasfilm animation department in order to keep the rest of the empire afloat. He sold it to Steve Jobs and it became Pixar.

Howard the Duck was such a massive flop it must be seen to be believed, so take a look next time it shows up on cable—but for the sake of your soul, don't buy it. People have gone to hell for a lot less. Poor Howard deserved better than this. You will believe a male duck can lay an egg.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Charles Ludlam, late founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, once wrote a play the dialogue of which consisted of the punch lines of old jokes. No, I don't remember the title. Jeez, do I have to do everything around here?

Larry Blamire, creator of one of this century's great cult classic films, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, pulls off something just as challenging and funny with Dark and Stormy Night, in which everything is a dark-old-house spook-movie cliché: plot, characters, props, setting — everything. The dialogue is a thing of beauty, comprised almost entirely of stream-of-unconsciousness non sequiturs. One character asks the butler to provide sherry for the guests, and "Bring me an iced tea sandwich."

The relatives — and assorted strangers, servants and one guy in a gorilla suit — have gathered for the reading of the will, then they start dropping like lead bon mots. Blamire's usual gang of thesps, with a quartet of guest actors who have been in movies you've actually heard of, deliver their senseless lines as if any of this had any meaning beyond tickling your nostalgia for Hollywood Poverty Row thrillers until it hollers, "Uncle!"

Blamire's talent for absurdist burlesque is immense and I'd like to see it rewarded with mainstream recognition, but if that meant he'd have to stop making these low-budget masterpieces, well, screw that. A wider multiplex audience could never love him like we do.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working from his own story, combines the names of the Virgin Mary and Eva Braun (Frau Hitler) to create a character that one critic said represented the postwar Germany of the "economic miracle"—dragging itself up from the hideous and shameful disaster of war to an attractive creature wearing jewels and expensive clothes, but totally without a soul.

Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries her German soldier Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch) as the world turns to a blasted outhouse around them. The Justice of the Peace tries to escape the bombing but the almost-married couple runs after him through the street, tackling him as explosions go off all around them, and force him to sign the legal document. The next thing we know, it's the following day and Hermann has been sent to the Russian front. Maria will say later that she is fully married—after the ceremony she and Hermann had a half day and a full night before he was shipped out.

After the war, her best friend Betti's (Elisabeth Trissenaar) husband Willi (Gottfried John) returns with the news that Hermann was killed. Maria chooses to disbelieve this story and determines to prepare for the day of her husband's return by accumulating as much money as possible. To this end she buys the best dress she can and becomes hostess at a bar catering to American occupation troops. Having learned to survive the war, Maria now has to learn how to survive the peace. She takes up with Bill (George Byrd), a black soldier and becomes pregnant by him. This affair ends suddenly in a character defining moment when Hermann proves her right by showing up again.

Even with proof of Hermann's survival, Maria follows in the footsteps of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and continues to do what she needs to do in order to improve her situation and keep the money coming in. Brecht preached the gospel of survival at any cost—grub first, he wrote, and then morals—but even after she is able to support herself well, Maria seduces and then goes to work for half German, half French factory owner Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny) and becomes a partner with Oswald and his accountant Senkenberg (Hark Bohm).

Maria will be accused of cynicism, but in the world of German reconstruction cynicism is reality. "It's not a good time for feelings," she says. "And that suits me." Over lunch in a fine restaurant, Oswald fears she's grown bored and will soon leave him. She denies any possibility of unpleasantness. "You were brought up well," she says, "and I pretend that I was."

The film combines the rags-to-riches plot of American films like Baby Face with an eye for historical detail and the upscale melodramatics of Douglas Sirk, a German director who immigrated to Hollywood and made a series of silky women's pictures for Universal in the 1950s. That's not a criticism. Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows are as good as most other genre films of their time, and much better than most.

What Fassbinder and leading lady Schygulla add is a pinch of Dietrich from The Blue Angel. Maria only displays emotion when she wants to, whether she's actually feeling it or not. At one point late in the film, she shows up in her underwear, and it's an almost perfect dominatrix outfit. A touch of masochism has been noted in many of Fassbinder's men.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is the first movie in what is seen as a loose trilogy of pictures dealing with strong women finding out what it takes to live through Germany's 20th Century, one hundred years of national horror, humiliation and hubris. It's a key film in the movement known as "New German Cinema."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Casino Royale (1966)

I have no cinematic guilty pleasures, so when I enjoy a movie like the absurd James Bond burlesque Casino Royale, I don't feel guilty about it. I feel stupid, sure, but not guilty.

Cooked up by six directors (Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Richard Talmadge, led by Val Guest), and with three credited and seven uncredited writers — including such heavyweights as Ben Hecht, Woody Allen, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern and Billy Wilder — there's no way this could be anything but a train wreck, and that's what it is. But who ever said train wrecks weren't fun to watch? It's like that old Dennis the Menace cartoon in which the kid mixes root beer, ketchup, peanut butter, and assorted other gastronomic favorites into one concoction on the theory that if each one of them tastes good alone, blended together they must be super yummy. Sure.

Based on Ian Fleming's first 007 novel — yeah, like The Origin of Species is based on the Book of Genesis — the comedic premise is that Sir James Bond is called out of retirement to best SMERSH's financier, Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), at cards. Why? What, you're expecting a plot? Okay, if you insist: Le Chiffre has been gambling with SMERSH's money and British Intelligence wants to break him. Happy, now?

To confuse the enemy — not to mention the audience — just about everyone on the side of the good guys is called "James Bond," so David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, among others, are all JBs. Sir James (Niven) also enlists the aid of his love-child daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), and sexy spy Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress).

Hating each other, Welles and Sellers refused to be on set at the same time, so their scenes had to be shot separately and then welded together. It must have been pure hell. The enmity, at its core, seems to have been the result of Princess Margaret (the Queen's sister) visiting the set one day and fawning over Welles while ignoring Sellers, who would hold up filming by disappearing for days at a time and was finally fired before filming completed. He was replaced by a cardboard cutout.

If only the whole movie could have been welded together. It's truly a near-incomprehensible catastrophe, but it's saved by being so stupefyingly mid-1960s. Watch for a cartload of cameo appearances, including ones from Peter O'Toole and William Holden, and the score by Burt Bacharach fits the idiocy perfectly, especially in the Berlin section.

It's the Berlin sequence, directed b y Ken Hughes (who would soon do penance by directing the film of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang two years later), that holds together best. In Berlin, Sir James visits the Mata Hari Dance and Spy School to see his daughter. The set design in the school is a pitch perfect parody of German Expressionism, as are costumes, makeup and (over) acting styles. Bacharach's bouncy Berlin theme sounds as if it would be right at home in a production of The Three Penny Opera. Such spot-on satire seems out of place in the middle of all this silliness, but it is a welcome moment of genuine comic filmmaking.

Maybe you had to be there in the mid-1960s to dig this psychedelic zaniness (one reviewer at the time called the film "an electronic vaudeville show") and if you were, you'll probably have fun going back for a couple of hours.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brass Monkey (1948)

This is a Brit version of a type of movie that enjoyed a brief vogue in America—the filmed radio comedy show. Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen, Fred Allen, The Great Gildersleeve and Jack Benny all made movies like this, pictures that brought their radio personalities and supporting casts to the screen. They are almost universally disappointments to their radio fans, B movies with little of the charm that made the radio programs so much fun.

Brass Monkey stars "Britain's favorite Canadian," Carroll Levis. Levis moved to England in 1935 and ended up putting together and hosting talent shows for the BBC—"American Idol" in London for people who played Stephen Foster songs on the saw or "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the accordion. (In 1957, Peter Sellers played Wee Sonny MacGregor, host of a radio talent show in the wonderful farce The Naked Truth, aka Your Past is Showing. I wonder if the satire contained a poke or two at Levis.) Anyway, in this movie Levis, playing himself, and not too convincingly, is the stereotypical Canadian—colorless, boring, doughy, and totally lacking in anything that could even mistakenly be called charisma.

He's returning from a trip to the Far East when an old friend of his, Kay Sheldon (Carole Landis) gives him a brass monkey as a good luck charm. What we know and they don't is that the monkey is one of three from an ancient Buddhist temple in Japan that is worth a fortune. Kay got it from her crook fiancé Max (Edward Underdown). It's destination in London is a rare objects d'art shop from which it will be sold to a collector (Ernest Thesiger). It's all a farcical conglomeration of plot elements from The Moonstone, The Maltese Falcon, and probably half the Sexton Blake thrillers ever written.

The story is nonsense. If the movie has any interest for modern viewers it comes from the supporting cast. Herbert Lom is his usual dark and sinister gangster self, but without the comic edge he would display so well in The Ladykillers. Terry Thomas (without the identifying hyphen) plays himself, dropping in a couple of times to perform some unbelievably unfunny music hall turns. Levis-program regular Avril Angers is the funniest person in the movie playing her radio persona, a Dumb Dora whose dialogue is mostly malapropisms and non sequiturs.

This was American B movie actress Carole Landis' last film before her suicide at age 29. Landis was an attractive blond and the American performer who clocked more time entertaining the troops during the war than anyone else. She became depressed that her movies never seemed to rise above the B level or attract much critical respect. "You fight just so long and then you begin to worry about being washed up," she said. "You fear there's one way to go and that's down.
I have no intention of ending my career in a rooming house, with full scrapbooks and an empty stomach."

Directed by the American Thornton Freeland (whose only major credit is the Astaire/Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio from 1933), Brass Monkey is second rate in just about every category. When it isn't second rate, it's third. For the curious only.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bugs Bunny Superstar (1975)

It's possible to be a movie lover and not like Greta Garbo or John Wayne or W.C. Fields, and still retain some credibility — but turn your nose up at Bugs Bunny and hell hath no depth too deep for you, you humorless poseur.

Too harsh? Not harsh enough, doc.

Director Larry Jackson celebrated all things wascally with the documentary Bugs Bunny Superstar. It contains live-action footage of the cartoonists and their staffs acting out stories before the animation began — Tex Avery was a hoot — but it's mostly long on cartoons (a good thing) by including nine full-length examples from the 1940s, only six of which star Bugs. It's short on documentary factoids about the history of the character and the gang who created and developed him in a creaky building called Termite Terrace on the Warner Bros. lot.

This anecdotal back story material is presented to us primarily by Bob Clampett, one of Bugs' papas. The picture's worth watching for Clampett's hideous hairpiece alone. It looks like something Elmer Fudd might have shot on one of his hunting expeditions when his rifle misfired. He explains that a major reason the cartoonists caricatured the Warner Bros. stars they did was that those were the guys who stopped by Termite Terrace pretty regularly to see what was going on and to shoot the breeze with the animators and their staffs. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were favorite visitors.

Included also are snippets from vintage interviews with Friz Freling and Tex Avery. From Avery we learn where the question "What's up, doc?" came from—he was quoting someone he knew, just as a relative of his used to grumble, "Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin," which found its way into Daffy Duck's vocabulary.

It's these reminiscences, especially from Clampett, that generated some hurt feelings when this film was released. While Clampett had complimentary things to say about Chuck Jones, Jones — who could nurse a grudge like Silas Marner could nurse a nickel — accused Clampett of being a credit hog. The thing is, when this picture was made, almost everyone from the days of classic animation was looking for credit for the work he'd done for hire in the 1930s-1950s, so a lot of exaggeration was going around.

But you can ignore this backstory and enjoy the film for the comedy it contains. Especially fun are the undeniable classics The Wild Hare (1940), A Corny Concerto (1943), My Favorite Duck (1942) and Hair-Raising Hare (1946). The movie is narrated by an obviously-in-on-the-joke Orson Welles.

My favorite from this collection is the Clampett directed A Corny Concerto. It's one of those 'toons that is all jolly good fun on the surface, covering at heart a wicked satire of Disney's 1940 Fantasia—just the sort of thing you'd expect from a Frank Tashlin script. It is divided into two parts, each part introduced with a brief appearance from Elmer Fudd playing a combination of Igor Stokowski and Deems Taylor. Wearing an ill-fitting tux and sporting a five-o'clock shadow that looks more like 9:30, he leads us through the music with observations like, "Wasn't that wovewy?" just before his flapping celluloid dickey snaps up and smacks him in the face.

The first story concerns Porky Pig and a dog hunting Bugs Bunny to "Tales From the Vienna Woods," and the second is a variation of "The Ugly Duckling" to "The Blue Danube." It's the duckling segment that contains the most blatant moment of Disney satire. When one of the characters whooshes past a pair of weeping willows, their branches whirl around frantically before the anthropomorphic trees end up hugging each other, an image that could have been lifted right out of a Silly Symphony.

For some reason, this isn't one of Clampett's favorites from among his own cartoons. Granted, it isn't as funny as his toupee, but it comes pretty damn close.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

April 1, 1883, is the birthday of Lon Chaney, whose stardom in movies puzzles many film lovers. How, they wonder, could a man with average looks, who never won the gal in the last reel, and who specialized in characters who were physically and psychologically repugnant have remained a box office giant for a decade? He was only 47 when he died on August 26, 1930, still at the peak of his powers and popularity. He made only one sound film, The Unholy Three (1930), and that was a remake of one of his silent successes. His two most famous pictures—The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925)—are more "known of" than watched.

But his fans, even today, are legion, and I count myself among them. To celebrate his career let's spend a few days looking at three of his lesser-known movies. We'll start with a picture that answers a trivia question: what was the first movie that used Leo the MGM lion as part of the studio logo?

In He Who Gets Slapped, Chaney worked with the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (Victor Seastrom in America). The film is based on the symbolist drama by Leonid Andreyev.

Chaney plays Paul Beaumont, a research scientist who has spent years working on an outré theory as to the origins of life on Earth. He and his wife Maria (Ruth King) are supported by the patronage of Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott, who made 195 films between 1909 and his death in 1928). But what Paul doesn't know about the Baron is that he is having an affair with Maria, and when it is time to present Beaumont's theories to the Academy of Science, the Baron claims them as his own, dismissing Paul as a starving student who was hired as a research assistant.

When Beaumont objects, the Baron slaps him and the members of the Academy laugh at his humiliation. Beaumont's grip on sanity has never been too secure, and when Marie spurns him with the words "Fool! Clown!" his fingers finally slip away and the abject figure makes the connection between getting slapped and generating laughter.

Seastrom concludes this episode by cutting to a laughing clown who watches a spinning globe, an image he will repeat to separate the film's sequences.

"With a supreme gesture of contempt," the intertitles tell us, Paul becomes a circus clown. Several years go by and the scientist, now known as HE, the clown, has become an international success. His act? Pontificating about the nature of the world to an academy of clowns and being knocked to the ground for his profundity. His clown/friend is Tricaud (Ford Sterling, best remembered now as the perpetually harried chief of the Keystone Kops), who reminds him that "There's nothing makes people laugh so hard as seeing someone else get slapped."

A down-at-the-heels Count Mancini (that brilliant character actor and eventual veteran of 197 movies, Tully Marshall), who is as much scam artist and blackmailer as he is minor nobility, enlists his lovely daughter Consuelo (Norma Shearer, whose 25th film and fourth pairing with John Gilbert this was) as an equestrian. She and her co-performer Bezano (a pre-Garbo John Gilbert) soon fall in love.

There is a visible ease to Gilbert's and Shearer's work together. Shearer was 22 but seemed younger; Gilbert was 27 but seemed older. Chaney was 41 but seemed older still. HE is also is love with Consuelo but the difference in their ages prevents anyone from seeing the depth of his affection for her. The theme of a psychologically or physically scarred older man in the thralls of unrequited love for a younger woman repeats itself in Chaney's films—Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Erik and Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Sgt. O'Hara and Nurse Dale in Tell It to the Marines, Alonzo and Nanon in The Unknown, Tito and Simonetta in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Chaney's woeful characters in these films pined for actresses as young as the 22-year old Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young, who was 15.

Just as we think that the pain of love will be HE's alone, the Baron returns to the story. Of course, he finds Consuelo fascinating and, dumping Marie with a large check and no kind words, the Baron strikes a bargain with Count Mancini for Consuelo's hand. Bezano is furious, but seemingly helpless when faced with such a powerful class distinction. HE, unrecognizable in his clown makeup, torments the Baron. "I hate clowns," the villain snarls. "I hate Barons!" HE snaps back.

Alone with her, HE confesses his passion for Consuelo, who is stunned and a little repulsed by this news. But HE is so serious, the young woman assumes he must be joking. She gives him a playful slap and laughs at him. Knowing that life holds little for him, HE devices a plan to rid the young lovers of the Baron and the Count, and Chaney's character, as they did so often, sacrifices himself for the normalcy of romance.

One of the legends that has grown up around Chaney's body-twisting performances is that the actor tortured himself to get just the right look. Certainly the legless Blizzard in The Penalty required some painful contortions, but stories about the weight of Quasimodo's hump and the hooks that were used to flare Erik the Phantom's nostrils are exaggerated or false. Perhaps these yarns were originated by studio publicity men, but I suspect they have been so readily believed because of the connection made by audiences between their entertainment and the masochism endured by Chaney's characters. He Who Gets Slapped is a clear statement that someone else's pain can be our pleasure, and that we are fascinated by the misfortune of others. To a large degree, isn't that the appeal of many movies?