Monday, March 20, 2017

Monty Python’s Life of Brian 1979 Directed by Terry Jones

I first saw Life of Brian on opening weekend, in Boston with a small group of friends and a couple hundred nuns and priests trying to see it before the pope banned it. There  were protesters along the line that had formed outside the theatre as people waited to get in to the soon to be sold out showing and the people in line passed the time mocking them. 

The reception to the film by the audience was fantastic, people laughed hysterically and appreciated the style, humour and parody. This is a rare comedy that stands up almost 40 years later. There are some parts here and there that, while still funny, might make some younger, first time viewers cringe as the movie uses some pretty harsh racial slurs at one point. Thing is, it’s obvious to anyone with 2 brain cells that those words are being exposed for how stupid and ridiculous they are. It could be argued that Monty Python had the foresight to inoculate themselves from the sometimes too politically correct present by mocking it in advance and exposing how foolish and self serving some "revolutionists" can be.

Is the film blasphemous?
Nope, it’s not, despite the groaning and moaning from some quarters. In fact, the comedy group could be accused of being overly careful not to offend religious groups. This, as usual, did not stop the film from being banned in many places and - as if often the case - gave the film a publicity boost it might not have had otherwise. The Pythons deeply researched the era and subject of the film while writing it and to be completely honest, it’s many times more historically accurate than ANY of the approved biblical epics produced before it. The film goes out of its way to show that is NOT about Jesus Christ by including him in the film as background and to make the situation of the main character, Brian Cohen, even more funny as he has been mistaken for "the messiah" or "a messiah" on and off since birth - having been born on the manger down the street from Jesus and later when he spouts nonsense pretending to be a street prophet to escape the Roman guards who are chasing him because of some graffiti he wrote. Overall, I would say the film is more political than religious satire.

Is the film funny? 
Oh my god (pardon the pun) is it ever! Its filled with bizarre situations, quotable lines and classic bits. Who doesn’t know the Roman Centurion Bickus Dickus? I don’t know how they accomplish it, but even though all the main actors play multiple parts, you never confuse them and the story moves along quickly - even though by todays standards the editing might be considered less than lightning paced. How many films end with a mass cruxifixction musical number that leaves you singing and whistling?  Only this one! 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Unholy Films of Dracula

There have been 1000s of films with Dracula as a character in them, maybe 10s of 1000s. The idea of vampires had existed in legends for centuries but the titular character in Bram Stoker’s book created a sensation that continues to this day. With all these interpretations out there, do any honour to the original story? Over the years some do, most do not. Many, though loosely following the plot at best have managed to create something outside Stoker’s original vision. The cinematic impressions have taken over our memories of Dracula and vampires and superseded the novel’s version almost completely. 

So here is a list of some of the major films that in their own way cover the origins of the Transylvanian Count.

La Mort de Dracula (1921)
This film takes place in an insane asylum and involves an inmate that may or may not be  the undead count. So it has nothing to do with the book but it does have the distinction as the first appearance of Dracula on the screen. 

Nosferatu (1922)
Maybe one of the most iconic telling of the tale.The legendary director Murnau has created a tour de force of surreal horror and loosely follows the original story here and there but goes off the track as it approaches the end and takes on a less action oriented finale in lieu of one where Harker’s wife sacrifices herself by tricking the monster to forget the time and be destroyed by the first rays of dawn. 
It’s a miracle we can see this movie at all. The producers did not get the rights from Stoker’s estate and were ordered to destroy every copy. Luckily for humanity, some people managed to hide copies throughout Europe and we are still trying to put together a complete version to this day. The look of the vampire in this film is so iconic and frightening it rivals even the Lugosi idea of the undead.
In the 80s, this was remade with Klaus Kinski by Werner Herzog in both German and English. Well worth seeing. 

Dracula (Todd browning and Spanish version 1931)
Speaking of Lugosi, Universal studio’s entry of the classic tale is likely the most famous and imitated since it’s release. I have to say, and many would disagree I’m sure, that this version is not so great. Lugosi saves the film with his charismatic performance but the often amazing director Todd Browning’s work on the film is terrible. He was apparently drunk or passed out through much of the filming and the Spanish version, lensed at night on the same sets, is a vastly superior film, in my opinion. The actor playing Dracula is fantastic, the editing better and this version even as more effects that Browning never bothered to add into the English version. We never would have been able to see the Spanish take if it wasn’t for a pristine copy being found in Cuba not too many years ago. All other copies had disappeared over the decades. 
Neither version of the film follows the storyline very closely but this version has become the de facto plot most people have come to expect. 

Horror of Dracula (1958)
The first in Hammer’s long series of Dracula films that launched the horror careers of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Again, the plot of this film cuts and pastes elements from not only the book but from previous films and adds a little more sexiness and blood to the mix. A low budget endeavour, this film benefits from interesting sets and cinematography and the performances of its main actors. It created it’s own look and in a way it’s own horror universe that translated to other Hammer monster films, like Frankenstein and the Mummy

Dracula (BBC 1977)
Louis Jordan plays the count in what is the most faithful of all Dracula films by my estimation. Its overall production value is good and the performances are as well. It’s well worth checking out even though it suffers from some unfortunate effects techniques that take away from the otherwise gothic feel of the project. Specifically, the terrible solarization of Jordan’s face now and then. It seems to be saying, we can do this weird thing with video so why not use it? Because it’s terrible and inappropriate would have my response if I was asked. 

Dracula (Frank Langella - 1979)
In many ways, this production is reminiscent of the Hammer films from a few years earlier in style and substance. The story is a hodgepodge of Dracula lore and mixes and matches from previous efforts. Where the film stands out is in Langela’s take on the count (which he had perfected by playing him for years in the stage production), the music and the set pieces. The film fails in pacing and by not delivering what audiences really wanted at the time, which was a movie version of the hit play. A play, which despite the huge success it was world-wide at the time, has never been revived, at least not so far. I would also say the film is murky in style and lighting - making it difficult to figure out what is happening at points. It sounds a little odd to say, but I think movie lacks a soul - something that would make it relatable and new when it’s a typical gothic horror done in a competent manner that sort of sleep walks its way through the story. One thing it had going for it in spades was the John Williams soundtrack. Haunting, romantic and desperate sounding, it’s worth a listen on it’s own merits. Langella's hair might be a little too feathered....

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppala’s sumptuous and, face it, batshit crazy adaption of Stoker’s signature novel is visually stunning. Gary Oldman’s over the top performance is worth seeing alone, the rest of the cast seems to sleep walk through their roles and for something called Bram Stoker’s Dracula there is a lot of stuff in it that has absolutely nothing to do with the source material. It adds needless backstory and tries to make the count a victim of his fate, looking for his lost love though the centuries. Oldman has a lot to work with in the role and his vampire walks in the daylight, turns into some sort of bat human thing, has a shadow that (as in Nosferatu) has a life of its own and at one point transforms into some sort of rape-y werewolf - thing. Annie Lennox and Diamanda Galas sing on the sound track which is like a wet dream - for me, anyway. The movie is earnest in its presentation, to say the least, which makes it a little beyond normal criticism. It’s worth checking out but I would have to say, all it’s wonderfully made pieces do not add up to a coherent whole. 

*This film seems to take elements and inspiration in some ways for the 1973 Dan Curtis TV movie of Dracula starring Jack Palance, which is not a bad version of the story but adds in the elements of the historical Dracula and the idea that Lucy is a reincarnation of his lost love. 

Like most film versions of classic tales, Dracula’s legacy is spotty in terms of faithfulness to the author and the original concepts in the book. Also like many adaptions from book to movie, a faithful adaption isn’t always the best one or even possible. I do think the bloodthirsty villain of Stoker’s imagination has fared much better than Shelly’s Frankenstein. Most of those adaption don’t even try to capture the subtle nature of her story and opt for forgetting who the real monster in the story really is. Dracula at least keeps something of his written personality much of the time. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Shout 1978 directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

It seems odd to me that this film never reached cult status considering it’s « cult » bonafides. For example it stars Alan Bates, Susannah York, John Hurt and Tim Curry! The film is certainly weird enough and interesting enough to have gained multiple viewing by motivated audiences.  maybe the recent death of John Hurt will bring it more into the public eye. 

The story is that of a drifter who arrives in a  small seaside town who is taken in by a young couple. Hurt plays a musician experimenting with all sorts of new ways to produce sounds, a profession that the lifter uses to his advantage by telling the musician that he was trained by an Aboriginal shaman to produce a sound, a shout, that will kill any living thing that hears it. 

The mysterious guest, played by Bates, slowly takes over the household including the wife (who has a really bizarre walking on all fours scene) played by York. When the time come to prove his ability… he does, accidentally killing a homeless person sleeping on the beach within range of the terrible shout. 

The film is book ended with shots from inside an asylum where the story is being told as the inmates, all of whom are are featured in the story as Bates narrates while keeping score. This story telling device keeps the viewer off guard as while most of the events are shown as a flashback, there seems to be jumps forward and other directions mixed with the dreamlike imagery of some of the shots.  

The film is not perfect and from a 2017 point of view, there are some problems with the white guy who can learn and master the powers of the aboriginals. Why would they teach him? Why not just hire an aboriginal actor? I wouldn’t accuse anyone involved with racism by any means, but I also had issues with the « Last Wave » (1977)  for similar reasons even though Richard Chamberlain’s roles was better explained than Bates’ was in « The Shout ». I suspect the casting was more a case of who was close and available for this very low budget production.

This film is somewhat hard to see now, no DVD version in North America I can find. Another site stated it was viable in full on YouTube but that seems to have been taken down. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Lovecraft films in online festival this week!

All three of my Lovecraft animations are being shown in the CYBERIA VR Film Festival (click for time and instructions on how to see them. Be sure to comment and tell them how cool they!  :)
Tell as many people as you can!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Chinese Ghost Story

Let me start off by saying that I am not, in any way, an expert on Asian Cinema. In the mid to late 80s, as the Laser Disc was becoming a 'thing,' people were more easily able to see foreign movies as regional protection wasn't as big a thing then as it is now. Either that, or it was just easier to buy an Asian Laser Disc Player in the States. In Boston, there was on enterprising young gentleman who nearly single-handedly fanned the flames of interest in Hong Kong cinema. He would wander about in a long, leather trench coat, even in the hottest weather with VHS copies of the latest Chow Yun Fat film, or Tsui Hark masterpiece tucked into pockets like a watch salesman in New York City. At one point, he told me that he had three Laser Disc machines running day and night to keep up with demand for these tapes. When local arthouse theaters, such as the Brattle, would show some of these films, this young gent would wander up and down the line of folks waiting to get inside, offering these movies for sale. He was utterly breaking international copyright law but who was to know? I always thought he'd get caught as he was so brazen but, to the best of my knowledge, he never was.

That brings me to the movie that's the subject of this post, 1987's "A Chinese Ghost Story." My memories tell me that the copy I acquired of this film had no subtitles, though that memory might be wrong. I think, instead, they just weren't very good. The story then seemed muddled and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the goofiness and pathos of this movie. Like many films out of Hong Kong then, and possibly now, it has moments of going over the top. There is quite a bit of wire-fu, spell casting and swordsmanship. This all comes hand in hand with demons of the underworld that make our Western Zombies look pale in comparison. This film manages to tread three narrow lines at the same time; it is equal parts romance, comedy and horror. I recently re-watched this, thanks to YouTube and can say that the film held up quite well.

The plot revolves around a young debt-collector who is rather meek and bad at his job. When he gets to the town that's the focus of his efforts, he can't even collect enough money to put himself up for the night. He's directed to the nearby Orchid Temple, which is known by the locals to be haunted. There he runs into two swordsmen in the midst of a duel. One is driven away, only to be seduced by the lovely ghost of the temple who, in the middle of The Act, calls out to the local ancient evil tree demon/demoness who sucks the life juices from the hapless swordsman. The other leaves the story for now. When the young debt collector sets himself up for sleep, the ghost returns. Her appearance isn't at all ghost-like so the young debt collector mistakes her for a real young woman. Unlike all her other victims, he doesn't look for sex with her and turns aside her advances. When he thinks she might be in danger, he tries to protect her. This causes the ghost to start to fall in love, a condition soon shared by the young debt collector.

From there, the plot generally wanders towards the idea of saving the ghost from her fate while destroying the ancient evil whose major power is her/his amazing extendable tongue. Just when the movie seems to be getting too serious, some form of comedy slides in to bring it around, or we get an exciting fight scene with folks flying all about, tossing off curses and charms, chants that fend of evil powers or a giant tongue that wraps itself around the temple, the fighters or anything it can get itself around.

The ending, too is not the usual Hollywood, happily-ever-after affair though it does seem to be open enough to two sequels. I don't remember them nearly as well, and haven't watched them, partially as this film stands just fine on its own.
The young debt collector
is played by Hong Kong Pop star Leslie Cheung. His was a huge career, being one of the biggest stars of that kind of music in all Asia. Sadly, he died by committing suicide when 46 due to clinical depression. He was also a rarity in that he was a self-declared bi-sexual, something one does not do in that culture.This is the lovely young woman/ghost at the center of the plot:
And this, the male/female tongue-lashing tree demon:
For fans of cinema that wanders outside the usual boundaries, who love to see people flying about unabashedly on wires, latex effects that range from decent to ridiculous, this is a great entry into Hong Kong movies. Luckily, the film is easily available on YouTube. There are surely some cultural bits and pieces that don't translate but I think these obstacles are easily overlooked. This is a film that will make you smile, question and perhaps even tear up a little in equal parts. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt (1940-2017)

I first saw John Hurt on TV, in the role of Quentin Crisp in the Naked Civil Servant, on PBS. He played Crisp again decades later in the follow-up film about the last years of Quentin's life called An Englishman in New York. It was a great introduction to an amazing actor. Having met Mr. Crisp a couple times, I can say Hurt's performance was so spot on that if the two of them were in the same room and he was in character, it would be hard to tell them apart. It was a role that could have killed his career. Playing a modern gay dandy as a sympathetic person was not exactly in vogue then, nor is it now - to be truthful.

As Kane in Alien, he gave us one of cinema's most iconic images, but after that film he made The Shout - a weird artsy pseudo-horror film that I was in preparation to write about here when the news of his death reached me. In that role as in  ALL his roles, he shined. His presence in even a terrible film elevate it into something worth seeing for his part in it.

As a genre fan, he has given me plenty to look back on. Winston in the film 1984 (which sadly is becoming the actual world we live in), the leader in V for Vendetta where is plays the opposite of Winston, he was Hell Boy's father, the war Doctor in the series Doctor Who and was the titular character in  the film version of the Elephant Man, maybe his most heart breaking role.

He was a great actor who left us with a lifetime of work to reflect, enjoy and relive as we re-watch his body of work in the coming years. I certainly will be doing just that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Good Dinosaur

Pixar Studios (2015) 93 minutes

This is bound to become a forgotten film in Pixar’s history but not for lack of trying or because it’s a bad film. It is actually quite good. A decent, well told story and characters with the studio's typically great animation. It shines most brightly in is backgrounds and environments - they are beyond stunning. In fact it’s very easy to confuse them for real world locations and think the animated characters, which are very cartoon-y, were just composted into them.

The basic story is one of a fearful, maladroit dinosaur child gets separated from his family farm (in this universe, the asteroid that knocked out many of the dinosaurs misses and they go on for millions of more years, eventually sharing the earth with early man) and has to make his way back through a series of adventures with a human child. Of course a parent dies, this is a Disney produced animation afterall. The man-cub is all but a puppy dog in intelligence and behaviour and fun to watch. The cartoon style of the creatures might be a little jarring fro some against the photo-real environments but I found it charming. It reminded me of the super simple people in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty against that films very detailed background paintings. I wish they spent more time with the stegosaurus than the tyrannosaurus castle ranchers but that is a minor quibble.

Why will this film be forgotten? For one it didn’t make much money in release and came out the same year as their blockbuster Inside/Out . It didn’t get much promotion or fanfare and while its settings were amazing, the rest of the movie, though entertaining didn’t catch on with the public even though critical response was very good overall. I personally liked this more than Inside/Out but since I actually work doing animation, I think my reaction was probably a little different than the 5-10 year olds the film aimed at.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! - 50 Years of Varla , Billy and Rosie

1966, Russ Myers, 83 minutes, black&white

The title of this movie is so iconic, it’s worth noting it was distributed under three other names as well - Leather Girls, Mankillers and Pussycat. The story of this movie is equally random - three go-go girls looking for kicks come across a guy and his gal doing time trials with his sports car in the desert and then race him, kill him and kidnap his girl, in that order. Before they can dispose of her as well, they hear of an old man living in an isolated part of the desert who has a secret stash of cash and concoct a plan to steal it, using the kidnapped girl as a distraction. From there is gets, sexy, violent, complicated and campy; ending in a karate fight between man, killer go-go girl and a truck. 

As a Russ Meyers film, this one stands out not only for what it contains, but for what it doesn’t. The film’s violence is sometimes shocking but not gory and there is no nudity or explicit sex. No rape scenes either, thank goodness. It doesn’t need any of that to hold your attention. All the actors are over the top excellent in their roles. The lead is the recently deceased Tura Satana as Varla. Pure evil and one of the meanest, toughest characters ever seen on the silver screen. Meyers outdoes himself cinematographically, using the main actresses own bodies as framing elements much of the time, especially their oversized breasts (it wouldn’t be a Meyers films without them). The dialogue is campy, fast and instantly quotable from beginning to end. The fried chicken lunch scene alone is a tour de force in editing and camp that actually advances the story as it entertains. 

Despite it’s reputation as a bad movie, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! is NOT a bad movie. A bad film does accomplish what it sets out to do and this movie could never be accused of that. It’s certainly not boring or poorly made, even the sound is recorded professionally and clean. The acting is over the top, as it should be for the subject matter and the actors put much more into their performances than they have any right to for such a low budget exploitation feature. This movie knows what it is and shoves it down your throat with no apologies. As outrageous as the plot may be, it makes sense and moves along faster and faster until the very end. 

I first saw Pussycat in a revival house in Harvard Square with a couple friends, one of whom was never the same afterwards. There was almost no one in the cinema with us but those that were there gladly came along for the ride. When I ran a video store, I made it a point to get copies to rent to an unsuspecting clientele and was pinching myself when I realized the only way to get Myer’s videos was to talk to him (or Kitten Navidaddirectly. I bought them ALL. Ever since I have had regular movie nights with Faster Pussycat in heavy rotation, not always to the pleasure of those attending - at least until they saw it - and then it became a part of their lives. 
Why there wasn’t an international holiday declared for the 50th anniversary of it’s release is unfathomable to me.« The point is of not return and you’ve reached it », Varla says, and you can never go back after seeing this flick.


The best film podcast around just did 2 ½ hours about this film:

Learn more about Varla:

Learn more about my fellow Quebecer, Haji (Rosie in the movie)!
born in quebec! 

Buy the film:

And learn very little about Billy:

Notable critiques:

"Russ Meyer is the Eistenstein of sex films. He is single-handedly responsible for more hard-ons in movie audiences than any other director... Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ's tenth film) is, beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future."
John Waters, Shock Value

"This is the quintessential psychotronic film and Russ Meyer's best. It should have been locked into the Voyager space probe and launched into space to give extraterrestrial life an example of what 'kickin' ass' is all about."
Kurt Ramschissel, Film Threat

"Every inch of the film entertains, from the wild desert drag racing sequences to the sexually charged fried chicken lunch that the characters stop fighting each other long enough to share. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has a deliciously ruthless rhythm that few films of such modest aspirations ever achieve-- it could very well be the most finely crafted exploitation film ever made."
Fred Beldin, All Movie Guide

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

New guy in town

Howdy doody, folks. This is Hipster J. Douchebag, one of the new guns in town here at the Celluloid Slammer. Ol' Vince was kind (dumb) enough to invite me along to this here shindig. Who the hell am I? Well, I used to work with Vince way back in the 1980s in a small comic store in Cambridge, Mass. These days, I shoot my mouth off in movie review videos like the one linked above. I have a vlog called "The Movie Wrench" where I tell Hollywood what's wrong with its movies and how to fix them. Takes a lot of ego for that. Anyway, I'm going to try to write some articles to add to this site. For now, watch the above and cry... or something.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Buster Crabbe strips in a room of naked men

How is that for headline?

The film? Search for Beauty, 1934.

The plot: who cares, Buster Crabbe gets naked, but if you insist - Con artists convince 2 olympians to head a new health magazine that is really just a front to show salacious photos and tell scandalous stories.

Artist Ralph Hodgdon told me about this film recently as he and I (and Donna lethal) are big fans of Buster. He might have seen it on release, not sure. The naked guys in the locker room tip you off this was pre-code and it's a little jarring to see a film from 1934 with that much skin showing.