Saturday, April 30, 2005

Gettin' Your Jesus fix with your Saturday Breakfast

I was getting ready to go to work this grey Saturday morning and did some channel surfing in the hopes of finding some good old-fashioned cheesy kid's programming. After flitting through the obligatory infomercials and Pokemon cartoons, I settled on the Trinity Broadcasting Network for said fix. And (bad pun alert!) thank God I did.

I'd known about Bibleman, the children's series starring former Eight is Enough/Charles in Charge star Willie Aames, for a few years, but finally got to watch an episode today. The show's a dual knockoff of the '60's Batman series, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Aames plays the title character, a former millionaire who finds Jesus and decides to become a superhero. Bibleman runs around in plastic body armor and tights (extremely reminiscent of Shaquille O'Neil's superhero garb in that action classic, Steel), waves a lightsaber, and quotes the bible with monotonous regularity. His sidekicks, Biblegirl and Cypher, help Bibleman thwart evildoers.

Today, Bibleman and his homies fought the Wacky Protestor, a dead ringer for Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis' pre-Buddy Love character) in The Nutty Professor (get it?). The WP's mission was to turn the Holy Heroes against one another with fake satellite feeds that convinced each hero that the others were--zounds!--saying mean things about each other.

Of course, it's crap. Like a fifty-something accountant slapping on a backwards baseball cap and cranking some 50 Cent in his Camry, Bibleman tries to be Hip, Irreverent, and appeal to The Kids but just looks out-of-it and ridiculous in the process. No kid in his or her right mind would put up with the somnabulent shuffling that qualifies as "action" here. But while there's nothin' but nothin' here for any child (unless they've been really, reeeeallly bad and are in need of some punishment), grownups can chortle derisively at the former Tommy Bradford shoehorning his paunchy corpus into leotards and parroting Proverbs as only an ex-coke addict-turned-born-again-Christian can.

After Bibleman came an episode of Davey and Goliath, a stop-motion animated series from the '60's commissioned by the Lutheran Church and produced and animated by Gumby mastermind Art Clokey. The central premise has a boy named Davey and his dog Goliath experiencing various faith-based adventures as they blunder down the road to righteousness.

In this particular episode Davey organized a bell choir for his local church with his pastor's blessing, and recruited many of his friends to help. Davey's Bell Choir eventually learned a rip-roaring version of "Kumbaya", with Goliath adding accompaniment. Now, this may not sound exciting, but Clokey interjects his distinctive visual sense into the seemingly prosaic world of a small religious community in Everytown USA, and all sorts of little touches culminate into one major brain-fry. Jonathan, Davey's token-African-American grade school buddy, sounds like an insurance company CEO, and all of Davey's friends think Davey's nuts because he's continually having conversations with Goliath and insisting that the mutt can talk. Of course, Goliath really is talking to Davey, but only Davey hears words; everyone else hears barks and howls.

Like all interesting art, you can view Davey and Goliath on multiple levels. Clokey's visual work here is more muted than in Gumby, but still interesting enough to draw in even the most cynical viewer--it sure beats the hell out of Bibleman's generic and tedious vomitorium of neon and pastel. The animator was definitely sincere about his work on the series, and at face value, the show provides a refreshingly irony-free and un-preachy bit of do-unto-others-good-citizenship-tutelage.

Alongside the sunny moralizing, however, the whole recurring "Davey's talking to the dog again" subplot serves as a pretty potent (and not very flattering) metaphor for unconditional (read: blind) religious faith. Maybe Davey and Goliath is a just a Junior Bible version of Mr. Ed on Electric Kool-Aid. Or maybe, when Davey treats every bon mot that topples out of his pooch's mouth like some gem of Socratic philosophy (even when Goliath's just being a goofy mutt), Clokey's making an incisive commentary on the lemming-like tendency of some Christians to read profundity into even the most absurd of Old Testament passages. Dog, after all, is God spelled backwards.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Van Helsing and Vlad: Two Vampire Flicks that Really (ahem) Suck

I love horror movies.

They've been a staple of my cinematic diet for literally as long as I can remember. My earliest childhood memory is of sitting on a couch in an apartment, probably not four years old, watching the 1932 Boris Karloff Mummy on TV as my mom, family dog and I ate popcorn.

The genre provided my springboard to appreciating film as an artform, and I learned a lot about cinema in general playing Six Degrees of Separation with Horror Movies. So I've invested a lot more thought and love into the genre than your average bear, and (all bias aside) I really know my stuff.

One prerequisite of being a devoted horror movie fan is harboring a fondness (or at least a high pain threshold) for crap. From the Republic and PRC Bela Lugosi B flicks of the 40's to the Italian zombie gutmunchers of the '70's and beyond, 90% of horror flicks hover below par, or worse, in quality. Like the weary college kid who tolerates his imbecilic dorm mate, though, a horror fan puts up with--and even affectionately embraces--lousy horror flicks. It comes with the territory.

The point to my rambling intro is this: it takes a lot for a real horror fan to actively detest a genre movie, to regret having wasted 90 to 120 minutes of his or her life watching it, and to want to warn everyone within earshot to stay the hell away from it (Jesus, I've seen Andy Milligan's The Ghastly Ones more than I've seen Spartacus; taste isn't an issue here). So when I tell you that, within the last week, I've had the misfortune to endure two horror flicks so irritatingly bad that, yes, I want to shout to the rooftops about their badness, and that I regret with all my heart and soul having watched them, you know it means something. Just what, I'm not sure.

Both films at issue here are, curiously enough, vampire movies.

Van Helsing was a $160 million multi-megaton event flick originally unleashed on audiences in the spring of 2004. Director Stephen Sommers, hot off of the success of the two Mummy movies, was entrusted by Universal Pictures with the rights to the undisputed crown jewels of their Creature Treasure Trove: Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's Monster. You'd think all that money and carte blanche from Universal woulda produced something of quality, or at least something that was fun. You'd be thinking wrong.

The earnest, stolid old vampire hunter of Stoker's novel gets reincarnated in this treatment as a testosterone-stoked hybrid of James Bond, Batman, and Blade. In the employ of the Vatican, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is assigned by his papal bosses to trek to Transylvania and take out the notorious Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Drac, it seems, lost Frankenstein's Monster (Schuler Hensley) and wants the big lug back as a power conduit to bring the vampire's bloodsucking progeny to life. Also thrown into the mix are a Romanian noblewoman (Kate Beckinsale) fighting the vampire, and her brother (Will Kemp), a werewolf enslaved by Dracula.

Sommers had a 50/50 batting average with me prior to this. The Mummy was a pleasant surprise, a silly but robust adventure flick with a crackerjack cast and a refreshing sense of affection for its forebears. It felt like a popcorn programmer from the '40's in the best sense of the phrase, with blessedly few concessions to modern trends. The Mummy Returns, on the other hand, junked up the works by turning its winsome female lead (Rachel Weisz) into a glossy and bustierred anachronistic buttkicker, by making its other leads utter dunderheads, and by selling out its old-fashioned thrills for meaningless high-speed chases and stupidity. Van Helsing, by comparison, makes The Mummy Returns look like King Lear.

Sommers demonstrates a twisted reverse-Midas touch in Van Helsing, in that he somehow manages to induce numbingly bad performances from capable and appealing actors with horrific consistency. Jackman's made a career out of being great in even the most indifferent roles, but here he's a piece of plywood with no motivation, personality, or presence. Beckinsale hauls out a ridiculous Slavic accent and runs around in kinky leather like a dominatrix chanelling Eva Gabor. Roxburgh should be whupped hard for his condescending and overwrought vampire king (He's such a caracature, I'm surprised he didn't flap his arms and say, "Blah! Blah!" at some point). Only David Wenham (Lord of the Rings' Faramir, completely unrecognizable and very funny as VH's sidekick) and Hensley (a sympathetic monster despite the sorry script) emerge from the carnage favorably.

Van Helsing comes off as the product of a pubescent mullet who saw a Count Chocula cereal commercial, then got it into his head that he could write a movie. That same ritalin-craving kid then got the bid to direct, and went through a two-bit carnival haunted house for his visual template. And then Universal Pictures gave that sugar-overdosed and attention deficient adolescent 160 million smackers to bring his vision to life. Stephen Sommers, to my knowledge, does not fly an ape-drape, but he sure wrote, produced, and directed one aggravating, visually blurry, ugly, cheap-looking, and insulting piece of product.

My wife and I met a really nice fellow horror enthusiast, a tattoo artist named Matt, last October on a trip to Romania (more on that adventure in the future). When I brought up Van Helsing (which I hadn't yet seen), Matt said with sage directness, "If you like the old Creature Features, DO NOT watch Van Helsing. It will piss you off." I shoulda listened, Matt, 'cause it did.

Vlad, a tiny little effort released to DVD earlier this year, starts out in period drag, with the father and brother of the title figure (Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula in case you're keeping score) being buried alive by Turkish warriors. Within minutes, the movie turns into the story of four modern-day post-graduate students on a trip to Romania to visit Poenari Castle, Vlad's ancient stronghold. One of the students has stolen an amulet from the corpse of Vlad, and so the evil prince comes to life (in the form of Anthony Quinn's son Francesco) to kill, harass, and fornicate. A cult of Vlad worshippers also pursues the post-grads, hoping to attain the amulet and its magic mojo.

Two of the most popular devices to pad out the running time of low-budget features, dialogue and exposition, get hauled out in spades here. An hour into Vlad, the movie's thrown in vampirism, Brad Dourif, dope-smoking, gratuitous nudity, time travel, impaling, baby-trampling, and car chases--and it's STILL as dull as ditchwater! Billy Zane displays presence to burn as a heroic Romanian who attempts to protect the thick-witted students from the Vladites (his accent's pretty darn good, too), but even he's not enough to flavor this bowl of gruel. Take it from someone who's seen a LOT of bad horror movies; avoid Vlad at all costs unless you're in the market for a digitally-mastered sleeping aid.

Incidentally, the movie actually played theaters in LA for about fifteen minutes last year (see this puff piece for further details). That revelation induces more chills than all 89 minutes of Vlad combined.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Witch Who Came from the Sea: stoned soul spinster picnic

Unsuccessful seventies movies at least hold a lot more fascination than film failures of most other decades. The Witch Who Came from the Sea, shot in 1971, abortively released in 1976, and lost for years, is one such failure. Film historian and Video Watchdog godfather Tim Lucas contributes liner notes on Subversive Cinema's DVD reissue, trumpeting The Witch as some sort of great lost classic. To be perfectly blunt--it ain't. It is, however, a fascinating window on an era when even ostensibly exploitive movies strove for a patina of artistry.

Millie Perkins plays Molly, a spinster approaching middle age who babysits her single-parent sister's kids, waits tables at a local watering hole, and fantasizes about the sculpted musclemen who exercise on the beach near her place. Soon her fantasies about said studs take on a violent turn, with razor-induced death proving the net result. Then real jocks begin turning up in itty bitty pieces. Is it all in her head? Or is the lonely, spacy waitress actually venting her issues and hangups (rooted in childhood sexual abuse by her father) in a homicidal fashion?

Screenwriter Robert Thom's hyper-stylized and unreal dialogue suggests Tennessee Williams spending an afternoon at Malibu Beach with a bong and some seriously potent Acapulco Gold in tow. And judging from the indulgently meandering turns he's taken with the material, director Matt Cimber seems to have been partaking of some wacky tobacky himself. Perkins and two jocks hang out together naked in one scene, talking to one another in slowed and distorted voices. The intent is to convey disorientation and a descent into madness, but most viewers'll just laugh their collective asses off. Cimber eventually became a less-imaginative but more coherent filmmaker with later efforts like the Golden Globe-winning Pia Zadora vehicle Butterfly and blaxploitation programmers like Lola Falana's Lady Cocoa and The Black Six.

Perkins delivers a convincing and committed performance, giving her then-husband Thom's script way more care than it deserved. There's also some lovely beachside cinematography courtesy of a young Dean Cundey, who's since gone on to lens movies for John Carpenter and Ron Howard. But what we've got here, in the end, is Roman Polanski's Repulsion re-envisioned by Cheech and Chong, with a few scenic chats between Perkins and her nephews a la The Courtship of Eddie's Father stirred into the mix. It's too self-important and uneven to really be called good (or even fun) by most conventional yardsticks, but it ain't dull.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

King Arthur: A Perfectly Decent Assembly-Line Epic

King Arthur hearkens back to Hollywood of a bygone era, and not just in the ways you might initially expect.

Sure, it marks the most recent of Hollywood's many visits to the ancient land of Camelot. But more importantly, it's sense of efficiency and its unpretentiousness recall a time when big studios turned out lots of what you might call assembly-line epics; historic action-adventures that aimed lower than the lofty ambitions of a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, yet still gave audiences a larger-than-life period experience and a popcorn-popping good time. You'd never label them as masterpieces of the form, but assembly-line epics provided good (sometimes great) fun. Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (reviewed in this here Blog in February) fell quite neatly into this category, and King Arthur proves that assembly-line epics can still find financing (if not a gigantic audience) today.

The Jerry Bruckheimer-financed King Arthur plants Arthur and his knights into fifth-century Europe. This revisionist version of the fable portrays The Once and Future King (played by Clive Owen) and his Round Table Warriors as soldiers in indentured service to the Roman Empire. Their final assignment as servants to the Emperor--returning an important Imperial official and his family to Rome in one piece--becomes complicated by an invading horde of Saxons, and by a mysterious tribe of pagans led by a hirsute shaman named Merlin (Stephen Dillane).

Ironically enough, the strongest influence on King Arthur isn't Camelot, Excalibur, or the definitive Arthurian tome The Once and Future King--it's Ridley Scott's assembly-line epic par excellance, Gladiator. Both Gladiator and King Arthur serve up morally-tested but essentially noble heroes, viscerally effective battle scenes, slow-mo montages punctuated by Celtic-sounding female vocalists ululating wordlessly, and lots of artfully-kicked-up mud and dirt (both movies also share screenwriter David Franzoni and composer Hans Zimmer). King Arthur lacks Gladiator's bracing simplicity and assured direction--Franzoni seems to have put more effort into sketching out a novel chronological retelling of the Arthurian legend than he did into fleshing out it's characters, and director Antoine Fuqua isn't nearly as distinctive a visual stylist as Scott.

That said, Gladiator Jr.--oops, King Arthur--kept me solidly entertained. Fuqua has no patience for the script's convoluted narrative (sorta can't blame him, either), so he engineers some damn cool action scenes (the Saxons vs. the Knights on an iced-over river blew me away), and cultivates a strong sense of cameraderie amongst his Knights of the Round Table to compensate. He's well-served by his cast; Ioan Griffud makes for a charismatic and charming Lancelot, Ray Winstone's knight Bors upholds the blustery-but-loveable-blowhard tradition admirably, and Stellan Skarsgard's Saxon chief combines Clint Eastwood and The Hillbilly Bears' Pa Bear to entertaining (if anachronistic) effect.

But like Gladiator, much of King Arthur rests on the shoulders of its lead. Clive Owen possesses one great movie-star mug--his ruggedly handsome features are compellingly offset by that prizefighter's nose--and he's got the acting chops to make Arthur credible as a warrior, diplomat, and romantic idol. No wonder my wife's crushin' on the guy a little after seeing the movie.

King Arthur flopped pretty soundly upon its initial release in the summer of 2004, getting lost amongst that season's pack of bigger (and, let's face it, sometimes better) blockbusters. Too bad; it's no masterpiece, but unlike most Hollywood popcorn flicks, it entertains without playing its audience for total suckers. In this davalued world, even that modest achievement deserves a small hurrah.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle: Martial Arts, Tex Avery-style

You're probably gonna hear a ton of hype about Kung Fu Hustle, Hong Kong actor/director Stephen Chow's latest film to achieve wide North American release, over the next couple of weeks. Do yourself a favor and don't read or listen to any of it. Just go see it when it opens in wide release on April 22.

I'm fighting the urge to give away too many details here myself, because a significant part of the fun of Kung Fu Hustle is how it takes a traditional chop-socky scenario and simultaneously lampoons, celebrates, and transcends the genre. Literally, the less you know going in, the better. As someone who saw it at a preview screening with next to no advance info, I should know.

Despite huge success as a comic actor and director in Asia, Stephen Chow has yet to become a household name stateside. Kung Fu Hustle should change that, somethin' fierce. It's that good. Chow's proven himself an adroit comic presence, and a capable director, over the years. Kung Fu Hustle formally announces his arrival as an honest-to-God artist.

It's safe to say the following without spilling too much: The film is set in 1940's China, and is as lushly and lovingly shot as any period epic you've ever seen; the fight choreography (by HK legends Yuen Woo Ping and Sammo Hung) knocks one's socks off; Chow and company use computer generated imagery in the service of a truly singular comic vision; and Kung Fu Hustle balances subversive lunacy and sentiment as only the best Hong Kong films can.

Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon intoduced Americans to the possibilities of the martial-arts-flick as epic romance. With Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow gives this country a chop-socky movie enveloped in the most completely self-contained comedic universe this side of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. If there's any justice in the vast jungle of the American Multiplex, Kung Fu Hustle should duplicate Crouching Tiger's stateside crossover success. Do not, I repeat, do NOT, miss it.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sin City: Really good, staggeringly close to great

Sin City, the cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller's celebrated graphic novel, finally hit theaters Friday, April 1, and I got a chance to see it opening night. I'll just get to the point; it's a flawed but absolutely mind-blowing movie experience. This from a decided non-fanboy who's glanced at the source material in a comic store maybe once.

At it's heart, Sin City updates a whole arsenal of classic film noir building block characters. There's the aging cop, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), in hot pursuit of a psychotic killer; Marv (Mickey Rourke), the ugly-but-loveable cinderblock of a loser who jumps straight into peril to avenge a martyred blonde; and an extensive gallery of crazies, crooks, corrupt government/authority figures, and hookers with hearts of gold (and cajones of brass).

Bad news first; in its attempt to be The Penultimate Film Noir (and a 100% faithful adaptation of the graphic novel), Sin City flirts dangerously close to self-parody. Hard-boiled voice-over dialogue that probably felt just right on a printed page induced some unintended chuckles from the audience at the screening I attended, and damn near ripped me out of the moment on occasion. I'm inclined to blame Rodriguez, who lacks his drinking buddy Quentin Tarantino's gift for getting stock characters to deliver tough-guy dialogue with nuance.

That said, the movie's much-vaunted visual style (deep black and white noir sparseness, shot through with occasional sprays of one primary color, all augmented digitally to literally reproduce the look of a comic book page) delivers big-time. It's striking and unique, capturing the immersive, sharply-inked universe of a graphic novel better than any film I can recall. And though there are plenty of razzle-dazzle action sequences, Sin City also defiantly sits still at key points, letting the imagery seep in and impact the viewer without pandering to The Evil Church of the MTV-style Quick Cut. Producers of every CGI-and-effects-laden event flick like to crow about how visually innovative their movie is, but this one earns such bragging rights. Kudos to Miller for sticking to his guns and finding an enthusiastic (and loyal ) collaborator in Robert Rodriguez.

Voice-over lapses aside, Sin City also provides something you don't often get from an effects-laden event picture: namely, good actors getting some meaty moments on camera. Amongst the leads, Bruce Willis remains one of the few bankable actors in Hollywood today who can slide into a classic noir tough-guy role like a weathered old raincoat, Clive Owen exudes some major charisma (though he sometimes gets the fuzzy end of the aforementioned voice-over lollipop), Benicio Del Toro turns in another great scuzzy heavy, and Jessica Alba registers strongly as a textbook Little Girl Lost (albeit in chaps and skimpy leather).

Other actors get a chance to stretch their wings in unexpected roles. Multiply evil ring-coveting Frodo by one million and you only begin to cover how creepy sweet Elijah Wood is in this movie. Rodriguez likewise deserves major props for managing to harness the usually annoying Brittany Murphy's poodle-on-crystal-meth hyperactivity into a great wounded noir dame. You can almost see shades of the underrated Gloria Grahame in Murphy's work.

While we're passing huzzahs out to the more cinema-savvy portion of the directorial team, Rodriguez probably merits the credit for actively seeking out great-but-overlooked thesps, and for giving them some serious moments in the sun. Swaddled 'neath an unrecognizable makeup job, Mickey Rourke gives one of the best performances of his career as Marv; the character's battle-weary demeanor and inner vulnerability surely struck an empathetic chord in the actor. Rutger Hauer disappears into the role of the beatifically perverse Cardinal Rourk, and Powers Boothe flat-out cauterizes the screen with his three-minute monologue as this rotten berg's most morally bankrupt mover and shaker. Plot and character-wise, Sin City could be accused of traversing familiar territory sometimes, but with actors like these in tow--and style to burn--the journey's well worth taking.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Passings: Billy, Guitar Wolf Bassist and Jason Evers, Actor

The following two men couldn't have less in common, but their recent departures meant a lot to me, and you're unlikely to see their obituaries in most mainstream sources. I feel compelled to pay respects to both.

Hideaki Sekiguchi, AKA Billy, bassist for Petri Dish faves Guitar Wolf, died on the morning of March 20. He was only 38. Anyone who was lucky enough to see the Wolf live on their North American tour a few weeks ago can vouch for the fact that Billy hit the four-string like every note was his last. Like his band mates,Bass Wolf seemed frickin' immortal onstage, a hyperkinetic force of nature that never stopped giving his all, and never stopped having (and sharing) fun with rock and roll. His death is a blow, and a shock.

When Guitar Wolf played in 2003, Rita and I wormed our way backstage before the show and met Billy and his bandmates. In contrast to his snarling persona, Billy was quiet, sweet-natured, even downright shy in person. He and his fellow Wolves graciously signed stuff for us, and seemed really delighted at our admiration for them.

Billy died in his sleep of a heart attack.

I was tempted to make some pithy statement about him joining Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee in the Great Rock and Roll Hereafter, but this statement from Seiji on the Goner Records website speaks much better than I ever could. Rock on, Bass Wolf.

A heart attack, meanwhile, claimed the life of actor Jason Evers on March 13, 2005, at age 83. Evers' career spanned some forty years, with supporting roles in everything from the John Wayne Vietnam actioner The Green Berets to Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and guest shots on dozens of TV series. Even in unmitigated (if entertaining) crap like the Grizzly ripoff Claws, he gave solid, committed performances.

My favorite Jason Evers role, one of his few leads, came in 1959 as Dr. Bill Cortner in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, one of the wildest and most entertaining B flicks of that decade. In it, Dr. Cortner rescues and resuscitates his fiancee's decapitated head after a catastrophic car crash, then searches the Red Light District of his town for a fresh body onto which he can graft his love's disembodied noggin.

The movie packs a potent good time, with everything from a catfight to some shocking-for-the-time gore to a pinheaded giant in the closet (telepathically controlled by the Fiancee's Living Disembodied Head, no less!). It's all ridiculous as hell, but Evers (billed under his given name, Herb Evers) imbues his stock role with aristocratic good looks and a core of believability that subtly turns a lot of mad-scientist cliches on their respective ears. His inquisitive fervor, devotion to (what's left of) his would-be bride, and willingness to do harm to others in the name of science give the movie something really unbelievable; a corroded but definite soul.