Friday, May 27, 2005

Choice Timewasters of the Week

I'll try to be brief today. I can be brief, sometimes. I swear.

Here's the stuff that's occupying my spare time this week when I'm not earning a paycheck:

Currently Reading: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy--Sharply observed drama of the title character, a commoner with a hunger for knowledge who trudges off to the big city in Victorian-era England to acquire an advanced education only to be beaten down by the iron-gloved fist of the British class system. Like many novels of the era it takes awhile to get up to steam, and Hardy's well-educated narration flirts with condescension at times. But it's an invaluable window into another time and a subtly powerful indictment of English social strictures. Jude's no-win infatuation with his cousin Sally rings with aching universality here, too.

Currently Watching: Masque of the Red Death (1964)--All of Director Roger Corman's 60's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (available on MGM/UA DVD) are worthwhile, but this one is the closest thing to a work of art as ever arose from this B movie icon's efforts. A horrific plague ravages a medieval village, while several members of the ruling class decay (physically and morally) in the supposedly safe confines of Prince Prospero's (Vincent Price's) castle. Future director Nicholas Roeg's vivid cinematography serves up absolutely ravishing decadence, and Price gives a performance of subtly silky evil here.

Currently Listening to: The Best Little Secrets are Kept, Louis XIV: My articulate, politically correct mind rolls it's metaphoric eyes at the pantingly libidinous lyrics (they'd get a stamp of approval from the most potty-mouthed rapper) and the '70's-sleazy CD cover. Then the succulent glam riffs start thundering, the impossibly hooky sing-along choruses dig in, and the over-the-top naughty-schoolboy humor polevaults over my political correctness. Finally, my fanny starts involuntarily shaking like Mark Bolan and Mick Jagger are pogoing inside, and I'm utterly, completely, pathologically hooked on this gutter-glam goofiness. Seriously, guiltily irresistible stuff, as intentionally funny as Spinal Tap and way, way harder-rocking.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Why I'm scared to see Star Wars III

There have been choruses of hosannas for the new (and final) Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith. Fanboys and critics alike are crowing about what a return to form this marks for director/idea man/control freak George Lucas.

Like every good geek, I love the first three movies (OK, the first two, and the first third of the third). But Christ in a Burlap Sack, I dread going to this final installment. Here's why.

1) The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones sucked like a Dyson Bagless. The law of averages would seem to bode ill here. And, if you think about it, this trend of Star Wars letdowns actually started with the overstuffed and under-involving finale of Return of the Jedi (or, as Harrison Ford tersely-yet-eloquently described it, "The Teddy Bear Picnic")back in '83.

2) Hayden Christensen. He reputedly delivers good performances in Shattered Glass and Life as a House (neither of which I've seen), but his alternately wooden, pissy, and ridiculous performance as Anakin Skywalker in Clones still scorches the inside of my skull. I'm inclined to blame Lucas' all-thumbs touch with acting and dialogue as much as Christensen. That said, the kid's way too awkward and lacks the magnetism that this character requires. I don't see Revenge of the Sith reversing this un-mojo.

3) Three letters: CGI. Call me a curmudgeon, but the special effects in the two prequels have been so hyper-clean and antiseptic that you could eat off 'em.

4) The guy still can't write dialogue for squat. "I love you more." "No, I love YOU more..."

5) The Ebullient Critical Praise. Many of the raves seem rooted in sad desperation, and/or a dampening of expectations. The wretchedness of Phantom Menace and Clones has many writers and fans so beaten down that they're eager to latch onto the slightest decline in putrescence as evidence of greatness.

Of course, I'll probably end up going anyway. Some part of me holds out some faint glimmer of hope that Revenge of the Sith will prove me an over-skeptical ponce, and really blow me away.

The ball's in your court now, George. Entertain me. Please.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Starcrushing on Starcrash

Like you wouldn't guess from reading most of the entries in this Blog, but I spent a lot of my youth in the dark, in a movie theater. Literally, in one particular movie theater.

I was nine years old in 1976, when my family moved from army housing at Fort Lewis to Spanaway, a little suburb about eight miles south of Tacoma, Washington. A couple of weeks after arriving in town, my mom took us to the nearest local theater for a double-feature of the Doug McClure/ Edgar Rice Burroughs monster-fests, At the Earth's Core and The Land That Time Forgot. The modest movie house in which said films unspooled quickly became my haunt du jour for over a decade.

The Parkland Theater was a squat, old-fashioned building situated just outside Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Washington. A tiny Hoover Vacuum store sat imbedded into the theater's north side, a typical flourescent marquee shone out front, and the unchanging beige-and-mauve interior color scheme felt very early-sixties.

It was a run-down little place from the get-go. The Parkland Theater's lone screen sported more than a few hastily-applied white repair patches that sometimes dimpled the projected picture. The floors were so sticky with soda, you needed a crowbar to pry your sneakers from the cement underneath them, and at least a dozen of the two-hundred-odd seats in the auditorium always seemed to be broken (a fact that'd cause us regulars no end of amusement when some newbie would tumble violently backwards upon unwittingly planting his/her keister).

Sometimes, the Parkland screened second-run or re-released grade-A pictures, but mostly it unspooled first-run B-movie Double-Bills. Most of these Double Features were horror or sci-fi flicks. In short, it was a sticky-floored, grotty little Shangri-La to me for much of my childhood and adolescence.

The Parkland Theater drifted into even worse disrepair over the years and eventually burned down in the early '90's (a Walgreen's Drug Store rose blandly from the theater's ashes). But the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle is bringing a little piece of the Parkland back to me, albeit unintentionally, by hauling out one of my favorite Parkland Theater discoveries, the 1979 sci-fi epic Starcrash, for late-night screenings (the last two shows being this Friday and Saturday, May 13th and 14th, at 11pm).

Caroline Munro plays Stella Star, a sexy space pilot who's commissioned by the Emperor of the Galaxy (Christopher Plummer, if you can believe it) to rescue the leader's son Simon (David Hasselhoff!!) and to defeat the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinnell) and his army of planet-pulverizing soldiers. Stella's allies include Akton, a Jedi-cum-hippie evangelist (played by evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner) who wields a mean lightsaber and sees into the future, and a robot named Elle, who speaks in a Texas twang and utters choice lines like, "Time for some robot chauvinism!".

I revisited my worn, long-outta-print Charter Entertainment VHS copy of Starcrash (where in blue blazes is the domestic DVD issue?!) recently, and discovered with pleasure that this cheap little sci-fi programmer still yields a storehouse of schlock enjoyment. Yes, it's sloppily plotted, dumb as a box of lime Jello, chock-full of unintentionally rib-tickling dialogue, and brimming with special effects scenes whose reaches far exceed their metaphoric grasps. But director Luigi Cozzi directs the proceedings with the infectious, giddy joy of a kid whose toybox overflows with cheap (but wonderfully colorful) toys.

Starcrash borrows some superficial elements from George Lucas' influential fantasy world, but visually it actually owes less to the stolid expansiveness of Star Wars than it does to Flash Gordon's retro-futurism and Barbarella's gaudy Technicolor Eurotrash cheesiness. With its space amazons, cavemen, giant animated statue, sword-wielding stop-motion Erector set robots, and requisite lightsaber duels and spaceship dogfights, Starcrash serves up more fun in its 92 minutes than the last two Star Wars prequels could scrape up with three times the running time--and one hundred times the cash.

Cozzi's acting ensemble provides pure cinematic comfort food, with Spinell (who did everything from The Godfather to the truly sick drive-in classic Maniac) camping it up enjoyably as the principal heavy, Gortner playing against type as a psychotic hero (instead of a psychotic bad guy), Plummer attempting some vestige of Shakespearian dignity despite his metallic Liberace threads, and Hasselhoff sporting the honky 'Fro that would later take him to the stratosphere of international fame.

At the center of it all is Caroline Munro, arguably one of the biggest scream queens of the '70's. Her engenue and victim roles in some of the decade's most memorable fantasies (Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The Spy Who Loved Me, At the Earth's Core) seldom challenged her, but her exotic beauty provided a lot of fanboys (present company included) with an early crush. In Starcrash, she gets to really throw herself into some of the action scenes for a change, kicking tail in a black bikini and kinky leather boots (repeat after me: Rrowr). Natalie Portman's earnest but bland Princess Amidala will never, ever, ever be so hot.

So get thee to the Film Forum this weekend for some serious late-night fun. And check out this nifty tribute site to tide you over in the meantime.