Wednesday, June 29, 2005

News flash to Tom Cruise fans: The Li'l Emperor Has NO CLOTHES!

It's been curiously satisfying for me to see Tom Cruise flame out in public lately, mostly 'cos I've never liked his work.

Sure, he's Tinseltown's ultimate Good Employee, the slick glad-hander who goes to work early, stays late, and never fails to cluck on ad nauseum to the press about how hard he works. But ever since I saw Cruise's rodent-toothed mug in 1981's Taps, something about the guy's never quite sat right with me. His disingenuous fratboy grin and his ass-kissy palm-greasing interview behavior always made me want to jab knitting needles into my skull; he always seemed to be concealing something scary, or empty, or both. So his recent psychotic episodes were damned funny, but no surprise to me.

My biggest issue with Cruise isn't his current leap into Lalaland. It's his gallery of studied but patently soulless performances that makes me wanna jab knitting needles into his skull--hard--if only to see if he'd react with something besides a plastic smile and a remark like, "You know, I trained at knitting-needle skull-jabbing for eight weeks to prepare for the lead in Cocktail. Man, was it hard work!"

I'm not gonna bother analyzing Tom Cruise's recent antics, except to say that: He's a religious fanatic (duh), he's going through a big mid-life crisis (double duh), and his courtship of Katie Holmes has the uneasy scent of a wealthy feudal lord choosing a decorative and submissive pet (see also previous double duh). There are others on the web and in the media doing a much more engaging job of putting Cruise the Alien-Worshipping Middle-Age-Crazy Freak under a microscope than I could. I just wanna bellyache about his movies, and his acting in them.

Despite the fact that he has yet to give a performance that's registered positively with me, I've seen a lot of the man's movies. In my defense, the last one I actually paid for was Legend in 1985. Every one I've seen since was on someone else's dime (or free) to prove to some deluded friend (or my equally deluded self) that I was open-minded enough to give the star another chance. So, no, I'm not gonna go see War of the Worlds (opening today at a theater near you!) until it plays on cable, or until it screens as an in-flight movie when I'm on a plane and terminal boredom induces me to watch it, or gnaw a limb off with boredom.

What I will do, though, is give my lovely readers (thanks again to both of you!) my personal Petri Dish 101 on the films of Tom Cruise (at least the ones I've seen). It will be very snarky. I will try to make it brief. And it's gonna have to wait, because it's late and I want to go to sleep. Good night.

Undisputed Classic Time: Gone with the Wind

The last time I'd viewed the 1939 Best Picture Oscar winner, Gone with the Wind, I was in high school (that was long, long ago, kids). I loved it. But in the ensuing years, other, more esoteric and (yes) more intellectually substantial films entered my life. I also read a lot of revisionist film criticism dismissing (or outright deriding) GWTW as glossy, overwrought mainstream piffle. A coating of dust settled over my fond memories of the film. And by the time the missus purchased the deluxe four-disc DVD edition of Gone with the Wind last month, that coating of dust had calcified into a jaded crust.

The day after the Gone with the Wind DVD arrived via mail order, I popped the movie into the player, intending to give it only a minutes' cursory glance to ascertain the discs' working condition. I had my cynical grown-up pants on, and wasn't gonna waste more than a minute of my evening on the movie. It was 8:30pm on a weeknight.

Before we knew it, it was 12:30am, and Rita and I'd watched all two-hundred twenty-two minutes of it. Yes, Gone with the Wind is that addictive. And, more importantly, it's that good.

In a lot of ways, the movie defies rational criticism. It shouldn't work--its storyline is pure, overwrought pulp, with absurd coincidence piled on top of abject implausibility. And it romanticizes the Old South to an incredibly wrongheaded degree, even by 1939 standards. Yet the movie's spell is undeniable. After all these decades, it still works.

For the uninitiated, Gone with the Wind follows the saga of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a spoiled Southern Belle whose father owns Tara, a massive palatial plantation. Scarlett holds a torch for Confederate Officer Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but Ashley's engaged to the saintly Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland). The onset of the Civil War brings violent upheaval, and Scarlett evolves from thumb-sucking rich girl into a hardened, savvy enterpreneur. She singlehandedly rescues Tara from ruin and becomes one of the most powerful women in the post-war South, but the one bauble she's desired most in her existance--the hand of Ashley Wilkes--eludes her.
Gone with the Wind envelops these characters (and its audience) in one of the most incomparably lush and immersive worlds ever filmed. As designed by William Cameron Menzies (who would himself go on to direct) and shot by Ernest Haller, the Old South has never looked more ravishingly, eye-poppingly massive and beautiful. The Ringmaster spinning all of the artistic plates so adroitly in the air, director Victor Fleming, keeps the movie surging forward with relentless velocity and purpose (this is the most breathlessly-paced four hour film ever made).

It also helps that Fleming struck paydirt with his cast. Of course, Leigh (who won a Best Actress Oscar) is brilliant, but the rest of the ensemble matches her, slug for slug. Howard and DeHavilland breathe life into their soap opera archetypes, and Hattie McDaniel's nuanced work as the servant Mammy earned her a Supporting Actress Statuette. The biggest acting revelation to strike me on this re-viewing was Gable, who flat-out nails the emotional vulnerability swimming just beneath the Charleston scoundrel Rhett Butler's amusedly detached surface. There's no denying the sheer visceral impact of Butler's bleary-eyed devastation as he mourns his daughter's death in the film's final act (how in God's name did Academy voters pass Gable over for a Best Actor trophy after viewing this sequence?).

Gone with the Wind serves up classic scenes by the bushel--the terrifying burning of Atlanta; Scarlett's tense showdown with a Union soldier ramsacking the nigh-abandoned Tara; the staggering long shot of thousands of war-dead and wounded carpeting the streets of Atlanta. Amazingly, none of these setpieces feels gratuitous. Partially it's because the movie's so packed with memorable moments in the first place, but the filmmakers (no-bull old-school studio-system pros all) deserve credit for using all of the opulence, color, and action to further the storyline, not to distract from it.

And the human interactions at the movie's core, however operatically drawn, feel simultaneously timeless and contemporary. Scarlett's and Rhett's marriage arises not from true love but from convenience (at least on Scarlett's end), and a lack of communication sabotages their chances at genuine enduring love. Indeed, every relationship in Gone with the Wind ends with death or nigh-irreparable damage. Try finding more psychologically complex no-win couplings in any mainstream romance of the era--Hell, try finding them in 99.4% of Hollywood's current output.

Come to think of it (emotional manipulation by Max Steiner's stirring score notwithstanding), I'm hard-pressed to recall a crowd-pleasing sentimental audience favorite that ends as nihilistically as this one, with the heroine's child dead and her marriage all but obliterated. Tomorrow may indeed be another day, but getting there won't exactly be a picnic.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

DIG: Insert your own bad pun here

Don't let the media or major labels tell you otherwise. Spinal Tap hit it spot-on; Rock and roll is, most of the time, really frickin' ridiculous.

Ondi Timoner's documentary DIG (out on DVD now) acknowledges this, even as it crafts--through that documentarian's combination of sharp observation, editing, and plain old luck--something much greater than the sum of its post-modern parts.

DIG follows the course of two rock bands--The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre--over seven years. One outfit rises to a level of some prominence and financial success, while the other band shoots itself in the foot repeatedly with its self-destructive tendencies. Timoner begins her film in 1995, when Anton Newcombe, the BJM's lead singer/principal songwriter, and Courtney Taylor (the Dandies' frontman and resident mastermind) meet for the first time. Newcombe and Taylor become fast friends and mutual fans. In the first few minutes Newcombe shares the lead-off track of the Dandy Warhols' debut disc with Timoner. Newcombe, a look of child-like glee plastered on his face, assures her that his band and the Dandies stand poised to start a musical revolution.

DIG branches off from Newcombe's rock-cliche mission statement within minutes, however, and that's the beauty of it.

The Dandy Warhols net a major label deal with Capitol Records, and are soon navigating the choppy waters of the big leagues. Newcombe, conversely, rails against such a sell-out so vehemently that he repeatedly sabotages his band's shots at the big time, combusting in front of audiences of enthusiastic label reps and verbally and physically assaulting his fans and bandmates. The friendship goes south, and Anton Newcombe's already-erratic behavior gets outright psychotic.

Most rock documentaries are puff-pieces, little more than commercials for the bands or artists featured. Not here. How do I love DIG? Let me count the ways.

1) It's an engrossing character study: Anton Newcombe's Jim-Morrison-cum-Tasmanian-Devil antics elicit the most attention at first (judge for yourself if he's the genius that so many critics, label reps, and former bandmates think he is), but the movie's peopled with fascinating personalities. Courtney Taylor initially comes off as a superficial dilletante, but he ultimately emerges as a self-deprecating and eloquent guide through the music business wilderness. Then there's Joel Gion, the Brian Jonestown Massacre's impish tambourine player (Timoner compares him to a Dr. Seuss character in the DVD commentary); Dave Deresinski the long-suffering tough-love BJM tour manager; Matt Hollywood the BJM guitarist who's overshadowed by his lead singer's charisma (and temper), and many more. Cameron Crowe couldn't have written better characters.

2) It's an entertaining and thoughtul treatise on the co-existance of art and commerce: Think a major label deal is all big money and ultimate happiness, aspiring musicians? Ha, ha, double ha! Wait'll you see the Dandy Warhols slug through the whole process--warts, label sycophants, rejections, corporate apathy, and all. If you're not careful, you might learn something.

3) It's Funny as Hell: The Brian Jonestown Massacre's gig at a Communist Party Meeting Hall (to an audience of ten) is pure Spinal Tap. Ditto the BJM's comedy of errors with a Homer, GA highway patrol drug trap, and Gion's puckishly withering assessment of the Dandies' first big video shoot, to cite a few choice moments. Taylor's offhand wit likewise serves up some big laughs. At one point, when asked how many CDs his band has sold stateside, he responds, "You mean including [the ones bought by] our parents?"

4) You don't have to be a fan of either band to enjoy DIG: I do happen to like both of these outfits (sorry, Indie Snobs--sue me), and rest assured I'll cover the music in more detail in a future Blog. But there are enough twists, and there's more than enough dramatic and comedic meat here, to keep even non-converts diverted. Plus, DIG gracefully sidesteps Behind the Music-style sensationalism without sugarcoating the rock and roll lifestyle.

5) Most importantly, Timoner loves her subjects, but not too much: DIG knows that neither of these bands amounts to a drop in the pop culture bucket, and there's silly rock and roll behavior on abundant display over the course of the movie. But DIG avoids cheap jokes at its participants' expense by allowing them vulnerability. Resident BJM court jester Gion laments 'wasting four years' of his life in a rock band. Taylor beats himself over the head for not being more savvy in dealing with a major label. Even Anton Newcombe, ridiculous and hilariously histrionic as he is much of the time, has moments of lucidity; some of his comments about the music industry and his role in it are downright insightful.

There's a great scene about a third of the way through DIG that shows Newcombe alone in the studio, gradually laying down track after track of instrumentation while his fellow bandmates party with the Dandy Warhols on New Years' Eve elsewhere. Individually, the minimalist drum pounding, distorted guitars, etc. sound rough and sloppy, but when the finished song (a stark and direct ode to his estranged parents) swells in on the soundtrack, it's truly haunting.

The scene effectively conveys how rock and roll can be a strong medium of expressive catharsis--when it's not busy being frickin' ridiculous.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Batman Begins: Refreshingly Un-crappy

Batman Begins opened yesterday to a big-ass overnight box office total (I think it was somewhere in the gazillions), and yours truly joined the throngs of moviegoers who contributed to the film's take.

As much as any other geek worth his or her salt, I dig the Caped Crusader. Batman's human foibles (no superpowers, vengeful chip on shoulder, blah, blah) make him one of my superhero faves, and the character offers ripe and rich fodder for a really phenomenal screen treatment (Hell, the lure of Batman even ensnared cinema master Orson Welles, whose plans for a big-budget Batman feature in the mid-'40's toppled into the Realm of Unwrought Things).

The big motivator for me to join the long line for the new Bat-saga was Christopher Nolan, the gifted young director who helmed one of the best films of the '90's (or maybe ever)--the modern film noir Memento. I'd hoped that Nolan's presence behind the camera on Batman Begins would remove the foul stench of the loud, empty-headed , irritating Bat-flicks that knocked the wind out of the franchise in the '90's.

So has Nolan rescued the Caped Crusader from aesthetic Hell and reinvigorated the Batmythos? In a word, yes. Batman Begins houses some sizeable flaws, but the good things here are so good that it actually makes me look forward to future installments. And when was the last time anyone could say that about a franchise flick?

I won't hash through the basic plotline here. If you've seen any of the other films, the TV show, the cartoons, et al, you know the drill; millionaire's son is orphaned by a criminal's bullets, and a thirst for decisive justice inspires said boy to don funny tights and fight crooks as a grownup in Gotham City.

The shaky first fourth of the movie focuses on Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale's) training in the Himalayas as he learns to harness his fear and his fighting skills, Jedi-style. Nolan's and co-writer David Goyer's screenplay flirts with wince-worthy self-parody here; a charismatic turn by Liam Neeson (as Ducard, the Obi-Wan to Bruce's Luke Skywalker) nearly gets undercut by the ham-fistedness on display.

Once one rides out the first twenty-some minutes, however, Batman Begins drops the Seven Years in Kung Fu Jedi Tibet act and gets extremely entertaining. The movie grows a wry and (for a millenial blockbuster) subtle sense of humor while still lending sufficient respect and gravity to the storyline. This is that rare comic-book film where the exposition (in the movie's center third, at least) is as engaging as the action scenes.

There's no denying the movie's film noir-shaded visual richness (it effectively melds Tim Burton's grand guignol style with Frank Miller's stark darkness), but Nolan's biggest gift proves to be a holdover from his smaller films; namely, his touch with actors. Bale proves an inspired choice for the hero; even when Bruce Wayne plays the Carefree Playboy to cover his Bat-tracks, his haunted eyes betray him (one minor quibble; Bale's gravelly Batman voice does seem a bit much sometimes). Michael Caine, a cinematic Old Reliable if ever there was one, turns the stock role of Alfred the butler into a funny and fully-rounded paternal figure, and Morgan Freeman likewise offers effortless (and witty) work as the Batman's resident gadget go-to guy. Even veteran scenery-gnawer Gary Oldman delivers a restrained performance as the soft-spoken and inherently decent Police Lieutenant Gordon. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, is given total license to jump into unrestrained waters, and he's riveting as a corrupt asylum psychiatrist-turned demi-supervillain.

With all these quality actors in place and a pitch-perfect second act, it's a bit of a shame that the movie climaxes with an uninteresting and typical explosion-laden setpiece (the derailing train that punctuates the scene holds some unintended symbolism in this context). But for the most part, Batman Begins rates as a solid base hit amongst a genre that usually spawns foul balls and strikeouts. Plus, there are no nipples on the new Batsuit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Tom Jones, God of Pump

It's Tom Jones's birthday today, and what better way to celebrate than by giving my faithful readership (both of you are the greatest!) a Petri Dish 101 crash course on the man's work?

You need to take out a mortgage to buy tickets to your average arena/big-deal venue show, and it cost me a king's ransom ($80+, each! Ay yi yi...) to score Tom Jones tickets recently. Normally I balk and rail against such obscene admission rates. But Jones (who struts into Seattle's Paramount Theatre on June 18) is one of the few artists who's a bargain at twice that price.

Tom Jones is a unique pop culture alloy; old-school crooner, soul shouter, furry-chested lounge lizard/kitsch icon, and all-around sex god, all rolled up into one iron-lunged, larger-than-life package. He's old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits, but can still tear the roof off the sucka at age 65.

Born in Ponty Prith, Wales on June 7, 1940, Jones came of age musically in the mid '60's. Graced by the gods with a voice of almost superhuman power, he started singing for his supper in various clubs around Wales and England before being discovered, signed, and groomed by producer/songwriter Gordon Mills for world stardom. The rest, as they say, is history.

Though Jones's baritone voice was muscular enough for the most raw and raucous R and B music, Mills chose a less obvious career path for his young talent at first, tempering covers of rock and soul songs with polished, brassy mainstream pop tunes like "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New, Pussycat?". Early on, the Welsh Wonder displayed a knack for turning even the most innocuous ditty into pure carnal throb. If the Beatles were the vehicle of sexual release for pent-up '60's teenagers, Tom Jones uncorked said sexuality for those same teens' moms and older sisters.

The '70's were arguably built for Tom Jones. His tight trousers, loose and limber hip-shaking, mythically libininous vocal delivery, and forest of manly chest hair made him the ultimate embodiment of the decade's mack daddy ideal. Hits kept coming, and the man comfortably segued into the disco era, his superstar status intact.

Jones weathered the fallow period of the '80's by turning to country music. Of course, with those pipes he could sing the phone book and cause seismic tremors (and his Nashville-tinged records sold), but his most of his forays into Kenny Rogers turf lacked the spark that made those '60's and '70's hits so essential. Most critics (and even a lot of the public) started dismissing the guy as a has-been.

But a funny and welcome thing happened at the close of the '80's: Tom Jones became hip again. The catalyst was his collaboration with the Art of Noise on a cover of Prince's hit, "Kiss". Jones made the song his own, substituting the Purple One's skittery falsetto with that mighty hurricane of a voice, and the result was an international chart-topper.

Since then, the guy's never looked back. Tom Jones has managed that near impossibility in show biz; he's actually sustained his career and gotten better with the passage of time. Successful collaborations with artists half his age, and a canny sense of what works for him, have kept Jones more vital than most of his peers; Elton John, Sting, and Rod Stewart, to name but three, sound like feeble old geezers in comparison (and they're all younger!).

The hell with James Brown--Tom Jones is the hardest working man in show business. I've seen him live four times previously over the last decade-and-a-half, and he still brings it home in spades. Expect him to set the ladies' hearts aflutter--women of every demographic continue to genuflect and toss lingerie in the God of Pump's presence--and count on him to categorically blow the roof off.

Essential Tom Jones CD's

Formidable as Jones's talents are, his recorded output runs hot-and-cold, with uninspired covers and bland arrangements sometimes taking up space alongside the good/fun stuff. The following recommendations cover his entire career, distilled to all-killer-no-filler status. Where you go from here is up to you, pilgrim, but below is Ground Zero for The God of Pump.

Your homework assignments, should you choose to accept them:

The Complete Tom Jones (Polygram, 1993) and The Best of Tom Jones (Pid, 1998): Either of these compilations provides a good starting point, capturing most of Jones's big hits over the last forty-plus(!!)years. The Pid Comp gets the narrow edge for including the volcanic early hip-shaker, "Chills and Fever" and the mightiest of all James Bond themes, "Thunderball" .

What's New Pussycat (Polygram reissue, originally released 1965/67): Not to be confused with the Burt Bacharach soundtrack of the same name, this Tom-only CD (with contemporaneous bonus tracks) is one of the high-water marks of Jones' early work, with the title hit sharing space alongside the lusty shoulda-been-a-smash "Kiss Kiss" and one of Gordon Mills' most soulful compositions, "Some Other Guy". Any doofus who writes off the vocalist as a cheesy lounge-cruiser will have the condescending smirk wiped off their face by Jones's smoky work on the latter track and the sandblasting cover of Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo".

Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas (Polygram reissue, orig. released 1969), Live at the Talk of the Town (Decca 1967, vinyl only), Tom Jones Live at Caesar's Palace (Varese reissue, orig. released 1972): Tom Jones studio recordings are, to an extent, like viewing a big jungle cat in an enclosure at the zoo; impressive, but to get the full impact you need to view/hear the beast out in the open, on safari, in its natural habitat (in this case, the concert stage). You can't go wrong with any of these powerhouse live efforts. Live at Caesar's Palace is probably the most readily-available on CD (get a load of the Bacchanalian disc cover), but the vinyl-only Live at the Talk of the Town captures one of Jones's most brilliant vocal performances, a sensitively sung, sublime live version of "My Yiddishe Momme" (no kidding; it's amazing).

The Tom Jones Fever Zone (Parrot, 1968, vinyl only): It's criminal that Jones's pale and wan country records have all been reissued, yet this gem of a disc still hasn't made the digital transition. Songs made famous by Sam and Dave, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett get the God-of-Pump treatment to sweat-shaking shouting perfection here, and Fever Zone marks the first recorded appearance of the drama-drenched homicidal-jilted-lover ditty, "Delilah".

Tom Jones Sings She's a Lady (Repertoire Records/EMI reissues, originally released 1971): There are some great ballads here (the covers of "Ebb Tide" and Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" really click), but the best of She's a Lady showcases the sex potentate in full pasha pageantry. The hit title track, "Puppet Man", and "One Night Only Love Maker" capture the seventies-model Tom Jones in all his swaggering, God-of-Swingers glory. You can almost smell the Hai Karate and hear that trademark gold chain and crucifix rustling against Jones' hairy chest.

Tom...Sings the Sixties (Music Collection Int'l reissue): This British import CD cobbles together covers of '60's (and early'70's)-vintage tunes, from various points in Jones's career. Worth seeking out to hear the Welsh Wonder transform the innocuous Archies hit "Sugar Sugar" into near-porn.

Darlin' (Polygram, 1981): By far the highlight of Tom's country years, Darlin' reconciles Jones's lusty bellow with mainstream Nashvile better than any of his other C and W records. His cover of "One Night With You" makes Elvis sound like a gawky asexual schoolboy, and "Lady Lay Down" hilariously updates the Jones Sex King Manifesto in country-ballad drag.

Reload (Gut/V2 Records, 1999): This is import-only (a few tracks appear on the most recent Tom Jones Greatest-Hits comp), but it's one of Jones's best ever. Reload unites the singer with several high-profile (in Britain, at least) collaborators for a series of duets. What's amazing about this effort is how perfectly most of these songs fit the man's singular style. Jones takes command of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way" so flawlessly, you'd think Kravitz wrote it for him (The Welsh Wonder decimates duet partner Robbie Williams here). A rip-snorting cover of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" with the Cardigans opens the album with a bang, and there are highlights in abundance; his take on "Mama Told Me Not to Come" with Stereophonics cooks, Jones and Brit popsters Space trot gracefully through The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon", and Jones and Heather Small raise the roof on the soul chestnut, "You Need Love Like I Do". Highest high point: the cover of Portishead's "All Mine" with The Divine Comedy--it's like the greatest James Bond theme never written, with Thor the Thunder God providing the high notes.

Monday, June 06, 2005

BERSERK!: More fun than a barrel of (circus) monkeys

Producer Herman Cohen bankrolled a whole tassel of extremely entertaining B flicks throughout the '50's, '60's and '70's. From I Was a Teenage Werewolf to the hilarious Thai Jaws rip-off , Crocodile, you could always count on tasty, cheesy fun when Cohen's name was attached.

One of the producer's strangest creative partnerships arose at the tail end of the '60's, when screen legend Joan Crawford signed on for two Cohen productions. 1967's Berserk! (don't forget that exclamation point) and 1970's Trog ended up being two of Crawford's final features. With titles like those, you know you're not broaching Merchant-Ivory territory, friends.

Trog is the most fondly remembered of the two. It features Crawford playing anthropologist/nursemaid to a Neanderthal man (sporting the sixth-most ridiculous ape mask in cinema history) who's been discovered in a subterranean English cavern. It's an absolute kick, fifty-thousand times funnier than Encino Man (largely because it ain't trying to be) and utterly essential to all fans of that most enduring of film genres--the Unfrozen-Caveman Movie.

Berserk!, on the other hand, remains the most neglected of the two beautifully ugly Cohen/Crawford cinema stepchildren. I first saw it at age ten on Nightmare Theater, Seattle station KIRO-TV 's Friday night Creature Feature show. Back then, the movie struck me as talky and dull, and most written evaluations over the years concurred with that opinion. So when my Crawford-craving spouse noted a late-night screening at the Grand Illusion this last weekend, my curiosity piqued at how Berserk! would play to my (slightly more) grown-up incarnation.

Seeing it afresh, I must humbly query to the gods:


And, more importantly:

"Dearest BERSERK! and Trog, why art thou not yet on domestic DVD?!?!"

The skinny is as follows: A tightrope walker in an English circus dies horribly during his act (the tightrope snaps and wraps itself conveniently around his neck during his fall), and the police deduce foul play among the circus staff. Is the killer the tough-as-nails impressario (Crawford)? The square-jawed replacement wirewalker (Ty Hardin) with a shady past and sack time with the boss? Crawford's embittered accountant/business partner Durando (Michael Gough)? The circus magician's trashy, hooch-chugging assistant (Diana Dors)? Crawford's own perky daughter (Judy Geeson)? One of the elephants? Soon, more circus folk fall victim to extravagantly gruesome deaths, and everyone gets really damned testy.

I refuse to spill the final denouement, not because it's such a big shock, but because getting there is such a gas. Berserk! stirs together overwrought melodrama, absurd plot twists, brain-twisting coincidences (note to self: never lean against a wooden post when there's a railroad-spike-sized hole in said post at skull level...), gruesome deaths (see aforementioned note to self), an appropriately color-saturated and unsettling visual tableau, and endless circus stock footage into one heady, pulpy stew.

The actors sell Cohen's and Aben Kandel's script full-throttle. Even at this late stage, Crawford could still play a hardened battle-toughened dame like nobody's business. She's constantly purring out choice dialogue howlers ("You've got Durando on the brain!") to everyone in earshot, showing off her (admittedly still shapely) set of gams, and taking no prisoners. Hardin looks like a pulp novel cover painting come to life, and his stiff acting actually makes his shady Lothario a lot more fun. You can practically smell the cheap plonk on Dors's breath as she gnaws the scenery, and Cohen/Hammer Films stalwart Gough makes a reassuringly cynical and crinkly foil.

Geeson takes the prize for the most, well, berserk moments as Crawford's high-strung daughter. She gets expelled from her private school, rejoins the circus, and spews mommy-baby guilt at Crawford with British schoolgirl mewls that jab the eardrum in a glorious, outlandish performance.

In fact, the resemblence in mother-daughter dynamics to one of Joan Crawford's career highs probably isn't by accident. Berserk! is, at its lurid and tawdry core, a very fun, blood-stained, big-top-set variation of her Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce. Only with dancing poodles.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Hammer Films

This is for my east coast pal Jasper, who's looking for some background and recommendations on Hammer Films.

Simply put, there would be no British horror cinema without Hammer Studios. This small independent movie company was formed in the early '30's, initially financing and producing budget B pictures in various genres for almost two decades before strategy and fate intersected to make Hammer a buzzword for chills, and a formative influence on the modern horror film.

In 1955 the company released The Creeping Unknown, a solid science-fiction thriller based upon the popular BBC radio and TV character, Professor Quatermass. In the movie, Quatermass (played by US character actor Brian Donlevy) observes a young astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) who's returned from a space mission and is gradually mutating into, well, something creeping and unknown. This inexpensive but very effective genre exercise made considerable jack for the young studio, and an equally successful Quatermass followup, The Enemy from Space, duplicated the first Quatermass adventure's good fortune.

Bolstered by the ample box office take on the Quatermass movies, Hammer dove into the horror genre with its 1957 production, The Curse of Frankenstein. Shot in vivid Eastman Color, Curse was a massive and influential hit, providing the template for most of Hammer's output for the next two decades.

Hammer's work in the genre essentially turbocharged (conservative critics of the time would say bastardized) the long-entrenched notion of the Creature Feature. Most of the traditional horror staples--Frankenstein's Monster, the Werewolf, Dracula, the Mummy, et al--were augmented with liberal-for-the-time sprinklings of sex and violence, and decidedly adult plot twists. These basic elements gave the studio's horror output a timbre completely distinctive from the atmospheric and expressionistic Universal horrors of the '30's and '40's. Eschewing nuance and subtlety, the Hammer epics were color-saturated pulp horror novels come to life--violent, direct, but still solidly (often artfully) constructed shockers.

In today's hyper-permissive atmosphere of jaded, anything-goes onscreen violence (cinematic and televised), these British chillers look fairly tame; it's hard to convey just how much visceral impact Hammer's classic output had on the world at the time. But the British studio's genre exercises changed movies for good, pushing the envelope of acceptible content in mainstream cinema and inspiring a boom in horror films worldwide. Italy, Germany, and scores of Asian countries took elements of the Hammer formula and co-opted them for their own homegrown horrors. The ripples can still be felt in many horror movies today.

Like Universal Studios before them, Hammer Films managed to create its own stable of formidable talent (both in front of and behind the camera). Front, center, and spotlit in most of the company's finest thrillers were actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing--lithe, fine-boned, expressive--and Lee--coolly handsome and graced with animal charisma to match his imposing six-foot-plus frame--provided the yin/yang force in nearly all of Hammer's greatest efforts.

Hammer's reign as a formidable force in fear flicks ran from The Creeping Unknown to 1976's release of To the Devil, a Daughter, an unremarkable Exorcist-knockoff featuring Lee and a young Nastassja Kinski. In between those years, the studio provided some classic moments.

Most of the Hammer classics can be readily located on DVD. Warner Home Video owns the rights to many of the essential Hammers, and their re-issues sport gorgeous color transfers, but the skimpy extras and attractive-but-error-laden packaging (stills from entirely different movies grace some of the box backs) smack of carelessness. Anchor Bay Home Video's Hammer discs, on the other hand, often feature commentary, documentaries, interviews, and nice prints to boot, wrapping even the most unmemorable Hammer shockers in the proverbial shiny and irresistible box. The single-disc Anchor Bay Hammers are becoming rare birds, but several of their two-disc double bills can still be acquired through Amazon, Ebay, and certain retail stores without breaking the bank.

Like Universal's Golden Era horror output, there's entertainment to be found in almost every Hammer production, but below are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order):

Curse of Frankenstein (available on Warner Home Video DVD, originally released 1957): The first two Quatermass films lit the fuse, but this updating of the Mary Shelley chestnut was the first monster hit (pardon the pun) of the Hammer Horror years. The splashy Eastmancolor, splashes of blood, gruesome Phil Leakey makeup (Christopher Lee's monster really looked like it was stitched together from corpses), director Terence Fisher's rat-a-tat pacing, and James Bernard's snare-drum-punctuated musical score established the template for the studio's best work. Cushing's intense and memorable Doctor Frankenstein would become one of the studio's most durable characters, surviving to re-animate again in five sequels.

Horror of Dracula (Warner Home Video, 1958): Horror of Dracula distilled Bram Stoker's Dracula down to a breathlessly-paced speedball of a vampire flick. Cushing created his second iconic character for the studio as the earnest and intrepid vampire hunter Van Helsing, and Christopher Lee first emerged as a horror star in his own right as Dracula; only Lugosi's original prince of the undead is as revered a bloodsucker in the horror canon. The thrilling climax has yet to be rivalled by any other vampire movie.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Warner Home Video, 1968): I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the sometimes-heavyhanded but always entertaining third Lee Dracula epic. It showcases a brilliant opening setpiece (I won't drop a spoiler if you haven't seen it yet, but it involves a church bell), and an interesting atheistic hero (Barry Andrews) forced to confront his own skepticism in combat with the Undead.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Why this excellent horror/tragedy hasn't seen DVD release to date is beyond me. After a few years of turning in bit work at Hammer, the great Oliver Reed graduated to leading man status as Leon, the anguished sufferer of the titular curse. Fisher and his crew created a richly gothic Spain on a limited budget, and John Elder's loose screenplay adaptation of Guy Endore's novel, The Werewolf of Paris, captured the mood of a dark fairy tale more than any of Hammer's other films (Neil Jordan's arthouse horror flick A Company of Wolves owes Curse of the Werewolf a major debt in tone if not content).

Rasputin the Mad Monk (Anchor Bay Video, 1965): Historical accuracy be damned; this rousing sorta-horror opus presented Christopher Lee one of his meatiest and most entertaining star turns as the legendary crazed cleric. Anchor Bay's disc features thoughtful commentary by the genre icon, too.

The Mummy (Warner Home Video, 1959): Lee assumes the bandages in the title role, and Cushing plays the scientist at the center of the revived corpse's campaign of revenge. No masterpiece, but great colorful fun. Lee manages to milk quite a bit of emotion through his makeup as the mummy, and finds a glimmer of pathos as the pre-mummified, lovesick priest in flashback scenes.

Paranoiac (1963): In addition to its successful gothic horrors, Hammer also explored psychological thrillers in the wake of Psycho. Eleanor (Janette Scott) stands to inherit a boatload of money from her recently-departed parents, but her greedy brother Simon (Oliver Reed) has other plans. Then there's her deceased brother Tony, who may not be so deceased...Formula stuff to be sure, but Director Freddie Francis (also an Oscar-winning cinematographer) and frequent Hammer scripter Jimmy Sangster keep you guessing, and Reed gives another great full-throttle early performance. Here's to hoping this one pops up on domestic DVD soon.

Brides of Dracula (1960): The first sequel to Horror of Dracula suffers a wee bit from the absence of Lee (David Peel subs as the vampiric Baron Meinster), but it's the most action-packed of the subsequent Hammer vampire epics. Cushing's wiry and vital Energizer Bunny of a Van Helsing takes on bloodsucking hordes with his bare hands, and even sears his own throat with a red-hot poker to spiritually cauterize a vamp bite. Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing wishes he were one one-hundredth as cool. Not yet available on DVD!

The Devil Rides Out (Anchor Bay Video, 1967): Lee gets to play good-guy for a change as the stolid Duc de Richeleau in this exciting adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel. The Duke takes on a coven of Satanists led by the charming but dangerous Mocata (Charles Gray) for the soul of a close friend (Patrick Mower). Gray, better known to today's movie fans as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and as Blofeld in a couple of Bond efforts, creates one of Hammer's most sublime screen villains as the silken-voiced Satanic high priest.

Frankenstein Created Woman (Anchor Bay Video, 1967): This imaginative sequel finds Cushing's limb-stitching mad scientist performing a mind transferral from a falsely-executed young man into the body of his girlfriend (Susan Denberg), a recent suicide: Revenge-stoked mayhem ensues. Woman presents one of the most creative--and affecting--storylines in the Hammer Gothic canon, with Playboy model Denberg delivering a sympathetic characterization as the very conflicted monster/victim. Fisher really maintains the dark fairy tale atmosphere here.

Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years to Earth, Anchor Bay Video, 1967): Twelve years after the first Quatermass movie jump-started Hammer, the studio returned to the character for Quatermass and the Pit, by far the best of the Quatermass features and one of the best sci-fi flicks of the sixties. A construction crew in London stumbles upon an ancient spaceship, and Quatermass (Andrew Keir plays the good professor this time out) and fellow scientist Dr. Roney (James Donald) investigate. Along the way, the mythology of evil and the very foundation of the origins of man are called into question. Ambitious yet still rip-roaring good entertainment, sharply directed by Roy Ward Baker.

The Vampire Lovers (MGM/UA Home Video, 1970): Roy Ward Baker's next fantastic film, an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's short story Carmilla, was one of the last of the studio's efforts to treat the gothic horror genre with some sincerity. Soon afterwards, Dracula was slugging it out in modern times in Dracula A.D. 1972, and Frankenstein got the camp treatment in the unsuccessful Hammer spoof, Horror of Frankenstein. The Vampire Lovers made waves for being the first Hammer horror to feature nudity, but what stands out most in hindsight is the dreamlike atmosphere sustained by Baker in some of the best scenes, and the charismatic performance of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla. Sometimes her histrionics induce unintended giggles, but she's sensual (even with her clothes on), predatory, yet surprisingly vulnerable,crying tears of self-pity at a funeral, then turning terrifyingly lethal on a dime.