Saturday, February 1, 2014

Recommendations :: Another Day, Another Batch of What I've Been Watching and So Should You! Or Shouldn't. Eh. Whatever.

An odd combination of the Shakespearean tragedy of 'Macbeth' mashed-up with the wholesale slaughter and penultimate Divine intervention of George Pal's War of the Worlds, Attila (1954) traces the mighty Hun (Quinn) from the betrayal of his brother to unite his hordes for world conquest to the sacking of what's left of the Roman empire as he makes a beeline for Rome itself. Meanwhile, Honoria (Loren) schemes to manipulate him for her own quest for power, which ... does not end well. Produced by big Dino de Laurentiis and directed by Pietro 'Hercules' Francisi, with an amazing turn by Anthony Quinn, who may just be one of the most under-appreciated actors of any generation, and Loren, who, turns out, is really, really good at playing an evil and conniving snake, all in all, this is Italian sword 'n' sandal mayhem at it's finest.

A truly fascinating social commentary wrapped around an apocalyptic catastrophe, The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) poses this question: What would happen if the last two people on earth, a man and a woman, weren't of the same race? To answer, Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens are introduced into this barren Petri dish, and then we watch as these two elements dance around the entrenched social mores and try to reach some form of symbiosis. Things get complicated when a snake enters this new Eden in the form of Mel Ferrer -- and 'snake' isn't really fair, he's a decent enough guy, which kinda derails the third-act dust-up a bit because I, for one, simply couldn't buy that these characters would do what they did, when the film switches gears from subtle probing to ball peen hammering. Still, I found it interesting enough -- I especially dug Belafonte's riffs on the Omega Man as he set up his new pad, though I must have blinked when they explained what happened to those 2.9 billion corpses after the atomic nerve gas hit.

Though Arnold Schwarzenegger might have matured, age wise, the script for his big comeback film has not. Yeah, The Last Stand (2013) is so chockablock'd with 1980's action-hero clich├ęs, caricatures, and komedic moments, it nearly chokes on them as it gobbles along its merry way at 190mph. And yet, I could not stop laughing at the mounting stoopidity of the thing. I mean, Why else are we even here? Well, with Kim Je-Woon (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) in the director's chair, I thought there'd be a little more meat to it, but, eh, when in Arnieville ... Also, to Arnie's credit, he looks old and both the actor, the character, and the film acknowledges this and doesn't try to hide it, and, instead, celebrates it, proving that you can go home again -- once you realize you've never really left to begin with.

Barely breaking an hour but still surprisingly faithful to one of Sherlock Holme's most famous cases, what drew me to this hyper-condensed, Made for TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972) like a pig cannonballing into a poop-pile was the eye-popping cast, with Stewart Granger and Bernard Fox as our dynamic duo; Anthony Zerbe as Dr. Mortimer; and most of all, the Shatner as the villainous Stapleton. (Who does not disappoint, with a special shout-out to Genghis Bill in the opening prologue.) Apparently, this was a failed pilot for ABC, which was trying to launch some competition for rival NBC's rotating Mystery Movie (Columbo, Banacek, McCloud etc.), focusing on Holmes, Nick Carter and Hildegarde Withers. Alas, the ratings just weren't there and this idea was scrapped. It really needed at least another half-hour to let it breath properly and extend the climax, which goes by so fast it can't help but feel anti-climactic. Regardless, highly enjoyable, and a huge thank you to the good Doctor Freex who heard my plea in the wilderness and scrounged up a screener for me. Much appreciated.

I never saw it coming, but, turns out Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) is a fairly hilarious twist on the old fantasy fairy tale. Played out with a 1980s era buddy cop movie's sensibilities (blunt, cartoony violence, easily defined characters, and a ton of one liners), you'd think that wouldn't work but it does thanks to a cast who basically said 'screw it', rolled with it, and had some fun. (Famke Janssen is just great as the head evil witch. And my Bro'Crush on Jeremy Renner has been further cemented.) My only nitpick is with the script which had Gretel (Gemma Atterton) kicking some major ass until it needed her to be a damsel in distress for the third act. But, eh, it works and she recovers just fine. More From Dusk Till Dawn than Van Helsing, if that helps, without a real coherent thought in its over-caffeinated head, but for one who thought the mere idea of this was just abominably stupid I sure did enjoy it. A lot.

What is set up to be a pretty good social satire, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) quickly falls apart after the opening act introduces Dr. Pride (Bernie Casey) as the inventor of a anti-cirrhosis drug that, when ingested, drains away skin pigmentation and amps up strength and aggression to superhuman levels. Now, I think when Pride falls under the influence, he's mistaken for a Caucasian, which the make-up (by Stan Winston, no less) doesn't sell as he looks like an albino at best and one of the vampire mutants from The Omega Man at worst. But, again, this plot point really doesn't matter as the whole movie switches gears as Brother Hyde becomes fixated on a prostitute (Marie O'Henry), goes on a hooker killing spree over some repressed mommy issues, throws some pimps around and busts some heads before pulling a King Kong on landmark I believe I'm supposed to recognize but didn't until someone pointed out it was the Watts Towers. Directed by William Crain, who tries really hard to bring the same kind of dignity to this that he managed with Blacula; and Casey does the best he can; and the cops charged with finding 'Black the Ripper' are pretty great; in fact, all the characters in this are pretty great, but the plot they are all plugged into kinda stinks. Take out the nudity, and what you got is fairly inane Made for TV movie or a Kolchak-less episode of The Night Stalker. Entertaining enough, but there's too many nuggets of 'if they only' lying around to needle this one into the 'expectations be a bitch' file.

After circling this film for decades, I would never have guessed the Victorian setting or the Jules Verne by way of H.G. Wells plot of Sergio Martino's Island of the Fishmen (1979), where the few survivors of a prison ship are marooned on an island where a plantation owner has shanghaied a mad scientist (Joseph Cotten) and his daughter (Barbara Bach) to mutate any unwanted castaways who come his way into drug-addicted were-fish to loot treasure from a sunken city a few leagues over and several fathoms down. Quite notorious for Roger Corman's failed bait 'n' switch tactics to repackage and resell it for American audiences, most notably as Screamers, where, yes indeed, the trailer lied. But! If you squint, it kinda looks like one of the prisoners was turned inside-out when he sprouted gills. (Jim Wynorski, you are vindicated!) In it's original form, a genuinely great flick for all the right reasons, if that makes sense. Color me pleasantly surprised considering its reputation. Who knew Martino had that in him? I sure as hell didn't.

Speaking of Martino, yeah, I finally saw The Cyclops (1957). And you know what? The shine is off and I don't love certain Bert I. Gordon movies as much as I used to, anymore, because the guy really needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Ruggero Deodato and Martino when discussing animal snuff in movies. Wholesale lizard slaughter, insecticide, arachnicide, and that was at least three different mice sacrificed to get that shot with the 'giant hawk'. I mean, geez. Framing this bloodbath, an obsessed woman searching for her husband, lost somewhere in the jungles of South America, namely a forbidden valley from which no one has come back alive, hires three men to escort her there, where a massive amount of Uranium and other assorted mineral deposits have resulted in severe mutations, causing the local flora and fauna to super-size themselves. And, well, raise your hands if you all know where this going? Pfeh.

Not to be confused with Universal's earlier 1934 version, which first paired Karloff and Lugosi, this incarnation of The Black Cat (1941) is a morbidly comic affair with Lugosi as a creepy groundskeeper (complete with Elmer Fudd outfit) constantly lurking around the mansion of an elderly crackpot and cat-enthusiast who dies under mysterious circumstances. Of course, this brings the heirs a running (Basil Rathbone and Alan Ladd among them), looking for their share of inheritance, which leads to the usual codicils, secret passages, and bumping-offs to increase the profit shares, leaving it up to a bumbling estate agent (Broderick Crawford!) to get to the bottom of things before anymore bodies turn up. Wow. This thing was just great. Wotta cast! One of the better whodunits I've come across in this genre, too, and, oh, if only Hugh Hubert provided the comedy relief in all of these classic creakers. Highly, highly recommended.

While visiting him in prison, when the wife (Jill St. John) announces she's met another man, is moving on, and, oh, by the way, pregnant by the same, her extremely jealous, hyper-violent, and highly combustible inmate husband (Oliver Reed) engineers an escape, with help from a fellow inmate (Ian McShane), for the express purpose of killing his philandering ex and her new beau. There are several other subplots abounding in Sitting Target (1972), including a hidden stash of cash from a robbery that landed them all in the clink in the first place, which leads to an amazing three car twist pile-up as we barrel toward the climax. And did I mention the cop charged with protecting the wife is played by Edward Woodward? Yeah. And this eye-popping cast plugged into a fairly rote revenge drama pushes this thing into the must watch stratosphere for one and all.

I finally made the digital leap on old favorite, It Came from Outer Space (1951), which was worth the price alone for the 'Making of' feature and commentary track by the impeccable Tom Weaver, where I learned all kinds of new things. Apparently, the film wrapped before the eventual 'xenomorphs' were even designed, let alone built, which were shot later and shoe-horned in. Ray Bradbury, in particular, found them foolish at best and ruined the movie at worst. (A lot of the Bradbury quotes about the movie kinda make him come off as an insufferable ass, which is unfortunate.) I, for one, love the mono-optical globby things from concept to execution. (I had never noticed the arms embracing their victims before they 'globbed' them.) The Universal DVD looks just great, too. Soooo much better than my old, washed-out and murky Hollywood Greats VHS release. In fact, I'm comfortable saying this is probably the first time I've ever actually 'seen' It Came from Outer Space.

All apologies to Errol Flynn, but there's just something about Peter Ustinov, Phil Harris, and the Mayberry Chuckleheads in Walt Disney's Robin Hood (1973) that makes this my favorite cinematic incarnation of those rascally rogues of Sherwood Forest. Great cast, great tunes, fantastic set-peices, nearly a laugh a minute, and when all hell breaks loose at the archery tournament and the chicken goes berserk? Oh, holy crap, pass the inhaler I cannot breathe.

From Bill Osco, who brought us Flesh Gordon and the X-Rated version of Alice in Wonderland, we have The Being (1983), Idaho's very own radioactive killer spud movie. Pretty terrible, bordering on risible, and man, Marty Landau, What a trooper. Also shout outs to Ruth Buzzi, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy Malone for not mailing in the check. And one of the snuggle-bunnies from Hee-Haw was pretty good, too, but the hero was completely worthless and too much of the film was wasted on this schmuck getting his ass handed to him. Dubious pathology on the monster, too, which seems to mutate into whatever each vignette needs him to do. I mean, Is it a blob? Is it a spud that walks like a man? That's me shrugging right now. Worth a look to cross it off the list, I guess, but as someone who always enjoyed the Osco oeuvre this one was a major disappointment all around.

As for Hero at Large (1980), we have an entertaining if painted by the numbers rom/com about an eager actor who lets the role as a stand-in cum publicity stunt for a superhero movie get away with him when he foils a robbery as Captain Avenger, which spawns an ersatz folk hero as the city he protects becomes enthralled with his good deeds and daring do. Dogged by a publicist who wants to exploit him and hounded by a reporter who wants to debunk him, our hero (John Ritter) is more interested in some non-comic-code approved canoodling with his neighbor (Ann Archer). The reality check (courtesy of a bullet), the disillusionment (foiling staged crimes for a buck), the rejection (exposed as a fraud), and eventual redemption and reconciliation that follows hold no real surprises but it doesn't fall on its face, either. Credit to Ritter, whose wide-eyed earnestness and enthusiasm makes this work a lot better than it probably should have.

Though I never really barked out with laughter at this disaster movie spoof, I admit I was pretty much giggling uncontrollably through the whole thing. You can see the type of comedy gold germinating in The Big Bus (1976) that would eventually reach full bloom with Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane. And if this movie does anything wrong, it plays for the yuks full bore instead of playing things straight and not forcing the issue; something the Zuckers perfected later. Still plenty to like, though, with lots of great character actors running amok in this thing (-- I especially dug Larry Hagman as an over-zealous doctor and Ned Beatty taking over for George Kennedy as Petroni-lite). As for the leads, well, he isn't terrible, but I will never understand the comedic appeal of Joe Bologna. And if you've ever wanted to see Stockard Channing caught in a deathtrap and nearly drowned in a vat of soda pop, here's your movie.

And lastly, I took the opportunity this past week to Bogart my way through all three seasons of Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), the sequel to the British TV series, Life on Mars (2006-2007), where once again a cop from the present, Alex Drake (Hawes), suffers a mortal injury in the line of duty and suddenly finds herself seemingly time-displaced to 1981 (so another period piece like its predecessor, which focused on 1973), where the three Mad Bastards, DCI Hunt (Glenister), DS Carling (Andrews) and DC Skelton (Lancaster) are still running amok and busting heads; and so, she must do her best to rein them in, solve some crimes, and resolve the riddle to get out of this madhouse and back to her daughter. The show is kinda like The Prisoner by way of Quantum Leap, where our protagonist is trapped indefinitely, and every answer only leads to three more questions, but does her best to do the right thing, including sorting out her own past. A trifle convoluted, yes, but it's the actors and characters that makes this thing work (-- not to mention another huge Bro-Crush on the Gene Genie) in what would otherwise be a novelty police procedural. And as the third season unfolded and we slowly find out what's been really going on here, I won't spoil anything but the answer actually makes sense, with plenty of clues dropped from the very beginning. And even though the truth doesn't necessarily cheat, it doesn't really jive all that well when you look at how Drake wound up here in the first place. A minor quibble, because the more I think about it, the more it all fits. Highly recommended just the same. 

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