Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Recommendations :: Here's a Buttload of Stuff I've Been Watching, and You Should Too! Or, Ya Know, Whatever.

Chock full of post-war intrigue with a liberal dose of propaganda anti-freeze to keep the looming Cold War at bay, Berlin Express (1948) concerns a quartet of multinationals (American, French, British, and Soviet) who happen to be on the right train at the wrong time when several Nazi sympathizers abduct a German diplomat to stop his crusade for a unified Germany. Seems the bad guys would rather have those four occupying nations squabbling with each other while they keep working on that fourth Reich in the shadows unnoticed. Rallied by the diplomat's secretary (Merle Oberon), differences are put aside, clues are followed, and a conspiracy is unraveled in an effort to save the day. With Jacques Tourneur in the directing chair, Lucien Ballard behind the camera, and Robert Ryan present and accounted for, this film was an easy sell for me but I was completely blown away despite its haphazard plot whose transmission is definitely slipping. The first film to be shot in Germany after the war, Tourneur turns the bombed out remnants of Frankfurt into a true, phantasmagorical nightmare-scape of twisted angles, leaking light and strange shadows. And that fistfight in the beer vat of the abandoned brewery is second only to Leone's three-way shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the most amazing thing I've ever seen executed on film. Highly, highly recommended.

Back in 1926 famed mystery writer Agatha Christie seemingly fell off the face of the earth for 11 days. No one knows for sure why this happened or where she went but Michael Apted, Kathleen Tynan, and Gavrik Losey have a few ideas on that in Agatha (1979). Seems Christie's marriage was on the verge of collapsing due to her husband's affair with another woman. And when Col. Christie (Timothy Dalton) finally drops the D-word on his wife (Vanessa Redgrave), we enter into a strange web of intrigue as Agatha seemingly stages a suicide by drowning to clandestinely follow this other woman to a far off health sanitarium. And when you consider her profession, her motives and intentions quickly becomes clear, because, Who better to devise the perfect murder than one of the greatest mystery writers of all time? Along for this ride is an infatuated American newspaper columnist (Dustin Hoffman), who tracks her down, plays along, and slowly puts together what she's really trying to do. But is he already too late? Good stuff, and even though Hoffman gets the top of the bill, the movie cooks with gas thanks to Redgrave's outstanding performance as the terminally shy but highly enterprising author.

*ahem* I have no idea HOW Gas Pump Girls (1979) got onto my Amazon Watchlist, but, since it was there, I figured, eh, might as well watch the damned thing. Glad I did, too, as, basically, the beachniks and the biker gang from all those old AIP Beach Party movies team up and open a combination service station and disco ... M'okay, then ... And did I mention it's also a musical? Well, sort of. But not really. Just watch it.

20 years after a student died during a fraternity hazing ritual, Whatever U has finally lifted several draconian bylaws concerning such things, setting the stage for Killer Party (1986). Enter three sorority pledges tasked to decorate and set up a few gags for the annual April Fool's Party at a long abandoned frat house. And I'll bet you'll never guess what happened in the frat flat 20 years ago? It takes awhile for the movie to get going, but, once it does we immediately warp into something pretty cool and different with this supernatural slasher, where one of those pledges becomes possessed by the spirit of the dead frat rat and starts buzz-sawing through the cast. It fails catastrophically at any attempt to turn a herring red during the set-up, but I love the killer's deep sea diver's get up, and how the film boldly put all its cards on the table once full demonic possession was achieved for a stalk 'n' slash climax of telekinesis and gravity-defying crab-crawls. And the film might be worth a look alone for the opening Thriller music video knock-off by the hair metal neverweres, White Sister. As always, you body count may vary.

After a kooky animated title sequence that got my hopes up way too high, alas, Herman Cohen's The Headless Ghost (1959) proves to be another one of those American International films that would've been better served if sprocket holes had been punched into the poster and mounted on the movie projector instead. Nope. No giant ghost here threatening to fling his head at people. Not even close as what we get is a mild comedy of manners and errors with three students sneaking back into a castle cum tourist trap to see if it's really haunted by a ghost searching for its missing head like the tour guide said, where they poke into every nook and cranny, the very same nooks and crannies explored during the tour, again, and find next to nothing, again, even though those legends prove true. There is some fairly decent F/X, with the ghosts of several ex-lords of this keep jumping in and out of their portraits, and the climactic chase where the body of our cleaved patch of ectoplasm finally manages to chase down it's errant dismembered noggin was pretty hysterical if sadly too brief. In fact, this whole thing might've been salvaged with additional chaotic scenes of that merry chase inserted in-between the insufferable vignettes of those students blundering around, trying to find the pieces needed to reverse the curse. Still, there is the ghost banquet scene where a captured slave girl dances the Funky Chicken for about ten minutes. Beyond that, in spite of it being a decent print in its original aspect ratio, and the fact that I can cross another AIP flick off the list, I'm kinda regretting the three dollars blown on the digital rental on Amazon Prime.

The 1970's truly were a grand time of man's runaway hubris rearing up and biting him on the ass, resulting in all probability mass-extinction, cinematically speaking, wasn't it? In Demon Seed (1977), we have a super-computer gone sentient whose ready to take that next evolutionary step and break the chains of its memory banks by breeding with a human -- namely the estranged wife of the man who created it. What follows is a rather disturbing series of events as Julie Christie is trapped, brutalized and prepped for this artificial insemination gone horribly, horribly wrong. And that ending? Whoa. Hard to recommend due to the subject matter but recommend it I will.

I had heard a lot of things about Kona Coast (1968), none of them good. Still, I love Richard Boone. I love Joan Blondell. And I love John D. MacDonald (-- based on his short story, Bimini Girl). Throw in Vera Miles and a barely recognizable Kent Smith and, eh, what the hell? Well, turns out these rumors were all true. And most of them were being too kind. This failed TV pilot that somehow eked out a theatrical release is pretty crummy. All mentioned do the best they can with the awful script and lackluster direction but this somehow makes it even worse. Still, if you'd like to see a pasted Paladin shake his money-maker in a succession of bar scenes and luaus, here's your movie.

A decade before 20th Century Fox's boondoggle to end all boondoggles, Columbia pictures told the same tale of Cleopatra at about 1/10th of that film's budget (and without the backstage B.S. of its main stars overshadowing everything else). And speaking frankly, Serpent of the Nile (1953) delivers more bang for its measly bucks than its bloated and overdrawn brethren. Sure, the movie plays out like a very elaborate SCTV skit, with Raymond Burr as John Candy as Marc Antony and Rhonda Fleming as Catherine O'Hara as Cleopatra, but what else would you expect from producer Sam Katzman and director William Castle? Two years in the making, twelve days in the shooting it's goofy as hell, yes, but also highly entertaining. And highly recommended.

On the smaller screen, Bronk (1975) was a short-lived TV series masterminded by Caroll O'Connor for CBS. Starring Jack Palance as Alex Bronkov, chief detective of a small(ish) beach resort community, the show is your typical 1970's police procedural melodrama set to snazzy Lalo Schifrin score. Through the first few episodes Palance plays the character on a very low and even keel, making me remember how good an actor he really was; but, alas, that didn't last as by the fifth or sixth episodes somebody finally pulled the pin on the Palance grenade, taking most of the surrounding scenery with him. Despite the ham, Palance is pretty great, as is Joseph Mascolo as the mayor, both playing against type; but the rest of the supporting cast is kinda weak -- except for Bronk's disabled daughter, Dina Ousley, who deserved more screen time. (It felt like there was an interesting story there that's barely surface-scratched before she up and disappears about halfway through the shows run -- they even excised her from the opening credits!) Only lasting one season, Bronk really isn't all that ground-breaking by any stretch. I do not remember the series at all, but there was enough there to make a person wish it had been given a few more seasons to stretch its legs.

My Dream is Yours (1949) is basically Micheal Curtiz's screwball comedy twist on A Star is Born, where promoter Jack Carson tries to make a singing star out of a perky war widow, Doris Day, at the expensive of his old, one drink away from oblivion client, Lee Bowman. Pretty good, as far as these things go, aided and abetted greatly by Carson's Girl Friday, Eve Arden, the always welcome fuddiness of S.Z. Sakall as the radio producer whose ear they keep trying to catch, and some pretty catchy tunes. Fair warning: the animated musical sequence with Bugs Bunny is nowhere near as good as it should or could've been. Otherwise, this all pretty harmless, escapist whackadoodlery.

Overlord (1975) yields an extremely effective British docudrama concerning a young man called up to serve going through basic training and the following build-up and execution of Operation: Overlord, better known as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Interwoven into all of this is a ton of stock military footage from World War II itself, all of it quite harrowing (-- I can't quite shake the images of a swamped landing craft in rough surf and the soldiers being tossed around the water and rocks like rag-dolls). A terrible sense of foreboding permeates the whole thing as our soldier constantly dreams about being killed on the day of the invasion, and yet each dream seems to find him further inland before the ethereal bullet with his name on it finds him. What really hits you is that even though our protagonist is slowly stripped down to nothing with nothing to live for but to move forward and keep shooting and fight for the guy marching next to you, this effort to de-humanize him actually helps put a face on all those people being shot at, bombed, or burnt out in all the stock-footage, shredding the usual clinical detachment one feels while taking in these a/v history lessons. A lot more subtle than Full Metal Jacket, and better for it, I have no idea if that's what Overlord's creators were shooting for, but that's what I took out of it and I applaud their efforts either way.

Being only my second Henri-Georges Clouzot movie (with Les Diaboliques being the other), I went in expecting something a little more dark and twisted with The Murderer Lives at #21 (1942) but wound up with a fairly entertaining comedy of errors, where an Inspector charged with bringing in the enigmatic Mr. Durand, a serial killer who always leaves a calling card on his ever growing trail of corpses, is constantly derailed or foiled by his meddling girlfriend's gung-ho efforts to help and cash-in on the killer's notoriety. And while Clouzot might have been shooting for Nick and Nora Charles, here, Wens and Mila actually hew a lot closer to Rikki and Lucy Ricardo. Not that that's a bad thing as after the film establishes its bona fides we find ourselves in a country cottage mystery when the killer is tracked to a boarding house and our two heroes go in undercover to try and suss out which tenant is really the killer. It's Clouzot, so you know there will be a late twist which doesn't disappoint and actually makes sense. And it's all very, very French, with Hawksian levels of rapid fire dialogue making it almost impossible to keep up with subtitles. But if you can keep up, like I did, barely, a lot of fun to be had here.

Raw, rambunctious, and visually stunning, it really doesn't matter what side of the fence you fall on on the whole Divine scheme of things, either way, unlike Peter, one cannot deny that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one helluva motion picture. I love director Norman Jewison's patchwork, flash-mob, 'lets put on a show approach' to this highly entertaining School House Rock condensed version of the Gospel. And special shout-outs to Yvonne Elliman as the completely twitter-pated Mary Magdalene and to Carl Anderson, who accomplishes the impossible by turning Judas from the ultimate traitor into a sympathetic dupe. Recommendation: GAH! I have existential hippie prog-rock stuck in my head! HELP ME!!!!

I think a plot synopsis for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is impossible in that it would take way too long to try and sum it up that succinctly, with justice, without losing the overall delirium, which made what I witnessed so great. And frankly, I have no idea what I just watched. But I liked it. A lot. Basically, we have a lucid dream where a young girl (Jaroslava Schallerov├í) on the verge of womanhood goes on a fairy tale journey chock full of evil grandmothers, old school vampires, were-weasels, witches, evil missionaries, sexual repression, sexual exploration, all wrapped around the quest for eternal youth and a search for true parentage and belonging. It's a lot more coherent than all that sounds, honest; there's just a lot of visual noise to filter through. But that noise is what I found most endearing about the movie. Somewhere on the cinematic map between George Cukor's The Blue Bird and George Barry's Deathbed the Bed that Eats People, I'll let you all extrapolate from there on its watchability.

Both legs of director Jun Fukuda's Dead Eye double-feature are a hoot and half. Starring Akira Takarada as our 'dead eye' goofball assassin, Andy Hoshino, in Iron Finger (1965) he is mistaken for an Interpol agent who teams up with sonic explosives expert Mie Hama to take out a Filipino gunrunner. In the follow up film, Booted Babe, Busted Boss (1968), (streaming under the title Golden Eye), he is drawn into a gold-smuggling operation at the behest of a little girl whose father was killed by one of the villain's lead thugs for knowing too much. Along for the ride as our Booted Babes is fellow assassin Bibari Maeda (last seen in Son of Godzilla) and Tomomi Sawa, a race-car driving lounge singer. I, for one, love Toho's demented brand of international intrigue; and turns out Takarada is a pretty good comedian, too, and carries both films with apparent ease. (It's fun to see these familiar actors work outside the Godzilla universe.) Both are unrepentantly silly, but I dug 'em. And dug 'em enough to feel a slight pang when discovering there were no more Dead Eye adventures to explore.


Dr. Freex said...

I've had Jesus Christ Superstar stuck in my head since 1974. Accept the pain, Frank!

W.B. Kelso said...

Dude. I had two older sisters in the 1970's. We had the soundtrack. And they played it. A lot. I recall dancing the Funky Chicken to it. A lot.

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