Saturday, February 28, 2015

In Memoriam :: To Boldly Go in Another Direction.

"Lost civilizations ... Extraterrestrials ... Myths and Monsters ... Missing persons ... Magic and witchcraft ... Unexplained phenomenon ... In Search Of... cameras are traveling the world, seeking out these great mysteries. This program was the result of scientists, researches, and a group of highly skilled technicians."

Now, I love Mr. Spock as much as the next person, but I kinda grew up in a Star Trek vacuum, meaning no local stations had it in syndication after I was old enough to really pay attention to such things. (I still have only seen a handful of the original series episodes, slowly trying to rectify that on Netflix.) But In Search Of..., on the other hand, was a weekend staple for nearly ten years and this is why it came to mind first when I heard of Leonard Nimoy's passing yesterday. 

I remember clearly getting itchy at Sunday School when I was kid, hoping things would get wrapped up in time to get home to catch it. (I also remember if a football or baseball game got done earlier than expected on our local NBC affiliate, In Search Of... episodes would be used to plug up the gap.) And then there I sat, invited in and given a tour by our most gracious host, enraptured by the mysteries of the unknown. Haven't been the same since. Ask anybody. 

"The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have." 
Leonard Nimoy

Friday, February 27, 2015

Do Three Idiots Plus One Brain Cell Equal a Rip-Off or a Homage? :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Dennis Dugan's Brain Donors (1992)

Our film opens at the reading of the will of multi-gabillionaire, Oscar Winterhaven Oglethorpe. Well, not quite. Seems Victor Lazlo (Savident), the late swell's slime-ball attorney, wants to begin but Oscar’s wife, Lillian (Marchand), insists on waiting for her personal attorney, Roland T. Flakfizer, to help oversee things. Thus and so, she sends Jacques (Nelson), her simpleton groundskeeper, to find him, who tracks down Flakfizer (Turturro) at the site of an auto accident. E'yup. Flakfizer is an ambulance chaser, who’s trying to represent both sides of a minor fender-bender into suing each other for big bucks. When Jacques grabs him and calls for a cab, they’re picked up by Rocco Melencheck (Smith) and head back to the Oglethorpe estate -- at least until Rocco recognizes Flakfizer, who served as the attorney for his ex-wife in their divorce case, who got the judge to triple the alimony payments so he wouldn’t have to sleep with her in cheap motels anymore. This carnage continues until they realize no one is driving the cab! Managing to get it stopped, they all spill out and Flakfizer, smelling big money to be fleeced from the Oglethorpes, makes peace and hires Rocco and Jacques as his personal assistants.

Much to Lazlo's chagrin, Flakfizer takes over the proceedings while Jacques and Rocco make general nuisances of themselves. Long story short, everything is left to Lillian but she must use part of the money to establish a new ballet company. Flakfizer thinks this is a lousy idea -- until he hears what the stupefying annual salary is for the head of the company and quickly volunteers for the job; but, so does Lazlo, who claims he can sign the great Roberto Volare for their fledgling company, giving them immediate credibility. Knowing he must sign him first, or lose the job to Lazlo, Flakfizer and his flunkies head off to the ballet; and while Rocco mucks around backstage, Jacques and Flakfizer find their seats but treat the ballet like Joel, Mike and the Bots treat the movies on MST3k.

After the show, Flakfizer tries to sign Volare (de la Pena) but is immediately rebuffed by the snobbish dancer. Meanwhile, Rocco and Jacques want to sign Lisa le Baron and Alan Grant (Donald and Alexander). Seems these two amateurs also want to get married, but Alan is unemployed and therefore cannot afford it. Taking pity on them, Rocco talks Flakfizer into signing them instead, and then conspire to introduce them to Lillian by staging a performance for her at a garden reception. Their thunder is stolen, however, when Lazlo arrives with Volare, whom he delivers as promised. When the two young lovers show their stuff, a smitten Volare picks Lisa to be his prima ballerina for their debut production of Swan Lake, but snubs Alan. But! Being Lisa's agent, Flakfizer has the leverage to get himself appointed as co-chairman of the ballet company with Lazlo. And with the conflict now set, much, much, much mayhem ensues...

As a screenwriter, Pat Proft, who had a hand in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), brought you Bachelor Party, Real Genius, and the Police Academy and The Naked Gun franchises in the 1980s but then kinda crapped out in the 1990s with the likes of High School High, Mr. Magoo and Wrongfully Accused. Brain Donors (1992) came out right in the middle of that transition; and it's director, Dennis Dugan, who also starred in the tragically short-lived small-screen spook-show, Shadow Chasers, has since graduated to directing Adam Sandler comedies. Serving as executive producers, this flick is also a novelty for the Zucker brothers (-- this time sans producing-partner, Jim Abrams). Instead of a slapstick spoof played straight we get an outright homage to the anarchy of the Marx Brothers; in particular, A Night at the Opera. Turturro is magnificent as our Groucho surrogate. Nelson equally so as a loquacious Harpo, complete with bottomless pockets. Smith is a passable Chico, and he gets the best lines. Donald and Alexander fill in for Kitty Carlisle and Zeppo. But the show is stolen out from under all of them by Marchand, whose dead-ringer impersonation of Margaret Dumont (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Duck Soup etc.) is both uncanny and nothing short of brilliant.

During production, Paramount was set to release the film as Lame Ducks, with a massive promotional blitz, playing up the Zucker angle, hoping to cash-in on the reputation of their comedy classics like The Kentucky Fried Movie (1978) and Airplane (1980). Before filming was completed, however, the Zuckers jilted Paramount for 20th Century Fox. And after they bailed, Paramount retaliated by scrapping the campaign, leaving the film to flounder for a very limited release before yanking it. The critics who did see it were not kind. It quickly bombed and quietly disappeared, which is a damn shame because the movie is fantastic.

Book-ended by two outstanding Claymation-animated credit sequences, courtesy of Will Vinton, the plot in-between does transpire like a typical Marx Bros. movie, with three social deviants hell bent on bucking the norm and taking pot-shots at the cultural elite. They are oblivious to the world around them, and only interact when they are threatened -- or if there is a profit to be made or a skirt to chase. The plot is threadbare because all it has to do is move you from one gag to the next. Now, the majority of the gags will seem eerily familiar if your know your Marx Bros.' lore. There's an emergency room scene that's lifted from A Day at the Races (1937). That garden party is nearly a carbon copy of the one from Duck Soup (1933) -- my favorite Marx Brother movie. And the drawing up of a standard contract is almost verbatim from A Night at the Opera (1935). (Alas, Virginia, there still is no Sanity Clause.) There's also a nod to the stateroom scene from the same, where around 1500 people (including a lobster-gram) get themselves jammed-up into Volere’s dressing room. And Flakfizer does a play-by-play during the carnage after the curtain goes up for the finale just like Groucho did in Monkey Business (1931). And as in all of them, there’s also the obligatory romantic subplot in Brain Donors that helps unite the trio to foil the bad guys. And, of course, the complete and utter destruction of a famous ballet.

That's not to say the film isn't completely unoriginal. As the preparations for opening night near completion, a press conference is called and, once again, Flakfizer takes over and more mayhem ensues. Afterward, when the lecherous Volare tries to put the moves on Lisa, she hides in her dressing room, where she happily finds Rocco, Jacques and Alan waiting for her. This is short lived, however, as Volare comes a calling. After the others hide, Lisa lets him in; and when Volare gets a little too aggressive, Alan jumps out and slugs him. This is the last indignation suffered for Volare, who has been conspiring with Lazlo to get the chaotically cantankerous trio fired. Next, we move to the hotel where Lillian, Lazlo and Flakfizer are staying. Setting their plan in motion, Volare plants one of his under-age dancers in Flakfizer’s room to seduce him, then later, Lazlo will bring Lillian in to catch them in the act. But Rocco and Jacques get wind of this and warn Flakfizer in time. So when Lazlo and Lillian arrive, through some hilarious quick moves, it is Lazlo who’s caught in bed with the jailbait. During this chaos, Lillian is accidentally knocked unconscious just before a courier arrives with some condemning information against Flakfizer. As Lillian is rushed to the hospital, Lazlo promises to expose them all as soon as she wakes up.

Beating him to the hospital, the three con-men pose as doctors to try and intercept Lazlo, whom they manage to knock out with some ether. When Lillian’s real doctor shows up, they pretend to be working on Lazlo. But they obviously don’t know what they’re doing as they de-pants the patient. When asked, "Aren’t you cardiologists?" Rocco replies, "Well, we plan to enter the rectum and head north." With that, the doctor calls security, they’re caught, exposed as frauds, and sent off to jail, where, in an inspired scene, Jacques is forced to empty those bottomless pockets with hilarious results. After Lisa and Alan bail them out, using her severance pay from the ballet company (-- Volare had her fired and promises to blackball her from ever dancing professionally again), not wanting the bad guys to win, our three heroes concoct a plan to get back at their tormentors and get these two young lovers back onstage.

I’d like to describe exactly what happens next, but words simply cannot do it justice. Lets just say Flakfizer and company do to the performance what the iceberg did to the Titanic -- including stuffing a whoopee cushion in Volare’s tights, inserting a giant duck amongst the swan dancers, and lighting the conductors baton on fire to liven things up. Again, all of this accompanied by a riveting play-by-play by Flakfizer. Exposed, Volare is booed off the stage and Lazlo gets arrested, then Alan and Lisa go on and save the performance. Thus, all is right in the world. But as they bask in the glory with Lillian backstage, our boys hear an ambulance go by and immediately run off to give chase, bringing this insanity to an ever-lovin' end.

I will warn you all that this type of humor won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t like the Marx Brothers, or that type of comedy free-for-all, Brain Donors might not be for you. If you are a fan, What are you waiting for? Knowledge of the Marx Bros. canon, while helpful, isn’t required. The zingers come fast and furious and can be overwhelming at times. There is a fine line between ripping-off and paying homage, and Brain Donors admittedly teeters on the edge. As to the critics who brand it a total rip-off, I say cut them some slack. Sure, some scenes are basically the originals with the serial numbers filed off, and some of the jokes do fall flat, but the actors portraying the characters give such an earnest, heartfelt performance that I don’t think Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or even Zeppo, would mind. I know I didn’t. I laughed my ass off.

Brain Donors (1992) Zucker Brothers Productions :: Paramount Pictures / EP: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker / P: Gil Netter, James D. Brubaker / AP: Steven Hirsch / D: Dennis Dugan / W: Pat Proft / C: David M. Walsh / E: Malcolm Campbell / M: Ira Newborn / S: John Turturro, Bob Nelson, Mel Smith, Nancy Marchand, John Savident, George De La Pena, Juliana Donald, Spike Alexander

Friday, February 20, 2015

Blogathon Alert! :: Celebrating the Cinema and Scope of CinemaScope!

“Before IMAX, there was CinemaScope – basically, movies filmed in a much wider image than had been the norm up to that point in film history. The curved-screen image of Cinerama was the predecessor, but CinemaScope was what 20th Century Fox and other major Hollywood studios used for many of their movies throughout the 50s and 60s, and some of the greatest films of all time, in a wide variety of genres, were filmed in CinemaScope.”

                                                      — Wide Screen World

Thus, Micro-Brewed Reviews and Scenes from the Morgue have answered ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Wide Screen World’s call for participants for The CinemaScope Blogathon. Over at the Morgue, I won't be focusing on one film but a whole bunch of films focusing on the pomp and ballyhoo as this bold new process was first rolled out in late 1953 and beyond. As for the Brewery, I'm gonna tackle one of my most favorite movies of all time:

Should be a blast.


I’m participating. Are you?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Favorites :: Inks and Paints :: Animatics for Dr. Morbius' Maliciously Malignant Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet (1956)

Since MGM had no animation department to realize the monster for their film, Forbidden Planet, they arranged a loan from Walt Disney in the form of Joshua Meador, who not only brought the terrifying Id Monster to life, he also did the laser beams, the C57D's braking repulsors, and various Krell doodads and power surges. Also kudos to Louis Barron and Bebe Barron on the electronica score, which mimics the creature's gait and preternatural breathing. I'm curious as to whether they created the monster's angry bellow as well? Anybody know for sure? And as a bonus feature, here, have awesome picture to color.

Time to break out the Crayolas!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Recommendations :: What to Watch, What Not to Watch, and All Points In-Between!

As we all know by now, I'm a sucker for any kind of Sasquatch Cinema, so when YouTube coughed up The Wild Man of the Navidad (2008) up I eagerly gave it a spin. After a fantastic opening credit crawl, that had me hearkening back to The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), the film that followed kinda tripped and fell over my elevated expectations. It isn't the worst thing ever, by any means, but the film definitely loses its way after a local hayseed opens up his bottom lands for hunting to make some money to take care of his injured wife. From there, the film loses focus, concentrating on too many needless subplots (the constant molestation of the invalid wife by a hired hand definitely needs to go) and a pathological obsession with lingering shots of the squalor'd living conditions and bad teeth of the local yokels. Yeah, all of that junk draws way too much attention from the Bigfoot type creature (who looks like the yeti from Shriek of the Mutilated) currently running amok and buzz-sawing through most of the cast. The end result is a wildly uneven tale that could have been great but wound up a big old can of 'meh.'

A follow up documentary to Joshua Zeman's Cropsey (2009), where they connect the disappearance of several local children to an old urban legend but further investigation leads to something more real and infinitely worse, here, our documentarians take on the origin of four more nefarious morality tales in Killer Legends (2014) and try to tie there inspiration to other true crime cases: lover's lane and the stainless steel hook they trace to the Texarkana moonlight murders; poisoned Halloween candy leads to a disturbing case in Texas; the babysitter unwittingly trapped in the house with a killer on the same phone ties to a harrowing Missouri incident where a teenager was raped and strangled while the cops helplessly listen in on an open line; and the final segment leads to Chicago, a hotbed of clowns in white vans sightings, who try to lure children to their doom, apparently, is linked to notorious serial killer, John Wayne Gacey. Well researched and well-executed, this study of social anxiety and mass-morbidity is both frank and fascinating and a tad unsettling. And the sad moral of this tale is: don't worry about the story, but beware the storyteller. Sorry this missed out on my best of 2014. Highly recommended.

For several months back in 1946 the town of Texarkana was under siege by a masked killer, whose murder spree was never solved. In 1976, Charles B. Pierce made a movie based on these incidents that went on to become a sleeper hit with a massive cult following. Now, some forty years later, someone has decided the very same micropolitan border-town needs to pay for its sins of the past as the Phantom Killer stalks them all once again -- in particular, our prerequisite Final Girl, whom he charges with spreading his gospel of fear and digital blood spatter. If I could come up with one word to describe this sequel-remake-whatever, I think that word would be perfunctory. It's exactly what I thought it would be, rehashing most of the infamous bits from the other film (copycat murders, worthless cops), with a few intriguing twists. I enjoyed the meta-elements with Pierce's film and his 'son' playing an integral part of the plot. And like it's predecessor, it's very well shot and immersive in small town culture and accoutrements. Still, it's totally disposable cinema, and way, way, too late to cash in on the original, and, for heavens sake, when you have a perfectly reasonable suspect turn out to be the killer with a perfectly reasonable (-- if slightly ridiculous but it matches the folklore of the original case, honest --) motive do NOT piss it all away by throwing in an asinine late twist for the sake of an asinine late twist on the killer's I.D. Worth one spin and one spin only.

When a juvenile delinquent is given a last chance sentence of house arrest at her estranged mother's palatial abode, a house her mother claims is haunted, the recalcitrant and skeptical and ankle-braceleted daughter soon becomes the target of several supernatural manifestations in Housebound (2014). All of this leads to a deeper mystery concerning an unsolved murder that took place at the house before her folks took possession. To say much more would spoil too many twists the film righteously earned. (The biggest is quite hilarious.) The Australians are famous for fusing ferocity and humor in their genre films. Housebound is no different. Perhaps lost in the hubbub over The Babadook, another Down Under spookfest import that we'll get to in a minute, don't let this one slip under your radar.

I had a pretty dour film-watching experience with I, Frankenstein (2014). For, as the war between the demons and gargoyles raged, with our Monster caught in the middle, and the human race mere collateral damage, every time they mentioned gargoyles, which they do, a lot, I belched out 'You mean grotesques' because they were and there was really nothing else to do. From the plot, to the setting, to the predictable execution, the film itself is rock-stupid but fairly harmless in its own stupidity -- and yet, by the end, my patience for such things was clearly at an end. I loves me some Aaron Eckhart but may I offer to all those tempted to watch this to watch Battle: Los Angeles instead?

I fear The Babadook (2014) is suffering a mini-backlash that always happens when something new is declared the scariest thing of ever. And while I have a few problems with it, most are obliterated by Essie Davis' bravura performance as a mother suffering a mental breakdown, personified by one of the creepy characters in one of her son's story-time books seemingly crawling off the page to torment her. (The utterly, case of the drizzles-inducing Mr. Babadook.) To be fair, Noah Wiseman is just as good as her son -- almost too good, as I barely survived the opening, screeching salvo of the film and nearly stopped and wrote this off as Get that Kid Some Ritalin: the Movie. My biggest beef with the flick is the kid pulling a Ghostbusters by way ofHome Alone heroics during the climax. Minor quibble, though, when you combine the acting and some outstanding (mostly in camera) F/X set-pieces with an unrelenting sense of dread and hopelessness that might not make this flick the scariest movie of all time but one of the most unsettling flicks encountered in a good long while.

When three young turks stumble upon a large stash of uncut heroin that was 'temporarily misplaced' during a shootout between the cops and the syndicate, they decide not to turn it over to the police and make some money, selling it off piecemeal through a neighborhood junkie. And while one of them has a crisis of conscience, both the cops and the drug dealers are hot on their trail and closing in fast. As the omnipresent narrator drones on and on while all this leads to the inevitable end in Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), this well-intended (but a tad overblown in the melodrama department) docudrama is straight out of the Jack Webb school of safety screeds. The film also marked the debut of director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, giving the film a few visual flashes of brilliance in what otherwise felt like a payoff for a community service sentence.

The Mysterians (1957) is one of those flicks that keeps getting exponentially better every time I watch it. Apparently, the contents of the asteroid belt used to be the planet Mysteroid, blown up by atomic war. And after exhausting all the resources on Mars, the surviving Mysterians are now squatting on planet Earth. Their demands for land and suitable female breeding stock are summarily rejected, leading to the usual massive amounts of Toho-style bedlam and property damage. (Kudos to the JDF for the sound strategy to bring down the first Mogera-bot.) The gaijin sci-fi influences are lovingly lavish and easy to spot, the go-motion and miniature F/X are top notch, and Ifukube has seldom been better. My only complaint is with the quality of Media Blasters DVD. The quieter moments of the film look superb but the action sequences looks like my cat's been at them. A major/minor quibble over an otherwise fantastic package.

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