Friday, December 28, 2007
Being a cult movie fan and a librarian, I’m always on the lookout for great books relating to the subject. One of the items on my Christmas wish list this year, which thankfully found its way under the tree, was a recently published volume on the films of Steven Seagal (aptly titled Seagalogy). The book is written by Vern, a regular contributor to the Ain’t It Cool News Web site, and a fellow well-versed in all things Seagal. Essentially Seagology is an examination of Seagal’s films, and to a lesser extent his side projects (e.g. music albums, energy drinks, etc.). While I’m certainly not the expert that Vern is, I’ve always found Seagal to be a fascinating character, and his career arc has been incredibly interesting to watch. Now you’re probably saying to yourself the guy is no different than any other Hollywood action hero (e.g. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Van Damme, etc.), but that is far from the case. (Note: Chuck Norris was left out of the above list for reasons related to my personal safety. Same goes for Kurt Thomas aka Jonathan Cabot). As Vern demonstrates through the course of the book, Seagal’s films are characterized by a unique voice and consistent thematic content, making his body of work something special. Is he right? Let’s take a closer look shall we . . .
My experience with Seagal began with his debut film Above the Law (1988). Seagal portrays Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop of Italian descent who also happens to be ex-CIA and an expert in aikido. This character profile will undergo numerous variations, and reappear in many Seagal outings. As Vern points out, Seagal has a fascination with martial arts/Eastern philosophy and government agency corruption, so these elements tend to find a place in most Seagal plots (regardless of how labored their insertion may be). In Above the Law, Seagal’s Toscani does battle with the great actor Henry Silva, a CIA operative who’s using drug money to finance guerrilla warfare. While the action scenes are thrilling, there is quite a bit of attention paid to highlighting the nefarious activities of government agencies and the lack of oversight employed to keep them in check. The film even wraps with Seagal addressing Congress on the abuses of these agencies. This focus on corruption clearly announces a cinematic agenda on the part of Seagal from the word go. Indeed the majority of his films will advance some sort of progressive cause (e.g. animal rights, environmental pollution, evils of big business, etc.) amidst numerous scenes of Seagal breaking the limbs of thugs (which he does so well).
While Above the Law has much that is familiar to action fans (e.g. shootouts, fist fights, car chases, etc.), it also stands out from the crowd due to the performance of Seagal. Firstly, his aikido style is quicker and more brutal than most martial arts seen on screen up to that point in time (and even now). It isn’t flashy like a lot of the kung fu one sees in movies, but rather all business. Secondly, Seagal has a presence that is entirely unique among action stars. He’s a bit of an enigma (wrapped in a riddle), and one can almost sense that the mystery he promulgates is a smokescreen for a fellow who’s a bit of a charlatan (with the exception of his marital arts skill). This gives his onscreen persona an unintentional hilarity, in that viewers come away thinking he’s full of hot air. Additionally, from the way he holds a gun to the way he runs, the man moves in a way that is unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen. His movement often appears awkward (with the exception of aikido), and comes off as both strange and amusing. Nevertheless, he makes it abundantly clear that you do not want to mess with him.
It also bears mentioning that the release of this film marked somewhat of a watershed moment in action film history. The 80’s had been largely dominated by four major action stars: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bronson (yes), and Norris (of course). Certainly all would continue to work in the 90’s, but their true heyday was largely over by the close of the 80’s. Indeed, the arrival of Seagal heralded a virtual free for all of new action hero wannabes, vying to ascend to the throne of Top Dog (veiled Chuck Norris reference). Surely you remember these names: Michael Dudikoff, Jeff Speakman, Olivier Gruner, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme (the horror), etc. All had varying measures of success (Van Damme unfortunately the most), but Seagal was the one who almost pulled it off. Now you might suggest that some of these folks arrived on the scene prior to Seagal. That may be technically accurate but, as Seagalogy illustrates, none arrived on the scene as a full-blown star. That’s right, Seagal not only had a leading role, his first film was a star vehicle. Even Schwarzenegger appeared in bit parts at the beginning! Not Seagal. He didn’t have time to waste on such things.
So Above the Law was a triumph, and Seagal went on to appear in a string of successful films. I remember back in those days that every time a Seagal film was released, it automatically went to the top of the weekend box office. This went on for years! Can you even fathom such a thing? One aspect of Seagalogy I particularly like is that Vern divides up the Seagal filmography into eras:
The Golden Era: Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked For Death, Out For Justice
The Silver Era: Under Siege, On Deadly Ground, Under Siege 2, Executive Decision, The Glimmer Man, Fire Down Below, The Patriot, Exit Wounds, Ticker, Half Past Dead
DTV (Direct-To-Video) Era: Everything Else
This is a spot-on division of Seagal’s output, particularly with respect to Vern’s decision to place Under Siege in the Silver Era. Golden Era Seagal really is a heady period. The films flow one to the next, with Seagal laying out hard-hitting justice to corrupt officials and drug lords. Most importantly, justice is largely dispensed via aikido and limited gunplay (beginning with Under Siege aikido takes a back seat to bullets and explosives). Out For Justice is quite a capper to this period, as it represents the grittiest and most accomplished of the four films, and is also arguably Seagal’s best film. Under Siege then marks a turning point for Seagal. It was his first (and only) true blockbuster, and catapulted him to the level of mainstream superstar for a brief moment in time. As Vern identifies, this represented an opportunity for him to capitalize on his hard won clout and take his place as America’s favorite action hero. What he chose to do with his new power was perhaps ill-advised, but without question daring. Three words friends: On Deadly Ground.
On Deadly Ground saw Seagal unleashed. As mentioned previously, Seagal always managed to incorporate some kind of message into his films. Usually it dealt with government corruption of some sort, but more often than not the action was prominent enough to make the underlying theme almost subliminal. With On Deadly Ground, Seagal had full directorial control and input into the script. As such, the film is loaded with messages ranging from animal rights to the evils of big business. The real showstopper though is the finale in which Seagal gives a lengthy speech on man’s abuse of the environment. Not since the closing minutes of Above the Law (which by comparison was just a warm up) had Seagal so clearly enunciated his progressive views. Unfortunately, while the message may have been heartfelt and somewhat accurate, it was a bitter pill to swallow in a cheesy action movie headlined by a fellow whose greatest talent was the variety of ways he can break a limb. Consequently, the movie bombed with action fans and activists, sending Seagal down the slow decline to home video. Despite its financial failure however, On Deadly Ground is still quite a spectacle and more than just an action film. As such, it serves to add to the mystique of Seagal which separates him from the pack. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s head and shoulders above the generic action movies that were coming out left and right at the time . . . and now.
Although he toned things down after the failure of On Deadly Ground, fans just didn’t connect with him after that. The mainstream public likely became convinced he was a joke, whereas the faithful probably felt he had abandoned his hardcore action roots. No matter the reason, his box office power gradually eroded to a point where he was no longer a sought after commodity. To make matters worse, his physical appearance echoed his career decline, leading to films in which Seagal was clearly doubled by other actors rather than performing his own fight/stunt work. Ultimately, he has been relegated to direct-to-video features (churning out as many as four a year!), which for the most part are barely watchable. You still find the messages and themes typical of Seagal, but they are sandwiched into films that are neither visually interesting nor exciting. In fact, Seagal is in them very little. As mentioned, he is frequently doubled and often dubbed(!) by other actors. If you want to see a horrendous example of a DTV Seagal feature, check out Out For A Kill (available at the Chesapeake Public Library : ) Funny and sad.
As I said, Seagal’s career trajectory is truly fascinating, and his early/middle work is something special. If you’re a Seagal fan or just curious, you really should pick up a copy of Seagalogy. It’s a fun read, and it does a great job of capturing what makes Seagal an atypical action hero, worthy of analysis. It has inspired me to go back and revisit some of those early works, and I’m a better person as a result . . . or something. On a parting note, the book also features the best quotes from Seagal’s films. One that stands out as defining the man, particularly in light of his unwillingness to give up on filmmaking and embracing of Zen-like principles, comes from 1990’s Hard To Kill: “We're outgunned and undermanned. But you know sumpin'? We're gonna win. You know why? Superior attitude. Superior state of mind.” What wisdom. Of course he also said the following in the same movie: “I'm gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank!” Pure genius.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
The reigning DVD set in my collection was until this past Tuesday the Planet of the Apes Ultimate Collection (which is housed in a bust of Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Well, Warner Bros. has now upped the ante in the outrageous collector's edition department with their recent release of the Blade Runner Ultimate Collector's Edition. This 5-disc set comes with five versions of the film (including the fabled workprint), a 3 1/2 hour documentary, over an hour of unused scenes and footage, lots of featurettes, trailers, and more. To top it off, it's housed in a replica of Deckard's briefcase which includes a folio of art, toy Spinner, origami unicorn, and a lenticular film scene. Truly, this set is unbelievable.
What blows my mind is how far the collectible video market has come. I can remember in the early 90's purchasing a Criterion laserdisc of the International Cut of the film for $100 (one of these days I'll have to do a whole thing on the laserdisc era)! That disc just had a passable widescreen transfer, a brief section of "fan notes," and some artwork. $100! I walked out of the store with this ultimate set for $35 (with some discounts). Good grief. This thing is so packed, it's daunting to even the most hardcore fan to plow through all the information. Having said that, you will find things in this that will leave you in awe. Unused voiceover narration (complete with Harrison Ford complaining about its quality), tons of deleted material (most of which is fascinating), screen tests (including actors who didn't make the cut), etc. Even if you aren't a fan, you will likely find this stuff interesting as the making-of was apparently quite a drama itself.
Sets like this make one wonder what will come out next. Of course it bears mentioning that folks in foreign countries get even more of this kind of special edition packaging than we in the U.S. do. If you happen to have the capability of playing Region 2 discs, you could enjoy the entire Phantasm series housed in a silver sphere, the Alien series housed in an Alien head, or Event Horizon (yes, Event Horizon) in what else but a model of the Event Horizon ship! Insanity! My wish for the next year is that Gymkata will finally be released in a 10-disc set, encased in a pommel horse : )
Thursday, December 13, 2007
First off, we’ll be screening a major title in the form of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. This is the third entry in the Dracula series starring the legendary Christopher Lee, and picks up right where the previous installment left off. Having been frozen in ice at the base of his castle, the Prince of Darkness has been out of commission for a while. Not wise enough to leave things alone, a couple of holy men go to bless the castle and inadvertently awaken the Count, who not surprisingly goes on a rampage! This installment is one of the high points of the series and features all of the quality you would expect from 60’s era Hammer.
Second up is one of Team Fantasmo’s favorite Hammer films, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter! This one is sort of an odd feature, in that it was meant to launch an ongoing series of films. Unfortunately it was somewhat mishandled, and didn’t fare too well upon release. As a result, a second installment never materialized. The plot involves the heroic Captain Kronos responding to a call for help from an old friend, who believes there is evil afoot in his small village. Kronos quickly discovers that vampires are at work, and commences to laying waste to the responsible parties. Part adventure, part horror, this is one-of-a-kind in the Hammer library, and an experience not to be missed!
Here are your details, for this sure to be celebrated episode:
When: Friday, January 4
Where: Chesapeake Central Library
8:00 p.m.: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (Rated G)
10:00 p.m.: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (Rated R)
So here is your chance to start honoring your New Year’s resolutions right off the bat, by a) not missing a single Fantasmo, and b) seeing these two Hammer classics on the big screen, as they were meant to be seen! All this plus more details on the next year of Fantasmo, inspired commentary, and a veritable feast of snacks and prizes! See you there!
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
On a related note, when checking my email this morning I was notified of a new post by Fantasmo All-Star Craig. The post started as follows: “Just saw this tonight, and I admit that it was a very hard film to watch. I agree that the very real horror of this film . . . “. Up until the word film, I thought he was talking about CSTM : ) Turns out, he’d just seen The Mist! That being said, having heard Craig’s review of CSTM, I’m sure he would start out a post reviewing the Village People epic in much the same way. In any event , as long as you keep demanding it, we’ll keep showing it at the holiday show. Who knows what plot points I will discover next year!
Speaking of the holidays, Fantasmo regular (and founding member of Klaxar’s Focus Group) George Booker recently dropped me a message asking about ideas for “alternative” Christmas films. You know the kind of film we’re talking about here. The film may involve Christmas or be set at Christmas, but is not a Christmas film in the traditional sense (e.g. It’s a Wonderful Life). It was such a great question, I thought it might be fun to share my answer on the blog. So here’s a list (in no particular order) for those of you who need an escape from the likes of Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, A Christmas Carol, etc. . . .
1 – Better Off Dead (1985): Set during Christmas, this 80’s cult comedy finds John Cusack trying a number creative ways to kill himself after his high school sweetheart dumps him. An infinitely quotable film, worth seeing for the evil paperboy alone!
2 – Die Hard (1988): An action classic that needs no introduction. Bruce Willis delivers the holiday gift of hot lead to a team of terrorists who take over a skyscraper on Christmas Eve.
3 – Lethal Weapon (1987): Mel Gibson stars as a suicidal policeman coping with the loss of his wife during the “silly season.” Luckily he has Gary Busey to distract him. (Look for a cameo by Fantasmo favorite Tom “The Man” Atkins).
4 – Gremlins (1984): Zach Galligan (Waxwork) receives a mogwai for Christmas and makes the unfortunate mistake of feeding it after midnight. Luckily he has Phoebe Cates to distract him.
5 – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984): This one caused a major stir in the early 80’s, and is probably the most notorious alternative Christmas film. A young boy witnesses a killer dressed as Santa murder his parents, goes insane, and repeats the crime when he grows up. Not a great film, but certainly the best in this series. (See also: Silent Night, Deadly Night 2-5).
6 – Christmas Evil (1980): Probably the best entry in the “evil Santa” sweepstakes, this one follows another fellow obsessed with Santa. When folks doubt his authenticity, he goes off the deep end. This one plays up the dark humor over the grisly kills (e.g. Silent Night, Deadly Night) and is better off for it.
7 – Black Christmas (1974): One of the first, most effective slasher films out of the gate. Directed by Bob Clark (who ironically would later go on to do A Christmas Story), Black Christmas has a psychotic killer stalking sorority sisters at their largely deserted dormitory over Christmas break. Also features a great cult cast including Margot Kidder (Superman), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey), and the one and only John Saxon (Enter the Dragon)! Christmas + John Saxon = Holiday Magic!
8 – Brazil (1985): Terry Gilliam’s futuristic, dark comedy follows Jonathan Pryce as a hopeless dreamer struggling to survive in a dystopian nightmare. The film is set primarily at Christmas, and features some truly inspired gift-giving!
9 – Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Stanley Kubrick’s final film features Tom Cruise undertaking a dangerous odyssey on the streets of New York after an argument with then-spouse Nicole Kidman. Ultimately he lands square in the middle of a cult ceremony that could spell his doom! All during the height of the holiday season!
10 – Tales From the Crypt (1972): Great anthology film with a standout segment featuring Joan Collins being stalked by who else but a deranged Santa! Be sure to stick around for the rest of the movie, it’s terrific!
So there are 10 great cult holiday gems to get you started on your own marathon. Please feel free to post others here on the blog, and share the joy of the season with your Team Fantasmo and fellow Superfans! Also, final details will be coming soon for our New Year episode, which will feature a return to horror movies!!
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
What is it about this movie that has struck such a chord with your Team Fantasmo, and you the Fantasmo audience? I’m sure you all have your own answers, having surely given the question long hours of intense thought (which it absolutely deserves). For me personally, there is just some sort of alchemy at work in this film that makes it not only memorable, but downright enjoyable. As I’ve said before I’m no real fan of musicals (only a select few), but this one really stands out. The obvious component to chalk this up to is The Village People. No doubt many see them as an outrageous and kitschy reminder of the 80’s. To tell you the truth though, that’s not the case. Their music is actually pretty catchy here and, although the story is supposedly about their formation, they really take a back seat to the other goings on.
While I haven’t done any sort of in-depth study, I’m fairly certain if one clocked it they would find the bulk of the film is spent on Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, and Steve Guttenberg. The greatest attention is given to the antics surrounding the relationship that develops between Perrine and Jenner, as well as Guttenberg’s gutsy attempt to become a successful music producer. What’s so incredible is that the film manages to keep one drawn in despite the fact that these plot strands are defiantly uninteresting. How is this feat managed? Through the sheer awfulness of the performances . . . particularly Jenner and Guttenberg. To be fair, Jenner wasn’t an actor to begin with. He was merely capitalizing on his athletic success to launch a film career. Sometimes this works (e.g. Jim Brown), and sometimes it doesn’t (e.g. Brian Bozworth). In this case, one quickly realizes that Jenner would do best in cameo types of roles that require no greater reaction from the audience than “gee, there’s Bruce Jenner!” And I’ve said it before, but Guttenberg looks like his head is about to explode with each line delivery. This film should have destroyed his career, and had it not been for the wild success of Police Academy it probably would have.
Even though these performances are mesmerizing in their way, on their own they would not be enough to make Can’t Stop the Music special. That’s where the Village People come in. Just when you’ve had almost too much of the Perrine/Jenner/Guttenberg troika, director Nancy Walker wisely throws in a musical interlude (all of which give new meaning to over-the-top). With this back and forth recipe of disastrous performances and outlandish musical numbers, the movie never gives the audience time to catch their breath. Furthermore, at a running time of over two hours the film incredibly never overstays its welcome. The show-stopping finale featuring the title song leaves the audience indeed not wanting the music to stop (if this were an actual concert an encore would be demanded)! The ensemble number which assembles practically the entire cast (save for the rascally Paul Sand), truly serves as a melodious exclamation point declaring that try as one might, both the music and this brilliant film cannot be stopped!
So in summary, the reasons you should be on hand this Friday for Can’t Stop the Music:
1 – You can’t stop the music.
2 – Valerie Perrine.
3 – Bruce Jenner.
4 – Steve Guttenberg.
5 – The Village People.
6 – Team Fantasmo (shameless plug).
7 – See #1.
The magic begins promptly at 8:00 p.m., so don’t be late!! All this and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!! And please, feel free to post your excuses (er, reasons that is) for loving this film as much as we do. We'd like to hear them . . . we really would : )
Sunday, November 25, 2007
While his filmography dates back to the mid-70’s, Hauser made his first big cinematic splash in the 1982 film Vice Squad. Gary Sherman’s (Dead & Buried) standard crime thriller remains memorable to this day due to Hauser’s iconic villain performance. It was so strong, that it relegated Hauser to playing bad guy roles for most of his career (drawing comparisons in some circles to Richard Widmark), although he did manage to play a hero now and then (e. g. Dead Man Walking). From that jumping off point, Hauser worked steadily throughout the 80’s (and well into the 90’s) in numerous genre films including: Mutant, Uncommon Valor, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Beastmaster 2, Watchers 3, Tales from the Hood, and Original Gangstas to name but a few. Whether playing the villain (which he does so well) or the hero, his appearance always adds something special even to the blandest outing. He’s one of those folks who oozes charisma (often in the form of menace), and totally captures your attention when he’s on the screen. That he never became a major star is unfortunate, but you can still find him turning in memorable cameos on television in shows such as House and Monk (and for retro fun he appeared several times on The A-Team and Beverly Hills 90210).
My personal favorite Hauser film is the 1983 film Mutant. This zombie film is (despite a little cheese here and there), one of the best entries in that particular genre. In a setup echoing An American Werewolf in London, Hauser and his young brother enter an odd southern town where the inhabitants seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. When Hauser’s brother turns up missing after an overnight stay, he begins to unravel a mystery that involves water pollution and the undead! Although it could have been a throwaway B-movie, this one has great suspense, a top-notch cast, good effects for the time, and even an orchestral score! Oh, and it has one of the coolest 80’s horror posters! If you haven’t seen it, run (don’t walk) to check it out. It’s a great way to discover the Hauser magic (not to mention a great zombie film).
Friday, November 23, 2007
Hard to believe it’s been so long, but I read the original Stephen King story a little over 20 years ago. It quickly became my personal favorite from his catalog, only overshadowed in the intervening time by his Dark Tower series. The story is a pretty standard B-movie premise. A group of people gets trapped in a grocery store when a mysterious mist enshrouds their town. They quickly discover that there are deadly creatures lurking outside, which may have been unleashed at a military complex nearby. The rest of the tale involves their attempts to survive and escape. Been there, done that. However, what makes The Mist so memorable is the conflict among the people, rather than the battle with the creatures. Really the supernatural part of the tale is somewhat of an afterthought. Much more time is spent on character development, and how polite society breaks down in extreme situations. And boy does it break down!
In the small group trapped within the store, several factions emerge. You have the normal folks led by David Drayton (the book’s hero), the religious cult led by Mrs. Carmody, the “Flat Earth Society” who refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and a small military contingent who have an inkling of the source of the mist. Each of these groups have their own outlook and plans for action, and needless to say they do not mesh with one another. As a result it becomes apparent that the human threat is just as dangerous, if not more so, than that posed by the monsters. While it is a necessarily dark tale, King nevertheless provides us with a cautious sense of optimism through the selfless acts of several characters and a hopeful, if ambiguous, ending. It’s an engrossing story, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t read it (particularly fun if you’re a Lovecraft fan as well).
As a huge admirer of King’s story, I was quite excited to learn a film adaptation was finally coming out. It has been in development for quite a while, early on discussed as a television project (with Michael J. Fox as the lead). Don’t get me wrong, television can sometimes produce great things (e.g. Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot), but I was glad to hear it was going theatrical. I was even more pleased to hear that Darabont was at the helm. His earlier adaptations of King, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, were very well handled (even if they weren’t at the top of my list as King stories). Given the strong points of those adaptations, I thought he would nail the characters and human element of the story, while also capturing the proper tone (if not providing a spot on adaptation – which is difficult if not impossible in translating books to the screen). For the most part Darabont has done just that.
The film manages to communicate practically all of the significant elements of the book, and absolutely gets the human element right. This is not a monster movie. Yes, there are a few battles with the beasties here and there, but they are just as they are in the book – window dressing. The film, like the book, is about the people and their struggle with each other. The monsters are just there to provide the setup. A different movie, the Hollywood-ized version, would feature epic battles and probably delve into the military experiment that created the situation. You’d probably get a cross between Jurassic Park and Stargate. Here you have a 2-hour film devoted to folks who lose their cool in a supermarket. Which is as it should be.
All of this could not work of course without fine performances, and there is not a bad one in the bunch. From Thomas Jane as Drayton, to Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody, all are well realized and completely believable. The most important aspect is that character reactions to the situation seem genuine, and they certainly do. It is easy to see oneself in these people, and that’s part of what gives the story and the film such power. The only minor complaint is that Mrs. Carmody’s ranting seems a bit over-the-top at times, but it still works (and to be fair it was the same way in the source material). Interestingly, Carmody’s sermons manage to tie in several current issues ranging from stem cell research to the Iraq War. The film is not preachy about those, nor does it take sides. Instead it effectively shows how our conflicts at the micro level (the store), reflect our debates at the macro level (societal norms). This was not part of King’s tale so much, but it works nicely here.
Okay. Below, I’m going to get into a discussion of the film’s tone and there may be a few spoilers along the way. If you don’t want any hints about the book or film’s endings, stop here and skip down to the next section of bold text which indicates the end of spoiler country.
While Darabont has done a masterful job of translating the characters and plot points, where he strikes off on his own is the tone of the film. As I mentioned, although the book is somewhat grim, it nevertheless gives us a few reasons to hope. Our “heroes” all demonstrate elements that engender faith in humanity (e.g. love, compassion, and sacrifice), and the ending suggests that all is not lost. Not so in the cinematic version. Incredibly, although the film treads all the same territory as the book, Darabont has crafted it in such a way that it is unrelentingly grim. It’s difficult to pin down why, but I would say it has to do with a shift in emphasis. Whereas the book saw Drayton and others heroically fighting back against the threat, and passionately arguing for reason amongst the factions in the store, here those efforts seem utterly futile. Although they were no more successful in the printed tale, for whatever reason they provided some ray of light. Here we see in no uncertain terms that humanity would be doomed, and the voice of reason crushed in the face of chaos.
And then there’s the ending. Folks, this may be the single most disturbing ending I’ve ever seen in a film mainstream or otherwise. There are just a handful of films that I would say have “haunted” me after leaving the theater. Picking one that raised the bar highest is difficult, but I would say David Fincher’s Se7en is right up there. There are others with “downer” endings to be sure, but this will give you a frame of reference. The Mist makes Se7en look like a feelgood, adventure film. I’m telling you, the ending of The Mist is so uncompromising, it’s nothing short of a miracle that it made it to the screen. In the span of five minutes Darabont layers on disturbing revelation after disturbing revelation. I had heard going in that he had deviated from King’s story with a darker ending, and I had a guess as to what he might do . . . and he did just that. But then he kept going, and by the time the credits roll all you are left with is shell shock and utter despair. Perhaps the only thing left he could have done to make it more unsettling, was to flash back to the store and show everyone getting rescued. Otherwise, he has crafted the most disturbing ending possible.
Having said all this, you might think I’m displeased with the tone or the ending – not at all. I think Darabont has made something different from the source, which I loved, and utterly amazing. If you want to see a movie that thrills you and leaves you with faith in the human spirit, do not see The Mist. It is the polar opposite of such a film (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption). What he has managed to produce is something much more rare – a disturbing, emotionally devastating genre film. Anyone can tack on a “downer” ending to a film and then claim it’s “powerful,” or perhaps “brave” on the part of the filmmakers. That’s been done. What makes such an approach work is if the audience has been made to care what happens to the characters. And here you care. You REALLY care. Believe me, I’m as jaded a filmgoer as they come, and this one had quite an impact.
One might argue that Darabont has gone overboard with the ending by heaping on so much grief in those final moments. That he threw in everything but the kitchen sink just for the sake of doing so. I would agree, except that he ties it back to the overall theme of the failure of our humanity in extreme situations. How does he do this? With one simple shot. He shows the mother who asked for an escort at the beginning of the film pass by on a military transport with her children. Everyone in the store failed her, including Drayton, and they have reaped what they sowed. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, after all Drayton was responsible for his own son, but there’s some truth there. That moment gives the ending a depth that clarifies it is there for a thematic purpose, rather than for the simple motive of pushing emotional buttons.
End of spoilers.
Truly, I can’t recommend this film strongly enough. To me there are just a few “perfect” horror films, and this one comes very close to hitting that mark. I wouldn’t mind seeing Carmody dialed down just a bit, and sometimes there is a little too much CGI (although I think it was mostly well done). Nevertheless, this is not only an extremely solid adaptation of the source material, but an amazing alternate take on the themes explored in the story. Darabont has crafted one of the most gut-wrenching horror films of any era, but more importantly a film that transcends its trappings to say something about “us.” It’s not for everyone (definitely don’t go if you’re easily upset), but if you do brave The Mist you won’t soon forget the experience.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
And speaking of Steve Guttenberg, if you have yet to experience CSTM, you will not find a more insane performance in a major studio release. Guttenberg looks like he's about to burst a blood vessel in his forehead every time he delivers a line. I don't know if he's just excited to be there or what, but watch for this next time you see the film (which had better be Friday, December 7)! It's like he's yelling at all the other characters every time he speaks! Thank goodness he mellowed by the time he turned in the iconic performance as Mahoney in Police Academy. But enough about Monsieur Guttenberg . . .
In addition to CSTM, we will also be screening the 1978 musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is one I hadn't seen until a few years ago, but I must tell you it's right up there with CSTM. I remember the movie coming out when I was a kid, and the ensuing publicity blitz (particularly for the soundtrack). What I couldn't grasp at the time was why The Beatles were nowhere to be found (instead replaced by Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees). Having seen the film now I can understand why they had no involvement! It tries to mimic the lighthearted nature of classic Beatles films such as Help! and A Hard Day's Night, but doesn't quite make the grade.
The film follows the exploits of Billy Shears (Frampton), grandson of the late Sgt. Pepper, and his Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Bee Gees). All is rosy in their hometown of Heartland, U.S.A. until an evil record producer (Donald Pleasence) attempts to sign them to a contract (which will ultimately corrupt them) and steal their magical instruments. Luckily the mayor of Heartland (George Burns) and Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields are working to bring the group and instruments back home where they belong. Oh, and this tale is all told without a trace of dialog (except for a few introductory words and narration from Burns), which really is just asking for it. Oh, and you have performances from diverse talents ranging from Alice Cooper to Steve Martin (I kid you not). On the crazy meter this one's a home run, but how did they ever think it would fly?
I'll tell you how. The film was produced by Robert Stigwood, an uber producer of the late 70's, who churned out a stream of monster hits including: Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. Coming off that stream, Sgt. Pepper really made some sense (particularly the inclusion of The Bee Gees who were huge at the time). Unfortunately the movie is all over the map, features wildly uneven performances, and most importantly lacks The Beatles. Seriously, if you are making a movie out of one of the most famous albums of all time, you really need to have the artists responsible on board. Although I admittedly enjoy the interpretations by the various artists in the film, you just know Beatles fans are not going to embrace this sort of thing . . . and everyone else is just going to be scratching their head. Of course the film was a huge financial failure, and Stigwood's stock continued to fall during the 80's with unsuccessful sequels to earlier blockbusters (e.g. Grease 2, Staying Alive). Note: Despite his fall from grace, Stigwood also produced a couple of more winners in the 80's with Galipoli and The Fan (which featured a great early performance from Michael Biehn).
All that being said, this one has magical cult film written all over it. It may have managed to alienate purists and mainstream audiences, but it is so over-the-top that it has earned a loyal following since its disastrous theatrical run. The songs of course are catchy, and the bizarre performances and odd casting choices are truly inspired, making this a one-of-a-kind experience. I was hooked from the first viewing and have seen it numerous times since (much like CSTM). There's some kind of special allure with the musicals from the late 70's/early 80's, because I typically can't stand more than a few minutes of most others. Note: For another great 80's musical rarity check out The Pirate Movie with Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins!
While Sgt. Pepper may have its flaws, it serves as a potent reminder that films today just don't have the same unpredictability as they did in the 70's and 80's. Back then you could wander into a multiplex and see something unique (albeit odd), that defied expectations. Today mainstream cinema is largely homogenized and boring, with films carefully constructed to appeal to the largest number of moviegoers. Sure the film was a financial failure, but it surely deserves credit for going out on a limb . . . and producers like Stigwood should be admired for taking risks with such unusual projects, even if they didn't always pay off.
So here's your chance to see both of these unappreciated classics on the big screen, in all their sonic glory. Here's the rundown:
When: Friday, December 7
Where: Chesapeake Central Library
8:00 - Can't Stop the Music - Rated PG
10:30 - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Rated PG
Make sure to be there promptly - once the music begins it cannot be stopped . . . don't even try!
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Back to the subject of California, I found myself in beautiful Monterey for four days last week and it was a great trip. While my mornings/afternoons were spent learning about library technology, I did manage to sneak in some time for sightseeing in the evenings. And being one-half of Team Fantasmo, it probably comes as no surprise that I was on the lookout for cult movie happenings. Fortunately, since it was the week of Halloween, there was quite a bit going on. The absolute highlight was attending a double-feature of Dawn of the Dead/Shaun of the Dead at the Golden State Theatre (pictured above) in downtown Monterey. The theatre is an old movie palace that was built in 1926, and gloriously restored in recent years. They feature all kinds of cool shows, and have an International Film Festival coming up in November (kicking off with Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Monty Python and the Holy Grail)! If you want even more info on this extremely cool theatre, check out the Web site at: http://www.goldenstatetheatre.com/. If you ever find yourself out that way, you have to pay it a visit!
Of course, attending a horror film screening at such a venue certainly made me long for the days of old when such a thing was more commonplace. My hometown had a similar theatre which, up until I graduated from college, screened cult films at midnight every Friday and Saturday. I was able to see films like Eraserhead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zardoz, Evil Dead, The Man Who Fell To Earth, etc. on the big screen with an audience, and that experience is sorely missed. As much as I love being able to watch pristine copies of my favorites in ridiculously wonderful Dolby Digital surround in my living room, there's nothing to match seeing those films in an old school theatre.
And that my friends is why Fantasmo exists, and why Rob and I do this. We may not be able to perfectly re-create the ambiance of a movie palace here at the library, but we do just fine I think. I knew we were on to something when we screened Count Yorga at our second Fantasmo and people were laughing, cheering, and even screaming. I'd seen the film countless times, but that was the first time with an audience . . . and it was a whole new (dare I say more rewarding) experience. Again, while I enjoy being able to watch the film at home whenever I feel like it, it's nowhere near as fun as taking it in with the Team Fantasmo All-Stars and Superfans . . . not even close : ) A perfect example of this in recent days was when we screened Halloween III at our all-night Horrorthon. Instead of quietly watching the film (which no doubt 95% of the folks in the room had seen before and often), a marathon audience riff (from start to finish) on the superhuman abilities of its iconic leading man Tom Atkins erupted. Pure gold. It's moments like these that make Fantasmo the special event that it is, and why you'll notice every Fantasmo flyer has the tagline reminder that this is the way these films "were meant to be seen." With an audience, on the big screen. Accept no substitute!
And speaking of great films to be seen with an audience, our December episode is right around the corner. This will mark our second (now annual) holiday screening of the ultimate crowd favorite Can't Stop the Music! Since it's legendary debut at our first anniversary show, it has been in such demand that Rob and I now set aside one month that it will be shown every year. In addition, we'll be pairing it with the Fantasmo debut of the 1978 musical disaster Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatles music + Peter Frampton + The Bee Gees = The Greatest Musical Ever! Okay that's likely overstating the case, but we think you'll be pleased (we certainly will : ) I'll be back soon with dates and details so keep watching!
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
At its heart, Gymkata adheres to a typical martial arts/action film framework. A young hero must undergo strenuous training to defeat a well-trained enemy force threatening community/world peace and a love interest. However, the material is made memorable largely due to what should be its greatest weakness - rather than developing a story and casting the players, the producers started with gymnast Kurt Thomas and developed a film around him. This may seem ridiculous, but it certainly wasn’t the first instance of such a maneuver (see Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, etc.). However, unlike some of his contemporaries, Thomas projected little charisma or intelligence onscreen. That’s not to say he doesn’t possess these qualities, but that his limited acting ability didn’t serve to convey them. Incredibly, Thomas’s inept performance actually enhances the film, endowing it with an unintentional humor that is relentlessly entertaining. In trying to convince us that we’re watching the latest major action star to arrive on the scene, the producers overstate the case and send the film careening into the realm of the absurd.
Of course, in discussing Thomas one cannot ignore the obvious talking point which is the inclusion of gymnastics in the celluloid mix. Without question, the filmmakers were hoping this vital component would help Gymkata distinguish itself from the pack. Again, this may seem outrageous in 2007, but in 1985 the marketplace was overflowing with martial arts films, particularly those involving ninjas (and there are certainly ninjas to be found in Gymkata). Consequently, it wasn’t imprudent to look for novel elements to provide the film with a unique spin. However, while it might have appeared a move of genius during the pre-production phase, onscreen the gymnastic maneuvers come off as completely ridiculous. Often Thomas could far more effectively dispatch his enemies with a punch or kick, but instead goes through an elaborate routine that would most likely give the villains time to take him out. Furthermore, working the gymnastic routines into the proceedings is visibly labored, and manages to thwart any goodwill attempts at the suspension of disbelief (e.g. Thomas by chance coming upon a pommel horse in the middle of an isolated village). Luckily, as with the leading man’s painful performance, the unlikely gymnastics only bolster the entertainment value.
From the above one might conclude that there isn’t much going on here besides disastrous spectacle . . . and that is largely the case. Even so, there is an underlying historical value to the film that is not at once obvious. Returning to our leading man, it is interesting to note a bit about his background. Thomas was slated to compete in the 1980 Olympics, but President Carter decided the U.S. would boycott due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As such, Thomas missed out on the possibility of winning Olympic gold (and was awarded with the consolation prize of Gymkata). With that in mind, the plot of Gymkata would undoubtedly have a somewhat personal interest to Thomas. In a nutshell Thomas’s John Cabot is recruited to secure the right to establish a Star Wars defense site in a fictional Eastern European country (remember this was the height of the Reagan era), thereby giving the Soviets something to think about. With this in mind, Thomas is in a way acting out a big screen retribution against those who prevented him from realizing his Olympic potential. It certainly must have been odd starring in a vehicle that had connections to his personal life, and this adds an interesting layer when viewing the film. Although it’s largely set in a fictional, not to mention fantastical country, Gymkata is a rich snapshot of a moment in the 80’s political scene.
Another point I would be remiss not to mention, is the fact that Gymkata was directed by the great Robert Clouse. While Gymkata may not represent the high point of his career, Clouse was responsible of a string of wonderful B-grade action films and one bona fide classic. A few of these include: Black Belt Jones, The Ultimate Warrior, The Pack, Game of Death, The Big Brawl, etc. And the classic . . . none other than Enter the Dragon! With a pedigree like that, you know Gymkata can’t be all bad : ) In fact, it’s one of the best bad movies we’ve shown at Fantasmo, and certainly worthy of an encore! If you missed it the first time, you definitely want to be there on November 2 . . . and if you saw it the first time, we know you’ll be there on November 2! Well played Superfans!
Also, don’t forget that Cabaret Delirium is presenting Carnival of Souls tonight at the Bayside Inn! A creepy classic that is a must see. Check out the post below or contact George Booker (firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional details.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Although the post-Monster Fest doldrums may already be starting to set in you need not fear, as Team Fantasmo has a remedy in the form of Episode 31. November will mark our second annual greatest hits night, featuring two films you’ve voted on from all that’s come before. While it was a close race, I’m thrilled to announce that you’ve chosen The Mighty Peking Man and Gymkata!! While it’s true that I lobbied hard for these, I can assure you each and every vote counted. Indeed, MPM barely edged out The Omega Man and Death Race 2000. However, Gymkata won in a landslide . . . I’m just so proud of you guys : ) While it may never reach the status of Can’t Stop the Music, Gymkata is certainly up there in this member of Team Fantasmo’s book! I’ll be blogging about the film in the next week or so, giving you some more background and insight into this forgotten masterpiece, but in the meantime here are the official statistics:
When: Friday, November 2, 8:00 p.m.
Where: Chesapeake Central Library
8:00 p.m. The Mighty Peking Man (1977) Rated PG-13
9:45 p.m. Gymkata (1985) Rated R
So there you have it! The people have spoken! And for all of you naysayers out there, just remember it could have been much worse . . . it could have been The Apple!!
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Our perfectly selected film schedule this year is:
Creature From the Black Lagoon (in 3-D)
Brides of Dracula
From Beyond (Director’s Cut)
If you’ve never seen the last one on the list (a rare 80’s horror gem), prepare yourself for greatness . . . we’ve saved the best for last!
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
It’s finally October, and that of course means it’s the biggest Fantasmo month of the year! Not only do we have our regular Fantasmo coming up this Friday, October 5, at 8:00 p.m., but we also have Monster Fest and our all-night Horrorthon on Saturday, October 13 (more info to follow shortly). Before we dive into talking about Monster Fest, I have to say a bit about our Fantasmo this Friday. As mentioned earlier on the blog, we are devoting the evening to Vincent Price, and featuring two of his most celebrated performances: Masque of the Red Death and Witchfinder General. While both are amazing films, Witchfinder General in particular is worthy of special attention . . .
Witchfinder General has somewhat of a troubled history, having suffered from a great deal of tampering over the years. The film was produced in Great Britain, and released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm. It was retitled as such to maintain a connection with earlier AIP Edgar Allan Poe releases starring Price (e.g. Masque of the Red Death). However, the only connection the film had was a tacked on Poe reading by Price at the beginning and end of the film (bearing no relationship to the proceedings). Furthermore, material deemed too violent was cut from the film for its American release, with new scenes (which were quite saucy) included against the director’s wishes. To add insult to injury, later video releases even replaced the wonderful score by Paul Ferris with cheesy synth music. Thankfully, the original director’s cut has now been released, and we’ll be showing the preferred cut at this Friday’s Fantasmo.
In a nutshell, Witchfinder General finds Price playing inquisitor Matthew Hopkins, who roams the English countryside responding to summons from various villages claiming troubles with witchcraft. Operating under the assumption of “guilty until proven innocent,” Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Robert Russell) subject the accused to torturous trials that ultimately end in death. Worse still, Hopkins doesn’t even believe the accusations himself, but merely uses his position as an excuse to obtain monetary rewards from local officials. When Hopkins takes advantage of one soldier’s intended while the fellow (From Beyond the Grave’s Ian Ogilvy) is away on the front, he earns an enemy who won’t relent until vengeance is achieved.
Essentially, Witchfinder is a revenge flick set in 17th century England. Substitute Ian Ogilvy for Charles Bronson, and Price and Russell as the rampaging gang, and you have the equivalent of Death Wish translated into a historical piece. Of course, Witchfinder also has an underlying message about the evils of religious persecution and the abuse of government authority mixed in there as well. Hopkins is a sanctioned agent of the state, using his position to develop wealth and power. He could care less about the legitimacy of his actions, as his ultimate goal is self-promotion. Hopkins’ rise is permitted by the government, as his methods keep the locals under control through fear of imagined threats (i.e. witchcraft, devil worship, etc.). The witchfinder is supposedly able to rid the towns of corruption, when in fact innocents are being tortured to death in the name of religion.
While you can find related commentary in other films on the topic of witch trials and the like, Witchfinder General has received special attention largely because of Price’s terrific turn as Hopkins. Largely known for his tongue-in-cheek performances, Price here is deadly serious and completely believable as the soulless inquisitor. There are no winks to the camera as Hopkins watches victims tortured, drowned, and burned, and no relief when he takes advantage of the helpless loved ones of the accused. This results in an intensity that doesn’t let up even with the final frame. Legend has it that director Michael Reeves treated Price coldly (originally wanting Donald Pleasence for the role), perhaps leading Price to be more serious in his delivery. Whatever the case, you will see an entirely different side of Price in this film, as he creates one of the great villains in horror film cinema.
Truly, this is a Fantasmo experience not-to-be missed, and a great way to kick off the fall season. Masque will screen at 8:00 p.m., and Witchfinder General will screen at 9:45 p.m. We know you needed two great films to wash away the taste of Smokey and the Bandit 2 & 3 . . . rest assured you will find these are just what the doctor ordered : )
Also, don’t forget to keep sending in your votes for our greatest hits show in November! You can also vote at Fantasmo this Friday night, which will be the closing date for all votes! Just remember, keep those votes for Gymkata and Mighty Peking Man coming!!! See you on Friday!
Monday, September 24, 2007
Those of you who have been coming to the library for the past several years are probably familiar with the sci-fi/fantasy convention FantaSci which ran from 2002-2006. Yours truly created/coordinated that event for five years, and had an absolute blast doing so. Last year the program saw a record attendance of close to 4,000 visitors! While it was great to have so many fans come out and support FantaSci, it also brought home the realization that the event had outgrown the library . . . FantaSci became a victim of its own success! When I announced that the library could no longer host the event, a dedicated group of fans asked if they could don the jersey and carry on. I was thrilled to see their enthusiasm, and (with tear in eye) handed over the reigns. Their efforts are about to come to fruition . . .
This Saturday and Sunday, FantaSci 6(!) will take place at the Hampton Roads Convention Center. It will feature a variety of programs, guests, groups, and vendors as it has over the past five years. Of particular note, Battlestar Galactica’s Apollo himself, Richard Hatch, will be on hand to offer an acting workshop and greet fans. And never one to resist a shameless plug, your Team Fantasmo will be there on Saturday evening to host a “very special” edition of Fantasmo. We’ll be screening a couple of episodes of John Kenneth Muir’s The House Between (specially edited for FantaSci by John), and premiering the rollicking trailer for the second season of the show (you don’t want to miss it). For those of you who haven’t experienced THB yet, Rob and I worked on it the past few summers. It’s a sci-fi/horror epic masterpiece without compare! We’re scheduled to go on around 9:00 p.m. Saturday evening, so we hope to see you there!
For more information about the event, be sure to check out the Web site at: http://www.fantasci-hrcc.com/. For pictures and a brief history of FantaSci, they’ve also put up a great page at: http://www.fantasci-hrcc.com/about.html.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
For our 30th outing, we’ll be getting back to basics and screening two horror classics, featuring the legendary Vincent Price. The first film, Masque of the Red Death, is a Poe adaptation directed by none other than B-movie maestro Roger Corman. It’s a surprisingly polished affair, and features terrific cinematography by Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now). Great stuff! Perhaps even more exciting is our second feature, Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm) which arrives in a newly restored version. I’ll be writing about this at length as we near the event, but suffice it to say you don’t want to miss this film on the big screen! Here are the vital statistics:
When: Friday, October 5
Where: Chesapeake Central Library
8:00 P.M. – Masque of the Red Death (Not Rated)
9:45 P.M. – Witchfinder General (Not Rated)
Also, don’t forget we have Monster Fest coming up on October 13. It’s a daylong horror convention held here at Central Library from 9-5. Following the convention, we’ll be hosting an all-night Fantasmo Horrorthon starting at 8:00 p.m. (ending at dawn). There’s going to be a lot of great films this year, and a few surprises. More details will follow soon, so keep watching the blog!
Friday, September 14, 2007
It was getting close, and your Team Fantasmo was becoming a tad concerned, but our Bandit mustaches arrived in this morning's mail! So tomorrow night you will feel the pure adrenaline rush of what it's like to BE THE BANDIT (and to a lesser extent Jerry Reed), as we all don our incredibly realistic imitation facial hair! Prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime!! (Note: Remember only the first 50 through the door will be able to experience this rare sensation, so don't be late)! See you there : )
Monday, September 10, 2007
Here's a recent fan art submission that "Simpsonized" Rob and I. Question: How did the anonymous artist know which one of us liked Itchy, and which liked Scratchy?
Saturday, September 1, 2007
For our November edition of Fantasmo, we’re once again going to have a “greatest hits remix” where you pick the films! In anticipation of that wondrous event, Rob and I are (uncharacteristically) getting an early start and taking votes now (and at the next few Fantasmos). Below is a list of everything we’ve shown thus far . . . minus Can’t Stop the Music (a previous greatest hit selection which will now traditionally be a part of our Christmas episode). Feast your eyes!
The Mighty Peking Man
20 Million Miles to Earth
Invaders From Mars
Planet of the Vampires
Return of Count Yorga
Scream Blacula Scream
Escape From New York
Return of the Living Dead
My Bloody Valentine
Prince of Darkness
Horror of Dracula
Curse of Frankenstein
Death Race 2000
Night of the Lepus
Bloodsucking Pharaohs from Pittsburgh
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Night of the Living Dead
Curse of the Werewolf
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy Vs. Jason
Superman II: The Donner Cut
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Dr. Phibes Rises Again
The Amityville Horror
The Last Dragon
Food of the Gods
Godzilla Vs. Mothra
Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster
Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla
An American Werewolf in London
The Monster Squad
I don’t know about you, but every time I look over this list I get a little bit misty. Can you believe we’ve already watched 66 films together?!? And not a loser in the bunch! Okay, that is a blatant exaggeration . . . Bloodsucking Pharaohs is proof that mistakes are occasionally made (although in our defense that was an audience pick – even if Rob did make the mistake of carrying it in the building : )
As is customary, I will also take this opportunity to put in a plug for my two favorites: The Mighty Peking Man and Gymkata (of course)! The Mighty Peking Man goes back a ways, but if you were there on that magical night you know it is an experience demanding to be had more than once. As for Gymkata, Kurt Thomas “becomes John Cabot!” Seriously, is there anything that screams pure entertainment more than the fusion of the precision of gymnastics with the deadly art of karate? I think not.
So, mull these titles over and choose carefully Superfans. You can vote by sending me your choices via email at email@example.com or by showing up to the next few Fantasmos (which you should do regardless : ) We await your historic decision (just please, please, please vote for The Mighty Peking Man and Gymkata)!
Thursday, August 30, 2007
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was a studio trying to redefine itself for a new generation. In the wake of Star Wars, audiences were rabid for the space operas and fantasy films proliferating at the nation’s multiplexes. Furthermore, moviegoers were looking for entertainment that had a little more bite to it than the traditional films Disney was known for. Perhaps this caused a bit of a panic at Disney, because the studio decided to launch its own campaign to win the hearts and minds of teen/adult audiences. The first salvo came in the Christmas season of 1979, in the form of The Black Hole – the first PG-rated Disney film (a point that caused quite a stir). The movie was a blatant effort to cash in on the success of Star Wars, but in many ways it was far more subversive (featuring a climax that actually showed the film’s villain condemned to a pit of fire). The film’s juxtaposition of cute, Disney humor with very dark subject matter (including a graphic death or two) left audiences confused and cold. The end result was a box office failure.
Not to be deterred, the studio soldiered on with a batch of PG-rated films that continued to target older viewers. These included titles such as The Devil and Max Devlin (a religious comedy a la Oh God!), Condorman (a superhero misfire), and The Watcher in the Woods (an appeal to slasher/horror fans). Each of these proved to be unqualified failures (financially and artistically), and by the early 80’s the studio was reeling. So what did they do? They went completely for broke with a mega-budgeted science-fiction film! To really up the ante, it would even employ state-of-the-art, computer generated effects mixed with live-action. Say what you will about the final product, but you have to admire the gutsy individuals who greenlighted such an ambitious project at a perilous moment for the studio.
In the months leading up to its release, there was an outright media blitz promoting TRON. Perhaps most significant among the marketing tools was the initial TRON arcade game (others would follow) that popped up in malls across the country. Players could do everything from drive tanks and fight computerized spiders, to getting behind the wheel(?) of the film’s popular light cycles. Teen arcade dwellers couldn’t get enough, and poured in the quarters (this writer included). What I remember most about the game, was that had an intriguing cabinet with lots of design elements, and the graphics were outstanding in comparison to its competitors. It was rather difficult, and I stank at it, but it certainly was successful at working me into a frenzy to see the movie! There had been a few other game/movie tie-ins up to that point, but TRON was the one that showed how successful the proposition could be . . . at least on the gaming side. As it turned out, the film itself was a financial disappointment.
I remember vividly going to the local twin cinema on a Saturday evening, amidst the crowds, to see TRON on its opening weekend. Truly, I believe I was as psyched about TRON as I have ever been before or since to see a genre movie. The poster was great, the trailers showed off amazing special effects, and as already pointed out, the game had kept the film in my awareness on a near daily basis! Nevertheless, after seeing the final product I couldn’t help but be a bit under whelmed . . .
The problem with TRON, upon that initial experience, was that it did not conform to the sci-fi epic template that was prominent at that time. Movies like Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, etc., were all about larger-than-life heroes and swashbuckling action. TRON on the other hand, while featuring strong performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner, is a more distanced affair. Sure Bridges’ Flynn is cocky, and Boxleitner’s TRON heroic to a fault, but they lack a certain flair possessed by the heroes in the aforementioned films. Part of this has to do with the writing (which doesn’t develop their characters all that well), but I believe the main problem is that they are overwhelmed by the effects.
When one thinks about a film like Star Wars for example, memory conjures up strong impressions of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, etc. As a young moviegoer, I wanted to be Han Solo! I took part in numerous discussions about the coolness of these characters, and still have fond memories of those films. And while I thought the effects were amazing (still do), it was the characters that made the films special. That being said, I never found myself daydreaming about being Flynn or TRON. They just didn’t make much of an impression. So, while I was awed by TRON’s images, it failed to connect on an emotional level.
This brings me to my primary point about the film, and perhaps highlights the most important role it would play. TRON, to my knowledge, was the first film to use computer generated images in any significant way. Indeed the film was about computers, so it makes sense that it would highlight effects created by computers. However, because the actors were working primarily on non-descript sets, with no scenery to react to, it could be argued that their performances suffered. In all fairness, it must be pretty difficult to convey the thrill of piloting a light cycle when you’re just sitting on a cardboard box! Furthermore, because of the perfectly clean nature of the effects, they come off looking . . . false. Sure they’re really pretty, but one never feels it’s a “real” world. All of these elements combine to make TRON a visually interesting experience, but one without much depth . . . a problem even more glaring in a summer with thoughtful genre films such as Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, The Thing, etc.
Flash forward to the present, and audiences are now bombarded with blockbusters that feature predominantly computer generated effects. It is all too rare that Hollywood genre pictures utilize old school models and rubber creature effects that gave earlier films such a “realistic” feeling. When watching horror/sci-fi films of the 70’s and 80’s, there’s much more of a connection to the proceedings because viewers know that everything on-screen took place in the real world (albeit through visual trickery). Even when effects appear fake, there’s still something about their tangible nature that makes them more successful. If nothing else, the actors have something to play against, and therefore are more likely to give “natural” performances. One need only look at films like The Phantom Menace to see how acting can be compromised, and characters sidelined, in favor of making things “look pretty.” While I can still appreciate the artistry of these endeavors, they don’t make for films I’m likely to care about a year from now.
So, in the final analysis, what does this mean for TRON? For myself, I’ve come to appreciate the film quite a bit over the years. There’s still an emotional connection missing, but I do enjoy the nostalgia it evokes (mostly the experience of playing the various video games). Additionally, I always love villainous performances from David Warner (and his Sark is great), and there are some exciting moments in the film to be sure (e.g. the light cycles). But TRON had the benefit of being the first out of the gate, making it somewhat special. In the current climate, it would enjoy no such advantage and would likely become lost among the glut of CGI blockbusters. Perhaps my feelings about the film are best expressed by the experience I had the evening I saw it. When we returned home from the theater, there was a sci-fi double-feature on cable of Alien and Outland. I sat up late watching both, and by the end TRON (for the most part) was a fading memory . . .
Friday, August 24, 2007
While it would be easy for me to write about the popularity and importance of the first two films, personally I have always found the third one to be the most fascinating. This is not because it is some misunderstood/lost classic, but due to the fact that it is one of THE legendary Hollywood disasters. You know others that belong to this list: Xanadu, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Howard the Duck, Town & Country, Theodore Rex, and even . . . Can’t Stop the Music (forgive me)! These are films that have become synonymous with large scale failure and folly, and therefore are interesting to analyze in terms of where the train left the tracks (although for some it started at the idea level).
With regard to Bandit 3, there’s nothing mysterious about how this project was initiated. Clearly a winning formula had been established, and continuing to capitalize on the tent pole property was a no-brainer. The only problem was that this time around neither Needham or Reynolds were interested in participating (they were busy working on another misguided effort called Stroker Ace . . . which was still probably better than Bandit 3). With dollar signs in their eyes, the studio execs soldiered on despite the loss of their director and star. They somehow managed to lure Jackie Gleason back, most likely because he would finally become the star of the show. Hence the infamous working title, Smokey is the Bandit!
The film was shot with another standard plot of the Enos Brothers betting the hero he couldn’t successfully accomplish some outrageous task (in this case transporting a model shark from Texas to Miami for a restaurant opening). Only this time, they make the bet with Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason), the nemesis of The Bandit. As such, Smokey and The Bandit are one and the same. This development proved confusing to test audiences, prompting the filmmakers to make a drastic change to the film. In an effort to make the plot more palatable/familiar, The Bandit was reinstated in the form of Cledus (Jerry Reed), the sidekick from the first two films. The imaginative authors of the screenplay attributed this to the fact that the real Bandit was unavailable for the mission. Indeed, Reed dons The Bandit’s signature outfit, complete with fake mustache, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Reed shot his scenes after the film was in the can, and they had to be cut into the existing footage. Not a recipe for success! The end result is a disjointed mess, which must be seen to be believed. And as for Reed . . . well let’s just say he makes a great Cledus.
Needless to say given its problems, the film was an absolute bomb. It grossed well under $6 million at the box office (Smokey and the Bandit II grossed about $70 million), and killed the series (not to mention some acting careers). Reynolds probably had a good laugh about the whole thing, since he appeared for a fleeting (although expensive) cameo ¾ of the way through the film. Of course, the box office returns and effects of Stroker Ace would not see him laughing for long. Although the series had certainly outlived its welcome, it was still a shame to see it go out on such a low note. Leave it to Hollywood to make a sequel so abysmal it actually manages to tarnish the good entries that came before!
Normally, Rob and I would save a film like Bandit 3 for our all-night Schlock-O-Thon, but the opportunity to screen the trilogy was just too tempting. You might think having given such a harsh review to the third entry that there would be nothing to recommend it – nothing could be further from the truth. This isn’t your garden variety bad movie we’re talking about here, this is the stuff of legend! Smokey and the Bandit 3 is outrageous in its awfulness to the point that it induces one’s jaw to drop lower and lower with each passing moment. Witnessing it after seeing the earlier films will provide a rare opportunity to truly appreciate the shocking velocity of the series’ precipitous drop in quality. Actually I don’t even feel comfortable using the word quality in any context when talking about Bandit 3 : )
Nevertheless, don’t let any of my detractions discourage you from experiencing the joyous wonder of what is truly one of the worst films (especially from a respected series) ever made!