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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Weird Movie Village Is Three Years Old!

It's hard to believe when I wrote my first post (about working at the drive-in, of course) that three years and 150 posts later, Weird Movie Village would still be going strong.

Fortunately, there's an endless supply of cultural strangeness to draw from, so there'll always be something to write about.

I've enjoyed sharing memories of my drive-in days, favorite film genres and star spotlights, and I hope you've enjoyed the addition of contemporary film and local L.A. theater reviews. And if you haven't read my three-part series on Horror Hags, you really must check it out. This year, I also plan to make some themed videos to add another dimension to the blog.

While there's an appalling amount of cultural vapidity today, represented by drek like Dancing with the Stars, horrible real housewives, anything Kardashian and the little-girl-screamy Paranormal Activity series, the media is also growing up in many ways. Cable television has become a godsend for those of us demanding mature entertainment. AMC's Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are taboo-breaking series that provide viewers with an unapologetic kick in the teeth—and we love it.

Last week I had the honor of attending a Breaking Bad panel discussion with the cast and creator (pictured here) at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and it was fun to get their insights on their characters. Even Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) came back from the dead to share his thoughts. It's clear that this cast has a warm—even familial—working relationship, and Cranston is very funny.

There were no spoilers about the upcoming season, but the decision to have an end date is a wise one. Unlike other series that keep running to the point of ridiculousness, the story of Walter White will have a well-judged conclusion. And I got caught up playing a Jesse Pinkman graphic novel game over at amc.com.

The Walking Dead, meanwhile, continues to impress me with its ever-tightening noose of a storyline. And it's as gory as anything George Romero ever made.

This season, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) was forced to kill living people to protect his clan, and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) has gone all Lady Macbeth on him, warning that Shane (Jon Bernthal) is a threat to everyone's safety. Wonder who'll end up dead?

I'm going to try out the Walking Dead Story Sync this coming Sunday. It's a web app that offers live chat, snap polls and exclusive video during the broadcast. A great invention for our ADD generation!

Over on pay cable, I'm looking forward to the season premieres of Nurse Jackie, The Big C and The Borgias. Emmy winner Edie Falco is a delight as Jackie, and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong will appear as an addict in the upcoming season. Bobby Cannavale is doing double duty this year as he joins the casts of both Jackie (as a new hospital administrator upon whom Coop develops a mancrush) and Boardwalk Empire (as a new enemy for Nucky). Big C creator Darlene Hunt also promises some surprises for her series and refuses to confirm or deny that Paul (Oliver Platt) is actually dead.

Showtime entertainment president David Nevins says that Dexter and The Borgias are going to experience changes, too. He says that both shows will head off in different directions, with the latter placing more of an emphasis on action. I like The Borgias just fine, but Dexter definitely needs a fresh perspective after a truly lousy season six. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker, the better Dexter gets (psychologically), the worse Dexter may become.

Happily, Showtime's Shameless continues to be a lot of fun, with Academy Award-winner Louise Fletcher a riot as Frank's criminal mother. I said it before and I'll say it again—this is a series with room for such cult favorites as Mary Woronov, Susan Tyrrell and Karen Black!

At HBO, however, last season's True Blood was awful—a ridiculous cartoon. Hopefully it will redeem itself this coming year. I'm looking forward to Christopher Meloni joining the cast as a badass vampire who holds Bill and Eric in his power.

Turning to the world of genre films, Dario Argento premiered 25 minutes of his 3D Dracula at the Italia Film Festival, and FearNet seemed to like what they saw, even saying it had a Hammer Films vibe. It would be nice to see the old maestro get his mojo back one more time.

Sadly, the asinine Paranormal Activity series and its REC ilk shows no sign of slowing. As I said before, it's absurd that the torture porn of the Saw series has been replaced by the cinematic equivalent of going into a darkened bathroom, looking into the mirror, and repeating "I believe in Mary Worth" three times. Hell, even the Saw guys have joined in with the equally dumb-assed Insidious, which is also getting a sequel.

I covered other upcoming horror movies in a previous post, but the list of projects that are still "in discussion" is pretty interesting. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick are in talks to return to Blair Witch 3, which is going to need some serious marketing help after the Book of Shadows disaster. Original Jeepers Creepers star Gina Phillips is scheduled to return for the third installment, another franchise that needs repair after the hilariously homoerotic and awful Part Two.

Creepers
director Victor Salva is going the direct-to-DVD route with Rosewood Lane, a story about a radio talk show host versus a malevolent newspaper delivery boy. Is he going to be as scary as the one in Better off Dead who keeps showing up to demand his two dollars?

I'm interested in the adaptation of Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief. It's in development with Imagine Pictures, and it'd be great if they could interest Neil Jordan in taking the reins again.

Italian goremeister Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) is looking to get back in the game with Cannibals, which has been tossed around for about four years, and The House On the Edge of the Park Part II, with Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen) reprising his role from the 1980 original, is said to be in pre-production. More power to them, I say, but where will they get stateside distribution? The grindhouses are sadly long gone.

Gingerclown stars the voice of Tim Curry as the animatronic title character, which seems to be a foul-mouthed update of his Pennywise in the TV-movie It! The film also features vocal work by Lance Henriksen, Brad Dourif and the recently-arrested Sean Young. It sounds so off-the-wall that it just might be a nice surprise.

George Miller, who directed the original Mad Max, is scheduled to return for Mad Max: Fury Road, but Mad Mel won't be reprising his role—it'll be Tom Hardy instead. I enjoyed the remake of Clash of the Titans, so I won't mind seeing Wrath of the Titans, coming next month. Expect more dimensional bouncing breasts with the release of Piranha 3DD, whose title even seems to be a reference to bra size. The Evil Dead reboot is set for 2013, as is the unlikely 300: Battle of Artemisia. But Green Lantern 2? Is that really going to happen?

The internet is a great place to indulge one's passions for horror and cult entertainment. My favorite sites include Bloody Disgusting, a good place for multimedia horror. BD even moved into feature film distribution with AMC Theaters to bring obscure/foreign horror films to American screens. Shock Till You Drop is also a good source for news and scoops. For fascinating, in-depth stories about amusement park "dark rides," Laff in the Dark is a great, professionally-produced site. The Terror Trap takes a fond look back at more classic horrors, but if you just want to indulge your passion for bad movies, here's a site to take care of that for you. If you're a die-hard Mystery Science Theatre fan, Justin TV broadcasts complete episodes all day every day, with occasional Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic shows thrown in.

To order obscure DVDs, I recommend Cinema de Bizarre, Mike Vraney's great Something Weird Video and Sinister Cinema, a distributor I found advertised in Psychotronic Magazine way back in the 80s and still order from. I love Sinister's drive-in double features. Each disc includes two movies that may have actually played together back in the day, previews of coming attractions and great snack bar commercials, all for just $14.95 apiece! And if you're looking for classic 1970s TV movies, J4HI has titles like Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (with Linda Blair!) and Trapped, featuring James Brolin locked in a department store with a pack of vicious guard dogs.

Well, it's been a fun three years here at Weird Movie Village. If you're a returning visitor, I thank you for your patronage. And, as always, I'd be delighted if you left a comment. Criticism, story suggestions...you name it!

Now let's wrap up this historic post with a commercial for a drive-in theater toy featuring a tiny Patty Duke and a little boy with terrifying eyes:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Give the Best Picture Oscar to Hugo!

The Academy Awards are coming Sunday, and the category I'm most anticipating is Best Picture, because I want to be able to swoon with delight when the upset of all upsets is announced... Martin Scorsese's Hugo!

Something in my gut tells me that the Academy will present the award to The Artist, but Hugo really deserves the statuette, and not just because I think it's probably the best-made film among the nominees, but because it's also a wonderful lesson in film history.

Scorsese's long been a passionate advocate for film preservation, so it's no surprise that he would take this subject to make his first "family" movie. It's beautifully acted and wonderfully designed, and here the veteran director shows everyone how to make a 3D movie. I felt like I was inside a snow globe while I was watching it—just wonderful.

Asa Butterfield is Hugo, an orphan who lives secretly in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps all the clocks running (a job his uncle, who'd mysteriously disappeared, used to perform). He steals what he needs from the various shops in the place, and runs afoul of one of the vendors (Ben Kingsley), an elderly man who sells clockwork toys. He needs parts from the toys to finish rebuilding an automaton that his clockmaker father had been working on when he died in a tragic lab explosion.

The shopkeeper accuses Hugo of stealing and takes away his notebook filled with sketches and schematics for the automaton. He seems to recognize it and demands to know where the boy got it. Hugo refuses to say, so he tells him he's going to burn it as punishment. In his efforts to retrieve the book, he becomes acquainted with the man's granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an orphan herself, and their adventure begins.

What begins as a mystery about a lonely little boy and an automaton becomes a film about the love for film, a project ideally suited for Scorsese. Of course, the shopkeeper is Georges Méliés, father of special-effects movies, now forgotten and down on his luck. Kingsley is wonderful as Méliés, as is the rest of the cast. Butterfield is ideal as Hugo, and Moretz, who won me over as the vampire in Let Me In, is perfectly charming here. Helen McCrory is moving as Jeanne, Méliés' devoted wife and former star. Even Sacha Baron Cohen is less annoying than usual.

In various smaller parts are Jude Law (as Hugo's father), The History Boys' Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour, the great Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Ray Winstone.

It's not surprising that Scorsese would hit a home run with this film. He's broken genre boundaries before. In 1974, he made a "woman's film" that everyone could enjoy—Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which earned Ellen Burstyn the Academy Award for Best Actress. And The Last Waltz, about the Band's final concert, is considered to be right up there with Woodstock as one of the best music documentaries ever made.

Still, coming from a director whose characters usually end up ventilated instead of fulfilled, it's amazing how well he handles this material. Kudos too go to John Logan's adaptation of Brian Selznick's book and Howard Shore's lush score. And the 3D recreations of Méliés' films are just astounding.

I know The Departed wasn't that long ago, but I can't think of a film more deserving than Hugo for the Best Picture trophy this year. I mean—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? War Horse? Yeesh. I also hope that Brad Pitt derails the Clooney bandwagon and wins for Moneyball. I mean, I like Clooney and The Descendants was a perfectly serviceable TV movie with a standard-issue Clooney performance, but Pitt was terrific and muti-dimensional as Billy Beane in a film that could have been stultifying but was wildly entertaining instead.

I'd also like to see Christopher Plummer win for Beginners. I didn't see any of the pictures with Best Actress nominations, but it'd be nice to see Viola Davis or Michelle Williams take the trophy instead of Streep's cartoony-looking performance. I don't feel strongly about any of the Supporting Actress nominees except that I'll give a head-slap and side-eye if Melissa McCarthy wins for her scenery-chewing performance in the flatulent Bridesmaids.

Monday, February 13, 2012

This means war!

Over the past week, I saw two quite different war-themed films—one drawn from the pages of recent history and the other derived from the work of the Bard himself. How do they measure up?

The esteemed actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays. He also stars as the title character, General Caius Martius, a bloodthirsty brute in charge of defending Rome against its Volscian enemies, commanded by the equally vicious Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).

Martius leads a successful charge against the Volscian city of Corioles and returns home victorious, but war has created a complete meltdown of Roman society, and the people suffering in the streets are loathe to see him as a hero. There are also conspirators in the senate who are anxious to see his downfall.

He is given the honorarium Coriolanus (after the city he'd conquered) and his manipulative mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), presses him to secure a place in the Roman consul. However, his lack of compassion for the common man and inability to play the political game inspires contempt in those who so recently revered him, and he is banished, driven by vengeance to conspire with his former enemies to launch an attack on Rome.

Fiennes places this centuries-old play in contemporary settings to give it contemporary relevance, and mostly succeeds. Although the drama takes place in war rooms and bunkers and crumbling streets, the language is all Shakespeare, which may frustrate some audiences with its almost musical cadences and lack of directness. Still, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have pared the play down to its essentials and used such modern trappings as cutaways to news reports on HDTVs to keep the action moving.

And Fiennes is certainly a sight to behold as Coriolanus—his bright blue eyes burning under a fierce brow, face covered with battle scars, lip curled with rage—it's hard to believe this is the same actor who almost twenty years ago was the rather effete leading man in The English Patient.

Butler plays Aufidius with an appealingly muscular brogue; indeed, the scenes featuring the two of them locked in battle ring with a kind of sadistic homoeroticism. The always great Brian Cox portrays the well-intentioned adviser Menenius, whose devotion to Coriolanus proves fatal. Jessica Chastain is appealing in her brief scenes as his wife, but there's one actor besides Fiennes who makes the most of her role—and that's Vanessa Redgrave.

The legendary actress gives a career-defining performance as Volumnia. As ferocious as her son, she's a stage mother so ambitious that she thrills to his new battle scars and snarls "Anger is my meat!"

She even throws his wife aside to tend to his wounds herself in a scene that's intentionally—and uncomfortably—incestuous. As terrific as Fiennes is (and as well-done this film is), I'm grateful to him for giving the last original member of one of the storied English acting families the opportunity to deliver a truly great performance.

Red Tails, an action film about the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of heroic African-American pilots who served in World War II, earned a pathetic 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I have to say that's pretty damn harsh.

I went into the screening expecting exciting air battles and a cheesy story, but that's not quite how it worked out. Certainly the screenplay is lighter than air, but the actors are enthusiastic and all the required dramatic points are covered. And it's fun to watch!

The story in short: at a time when black men in America were considered subservient and unable to withstand combat, a valiant group of pilots sought to prove them wrong. Certainly many of the characters are stereotypes (particularly a nyah-ha-ha German pilot), but it's fun and fast-paced and does a fine job bringing these brave airmen to life, rather than burying them in moribund earnestness. It's more of a flashback to the films that were actually made during the war and intended to boost the morale of audiences at home.

Terrence Howard is fine as the tough-as-nails Colonel Bullard who fights the military machine to get his men better planes and better assignments, but Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., alternates between bad and funny as Major Stance, the leader of the squadron. It might be the fault of the editor, but he's putting his pipe in his mouth at the beginning of every scene he's in like some 1950s sitcom dad. What isn't the editor's fault is his mawkish delivery of some of his lines.

The actors portraying the pilots all seem to be having a good time, even when they're delivering some of the screenplay's hoariest dialogue, but the film chronicles the racism of the time, delivering the emotional satisfaction of seeing the pilots overcome adversity and earn acceptance into the formerly whites-only Officers' Club.

I was surprised to see that Aaron MacGruder, creator of the radical "Boondocks" comic strip, was given co-story credit, but he explained in press materials that this film was designed to have a comic strip flavor...and that it certainly does.

The action's the thing here, and it's exciting and wonderfully rendered (except for the opening sequence, which looks too much like a video game). Evidently, live aerial footage was mixed with CG to achieve a more realistic look—and it works. International effects company Pixomondo, which also did effects for the superb Hugo, created many of the aerial stuff, working with Lucas' own ILM.

My final judgment: several dramas and documentaries have already been made about this noble squadron, so what's the problem with making an exciting actioner that highlights their exploits and emphasizes their heroic stature—a black Top Gun?

It's been reported that Levi Thornhill, one of the original Tuskegee airmen, attended a Los Angeles screening and thought it was terrific. And Warren Dart, the son of squadron member Clarence Dart, pointed out that he wasn't even taught about the Airmen in high school, so he appreciated seeing a lively film like Red Tails.

So what's so wrong with that?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Great Horror Movie Scores

An evocative score is an important element in a film—especially a horror film. While no score at all can be nerve-jangling (Hitchcock's The Birds, anyone?), effective music can be as iconic for a classic horror movie as the images themselves. Can you listen to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" without visualizing Linda Blair's head spinning around? Or catch a few bars of 45 Grave's "Party Time" and not think of zombies crawling out of the mud?

Here, in no particular order, is a short list of some scores that I think transcend the ordinary, approaching sublimity and forever providing a sonic shorthand for the films they represent.

1. Rosemary's Baby and Dance of the Vampires. The worlds of music and cinema were unnecessarily robbed in 1969 when Polish jazz musician and composer Krzysztof Komeda died of a brain haematoma that is said to have been improperly treated. A favorite of Roman Polanski, he provided the scores for two of the director's biggest films.

I have the score of 1968's Rosemary's Baby on vinyl and it's wonderful. Among the highlights: the stuttering trumpet during "Panic," when Rosemary is trying to escape the clutches of the coven; the sudden rising of the weird recorder music and chanting when Rosemary and Guy are messing around on the floor of their new apartment at the Bramford; and Mia Farrow's deceptively sunny lullaby that opens and closes this marvelous film.

Komeda is completely up to the task, weaving menace through Manhattan with a score that sounds simultaneously otherworldly and hip.

1967's Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers) is a different challenge—a period piece and a comedy to boot. Either Komeda was coached by Polanski or was able to synch into his mind via ESP, because he understood that the slapstick humor was merely a cover for something much darker—a story about a vampire dictator lording it over not only his converted disciples but also the terrorized townspeople. It's not an accident that Polanski prominently features a Jew converted to vampirism as one of his major characters.

Again, Komeda rises wonderfully to the occasion. His score is chillingly beautiful, as befits the freezing climate in the film. Even during Dance's lighter moments, when he brings in a chorus to accompany the musicians, the singers sound....well, dead.

2. Suspiria (1977). My God, talk about an epoch-making score. I was 17 years old when I saw Argento's masterpiece at the State-Lake Theater in Chicago and became aware of surround sound in film for the first time, although I'm sure I'd heard it before. But Suspiria was so loud...and the sound of breathing was all around me. Even though it was the Fox International Classics edited-down-for-an-R release (which they're still running on Fox Movie Channel), I was blown away by the violence...and Goblin's awesome music.

Suspiria had such a profound effect on me that I programmed it when I was running my college's 16mm film shows back in the day. The film rental company didn't send me the correct scope lens, however, so I was forced to screen it squished—and everyone in the audience was so riveted they stayed for the whole thing, even though everyone on the screen had severe anorexia. When I moved to California, I found a brand new vinyl of the soundtrack on Venice Beach for $5.00 in 1981 and it's still one of my most prized possessions. Witch!



3. Carrie (1976). I love the scores of Pino Donaggio. His career highlights include music for The Howling, Piranha, Dressed to Kill and Don't Look Now, but I still have to give the career achievement award to his magnum opus—Carrie. It's lush and string-driven, giving the necessary emotional weight to the spectacular performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

Since religious fanaticism is a major theme in the film, Donaggio's music is very liturgical, although he does create some light stuff for those unfortunate "mod" scenes De Palma threw in.

Co-star Amy Irving's sister Katie provided vocals for two of the prom songs, but strangely she doesn't seem to have done much of anything else. I still have the original score on vinyl that I bought when I was 16...and it still sounds great.

4. The Omen (1976). Jerry Goldsmith won the Academy Award for his ferocious score accompanying Richard Donner's film about the arrival of the Antichrist on earth. Now when I watch the film, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick remind me uncomfortably of Ron and Nancy, but Goldsmith's music is still majestic as ever, taking religious themes and turning them into something far more sinister.

Goldsmith's celebrated career contained a number of horror highlights—Alien, Poltergeist, Planet of the Apes and Gremlins, to name just a few. Not a horror film, but one of his best is his jazzy score for Polanski's 1974 classic Chinatown.

5. Creepshow (1982). John Harrison's synthesizer score for George Romero's anthology film is great fun, particularly the main theme with its chanting and sighing singers. Based on stories by Stephen King, it features a screenplay by the author and he even shows up in a story. What a hambone.

But Harrison hits all the right notes (ha!) with his playfully creepy music that fits the film's comic book images perfectly. And Viveca Lindfors is so hilarious as crazy Aunt Bedelia in "Father's Day."

Harrison also did the music for Romero's company's syndicated series, Tales from the Darkside and the feature Day of the Dead before moving into directing himself.

6. Psycho (1960). Certainly endless pages have been written about Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's shock masterpiece, but it belongs here, too.

Herrmann made the daring choice of using strings only for Psycho. In an interview given in 1971, the composer explained that he did so because he felt that he could complement the black-and-white photography of the film by creating a black-and-white sound. And the shrieking, stabbing music accompanying the shower scene almost didn't happen, because Hitch didn't want music. However, he was unhappy with the finished product, and Herrmann talked him into providing his famous cue.

I don't have the soundtrack album, which wasn't released in its complete form until 1996, when it was performed by the Scottish National Orchestra, but I do have a cover of the theme song by the Fibonaccis, a Los Angeles art punk band from the early '80s.



7. Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Not a horror film in the strictest sense but an extremely dark fantasy, Guillermo Del Toro's masterwork is graced with a hauntingly beautiful score by Javier Navarrete, who also scored Del Toro's 2001 The Devil's Backbone.

It features a profoundly moving lullaby that recurs throughout the film and is poignantly reprised during the film's tragic final moments. Working with a large orchestra, Navarrete weaves a dense tapestry that requires music for two stories—the real horrors of war in Franco's Spain and the fantasy world that young Ofelia retreats into. A chorus of male voices adds appropriate menace to the darker passages and exhilarating, soaring strings accompany the brighter fantasy aspects (and there are a few).

I still can't get over this classic losing the 2007 Best Foreign Film Oscar to the ultra-boring The Lives of Others. I mean, I've probably seen Labyrinth ten times, and Lives...once.

8. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Yes, I know this notorious flop is a hilarious mess, but Ennio Morricone's insane score makes for fun listening on its own. Clearly as confused as the film's director, John Boorman, Morricone runs the gamut from the ethereal ("Regan's Theme") to completely wacky ("Magic and Ecstasy"). In fact, "Magic" is practically a dance number, with hard-driving drums and a chorus of Eurogirls singing "Dah...dah...dahhhhh..." while a whip cracks in the background.

Just listening to it brings back perplexing memories—Richard Burton's sweaty performance, Linda Blair tap-dancing merrily away with no bra on—and, of course, the normally dignified James Earl Jones forced to wear a really goofy bee costume.

What are some of your favorites? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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