Index Pages

Thursday 31 January 2013

Bombs Over Monte Carlo (1931)

Director: Hanns Schwarz
Stars: Hans Albers, Anna Sten and Heinz Rühmann

It's clear to see that after Peter Lorre's stunning performance in M, the cinematic world was his for the taking. He was just as noticed on stage, his individual work in Bertold Brecht's Mann ist Mann, in which he'd acted during the production of M, impossible to ignore, whether critics appreciated it or not. Yet by the time he took a small role in this film, a comedy musical, M hadn't been released, so he was still an unknown face to widespread audiences. He doesn't get much to do here but he makes the most of it, with such a wide grin every time we see him that it's hard to imagine it's the same actor who played a paedophile murderer only a few months earlier, not only because of tone but because he looks so much younger. It is surprising, however, that in the rôle of Pawlitschek, the chief engineer of a battleship owned by the fictional Balkan nation of Pontenero, he only rates eighth on the credits list, as he's far more memorable than a couple of those listed higher.

Without benefit of hindsight, audiences of the day were here to watch Hans Albers and Anna Sten, who are clearly Teutonic equivalents of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. As Queen Yola I of Pontenero, Sten is a delight, reminiscent of Claudette Colbert in both moonface and comedic style, but vamping it up like Marlene Dietrich, a big star in German cinema after The Blue Angel a year earlier. Albers is harder to take as Capt Craddock, Pawlitschek's commander, though this is due to what Craddock does rather than how Albers plays the part. The script by Hans Müller and Franz Schulz was based on a novel by Fritz Reck-Malleczewen, released only the year before, and the unbridled sense of entitlement within hints at what the Germans would do next historically. I was surprised to discover that the novelist was a staunch opponent of the Nazis, who banned his works. After he denounced Aryan purity in 1944, they sent him to Dachau and shot him dead.

You see, the morals in this film are all kinds of screwed up, not just on the surface but deep down within the guts of the story too. As the film opens, we discover that Craddock's crew are lounging around doing a whole lot of nothing, because apparently the queen hasn't seen fit to pay them for a while. We might imagine that Pontenero is going through a financial crisis or some such, but no, when the orders come in to clear for departure, it's to pick up the Queen at Livorno and chauffeur her on a pleasure cruise through the Mediterranean. She's en route on the Adriatic Express, ready to live it up on her country's dime. At this point, we can almost sympathise with Craddock when he decides to utterly ignore his queen's command, hijack his own battleship and set sail for Monte Carlo instead. The telegram he composes in response is a joy. 'Will no longer act the fool for Your Majesty. Stop. Been bored long enough. Stop.' I'd love to send that verbatim to my manager.
It's no surprise when the queen decides to follow him to Monte Carlo and see what sort of man he is, listening surreptitiously in the Pontenero embassy as Craddock demands 100,000 francs from the consul to pay his crew and fuel his ship, which isn't unsympathetic. She even redeems herself a little in our eyes too by giving up her necklace to cover that demand. So we overlook the mutiny and prepare for the songs and romantic comedy that the format conditions us to expect. This one adds the subterfuge angle by having the captain fail to recognise Queen Yola, even though he has a portrait of her in his cabin, thus allowing her to get up to all sorts of shenanigans at his expense, and I can buy that in a romantic comedy. It's not too far distant from Roman Holiday, after all, and the battleship is notably crewed by volunteers from a variety of nations, so perhaps Craddock has little knowledge about his adopted country of Pontenero.

Where it all gets a bit much is in the tone that these two characters persist in adopting, while the film presumably expects us to treat them sympathetically as endearing leads. We've already seen that Queen Yola happily flounces around having a blast while her armed forces and her embassies go without pay. Of course, she treats Capt Craddock as her personal plaything, manipulating him without shame, because we expect that she's going to get her comeuppance at the end, probably by him turning her over his knee. What we find is that Craddock is no better. Clearly some sort of playboy, given that the orchestra at the Monte Carlo Casino knows him well enough that they play the Craddock March when he walks towards the dancefloor, he might talk the talk about paying his crew but he doesn't walk the walk, however much they adore him. Effectively, he's the same character, as deserving of getting his comeuppance, perhaps by her turning him over her knee.

But no, we get neither of those things. Rather than have our leads learn the error of their ways, face up to their selfishness and turn over a new leaf, accompanied of course by a song or two to keep it all jolly and a romantic entanglement that gifts them both perspective, instead we get a rather surprising set of escalations that only proves that neither of them has any conception of morality whatsoever, not to mention remorse. So Queen Yola sets her sights on Craddock and he unwittingly falls for her machinations. It takes him precisely one night to spend his ship's entire payroll to inadvertently buy back the queen's necklace as an ironic gift for his brand new pickup, who I'm not sure has even given him a name yet. He covers the 30,000 franc percentage for the jeweller by giving him his ring and collecting ten grand back to gamble on the tables, playing not with skill but with romantic whimsy, risking all for the luck in her glance.

It's no surprise to find him win big and sit pretty with that ten grand turned into half a million, but his new ladyfriend blows it all on an insanely risky gamble at the end of the night. Presumably she plans to teach him a lesson, especially as he's told her outright that he aims to sail for Honolulu in the morning with the queen's battleship, crew and that half a million, but his response is still more insanely risky. He literally stands on a chair in the middle of the casino, commanding everyone's attention and suggesting that they all keep away for the next twenty four hours. Then he asks for 100,000 francs of his losses back from the casino manager; like any casino is ever going to do that, however politely he suggests that they can keep the rest of his losses. Well, Capt Craddock thinks he has a rather unique bargaining chip to back him up: a Pontenero battleship sitting in the bay. He gives the casino until nine in the morning or the picture's title will gain bloody meaning.
The sense of entitlement here is truly astounding and, while I won't reveal how this all plays out, it never goes away and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I can enjoy the cast, because Albers, the biggest star in Germany during this era, is a force of nature and Sten is a bundle of charms. Both have able sidekicks: Ida Wüst hams it up as Isabell, Yola's maid, in a coquettish Ruth Chatterton sort of way, and Albers's regular co-star, Heinz Rühmann, anticipates Donald O'Connor well as Lt Peter Schmidt. The only catch is the relentless chummy relationship between the commander and his senior officer, which may be innocent but surely doesn't seem so. Even when talking about young girls in Monte Carlo, they smile enticingly at each other and cuddle up closer than might be appropriate, every opportunity for physical contact being leapt at. The pet name Craddock has for Schmidt of 'Little Peter' is surely unfortunate, given hindsight, but distracting nonetheless.

I can even enjoy the style exhibited throughout, this being a lesser UFA production but still an UFA production nonetheless. There are many capable shots like one where casino patrons descend in elevators as missiles ascend through battleship mechanisms. Even the songs aren't distracting, a pleasant surprise for me, and there are fewer of them than I remember from the Chevalier and MacDonald vehicles that I've seen thus far. UFA certainly put their weight behind it, also shooting the picture in English and French versions simultaneously for foreign release. The French version, Le capitaine Craddock, had a completely different cast led by Jean Murat and Käthe von Nagy, but Albers reprised his role in English for Monte Carlo Madness, opposite Sari Maritza. Critics were not enthralled by the latter, but I don't know about the others. I wonder whether audiences outside of Germany saw this differently. Did they leave it with a laugh and ignore how callous it really is?

Perhaps because the only other lead role I've seen Albers play is Baron Munchausen, in the 1943 German version titled simply Münchhausen, I couldn't help but see this less as a viable framework for a story and more as a tall tale. It worked a little better for me that way, as it becomes wild and far fetched almost immediately and doesn't let up as the story runs on, each escalation still more outrageous than the last. Yet this reading still ends with that bad taste, because the Munchausen stories I've read in print and seen on film had him as a lovable rogue, arrogant perhaps, but not to the degree that everyone else would be left so ruthlessly high and dry. This is almost like an Ayn Rand musical, where the moral is that you can do anything you like as long as you can get away with it. Perhaps that might not seem so obnoxious if the nation behind this film didn't promptly do exactly that starting only a couple of years later. Perhaps not, but obnoxious it would remain.

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Virginia Valli, Carmelita Geraghty, Miles Mander and John Stewart

In 1925, Alfred Hitchcock was far from the legend that he would become, but he was also far from the novice you might expect, given that this was his first feature as a director. He'd actually been working in the industry since 1919, after he'd persuaded Famous Players-Lasky, the company that became Paramount, to hire him when they expanded into Britain, where a strong national cinema was struggling after the First World War. He impressed them with title designs for properties that they owned rights to but hadn't made yet and was quickly hired to run their titles department. By 1922, he had designed the titles for all eleven of their features, as well as an indie picture made by Donald Crisp, one of their directors, before stumbling into the director's chair. The company wound down as he shot a two reel comedy that studio records call Mrs Peabody but Hitch called simply Number Thirteen, but it wasn't finished and no longer exists. 'Thank heavens,' said Hitch.

His second spell as a director came the next year. Other companies were shooting pictures at Islington Studios, where Famous Players-Lasky British had been based; one took advantage of his availability when their own director, Hugh Croise, either fell ill or into disagreement with the film's writer/star, Seymour Hicks. So, as Hitch was around, Hicks hired him to finish the remake of his 1914 film, Always Tell Your Wife, a one reel comedy. As luck would have it, while he was doing this, a company called Balcon-Saville-Freedman looked round the studio and were impressed with the confident young director; when they moved into Islington, he became their assistant director under Graham Cutts. Over the next three years, he'd rack up other roles too, such as scriptwriter and art director, continuing as such as the company became Gainsborough Pictures. This would end in 1925, as the increasingly jealous Cutts refused to work with 'wonder boy' any more.

Fortunately for Hitch, the company's founder, Michael Balcon, who would later lead Ealing Studios throughout its heyday in the forties, was more than happy to keep him on. While Cutts was kept busy in England making The Rat with Ivor Novello, Balcon had Hitch shoot The Pleasure Garden in Munich. He'd already become passable in German, as The Blackguard, the second Gainsborough picture, had been shot at Neubabelsberg Studios in Berlin as a co-production with UFA. This may have been one of the most influential experiences in Hitch's career, as F W Murnau was shooting The Last Laugh on neighbouring sets, with the aim of telling its entire story visually without titles. Hitch, whose career in pictures began from his ability to write good titles, was fascinated. What he learned may not be obvious in The Pleasure Garden but is notable in The Lodger in 1927, his third film as a director, the one he regarded as 'the first true Hitchcock film', and increasingly ongoing.
Unfortunately for us, most of this material is lost today. Always Tell Your Wife no longer appears to exist, and Mrs Peabody perhaps never did in anything but nascent form. The twelve pictures Hitch wrote at Famous-Players Lasky have all been lost for years, as have the Gainsborough films. Most annoying to Hitchcock fans, The Mountain Eagle, his second feature, also shot in Germany but set in Kentucky, is also lost. There's always a hope that one day it might resurface, as one early Hitch film did recently, when three of the six reels of The White Shadow were discovered mislabeled in the New Zealand Film Archive. This was the second Balcon-Saville-Freedman picture, quickly shot as a follow up to Woman to Woman, after Betty Compson, their imported American star, talked Balcon into a two picture deal. The catch is that Woman to Woman was a huge hit, but The White Shadow wasn't, to the degree that it bankrupted the company.

Bizarrely, the footage that we have today of The White Shadow ends as a character walks down a staircase in a nightclub, while The Pleasure Garden, the next material available with Hitch's name on it, begins with a whole chorus line running down a spiral staircase to perform. Staircases would soon become a regular sight in Hitchcock films, as a psychological cue to depict changing fortunes or moral directions, up for positive and down for negative. That idea may not have been ready at this point but it's a great shot nonetheless, perhaps the best in the picture. This spiral staircase is at a theatre called the Pleasure Garden, where Patsy Brand works as a dancer and Jill Cheyne soon will, once she's robbed of her money and letters of introduction but kind hearted Patsy puts in a good word with the boss, Mr Hamilton, just to help out. These are our two leading ladies, played by two American imports, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, as was the trend at the time.

It takes a little while to get properly moving. There are strong visuals, like the opening staircase shot or one soon after that has an elderly man focus in with his glasses and pan over a chorus line of legs to find his favourite girl. There are eyecatching scenes like the one where the girls undress back at Patsy's place to share the same bed. There's even drily subversive humour, such as when Jill kneels down at the bedside to pray and Patsy's dog distracts her by licking her feet. Generally though, it doesn't feel smooth, hardly surprising given the chaos that accompanied shooting on the financial front. Hitch ran out of money shooting in Italy, as his leads racked up more bills than planned and he had to buy new film after Italian customs confiscated everything he had, despite having an Italian baron, Gaetano Ventimiglia, as his cinematographer. They got it back later, but that didn't help at the time. At least, it all proved to be a learning experience.
He was also hindered by having to work with a completely predictable melodrama, written by Eliot Stannard from a novel by Oliver Sandys, hardly the sort of material that he would quickly become known for. Sandys was a male pseudonym for a woman who usually wrote as Countess Barcynska, just the sort of name you might expect to have written something this melodramatic. At least ten of her novels and stories were adapted for the screen, nine in the twenties with a late one in 1933, but the basic story here doesn't promise much for the others, especially given that Stannard, who had been writing scripts since 1914 and was prolific in the twenties, is clearly better than this. He went on to write many of Hitch's formative films as a director, including everything from 1925-29 except Blackmail. Even the title here is frustrating, as the Pleasure Garden has less and less to do with the story as time runs on. What it really has to do with is two ladies and their two men.

At the outset, Patsy is established at the Pleasure Garden, while Jill wants into the business. Patsy is clearly a good person, putting up the other girl and helping her kickstart her career, and initially it seems that Jill is too. Yet even during her audition, she begins to upset the girls that she'll go on to work with, and her abhorrent behaviour increases along with her professional stature. When her fiancé comes to see her at Patsy's, she isn't there. She's at Hamilton's apartment, the suggestive intertitle only temporarily misleading. 'Let's not have any suggestions like that,' she tells Hamilton when he gets fresh, 'until I have my own house to invite you to.' That doesn't take long. When she moves out, she leaves a note for Patsy saying that she can't stay in cheap lodgings now that she's almost a star. When Patsy raises her reputation as Hamilton's kept woman, she dismisses her and carries on with Prince Ivan.

Why would her fiancé ignore this sort of behaviour, you might ask. Well, that's Hugh Fielding, her childhood sweetheart, and he's conveniently working overseas on a plantation, saving up enough to allow them to get married. To cement the contrasting fortunes of the two leading ladies, Patsy falls for a friend and colleague of Hugh's called Levet. They become close, but when he asks for more she interprets it as a proposal, which he agrees to when she seems accepting of not going back to the plantation with him. A quick marriage and an Italian honeymoon at Lake Como later and we're back to where we were: the girls working at the Pleasure Garden and the guys on their plantation. The comparisons are hammered home. Hugh cares for Jill, but she's sleeping her way to the top. Patsy cares for Levet, but he was just making a conquest. When he throws away the rose she gave him, his words cover her and their relationship too: 'Had to. It had wilted.'
If you can't see where this is going, you either don't have any imagination or you have more than is needed to navigate something this predictable. If there are surprises here, it's in how far things are taken. While the first half is melodramatic in the extreme, the second half is more reminiscent of an edgy precode, merely without sound, or perhaps a less morally grounded take on the sort of melodramas that Lon Chaney specialised in. We're taken on an increasingly eye opening journey into adultery and alcoholism, madness and murder, which is a heady mix indeed. While it never once takes a step that isn't telegraphed far in advance, often as far as the outset of the movie, it does often step a little further than I ever expected it to, keeping eyes wide as each successive taboo is broached. There's a sinister tone to some of the plantation scenes that is notable, but the manipulation is by the characters not by the director, so it doesn't feel particularly Hitchcock.

He did well with his cast. I was impressed by Virginia Valli, a major Hollywood star at the time, who makes Patsy feel much more believable than most silent movie actresses even aimed for, though she still has her histrionics. Her friend, Carmelita Geraghty, is more traditionally overdone as Jill, though her role is more overdone too. They're both easy on the eyes and they back that up well, however limited by the material they are. John Stewart is capable as Hugh, but he's overshadowed by Miles Mander, who steals the show late on as Levet, reaching into the depths to stagger and twitch and try to build danger and unpredictability into a part that still has a clear direction. The four of them get by far the most screen time but others do get opportunities. Patsy's landlords, the Sideys, are treated well, while the costumer taking care of Jill's trousseau is either a flagrant queen, an escapee from an expressionist horror movie or both. It's a Dwight Frye sort of role.

I wonder if the early technology was a Hitch touch. He was frequently ahead of the curve when it came to technology and Mr Sidey has a small wireless set with a posh looking pair of headphones. Certainly Hitch's predilection for icy blondes hadn't manifested itself yet, both leading ladies being brunettes. Of course he hardly had power over casting at this point, the cast being given to him in a package with the rest of the assignment. He was also busy getting married at the time, to Alma Reville, his long time editor and continuity girl, his current assistant director and surely the person who would prove most influential throughout his entire career. One other thing he had no power over was the film's release, which was promptly held up. In fact, while his first film was shown to the press in March 1926, it wasn't released until after his third, The Lodger, had proved a massive hit in 1927. Even at that point, it was just an interesting footnote. The Lodger was the future.

Monday 28 January 2013

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

Director: J Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan and The Marvelous Coulerc

There are no less than six films based on L Frank Baum's Oz books in the works, including two due this year with massive budgets. Oz the Great and Powerful is a $200m Disney blockbuster helmed by Sam Raimi and Dorothy of Oz is a $60m CGI animated feature with an even more outstanding cast. So it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at a much older Oz film, one released 99 years ago by Baum himself. The Patchwork Girl of Oz wasn't the first adaptation of his work, that honour going to 1908's The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, an expensive cross between performance and film that must have been something like Richard Attenborough interacting with himself within Jurassic Park. The earliest surviving adaptation is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1910, adapted via the 1902 stage musical. The three sequels shot the same year are all now lost. After that came this film, the first production of Baum's own Oz Film Manufacturing Company.

This production company was an ambitious undertaking to say the least. Not only did it attempt to draw children back to quality family entertainment from the violent westerns that were the norm, it aimed to do so at a frantic pace. It shot four feature films in 1914 alone, The Patchwork Girl of Oz for an early September release, with The Magic Cloak of Oz following later the same month, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in October and The Last Egyptian in December. All were made by the same core crew: J Farrell MacDonald directing, Baum handling the scripts and Louis F Gottschalk composing complete scores to be sent out with the prints, a rarity at a time when theatres worked from cues. This pace was unforgiving and the first film's lack of success was a death blow. 1915 only saw the release of four shorts, with a fifth lagging behind in 1917; and the company quickly folded. Three features are available today, a fourth only exists at MoMA and the rest are lost.

Frankly, it's not surprising. Children's films are always tough ones for adults to properly evaluate as they succeed or fail through how well they connect to the minds of children, who don't always care about things that adults do, like consistency, plot continuity or believability. The longer since a film's release, the more difficult it becomes because changing culture plays a factor too. Think about how hard it is to get your kids to watch films that you grew up loving, then think about how hard it would be if they were in black and white or shot without sound. You might be surprised, as kids have a habit of confounding our expectations, but this is a primitive picture indeed, one that relies less on story, which is episodic and highly unrealistic, and more on slapstick, silliness and acrobatics. While there are some excellent effects, especially given the film's age, the non-human characters are created through costume and pantomime. Pixar it sure ain't.
The story is sourced from Baum's own novel, released a year earlier in 1913 as the seventh in the Oz series begun by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. He'd actually wrapped the whole thing up with book six, The Emerald City of Oz, but financial difficulties caused it to be promptly unwrapped again and it continued until his death, the fourteenth book, Glinda of Oz, arriving posthumously in 1920. The sweep of the story is the same, as a munchkin called Ojo quests through the land of Oz to find the ingredients needed to restore his uncle, Unc Nunkie, to life after being accidentally turned into a marble statue by Dr Pipt's Liquid of Petrifaction. There are differences, naturally, not least that Ojo is a boy in the book but a girl in the movie. The book and film also differ as regards to the number of marble statues and the ingredients needed to restore them and there's a strong difference in the assortment of characters encountered during the quest.

It starts off slowly, with Ojo and Unc Nunkie bemoaning their lot in life. There are no loaves on the bread tree in the yard, but they don't look malnourished. Ojo wonders why they're so poor, but I'm not seeing any signs. They live in a stone house with a big fireplace, though it's clearly a set built out of cardboard. Anyway they hit the road, as everybody knows that nobody goes without in the Emerald City. Their first stop is at Dr Pipt's place, which doesn't turn out too well, even if his status as 'crooked magician' refers to his limbs rather than his intentions. He lives there with Margolotte, his wife, whose desire for a servant girl made out of scraps prompts both the title of the film and crippling toil for her dedicated husband, who has spent six years stirring four huge iron cauldrons with both hands and both feet in order to create his magic powder of life. No wonder he's crooked, reminiscent of Kamaji in Spirited Away. Later he moves like Torgo in Manos: The Hands of Fate.

The mishap that sets up the rest of the film unfortunately takes place during a missing sequence, but it's clear enough how things progress to that point. Margolotte uses stop motion animation, ie magic, to conjure the patchwork girl together out of scraps. While her husband finishes up his six year potion, Ojo is shocked at the whole concept, or at least the lack of brains in play. Margolotte does suggest that, 'The fewer brains, the better servant,' but Ojo decides to raid the magic brains cabinet (it's labelled 'Magic Brains'), mix up contents from bottles like Obedience, Ingenuity and Judgement to sew into the patchwork girl's skull. On the positive side, this may be why Scraps, as she's named, turns out to be so useful later on. Unfortunately, perhaps it's also why she turns out to be a hyperactive acrobat, whose flouncing around in Pipt's cramped quarters causes three folk to be accidentally covered with liquid of petrifaction and so turned into marble statues.
Unc Nunkie and Margolotte are two, while the third is Danx, the munchkin boyfriend of Jesseva, Dr Pipt's daughter. Danx and Jesseva are new to the film and I still haven't managed to figure out the reason why. Sure, they're a happy young couple, which always looks good on screen, however big these munchkins happen to be, but there's not much happiness involved, given that Danx quickly becomes a statue. It's good reason for Jesseva to accompany Ojo on her quest to find ingredients for Pipt to brew up some antidote, but she decides to take Danx along too, in miniature form. I do realise that this is a children's movie and I also realise that I clearly don't understand, but it soon becomes apparent that the marble Danx, shrunken for portability, is an instant object of lust for every woman in the land of Oz who even catches a glimpse of him, catfights galore breaking out over this unfortunately dildo sized marble boy. This surely has to be a Japanese porn movie.

The cultural boundaries of time don't want to quit here. Intriguing characters like the Shaggy Man, the Glass Cat and the Yoop were dropped as the book became a script, but new characters arose in their place. Unfortunately, Mewel, a stray waif of a mule, is some guy in a pantomime costume who spends most of his time rubbing his ass, pun not intended, on everything he can find: trees, bridges, people. Maybe he has worms. Just as unfortunately, the Lonesome Zoop appears to be some sort of Chinese monkey demon who's so lonesome that he that apparently wants to ravish Mewel. Again, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that my strikingly modern interpretations of the character motivations in play are as wrong as wrong can be but I'm fascinated to find out what the point of these characters was. Unfortunately, their absence from the source novel means that I'm likely to be stuck conjuring up ever more outlandish reasons that are equally wrong.

Most of what we see is easily explainable, if not always easy to explain to a modern audience. For instance, Ojo, Jesseva and Scraps need three hairs from the end of a woozy's tail. Now, a woozy is a sort of large cat who seems friendly enough, though our heroes discover one in a corral behind a sign reading 'Beware of the Woozy', but in one of the least inspiring effects in the film, it's also apparently an AT-AT made out of cardboard boxes. What's more, the hairs on its tail aren't easily removed so, as only Scraps, the acrobatic patchwork girl, can climb over the corral, the woozy has her make it so mad that its eyes will squirt acid and burn a hole through the fence to freedom. Uh, what sort of message is this? Abuse animals to make them free? Next up is a six leaf clover, which only grow in Oz, where they cannot be picked, prompting Ojo to voluntarily break the law to land ingredient number two. This clearly isn't a particularly moral children's story, folks.
At least they get caught and marched into the Emerald City by a chorus line of guardswomen, in royal prison garb, which means that they have sheets thrown over them with holes in so that they can still see. This does make them look more like Casper the Friendly Ghost than Ku Klux Klan members, but it still seems a little strange a hundred years on. Surely, with many of the costumes and races in Oz, Baum was just going for childish silliness, but it would be great to know some of the cultural background behind those creations. There's a town populated by Hoppers, who have only one leg each so force everyone else to hop within city limits and chop off offending limbs as they find them. There's a village of primitive Tottenhots, all in blackface. There's even the cave of the Horners, who are jolly pregnant men who like to rub ther own bellies and have hair like that guy in Doctor and the Medics. I know about black stereotypes but what are the others?

I realise I'm poking fun here, but this has aged terribly, not in quality but in cultural grounding. It just seems so wrong in so many ways that presumably didn't in 1914. I should redress the balance and point out what works. The story is so ridiculous that anyone over the age of six will point out continuity errors and unexplainable leaps, but it zips along at a breakneck pace fuelled by sheer imagination. Blink and you'll miss a wild idea or two. While the costumes are awful, Sunday School play animals and big hats, the visual effects are pretty capable. The stop motion animation while Margolotte conjures Scraps together and as her husband stays at the House of Magic is fine. The Wall of Optical Illusion is just what you might expect and it's as well shot as the Horner ability to break the laws of gravity. The acrobatics are enjoyable, the Marvelous Pierre Couderc particularly impressive as Scraps, even though he's male as it would have been unseemly for a lady to tumble.

There's also another note of historical importance to remember, beyond the author of a popular children's series starting a production company to produce screen adaptations of his books, that he adapted himself. You don't see J K Rowling or Stephanie Meyer doing that today. This note has to do with a couple of minor supporting actors who just happened to meet on the set and begin a friendship that would become a major one in film. The tottenhot on the Royal Jury convened when Ojo plucks a six leaf clover is Harold Lloyd, unrecognisable in blackface, while inside the costume of the Cowardly Lion, louging on the dais next to the Hungry Tiger, is Hal Roach. Both were early in their careers here, but an inheritance allowed Roach to become a producer and in 1915 he set Lloyd on the road to stardom as Lonesome Luke in a series of over sixty comedy shorts. It's funny to think about the sheer talent on the set of this movie, where nobody expected to find it.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Star Quest: The Odyssey (2009)

Director: Jon Bonnell
Stars: Adam Rini, Shane Stevens, Katherine Stewart, Aaron Ginn-Forsberg, Davina Joy, Niko and Kevin Tye

For a local feature released as recently as 2009, it surely says something that I hadn't heard of it before. I recognise almost everyone in the admittedly small cast and I know a few personally. I'm less up to speed with the crew but some of them are still on my friends list. I've reviewed many of them in other movies and this would seem to be a starting point for one project I enjoyed enough over the last couple of years to contribute to. Yet somehow I didn't know it was out there. Could it be that they're keeping schtum because the reviews are correct and this is one of the worst films ever made? There are precisely 3 positive IMDb reviews out of 45, the earliest ones, one of which is from one of the actors. I enjoyed the imagination of the detractors though: 'Like a porno, minus the porn', 'Should be erased from human consciousness forever', 'This movie could be a new form of punishment', 'I nearly wet my pants at the end'. My favourite is, 'MST 3000 where are you?'

What I found was that it really isn't that awful, but it seems to have found a wider audience than might have been expected through easy rental availability. 'I want my $1.07 back from Redbox' isn't an uncommon theme in those reviews, but clearly these folk haven't seen the crud that I've seen. I don't mean to pull rank, but when the previous worst movie you've ever seen is Rocky V with its $42m budget, or The Butterfly Effect, which made do with a mere $13m, you really don't have much of a clue. I've sought out the worst movies of all time and I screen films submitted to festivals, where there are technical gradings as to how easily we can see or hear what's going on. In microbudget cinema, at least around the time this film was made, it wasn't uncommon to rate some of those at the lowest level because the sound guy apparently didn't show up and nobody had a clue what lighting was. As for equipment, I was even in a movie shot on a phone.

That rant out of the way, I really can't say that this was a good film though, even though I could see and hear everything well enough. Never mind the budget, which clearly wasn't much higher than whatever's in my wallet right now, it's the script that's the biggest problem. Carlos Perez is the name on the screenplay and if this is anything to go by, I don't want to see any of the other six films that he's written, especially with obvious cash in titles like The Black Knight - Returns or Vamps in the City. While the whole concept is obviously a low budget take on Star Trek, it would have made more sense to have shot it in the same format rather than patch a couple of stories together to feature length, especially with the cliffhanger ending that has precisely no meaning without another episode to lead into. This would have worked much better as a web series, as a couple of those involved apparently realised, going on to the far superior Voyage Trekkers.

The plot is utterly generic and highly derivative, with an overlong historical introduction. Simply put, the invention of a cheap and reliable faster than light drive in the late 21st century allowed humankind to spread throughout the galaxy. After a couple of hundred years of expansion, the colonies formed the Galactic Alliance, based on Earth, to handle governance. The few who chose to keep their independence formed the Krone Axis instead, enhancing their race with cybernetics and bioengineering. Inevitably this led to war, though the introduction ends with peace declared and the film proper begins on the planet Scyth, where the war is replayed in miniature in a good old fashioned fistfight between an Alliance commander and a Krone warrior. Six months later, it's no surprise to find that these two are forced to work together on a mission to transport members of the Earth Council to finalise the terms of the peace agreement or some such.
This concept isn't bad in itself, but it had been done to death long before 2009 and the writing is so ADD that it forgets about the mission almost immediately, instead becoming an episodic yarn shifting from one distraction to another. It doesn't help that neither party can live up to the hype. The poster is gloriously dynamic and action packed, while the introduction does a reasonable job building up the story. It's when we arrive on Scyth to watch Jim Carrey fight Forrest Whitaker from Battlefield Earth that it all falls apart. Adam Rini shines in roles that need him to be full of himself, such as Capt Sunstrike in Voyage Trekkers, making it all the more surprising to find him so pissy and annoying in effectively the same role here, as Capt Jack Tanner, commander of the Starship Odyssey. Shane Stevens does better as Hargoth, Minister of Defence for the Krone Axis, but the Klingon/Borg mashup he's stuck playing isn't inspiring and the costume hinders him throughout.

Perhaps their combined talent could have saved a less consistently bad film. Rini does get better, but it takes a long while to see even a hint at something worthwhile. Stevens never stops trying, but even at his best, his attempts are still buried by a production so schizophrenic that it's never possible to ignore the lack of budget. While the script is the movie's worst failure, the reluctance of director Jon Bonnell to even attempt to hide his lack of resources is its most frustrating aspect. For instance, the inside of the Odyssey is cramped, apparently built from supplies bought when a Dillard's closed down, and sparsely populated with a crew of four. Bonnell obviously didn't care to make it look bigger and busier, ignoring simple cinematic methods such as having extras walk in and out. He should have added sound effects and flashing lights to busy it up. Instead, he added numerous CGI external shots of a ship that's the size of a city.

The CGI itself is fair to middling in quality, but it's utterly wrong for the film. Simply making those external shots of a much smaller vessel would have improved everything. Instead it makes it all worse purely by the powers of contrast. Like the CGI, the costumes, sets and props aren't awful, but they're made to look awful by the unrealistic expectations that we're given. Here's a way to improve this film: remove most, if not all, of the CGI. That's it. Trim the introduction and create a new DVD cover that's a little less evocative of a Hollywood blockbuster while you're at it and the film would be worth four stars rather than one. And all that's without reshooting a single scene. Then again, that's me suggesting how to make the film better, as if quality means anything to a potential viewer. The quality of the DVD cover is surely why IMDb has reviews for this film. You can't ask for your $1.07 back from RedBox if you didn't spend it to begin with. The cover worked.
But I'm reviewing the film not the cover and it isn't remotely up to the same standard. I'm here to poke holes in the science in science fiction films, like how a faster than light ship takes three hours to travel 20 AUs when it only takes light an hour and a half. I'm here to highlight how ineptly the cameraman caught Katherine Stewart's patented hair flip and to rail at the waste of talent shown by casting this elegant Shakespearean stage actress in a role that requires her to pine for a pissy space captain who gave her a sparkly bracelet. I'm totally sold on the cavegirl outfit though. No complaints there. I'm here to wonder why the Odyssey shakes when one washer comes loose but it doesn't when fired upon by an enemy vessel. I'm here to giggle at the surface of an alien world that looks like Arizona, merely green. I'm here to wonder why the entire ship's arsenal is stored in a cubbyhole without a door. And I'm here to laugh at the tween level relationships on show.

I'm also here to embarrass the cast by reminding them of their work. Adam Rini is too young and dorky here, but he was note perfect in the same role in Voyage Trekkers about ten minutes later. Shane Stevens does better than anyone else, even with a Christmas tree stand stuck to his chest. Bones rarely got to do much medically in Star Trek except point a tricorder at people, but as Dr Jessica Vox, Katherine Stewart doesn't get that much. She actually has to say, 'I'm a doctor not a soldier, dammit,' but we don't see it; the most she's tasked with is to strap down Hargoth. Davina Joy and Niko were only cast to follow Star Trek's racial precedents, as was Kevin Tye as the very English Chief Engineer. Their talents are wasted too, as are James Ray's as Tanner's boss. At least Aaron Ginn-Forsberg hams it up royally as Dertax, Hargoth's lieutenant. He's like a berserker on acid played by John Pyper-Ferguson, over-emoting as much as is humanly possible. Grrr!

If everyone had chewed up the scenery like Ginn-Forsberg, it would have been a more 'so bad it's good' sort of ride. As it is, the actors try to do their parts justice, only to find that there's precious little in their parts to which justice can be done, leaving them all cast adrift by the script and the budget. While it's patently obvious that Carlos Perez is a screenwriter to avoid like the plague, I think I'll give director Jon Bonnell another shot before writing him off too, by watching Match.Dead aka The Abducted, with what appears to be a more original screenplay (albeit one partly credited to Alan Smithee), a lead role for James Ray and The Big Something's Michael Harrelson brought in for good measure. So this is a 'so bad it's bad' movie, though one not quite as thoroughly awful as has been made out. The overriding conclusion is clear though: if you want a modern take on Star Trek, don't watch this, watch Voyage Trekkers. It's more professionally done and it's funny too.

Saturday 26 January 2013

Thunder Over Hawaii (1957)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: Richard Denning and Beverly Garland

With the ubiquity of modern culture and our increasing ready access to it, it might be something of a shock to some to realise that not everything is available. I'm not talking here about obscure century old material, as it's a relatively well known statistic that 90% of silent films are lost today. Less well known is the statistic that 40% of films released on VHS aren't available on DVD and it's expected that most never will be, often because the cost of licensing their soundtracks exceeds their commercial viability. Many others never even saw a VHS release and it's often surprisingly difficult to complete filmographies to watch. Nobody expects to be able to see all Lon Chaney's pictures, for instance, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect to be able to see everything made by recognisable figures still working today. Here's an example: Roger Corman, who was given an honorary Oscar in 2010 for his contribution to film. Well, it's rarely quite that simple.

While Corman's production credits continue unabated past the four hundred film mark, he's best known for the fifty he made as a director, mostly from 1955 to 1971, with the last coming in 1990 to round off that number. Some of them are in the public domain, such as She Gods of Shark Reef and The Terror, so you can buy them at corner stores everywhere for a buck each, of if you want even better value than that, in fifty film box sets from Treeline for under fifteen. As Corman well knows the value of anything with his name on it, some of the others are readily available for sale at Amazon, often in box sets. The Roger Corman Collection, for instance, collects eight of them together. The rest are well shared on torrent sites, often ripped from TV broadcast or VHS tapes, to fill in any gaps until an official release is announced. Well, all except one. I've had access to 49 of his films for a few years now but I couldn't find 1957's Naked Paradise anywhere.

Research soon showed that the rights belong to a lady called Susan Hofheinz, along with a dozen or so AIP properties like The Amazing Colossal Man, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Invasion of the Saucer Men. Initially she was a minor actress in the sixties under the name of Susan Hart, a decorative presence in films like The Slime People, Ride the Wild Surf or Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, but then she married James H. Nicholson, who had co-founded AIP with Samuel Z. Arkoff. She inherited partial rights to 40 movies after his death in 1972 and later gained sole ownership of a quarter of them when they were split up between the various partial owners, who also included the Arkoff estate, Orion Pictures and Herman Cohen. These others have released all their titles to DVD, often as triple features and, in the case of the Arkoff owned titles, even produced remakes. Rumours suggest Hofheinz was poorly advised as to their value and is waiting for the 'right' price.

However, further research opens up a more sinister angle. Bizarrely, Hofheinz appears to see her rights less as an opportunity to earn money by releasing these films into the wild and more as a big stick with which to attack anyone with an interest. There are wild stories that suggest that she has spies roaming around at conventions, vehemently seeking out anyone who might possibly be infringing on her copyrights, not merely by illegally screening the movies but even by referencing them in some way, even if that way is clearly protected under copyright law. These stories sound so outlandish that I might not have believed them if I hadn't read some of the lawsuits that she's brought on hilariously flimsy grounds. Her current suit, against Funko, Amazon and Toys R Us for selling saucermen bobbleheads without a license, may well have validity, but she lost all the rest, which aimed to prevent clips from trailers being referenced in documentaries, clearly fair use.
Fortunately most of the films over which she gained sole ownership had been released before. In the early nineties, Sony and Columbia released many on VHS and I own some of these. Cinemax and AMC broadcast some on cable TV. Yet Naked Paradise is once again an exception, a stubborn gap for Corman fans who ache for the opportunity to see it. Attempting to track it down in some form, I discovered late last year that it was indeed available on VHS, albeit hardly on a wide scale. As Thunder Over Hawaii, the title under which it had been originally shot and under which it had been re-released to theatres in 1960, it was listed in the catalogue of a New Zealand video store. Now, one PAL VHS copy rentable only in person or to Kiwi mailing addresses may be a mere straw but I clutched for it nonetheless. I mailed the company to confirm that yes, they had it. An ex-pat Kiwi friend found a friend back home who could rip from VHS and my long wait is thankfully over.

And, with that long preamble done, on to the review. As it turns out, Naked Paradise is both more fun and more capable than She Gods of Shark Reef, which was shot on the same 1956 Hawaii trip, back to back with a day off in between. It looks great, using some of the same Kauai locations at which 20th Century Fox would shoot two years later for South Pacific. This includes the stunning Hanalei Bay, the largest on the north shore of the island, in which Corman shot his ocean scenes, having learned in only two hours never to shoot in the actual ocean. It has a better cast than its companion piece, with only Lisa Montell appearing in a major role in both. Richard Denning is an agreeable hero, with Leslie Bradley the villain and a string of Corman regulars filling the rest of the lead roles: Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller as the hoods and Beverly Garland, who had been with Corman from the beginning, as one of the title characters in Swamp Women, as the leading lady.

It's Garland who shines from moment one, as the bitter and drunk Miss Mackenzie, better known as Max, and she owns the film throughout, even when she sobers up, not only because she gives an impressive performance but also because she's by far the best written character. In fact, she's the only well written character because the rest are sheer stereotypes, however capably they're played. She starts out sunning herself on the deck of Capt Duke Bradley's boat in a red bikini and sniping at her boss when he climbs on board after diving for lobsters. He's Zach 'King' Cotton, in the 'toy business' in New Jersey and she's his 'secretary'. I use quotes, because it's quickly made clear that he's really a gangster, she's his unwilling moll and they're not really in Hawaii to catch lobsters; they're here to rob a plantation. That night at the inevitable luau, his henchmen, Mitch and Stony, empty its safe of $120,000, stuff it into hollowed out pineapples and off they all sail.

The story isn't really about the robbery itself, which is only given a little attention, but what is to come after it. Bradley sails them on to Molokai, ostensibly for a holiday stay at a lodge there but really to wait for a schooner Cotton has chartered to take them to the Philippines. None of these details really matter as everything hangs on the tension and interplay between characters, which made it simple to recycle that core story again and again for future pictures. Originally written by Robert Wright Campbell, the script was re-written by Charles B. Griffith, who re-wrote it again to become Beast from Haunted Cave and Creature from the Haunted Sea, varying locales, character names and even the tones of the films but keeping the core story the same. He's suggested that he re-used it for Atlas and Ski Troop Attack as well and it could be argued that Quentin Tarantino, who dedicated Death Proof to Griffith, did the same thing for Reservoir Dogs.
And so we quickly watch our characters fall into their roles. King Cotton is the protagonist, having set all this up to rob the plantation. The only depth to his character is that he has a soft spot for kids, dishing out toys to the young islanders more than his cover warrants. While he clearly dotes on Max, she just as clearly despises him and would happily leave if only she could get away with it. Capt Bradley becomes her opportunity, as he's the perfect hero, built of power, freedom and honesty. He also spends much of the film topless and is very willing to stand up for a lady, as he does when Cotton slaps her on his boat. He may well be falling for her too, but if this love triangle isn't enough, Cotton's henchmen also build relationships that cause tension later on. Mitch lusts after Lanai, the lithe island girl who's with Keioni, Bradley's second mate, but clumsily woos her with threats. Stony is literally carried off by a large cook, for whom he develops a soft spot.

It's not difficult to see how a capable drive in movie could be conjured out of these dynamics and, as the original title suggests, there's Mother Nature to be factored in too. At precisely the wrong time, a hurricane descends on the islands to ratchet up the tension, flout the plans of both good and bad guys and set up the inevitable showdown, where all the merely human conflicts are resolved one by one. It works pretty well here because of the calibre of cast and crew, however new some of them were at the time, and the glorious scenery certainly doesn't hurt, but the picture doesn't stand a chance at escaping its clear status as a cheaply budgeted B movie, whatever the quality of the A movie hurricane stock footage that Corman spliced in and however relaxing the songs by Alvin Kaleolani, the original leader of the Royal Hawaiians. The combination of the seascapes, the music and Beverly Garland's red bikini is almost enough for me to book a ticket to the islands.

What's difficult is to keep much of a focus on anything beyond Garland. Richard Denning is good as Capt Bradley, reminding a little of a young Rutger Hauer, but the square jawed, pipe smoking, boat sailing, damsel rescuing hero was no stretch for him. He knew the islands well, later retiring to Maui and playing the governor on Hawaii Five-O. Miller and Haze are just what you'd expect if you've seen a Corman movie before, offering solid support and worth watching even if they're not tasked with much. Haze has fun with his character's background as a boxer, while Miller wears his belt really high, like it's the opposite of the modern gangsta trend. Bradley is the least of them, though he gets better as the story plays out and his real character shows. He's inconsequential as the toy magnate, which may be the point, but better as the gangster. That said, he's only in charge because he's written that way. It's not difficult to imagine him taken down.

In many ways they all play support to Garland, who's the standout. Unlike their characters, which are painted broadly and clearly from moment one, with very little growth room, hers is a constant battle of contrasts. She's good drunk, as she is for the first third of the film, but she's better sober. She's a lively character but she's mostly depressed. She's very capable, especially for a woman in a fifties B-movie, but she's stuck in the place her boss has put her. She's cowardly enough to stay there but heroic enough when it's called for. She's sure of herself, but unsure she'll ever get to be that person. While we're pretty sure that we know where she's going to end up, we're interested nonetheless in how she's going to get there, and she keeps us doubting throughout. I felt that she played Max roughly as Bette Davis would have back in the thirties as a Warner Brothers contract player and, however much Davis put those films down, I see that as a real compliment.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Cyborg 2087 (1966)

Director: Franklin Adreon
Stars: Michael Rennie, Karen Steele, Wendell Corey, Warren Stevens and Eduard Franz

I've wanted to see Cyborg 2087 ever since I first heard about it, because it's basically Terminator 2: Judgment Day shot a quarter of a century earlier. Having finally seen it, I find myself intrigued by the similarities but laughing as I compare the two. After all, T2 is that rarest of pictures: one that's commercially successful, critically acclaimed and culturally important. It won four Oscars, ranks in the Top 40 at IMDb and appears on three AFI Top 100 lists. Its pioneering special effects are still mimicked today, its dynamic action shaped American cinema and its iconic performances entered the cultural fabric of the world. Cyborg 2087 is precisely none of those things, but it still tells a remarkably similar story. Given that James Cameron, while clearly the most successful film director of all time, is hardly known for his original ideas, evident most obviously through the lack of even one within the three hour running time of Avatar, I can't help but wonder if he saw this.

In T2, a T-800 cyborg is sent back in time from a future where the human race has been enslaved by cyborgs to stop a scientist, Dr Miles Dyson, from perfecting a microprocessor he's working on at Cyberdyne Systems that will allow that future to happen. Here, Garth A7 is a cyborg sent back in time from a future where the human race has been enslaved by cyborgs to stop a scientist, Prof Sigmund Marx, from demonstrating his invention of radio-telepathy at Future Industries Inc that will allow that future to happen. In T2, that 'good' cyborg is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, an imposing 6'2" actor who is ordered by John Connor not to kill anyone. Here, it's Michael Rennie, an imposing 6'4" actor whose raygun paralyses rather than kills. In T2, this hero is pursued by a T-1000 cyborg killing machine. Here, it's pursued by a pair of tracers, cyborg killing machines of course. And the similarities don't stop there.

There are differences too, most obviously with the production values. T2 cost an unprecedented $100m or so, took 171 days to film at 20 different sites with up to 1,000 crew members. Cameron also required special effects so advanced that they were still being invented as the picture was made. The groundbreaking CGI that takes up only five minutes of screen time took 25 man years to create. I haven't been able to track down equivalent numbers for Cyborg 2087, but it's pretty clear that they're low on every front, even for a mid sixties indie picture. The effects, especially, are unreedemably awful, courtesy of a man named Roger George. At this point, he was relatively new to the industry and was known mostly for beach movies, hardly effects heavy pictures. No doubt he was given little to work with here. Yet he would go on to much better things in a prolific career that lasted into the late eighties and included a stint on, drum roll please, The Terminator.
While the often eerie similarities to T2 are the primary reason to watch this, there is another: the star, Michael Rennie. Beyond being a watchable actor, whatever he's tasked to elevate, he made precisely two science fiction films: The Day the Earth Stood Still and this. That these movies sit at different ends of the quality scale isn't important, but it is notable that he was cast as an alien in that film primarily because American audiences wouldn't recognise him, but in this one primarily because they would. He isn't bad here, keeping some of the calm feel he exuded as Klaatu, while adding both toughness and a wooden demeanour to fit a cyborg nature with its lack of emotions. The catch is that we can't help but look at him and think terminator, that's how pervasive Arnie has become in popular culture. Rennie actually has two inches on Schwarzenegger and he'd put on a little weight since 1951, but he clearly isn't the 'human Panzer tank' that Arnie was.

However, he's clearly above the material and he just as clearly knows it, though he plays along professionally. He arrives in 1966 on schedule with instructions to proceed to Desert City, locate Future Industries Inc, find Marx and bring him back, alive if possible but dead if necessary. That's straight forward enough, but where the script doesn't have holes it has gaps, so for a while he's stuck in a ghost town hiding from Sam Gilmore and his uncle who are heading for an old casino. He's also hindered by his costume. Never mind 'your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle', Garth has a tight beige outfit that hints at a uniform with dinky silver boots, so he just borrows Sam's jeep while he isn't looking. None of this enforces Garth as tough or dangerous, though he does zap these locals with his raygun. Klaatu was polite for a lot of reasons; Garth has some edge but is still far too passive for someone tasked with saving the world from future enslavement.

It takes a while for us to warm up to Garth and I'm not quite sure when we get there. It might be when he starts to interact with characters that actually matter, such as Dr Sharon Mason, at the professor's lab. He hypnotises her, then uses radio-telepathy to convince her to help him, while clearing her mind of the reasons why. I think it's more likely to be when the tracers show up, the cyborg killing machines that follow him through time to destroy him before he can destroy them by destroying their future. They're unceasing because it's what they do it's all they do. It's no stretch for the inherently trustworthy Rennie to appear superior as these guys are morons, though it's hardly the fault of the stuntmen given the job of playing them. They run around like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in GI Joe outfits, tracking Garth with the sundials on their wrists. I wasn't expecting the carefully liquid movements of a T-1000, but this is as stupid as it sounds.
One bright moment in the script highlights that Garth realises that making the wrong change in the past could adversely affect the future and, by extension, his mission. If he kills someone, for instance, that could erase him from the future. Unfortunately this means that he can't go all hell for leather and so finds himself stuck avoiding the law and being nice to people. Without Rennie dominating the screen, we're forced to notice the rest of the cast, who are a varied but mostly inconsequential bunch. Karen Steele is most obvious as Dr Mason, as she's very pleasing to the eye. This was the same year that she appeared as Eve McHuron, the leader of Mudd's Women in that episode of Star Trek, and she didn't need Venus drug to land that role. However, while she does reasonably well early on, especially in scenes opposite Eduard Franz and Warren Stevens, she overdoes things later in the film, especially during the finalé.

Franz, perhaps best known for The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, is generic as Prof Marx, a pale shadow of the Sam Jaffe role from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Stevens is a decent love interest though he had much more to do in Forbidden Planet. I have no doubt that both of these actors would have done better with better material, but it just wasn't on offer. Surprisingly, it's Wendell Corey who emerges from the background as a sheriff who remains a day late and a dollar short throughout. Sure, he's as obviously drunk as he was in The Astro-Zombies, but he's a lively drunk this time out. He doesn't believe anyone and asks plenty of questions but never quite manages to put two and two together to make four. 'That's impossible,' he slurs. 'You're all imagining things.' Also recognisable are Harry Carey Jr, who offers a little comic relief as the town's journalist, and dancing John Beck in his screen debut, almost a decade before playing Moonpie on Rollerball.

In short, this isn't a good film, but it's probably fair to say that it was a better film in 1966 than it appears today. Compared to regular sixties sci-fi schlock, it's a relatively intelligent piece with a number of interesting ideas. Writer Arthur C Pierce wasn't known for quality material, his career full of pictures like Women of the Prehistoric Planet, The Navy vs the Night Monsters and The Las Vegas Hillbillys. For all its many plot holes, this and its companion piece, Dimension 5, are high points in his filmography. Director Franklin Adreon ended his career with these two movies, after a couple of decades working on movie serials and TV shows. As his directorial career began with the late Republic serial, Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders, at least it ended well. The challenge today is to watch without thinking about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a challenge I failed utterly. Cameron made a worse Pocahontas with Avatar but he made a better Cyborg 2087 with T2.

Monday 21 January 2013

Doctor of Doom (1979)

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Tim Burton, Harry Sabin, Cynthia Price and Michael Giaimo

The companion piece to Tim Burton's Luau is Doctor of Doom, shot three years earlier and clearly influenced by the sort of Mexican horror movies that were released to American audiences in English dubs by K Gordon Murray. René Cardona, who directed many such films, even made one called Doctor of Doom in 1963, though it goes by many names and is perhaps best known as The Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Ape. This isn't a direct take on that film, more of an attempt to tap into the mindset of its genre generally and create something fresh with both homage and parody in mind. As with Luau, this was never intended for a public release, serving instead as catharsis through creative outpouring for Burton and his frustrated colleagues at Disney Animation. It's a difficult film to follow because the sound is terrible and the voices deliberately obscured. I'm not even convinced that some of the dialogue isn't gibberish.

That said, I think I enjoy it more than Luau, even though it's a third the length, shot in black and white and with only a fraction of the frenetic insanity of the later film. In fact, perhaps I enjoy it more than Luau for precisely those reasons. While there's nothing at IMDb to back this up, it's clearly Tim Burton himself playing the mad doctor, Don Carlo, and the character is perhaps the same one that Burton reprises in Luau as a disembodied head, given their similarity in dialogue. Here he visits a wealthy man with a smoking jacket and long cigar and no need for a name; the usual mansion is replaced through necessity by the apartment of Jerry Rees, Burton's partner in crime on Luau. Don Carlo doesn't enjoy dinner, rambling on instead about his poor upbringing as an organgrinder's monkey or some such, and threatens this family with destruction as he leaves. Next day he sends a monster from his lab to destroy all beauty, starting with them.

While there's much here that's awful, most of it is deliberate. The details of Don Carlo's lab are quite obviously taken from another source, not only because it was cheaper but because of the effect. Similarly the monster is clearly meant to be cheap with a terrible mask; the seams are supposed to show. All the voices are deliberately dubbed and with comedic intent, to the degree that Randy Cartwright dubs both male and female characters, as well as the monster. He didn't aim for impeccable lip synching. It's also notable that none of the actors dub the characters they actually play, presumably a deliberate decision. Cartwright doesn't voice everyone, so Jerry Rees takes care of one other character and Brad Bird, who would go on to direct The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, a couple more, including dubbing Burton as Don Carlo. I wonder why he didn't return for Luau. Perhaps he was less in need of catharsis at that point.
Not everything is awful. The sleight of hand in the opening scene is well handled and the various archetypal characters are capably riffed on. Harry Sabin is suitably decadent as the rich Mexican with the best line: 'My wife died ten years ago,' he says at the dinner table and everyone cracks up laughing. He was also a surfer in Luau, but went on to do a lot of character design for animated TV shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power and BraveStarr. Cynthia Price is suitably simpering as his daughter Rosita, mostly in close up gazing into mirrors but she surprisingly never earned another credit. Michael Giaimo reminds of Graham Chapman as her fiancé, Bob Garcia, long before he became art director on Pocahontas. I'm not sure which of the characters is Pepe, but that's Chris Buck, two decades before he directed Tarzan and eight more years before earning an Oscar nomination for Surf's Up.

Many of the names behind both Doctor of Doom and Luau also worked on Fun with Mr Future in 1982, a short film that combined live action with animation and starred Vincent Price as a mad scientist. Had it not begun work as an Epcot television special, perhaps it would inevitably have involved Tim Burton, who had long idolised Price and had befriended him that year while making Vincent. It was the directorial debut of Darrell Van Citters, who is concealed beneath the terrible mask of the monster in this film but would go on to be known for The Mr Men Show and Emmy-nominated Noah Comprende. All these connections are eye opening to me, as are these short films. Both Luau and Doctor of Doom are just home video curiosities, though fun ones that get better with repeat viewings and serve as a fascinating glimpse into a set of creative personalities, most of whom would go on to great things, satisfying the urge to satiate their creative needs.

Luau (1982)

Directors: Tim Burton & Jerry Rees
Stars: Mike Gabriel, Sue Frankenberger and Terrey Hamada

I grew up watching Tim Burton pictures, with Beetlejuice my favourite and Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns not far behind, so it isn't surprising to find that I've seen all his features, at least up to Sweeney Todd; somehow I can't drum up the courage to watch Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. What's more surprising is that I haven't gone backwards yet; of his various early short films, I've only seen Vincent, albeit a number of times. The release of Frankenweenie, the 2012 animated feature, prompted me to do just that, as it was based on a live action short that Burton directed back in 1984 when working at Disney. So I began to work backwards from Frankenweenie, a black and white piece that runs half an hour and plays as you might expect, something of a test run for Edward Scissorhands. Vincent also fits easily in Burton's career, an autobiographical stop motion poem about a boy who wants to be the narrator, Vincent Price.

Yet going back another step, I was truly floored. What was 1982's Luau? Where did it come from? It was as unexpected and jarring as Frankenweenie and Vincent were expected and natural. It took a little background to figure out what was going on. In the late seventies, Burton certainly seemed to be on the right track. He'd studied at the California Institute of Arts, the school that continues to supply the animation industry with almost everyone you've ever heard of. Like so many CalArts graduates, he was hired by Walt Disney Animation, perhaps especially because of the stir generated by his short animation, Stalk of the Celery Monster, which had impressed his classmates, including John Lasseter, future head of Pixar and now chief creative officer at Disney Animation. He must have felt on top of the world. Unfortunately, he'd picked exactly the wrong time. In the early eighties, Disney were at their lowest creative ebb.

Burton himself has said that the company was floundering at the time. Walt Disney had died in 1966 but a number of his talented peers survived him. Gradually, though, they left the company, retired or died themselves, and by 1980 Disney was being run by what Burton calls 'people who were the third or fourth on the tier', simply because they were the only ones left. He was far from the only employee feeling pain at the rampant confusion in the company. He's said that he 'felt like a trapped princess', with the creative freedom to draw whatever he wanted but a frustration born from none of it ever being used. He worked as a conceptual artist on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, but none of his work is visible in those films. So, he and a set of similarly frustrated colleagues made a couple of live action shorts to let their imaginations and cinematic influences run riot in a way that they could actually see.

Luau was the second of these, shot on video in 1982, written, produced and directed by Burton and Jerry Rees, whose next film as a writer/director would be The Brave Little Toaster in 1987. It's a wild mashup of influences that veers frenetically every which way all at once, not merely the braindumps of a host of frustrated creative souls but an acid trip through them. The framework is a parady of an AIP beach movie, with a very reminiscent plot, such as it is, centering around Bob forgetting about his girl Arlene because she introduces him to Princess Yakamoshi, who's staying with her family for the summer. This prompts every sort of gag, from low puns through Japanese accent jokes and dialogue overdubs to Three Stooges slapstick and eventually to Monty Python surrealism. There's even a running joke, as Kahuna changes his name back to Vladimir Moonface Jr, then disappears, only to reappear vicariously through Kahuna sightings all around the country.
Much of what we see is there because it has to be in this sort of parody, such as the luau of the title because there's always a party in a beach movie. There's always a celebrity guest too and here that's Ray Wonder Jr, a cross between Stevie Wonder and Ray Parker Jr. There's a musical number and a fight scene and a surfing contest and all the other things you'll expect if you've ever seen anything featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. There is fun to be had here, but it's the sort of fun that prompts laughing and cringing at the same time, because yes, they really did that. None of it is remotely groundbreaking, though the catharsis these folk enjoy is in your face obvious. Technically it's as inconsistent as everything else, which means that on one side there's some some adventurous editing, some minor live action animation and some good ideas for camera movements, but on the other there's a great deal of terrible lighting.

It's the surreal side that carries most interest. Ten minutes in, IQ finds a disembodied head inside some sort of metal can, one that's very much alive and played by Tim Burton himself. 'I am the most powerful force in the universe,' he tells everyone. 'You are here to do my bidding.' He can even hypnotise people with haunting tunes but for the most part he's completely ignored, until he challenges Bob to a surfing contest. Given the effects they had to work with, this isn't nearly as wild as it should be, even when he elicits the assistance of a killer crab, but it's very telling when you think about what it really means. Burton was feeling as ignored as crippled and this head and the businessmen who ask them all to keep quiet on the beach are surely their bosses at work. No wonder they're the enemies in the fight scene. Luau would be just another home movie, albeit an ambitious and imaginative one, if it wasn't for this background.

Almost everyone here stayed in the animation industry, eventually getting past the down times and going on to important work. Bob is played by Mike Gabriel, who wrote the story for Oliver & Company and directed The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas. IQ, the chunky kid who finds the head, is Joe Ranft, now a voice actor for Pixar, voicing characters like Wheezy in Toy Story 2 and Jacques in Finding Nemo. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of major features, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Toy Story. Randy Cartwright animated Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Zazu in The Lion King. Jay Jackson animated Milo in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Morph in Treasure Planet. Philip Young, who plays Kahuna, animated Mufasa in The Lion King and Kuzco in The Emperor's New Groove. Of course, because we don't know what animators look like, only Tim Burton remains recognisable. It's good to see him actually act.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Vincent (1982)

Director: Tim Burton
Star: Vincent Price

1984's Frankenweenie ran thirty minutes and cost a cool million bucks. Two years earlier, having only worked on less personal projects, like The Fox and the Hound, as an animator or conceptual artist, Walt Disney Animations only trusted Burton with $60,000 for a six minute short, adapted from a poem he'd written with the original idea of turning it into a children's book. While I happily talked down Disney in my Frankenweenie review, I should redress the balance by talking them up here, because this Dr Seuss inspired poem is the weakest part of the film. Julie Hickson, a Disney executive, and Tom Wilhite, the company's head of creative development, saw potential in Burton and his 'rather unique talent' as the book Burton on Burton puts it. Maybe they saw the potential of the poem too, once animated and well recited, maybe they just wanted a stop motion test or to see what Burton could do with creative freedom, but that shot deserves credit.

Burton seized the opportunity and his four man crew knocked the film out in two months. There was a fifth player, of course, one as inextricably linked to the piece as Burton himself, who wrote seven year old Vincent Malloy autobiographically so deeply that the character even looks like him. It's Vincent Price, who reads Burton's poem with his unmistakeable voice. Given that we learn in verse one that Vincent Malloy dearly wants to be Vincent Price, there's a self referential charm to the piece, aided by frequent references to his career, from House of Wax to the Edgar Allan Poe pictures. Malloy plunges headlong into the world of the macabre in a heartfelt attempt to emulate his hero and Price has a blast bringing him to life. The text is basic AABB rhyme without too much care given to the meter but, as Price could clearly wring charm out of reading an instruction manual, it's no trouble for him whatsoever to elevate this material.
The excellent animation helps too. That crew of four included animator Rick Heinrichs; Steven Chiodo, a stop motion animator; and cameraman Victor Abdalov, in addition to Burton himself. Ignoring the American influences of most of Burton's films, like the Universal horrors, Corman pictures and fifties monster movies, they surely sourced this from the silent expressionist films made in Germany in the twenties. That this is silent, but for the narration, aids that, as does the choice to shoot in black and white and the psychological sweep of the poem that surpasses its language. Burton claims that he hadn't seen The Cabinet of Dr Caligari before making this and if that's true, its angles must have filtered through to him by cultural osmosis. It's good spooky fun, and Price deserves the last word. He described Vincent as 'the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality: better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.'