Monday, December 26, 2005

Zardoz (1974)

Welcome to the Outland, where men like Zed (Sean Connery) dress in fashionable speedos and suspenders, and a gigantic stone head floats around, vomiting rifles on fearful acolytes down below. When the head lands to be worshiped like the angry god it is, Zed crawls into the mouth and stows away, because everybody knows you gotta join 'em to beat 'em. Eventually he winds up in an iffy computer-regulated paradise, the Vortex, where men are fey, women are harpies, and Zed becomes the target of a great deal of withered pseudo-philosophy. Seems the poor devils in the Vortex have gained immortality but lost their sex drives (though not their taste for pornography, interestingly enough). Plot Twist: triggered by his scanty outfit, some citizens propose using the virile Zed for breeding purposes; this kind of hilarious misogyny was better handled in A Boy and his Dog (1975). Zed rebels, becoming the inevitable fly in the KY jelly, staring pensively into shiny crystals and finally, through skillful manipulation of fun-house mirrors, brings Death back to the Vortex. At least there was no blowhard talk of him "fulfilling the prophecy." Bizarro sci-fi love child of Barbarella (1968) and THX-1138 (1971). Not to be confused with Outland (1981) also starring Sean Connery, actually a bloated space-set remake of High Noon (1952) with nary a giant stone head in sight.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Watching fleet-footed robber baron Errol Flynn stave-duel with husky but surprisingly agile friar Alan Hale (Skiiiiipppppeeeerrrrr!) on a fallen log bridging the river in Sherwood Forest, I couldn't help but think of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, just kept waiting for one of those two to spin his staff fast enough to propel the other into the water. That, or for King Kong to come down the path and shake them both off the log and into the spider pit. As each tableau unspools, villains twirl their mustaches while good guys stand akimbo and laugh from the gut -- not a trace of postmodern irony, cynicism, pandering character catch-phrases, gratuitous poop jokes, or hypnotic imagery of folks leaping away from complicated explosions blooming in slow-motion. Just old-fashioned lighthearted fun. Tally-ho!

Friday, December 9, 2005

King Kong (2005)

You know the story: Ape meets girl during Skull Island film shoot. Ape fights for girl’s affections. Ape loses girl. Ape gets dragged to Manhattan. Ape gets girl again. Ape climbs Empire State Building. Ape meets biplanes. Things go south for Ape.

Merian C. Cooper’s original blockbuster wowed audiences not relatively long after motion pictures added sound – a 50-foot gorilla flossing with tropical islanders and smashing up New York City kept the box office humming in 1933. A generation later, schlockmeister Dino DeLaurentiis proclaimed that everyone, including “intellectuals,” was “gonna love Konk,” and “when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” But the only sobs punctuating the end of King Kong (1976) were those provided by suckers who paid full ticket price: ‘twas ineptitude killed the beast.

Peter Jackson’s stupendous re-imagining follows Cooper's story beat-for-beat, often with relentless faithfulness (just one thing sorely missing: that subversive little moment when Kong tickles his gal-pal Anne and then sniffs his fingers). The story is wisely kept a period piece (sparing viewers the sight of Kong climbing a Verizon cellphone tower or whatever), albeit contemporarily embellished and expanded, finally undone by just that much overindulgence. Jackson and his digital SFX shop, WETA, had already upped the ante on Cooper-scale spectacle with The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) so there was nowhere to go on Skull Island but over the top – waaaaay over. Even at three hours, the film isn’t overlong so much as overripe: witness the ridiculous brontosaurus stampede, in which all the major characters miraculously escape being turned to jelly; verisimilitude isn’t just strained, it’s willfully exploded, even by summertime popcorn-flick standards. On the other hand, there’s a surprisingly genuine emotional quotient for a monster movie: Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis breathe real life into the relationship between Anne and Kong. By the time Kong escapes into the larger manufactured trap of NYC, only the hardest of hearts would not empathize -- helpless and lonely (even with his favorite lady in tow), confused by his alien surroundings, and doomed by that very confusion. Lethal beauty, indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Brimstone and Treacle (1982)

An evil grifter who might be the Devil (Sting) latches onto the suburban Bates family, Tom and Norma (Denholm Elliot and a woman I could have sworn was a tarted-down Mollie Sugden from Are You Being Served? but who is actually Joan Plowright from .... well, says here she was in Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter (1995) so it's no wonder I'd blocked her out). Sting's emergent goal is to get his pedo-hands on the Bates' invalid daughter, Patricia, in a near-vegetative state since a car accident years before. To this end he pretends to be her former fiance, offers to care for her while Tom works and Norma gets her hair done. This cloying and sketchy new normal doesn't last long; Sting's abuses of the catatonic Patricia become more flagrant, and vile secrets begin seeping out of the wallpaper ... somewhat literally. Framing device and light exposition aside, most of the action takes place inside the cramped Bates Family Manor, revealing the material's source as a teleplay; flat production amplifies the low-budget quirk. Mostly remembered for the contemporary soundtrack (a couple hits from the Go-Gos and Squeeze, a cache of mood music from The Police). Sting went on to wear flying underpants in David Lynch's adaption of Dune (1984).