Saturday, March 24, 2012

Charlie X Is Steven McQueen: Return to Bloblandia (and Something to Laugh About)

In the wake of last year’s Ivanlandia write-up of 1958’s The Blob for the
Monsterthon Blogfest sponsored by the fab Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear,
The National Film Board felt it was appropriate to examine that film’s unofficial, intentionally comedic sequel—and some other stuff, as well…but comedic stuff, so that way it all ties together thematically….

Beware! The Blob! (1972) (a.k.a. Son of Blob, Son of the Blob)
Directed by Larry Hagman
Script by Anthony Harris and James Woods III
Produced by Anthony Harris

If you sniff around the intertubes, you’ll be shocked—no, I won’t repeat myself—at how many reviewers of this film are stymied and flabbergasted that it’s comedic. They seem surprised!
Which is odd, because since the flick’s initial release, there’s no way no one could not know that this movie is a comedy.
(Or supposed to be one—I think it’s funny; others disagree…Fuck ’em.)

As you may recall, at the end of The Blob, the frozen remains of the hungry gelatinous monster were being parachuted into the frozen wilderness of
the Arctic, where the end credit words “The End” transform via cartoon animation into a big “?”

At the start of Beware! The Blob! (my preferred title, although most seem to call it Son of the Blob, or a variation thereof), an oil company engineer has returned from the Arctic with some strange samples, including something that looks like frozen cherry-flavored Jell-O.
Well, you can guess what that is, and OF COURSE it gets thawed out!

And to its credit, the first victim in Beware! The Blob! is the darn-tootingest-cutest l’il kitty-kat-kitten you ever saw.
Shleeep-shleeep, all gobbled up!
I like it when flicks do this—it says, all bets are off.
We’ve killed the cutest kitten ever; try and stop us now.

[The remake of The Blob, from 1988, does this as well when it offs the bratty kid in the sewer.
That flick scared the crap out of me when I saw it on its initial release, but I didn’t enjoy it as much when I saw it a few years ago on DVD; I can’t really remember why right now. Maybe it was Kevin Dillon’s hair….]

Unfortunately, Beware! The Blob! doesn’t really take this ball and run with it—overall, the flick’s a lot of goofy fun—but just as many gags fall flat.
But being a stoner/six-pack movie, it’s allowed to be scattershot, I think.

While there is a through-line of star Robert Walker Jr.’s trying to warn people/stop the blob,
the movie is a series of two- or three-person blackout sketches—
where the “blackout” that ends each skit is the blob devouring the players (or something along those lines).
It would not surprise me if the majority of the scenes/episodes/skits were improvised, either during rehearsals or while the cameras were rolling—which may explain the presence of improv guru Del Close in the cast.
(Short version: so much of contemporary comedy can be traced back to being influenced/taught/coached by Close: from Bill Murray to Adam McKay to Amy Poehler.)

BTW: Close was also in the 1988 remake of The Blob, playing the crazed preacher who ends up with a bit of the blob in a mason jar at the end of the flick. Whoops, spoiler! [snickers like a small child…]

Partially filmed in Pomona, California (mentioned because that’s near where I went to college), in addition to lead Walker (who’d been “Charlie X” on the original Star Trek),
Beware! The Blob! is packed with familiar late-1960s/early-1970s TV and movie faces.

as with any improv comedy performances, some of the skits are sublime (especially Shelley Berman as snide barber; and the boy scout troop annoying scoutmaster Dick Van Patten with the klick-klack balls—the coolest toys that ever wound it being banned: Dude, those things were great!);
some segments are just dumb and goofy (Godfrey Cambridge’s cameo as the ill-fated oil engineer; and the fat man in the tub, played by the movie’s special effects supervisor, Tim Barr, of George Pal and Projects Unlimited semi-fame);
some are self-indulgent, but fun (Del Close, director Larry Hagman and an uncredited Burgess Meredith getting drunk in the barn);
and some are just okay (it’s always fun to see Gerritt Graham).

But the pace of Beware! The Blob! is fast enough, and there’s enough variety that it’s an enjoyable nihilistic horror-comedy that’s perfect for a rainy afternoon with a six-pack or a bong (as befitting the movie’s many hippy characters).

More good info about the movie HERE

With Beware! The Blob!, Larry Hagman joins that interesting list of actors who tried directing—once—and then never again:
It includes
Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter; Marlon Brando, One-Eyed Jacks; LQ Jones, A Boy and His Dog;
Robert Culp, Hickey & Boggs;
Jack Lemmon, Kotch; Bill Murray, Quick Change (co-directed with Howard Franklin);
Paul Frees, The Beatniks;
Tim Carey, The World’s Greatest Sinner;
Walter Matthau, Gangster Story; Edward Norton, Keeping the Faith;
Gary Oldman, Nil by Mouth; Tim Roth, The War Zone;
Richard Pryor, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling;
Frank Sinatra, None but the Brave;
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Anniversary Party (co-directed with Alan Cumming); Dan Ackroyd, Nothing But Trouble (an awful, awful schizoid movie with about 12 minutes of pure, absolute genius scattered throughout);
Anne Bancroft, Fatso (is that ever coming out on DVD?);
Peter Lorre, Der Verlorene (The Lost One);
Eddie Murphy, Harlem Nights; and of course, that master thespian Stephen King and his solo opus, Maximum Overdrive.

(If you have any examples, leave them in the comments)

Sure, some of the films of these “once a director, never again” actors are not that good, but for the most part it seems these movies are on the whole unique or different in some way, definitely personal—or at least offbeat— even when the films are not necessarily autobiographical—
routinely of questionable box-office expectations—
Of course, some of these movies are absolute classics, and we should be thankful they exist at all.

Not that actor Larry Hagman’s sole directorial effort Beware! The Blob! is one of those classics, but if anything,
fans/acolytes of the Upright Citizens Brigade (and those interested in the history of modern comedy) should check this flick out, as it is one of Del Close’s few screen appearances.

Close was the “spiritual advisor” to the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy group when it started in Chicago, and when a reformed UCB, with a smaller and mostly different cast (wisely adding Amy Poehler—although “big” in the Chicago improve scene then, her addition was at first questioned because she was seeing UCB-original Matt Besser at the time, but her addition was later confirmed to be a brilliant maneuver—and history bears this out, with the current proof being her much-liked-around-here show Parks & Recreation),
made the leap to TV, they took him with them, having Close provide narration and occasional voice-overs.

And if you’re not familiar with the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show—about a quartet of superscience superspies working towards increasing the amount of global chaos (fighting the chilling effects of groupthink and conformity), it is highly recommended!
(And when is Season 3—in my opinion, their weirdest, and much better than the second season—coming to DVD? Probably never…Sigh…Better start hunting for it on the Intertubes!)

From the opening credits narration to the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show:
"From the dawn of civilization, they have existed in order to undermine it. Our only enemy is the status quo. Our only friend is chaos. They have no government ties and unlimited resources. If something goes wrong, we are the cause. Every corner of the earth is under their surveillance. If you do it, we see it. Always. We believe the powerful should be made less powerful. We have heard the voice of society, begging us to destabilize it.

It has become a bit of a cliché, popularized by Pulp Fiction and all the flicks inspired by it, but the interconnecting storyline film is one that I always used to enjoy.
The best examples I can think of, without doing any real hard research on the subject, are Repo Man, 1981’s Fort Apache, The Bronx (for reals—the flick is an evil La Ronde!) and Dr. Strangelove (to a lesser extent)—

The Upright Citizens Brigade TV show used to do this really well (and/or weirdly) via the Harold method of improvisational comedy: where each scene subtly mirrors or parallels the previous scenes, through “call-backs” and the “Rule of Three,” until all the varying strands of story come together in the end.

Probably 90% of what wound up on screen with UCB TV started off as a live improvised piece.
While some episodes or sketches were adapted/workshopped from live shows performed during the UCB’s Chicago tenure—like “Bucket of Truth,” or “Thunderball,” and others, like
“Spaghetti Jesus,” or “Saigon Suicide Squad,” had been performed live on-stage in NYC and fine-tuned before being turned into TV scripts,
it could be said that they nearly all came from the UCB’s infamous ASSSCAT shows.
Rob Corddry once told me—yeah, I’m a namedropper—that he was in the audience when the infamous “Ass Pennies” sketch (later used in the superlative “Power Marketing” episode) was created. It started with Ian Roberts’ simply pretending to be relaxing with a golf club.

If you live in NYC or Los Angeles, you could see an
ASSSSCAT show this weekend. After a monolog, usually delivered by a celebrity friend of the theater, the cast—depending on schedules this can include members of the UCB TV show, as well as any friends or colleagues—it can be quite the all-star event.
And it’s never not been a crowd-pleaser.

In 2008, the UCB released Upright Citizens Brigade: Asssscat, an attempt to capture the show’s spirit on video—as well as an attempted TV pilot.

The UCB TV-four perform in this show, joined by many guests, including UCB-Chicago-original Horatio Sanz.

A good approximation of the live Asssscat shows—
I laughed my butt off watching ASSSSCAT: The Movie,
even including the goofs and mishaps, the battles for the spotlight, skits that go nowhere, and the chaos of a live improv comedy show that is only truly enjoyable when you are there
(but that I thought was fascinating to watch via DVD anyway).

Andrew Daly (whose soul I once owned—really!) and Amy Poehler steal the show, and while Sanz doesn’t do enough, he makes some spot-on contributions.

Reviewers at Netflix have griped about the editing of this live performance/documentary, but I think it perfectly captures how your eyes work at one of these shows: sometimes there is so much going on on-stage that your eyes flit back and forth, before finally focusing on the overall skit being performed/created.

If you get the DVD (ASSSSCAT: The Movie is also available to be watched at Nflix Streaming), make sure to watch all the supplemental material; it’s just as good as the main feature, especially if you are interested in learning more of how comedy is created—the whole “where do you get your ideas” is laid low: your ideas come from inside your head.

Students of improvisational comedy need to buy this DVD and pay attention to the commentary track. It’s hardly the standard DVD “we had a great time” commentary:

On it, UCB members Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser explain and point out of the tools and techniques of improvisational comedy that they use, critiquing the skits and expounding on improv theory.
Roberts has some especially good insights; listening to the commentary is almost like attending one of their classes.

Everyone interested in modern comedy should check out ASSSSCAT: The Movie.
Some of you may not like it (it’s certain not “family friendly”), but it’s a good indicator of where comedy is going (especially with so many UCB Theater graduates getting film and TV deals these days).

(And Full Disclosure: since the late-1990s, I’ve been taking classes/performing with a variety of improv comedy theaters in NYC, including at one point the UCB, go Team CHUD!—where I was lucky enough to have the fab Amy Poehler twice as a teacher. She rules! There I go, namedropping again…)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Snowbound in Hell: The Last of February

This post ain’t about the weather—it’s about the MOVIES!

Let’s recap:
The first batch of February Flicks is HERE;
& the second batch of reviews of the second month’s movies, HERE.

Now let’s start with the conclusion of our Feb-Revs, with 2011’s
The Thing, directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen.

Goshes! That remake/prequel/sequel/whatevs really could’ve been so much better!
Not that they didn’t try, shucks no! They obviously worked hard on this movie.
And I hold up lead Mary Elizabeth Winstead for special praise for bringing serious and genuine acting chops to an endeavor that not many others would have.

But the new The Thing is only enjoyable if I blank out of my mind the fact that there’s this movie from 1982 also called The Thing; it’s directed by John Carpenter, and that it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Once I can forget about one of the greatest movies ever made,
THEN, I can watch 2011’s The Thing and think of it as a pretty decent Outer Limits-type movie—a spooky contemporary sci-fi flick, like Altered, They Live, Apollo 18 or Moon, that really would have been PERFECT if it had only been one-hour in length (or, if you want to be exact-ish, around 47 minutes long, the length of a TV show without commercials).

Universal Studios, who produced and released both Carpenter and Van Heijningen’s versions really should have removed all references to Carpenter’s earlier later-in-the-story and given the new flick a new name. Since I call this subgenre of horror
“Snowbound in Hell,” let’s use that.
(FYI: It’s the subgenre where folks are stuck in a cold and awful situation—various The Things, A Cold Night’s Death, The Shining, Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings,
The X-Files’ “Ice,” the underrated Frozen, etc.)

Then the blogoverse would have reacted to Snowbound in Hell differently; sure, they’d call it a rip-off of Carpenter’s movie, but expectations would not have been as high.
Also, with a title change, folks would have looked at the flick for what it is, and what it is is pretty decent as far as “alien absorption at Antarctic Station” rip-offs go.

However, the new The Thing is very tame compared to 1982’s, with few (if any) genuine images of mind-blowing horror (like the gloriously insane freakout of the entire Norris sequence, from heart attack all the way up to “spiderhead”)—
And since there were women in the 2011 film, there should have been an alien seduction scene (what pheromones that galaxy-hopping horror would have collected!), where someone is schlupped-up mid-coitus. Have them fuck until they’re a big oozing puddle.
Then go all gender-bender!
Then animalistic!

Since it’s an exploitation flick, exploit! Pump up the madness, gore, sick humor, paranoia, all of it! Go beyond From Beyond!

Also I would retrofit the whole flick so that at the end we can have a “Narrator Realizes He’s Tyler Durden” moment, where we see certain scenes again, but from different angles, showing us that cute Dr. Kate is actually sexy and nefarious:
We see that cute and spunky Dr. Kate was actually one of the first infected, and that being “Ripley” was her way to camouflage herself.

Yeah, yeah, I know it would mean rewriting the whole thing—heh—but why not? For one thing—snicker—I wouldn’t ditch the video footage of the Norwegians blasting the ice—and the saucer (said footage being Carpenter’s tribute to the saucer discovery moment in 1951’s The Thing, that for some WTF reason was left out of 2011’s The Thing
which was supposed to be super-duper-total-cellular-structure-reproduction leading up to John Carpenter’s primary text in the first place! Oy…).

SO you still have cute Dr. Kate as our hero—and since she is an alien, she knows its tricks—and can survive any attacks better—we’ll try and answer the inevitable torrent of plot questions after Universal greenlights this…

And then you can end with cute Dr. Kate at the burned-up Norwegian base—she’s already blown up the big scary weird-and-pissed-off something from out there—and she’s outside in the snow.
She’s looking over a map—Outpost 31 is only yadda-yadda miles away—she lets the map go, the wind takes it, but it catches on one of the mutated fingers of the stretch-face crispy-critter in the ditch—
Pan back to where cute Dr. Kate has been standing, except all her clothes are lying there empty—and a certain familiar husky is loping off into the distance…

Then we see the forgotten but surviving Lars crawling out of the wreckage—a la Childs—he finds the map, sees the husky—which has paused to notice the familiar brown NORGE chopper that’s just flown in, then the husky splits, running like mad
—smash cut to black!

Otherwise, the new The Thing is kind of forgettable. But dang, Mary Elizabeth Winstead sure is cute!

Other films I watched in The Last Days of the Leap Year Month:

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009; Mladen Djordjevic) The feature film Richard Kern never got around to making. Strong stuff, not for everyone: It’s bleak, grim and unhappy. Eastern European pacing isn’t for everyone either. But then, how many films have a crossdresser kissing a horse’s giant shlong?
That said, it’s an often very subtle film, using the “video diary/found footage” template often to good effect, with good use of the frame. (True, but several times the “video diary” becomes simply hand-held footage—and then, who’s holding the camera? That’s annoying.)
One thing that sticks in my mind is this: Throughout the film we’ve been getting titles telling us the date and the time. One scene begins, and “September 11, 2001” comes up—and y’know what?
That never comes up. This travelling porno-theater-circus-snuff-movie-gang is so out of it—as is perhaps all of post-war Serbia—
that the biggest blah-blah-blah for the US means nothing to them.
But what do people who’ve had uranium-tipped bullets—among other things—dropped on them regularly care about our crisis? Besides, making snuff movies pays good money—and that gets better drugs.

However, I do think that a “Joe Sixpack”-type of person—with their more routine exposure to porn and gore—
would be less shocked or offended by this flick than a member of the so-called intelligentsia.
But I would recommend The Life and Death of a Porno Gang to fans of Nagisa Oshima, Dušan Makavejev or Greg Dark, as well.

Devil Times Five (1974; Sean MacGregor) Heard about this for years, and it's rightly a cult fave—but one that had been hyped a bit much for my tastes: I often found the flick dull, with hideous amounts of padding, including several murder scenes that are made super slllllllllllowwwwww-motion, dragging them out about three times their “normal” rate.
But lots of sick moments that made me glad to see it, nonetheless. (I’ll let you discover those yourself…)

Viridiana (1961; Luis Bunuel) A dose of Grand Master Luis every once in a while is a good thing, and this is one of his films I hadn’t seen before.
Enjoyable and sacrilegious, the flick now seems more about cloistered do-gooder liberals and their naïveté than the Catholic Church.

Senna (2010; Asif Kapadia) Incredible racetrack footage intensifies a very good documentary about Brazil’s first Formula One champion.

Portions of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)—because after seeing the remake/prequel, I needed to see the real deal.

Gambit (1966; Ronald Neame) An exceedingly dopey movie that’s shamelessly stupid. And not entertaining or fun at all. A caper flick without any caper—or tension. And there really isn’t any chemistry between Caine & MacLaine. A dreadful bore, dahling, simply dreadful.

The Take (2009; David Drury; mini-series) Tom Hardy can play Limey thug/gangsters in his sleep; some interesting moments, but not worth it, really, not if you’ve seen The Wire or The Shield, or Hardy in Bronson, or Brian Cox (who’s also in this mini-series, as an imprisoned crime boss) in Manhunter.

Narita: The Peasants of the Second Fortress (1971; Shinsuke Ogawa, documentary) To build Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, the Japanese Government pulled the old “eminent domain” trick on the peasant farmers who had been living and working in the area for decades.
The farmers refused to leave, and built forts and tunnels to strengthen their positions against the bulldozers, firehoses and billyclubs of the riot cops.
Filmmaker Ogawa lived with the peasants as he filmed their struggle; making three films in the process, The Peasants of the Second Fortress being the second of the trilogy.
Ogawa lets the camera linger often, and usually for a long time, a frustrating habit because we know there’s absolutely more interesting footage. That said, this is some intense shizznit, very relevant to today, especially in Brooklyn with the construction of the Nightmare Stadium.
And scenes of farmers getting clobbered—and fighting back—are stirring.
Of course, having flown to Tokyo, I know how this story turns out….

Portions of The Landlord (1970; Hal Ashby) Only watched because my friend played the chain-smoking pre-adolescent wiseacre in the flick, and for the great footage of Park Slope WAY before gentrification. Otherwise, it’s a heavy-handed criticism of white liberal guilt that lays it on too thick with the Black People Are So Cool tropes as well.

Trailer Park Boys: Season One (2001; Mike Clattenburg, director & creator) Sick, funny madness. Drunken white trash Canuck fun. Looking forward to watching more; the Comedy of Aggression always appeals to me.

The rest of February’s films were:
Movies Listed in Order Screened—
Sweetgrass (2009; Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (uncredited))
Star Crash (1978; Luigi Cozzi)
Death Kappa (2010; Tomo’o Haraguchi)
Deathsport (1978; Henry Suso & Allan Arkush; produced by Roger Corman)
Battletruck (1982; Harley Cokliss)
Portions of Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior (1981; both directed by George Miller)
Valhalla Rising (2009; Nicholas Winding Refn)
Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010; Mark Harley)
Kill List (2011; Ben Wheatley)
Beginning of the End (1957; Bert I. Gordon)
Quatermass and the Pit (1958; Rudolph Cartier; written by the great Nigel Kneale)
Final Destination 5 (2011; Steven Quale)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957; Nathan Juran; effects by Ray Harryhausen)
Song of the South (1946; Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson, with the shadow of Walt Disney over the whole operation)
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2010; Göran Hugo Olsson)
Portions of The Fury (1978; Brian De Palma)
Day of the Triffids (1962; Steve Sekely, and Freddie Francis, uncredited)
The Pit (1981; Lew Lehman)
South Pacific (1958; Joshua Logan)
Shut Up, Little Man: An Audio Misadventure (2011; Matthew Bate) Thinking about it, Shut Up, Little Man: An Audio Misadventure might be one of the best of the year…
Masters of Horror: Dario Argento: Jenifer (2006; Dario Argento)
The Naked City (1948; Jules Dassin)
Freakonomics (2010; Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock)
The Land That Time Forgot (1975; Kevin Conner)

Recommended Shorts of February—

The Messenger
Roughly a minute, so just watch it. And pay attention! It’s sick.

Claymation Eraserhead

Zombie Zombie (GI Joe Vs. The Thing)

Ricky’s Battle Shock
A soldier is having a hard time.

Cute Chick With a Nice Pussy
Is it porn when it’s claymation? Is it claymation when it’s porn? Is this a bait-&-switch? Just watch it!

Spider (2007; Nash Edgerton) Not funny until someone loses an eye…

Cost of Living (2011; Bendavid Grabinski) The mundane conversations of the characters of a shoot-em-up game who don’t know they’re in a video game: “I want a transfer to Nebraska; there are no zombies in Nebraska.” Funny stuff that will be ruined when it is inevitably turned into a feature film.

Fishing Under Water (2011; Juuso Mettälä) Upside-down treasure hunting—under the ice! Beautiful stuff...