Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Mario Bava Centenary





On this day exactly 100 years ago Mario Bava was born in Italy. Bava is best known for being a director of several stylish horror and thriller movies, but he was also a cinematographer, a special effects artist, and a screenwriter. Working in the less-regimented Italian film industry allowed Bava to develop an inventiveness that is sorely lacking in today's big-budget CGI spectaculars.

Mario Bava's films are unique due to the visual aspect that each one possesses. Bava was a master of light and shadow, and he used color like no one before or since. He also made one of the greatest black & white horror films of all time (BLACK SUNDAY). There's very few film directors that you can actually say had their own special look--and Bava is one of them. It's a look that has to be seen instead of read about...I certainly can't do it justice in a blog. Suffice to say that Bava had the ability to take what most would consider low-budget drive-in movies and turn them into examples of pure cinema.

In honor of Mario Bava's Centenary I present my own personal list of my five favorite Bava-directed films.

1. BLACK SUNDAY
An obvious choice, but it has to be. Bava's "official" directorial debut is a black & white macabre masterpiece. The movie made a genre icon out of leading lady Barbara Steele, and gave Bava a reputation that would follow him for the rest of his career. For those who are not familiar with Mario Bava's work, this is the movie you should start out with. Anyone who is a self-proclaimed classic horror film fan has to see BLACK SUNDAY at least once.

2. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES
The ultimate Saturday matinee sci fi/horror film. A prime showcase for Bava's FX know-how, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES was an inspiration for a number of more famous (and more expensive) genre films that appeared later on. This is one of the few movies where the alien planet really does look alien. A Blu-ray of this is scheduled to come out later this year.

3. DANGER: DIABOLIK
A year or so ago I wrote a blog listing my five favorite comic book films. I put DANGER: DIABOLIK on the list--and a lot of people thought I was crazy for doing it. A pure 1960s pop-art spectacle, with John Phillip Law as the title character and the stunning Marisa Mell (who's a special effect all by herself). DIABOLIK seems like a real comic book come to life. It also boasts one of Ennio Morricone's best music scores.

4. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD
I know some people are going to shake their heads at that title, but this is full-tilt Bava all the way. The mighty Hercules has to venture into the Underworld to save his lady love from the hands of the dastardly Christopher Lee. A phantasmagorical feast, with one wild incident after another.

5. BLACK SABBATH
An anthology film featuring three impressive tales of terror. I know this might be heresy to some, but I prefer the American version of BLACK SABBATH--you get more Boris Karloff and you get to hear his voice. Whatever version you watch, you're going to get to experience some of Bava's greatest set-pieces.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Big Hurt On The Big Screen--MR. BASEBALL







This weekend my favorite baseball player of all time, Frank Thomas, is being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank was the greatest player in the history of the Chicago White Sox....but in his movie debut he wore a different uniform.

The movie that The Big Hurt appeared in was MR. BASEBALL (1992). The film stars Tom Selleck as grizzled veteran MLB player Jack Elliot, who is traded by the New York Yankees to a Japanese team.

MR. BASEBALL was one of a number of baseball-themed films made in the late '80s-early '90s. It's pretty formulaic--smart-aleck ugly American comes up against Japanese culture, and he learns some "life lessons" along the way. MR. BASEBALL is certainly no FIELD OF DREAMS, but it is mildly entertaining. It's the type of movie you watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon when you have absolutely nothing else to do.

As for Frank Thomas, he's in the very beginning of the story (which means you won't have to sit all the way through it if you just want to see him). He plays Ricky Davis, a hot-shot Yankees rookie gunning for Jack Elliot's job. Frank is only on-screen for about a minute, and he doesn't even have any dialogue. All he does is take batting practice--but it's enough to convince the Yankees (and the audience) that he's a better bet to make the team than the Tom Selleck character.

As a White Sox fan, it was cool to see Frank in a feature film--but it was also rather disconcerting to see him in a Yankee uniform (thankfully that never happened in real life). MR. BASEBALL has not been remade--yet. If it is....wouldn't it make sense to have new White Sox slugger Jose Abreu play Frank's role?





 

 
 
Frank Thomas in a Yankee uniform (Gasp!!)


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Favorite Batman Theatrical Films




This year marks the 75th anniversary of the debut of the comic-book character known as the Batman. In honor of this so-called "Batman Day", I've decided to list every single Batman theatrical feature film in order of my preference. If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time you know how much I whine and moan about movies based on DC characters. I'll try to keep the whining down to a minimum (yeah, right), but I do have to say before we begin that the greatest Batman movie ever made has NOT been made yet.

1. BATMAN BEGINS (2005) Directed by Christopher Nolan
My favorite superhero movie of all time. The only Batman film that gets it....kind of right. This movie owes a great deal to the work of Frank Miller (hey...doesn't Frank Miller direct movies now? Why can't HE direct a Batman film? Oh...sorry). I never warmed up to Christian Bale as Batman, but I'll admit he's less annoying in his first outing. The real stars of this film are Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman.

2. BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993) Directed by Eric Radomski & Bruce Timm
If you are saying, "Hey, wait a minute!! This is animated! It shouldn't count!".....then let me ask you this: Was this not a feature-length film released to theaters? And did it not feature the Batman as the lead character?

This animated film was a spin-off of the legendary "Batman: The Animated Series", which in my opinion is still the best representation of the character other than the comics. I do have to say that there are individual episodes of that series which are better than this outing....but MASK OF THE PHANTASM is loads better than any of the "real" feature films. It also gets extra credit for including the Joker (as performed by Mark Hamill), and using the voice of Dana Delany, an actress I've been a fan of since seeing her on the "China Beach" TV show.

3. BATMAN (1966) Directed by Leslie H. Martinson
Yes, this was a spin-off of the Adam West TV show. When I was a kid, I thought it was one of the greatest movies ever made. I don't think that highly of it now....but I will say that it is far more entertaining than the Burton-Schumacher-Nolan films.

4. BATMAN (1989) Directed by Tim Burton
A huge box-office and cultural hit at the time, this movie looks less impressive now. One has to realize that this film is not set in Batman's universe--it is set in Tim Burton's universe. It's more of a Tim Burton movie than a superhero movie. Jack Nicholson steals the show as the Joker....and ever since then, the Batman movies spend more time on the villains than on the Batman.

5. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) Directed by Christopher Nolan
When this came out, I had friends of mine tell me, "This is one of the greatest films of all time!!!" Well, it's not. As a matter of fact, I think it is one of the most overrated films of all time. Yes, Heath Ledger as the Joker is brilliant, and there's a ton of impressive sequences....but the movie is overlong, the plot is overly convoluted, and there are too many climaxes. The whole Two Face subplot was unnecessary--who wrote the rule that says every Batman movie has to have at least two super-villains? A decent film, but not a great one.

6. BATMAN RETURNS (1992) Directed by Tim Burton
What gets me about this outing is that Tim Burton was allowed to make the strangest summer blockbuster of all time. It's a black & white movie filmed in color, and the most expensive homage to German Expressionism ever made. Christopher Walken (who steals the film) plays a character named Max Schreck, and he happens to look like Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Danny DeVito's Penguin is actually a cross between Werner Krauss' Caligari and Lon Chaney's Man in the Beaver Hat. In the midst of all this, Michael Keaton's Batman is reduced to a supporting role. After this one Warners made darn sure Tim Burton never directed another Batman movie.

7. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) Directed by Christopher Nolan
Another overlong and overstuffed summer blockbuster. What really ticked me off about this one was the idea that Batman would just quit being Batman for five years (kind of like the idea that Superman would just up and leave Earth for five years). If Nolan had just done a straight adaptation of the "Knightfall" comic book series.....nah, that's just simplistic thinking.

8. BATMAN FOREVER (1995) Directed by Joel Schumacher
Val Kilmer's only outing as Batman (remember Val Kilmer?) This entry "introduces" Robin, in the form of Chris O'Donnell (his attempts to act like a bad-ass rebel ruin any chance of making the part work). This movie plays very much like the 1960s TV show, and because BATMAN FOREVER made a lot of money, Warners allowed Joel Schumacher to go even further in the next entry....

9. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Just a terrible film all around...maybe one of the worst of all time, considering the talent and the money involved. The only good thing about watching this is getting to look at Uma Thurman (you can say that about a lot of Uma's films--I'm totally smitten with her but the woman couldn't find a decent script if she tripped over one). I wonder if George Clooney ever discusses this with President Obama when they have dinner together.

BONUS MATERIAL: My favorite Batman actors!!

1. Kevin Conroy
2. Adam West
3. Michael Keaton
Tied for last--Christian Bale, Val Kilmer, George Clooney






Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR--REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON




At Monster Bash this June not only did I get to meet actress Julie Adams, I also bought a copy of her autobiography. THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR--REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (co-written by Julie's son Mitchell Danton) is the story of a woman who has had an amazing professional acting career.

Adams starts out with her childhood in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression, and her dreams of becoming a movie star. Through her determination and attitude she broke into films in the late 1940s and soon afterward was signed to a contract to Universal Studios. While at Universal Julie appeared in some of her most well-remembered films, including of course CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

Julie devotes an entire chapter to BLACK LAGOON, and includes some very rare behind-the-scenes photos. Certainly her role in this film has made her something of an icon to monster movie fans....but if there is any genre Julie should be associated with it should probably be the Western.

Reading this book makes one realize there was far more to Julie Adams' career than one monster movie. Just a partial list of her leading men would include James Stewart, Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Robert Ryan, Charlton Heston, and even Elvis Presley. After leaving Universal Julie appeared as a guest star in some of the most famous TV shows of all time, such as "Bonanza", "Perry Mason", "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". She even played a villain in an episode of "The Big Valley", where she tortured Barbara Stanwyck! In the 1970s Julie began playing various roles on the stage, while still continuing to do film and TV work. Her career continues into the 21st Century, with roles in such shows as "Lost" and "CSI:NY" and a cameo in Oliver Stone's WORLD TRADE CENTER.

This book is filled with dozens of stunning photos of Julie taken throughout her career. The inside covers contain color pictures of numerous posters of films that Julie appeared in. There is also a complete listing of Julie's film and TV credits.

If I had to sum up this book in one word, it would be "positive". The actress does not go out of her way to denigrate anyone, or tell any wild tales. If you are looking for any catty comments or juicy stories, you're not going to find them here. Some readers might be disappointed in this, but I personally think it is refreshing--and it is more than likely a major reason why Julie Adams has had such a long career in the entertainment industry.

In the epilogue of THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR Mitchell Danton explains that the real reason he wanted this book written was that he wanted people to know there was more to his mother's career than just CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. He's absolutely right--the entire career of Julie Adams does deserve to be highlighted. Very few performers can boast a resume like hers.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT

 






Greg Mank is the pre-eminent historian of the classic Hollywood horror film. His latest book is THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT, published by McFarland & Company.

In this volume Mank devotes 13 chapters to what he calls dark alleys of classic horror cinema. Among the subjects are the sad life of DRACULA actress Helen Chandler, the making of Paramount's wild pre-code thriller MURDERS IN THE ZOO, and the production histories of CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. We also encounter along the way tales about John Barrymore, Lionel Atwill, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Carl Laemmle Jr.

Most of the subjects in this book have been touched on by Mank before...but as usual with this writer there's always something new to be had, such as a forgotten incident that has been unearthed, or a fresh take on a film the reader thinks he or she knows all about.

The genius of Mank is that he gives each person he writes about a well-defined personality--making that person come alive as a real human being. Mank can also take the production history of the cheapest "B" monster movie and present it as an epic adventure in film making. Just about every monster movie fan knows the basic facts of the great horror films. Mank can take those facts (along with the dozens of new ones he seems to discover in every one of his books) and spin a story that gives you the feeling that the movies he covers are brand new--or at least need revisiting.

Mank's unique writing style--a combination of gossip, interviews, documented fact, and analysis--makes for entertaining reading. Mank clearly loves classic horror films, and that comes out in every page. You get the feeling that Mank himself is sitting in a room talking about monster movies with you personally.

It must be pointed out that some of the personalities featured in THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT suffered as much horror off-screen as they did on-screen (Mr. Mank told me at this Summer's Monster Bash that he felt like he might have needed rehab after finishing the book). Despite that, this is not a depressing volume, simply because there is so much joy and affection for the classic horror genre and the men and women who contributed to it.

I must also point out that, as usual with any Greg Mank book, there's dozens of rare photos, most of which I've never seen before. How can there be any unpublished photos left of the likes of Karloff, Atwill, Carradine, etc.? Somehow Mank provides them.

Gregory William Mank has been one of my favorite writers since I first read his IT'S ALIVE! when I was a teenager back in the 1980s. This makes me rather biased when it comes to his work....but in all honesty no classic horror film fan can go wrong in obtaining a copy of THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE




Last night I finally got to see a documentary I had been looking forward to since I had first heard about it: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, directed by Frank Pavich.

In the mid-1970s, surrealist film director Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert's famed science-fiction novel Dune. I knew about this project from an article featured in Cinefantastique magazine back in the 1980s. This documentary shows how expansive Jodorowsky's vision for the film was. Jodorowsky put together a team of artists and designers, including H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Jean (Moebius) Giraud, and assembled a huge book containing the entire screenplay of the film in storyboard form, along with various pre-production drawings and costume designs. The book is a stunning piece of work, and it is really the star of this documentary--I don't know why Jodorowsky just doesn't reproduce the book and sell it as a limited edition keepsake.

Jodorowsky also hired Dan O'Bannon to do the FX (after seeing a screening of O'Bannon's work in DARK STAR). The special effects, if they had been attempted, would have been way beyond anything ever accomplished at the time. Jodorowsky also had plans to use different rock groups for different segments of the film's music--one of the groups he approached was Pink Floyd.

The cast would have included such names as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger. The role of the main hero, young Paul, was going to be played by Jodorowsky's son (who was being trained in martial arts seven days a week to prepare for the role).

Frank Pavich goes to the storyboards time and again to give the viewer a rough approximation of what this never-made movie might have looked like. Pavich has had some of the storyboards and drawings animated, and these, combined with the Vangelis-like music of Kurt Stenzel, give off a genuinely creepy atmosphere.

While I watching JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, I was impressed by Jodorowsky's plans....but at the same time I kept saying to myself, "There's NO WAY this guy would have been able to pull this off." You have to remember that this was the mid-1970s, before STAR WARS had been made. To get his version of DUNE off the ground Jodorowsky would have needed major financing from a major studio--and I highly doubt any Hollywood company would have wanted to work with someone like Jodorowsky on such a major project. Jodorowsky was (and is) a true avant-garde maverick, a director who is as far from the mainstream as you can get. The documentary seems to imply that it is a shame someone as wildly creative as Jodorowsky did not get his work finished. I honestly believe that Jodorowsky might not ever have finished it--or even if he did, it would have never lived up to what he was trying to accomplish.

At the end of the documentary Jodorowsky ashamedly expresses his happiness that David Lynch's 1984 version of DUNE was a flop. But one of the reasons Lynch's DUNE wasn't successful was that many saw it as just too weird. Jodorowsky's DUNE, if it had been made, would have been twenty times weirder. Alejandro Jodorowsky makes David Lynch look normal.

The intriguing thing about "unfinished" or "unmade" films is that we can never be disappointed in them. Talk to anyone who has made or worked on a film, large or small, and they will tell you that no matter how you prepare and organize, changes and compromises have to be made along the way. Jodorowsky's attitude of "art and vision above all" is a respectable one, but it's hard to see how that would have worked when dealing with a major feature film. Jodorowsky's version of DUNE would probably work best as a graphic novel instead of a movie. Still, this is a fascinating documentary, and I especially recommend it to those who are creative artists themselves.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Disposable Culture





According to industry sources, the Fourth of July American movie box office gross was the lowest in about ten years. Of course, there really wasn't all that much to choose from if you wanted to go and see something. The shelf life of a "major" summer blockbuster these days seems to be the same as a loaf of bread. A movie gets all sorts of hype leading up to its release, it has a big opening weekend.....and about a week later it's almost forgotten.

The latest TRANSFORMERS entry is the first movie this summer to be No. 1 at the box office for two consecutive weeks. That's another example of how we live in a sound-bite society, where anything that happened five minutes ago is already considered old news. In May I wrote a blog post about the 30th anniversary of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. I remember that during 1984 that movie played all summer long, and I'm sure it was No. 1 for more than a couple weeks.

The first "big" movie of this summer season was GODZILLA....and then the hype turned to the new X-MEN feature....and then came MALEFICENT, where the mainstream media took the opportunity to talk about how Angelina Jolie is supposedly one of the greatest women to ever walk the earth. Then came the teenage romance movie, and then 22 JUMP STREET (??), and now TRANSFORMERS. I'm sure these movies are still making money (especially in other countries) and I'm sure they will all do well on the home video market....but will any of these films have the stature of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM? What I mean by that is, will they pass the reference test? If, say, 5, 10, or even 20 years from now, you reference any of those movies in a joke, or use a line a dialogue from any of them....will people automatically know what you are talking about?

Nowadays if a subject is not a "trending topic", it gets pushed aside. One movie that I have seen this summer is JERSEY BOYS, directed by Clint Eastwood. This is a film based on a popular Broadway musical, directed by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history....and it's not making a lot of money, and getting very little media attention. A film like JERSEY BOYS doesn't have much of a chance in today's marketplace. (It must be pointed out that Warners should have had the sense to release JERSEY BOYS in the fall, where it would have had a better audience.)

There seems to be a lack of permanence in the movies and TV shows of today, which is why geeks like me are constantly watching TCM or the MeTV Network. Maybe that just reflects my narrow point of view. I'm about the least trendy person in the world (even though I'm writing a blog...ironic, ain't it?). But I can't help but think that the film culture of today is pretty thin. The only recent major mainstream release that appears to have had any type of lasting mark is Disney's FROZEN. The fact that FROZEN is an animated film says a lot about where the movie industry is at present.