Monday 9 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #2

I've posted a couple of reviews to Apocalypse Later this week:

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), which could well depict the real mid-life crisis of Anthony Newley and a possibly subconscious attempt to destroy his own career. The title isn't the only reason why it was this week's Weird Wednesday review.

Firebird 2015 AD (1972), an ecological sci-fi thriller set in the far future America of, erm, 2015. Shortages and corruption have led the US to outlaw cars and gasoline, but 'burners' like Darren McGavin drive illicitly around the Alberta countryside anyway and government thugs like Doug McClure chase him.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Tower Heist (2011)

Director: Brett Ratner
Stars: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe
It feels odd to say that this is Hollywood done right, because it isn't. They really should make better movies with better scripts and I don't buy into the dumbing down of the audience that the studios seem to give as their excuse for throwing out crap year after year. However, if Hollywood is to make each film as a ride, with charismatic actors whisking us with charm past the many plotholes quickly enough that we might not notice them or at least forgive them for existing, then this isn't a bad example of what they can do. I enjoyed the downtime for my brain.

The film did change a lot over its development time though. Originally it was going to be a vehicle for Eddie Murphy and a team of black comedians, including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence, among others, playing a set of disgruntled employees who get their revenge on Donald Trump and the Trump Tower. How perfect that would seem today! Perhaps it could only be better if they were all Latino comedians.

After five years it gradually changed into a Ben Stiller movie, though Eddie Murphy did return to the project, both as a producer and an actor, and he provided an edgy performance far superior to anything I've seen him do in at least a couple of decades. He certainly outshines Stiller without even trying, though the latter does what he does well enough to keep his fans happy. Yeah, I know that doesn't take much.

The Trump Tower turned into an exclusive New York apartment block (average cost: $5.6m) and revenge was sought on its most prominent tenant, Arthur Shaw, a 'Wall Street kingpin' played by a double-edged Alan Alda, who lives in the penthouse. He has a swimming pool on the roof, painted to look like a giant dollar bill, and Steve McQueen's Ferrari in his living room. On the 65th floor. He's quickly caught up in an FBI sting because he's a securities fraudster and it doesn't take long for the staff to find that their pensions, of which he'd been taking care, are all gone.

64 floors down is Josh Kovaks, the floor manager, who's responsible for the smooth running of operations. He's Stiller, of course, and he appears to be good at his job. However, he had taken it upon himself to hand the pension fund up to Shaw; the staff didn't even know about it and are really not happy with him. Clearly Kovaks needs to do something to make it right and getting fired for busting all the glass in that Ferrari doesn't help, especially as he takes a couple of other employees with him.

The final piece in the puzzle is the admission by FBI special agent Claire Denham, under the apparent influence of alcohol, that they haven't found Shaw's safety net. There's $20m hidden somewhere and they have no idea where it is. Grab the pitchforks and storm the castle, she drunkenly suggests.

And so we can write the rest of the film ourselves. Kovaks assembles a team of misfits: Enrique the new guy, Charlie the desk clerk, Fitzhugh the broke resident who's just been evicted and Slide, the local crook who he passes every day on the way to work. After all, they've been casing the joint for ten years without realising it: they know everything about the building, the people in it and their routines. Who better to break in and search Shaw's apartment for that $20m?

The cast do have fun, but nobody comes close to Murphy, who plays Slide, that local crook. He's savvy, though not so much as he believes he is, but the rest are well meaning idiots who just happen to have the right skills for this particular job. Matthew Broderick is best as Fitzhugh, providing him with depth while remaining believably lost. Gabourey Sidibi does well with not much. Casey Affleck and Michael Peña do what they're asked to do, but they're as utterly routine as Stiller is as Mr K.

It's people a level further away from the plot who do better work. Alda is great fun in the only supporting role with any real substance. Judd Hirsch is good as Mr K's former boss, but he's stuck in a wasted role. Téa Leoni is great as the tipsy FBI agent, but she can do this sort of thing in her sleep.

And this is the real problem.

I popped this on after a long but very fun weekend at Comic & Media Expo and a deluge of family drama that descended out of nowhere. My better half and I sat back to relax with the magical combination of peace, quiet and alcohol and laughed a lot at this film. I had found out about Tower Heist when the guy next to me on a plane was watching it while I read and my eyes drifted over once in a while. It seemed like it could be a decent choice for an evening that needed laughs but not brains and that turned out to be exactly what it was. We could sleepwalk through it too.

In a more regular scenario, it would have felt much worse. People like Alda, Hirsch and Leoni shouldn't be stuck in work they can do in their sleep. The only winner here is really Eddie Murphy, who had been doing work in his sleep for the last decade and seemed to relish getting his teeth into a part again, even if it could still have had a lot more substance.

Tower Heist is nicely set up and nicely wrapped up, but in between it was only ever going to be fluff. Thinking about it quickly exposes all sorts of problems, but it moves along well enough and with enough character charm to distract us during the ride. As long as you want a ride, you'll certainly get one. If you want anything more, it won't fit the bill.

The Black Cat (1934)

Director: Edgar G Ulmer
Stars: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and David Manners
Of all the Universal horrors in their golden era of the 1930s, this is the one that I never could quite get. Now I've always enjoyed The Black Cat and I've acknowledged it as a good movie, but I never managed to appreciate it the way so many others apparently do. Its inclusion as one of the best, if not the very best of the entire Universal decade, in so many lists always sat oddly with me. So, given that we were still hovering around Halloween, I thought I'd give it a fresh chance.

I now realise where I'd gone wrong. I'd always watched it as a horror movie and, as much as it clearly is one, it's really a precode drama first and foremost. Last time I saw The Black Cat, back in 2004, I hadn't yet discovered the joys of precodes, so didn't really understand what the film was doing. Now, as a confirmed precode aficionado, I get it completely and see how it ties the edge of the precode era with the more traditional gothic horror of the more famous Universal titles into a very polite but very dark drama.

Released in May 1934, only a month before the Production Code would become enforced and films like this no longer viable in Hollywood, its chief claim to fame back then was to put the two biggest stars in horror onto the same screen for the first time: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, albeit in far more earthly roles for a change. David Manners, a lesser known mainstay of those classic Universal horrors, plays support, eerily reminiscent today of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

We meet Lugosi first, as the sinister Dr Werdegast, who ends up sharing a train compartment with a couple of newlyweds honeymooning in Hungary. He's creepy, paying far too much attention to the sleeping Mrs Alison, but he's also sympathetic, because he explains himself well. He left his own wife to go to war, only to spend the last decade and a half in an infamous Russian prison camp. All he wants is to see his wife Karen again but their time apart has clearly messed with his sanity.

Leaving the train for a carriage, the three of them are swept off the road during a storm which kills their driver. Dr Werdegast therefore takes the newlyweds to his own destination, the home of Hjalmar Poelzig, an Austrian architect who had built a home on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which he had commanded during the war, the location of a notorious massacre of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers.

Poelzig is Karloff, of course, and he and Lugosi spar immediately in the most polite manner possible, an almost surreal experience given that the latter blames the former for that massacre and believes him to have stolen his wife. Their relentless politeness carries a weight that is impossible not to share, knowing as we do the seriousness of their conflict. It tells us that these two luminaries are both mad, even if they carry the veneer of civilisation better than their guests. By extension, it suggests that the world itself is mad, which is a resonant idea. Their polite game of chess for outrageous stakes, which consumes their attention at a time when the Alisons are trying to escape, adds the idea that in a mad world, it's the madmen who are really in charge.

Much of the rest of the film works as resonant ideas too. It's too short, something I remember from prior viewings, but its mere 65 minute running time includes a nightmarish set of imagery, most of which features subjects that couldn't be even touched on under the Production Code which was looming in the Hollywood shadows, leaving this the last stop on Universal's journey into real horror. Dracula and Frankenstein were great films but traditional ones, as were The Mummy and The Old Dark House. Only with The Black Cat did they really start getting notably horrific and we can only dream of what they might have done over the next few years had the code not stopped them in their tracks. They had to shift gears to make the wildly camp Bride of Frankenstein, which may, ironically, really be the best horror film they ever made.

Werdegast is insane, bent on murderous vengeance on the one man he holds responsible for so much of the pain of his life. His fear of black cats, hence the title, works not to drive a story but to highlight that insanity isn't just the histrionic nonsense we're used to. Only after his overdone first scene with a black cat do we truly realise how scary his everyday insanity really is. Poelzig is insane too, with a Satanic cult under his command and women preserved in glass cases in his dungeons, but Karloff plays the role as straight as he ever did. I've seen outrageous overacting from Karloff, but he's chilling in how everyday he plays this madman. Had these two actors gone overboard, as they both could, this would be a very different and far less successful film.

So The Black Cat is as great as so many people have suggested and I finally understand why. I have a feeling that Edgar G Ulmer, who directed and wrote the original scenario which Peter Ruric adapted into a screenplay, may well be one of the biggest reasons for its success. Because he stole the wife of Universal head Carl Laemmle, he spent most of his career working in Poverty Row studios and didn't get the opportunity to showcase what he could really do with a decent budget. So, instead he occasionally showed what he could really do without one, which is where films like Detour came from. This was his last real shot in major Hollywood.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Director: Edgar G Ulmer
Stars: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and the Panther Woman
With my belated reevaluation of The Black Cat as a great amalgam of horror, precode and psychological drama, I felt drawn to rewatch the other classic of the era that I remembered in exactly those terms: the MGM adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau, released in 1932 at the heart of the precode era, with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi supported by Richard Arlen and Leila Hyams.

Back in those innocent days before I had a clue what a precode was, I saw both this film and its source novel as a logical extension of Frankenstein, in its focus on science run amok and outpacing the much slower progression of morals. Dr Moreau was another Dr Frankenstein, whose scientific skill and ambition rendered him an outcast from the mainstream community. Moreau was merely bright enough to avoid the inevitable pitchforks and torches by moving his research on human/animal hybrids to a remote island of which few were aware.

Now I see much more, because Wells had much to say and scriptwriters at the time were able to bring a great deal of that to the screen. This script was written by Philip Wylie, famous science fiction author, and Waldemar Young, who had written many films for Lon Chaney even though he was, ironically, a grandson of Brigham Young. The precode era was a brief window during which something as dark and adult as this could be made by mainstream Hollywood. Fortunately MGM took that opportunity, even if the British included it as one of the five films they banned outright in the classic era as obscene.

The story is perhaps an exercise in inevitability. Dr Moreau is a classic mad scientist, played to arrogant perfection by Charles Laughton, who sees his island and the creatures who live there as his dominion. Initially we might see a comparison to a plantation owner and his slaves, but soon we realise that the true comparison is to God and his creation. No wonder the British banned it. Moreau wisely left London because his work had already moved beyond what the scientific community saw as remotely ethical and he only shifted to further extremes from then on. That he succeeded with much of his experimentation does not validate what those experiments were.

In such isolation, Moreau could have carried on forever because those few who knew about him, such as the ships delivering animals for his work, shun him as far as possible. The catalyst for change is the arrival of Edward Parker, a shipwreck victim rescued by one of those supply ships who fell afoul of its captain and gets subsequently dumped overboard into Moreau's unwilling custody. While he's treated well by the scientist, even introduced to an oddly charming young lady called Lota, it doesn't take him long to notice what's really going on, as he follows the screams emanating from the House of Pain and finds Moreau apparently vivisecting a human being without any anaesthetic. Soon he realises Lota is a panther/human hybrid.

Normally, I'd suggest that we could write the script ourselves from here, but in this instance we'd need to have a morbid imagination. If Laughton is the lead, playing God over all he surveys, the most recognisable name today is that of Bela Lugosi, playing one of his creations, the Sayer of the Law, who maintains the status quo by submitting to Moreau's (ie God's) rules.

H G Wells apparently wasn't fond of this adaptation, the first on film for it, in his mind, emphasised the horror over the philosophy. I don't buy that interpretation because the horror drives the philosophy which is all the more powerful because of it. We're horrified at Moreau's work, through our screen avatar of Edward Parker, reacting viscerally first but later morally too. The power of what this script throws at us and leaves us to ponder on is vast and very much the product of its brief time.

Like The Black Cat, this could not have been made under the production code, which wouldn't allow man and wife to share the same bed, let alone dream of allowing themes of blasphemy and bestiality. Fortunately today the code is a quirk of history and we can happily revisit these films without censorship.

Evil Roy Slade (1972)

Director: Jerry Paris
Stars: John Astin, Mickey Rooney, Henry Gibson, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Dom DeLuise and Penny Marshall
While we were in Hollywood in January to work on the short film, Flight Fright (I was an extra, my better half was the set photographer), the film's director, Jim Politano, recommended that we make a side trip to the Fry's Electronics store in Burbank because it's decked out like a sci-fi monster movie from the fifties with giant ants, spaceships and tentacles.

Naturally I wandered through their DVD aisles and couldn't resist buying a pack of two John Astin comedy westerns, collected in one of those tins that looks great but won't fit on regular shelves with regular movies. I hadn't heard of either Evil Roy Slade (1972) or The Brothers O'Toole (1973), but I'm that usual fan of Astin who knows him primarily from The Addams Family but not much else, realising every time he shows up in a TV show or movie that I really ought to track down more of his work.

Before watching this one, I realised that it was a TV movie with an all-star cast but had no real idea how it would handle itself. Astin's justly famous grin is in full effect on the back of the tin, but it comes truly alive in the movie itself, which went far beyond my expectations to become something ahead of its time.

Now, let's not get off on the wrong foot. This film is dumb and ridiculous and it knows it. Many of the jokes are so obvious that we can see the setup coming a mile away. The gags are traditional, so that this often feels like a sitcom without a laugh track. However, if it sometimes feels old today, it's really a strong look forward, not only to other comedy westerns like Blazing Saddles, which owes this film a debt, but also to the entire genre of movies started by Airplane!, ironically shot at the same studio I was at for Flight Fright.

It's also very funny, partly because of Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall's relentlessly gag-ridden and incredibly politically incorrect script and partly because John Astin plays Slade like it's the best comedy role ever written. He throws himself into this part, albeit the way he always seemed to throw himself into every part. I get the feeling that he's a larger than life person who found his true calling trying to top reality in front of a camera. I've caught up with a bunch of odd Astin roles here and there and not one has ever given me the impression that he didn't have an absolute blast on set. I've never seen anyone who clearly enjoys himself more.

He's Evil Roy Slade, of course, an outlaw in the wild west, who starts out making a cripple dance at gunpoint and then progresses through every dastardly deed you can comfortably imagine. He's villainous through and through, to the degree that when he survived a wagon train massacre as a baby, the Indians and wolves both left him well alone; he had to bring himself up. Of course, he grows up to be the leader of a gang of bank robbers, but he's evil even to them and they love him for it. Come to think of it, Minions owes this film a debt too!

His story arc begins when Betsy Potter and her mum walk into a bank that he's busy robbing. He's immediately smitten, having her write her address on a banknote while his gang swap bullets with the sheriff outside. She's smitten too and naturally thinks she can reform him. The film pursues that conflict with a very sly grin.

The cast are amazing. Astin steals the entire film, of course, because it's tough to even think of competing with his energy. Pamela Austin wisely plumps for being as wholesome and delightful as possible, but the character actors in support give it a go.

Nelson L Stool, the president of Western Express Railroad, the target of many of Slade's jobs, is played by Mickey Rooney, who flounders well. His nephew, Clifford, is Henry Gibson, another actor whose work I need to track down more. With Clifford a rank coward, Stool tries to call in the retired marshal Bing Bell in the form of outrageous singing cowboy Dick Shawn who has, get this, an Indian manservant called Turhan who's played by Pat Morita of The Karate Kid fame. How politically incorrect can this film get?

On top of those guys, there's Luana Anders, Dom DeLuise and Milton Berle, as well as a few names who wouldn't become famous until long after this: a very young Ed Begley Jr, a younger still Penny Marshall and an amazingly young John Ritter as a priest.

Dom DeLuise is the most fun of these, playing a psychiatrist who Betsy has try to treat Slade, but every one of these folk find some fun in the shadows of John Astin.

Needless to say, he gets the vast majority of the great lines, which are so plentiful here that Mel Brooks would be jealous. Take your pick... 'My idea of a nine to five job is nine men robbing five men.' 'I learned two valuable lessons today: never trust a pretty girl or a lonely midget.' 'I can't read, you dumb... love of my life.' 'I figure I didn't commit any really big sins until I turned four years old.'

As willingly stupid as this is, I heartily recommend it, especially to the folk who seek out obscure cult gems. Hey, Cult Film in Review team, you need to add this one to your schedule!

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