Monday 28 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #9

December ended up being quieter than I'd hoped at Apocalypse Later, but I did post a new review there over the last week, for Moonrunners, shot in 1973, released in 1975 and the direct precursor to the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which didn't appear until 1979. The connections are fascinating.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Director: W D Richter
Stars: Peter Weller, John Lithgow and Ellen Barkin
For some reason, this wildly titled picture escaped me back in the eighties when I’d probably have loved it most and then remained unseen for years even after I picked it up on DVD. Why, I have no idea, but I am happy that I finally caught up with it. However, now that I’ve finally seen it, I only know that I’ll need to watch it again to figure out a lot of what isn’t clear from a first viewing.

You might assume that I’m talking about the plot, which has been described as tortuously complex even by some of the actors playing parts in it, but I didn’t have much of a problem there, at least by the halfway mark when a variety of disparate elements started to tie together and make some sort of sense. I’m thinking more about why debuting director W D Richter felt drawn to make this film because it’s so ruthlessly uncommercial that it almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t get to make another one. He did, with Late for Dinner, seven years later, but he’s much better known today as a writer, with credits as diverse as Slither, Brubaker and Big Trouble in Little China to his name.

Buckaroo Banzai feels like an adaptation of Doc Savage for the new wave era of the eighties when style was supposed to trump substance, re-written as a science fiction comic book and then adapted back to the screen by people doing too many drugs. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll discover that this works as a cult film far more than its many mainstream genre competitors for screen space in 1984; it went up against Ghostbusters, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, all of which seem utterly conventional in comparison.

Put simply, a pair of scientists back in the thirties, Drs Hikita and Lizardo, test a gadget called an oscillation overthruster, which temporarily shoves the latter into the eighth dimension, where his body is taken over by an alien nutjob called Lord John Whorfin. He brings his alien buddies, the Red Lectroids, to Earth after losing a battle with the much more sane Black Lectroids. His arrival was reported by Orson Welles in his famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds but was forced to retract it as fiction. Decades later, the polymath, Buckaroo Banzai, working with Hikita, tests a jet powered car with a new oscillation overthruster and comes to the attention of the Black Lectroids, orbiting our planet, who gift him with the power to see through the camouflage of the Red Lectroids, who have been building a spacecraft that will take them home to take over. Hearing of Banzai’s success, Whorfin escapes from the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane to steal from him the one piece of machinery they still need, a working oscillation overthruster, and the fight is on.

Did that sound simple? Well, there are other things going on too, but it’s hard to tell during the picture which of them are actually important and which are merely distractions for the sake of coolness. Is it important, for instance, that Banzai has just discovered the long lost twin sister of his late wife? Should we even bother trying to answer that question while we figure out what else is going on? Perhaps only the Shadow knows.

Having recently watched Doc Savage: Man of Bronze in both its original version and a de-camped edit, the influence of Savage is obvious from moment one. He was a multi-talented precursor to superheroes, having been trained from birth to excel in everything; best known as a surgeon, he’s also a chemist, a composer, an inventor, you name it and he can do it better than anyone else. By comparison, Buckaroo Banzai is, well, pretty much the same; he’s a neurosurgeon, martial arts expert, particle physicist and rock star, just to name a few. He begins the film operating on a man’s brain, then switches to his jet car so he can break the sound barrier on land.

It doesn’t remotely look like Bloodhound SSC, which actually aims to do the first half of that for real, as that’s 42 feet long, weighs 14 tons and is powered not only by a jet engine but also a rocket. Banzai’s converted Ford F-350 pickup truck really doesn’t cut the mustard but we’re asked to swallow a lot here, far beyond his driving through a mountain and bringing back a creature from the 8th dimension.

For a start, we’re asked to swallow John Lithgow’s performance as Dr Emilio Lizardo, as possessed by the evil Red Lectroid leader, Lord John Whorfin. He’s utterly wild in this film, somewhat like a cross between Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future and Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s the maddest of mad scientists with awful teeth and he gradually gains Adolf Hitler vibes until we can’t ignore the similarities. It’s a performance that simply has to be seen to be believed.

We’re also asked to swallow the fact that Buckaroo Banzai stops his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, mid-song because he can hear a young lady crying at a table at the back of the audience. That’s Penny Priddy, his late wife’s twin, hence why he keeps calling her Peggy. Here’s also where his most famous line comes in. ‘No matter where you go,’ he points out, ‘there you are.’ What Penny really has to do with anything, I’m never quite sure, but she’s played by a young Ellen Barkin, so I don’t care too much. She’s the best sort of eye candy.

There’s eye candy everywhere here and ear candy too. This feels like a nerd’s dream, because nothing is what we expect it to be and everything is cool in ways that it rarely gets to be. Today, with Comicons on every street corner, it’s pretty clear that the nerds took over the planet but that wasn’t the case back in 1984. Back then, nerds were more like Eddie Deezen characters, apparently there only to get picked on for their social ineptitude. Films like WarGames pointed towards the future, but Buckaroo Banzai pointed instead towards the future of nerd fandom.

The cast is a dream and they’re mostly pre-fame. There’s Peter Weller before RoboCop, Ellen Barkin before The Big Easy, Christopher Lloyd before Back to the Future and Clancy Brown before Highlander. There’s Jeff Goldblum before Into the Night, The Fly and Earth Girls are Easy. Only John Lithgow was really already established, because this came afer Twilight Zone: The Movie. Yet none of them are put to the usual sort of use, this being an anomaly in all their careers, however many sci-fi pictures they may have made since.

Why? Because Richter and his writer, Earl Mac Rauch, made a whole slew of decisions that went utterly against the commercial norms of the time. The US President spends the entire film in hospital, encased within some sort of huge medical device. The good aliens aren’t just Black Metroids, they’re very black, like Caribbean rastafarian black, while the bad aliens are all Caucasians played by recognisable names like Lithgow, Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli. While the Hong Kong Cavaliers, not merely Banzai’s band but also his multi-talented assistants in the tradition of Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, are all white men, many other characters who fight for good are not: such as the white woman who’s the only sane voice in the White House, the Chinese scientist who sparks the plot and the black kid who supports Banzai through the Blue Blaze Irregulars, surely a take on the Baker Street Irregulars of Sherlock Holmes. All the aliens are called John, even presumably female ones played by actors like Rosalind Cash, but often have wildly odd surnames like John Small Berries and John Bigbooté. Presumably this was a mix of Ford Prefect from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the Bruces from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These decisions would seem like good ones today because they’d set up all sorts of opportunities for merchandising and diversity appeal, but in 1984 they seem completely insane. What else seems insane is the way the film is cut, which is highly cryptic. A coherent editing job would have made the plot much more understandable, though the test version screened ahead of general release was much longer and may have made more sense. Jamie Lee Curtis’s role as Banzai’s mother was cut entirely, for instance. Perhaps what feels strangest is that, for all the wild and weird action, this is still a slow movie that contains a lot of emptiness, not least in the underplayed delivery of most of the dialogue that doesn’t come from John Lithgow. Weller especially mumbles his way through the entire film, as if Banzai is simply too busy to enunciate.

I have to say that I was befuddled by the wild approach taken by Richter. I enjoyed the film’s riotous nature, more Marx Brothers than Mel Brooks, and I enjoyed the way that it’s as much a comedy, a ripping yarn and a romance as it is a sci-fi movie. I feel like I should like it but was too rooked between the eyes to really figure out why. However, I’ll certainly return to it again, because it feels like a real cult gem, a journey as much as a destination and something that would grow with multiple viewings.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Director: Mel Stuart
Stars: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson and Peter Ostrum
Like pretty much anyone growing up in England when I did, I read a lot of Roald Dahl and, of course, that included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964. It became a feature film in 1971, which I didn’t catch until later because I was too busy being born. I don’t remember being that impressed when I did see it, but I don’t remember why. Maybe it’s because it’s a musical. I’ve never been a fan of musicals in general, because I tend to see the songs as annoying interruptions.

Watching afresh for the first time in over three decades, that’s certainly part of it. The opening musical number is a great example of how the internal consistency of stories tends to get horribly mangled in a musical because it’s trumped by the requirements of choreography. It doesn’t help that this particular one just plays wrong to today’s sensibilities; Aubrey Woods does a good job as the Candy Man, but this scene feels like he’s a paedophile drug dealer pushing sugar to kids. The second song makes no sense and the third is one of those annoying interruptions. Even when the song is a whole bundle of fun, like the Oompa Loompa song, it’s a distraction, especially when the picture is crushed into a quarter of the screen to make room for the animated lyrics. Mostly, it’s the one song here that actually accompanies the story, thus it’s the one that I’m all for. Mostly.

Fortunately, I liked most of the rest. The story is much closer to Dahl’s original than Tim Burton’s recent reimagining. I’d expect most of us have experienced the story in some form by now, but it has to do with Willy Wonka, a famed chocolatier whose factory has been closed for years but which will open again for the lucky recipients of the five golden tickets which he has secreted inside five Wonka bars. Four of the five end up with obnoxious kids and the fifth with Charlie Bucket, a poor but humble soul who puts others before himself. Oh yes, this is a morality play, if a notably twisted one.

I liked the general approach, much more down to earth and much less stylised than Burton’s version. Clearly the budget is much lower, but for the first half of the picture, before the gates of Willy Wonka’s factory open, that actually works to the film’s advantage. Everything feels real instead of plastic.

The best moments, though, are ones that I’d completely forgotten. An uncredited Tim Brooke-Taylor is a computer operator trying to persuade a Siemens System 4004 into revealing the location of the tickets, though it doesn’t want to play ball. Even better is the kidnapping. A woman’s husband is whisked away and the ransom is their case of Wonka bars. ‘How long will they give me to think it over?’ she asks. The teacher at Charlie’s school who does chemistry experiments with ‘horrible dangerous stuff’ is great fun too. There’s even a cool scary moment with a tinker outside the Wonka factory gates, spouting poetry from behind his cart of knives.

Another plus is the casting of the five kids with the five golden tickets, because all of them are spot on. Julie Dawn Cole gets the most opportunity as Veruca Salt, the spoiled daughter of a despotic northern English factory owner, played by the fabulous Roy Kinnear. Both are obnoxious in exactly the right ways. Peter Ostrum is Charlie, the star of the book but relegated here to supporting Wonka. He does a pretty good job at being good even in trying circumstances, but he’s more whiny than Freddie Highmore was in Burton’s film. Chubby Augustus Gloop from Düsselheim is actually played by a German, Michael Bollner, though his introduction is photobombed by a TV reporter who appears to be wearing antlers because of where he’s standing. Denise Nickerson is the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, daughter of a Montana used car salesman. Finally, Paris Themmen is Mike Teavee, a well named Arizona television addict.

Dahl created all of them to teach lessons to obnoxious children, so they’re deliberately one trick ponies, but I’m remembering that they had more substance in the book than they did in either film. Really, it’s only Charlie and Veruca who get much opportunity to do anything in this one.

And, of course, there’s Gene Wilder, who dominates the picture even though he doesn’t even show up until almost the halfway mark, 44 minutes in, when he limps his way quietly out of the Wonka factory towards the waiting masses, only to fall over into a neat forward roll. Starting out by pretending to be a cripple is hardly politically correct, but he only gets worse in that vein, turning nothing lines into magic, especially when resignedly warning his guests not to do whatever it is that they’re about to do, knowing full well that they’ll do it and the results will be horrible. He’s delightfully dark, even though he doesn’t remotely resemble the androgynous Willy Wonka that Johnny Depp conjured up for Tim Burton.

What else happens halfway through is that we journey into Wonka’s factory, where the lack of budget shows itself to be a real problem. The Chocolate Room is the first moment where I really wished for the set decorators of Burton’s film and the budget to pay for their creations. It’s a small, cheap and notably underwhelming set, but Gene Wilder enhances it by his presence, making a production out of simplistic acts like walking down a staircase. If only the sets were up to his standard, but they’re obvious ones like we might have expected to see on a seventies variety show rather than a riot of imagination.

So I liked a lot here but I was underwhelmed by the end result. If Burton’s film suffered from being too rehearsed and clinical, this suffered from being too loose and too bareboned. The story is timeless and Gene Wilder provided an iconic performance that joins it, but much of the rest suffers from the lack of budget to push it beyond some very basic limitations. It’s hard to buy into Wonka’s magical chocolate factory when it’s a bunch of cheap sets dressed up for a children’s party. It deserved better.

This was film #82 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

6 Ways to Sundown (2015)

Director: Nadeem Soumah
Stars: Vinnie Jones, Vivica A Fox, Dominique Swain, Bai Ling, Tom Sizemore and Michael Walton
I have no clue why Tom Sizemore’s opening monologue is edited the way it is, annoyingly chopped up into slices for no apparent reason, but he’s as magnetic as ever when our attention is on him. He’s Mike Jones, he’s getting drunk and he’s about to get assassinated by a contract killer, Frank Casper.

He dies before the opening credits, so apparently we’re here to watch Frank not Mike. Frank is a mild mannered and well spoken man played by Chris Jai Alex and, after the credits, we follow him into Vinnie Jones’s car where he’s hired to assassinate Sonny ‘Sundown’ Garcia, the biggest cocaine dealer in the United States. After the sequence in which that happens, the first of the six segments into which this picture is broken down, he’s gone too.

Jones is one of the two men who continue throughout the movie. He’s not named until late on and even then it’s just as the suitably anonymous John Doe. He’s the driving force behind this story, but he does it at a distance, through other people. His time and finances appear to be unlimited and he’s serious about how the work needs to be done. What he wants is to exercise his revenge on Garcia, the other key focus of the picture, by taking him down piece by piece: his freedom, his money, his reputation, his loyalty, his love and, eventually, his life. We watch all this happen in reverse order because, of course, there’s a twist to explain why we’re working through such an apparently simple story with such apparent complexity.

I learned a number of things during the first quarter of an hour and they were only underlined as things ran on. Quality actors don’t need quality material to do quality work. Vinnie Jones should never read narration. And Nadeem Soumah is a much better cinematographer than he is a writer or director. There are a whole host of visuals here that look absolutely stunning: they’re well composed and well shot. However, they also serve their own purpose rather than that of the story.

Jones is fine when not narrating, though he spends the entire movie sat in a car in a warehouse, so it’s hardly a stretch for him. Each segment of the picture involves him finding someone, testing them and hiring them to be part of his master plan. Some get more to do than others, but they each have a task. What was surprising, given Soumah’s background in cinematography and obvious flair for gimmickry, was that he didn’t handle each segment in a stylistically different way, instead leaving that task to the actors he hired to play characters for Jones to hire.

Chris Jai Alex kicks things off well, playing a neatly calm counter to Sizemore’s brash target. Jose Rosete is even better as Marcus, a petty street thug hired to kidnap Garcia’s wife. It’s always great to catch new work from this Arizona talent whom Hollywood is keeping busy and it’s especially great to see him in a role he can get his teeth into. The last time I saw him was in a tiny role in the Danny Trejo movie, Bullet, which was almost as bad as the last movie in which I saw Dominique Swain, Nazis at the Center of the Earth. She plays Garcia’s wife, Steph, with a suitably foul mouth. Melissa Mars gets perhaps the most to do of the segment leads, as a continental thief; it’s good to see her again after The Cabining. Jeff Galfer has perhaps the least to do as a private investigator who tracks Steph, which gives Bai Ling prominence as the surprisingly underplayed con artist who follows. Finally there’s Vivica A Fox, who plays her corrupt cop with a slow, knowing presence.

To draw us into why this is happening and why we should care, there’s also a flashback sequence that’s carefully broken up into sections as well so as not to reveal too much until the time is right. It aims to explain why John Doe is so keen on destroying the life of Sonny ‘Sundown’ Garcia but, while it does that from a story perspective well enough, it has some other problems that are hard to get past. For a start, while Nicholas Small and Marco Silvestri are capable enough as younger versions of Vinnie Jones, they don’t look anything like him, making us wonder why they were cast or, perhaps more to the point, why Jones was cast as the older version of them, given that his character was apparently born in the US and grew up on the streets of Mexico before spending two decades in jail. Why precisely none of the many supposedly bright people he hires question his iconic English accent, given this related back story, is surely a major plothole.

I have to admire Nadeem Soumah’s ambition here. His concept is good, though it’s an overly complex one that relies on us being manipulated throughout. His cast are very good, though nobody really gets much opportunity to shine because they’re each only in the film for a short time; the only exception being Michael Walton, who appears throughout as Garcia and does well with a role that clearly doesn’t flow. Visually, Soumah is clearly capable, though I’d question his decision-making ability as a director because, on the basis of this film, he would probably be better served by filling only one of those two roles at a time. I get the feeling that he’d have done a more consistent job shooting the picture if he wasn’t also directing it and vice versa.

In the end, I’d call this an interesting experiment that has a few successes but more failures. The odd ending elevates it a little but also highlights how much that was needed.

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