Manic Monday Apocalypso: Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe!

My parents were of the Saturday matinee generation, where a nickel (or was it a dime?) would get you into the movies at the crack of dawn and entertain you till dusk. (And, oh, where to begin with the analysis of cultural shifts in that slice of Americana?)

My mom was a big fan of Buster Crabbe, though she surely must have seen the reruns of the serials since she was too young (or not born) for the originals. And when I was young, we had a UHF channel that would show a variety of old, old, really old or unpopular stuff like the late ‘50s black and white “Felix the Cat” cartoons (compared to the bigger stations’ WB and MGM ‘toons), the “Life of Riley” (versus “I Love Lucy”), silent movies (I watched Nosferatu and Metropolis this way) and serials like “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

I loved this show. Even as part of the Star Wars generation–or perhaps especially because–I loved the rockets on strings, with sparklers in the back, the cheesy composed shots with giant geckos sorta-kinda chasing tiny humans, the guys with the vampire fangs or gorilla suits.

I have this box set of the serial, though if you dig around at Archive.org, I’m sure you can find it. (And feel free to notice that the #1 staff pick is an anti-Bush film by MoveOn.Org. There’s no escaping this crap, is there.) I should say that I’m referring here to the original Flash Gordon serial, not really “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

In the original serial, the planet Mongo is flying through the universe and headed on a collision course with the earth, which it will apparently destroy at no significant harm to itself. Burning meteors are dropping from the sky (at alarmingly slow speeds) and this causes the plane that champion polo player and Yale man (really!) Flash is on with Dale Arden to, uh, be in danger somehow.

Fortunately, they all have parachutes except Flash who hangs on to Dale on the way down. (Pleasure to meet you, ma’am!)

They happen to land on the lawn of crazed scientist Zarkov who has built a spaceship that he’s going to use to land on the renegade planet and try to talk some sense into the driver.

At the helm of said planet is Fu Manchu’s twin brother, Ming the Merciless, who very practically decides to put Zarkov to work in his labs (and in a space-onesie!), give Dale the “fate worse than death” and kill Flash. (Can’t use you, man! Got enough dumb thugs in security as it is.) The princess, Aura, has other ideas and rescues the hunk of man from various fates worse than–no, that actually are death.

From there on, Flash meets the other colorful members of Ming’s empire. And, I don’t want to give anything away, but he does get out of a lot of tight spots.

I think what entertains me the most about the serial is probably the Art Deco influence. Just like the original “Star Trek”, where everything is all hippied out in post-modern (?) style, and the ’80s series features oodles of big hair and, well, very ’80s-looking design. I don’t know if it’s just the lapsed time between Art Deco and now, or if it’s that Art Deco is just that much cooler than all the intervening styles.

I mean, seriously, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s styles have their moments, but there’s a lot of ugly in them, at least to my eyes. And my opnion hasn’t changed much over the decades. ’70s style, of course, was both uniquely ugly at the time and still ugly today. I am painting with broad strokes, of course, as there are always good things around, but to my eye the Art Deco style of the serial–the curved ships, the rays coming off Ming’s throne, etc.–give it a flair that outshines the cheapness of the sets. (And is completely missing from the ’50s version, to its detriment.)

I actually liked the 1980 remake, which was surprisingly faithful to the original. It’s campy, of course, but intermittently so. Sometimes it is genuine in its earnestness. It also captures the strangely small feeling of space in the series, and eschews realism for a more colorful, interesting “space”.

Of course, these days, most people remember Freddy Mercury’s song more than anything, and probably with good reason. Mercury could sell it.

Well, until next time, mutants, stay radiated!

The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, Profit!

There’s a 1995 movie directed by a guy by the name of Mike Sedan (who I want to blog about some time) called Lap Dancing that I think of a lot. As the title suggests, Lap Dancing involves strippers, and the movie is about half angst-ridden sleazefest, and about half stripping routines which are largely not related to the other half of the movie. And the thing that struck me when watching this movie (on “Joe Bob Brigg’s Drive In Theater”, I think) was, “Wow, Sedan must really think strippers are boring!”

You see, any real stripping routine–any stage routine–is designed to be seen from a relatively static viewpoint: That of the crowd. (I’ve never been in a strip club, but I’ve seen the pseudo-documentary Stripper, so I’m an expert, okay?) Instead, the camera was jumping all over the place. If there was anything exciting about the routine, it was completely lost in the camerawork.

That thought has recurred over the years: “Wow, this guy must really think what he’s filming is boring.”

I think it a lot during Tony Scott movies like The Taking of Pellham 1 2 3. Scott using so many frenetic camera tricks in one of his films, I wonder if he has no faith in his stories. The buzz on this movie has been pretty mixed, too.

It was Father’s Day, though. What was going to take him to see? The Proposal?

On top of that, my dad held little fond memories of the original, but free popcorn is free popcorn.

And it was actually pretty darn good.

The premise is preposterous, of course: A group of ne’er-do-wells (led by John Travolta) capture a subway train, with the intention of ransoming off the passengers.

Kinda kooky, innit? A subway’s not exactly like a plane. You can’t take it anywhere. The exit strategy, as it were, is problematic, to say the least. But Scott is no stranger to dubious plots, and he handles this pretty well.

Managing the crisis is everyman Denzel Washington–who’s maybe too good looking to be an Everyman but surely gives Tom Hanks a run of his money in that area–as the guy who “takes the call” and rises to the occasion.

For all his flashy camera work, Scott knows where the drama is–between Travolta and Washington, and lets them do their thing. And they do their thing very well indeed, reminding me of another movie where two top-notch actors played off each other in what was generally considered a flawed movie: The Negotiator.

But I can watch that one over and over again–the little nuances of Samuel L. Jackson as he interacts with Kevin Spacey being very compelling. I can’t say for sure this is in that category but it did keep me entertained.

Of course, this is an action flick, which is kind of tough when the two principal characters are: 1) holed up in a subway car, and; 2) sitting at a desk at the transit authority’s office. Scott remedies this by having a cross-city car chase which is over-the-top and gratuitous but, hey, keeps you awake, right?

Supporting actors include John Turturro and James Gandolfini, who are also always compelling.

The only real problem I had with it is I could see three or four logical things the bad guys could’ve done to make their lives easier. Just painfully obvious stuff. A little trickier was the fact that Travolta tends to be very likable, but he’s a cold-blooded murderer. (This isn’t a light caper movie.) He was believable, but that particular aspect didn’t quite sit right with me.

But, overall, a good, fun movie. All three of us liked it, including The Boy, who isn’t really inclined to like these sorts of things, and my dad, who was carrying around baggage from not liking the original.

So, not really sure what the bitching is about.

Etsba Elohim: Out Of The Blue

“I have an idea. Let’s have coffee.” So suggests Shabtai to his cousin Herzel, but falls asleep before the coffee is ready. He has a dream of a beautiful woman speaking intimately to him and, on waking, discovers that the woman is real–in fact a national celebrity, model, singer, businesswoman named Lili Dekel. He then constructs a fantasy story of his relationship with Lili while Herzel listens, entranced.

So begins Yigal Bursztyn’s delightful little movie Etsba Elohim, featured in the 24th Israeli Film Festival in America as Out of the Blue.

Shabtai and Herzel are junkmen, buying and selling old furniture on the streets of Tel Aviv. Shabtai is married and lives in a small apartment with his wife, Rachel, and his daughter Batya, while Herzel, an orphan, lives alone in Shabtai’s warehouse.

Shabtai is lazy, surly and unfulfilled, while Herzel is his simple, cheerful sidekick who does most of the work, and becomes increasingly enamored of Shabtai’s fabrication. He hatches a plan for them to meet Lili Dekel which ends up taking some very funny turns.

Herzel is spurred on by his infatuation with Shabtai’s daughter, a young (high school?) girl who likes getting gifts from him, but seems a little dense as far as understanding his intentions. (Which are honorable, but pretty inappropriate.)

The twist of this movie is that Lily finds herself attracted to Herzel, while he’s doing everything he can to direct her to an increasingly hostile Shabtai. In fact, Shabtai seems to have a penchant for freezing up in a clinch. And we begin to wonder why Herzel is so loyal–and he is, even when Shabtai treats him very badly indeed.

Anyway, good fun. You probably won’t have a chance to see it, without going out of your way. Israel seems to turn out a bunch of good little movies that don’t get much airing over here. (See the 2004 charmer Ha Ushpizin for example.)

We actually saw it “by accident”. There’s another movie called Out of the Blue, a 2006 crime drama with Karl Urban which IMDB linked to instead of this one. I kind of figured it wasn’t the one showing–I knew the Israeli film festival was at the theater. I like to know a little bit more about things going in, but at 90 minutes, it wasn’t a huge risk.

Though it was $12 a ticket. Yow! Painful. But always easier to swallow when the money’s going to some struggling film auteur.

Anyway, no regrets. Lots of fun. Actually enjoyed it more than The Hangover.

Very Badly Hungover Stag Things

I always warn people when they ask for movie advice: “Keep in mind, I loved the movie Very Bad Things.” The fact that I love that movie, a dark comedy written and directed by actor Peter Berg as his debut feature, symbolizes all that is wrong with my sense of humor.

You should keep this in mind as we review another movie in the “Bachelor Party” genre. And, yeah, that hoary Tom Hanks flick is probably the progenitor of the modern form (there seems little connection with Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘57 movie). Except that, in the ’90s, the form went rogue and started involving dead strippers.

This brings us to The Hangover which, depending on whom you ask, is either the funniest movie ever or the most offensive movie ever. Truthfully, it’s neither. Not even close. But it is funny.

And, no, there isn’t a dead stripper in it. Or, at least I don’t think there is. The twist in this stag film is that the main characters have no idea what happened the night before. (Attentive film students may remember this same device used relatively recently in Dude, Where’s My Car?)

Is it offensive? You know, life on this planet has basically broken the needle off my offensensitvity gauge. I didn’t regard is as such, particularly, except for a photo shown at the end of the film of one of the characters receiving fellatio from a transvestite. And this, primarily, because they needlessly used a prosthetic to make it look real.

There’s a masturbation joke involving a baby that apparently offended some people. I can only assume they don’t have, have never been around, and don’t remember being young children, since the discovery of the genitals well proceeds any kind of respect for social standards about not playing with them all the time. Actually, I appreciated that there weren’t a lot of fart/vomit/urine/feces/sodomy jokes. (I guess I’m more offended by banal repetition than actual content.)

This is really a silly movie, with the characters doing–and having done things while completely out of their gourds–that strain credulity. It never goes into fantasy (like Dude, Where’s My Car?), never gets heavy (like Stag), avoids any sort of social commentary (like Very Bad Things), and veers away from the heavily slapstick. It really is more like Bachelor Party: Sort of sweet and good-natured, with a lot of jokes and amusing scene set-ups that are coarser without being mean, and which give the film a kind of shallow feel–sort of like someone exaggerating their “true life” Vegas story.

I was at a low chuckle throughout most, with a few LOL moments. I never fully engaged with the hilarity somehow. It felt like the story was actually written backwards, with writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) starting with a zany set of circumstances (“a tiger…a baby…one friend missing…”) and trying to make sense out of how it all happened.

And perhaps it’s just me, but this didn’t have the ensemble chemistry of a really great comedy. I can’t say I didn’t like any individual actor–in fact I did like them all–but I’m being a crusty old dude by saying I felt like the timing and chemistry of Bill Murray’s old comedies (with John Candy, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, et al) was a lot better.

That said, I give the movie props for avoiding the most clich├ęd outcomes. Much like Wedding Crashers (apparently script-doctored by Lucas and Moore), this movie ends up being relatively optimistic about marriage, about what makes a good relationship and a bad one, and relatively sweet about friendship–and in the long run, very positive about human nature.

In that sense, the reverse of both Stag and Very Bad Things.

Heather Graham–once white-hot, remember?–plays the escort with the heart of gold, to Ed Helms whipped dentist, Bradley Cooper is the glib high school English teacher, and Zach Galliafianikis is the weird brother-in-law, cause of and solution to most of the plot’s problems. Justin Bartha, the groom, ends up being the missing one, and it was great to see Jeffrey Tambor as the future, overly-understanding-about-Vegas father-in-law.

Mike Tyson’s in the movie. I thought the whole sequence with him was rather weak. It felt more like “Bwhahahahaha! We got Mike Tyson in our movie!” than actual cleverness.

I probably got the biggest kick out of Ken Jeong, who was also very funny in the previews of an upcoming movie called The Goods. He played the world’s second worst obstetrician in Knocked Up and an ubergeek in Role Models. He’s perfect here because you never know what he is. He seems both menacing and goofy.

And hey, he gives the movie it’s full-frontal male nudity. (Something the ‘strom predicted would be a trend back with Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)

Go in with your offense meters off and not too high expectations and you can have a fun time.

Drag Me To Hell (but try not to scratch the floors)

Thirty years ago a bunch of kids went out to the woods and a young director made a balls-out horror movie by hanging from the rafters, attaching to cameras to 2x4s and running with them, and (according to some rumors) attaching cameras to motorbikes and nearly running down actors.

The uneven mess that resulted (Evil Dead) made an impact. It created a genre. Inspired a generation. Accidental camp and genuinely effective moments created a uniquely harrowing experience. I’d say it launched a career, but it was 10 years before Sam Raimi got a shot at a real movie (Darkman).

He remade Evil Dead as the much better Evil Dead II, which substituted the accidental camp and amateurishness of the first with an almost bizarrely acute awareness of how horror and humor overlap, and how you could make an audience laugh, squirm and scream at the same time.

This distinguishes it from the grimly serious style of horror and the wisecracking style. This is the William Castle-style, the James Whale-style, and it’s remarkably refreshing. Raimi may try to gross us out, but there’s no sadism in his film. At the same time, he’s never letting his characters out of the vice: they don’t get to laugh along with us, no matter how absurd the situations. And there are are a lot of absurd situations here.

The funny thing is, Sam Raimi claims to not even like horror movies. (Hence the near complete transformation of the Evil Dead series to action/comedy in Evil Dead 3, Bruce Campbell vs the Army of Darkness.) But there were occasions to think he missed the genre: The stark presentation of A Simple Plan and the horror overtones of The Gift certainly suggested it, but nothing moreso than the use of his Evil Dead camera tricks and stylistic approaches for the surgery scene in the excellent Spiderman 2.

Well, most (but not all) of those tricks are present in Drag Me To Hell. In fact, there’s a seance scene that could have been right out of the original movies, complete with a floating body, and vocal distortions saying a line very close to “I’ll swallow your soul.” (The only thing conspicuously missing is Raimi’s trademark zoom-stop, where the camera zooms in and stops when something makes a big noise.) Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a few new tricks in his repertoire.

Still one thing hasn’t changed in three decades: Nothing is scarier than an old woman with cataracts who vomits goo.

So, what do we have here?

Christine Brown is a girl from down on the farm who’s trying to make her way in the big city, and has made it to bank loan officer. She’s landed rich guy psych professor Clay Dalton and she has a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. (A little too nice, I think, to be realistic. It’s not big, but those places are expensive.) Her big problem is that her boss is considering new-guy suck-up for the position of Assistant Manager, because she’s maybe a little too sweet.

Enter the old gypsy woman. Yeah, you heard me. Next to ancient Indian burial grounds, there’s probably nothing more hack. But it’s okay. This is a carinval ride: The point is not breaking new thematic ground but to scare you with the familiar. (A harder trick if you think about it.)

Anyway, the gypsy is behind on her payments and already has had two extensions. But Christine’s manager leaves it to her: extend again or foreclose. I won’t say what she decides to do here, but I will say she ends up with a curse on her. ‘cause, you know, that’s what the movie is about.

This is a tightly compressed movie where Christine ends up terrorized by an evil spirit (called the Lamia) and she’s got three days to get rid of the curse or end up being dragged to Hell (do not pass go, do not collect $200). Along the way, she gets beaten up, terrorized, betrayed and rebuffed in attempt after attempt to make things right.

She looks for help among the gypsies, with a spiritual reader, and finally with the Lamia’s old nemesis. The climax of the film has the previously mild-mannered Christine pushing herself to the limit to rid herself of this curse.

And then there’s the “twist” ending. The Boy and I were of two minds about it. We both saw it coming. I saw the device they used to set it up, but got distracted by the expertise of the execution. He thought, “Well, this is how they all end,” and so was just disappointed by it when it finally came.

So, we both agreed: Excellent movie, disappointing ending. Again, the execution here is top notch. It’s just the way Raimi chose to end it was just very typical.

Still, hard to complain: Genuinely good horror movies are few and far between. This one was, in turn, scary, funny, clever, involving, suspenseful, squicky and just plain fun.

I’ve heard that Raimi was disappointed with the third Spiderman movie, and has said that he wasn’t given the creative freedom he was given with the first two. And also that that would be his criteria for moving forward. I tend to believe that, and would rather have him make fewer and lower-budget films he has control over rather than lots of big budget films he doesn’t.

Don’t drag me to hell for saying so.

Up–and Away

Seeing Pixar release a new movie is like watching a great figure skater do a triple axel. First, you realize that when all those other figure skaters are up, you were kind of nervous. They might land it, they might not, and you’re really on the edge of your seat. But then the gold medalist comes, and you just relax and watch the beauty unfold.

Remember last year, when the money men on Wall Street predicted that movie about the robot–the one with almost no dialogue–couldn’t possibly be a hit? And then the one about the rat? And the cars? And on and on.

I wasn’t worried in the least.

The two things that you can count on hearing when a Pixar movie come out are: “That was the best (Pixar) movie ever!” and “That wasn’t as good as [some other Pixar movie].” In the former case, they sometimes leave out the “Pixar” part. In the latter case, the person is typically referring to a Pixar movie that uniquely resonated in some idiosyncratic way.

But, really, the key thing about Pixar movies is that they’re all different. Even Toy Story 2 was thematically different from Toy Story. It’s not hard to make meaningful comparisons between them, but it is hard to state outright that of any two elements, one is necessarily better than the other. (I think this is true of all the movies, even A Bug’s Life and Cars, which are often unfairly maligned.)

Which brings us to this, the tenth Pixar film, and the tenth triple axel to be landed perfectly.

But differently.

In this case, we have the story of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a 78-year-old widower who’s about to get put into an old folks home. Now, a lot of kid movies feature old people, but this one is about Carl. This is his story.

Showing, once again, that they know how to tell a story without a lot of expository dialog, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and co-director/writer Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo co-writer) use the first few minutes of the film to give us a love story between Carl and Ellie. They meet as kids, and through a love of adventure, share their lives for the next 65 years.

No child is going to experience this the way an adult does, particularly older adults. But this opening provides the hook that powers the movie. The older kids will get the connections, but if you’re an adult there will probably be parts that make you tear up.

It’s no surprise that Carl–a balloon salseman–rigs up a bunch of balloons to make his house float away, but when it happens, it’s nonetheless magical. And Carl’s expression as he floats through the air is sublime. But of course it only lasts a few seconds.

The fly in Carl’s ointment is young Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), and the subsequent adventure includes a giant toucan-ish type bird, talking dogs, and aerial combat. These are the sorts of things you expect from a kid’s movie. But as a grownup, you’re never far away from these little moments that ground the story in a peculiarly real way.

In a way, Carl’s actions are those of a man who’s life is almost over. This final grand gesture is his tribute to his wife, and yet Russell keeps interrupting that by embroiling him in things that are going on now. And because we’ve seen Carl at Russell’s age, we feel the wealth of emotions he feels at certain things Russell says and does, even while Russell himself doesn’t realize the impact he has on the old man.

So, plenty for the kids–and The Flower liked it a lot–plenty for the adults–as did I. If I were going to pick a demographic this wouldn’t appeal to, it’d be the teenagers, yet The Boy also liked it a lot.

Darcy pointed me to this blogcritics review, which is perhaps, an interesting. idiosyncratic counterpoint to mine: The reviewer loved Carl’s story but was dismayed by the actual adventure parts (while noting that the kids in the audience loved those parts, while seeming restless during the parts he liked). He even asks whether he is Carl, curmudgeonly hanging on to his old dreams.

At least he sees what’s going on: Many of the early Cannes reviews derided the picture’s “de-evolution” into an action film. They missed the point. Or maybe just made their choice.