Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game

(1932) Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by James Ashmore Creelman; Based on the short story by Richard Connell; Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“…We barbarians know it is after the chase, and then only, that man revels.”
– Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks)

If you think The Most Dangerous Game looks a bit familiar, it’s because the basic premise has served as a template for many other films over the past several decades. Based on a story by Richard Connell, with a screenplay by James Creelman (who also co-wrote the King Kong script), the 1932 film utilized the same creative team as 1933’s King Kong.  In fact, many scenes were filmed simultaneously for both films, which shared many of the sets, actors* and crew members. Originally envisioned as a much larger production, The Most Dangerous Game ended up with a budget close to half of the original $400,000 amount.  Budgetary constraints required drastic cuts to the script, with scenes omitted, spare effects shots, a smaller cast and a shorter running time.

* According to film historian Bruce Eder, star Fay Wray put in 12-hour days while working on both films. Eagle-eye viewers might also spot Noble Johnson, who played Zaroff’s mute Cossack assistant in this film and a tribal leader in King Kong.

Modern audiences might not find much common ground with protagonist Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), played by Joel McCrea. An accomplished hunter, Rainsford travels the world, killing animals for sport and writing about his conquests. Outside of hunting, which seems to be his only vice, he doesn’t possess much of an edge. His version of character growth is to display the vestiges of empathy for the prey, as the tables are turned on his hunter role.

The main draw for The Most Dangerous Game is Leslie Banks’ memorable portrayal of the suave, amoral Count Zaroff. As a member of the Russian aristocracy, he escaped the Bolshevik revolution with his fortune and constructed a secluded island home* where he could continue to pursue his passions, away from prying eyes. Unlike Rainsford, he has grown tired of the hunt, but in recent years has found a new prey to re-ignite his vigor. He finds new stock for his quarry in the shipwrecked individuals that wind up on his island. Banks obviously relishes his role as the complex, sociopathic Zaroff.  Sophisticated, yet savage, he’s a cultured man with a vicious streak.  He’s as colorful as Rainsford is bland.  A scar on Zaroff’s forehead, a relic from an old hunting injury, is a fitting metaphor for his twisted mind.  When he touches the scar, it serves as a constant reminder of his disfigurement, but also provides a clue to what compels him. The closer he approaches death, the more rapturous his victories must feel. When Rainsford appears on his island, Zaroff identifies the soul of the hunter in Rainsford, and wants to bring him into the fold.

* Fun fact: The dogs that appeared on Zaroff’s estate were on loan from Harold Lloyd, who reportedly was none too pleased when they were returned to him with darkened coats.

Fay Wray doesn’t have much to do as Eve, other than play the woman in distress. The victim of a shipwreck, she represents a different type of prey for Zaroff, an object of conquest. Her character strays from Connell’s original story, which didn’t include any female characters, but she was added at the behest of the producers. Her inclusion brings another dimension to the story, and underscores Zaroff’s obsessions. Robert Armstrong (who appears as Carl Denham in King Kong) doesn’t engender much sympathy as Eve’s oafish brother Martin. With his drunken swagger and, non-existent manners, Martin is the polar opposite of Zaroff.  Apparently it was the intention of the filmmakers to make his character obnoxious. If so, they succeeded beyond expectations. It’s clear he’s just being set up to become one of Zaroff’s victims. After several scenes goading Zaroff, you’re almost thankful when the inevitable happens

In his Criterion DVD commentary, Bruce Eder states that Rainsford and Zaroff represent two sides of the same coin, but I’m not sure if this is exactly the case. Both men are energized by the chase and extinguishing of life, exploiting nature for their own ends. The principle difference, of course, is that Rainsford refuses to cross the line into killing humans. By his reasoning killing animals for sport is justified, but killing people for sport is murder. While one is a universal taboo, the other is rationalized by some, including Rainsford, as a socially sanctioned form of recreation. Instead of two sides of one coin, perhaps the distinction between the two characters is better exemplified as a continuum, ranging from “acceptable” to unacceptable murder. Only a thin veneer of civilization separates them.

The Most Dangerous Game packs a lot into a very brief running time of 63 minutes. The original cut, which included more footage of Zaroff’s trophy room, was 78 minutes, but was trimmed because the scenes were deemed too graphic and disturbing by test audiences of the time. Instead of dwelling on what was lost, what was left in the final cut is sufficiently tantalizing. What remains of the trophy room scene still provides chills, and the film’s final chase sequence gets the blood pumping. The fundamental DNA of The Most Dangerous Game continues to influence other films, from direct remakes (including the 1945 Robert Wise-directed A Game of Death) to films that recycled aspects of Connell’s story, such as Predator and Battle Royale.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV

(2000) Directed by Lloyd Kaufman; Written by: Trent Haaga, Patrick Cassidy, Gabriel Friedman and Lloyd Kaufman; Starring: David Mattey, Clyde Lewis, Heidi Sjursen, Paul Kyrmse and Joe Fleishaker; 
Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ** ½

“…the fetus fight scene is still the best intra-uterine fistfight committed to film despite the fact that our fetuses didn’t have short, stubby fingers.”  – screenwriter Trent Haaga, on the decision to use eight-year-old actors instead of little people (from the book, Make Your Own Damn Movie! by Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Jahnke and Trent Haaga)

The following is my contribution to the Troma Super SummerSpectacular Blogathon, hosted by the one and only Vern of Vern’s Video Vortex.  After tackling The Toxic Avenger Part II a little while back, I thought it only appropriate to return with a review of the third and (so far) final sequel to Troma’s enduring series about “the first superhero from New Jersey.”  I apologize in advance if what follows (to paraphrase The Dark Knight) is the Troma review we deserve, but not the Troma review we need right now.

Nowhere is the term “critic proof” more applicable than with the output of Troma Entertainment and its brand of low budget filmmaking.  Over the past four decades, Troma films garnered legions of fans with their signature recipe of bad acting, sophomoric jokes, bodily excretions, gratuitous nudity, misogyny and copious gore.   Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV* was obviously created with this specific audience in mind, conditioned to expect these elements.

* According to Lloyd Kaufman, he would have preferred the title, A Tale of Two Toxies.

The film starts out on a dubious note, at once apologizing for the previous two sequels and proclaiming to be the real sequel.  This time around, the title character is played by David Mattey, who also appears in a dual role as Toxie’s sociopathic doppelganger, the Noxious Offender (aka: “Noxie”).  In a move displaying Troma’s usual penchant for subtlety, he’s joined by morbidly obese sidekick Lardass (Joe Fleishaker, doing double duty as out of work physicist Chester). Heidi Sjursen plays Toxie’s blind, pregnant wife Sara, and Noxie’s deaf girlfriend Claire.  Another recurring Troma character, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD (Paul Kyrmse, also appearing as Evil Kabukiman), rounds out the list of dramatis personae.  

When a gang of adults dressed as infants terrorize a classroom of defenseless special education students, Toxie springs to the rescue.  Unfortunately for all parties, a bomb explodes, opening a portal to a parallel universe.  As a result, he switches places with his malevolent counterpart.  Instead of fighting evil, The Noxious Offender is evil.  Once he realizes what has happened, it’s up to Toxie to return to the correct universe, and right Noxie’s wrongs.  Director/co-writer Lloyd Kaufman leaves no stone unturned to ensure there’s something to offend everyone.  This fourth installment of the Toxic Avenger saga relies predominantly on middle school-level humor, taking potshots at feeble targets (such as the mentally challenged) along the way.  Depending on your tolerance for lowest common denominator humor, this film could seem like manna from the gods or an endurance test.  There are a few inspired moments scattered throughout, however, including a fight between Toxie and Noxie’s fetuses in Sara’s womb.

A recent re-watch of John Waters’ seminal 1972 schlockfest Pink Flamingos reminded me that Lloyd Kaufman and Troma didn’t pioneer the niche of bad taste cinema.  They’re simply carrying the baton that Waters passed along.  But something seems lost in translation, three decades later.  While Pink Flamingos was spontaneous and groundbreaking a few decades ago, Citizen Toxie appears calculated and self-conscious in a modern context.  One was an example of true guerrilla filmmaking that blindsided unsuspecting audiences, while the latter movie is a branded product designed to cater to a specific demographic.  Who am I to say Troma is wrong?   They have a winning formula.  You’ll never convince Troma’s detractors there’s anything good in these movies.  Conversely, you’ll never convince the Troma fans they’re wasting their time. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Goldblumathon is Here!

Who repelled an alien invasion, armed only with a Macintosh Powerbook?

Who was predestined to play Ichabod Crane?

Who fought off Red Lectroids from Planet 10?

Who made being a geeky scientist tampering with the laws of nature look cool?

Who personally supervised the construction of Stonehenge?

Okay, maybe Jeff Goldblum can’t claim bragging rights to the last one, but he’s performed many other amazing cinematic feats during his four-decade career.  After weeks of planning, catastrophizing and self-flagellating, the Goldblumathon has arrived to celebrate Hollywood’s most underappreciated and consistently entertaining actors.  A tip of my virtual hat goes out to everyone who contributed to this blogathon.  I look forward to reading all of your posts over the next few days.  Extra special thanks to the fine folks of Two Guys, One Quip and Classic Movie Hub for the last-minute plugs.  Your kindness knows no bounds. 

In the list below, you’ll find a nice representation of Goldblum’s resume, from tentpole flicks such as Jurassic Park, to cult favorites like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – Across the Eighth Dimension, and lesser known films, such as Tenspeed and Brownshoe.  I’ll be updating the links frequently, so please check back often.   

Goldblumathon Participants

Todd, Forgotten Films - Into the Night

Scotty, Drunk in a Graveyard - Transylvania 6-5000

Michaël Parent, LMdC - The Top 7 Performances by Jeff Goldblum

Miss V, Girls do Film - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Ryan C., Trash Film Guru - TBD

Vic De Leon, Vic’s Movie Den - TBD

Derek Springer, The Ugly Couchcast - The Awesomeness That IS Jeff Goldblum 

Dan Lashley, Wide Weird World of Cult Films - The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – Across the Eighth Dimension

You’ve Got Red on You - Jeff Goldblum: Horror Movie History, plus...  The Fly

Kerry, Prowler Needs a Jump - Jurassic Park

Kev D., Zombie Hall - TBD

Two Guys, One Quip - The Town Where No One Got Off (from The Ray Bradbury Theatre)

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear - Between the Lines

Stacia, She Blogged by Night - Earth Girls Are Easy

James Patrick, Of (In) Human Bond Age - Tenspeed and Brown Shoe

Jeffprime, Starbase Geek - The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – Across the Eighth Dimension

Erin, 90s Horror Movies - Mr. Frost

Stabford Deathrage, Stabford Deathrage Shoots His Mouth Off - The Sentinel

The Vern, The Vern’s Video Vortex - The Fly

Matt Howell, That’s Cool, That’s Trash! - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Barry P., Cinematic Catharsis - Earth Girls Are Easy

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Earth Girls Are Easy

(1988) Directed by: Julien Temple; Written by Julie Brown, Charlie Coffey and Terrence E. McNally; Starring: Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans, Julie Brown and Charles Rocket;

Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

Wiploc: Finland is Here?

Valerie: Finland?  No, this is the Valley. Finland is the capitol of Norway.  God, you guys sure learn fast.

Why did I choose Jeff Goldblum as the focal point for my blogathon, the Goldblumathon?  Call it a man-crush if you will, or a deep admiration for his signature acting style, but Goldblum is one of my favorite performers.  With his tall, gangly figure that embodies the awkwardness of adolescence in an adult frame and distinctive speech pattern (manic, with the hint of a James Stewart-esque stutter), he’s one of the most idiosyncratic actors working in mainstream cinema.  He may not be typical leading man material, but when he does headline a picture, there’s usually a catch: he’s an eccentric scientist (The Fly), fish-out-of-water American (The Tall Guy), or in this case, a love-struck alien.

Earth Girls Are Easy encapsulates ‘80s kitsch in all its candy-colored glory, with its idealized depiction of suburban Los Angeles* life.  The title (and nominal story line) is based on a novelty song by Dr. Demento regular Julie Brown,** who co-wrote the screenplay, and also co-stars.  Director Julien Temple incorporates many of the Southern California landmarks instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever been there, while taking license with the geography.  The Griffith Observatory becomes a tacky dance club, and the filmmakers would have you believe that Inglewood is just around the corner from Zuma Beach.

* Set in the San Fernando Valley (or colloquially, The Valley).

** I don’t know if it’s Ms. Brown I have to thank for coining the phrase “take a mental margarita,” but I picked it up from this film, and I continue to use the term to this day.  Yes, I’m aware that’s why I don’t have any friends.

Guided by their raging space hormones, three furry aliens, Mac, Zeebo and Wiploc (Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey, respectively) crash-land their sex toy-shaped spacecraft into the pool of suburbanite Valerie (played by Goldblum’s wife at the time, Geena Davis), and wacky ‘80s hijinks ensue.  Before you can say “Nair,” Valerie takes the aliens to the Curl Up & Dye salon, run by her boss Candy (Julie Brown), to give them a human makeover.  Shorn of their body hair, the previously hirsute aliens embark on a quest to party and meet women.

After he watches a clip from The Nutty Professor, Mac emulates Jerry Lewis’ pseudo-suave Buddy Love character, in an attempt to woo Valerie.  Complicating matters is Valerie’s obnoxious yuppie fiancé Ted (Charles Rocket), who sees the aliens as a means of furthering his medical career.  Goldblum and Davis have nice chemistry together, but how do I put it delicately?  Valerie is a bit of a ditz.  Who am I kidding?  She’s a dim bulb.  When she catches Ted with another woman, she kicks him out, then proceeds to waffle about him for the rest of the movie.  Since this isn’t a Shakespearean tragedy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that true love will conquer all in the end.  Mac represents everything that Ted isn’t.  He’s sensitive, attentive and loyal – something that’s apparently in short supply on Earth.

Temple, no stranger to the musical format (with the underrated Absolute Beginners) provides lively direction to the goofy song and dance numbers, mostly written and performed by Brown (“Cause I’m a Blond” is a personal favorite).  Earth Girls Are Easy also includes a number of affectionate nods to genre films.  A creepy fun dream sequence incorporates shots from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty & The Beast and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.  Watch for cameos from several iconic inanimate objects, including Robby the Robot, cars from Death Race 2000 and Angelyne.*

* Seriously, have you seen her attempt to act in this flick? (Zing!).  To the uninitiated, Angelyne was an L.A. fixture in the ‘80s, more famous for being famous than anything else.  You couldn’t meander around La-La Land without encountering one of her ubiquitous billboards advertising her dubious talent.

25-plus years after my first viewing, I’m still unable to see Earth Girls Are Easy with anything approaching objectivity.  Maybe I’m looking back at the ‘80s with scuffed rose-colored glasses, but I can’t help but appreciate the movie’s love letter to a fictional Los Angeles, as well as its old-fashioned “let’s put on a show” vibe.  At least for this reviewer, it’s a combination that’s tough to resist. 

 Be sure to check out all of the great posts...