Thursday, September 2, 2010

August 2010

There’s something irresistible about low-budget sci-fi movies. How can you not smile at a cast of intensely serious characters surrounded by “special effects” that look as if they were purchased at the local toy store? These two dubbed Italian productions also offer a preview of the costumes, sets and character interaction that became the staples of “Star Trek,” which debuted the following year. The influences are undeniable.

“Wild, Wild Planet” is the loopier of the two, a strong contender for the worst sci-fi film of all time. It takes the entire film before space station commander (played by the lone U.S. actor Tony Russell) figures out the connection between a rash of missing people on the base planet (it looks like Earth but is never identified) and Mr. Nurmi, the scientist running organ transplanting experiments. This madman (Massimo Serato) has gone to the effort of creating a collection of odd-looking bald men, outfitted in too small fedoras and oversized trench coats that hide a smaller, second set of arms, to do the kidnapping. They approach their victims with an attractive, brain-washed girl at their side (she does the talking) and then quickly sweep the target under the trench coat, injecting them with the potion that shrinks them to about a foot high. The why of all this is left to the imagination.

More humorous are the shots of the space station, which looks like the plastic space set I played with when I was 10, and the transportation device, which whirls around the space station over and over again no matter where it’s going.

Inside the station, there are the usual boards of unmarked flashing lights, sliding panels and even a nightclub, a sort of international NASA a Go-Go. And then there’s the very off-Broadway dance troupe, which seems to be a popular entertainment. Apparently, television has been eliminated in this version of the future.

More visually interesting and thoughtful despite its campy title, “Planet of the Vampires” follows two space ships, exploring under the flag of a united solar system group, as they crash land on a mysterious planet. After landing, the crew awakes with the powerful desire to kill each other, but return to normal after being roused from their semi-conscious state. While the crew led by Captain Markary (American TV veteran Barry Sullivan) survives the hypnotic assault, they find a few dead crew members from their sister ship while the rest are nowhere to be found. Not unlike “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” it soon becomes clear that some life form is taking over the dead bodies and won’t stop until every Earthling is a vampire/zombie.

Artfully directed by Maria Bava (who later did the cult classic “Dr. Goodfoot and the Girl Bombs”) and shot in a popish color scheme by Antonio Rinaldi, “Planet of the Vampires” is not unlike an episode of “Star Trek” and also shares plot similarities to the 1979 sci-fi classic “Alien.” If it wasn’t for the bizarre space suits and the diverting voice dubbings, this film might be remembered as an important link between the preachy sci-fi morality tales of the 1950s and the great leap forward in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

The black leather outfits----zipped up to the chin and featuring high, flaring collars, and topped with a skull cap----make the women look like Catwoman and the men leaders of some medieval crusade. As if battling an alien life form isn’t hard enough, doing it in these outfits should have been a union violation.

Between the Dick Tracy video phones and the all-important meteor rejecter, the film displays, with no fanfare, something nearly unseen in most movies of the era: men and women working side-by-side as equals. While mainstream films were still portraying career women as either wasting time before they find the right man or a complete aberration, once movies went into space, women were accepted as equal parts of the team, just as smart and capable as the men. For filmmakers, it was the only way to get a female presence in these space-bound movies, but it also made a (unintended?) pro-feminist statement.

In “Planet of the Vampires,” the female crew members scream more often than the men, but their professional skills and knowledge are never questioned.

The film, despite its many flaws, most due to its miniscule budget, stands with the best of the 1950 cycle of sci-fi pictures, and if only for its ominous ending, is worth seeking out. As for “Wild, Wild Planet,” with its miniaturized humans and four-armed killers, only those who savor bad cinema will truly appreciate it.

In the first two adaptations of the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s mystery trilogy Noomi Rapace inhabits “The Girl” with a fearless intensity that few actresses could match. Lisbeth Salander is an expert computer hacker with a troubled past who has the survival instincts of a wild animal trapped in a corner. As her sexually abusive court-appointed conservator discovers, she knows how to enact punishing revenge.

In “Dragon Tattoo,” she takes a sympathetic interest in Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative journalist who is hired by a retired industrialist to unlock the unexplained disappearance of his niece nearly 30 years ago. Eventually Lisbeth agrees to work with him as he unravels a trail of murders that began in the 1940s and may involve Nazi sympathizers, religious cultists and family secrets. Because so much of the investigation involves studying old photographs and digging into dusty company records, these two strong characters are essential to maintaining interest.

The film is as much about their past and how they bond during the investigation as it is about the solving of the mystery. Lisbeth, a lean, dark bundle of nerves, trusts no one and is always ready to bolt if anyone treads too close to her messy past, while Blomkvist is too trusting, even after being tricked into committing libel.

Director Niels Arden Oplev and his screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel have taken a dense, overflowing plot (reportedly the novel is even more complex) and distilled it into a fast-paced two and a half hour movie in which the plot turns never seem forced or unrealistic. There’s no shortage of violent, disturbing sequences in this film, but as guided by actors Rapace and Nyqvist, it never feels exploitive or over-the-top.

“Fire” finds the anti-social Lisbeth wanted on double murder charges, when one of Blomkvist’s writers, working on a story about the Eastern European sex trade, is killed by the same gun used to end the life of Lisbeth’s repulsive conservator. Bodies start to pile up as a blond killing machine named Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) takes out anyone keeping him from finding Lisbeth.

In this film, Blomkvist is one step behind Lisbeth, as he reinterprets clues left to incriminate her while attempting to intercept her before the bad guys do.

A new director (Daniel Alfredson) and screenwriter (Jonas Frykberg) manage to maintain the style and look of the first adventure while filling in the details that were left ambiguous in “Dragon.”

Maybe because of the length (each are nearly 2 ½ hours) and the episodical nature of the multi-character stories, they seems more like well-made television than feature films, but that doesn’t diminish the edge-of-your-seat drama and superbly drawn characters.

While “Fire” feels a bit more conventional than “Tattoo,” Rapace’s Lisbeth remains one of those rare movie characters whose intriguing back story and emotional resolve make her unforgettable. The final chapter, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” is due in October.

S.O.B. (1981)
In the past three decades only Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992) has matched this Blake Edwards’ comedy in capturing the surreal insanity of the movie business. The good news is that “S.O.B,” a free-wheeling, darkly cynical screwball, remains both hilarious and insightful a generation later.

The film within the film is a sweet-natured musical starring Sally Miles (Julie Andrews) and directed by her husband (Richard Mulligan) called “Night Wind,” which bombs in spectacular fashion. The failure sends the self-obsessed director into a suicidal funk and the equally egotistical star into career damage control.

Felix’s failed attempts to end his life---driving through his garage wall and into the Pacific Ocean below his Malibu home---brings three old friends to his side: pessimistic studio executive Culley (William Holden), pill-dispensing Dr. Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston) and his simpering agent Coogan (Robert Webber). While the frenetic story follows the director’s battle with the surly, heartless studio chief (Robert Vaughn) to reclaim control of the film and rework it into an erotic spectacular, the heart of “S.O.B.” is the Greek chorus of Holden, Preston and Webber ruminating on the industry and the disturbing priorities of the film community.

This was Holden’s final performance and a worthy curtain call for this versatile, charismatic star. He died just months after the release of the film when, drunk, he fell and cut his head in his home. For Preston, whose star had waned since his popular turn as “The Music Man” (1962), “S.O.B” led to one of his best roles, as the transvestite nightclub performer in “Victor/Victoria” (1982), also directed by Edwards. It earned Preston an Oscar nomination.

Webber, one of the busiest supporting players of the 1960s and ‘70s, usually played fast-talking, corrupt businessmen, which makes his over-the-top childish agent even funnier. As the three of them drink to their pal, Webber’s Coogan puts Hollywood tradition in perspective: “Standard Operational Bullshit. They kill the poor, sweet SOB and then they give him a sendoff like he’s some kind of saint.”

But “S.O.B.” is overflowing with these types of perfectly measured Hollywood caricatures, including Vaughn, Larry Hagman as a studio yes-man, Loretta Swit as an obnoxious gossip columnist, Larry Storch as a industry-savvy spiritual guru, Stuart Margolin as the ultimate sycophant who as the personal assistant to Sally really wants to be a producer, and Andrews as the bitchy prima donna, essentially satirizing her own squeaky clean imagine. (The Edwards-Andrews clunky 1970 musical “Darling Lili” became one of the signature death-knells of the studio era.)

“S.O.B.” was the second in a trio of hit comedies for Edwards, breaking his run of “Pink Panther” retreads. His mid-career surge began with “10” (1979), which made Dudley Moore a star and Bo Derek an icon, and ended with “Victor/Victoria” (1982), a thoroughly entertaining movie with Andrews as a stage performer pretending to be a man so she can pretend to be a woman on stage. The 88-year-old writer-director hasn’t made a film since his last stab at “Panther” magic with Italian goofball Roberto Benigni as the sleuth in “Son of Pink Panther” (1993).

It’s so rare to see a sophisticated, adult comic drama from Hollywood that it’s tempting to overlook its faults and over-praise it. That seems to be what happened with this film, which suffers from a flabby, unfocused script that isn’t helped by director Lisa Cholodenko’s inability to create any sense of narrative flow.

Cholodenko, as she showed in the equally inconsistenant “High Art” (1998) and “Laurel Canyon” (2002), is more than capable of creating memorable scenes and emotionally powerful acting moments, but falls short in pulling the bits and pieces together into a cohesive narrative.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate about “The Kids Are All Right.” The set-up is packed with possibilities.

Nic (Annette Bening), a controlling wife-mother-surgeon is sent spinning into a midlife crisis when her two teenage children with her longtime lesbian partner, Jules (Julianne Moore), seek out the man who donated the sperm used to create them. When he turns out to be an organic-restaurant owner who everyone but Nic immediately likes it just increases her anxiety.

Nic and Jules are already going through a bit of a rough patch and things in the bedroom aren’t perfect when Paul (a jittery, talkative Mark Ruffalo) is brought into their world and upsets a teetering apple basket.

Unfortunately, the plot goes in a dozen different directions at once as Paul sincerely attempts to get to know his biological offspring, Jules agrees to landscape Paul’s backyard and the teens (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) try to establish their own personas. All of these threads feel like retreads from less serious films.

The most off-putting aspect of the screenplay involves Jules’ time spent at Paul’s home, working on his backyard. She becomes less likeable, less sympathetic as her relationship with Paul deepens, especially in her treatment of the Latino worker she’s hired to help her.

It was never clear if I should be laughing at Jules’ irresponsible and flaky approach to life or questioning her loyalty to her partner and family.

Yet Bening’s performance as Nic is worth the price of admission. Even as Cholodenko and co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg are painting her as a party-pooper who is overly fearful of outside influence on her family, Nic is facing a future of an empty nest and a less-than-committed partner. Bening does an impressive job of capturing both her real fears and her imagined ones.

Her performance culminates memorably during a dinner at Paul’s house. Things are a bit tense and everyone is waiting for Nic is lash out when she comments on his record collection. She’s impressed that he’s a fan of Joni Mitchell, joking that she meets so few straight men who like the singer-songwriter. Then, together, she and Paul spontaneously sing Mitchell’s sad, soulful “Blue.” Bening, who has given her fair share of fine performances in a career than includes a best actress Oscar for “American Beauty” (1999), has never created such a true and telling moment on screen. In this simple celebration of a great songwriter, Bening shows her age, her longing for the past, her inner trepidations about the future and her fragile emotions coloring her relationship with Jules.

Few films could sustain that kind of beautifully realized open window to hard realities, but this picture doesn’t come close. Instead, Cholodenko falls back on easy bromides, and, just like the cookie-cutter Hollywood movies she is trying so hard to distance this film from, puts the blame for problems on the outside intruder rather than facing the enemy within.

This unusual Western, Sidney Pollack’s third feature, expertly mixes comedy, action, social commentary and plenty of scene-chewing acting. Leading the charge is Burt Lancaster as Joe Bass, a quick-witted, cock-sure fur trader who forms an uneasy bound with Joseph Lee, a runaway slave played by Ossie Davis.

Bass heads after a gang of Indian scalphunters (apparently, a money-making endeavor) after they ambush a party of warriors who had just robbed Bass of his pelts. The scalphunters are led by Howie (Telly Savalas), a ruthless killer and racist whose leadership is continually undercut by his imperious wife Katie (a perfectly cast Shelley Winters). It’s a testimony to Pollack and screenwriter William W. Norton that they are able to milk so much comedy out the Savalas-Winters relationship, especially after they capture Joseph Lee and he plays them off one another, considering the serious issues being addressed.

But the secret weapon of this picture is Lancaster, who for me is the acting version of comfort food. Just watching this nimble, energetic performance at work, whether he’s jumping from rock to rock as he avoids gunfire or reacting with his darting eyes and toothy grin to a putdown from Joseph Lee is a reminder of what a larger-than-life screen persona brings to the cinema.

The film is loaded---maybe overloaded----with contemporary issues about the relationship between European and Native Americans and the ever-changing status of blacks, all played out on the rocky, desert foothills of Texas.

Davis’ dances the fine line between playing the obedient “Negro” and outmaneuvering the thick-headed whites. Ironically, at the height of the civil rights movement, Hollywood did a better job of dealing with the issue of race and the country’s racism than they do now. In large part, that’s a reflection of an era in which directors and writers had unprecedented freedom to address issues they felt strong about. Today, the central issue is how to make the film more audience friendly.

The next year, Pollack helmed his breakthrough film, the Depression-era drama “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” starting a two-decade run that included the popular romance “The Way We Were” (1973), the comic masterpiece “Tootsie” and the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa” (1985).

While there are few obvious similarities between “The Scalphunters” and “Tootsie”---except the presence of Dabney Coleman in the cast---they were the director’s only comedies and, in both, Pollack found a way to deal with serious issues between the laughs.

Few would have predicted that Kevin Kline’s days as a comic star would end with “In & Out” (1997), a finely measured portrayal of a man who, days away from his wedding, is forced to confront his sexuality.

During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Kline was the subtle, smart alternative to Steve Martin and Robin Williams, with memorable comic turns in “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988), “Soapdish” (1991) and “Dave” (1993).

Lately, he’s turned cloyingly serious with “Life as a House” (2001) and “De-Lovely” (2004), as a dreary Cole Porter, misfired in a goofy role in “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) and, a true low, co-starred with Martin in a 2006 “Pink Panther” remake.

“The Extra Man” is a return to character-based comedy, but it didn’t last long in theaters and Kline’s role is more of an over-written, one-note supporting part. He plays Henry Harrison, a professional curmudgeon who scratches out a living by escorting well-to-do elderly women to dinners and openings around Manhattan.

It’s one of those characters who at first seems amusingly quirky but quickly turns irritating and, eventually, tiresome.

His co-star is the naturally quirky Paul Dano (“The Good Heart” and “There Will Be Blood”), playing a fired English professor who moves to New York City to become a novelist and, for no good reason, agrees to rent a tiny little room from Henry. Dano’s Louis spends his time agonizing over his attraction to a co-worker (a stiff, rather dull Katie Holmes) and his secret desire to become a transvestite, but he’s so confused he fails to commit to either.

Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (working from a novel by Jonathan Ames) have loaded the film with so many oddball characters----there’s also John C. Reilly playing a very hairy neighbor who speaking with a Mickey Mouse-like voice----that they just cancel each other out.

The best scenes in the picture are those featuring Marian Seldes, one of Kline’s elderly “dates” who struggles to stay awake as a strange collection of men vie for her attention. Otherwise, this menagerie of hopeless, pitiful characters ends up being more tragic than funny.

CORRECTION: In last month’s review of “Flame & Citron,” I incorrectly placed the World War II actioner in Amsterdam. The film is set in and around the Denmark capital, Copenhagen.


Dana King said...

I read DRAGON TATTOO and it cured me of any desire to read the sequels. I hear they're better, but, fool me once...

You're not the first to say excellent things about the movie, and Lisbeth Salander is a great character, so I'm thinking the movie might be in order.

S.O.B. has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in a theater. Holden, Preston, and Webber are great together, and Richard Mulligan's physical comedy gifts are used just right. A great comedy even for those who don;t get the Hollywood references.

Anonymous said...

Very good!

Anonymous said...

It's hard to leave message! Excellent!