Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

Read More “These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week”

Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

Read More “Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)”

Posted in: Actors, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews, Television

The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

Read More “The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed”

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Film Reviews

Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

The history of these films and the filmmaking culture behind it is entertaining enough, but behind the great tales of Dennis Hopper on an alcohol and drug-fueled tear during Mad Dog Morgan (1976)and Barry Humphries proclaiming the projectile vomit gags of the early seventies Barry McKenzie films as “one of the great moments of Australian cinema” is a portrait of filmmaking on the professional frontier. These filmmaker didn’t just push the envelope of censorship, they created their own genre industry, which resulted in an anything goes attitude when it came to creating thrills.

Read More “Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies”
Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Ken Eisler, by Peter Hogue, by Richard T. Jameson, by Rick Hermann, by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors

For Barbara: The agony and the ecstasy of 1974

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Something was missing in Film Year 1974 and I’ve never been able to isolate quite what it is. There were good films in town; I wrote down more than 40 titles before starting to rank anything, and they cover a broad range of style, subject matter, country of origin, production values, acting achievements, filmmakers new, old, and new-old. Very early in the year several Seattle Film Society premieres set standards of both excellence and originality that seemed hard to beat, and only two subsequent films managed to beat them, for my money. Those early excellences hung over the year, and so did carryovers from 1973, as always in this Northwest outpost. Such factors help create a sense of Read More “For Barbara: The agony and the ecstasy of 1974”

Posted in: Books, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

In Black & White: ‘The Marx Bros. Scrapbook’ and ‘Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

IN BLACK & WHITE

THE MARX BROS. SCRAPBOOK. By Groucho Marx and Richard J. Anobile. W.W. Norton. 256 pages. $13.95.
GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO AND SOMETIMES ZEPPO. By Joe Adamson. 464 pages. $10. Simon and Schuster.

Can anyone seriously attempt to deny that the Marx Brothers are in control of the United States today? Transparent shysters and incompetents fill high government offices. A naked student lopes through a med school amphitheatre. The Seattle Opera stages Siegfried. And until recently, at least, gas station operators turned on their beacons, blocked their entranceways, put out signs that they had no gasoline, and sold that gasoline to red, white, and puce automobiles with odd-numbered or fractional license plates between the hours of 6:53 and 7:0l a.m., with time out to parlay with Arabian sweet-gum merchants. That honking behind you isn’t the next car in line; it’s Harpo trying to tell you he can’t get your trunk open with his can opener.

The Marx Bros. Scrapbook achieved a pronounced notoriety late last year when Groucho Marx made it known he was seeking an injunction to prevent its publication. According to Mr. Flywheel, he never dreamed that Richard Anobile, compiler of such previous (and posthumous) collections of pithy sayings as W.C. Fields’ Drat!, would transcribe their private conversations unedited, so that all the world could be treated to Groucho giving voice to all the things he was sublimating in Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business. etc., not to mention calling Nixon “a dirty crook” and Eisenhower “a schmuck.” He didn’t get the injunction and copies of the Scrapbook now proudly wear a gold seal promising “unexpurgated Groucho.”

Read More “In Black & White: ‘The Marx Bros. Scrapbook’ and ‘Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo’”

Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

Limelight: Seattle film year 1973, cut and dried

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Where were you in ’73? … Nope, doesn’t make it. But neither, in some ways, did ’73. I’m not sure what was lacking. Shuffling together the most pleasurable and significant-seeming memories of films that arrived in the Jet City and its environs this past year, I’ve managed to come up with better than fifty titles to be considered for honors. Yet something eludes me, did most of the year. Certainly there was no sleeper masterpiece of 1973, nothing to stand as the Gumshoe or Bad Company of its season; and ingratiating surprises like Gumshoe and Bad Company are the breath of life to the Constant Filmgoer. The Last Tango in Paris was so incessantly and all-pervadingly hyped that it never had a chance to do what it should have to our sensibilities, individually and collectively; as Kathleen Murphy has remarked, “Imagine just walking in off the street some night and going into, say, the Broadway and having that jump off the screen at you without forewarning”; and if I am less sure at the moment that Last Tango would have jumped off the screen, I’ll still have to cop a plea and try to see the film again as a movie rather than a rite of spring.

Read More “Limelight: Seattle film year 1973, cut and dried”