Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Wicker Man (1973)

I was thinking about watching this movie with my mom.  I am so glad I didn't watch this movie with my mom.

The Wicker Man is not parental bonding material
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) follows bobby Sergeant Howie's (Edward Woodward) investigation of the disappearance of pre-teen Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper) from an isolated farming community called Summerisle. Howie finds himself stymied at every turn by the conflicting statements given by Summerisle's villagers: Rowan is dead, or not human, or she never existed. All very frustrating, and just to add insult to injury, the innkeeper's daughter (Britt Ekland) won't stop doing naked dances and banging on his bedroom wall (VERY distracting). Gradually it emerges (actually, no one's that subtle about it) that the inhabitants of Summerisle are neo-pagans led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in the practice of ancient sacrifices and fertility rites. Guess who's due to get sacrificed for a bountiful harvest? Protip: it's not Rowan Morrison.

Despite its endless tit parade, The Wicker Man is, at its core, both conservative and reactionary. It's no coincidence that it came out a couple years after the hippie movement's heyday. In The Wicker Man, anything redolent of back-to-nature -- even folk music or not wearing a bra -- is evil. Yet, like Milton, Hardy seems to be on the devil's side without knowing it. His heathen villagers are ignorant and wicked and the very very Christian Howie is gallant and good, but Hardy's film imbues its villains with a crucial charm its hero lacks: a sense of humor. When Howie, stumbling upon a fertility rite, blusters "They are NAKED!" and Summerisle replies that it would be too dangerous to jump through a fire fully clothed, we can't help but snigger a little bit at our hero's expense. Howie is noble enough, but not particularly sympathetic.

From what I understand about The Wicker Man's production, it's a miracle that a finished print ever saw the light of day (forces ranging from uninterested studio heads to Mick Jagger himself conspired to smother it). Consequently, there are several different cuts floating around. The one I watched -- a 2009 Lions Gate release -- has an un-hemmed quality, laden with scenes and shots which don't contribute directly to the movie's plot. Yet the wealth of information we receive about Summerisle, not all of it relevant or useful, lends the movie's setting a realistic, almost documentary quality. The movie-makers were presumably aware of this unsettling effect, given their winking special-thanks intertitle to "Lord Summerisle and the people of his island" (which has never existed).

Rule Britt-ania
SCENE STEALER: Britt Ekland (acting)/Annie Ross (voice)/Jane Jackson (naked butt shots) as the landlord's GGG daughter Willow. Ekland was apparently dubbed over because her Swedish accent didn't gibe with rustic Summerisle, and used a body double due to her pregnancy, but these decisions made from necessity turned out to be artistically inspired. There is something fantastically fertile and lush about the Willow created in post-production: the combination of Ekland's sweet face, Ross' throaty brogue, and Jackson's, uh, killer dance moves render the character a Frankenstein-ed fox. We're able to see Willow as Howie sees her: not only too tempting to resist, but too tempting to exist (which she doesn't: or rather, she exists only as parts of three separate women).

Monday, 17 September 2012

One Million Years BC (1966)

There are Claymation dinosaur battles in this movie. That in and of itself ought to be enough to convince you to watch it. If not, the rest of my review follows below.

Tyrannosaurus SEX.

One Million Years BC (Don Chaffey, 1966) revolves around the misadventures of Tumak (John Richardson), musclebound caveman extraordinaire. Tumak offends his people, the Rock Tribe, by, I don't know, being too good a hunter or some such shit (it can be hard to grasp the nuances of the drama since everyone but Raquel Welch communicates in grunts). The Rock Tribe kicks Tumak out and he wanders around the desert, finally stumbling upon the blonde, buff Shell Tribe, where Loana the Fair One (Raquel Welch) takes a fancy to him. Eventually the Shell Tribe exiles Tumak for being a troublemaker (it's the Rebel Without A Cause of the Jurassic Age), so he and Loana head back to the Rock Tribe to seize power. Then a volcano erupts and the surviving Shell folk and Rockers have to make nice and ally their tribes. It's very touching.

One Million Years BC is an almost ideal B-movie experience that keeps you on its side by never overreaching itself. Despite its ponderous opening narration ("This is a story of LONG, LONG AGO") this is not a movie that wants to show you History As It Was and the Real and True Origin of Things. It just digs sexy cave chicks and dino duels, which is goddamn glorious. Sign me up. The movie's influence does actually extend beyond Welch's tyrannic sex appeal -- thirty years or so later, The Lion King cribbed the Rock Tribe's dramatic clifftop betrayal for Mufasa's "long live the King" death scene.

The unapologetic anachronism of this movie might be dated, but it's also refreshing. The best historical epics (and admittedly, One Million Years BC isn't one of them) often play fast and loose with historical accuracy. Contemporary period movies needs to rediscover this freedom -- the freedom to slavishly adhere to historical accuracy only insofar as it serves the story. Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette feinted towards intentional anachronism, to a collective critical snigger, but MA's burgeoning cult status shows that Coppola's instincts were clever.

Historical films need to pick and choose their history, or they become instructional videos. It's not that they SHOULD spurn facts, if the facts are relevant, but I see far too many movies that get the brand of typewriter right, then forget the human element. We have universities, history books, documentary films to tell us about FACTS, but FACTS are not why we watch a movie like One Million Years BC, so its frank evasion of "historical accuracy" is a relief.

Historical accuracy, as it is practiced nowadays by shows like Mad Men, is a circus act -- impressive, but not moving. The overt anachronism in this movie is liberating more than naive. I'm sure that the director and producers knew that there was no historical period ever when coiffed cavewomen with good teeth fended off pterodactyl attacks, but you know what? They wanted to do that. So they did. And I'm glad. Aren't you?

Mankind discovered the hot roller shortly after the wheel and fire.

SCENE STEALER: Raquel Welch gets all the attention as the sex symbol for this movie, and rightfully so, as she is as sexy as fuck. For the record, though, Martine Beswick as her rival Nupondi the Wild One -- Tumak's spurned Rock Tribe girlfriend -- has the better acting chops.

Did I mention that there's a cavewoman catfight in this movie? Just watch it.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Let me begin today’s review by noting that rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I’m not dead, I’ve just spent the last ten days involved in not one but two Atlantic Fringe Festival productions and reviewing a bunch of the other ones. It’s been busy. But we can put all that behind us now and get to what really matters: watching fucktons of movies and judging their worth. (This qualifies as a hobby, right?)

Logically speaking, no movie's perfect – this being a flawed universe and so on – but Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) comes damn close. I think it's one of the best movies of all time, and bonus, it’s a lot more watchable than some of the pretentious twaddle saddled with that accolade (I’m looking at you, Citizen Kane). Roger Rabbit succeeds brilliantly on two levels: as a technical achievement, and as a comedy with an unbeatable schtick (cartoon characters as living, feeling beings).

You'll be glad you "saw" this movie. Get it?
Private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) hasn't worked for 'toons since he lost his brother and partner in the line of duty ("'toons killed his brother... dropped a piano on his head," recounts Eddie's girlfriend Dolores [Joanna Cassidy], with an impossibly straight face). But times are tough, and Eddie takes on a bit of dirty business: photographic proof that 'toon star Roger Rabbit's wife, Jessica (the troubled couple are voiced by Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner), is "playing patty-cake" with movie mogul Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Of course, Acme turns up dead, and Roger is the prime suspect. The unlucky rabbit pleads his innocence to Eddie, and the pair set off to figure out who framed Roger Rabbit (it turns out, of course, to be the only guy without a sense of humor: Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom).

Thank god this movie was made before CGI went mainstream. Computer graphics would have gotten the charm of pen-and-ink cartoons all wrong: cleaned it up, slicked it down, rendered it in (heaven forbid) 3D. But Roger, Jessica and their ilk could have wandered out of some forgotten Tex Avery short. They look like the old cartoons, and better yet, they move that way. I've heard an urban legend that Jessica's breasts were animated to bounce up when a normal woman's would drop downwards; I don't know how true that is, but whatever they did, it worked. Also impressive is the amount of interaction the cartoon characters have with their live environment. This is necessary in the case of main characters, of course -- anything else would look cheap and lazy. But why make one of your extras a 'toon octopus bartender who serves drinks to real humans? What's that? Just because you can? Zemeckis, I like your style.

There's an (admittedly featherweight) political subtext to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The treatment of 'toons as second-class citizens is reminiscent of American racial segregation, and the Ink and Paint Club (a humans-only 'toon revue where Jessica performs) calls the Cotton Club to mind. I do wish that this movie had depicted the social standing of 'toons a little more clearly: 'toons can be employed and legally married, yet murdered without ramification? It's not really consistent, and it just gets more confusing when you try to figure out whether toons age, reproduce, die. 

That's my only nitpick, though, and it's more of a headache than a dealbreaker. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a truly great cinematic experience: one which is timeless, and yet could only have been a product of its time. If anyone ever tries to re-release this movie in 3D, I'll drop a piano on their head.

Someone at Disney designed that dress. Believe it.
SCENE STEALER: Jessica Rabbit, goddess that she is, is the obvious choice here... too obvious, in fact. But there's someone else in this movie who deserves some love, too.

Always a class act.
The one and only Betty Boop!

Betty's only in the movie for a few seconds -- an old friend of Eddie's, she's been reduced to the Ink and Paint Club's cigarette girl because things have been "a little slow since cartoons went to color." Her defiantly cheerful hip bevel and "boop-boop-de-doop" are the most bittersweet moment in the film, wacky fun that it is -- doubly so when you learn that Betty's original actress, Mae Questel, voiced the cameo (she was 79). Ah, it's a cruel world that can't protect Betty Boop from the ravages of time.