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The Slow & Ambling Paths of Plot Percolation June 20, 2017

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Movies, Writing.
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“So, where do your ideas come from?”

It’s one of the more common questions writers are asked.

While still promoting the current Wagstaff novel, I’m also into the develop-the-outline stage of Wagstaff 3 at this point, even while I hone the edges on a different series of books that will appear shortly.

Bow down, helots! I’m a multitasker!

I also made a fresh fettucine bolognese completely from scratch today, but you already knew I’m a CULINARY GENIUS.

Anyway, to get back to the “where do my ideas come from?” tack, since the Wagstaff series regularly features motifs, actors and plot points from all sorts of old movies and TV shows all mashed up together, damn near anything I watch might wind up in one, somewhere.

Especially if all that pop culture junk turns up in some off the wall dream I have. Every dream Wagstaff has in both of the books that turn out to be clues are ACTUAL dreams I’ve had in real life, by the way.  But that’s for another post.

Today, I wound up watching a couple of obscure movies I can tell you about.

I’ve already thought of the main-plot-drivin’ films I think I want to mine for the plotline of Wagstaff 3, but if any quasi-related tangential material crosses my radar, I usually feel obliged to watch it, just in case some detail or odd factor inspires me to use it. It’s basically the same mentality I use when browsing yardsales and thrift stores – I never know what might turn up, but after something does, it feels totally natural.

Today I started by watching Nick Carter: Master Detective, the first of three Nick Carter movies (more…)

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Oscar Predictions 2017 February 22, 2017

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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oscar-falls-alseepI don’t think there’s been a year where I’ve cared less about the Oscars, but then there’ll always be next year.

When Hollywood was HOLLYWOOD! we’d have a bunch of films we loved contending for an award during the one evening of the year where awards were given out. Legendary stars like Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Liz Taylor, Bette Davis and so forth would either win, be nominated or present in festivities hosted by Bob Hope.

What do we have now? An endless award season where overpaid entertainment-biz royalty continually stroke each other’s egos over largely forgettable fare, with a few diamonds in the rough. I’m always reminded of that when I cull through the screeners I’m lent by bona-fide academy members to see what I actually want to watch. It’s usually pretty thin.

Much the way NFL ratings dropped like a rock this year partly due to overexposure of mediocre product (like having last-place teams play week after week on Thursday night primetime games), the Oscars now blur into the year-long promotional fest of Hollywood telling us how great it is. It used to be a rarity to see our favorite actors & actresses as themselves, commenting on their work. Now, it’s everywhere, every day. Why, then, would Oscar night be a big deal? It’s just another day at the self-congratulatory office now.

Whatever.

Did I mention the show itself is most often a colossal bore? A funny joke here and there, usually depending on the host… but mostly it’s like watching factory gears turning. Every year at the end, I’d find myself saying “I don’t think I can sit through another one of these” and this year, I am keeping that promise.

I will not be watching.

I’ll check winners online, yeah, I’d like to see how well I call the winners, but I can’t sit through the broadcast. Through the boring production numbers. Through behind-the-scenes people who’d have great things to say being played off stage to make time for…. more production numbers. Through painfully unfunny contrived comedy bits like Neil Patrick Harris’ “psychic” act from a few years ago. Through this year’s memorial reel, filled with far too many wonderful people who died this year, and inevitably sitting there annoyed at who they left out. One year they left out DeForest Kelly. Another year, they skipped over Patrick McGoohan. Who will get dissed this year?

And then, this of all years, will be the politics. Movies are a nice escape from real life, or a window onto reality by way of creative fiction. If actors broke character and the 4th wall and speechified during their films, most people would walk out.

Hence, my reaction to the show. I’ll be watching the Columbo rerun, prolly. I have no idea what Peter Falk’s politics were, and I don’t care. They don’t matter.

Anyway, here are my predictions:

Best Picture: La La Land (they love movies about themselves)

Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Actor: Even though Denzel Washington won the SAG award, I’ll go with Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea.

Best Actress: All signs point to Emma Stone for La La Land, but a dark horse upset would be an interesting barometer: voting on this took place just after Meryl Streep‘s highly publicized political speech after winning a Golden Globe for Florence Foster Jenkins, not exactly one of Streep’s “major” career roles, but if everyone who agreed with her speech voted for her on account of it, AND rationalized the vote since, after all, she’s Meryl-fucking-Streep-fer-godsakes…. well, don’t be too surprised if her name is announced.

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actress: Rhode Island’s Viola Davis, Fences

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia

Best Animated Short: Piper

Best Original Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Adapted Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Arrival

Best Cinematography: Greig Fraser, Lion

Best Documentary Feature: OJ, Made In America

Best Documentary Short: The White Helmets

Best Live Action Short: Enemies Within

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman

Best Editing: La La Land

Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing: Hacksaw Ridge Swinging for the fences here… Kevin O’Connell finally winning after going 0 for 21!

Best Production Design: La La Land  

Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land this is getting monotonous….

Best Original Song: I’ll go for an upset here… “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

Best Makeup: It’s always the one with he MOST makeup, so… Star Trek Beyond

Best Costume Design: La La Land

Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Well, there. My guiding principles in picking these was to pick movies that make Hollywood feel good about itself, either aesthetically (La La Land) or politically (the shorts, foreign film & documentary). We’ll see how I do.

 

Oscar Predictions Reckoning 2015 February 23, 2015

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Klugman with typewriter 4c

Only 15 out of 24, not exactly a stellar performance.

I missed the documentaries and score (I’m surprised a guy nominated twice in the same category didn’t split his own votes), I handicapped wrong on actor and missed editing & original screenplay. Some of the guild awards were not predictors, others were. Whatever.

I was also wrong about the memorial reel – they ended with Mike Nichols and not Robin Williams.

I got the boredom part right. The show was the usual overlong drawn out snoozefest it always is. Neil Patrick Harris did the thankless job of hosting, and he’s getting the social media blasts today that are to be expected. And so it goes.

As usual, someone totally unfamiliar with Hollywood or movies or American culture in general would look at the Oscar telecast and assume that American film is all about music. Why the hell does this stupid show, year after year after year, spend so much time on songs and production numbers instead of on, oh, FILM??? The only clips we see are for the actors. Nuthin’ else. EVER. And now, here’s another song!

I did not win the pool at the party I attended, but the food was certainly yummers.

And I got to meet Robert Towne & talk a little about movies with him. Movies were better when he was getting screen credit. But forget it, Jake, it’s the Oscars.

Oscar Predictions 2015 February 20, 2015

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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oscarmadison

What better way to return to this blog than with my Oscar handicapping? I did pretty well last year without seeing any of the movies, so here’s hoping for a repeat.

I always tell myself I ought to post more frequently on this thing, but I WORK FOR A LIVING, Y’KNOW?? Although if I posted all the stupid links I put up on facebook on here instead, this blog would certainly be more active and attract more clickbait. It might be a plan!

Anyway, after reading through the nominees and reading the tea leaves, here’s how I think it’ll play out on Sunday night:

Best Picture: Even though it seems people either love it or hate it, Birdman seems to be the one they’ll pick here. It’s a movie about an actor who redeems himself artistically despite a lost career and a needling critic…. one of the largest voting sections of the academy are actors, and any movie where Hollywood can say “Hey, that’s about ME!!!!” will win awards.

Best Director: Alejandro Inarritu for Birdman.

Best Actor: As long as I’m on a Birdman kick, I think they’ll give this one to Michael Keaton over Eddie Redmayne.  It’s really a career award for Keaton, kind of the way John Wayne won for True Grit. The feeling will be it’s probably his best chance at the thing, it’s his time, it’s his turn, etc etc. He’s well liked enough by everyone in the biz, and Redmayne has the “He’s young and will be back someday” vibe to him.

Best Actress: This one is the easiest to pick – Julianne Moore played someone dieing of a mentally debilitating disease, which already puts her at 80% of full Oscar. Moore played Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change a couple of years back, a tv movie basically designed to portray Palin as the stupidest person in the history of the world. Considering the way Hollywood feels about Palin, they’ll be giving Moore awards for the rest of her life regardless of what she does. So, we are at 100% full Oscar!!!

Best Supporting Actor: JK Simmons. Basically another career award.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette. They can’t give it to Streep every year, y’know.

Original Screenplay: Usually Best Picture & Screenplay match, BUT since Birdman had 4 writers, and since Hollywood seems to have a hard-on for giving him an Award for who he basically is, I think this one goes to Wes Anderson for Grand Budapest Hotel.

Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game. They gotta give it somethin’

Animated Feature: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Animated Short: Feast

Live Action Short: The Phone Call

Foreign Language Film: Ida

Cinematography: Birdman

Costume Design: Grand Budapest Hotel

Editing: Boyhood 12 years worth of work? It’s gotta take this one, even if editing and picture usually match since editors make up the other large voting block. But I think the actors will outvote ’em for best picture.

Make Up: Grand Budapest Hotel It’s always the movie with the most blatant make-up.

Production Design:Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Score: Johan Johannsson, The Theory of Everything

Original Song: “Glory” from Selma, because they have to give it somethin’

Sound Editing: American Sniper

Sound Mixing: American Sniper  War movies usually do well here, and while scifi usually trumps it, the sound in Interstellar has generated a lot of complaints from the geeks who pay attention to this category. So, a slight nod to American Sniper here.

Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Documentary Short: Our Curse

Documentary Feature: Virunga

Other predictions? Well, Robin Williams will definitely end the memorial reel. The production numbers will be boring as watching, well, the Oscar telecast. Neil Patrick Harris will be adequate as host.

Whether or not I win the party pool with these picks remains to be seen. But at least I know the food will be good where I’m going this year, even if it’s a schlep from my house & my kitty. The sacrifices I make for ART…….

What’s The Japanese For “Schlock?” The Films of Noboru Iguchi July 11, 2014

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Karate-Robo-Zaborgar2

Do you like movies where people’s heads explode into spritzing blood geysers after being cut to ribbons by Japanese ninja darts rapid-fired from the asses of bikini clad girlbots wearing Clockwork Orange dick masks?

I KNEW you did!

Unfortunately I’m not talking about the next Pixar release, but the work of a mostly consistent, reliably fucked-up Japanese exploitation comic gore meister, Noboru Iguchi.  Recently I was introduced to his work via a recommendation to watch Karate Robo Zaborgar, a remake of a 1970s-era tokusatsu silly rubber monster TV show which turned out to be, well, just damn brilliant.  And then by coincidence I got pointed to Dead Sushi, a movie where sushi comes to life and starts killing diners or transforming them into zombies (sort of Dead/Alive at the sushi bar) – and noticed it was the same director.

A little light went off in my head.

Funny how for a film freakazoid like myself, the films I’d see solely based on who directed them fall into the distinct categories of All-Time Great Directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, Kubrick, Billy Wilder and the like; and the difficult-to-pin-down category of directors who seldom disappoint in terms of whatever specific brand of schlock they’re known for – Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, John Waters. The latter category winds up being less consistent than the first in terms of delivering the goods – think of Waters’ later work or Meyer’s lesser efforts – but any time I’d hear of something that sounded mildly interesting, the name of some insane director being attached to the thing would usually make me hit play.

So add Noboru Iguchi to the list.

(more…)

Oscar Predictions 2014 February 23, 2014

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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criswellpredicts

Let me preface the following prognostications with a small caveat: the ONLY movie I saw in theaters in 2013 was Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Yup, that’s right. While I used to see anywhere around 35-50 movies annually, I’ve been so turned off by the entire experience of theatergoing that I’d rather wait for the things I’m  interested in to come out on disc & watch ’em at home, without the cellphones going off, the texting, idiots talking to each other or back to the screen, crying babies (I keep the ones I kidnap in a sound-proof room, so no problemo at home).

So I’m flying blind making these calls, relying solely on my gut feelings of how Hollywood gives out awards and what they give them out for: that wonderful blend of capturing the PC zeitgeist mixed with proper star power & convincing industry insiders you’re setting a trend.

Unlike in years past on this blog, I think I’ll predict the ENTIRE ballot with some commentary here and there…. we can see my batting average after next Sunday. Here we go!

PICTURE: 12 Years A Slave

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (another year where pic and director won’t match, I think… Cuaron’s been around for a while and made a big CGI epic, but they’ll go racial guilt big-time in picking picture, one to sneer in front of all the anti-Obama flyover folk they look down on anyway, and also to show up Oprah who tried to guilt ’em into letting her ram her own racial guilt movie down their throats. A twofer!)

ACTOR: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer’s Club

ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lupia Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Spike Jonze, Her

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave

FOREIGN FILM: The Great Beauty, Italy

SCORE: This one is tough since they all sound alike except really for Thomas Newman’s score for Saving Mr. Banks. But I think they’ll give it to Steven Price for Gravity

SONG: “Let it Go” from Frozen

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Another tough one, but I’ll go with The Act of Killing

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: The Lady in No. 6 (it’s about music saving the spirits of a Holocaust survivor… Holy Oscar slam dunk, Batman!)

LIVE ACTION SHORT: Helium (it’s got the best visuals)

ANIMATED SHORT: Mr. Hublot (visually the most dazzling)

BEST ANIMATED FILM: Frozen

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gravity

EDITING: American Hustle (it’s gotta win something…)

COSTUME DESIGN: 12 Years A Slave

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Great Gatsby

MAKEUP: Dallas Buyers Club

SOUND EDITING: Gravity

SOUND MIXING: Gravity

VISUAL EFFECTS: Gravity

The best I’ve ever done is 20/24, narrowly missing the Oscar party pool pot of several hundred dollars by ONE goddamn pick! This year I’ll be at a party where the pool is strictly for honor & glory, so the food better be good while I, once again, sit through one of the ABSOLUTE WORST, MOST BORING, SELF-CONGRATULATORY HEAPING PILE OF MOOSE SHIT SHOWS known to humankind.

And (sigh) I’ll be back again watching next year. I hear Carrot Top is hosting.

Let Us Salute Non-Stop Silliness July 10, 2013

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Somehow over the years, the work of Olsen & Johnson somehow flew below the Wagstaff radar. I’d made a point of seeing the material from other comedy teams of yore whose works have not been elevated to the contemporary recognition that the Marxes or the Stooges regularly receive.

Usually that non-recognition is deserved – much of the material is dated, and while it worked well in its day, various aesthetics & sensibilities in comedy have passed it by. A lot of what I’ve seen by Wheeler & Woolsey fits this category – two guys thrown together for a Broadway hit who found their way onto the screen for a series of 1930s comedies, most of which qualify more as curiosities rather than film buff bucket-list items. Diplomaniacs is probably the best example since it fits in with the early-30s antiwar/anti-Europe vibe (also in Duck Soup, and even featuring the very same Louis Calhern as the antagonist), but much of the schtick & one-liners fall flat in comparison to Groucho, Harpo & Chico. Not as painful to watch as the Buster Keaton/Jimmy Durante material (since you’re basically watching Keaton’s slo-mo alcohol-fueled humiliation while his true talents are brushed aside by Hollywood)

So when I finally got around to Olsen & Johnson, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, much of their routine is dated 1940s silliness, but enough of it still works to keep it interesting, and perhaps most importantly, the lightning-fast pace of one surrealist gag after another is fairly innovating for its day, and perfectly inline with later comedy. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In certainly owes a ton to Hellzapoppin, with the rapid-succession of throw-away cartoon gags and quick edits.  I suppose you could draw a line from O&J to The Monkees, Frank Tashlin, Russ Meyer, as well as Airplane! and its comic descendants if you really wanted to.

Hellzapoppin, based on their hit Broadway show, is mostly about their efforts to put on the ol’ big show at a resort & how they have to improvise various wackiness to snare the financial backer. The movie takes it a few steps further, with an opening reel of non-stop sight gags introducing the framing device of the entire movie being described by the scriptwriter, played by gangster-movie staple Elisha Cook. There’s plenty of 4th wall breaking with Shemp Howard as the movie’s projectionist, impossible costume changes, a totally nonsense plot, and a fun & catchy swing era Jazz score throughout, with the highlights of Martha Raye & a group of lindy hoppers. Mindless fun, perfect for its wartime audience, and most of it holds up very well.

It was certainly good enough for me to want to check out other efforts of theirs, so I also found Crazy House on youtube. This one is more of a musical revue interrupted by sketch comedy, loosely (very very loosely) centered around a plot of O&J trying to make their big followup movie to Hellzapoppin. The bits this time don’t work as well and the music is less memorable, except for a Count Basie appearance, but on the mindless fun scale, this one still ranks fairly high.

Noir Summer 2013 July 6, 2013

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Now that the three dozen boxes of books are unpacked & reshelved & mostly organized, I’ve found more time to kick back and drain the DVR of material to report about on here. I’m putting a new advanced film course together, and I’ll be kicking it off with a unit on hard boiled detective/noir films (yeah, another excuse to plug my novel).  While the stuff I plan on showing is material I’m pretty familiar with, I’m building lists of additional suggestions for people (Good God, did I just call my students “people?” I’d rather think of them as lower life forms) to pursue their own research and what not.

In the new Wagstaff digs, I’ve graduated from cable to DirectTV, who I’ll plug here for the simple reason that they were nice enough to give me a bunch of credits after screwing up my first bill (unlike AT&T, where the actual service is fine, but getting installed, billed, tech supported and whatever else has been easily the worst experience with corporate America-voicemail hell-incompetence that I’ve ever experienced). The local channel set-up means I’ve lost Antenna TV which I enjoyed, but the luck of the draw has given me MeTv, a different old-rerun channel. I’ve basically traded Barney Miller, WKRP, George Burns & Jack Benny for The Rifleman, Dick Van Dyke, The Odd Couple, Car 54 & Sgt. Bilko... not a bad trade, actually.

Oh, and movie channels galore. Oh, and a Youtube hookup through the TV, so now I actually enjoy sitting through the poor quality uploads of movies in their entirety that people have put up.

It’s how I got to watch DeForest Kelley’s film debut, Fear In The Night. Not a bad little B-movie, with what was then an innovative plot that has since become rather cliché – the hypnotized patsy. Kelley dreams of killing someone & wakes up finding bits of evidence that tell him that it might not have been a dream. His detective brother-in-law helps him figure it all out. Parts of it are shot interestingly, with the dream sequences and mirrored alcoves coming off as creepy enough. And since it’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story, it’s plotted pretty well.  And you can watch the entire thing right here!

Next up was a caper film – The Split, from 1968. It’s based on one of the “Parker” novels by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, and since I’ve liked the other movies from that era based on the same series, like Point Blank & The Outfit, I figured I’d like this one, despite it’s relatively low rating on IMDB. How can you resist the cast? Parker is changed to McLain and is played by Jim Brown. His squeeze is Dihann Caroll. The gang he puts together to rob the LA Colosseum during a Rams game consists of Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, Donald Sutherland & Ernest Borgnine, with Julie Harris as den mother. The cop who investigates ’em is Gene Hackman, and James Whitmore plays the creepy landlord.

If you’re someone I’d like, you’re wanting to see this thing RIGHT NOW.

It struck me that the main reason for the low rating on IMDB has mostly to do with the post-heist segment of the film, where a plot point out of nowhere sends the entire story in a different direction. Without making it too much of a spoiler, creepy landlord Whitmore attacks Carroll and screws up Brown’s plans. The problem in how this seemingly comes from nowhere, I think, must have resulted from the way it’s hinted at that Whitmore had been getting his rent from Carroll via sex & then blew a gasket when Jim Brown returned, but there’s no telegraphing of this at all, and in 1968 I guess they couldn’t go beyond hinting due to the interracial aspect of it. So, you either recast Whitmore with a black landlord, or go balls to the wall and make Whitmore a jealous guy, or have telekinetic aliens force the issue.  Once this happens, way too much stuff that affects the plot (especially involving the Hackman character) happens offscreen, but I still enjoyed the thing. Granted, if the same material had been given to Boorman the way The Hunter had been, the results might have been better. And if they had set up the Whitmore/Carroll sex better and then shown us the Hackman sleaziness in dealing wih Whitmore, we’d have a better movie and we’d also be close to Elmore Leonard territory as far as plotting goes.  Yup, a flawed effort to be sure,  but the cast alone makes this one worthwhile.

A couple of B-movies from wonderful character actor Charles McGraw: First, The Threat,  an RKO  effort from the late ’40s. McGraw’s the baddie this time, an escaped con who kidnaps the DA & the cop who sent him up, trying to discover who in his gang betrayed him as he makes his getaway. A tough little film with a fast moving plot, despite the enormous plot hole of having the crooks listen to police radio for updates on cop movements – and the cops know they’re doing this, yet never change their behavior or restrict what they say on the radio. Duh, indeed. But McGraw is terrific as the thug here, just as good as he was as the cop in Narrow Margin. Also on the docket was Armored Car Robbery, with the same team of director Richard Fleisher & star Charles McGraw that worked so well in The Narrow Margin. McGraw’s a growly cop again here, determined to get the gang who robbed the armored car at good ol’ Wrigley Field of Los Angeles in the pre-Dodger days of LA baseball. It took me a second to recognize the main bad guy here, William Tallman, until it hit me all at once how he was Hamilton Burger, the guy who always lost to Perry Mason. He clearly needed Jim Brown et. al. to rob a sports venue successfully.

And then I rewatched one I hadn’t seen in years & thought about showing in the class… and went with my original instinct. Get ready, sports fans, but I’m not enamored of The Maltese Falcon the way so many film buffs are. Yeah, I know… it’s the pure hard-boiled formula – the tough detective with his own morals, the secretary who loves/watches over him, the femme fatale, the smooth-talking elegant villain… and so on. But I remember my original reaction to the thing decades ago when I kept thinking “There are better Bogart movies than this” and “This is overly talky.” Watching it again this very day produced the exact same response.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent movie, certainly worth seeing. But the best of the genre? Sorry. It reminds me of all the hoopla over Vertigo when there are better Hitchcock films out there. I wonder what sorts of qualities in various films lead to the way they wind up getting totally overrated by film critics and film freaks.  In any event, I went back to my original instinct & swapped Maltese Falcon out for what I think is a superior private eye film of the same era, Murder, My Sweet. It’s got a lot of the same formula elements to illustrate the genre, but a better story. In the past I’ve shown The Big Sleep for a Bogart entry. Dark Passage would also work well. Maybe later in the year.

Yeah, I know…. rough work. But somebody’s gotta do it.

Next up on the blog, thanks to youtube uploads… I finally got to see some Olsen & Johnson! And there was much rejoicing.

Bad Movies To Love… The Movie? “Best Worst Movie” & Troll 2 June 23, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Sooner or later with the five billion channels I now get via the dish I was sure to come across something other than old Bilko reruns that was worth watching.

The other night I caught the documentary Best Worst Movie, a sort-of-history-of & definite salute to the God-awful-but-wonderful Troll 2 and the cult following its built amongst lovers of that special kind of bad film that’s worth seeing repeatedly. I’ve been calling them “Bad movies to love,” but way back when I earned my degree by writing about the history of the camp aesthetic & the love of the awful, I used the title “so bad it’s good” to describe the nebulous quality that puts some piece of crap into the particular pantheon.

Best Worst Movie was made by Michael Stephenson, who plays the young son in Troll 2. He tracks down the rest of the cast, the Italian director & writer, along with a lot of the fanboys and cult clubs that have turned the straight-to-video gem into something up there with Manos & the works of Ed Wood.

What makes this documentary excellent was its balance & honesty. Sure, we get the promotional angle of how we all need to be rewatching Troll 2 for its exquisite awfulness when we see the midnight screenings for film buff fanboys & nerdgirls, but what separated this from other docs I’ve seen celebrating pop cults (such as Trekkies) is how it also shows some refreshingly honest reality.

For dose of reality part A:  we have George Hardy, the ever-smilin’ Alabama dentist who played the lead in the thing. Everybody in his small town loves this guy, even his ex-wife. He comes across as a genuinely happy person, at ease with himself and basically a positive force around whoever he’s with. He undergoes somewhat of an interesting journey during this film,  first relishing his quasi-celebrity status in going to the midnight screenings with other cast members, reciting the bad dialogue & signing autographs, but then reaching a true epiphany – when no one, and I mean NO ONE, gives a crap about Troll 2 or him or the bad dialogue the geeks quote or anything else when he & others trek to an English sci-fi film fan show, it dawns on him just how small the cult really is. This is brilliantly juxtaposed with George wandering around the same convention hall and meeting other ’80s horror stars signing autographs, based on whatever their own single moment in the sun was – for their only screen role they got hacked up in Nightmare On Elm Street Part Whatever, basically a convention hall filled with the Sam J Jones of the world – and this is what hits him like a brick wall. He launches into a great speech about how they’re all reliving their past glory and then takes stock of how good his actual life back in ‘Bama is – and this is when he realizes how hollow the pursuit of fame can be – all while never losing his smile.

And this down to Earth realism is juxtaposed with Troll 2‘s Italian director, Claudio Fragasso – who is clearly pulled in different directions by the reaction to his film. On the one hand, he’s pleased the movie has become a hit with fans so many years later, but the more we watch him, we can see him seething underneath that the “crazy people” as he calls them laugh “at the wrong moments” at his film, which he defends mostly by trashing any of the actors’ backstage stories about low budgets and script problems.

And this is where the documentary succeeds in explaining the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon better than anything I’ve ever seen.  Long ago when I wrote about this, I argued that all of the films that fall into this category were not intentionally made to be bad.  From Robot Monster to Creeping Terror to anything Ed Wood ever did, the film makers all sincerely put together something they honestly believed in. This gives you the honesty, the true naivéte, in the total misunderstanding of the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, and what MUST be there for the film to be bad on that special narrow level within the scale of crapola to still be consistently entertaining throughout. THAT’S the key. All the people who set out to make a bad movie, or a movie so stupid, so exploitative, so… whatever… usually come up with a couple of decent scenes and the rest is boredom. They’ve gone into the entire project cynically, trying to be crappy. It’s crappy in the end, but not that elusive GOOD crappy that’s so prized among experienced film fans. So when we see Fragasso’s attitude, even after being confronted with the finished film, with the reactions of the audience and of the cast…. and he STILL doesn’t get it, we can see just how a film like Troll 2 can be made & why it succeeds on the level it does.

If only Stephenson could have been able to do the same with Ed Wood. I’ve often wondered how Wood, who died right before his films like Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda shot to the pinnacle of badcult status, would have reacted to it all. My own personal opinion is that Wood, who I think would have relished any sort of audience love & celebrity, would have shrugged his shoulders and enjoyed every minute of it. I think he’d be a lot more like Hardy than Fragasso.

Funny how a simple documentary about a minor piece of shit straight-to-video monstrosity from the late ’80s might be one of the best treatises on the psychology and relationship between filmmakers and their audience that I’ve seen.

Oh, and Troll 2? Oh yeah…. it delivers the goods, or bads, as it were.

Troll (1) has no relation to Troll 2, by the way, and for a cheap exploitation film, it’s not bad! How can it be with Sonny Bono in it? Troll had to do with an actual troll taking over an apartment house before being fought off by June Lockhart and the kid from Battlestar Galactica playing a character called Harry Potter (back in 1986!). Troll 2, totally different! This time, vegetarian goblins try to eat a family of lousy actors. Yum! In any case, I recommend seeing ’em both. Admit it, you’ve got nothing better to do, especially if you’re here reading this.

Some Underrated Noirs May 5, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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The Wagstaff DVR remains an ongoing treadmill of sorts, of films I record at odd hours and plow through whenever I get the chance… never empty, never full, merely a constant stream of stuff to review in various ways. I’ve been making an extra effort to whittle it down, however, since I won’t be able to take it with me when I move and switch TV providers.

I guess the ultimate pan is never to mention the stuff I give up on after a reel’s worth or so… and the ultimate positve review is to put together a blog post. So, a few weeks worth of material boils down to a bunch of fairy solid crime/noir efforts from yesteryear that I can pass along for those of you with creative Netflix queues.

I watched a pair of Phil Karlson/John Payne efforts from the early ’50s, Kansas City Confidential & 99 River Street, and both are well worthwhile B movie fun. In both, Payne (who started his career in musicals before moving on to hard boiled drama, much like Dick Powell) plays a guy needing to prove his innocence by tracking down the actual gangsters or psycho killers,and in both cases, he’s given some great cracklin’ tough guy dialogue and the plots have enough twists & turns to keep things moving along. Both films have bad guys who are fun since they’re actors in early roles (Preston Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Brad Dexter), femme fatales/good-bad girls like Coleen Gray or Evelyn Keyes, and the postwar fatalism we’ve come to love.

Speaking of Powell, I also watched Cry Danger, where he plays an ex-con out to find the guys who framed him, all photographed in beautiful downtown Los Angelels circa 1951. And it has William Conrad as the bad guy. I always like Powell as wise-cracking tough guy. His version of Marlowe from Murder, My Sweet I think comes closest to the character as written. In hid segment of one of my all time favorite films, The Bad & The Beautiful, he plays the sardonic college prof turned cynical screenwriter (a role after my own heart) beautifully. He’s fun in those ’30s musicals, but he’s really at home  as the put upon tough guy in the noirs.

Finally, I caught the original version of a movie remade fairly well some years back, The Narrow Margin, where Charles McGraw’s tough cop has to escort the mob widow via train to testify while eluding her assassins. Pretty much the entire thing takes place within the confines of the train, where director Richard Fleisher in an early career effort shows off his resumé by zipping the camera up and down narrow corridors and keeping the tension super tight. The whole film is supertight at a mere 71 minutes – well acted, intricately staged, beautifully paced, and easily manages to overcome some of its hoker 1950s formula elements involving the damn kid. McGraw carries this picture throughout and made me wonder why he never became a bigger star – he’s flat out great in this.

So there you have it – 4 movies worth seeing, 5 maybe. I’ll save the comedies for another post.