Tuesday, November 30, 2010

R.I.P. Irvin Kirshner

[On why George Lucas asked him to direct Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)]: "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me? I remember he said, 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood.' I liked that."

Irvin Kirshner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87. George Lucas tapped him to helm the next installment of Star Wars because Kirshner was his teacher at UCLA film school and he felt that he had a great talent for getting great performances from his actors.

Kirsher made his directorial debut with the 1958 film Stakeout on Dope Street and then followed up with work in television series like The Rebel, Ben Casey and Naked City. Other notable credits include the Barbara Streisand film Up The Sandbox, S*P*Y*S which starred Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, and The Eyes of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway. After directing Empire in 1980, he worked with Sean Connery who returned to the James Bond role in 1983's Never Say Never Again and was also behind the camera for Robocop 2 in 1990.

If you've seen the very underrated teen comedy Angus (1995) you'll see Kirshner in a silent cameo as George C. Scott's chess partner--Kirshner directed Scott in 1967's The Flim Flam Man.

A fitting tribute to Kirsher is that many of the Star Wars actors cited him as the best director of the series because they felt he was a joy to work with.

"I think it went beyond 'Star Wars'. You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end. I had an emotional climax." -- Irvin Kirshner on The Empire Strikes Back

Sunday, November 28, 2010

R.I.P. Frank Drebin

Leslie Nielsen left us yesterday at the age of 84. A Canadian character actor whose career and persona changed in a major way when he became a distinctive comedy icon after co-starring in the classic spoof Airplane!(1980) He then became known as the straight faced, oblivious creator of comic chaos in films like The Naked Gun (1988) and it's sequels which inspired more spoof movies such as Spy Hard (1996) and Wrongfully Accused (1998). His famous character Frank Drebin, which debuted on the short lived series Police Squad! leading to the Naked Gun series was only one of the over 200+ characters he played in front of the camera.

Sci-fi fans will remember him for his lead role in the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet. Those who remember the golden age of television would have seen him on numerous series like Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O, Barnaby Jones, Ironside, Kojak, etc.

He even graced the stage, notably in a one man show where he portrayed lawyer Clarence Darrow.

I say we all pay tribute to this legendary actor by putting in a DVD of one his many films, which numbered over 100. He leaves behind a prolific body of work that made us all laugh heartily.

Thanks for the great laughs Leslie! We'll miss you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The power of bad cinema: Best Worst Movie

Troll 2, an Italian produced horror film shot in Utah in 1989, has had a resurrection thanks for the power of the internet and a diverse group of bad cinema fans. A direct-to-video train wreck with stupefying acting, "special" effects and writing, it's not even a sequel to the 1986 American made "Troll". Troll 2 has no trolls, only goblins, but I guess the producers figured a loose link to the original Troll would attract attention.

Best Worst Movie, a very revealing, funny, warm and oddly poignant documentary, was directed and produced by Michael Paul Stephenson, who played the lead role as the young child in Troll 2. The cult rebirth of the movie, which nabbed the top (or bottom top) spot on IMDB.com's worst movies list, has allowed the actors to finally embrace the movie after years of denial, shame or embarrassment of their participation.

The doc centers around Dr. George Hardy, a down to earth dentist in small town Alabama and the nicest man you'll ever meet who for years kept quiet about his principal role as the father in Troll 2. But when his patients looked at him puzzled as if to think, "Was that Dr. Hardy I saw in that horrible movie on HBO?", he had to own up to his role. With the advent of Myspace and Youtube, Troll 2 became a wider cult phenomenon, inspiring special screenings at theatres like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and the Nuart in Los Angeles. Extremely enthusiastic fans recite their favorite lines of bad dialogue from the film and some even remake props from the film.

George Hardy clearly is surprised and thrilled by the fanbase Troll 2 has created. Supporting actors from the film also come out of hiding to find out they have fans. The director, Italian anti-auteur Claudio Fraggaso (who used the pseudonym Drake Floyd and is also responsible for such epics like Zombie 4) travels from Italy to LA with his wife who wrote the movie, to witness a long lineup outside a theatre for a screening. "It is very strange." he remarks with a dumbfounded look. He seems conflicted about the so-bad-it's-good response from the audience. He takes the film quite seriously, applying heavy meaning to it's "themes". Even the Italian editor proclaims that Troll 2 inspired Harry Potter!

Most of the great humor in the film comes from scenes in which the director and actors travel to the original locations in Utah to recreate the insane scenes from the film. The director speaks with broken English and with a strong distain for the Americans he has to put up with. At one point he refers to his cast as "dogs" and shows deep jealousy that they are often the center of attention at screenings and Q&As.

One of the more sadder sections in the doc comes when Hardy and Stephenson track down the only cast member who has yet to be found, Margo Prey, who played Hardy's wife. When they knock at her door with apprehension, they discover she is living a shut in life of quiet desperation, taking care of her invalid mother and is the only actor from Troll 2 who truly believes it is a good movie, even boldly comparing it to Casablanca!

Hardy travels to horror conventions with the promise of meeting more hardcore fans but only to find Q&As with depressingly low attendance and sitting at a table with posters to sign and getting virtually no attention.

If Best Worst Movie captures anything perfectly, it's shows the fickle nature of fame, even D or F level fame, and how exhausting and repetitive life in the limelight can be, even for the stars of the worst movie of all time. It also shows how cinema, even terrible cinema, has a bizarre power to bring people together and make them happy. Funny how a bad movie about evil goblins who turn their human victims into mushy green goo has touched the lives of many.

Best Worst Movie is now available on DVD in the U.S. It will be available in Canada on December 7.

Troll 2 is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Selected works from the Godfather of Gore

I love the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who made 26 groundbreaking super low budget exploitation films between 1959 and 1972. He is credited as being the man who brought buckets of rich blood and gore to the big screen when Hollywood wouldn't dare go near anything of the sort. His films are bargain basement cardboard productions, made with a charming tackiness, claustrophobic cinematography and tinny sound but with a sly sense of black humor. Partnered with exploitation impresario David F. Friedman in the early 60s, the two men began their campaign of cinematic mayhem by making "nudie cutie" films that were popular in the late 50s and early 60s. These were films that featured pasty guys and gals sans clothing in an outdoor setting playing volleyball or nature hiking and not really much else. When that market dried up, they needed a new hook that the major studios were ignoring. Extreme violence and horror was the key to their success and the release of 1963's Blood Feast was a milestone. For the first time in film history, you can witness a mad butcher sever a woman's tongue in explicit detail. Never mind that the blood itself looked like tomato soup.

Blood Feast was a surprise drive-in smash and Lewis and Friedman had to dream up more ghastly blood epics like Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) which were released to great financial success. But the two partners broke up and Lewis was left on his own to continue his insane work.

Two of his titles that I finally got around to seeing are particular standouts: 1970's The Wizard of Gore and 1972's The Gore Gore Girls, which until Blood Feast 2 (2002), was Lewis' last film before retiring from the movies and excelling in the field of direct marketing and authoring numerous books on the subject.

The Wizard of Gore must be seen to be believed. A manic magician named Montag the Magnificent hypnotizes his audience into seeing incredible feats of illusion while he's actually butchering his volunteers on stage. He saws them in half, cuts out their tongues, punctures their stomachs with a punch press all while the dazed audience sees nothing but harmless trickery. He's getting away with murder. A reporter and her boyfriend investigate his bizarre exploits as the body count rises and baffles police.

Ray Sager plays Montag with great over the top hammy relish. This is a one of kind horror character. The bad special effects and cheap staginess of the production only add to the delights of this mad piece of work. It was influential enough to inspire a
recent remake with Crispin Glover in the title role.

The Gore Gore Girls is a much more extreme and bloody exercise in debauchery for Lewis. With ample nudity and nastier use of gore this time around, this film follows fey private detective Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) as he investigates the brutal murders of go-go dancers. He's aided, or at least hounded, by an air headed reporter (Amy Farrell) as he frequently visits a local strip joint (run by none other than legendary comedian Henny Youngman!) and questions anyone he can as he tries finding the killer, whose methods are jaw dropping. In one scene, scissors are applied to the tip of a woman's breast so that bloody milk can spray out into a glass! Her bare bottom is then battered with a meat tenderizer. Only in the movies.

Alternating between a tawdry farce and a slasher film, The Gore Gore Girls is a perfect example of fly by night, el cheapo exploitation. Violent, obscene but with tongue in severed cheek and very funny. These movies were far ahead of their time, before irony and dark humor became mainstream and shocking audiences was easier. In times when Jackass 3-D grosses $50 million in one weekend, Lewis' work can be viewed today as the birth of modern gross out cinema.

I have somewhat of a personal link to Lewis' films. My close friend, exploitation filmmaker Lee Demarbre, directed a loving homage to Lewis' filmography (with scenes practically lifted from The Gore Gore Girls) entitled Smash Cut (2009) which stars cult film actor David Hess (Last House on the Left) as a crazed filmmaker who resorts to killing people to use their blood and body parts as convincing props in his cheap horror productions. This is a film in which Mr. Lewis comes full circle. The coming attractions of his early work often featured an actor looking at the camera warning audiences of the shocking things they were about to see. At the beginning of Smash Cut, Lewis provides the warning himself.

"I implore you, ladies and gentlemen, to never forget that filmmaking is a blood sport. Watch if you must, but remember, you were warned!"

Pretty Poison: Flirting with a Sociopath

The odd and quirky 1968 film Pretty Poison is another example of a one of a kind cinematic relic from the 1960s. It stars Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins as a strange couple who are brought together through lies, anti-social behavior and a dangerous attraction.

Perkins, proving here why he was such an underrated actor, plays Dennis, a well meaning but troubled young man who has just released from a mental hospital where he spent his entire youth after he burned his house down and killed his aunt as a boy. Did he mean to cause her death or was it unintentional? Supposedly rehabilitated, he is now under the guidance of a kindly parole officer (John Randolph) Dennis is a bright wise ass who jokes about entering the real world and getting a blue collar job but goes to work at a bottling plant run under the watchful eye of a supervisor who right away doesn't like him.

One day while eating at a lunch truck, Dennis sees a gorgeous young blonde leading a high school marching band. This is Sue Ann (Weld) who has the looks and demeanor of the prototypical sweet girl next door but has a surprise in store for those who dare get aquainted with her. Dennis introduces himself to her by posing as a desperate secret agent who needs her help in his various devious tasks. Sue Ann is enticed by this sense of danger and risk and quickly falls for Dennis, despite being browbeaten by her angry mother, excellently played by Beverly Garland. Things take a turn for the worse when murder comes into the equation and Dennis much choose whether to run away with Sue Ann or face the consequences and come clean with his guilt.

Directed by Noel Black (a director who did a lot of notable TV work like Kojak, McCloud and Hawaii Five-O) and scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who wrote the 1966 big screen Batman) this film is an unpredictable mix of suspense and dark comedy with two strong performances by the leads. Weld is wholly convincing as the two faced manipulator who loves to rebel and get herself into trouble. Perkins plays his part with great edginess buried underneath his clean cut and charming exterior and it's infused with great comic timing. He's a disturbing and dubious character, we're never quite certain of his intentions but you can strangely sympathize with him. Even in his famous portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, it was possible to feel sorry for him because he was a prisoner of his own madness. He really wanted to do good but couldn't. It's same to a degree here in Pretty Poison. Although less mad than Bates, his character here seems capable of anything despite a well mannered nice-guy personality. Crafty editing hints at his internal conflict; images of a burning house are intercut with close ups of him and this is before we learn of his past.

This film is a bizarre transplant of a romantic comedy mixed with film noir and elements of an original and even tragic thriller. It's involving and inspired.