Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beginning Late

And so, three years after the rest of the world I finally see Batman Begins, and it turns out I'm extremely impressed. This movie builds the entire Batman mythology over from the beginning and it's easily the most serious, complete and fulfilling version of Batman ever put on screen. I regret that I ended it seeing it on a small TV screen because this is made for a movie screen. It takes bits and pieces from the entire 60 year history of the character and puts them together in an organic fashion. All of the acting is great, especially Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Christian Bale with Katie Holmes the only glaring weak link.

The really exciting part is that it is all just a set up for the second part, The Dark Knight, which is getting insane praise. That setting kicked up 100 degrees with a version of the Joker that everyone is raving about has to be special and I will definitely see that in a theatre as soon as I can.

Watching that movie inspired me to finally read The Batman Chronicles, Volume 1, the first year's worth of Batman stories reprinted in chronological order. It's really interesting to see how the mythos developed. In the very beginning there is no Gotham City. Batman's home is nameless although New York is mentioned in one story. His car is originally red, there is no Alfred or Bat-Signal, Catwoman is originally just a jewel thief called the Cat, and the stories written by Gardner Fox are bizarre even for comics, with vampires who turn into werewolves and a ray that erases a man's face. His origin is not even brought up until his seventh story.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Baron Vincent

Beneath all the Grand Guignol mannerisms Vincent Price was one hell of an actor. The Baron Of Arizona is an excellent reminder of that.

It was one of Samuel Fuller's first films, the true story of a swindler who tried to claim the entire territory of Arizona through a mythical Spanish land grant supposedly made to his wife's family. It was made in 1950 long before Price's days with William Castle and Roger Corman and he is terrific in the part with his cultured voice and regal bearing, coming off an expert con man, suave, menacing, sincere and quick witted all when he needs to be. He's so good that the picture doesn't suffer when his scheme inevitably falls apart and he is redeemed by the love of his wife. The expression on his face in the final scene when he leaves prison and sees his wife waiting for him is incredibly moving. This film, along with the much later Witchfinder General, shows that when he stayed away from camp, Price could really move you.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Blame It On John Lennon

One night in 1970 John Lennon arranged for a film called "El Topo" to be shown at a New York theatre. That showing was such a sensation that "El Topo" ran at that theatre for a solid year at midnight and became the start of the Midnight Movie genre.

Watching the movie thirty eight years later for the first time makes you wonder just what drugs those 70's hipsters were smoking. The movie's allegorical plot about a spiritual journey with various types of mysticism cited isn't that hard to follow. It's just that the picture plays out so ridiculously with endless treks through deserts, naked kids, circus acrobatics, dead rabbits and a million other bizarre things going on in such an over the top way it's nearly impossible to take the movie seriously.

It also doesn't help that most of the movie's weirder aspects have been seen in the intervening years in subgenres that either didn't exist or weren't accessible to American audiences back in 1970. Legless and armless fighters? Chinese martial arts movies. Incongruous objects buried in deserts? Spaghetti westerns. Take away the sense of surprise from this movie and you're left with a sense of being stuck in a loud and noisy looney bin.

I saw one of Alejandro Jodorowsky's later films, Sante Sangre, several years ago. It was out there too but genuinely moving. I realize the man has talent. El Topo, though, is wackjobbery that just leaves me cold.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

We Are Jazzmen

Last night I saw Zodiac which proved to be another 2007 film far superior to No Country For Old Men but my newer revelation is We Are Jazzmen, a 1983 Soviet Russian film about some intrepid 20's musicians who try to become Russia's first jazz band. This was a fun little movie with nice performing and dancing sequences that had a nice sense of humor and proved once again that there seemed to have been a much richer stream of Russian movies coming out in the Soviet era than what we were led to believe even in the Glasnost era when all the Russians would bring over here would be the occasional romantic comedy.

There were a couple of bits that stood out for different reasons. In one scene a Cuban female jazz singer does an elaborately staged Bessie Smith style blues song, but she sings in English and if you listen, her lyrics are a gobbledygook of old blues lyrics that make no sense which sort of shows the way that American jazz and blues always gets turned into something else when it is picked up by other cultures that add their own flavor to the original.

The other bit was a jaw-dropping line from one character, a saxophone player who is resistant to the idea of improvising when he plays. After getting yelled at by his bandmates for playing the same phrase over and over, he says this about improvisation: "It must have come from the Germans. The Germans invent something and we, the Russian people, always pay for it."

At first I thought that was some kind of reference to the two world wars but then I remembered that Karl Marx, the inventor of communism, was German! I don't know if Gorbachev had ascended to power at the time this movie was made but even so, hearing a line like that in a Soviet Russian film is mind-blowing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Oldies Keep On Coming...

One of the amazing things to me about the variety of stuff available on DVD is the proliferation of old TV shows coming out, not just well known or cult items but an amazing variety of ancient work from the 50's and early 60's. I mean Shotgun Slade? Arrest and Trial? My Little Margie? I'm amazed anybody remembers these shows much less buys them. The other day I saw an announcement of a complete series set of Lee Marvin's old cop show, M Squad. That hasn't been on TV in decades and there is enough interest to warrant a complete box set of the thing. Amazing!

I've watched a couple of examples of these shows of varying quality lately. The first was a disc of two episodes of David Janssen's first series, Richard Diamond, Private Eye. The main thing I remembered about this was Mary Tyler Moore playing his faceless secretary, Sam. Unfortunately it turns out she was just in the third season of the show. These two episodes were from the first year and were dull, generic crime dramas with a lot of padding. The most interesting part was the inclusion of an old Maxwell House coffee commercial in each episode.

The other example was more intriguing. I bought one of Mill Creek's cheapo 50 genre movie boxes, Dark Crimes, just to see what it was like. This one was mostly old obscure B movies as I expected with a few cult ringers thrown in like The Naked Kiss, D.O.A. and The Strange Loves Of Martha Ivers, but the surprise was that this set also includes four episodes of the legendary live anthology series, Westinghouse Studio One. The only one I've watched so far, "The Man Who Had Influence" was a good story with shaky acting and presentation. This had its commercials included as well, old Westinghouse spots featuring Betty Furness! It was a cool bit of TV history if nothing else.