Sunday, August 31, 2014


Conjuring-from top: Fairuza (The Craft); Kathleen Hannah (Punk Singer);
Sianoa Smit-McPhee (Cheerleaders)
I summon thee, Netflix, unholy ghost streamer.
The Craft and now All Cheerleaders Die wait within you. 
Teenagers sleeping over and swapping blood, giggling over the Ouija, 
love spell chanting and stiff-as-a-boarding.
Magic of entrained hormonal unconsciouses--
North, South, West, East. 
Hands high 4 the money spell - Ra Ra Ra. 
But "It" vibrates 
beyond the girls' small reach,
Sometimes through summonings true 
to the ancient Mothers, or false 
to shady Aleister, or merely in image
 via LA hack-banged babble.
From dusty tomes to Xerox-ed grimoire,
goaded by lying boys, and flying traffic,
If no one else, 
this spell may scare 
your downstairs mom.

Director Andrew Fleming,
you made THE CRAFT and BAD DREAMS!
Andrew Fleming,
you seem respectful of women!
Hail to thee, Andrew Fleming! 
Solid and semi-trippy, thou, 
if a tad flat and pedestrian, too.

 Director Lucky McKee,
Anxiously feminist, brazenly misogynistic, 
Do you still insist there's a difference?
Don't both overestimate woman's power? 
Don't both underestimate women's power?

Woman's power is nature's power.
Destructive beyond all your male characters' fathoming,
Darkness in light! Kali in Shiva! Destruction in creation!
Every suburban mama's frat boy litter
shall be cleansed by the blood-rage rag red torch
of her tidal elevator Overlook-ed Period.

Kathleen Hannah:
Your 'music' is like love-hate tattoos on Kali's Mitchum-y dukes.
Saying you're like Hopi from Love and Rockets in your riot grrl cuteness
is to to try and put you in just another frame. 
You're the splash page! Bleed your margins 
all over the murphs, frat boys, douches, and dickheads.
Retaliate against their ugly and unconscious urges. 
You're hot enough that they have to listen. 
Your tubes are the chain whips that streak light through dark magic's 
screaming, streaming window face.

Kathleen Hannah!
Sans bitterness, sans pedantry,
sans food co-op meeting sanctimony,
but yet with fierce tribal howling, smite them!
Kathleen Hannah, make slam dancing safer for women! 
Kathleen Hannah, inspire legions of xeroxed fanzines.
KH! Flinch not as the AOR vultures circle,
or as the jerk-off ticks and termites from their knotty woodwork creep,
 even as nervous exhaustion hides 
a wrongly-diagnosed disease.

Smite feminism's enemies with thy shrill feedback screams, Kathleen Hannah!
 Let your documentary move me to sensitive new age guy tears. (It did)
Guide my hand in chain-whipping, too, with words, the women-hating wallies,
the backwards baseball-capped unconsciously self-entitled douchebag tools of America.
Deafen them, Kathleen Hannah with the same amps they'd use to muffle your gender!
We are with thee, streaming The Punk Singer!
Praying, Chanting for your Re-Rising!

(1996) Dir. Andrew Fleming
Andrew Fleming hasn't made many films but he has a rare gift of getting the ambiguity of hallucinations exactly right: the way snakes seem to be writhing in every shadow as the underlying reptilian cortices of the DNA serpent-tongue universe entwine and unwind within your fever or alcohol-or-opiate withdrawal, or mushroom-overdose you still can't come down from after 12 hours. Little turkeys with straw hats dancing in the shattered scream-filled shadows of Bellevue's alcoholic ward, the rats and the bats in the walls, Bim. Terrifying but soothing compared to the convulsions... lost my train of thought. Fleming never does! The tight script never wastes a word on pointless chit-chat, and a strong cast rounded out by Pedro Almodovar regular Assumpta Serna as the white witch new age bookstore owner, and of course a dark star is born in the riveting breakout performance of Fairuza Balk--grown up from playing electro-shock Dorothy in Return to Oz--as the wickedest witch of them all.

The Craft's cinematography is a little flat, as was the style for teen films of the era, with that LA smog draining the color from the girls' picnic ritual bus ride field trips, and the slippery slope morality play of their monkey paw gotchas feel rushed if still effective: The swim team black girl (Rachel True) uses magic to make racist rival Christine Taylor's gorgeous blonde hair fall out, but then True feels bad when Taylor makes a point of apologizing. Campbell's horrible back scars magically disappear so now she's hot but turns vain and obnoxious. Their trailer-trash punk rock leader Fairuza Balk gets rich but her mom wastes the money on a jukebox and a high-rise deluxe apartment, etc. Before new girl Robin Tunney shows up they were just three outcasts goofing around with spell books and stolen candles and getting nowhere  - which turns out for the best. Since Tunney's a real witch (descended from her witch mom who died in childbirth), she gives them a magick power boost which they're too immature to handle.

That's all fine, what sticks in my craw, as a doe-eyed boy, is that poor Robin Tunney doesn't think to wish for deliverance from her crippling phobias and instead indulges her masochistic attraction to one of those backwards baseball cap-wearing rapey douchebags so endemic to teenage movies, and even worse he's played by Skeet "the poor man's Johnny Depp" Ulrich. Man- and then she lets Balk walk all over her with some paltry snake 'glimmers' and some Voodoo god of everything named Manon (though it sounds like she's saying Manos, as in Hands of Fate). Weird trivia fact: the witchery consultant didn't want them to invoke a real spirit, lest they offend a Wiccan or two, or encourage young girls to summon things they wouldn't be able to control --the way the proliferation of Ouija boards in the seventies led to a glut of summoned demons still keeping investigative ghost shows busy to this day!

So there's some troublesome stretches of Tunney running around her house whining and puling, and believing in the snake and bug hallucinations, wherein we root for Balk's by-then quite unhinged stalker; and the almost DC comics-level morality hanging under all the karma has a troublesome subtextual implication that teenage girls can't be trusted with any kind of real power, presuming they'll throw it all away on petty revenge, vanity, financial gains and douchebag boys. Maybe that's true, but drab sermons are not why we're here. We want to see the douchebag boys get thrown out of a second story window real good, and to see Fairuza tear it up (and she does; she's a real witch in real life and her summoning scenes have a solid orgasmic power). We don't want to see Tunney trailing after the mayhem in judgmental horror, so girls watching will know that taking occult revenge against snickering date rapists is wrong, since you might hurt their feelings. In other words, while it's not quite as grrl-empowering as Night of the Comet, it sure beats Tank Girl!

(2013) Dir. Siri Anderson
A labor of love from some chick named Siri Anderson, The Punk Singer is an adorable little scrapbook-style montage of the life, bands, and illnesses of Kathleen Hanna, the original riot grrl, who wrote "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on Cobain's wall thus inspiring the big #1 track of 1991 and triggering a seemingly random cold cocking by Courtney Love backstage a little later. Cobain was enamored of her smart mix of sexual provocateur (strutting around stage in her underwear) and angry feminist ranting (about the evils of the male gaze). Critics argued that combination sent mixed signals, which was missing the point: just by being attracted to her, we (men) became part of the performance, target and the subject,. like shining a mirror in the face of Bro-Medusa (Brodusa?) and turning him to stone. We had the same eerie frisson listening to rap at the time, which was also coming up in the world in 1991. In a world of pop culture aimed right at us 18-35 year-old straight white males, bands like Bikini Kill, NWA and the Geto Boys gave us a new thrill - that of being the target of justified rage. Endangered, threatened, exposed, even from across the new medium called CD, we drove to or our pharmaceutical corporation mailroom temp jobs, blasting our cassettes and feeling like a horror movie was forming just ahead, women and minorities out to rip us apart, and we loved it.

Hanna had some fame as the founder of the riot grrl movement via her many 'zines, her bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, the Julie Ruin, and so in the film we learn how Hanna's fearless, raw, fuck you attitude was truly empowering to women and the anemic ectomorphs who love them. She'd get in the face of the mesomorphs who'd come to punks shows to mosh and stand in front of the stage to leer at her sexy bod, ordering them to the back so girls could come up and dance in safety. Eventually she married Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and is currently recovering from Lyme disease, which was misdiagnosed as exhaustion from her hectic touring schedule. The documentary's pretty short, too, and never repeats itself or wears out it's welcome. Hanna's in good hands with Anderson, and Horovitz seems a very compassionate husband. Their home, by a riverside is modern yet homey. Can the pitter patter of little feet be far behind? That's a joke, son! Power to the childless, for they can say fuck you to maternity's conscripted gender bondage!

(2013) Dir. Lucky McKee

It's a year after the accidental death of the cheerleader squad captain, and high school hierarchy is still in disarray: the late girl's beau, the narcissistic football captain, aptly named Terry Stankus (Tom Williamson) has sworn a vendetta against scheming lesbian hottie Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) due to her alienating the affection of a pretty blonde (Brooke Butler). Maddy's own ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is a real witch who mopes along the sidelines as the alpha dog and hottie lesbo square off in parking lot shove matche. Smash car and a few cuts later, Leena's fishing the drowned cheerleaders out of the lake and bringing them back to life. Now they're cold zombies with different colored gems in their bodies who feel each other's orgasms and blood lusts. But Leena's so stupid she leaves the key to their immortality hanging in an unlocked school locker rather than wear it around her neck (the equivalent of leaving your roll of thousand dollar bills safely on the boy's locker room floor).

Parts are more successful than the whole: the blood is tacky cartoon CGI, the glowing colored rocks are corny and there's an excess of all the wrong people getting hurt (Stankus does a lot of really abhorrent stuff yet dies only once). But the whole thing has a nearly Russ Meyer-level of gonzo recklessness--we never know quite what's going to happen next--and Maddy lets loose such a brazen stream of insults at Stankus in that parking lot, one can only be reminded of Russ Meyer classics like Supervixens. Too bad he wreaks six pounds of misogyny to every vengeance ounce and even the murders are undercut in intensity due to the blood's Tex Avery elasticity, making it seem like this movie at one point wanted to court a teen market rather than the Alamo Drafthouse crowd, and the sexy webcam underwear pillow fight element contrasting to any grrl power (unsurprising considering it was written by two dudes).

Despite the cartoon blood, the disproportionate vengeance ratio and some vaguely skeevy undertaste to the hot girl-on-girl action, there is some sharp insight to lesbian trials and tribulations, such as how if you're a lesbian you can swoon for a hot chick you see walking by at the gym before you realize it's just you in the full wall mirror, and just as you cannot escape your reflection you can never escape your exes, or her ex, and so on into a long daisy chain of former-lovers peering sullenly over each others' shoulders, or hooking up with each other to get back at you or your current girlfriends, all at your own dinner party. Director Lucky McKee (May, Sick Girl) does make some use of that (he's known as a woman's director, i.e. he has strong but complicated female antiheroes in his films), and Leena makes a lot of twisted witchy faces which--with her pale skin, black hair, and inch thick black eyeliner--make her quite the future camp horror icon, albeit here still in-pupae form and her 'killing people on school grounds is wrong' ethos--which is sooooo the worst part of Heathers (a clear formative influence on this whole subgenres)--keeping her from the hallowed halls of the Acidemic Angels of Death series.

I like a lot of stuff about this energetic film--such as great roving camera that is seldom in the right place at the right time--and look forward to 'part two.' if any, but if the film is way better than the average found-Netflix dreck, its still dreck, and very unsteady on its feet as it tries to serve too many demographics at once. So Lucky, hail to thee but in the future don't be afraid to get a woman co-writer, like Deborah Hill on  Halloween or Gale Ann Hurd on The Terminator, or Karen Walton on Ginger Snaps. That way we won't have to be appalled by your male gaze eye candy, in case Kathleen Hanna is watching us from her crystal oculus. A genuine badass such as her knows how to portray strong badas, but McKee, May or not, you're still just a very sick girl.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shat on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, THE DEVIL'S RAIN

William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a far-flung future without currency. Shatner, determined player of crisis-bound priests, rock-like teachers, a race-baiting hate monger, an Esperanto-speaking Christian soul so pure he converts a succubus, and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' Shat, so so.. many things, all of them great, some of them even pretty good, but most so very strange that, if you look deep (and it's always worth looking deep with old Shat), you might find a whole other Shat self waiting below the gum line to spit forth a torrent of surprise micro-thesping! 

For your consideration: two films from the early 70s occult revival in which you will see him drink from a flask and scoff at God while on a flight frozen-in-mid air (at 37,000 feet!); and bare his chest and risk his family to hold onto a stolen devil book one minute but then drop his protective amulet the next. What a man is Shat! Courageous, callous, stubborn, fearful, pompous and pugnacious, he's a relic from when scientists and captains had resonant voices and one could be impulsive and brutish yet catlike and dancer nimble. The Neil Diamond of science fiction icons, Shatner is his name. And in the late 60s-early 70s, we kids couldn't have been happier about it - Bop Bop! 

I know there are those hardcore Trekkies annoyed by Shatner's macho fey arrogance as Kirk; using his cast mates hatred of his prima donna behavior on set as evidence, they disimiss him as a hammy egotist. They seem to prefer the dry, safe, nostril-breathing baldness of Patrick Stewart. I am not one of them, I am not even a Trekkie, but I do enjoy the first three seasons, the Kirk era. Shatner elevates the project to greatness. Stewart, as an actor, can be fun when snogging with Steve Railsback in Lifeforce or snogging with Wolverine in X2, but Stewart is too sane as Picard, too much Polonius and not enough Hamlet. Shatner's Kirk is a live wire. 

Maybe my loyalty to Kirk is because of watching Trek reruns every evening, as a small child in the early 70s.  To me, because of this familial connection, Shatner can do no wrong. He was to the TV as Neil DIamond was to my mom's album collection--a fact, a staple, a comfortable but sturdy foundation on which to grow one's taste and eventual collection. So it is with every generation perhaps. For mine, Shat's blowhard egotism is part of the charm. Kirk is always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice... his... unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. (See: Sex, Drugs, and Quantum Existentialism). And even when starring in dopey films like the two I shall discuss here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, Shat goes for broke, every time. Terrible or triumphant, he never phones in a syllable. Lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of cowboys-vs.-Satanists, or fighting against ancient druid altars in the sky, he gives 100%, no matter how half-assed the vehicle.

So how half-assed does it get? Let's see!

1973 - TVM / CBS
In order to earn the primetime slot, a 70s TV movie had to explore at least three pop cultural themes. In Horror at 37,000 Feet, we get: 1) the curse attached to an ancient artifact (ala King Tut); 2) social commentary (i.e. the Salem witch trials); 3) the ensemble cast disaster movie, i.e. Airport. Swirl 'em all together and serve!

The ensemble cast was a huge staple of 70s TV, providing welcome work for familiar-faced old movie and TV actors, nearly-ran and upcoming starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures like Christopher Plummer or David Jansen or Chuck Conners. Since they'd meet as strangers coming together for the first and last time for a voyage, we got their full character trait dossier in a few friendly exchanges between passangers.
Many of them will get picked off and those who make it will end up bonded heroes (see also: Day of the Animals).

The vehicle this time is a jumbo jet luxury cargo-passenger "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar exhumed from its sacred grove in Ireland, and but a small scattering of passengers. They make the weird blonde lady put her dog in the cargo hold. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! (Why did we need to go through that, so the studio could show off its frozen dog prop? It's upsetting!) And then, the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once give the impression of movement, or engine roar, or the inside of the plane being anything but a breakaway set. Luckily the stewardesses all wear hot white go-go boots. Shat, playing a bitter, soused ex-priest who lost his faith (zzz) rocks some writerly glasses while sewing, and sports a toupee far more natural than usual. These little things help and the film needs all it can get. I love Shatner unconditionally but man, is he terrible in this. Richard Burton might have got away with it, maybe it was written with him in mind. But it's painful to buy our Kirk as a misanthropic drunk bitterly ranting about "homo-sapien" as a bunch of savages and noting, prissily: "I didn't lose my faith - it lost me." He doesn't sound drunk, profound, or pleasant to be around. His bitter laughs sound forced and bitchy. He doesn't want to be in this film and is taking it out on us. Has he ever even had a drink or seen a drunk person? 

I ain't complaining about how bad it is, though. I love a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of monster or concrete threat (which is great, since the whole point of the 'mounting menace' is to keep you glued through the commercials, worried you might miss the monster). The strange fascination with sub-zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes pilot Chuck Connors' whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types waiting for their chance at a terse "Why doesn't somebody do something??!" line. Playing like the unrehearsed table read of an off-off-Broadway one-act drama, directed by someone who has never been on a real plane, there's a sense of disaster always about to happen, as if a dozen actor tantrums are edited out between each line. And what kind of stewardess would confiscate a first-class passenger's flask, and not bring him a sip of champagne? That's taking it too far! 

Shatner is just one of many characters though - no one person really stars. There  Chuck Connors as the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the boozy priest who lost his faith; Lynn Loring his Mia Farrow-ish wife; Russell "The Professor-and" Johnson; Paul Winfield as the nattily-dressed physician whose dogmatic rationalism will soon be put to the test; Buddy Ebsen a cranky millionaire always ready with a homespun witticism; and--providing the bulk of the supernatural exposition--the baby-voiced Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes). A wild-eyed pagan with straight dirty blonde hair and aversion to fire, she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past and makes the most out of every evil syllable of dialogue. Her dog, named Damien, stored below by the altar is clearly given no ketamine, the swines.

The only real sore spot is Will Hutchins as a spaghetti western B-cowboy with a terrible towhead mop top wig and rodeo shirt and a habit of shouting all his lines. Yeesh Watching the pathetic way he hits on one of the lady passengers is the most terrifying thing in the movie. Thank 'god' for Mrs. Pinder and her crazy eyes and straight dirt blonde hair, Connors and his  granite jaw of Connors, and of course, the Shat and his faux-drunk sneering at his fellow passenger's atheist-in-a-foxhole panic. Determined to be utterly worthless, he snaps to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice. As Mrs. Pinder says, it just pisses the evil one off by trying to trick him (they try to switch the girl with her doll first). What the altar and its attached warlock wants the blood of one of its ancestors, the psychic girl (Jane Merrow) whose rich architect husband (Roy Thinnes) brought the altar as a souvenir from her ancestral home, against her wishes. The very fact a cargo plane has such a big cabin, and is flying passengers as well as a 11,000 pound altar seems very odd. Does this kind of flight even exist? Seems like that altar should be shipped by a freighter. But hey, it saves on passenger manifests (i.e. no extras needed) and allows more room for the camera and later, the possible child sacrifice fire in the now frigid cargo hold. Will the terrified passengers commit the ultimate transgression or be turned into green puddles before the dawn can come up in time to save them? But first a word from Alpo.

Horror at 37,000 Feet moves pretty fast without the commercials, and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can appreciate the wild-eyed hysteria with which Loring rises to the occasion, furiously cutting off Jane Merrow's hair to wrap in the child's doll and wrapping it up in her clothes. "And some of your fingernails," she raves, as if possessed. When that doesn't work, it's time to actually sacrifice the child! Great hammy stuff with Shatner wobbling around and all the actors wondering what do in this under-rehearsed closed-in space to 'portray' their types without any directorial input. Shatner out matches Buddy Ebsen in the finger bending department. "Here, take another pain killer,' says the co-pilot to Connors, "no pint in saving them." Shatner realizes he can terrify Mrs. Pinder by waving his Zippo lighter in her face. "Fire... To burn.... witches!" Yikes! He's  not very PC --he even sneers at people who "believe jimson weed will make them immortal!" Dude, take it from an old jimson weed-head, no one thinks that. But Shat should know, having counseled the first and only 'mixed bag' drug addict that same year in Go Ask Alice.

Those of us who were around in the 70s and remember seeing this with the family are far less likely to wince over all this stupidity. We might care though, that the film can no longer hide its poverty in an analog cathode ray blur, or hide its lack of logical sense via the amnesia of regular commercial breaks. For those of us who were kids at the time (I was seven), Horror is a fond touchstone for those days when everyone watched the same shows (there were only three channels and no VHS and families only had one TV) and it gave the all something to laugh about together. For us this is as precious a memento as a family album. Maybe more so.  For us, though the clarity doesn't do the film any favors, the DVD is a must. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful remastering treatment they too deserve1. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths fo blurring Kate Jackson worse than a bad reception! Still, better than nothing.

 Though I hear 'nothing' is getting better all the time.

1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain/ I've seen green puddles with air bubbling up through them / and it wasn't impressive, even via nostalgia's glowing tolerance. But if you were a kid in the 70s, The Devil's Rain falls into the unholy and powerful relic category of stuff unseen yet dreamt of. Its TV spots were an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975, when I was eight and very impressionable and into monsters and devils. I still remember the weird the melting faces, Borgnine with goat horns, and the robes - both kind of a turn on and scary at the same time. I also remember I had a bizarre childhood dream I was part of the coven, melting under the rain, and even now a lingering prepubescent jouissance echo hits me imagining it. Those of us on the playground heard from our older siblings Devil's Rain was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about Satanic cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard me describe my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic had gone to the devil with touchy feely sharing: cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, communes and encounter groups; there were all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. It was grand indeed, total freedom, and even the devils were cool. And church was just an excuse to act rambunctious.

That sub-sexual supernatural power of not being able to see a film like Devil's Rain as a kid is of course a substantial amount of the appeal for me and my Generation X comrades, the last group who experienced the high of unavailability, of R-rated movies being forever out of reach (once they left the theaters) and so projected upon with our most lurid imagination. Just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give us sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable 'adult' terror. Our constant imagining created a parallel subconscious repository so powerful it later spilled over into our adult reality, dragging us by our budding sexual drives towards a dreaded obsession that finally led to the 'satanic panic' witch hunts of the 1980s and the rise of nervous overprotective brand parenting we're still hurting our children and ourselves with today.

Turns out, in real life, seeing it now on DVD as an adult, I realize the film is too strange, too 'off' and too slow to be scary or sexy, but it is creepy, kinda. The daytime Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, the boarded up church in the middle of a nowhere ghost town, the upside down pentagram stained glass window, the ultimate futile weakness of Shatner's moxy in the face of Borgnine's mojo, the weird Psycho-style mid-film protagonist shift, it all generates a collective creepiness. as does the idea of looking for your parents and finding they've become life-size animated black-eyed wax effigies urging you to bring them 'the book'.

Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback to colonial times by looking into cult member John Travolta's dead black eyes, and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner like Sylvia Miles from Janet Leigh.  

Any film that gives Hieronymus Bosch and Anton LaVey screen credit deserves some halting respect but I love lots of other things about this screwy picture, from the ESP angle right down to the way Scientology and plastic surgery are precognitively critiqued by the sight of a ceremonial robe-clad very young John Travolta's face melting in the rain. My only complaint is the unnecessary, depressing final 'twist' so I try to remember to stop watching beforehand, like somewhere during the last 20 minutes which is all just rain and melting. I still like it better than Fuest's higher praised work, like Dr. Phibes. Mighty Shat makes shit shows like this soar, son! Drink to that... or be damned like a black Cadillac chasing James Brolin through the dusty desert... with no driver!! Now that's a movie, even if it ain't got no Shat screaming on its altar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Alongside Warren William, Lee Tracy is one of those guys who is largely forgotten by mainstream film lovers but revered by those in the pre-code know. Unlike Williams, the Big Bad Wolf of sneaky industry captains and unscrupulous womanizers, Tracy's doesn't ooze authority and charm, but he gives great amphetamine crackle to a coterie of wiry Hollywood press agents and snoopy reporters, gossip columnists, and crime beat morgue haunters. He takes some getting used to, even by seasoned campaigners, perhaps because the Lee Tracy 'type' led to several imitators, none of whom matched his mix of spooked nerve, rattled newsprint panache, and speed patter. So don't let the imitations turn you off --Tracy's the craziest, sharpest, most cynical actor of the code's all-too-brief era. Now he's on TCM - don't miss these!

1932 - ***1/2

Tracy's frequent Warner's co-star Ann Dvorak is one of those girls doomed to give up her sweet blonde child while tumbling down the social ladder, lower and lower, with the bad luck to be dating a two bit hood who shoots a cop while she's in his stolen car with a naive bellboy she wrangled. The crook is shot, Molly hides out in an apartment that shares a phone with Tracy as a fast-talking journalist. Soon he's stealing her from the kid, making plans and meanwhile trying to get Molly to come into the cops by playing up the sob sister angle, broadcasting her child is sick and needs her. It all ends with a dizzyingly amphetamine-fast police station-press room race around which makes the one in His Girl Friday seem like a Rohypnols commercial. Has Tracy ever been faster, better, sleeker, continually winding and unwinding? His 'knowing about women' spiels around his neck and heart and others until a final confessional monologue leaves us whirling, and other films paling.

1932 - **1/2

Here's Lee Tracy doing what he does best: motormouth speed-talking through long scenes of unscrupulous flim-flam: first he's a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer; second, hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Or is it reverse? I fell asleep, but TCM's print was too washed out, or was that me? Palette as an ersatz wildman is enough of a consolation that this wasn't written was by Ben Hecht, but on the other hand it probably it lacks gallows wit, and what's Tracy without it? There's also Frank Morgan as a Broadway impresario who eventually winds up in bed with Velez, thus opening himself to Tracy's blackmail, I think.  Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like the reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound make me think he was far more than just an amphetamine-tongued con artist. He was also a drunk, and therefore a poet.

1932 - ***1/2

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in this one as a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot; fellow scribes Tracy and Dvorak are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but they keep their yaps shut like true pals. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears clearly weren't fast enough to catch it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" is a typically grim remark, and sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. There's nothing quite like this film's unambiguously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. William Wellman directed it... like a punch to the gut.

1933 - ****

Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy as, what else?, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

1932 - ***1/2

If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. Here he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski gangster as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add un-PC dialogue ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!") and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (above), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.

1933 - ****

I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threaten to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with an ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean John, I mean, Larry Renault!!" By then of course, there will be one less at the table.

1933 - ***1/2

Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early 2-strip Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people."

And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements include: "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

1933 - ***

Tracy's a journalist! The magic year of 1933! He's the kind of dirt digger who travels the world worming his way into the dens of the most dangerous men and angering the snobby New York Times journalist who's always too late for the big story because he's too busy trying to arrange Tracy's downfall. It's kind of silly but there are typically big-budget MGM scenes as Tracy and entourage head to Russia to report on the 15th Anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Una Merkel as a flighty baby-talking mistress who follows Tracy around at hotels across the street is very reminiscent of both Susan Alexander Kane and Marcello's mistress in 8 1/2. Benita Hume is a fellow reporter who had an off-on affair with Tracy. After awhile you'll wonder how he ever survived so long by making so many self-defeating choices, i.e. when in a dangerous country, don't antagonize a fellow reporter just for fun, especially if he's aces manipulating governments into throwing you into jail, and if you must cart around a baby-talking Merkel, make sure she's not your boss's. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Micro-Manager Munchausen: THE STRAIN, SHARKNADO 2, and a little bit THE LEGO MOVIE

Heroes used to dread their appointed hour. They'd dart around town begging help from civilians instead of saddling the heroic measure. They'd turn away from the call, citing 'reasons' like poor marksmanship or their Quaker faith, or Ingrid Bergman sticking them for the cost of a train ticket back in Paris, or all the droids or cows needing repair back on Uncle Ned's farm. But now, in today's crowded sci fi/horror climate, well, just try and stop him from rescuing you, no matter how safe you are, or how much you'd prefer to wait for a qualified professional. Cops, parents, ex-wives, children, all regard our new brand of hero as a Munchausen Chicken Little, especially since he's nearly always a deadbeat dad with a history of micro-management heroism that's already cost him his wife, house and perhaps even joint-custody because, even if he just passes a crying kid or distraught mom on the street on the way to divorce court (proximal morality), he has to force his help upon them instead. These new crazy 'heroes' run around like William Shatner with gremlins on the plane, grabbing lapels of bewildered pedestrians, blocking ambulances, yelling "Don't you get it?!" at overstretched EMTs. They've only ever been the villain in two movies: STRAW DOGS and THE LEGO MOVIE. And in one most people presume he's the hero since he's played by Dustin Hoffman, and in the other he eventually lightens up. But in two major TV events this summer--THE STRAIN (the new FX show from the mind of acclaimed sci fi horror maestro Guillermo del Toro) and SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE (the Syfy original sequel that's far inferior compared to the original [see here])--these micro-managing ex-husbands are just obnoxious. Even as the world ends or CGI sharks fly through the air, they run around with humorless unshaven urgency, saving everyone in sight, whether they like it or not.

THE STRAIN begins with the story of NYC health officer Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (the usually bald Corey Stoll) refusing to listen to his superiors when a plague-infested plane lands at JFK. Most passengers are dead. Four survivors are anxious to get home and start spreading the 'news' and he wants to contain them in a makeshift hazmat lab. Meanwhile a savvy old Jewish pawnbroker tries to advise him on what's going on, but Goodweather has the man arrested for having a sword in an airport terminal. Almost immediately, our urge to see the world wiped out just to spite this twit is insurmountable.

It doesn't help that the bad guys (led by Thomas Eichorst, left) are far cooler: they honor their deals, pay in cash, do their research, invest heavily in make-up and black market organs; their urge to see the world end is indicative less of greed and more of simply of being turned on by chaos. Hell, I say let these long-tongued vamp zombies have a crack at planet custodianship --they couldn't possibly leave it worse off than they found it.

Goodweather disagrees, or rather hasn't thought that far ahead, being obligated by his little taste of power as a CDC agent to grab those passing lapels. He's so self-righteous and negligent that he even ignores the edicts of his superiors and winds up under arrest, yet still invites himself to tromp all over the rights of others as he attempts to be on time just once to his hearing over joint custody for his 'yawn' little son. There's a word for this type of guy, Munchausen by-proxy, or rather, as I call them, 'dad of great adventure'. They can't admit their insecurity and ambivalence about their roles as second class citizen in the modern family unit, and so refuse to either leave the family unit or stay with their wife; they can neither stand to be with or to abandon their kid, and are more determined with each passing missed court date to convince mom and child that he wants to be with them more than anything but you know, um.... he has to force himself on a world that doesn't want saving, or at least it doesn't want to be saved by him, and who can blame it? So wait right here, judge, somewhere a child is crying.

Naked white/grey monsters are always played by limber, sinuous dancers. 
Anyway, we know from the start that Goodweather's showing good sense in trying to quarantine these survivors but at the same time, we would hate to be unable to get home after a lengthy cross-Atlantic flight, forced to wait in a sterilized plastic cube for weeks while he tinkers with our blood samples and stammers excuses to the court stenographer. Plus, why would we root for Goodweather to stop the spread of a plague when that's going to be the whole show? I love a lot of del Toro's art design and I admire his willingness to kill children, but I've always winced when he goes too far with his saintly Catholic family mi madre es mi vida bullshit and the whole business with the giant worm tongue leaping out of the monster's faces is too familiar, thanks to his already using it in MIMIC and BLADE II that even Paul W.S. Anderson it used it in RESIDENT EVIL. We've seen it, bra.

Meanwhile there's this idiot woman whose husband is infected and he's barking at her to run away while she can; their dog's blood is dripping from his mouth and she just stands there like a moron, frozen in 'terror', well within striking range of his forked tongue. He's telling her to run, and we're screaming at the screen for her to run, and she just stands there, until we wonder how she ever lived past the second episode. But the next scene she's burying the dog and after the neighbor complains because he still hears growling she pushes him into the shed to feed her now-chained husband so we're back into thinking she's awesome. It's that kind of show, and typical of del Toro, for every corny Mexican soap moment there's two kickass touches, or vice versa.

Last year, The Asylum (the offshoot of Concord which was the 80s version of New World which was the 70s version of AIP) gave us the surprise meme hit SHARKNADO (see: Wronger than the Storm). Now we got the the sequel, bound for much tweeting, and therefore of great interest to fading actors in need of being seen by the young 'constant-texter' generation. Aye, matey, to trod bravely before the green screen curtain and be eaten in style, knowing for sure your every flubbed line will earn a hundred winky tweets...

But there's the rub, for in intentionally courting camp, what crap may come?

Chickens Little of the Sea

We start off right in the thick of it as Fin (Ian Zering) and his re-united family (ex-wife Tara Reid and his son and daughter) get stalked by sharks on a plane. Fin, ever the hero, gets the plane down safely, but no one bothered to tell him that NYC is blessed with a stalwart network of first responders, and anyone who mentions needing to build a bomb to a deli owner in Times Square should be turned into Homeland Security, not helped in his mission. Unlike most sensible people, Fin doesn't find shelter, or take an Ambien and go to sleep 'til it's all over; he runs around trying to find the other members of his traveling party and components for his homemade bomb, which he plans to throw into the wind to save us all. Dude, this ain't California, you can't just drive anywhere throwing bombs around. And what's more, traffic is at a standstill anyway, add a flood and a tornado and....

As Dennis Weaver put it in Touch of Evil: it's a mess. It's a stinkin' mess.

I know our cops have problems with quick response in certain neighborhoods but not, my friends, in midtown, so their lack of presence as Fin amoks around Broadway is suspicious. No one is attacked unless seen first by Fin as he races past, clocking them for B-list celeb status (included in his posse, slightly used versions of: Vivica Fox, Kelly Osbourne, Judd Hirsch, Judah Friedlander, Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Rae Cyrus, Rachel True, Andy Dick, Mark McGrath) at which time they're either devoured by a passing shark or rescued by his quick thinking and thus obligated to join the panicky parade running down his errant brood as they run around trying to find him. Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, and Al Roker look on from the TV screen, rolling with the sharknado concept as a fact barely worth an eyebrow raise (just avoid making seal-like movements).

Fin's hero complex was perfect for LA in the original because it made sense.  He had to protect the valuable clientele of his beachfront bar, and it's at a beachfront bar just like it, we can imagine, that the notion of a sharknado first developed. Who amongst us hasn't drunk deep from a sandy beer after a long day body surfing and imagined how badass it would be if sharks came through the window and started chasing people around the pool table, or swam in the air, or that the rec room floor was water so you had to jump from couch to couch? All these things and more, SHARKNADO had.

That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing out west. His idiot desire to rescue his family before they're in danger was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time and tidal surge momentum. We followed the incoming flood from Fin's bar on the beachfront to the boardwalk, the parking lot, downtown, and inland and up into the Hills. A tangible rainy vibe was to be found in their impromptu getaway car; the windshield wipers and radio traffic delays meshed perfectly with the conversation on where to go from there, creating a vibe familiar to anyone who's ever left a drunken party with a new maskeshift tribe piling into the car to head off to a second location.  We had John Heard as the comic relief, bashing sharks with his barstool; barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left), the stealth warrior, brandishing a shark scar (with its own Quint backstory) and a shotgun; wingman Jason Simmons helped with the heavy lifting; Finn doing the driving and moral high ground posturing. Together they raced with the inward tide as it filled the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten, such as his daughter's douche bag boyfriend as the shark water filled his ex-wife's living room but left the driveways merely damp as if from a distant rain machine.

And as Fin's UV-damaged ex-wife, Tara Reid was perfectly cast. Embittered, hungover but still with some vague torch for old Fin, she veered the Hawksian dynamic towards a weird comedy of remarriage, with Nova as the Marilyn Monroe and Reid as the Ginger Rogers (in Hawks' MONKEY BUSINESS).

In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it the sequel lacks. As a Corman-affiliated film it conjured up the good old days of movies like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS; it turned its budgetary limits into an asset, which SHARKNADO 2's NYC location simply will not permit. Gone is Nova, the badass barmaid with the sexy scar, so there's no interesting sexual dynamic (that Fin's too noble to sleep with her provided the previous film's emotional core in ways lacking with his old flame here), and there's no bar, no tide rushing in-- the way the tidal surge in the original. The first film had a flood first, then the tornado, so it made more sense -- there was a build-up --from the ocean sharks to the beach sharks to the flooded rain gutter sharks and so on. Here sharks start hitting up in the cruising altitude of a 747 and just get less credible from there. New York is too real a place, too concrete, there's no time for grandstanding or defying gravity (vs. fantasy unreal LA); when Fin drops into the city to find his family, he's indignant at having to wait in traffic --surely there's something Jud Hirsch as his cabbie can do! This is important! He has to run to Queens to rescue his family from the baseball game.

If you're a NYC resident, his grandstanding is painful. Without the setting of surreal LA enhancing the CGI phoniness, this sequel is less like a surprise so-bad-it's-great entry amid a deluge of crappy CGI monster/bad weather hybrids and more a 'too aware everyone is tweeting about me to not make duckfaces' shitshow --as prefab and empty as a string of commercials for Shark Week during a Jay and Silent Bob film edited for content and watched on TNT by a mid-life crisis-having unemployed divorcee pothead after coming home, buzzed and alone, from lunch at the Wal-Mart parking lot Hooters... again. 

Oh well, we still have the original, and the great untold shark story present in Tara Reid's weary face. As the wife who steps back into the eye of the Munchausen storm, booting the far more interesting Nova out of the sequel, she leaves not a single extraneous breath of sexy air. While Fin runs around building bombs and leaving suspicious packages on subway platforms, it's Reid who provides the real scary story here. You can read it in her skin, an epidermal horror story, in slow mummifying motion, about how a hundred young and glowing B-list actors went into the sun twenty years ago and came out looking like bad taxidermy. Botox and collagen took the rest.

Anyway, they delivered the bomb.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


1933 - dir. William Wellman
One of the punchier gutsier entries in the 'tycoons through the ages' sagas that unfurled tight and fast on the pre-code Warner's lot, this tale of a bug-eyed entrepreneur/Chicago stockyard founder reeks of greatness. It begins in the 1850s when Aline MacMahon and Donald Cook settle in the Dakotas, to form the backbone of a small farming community so isolated that they don't even learn about the Civil War until its over. Paul Muni plays their ambitious son, who lights out for Texas, there to round up wild steer and drive them north to the railroad, setting up the first stockyards with Guy Kibbee in Chicago. They make a fortune, running the herds both west to California and east to New York, but Muni's insane with profit margin expansion, so he keeps re-investing until he invents the refrigerator car, so all the slaughtering can be done right there (as opposed to shipping live cattle) and the stench and profits rise and rise. McMahon looks on dolefully eastward from her Dakota porch, for truly no man was ever meant to have that much money, anymore than cattle aren't meant to grow up knee deep in their own shit.

She's right, and so is Mary Astor, his snobby wife who reacts to his profession with constant horror and disgust. The Chicago stockyards loom large as one of human civilization's great ongoing horrors. As if in karmic retribution, Muni's kids grow up snotty and spoiled and Astor goes Lady Macbeth over the realization her privileges are paid for in oceans of abattoir run-off, shit and blood commingling and Muni wading in with a bucket to collect the pools of fat off the surface to feed back to the stock and the stench of her husband's clothes chokes her high society airs, and every morning he's still stomping through the manure and mud and measuring ways cattle can be crammed in closer and closer to make more and more money and more and more and cattle tighter and tighter, more more! All the expensive French perfume in the world can't disguise that smell. But all the time more money, and Chicago gets bigger and bigger and one is very grateful this isn't in color or smell-o-vision.

Only at Warners and only in the pre-code era would a film about the Industrial Revolution be so anti-capitalist and pro-small farming. Yet it's not preachy or sentimental, even as the century turns and the frilly pre-Depression ostentation needle hits the top. I wouldn't be surprised if the film was labeled Socialist propaganda in the 50s and barred from re-release except maybe in the Soviet Union. Muni (later blacklisted) gets hammy in spots but his energy is infectious; his every line of dialogue is a slow strangled clockwork crawl towards spittle-flecked hysteria We watch him age through the Great Depression, devolving into a bitter caricature and in the end Aline McMahon swoops in to rescue the only two grandchildren worth saving, spiriting them back to her Edenic old school agrarian co-op for a happy-ever-after alternative. It works because McMahon's frontierswoman spirit is so large that not only can you believe a whole community would spring up around her, you might have a hankering to leave the city yourself, and find your own patch of land and some goats near a MacMahon type matriarch of your own. If only Monsanto would loosen our chains, but that won't happen 'til the last gasp of the Earth is copyrighted and God sued for infringement. Seven generational thinking, man. Our great great great great great great grandchildren will one day appreciate our careful recycling of paper and plastic, giving us silent prayers and thanks through all eighteen of their mutant orifices. And Paul Muni and Paul Robeson will rise from their graves, sharper than a thousand automated plowshares.
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green

Deep in the sweltering tropics, a British colony of overdressed ruling class prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), a bounder who left Rangoon the previous year with one of the colonist's wives, and who has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) meanwhile is the newly imported, and instantly bored and frustrated, wife of the colony's frigid physician (Louis Calhern). Seems he's not much of a lover but rather, as she puts it, "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... " And now that he has her more or less marooned down in the tropics, he doesn't need to wast time pitching woo, not when fever victims need blah blah. Needless to say, Hugh has her in his sights ere long. And needless to say, too, this ain't no Hope-Crosby picture but a variation on the then-hugely popular W. Somerset Maugham style commonwealth scandal dramas (ala RAIN, THE PAINTED VEIL, THE LETTER), wherein a cold British husband and the jungle heat combine to leave a wife ripe for infidelity and the racist audience and censors are so relieved the other man is white they let it slide. After all, it's the jungle! And what else are the ceaseless throb of native drums for if not to loosen colonial inhibitions, especially amongst the wives, down there with nothing to do but play bridge and gossip while their men treat cholera patients and tap rubber plants? As Calhern notes, it's a fever that overtakes women down there, the heat activates their sexual hormones. He sure doesn't have that problem! Though likable enough, at times, we have to smile indulgently when he gets all excited about some new tumor he finds (his excuse for missing their honeymoon night). When the patient dies, his hot kid sister (Marian Marsh) notes, "perhaps you'll find another disease, with a much longer name, right here at home." Nope. Ever the English gentleman, he'd rather shoot Daltrey than try to understand what his wife wants; he considers honeymooning childish, and presumes that--since she was his nurse during a stint at a London hospital where they met--Phillipa will be as keen about tumors and deformities as he is, and way less hot under the hem line about sex, dancing and romance. But Phillipa gives not a whit for the hospital She's horny, and as for nursing, "she's never going back to it," she exclaims to him, "not for a moment." But he's snoring away before she even finishes her sentence. For Hugh it's awfully easy to have access to all the bored white women around, since the men barely even look up from their bridge games and phone calls except to wrinkle their noses disapprovingly at Daltrey's wooing ways.

If you know the genre, you can guess the rest of story, but there's some novel issues being discussed that make the film worthwhile anyway: Phillipa's sullen horniness clears like a fever during a scene dissolve (we know what that means) after her dinner with Daltrey at his seductive cabana. As for Daltrey, he doesn't know if he's seducing her because he can or because he really is in love with her - and if you've ever been a louche well-laid bachelor then you know the feeling (it's not as gratifying as you'd think it is). Sur when we first meet Daltrey he's a bit of a skeeve, arranging all sorts of shady tricks to get Phillipa back to his pad, but now that she's there, it's suddenly not so simple. After the hunt, after the loving, then what? That they have the eloquence to bring this point up amongst themselves in an adult, civilized way, let's you know this is more mature than the average soapy triangle, and it's oh-so-very pre-code.

Powell really shines in this complex role wherein--a real rarity for him--he's not entirely sympathetic, Though we're meant to find his Daltrey charming, we're also made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak in an environment like this, where the husbands are out working during the day and the wives are home bored and restless. We're also made aware that he's a bit of a drunk, an issue guaranteed to impair judgment (he should go for Marsh, if he was a true cad with an eye for hotness). Calhern, on the other hand, is a real surprise as the repressed husband. Rather than a stuffy posh stereotype he's played as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness; he knows he's trying to mask his own sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey, but he can't help it, any more than Daltrey can help moving in on him.

And, as his younger sister, the lovely Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches (but holy shit she looks great in a very inviting pre-code negligee), she's so fuckin' luminous I get weak in the knees and wonder why on Earth Daltery would pass her over for Phillippa. "When men like you say no, they really mean yes," she tells him, a kind of reversal of what he was pulling on Philippa when they arrived. In this case his no means no, and frankly, age or no, it's a bit of a shock.  Played by Doris Kenyon, Philippa on the other hand, looks a bit haggard; her nose, arm rigidity, and chin are weak: clearly there's weight fluctuation under those hot lights, but man she can act.

And man, is the lighting rich, blaring in that exotic pre-code way where palms and ferns cast long shadows (with great miniature exteriors by Anton Grot, which are used in a great Svengali-evoking tracking shot between Philippa and Hugh gazing towards each other across the palm tree and rocky cliff expanse during a feverish native fertility drum night) and the panama hats glow at night with a nice blurry gleam. The way everyone speaks, slow and measured for the crude microphones (and because of its stage play roots), coupled to the lush glowing sets, creates the uncanny familiarity of a kind of abstract dream. Some people don't go for that kind of thing, but I love it. It's 1931, baby, and the air is thick with enough black-and-white magic, whiskey, and cigarette smoke you could swim through it, and the constant throb of of native drums aligns the pulse for pleasant action. As for mating, with squares like Calhern for competition, for a swinger like Daltrey it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And for comic ballast there's even Allison Skipworth in a tiara and fan, showing Powell all the laters tango steps. And what the speaking and movements lack in dramatic fluidity they make up for in daring, reflecting a time when leaving a bad marriage and running off with William Powell showed courage (for both character and studio) rather than loose morals.

1931 - dir. Sam Wood
The title is a quaint term for a deputy sheriff's assistant in London, since part of the job is remaining at a house that is in foreclosure, making sure the debtor doesn't try to sell their stuff and skip town. Since it's based on a PG Wodehouse play you can guess the rest, mirth, mistaken identity, sharp wit and saucy indiscretion. Though Hilarious on the page, Wodehouse can be tough to get just right in American hands: it's a tricky mixture of 90% Noel Coward and 10% Monty Python. The mix doesn't work unless it's at that exact ratio, and it seldom is. Luckily that's the exact ratio here, Robert Young may be an acquired taste but he's perfectly cast as a well-groomed but criminally under-funded Cambridge alum whose first assignment under the local debt collector's tutelage is to remain at the posh house of sexy Irene Purcell whose whole house and grounds has been seized for lack of payment. Her plan is to fool a rich man coming over for dinner that night into thinking she's rich too, so he'll propose (and then take on her debts as well as her hand). She convinces Young to pose as her butler since he's there for the night anyway. Naturally the pair fall in love in the process. "I'd lie for you, I'd steal for you, I'd even work for you," was the line that got the biggest laugh out of me, but my jaw was on the floor after the surprisingly frank sexual hook-up. Purcell has lovely little bare arms, reminiscent of Norma Shearer's (and therefore the style of the time) and is pretty damned sexy once she gets rolling. There's a really risque fade-out and loads of clues the next morning making light of the fact that 'the butler indeed did it. It's so frank it's genuinely shocking, and as such proves one of the best of all PG Wodehouse adaptations.

 And as he proved the same year with Shearer in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES, Young takes to such terrain absurdly well, like he never quite, but almost, gets the jokes, which is the perfect tone for Wodehouse. The tight little cast includes C. Aubrey Smith as his harumphing mercantile class father and Reginald Owen as one of those stuffy stooges with an umbrella that would eventually be played by Ralph Bellamy. Beryl Mercer is the long-suffering mother; Charlotte Greenwood a surly maid; Alan Mowbray the rich womanizing Sir Charles, who deserves better than to be dicked around just because he dicks around. After all, he tips Purcell's servants handsomely and later bankrolls 'The Dump,' Godfrey Parks' nightclub, and if the whole concept of a high-living 'heiress' winding up married to her butler doesn't remind you of MY MAN GODFREY (1936) then go see both films again at once.

At once, do you hear me!?

Alan Mowbray--the best friend a bum ever had.

1932 - dir. William Deterle
Directed by William Dieterle, with maximum class and reefer humor, JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) is a gem (get it?) about a dashing jewel thief who catches the eye of bored thrill-seeking diplomat’s wife (Kay Francis) in scenic pre-Nazi Vienna. It’s the high-class people doing naughty things sort of European froth that Hitler’s war machine would soon blow off the beery surface of the earth's frail mug. Here it still sparkles and bubbles and everyone is high, literally, since Powell passes out joints to his robbery victims in order to cloud their memory and make them docile. You’ll think you’re high too when you see longtime sourpuss character actor Clarence Wilson smoke one of these thinking it’s an ordinary cigarette, and Francis will blow your mind with her weird V-shaped smile and eyes that glaze over with turned-on glee with the thought of being kidnapped by the dashing Powell. As with the next film under discussion, their chemistry is so electrically charged you feel like they’re kissing each other even when they’re on opposite ends of the room. See it at once! At once, do you hear me??

1932 - dir. Tay Garnett
The chemistry between Kay Francis and William Powell was so effervescently sexy in JEWEL ROBBERY it's no wonder Warners re-teamed them the same year in ONE WAY PASSAGE. Almost a sequel to the first film, Powell plays a caught criminal sailing home to face execution, chained to the arm of a tough but decent SF copper who traced him to China. Beforehand he meets, shares a drink with, and falls in love with the similarly urbane (and doomed) Kay Frances at a bar. He's unaware she only has a few weeks to live and any undue excitement or stress could kill her (but she's too in love to care, determined to live these last days to fullest) She's unaware he's a convicted murderer on his way back to be executed (and he keeps giving up chances to escape to be with her, or to save someone's life). Their impending fates make their time together electrifying and beautifully tragic, like a very expensive cognac warmed by the fire. Almost Hawksian in the sense of impermanence,  life seems so sweet with all the swanky cocktails and looking well-dressed while gazing at the waves, that cinematic magic leaps out and envelops any viewer with a heart and soul.

Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make each other into their parents before love wears off and they once again grow lost in unconscious consumerism and self-righteous denial. This film by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality or mush taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to their deaths like it’s just another ocean voyage. One of the best recovered and recognized jewels in the TCM canon, it’s a testament to humanity’s lack of progress in the past 70 or so years that characters this warm, dashing, cool, romantic, witty, sweet and clever– “whole” people full of confidence, bravery and emotional gravitas--are so rare in movies.

Aline McMahon (posing as a countess) and perennially tipsy Frank McHugh are the ace comedic second leads, a pair of sharpies who travel the boats grifting rich suckers. They know and love Powell from back in SF and are determined to help, operating slick key pocket-picks, etc; Warren Hymer is swell the square-chinned cop who turns out to have a heart (and who bonds special with Aline - seeing right through her disguise). It's all so good it could even make George Raft cry. Take Casablanca and shove it; One Way Passage is Warner's romantic crown jewel. Now and forever. glasses clinked, broken, and crossed. 

1934 - dir. Sam Wood
If you're a fan of TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934), just imagine if that annoying college boy in Lily Garland's train car--the one Barrymore convinces to stomp off, "without a word, like the Reverend Henry Davidson... in RAIN"-- only pretended to leave, and then proceeded to keep ardently wooing Garland, choking the air of her train car with his idealistic college boy cologne-fueled simpering until, finally, against her better sense and our wishes, Lily Garland actually fell in love with him? Yeesh, right? That's STAMBOUL QUEST -- a WWI romantic spy film that dances ably along the censors' razor but still dives into the arms of banal 'decency' once its length is run.

As the real-life WWI spy, codenamed Fraulein Doktor, Myrna Loy is slinky, intelligent and exotic (before Nora Charles, she played a lot of these vaguely Eurasian vamp types, though more and more her heart of gold and deadpan wit was showing through). She wears a fabulous shimmering dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the pleasing idea that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by an off-camera firing squad. She's already been warned of the 'steep price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence (i.e. that she must never fall in love); that she lets pestering smirky Brent undo her composure wrankles me and her counterintelligence department higher-ups big time --his slippery nose-first charm has not aged well. Since she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer (ala the story we see in the 1932 Garbo film), we presume she thinks herself above such trivial matters. Naturally her strident position on the subject (since Ben Hecht isn't writing the script) means she has jinxed herself. But that she lets herself be taken in by the naive whimsicality of George Brent--who fancies himself so irresistible he has carte blanche to tread all over her sublime spy game machinations with his muddy American bungler feet (as he tries to steer her intellectual-seductive brinksmanship narrative into an old-fashioned tourist-meets-local love story)--doesn't sit well. Not at all. Nor does it fit her otherwise sublime character

In case you can't tell, I loathe George Brent. Why? Maybe it's the condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to every woman like they're some adoring three year-old girl who just skinned their knee, or they way his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose-first as if the world is a flower waiting to be sniffed. I loathe his wholesale lack of cynicism, buying into terrible romantic lines like a first class punter. Maybe it's because he's one of those guys that thinks just because you kissed him he has the right to stalk you and sabotage all your shady business. He plays the sort of earnest wooer for whom restraining orders were invented, and so every time a girl relents, responds to that treatment, gives in to his relentless self-satisfied pestering, my feminist heart sinks. His success is another signal to creeps everywhere to just keep trying! Keep barging in on the girl you like while she's at work, keep calling and hanging around and messing up all her plans, and eventually.... she'll surrender. Wake up the neighborhood playing "In Your Eyes" outside her window! That girls tell guys they find that scene in Say Anything romantic is like a guys telling girls they think it's romantic to be tricked into marriage by a girl who lies about being on the pill just to get pregnant.

On the plus side, at least before all that Brent shit happens we get to see Fraulein Doktor in operation, and Loy is up to the challenge of this complex, nefarious role. She's way better--in my mind--than Garbo in Mata Hari, and several levels of intellect above everyone else in the picture (even giving X-27 a run for her money). Until old Georgie Boy crashes in, man the movie hums. Oh well, maybe next war, when the world is much darker; or maybe in some alternate future past, in which Joseph Breen was blocked from birth by a time-traveling IUD.

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