Friday, April 28, 2017

Cult Classics: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is Brian de Palma's musical cult tribute to a number of iconic horror tales, most notably The Phantom of the Opera and Faust, although it also functions as a scathing satire of the music industry and its obsession with sex, fame, and eternal youth. As both writer and director, de Palma gets to make this picture his own weirdly delightful creature, which succeeds at being bizarre while also being surprisingly good. Songs and a devilish performance by Paul Williams enhance the movie's appeal, but each actor here has his or her own charms, especially William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Gerrit Graham. Fans of the many iterations of either Phantom or Faust should not miss this sly, gloriously excessive rock & roll interpretation of themes near and dear to the heart of every classic horror fan.

Williams brings fame and ruin as the reclusive recording mogul Swan, who steals a Faust cantata from the gifted but naive Winslow Leach (William Finley). When Winslow pursues him, Swan has Winslow thrown in prison, where he is abused and driven mad until he finally escapes, and, in a fit of rage, attacks the facility where Swan's records are produced. Horribly disfigured as a result, Winslow haunts Swan's new venue, The Paradise, where he is drawn into an unholy deal to finish the Faust cantata if the beautiful young Phoenix (Jessica Harper) can sing it.

De Palma mixes the plot elements of both Phantom and Faust in his triangle of principal characters; Winslow is most obviously the damaged genius, with shades of Claude Rains' Phantom in the 1943 film, but he's also a Faustian character who makes a deal with Swan's devil, making Swan himself both Faust and Mephistopheles. Phoenix is Faust's Gretchen and the Phantom's Christine, although she, too, nurses a Faustian longing for fame that Swan can exploit. Much of this mingling is inherent in Gaston Leroux's original novel about the Phantom, where the opera being performed by the company is, of course, Faust. Not content, however, to continue the blending of these two texts, de Palma also adds elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein and several Gothic flourishes straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. The Frankenstein homage gets particularly gruesome and delightful when Goth rockers build lead singer Beef (Gerrit Graham) out of fake audience body parts against a decidedly German Expressionist backdrop. The result, a sexually transgressive blond hunk covered in glittery gold, will look familiar to fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), but Phantom watchers will also recognize him as the diva who must be removed from the opera so that the Phantom's chosen singer can take the stage.

The film's other main objective is skewering the music industry, which seems like an easy mark. Rock & roll in particular abounds in opportunities for Faustian bargains, where desperate people trade their bodies, their youth, and even their souls for fame. If Winslow is naive the first time he encounters Swan, he never learns enough to walk away until it's much too late. Even the most minor characters reveal a disturbing willingness to prostitute themselves, from the scantily clad honeys to the constantly changing Juicy Fruits. The band provides an amusing survey of the history of rock, starting out as 50s style greasers, then transforming into Beach Boys clones, and later reappearing to support Beef in Gothic rock garb. Many of the film's musical in-jokes involve Paul Williams, who wrote the songs for the film and then plays the character who steals those songs from the protagonist; he also provides the singing voice for the Phantom during the Phantom's theme halfway through the film. Ironically for a film about the dark side of the industry, Phantom of the Paradise ends up demonstrating the beauty that can result from it. Williams' best songs are haunting ruminations on the Faustian theme of losing yourself in pursuit of something greater, particularly the Phantom's theme, "The Hell of It," "Special to Me," "Old Souls," and "Faust."

Phantom of the Paradise bombed back in 1974, but it has a devoted following now, and it's easy to see why people love this film. Despite its box office failure, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music for Paul Williams and George Aliceson Tipton and a Golden Globe nomination for Williams for Best Score. For more early de Palma work featuring William Finley, try The Wedding Party (1969), Sisters (1972), or The Fury (1978). Look for Jessica Harper in de Palma's Suspiria (1977), Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), or Pennies from Heaven (1981). Paul Williams turns up in all sorts of places, from Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) to Smokey and the Bandit (1977); he even provides the voice for The Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series. For many fans of a certain age, however, he's best known as the composer for The Muppet Movie (1979), and we have him to thank for "The Rainbow Connection."

*** You can rent Phantom of the Paradise on Google Play or Amazon Instant Video for about $4, depending on the format. If, like me, you fall for the film, you can download the original soundtrack for $10 on iTunes (which you should definitely do).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

California 2017: Highlights from the Warner Bros. Studio Tour

We spent spring break in Los Angeles and Anaheim this year, ostensibly to tour colleges for our teenager (whose dream school is Cal Arts). While I was once again too early to revel in the delights of the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, I did manage to enjoy plenty of movie buff destinations, from Hollywood Blvd. to Disneyland. One of our best side trips was a morning at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, where we took in a guided tour. Lauren, our tour guide, was a TCM addict and classic film fan, so she was the perfect person to tell us all about the studio's golden age stars and productions!

Here are a few photos of classic Hollywood items from the museum showcase near the end of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.

First up is a dress worn by the great Olivia de Havilland in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), which also stars Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as the title characters. It's not one of the more elaborate costumes from the film, but it was still wonderful to see something the actress wore in the picture. It was even nicer because de Havilland celebrated her 100th birthday last summer and is still with us.

Also on display is the microphone used in The Jazz Singer (1927), which is, of course, the perfect item to symbolize the picture that really ushered in the talkie era. It's so big that I inevitably thought of Singin' in the Rain (1952) when I saw it, remembering how much trouble those clunky nuisances gave Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen when their characters tried to make the jump from silent films to sound!

I was also delighted to find a few items from The Music Man (1962), starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. My husband and daughter were horrified when I immediately began singing "Seventy-Six Trombones" while staring at this display case, but, honestly, could you have resisted the urge? That trombone is right there. They're lucky it wasn't a costume worn by Ron Howard, or I might have struck up "Gary, Indiana" or "Wells Fargo Wagon" and never stopped.

These photos are just a fraction of what we saw on the tour, which took all morning and was worth every penny. If you find yourself in the LA area, I definitely recommend the Warner Bros. tour as a top pick. Although it also provides a lot of exhibits geared toward fans of modern movies and TV shows, there's plenty for classic movie buffs to appreciate. The only disappointment is the gift shop at the end, which has absolutely nothing to celebrate the studio's long history. Come on, Warner! Can't you even get us a Casablanca fridge magnet or a Rick's Cafe Americain coffee mug?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

My Life in Films: Favorite Movies by Year

Film Twitter has prompted me to join in on the recent lists of people's favorite movies for each year of their lives. At 45, I feel like that's a lot of territory to cover, and of course a lot of the movies I watch these days came out long before I was born, but I have seen most of the big hits for most of the years in question.

I want to clarify my process a bit before I get to the actual list. As I looked at the films for each year, I asked myself the following questions:

1) Do I own the movie? If I didn't feel the need to buy it, then it's probably not my favorite.
2) How many times have I voluntarily watched this movie? Have I watched it again recently?
3) How much of this movie can I quote or recite from memory? The more of it I know by heart, the bigger the impression it has obviously made.
4) Do I own merchandise and/or clothing celebrating my love for this movie? Since I'm wearing a Yoda t-shirt as I type this post, it would be silly to pretend that I'm not a sucker for Star Wars and/or Muppets. Not all movies get merchandise, of course, but if I love something enough to wear it on a shirt I'm probably pretty attached to it.

I didn't pick the "best" movie from each year; I picked a favorite. I didn't think about Oscars or box office appeal (or lack thereof) or whether hipsters would approve of my choices. Sometimes the decisions were excruciatingly hard, and there are three or even four really close seconds that on a different day might get the edge over the one I chose today. I didn't pick any of these to impress anyone; I'm a lifelong geek with a deep love for science fiction, fantasy, Disney, animation, and comic books. I like quirky, funny stuff. I like super heroes. I picked movies that I go back to many times because they make me happy, so you won't see a lot of tragic downers on this list because my favorite movies are the ones that make me want to keep living. Your list will be different, and that's OK.

So, without further delay, here's a favorite film for every year of my life so far...

1972 Dracula A.D. 1972   (Cushing & Lee do disco Dracula - I can't help it)
1973 Robin Hood    (yes, the Disney one)
1974 Young Frankenstein    (Sweet mystery of life at last I've found you!)
1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail      (Just a little peril...)
1976 Murder by Death     (I love the cast; I love the parody of the genre)
1977 Star Wars     (Changed my life)
1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers    (Donald Sutherland's goggle-eyed stare!)
1979 The Muppet Movie    (Makes me deeply happy. Can you picture that?)
1980 The Empire Strikes Back    ("I love you." "I know.")
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark    (Bad dates. Plus, Nazi punching!)
1982 The Last Unicorn      (Makes me cry. One of my favorite books ever.)
1983 Return of the Jedi     (Yes, I even like the Ewoks.)
1984 Ghostbusters     (There is no Dana!)
1985 Back to the Future     (Still so much fun)
1986 Labyrinth     (Tough year of choices, but I'm going for Bowie & weird Muppets)
1987 The Princess Bride    (Come, my love, I'll tell you a tale...)
1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade    (My favorite Indy movie)
1990 Back to the Future III    (I love the Western steampunk vibe)
1991 The Addams Family    (Because it's awesome & so is the pinball machine)
1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol    (Light the lamp, not the rat!)
1993 Groundhog Day    (Because we watch it every year)
1994 The Lion King     (Hakuna matata!)
1995 Babe    (I grew up with Border Collies, and James Cromwell is great.)
1996 Matilda    (A girl reads books - what's not to love?)
1997 The Fifth Element   (Super green!)
1998 Dark City    (Ebert's favorite for 1998 and mine, too)
1999 The Iron Giant    (What you currently have - IN YOUR MOUTH - is art!)
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? (For the Preston Sturges allusion & so much more)
2001 Monsters Inc.    (Put that thing back where it came from or so help me...!)
2002 Lilo & Stitch    (It's hard to be weird, whether you're a girl or an alien experiment)
2003 Peter Pan    (best adaptation yet of this story)
2004 Hellboy     (I love everything about this movie)
2005 Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit  (My favorite W&G)
2006 Penelope    (Modern fairy tale with a very cool cast)
2007 Hot Fuzz   (The soundtrack alone wins for me, but movie is so delightful)
2008 Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (So English. Hilarious & heartbreaking.)
2009 Star Trek   (Trek is back! Nimoy is back! Joy!)
2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World    (I'm team Knives)
2011 The Muppets   (For embodying my nostalgic love perfectly)
2012 The Avengers   (Joss Whedon! Agent Coulson!)
2013 Belle    (Gets my 18th century groove on in a big way - lovely film)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy   (It's all about Rocket and Groot)
2015 Mad Max: Fury Road    (Motorcycle matriarchs - heck, yeah)
2016 Star Trek Beyond    (Trek done right - plus, Simon Pegg!)

Since it's only March, it's too early to declare a favorite for 2017, but it looks like a full year of contenders. Hopefully it will end up being another year where it's really hard to choose.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: EACH DAWN I DIE (1939)

As its grim title suggests, Each Dawn I Die (1939) is an explosive drama awash in death and violence, as only Warner Brothers' 1930s gangster and prison films could deliver them. William Keighley directs the parade of brutal injustice with James Cagney and George Raft as the chief victims of a horrifically corrupt system that destroys human beings without regard for their innocence or rehabilitation. Cagney's journalist hero has chosen the moral high ground as a crusader against graft and crime, but he ends up in the same place as Raft's sympathetic gangster, and in prison Cagney learns the extent of systemic cruelty. At once a riveting drama about loyalty and a scathing critique of inhumane American prisons, Each Dawn I Die gives Cagney and Raft terrific opportunities to showcase their dramatic talents.

Cagney plays hard-driving investigative reporter Frank Ross, whose efforts to uncover political corruption put him on a crooked governor's hit list. Kidnapped and set up for a drunken driving manslaughter charge, Frank gets sent to hard labor in prison, where he earns the respect of other inmates for his tough, principled behavior. He becomes especially close to gangster Hood Stacey (George Raft), who appreciates Frank's refusal to snitch. When Stacey asks Frank to help him escape, he promises to work to clear Frank's name on the outside, but Frank suffers horrifically for his loyalty while Stacey waffles about keeping his word.

Although it features a daring escape, numerous scenes of shocking cruelty, and a wildly violent gun battle finale, Each Dawn I Die is deeply invested in its story of an unlikely friendship forged in the most intolerable circumstances. Both Frank and Stacey appear as fully realized, complex characters, despite their tough talk and glaring eyes. We come to understand that they are not so different, that both men have reacted to a corrupt, unforgiving world in the way that seemed available to them. Frank fights, Stacey assimilates, but they suffer the same fate because the system devours both its enemies and its own. Cagney and Raft deliver performances that make these characters feel very real; each has a dynamic arc that allows the actors to demonstrate their range. Cagney is especially powerful in Frank's moments of anguish and rage, showing the darkness that even a good man can embrace when his humanity is denied. Raft shines as a dangerous tough guy early on, but his slow awakening to Frank's worth reminds us that he is still a human being, too, one who has become a criminal because he thought that was simply the way of the world.

The stories of the secondary characters add nuance to the central plot, with several supporting players giving very fine performances. Jane Bryan is lovely and determined as Frank's girlfriend, Joyce, who never stops trying to save him. The couple's brief moments together at the prison are tearjerker scenes of love and misery, especially when Joyce comes to see Frank after his long, agonizing months in the hole. Maxie Rosenbloom adds a hint of comic affability to the tragedy of his character, Fargo Red, an inmate who is just another everyman chewed up by the relentless system. Louis Jean Heydt plays a similar character, but purely for tragic effect; his Lassiter becomes a victim of the sadistic guard, Pete, performed with vicious brilliance by John Wray. It's a thankless task to play the kind of villain Wray takes on in Pete, since everything about him is deplorable, but he perfectly embodies the cruelty of the system as a whole. George Bancroft has a small but important role as Stacey's lawyer, and Victor Jory makes a brief but memorable appearance as Grayce, the corrupt head of the parole board who ensures that Frank's petition will be denied.

For more gangster drama from William Keighley, try 'G' Men (1935), Special Agent (1935), and Bullets or Ballots (1938). Catch Cagney as the gangster in The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1949). George Raft, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, always looks at home in a tough guy role; he's best remembered for his role in Scarface (1932), but don't miss him in They Drive by Night (1940) and Some Like It Hot (1959). If classic prison movies appeal, return to the big house with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Brute Force (1947), or Caged (1950).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Reel Resistance: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

When it comes to movies that deliver on vicarious Nazi punching, it's hard to beat the original Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The third installment of the trilogy is good for that, too, but the 1981 picture features all the adventure of a classic serial and all the patriotic verve of WWII era Hollywood. It plays like a feel-good morale booster for a dark time, and that's what makes it such an excellent movie to revisit in 2017. These are the times that try men's - and women's - souls, and sometimes you just really want to watch the Ark of the Covenant melt off Nazi faces.

Of course, Harrison Ford's errant archeologist is a terrible example of an academic; imagine being his department head or an unfortunate student in one of his classes. You'd have to mount your own expedition into the heart of darkness just to get your graded midterm back. His research methods and cavalier attitude toward site preservation probably drive real archeologists to drink. It's clear that Steven Spielberg's movie really wants to differentiate its heroic tomb raider from the villainous ones, which is why Jones is an archeologist who steals things to put them in museums rather than sell them for his own gain.

Archeological ethics aside, Raiders holds up beautifully more than 35 years after its original release. It's still a delight even if you know every line of dialogue by heart. Every fight and action sequence retains its excitement, a testament to the film's pacing and score as well as the performers themselves. Ford is very much the swashbuckling star, but Karen Allen's Marion has tremendous appeal of her own, especially when she's out-drinking men twice her size. Characters in these films have become old friends to many fans, including Denholm Elliot's delightfully dotty Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies' genial Sallah. The bad guys are a memorable bunch, too; Ronald Lacey plays the sadistic and creepy Major Toht, while Paul Freeman is the greedy collaborationist Belloq, who enjoys taking relics away from Indy at every opportunity. Both get their glorious and much deserved comeuppance in the finale, when Raiders kicks over into full supernatural mode with the assertion that the power of the Ark is real and seriously hates the Third Reich.

The message of Raiders made a huge impact on Gen Xers, who grew up with similar themes in Star Trek and Star Wars movies, but in the Indiana Jones films the point is more overt because of the explicit depiction of fascism and the fragility of a more historically realistic world. It's hopeful in that we see Indiana and his friends triumph over the forces of evil, but it's also horrific because we know that these bad guys were - and are - real. In a world teetering on the brink of upheaval and awash in dangerous nationalist propaganda, Raiders of the Lost Ark feels both comforting and bracing at the same time. It captures the strange cyclical nature of history, this movie from the 1980s set in the 1930s but still speaking to viewers in 2017. Here we are again, folks. Better grab your whip and fedora.

More Reel Resistance:

75 Years in CASABLANCA (1942)
Classic Movies for Courage

My friend at Critica Retro is also posting about about #TheResistance at the Movies, so check out that blog, too!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973)

Lisa and the Devil (1973) is certainly one of the weirder Mario Bava films, and with Bava that's saying something, given that the Italian auteur made horror pictures like Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) and Baron Blood (1972). This darkly dreamy meditation on death struggled to find a distributor and ended up being hacked into The House of Exorcism (1975), a much panned attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist (1973), but fortunately the original version of the picture finally got released, and viewers can enjoy all its surreal, nightmarish charms. Most film fans will recognize Elke Sommer and the terribly droll Telly Savalas as the title characters, but classic movie buffs will especially appreciate an appearance by Alida Valli as a blind, secretive Countess living in seclusion in a strange Spanish villa.

Elke Sommer plays Lisa, a lovely young tourist who strays from her group into some empty corner of a Spanish city, where she first encounters the oddly menacing Leandro (Telly Savalas). From the beginning, Leandro reminds Lisa of a painting of the Devil she has just seen in the city; she fears him, but she cannot seem to escape him. Later she finds herself more or less trapped in the villa where he serves as butler to an aging Countess (Alida Valli) and her handsome but troubled son, Max (Alessio Orano). Other house guests turn up dead, while Max and a mysterious stranger keep calling Lisa by an unfamiliar name. They seem to know her even though she has no memory of them, and, worse, she keeps seeing versions of them as mannequins hauled about by Leandro. Lisa senses that Leandro and the others are a threat to her, but it slowly becomes apparent that her doom has long been sealed.

Some Bava films are more concrete than others, though they tend to share a strong sense of the surreal, and Lisa and the Devil reveals the director diving deeply into the realm of phantasmagoria, a term that evokes the Romantic sensibility of Bava's Gothic dreams. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Edgar Allan Poe had been Italian film directors, Lisa and the Devil is the kind of movie they might have made. For some viewers the slow pace and the almost somnambulant heroine will be off-putting, but those who get into the spirit of Bava's offering will know exactly where this story is going and be delighted with the funereal procession. There are, of course, periodic bursts of gory violence, as well as a very unnerving necrophiliac sex scene, but much of the strangest stuff involves the ever-present mannequins, who might or might not be actual people. Bava delights in switching between the dummies and the real actors during shot changes, creating confusion for both the viewer and the heroine. The relentless doubling also highlights Lisa's own mysterious twin, Elena, who seems to have a secret history with the inhabitants of the house.

Elke Sommer is beautiful but generally silent as Lisa; she spends most of the movie either running from uncertain danger or losing consciousness in front of it. She never asks the obvious questions a rational person would ponder in the midst of such a situation, but then we know that she is more a sleepwalker than anything else, a soul cut off from normalcy and perhaps even from life itself. All of the really fun scenes belong to Telly Savalas as the satanic Leandro; we find Savalas nursing his trademark lollipops and injecting Bava's bad dream with a sardonic sense of humor, especially where the mannequins are concerned. Of course he's the Devil; the title tells us as much, and so does his face in the Spanish painting, but part of the joke is that we know he is and the other characters do not. The rest of the cast pop in and out for jump scares, murders, and sexually fraught backstories; the Countess and Max are the most significant of these, although Carlo (Espartaco Santoni) also plays an important role. Alida Valli looks very different as the aged, sightless Countess than she had in earlier roles in The Third Man (1949) or even Eyes without a Face (1960), but she has a fabulous intensity, especially in the final act.

If Bava films fit your Euro-horror groove, seek out Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and The Whip and the Body (1963). You'll find Elke Sommer in The Prize (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and Bava's Baron Blood (1972). Catch Telly Savalas in more serious big screen roles in Cape Fear (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and The Dirty Dozen (1967); honestly, he worked so much in the 60s and 70s that he's hard to miss, although he does make a very amusing appearance in the Cushing and Lee picture, Horror Express (1972).