Thursday, September 11, 2014
Released the same year that "Friday the 13th" kicked the slasher genre into high gear, "Without Warning" wastes no time putting a different spin on the soon-to-be-cliched formula of teenagers venturing into the woods where an unstoppable killer awaits to pick them off one by one.
This time, the killer is not of this Earth.
Greydon Clark directs this pre-"Predator" sci-fi movie about an eggplant-headed alien who comes to Earth to hunt "the most dangerous game." Only instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, the alien targets Palance, Landau and a young David Caruso (in his first role, unless you count an uncredited bellboy in an episode of "Ryan's Hope," and who does?).
Cult movie label Shout! Factory brings this 1980 drive-in classic to home video with a shiny Blu-ray/DVD combo set that includes interviews with the crew and an audio commentary with the director.
The movie starts with two young couples (including Caruso) heading to the woods for a day of fun and relaxation, probably because it's 1980 and YouTube cat videos haven't been invented yet.
Surprisingly, they think this whole going-to-the-woods thing is a good idea despite the scary warning they get from the creepy taxidermy enthusiast who runs the gas station (Palance) and the foreboding graffiti scrawled on the station's restroom walls.
Technically, that makes the movie's title a lie. Clearly there is a warning. Just because you ignore the warning doesn't mean there isn't one. That's just logic, plain and simple.
Anyway, by the time our young victims get to the crystal-clear lake in the middle of the woods, our extraterrestrial Elmer Fudd has already declared hunting season on Golden Age TV actors.
Cameron Mitchell ("The High Chaparral") plays a hunter, Darby Hinton (Daniel Boone's son on "Daniel Boone") plays his son, and Larry Storch ("F Troop") plays the world's worst scoutmaster.
Maybe Clark has a fetish for typecasting actors based on their most famous roles.
Ralph Meeker, who portrayed Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich's brilliant 1955 film noir "Kiss Me Deadly," has a small role as a bar patron.
Classic television informs more than just Clark's casting choices. The alien (Kevin Hall), looks like he just walked in from the set of "The Outer Limits." And speaking of typecasting, Hall went on to portray the extraterrestrial big game hunters in "Predator" and "Predator 2."
The alien's preferred method of attack it to throw small, star-shaped aliens — blood-sucking little critters that vaguely resemble the face-huggers from "Alien" — at his intended victims. This makes for some pretty cool and squishy kill scenes.
But the real stars of the show are Landau and Palance. Both still more than a decade away from their Oscar triumphs, these old pros can chew scenery with the best of them, and they do.
Landau plays a Vietnam vet who came back from the war a little funny in the head. He's been convinced aliens are invading for years, so when they actually are, no one believes him. Not that they would have believed him anyway, what with him being funny in the head.
Meanwhile, Palance's trophy-hunter character naturally is the first to realize what the alien's game is and think up a way to fight back. Palance delivers the gasping, wheezing, snarling performance that always made him a terrifying bad guy and, on rare occasions, an even more terrifying hero.
Clark helmed two movies that ended up targets of a good-natured "Mystery Science Theater 3000" ribbing: "Angels Revenge" (aka "Angels' Brigade") and the Joe Don Baker vehicle "Final Justice." But "Without Warning" — like some other Clark movies, such as "Satan's Cheerleaders" and the arcade-culture sex comedy "Joysticks" — is plenty of fun without anyone talking over it.
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Yet there he was: Howard the Duck, still trapped in a world he never made.
If, like me, you tortured your bladder and stuck around through the end credits of "Guardians of the Galaxy," you were rewarded with a brief cameo appearance by Marvel Comics' most oddball character this side of Fin Fang Foom.
In the '86 movie, Howard was portrayed by actor Ed Gale wearing an unconvincing duck costume, plus seven other actors credited with providing Howard's voice (Chip Zien) and otherwise bringing the anthropomorphized fowl to some semblance of life. In "Guardians" Howard is a far more realistic CGI creation voiced by an uncredited Seth Green ("Family Guy"), who coincidentally voiced Rocket Raccoon in the "Avengers Assemble" animated series.
It was just a few seconds of screen time, but Howard the Duck can now lay claim to appearing in the year's No. 1 movie. Heading into the Labor Day weekend, "Guardians of the Galaxy" had grossed $274.6 million in North America, moving it ahead of "Captain America: The Winter Solder" and "The Lego Movie." OK, all that green has a lot more to do with the talking raccoon and the dancing tree than it does the wisecracking waterfowl, but still. For Howard, it's quite a comeback.
Before Jar Jar Binks, "Howard the Duck" was pretty much universally regarded as George Lucas' greatest failure. And Lucas just produced the movie. It wasn't as if he'd written and directed it.
Even today, the '86 "Howard the Duck" film is more Lucas' albatross than Marvel's.
At a showing of "Guardians of the Galaxy," I overheard someone speculate that Howard's post-credit cameo had come about because Disney owns both Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. He didn't know Howard is a Marvel character, although one who has appeared only sporadically since his comic book's original 31-issue run from 1976 to 1979.
Howard was created by the late Steve Gerber, who brought the counterculture sensibilities of underground comics into the Marvel mainstream, and artist Val Mayerik. But it was the late Gene Colan who drew most of the "Howard the Duck" series, and he was the perfect complement to Gerber.
Gerber's stories were satirical with a tendency toward absurdism. But Colan kept Howard grounded with gritty, street-level illustrations. No matter how weird Howard's adventures were, you never forgot he was just a poor, schlubby duck out of water who happened to fall into a world run by "hairless apes." Even worse, he'd landed in Cleveland, and he wasn't getting out any time soon.
"Howard the Duck" was, briefly, something of a breakout hit for Marvel, which tried Howard out in a newspaper strip that ran 16 months and promoted him with a fake 1976 presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, Howard's hard luck extended from the printed page to the real world. Disney didn't like that Howard somewhat resembled Donald Duck, forcing Marvel to tweak Howard's design, including putting pants on him. Now Disney owns Howard, but he still wears pants.
Worse still, Gerber and Marvel clashed over creative control, which led to Marvel kicking Gerber off the book. That was the beginning of Howard's slide into obscurity, broken temporarily only by the Lucas movie, from which Howard is still recovering.
Marvel already has a full slate of films on its schedule, and no one thinks Howard is getting one of his own again anytime soon. Still, Marvel has made the 1976-79 "Howard the Duck" series available again as digital comics, on sale through ComiXology and Marvel.com.
Most tellingly, Howard the Duck merchandise is starting to crop up again, spurred by the demand Howard's "Guardians" appearance has generated. First a bobblehead, and then the sky is the limit.
"Guardians" director James Gunn says Howard's cameo is just a bit of fun. It doesn't portend anything. But with the world as screwy as it has ever been, maybe it's time for the duck to again have his day.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
|Peter Capaldi, left, is the Doctor and Jenna Coleman is Clara in the 2014|
season of the BBC's "Doctor Who," airing on BBC America.
The only constant in the universe is change, and "Doctor Who" (Saturday nights, BBC America) has seen plenty of that in its 50-plus years. This time, it's a biggie. Matt Smith's manic, absentminded professor is gone, but not forgotten. In his place is a more mature and cantankerous Time Lord portrayed with gusto by 56-year-old Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.
If Capaldi's visage is anything, it's furious. Showrunner Steven Moffat, now in his fourth year at the helm, turns that into an asset. Even Capaldi's eyebrows, which "Doctor Who" fans glimpsed to near universal delight in last year's 50th anniversary special, are potentially lethal weapons.
"They're attack eyebrows," the Doctor says after studying his new face. "You could take bottle tops off with these!"
One thing we know about the new Doctor: He has a gift for dialogue. His one-liners can kill.
The Doctor is always dangerous, but he usually plays the fool, lulling unwary opponents into a false sense of security. "My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems," a villain once said of Tom Baker's Doctor, the iconic one with the endearingly ridiculous scarf. But Capaldi's Doctor seems ready to dispense with the pretense, and the scarf.
"I've moved on from that," he says. "It'd look stupid."
He's dangerous, and you should bloody well be terrified, especially if you're an old foe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen or, as in the season opener, "rubbish robots from the dawn of time."
But no one is more frightened than the Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), who is finally coming into her own as a character, even as the Doctor undergoes his most jarring regeneration since the show's classic era. Going from personable to prickly isn't an easy transition, as poor Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) learned. Although, in all fairness, poor scripts and tacky production during Six's tenure were the far bigger issues.
If anyone can make such a character compelling, it's Capaldi, whose Doctor has already displayed little flourishes reminiscent of Capaldi's wickedly brilliant Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed political enforcer of "In the Loop" and "The Thick of It," only without the swearing.
The combination is something like another TV doctor: Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. In a preview for Capaldi's second episode, the Doctor even finds himself playing doctor to "a Dalek so damaged it's turned good. Morality as malfunction. How do I resist?"
But back to Capaldi's first outing, "Deep Breath." Moffat slows the pace and allows the story and characters to — forgive the pun — breathe. "Deep Breath" is a character study, a meditation on the nature of identity. That's a deep subject for a character who's had a dozen of them.
"Deep Breath" is structured around an ancient Greek thought experiment. Say your name is Theseus, and say you have a ship. Over time, the ship's planks become worn, and you replace them one by one until one day, finally, you've replaced them all. Is it the same ship you started with? Now say you saved all the worn planks and reassembled them. Now you have two ships. So, which is the true ship of Theseus?
The Greeks came up with many possible answers, and so does "Deep Breath." The Doctor's cyborg foes have rebuilt themselves so many times there's nothing of the originals left. For Clara, the question is whether the new Doctor is still the man she knew.
To ease the transition, Moffat brings back the Doctor's Victorian gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The Doctor changes, but some things remain the same.
And sometimes one of those old, worn planks washes up ready to set sail again. An older, more temperamental Doctor gallivanting around time and space in a blue box with a schoolteacher who feels out of her depth? That seems familiar.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
If nothing else, it's a daring experiment, and after months to mull it over, I'm still undecided as to whether Aronofsky's "Noah" — now on Blu-ray and DVD — is a success or merely an ambitious failure.
Perhaps the fact I'm still thinking about it answers the question.
Aronofsky takes the story of Noah and uses it to hammer away at a subtext that runs throughout the book of Genesis: Cities are bad news.
From the start, cities in the Bible are a source of evil and violence. The first city, we're told, was built by the first murderer, Cain. Cain also is a "tiller of the earth," and we know from archeology that the agricultural revolution of the Late Stone Age made possible the rise of cities, displacing nomadic shepherds such as Cain's victim, Abel.
A few generations later, the lineage of Cain produces his namesake, Tubal-Cain. The first man credited with forging tools of bronze, Tubal-Cain makes possible the first great armies, based in fortified city-states and armed with bronze weapons. With the Bronze Age comes the first arms race.
Later still, Abraham would leave the city-state Ur and become a wilderness nomad, returning to the old ways, yet always running into trouble whenever he comes upon a city, whether in Egypt or the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.
Adam and Eve's fall may have brought sin into the world, but it's Cain's sin, the first murder, that drives "Noah." We meet the teenage Noah just before he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of the aforementioned Tubal-Cain. This is one of Aronofsky's embellishments — using figures who appear in the Bible solely for the purpose of genealogy — but it allows him to kick off the story with what amounts to a reenactment of Cain killing Abel. Noah is descended from Cain's other brother, Seth, so the tale retains the brother-against-brother conflict.
Noah (Russell Crowe) is portrayed as a shepherd, like Abel before him. He, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, including rebellious middle son Ham (Logan Lerman), live among the windswept hills, far from the temptations of the city, where a battle-scarred Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) rules and all life is cheap.
By "all life" I mean all animal life — people and critters. It's here that Aronofsky is most likely to rub his audience the wrong way. Noah is a devout vegetarian, which kind of makes sense if you think about who you want to captain a boat full of the last breeding pairs on Earth. Tubal-Cain and the other children of Cain, however, obsess over eating meat, which they say keeps them strong and ready for battle. Again, this is Aronofsky compressing all of Genesis into Noah's story: The world before the Fall, the world Noah still represents, was a world without death. But Aronofsky isn't subtle about it.
As for the sin that leads the Creator — the only name "Noah" uses for God — to flood the world and start over, here Aronofsky and the Bible agree, as the only sin Genesis specifically mentions to explain the flood is violence.
"Noah" starts strong, aided by Aronofsky's often quirky choices. Anthony Hopkins hams it up as Methuselah, played as an ancient wizard, and Noah gets help building the ark from rock-encrusted angels who vaguely resemble the golems of medieval Jewish folklore. "Noah" is the Bible as Hollywood fantasy film. But once the rain starts, the movie stops, and we spend what feels like 40 days and nights watching Noah's mental collapse. Savior is too big a job for a mere human.
Noah and Tubal-Cain are both zealots, and Tubal-Cain can twist scripture as well as anyone. As Shakespeare said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
Aronofsky is neither devil nor angel. He's just a man who made a movie that will make you think. That is its own justification — and just maybe its own reward.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
If nothing else, it shows Marvel Studios was wise to build up to "The Avengers" rather than to throw the entire team at us at once.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" tosses us into the deep end without a life preserver. It quickly assembles its quintet of mismatched heroes and launches them on a mission that involves run-ins with some of Marvel's most out-there characters. In a way, "Guardians" feels a lot like "Iron Man 2." It's tasked with building the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's too busy with that to tell much of a story. At least with "Iron Man 2," "Iron Man" had already laid a foundation.
In "Guardians" we get just hints of each character's back story, but everyone's back story sounds more interesting than the story we're watching.
"Iron Man 2" also had the virtuoso performances of Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Rockwell to fall back on. The standout performances of "Guardians of the Galaxy" belong to a raccoon and a tree.
The CGI duo of Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) steal the show, along with the occasional piece of alien technology. Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon, which makes him an ill-tempered freak even in a galaxy full of ill-tempered freaks. Groot is a walking, talking plant whose utterances all translate into English as "I am Groot," which is sure to be the catchphrase of the year. Together, Rocket and Groot are a Han Solo/Chewbacca double act.
There's more than a little "Star Wars" in the movie's DNA, but "Guardians" mostly takes after its grandparents, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
Our window into Marvel's larger universe is Star-Lord. But everyone calls him Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of "Parks & Recreation" making a surprisingly successful transition to action hero). Peter is an Earthling who grew up in space. Abducted by aliens when he was still a child, Peter has the pop-culture sensibilities of the 1980s. And thanks to a mix tape his mom gave him before she died, he has the musical sensibilities of the 1970s. Like Buck, he's out of time. Like Flash, he's out of place.
Quill eventually forms an uneasy alliance with Rocket, Groot and two revenge-minded killers, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista). Their task is to keep a mysterious and powerful orb from falling into the hands of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).
Not for the first time, a Marvel film is let down by its villain. Ronan is a one-note genocidal maniac, and we're clearly just marking time until the power behind him (Thanos, played by an uncredited Josh Brolin) makes his move — probably in "The Avengers 3."
Somehow, Ronan the Accuser manages to be even more boring than Malekith the Accursed was in "Thor: The Dark World." I know Marvel is raking in the money anyway, but if I may offer some free advice: Stay away from villains with names like Someone the Somethinger.
If "Guardians" skimps on the story and character development, it at least succeeds in opening up the Marvel Universe for future adventures, and director James Gunn, who got his start in Lloyd Kaufman's infamous Troma film studio, is a good tour guide. "Guardians" zips along at a breezy pace, introducing us along the way to major Marvel players such as the Nova Corps, the Kree, the Celestials and, most memorably, the Collector (Benicio Del Toro).
The Guardians' journey to meet the Collector is breathtaking — a voyage that looks like we've fallen into an issue of Omni magazine. This is quite a world Gunn and Marvel have built.
The good news is Gunn is already signed to write and direct the sequel. So, having built this world, he can show us what he can do with it. But for now, I'm still waiting to see.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
|Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman V. Superman:|
Dawn of Justice."
A movie that features a talking raccoon and Vin Diesel portraying a tree? Piece of cake. It's called "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy," and it opens Friday at a theater near you. But a movie starring an iconic character known the world over? Yeah, I don't know about that. That's a tough nut to crack.
Superman has his own movies. Batman has his own movies. Even Iron Man, who was second-tier at best until Marvel Entertainment took a gamble on Robert Downey Jr., has his own movies.
But Wonder Woman? Too risky. So, Warner Bros. is giving Wonder Woman her big-screen debut as a supporting character in "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice," currently scheduled for release May 6, 2016, depending on who blinks first, WB or Disney. (Disney has staked out the same date for Marvel's third "Captain America" installment. If I were Warner, I'd blink.)
Gal Gadot (of the "Fast & Furious" franchise) won the role, and the first image of Gadot in her Wonder Woman getup debuted this past weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego.
With all the color leached from her costume and a sword in her hand, this is a Wonder Woman who looks more like Xena, Warrior Princess than she does Wonder Woman. Too bad she arrives 15 years too late for Lucy Lawless to play the part.
Is it really so difficult to give us a Wonder Woman who looks and behaves like Wonder Woman? Does she have to look like she just stumbled in from the set of "300"? Given "300" director Zack Snyder is also directing "Batman V. Superman," that's probably a yes. But bringing Wonder Woman to life is something that has baffled Warner Bros. executives for years. They managed to drop the ball even when they had a Joss Whedon script.
The all-around cluelessness when it comes to Wonder Woman extends all the way down WB's corporate pyramid to DC Comics. Apart from William Moulton Marston (her creator) and George Perez (who revamped her in the 1980s), no one seems to have an inkling how to handle Wonder Woman. Recent portrayals in print depict her as a fierce Amazon warrior, which is clearly the direction Snyder's version is headed, too.
This Wonder Woman is more soldier than superhero. Unlike Superman and Batman, she has no rule against killing. It's all far removed from the Wonder Woman most of us grew up with.
If any character should have a moral code prohibiting the taking of human life, it's Wonder Woman. It makes more sense for her than it does even for Superman and Batman.
Although raised among Amazons, Wonder Woman's mission to "Man's World" — her whole reason for being Wonder Woman — is to embody a message of peace. That's explicit from her earliest stories in the 1940s on through most of the '80s. It's one reason why, through most of her comic book adventures, the only "weapon" Wonder Woman carries is her golden Lasso of Truth, which isn't a weapon at all.
I don't think anyone expects Wonder Woman to go back to her roots entirely. And no one — almost no one, anyway — suggests Wonder Woman go back to Marston's risque obsessions with spankings and female supremacy. It's a much simpler request: that Wonder Woman go back to being an optimistic, inspirational figure.
Wonder Woman left her home on Paradise Island, giving up her Amazon sisters and her immortality, to be an example of hope and peace in a war-torn world.
That was relevant during World War II, and it remains relevant today.
But if DC Comics can't figure Wonder Woman out, and if Warner Bros. can't figure her out, maybe it's just as well she isn't starring in a movie of her own. Do audiences more familiar with the heroic icon than the blood-soaked warrior want Warner's dark Wonder Woman? A Wonder Woman movie like that might just flop. (Or not. Who can figure out audiences, anyway?) And Wonder Woman would get the blame, even though the character onscreen wasn't really Wonder Woman.
And the naysayers would say, "See? I told you Wonder Woman was a hard sell."
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Long before "The Purge" and its sequel slapped audiences with heavy-handed political allegory, director Elio Petri applied a lighter touch in his delightful 1965 satire "The 10th Victim," based on a story by science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.
"The 10th Victim" is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on video on demand from Amazon.
In the near future, psychopaths have a legal outlet for their violent tendencies. That outlet is the Big Hunt, a globe-spanning contest pitting some of the world's most dangerous people against one another in a game of kill or be killed. At stake are the thrill of the hunt and cash prizes. But, alas, there are no parting gifts, not even a home version of the game.
The object is to survive 10 hunts, half as hunter and half as hunted. The hunters know all about their intended victims, but the victims know nothing about who is after them. They must be on constant alert if they hope to survive. And if either hunter or hunted kills an innocent person by mistake, that's an automatic 30 years in prison.
There are other rules, too. In Italy there's no hunting in churches, restaurants, hospitals or orphanages. For veteran hunter Caroline Meredith (Andress) those rules are just a nuisance.
"In America we don't have such restrictions," she says.
Only 15 players have survived 10 hunts, and Caroline is looking to become the 16th. Her target is Italian contestant Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).
All that remains is for Caroline to lure Marcello to his doom, which, naturally, is more complicated than it seems. But if all goes according to plan, their destination is Rome's Temple of Venus, where Caroline's final kill — if she's successful — is to be broadcast on live television, sponsored by Ming Tea.
"Ming Tea makes better lovers!" as their slogan goes, and all is fair in love and you know what.
Caroline is a killer with few qualms about what she does, but Marcello is by turns fatalistic, morose and neurotic, although he prefers to think of himself as a romantic.
Still, when the penniless Marcello, who plays the Big Hunt for the money, begins to suspect that not only is Caroline his hunter but that she has a commercial endorsement, he arranges an endorsement deal of his own. It is a diabolically good idea, after all.
"The 10th Victim" has more in its sights than just contemporary society's blasé attitude toward violence. The elderly are shipped off to the Center for the Aged so they won't get in the way of everyone else's fun. And the only books anyone reads are comic books. Vintage titles like "The Phantom" are "the classics."
At the height of 1960s youth culture, "The 10th Victim" stands athwart history and tells those noisy kids to get off its lawn. There's more to life than kids' stuff.
Forty years later, hardly anyone reads comic books. But just about the only movies anyone sees are based on comic book characters. And like those superhero movies, "The 10th Victim" is about a timeless battle. Not good vs. evil, though, but the battle of the sexes.
It's Marcello vs. Caroline or, if you prefer, Marcello vs. Ursula.
Mastroianni, as he did on several other occasions, including Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," portrays a character who shares his name, blurring the line between character and actor.
The same goes for Andress, who first achieved fame as the original Bond girl. The sex goddess who arose from the surf in "Dr. No" is as strong a metaphor for the love goddess Venus as you're likely to see. No wonder their showdown is destined for the Temple of Venus. Anywhere else would be sacrilegious — and would ruin the joke.
In the end, the line between love and death is no clearer than the line between Marcello and Marcello, or between Venus and Venus.