Thursday, December 26, 2013

Culture Shock 12.26.13: Something is still wrong on 'Saturn 3'

For a time she was everywhere. From television to magazine covers to that legendary swimsuit poster, Farrah Fawcett was the sex symbol whose gleaming smile and feathered hair defined the '70s.

It was only a matter of time before she made the jump to the big screen in a big way.

The film was a 1980 sci-fi thriller called "Saturn 3," which gave Fawcett top billing over Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. While critical triumphs like "The Burning Bed" still lay ahead, "Saturn 3" bombed, signaling the beginning of the end of Fawcett's reign as America's Sex Icon.

"Saturn 3," newly released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout! Factory, is a strange and uneven little movie. Some things about it work, but for every success there are two or three (maybe four) failures. Yet because of its star and, more importantly, how it treats her, "Saturn 3" is more intriguing than ever.

It begins promisingly, with an inventively nasty murder. Keitel's mentally unstable Capt. Benson kills another pilot and assumes his identity and mission. The mission is to deliver a robot to an agricultural research station on Saturn's third moon. (Why would anyone build a glorified greenhouse in such a remote place? Best not to dwell on it.)

The research station, carved into the rock beneath the moon's surface, is a paradise. There, Adam (Douglas) and his "Eve," Alex (Fawcett), live a life of leisure while occasionally tending their "garden." For Adam, this is a green and beautiful Eden, far away from an overpopulated and polluted Earth. For Alex, who was born in space, Earth remains a tempting prospect. All that's missing is a snake. When Benson arrives, his Earth speech patterns and Earth habits remind Adam of why he left, while to Alex they're an odd fascination.

Benson is even stranger because director Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") brought in British actor Roy Dotrice to overdub Keitel's voice. Dotrice gives Benson a generic mid-Atlantic accent and mechanically precise diction. It's a controversial choice, but it makes Benson even more of an outsider.

Still, the real space oddity is Hector. He is a towering, lumbering robot with a tiny, ridiculous Erector Set of a head and a hard drive made of real brain tissue. Hector is programmed through direct input from a human brain. Unfortunately, when the brain in question belongs to a madman, well, you can guess where this is going.

To make matters worse, Benson is infatuated with Alex and frustrated that Alex and Adam don't share his free-loving ways. He is incredulous when he learns Alex is "for the Major's consumption only."

A jealous maniac who passes his jealousy on to a hulking robot? What could go wrong?

For her part, Alex is merely an object to be possessed, which in futuristic Earth slang amounts to being "consumed." Alex is protected by Adam, lusted after by Benson and threatened by Hector. She  makes no decisions of her own and might as well be a poster on the wall.

But even passive objects can have power, and Alex/Farrah has the power to drive both man and machine to destruction. She is Helen of Troy as well as Eve, which perhaps explains Hector's name.

The screenplay is by British writer Martin Amis, who later used the experience in his novel "Money." Whether deliberate or not, he makes "Saturn 3" into a commentary on Fawcett's role in popular culture at the time. She is the object of our gaze. Men want her. Women want her hairdresser.

Otherwise, much of "Saturn 3" is a rehash of other films of the period. Adam and Alex's cat-and-mouse routine with Hector takes us back to the dark corridors and service shafts of "Alien."

The Shout! Factory disc is a major improvement over ITC's out-of-print DVD, even if the laughably dated special effects come out worse for the improved color and resolution.

If "Saturn 3" has taught us anything, it's that no one is looking at the spaceship models anyway.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Culture Shock 12.19.13: 'Big Gundown' is a Western gem rescued from obscurity

Fewer and fewer vintage films are finding their way to DVD, much less to the high-definition glory of Blu-ray. Too many still languish, in need of restoration and preservation, in the vaults of indifferent studios.

So, give indie distributor Grindhouse Releasing all due credit not only for rescuing "The Big Gundown" from obscurity, but for giving it a release worthy of "Citizen Kane," or "Vertigo," if Hitchcock is more your flavor.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says "The Big Gundown" is the best spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone, and if that isn't true, it's not far off the mark.

Leone set the standard for the genre with his Clint Eastwood-starring "Man with No Name" trilogy and his operatic "Once Upon a Time in the West," which turned everyman Henry Fonda into one of the screen's great villains. His success spurred many imitators, most famously Sergio Corbucci's "Django." But director Sergio Sollima's "The Big Gundown" (1966) is the cream of the crop.

Lee Van Cleef, who upstaged Eastwood in Leone's "For a Few Dollars More," stars as John Corbett, a bounty hunter looking to turn his reputation for cleaning up Texas into a political career. But Senate campaigns don't come cheap, even in the 1800s. So, when a rich businessman (Walter Barnes) offers his backing in exchange for help getting a railroad through his property, Corbett accepts. After all, the railroad is good for all of Texas, Corbett figures.

They've barely sealed the deal when news comes of a 12-year-old girl's rape and murder, and the lone suspect is a knife-throwing Mexican outlaw called Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). What better campaign publicity could you ask than bringing in a notorious child rapist and murderer to face justice? It's all so convenient. Too convenient, as it turns out.

Finding Cuchillo is surprisingly easy, but keeping him is another matter. Corbett may have cleaned up Texas, but he has never faced anyone quite as wily as Cuchillo, who tricks his way to freedom time and again, and charms beautiful women with raw machismo.

Milian plays Cuchillo with charisma to spare. He may be a rogue, but we don't believe for a minute he's really guilty. For once Van Cleef is the one getting upstaged, and that's by design.

Van Cleef delivers a measured performance that pays off when we get to the "big gundown" the title promises. The inevitable showdown pits Corbett against the businessman's personal hired gun, a monocled Prussian baron (GĂ©rard Herter) who left a pile of dead duelists back in Europe.

Cuchillo starts out disillusioned with both the Mexican government and the revolutionaries looking to overthrow it. By the end, Corbett is left wondering if politics north of the border is any better.

Like other Italian-made Westerns, "The Big Gundown" is filmed on location in Spain, and Sollima and cinematographer Carlo Carlini make the most of the desolate yet gorgeous Mediterranean locale. This is an Old West that's deadly yet seductive, especially as reproduced on Blu-ray by Grindhouse Releasing.

It has been a banner year for Grindhouse, coming off last year's tragic death of company co-founder Sage Stallone (son of Sylvester Stallone) at age 36. First there was Grindhouse's Blu-ray/DVD combo of the little-seen Peter Cushing horror flick "Corruption," marking the 100th anniversary of Cushing's birth.

Now there's "The Big Gundown" ($39.95 suggested retail), a four-disc release that belongs on every cinephile's shelf. The set includes two Blu-ray discs (the English-language version and a longer Italian cut with English subtitles), the English-language version on DVD and a CD of revered film composer Ennio Morricone's energetic score.

It's a lavish presentation of the sort more films deserve.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Culture Shock 12.12.13: 'Canyons' is jilted director's Dear John letter

With "The Canyons," director Paul Schrader has concocted a fable about the death of film, and given audiences reason to wonder if it isn't so much a death as a mercy killing.

But the death rattle you hear isn't cinema's. It's the last gasp of Lindsay Lohan's career. The once-talented starlet both stars in "The Canyons" and claims a co-producer credit. Despite her diva-ish refusal to promote it, Lohan owns this car crash.

Now that it's on DVD and Blu-ray, and playing at a Redbox near you, we can all have a gawk.

The opening and closing credits play over images of abandoned movie theaters, wastelands of the multiplex's heyday. It's nostalgia for something that, during its time, old fogies thought was a symbol of decline from an earlier heyday, the heyday of art deco movie palaces.

Now Schrader is the old fogey, shaking his fist at a Hollywood that has not only abandoned godlike studio moguls such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, but the young rebels of the early '70s, too. In the Hollywood of "The Canyons," making movies is the pastime of oversexed dilettantes.

Christian, played by adult-film star James Deen, wears his trust fund entitlement like an Armani suit. Producing movies is something he does to relieve the boredom, and so he produces the sort of movie that makes money nowadays: a brainless horror flick. When he isn't doing that, he makes cellphone movies of his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan), having sex with other men, and other women.

This is what making movies has become: spectacle for teenagers and the Internet. "The Canyons" couldn't be more obvious if it showed us a studio boss addicted to cat videos. For Schrader, who long ago wrote the screenplays for "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" and directed an underrated remake of "Cat People," this Newest Hollywood has become the kind of cesspit that unhinges the Travis Bickles of the old New Hollywood.

Aging enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis ("American Psycho"), who wrote the screenplay, seems to be in self-parody mode, although you wonder if he is in on the joke. Schrader certainly isn't. Nor is the cast, who recite their dialogue as if through a Xanax haze.

It's all so tedious you might doze off and miss the plot, which involves Christian going about his spoiled-brat ways and mid-afternoon quickies while obsessing over Tara's possible infidelity.

As it happens, Tara did have a fling with wannabe actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), who is now the lead in Christian's horror flick, thanks to her recommendation. Now Ryan wants to rekindle their romance, but Tara is conflicted, having grown a bit high-maintenance as Christian's kept woman.

"The Canyons" eventually unravels into jealousy, accusations, blackmail and murder, all of which is set dressing for the film's central sex scene, a four-way that would have been transgressive 20 years ago, but comes across as a plea for attention now. "The Canyons" is like a middle child pooping his pants to get noticed when he thinks Mommy and Daddy are doting too much on the new baby.

No one acquits themselves well. Ellis seems to be cribbing from his previous work, including a murder scene that will have you thinking of Patrick Bateman. Schrader's direction is perfunctory. And Deen isn't up to the challenge of playing a sociopath, coming off as wooden when he should be steely.

But it's Lohan, diminished by her own excesses, who emerges worst for wear. Still in her 20s, she looks in her 30s, and her performance, while varying in volume, is constant in its indifference. Hidden behind a plaster of mascara, she looks like she might have stumbled in from the set of a John Waters film.

If only she had. With his gift for kitsch and camp, Waters might have made something out of "The Canyons." Instead, all we have is a scorned filmmaker's Dear John letter to Tinseltown.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Culture Shock 12.05.13: TV embraces your inner psychopath

James Spader in "The Blacklist."
The breakout series of this fall's TV season is NBC's "The Blacklist."

As a drama, it's a bit far-fetched, relying on coincidences, improbable twists and characters stubbornly keeping to themselves information that would resolve the plot. In other words, it's indistinguishable from most other TV dramas. But none of that matters, because what makes "The Blacklist" so addictive is James Spader's performance as globetrotting super-criminal and, when it suits him, FBI informant Raymond "Red" Reddington.

Spader has made a career of playing characters who earn the overused label "quirky," and he won three Emmys portraying windmill-tilting attorney Alan Shore. Now he has the role every actor dreams of. He has his own psychopath.

Well, maybe Red isn't quite a psychopath, but he's close enough. He has most of the same traits as the other antisocial protagonists who have become some of television's most popular characters. It's a pantheon so shady some of its members don't even qualify as anti-heroes, yet few of them are entirely villains, either. They go up to the line, cross the line, erase the line, and pick up the line and skip rope with it. They operate outside the system, live by their own moral codes and get things done when no one else can.

They're throwbacks to Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan and Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey, who embodied 1970s outrage at runaway crime and a justice system seen as coddling criminals. Liberals recoiled, seeing "Dirty Harry" and "Death Wish" as fascist wish fulfillment. Conservatives looked at Callahan and Kersey and saw the last sane men in a world gone mad.

Since then, violent crime has declined to near-historic lows, but you couldn't tell from the way people still worry about it. Yet on top of that, now there is the perception white-collar crime is out of control, that Wall Street can wreck an economy, leave taxpayers to clean up and get away with barely a public shaming.

The political system is in thrall to the powerful and well-connected, government spy agencies spend most of their time spying on their own citizens, and now you can't even keep your health care no matter how much you like it. Every institution in America seems broken or corrupt or both.

No wonder we turn to characters like Red, who exist outside the system. The Miami police are so incompetent and politically compromised, they miss the serial killer in their ranks. Good thing Dexter Morgan goes after only other serial killers, armed with his own moral code, "The Code of Harry."

Hannibal Lecter isn't quite as nice, but he still rationalizes his actions by claiming to eat only the rude. Who hasn't wanted to deal out just desserts to a cad or 200?

Now NBC has turned Dracula, usually a villain and sometimes a tragic hero, into an anti-establishment crusader, pretending to be an American industrialist whose anachronistic, steampunk, green technology will bring down his hated enemies, who happen to be Victorian oil barons.

Yet Dracula is still Dracula. He acts without remorse, sacrifices pawns and leaves a trail of blood-drained corpses in his wake. He's no hero. He just has an agenda people nowadays kinda like.

The stakes today are much higher than they were in the 1970s, and our vigilantes have grown larger to match. No doubt, as liberals fretted, they are a kind of wish fulfillment, but liberals make wishes just as conservatives do. As H.L. Mencken wrote, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."

We still turn to rule-breaking heroes: Dr. Gregory House, the two modern-day Sherlocks of CBS and the BBC, even Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. They all break the rules to get their way.

But sometimes the threats are so bad, we want heroes who aren't heroes at all, really. Guys who will get their hands dirty and not lose a wink of sleep over it. In a world gone mad, it's the ultimate wish fulfillment.