Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Year 3, Day 281 - 10/8/11 - Movie #994

BEFORE: OK, I admit it, I screwed up - I forgot to check the celebrity birthdays for October, and if I had, I would have arranged these last few movies completely differently. I could have watched "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" today and given a Birthday SHOUT-out to Chevy Chase, and "Lord of Illusions" tomorrow on Scott Bakula's birthday would have been nice. Plus, I missed Neve Campbell's birthday by ONE DAY when I watched "The Craft", and there's an actress in tonight's film whose birthday is Oct. 11. So I temporarily forgot how well that system worked for the last 9 months, but it's too late to fix it now.

Backtracking out of the classic films, Norman Kerry was in "Tanks a Million" with Noah Beery, Jr., who was in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" with Burt Reynolds, who was in "Boogie Nights" with John C. Reilly (last seen in "The Aviator").

THE PLOT: A young boy meets a mysterious man at a freak show who turns out to be a vampire. After a series of events Darren must leave his normal life and go on the road with the Cirque Du Freak.

AFTER: It seems an odd bit of casting, choosing John C. Reilly to play a vampire, since that type of character is generally not known to have a sense of humor. His presence does lend an accidental comic overtone, but it's an indirect one.

This movie sort of suffers from that indecision of not knowing whether it wants to be a comedy with action and horror elements, or a horror story with comic elements, so it ends up being something of an in-between muddle, afraid to push too far in any one direction.

Plus, there's a lot of work to be done on the part of the viewer, keeping all the vampire rules straight, plus the freakshow rules. A lot of vampire movies, like "Underworld", "Blade", and even "Twilight" (I presume) come along and try to re-invent the wheel, adding daystalkers and serums and all kinds of new powers. This one places an importance on sharpened fingernails, running at super-speed, and the importance of cutting off ties with family and friends.

Plus there's a vampire council, and a difference of opinion about whether vamps should kill their prey, or just drink enough blood to get by. The ones who believe in killing are called the "Vampanese", which just sounds awkward. Plus there are full vampires and half-vampires - the half-vamps can stand daylight, and guard the coffins of the full-on vampires.

The freakshow has a wolfman, a bearded lady, a guy who can eat and regurgitate anything, plus a woman who can regenerate her limbs. What, no human blockhead? No sword swallowers?

And overseeing everything is a big man named Mr. Tiny. His first name creates a play on words that makes him seem very important, but they never explain exactly who he is (Death? Fate?) or what his ultimate plan is, but he does seem to have one.

It seems like such a simple story - boy runs off and joins the circus - but there's so much going on, and so many details (most of which seem very extraneous) that the movie just gets bogged down in its own mythology. I guess this is based on a series of young adult books - did they try to cram all the details from a set of books into one movie?

Also starring Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson (last seen in "Journey to the Center of the Earth"), Michael Serveris, Ray Stevenson (last seen in "The Other Guys"), with cameos from Patrick Fugit, Colleen Camp (last seen in "The Ice Storm"), Ken Watanabe (last seen in "Inception"), Salma Hayek (last seen in "54"), Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison (last seen in "Down to Earth"), Willem Dafoe (also last seen in "The Aviator"), Jane Krakowski (last seen in "The Rocker") and Kristen Schaal (last seen in "Dinner for Schmucks").

RATING: 5 out of 10

SPOOK-O-METER: 4 out of 10. The vampire stuff is pretty tame, but the werewolf is quite intense.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Year 3, Day 280 - 10/7/11 - Movie #993

BEFORE: From a genetic freak to a deformed one, both characters like to conduct experiments - one in a lab, and the other with musical casting ones at the Paris Opera House. Both characters live with little contact with the outside world, and both are motivated by the fairer sex. Am I reaching?

Linking actors from "The Fly II" is going to be tough, but here goes - Lee Richardson was also in "Brubaker" with Robert Redford, who was also in "Little Fauss and Big Halsey" with Noah Beery, Jr., who happened to be in the 1941 film "Tanks a Million" with Norman Kerry, who plays Raoul in tonight's film. So there.

THE PLOT: A mad, disfigured composer seeks love with a lovely young opera singer.

AFTER: I've seen the Broadway production once, and again done by a high-school cast, plus I watched the 2004 film version with Gerard Butler. So I doubt I'll find anything new in the story tonight, this is purely a follow-up for the sake of being a completist.

It's significant to note the date of this film, 1925 - that predates "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "The Wolf Man" AND "The Invisible Man". So this really kicked off Universal's parade of movie monsters, and served as the high watermark for the career of Lon Chaney.

It's also interesting to note what elements of the story were dropped from future incarnations of the story - Andrew Lloyd Webber was right to jettison Raoul's brother and Carlotta's mother - really, they serve no purpose in the story, and they're both not missed.

Future versions also portray the Phantom as a mainly attractive fellow, except for a few scars. Chaney's Phantom is a true fright, he looks like Voldemort in the middle of electro-shock therapy. I got chills when Christine ripped his mask off, and I've seen that bit dozens of times.

The ending was a little rough as well - the Phantom doesn't fare so well in this one. In the Webber version he's left alone in his underground lair, but in this one he's quite graphically beaten by a mob and tossed into the drink. Sorry, spoiler alert.

I watched a restored version, with constant music throughout (sometimes warranted by the scene, sometimes incidental) and while it wasn't completely colorized, every scene change was punctuated by a change in tint - so the underground scenes were tinted purple, the stage performances were pink, etc. Slightly more interesting than watching black and white.

But it still seems a bit futile to portray operatic performances in a silent film - audiences couldn't hear the singers, so how did they know whether Christine was better than Carlotta? Maybe this is what motivated them to add sound to the pictures, and then to invent color.

RATING: 3 out of 10 trapdoors.

SPOOK-O-METER: another 3 out of 10.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Fly II

Year 3, Day 279 - 10/6/11 - Movie #992

BEFORE: Well, the movie did set up its own sequel pretty well. Actor John Getz carries over, along with stock footage of Jeff Goldblum and a Geena Davis look-a-like. The audience was probably desperate to find out - what does a half-fly baby look like? They pulled the same stunt on the "V" mini-series back in the day...

THE PLOT: A few months after a hideously deformed Seth Brundle was mercifully killed by his lover Veronica, she dies giving birth to Seth's son Martin. Martin is raised by Seth's evil employer Anton Bartok, who requires Martin's help to solve the problems of the Telepods, believing the Telepods are the key for worldwide domination.

AFTER: I'm left wondering just how necessary this film was - I'm thinking, not very.

What does it really have to say about genetics, or science tampering with nature, or anything, really? The central character is about 1/4 fly (I guess...) - is that really enough to justify him becoming a genetic freak? Would the recessive genes really take over when he hit adulthood.

Which, in this case, is about 5 years - he ages at an accelerated rate, like the kids on soap operas so they can get them into dating storylines quicker. (Kids on soap operas age faster, and people in comic books don't age at all.)

Speaking of comic books, I was just telling someone yesterday about a Spider-Man storyline called "Disassembled" a few years back, in which Spider-Man mutated into a giant spider, and after emerging from a cocoon-like state, Peter Parker looked normal, but had gained the power to shoot webbing from his wrists (to more closely match the Spider-Man seen in the Raimi movies). Problem was, the different Spider-Man writers apparently didn't communicate with each other, and 6 months later they did a storyline called "The Other", in which Spider-Man appeared to die, but instead entered a cocoon-like state, from which he emerged with even more new powers. The character determined it was probably a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, except a nearly similar event had occured just a few months prior. Whoopsie.

Anyway, the Spider-Man stuff is bogus, because a bite from a spider wouldn't change someone's DNA. How many people have been bitten by snakes and not turned into snakes, or snake-men? I know, it was a radioactive spider, but radiation doesn't give people powers or change their DNA, radiation makes people sick. But I guess The Amazing Cancer-Man wouldn't sell many books.

As for Martin Brundle, who spends his nights in a windowless room, with little contact with the outside world, conducting pointless experiments to keep himself entertained - I feel ya, buddy.

Well, keep working on those teleporters, you'll get it right eventually. And at least sadistic security guards, and people who are cruel to lab animals get what they deserve, we hope.

Starring Eric Stoltz (last seen in "Rob Roy"), Daphne Zuniga (last seen in "The Sure Thing"), Lee Richardson (last seen in "Prizzi's Honor").

RATING: 2 out of 10 hidden cameras

SPOOK-O-METER: 4 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Fly (1986)

Year 3, Day 278 - 10/45/11 - Movie #991

BEFORE: Tonight's Hollywood junk science involves teleportation - or at least, that's how it starts out. DNA combining comes later, right? I feel like I've heard so much about this film over the years, but I've never watched it through, so it's all about being thorough.

Lots of linking possibilities tonight - I could have connected Chevy Chase with Randy Quaid through the "Vacation" movies, then gone through "Independence Day" to get to Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "Powder"), or mention the fact that Stephen Tobolowsky was also in "Thelma & Louise" with Geena Davis, but the best connection is through Michael McKean, who was in "Earth Girls Are Easy" with both Goldblum AND Davis.

THE PLOT: A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.

AFTER: Yeah, eating a late dinner right before watching this - not a good idea.

You know, if your average scientist invented a working teleportation device that could transport inanimate matter across great distances (OK, 15 feet, but still), he'd see the opportunity to do FedEx and DHL one better. Overnight service? Forget that, what about when it absolutely, positively has to be there right NOW?

But not Seth Brundle - he's not happy unless his device can also transport living people. He hates flying, I guess, and wants to put the airlines out of business. I can't say as I blame him, planes do go down, don't tell me it doesn't happen. I maintain that Man wasn't meant to fly, either in a plane or with wings coming out of his back.

Brundle hopes to get a "buzz" going over his new invention, so he decides to stop "monkeying" around with lower primate test subjects, and "wing" it by stepping into the device himself. OK, I'll stop with the puns, but you see where I'm going with this, right? There's a bug in the system, literally, hence the title.

Again, I'm no scientist, I can't tell you what would happen when your machine decides to give you a pair of designer genes (sorry) and make you half a fly. Would it play out like this? I have no idea. But maybe they should make those scientists who want to genetically modify our potatoes watch this film.

But, there's balance in the world of sci-fi - for every BrundleFly, there's a Spider-Man. Gaining the proportionate strength, speed and reflexes of a spider, along with webbing and the ability to stick to surfaces sounds like a pretty good trade-off, and all it cost him was one elderly uncle, his dignity, and the ability to sustain a long-term relationship.

There's a famous thought experiment using teleporters, which posits that if a man enters a teleporter and is broken down into composite atoms, essentially, at that point he's dead by disintegration. (We're assuming here that the matter gets converted into energy, and the same or a similar energy is then converted into matter at the other end.) Even if you could re-integrate the atoms in another location, and reassemble a man that looks, talks, and presumably thinks like who you started with, one school of thought says you've created a copy, not the man himself. Or have you? Does it matter whether the teleporter is transferring energy, or merely a genetic blueprint to re-create on the other side?

Also starring John Getz (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July").

RATING: 4 out of 10 camcorders

SPOOK-O-METER: 6 out of 10. Creepy man-fly is creepy.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

Year 3, Day 277 - 10/4/11 - Movie #990

BEFORE: OK, so it's not a straight horror movie, it's more like a throwaway 90's spy comedy, I'll wager. But it probably directly riffs off of last night's film, and linking by actors is relatively easy - Gloria Stuart was also in "Wildcats" with Goldie Hawn, who was in "Foul Play" with Chevy Chase (last seen in "Modern Problems").

THE PLOT: After a freak accident, an invisible yuppie runs for his life from a treacherous CIA official while trying to cope with his new life.

AFTER: In the original 1933 film, the invisibility potion came from some weird Indian plant pigment - something that turned a dog white, but with further refinement, could be injected under the skin of a man and make him transparent. Even assuming we're not talking about bending light waves or any impossible physics, from what I know of optics and color theory, white light is not the absence of color, it's the presence of all color wavelengths. Light has additive color properties, meaning that if the Invisible Man wasn't emitting any light, he should appear as a dark void.

However, with pigments, dyes and inks, color takes on subtractive properties - meaning that the sky is blue for a different reason than, say, a car is blue. A car painted blue appears blue because it's absorbing all light wavelengths except the blue ones. And in the case of paints, crayons, etc., the properties are reversed - so white is the absence of color and black the presence of all colors - which is why a black car gets hotter in the summer, it's absorbing more light/heat.

Even with this codicil, however, it's still got to be impossible to subtract enough color to make an man invisible, right? Maybe transparent like a jellyfish, but not invisible. Tonight's junk science dispatches all this, and our main character gets bombarded with radiation from a science experiment (yes, that old bugaboo) and his molecules are "in flux". Still pretty impossible, but whatever.

It's interesting to note that special effects did improve over the years - so by 1992 they had green-screening and ultimatte down pretty well. Around that time I was working on music videos as a P.A., and my morning job on shoot days was to paint the studio walls that very particular shade of green. (or blue, if we were working with a green Muppet or something) I lost several pairs of pants to that icky green color, that you've probably seen briefly during the weather report.

There is some suspense in this film as the CIA hunts down Nick Halloway, the updated Invisible Man. Any tension comes from the black-ops team with their heat-vision goggles and their tranq darts, and the knowledge we all have regarding what the CIA is capable of. But it's pretty unclear - do they want to capture and contain him, or use him as the ultimate secret agent?

Halloway just wants to get returned to normal - and maybe spy on a hot girl getting ready for bed. (See, I told you...)

The whole thing is narrated like a classic film noir, but that's where the similarities end. When you try to make a film that's action, suspense and comedy all rolled into one, you might just get a comedy that isn't very funny, or an action film that doesn't take itself seriously enough.

NITPICK POINT: As in the classic 1933 film, the Invisible Man points out that if he eats food, you can see it in his stomach for about an hour, until it gets digested - at which point it's presumably part of him, and therefore also invisible. But any food in his mouth, throat or stomach is surrounded by invisible body parts - so wouldn't it be invisible too? The light would be bent around it, or the radiation would also affect it, right?

NITPICK POINT #2: Sometimes Halloway is wearing visible clothing, and sometimes he's wearing clothing that's also invisible. Of course, since sometimes we the audience can see the character (even though he can't see himself), we wouldn't want to look at a naked Chevy Chase for 90 minutes, but still. Was this the clothing he was wearing when he was irradiated? And if so, how does he keep finding it, if it's invisible?

Also starring Daryl Hannah (last seen in "Legal Eagles"), Sam Neill (last seen in "Bicentennial Man"), Michael McKean (last seen in "Jack"), Stephen Tobolowsky (last seen in "Mississippi Burning"), with cameos from Rosalind Chao (last seen in "Going Berserk") and Patricia Heaton (last seen in "Space Jam").

RATING: 4 out of 10 trenchcoats

SPOOK-O-METER: 0 out of 10, unless you count the rogue actions of the CIA, which should scare us all as U.S. citizens. But not in a Halloween-y kind of way.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Invisible Man (1933)

Year 3, Day 276 - 10/3/11 - Movie #989

BEFORE: A true classic tonight, going back to the early days of monster movies. And it's a compact 71-minute film, which is great since we hosted a little party last night, and I'm short on time this morning. (Yes, after midnight is the best time to watch horror movies, no?)

Linking to this film was surprisingly easy, since Skeet Ulrich was in "As Good as it Gets" with Jack Nicholson, who was in "The Departed" with Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in "Titanic" with Gloria Stuart (last seen in "My Favorite Year"). Yes, the old lady from "Titanic" was young once, and she was in this classic film. A 72-year career in film is quite respectable.

THE PLOT: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

AFTER: Ah, isn't that always the way - the formula that gives a man invisibility also makes him insane - where's the fun without that? But you'd think that a man with the smarts to invent the invisibility potion would also think to do it in summertime - since he's going to be walking around naked a lot of the time. This guy has his scientific breakthrough in the dead of winter, and I guess waiting until springtime to try it out is simply out of the question.

So is heading for the women's dormitory, or anything of a really prurient nature - which, come on, is the reason why a man would invent an invisibility potion. But such things weren't spoken of in movies back in the 1930's. A naked man walking around town was probably shocking enough.

The acting here is quite overblown - I suspect the main character was told to over-compensate for the fact that he wasn't appearing on film most of the time - so he essentially had to act through a voice performance alone. The females in the film, however, are also guilty of over-acting - they're always just one line away from breaking into hysterics, as women of the time were apparently likely to do.

The effects are laughable by today's standards, but were probably cutting edge at the time. Although some wire-work was done to move objects supposedly being used by the Invisible Man, also some even cheaper prop-tossing, there seems to be a very early version of green-screening or matting used, when he was partially dressed. A floating shirt would be hard to fake back then, unless a real body was inside it, with the head and hands matted out.

Plus, I have to point out a severe over-reliance on newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts to advance the storyline. I suppose it makes sense, since we can't see the main character much of the time anyway - but still, film is a visual medium at the end of the day. Show us what's happening, don't just tell us about it.

I went back to my 2009 review of "Hollow Man", which was really just an updated version of this film - albeit with much fancier effects. I rated that film a "6", which helps for comparison's sake (plus it reminded me to drag out the ol' Spook-o-meter, which I forgot to do these last few nights).

The Invisible Man speaks of developing his formula, and describes the process as "A thousand nights, a thousand failures." Ouch, that really hit home for me, because with a few notable exceptions, that sort of describes my movie-watching adventures. I know I'm tough on films, so I suspect that if the scores were all tallied up, I'd find I gave out many more ratings on the lower half of the scale.

NITPICK POINT: A man comes to the police, telling them the Invisible Man is in his barn - he can't see him, but he can hear him snoring. The Chief Inspector determines that they can't possibly enter the barn to arrest him. Umm, why not? Can't you follow the snoring and tie him up when he's vulnerable? The Inspector's solution? Burn down the barn. How does THAT motivate people to turn the Invisible Man in?

NITPICK POINT #2: I realize he's insane, but how exactly is the Invisible Man going to take over the world with his powers? Sure, he can spy on people and learn their secrets, but that only takes him so far. What's he going to do, assassinate 4 billion people, one by one? Get elected leader of the world? I'm just not seeing how he's going to get from point A to point B here.

Also starring Claude Rains (last seen in "The Wolf Man"), William Harrigan, Henry Travers (more famous for playing Clarence the Angel in "It's a Wonderful Life").

RATING: 3 out of 10 bandages

SPOOK-O-METER: 1 out of 10. The Invisible Man's just not up there with Dracula and the Wolfman. What is he going to do, just disappear on you?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Craft

Year 3, Day 275 - 10/2/11 - Movie #988

BEFORE: Full disclosure - I taped this to put on a DVD with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", and I must have confused it with the film "Little Witches", which I'd seen before. So I've now realized that this film is in the collection, and I've never seen it. I got lucky with the linking tonight, since character actor Vincent Schiavelli from "Lord of Illusions" was also in "Valmont" with Fairuza Balk (last seen in "The Waterboy"). If I hadn't noticed that, I would have had to link from Famke Janssen to Salma Hayek through "The Faculty", and from Hayek to Neve Campbell through "54".

THE PLOT: A newcomer to a Catholic prep high school falls in with a trio of outcast teenage girls who practice witchcraft and they conjure up various spells and curses against those who anger them.

AFTER: Geez, that's a good summary from the IMDB - tells you everything you need to know, and you (almost) don't even need to watch the movie after reading that!

The film opens with a cover of the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows", performed by Our Lady Peace - so that got my attention right off. (covers of The Cars song "Dangerous Type" and Peter Gabriel's "I Have the Touch" are also heard later on) And the film is the story of 4 parochial school girls having sleepovers and experimenting with magic. OK, I'm really paying attention now...

But, it wasn't enough to hold my interest for very long. These girls got into the witchcraft game to get in touch with nature, but ended up using the spells to make themselves look prettier, get the attention of boys, and get revenge on the "mean girls" in school. Umm, don't they then become the mean girls themselves? See, they're not even self-aware enough to realize that. Petty bitches. I mean, witches.

Things go awry when their spells start to actually work - making a boy into one girl's love-slave, making the hair of one girl's enemy fall out. That girl was a racist, you see, so she deserves to lose her beauty (I guess), but if a cause-effect relationship between the two things isn't pointed out, how's she supposed to make the connection and realize the error of her ways? A better revenge would have been to cause some kind of tanning accident that would have made her skin really dark, then maybe she'd get it.

Unfortunately, one girl's wish was to have all the power of Manon, supposedly the big cheese in the magic world, without realizing that a person isn't supposed to have that much power. So she goes a little crazy, and the new girl has to become a "true witch" to put her in her place.

Eh, I lost interest about halfway through. Can't believe there's no porn version of this one - there's a porn version of "The Facts of Life", for chrissakes.

Also starring Robin Tunney (last seen in "The Darwin Awards"), Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich (last seen in "Armored"), Christine Taylor (last seen in "License to Wed"), Breckin Meyer (also last seen in "54"), with a cameo from Helen Shaver (last seen in "The Color of Money").

RATING: 3 out of 10 spellbooks

SPOOK-O-METER: 6 out of 10. Lots of creepy things - snakes, rats, and cock-a-roaches.