Saturday, November 26, 2022

Only now does it occur to me... CASA DE LOS BABYS (2003)

Only now does it occur to me... that I have derived a BLADE RUNNER reference from John Sayles' sensitive and not-at-all science-fiction-related drama, CASA DE LOS BABYS. 

The story of six women (Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Susan Lynch, and Daryl Hannah) caught in limbo at a Mexican resort, waiting for the paperwork to clear on prospective adoptions, CASA DE LOS BABYS is par for the course in the 'Sayles catalogue': a mosaic of characters, rendered humanistically, and possessing a quiet and universal dignity. 

Of course I'm going to zero in on a moment when Daryl Hannah's character "Skipper"––a Coloradan hippie, who, of all the women, has been waiting the longest––is running along the beach. I couldn't help but feel she was channeling her performance as "Pris," from BLADE RUNNER,

who takes great running leaps as she attacks Harrison Ford with her replicant thighs, fists, sticks her fingers up his nose, etc.

This, you should note, is a stretch. Obviously "Skipper" and "Pris" run in a similar way because they are both portrayed by Daryl Hannah. However, in the following scene, the other women of the Casa are discussing "Skipper" as they wait for her to arrive at lunch.

Soon, a STEPFORD WIVES reference gets dropped and Lili Taylor offers some real (trash) talk.

 


 "Someday, one of her microchips is gonna misfire." Alright, I've seen enough, I'm calling it: this is an implicit BLADE RUNNER reference!


The Nexus 6 microchips barely ever misfire.

It's also worth noting that Hannah has a long history of Sayles performance, from CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (whose screenplay Sayles wrote) to SILVER CITY (where she plays another Coloradan hippie in a performance which lightly riffs with her role in CASA DE LOS BABYS). In closing, you should watch this movie for reasons unrelated to BLADE RUNNER; it's a good one.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Only now does it occur to me... HARPER (1966)

Only now does it occur to me... that I'd like to take (yet another) moment to celebrate Shelley Winters, whose latter-day career was often defined by playing "women unaware they are in a sham romance with the protagonist" (LOLITA, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) and yet she rose above this by making exuberant and affirming and actualizing choices on screen. 

 Here, in HARPER––William Goldman's attempt at a mid-60s BIG SLEEP–– Winters plays a "wilted starlet" whom Paul Newman's private eye Lew Harper seduces (while pretending to be a superfan with a Texas accent). In relation to the other characters she is meant to be kooky and astrology-crazed. The film does its best to present her as comically undesirable, going as far as to show Paul Newman suffering fatigue while attempting to be nice to her. Shelley's revenge, however, has to be this dance montage where she tries out everything she learned from Debbie Reynolds (don't get me started on Shelley's legendary appearance in the Reynolds workout VHS called "DO IT DEBBIE'S WAY" where she does her best to sabotage the whole affair) and does a frantic Frug which culminates in her spilling her drink on Paul Newman.Well, just watch it:


A+!

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Only now does it occur to me... BLUEBEARD (1972)

Only now does it occur to me... somehow, by putting a drunken Richard Burton into what is essentially a Vincent Price role––playing "Bluebeard," with an actual blue spray-painted beard, in a campy Technicolor French-Italian-German-Hungarian co-production––

 

that you could end up with something that's quite so... mediocre.

This is an odd duck. It's directed by former Golden Age Hollywood player Edward Dmytryk (CROSSFIRE, THE CAINE MUTINY, and MURDER, MY SWEET), has a haunting soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (which is very reminiscent of his work on DUCK, YOU SUCKER, completed one year prior), and brilliant cinematography (Gábor Pogány),

 

art direction (Tamás Vayer ), 

 

and set decoration (Boldizsár Simonka), 

 

by a trio of talented Hungarians who would rarely find work outside of their own country. It occasionally evokes shades of Mario Bava, Hammer horror flicks, and Nicolas Roeg's work for Roger Corman. All of this is good.

However, the screenplay (by Dmytryk and three Italian collaborators, based on the dark fairy tale but updated for a 1930s setting) is an absolute train-wreck: unfocused, pretentious, and meandering. Or perhaps it's more like a messy bird attack, ordered by a lethargic Richard Burton on his wife who just blew a raspberry at him?



 

I'm sorry, I'm afraid I'm making this look better than it is. There is artistic merit here, and, hell, there is camp merit, too, but it keeps getting dragged down into a morass of Italo skin-flickery and wannabe arthouse pomp. Like the Nazi subplot that it can't quite support.

(That's right, this Bluebeard is also an Austrian Nazi––and the cheapjack scaffolding this film provides can't come close to bearing that historical load.)

So while the director and writers believe it is something closer to CABARET or MEPHISTO, and its design team believes it is something closer to THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and its star believes that it's his naptime (between his morning tipple and his happy hour), I think the producers––with their reliance on tawdry Eurosleaze thrills––think they're making a Tinto Brass or Joe D'Amato flick. Whew.

 Also, on a semi-related note, there are way more musical numbers in this than I would have imagined.

Oh, and Raquel Welch kinda sorta plays a nun. Maybe Ken Russell should have directed this. 


Speaking of Ken Russell, there's a ridiculous phallic moment where one of Bluebeard's wives cheats on him and then makes the mistake of falling asleep, naked, entwined with her lover beneath a rhino horn antler-chandelier. Which Burton gleefully unleashes upon the couple, impaling them.



And even though it's set in the 1930s, I guess Joey Heatherton is playing "Shirley Partridge" from THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY?

Damn, there I go again, making this look better than it is. Anyway, just go watch Catherine Breillat's BLUEBEARD instead.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Only now does it occur to me... ALIENS: GENOCIDE (1992)

 Only now does it occur to me... that ranking the best ALIEN-related media goes something like this:


#1. ALIEN (1979)

#2. ALIENS (1986)

#3. That ALIEN comic book where a space marine throws a saxophone at a Xenomorph

 


and after the space marines leave, said Xenomorph thinks about learning to play it. Objectively, this rules.

 

 

[For the curious, the comic in question is Dark Horse's ALIENS: GENOCIDE (1991-1992). I've only read the first two of six ALIEN omnibuses and they are extremely hit or miss. Some are excellent and carry novel concepts into the ALIEN universe (humans worshipping Xenomorphs in a death cult) or offer closure that ALIEN 3 denied us (the continued adventures of Newt and Hicks––renamed "Billie and Wilks" so as not to bruise the egos of the makers of ALIEN 3?). Others are hot garbage, basically deadline slapdash. Your mileage may vary!]

Friday, September 16, 2022

"The Marked Book" Chosen as a 2022 Lascaux Prize Finalist

The Lascaux Review has just announced that my short story, "The Marked Book," has been chosen as a finalist for their 2022 Prize in Flash Fiction. It will appear in print in their next volume, The Lascaux Prize Anthology.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Television Review: ZUMA BEACH (1978, Lee H. Katzin)

Stars: 2 of 5.
Running Time: 104 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Suzanne Somers (THREE'S COMPANY, SERIAL MOM), Michael Biehn (ALIENS, TOMBSTONE, THE TERMINATOR), Rosanna Arquette (PULP FICTION, AFTER HOURS, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), P.J. Soles (HALLOWEEN, ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, CARRIE), Tanya Roberts (THE BEASTMASTER, A VIEW TO A KILL), Steven Keats (DEATH WISH, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE), Mark Wheeler (THE CONVERSATION, APOLLO 13), Gary Imhoff (SUMMER SCHOOL, THE GREEN MILE), Delta Burke (DESIGNING WOMEN, WHAT WOMEN WANT), Kimberly Beck (ROLLER BOOGIE, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV: THE FINAL CHAPTER).
Tagline: "Her life had suddenly become a long drive to nowhere... so what better place to get it all together than her old stomping grounds, Zuma Beach! Let's get it together with a batch of beach boys and their golden girls... frolic with Suzanne Somers on Zuma Beach!"
Best one-liner: "Have some confidence in yourself." –"I can't. It's 9:30, and the stores stop selling confidence at five o'clock. And tomorrow is a holiday."


"I wrote that for a producer who just said he wanted a beach movie. He ended up selling it to Warner Bros., and soon Suzanne Somers was starring in it. I was going to direct it––for about ten seconds––but one of my mentors, Richard Kobritz, who later produced Christine, helped me see I didn’t want to do it. It was vastly rewritten, so I really shouldn’t have taken credit for it, but I was a little asshole in those days."

–John Carpenter, when asked about ZUMA BEACH by Fangoria in 2013 

 

Almost ten years ago, I did a "Poor Man's Carpy" series on this blog, devoted to John Carpenter marginalia like the co-scripted TV movie SILENT PREDATORS, the Tommy Lee Wallace-helmed VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS, trashy Hallo-sequels HALLOWEEN 666 and RESURRECTION, and the Dennis Etchison novelizations of THE FOG and HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. One which slipped under the radar was ZUMA BEACH. So here we are, in the dog days of summer, finally taking a look at this forgotten CBS Late Movie "sort of" written by Carpenter and three other guys.

What can we learn about John Carpenter from ZUMA BEACH? Very little, I'm sure, given his above quote, but I think it's worth looking into. (Says the guy who did a two-part deep dive into John Carpenter's filmmaker-buddy-garage band, The Coupe de Villes.)

It's a straightforward slice of life, giggle and jiggle flick designed to eliminate two hours on a lazy, hazy summer evening. Though it ends with a volleyball game, it never even possesses stakes as high as in SIDE OUT

 Suzanne Somers plays a pop star (whose big hit is the fictitious "Silent Whisper"), and she's having a mid-career crisis. 

In need of a reset, she clears her head at Zuma Beach, where she once enjoyed poetry and sand castles as a child. Zuma Beach is populated with a rogue's gallery of horny teens, pre-makeover nerds, beach bums, surfers, football jerks, hot dog enthusiasts, kite fliers, windjammers, cool visor-dudes and the like.



Somers becomes something of a beach elder here, primarily because it's a teenage hotspot. She dispenses wisdom, smiles pensively, and takes in some rays. 

 

Bullies vaguely receive their comeuppance, romances spark and fizzle, and everyone more or less fritters the summer away. This is ZUMA BEACH, ladies and gentlemen. It's so dedicated to its quotidian ensemble that if it were better written and had more interesting characters, it might even feel like an Altman or Linklater flick. As is, it's merely a pleasant time-waster filled with bright 1970s colors and some amusing and unexpected performances. For reference, the real Zuma Beach is in Malibu, about a 70 minute drive from the PRINCE OF DARKNESS church.

If I were trying to draw a real John Carpenter connection, I'd probably compare it to THE FOG, which also sees a strong woman adjacent to the music industry (Adrienne Barbeau as "DJ Stevie Wayne") finding her footing in a California beach community. There are even times that ZUMA BEACH feels like "a Carpenter horror movie, but before the horror begins."


The image of a child playing with his dog in the surf... recalls Stevie Wayne's son finding a plank from the Elizabeth Dane in THE FOG? C'mon, I'm trying here.


Oh, and there is a lot of feathered hair in this movie. Might I remind you that it was shot in 1978.


Mark Wheeler's elaborate feathered coiffure helmet puts Mark Hamill's to shame

With such a bare bones plot, you start focusing on strange details. Like Suzanne Somers' suntan oil, which looks like it's being dispensed from an Elmer's glue bottle.

We have young, Toto-era Rosanna Arquette as a character who tokes a lot of reefer. She's doing that quirky comedic 'Rosanna Arquette thing,' mostly indistinguishable from her performances in AFTER HOURS and DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, which is okay!

You have to admire (pre-Reagan) CBS Standards & Practices allowing such casual drug use to slip by without dramaturgical rebuke. 

Michael Biehn pops up, also in one of his very first roles, as a crazy-eyed, eyebrow-indicating lifeguard who uses his lifeguard tower as a bachelor pad.

Here, he's trying to pressure HALLOWEEN's own P.J. Soles into pre-marital sex. It's a good thing Michael Myers isn't around!

HALLOWEEN was released October 25, 1978; ZUMA BEACH debuted September 27, 1978. HALLOWEEN was filmed in May, and based on the look and general disposability of ZUMA BEACH, I have to imagine it was filmed that summer. It's quite possible that P.J. appears here as part of some John Carpenter favor; but given his disconnect to this movie, it's equally plausible that it's pure coincidence. I at least have to hope that John Carpenter was not responsible for a line of dialogue about "extracurricular sex-tivity."


Soles: "I have six pigtails"

As usual, P.J. Soles is a hilarious delight. And she has six pigtails. Count 'em––six! Why would anybody need six pigtails? Maybe she's choosing to pull focus by-way-of ridiculous hair/costume accoutrement––she does has a history of that. You may recall that in Brian De Palma's CARRIE, she established herself as the Queen of Pulling Focus with her big 'ol red rainbow ballcap. Bless.

There are some terrible, copyright-skirting faux-Beach Boys songs which play throughout, Tanya Roberts and Delta Burke wander through the frame, and Michael Biehn gets sand kicked in his face: a sobering experience for Zuma Beach's resident bully/Casanova.

There's a volleyball game and a riding-men-by-the-shoulders race,

and that's all she wrote. Er, rather, that's all John Carpenter and (at least) three other guys wrote. Do you feel like know all you need to about the ZUMA BEACH experience? I hope so.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

R.I.P., Clu Gulager

This one hurts. Clu first came to my attention as "Lee" in Don Siegel's THE KILLERS, where his vicious calm and truly inspired acting choices made such an impression that I was compelled to seek out as many of his films as I could get my hands on. 

First, it was the easiest ones to find––like THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE, WINNING, or MCQ; and then it was the rarities––staying up late to catch IRONSIDE, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER, and MURDER, SHE WROTE reruns, or buying old dog-eared videocassettes of WONDERLAND COVE/a.k.a. STICKIN' TOGETHER and THE WILLIES and HUNTER'S BLOOD and THE INITIATION. Recently, I'd been overjoyed to see him reaching new audiences with bit parts in Sean Baker's TANGERINE and Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

His work is magnificent, no matter the context; in turns it can be morbid, melancholy, rugged, or hilarious. I saw him sow deep, satisfying empathy across a rogues' gallery of murderers, abusers (THE GAMBLER, among others!), and perverts (TAPEHEADS, among others!). There's his wonderfully macabre work with his departed wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM, creating a very human monster who bleeds pathos and induces in the viewer something approaching a somber state of agony. In each role he is intensely connected achieves a shocking level of intimacy; in each role he captures something that is true. Even in the films where he given nearly nothing to work with, like COMPANY OF KILLERS.

Then, I discovered Clu as a filmmaker. I saw the haunting and poetic A DAY WITH THE BOYS (available on the Criterion edition of GEORGE WASHINGTON and nominated for the short film Palm d'Or at Cannes), a film that wrests the viewer from reality and into a dream-space, one that's frightening and powerful. I saw several of the shorts he collaborated on with his family for their legendary acting workshops, read about the struggles of FUCKING TULSA (an incomplete film I dearly hope to have the opportunity to see one day), and got many kick from his son John Gulager's lovably demented horror features from the past decade (which are truly Gulager family affairs––films like the FEAST trilogy and PIRANHA 3DD). The entire family's work is infused with a fearless Grand Guignol sensibility and an infectiously gleeful streak of sadism, but it grapples with something larger and darker and more mysterious. In their incredible story, I see the anguish of life's stumbling blocks and I see the joy of what compels human beings to create. Clu and his family are soldiers of cinema, in the Herzogian sense.

PS–– For more context, I also highly recommend this piece about the Gulager clan (Clu, his wife Miram Byrd-Nethery (R.I.P.), his sons Tom and John, and daughter-in-law Diane Ayala) which first appeared in L.A. Weekly in 1997.