First Bad Times (This Week’s Movies)

firstman

Ryan Gosling: First Man (Universal Pictures)

Links to my reviews published this week in the Herald and SeattleWeekly, and etc.

First Man. “Even if First Man doesn’t fire on all cylinders, its unusual protagonist is fascinating in his blankness; here, the right stuff is downright cold-blooded. ” (Herald link here.)

Bad Times at the El Royale. “Doesn’t have quite enough twists to justify the 141-minute running time.”

My Seasoned Ticket throw-in for the Scarecrow Video blog is a collection of notes on Roger Corman horror films – yes, it is October. Read it here.

In the Year 2889 (The Cornfield #22)

The number 2889 shall henceforth measure the distance between resonant childhood experience and cold-eyed adult perspective on a movie. I recently re-watched In the Year 2889 for the first time since seeing it at age twelveorwhatever, and the effect was having a movie-memory full of mystery and magic brought crashing down to earth.

I had a feeling that would happen. In the Year 2889 is a 1967 American-International picture directed by Larry Buchanan, whose name has come down to us as the trashmeister of Mars Needs Women and Zontar: The Thing from Venus. Its title and plot are both second-hand: the title is derived from a Jules Verne connection, and the story remakes Roger Corman’s 1955 film The Day the World Ended.

I didn’t know any of this when I saw the movie as a child, had no idea Buchanan would later become a camp figure for connoisseurs of bad cinema. Probably hadn’t seen the Corman film at that point, either. I simply watched the movie unfold in some sort of hushed late-night-TV situation and was enchanted by the premise: an isolated house located in a geographical anomaly that would keep the nuclear holocaust’s radioactive vapor from drifting into its vicinity. Here a group of survivors hunker down to wait out the worst of it, with the usual bickering and goo-goo eyes, including one guy who got affected by the radiation and seems to be turning into a mutant. (It is not set in the year 2889. Given the turtlenecks and the hair length, it might take place ten years ahead of the year 1967, at the outside.)

Being a sucker for end-of-the-world scenarios and fantasies of complete independence (every kid should read My Side of the Mountain at a vulnerable age), I liked this very much. The house was buffered by thick forest and hillside, offering a cozy sort of Eden, while the possibility of scary mutants added just enough menace to keep things lively. Nobody knew the mysteries that lay beyond the hills, or what might happen in the future.

(Speaking of what lay beyond the hills, one of my favorite scenes in Corman happens in The Day the World Ended: the mutant comes back to the house from one of his wanderings – he’s like an outdoor cat that disappears at night and shows up at the backdoor the next morning, having seen unthinkable things during his nocturnal prowl – and dreamily describes the new society that is being formed out there among the evolving race of mutants. Partly of the old human world, partly of the new, he’s a strangely haunting figure, even within the B-movie environs.)

So I watch this movie now, because Scarecrow Video actually stocks a copy on its shelves. And it takes almost no time for the mist of childhood memory to clear. In the Year 2889 is terrible. To be fair, this DVD copy of the movie is atrocious, seemingly a dupe of a dupe of a 16 mm. print or something; the movie probably won’t ever look as good as it did when I saw it on TV in the early Seventies. And the soundtrack makes Chimes at Midnight sound like Dolby digital. Fine, one makes adjustments for those sorts of technical shortcomings. But it’s still a crummy film on every level, even with the sturdiness of the Corman picture serving as its understructure.

The timing is completely off, and the acting wooden. The name in the cast is Paul Petersen, who achieved youthful popularity on “The Donna Reed Show” and, as the next Ricky Nelson, scored some pop hits. (His single produced by Brian Wilson, “She Rides with Me,” is something to savor.) There’s also Bill Thurman, who beefed his way through a few B-character roles (and The Last Picture Show), doing a tiresome bit as a boozer who hides his jugs of moonshine on the property. It must be seriously potent hooch, because the two jugs last for weeks. Everybody’s pretty bad.

All right, so that memory is affected, although in the month or so since I watched In the Year 2889, I think the old memory is coming back and crowding out the recent re-viewing. I hope so. Now the question is, do I dare watch The Monitors again?

Paul Petersen’s “She Rides with Me,” here.

Not of This Earth (The Cornfield #20)

Beverly Garland, Paul Birch: nurse and emissary

Because I have been tooling around the state of Washington giving a talk on the subject of the alien-invasion movies of the 1950s, the Shout Factory DVD release of a Roger Corman triple comes as a welcome refresher on this title. Attack of the Crab Monsters and War of the Satellites will have to wait their turn, because it’s been a while since Not of This Earth (1957) was available on a decent home-vid format.

When Roger Corman won his honorary Oscar, the gesture was received with a great deal of affection and much fond talk about Corman’s savvy business techniques and his tutelage of future Hollywood stars and filmmakers. Along with all that stuff, his own directing skills are authentic, and should be acknowledged when talking about the good ol’ days of shooting two movies in a week. Corman treats the zany storyline of Not of This Earth (screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna) with his calm, “why couldn’t this actually be happening?” hand, complete with nondescript yet nicely chosen locations and an alien menace who looks like an insurance salesman, albeit with funny accent and sunglasses.

In fact, the plainness of the presentation is why it succeeds. Opening scene: two lovebirds necking in a convertible parked at an everyday sidewalk (it costs too much to get the whole crew up to shoot in a scenic lovers’ lane); the chick gets out by hopping backwards over the passenger door – the way a cool kid would – and turns to enter one of those California low-bungalow apartment clusters. When the boyfriend’s jalopy is gone she pauses to look down the sidewalk, and Corman cuts to a long, empty, nothing sidewalk, and by god if it doesn’t raise the gooseflesh a little – because it looks like your sidewalk in your hometown, and the light is fading, and it doesn’t have a movie-luster. She goes inside the gate, saddle shoes skipping, and (following an obligatory cheap scare involving an owl) there he is: a man in a fedora and sunglasses, solid as a truck. He takes the glasses off, gives her the hoodoo look, and she drops. Something here is not of this earth. Great dreamy Rorschach-y credits follow.

Paul Birch plays the visitor; supposedly he left the production after an argument with Corman, and a body double filled in his role. The visitor, who calls himself Paul Johnson, comes from the usual dying planet and requires blood transfusions, which he mind-warps a doctor into providing; Beverly Garland plays the nurse hired for live-in duty, Jonathan Haze (future Little Shop of Horrors star) plays Johnson’s chauffeur, a vaguely beatnik/j.d. type. Corman may have the soul of a mogul, but he clearly had an appreciation for 1950s sick humor, and so the appearance of a desperate vacuum-cleaner salesman (Dick Miller) at Johnson’s front door becomes a five-minute vaudeville routine with a murderous punch-line.

Johnson communicates with his otherworldly commander by sitting in the armchair in his living room and speaking with a contraption inside a hidden bureau. Who needs a secret lair? This is much more sensible. Get a Coke from the fridge, sit in your favorite chair, and receive orders from your intergalactic masters. This is what works in the movie – the mundane made weird, an appealing trait of low-budget moviemaking.

On the B-movie resonance scale, Not of This Earth falls shy of A Bucket of Blood and Masque of the Red Death, but well above a score of other Corman projects. If the alien-invasion scenario is in vogue, and you can’t afford special effects of flying saucers, this is exactly the way to get in the game. There is a monster-movie monster, a flying thingie that lands on people and makes their heads bleed. But most importantly, there is a final scene in a cemetery, with a fantastic final shot that seems to predict Night of the Living Dead‘s opening sequence. A great opening, a great finish – the movie is half-earned already.

Culture Notes: Oscar Specials

laurenbacall2The special awards at the Oscars are a chance to reward worthy careers and correct huge oversights (Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock had to wait for Specials to get their hands on statuettes, inexcusable lapses that help explain Hitchcock’s snippy two-word acceptance speech: “Thank you”). The 2010 ceremony, continuing its spirit of abundance – 10 nominees for Best Picture – will fork over three Honorary Oscars and the Irving Thalberg award, the latter given out specifically to producers.

I can’t really explain why I am mildly obsessed with the Honorary Oscars, except for the general sense of righting past wrongs and affording an opportunity for the ceremony to pause for a few minutes to pay tribute to someone older than Megan Fox. The actual tribute gets shorter every year, and for a long time the tribute clips have been poorly chosen. (The Blake Edwards tribute was a bare-bones montage of sight gags, redeemed by Edwards’ own appearance: a piece of slapstick involving a motorized wheelchair.) For 2010, the honoraries will be handed out before Oscar night, at the “inaugural Governor’s Awards gala event” on Nov. 14 of this year.

Presumably that event will be mentioned/excerpted at the Oscar ceremony itself, in the manner of the dreaded technical awards recap. But still, how embarrassing. Maybe when they run the montage of the year’s deceased movie folk, they can play the Benny Hill music (“Yakety Sax”) as accompaniment, too.

The winners are deserving: Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, and Roger Corman. Exec John Calley will get the Thalberg. The Thalberg would’ve seemed the obvious choice for Corman, actually, since it goes to producers, but I won’t argue with the Academy being a little generous to the greatest figure in the history of exploitation (undoubtedly his track record as nurturer of young talent will be prominently lauded). Willis is a defining cinematographer of his generation, although his award is a reminder that the clubby nature of the Oscars kept him out of being nominated during his astonishing period in the 1970s (yep, no photography nominations for the two Godfathers, All the President’s Men, or Manhattan – gag). Bacall is an obvious choice, no complaints there, even if her actual filmography is overloaded with middling titles. She’s still a tie to a vanished kind of Hollywood, and she deserves extra points for having worked with Lars von Trier and Paul Schrader while in her eighties.

It would all make for a very nice Oscar ceremony, except that apparently it won’t. And I’m still annoyed about them giving Jerry Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award last year, instead of a proper special Oscar. Maybe this year they panicked at the thought of paying tribute to the director of Attack of the Crab Monsters in front of a half-billion viewers. Not realizing how cool that would have been.