Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.


Metropolis

January 1, 2013

metropolis_6Metropolis first became a gleam in Fritz Lang’s eye when the great German director visited New York City in the mid-1920s and was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Lang spent the next two years—and a whole sackful of his studio’s money—creating a futuristic movie about workers struggling against inhuman overdeveloped “progress” in the year 2028.

Audiences were even more dazzled by Lang’s majestic vision. When it came time to export the three-hour film, however, somebody decided that overseas viewers would benefit from a shorter version. These original exporters thought it best to cut out a character named Hel, for instance, because they feared American audiences would misunderstand the name. Hel just happened to be the mother of one of the main characters, but never mind about that.

So English-speaking audiences have never seen the full-length film—and they never will. Too many pieces are lost for good.

But the film has been restored to as full a length as possible by extremely surprising hands—those of disco maestro Giorgio Moroder, he of Flashdance and American Gigolo. It seems Moroder got the idea to give Metropolis a vibed-up soundtrack, but he got sidetracked. He started hunting down bits of the movie that had fallen out along the way.

This reissue of Metropolis, then, is Moroder’s unique contribution to film history. He’s gotten some of the movie off the shelves of collectors. He’s also given it a rock music score, complete with Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, and Bonnie Tyler.

Now, that rock score, in theory, sounds pretty cringe-worthy. And in fact, some of it stinketh. The songs, which feature lyrics that stupidly comment on the action, are somewhat obtrusive.

But the instrumental music is often quite good, and certainly does not seem outrageously out of place in Lang’s bizarre dream world.

Ultimately, the movie rests and falls on its visuals. It was shot as a silent film, and can thus presumably stand on its own. Does it?

The answer from this reporter: an unqualified, slack-jawed, weak-kneed Yes! Wow! What a movie. The theme, as stated, is basic: “Between the head and the hands, the heart must mediate.” The head is the ruler of Metropolis, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who runs the city from his office high among the skyscrapers.

The hands are the workers, who exist in slavery in horrific quarters deep below the city. The heart comes into play when Frederson’s son (Gustav Frolich) has his consciousness raised by the presence of a good woman (Brigitte Helm), despite the efforts of a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to stop them from leading the workers to the light.

Lang visualizes this simple theme with astounding ingenuity that goes beyond the spectacular production values. But oh those production values: the huge underground city, the transformation of a woman into a robot, and—would you believe 11,000 bald-headed extras constructing the Tower of Babel?

Frolich is something of a wash-out in the lead role, and Abel’s part seems shortened by the original editing. But two of the performers have been immortalized by their roles. Klein-Rogge is the ultimate mad scientist, and Helm is disturbingly weird as both the Lillian Gish-like good girl and as the lusty, utterly crazy robot.

The film has, for years, been called a prediction of the rise of Nazism. It’s interesting to note that Lang, who was sometimes accused of being a dictator on the set, left Germany in the early 1930s after Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels invited Lang to make official party films for the National Socialists. Thea von Harbou, who wrote the humanistic message of Metropolis—and was also Lang’s wife—stayed on and worked for the Third Reich.

Historical considerations aside, Metropolis is a spellbinding movie experience. Even with Moroder’s win-a-few, lose-a-few soundtrack, it puts the current competition to shame.

First published in the Herald, August 30, 1984

An early showing of this version was a benefit for the Seattle Film Society, as I recall. Of course, film history has gone far beyond the running time of Moroder’s cut of the movie, what with reels found in Argentina and all. Whatever your opinion of Moroder, the movie did look really cool on a giant screen again. There were a few zany moments, including one etched in my brain that involves the creation of the robot and Bonnie Tyler bellowing the words, “Here she comes!”


Alien Nation

November 29, 2012

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.


Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.


Iceman

November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.


The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).


Deepstar Six

September 27, 2012

Not every movie released this January is going to be a thoughtful, serious film along the lines of Mississippi Burning or The Accidental Tourist. No, there’s also room for trash. And trash describes Deepstar Six, a dopey but curiously welcome little science-fiction contraption.

Deepstar Six is utterly without an original concept, but it does have a certain B-movie kick. It borrows from Alien, Jaws, and just about every other successful horror film of recent years, with a bit of The Poseidon Adventure thrown in.

It takes place in a high-tech research lab sitting on the bottom of the ocean, where scientists are doing whatever it is scientists are always doing in these movies, and the military is preparing an undersea base for nuclear missiles. When a cave under the ocean floor collapses, something nasty gets out. Something nasty and, apparently, hungry.

You can see Alien creeping in. Actually, this sea monster is something of a red herring (ahem) since the crew’s real problem is in leaving the lab before a nuclear detonation occurs (a boneheaded engineer mistakenly set the controls to self-destruct). So the valiant scientists must find a way to liftoff while keeping shy of the sea beast.

Okay, it’s dumb. But if you have a fondness for the conventions of funky 1950s sci-fi movies, Deepstar Six is easy to take. For instance, it is traditional in these movies that the women scientists are shapely PhD.s who like to wear tank tops. That tradition thrives in Deepstar Six.

Director Sean S. Cunningham, whose place in cinema history is assured thanks to his creation of the Friday the 13th series, takes his time about setting up the situation and then letting the good times roll. Granted, the characters are cardboard and the special effects are cheesy, but that’s part of the fun.

Even the actors are a surprisingly decent bunch. Taurean Blacque (of “Hill Street Blues”) is the captain. Greg Evigan and Nancy Everhard are the young couple in love. Cindy Pickett (“St. Elsewhere”) is the capable doctor, and Miguel Ferrer steals the show as the crew’s coward (there’s always one).

Plus, they’re not writing dialogue like this anymore: “That thing killed half our crew. I want it dead.” And: “When we get out of this, I’ll marry you in a minute.” And my favorite: “Wait a minute. There’s something in the airlock!” So who can resist?

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

“Dopey but curiously welcome” strikes me as a legitimate subgenre of movies. But I haven’t found this one welcome enough to view since then.