Thursday, April 24, 2008

HOME PRICES DROP MOST IN 28 YEARS. That's what it said on my AOL welcome screen today. So, I don't usually acknowledge anything that's happening in the "real" world because I don't really like the "real" world and ignore it as much as possible. However, this constant "SURPRISE" at the housing market going belly up just makes me laugh and I had to say something about it.
For those of you who have known me for quite a long time, I have been saying for the last 15 years that the housing market is going to go through the floor. And now that it is, everybody's acting surprised. Why? Don't nobody listen ter me?!?!?!?!!!! As I've been saying lo these past 15 years (and I have documentation and witnesses to prove it, Geraldo): all the baby boomers in decades past had the brilliant idea of buying a home as an investment for their retirement. When they retire, they can sell the house which (theoretically) will be worth a lot more than they paid for it back in 1977 and they will use that money to fund their retirement. Sounds like a pretty good idea, right. Except for the one or two FATAL flaws that I've been pointing out for almost 2 decades.
  • There are a LOT more "baby boomers" (born between World War II and 1963) than there are of the generation after them (that would be yours truly). Yeah, there are a LOT less of us. Which means all the baby boomers are going to try to sell their houses around the same time: when they reach retirement age. And there aren't enough of US to buy all of THEIR houses. Which means the prices of houses will fall and fall and fall. And the baby boomers will be outta luck. And those of us who never could afford a house of our own because the baby boomer generation has messed up this country SOOOOOOOO badly will now be able to pick and choose which overpriced (but now dirt cheap) house we want.

Of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that we STILL won't be able to afford the outrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrageous taxes. (SIDEBAR: Hey England, sometimes it seems like "taxation without representation" might just have been CHEAPER!!!). But I digress (as usual).

It's exactly the same thing that comic book collectors will remember happened to the speculation market in comic books in the mid-90's (an event that I also predicted, thanks a lot). Everybody and their mothers bought up every first issue and special foil cover of every comic book and stuck 'em in a vault hoping to make a bundle by selling them later for a HUUUUUUUGE profit. Naturally, everybody and their mother ALSO decided to sell them all at once. Result: comic book speculation market crashed and comic books that once were worth literally THOUSANDS are now worth approximately 25 cents. Just change the word "comic books" to the word "houses" and you've got the same outcome.

So what's all this hoohah about people acting surprised that the housing market has begun it's inevitable slide out of which houses will NEVER reach such high prices again. The dolts! That's right, I used the word "DOLTS" on my blog. And it felt GOOOOOOOOOOD!!!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN! I have just experienced something which I'm at a loss to wrap my mind around. Peter and Raymond. These two guys are on a little cd called "SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN!" and they never even knew it. OK, let me start at the beginning. Two guys named Eddie Lee and Mitchell moved into a rundown, bright pink apartment building in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco. They called it the Pepto Bismol Palace. Anyway, soon after moving in they began hearing their two neighbours Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman through the paper-thin walls. Peter and Raymond were on the far side of middle-age -- they were raging alcoholics -- and they were often violent. The two men had almost constant screaming matches periodically punctuated by fist fights. At first Eddie Lee and Mitchell were kinda spooked and freaked out but they soon began tape recording the fights through the paper-thin apartment walls. They then passed out the tapes amongst their friends. Eventually, the editor of San Francisco's Bananafish magazine contacted the two men after getting ahold of their Peter and Raymond tapes. In 1993, they were released commercially as a "Best Of" cd called "SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN!": derived from the constant insult Peter would yell at Raymond. The cd has developed a cult following and I just got ahold of one today. There has since been something like 7 volumes of Peter and Raymond cds released. Raymond Huffman died in 1992 and Peter Haskett died in 1996. But their chaos marches on. This cd is oddly compelling, laugh-out-loud funny and mildly disturbing -- all at the same time!!! Especially because all you are hearing is absolutely real while the two drunks are unaware they are being taped. Here is a sampling of some of the quintessential track titles: "If You Wanna Talk To Me Then Shut Your F****n' Mouth", "I Despise All Queers", "Go To Bed: Fist Fight I", "Someday I Will Kill You", "You Always Giggle Falsely", "We'll Set Your Hair On Fire", "This Time I Attack" and "You Wanna Stick Me With That Fork?" Seriously, these recordings have to be heard to be believed -- and you probably STILL won't believe it -- they're jawdropping and addictive! And yes, believe it or don't, in 2002 there was even an independent film made of Peter and Raymond called "SHUT YER DIRTY LITTLE MOUTH!". And if Fink would get off the stick and stop being coy and show me how to post audio on this blog, I would put up a sample so you could hear it. You listening, Finky boy?!?!?!?!?
HOLD EVERYTHING!!!! SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN! UPDATE!!!!! OK, it just gets better and better! First of all there apparently is a SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN website and here it is click here!
And besides that there's a little something I neglected to mention before. Several times during the recordings, there is a third guy named "Tony" who sometimes appears. Well, apparently Tony was some vagrant who was also Peter's lover -- this would probably account for Raymond's endless "anti-gay" tirades. Well, according to wikipedia -- and this just gives the whole mess an even more bizarre angle -- "Raymond Huffman died in 1992 , he was repeatedly kicked by Tony while lying in bed, and soon died from the trauma. Peter died in 1996 of liver problems due to years of excessive drinking. Tony was placed into a mental institution and his current whereabouts are unknown". Feel free to say "Holy shit" at this point. Well, even though Tony is NEVER heard yelling or objecting to anything during the fights between Raymond and Peter, apparently one day he finally had enough of the "gay baiting" and went bananas. Kinda gives the whole SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN! scenario even MORE of the fascination of a car wreck, doesn't it?????
THE FIVE SONGS: THE EIGHTH INSTANCE. It's been a while. This time around it's black songs -- since that is usually my mood. Black. Now the topic of these songs isn't really the colour -- it's all about blackness. And I thought what would be a more appropriate way to start of this particular topic than to choose as my first black song:
  1. BLACK EYED DOG by NICK DRAKE. We all know (or SHOULD if we're reading this blog) that ole Nick suffered greatly from depression. This is his song about depression: the black-eyed dog following him around constantly. Poor ole Nick had a crush on Francoise Hardy. Poor ole Nick produced three superb albums that sold nothing in his lifetime. Poor ole Nick struggled long and hard with depression. Poor ole Nick took too many pills and died. "A black eyed dog he knew my name/a black eyed dog he knew my name".
  2. PAINT IT BLACK by THE ROLLING STONES. One of my favourite Stones songs. Not my favourite but it's up there. The ultimate denial of the hippy 60's sunshine and flower power schtick. "I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes". My sentiments exactly.
  3. FADE TO BLACK by METALLICA. OK there seems to be a pattern here. Like every teenager worth his salt (and especially teenage metal fans), there's nothing I like better than a good suicidal song. "Things are not what they used to be..." And for those who don't really know me that well, you must be thinking I'm sending up some red flags with these song selections. Well, cool your jets. "Yesterday seems as though it never existed/Death greets me warm/now I will just say goodbye". But as those of you who know me REAL well already know, there's nothing to fear. I'm not gonna drink lye. I'm in love with death. . . .but that doesn't mean I want to MARRY her!
  4. BLACK by PEARL JAM. "I know someday you'll have a beautiful life/I know you will be a star in somebody else's sky/but why/why/WHY/can't it be mine." This is my favourite song. Those who know me very well will already know that. It's been my favourite song since the year 1992. Which will also disprove those of you who think you know WHY it is my favourite song.
  5. DRY YOUR EYES by THE STREETS. This has quickly become one of my new favourite songs lately. And yes, while it does demonstrate a blackness of mood it also peeks in with a little righteous indignation (very cleansing) as well as a small dab of that thing that some people refer to as hope. And as we all ALSO know, there has never been anything as cruel and brutal inflicted upon humankind than that insidious thing called "Hope". Basically, he loves her. She doesn't love him anymore. He's desperately trying to keep the relationship and she just doesn't wanna know. Then his friend tries to get him to let go and literally tells him "there's plenty more fish in the sea". And for the record, those of you who thought you knew why Pearl Jam's "BLACK" is my favourite song but were wrong, you would be RIGHT concerning why I like THIS song. "Dry your eyes, mate/I know you want to make her see how much this pain hurts/but you've got to walk away now/it's over".

So, there you have it. Because none of you slackers have come up with any interesting topics for The Five Songs (or any topics at all), I have inflicted this one upon you all. Gnash your teeth in despair, mortals because the next five songs could be EVEN MORE HORRIFYING!!!! Who knows, I might get even MORE negative.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"AN EXTRAORDINARY PIECE OF CINEMA." That's what Weaverman called it over at his blog FLEAPIT OF THE MIND. That's what a great many people have called it in whichever words they chose to convey that opinion. L'ECLISSE is indeed a revolutionary, groundbreaking film for 1962 and still today. Michelangelo Antonioni's films have a tendency to be that. I wrote about L'AVVENTURA (the first film in a loose trilogy that continues with LA NOTTE and finishes up with L'ECLISSE) before on this blog but I've been famously having trouble finding the words to talk about this one. That trouble hasn't really gone away but I will attempt to give a smattering of impressions about what has become one of my favourite films.
If L'ECLISSE is one thing it's pure film. Pure cinema. I've never seen a film that was more "pure film". Every shot is perfect; and more than that, every shot feels like the only possible shot. Whereas most movies focus on an involved plot and give us cardboard characters -- or focus very strongly on the characters without paying much attention to the background or setting of the movie -- L'ECLISSE seems to me to give equal weight to every single element on the screen. What is happening to the characters is exactly as important as their characterizations which in turn is exactly as important as the surrounding setting or objects on screen. In fact, people are almost interchangeable with objects and settings; quite often in the film an actor will leave the frame and we are left looking at some object still in the frame which seems just as interesting as the actors.
And about the actors. Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti is back for the third time and I can't really imagine anyone else playing her part in L'ECLISSE. There's something about Vitti's face which conveys so much; she is always thinking, feeling, conveying so much sometimes without any dialogue at all. Monica Vitti's face is, in fact, a feast that rewards so much with repeated viewings. She really is quite extraordinary. She doesn't seem to be acting at all while at the same time providing a stunning acting performance. You never see the artifice of acting; just the truth of it. And the great French actor Alain Delon is also remarkable. Antonioni famously tried to get his actors to "stop acting"; in other words, he didn't want the fake put-on acting but wanted his actors to really exist and feel in the part truthfully. Delon is a great naturalistic actor and is allowed to do that in some scenes: especially the two stock exchange tableaux which figure so prominently in the picture. However, at other times, as it has been said, Antonioni uses him almost like a marionette (Vitti as well). Delon seems to know what Antonioni was after since he provides exactly the right performance to Vitti's "exactly right" performance. This goes for every single actor in the film; no matter how small the part. You won't catch a single person "acting" in this movie. But each person gives a performance that's "truer" than many another film can boast.
Performances are also given by objects and locations. Don't ask me how but they are. An empty picture frame in front of an abstract sculpture. The Roman stock exchange with it's ancient columns. The strange EUR building looming over the city: an architectural remnant from Mussolini's days of fascism which resembles nothing if not a mushroom cloud(!). A fossilized plant. A piece of paper which, it turns out, has flowers drawn on it. In fact, Antonioni is as much concerned with negative space as he is with foreground objects. This goes for the sound of the film as well; absolutely masterly use of sound. The film is made up of alternating passages of extreme quiet and chaotic noise. The opening credits do indeed feature a blaring 60's Italian pop song which suddenly switches in mid-credits to a haunting, discordant piano piece. This device would be used decades later in Quentin Tarantino's opening credits for PULP FICTION and, in fact, may have influenced a similar haunting, discordant bleak piano theme appearing throughout LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT from the same year 1962.
As the credits end, the first shot of the film features objects: a lamp, row of books, a coffee cup, a strange white object we're not sure of but which turns out to be the shirt-sleeved arm of actor Francisco Rabal. There is very little sound except for the faint flutter of an oscillating electric fan. Fearlessly, the opening scene features no dialogue for almost 5 minutes! However, we very quickly become aware of what's happening. The obvious tension, the hurt looks, the aimlessly fiddling with objects while deep in thought: what we have here is the very end of a relationship between Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). It's been said that it's almost like we've walked in to the final reel of movie which doesn't exist; we're only seeing the final breakup and frankly that's all we need. The relationship's prior history has been jettisoned so that we can see the more interesting events to come. And this is probably the most accurate and truthful depiction of the final moments of a relationship that I've ever seen. Vittoria's mind is set; she no longer wants to be in this relationship. She's constantly looking for that "emotional connection" but isn't finding it here. Riccardo typically doesn't want the relationship to end and keeps trying to prolong it. Perhaps they can give it another try. Maybe we'll call each other in a few days. Why don't we embrace one last time. Of course, it's not to be. She leaves. He follows. They part. The time is early morning; so early no one else seems to be around. The streets are deserted and there's an eerie feeling to it all. In fact, with the presence of the strange EUR tower, it's been said the beginning of the film feels like a science fiction film as if these two are the last people on earth. When we do finally see another living soul, it almost comes as a shock.
Vittoria briefly returns to her own apartment (check out this excellent use of negative space here) and goes to the Roman stock exchange to see her mother who seems addicted to the stock market. There is a distance between mother and daughter which Vittoria can't seem to overcome. In fact, one of the most important themes of the movie is the fact that we human beings find it almost impossible to "connect" with one another. Even when we are "in love" there seems to be one last, vital thing missing: that intimate connection. This is demonstrated most vividly later in the film when Vitti and Delon embrace and kiss passionately. Antonioni then gives us a shot of Vitti's face suddenly emptied of passion. The director then gives us an alternate shot of Delon's face showing exactly the same thing. The hunger for genuine emotional connection is always there. We just can't seem to quite grab it. A masterful illustration -- one among many in this film. Antonioni is also concerned with showing absence; not only the use of negative space but simply the absence of actor's from a scene. The device of placing actors in a scene and then having them leave it focuses our attention on the on where the character was. This gives the objects and locations an incredibly powerful resonance emotionally which wouldn't have been apparent to the viewer if Antonioni hadn't done it just this way.
But back to the stock exchange. Vittoria's mother (again perfectly played by Lilla Brignone) is a small investor -- and the Roman stock exchange is a rather small stock exchange and not the main one in the country. Alain Delon plays Piero, Vittoria's mother's sorta broker who represents her for his firm on the floor of the stock exchange. The Roman stock exchange is located inside an ancient Roman building with marble and columns; it is here in the city where the soundtrack gets loud and chaotic after the relative quiet of the film so far. Later that night, Vittoria returns to her apartment where she hangs out with her neighbour Anita. Here she reveals her inability to emotionally connect in a master line of dialogue: "There are times when holding a needle and thread, or a book, or a man -- it's all the same." The pair go to see another neighbour Marta who had previously lived in Kenya. It is in this scene where we really see Vittoria cut loose and smile as she manages to find her elusive emotions only when she dresses up like a Kenyan and does an impromptu spear dance. Vittoria's fun is cut short when Marta inexplicably turns sullen and says "Let's stop playing negroes". Marta reveals herself to be quite racist saying the Kenyan natives have only just recently come down out of the trees and "lost their tails". This clearly annoys Vittoria who, even after having only just met Marta, still manages one or two pointed comments to her as her racism manifests.
Vittoria's emotional distance is only broken momentarily throughout the film. The joy she obviously feels pretending to be a Kenyan native only lasts briefly but it tells something of the deadening effect that "civilisation" seems to be having on her. Vittoria experiences another moment of brief joy when Marta's poodle gets up on its hind legs and walks around her in a circle. However, that moment is typically fleeting as Vittoria hears a strange sound from a nearby construction site and becomes rivetted by a row of tall poles swaying in the breeze. Monica Vitti is forever observing and touching things in this film; another demonstration of her constant search for -- something. The next morning Anita's husband takes them on a short plane ride and it is here too -- only after she has severed her bonds to the Earth and flies high up in the clouds -- that Vittoria literally sighs with the sheer joy of it. The freedom she feels is all too evident on her face. But this too is fleeting since the plane soon lands. It is at this point, much like in the previous L'AVVENTURA, that our heroine literally disappears from the film. But only for about 20 minutes -- she will be back.
It's here that we get the Piero portion of the film as we see the Roman stock exchange once again. However, things aren't good as the stock market has a mini-crash. The frenzied activity once again contrasts the previous quiet scenes as the stock brokers go bananas. Vittoria's mother loses quite a bundle by the time Vittoria reappears at the stock exchange. Vittoria becomes fascinated by a fat man who has lost 50 million. She follows him out of curiosity just to see what he does and how he handles a thing like that. She finds out -- I'm not going to tell you. It is also here that the nascent love affair between Vittoria and Piero starts. This makes up the bulk of the remainder of the film. I'm also not going to tell you what happens with that. Nor am I going to describe the absolutely stunning ending of the film. Antonioni is known for the "endings" of his films and this one is his best: incredibly brave and ballsy for 1962 and, indeed, even for the 21st century.
These are only some of my impressions; believe me, I could write a book. The only way to really know what the movie is about and to know what I'm talking about is to watch it. And watch it repeatedly since it only gets better with repeated viewings. It's riveting. It's absorbing. It's revolutionary. It's a downright masterpiece -- but in the vital, exciting way and not in the dry, academic way. And it's quickly become one of my all-time favourite films.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

IT'S WITH GREAT REGRET I HAVE TO ANNOUNCE THE DEATH THIS MORNING OF HORROR QUEEN HAZEL COURT: star of countless classic horror films with the likes of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and many more. Perhaps most historically significant for the genre, Hazel Court was the heroine of the very first colour Hammer Horror film: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; which began the long reign of the movie studio that dripped blood! I was lucky enough to meet Hazel on a couple of occasions and she was also very kind and giving to her fans. The very first time I met her was at the first Monster Mania conventions. I bumped into her there -- almost literally. I was entering a doorway and she was coming out. She had not been listed as one of the convention guests so I was quite flabbergasted to recognize her. After I excused myself and stepped out of her way, it registered who she was and I stammered something lame like: "Why, you're Hazel Court!!!!!" And she smiled and said, "You're right!" I later chatted with her briefly when I got her autographed photo (and when Hammer Horror star Ingrid "Countess Dracula" Pitt wasn't constantly trying to recruit me as her personal assistant. . . . . . . . but that's another story and a LOOOOOOOOOONG one) and Hazel Court was gracious and thrilled to have so many fans. During a wonderful Q&A session, she reminisced about her career and regaled us with anecdotes concerning Vincent Price and Peter Cushing particularly. Hazel and her late husband had quite a strong connection to the Philadelphia area (of which I am in a close by suburb) and the art community there. She only just now released her autobiography and it's very sad that she is no longer here to brighten up the horror convention circuit. She'll be greatly missed by all us true horror fans.
Some of my favourite Hazel Court roles:
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) w/Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee
The Raven (1963) w/ Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre & Jack Nicholson

Saturday, April 12, 2008

LITTLE KNOWN "STRANGER FROM VENUS" is basically a British rehash of "THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL". In fact, it even features one of that film's stars: Patricia Neal. Helmut Dantine (who appeared unbilled as the young newlywed who is trying to get himself and his wife out of "CASABLANCA") plays "The Stranger": an alien from the planet Venus who arrives on Earth as sort of an advance-guard ambassador for his planet's impending first contact with us. The film is directed by Burt Balaban; whose only real other film of note is 1960's "MURDER, INC.".
The film opens with Susan North (Patricia Neal) driving her car at night. Her car radio experiences interferance and she then loses control and crashes her car into a tree. The camera pans from her unconscious, battered body to the feet of an approaching man who looms over her car as the opening credits roll. This, of course, is "The Stranger" from Venus. Later, police find her crashed car but there is no sign of Susan. The Stranger shows up at the inn where a bevy of great British character actors have assembled: Derek Bond ("Nicholas Nickleby"), Cyril Luckham (the evil mage Drexil in "THE OMEGA FACTOR" discussed a couple months ago in this blog here), Willoughby Gray (Hammer's 1959 "THE MUMMY"), Nigel Green (Hercules in the Ray Harryhausen spectacular "JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS" as well as countless genre outings such as "COUNTESS DRACULA", juvenile delinquency classic "BEAT GIRL", Roger Corman's Poe flick MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH", heroic Sir Nayland Smith in "FACE OF FU MANCHU", and Amicus/Robert Bloch scarefest "THE SKULL"). Hell, even John LeMesurier ("DAD'S ARMY") makes a brief appearance!
Susan eventually enters the inn and her terrible injuries from the car accident have miraculously healed. The Stranger is handy like that. As the government learns they have a visitor from Venus in their midst, they cordon off the entire town so no one can get in or out. The Stranger is revealed to have rather strange, inhuman fingerprints as well as having reconditioned his respiratory system to exist in the Earth's atmosphere. Temporarily. If he does not return to Venus when his flying saucers buddies get here, he will die. Much like Michael Rennie's Klaatu in "THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL", The Stranger offers the Earthlings certain technological innovations but warns them that messing around with atomic bombs can play havoc with Earth's neighbours -- and they're not gonna stand for it. Of course, the government powers that be manage to steal The Stranger's Venusian communication device so he cannot contact his mother ship and prepare a secret ambush for the landing saucer (high-powered magnets to ground the Venusians when they land) in order to steal the high tech gadgets of the Venusians. The Stranger (with the help of his new human friends) recapture the communicator just as the saucer is attempting to land and warns the Venusians off -- thus stranding himself on Earth to certain death. The Stranger then goes off, sits under a tree and fades away (that's how Venusians die, in case you didn't know).
"STRANGER FROM VENUS" is a very minor 50's science fiction flick with a very modest budget, an abundance of great British acting talent and not much action. The film is EXTREMELY talking and pretty much the only action in it consists of Patricia Neal's car plowing into a tree, The Stranger chasing after a car on foot and the landing and skedaddling of the Venusian saucer. The film also seems to alternate "science fiction" dialogue scenes with violin-laden romantic encounters between Patricia Neal and Helmut Dantine. It almost becomes comical when you can accurately predict a mushy romance scene is coming because you've just finished with a talky plot-related one. "STRANGER FROM VENUS" isn't really a bad film; it's just not got nearly enough budget to do anything with. If you're a completist for all 50's science fiction films then seeking out a copy won't break the bank. However, I can't really urge anyone to run out and find this film. Just pop in your copy of "THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL" instead.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"SUCKS TO YOU!" The 1982 filmed stage play of Agatha Christie's "SPIDER'S WEB" fell across my eyes when it aired on the brand-new Arts & Entertainment network on a programme called "STAGE" hosted by Tammy Grimes. Back in the early 80's, there were a lot of "filmed plays" on TV; besides A&E, HBO was a champion for a while airing a new filmed play a month. My last post mentioned the filmed stage play "SWEENEY TODD" which was also broadcast on A&E's STAGE and I thought I might focus on some of the "filmed stage plays" I most enjoyed back in the day. And here's this one.
"SPIDER'S WEB" was a play written by Agatha Christie at the behest of actress Margaret Lockwood who was tired of playing "baddies" all the time and wanted to play a "goodie" for a change. Christie penned this play (which was originally entitled "CLARISSA FINDS A BODY" and Lockwood starred in it to some success. Years later, in 1982 somebody somewhere decided to produced it for television with the new title of "SPIDER'S WEB" which frankly doesn't have much to do with the play itself.
This version stars Penelope Keith ("TO THE MANOR BORN" and "THE GOOD LIFE" aka "GOOD NEIGHBORS") as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: a woman people never believe when she's telling the truth but always believe when she's lying. "SPIDER'S WEB" is vintage Agatha Christie: an English drawing room murder mystery among the upper class with a light comic touch. Tammy Grimes, in her introduction to the play, calls it "murder with manners". Director Basil Coleman evokes just the perfect atmosphere; the time period is never really given but it looks to me like the 1920's or early 1930's. The cast is wonderful. Comic actress Penelope Keith is surrounded by several veterans of the horror genre as well as the mystery genre. Clarissa's guardian Sir Rowland is played by Robert Flemyng (forever known to me as the necrophiliac title character in Riccardo Freda's Italian horror classic "THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK" with Barbara Steele). Their friend Hugo Birch is played by Hammer Horror veteran Thorley Walters ("FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED", "DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS", "THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA", "FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN", "VAMPIRE CIRCUS"). Nosy gardener Mrs. Peake is played by Elizabeth Spriggs (wonderful as Ian Holm's nagging wife in the murder mystery series "WE, THE ACCUSED"). Jeremy Warrender is played by David Yelland (who appeared as the Prince of Wales in the awful "CHARIOTS OF FIRE" as well as in 2 episodes of the BBC's "WAKING THE DEAD"). This is a coincidence because young child actress Holly Aird (who plays Clarissa's step daughter Pippa) starred in "WAKING THE DEAD" as well -- not to mention the role I'll always remember her for: as Elspeth in "THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA").
Like any other Agatha Christie mystery, it's really too involved to try to synopsize here. Suffice it to say that Clarissa and her husband Henry (Jonathan Newth of the absolutely superb 1981 BBC production of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS as well as the DOCTOR WHO adventure "UNDERWORLD") have rented a country cottage for a ridiculously low rate. Henry is in the foreign service and has an extremely important "hush-hush" politician secretly flying in for a meeting. Henry leaves for the meeting and Clarissa suddenly stumbles over a dead body in her living room: it's Oliver Costello -- the husband of Henry's first wife who was also a drug dealer and attempted to blackmail Clarissa earlier and regain custody of Henry's young daughter Pippa. The little girl tearfully tells Clarissa that she killed Oliver Costello. Because of her husband's very important guest (and since Costello's dead already), Clarissa enlists the help of her friends Sir Rowland, Hugo Birch and Jeremy Warrender to dump the body in the nearby woods. Unfortunately, as soon as the men get there and are talked into helping with Clarissa's deception, the doorbell rings and the police have arrived saying that "someone" called saying there had been a murder. Before the police entered, the men hide the body inside a secret door behind a bookcase. Clarissa's improvised story doesn't hold water for long when Costello's car is discovered empty nearby. Clarissa eventually relents and tells the police about the body but they don't believe her story --even though it's true. She then lies and tells them she killed him in self defense. When the police go back to the secret passage where the body has been stored, they find it has disappeared. What happened to the corpse?!?!?! And did little Pippa REALLY kill him?!?!?!?
All this takes place in patented Agatha Christie fashion with a terrific country house set, sparkling dialogue and great performances from a veteran cast (hey, even the child actress is great!). The thing I really like about this production is the feeling that the entire cast has been performing this play for quite some time and has settled into the "sweet spot" making it a well-oiled machine. The play goes off like clockwork. I don't know if this group of actors was in fact performing this play on stage nightly but it certainly feels like it. Nevertheless, "SPIDER'S WEB" is a murder mystery play in the classic tradition which all admirers of Agatha Christie will thoroughly enjoy. And besides that, it's a hell of a lot of fun -- especially on a dark and stormy night.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"OH, I'D LOVE TO POLISH YOU OFF!": A TRIPLE SWEENEY! The tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been around for a long time -- since the 19th century, I expect. Sweeney Todd the barber slits the throats of his customers and his partner Mrs. Lovett cooks the corpses into her meat pies! And I'm writing this in response to the new DVD release of Tim Burton's version of "SWEENEY TODD". In fact, I'm going to take a quick look at 3 different DVDs of the same story.
First we have the 1936 barnstormer "SWEENEY TODD" starring the indomitable Tod Slaughter. Now, for those of you who have never seen a Tod Slaughter movie . . . well, I feel sorry for you, that's all. Tod Slaughter has to be experienced to be believed; and you STILL might not believe him. The fellow toured around England endlessly putting on his blood-and-thunder plays with himself as the evilest villain imaginable. Tod Slaughter's laugh itself is worth the price of admission; the most lip-smackingly devilish laugh ever heard on film! The man's acting style could be called OVER over-the-top; he specialized in the mustache-twirling villains you just don't see that often on film. "SWEENEY TODD" is probably his most famous role but it's not his best film; that honour would go to "THE FACE AT THE WINDOW" which is my personal favourite. For those familiar with the Sweeney Todd story from the famous Broadway musical (more on THAT later), this movie will be barely recognizable. For instance, Johanna is not his long lost daughter in this movie but merely a rich guy's daughter Todd wants to marry. The traditional "revenge" motive for Todd is not apparent here. There are also scenes of an African warrior attack on the coast of Africa (the warriors' native dialect apparently consists of yelling "La la la la la la la") that would seem to have nothing to do with the traditional Sweeney Todd story. However, this is more a "Tod Slaughter" movie than a "Sweeney Todd" adaptation.
The age of the film does show quite often and the proceedings tend to creak a bit. And it's quite a bit tamer than you'd imagine; instead of scenes featuring Sweeney cutting the throats of his victims, he merely pulls a lever and tips them into the basement where he can "polish them off" off camera. But any scene that Slaughter is in, one cannot help but watch with eagerness. Slaughter always seems to commit his atrocities with a twinkle in his eye as he lets the audience in on the fun. Tod, of course, is quite wonderful here; in fact, every movie I've seen him in he gives exactly the same performance -- the Tod Slaughter special! And believe me, it's served up with plenty of spice and quite a lot of sauce! Stella Rho as the meat pie purveyor Mrs. Lovett is actually quite good in her role -- but who can help being eclipsed while performing next to Tod Slaughter?!?! The rest of the cast is typically bland and forgettable with the exception of young Johnny Singer as Todd's 12 year old assistant Tobias; Singer emotes quite touchingly when abused by the demon barber. Also, the connecting basement set between Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie shop and Sweeney Todd's tonsorial parlour (presumable by art director Percy Bell) is also quite memorable and atmospheric. Direction by George King (who seemed to helm ALL of Tod Slaughter's films) is adequate if nothing special. If you've never seen any Tod Slaughter film, you should still see "THE FACE AT THE WINDOW". However, after having seen that, you surely can't resist seeking out "SWEENEY TODD".
In 1982, on the fledgling Arts & Entertainment Network, I had the great fortune to catch the filming of the actual performance of the Broadway smash musical "SWEENEY TODD" with music by Stephen Sondheim. I am SO not a fan of Broadway musicals but this quickly became one of my favourites. It stars Angela Lansbury in her Tony Award-winning role of Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn is unsurpassed in the title role. Man, what a voice! The music by Sondheim is a masterpiece and in this DVD we get to see the ENTIRE play as performed on a stage. One of the great misfortunes is that the original soundtrack cd features Len Cariou (NOT a singer) in the Sweeney Todd role; Hearn took over after Cariou left the play and one can only wish they had waiting until he was aboard before recording it for posterity. Thankfully, several years ago this filmed performance with Lansbury and Hearn was made available on DVD (I'm not sure if it's still in print but it SHOULD be). Lansbury is quite remarkably able to keep up with her part which is quite hard to sing; in fact, she quite routinely lost her voice after each performance. Hearn's voice is a revelation: booming, almost operatic (which is appropriate since this "musical" could really be called an "opera" since almost all the lines are sung). In addition to his fine voice, Hearn also brings serious acting chops to his performance; I quite often get chills watching it -- and I've seen it umpteen times. Betsy Joslyn (who bizarrely was married to George Hearn at the time) plays his long-lost daughter; sadly she has one of the most annoying singing voices I've ever heard but thankfully only has one song in which she sings solo and all the others she sings in a group so THAT way I can just barely stand her. Cris Groenendaal is slightly better as eager young sailer Anthony Hope; the guy can admittedly sing and his rather saccharine performance is appropriate for the role. Edmund Lyndeck is quite excellent as Judge Turpin as is Ken Jennings as Tobias (bizarrely Jennings is more active as a makeup artist on many films than as a performer/singer).
The story is fairly well-known. Sweeney Todd returns to London after being saved at sea by young sailor Anthony Hope. Todd (whose real name is Benjamin Barker) was unjustly sent away to prison for 15 years on a trumped up charge by the evil Judge Turpin and his Beadle. The Judge did this because he had eyes for Barker's wife. Todd encounters Mrs. Lovett (who serves the worst meat pies in London) and learns that, after attempting to seduce Barker's wife she took poison and Turpin took Barker's daughter as his ward. Todd opens a barber shop above Lovett's shop and swears to get revenge. Meanwhile, Anthony encounters Johanna (Judge Turpin's ward and Sweeney's daughter) and falls in love with her. They plan to run away together and ask for Todd's help. Sweeney tells Anthony to bring Johanna to him. Meanwhile, Sweeney informs Judge Turpin of the young sailor's plot in order to lure the judge's neck under his razor. While all this is going on, Todd and Lovett cook up a nice way to get rid of all the bodies Sweeney "practices" on -- by cooking them in her meat pies. Which soon become very popular in London and business is booming. How it all turns out you either know already or will have to seek out the film. While this superb DVD of the Broadway production may be hard to find, the same basic story can be found in. . .
Tim Burton's 2007 movie adaptation of Sondheim's Broadway musical inspired me with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because it's one of my favourite musicals. Dread because it's one of my favourite musicals -- and quite frankly I didn't think Burton could pull it off. Especially when I heard it would star non-singers Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. I've rather gone off Tim Burton in recent years. I was a great fan up until the release of "MARS ATTACKS" which I found to have a really unpleasant, nasty undercurrent to it. And the thought of making a film musical (in this day and age) seemed very daunting. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the film. While nowhere near as great as the Lansbury/Hearn production, Burton's film adaptation is quite respectable. There are one or two decisions made by Burton I have a problem with: the elimination of Johanna from the song "Johanna" turning the song from a trio of voices to a duet irked me since it was needless. And the strange decision by Burton to reign in Helena Bonham Carter's performance causes her to give a tad too stifled a performance. Also, the great deal of humour present in the musical wasn't translated to the film. Depp is quite excellent in his performance and has a passable singing voice. And young Ed Sanders as Toby can really sing his arse off. Alan Rickman (who proved he could sing in "TRULY MADLY DEEPLY") as Judge Turpin is also strangely muted in his performance but still quite good. Not having seen "BORAT", I didn't even realize that was Sacha Baron Cohen as Signor Pirelli until after the movie was over; but even he gives a slightly muted comic performance in a role which was written to be overtly comic. Actually, one place Burton's long-lost sense of humour resurfaces is during the "By the Sea" number. It seems that somewhere along the line Tim Burton has lost his "whimsy": that quality which was present in "PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE", "FRANKENWEENIE", "BEETLEJUICE", "EDWARD SCISSORHANDS" and even "ED WOOD" but seems to have disappeared by the time he made "MARS ATTACKS" and hasn't been seen since. Johnny Depp's performance, while good, is morosely grim throughout whereas George Hearn brought equal parts murderous rage and sly humour to the part. And finally, the last shot in the film (a sort of grand guignol pieta) is strangely lyrical and beautiful while still kinda disgusting -- and yet poetic; in other words, as only Tim Burton could bring to a movie. All in all, Burton's version of "SWEENEY TODD" is worth seeing -- but for the true, pure enjoyment one should seek out the 1982 version with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. That one will NEVER disappoint!