Monday, September 26, 2011

THE LAND OF CERPTS AND HALLOWEEN! In a very few days it will be the first of October and we all know what that means: it's time once again for the deliriously devilish Halloween countdown season. As usual, John Rozum and creepy company are coordinating things over at the official Countdown To Halloween website. Over on the right hand sidebar you will find the Halloween Countdown icon link which will take you to the site listing the over 100 blogs participating this year. I am going to attempt the obviously insane task of the triple threat: doing a Halloween Countdown on three of my blogs simultaneously!!! Here at the Land of Cerpts and Halloween I will attempt (and surely fail) to put up a post a day concerning Halloweenie tricks and treats. I will also post an appropriately spooky cover every day on the sidebar "Comic Cover of the Day" feature to the right. On my audio blog "BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA", Dr. Janos Rukh and I will post a daily Halloweenie song or story for your trick or treat bags. And in our newest blog "THE DARK FOREST" devoted to an album a day I will post an appropriately Halloweenie album to discuss each day. Phew and Yikes!!! Is Jeffrey Combs still running that asylum on the House on Haunted Hill because I think I'll need to check in after this one! So until October 1st when all the fiendish fun begins. . .Let There Be Fright!!!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN" WAS MADE IN 1974 -- THE SAME YEAR AS "SUGAR HILL" -- BUT IT'S NOWHERE NEAR AS FUN. Bryan Senn, author of "DRUMS OF TERROR: VOODOO IN THE CINEMA" describes the film as "House on Dull Mountain" and probably predictable but sadly appropriate. The movie's not THAT bad but it's not really good either; and there's precious little entertainment to go around. Director Ron Honthaner filmed "HOUSE" in and around Atlanta, Georgia and the movie is what my late friend Peg used to call a "lunch-time production": meaning that some people had a lunch hour free so they made a movie. Having said that, though, this film is MUCH less painful to watch than, say, MANOS HAND OF FATE! It may not be very good but it doesn't deserve to be savaged either.
The plot goes like this: an old voodoo priestess named Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) is dying and calls her scattered family members to her old mansion on Skull Mountain; none of the relatives have met her OR each other before. The family members arrive just in time for the funeral: our heroine Lorena (Janee Michelle), matronly Harriet (Xernona Clayton), ne'er do well Philippe (Mike Evans) and a surprise white relative born on the wrong side of the covers anthropologist Andrew Cunningham (Victor French). Faithful family retainer Thomas (Jean Durand) and housekeeper Louette (Ella Woods) greet the relatives at the old mansion with the family lawyer (Senator Leroy Johnson). A statement from Pauline is read informing all that there is a family "legacy of power" deriving from family ancestor Henry Christophe (revolutionary founder and first king of Haiti) who was given a string of beads by the voodoo loa Damballah as a foundation of his power. Whew! That's a lot of plot exposition. We soon discover that Thomas is performing voodoo rituals in the basement which result in several family members meeting their demise. After a great deal of sitting around and talking (as well as a ridiculous trip to town browsing in a player piano store {!}) Louette gets knifed, Lorena comes under the voodoo control of Thomas and Andrew comes to the rescue.
Except for a few of the main leads, most of the cast is made up of amateurs. Janee Michelle is perhaps best known around these parts for appearing in the similarly voodoo-themed SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM along with William Marshall and Pam Grier. Mike Evans, of course, is famous for playing Lionel Jefferson in ALL IN THE FAMILY and THE JEFFERSONS; here he plays the jive-talking Philippe in broad stereotypical strokes. And the incongruous presence of Victor French as Andrew Cunningham "the white sheep of the family" (as described by Bryan Senn) is simply bewildering. French, of course, is known for his roles in CARTER COUNTRY and HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN with Michael Landon. It's distressing that even in 1974 the producers thought they needed to have the hero played by a white guy in order to save the day; even if Whitey is only half-Whitey in the script. Most of the film is taken up with talking head scenes which in and of itself isn't a crime; the fact that the talk scenes are poorly acted and boring as hell IS a crime. The mansion set itself is so ridiculously overlit that there is no sense of creepiness or menace; in fact when the electricity goes out you can't really tell since the lighting doesn't really change at all. They just light candles. It is a really nice-looking set, though. The "scare" scenes, both of them, aren't the least bit scary and are rather ineptly handled by the director. The big voodoo ceremony set piece is boring and way too drawn out -- and in the end doesn't really amount to anything. And the inevitable return of Pauline Christophe as a zombie is tepid as well; it's not as bad as Bryan Senn says -- he describes it as "grandma having a bad hair day" but it's not much better either. It's all rather a huge waste of time as horror movies go. The wordy script lets the film down terribly and it really needs a much better director to inject some life -- or even remote interest -- in the goings-on. All in all a great big missed opportunity. If the movie was even HALF as eventful as the movie poster. . .

Monday, September 19, 2011

"OH, COME ON....!" That was my initial response upon finishing the 2010 Oscar-winning BLACK SWAN. A little while back, Weaverman posted a cogent review of the film here on his FLEAPIT OF THE MIND blog. Now, I was totally prepared to call him an old curmudgeon when he started off his review with "this is what passes for art in Hollywood these days". Surely, you're being a little hard on the old tinsel town, just possibly. But now, after having finally seen the film, and at the risk of sounding like a "yes man", I can only say that Weaverman has hit the nail on the tutu. While I too will admit to the fact that the film was entertaining and held my interest throughout, I will also claim that this film is a comedy. It's not meant to be taken seriously, right? I mean, surely not. The first half of the film is OK, I guess, but the second half is just silly. And again, I have the sneaking suspicion that Mr. Aronofsky means for us to take all this seriously. But truly, it's one hell of a laugh!
As for Ms. Portman's performance, I also agree with Weaverman that it's good -- never bad -- in fact, it's the most "acting" I've ever seen her do. Granted, the things she's called for to do require all the subtlety of a mack truck running over a . . . well, a swan, I suppose. Did she deserve the Best Actress Oscar? Well, I still haven't seen all the performances but I bet there's a better performance out there. I also agree that there is MUCH too much of the "homage" element to the film; it lifts bits of business from THE RED SHOES (a TRULY great film), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE SHINING and all the other films Weaverman's mentioned. However, he hasn't even mentioned them all; including the heavy influence of Brian DePalma's CARRIE (no stranger to "homage" himself) in the Barbara Hershey "stage mother" set piece. Methinks the "assemblers" of this movie (I hesitate to call them "creators") also have a passing familiarity with Edward Gorey's "THE GILDED BAT". Be that as it may, the best performance in the film I found to be Winona Ryder who was the most interesting to watch in her all too few scenes; maybe the camera's should've followed Winona around for the actual movie instead of that nitwit Nina; at least we would've gotten some interesting shoplifting scenes.
When all is said and done, I would also reiterate that the movie is probably worth watching. For a laugh. Because it's definitely a trashy hunk of fromage and good silly (if pretentious) fun. But art? Or Oscar-worthy? I don't think so. It's good for the comic factor but certainly not as a representative of great cinematic art. Much like the ridiculously over-praised THE KING'S SPEECH (which I always refer to as "THE EMPEROR'S NEW SPEECH" now because there's really nothing to it), this film is a case of "THE EMPEROR'S NEW TUTU".

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PAISAN (1946) is the second film in Roberto Rossellini's "War Trilogy" beginning with OPEN CITY and ending with GERMANY YEAR ZERO -- and it's my favourite of the trio. The start of "neo-realism" in Italian cinema is generally attributed to OPEN CITY (1945) but, as Peter Bondanella points out in his "A HISTORY OF ITALIAN CINEMA", that film actually uses professional actors and studio sets for the most crucial interiors of the film; neo-realism is usually seen as using mostly non-professionals for acting roles and real locations not in a studio. PAISAN, however, is the first of Rossellini's films to really go for the neo-realism thing: although it does feature some actors and more studio sets than most critics even realise. "PAISAN", or indeed the actual Italian film title "PAISA" is a familiar form of the Italian word "paesano" meaning literally someone from your town, a neighbour, a countryman or even friend. During the war in Italy, Italians and Americans would refer to each other with the friendly term "paisan" as a form of address to foster good will. As the actual definition shows, the word "paisa" implies a connection between two people and that is precisely what Rossellini is trying to examine in this film. While the overt plot of the film concerns the Allied invasion and liberation of Italy starting in Sicily and working its way up the Italian peninsula to the north, the real meat of the movie is Rossellini's examination of the meeting of two different worlds -- the Italians and the Americans -- and how they relate to one another or, indeed, if they in fact have any connection with each other to make them actual "paisa". The Italians and the Americans after all were fighting on opposing sides throughout most of World War II and now the "new world" was being touted as liberators of the "old world". Was there in fact a common connection between these two peoples?
The film consists of six separate but connected stories following the progress of the Allied invasion of Italy starting on the island of Sicily, continuing to the occupation of Naples, then to six months after the liberation of Rome (but with a flashback to the beginning of the Roman campaign), the conflict between Fascists and Partisans for control of Florence, a visit of three American military chaplains to a monastery in Porto Tolle in the Appennine mountains and finally to the Po Valley and the capture of Italian partisans and their American advisors by retreating Germans in the north. In the first Sicilian sequence, the Americans and the Italians are very cautious of each other; neither side really trusts the other. An American platoon is seeking to cross a minefield and requests a guide from some Sicilian locals. No one is interested until a young girl named Carmela (Carmela Sazio) agrees to help them. Above the field is a stone fortress where the G.I.s set up temporarily. The platoon shortly goes off to check out something in the distance leaving Joe from New Jersey (Robert Van Loon) to stand guard alone with Carmela. Neither of the two speak each other's language and a frustrating non-conversation takes place. However, the two manage to strike up some form of connection without understanding the other's language. Joe lights his Zippo to show Carmela a photo of his sister but a German sniper sees the light and shoots Joe -- fatally wounding him. Carmela tries to hide the dying Joe as the German patrol methodically approaches the stone tower. What happens next I won't spoil.
The second sequence displays the terrible destruction in Naples with Rossellini's camera pouring over the rubble which was still there at the time of filming. An off-duty African-American MP named Joe (Dots Johnson) gets drunk and is surrounded by a group of young Italian boys who spot an easy mark. One of the boys named Pasquale (Alphonsino Pasca) "buys" the G.I. from the other boys and follows him around; waiting for Joe to pass out so he can steal whatever he can from him. Sitting on top of a pile of rubble, Joe fantasises about going back to America a war hero but then realizes that his colour makes his life in America not much better than these poor Neopolitans. Joe eventually does pass out and Pasquale steals his boots. Three days later, now-sober Joe is driving in his jeep when he sees Pasquale stealing from the back of a supply truck. He grabs the boy and demands he return his shoes. Insisting that Pasquale take him to his parents, the boy leads Joe to a cave where displaced and homeless Neopolitans are scratching a bare existence. Pasquale's parents were both killed and Joe, seeing how much worse the Italians have it than anything he's experienced back in the States, forgets all about his boots.
The third sequence takes place six months after the liberation of Rome. A drunk American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is picked up by a prostitute (Maria Michi) who takes him back to her room. However, the G.I. bemoans the fact that "Rome is full of girls like you" and recalls six months earlier when things were different and he had met a beautiful, virtuous Italian girl named Francesca. Rossellini then provides us with a very un-neo-realist flashback and we see the tender meeting between Fred and Francesca. It is at this point we realise that Francesca is the very same prostitute the drunken Fred is talking to; he doesn't recognise her in his boozy haze. As we experience the brief but sweet courtship and promise to return, Rossellini dissolves back to the bedroom six months later. Francesca slips out on the sleeping Fred and gives her real address back home to the whorehouse Madame who promises to give it to Fred when he wakes up. Francesca then goes home to await Fred's return and the happy reunion she feels sure is to come. Again I won't spoil it but the ending is not what you'd expect.
The fourth episode takes place in a hospital in Florence. Harriet (Harriet White) is a nurse who spent some time in Florence before the war. She is fluent in Italian and is in love with a Florentine painter named Guido Lombardi. She discovers Guido has become a Partisan leader known as Lupo (i.e. "The Wolf") and the rumour is he's been injured or killed. Along with another partisan, Harriet makes the dangerous, maze-like journey through the city where fighting is still raging between the partisans and the fascists; desperately trying to find out what actually has happened to her lover.
The fifth sequence finds a trio of US military chaplains (one Catholic, one Protestant and one Hebrew) entering a 500 year old monastery in the Appennines. The brothers warmly welcome the chaplains and offer them lodging and food. After some time, the brothers become aware that all three chaplains are not in fact Catholic but follow the "heresies" of Luther and Judaism. The stunned monks ask the Catholic chaplain Captain Martin (William Tubbs) if he has ever tried to "save" the men by showing them they stray from the "one true faith". Martin says that he has not and the monks think that it has become their duty to convert the two chaplains to Catholicism. In the dining hall when food is placed in front of the three chaplains, the monks sit with nothing. They explain they will not eat; they will fast. Rossellini does not make it plain whether the monks are intolerant of the "evil false" religions of the two chaplains or whether their desire to convert them stems from their genuine love for them and a naive attempt to "save" them from the error of their ways. This is certainly the most enigmatic of the film's episodes.
The sixth and final segment takes place in the Po Valley among the reeds as Italian partisans team up with American military "advisors" to fight the remaining Germans still clinging to the north of Italy. Both sides are giving no quarter. Rossellini puts his camera right down on the same level as the fighters among the reeds alongside the river which gives a vivid approximation of what these men go through to the viewer. After several vicious battles, the partisans and Americans are captured. I again will not reveal what happens next for you really should watch the film yourself and see. The use of real locations (judiciously sprinkled with perfectly realised studio sets) puts you right there in the middle of an Italy just liberated mere moments ago. While Rossellini uses real actors (Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Harriet White, William Tubbs) many of the cast are indeed non-professionals (Carmela, Joe from Jersey, Pasquale, the two non-Catholic chaplains and all the monks) and give just as affecting performances. Rossellini's subject matter of the meeting between two "alien cultures" which must try to find some commonality is shown with . . . well, realism; there is failure to understand each other, mistakes made and genuine bonding achieved. There is also tragedy. Nothing is given a pat answer. However there were enough examples of success between Italians and Americans that a sense of becoming "paisans" after the war seemed quite good for the future. PAISAN is an extraordinary movie which cannot be missed.

Friday, September 09, 2011

YET STILL MORE MOVIE STARS CHOOSE THEIR FAVOURITE FILMS. Continuing a series, all movie lists except for Terry Gilliam's were derived from Rotten Tomaytoes' five favourite films features:
1. Citizen Kane
2. Seven Samurai
3. The Seventh Seal
4. 8 1/2
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
6. Sherlock Jr.
7. Pinocchio
8. Les Enfants du Paradis
9. One-Eyed Jacks
10. The Apartment
1. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssssss Song (1971)
2. Easy Rider (1969)
3. Black Orpheus (1959)
4. Mutiny On the Bounty (1962)
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
1. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
2. Abraham's Valley (1993)
3. Night Train To Munich (1940)
4. The Conformist (1970)
5. Elite Squad (2008)
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
2. The Sacrifice (1986)
3. Sunday In the Country (1984)
4. The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather Part II (1974)
5. High Noon (1952)
1. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
2. Rio Bravo (1959)
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
4. Vertigo (1958)
5. Blow-Up (1966)
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
2. All About Eve (1950)
3. The Exorcist (1973)
4. Blazing Saddles (1974)
5. The Lives of Others (2006)
1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
3. Vertigo (1958)
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
5. Paulie (1998)
1. To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
2. Once Upon A Time in the West (1969)
3. Touch of Evil (1958)
4. Night of the Hunter (1955)
5. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
1. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
2. The Wicker Man (1974)
3. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
4. War of the Gargantuas (1970)
5. The Omega Man (1971)
1. King Kong (1933)
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
3. The General (1927)
4. Goodfellas (1990)
5. Jaws (1975)
1. Freaks (1932)
2. Intolerance (1916)
3. Where Is the Friend's Home (1989)
4. Rashomon (1950)
5. Nosferatu (1922)
1. Ong Bak (2005)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. Return of the Dragon (1973)
4. Drunken Master (1979)
5. Forrest Gump (1994)
1. All About Eve (1950)
2. Once Upon A Time in the West (1969)
3. My Life as a Dog (1987)
4. October (Ten Days That Shook the World) (1927)
5. Some Like It Hot (1959)
1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
2. Young Frankenstein (1974)
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
4. Taxi Driver (1976)
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
1. My Fair Lady (1964)
2. Captain Blood (1935)
3. King Kong (1933)
4. The Producers (1968)
5. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
1. 8 1/2 (1963)
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
3. The Godfather (1972)
4. The Exterminating Angel (1962)
5. Touch of Evil (1958)
1. The Virgin Spring
2. To Kill A Mockingbird
3. Red River
4. Night of the Living Dead
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
1. Lawrence of Arabia
2. The Searchers
3. Zabriskie Point
4. America, America
5. Scenes From A Marriage
1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
2. Blade Runner (1982)
3. Los Olvidados (1950)
4. The Road Warrior (1982)
5. The Gold Rush (1925)
1. Jaws (1975)
2. JFK (1991)
3. A Man For All Seasons (1966)
4. Do the Right Thing (1989)
5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

WELCOME TO BLACK BELT THEATRE AND TODAY'S MOVIE IS "BORN INVINCIBLE". Original title: "Tai Ji Yuan Gong (1978). BORN INVINCIBLE is a slam-bang kung fu flick which stars Carter Wong (known to most Westerners for his turn as "Thunder" in 1986's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) as the nastiest Tai Chi practitioner to ever come down the pike. He is aided and abetted by the great Lo Lieh (star of the film which first broke kung fu movies in the West: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH aka KING BOXER!) as his co-villain in this one. A narrator explains at the start of the film that Tai Chi is one of the deadliest forms of kung fu. A practitioner has to learn it young; they start usually at three years of age. When fully adept, the Tai Chi master's body is literally impregnable to any weapon or attack; except in one secret vulnerable spot which the master can move around at will. This "iron armour" technique is also seen in several other kung fu films including "INVINCIBLE ARMOUR" (1977). Carter Wong plays the nefarious Tai Chi master Chief Chin of the Chin Yin Chi clan.
Events in the movie start when students of the Lei Ping kung fu school witness two members of the Chin Yin Chi clan beating up an old man and his daughter. Head student Ming Tu (Jack Long) confronts the hoodlums and tells them to stop. He and some of the other students fight with the ruffians and one of the Lei Ping trainees is killed. The Chin Yin Chi fighters are chased away and the old man and his daughter are given shelter inside the Lei Ping school. Two Chin Yin Chi leaders Chief Chin (Carter Wong) and Chin Pa (Lo Lieh) show up at the school and demand they hand over the old man with whom they have a past grudge. The master of the Lei Ping school refuses, orders his students to go back inside and Ming Tu to carry on as his successor if he should not survive the coming fight. The master engages in a battle with the two Chin Yin Chi leaders and is killed. The old man, who vowed 20 years before to never pick up a sword again, exits the school and fights the villains. Even though the old man is formidable, he too is viciously killed in the fight. Ming Tu, now leader of the school, vows to take revenge against the two villains and the film concerns their repeated attempts to defeat Chin Pa and Chief Chin.
Carter Wong as Chief Chin is seen in the traditional white-haired aspect of the Tai Chi master and demonstrates some of the best fighting ability in this film. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping is a master at these movies; witness his more recent work in DRUNKEN MASTER, IRON MONKEY, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON or KILL BILL. The fight scenes are very impressively realized. Lo Lieh is of course no slouch either and both men are very impressive villains. Chief Chin, of course, is the most formidable of all and is quite scary as an opponent. Not only does he seem impervious to every attack but he also displays creepy characteristics such as his mocking laughter in the face of every dying opponent as well as his mystical ability to carve an "I Ching-type" symbol in the dirt while simultaneously making mincemeat out of his foe. Director Joseph Kuo has made several impressive kung fu films including the classic "MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING" aka "NINJA CHECKMATE" and here he keeps the pace moving at lighting speed with practically no lull periods commonly afflicting lesser films. BORN INVINCIBLE is a little hard to come by but can be found for a reasonable amount in a dubbed/pan & scan version that's quite affordable. All you've gotta do is do a little questing . . . and BORN INVINCIBLE is certainly worth the time.