Archive for director

Help Charles Lane Make His New Web Series

Posted in African American Interest, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by travsd

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No one is happier than this commentator to see actor/director Charles Lane re-emerging from wherever he’s been for the past 20 years. Lane’s day in the sun was 1989-1993, when he had an extremely promising, very interesting run. His debut silent feature Sidewalk Stories put him on the map as the “Black Chaplin“, and today it’s not only an incredible record of a very different NYC (the one I moved to, in fact, so it makes me nostalgic) but to a time when film-makers were putting that much heart and humanity into their work. There is zero commercialism in his film, just integrity and craft, and at the time, that was still enough to make people take notice. I wrote about the film here when its was restored and shown at Tribeca Film Festival back in 2014. I found the film transformational.

The success of Sidewalk Stories landed Lane a gig directing a film for Touchstone in 1991; British comedian Lenny Henry’s American debut entitled True Identity. I saw it when it came out, and it seemed to make a lot of sense for both Lane and Henry conceptually. It’s very high concept; not unlike Tootsie. A black actor puts on white make-up so he can escape from the mob. It has echoes of Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man, and presages the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks. Both Lane and Henry did fine work, but the script itself was pretty lacklustre (Touchstone is Disney after all, so this potentially explosive concept was at best timidly explored). And Henry didn’t click as a star in the states. Lane himself also appeared in the film, and was quite funny. In 1993, he was the comic relief in Mario Van Peebles’s interesting all-black western Posse. That year he also directed an episode of American Masters called Hallelujiah, with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Keith David, Ruth Brown, Isaac Hayes and others.

On the face of it, he seemed to be a guy who was going places, but after this he vanished,emerging only recently with the renewed interest in Sidewalk Stories. I’ve come across no commentary as to why. People do get discouraged in this business, even people as talented and promising as Lane. And I can imagine the sort of projects that typically get offered to African American artists being insulting in any number of ways. And that could add to the discouragement. All I know is I am glad to have him back. We need art right now, especially art with Lane’s sensibility. He’s just launched this Kickstarter for a new web series called Please Date Me Now. I don’t have a pot to piss in at the moment; all I can do is endorse his talent and the idea that he deserves your backing. Learn all about the project here.

Why You MUST See “Paradise Alley”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of stage and screen Renaissance man Hugo Haas (1901-1968). Haas is an intriguing cinematic figure whom I am only just now discovering for myself, and the process is giving me great joy.

Of German-Jewish parentage he was born in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time of his birth, but was incorporated into the new nation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Haas became a star of Prague’s National Theatre, and by the 1920s he became a popular film actor as well. In the mid-30s he expanded his reach, also become a successful film director. His biggest hit while still based in his native country was Skeleton on Horseback (1937) an adaptation of a play by Karel Capek, best known to many of our readers no doubt as the author of R.U.R. 

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Like so many others, Haas was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslavakia (1938-1939). It took several years for him to make his way to Hollywood, where he begins to show up as a character actor by 1944. He was successful as such for several years, in films like The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and King Solomon’s Mine (1950).

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But unlike many refugee film directors from France and Germany whom one might rate as his peers, Haas was unable to get a foothold with the major studios as a director. Nothing daunted, at a time when such risk-taking was rare, he poured his income from acting into his own independent films which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself, a series of seedy, gritty, sensationalist noir melodramas with titles like Pickup (1951), One Girl’s Confession (1953), and Bait (1954). The films were not highly-rated by the critics, but netted enough profit to keep him going as long as demand for B movies remained.

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By 1959, That B movie market had dried up, and he seemed to be at the end of the line. There seems to be some awareness of that in his last film Paradise Alley (completed 1959, released 1962). Much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a highly self-reflexive work, a kind of valedictory statement. And it has the kind of mix of intellectual pretension and seedy poverty row folk-art non sequitur that graces such wide-ranging films as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), and Utopia (1951) starring Laurel and Hardy.

Haas plays a once-famous German silent-film director named Mr. Agnus (Latin for “Lamb”, i.e. Christ), who moves into a slum neighborhood which evokes everything from Elmer Rice’s Street Scene to Dead End to the then-current West Side Story. Like the latter, it has a Romeo and Juliet thing going, with the star-crossed lovers played by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and Don Sullivan, star of such epics as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). The neighborhood is a seething cauldron of sex, hatred and violence. A gang of not-so-juvenile delinquents, all of whom seem to be about 47 years old, run around; one of them is played by Duke Mitchell, who’d co-starred in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla seven years earlier, but is ignominiously overshadowed by bigger stars in this film.

Amazingly, Paradise Alley does have a large number of well-known names in the cast, although at the time the film was made, most of them were either former stars or would only later come to have cults of fans in retrospect. And this really fuels the down-at-the-heels Hollywood magic of this film in a manner that recalls Sunset Boulevard. Morris’s parents are played by comedian Billy Gilbert and former silent star Corinne Griffith. Sullivan’s mother (and Gilbert’s enemy) is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton. Familiar character actress Almira Sessions is the landlady. Noir sexpot Marie Windsor is the provocative burlesque dancer just across the way. Silent comedian Chester Conklin, in one of his last roles, plays a retired Hollywood camera man; character actor Pat Goldin, best known from Jiggs and Maggie comedies, plays another retired film professional.

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These last two provide the engine for the film’s rather slight action. Haas (his name is a stand-in for Jesus, recall) gets it into his head to bring peace to the slums by pretending to make a film with Conklin and Goldin, casting everyone in the neighborhood, and making them say nice things to each other. (An oddly Catholic impulse I felt, in its formal ritualism leading to grace, though Haas was Jewish).  Further, there is no film in the camera, giving the entire charade an existential slant not unlike we get in the plays of Jean Genet.

In the end, a real Hollywood film producer played by William Schallert gets wind of the project, and decides to make a real film, and that’s where we get into some heady territory. Not only has peace been achieved, but the poor people of the ‘hood will now be on the payroll merely for existing. Is this communism? Utopia? Heaven? Then it gets trippier, when much like the Monkees movie Head, the last few moments of the film become a replay of the film’s first few moments, including theme song and credits: the film is a film of a film of a film of a film in an endless feedback loop.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s technical brilliance. Its aspirations are great, but so are its limitations. The dialogue is frequently bad, almost Ed Wood level in its inexplicable refusal to move the plot forward. Haas’s lines are often simply strange and clunky; after all English was Haas’s third language (at least). Directorially, the pace is often slow, stilted, and full of dead air, with no sense of urgency or narrative momentum. Though the cast is well known, most of them were character actors accustomed only to small parts. Ironically Paradise Alley may have given them the largest, most dramatically challenging roles of their careers, and many of them seem stretched beyond their abilities. And then there’s the fact that Haas seems incapable of refraining from weird, inappropriately sexual jokes and moments, including a gratuitous near-rape scene in the film’s opening minutes. Also I’m not sure, I have to watch it again, but I think one of the female characters is inexplicably played by a man in drag. All of this goes to explain why the film wasn’t released for nearly three years after it was made, and why it continues to be so rare today.

But it is now one of my favorite films. Paradise Alley somehow manages to incorporate nearly everything I love in the world into an exceedingly strange and cosmic fruit salad. Watch it here. 

Hall of Hams #109: King Baggot

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of King Baggot (1879-1948). I know — sounds like a good name for a Hobbit’s Doberman Pinscher. What he was, was one of the first movie stars whose name was promoted to the public, one of the biggest screen stars of the American cinema’s early years, and one of its top directors as well.

The son of Irish Catholic immigrants he started out working for his father’s St. Louise real estate film. But the Siren Call of the theatre was irresistible and he began barnstorming with Shakespearean stock companies, gradually working his way up to top outfits like the Frohman and Shubert outfits. His one Broadway show was a 1906 production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. 

In 1909, on a lark he have the then-still-quite-new movie business a try, starring opposite Florence Lawrence in The Awakening of Bess at IMP Studios. She was to be his leading lady for two years, at which point he starred in numerous films opposite Mary Pickford. He starred in scores of movies in these early days, when most films were about ten minutes long. A well remembered early picture is his 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

He began writing films in 1911 and directing in 1911. In 1913, he directed and starred in a feature length Ivanhoe. The following year, he made Shadows, in which he played ten characters. In 1921, he stopped acting in order to concentrate on directing. Films of this period include Kissed (1922), Marie Prevosts’s one of first starring pictures; The Gaiety Girl (1924), Raffles (1925), and probably his best known film nowadays, William S. Hart’s last picture Tumbleweeds (1925). Baggot’s last film as director was Romance of a Rogue (1928).

Unfortunately just as the industry was transitioning into talkies, Baggott had developed a bad reputation in the business due to his drinking. At this stage, he was hired neither as a star nor as a director, and was simply a bit player, often only an extra. He continued to work until the end of his life, and in some classic films, but normally as an uncredited walk-on. (Look for him, for example, alongside W.C. Fields in Mississippi, since this is Fields Fest! Fields always had a soft spot for forgotten old stage veterans.)

To learn more about early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Charley Chase: The Comedy of Embarrassment

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd

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Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

When Charley Chase (born this day in 1893) arrived at the Hal Roach studios to become one the top Hollywood comedians of the 1920s, he already boasted an impressive resume. Chase had begun performing in vaudeville when still a teenager in his native Baltimore, doing Irish monologues, songs and dances. His travels then took him west, and he broke into movies at Universal Studios before moving to Mack Sennett’s Keystone in 1914. You can see the 21 year old (then still billed as Charles Parrott) in films like His New Profession, Fatty’s Suitless Day, and Love, Loot and Crash. Unlike, say, Harold Lloyd who played similar young man roles at Keystone around the same time, Chase makes an impression in his early films. He’s funny and you notice him. He was also in a hurry. The ambitious young man quickly moved up to assistant directing; by 1916 he was already helming his own movies for Sennett. Throughout the late teens and the beginning of the twenties he was building a reputation as a director, working with the likes of Billy West, Lloyd Hamilton and Carter de Haven.

During a hitch at Fox in 1917 he got his younger brother James employment there as an actor. James went to work for Roach before Charley did, joining the company in 1918 to play supporting roles for Harold Lloyd, Hank Mann, and others. By 1922, he was beginning to star in his own shorts under the name Paul Parrott. While James (Paul) was turning out a series of solid comedies, Charley had been hired by the studio in 1921 to direct a series of shorts starring Snub Pollard.  The following he oversaw the creation of the long-running Our Gang series.

In 1923 and 1924, the Parrott Brothers’ roles began to be reversed, with James spending more time behind the camera, and Charley relinquishing his role as Roach’s comedy supervisor to go in front of the camera as a star. And Chase was that: one of the most beloved stars of comedy shorts clear through the 1930s.

Even more than Lloyd (who left Roach in 1924 to star in features) Chase was to personify what the Roach aesthetic was all about. If Mack Sennett’s humor had been all about grotesque clowning, fake mustaches, and battered top hats, the Roach lot brought a new aesthetic of realism. And if Lloyd’s “Boy with the Glasses” had seemed normal compared to those antics, Chase’s character was even more recognizable as a real-life human being, lacking even the bookworm’s horn-rims and mock-heroic climaxes. His comedies have more in common with modern sit-coms than with knockabout or pantomime.

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Sons of the Desert

Granted, he was blessed with good comedy “equipment”. With his ram-rod posture and prissy face he stood out; that’s what had made him memorable even in small Keystone roles. But he also wore a basic business suit and combed his hair in a fashionable cut like a lot of people in his audience. The Twenties were a boom time in America; the new middle class was exploding. Chase represented a different slice of the public than Sennett’s blue collar buffoons. Though he had come from straitened circumstances himself (his father died when he was 16, leaving the family penniless) Chase almost never played farmers, plumbers or fry cooks. His characters tend to be bank clerks, office assistants and middle managers. As such, he generally had a stake in the community. Rather than going around causing trouble, his comedy was about trying to prevent it. In a Charley Chase film life often seems like a stream of unfortunate coincidences designed primarily to embarrass, incriminate, or otherwise inconvenience Chase in his bid to be a good solid citizen. Sometimes he gets humor from trying to put on a brave face and maintain appearances while this happens; other times he makes us laugh by blowing his stack. He was a little uptight; it could go either way — forced cheer or a blowing of the gasket. But what made him interesting was his contradictions. He possessed an unusual mix of grace, polish and awkwardness. Often he seems a “good time Charley”, striving to be the convivial life of the party (indeed that’s what he plays in his best remembered role, the drunken Shriner in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert). But only to the extent that such behavior would make him popular around the office.

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy (1925) is typical of the “embarrassment” formula. Charley’s jealous wife (Katherine Grant) thinks he is cheating. He is most definitely not doing so but keeps coincidentally winding up in compromising positions with other women, being seen with them at just the right (wrong) moment. Forgotten Sweeties (1927) kind of flips that idea. He and his wife move into the same building where his old flame and her new husband now reside. Again, he keeps accidentally winding up in incriminating positions with the old girlfriend (and having to avoid her new husband so he won’t get the hell beat out of him).

Sometimes his compulsion to preserve “normality” seems less forgivable. In His Wooden Wedding (1925) a series of freak coincidences combine to convince him that his fiancé has a wooden leg. In a state of shock, he jilts her at the altar. We dislike him for this at first, but he redeems himself later by getting drunk and suicidal and declaring that she is “the greatest little woman in the world”.

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Mighty Like a Moose (1926) 

Chase is all about appearances. Mighty Like a Moose (1926) is a sort of cross between The Gift of the Magi and Nip and Tuck. Both spouses get their turn to be mortified. Charley is a husband with a hilariously prominent pair of choppers—he looks kind of like Walt Disney’s “Goofy”. His wife (Vivien Oakland) has a nose as big as Lassie’s. Unbeknownst to each other, they each go out and get reconstructive surgery. Whereupon they meet each other and start flirting, not realizing that each is their actual spouse. It’s kind of like a cartoon. So what, if in the real world you have bruises and bandages after rhinoplasty and would most certainly recognize your own spouse whatever minor alterations have been made? Chase’s films are filled with similarly implausible episodes. You just have to go with it. For example, Limousine Love (1928) treats us to the deliciously far-fetched situation of a naked woman stepping into the backseat of Charley’s car to hide out while her clothes are drying. He doesn’t see her back there, and he is on the way to his wedding…

The universe depicted is one in which each next event will always be the thing Charley least wants to happen. The natural extension of that is to create gags that are not only unwelcome to Charley’s character but are so very unexpected they call attention to themselves purely for the entertainment of the audience. Chase’s films are often noted for such moments, which stretch believability past the breaking point and get us laughing at the refreshing audacity of their vision.

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One of the most famous of these is in All Wet (1925), in which his car gets stuck in a mud puddle so deep that Chase has to dive under the water like a frogman to repair the damage. (He would later revive this scene in the 1933 talkie Fallen Arches.) Bromo and Juliet (1926) has the unforgettable scene where he is on his way to his girlfriend’s amateur theatrical dressed as Romeo. His tights are stuffed with sponges to make him look muscular, and he accidentally walks through a field of active lawn sprinklers, making his legs swell up into a pair of lumpy corn dogs. In Fluttering Hearts (1927) he pretends a department store mannequin is his drunken date so he can access to a speakeasy. Later the girl he is wooing shows up and puts on the mannequin’s clothes, and Charley carries her out of the joint instead of the dummy, never noticing that she’s human.

Roach had started Chase off in a series one-reelers wherein he was usually billed as “Jimmy Jump”. A few months into the series, Leo McCarey (who, like Frank Capra had gotten his start with Roach writing gags for Our Gang) began directing many of Chase’s films. They expanded to two-reelers and that’s when the series really began to take off. You can see his distinctive mark in a film like Sittin’ Pretty (1924) which is famous for containing an early version of the “mirror scene” McCarey would later revive for the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

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Chase made out just as well in the sound era as he had in silents, his mellifluous voice suiting his comedy style perfectly. Apart from Modern Love, a half-silent/ half talkie he made for Universal in 1929, he never did properly crack features. But he continued to star in and direct comedy shorts for Roach and Columbia throughout the 1930s. Many made use of his pleasant singing voice and burgeoning songwriting talents. Not only did he star in such minor classics as Southern Exposure (1935) and Teachers Pest (1938), but he also was to direct some of the best films starring The Three Stooges. Sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1940, one year after the drug related death of his brother.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Repose en Paix, Pierre Étaix

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd

Something fitting about Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix passing away within hours of each other. French clown, actor and comedy film-maker Etaix (1928-2016) was one of the happy discoveries I learned about when researching my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YoutubeI seem to recall first hearing about the artist from Steve Massa, and there was a big screening of his films (which had long been unavailable) at the Film Forum a couple of years ago.

Etaix is often associated with Jacques Tati (for whom he assistant directed, and with whom he got his start) but his character and his style are very different. He was also in the Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972), which it looks like we’ll all finally get to see at some point in the not too distant future. Etaix had many more screen credits as an actor than as a director. He only directed a few films; most of them are available on Youtube. I watched ’em all. This one is probably my favorite, and how perfectly timed for Hallowe’en (there’s more than a little Hammer Horror parody in the fantasy sequences here–very well done) . The film is called Insomnia (1961).  Even so, I hope you sleep well, grand-père drôle!

The Horror of John Landis

Posted in Comedy, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , on October 11, 2016 by travsd

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Continuing on with our series of posts for Halloween horror month. This one has been germinating for a while. I have a great deal of admiration for the work of director-producer John Landis, an attachment that’s probably not atypical for someone of my age. Animal House hit when I was about 13 years year old and his peak years of success happened over the next decade. I think of him as one of our few comic auteurs — he really knows his beans when it comes to shooting comedy. I’m planning an entire post on his work as a comedy director, but that’s for another time. Like many or most of the great directors, however, he excels in more than one genre. His second strongest suit has been in horror. Over the past four decades he has gradually amassed a decent profile in his secondary field. The survey below covers his credits as director and producer, although he actually has some acting credits in the field as well. He appears in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (1992) and The Stand (1994), and Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader (2012) — admittedly a couple of these are horror comedies. As for his work behind the camera:

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Schlock a.k.a Banana Monster (1973)

It won’t surprise fans of his better known Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) to hear that Landis cut his teeth directing this parody of B movie horror, in which a young lady romances a missing link ape man. Clips are available on youtube. The quality is way better than you would expect. As in all such movies, the star of the movie is the ape suit.

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An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I hope I am not alone in considering this the best werewolf movie of all time, and possibly Landis’s best film.  Not only do the special effects surpass everything that came before including the classics of the genre, but as far as I have seen, they have not been surpassed in the 35 years since. The transformation scenes are harrowing and Landis spares us nothing as star David Naughton goes from a lovable goofball into a carnivorous monster at the light of the full moon, a feat achieved not just with the make-up and effects, but also through his acting. I hope I don’t seem to be trivializing the miracle of childbirth (quite the opposite) but when I watched my ex go into labor, I thought of this scene — painful metamorphosis, loss of humanity, a ride you cannot get off of as you become pure animal. But Landis scores in so many other areas. I’ve personally found the film MORE effective because of its humor. because Naughton and pal Griffin Dunn are such regular guys there is a real power in these events happening to even them. Something about them seems like they ought to be above it, immune from it. They are having such a great time, enjoying life, just being. The interruption of it seems unthinkable, yet we know it is coming the whole time — it’s baked right into the movie title! And the atmosphere in certain scenes…the moors, the London subway station. And the pace: he really takes his time when he needs to, and that can be very important in horror. How to maintain tension while doing that (without boring the audience) is very hard. Most directors fail at it, but Landis succeeds.

NOW: here’s a question to which I’ll never know the answer. Is the great impact of this movie due to the fact that I saw it at a young age (about 15)? It may well may be — my favorite movies remain ones that I first saw when I was between the ages of like 5 and 8, a time when you are a blank slate and open to anything. All I know is the movie still affects me like it always did.

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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Today Landis’s roles as co-producer and one of the directors of Twilight Zone: The Movie are overshadowed by the tragic deaths of star Vic Morrow and two children on his set, possibly due to alleged recklessness on his part. The section he directed concerned an Archie Bunker type racist, who suddenly wakes up to find himself in shifting realities as a Jew in Nazi Germany, an African American in the Klan-dominated American South, and as a Vietnamese during the war years. Sometimes the horror gets too real. In his excellent book Horror Show (truly the Bible for classic horror lovers) David J. Skal writes at length about the impact the two world wars and the cold war had on horror. That’s what this section makes me think of. A little more on the nose than usual, but truly, there is more than enough “horror” on planet earth. More happily, Landis also directed my favorite part of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the legendary intro section with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks (“You wanna see something really scary?”)

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The Thriller video (1983)

I’ll write at much greater length some time about the impact of MTV on me, back when music videos dominated after-school television for teenagers. They are their own form, with their own laws. Widely considered the best rock video of all time, the ambitious film-let for Michael Jacksons’s hit song “Thriller” features the great Vincent Price, an army of zombies and (a horror rarity) were-cats.

"What if Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster were one and the same?"

“What if Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster were one and the same?”

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

Landis was one of the co-producers and directors on this anthology parody of late night B movies, some of which were horror parodies. The best sketch in this movie by far, though Landis did not direct it, is Son of the Invisible Man. 

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Innocent Blood (1992)

I think of Coming to America (1988) as Landis’s last “big” movie. That one was marred by a plagiarism lawsuit, which, added to Landis’s legal problems because of the accidental deaths on Twilight Zone, combined with the relative failure of his comedy Oscar (1991) seemed to take him off the directors’ A-list. In fact, I had never heard of Innocent Blood, released the next year, until the late ’90s, when a friend told me about it (she happened to be a friend of Michael Wolk, who’d written the screenplay). Apparently the film did well on its opening weekend, but performed only modestly at the box office after that. But I think it’s a wonderful, highly original film. It’s a perfect mash-up of genres: vampire films, mafia movies, and comedy. The cast itself is enough to bring moment to moment pleasure: Robert Loggia, Anthony La Paglia, Don Rickles, Chazz Palminteri, Luis Guzman?! Isn’t that the cast you’d want for this? With cameos by Frank Oz and Sam Raimi?! And Angela Bassett in one of the film’s few straight roles? Except for one crucial choice: and my theory about why the movie didn’t do so well hinges on it. The lead (a lady vampire with a moral code that permits her only to bite the necks of crooks) is played by French actress, Anne Parillaud, who’d made a huge splash as the star of La Femme Nikita two years earlier. On some level that’s inspired casting, but on another level, it’s a risk. Cinephiles knew that film; American audiences for the most part never heard of it. If this movie had starred an A-list Hollywood “bankable” star of the day, this movie might well have been another Landis hit.

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Here Come the Munsters (1995) and The Munsters Scary Little Christmas (1996)

Some people might say “so this what we have come to”, unless of course you think (as I do) that The Munsters is great! I have no doubt that Landis was tickled to be associated with such a project (he’s only executive producer on this one). That said, I’d never dare watch it. It’s all cast replacements by this stage, with Edward Herrmann as Herman, Veronica Hamel as Lily, and Robert Morse as Grandpa. It doesn’t feel promising.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1998, 1999)

Executive producer of this tv movie and series, the umpteenth version of the original “giant dinosaur survival” tale. (The first one was in 1925). Landis’s is a different one from the all-star 2001 version BBC/A&E version (which I rather liked). In fact, I don’t recognize any of the names in the cast! But really, the real stars of the film are the large lizards, right? Naturally, they’ve put Doyle’s name above the credits so no one would confuse it with the Jurassic Park sequel that came out the year before. On the other hand…why would you come out with this movie with that title in that year UNLESS you wanted people to confuse it with the Jurassic Park sequel that came out the year before?

Fortunately for his fans, in the oughts Landis began to direct horror again, on television. First he did two episodes in the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror:

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“Deer Woman” (2005)

This was highly entertaining. A setting in the Pacific Northwest, based on a Native American myth about a deer spirit who takes the shape of a very sexy woman, entices men, and then tramples them to death. The case is investigated by a ne’er-do-well cop who has been busted down to the animal control division. This promises to be the biggest case of his career. There is an especially funny section where the detective imagines theories of the crime, all of them preposterous, because the crimes are so bewildering (how did a hooved animal get into the guy’s apartment?) There is also a clever reference to An American Werewolf in London. 

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“Family” (2006)

A black comedy in the tradition of Psycho. George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) is an ordinary-seeming suburban guy who creates a family for himself by tricking strangers, murdering them, and melting the flesh off their bones with acid. He then dresses them and poses them around his house and talks to them, supplying their voices with their imagination. A nice new couple moves across the street and we fear for their safety until…

He also directed an episode of the NBC series Fear Itself: 

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“In Sickness and in Health” (2008)

This may be the “straightest” script Landis ever directed. It concerns a couple who are to be wed after a whirlwind, very brief courtship.  On the eve of the ceremony the bride gets a note warning her that her groom is a serial killer. There is lots of tension and suspense leading up the ceremony (in addition to usual wedding jitters) as she gradually gets more and more information that makes her increasingly suspicious. This one will keep you guessing the whole time and has an excellent, highly unforeseen twist.

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Burke and Hare (2010)

This was Landis’s return to the big screen after a 12 year absence. (By 1998 his movies were sinking like stones at the box office). I really enjoyed this black comedy based on the true story of the notorious grave robbers (here presented as a couple of comical bumblers). Released by Ealing Studios, which gives it a certain magic, the film stars Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis and Tim Currie, and some of the cast of American Werewolf in London in smaller roles. Its dark gallows humor didn’t fare well with either critics or audiences but I rather liked it. As always he does a wonderful job of establishing atmosphere and setting the scene.

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Some Guy Who Kills People (2011)

Landis was executive producer of this black comedy, written by Ryan Levin and directed by Jack Perez.  Kevin Corrigan plays a loser nerd who works in an ice cream shop and gets revenge on the bullies who tortured him …by chopping them up into pieces. The great cast includes Karen Black as his unsympathetic mother, Barry Bostwick as a dopey sheriff. Lucy Davis (The Office, Shaun of the Dead) is the love interest.

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Also in 2011 his coffee-table book Monsters in the Movies came out and…

The Future…

According to this article on the website Bloody Disgusting (dated August 2011), Landis said he was writing a new horror movie with Alexandre Gavras, a small scale monster movie. He said it would be released within a couple of years, and it’s five years later now, so who knows if it’s still in the works?

What I would like: wouldn’t it be great if he helmed a tv horror series, not just producing, but directing the occasional episode, and hosting it like William Castle or Alfred Hitchcock? The answer is, yes, it would.

 

R.I.P. Arthur Hiller

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Just heard that Arthur Hiller has passed away at the age of 92. I had been planning a post on this interesting director for a while. It occurred to me a few months ago that certain of his films add up to a case for him as a comic auteur of sorts. Two of his films, The Out of Towners (1970) and The In Laws (1979) are among the funniest feature films of modern times — I have laughed so hard at both of those movies I gave myself bellyaches. And The Hospital (1971) is one of my favorite satires/ black comedies; and a worthy warm-up for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s next outing in the genre, Network. I’ve never been crazy about Silver Streak (1976) but it has to be acknowledged that it was one of the most SUCCESSFUL comedies of its day, is very expertly made, and forever altered the screen careers of both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Nearly as successful was his 80’s comedy Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Shelly Long and Bette Midler. The common denominator among many of his best comedies was interplay between two top notch comedy co-stars. Also worth mentioning in the comedy context are his earlier collaboration with Chayefsky, The Americanization of Emily (1964), Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971), and that strange, factually challenged bio-pic of one of the screen’s greatest comedians W.C. Fields and Me (1976). And earlier oddments like Popi (1969) with frequent collaborator Alan Arkin and The Tiger Makes Out (1967) with Eli Wallach as a guy who’s trying to pick out a woman to kidnap.

He maybe hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves because there is a hit or miss quality to his career overall. It seems like lightning only struck for him occasionally. His biggest success of all was of course the smash hit weepie Love Story (1970), which now seems more of a dated curiosity than a perennial classic. The seventies proved to be his truly solid decade. After that, for the most part he was seriously off his game. One thinks of Author! Author! (1982) as the nadir of Al Pacino’s career prior to his comeback a few years later. There followed lots of other weak outings like Romantic Comedy (1983); The Lonely Guy (1984), which was the first true signal to me of how disappointing Steve Martin’s career was going to be; and the — well, unfortunate — See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). And we’ll not speak ill of the dead by talking about the movies that came after.

But at his height, as we say, very few film-makers ever made me laugh as hard as he did in a small handful of comedies.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than by watching those films right now! And maybe checking out some of his interesting films I still haven’t seen…

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