Archive for December, 2014

Here’s a weird one for you, friends — would you believe that, in 1965, drive-in audiences were served up a (somewhat) responsible treatise on race relations from the guy who directed Olga’s House Of Shame?

I know, I know — it seems highly unlikely, and yet that’s exactly what we have with Joseph P. Mawra (here working under the name of J. P. Mawra)’s regional cheapie Murder In Mississippi, and even if the region it played in might not be the one you expect, I still give this flick points for having more guts than anything the big studio machine was cranking out at the time.

Filmed in the exact same upstate New York wooded locales as the first Olga flick, it’s a fairly sold bet that, given its volatile subject matter, Mawra’s little black-and-white opus never made it south of the Mason-Dixon line, since I can’t find any archived news stories in relation to the riots and unrest it would almost certainly have triggered among racist white southerners, and while piggy-backing onto tragedy is never exactly a classy move, this flick, coming reasonably hot on the heels of the murder of civil rights volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi,  at least has its heart in the right place and was ballsy enough to take a definite point of view on the issue — which is more than you can say for most Hollywood product at the time, which was doing its utmost to flat-out ignore the toxic reality of Jim Crow.

Fortunately for us, of course, this movie now seems an anachronistic leftover from a bygone age, since  times have moved on and local law enforcement no longer unfairly targets people based solely on the color of their skin, and certainly doesn’t resort to anything like the murder of unarmed black youths under the flimsiest of pretexts — wait, scratch that, I guess nothing’s really changed at all, so let’s take a little more detailed look at this film that by all rights shouldn’t be topical any longer, but sadly still is, shall we?

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Lovely UVA co-ed Carol Lee Byrd (Sheila Britt, credited here as Sheila Britton) and her racially diverse group of friends arrive in a no-name  Mississippi town to register black voters when local sheriff  Engstrom (Derek Crane) takes notice of the “outside agitators” (a term thought lost to time until the Ferguson chief of police recently, and shamefully, resurrected it) and warns the bunch to head back north. They don’t, so he and his deputy/brother, Bob (John Steel) and a couple of their sleazy greaseball pals kill a couple of the kids and take pretty Carol Lee hostage. Problem is, she comes from a wealthy family and her brother’s a famous New York actor, so when he comes down looking to pay his sister’s ransom, you’d think the heat would be on the racist cops, right?

There’s just one wrinkle, though — brother Dick (Richard Towers) is a sell-out phony who could care less about civil rights and is happy to let the black folks of Mississippi keep suffering as long as he gets his sister back in one piece and she agrees to give up all this foolish nonsense and go back to school.  Along the way, the crackers’ kidnapping scheme goes pear-shaped, Mawra and screenwriter/producer Herbert S. Altman spend a long time intimating that one of the greasy, chicken-chompin’ honkies might decide to rape Carol Lee while she’s in captivity, and once she escapes, one of her black friends is castrated (in long, drawn-out, entirely unconvincing fashion) by the good ole boys once they run their fleeing quarry down.

As events progress we’re treated to some truly atrocious night shoot filming that’s so damn poorly lit that it’s well nigh impossible to make out what’s happening, but at the end of the day the FBI finally shows up,  everyone is brought in front of a federal Civil Rights Commissioner,  and it seems all will be well — until the commissioner turns out to be completely in the pocket of Engstrom and suddenly the prospect of he and his co-defendants getting off scott-free appears to be very real indeed.

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Not so fast, though, lovers of truth, justice, and equality — with two out in the bottom of the ninth and things looking beyond bleak for our courageous freedom marchers, Mawra and Altman pull a happy ending out of their ass that’s downright whiplash-inducing in its suddenness, complete with stock footage of LBJ himself addressing the nation! It’s incongruous in the extreme, to say the least, and enough to make the average white southerner circa 1965 positively hurl in their popcorn, but rest assured that after numerous trials and tribulations, the good guys do win — even if it sure doesn’t look like they’re going to with less than two minutes to go.

For that reason alone, as well as its attempt to tackle head-on topics that the major studios of the day were treating like an electrified third rail, Murder In Mississippi is well worth your time, despite the fact that its production values are uniformly shoddy, even by regional exploitation film standards. In my book, you needn’t be perfect if you’re at least willing to be brave, and this is a surprisingly brave piece of movie-making, especially considering who was behind the whole thing.

For those interested in having a look at this fairly realistic account of just how goddamn bad things were in the segregated south, Something Weird Video has paired it on DVD the similarly-themed Black Rebels on an extras-heavy “special edition” disc, but our good friends at The Movie And Music Network also have made it available for streaming online, and readers of this site can watch it for free by following the link underneath the poster at the top of this review. I can only hope that there are some enterprising young filmmakers out there who are working on similar projects today based on events in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, and that 50 years from now we can look back at their efforts and be positively shocked and appalled at how certain members of our law enforcement community continued to treat people of color nearly a half-century after Jim Crow supposedly ended.

 

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I’ve got two different theories when it comes to Tim Burton — he’s either at his best when working on movies with the word “big” in their titles (think Pee Wee’s Big AdventureBig Fish, or his latest, Big Eyes), or when he’s  directing scripts that the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszeswski have mined from the treasure trove of interesting stuff put out by legendary subversive publishers Feral House (think Ed Wood, which was adapted from Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare Of Ecstasy or, again, Big Eyes, which leans pretty heavily on Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson’s recent Citizen Keane).

The nice thing about these theories is that they’re not really “competing” so much as working together — both can, and probably are, true. They’re a harmonious pair.

Which is more than you can say, of course, for Margaret and Walter Keane, the couple behind the famous “big eyed waif” paintings that took American pop culture by storm for the better part of two decades beginning in the late 1950s. The art world may still be trying to figure out exactly what it thinks about  so-called “big eye paintings” all these years later — the establishment at the time certainly thought they were pure shit, while various underground and populist quarters have been busily trying to resuscitate their reputation for a variety of reasons ever since — but as far the American legal system is concerned, one thing is certain : each and every one of them was the work of Margaret Keane, and not her husband.

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Yup, friends, we’ve got an “art fraud” story here — arguably the single-greatest one ever committed, for while even their fiercest defenders would never go so far as to claim that the Keane paintings are masterpieces, they certainly generated a shit-ton of cash, and were once at least every bit as ubiquitous in American households as velvet Elvis paintings or that picture of the dogs playing poker. They were everywhere, and the Keanes were at the epicenter of multi-million-dollar art empire. When the couple split in 1965, then, there was a lot on the line when the question of who did what came up, and the verdict in favor of Margaret was, and remains, a very big deal.

In light of such high stakes, Burton’s decision to make his biopic on the “two” artists such a personal one is perhaps surprising, but it proves to be something of a stroke of genius, because the hows and whys of such a massive swindle can only be understood by delving into the minds and hearts of the people who perpetrated it. Sure, Alexander and Karaszewski take a number of liberties with the facts here — as they did with Ed Wood — but overall they get the gist of things right, and the performances by Christoph Waltz as Walter and, especially, Amy Adams (who’s doing a lot better work these days now that she seems to have given up her grueling pace of a year or two back when she was apparently determined to be in every single flick being made) are both believable and agonizingly human. In the end it’s Margaret’s story, though (as was the artwork), and Burton manages to frame it perfectly by rooting it in the “women-are-second-class-citizens”  cultural context of its time in a way that overly-“hip” garbage like Mad Men only wishes it could pull off.

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Frankly, I’m not even sure that a divorced single mother in the late 1950s, when presented with the extraordinary set of circumstances the at-the-time Mrs. Keane found herself in, would have had any other choice but to play along with her old man’s charade, but I guess it’s worth noting for the sake of fairness that in his later years — something Alexander and Karaszewski bio-scripts are notorious for omitting — Walter still maintained that the big eye paintings were his creation, even though he not only never produced one of them on his own, he never painted anything else either. Don’t ask me how or why folks ever took his word for anything, but apparently at least a few gullible souls did.

All that aside, though, where Big Eyes comes up biggest is in the successful “scaling-down” of its proceedings to a level pretty much anyone can relate to, which not only gives the story a lot of heart, but helps it eschew the easy trap too many filmmakers fall into of becoming drunk on the perceived importance of their work. Yeah, the Keanes pulled off an amazingly huge hustle and kept it going for years, but in the end, these are still just kitsch paintings, and while kitsch is cool and all (at least sometimes), and certainly serves a noble purpose in giving a big, fat middle finger to the pretentious assholes of the artistic establishment, it’s still just —- well, it is what it is, right?

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In the final analysis, maybe Burton was the perfect choice for director here because his own work succeeds in the same way that big eye paintings did — just as Margaret Keane was able to use her art to communicate something about the souls of suffering innocent children to the masses of the time in a way that didn’t feel at all alienating or holier-than-thou, our guy Tim has managed to build a staggeringly successful career for himself by packaging images and ideas once thought to be too dark, macabre, or unsettling in a way that the masses of today find to be a bit of harmlessly eccentric fun — as a result, they flock to see his films (well, most of them, at any rate — let’s not forget he’s had a few high-profile flops over the years) in droves, and while Big Eyes might be miles away from his typical blockbuster fare,  he captures the beating heart of his characters, and their story,  in a way that’s positively uncanny,  and the end result is his strongest effort in many years.

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It was bound to happen, of course — after the surprise success of James Nguyen’s woefully incompetent but painfully earnest Birdemic : Shock And Terror on the “midnight movie” circuit in 2010 (and in all the years since, given that prints of it are still touring the country even as we speak), the master of the “romantic thriller” (a phrase which he even copyrighted) pretty much had to go back to the well, didn’t he? I mean, what else was he gonna do, especially since he’s apparently chucked his day job as a software salesman in order to pursue his filmmaking “dreams” full time?

And while we’re being blunt and honest and all that — you pretty much know going in what his 2013 follow-up, Birdemic 2 : The Resurrection is all about, right? The CGI birds attack again. There’s more of ’em. The whole thing’s bloodier and messier and even if Nguyen’s directorial skills have somehow magically managed to improve, he can’t show it because incompetent shit is what people want. Incompetent shit pays the bills. Incompetent shit ensures that his next project — probably Birdemic 3 — will get made. And yeah, incompetent shit is fun.

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So, let’s roll ’em on out again — Alan Bagh is back as the personality-free zone who can’t dance known as Rod; Whitney Moore is back as his squeeze, Nathalie; Patsy van Ettinger (who’s sunk a good deal of her own cash into Nguyen’s productions) is back at Nathalie’s mom, Nancy; Rick Camp is back to explain everything for us as Dr. Jones; Damien Carter is back to provide the musical numbers; Stephen Gustavson and Carrie Stevens are back as Mr. and Mrs. Treehugger; and of course the birds are back in droves.

Nguyen has expanded his repertoire somewhat, though, by introducing a new pair of love-birds in the form of wannabe-director Bill (Thomas Favolaro) and wannabe-actress Gloria (Chelsea Turnbo), along with some other CGI monstrosities like the poisonous jellyfish pictured below so you can’t say he’s just resting on his laurels —

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Here’s the rub, though — as “stupid fun” as Birdemic 2 : The Resurrection undoubtedly is, this time it’s all done with a knowing wink in the direction of the audience because Nguyen has finally figured out that he’s making absolute crap here. That doesn’t mean he still doesn’t think he’s some new-age hybrid amalgamation of Alfred Hitchcock and Al Gore, but he’s obviously heard from enough people that he’s just not all that great at mixing psychological tension with environmental proselytizing no matter how badly he wishes he were,  and so now he’s just giving the punters what they want, as the Brits would say.

I don’t hold that against him in any way — hell,  I’d probably do the exact same thing in his shoes — but goofy shit like that jellyfish, a scene involving caveman/cavewoman “love”-making, the insertion of some bare boobs (not that I’m complaining), and lines like “let’s use some hangers — birds hate hangers” show that he’s definitely in on the joke now. Hell, one of the two kids they rescue at the end of the first film, Tony (Colton Osborne), has even been adopted by the saintly Rod, but his sister is no longer with us because she died of food poisoning from the fish our “hero” caught at the end last time out (never mind that everyone else who ate it is mysteriously okay), and Nguyen has even gone so far as to change the name of his production company to I Got A Fish Productions.

Still, it’s not like a fortune was spent on this thing — the film’s total budget is reported to be in the $20,000 range — and earlier, more ambitious plans to film in 3-D were scrapped due to lack of resources. So don’t worry, we’re definitely miles away from even a low-budget flick here, and therefore a good deal of that questionable Birdemic  “charm” has still carried its way over to the sequel. Nguyen even takes the liberty of heaping on a new layer of audience brow-beating by having his newest youthful stand-in, Bill, drone on endlessly about the need for “complete creative control” and “staying true to his artistic vision” in his films, and he entertains Gloria on their first date by bleating about why his aborted sci-fi project, titled Replicant, failed —  which means now is as good a point as any to inform those of you who don’t know that Replicant is the title of an unfinished Nguyen flick from a few years back.

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On the whole, though, “more of the same” is the order of the day here, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for, as I freely admit that I sometimes am. To that end, it’s good that an outfit I’ve never heard of before called MVD Visual has released Birdemic 2 : The Resurrection on DVD (though not, it’s worth noting, on Blu-ray), and has loaded it up with a shit-ton of extras including outtakes and deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, and two feature-length commentaries, one from Nguyen and one from his ostensible “stars.” You get a lot for you just-over-ten-bucks-from-most-online-retailers here, and hey! We’ve even got 5.1 sound this time — not that it really makes much difference.

Odds are, then,  that if you liked Birdemic : Shock And Terror, you’ll like this as well, even if shifting the stage from half Moon Bay to Hollywood sort of glitzes things up a little bit too much (to the extent that a $20,000 production can even be accused of such a thing), and even if everybody, most crucially the director himself, is wise to what they’re doing now. No, it’s not the same “perfect storm of godawful” that the first film was, but then, what did you expect?

Dive-bombing exploding fowl, like lightning, never strikes in the same place twice.

I take a look at Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving’s “Annihilator” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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You’re never gonna believe me when I say this given how mercilessly I’ve been shilling for the guy’s recent work, but — I’m honestly not the world’s biggest Grant Morrison fan. As is the case with out esteemed fellow TTSL scribe Arleigh, his work has always been very much a “hit-or-miss” affair with me, and while I loved The InvsiblesThe Filth, and his now-legendary runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, a lot of his more-celebrated efforts — such as his runs on JLANew X-Men, and even Batman — were decidedly “meh” affairs in my book, that certainly never veered into actively bad territory but were, nevertheless, largely unmemorable. They had their moments, of that there’s no doubt,  but I felt that they were too few and far between to really stand out all that much.

And we won’t even mention his flat-out…

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I take a look at “The Multiversity : Thunderworld Adventures” #1 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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If there’s one criticism that’s been leveled at Grant Morrison — and British comics writers in general — over the years, it’s that their work, while admittedly literate and intelligent, is often too “dark” or “cynical.” I guess sometimes it does apply — I mean, The Invisibles and The Filth , to name just a couple of standout Morrison projects, weren’t exactly light-hearted, happy-go-lucky affairs, were they?

And yet — even those two comics, bleak and nihilistic as they could often be, ultimately had optimistic endings, didn’t they? And books like Animal Man and All-Star Superman were flat-out celebrations of the type of comic book storytelling that the “British invasion” of the 1980s supposedly put an end to (as a side note, Alan Moore gets called out onto the carpet for the “darkness” of his work a lot, as well,  yet the same guy who gave us From Hell also…

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Having successfully (at least by the rather loose definition of that term we subscribe to around here) ripped off Escape From New York with his legendary (again, by our standards) 1983 offering 2019 : After The Fall Of New York, veteran Italian exploitation director Sergio Martino next turned his attention to milking the premise of James Cameron’s The Terminator for all it was worth and, in 1986, unleashed on an unsuspecting public the remarkably bizarre Hands Of Steel (or, as it was titled in its country of origin Vendetta Dal Futruro — you may also have seen it on VHS as either Atomic Cyborg  or Fists Of Steel) , a “starring” vehicle for supposedly-up-and-coming action hero-wannabe Daniel Greene that sees him taking on the perfect role for a man of his near-to-non-existent acting talent — a cyborg. And a cyborg named Paco, at that.

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The creation of evil industrialist Francis Turner  (the legendary by anyone’s standards John Saxon), Paco is sent out to kill a kind-hearted ecologist/rival political faction leader out to blow the lid off Turner’s mass-pollutin’ ways but finds he can’t do the job because he’s still part-human — and apparently part good-guy human, to boot.  So, he does what any confused half-robot in his position would do and tries to drop out of sight, fleeing to Arizona where he sets up shop in a local watering hole and takes on all comers (mostly truck drivers) in arm-wrestling matches that he always wins thanks to, of course, his titular hands of steel.

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As we’ve all come to learn by now, though, it’s not so easy to fall completely off the map in future (the “future” in this case being 1997) dystopian societies ruled by scheming corporate overlords, so it’s only a matter of time before Paco’s proficiency at slamming his opponent’s arm through a table gets him noticed, both by a fetching young lady (Janet Agren) who takes a shine to his stoic nature, and by the minions of the evil creator he’s supposedly trying to avoid. A battle for the fate of the word itself is bound to ensue at some point, of course, but the action-packed first and third acts of Martino’s little opus are sandwiched around a second act that is a pretty slow-burn affair more notable for its bizarre dialogue translations and oscillating over-and under-acting than anything else. It’s all good fun, of course, especially with spaghetti-flick stalwarts like George Eastman and Claudio Cassinelli  (more on him in a moment) on board, and it featuring a terrifically rhythmic musical score by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame, but if you zone out at various points here and there in the middle, I can’t really say that I’m prepared to hold that against you.

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A couple of points worth noting here : Paco’s character is actually a weird amalgamation of both Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese and Ah-nuld’s Terminator characters in Cameron’s flick, in that he’s a cybernetic killer who’s also a would-be worlds-saver, and therefore accurately presages the more “heroic” Terminator of the second and third films; and John Saxon wins our “real hero of the picture” award for steadfastly refusing to perform in any of the scenes Martino (here working under the pseudonym of Martin Dolman) shot in the US because he was a loyal SAG member and this was a non-union production, so he’d only go in front of the cameras in Italy. What did Saxon get for his steadfast union loyalty? How about his life! A helicopter crash during filming in Arizona killed co-star Cassinelli, and Saxon would have been on board with him if he’d agreed to participate in the scab-labor scenes done here in the States. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, union-busters!

All told, then, it’s fair to say that Hands Of Steel is a movie with an interesting — and frankly tragic — back-story, that certainly never achieves the soaring heights of absurdity that 2019 does, but is nevertheless pretty fun, especially when Martino goes for a note-for-note copy of one of The Terminator‘s most famous scenes and misses the mark by a mile. If you’re into cheesy Italian sci-fi knock-offs you’ll probably find this flick to be right up your alley, and given that it’s available for streaming on The Movies And Music Network (as well as on DVD from an outfit called Future Films that I know nothing about — I’ve heard the disc looks pretty good, but that it’s full-frame and has no extras to speak of), our friends there have, as is their custom, generously made it available for all TFG readers to watch for free by following the link at the top of this review. I humbly suggest you do so, as you have literally nothing to lose.

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And speaking of The Movie And Music Network, I would be remiss in not mentioning their latest venture, The 99 Cent Network, which launches tomorrow. You can buy — either for yourself, or as a gift — any three films in their ever-expanding lineup (the site launches with their “Terror Channel” library)  for (just) under a buck, or any ten for just $1.99! This is, needless to say, a great deal and requires no further obligation whatsoever on the part of the buyer, so it’s as close to a “can’t miss” proposition as you’re likely to find in this frightening new digital age of ours. Give it a look and tell ’em Trash Film Guru sent you!

 

I take a look at issue number four of George Romero’s “Empire Of The Dead : Act Two” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Is it just me, or has the second act of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead positively flown right by? I mean, here we are with only one issue left to go, and it feels like it was just the other day that the series started up again after the conclusion of the hiatus that followed its first arc. I have no doubt the book lost a fair amount of readers during the break — in fact, like most comics it probably lost a good half of its initial readership right after the first issue — but for those of us who’ve stuck with this thing, the payoff in the form of a big “fireworks” finale does seem to be approaching, albeit slowly. Remember, if all goes according to plan we’ve still got two more five-part acts to go following next month’s wrap-up of the current one, but there seems…

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