Tuesday, July 28, 2020

CHARLIE'S FINAL (?) WORDS

Watched this 2017 documentary late last night (it is currently available to view on SBS on Demand in Australia). Released soon after Manson's death, and comprised of interviews, archival footage and recorded prison phone conversations with Manson and Bobby Beausoleil, as well as the usual dodgy staged re-enactments of the key events. Rob Zombie seems a strange choice to get on board as narrator, especially if you were trying to present it as a serious documentary, but thankfully he doesn't narrate in a white trailer trash accent or throw out a curse word every five seconds. Originally titled CHARLES MANSON: THE VOICE OF MADNESS before the subject died while the film was in production, this turned out to be one of the better and more interesting documentaries on the subject, of which there have been a plethora. CHARLES MANSON: THE FINAL WORDS at least isn't afraid to throw doubt onto the wildly accepted version of the events, and questions whether "Helter Skelter" was indeed an insidious plan put together by Manson and his followers, or more just a bunch of random threads and ideas that were weaved together by prosecutor Bugliosi in order to present a compelling case and assure a conviction against Manson (who of course received the death penalty, later commuted to life, even though he never actually killed any of the Tate or LaBianca victims, and was not even at the scene of the first killings). I don't think anyone would deny that Manson deserved to spend the rest of his life behind bars, but whether he was put there by entirely legal means or not is an interesting question to ponder, which this documentary certainly makes you do. 


ATHLETE A


A new Netflix documentary examining the case of Larry Nassar, the long-serving medical doctor for USA Gymnastics, who was finally brought to justice in 2017 after abusing hundreds of young female gymnasts over a twenty-year period. Skin-crawling stuff seeing this creep in the police interview room, stumbling over his words while trying to justify a medical reason for why he would have the need to digitally penetrate (both vaginally and anally) so many of the girls entrusted to his care. If the testimony of his brave survivors didn't sink Nassar, the thousands of child porn images found on hard drives that he tried to dispose of would have.

ATHLETE A also highlights the sickening cover-ups attempted by the higher powers at USA Gymnastics, for whom image protection, Olympic gold medals and multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals were more important than the physical and mental wellbeing of their young stars. It's also interesting to see how the demographic of female gymnasts changed from featuring teams of mature women to a focus towards teens and pre-teens with tiny bodies, a shift that started after Romanian Nadia Com─âneci made such an enormous impact as a fourteen-year-old at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

A disturbing watch for sure, but an important one and good to see so many of Nassar's survivors standing up in court to have their say to him. Thankfully, he has at least 50 years behind bars in front of him.


CIRCUS OF BOOKS


A fascinating and sometimes moving new Netflix documentary about Karen and Barry Mason, who as a young married Jewish couple struggling to make a living in 1976 answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times to become a local distributor for HUSTLER magazine. Their side gig would soon expand and see the couple taking over a local gay bookstore called Circus of Books. Before long, the Mason's expanded to film production and became one of the biggest distributors of gay porn in the US, while Circus of Books became an iconic hub for the local LGBT community.

Directed by the Masons' daughter Rachel, CIRCUS OF BOOKS paints an endearing portrait of these most unlikely of smut peddlers, for whom the adult business is strictly that - a business. Mason not only interviews her parents but also her siblings, which helps give the documentary an additional angle by reflecting on what it's like to grow-up being the kid whose parents run a hardcore gay sex shop.

The documentary covers an important era of erotic entertainment, and it gets quite heavy and sad when the Masons start reflecting on the deaths of a number of employees during the height of the 80s AIDS epidemic. The Mason's pre-porn careers were also interesting - Karen was a freelance writer who had interviewed Larry Flynt while Barry was a student alongside Jim Morrison at UCLA film school and went on to do some special effects work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the STAR TREK TV series.

Highly recommended.


DA 5 BLOODS


After a riveting and almost flawless first hour, DA 5 BLOODS runs a little bit inconsistent (and overlong), and sometimes threatens to collapse under the weight of its own heady ambitions. The film is so many things - a social and racial statement, a history lesson, a violent jungle war movie, a survivalist epic, a relationship drama, a crime caper, and more. Probably Spike Lee's most ambitious film to date. As expected, Lee adds his own distinctive sense of humor to the characters and situations, along with montages of real-life photos and footage of Vietnam War atrocities to jolt us back to grim realities.

The flashback war sequences are visually conveyed quite interestingly, the screen ratio changing to 4:3 for these sequences, and the film stock looking older and grainier, recreating the way most Americans at the time would have watched the war unfold on their television sets. Later generations will feel as if they are suddenly watching some 80s Vietnam War action flick on their VCR.

Unlike the recent THE IRISHMAN, no CGI is employed during these flashbacks, the older actors simply playing themselves as young soldiers in the 'nam. It's a brave creative choice that seems a little jarring at first but does create a distinctive visual aesthetic, and also helps get you thinking about war and what it turns those who survive it into.

Delroy Lindo will likely find himself in the Oscar race for his role as Paul, a proud Trump supporter still filled with anguish and rage over his Vietnam experience. Veronica Ngo is also excellent as Hanoi Hanna, a real-life Vietnamese radio announcer who, during the Vietnam War, would broadcast (in English) propaganda and other demoralizing messages and speeches to the American troops on behalf of the North.


WORTHY WAR

Caught up with the first four episodes of the latest WAR OF THE WORLDS TV series adaptation. It's currently showing on SBS on Demand at the moment for those in Australia (a new ep each Thursday). Starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern, I wasn't sure if we needed another WAR OF THE WORLDS at this point. There was already a three-part UK adaptation done just last year (which was set in the Edwardian era), and Spielberg gave us a big-screen modern interpretation in 2005, not to mention the 1953 classic George Pal production which has just hit Blu-ray in a stunning new presentation. But this WAR OF THE WORLDS seems to be (so far) a more loose adaptation and is certainly all the better for it as it throws a few different and unexpected things into the mix, no character is safe and those little alien dog drones (or whatever the heck they are) have so far made for some very tense moments. I'll definitely keep tuning in.



BEHIND THE DOORS


Tonight's movie. Last time I watched THE DOORS (1991) was on VHS in the 90s, so was well due for a re-visit. I decided to watch The Final Cut of the film, which is out locally on a two-disc Blu-ray release through Studio Canal as part of their Classics Remastered collection. Unlike most special editions, the Final Cut of THE DOORS actually runs a couple of minutes shorter than the original theatrical cut.

Like a lot of other people, I went through a pretty big Doors phase during my early pot-smoking days of the eighties. I had the L.A. WOMAN. MORRISON HOTEL and GREATEST HITS albums on frequent rotation, I'm sure my long-suffering neighbors knew exactly when I was getting stoned. I also read the riveting Jim Morrison bio NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE during this period, and there are so many pivotal and interesting moments in that book which I would have loved to see play out on film. It does make THE DOORS seem like something of an incomplete movie because of it, though I also understand that time constraints limit what can and can't be included, and ultimately this is the version of Morrison's story which Oliver Stone chose to tell.

In comparison to much of his other work from the years just before and after this (PLATOON, TALK RADIO, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, JFK, NATURAL BORN KILLERS), THE DOORS is probably one of Stone's less potent films. It's a fairly standard rock bio flick (with the requisite bad wigs and fake beards), but it's entertaining and decadent and elevated enormously by the truly engrossing and completely immersive performance by Val Kilmer as Morrison - the physical similarities are truly uncanny at times. The Doors' classic blues-infected trippy music also makes the film a delight to watch, of course, and I'd forgotten about many of the interesting supporting players that turned up in the movie - Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzerick, Kevin Dillon as John Densmore, Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol, Paul Williams, Mimi Rogers and Kathleen Quinlan, who is terrific in a rather daring role as a witchy rock journalist.

Break on through.


KELLY'S ANTI-HEROES



Starting work on a piece on KELLY'S HEROES, which I am writing for the debut issue of a new UK magazine to be called CINEMA OF THE 70s, the debut issue of which is slated to be published around September of this year. Will share more details as they become available. Looking forward to writing about this classic 1970 war adventure/caper film, set during World War 2 in Europe but much more reflective in its ideals with the Vietnam War, which was then still raging and very much at the forefront of the public's consciousness. Donald Sutherland's brilliantly-realized Oddball character, and the beautiful theme song by Mike Curb Congregation, further help plant the movie firmly within the late-60s counterculture zeitgeist.


Monday, July 27, 2020

THE MYSTERY OF 'THE KEEP'


Tonight's movie. The Australian DVD release of Michael Mann's THE KEEP (1983) is, I believe, the first apperance of this movie on disc anywhere (other than from grey-market bootleg sellers). Unfortunately it is still just the original shorter theatrical cut, and the print sourced was sadly not good enough to warrant a Blu-ray release. But it's likely to be the best release we may ever see of this troubled film, since Mann seems to have pretty much disowned it and brushes off any suggestion of a restoration. It's clearly an ambitious film, with its mix of horror, sci-fi, Nazi cruelty (and compassion) and the mythology of the Golem.

Filmed in North Wales (doubling for Romania), the production of THE KEEP was long and troubled, with endless re-writes taking place during filming and special effects artist Wally Weevers dying half-way through. The narrative is an unholy mess, the result of the film being cut by the studio from 120 to 96 minutes against Mann's wishes (Mann's initial cut ran for 210 minutes). Still, this 96 minute version can still be appreciated and greatly enjoyed, especially if you just let it wash over you like some sort of surreal fever dream.

There are some special effects shots which are poorly realised (clearly the ones done by Mann himself after Weevers had died), but there are also some incredibly powerful visual moments, and the moody electronica score by Tangerine Dream heightens the film's dreamlike atmopshere. Some streaming versions of THE KEEP apparently have the Tangerine Dream soundtrack removed, due to rights issues, but fortunately it is present here on this DVD.

Interesting seeing a young Gabriel Byrne as a ruthless Nazi Sturmbannf├╝hrer (assault unit leader) and Ian McKellen is terrific in a role that has interesting parallels to his later performances as Magneto in the X-MEN films. Like Magneto, McKellen's character here is also a concentration camp prisoner and victim of Nazi terror, who is driven to use supernatural (or just super) powers to destroy the enemies of his people (the jews in one case, mutants in another).


MOTEL HELL-O

"Meat's meat, and man's gotta eat".
Loved checking into MOTEL HELL again last night, my first visit in quite a few years. The stay was more enjoyable than ever. This 1980 flick is such an offbeat gem, it's definitely one of the better and more original American horror movies from a period where the genre was starting to become dominated by cookie-cutter stalk and slash films. It really is like a classic 1950s EC horror comic brought to celluloid life, and it mixes a very pleasing blend of satirical humour, horror, and doomed romance. The gurgling sound which the planted victims make when they try to talk, after having their vocal cords removed, is quite unsettling. The Scream Factory Blu-ray looks very nice. I remember when Rory Calhoun's MOTEL HELL character graced the cover of FANGORIA #9, it stuck out on the newsagent racks from a mile away. With his check flannel shirt, denim overalls, bloodied chainsaw, and genuine pig's head mask, Farmer Vincent is a memorable villain of early-eighties horror. Surprised no one like NECA has produced a toy figure of him as yet, seems like it would be a natural (of course, there would also have to be an accompanying figure of Nancy Parson's Ida character).