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Friday, June 25, 2010

ULTRA MAN: The First Big Guy I Admired

At last, those of us who’ve waited decades to see Ultraman again can see 20 episodes – with a good picture and pretty good, if not absolutely perfect, sound – on an inexpensive 2-disc DVD set. The set includes the entire first season of the show.

For those who don’t remember, Ultraman was a half-hour 1960s live action TV series about a gigantic flying superhero from outer space who merges with Hiyata, a young pilot from Japan’s Science Patrol (a sort of space-age police force that deals with extraterrestrial invaders, giant monsters and such). Because of this merging, Hiyata can walk away from what should have been a fatal crash with the space hero’s ship – but in a crisis he can turn into Ultraman. He holds up a flashlight-like device called a “Beta Capsule” and a voice on the soundtrack tells us, “Using the Beta Capsule, Hiyata becomes Ultraman!” We then see a flash of light and the hero’s towering figure rising up out of it. (Though I was very young, the idea that one could hold up a cylindrical object and suddenly become much bigger somehow resonated with me).

Usually Ultraman appears to fight a Godzilla-like rubber-suit monster (the effects director, in fact, is Godzilla’s creator, Eji Tsuburaya.). After a few minutes of fighting, a bulb on UM’s chest begins to flash on and off, and to beep. The soundtrack voice tells us that his energy is depleting in Earth’s atmosphere, which builds suspense -- if he can’t defeat the monster in time, the voice-over warns, “Ultraman will never rise again.”

Hiyata’s Science Patrol co-workers – a cute young woman with an annoying little brother; the serious Captain; a buffoonish fellow pilot who often does pratfalls and such, etc. – have no clue that he is also Ultraman. To be fair, there’s no resemblance for them to spot, as there was with Clark Kent and Superman – Ultraman is taller than a skyscraper and has silver skin and a pointy head. (He also has opaque egg-shaped eyes that look, as a friend so aptly put it, "like an insect's." Now and then you may notice that they have little holes poked in the bottom so that the actor can see!) Ultraman’s powers include great strength, martial arts skills, flying, and the ability to cross his arms and shoot cosmic rays from the heel of one hand.

The dubbing is dreadful and the effects laughable, but that remains part of the series’ charm. One funny aspect is that the monsters continually get more and more outrageous looking and colorful (and sillier) because they had to come up with so many of them. Godzilla himself even shows up at one point, disguised, but not very effectively.

You can watch the DVD in Japanese if you want, and can leave the subtitles on even if you’re watching it in English – this is interesting, because the characters are often saying very different things than what was dubbed in. (For instance, the female character -- in an episode about a monster that eats pearls -- makes a rather surprising and solemn speech at one point about how her male co-worker does not "recognize a woman's wrath.")

These episodes are also complete, though when they first showed on American TV, they were edited for time – so some scenes appear in Japanese, with (and sometimes without) subtitles even if you’re watching it in English. This makes for a somewhat unpredictable viewing experience, but it never goes on for longer than a few minutes, so you don’t lose track of the story.

I found this set for five bucks at Kmart. On Amazon it’s around ten bucks. Trust me, it’s the deal of the century so far.

Friday, June 18, 2010

This film may cause you... ANGUISH!

Anybody else remember this 1987 movie? I first saw it in on the big screen. It starts off with a scene from a lurid horror movie that you think is the film you're watching -- then pans back into a theater where an audience is watching that film. Then real-life violence starts happening in that theater. Then the perspective starts switching back and forth between the two movies and theaters.

Strategically located speakers were installed in your actual theater to the front and side of you, and some in back; the sound would come from different places depending on what was occurring onscreen. The effect was to make you disoriented -- you couldn't help but get confused about "which" theater the current action was in (or YOU were in). it may be sacrilegious to say so, but William Castle never came up with a gimmick as effective as this one. It took the device of setting violence in a movie theater, which was unsettling enough in Lamberto Bava’s Demons or the classic slasher He Knows You’re Alone, and ratcheted up the suggestivity factor.

The late Zelda Rubinstein starred in the "movie within a movie" part. That “movie” is called The Mommy, and involves a mother who sends her (unlicensed) “doctor” son out into the night to gather human eyes for her –- from live and unwilling donors! There’s something about horror involving eyes that particularly gets to me. Who could forget that scene with the binoculars in Horrors Of The Black Museum, or the scene with the doctor’s wife and the big splinter in Zombie?

The Mommy was gorier than Museum and as gory as Zombie, but what really messed with you was the "which theater" aspect. I just watched the DVD and it's still a creepy film, but it doesn't work nearly as well as it did in the theater. When I first saw it with a horror movie buddy who was as jaded as I am, he was so spooked that afterwards he was afraid to go to the men's room by himself! I went with him willingly, because I was afraid to wait in the lobby alone! Rumor had it that the film also had sublminal messages in it, and if so, they certainly affected me. I never get that scared at a movie.

Directed by Bigas Luna, this Spanish film is dubbed into English -- but it's an unusually good job. It's 89 minutes long. Watching it in the dark with the volume turned up helps evoke some of the lost "theater" effect.

Friday, June 11, 2010

STANLEY: There's nothing like a guy with a nice snake

(Chris Robinson stars in Stanley))

Stanley tries to do for snakes what Willard did for rats. It fails, but manages to do so entertainingly.

Released in 1972, Stanley is a low-budget morality tale about a Native American Vietnam vet, Tim (played by the gorgeous Chris Robinson) who lives in a swamp shack in the Everglades, barely subsisting by selling snake venom to a medical lab. Tim has issues, you see, and prefers the company of snakes to people -- particularly that of Stanley, a rattlesnake he carries with him everywhere. Tim comes up against the local gangster factory owner (Alex Rocco) who wants to turn every snake in the swamp into a cheesy belt. Tim, not playing with a full deck to begin with, wigs out when Rocco's thugs kill his brood of baby snakes, and an over-the-hill local stripper bites the heads off of some of his adult snakes onstage. The rest of the film is a bloody revenge festival.

The film is very preachy about animal rights, which is pretty hypocritical considering how many snakes are actually killed on camera during it -- crushed under rifle butts, shot, cut in half, swung by the tail till their heads smash against walls, etc.

To be fair, Robinson's affectionate snake handling is amazing, and the movie does live up to the poster's claim that it “will make your skin crawl" in many scenes, such as those where there are snakes crawling free all over his cabin (where he's holding a kidnapped girl).

The movie's main entertainment value comes from its many unintentional laughs, though -- from the hokey folkie protest songs on the soundtrack to ludicrous scenes where Robinson prays reverently among tombstones for his dead snakes or solemnly performs a snake wedding. The funniest thing is the way villain Alex Rocco repeatedly embarrasses himself on camera -- working out with absurdly tiny white dumbbells, or being caught freeze frame, grimacing, as he realizes he's jumping into a pool full of snakes. (Rocco’s scenes, for me at least, gain added laugh impact because I remember him playing Jo’s dad on The Facts Of Life.)

(Alex Rocco in midair)

Then, of course, there’s the added attraction of seeing Robinson shirtless a number of times. He’s drop-dead ruggedly handsome and just barely on the cusp of becoming paunchy – which to me actually makes him sexier. His acting may be wooden, but the thought of him getting wood is downright drool-worthy.

At 109 minutes “Stanley” drags a bit here and there, but it's worth seeing. It's very funny, though it's not supposed to be, and if you're scared sh*tless of snakes (like I am), it will make you jump (and even squirm) now and then.

Friday, June 4, 2010

SWEENEY TODD: Singing While Slicing & Dicing

(Johnny Depp sings to his razor.)

Awhile ago. my loving partner gave me the Johnny Depp DVD version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street," and I'm still pretty sure it wasn't a veiled message meaning "God, get a haircut already or I'll cut your throat." I'm kidding, of course -- we both love the show.

For those who don’t know, “Sweeney Todd” began life as a “penny dreadful” serial in 1846. The title character is a barber who robs selected customers. and cuts their throats. Their flesh is then baked into meat pies by his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett; her pies become wildly popular because they taste so good. The story was first brought to the stage as a Victorian melodrama, but the most famous version is a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with songs by the brilliantly caustic Stephen Sondheim. In the musical version, Todd has a humanizing back story; he was framed for murder by a corrupt judge who stole his wife and daughter. Todd’s daughter Joanna is now the judge’s ward, held as a virtual prisoner. His crimes are driven by his obsessed desire to avenge himself, and to reunite with her. The story is complicated by the unwitting interference of two young people – a sailor who loves Joanna from afar, and Todd’s errand boy Toby, who is more devoted to Todd’s associate Mrs. Lovett than anyone realizes. To make matters worse, Mrs. Lovett herself is in love with Todd.

"Sweeney" is a story meant for the screen, where it’s able to use the more in-your-face, detailed gore typical of a horror film to toss in a shock or even a gross laugh. In some ways it can treat its slasher aspects more casually than stage versions did, which adds to its dark humor. Depp himself is PLENTY scary here, though he has to be likeable and funny too. Tim Burton directs him so that he always manages to have intimately sidled right up to you when he suddenly ratchets up the menace.

Scare meter aside, the move had to sink or swim as a musical first, and it does that well. I don't buy the complaints that '"Sweeney" suffers from Depp not being a belter like Len Carou or George Hearn in the stage versions. Depp doesn't need to belt anyway -- his intimate talking-on-pitch singing is spot on, and emphasizes Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, which cut as sharply as Todd's lethal razors -- only here they start slicing from someplace unnervingly close to your own ear.

The other singers all fare extremely well. Helena Bonham Carter has a more conventionally beautiful voice than you’d expect to come lilting out of her Goth pasty face, and is free to clown with a lighter touch than her impeccable predecessor Angela Lansbury could; she and Depp have perfect chemistry together. It’s worth the price of admission just to see their performance of Sondheim’s ironic “By The Sea,” set amid a clever montage that follows them through little skits showing their relationship turn dismally dull as Carter’s lead vocal lists her ever-brighter expectations for their future together. Depp’s increasingly bored reaction shots are priceless.

The juveniles, errand boy Toby (Ed Sanders) and the cloistered Joanna (Jayne Wisener), actually sing better than the actors who had the roles in the various stage productions – especially Wisener, whose full-bodied, bell-clear soprano solo “Green Finch And Linnett Bird” would spread its wings lot more convincingly than it ever got to onstage if more than a shred of the song remained in the movie. That’s one bit of slicing I could have done without – editing of songs to suit a more typical movie length.

One thing director Burton does flawlessly is to imbue the film with the atmosphere of old London, tawdry and brutal, in a more pervasive way than any stage set could – the film drenches you with it (not to mention with gallons of blood).

This is probably the best movie version of the musical “Sweeney Todd” that fans could hope to expect. For those who insist on the whole score being included, there’s the Great Performances TV version with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, which is still available as a DVD.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


In case anybody's been wondering, I haven't been updating my blogs because I had no internet connection for over a week. I'm back on now; things should be back to normal (for me, at least) in a couple of days. Sorry to disappear like that.