Blog Archive

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) – Review

The subgenre of science fiction/comedy was certainly no stranger to the Disney Studio as they made good money off such classics as The Absent Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes but it was in 1979 that the studio decided to tackle Mark Twain in their adaptation of his satiric tale of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Now the Mark Twain story dealt with a man hit in the head who then wakes up under a tree in a rural area of Camelot while the Disney version uses a spacecraft and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, so Disney is going a tad off book with this one.


The movie opens with NASA director Dr. Zimmerman (Cyril Shaps) explaining Project Stardust, a space mission that will allow them to explore the planets of this galaxy and beyond, to a group of political and military personal and he runs into problems when he mentions that this will be a manned flight.  Senator Milburn (Robert Beatty) stops him in his tracks, “You intend to put fine young American men into that untried contraption, and shoot them out of this world into some Never Never Land!” With the dangers of his funding being cut Zimmerman calls on NASA jack-of-all-trades Tom Trimble (Dennis Dugan) to build a humanoid, “I want a robot that can walks, talks, sees, reacts, the works.”

 

So of course Trimble builds a robot duplicate of himself.

The robot is named Hermes after the Greek god of speed and not only does he look human but he has human reflexes and responses to a given situation, but this turns out to be a mistake for when it finally comes time to launch the spacecraft Stardust on its legendary mission they run into a small problem; Hermes doesn’t want to go as he fears he will never come back. Trimble is sent into the cockpit to convince Hermes to continue with the mission and he learns that not only does the robot have such emotions as fear and anxiety but he’d also smuggled a Playmate sex magazine on board, “Thirty years is thirty years I suppose” is Trimble’s response to finding the magazine which is possibly the only masturbation joke to ever be slipped into a Disney family film. Unfortunately before Trimble can convince Hermes to go forward with the mission the Launchpad is struck by lightning and the spacecraft blasts off. Trimble begs Dr. Zimmerman to abort the mission but the good doctor sadly states, “Impossible, we can’t abort the mission now, just make yourself comfortable, and when you get back there will be a nice little surprise in your pay envelop.” With those parting words from his dick of a boss Trimble tries to get the craft turned around but the shuttle then engages its atomic sending the pair through time and space.

 

What are the odds of this being a planet of talking apes?

Hermes was damaged during the launching accident so it’s up to Trimble to land them back on Earth but when they do he’s a bit shocked to find out that they haven’t landed back at Cape Canaveral instead they have arrived at Cornwall, England in 508 AD just a stone’s throw from King Arthur’s Camelot. Trimble ventures out of the spacecraft in a full EVA spacesuit, that includes the standard mirrored visor, and this of course has a rather scary effect on a 5th century peasant girl Alisande (Sheila White) who takes Trimble to be some sort of monster. The character of Ali is easily the highlight of the movie and actress Sheila White’s comedic timing as a superstitious maiden is brilliant as she plays this somewhat dim yet lovable girl who believes the goose she is carrying is her father turned into a fowl by dark magic. In fact her father was captured by the nefarious Sir Mordred (Jim Dale) as part of a land grab scheme that will allow him to fund an army big enough to overthrow King Arthur. Ali was heading to Camelot to seek Merlin’s aid when she came across the landing Stardust and she tries to dissuade Trimble from going there.

 

“Don’t go there, tis a silly place.”

Before Trimble has a chance to explain to Ali that he isn’t a monster they are captured by Sir Mordred and are marched off to Camelot to see the King. Now this is a Disney film and so one doesn’t expect it to be all that faithful to the Arthurian legends but this movie is more in keeping with Monty Python and the Holy Grail than it is to the tales of the Round Table found in more notable works such as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  In this version of Camelot King Arthur (Kenneth More) is more a doddering old man than the one who united a kingdom, and he mostly bickers with the equal aged Sir Gawain (John Le Mesurier) like an old married couple.  Merlin (Ron Moody) is introduced as a court magician who dazzles the residents of Camelot with simple sleight of hand party tricks and is eventually revealed to be in league with Mordred.  The villainous Mordred himself is shown to be the most accurate depiction of his “historic” analog as he is still a betrayer of the King even in this version. What is missing here are all the other Knights of the Round table.  Arthur explains to Trimble that Lancelot, “Has taken leave, something about rescuing a maiden” but the one major character that is decidedly absent with no explanation is that of Guinevere.  I think maybe Arthur was lying to Trimble and he was just covering up for that fact that Lancelot had actually run off with King’s wife.

Note: For some reason Arthur keeps Excalibur still lodged in the fabled stone, which Trimble is somehow able to draw forth.

In Mark Twain’s book our hero is able to prevent himself from being burnt at the stake by predicting a solar eclipse, having previously learned of this historical event, while in the Disney movie Trimble survives simply because his spacesuit is fireproof. It’s really not fair to compare Twain’s novel, which was a satire of the romanticized ideas of chivalry and of the idealization of the Middle Ages common in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other 19th century literature, while the Disney movie was simply a goofball fish-out-of-water comedy. Where Twain’s hero used his knowledge of the future to modernize medieval Europe; creating factories, ending slavery and developing gunpowder and modern weapons, poor ole Tom Trimble simply has his robot pal Hermes stand in for him when Sir Mordred challenges him to a joust, uses his shuttle’s land rover as well his jetpack and portable laser to defend Camelot from the forces of Mordred.

 

It is of course a very “family friendly” battle.

Throughout the film we get Trimble trying his best to survive in this rather perilous time, where almost every hand is against him; he must expose the villainous machinations of Sir Mordred, who he discovers has Ali’s father locked in the dungeon (him not being a goose never does quite sink into Ali’s brain), he uncovers documented proof that Mordred is snatching up land in a bid to overthrow Arthur (which he does while Hermes gets his head and limbs knocked off while jousting against Mordred), he attempts to win the heart of Ali (who reveals her feelings to Hermes thinking the robot is Trimble), and then Merlin is revealed to be a traitor as well when he steals Trimble’s laser gun, kidnaps Ali, and delivers them both to Mordred. Lucky for us Trimble knows that a laser is no match for a good reflective surface so he rushes off to confront Mordred wearing Arthur’s gold plated armor.

 

Tom Trimble upon his mighty steed.

Disney’s Unidentified Flying Oddball is a charming and harmless comedy that is populated with gifted character actors in service of a rather lite script that has a very tenuous grip on reality. That Trimble survives a sword fight with Mordred by magnetizing the knight’s blade by just hitting it with a hammer is all about the comedy and not scientific probabilities, and after winning the day Trimble reluctantly leaves Ali behind because he is worried that the trip back to the future aboard the Stardust would cause her to age a thousand years. I’m not sure how that even remotely makes a lick of sense but it doesn’t matter because as Trimble and Hermes engage the light drive they discover Ali’s goose had stowed away on board and as it didn't appear to be rapidly age Tom orders Hermes to turn the ship around and head back to Camelot and get his girl.

 

Note: I’m not sure the producers of this film knew how space shuttles worked either.

This was of course not the only adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel; Will Rodgers and Bing Crosby both starred in theatrical adaptations of this book and even the Transformers took a stab at the subject with "A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur's Court" but for me I will always have a soft spot for Disney’s Unidentified Flying Oddball or as it’s also known A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court. It may not be the best time travel movie ever made but it is easily one of the most charming and my only real criticism hasn’t anything to do with how fast and loose it plays with science but in the change of Arthur's faithful friend and mentor Merlin into a betrayer. That was just wrong.

 

Though I'll admit Ron Moody was quite fun as the great magician.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961) – Review

Legendary filmmaker George Pal is known for being the man behind such classics as The Time Machine, War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide but he also had a few stinkers on his resume such as Conquest of Space, Doc Savage and today’s entry Atlantis, The Lost Continent. Stories of Atlantis dates back to the philosopher Pluto who used this fictional tale as an allegory for the hubris of the nations of his time but this hasn’t stopped countless people from insisting that Atlantis did exist. Hollywood has certainly take the love of this myth to heart, and we’ve seen it depicted in everything from Disney animated movies to Stargate spin-offs, but it was director/producer George Pal who first brought it to the big screen, and yes I’m discounting the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom that came out a year earlier.


The movie follows the adventures of a Greek fisherman named Demetrios (Sal Ponti) who while fishing with his father one day comes across the wreckage from a ship and it's sole survivor, a beautiful woman by the name of Antillia (Joyce Taylor), who claims to be from a land beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Demetrious and his father discount her claims as no sailor has ever returned from the “Edge of the World” and her claims of being a Princess they take about as seriously.

 

Though Demetrios doesn’t seem to care either way.

Note: History buffs will know that Plato stated that Atlantis lay passed the “Pillars of Hercules” but as the movie takes place during the last days of Atlantis this places the film’s timeline at about 9,000 B.C which puts the story many years before Hercules was even born.

Not wanting to live her life as a fisherman’s wife Antillia tries to steal their boat, Demetrious catches her and offers a deal saying that he will help her find her way home but, “If by the space of one moon I do not sight your land we will return to my land, and when we return you will become my dutiful wife for evermore.” She agrees, as she has fallen in love with him it’s not a terrible deal, and they set sail across the dangerous waters where they are tossed by violent storms, menaced by an impenetrable fog and Demetrios is haunted by nightmarish visions.

 

One particular vision is more laughable than frightening.

They are aided in their travels by a crude compass that Antillia devised, which Demetrios claims his father would call sorcery, until eventually they are accosted by what at first appears to be a massive sea creature but turns out to be an Atlantean submersible. On board we meet the villainous Zaren (John Dall) and Sonoy the Astrologer (Frank DeKova) who seem very happy to find Antillia safe and sound, but shortly after arriving at Atlantis Antillia is spirited away to the palace and Demetrios is detoured into slavery.

 

Atlantis, home of scientific wonders and also complete assholes.

When Antillia discovers that Demetrios has been placed in slavery she goes to her father King Kronas (Edgar Stehli) to protests, but unfortunately he is not the strong man she remembers and has basically become a puppet to the usurper Zaren. Her protestations that she owes her life to Demetrios fall on deaf ears as one of the most sacred laws of Atlantis is that all strangers are to be enslaved, and worse is that there is a prophecy that a Greek fisherman’s arrival will portend the end of Atlantis.

Note: The culture of Atlantis here is a bit of a hodgepodge as budget constraints forced George Pal to use old sets, costumes and props from other movies that included stuff from films that took place in varying time periods and cultures. We see a large pagan idol from The Prodigal, Greek and Roman architecture, statues of the Egyptian goddess Bast, costumes from Ben Hur and even scientific gauges from Forbidden Planet.

Even stranger is that we meet an Atlantean high priest named Azar (Edward Platt) who encourages Antillia to abandon the false gods of Atlantis and pray to the one true God. Not only is this a very forward thinking priest but we also learn that he was once a scientist and had abandoned his calling when he saw his inventions being used as weapons of war. It’s he who warns Demetrios and Antillia that Atlantis’s days are numbered as he believes some catastrophic event will see their world come to an explosive end.  He had apparently noticed the birds, bees and ants getting the hell out of Dodge.

 

"I'm also building a small rocketship for my infant son."

The drama of impending doom is the not only problem facing our heroes as Demetrios believes that Antillia had lied to him from the start, and that she lured him into slavery. She tries to explain the current situation, and that she still loves him, but he will have not of it, “Your heart comes dear Princess, it is not worth the price I pay.” This scene between Demetrios and Antillia is wonderfully written and fantastically acted and almost makes up for the ridiculous plot.

It should be noted that George Pal didn’t just settle for borrowing props from other movies he also rips off H.G. Wells for in this film we find Demetrios being sent to the “House of Fear” where mad science is used to turn slaves into half-man half-animals. In the H.G. Wells book The Island of Doctor Moreau the lab was called “The House of Pain” and that George Pal simply changed it to “The House of Fear” shows just how much he cared about originality.

 

“Not to steal from H.G. Wells, that is the law.”

For some bizarre reason Zaren has Demetrios taken from the House of Fear, just as the mad doctor plans on turning him into a pig-man, and sentences him to the 'ordeal of fire and water' where a slave can win his freedom. And why exactly would he do this? Sure, the chances of Demetrios surviving this are remote but if he did happen to win you’re forced to free the man your betrothed is in love with, while on the other hand I doubt their love would survive him having a pig's snout.

 

“Tonight on Atlantean Gladiators!”

Of course Demetrios wins and is able to use his new won freedom to work against Zaren’s plans for world conquest. The priest informs our hero that Atlantis will meet its end in by the next full moon and that all they have to do is delay Zaren’s production of his newer and greater crystal-laser weapon. Now let’s take a moment and discuss the scientific wonders of Atlantis; aside from the turning of men into animals and cool submersibles the key achievement seems to be the harnessing of the suns powers through the crystals that the slaves mine for them. We learn that the beams emitted by these crystal devices can melt metal, explode boats, and skeletonize people in the blink of an eye, which leads one to ask the big question, “Why haven’t they tried to take over the world before now?”

 

Were they waiting for sweeps week?

Even more amazing is that even though Atlantis is roughly the size of Australia, and sitting right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it has somehow managed to remain a secret to the rest of the world. Anyone who arrives on the shores of Atlantis is enslaved and I guess the people of Atlantis don’t have very curious minds as they’ve never ventured to any other land. Are we to believe that until the evil Zaren broached the idea of global conquest none of these yahoos thought of war? You have submarines and lasers that can immolate any threat, what the hell were they waiting for? Being they have slaves, and seem to have no qualms about turning people into animals, I find it hard to believe these people are all so peace loving that the idea of war is foreign to them.

Is this is one of those peace based laser weapons?

Demetrios is able to use Zaren’s belief that anyone will betray their people for money to infiltrate the slave camps, sabotage the worksite and speed up the volcanic destruction of the island. Despite borrowing lots of footage from the Rome burning scenes in Quo Vadis there is still a lot of good miniature work in the sinking of Atlantis, and the shots of the city falling beneath the waves as the fleeing Demetrios and Antillia watch from their boat is pretty impressive.



As historical epics go Atlantis, The Lost Continent is clearly a victim of a limited budget allocated to a story that obviously required a lot more, the script was cliché ridden and only the performances of leads Sal Ponti and Joyce Taylor, as well as the pretty cool destruction scenes, make this worth checking out. Only diehard fans of the genre need bother with this sword and sandal flick.

Note: When Zaren meets is ironic end by laser, the crystal accidentally fires a blast at him, the crease on his skull shows he must have had some form of brain surgery prior to the events here.  Which would explain a lot.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It (2017) - Review

Do not go to Maine. If there was an anti-tourism board for Maine author Stephen King would be the president, chief treasurer and minutes taker as quite a few of his books deal with horrific events that take place in his home state. Vampires, rabid dogs and even aliens have plagued the residents of this New England state but it’s in King’s thousand page tome It that we are introduced to the most terrifying resident yet, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now adapting such a massive book is no easy task; in 1990 ABC and Warner brothers gave it a shot in mini-series form, with a limited degrees of success, but now in 2017 we get the version we’ve all been waiting for.


For those that remember the mini-series it’s almost a consensus that it's the kid section and Tim Curry’s performance that worked, while the adult half of the mini-series kind of sucked, so with this remake director Andy Muschietti wisely decided to focus solely on the kids with the adult stuff to be handled at a later date. Like both the book and the mini-series the movie opens with seven year old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) taking a paper sailboat, one that his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) made for him, on test run down the rain filled gutters of their small town of Derry. Things do not go well for Georgie, and unlike the mini-series his death here is damn bloody.

Public Service Announcement: I don’t want to seem harsh or rag on the stupidity of a poor little kid who is brutally murdered but Georgie’s decision to chat with a clown in the sewer, and his inevitable death, could be considered a case of Natural Selection. I advise all public school teachers to show this open sequence to their young charges because this kind of knowledge could later save their lives.

 

And knowing is half the battle.

The movie follows the adventure of a group of kids known as “The Losers’ Club” as they try and figure out what's the deal with all the deaths and missing kids that plague’s their home town; Bill Denbrough is obsessed with finding his missing brother despite everyone’s rational belief that the kid is dead, Ben Hascom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the overweight member of the group and is the one who provides good historical information on the dark goings on in Derry though that role belonged to Mike Hanlon in the book), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is the only girl in “The Loser Club” and one could almost claim that a killer clown may actually be an improvement in her life when you consider she has an abusive father who gets a bit too handsy on a daily basis, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) is the required “Mouth” of the group and the one mostly like to give de-facto leader Bill a hard time, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) a hypochondriac whose domineering mother barely lets him out of her sight, Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is the skeptic in the group and who is more concerned about his Bar mitzvah than fighting monsters, and finally there is the outsider Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) the groups one member of colour and like all of the other kids in the group he has not had the easiest childhood.

 

And no, this movie is not a rip-off of Stranger Things. Sheesh.

For this movie director Andy Muschietti assembled a fantastic group of child actors as there is not one bad apple in the bunch, and Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hascom practically steals every moment he can, and then there is Bill Skarsgård creepy turn as the evil clown Pennywise, who easily steps out of the shadow of Tim Curry’s performance and makes the character his own. The editing, cinematography, music and visual effects for this film are all top notch, and more so impressive when you consider Muschietti only has a couple of films under his belt. Now one thing that should be pointed out is that this is not a stand-alone movie, some unaware viewers may be a bit shocked when the ending title card pops up reading Chapter One, but the story will be continued in a sequel and we can only hope that they find a group of adult actors as equal to the task as the kids we got for this installment.


As adaptions go this version of the book still had to make some massive changes, even with it being divided into two movies it'd be next to impossible to include everything from the book, but most of the changes I didn’t mind or in the case of the “Beverly has sex with all the members of The Losers’ Club” I was quite grateful they were omitted. I’ll admit to missing the werewolf stalking poor Ritchie through the bowels of the school's basement, one of my favorite moments in the book, but the addition of stuff like a creepy-ass painting coming to life worked just as good.  The biggest criticism I have is something that many horror movies and novels (this book included) are guilty of and that would be characters doing incredibly stupid things that you know you yourself wouldn’t be caught dead doing. When you watch this film you will find yourself wanting to yell at the screen, “What the hell are you kids doing?”

• Would you explore the town’s sewers in the hopes of finding missing children?
• Would you follow mysteriously placed Easter eggs down into your town library’s basement?
• Would you follow muddy footprints left by your dead little brother?
• Would you and your friends enter a house as creepy as the one presented here?

 

I don’t think even the Adams Family would live in this place.

In fact The Losers' Club needs a better leader than good ole Bill, his obsession with finding his dead brother makes him check his brain at the door; at one point in the movie he convinces the group to go into that creepy ass house, the one that apparently contains some ancient evil, and he doesn't even suggest maybe getting a weapon or two? That kind of leadership you can do without.  I will admit that he wasn't the only one of the group to make questionable decisions, it did seem like every minute or two some kid wandered off alone, but as a leader he just doesn't measure up.

 

I nominate Ben Hanscom as President of The Losers’ Club and Bev as First Lady.

But is the film scary? Freed from the constraints of network television not only is this film chock full of spine-tingling chills and jumps scares (not too many but just enough) it will have you on the edge of your seat and tossing your popcorn into the air.  One factor to mention is that in most movies we tend not to see too much of "children in danger" but as this movie is about a creature that literally feeds on children (and their fear) that is what we get and we get it in spades. We also get more than just monster on child violence as there is the aforementioned creepy dad, who makes Beverly’s life a living hell, but then we also have the local bad boys, led by sociopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who hound our heroes at every turn because an ancient evil isn’t enough on their plate. Both the book and the movie are about fear and how children manage to deal with it; whether that fear stems from a horrible home life or headless ghosts who wants to see if you will "Float down here too." it's all stuff that Pennywise can use as ammo to fill his larder.


I’d say fans of Stephen King and the book It may be sad that somethings didn’t make the cut; I myself was surprised that not only was there no werewolf but also no mummy, gill-man or Frankenstein's monster, maybe they were afraid of infringing on Universals Dark Universe, but that Muschietti left out the cosmic turtle I kind of half expected and of course I knew going in that there was no way in hell we'd get the sewer orgy with the kids. This is easily the best horror film I’ve seen this year, the suspense and scares hit all the right notes and the cast of kids were bar none fantastic. I can’t recommend this enough and let’s all hope that part two is just as good and breaks the curse of the mini-series

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Apple (1980) – Review

There are many reasons for a film to fail; a rotten script, awful production values, poor marketing and even something as simple as bad timing can be a factor in whether a film succeeds or fails, but in the case of Canon’s The Apple it suffered from all of those and more, the only thing the film had going for it was that producer/director/writer Menahem Golan had managed to assemble a fairly talented cast, even newcomer Catherine Mary Stewart seemed perfect to play role of the naïve heroine who was seduced by fame and fortune. So what went wrong? Sadly Menahem Golan’s boundless passion for the project was not enough to overcome all the other issues the film had, the chief one being that they were making a disco/rock opera in the late 70s when by that point disco was pretty much dead, but of course the key factor behind its failure was the fact that Menahem Golan has never been considered a very good director or writer to begin with.


The movie takes place in the distant future of 1994, where all cars would have bubbles on their roofs and fashion leaned heavily towards silver and gold lame outfits, but as silly as this film’s depictions of the future was I’d say the actually 21st Century has proven to be even sillier in some aspects. I mean who could have predicted a crazed orange muppet would become president?

 

In retrospect much of The Apple is tame when compared to our current reality.

The movie opens with contestants for a massively popular talent show called The Worldvision Song Festival vying for the honor of providing the official state song. Think American Idol if funded by Hitler. The public favorites are a duet consisting of Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy) who’s performance of the song “BIM” looks to be a shoe in to win. Enter Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), two youths from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, whose love song seems to strike a chord with the audience and looks to win the top spot from Dandi and Pandi. Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), owner of Boogalow International Music (BIM for short), will not stand to see his sponsored song lose so he sabotages Alphie and Bibi’s act.

 

These guys would actually fit in rather well with today’s music scene.

Despite being booed off the stage, the audience having turned on them due to the sabotage, Bibi is still excited about meeting with Mr. Boogalow, this because they need an agent and Bibi isn't very bright. Alphie doesn’t trust the man and when later at the Worldvision after-party he sees Bibi in the arms of Dandi he has even less desire to meet with the man, but Bibi is all fired up with the idea of signing with Boogalow International Music and “Pooh Poohs” her boyfriend’s objection. This moment kind of moves Bibi out of the naïve category into the quite stupid one, now I’m sure many people have been caught up in the glamour of showbiz, making rash decisions that end in disaster, but as this movie progresses Bibi is revealed to have the intelligence and survival instincts of a lemming.

 

“You all look like honest people, where do I sign?”

The title of the movie implies that this will be an allegory to The Garden of Eden but signing a contract with a character we soon learn is basically the Devil is more Faustian in nature than it is about Adam and Eve. In Genesis Eve was deceived into eating fruit from the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge by the serpent, she then gave some of the fruit to Adam and the two were banished from the garden by God. Yet in this movie the Eve analog signs the standard “Fame and Fortune” contract with the Devil but her “Adam” refuses to sign. What is even stranger here is that while Bibi is signing the contract Alphie experiences an earthquake and sudden darkness, events that no one else in the room seems to experience. Is God sending visions to Alphie to warn him about signing with Boogalow? If so it kind of implies that God doesn’t give two shits about poor sweet and innocent Bibi. Yet those warnings were only the start as Alphie is soon experiencing a psychedelic hallucination of their descent into Hell. If this is God’s work he’s pulling out all the stops to save Alphie’s soul, yet we never find out why.

 

This nightmare sequence is here to reinforce the whole Garden of Eden allegory.

What follows is your typical tale of two lovers torn apart by dark forces; Bibi goes on to become a huge successful star while poor Alphie lives in near abject poverty as he unsuccessfully tries to sell his songs to a world that is only interested in what BIM is pushing. To pad out the film's running time we are introduced to Alphie’s landlady (Miriam Margolyes) who gives him a hard time about paying the rent yet gives him soup and tends to his injuries when his is beaten by Boogalow’s goons. If you are looking for well-rounded and consistent characters you’re watching the wrong movie. The film’s very structure makes little to no sense as the “plot” seems nothing more than filler between over produced musical numbers. Bibi’s stupidity earns no sympathy from us and neither does Alphie’s pathetic whining or his haphazard motivations.  He abandons his “True Love” to the wolves one minute and then the next he wants her back…because? Well she is very attractive, so I guess that’s a reason.

 

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina!”

To be fair one should certainly not go into a Canon film looking for high art but this attempt at a rock opera was certainly beyond Menahem Golan’s abilities. When dealing with a story that takes place in the future a certain amount of world building would be required, you don’t need to go into extensive details but what you do show has to make sense, yet in The Apple we find ourselves seeing a world where a music promoter has his own squad of Stormtroopers, he has the ability to suppress the press and make the wearing of a “BIM mark” sticker on your face a law, one that if broken will get you fined or thrown in jail. What world events would have had to take place for such a society to grow?  Sure it turns out that Mr. Boogalow is The Devil but how does even the Devil go from simply being a corrupt entertainment mogul to all of a sudden in control of the country? Oh…right, never mind.

 

I bet he didn’t win the popular vote either.

The film works best if you consider the whole thing to be just some kind of acid trip that Alphie was having, maybe he never left Moose Jaw and all this was some fever dream caused by eating to much back bacon, and that theory makes even more since when the film reaches its conclusion where out of nowhere we have the fucking Rapture. After finding solace with a group of hippies, and Alphie is finally reunited with his true love and is having a baby with her, Boogalow and his minions show up to crash their happiness, but before the Devil’s lawyers can so much as file a breach of contract suit Mr. Topps (Joss Ackland), aka God, arrives from the heavens in a flying Rolls Royce. It was at this point my WTF Meter broke.  I guess if you are a god you may as well travel in style.  So the film ends with Alphie, Bibi and all their hippie brethren traipsing up into the sky while Mr. Boogalow gnashes his teeth below.

 

If you are still sober at this point you’ve made a tactical error.

The Apple is a bad film, there is no debating that point, even as a musical it fails for the song numbers range from the forgettable to the outright awful, yet there is a certain level of earnestness that permeates the film and that is why some consider it cult classic. It will certainly never reach the heights of such cult hits as The Rocky Horror Show but its unique visual signature and complete lack of restraint does merit some applause, and once you've seen The Apple you certainly will never forget it.


Note: Menahem Golan thought he had a sure fire hit with The Apple but the immediate hate the film received had him contemplating suicide, at the Montreal premier people threw the complementary soundtracks at the screen, but now as the years have passed we can look back at it through rose colored glasses (It’s safer viewing that way) and appreciate it for the wonderful lunacy that is The Apple.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Howard the Duck (1986) From Comic Book to Screen

It’s hard to believe that the first Marvel character to make its way to the big screen was something as off-beat and off brand as Howard the Duck; both Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk had earlier managed to make it to the small screen with varying degrees of success but no attempts at a cinematic venture for them were greenlit for quite some time. Now Captain America did have a Republic Pictures serial back in the 40s but it was Howard the Duck who became the first Marvel character to star in his own big budget movie. This was long before Marvel Entertainment existed as a movie studio and for years Marvel Comics was known mostly for selling their intellectual property rights to their characters to anyone who could sign a check. Enter George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.


A little history on Howard the Duck; he started off his career in comics as a secondary character that Marvel writer Steve Gerber created for an issue of Adventure into Fear, where due to multiple realities colliding poor Howard found himself working alongside Man-Thing, a barbarian and an apprentice sorceress in attempt to stop an demonic Overmaster from conquering the multiverse. The Marvel heads at the time asked Gerber to kill off Howard, they thought he was too silly and thus distracted from the main story, but when they started to get flooded with fan outcry they okayed his return within back-up stories in issues of Man-Thing until he was eventually granted a title of his own.


During the making of American Graffiti George Lucas went to his writing partners and old college mates Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz and told them about this very funny and brilliantly subversive comic book that he thought could make for a good movie. Flash forward a couple decades and Universal Pictures greenlit a Howard the Duck movie with Huyck at the helm, but sadly something happened in the years between George reading the comic and the movie finally being made that caused those who thought a movie about a talking duck, one who railed against kung fu revenge films, took on political parties and the media for their blatant stupidity, and made them decide to remove the subversive elements of the comic, boiling it down to the basic elements of a talking duck who hooks up with a chick, thus forgoing the satire aspect that is intrinsic to Howard the Ducks character. Everything that made the hot-headed anti-conformist nature of Steve Gerber’s creation interesting and relatable was removed and replaced with generic action scenes and cool ILM light shows.

 

We also got an actor in a $2 million dollar duck suit.

Animation was the obvious medium for such an enterprise, photo realistic CGI was years away, and it was the format all agreed would be best but unfortunately animation takes years and the studio wanted a film for a summer release and so Lucas then assured everyone that doing it as a live action movie was possible. How different this movie would have been if they had stuck with animation we will knew know, it still would have been terrible if they'd used the script we end up with for the live action version, but with the freedom of animation to do anything one can only assume the final product would have differed vastly from what we ended up with.

Would Lucas have allowed something like this into his movie?

Even the marketing of the film hinted at something quite different as the teaser trailer for the film consisted of Lea Thompson lying alone in front of a Sears’s photo backdrop extolling the virtues of her boyfriend, ending with her saying, “I would give anything to run my fingers through his…feathers.”   We see her blow feathers of her hand but we don't see Howard, and when I first saw this trailer back in the day I assumed that they would be going the route that Robert Zemeckis did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit with Howard being traditional cel animation while the rest of the cast would be live action actors.

 

Wouldn't this technique have worked so much better?

The movie is your basic origin story with it opening on how Howard the Duck got to Earth, Man-Thing and the “Nexis of Realities” obviously jettisoned in favor of a more simple explanation, no longer is Howard the hapless duck who was caught up in a fantastic battle for the very fabricate of reality instead he is yanked from his Duckworld home by a mysterious power source that simply plops him down in alley somewhere in Cleveland. I will say that the props department for this film must have had a lot of fun creating all the things that make up Duckworld such as all the books and movie posters found in Howard’s apartment like Breeders of the Lost Stork and Splashdance” as well as a disturbing look at duck porn.

 

File this under things we didn’t need to see.

On Howard the Duck's arrival on Earth (Ed Gale in the duck suit with Chip Zien providing the voice) he encounters a nasty group of punks, a lesbian biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts” and then a couple of would be rapists who threaten the beautiful Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), but Howard being a "Master of Quack Fu" he is able to handily defeat the cretins. Movie Beverly is the lead singer for an all-girl rock band called “Cherry Bomb” whereas Beverly in the comic paid the rent by working as a nude live model, which I personally would have preferred but that could just be me, now in both movie and in the comic Howard does rescue Beverley but in the comic she was being held by Pro Rata the Cosmic Accountant and forced to dress like Red Sonja while in the movie we just get a scientist possessed by an alien force. So right off the hop we clearly see that the movie is not going in the absurdist direction of the comics but is instead keeping most of the elements somewhat down to Earth.

Note: In the comics Howard didn’t learn Quack Fu back on Duckworld but instead he took a three hour course at a strange martial arts studio here on Earth that mysteriously vanished after he graduated.

In the movie the relationship that builds between Howard and Beverly is handled with a deft hand, with Beverly teasing Howard into thinking she wants sex with him, but like in the comic it’s clear that she does really care for Howard and this is the one element the movie kind of nails. Whether movie audiences at the time were ready for bestiality jokes is another thing altogether. This is a case of what works in the context of an off-the-wall comic book being a lot harder to translate to a live action movie. Would this have worked better if the film had been animated who can say but for me the “love scene” in the movie is about the closest it gets to feeling like the comic book.

 

The love that shall not speak its name.

The next day Beverly brings Howard to The Natural History Museum and Aquarium to meet her scientist friend Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), in the hope that this guy can figure out a way to get Howard back home, but unfortunately Phil is not so much a scientist as he is a lab assistant/janitor. Furious that Beverly would subject him to this overenthusiastic crack-pot, who is clearly more interested in the fame Howard could bring him than in getting the duck home, Howard tells Beverly that he doesn’t need any more of her sympathy or charity, “Who needs you? I don’t need anybody!”

Howard quickly realizes that what he does need is food, shelter and a job, two of which Beverly was offering him, but instead of Howard doing the smart thing and swallowing his pride the film leads us on an idiotic detour into Howard looking for work, and if you think for half a second about what this would actually entail it completely falls apart. He goes to the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services and encounters a hard-nosed civil servant who thinks Howard is dressing up in a duck suit to be “controversial” and thus be able to remain jobless and collect unemployment insurance.  She will have none of that.

 

I know this scene is here for simple comic purposes but it does raise a few questions:

• Did this woman even ask for some kind of identification from Howard? To get unemployment insurance you kind of have to be an American citizen.
• Howard is dressed with clothes he got from the Little Tykes section of Goodwill but where did he get Earth money to pay for them?
• Is Howard living in alley? Because without a job he certainly can’t be renting anywhere.

We follow up that scene of comic insensibility with one of Howard working at some kind of sex spa as a “Water Expert” where his boss chucks him head first into a whirlpool, one that currently has occupants in it because that's this film's idea of comedy, to fix a broken water jet. Howard quits this terrible job and ends up back at the nightclub/bar where Beverly’s group performs, and after beating up their crooked manager and getting the girls the money they are owed he is back in Beverly’s good graces.

This whole bit does not make me sympathetic to Howard’s plight as he clearly states to Bev, “Listen, I’m sorry we fought. You’re the only friend I got here,” and this kind of implies that if he had any other options he would not have come crawling back to Beverly, and that pretty much puts Howard in the category of being a total jerk. Now in the comics he and Beverly did have the occasional fight but he never crossed the line into being the complete dick that he is here.  The movie tries to recover from this moment by having that quirky aforementioned romance scene but for me at this point I stopped rooting for Howard, but who else is there to root for? Well let’s talk about this film’s main villain…

 

Enter the Dark Overlord of the Universe.

I turns out that Phil isn’t a complete loss as he discovers that Howard was brought to Earth when a laser spectroscope, belonging to local science lab Dynatechnics, went off course and hit Duckworld and accidentally snatched Howard instead of measuring the density of gases around Alpha Centaury as it was supposed to. I’m not sure how a device designed to measure density can suddenly become a tractor beam but then again I’m not a scientist. In this film scientist Doctor Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) posits that it is possible to reverse the process and send Howard back home, but later when the gang visits the lab they learn that there has been another accident with the laser and now Doctor Jenning is possessed by a demonic creature from the Nexus of Sominus (which is apparently some kind of demonic dimension in space) and it hopes to use the laser spectroscope to bring more of his fellows to Earth. If this sounds a tad familiar it's because The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension had basically that same plot and it came out a few years before Howard the Duck did.

Also other dimensional monsters isn't really a Howard the Duck thing, sure his first appearance in comics was him getting mixed up in a fight with the demonic Overmaster but that guy was more a Man-Thing villain and Howard was just briefly along for the ride.  Howard was mostly known for fighting absurdist creations like Hellcow, a poor bovine turned into a vampire by a desperately hungry Dracula, or the fanatical Canadian hellbent on destroying America’s faith in democracy called La Beaver, then there was Doctor Reich a former dentist to Hitler, and of course the terrifying if tasty Gingerbread Man who was created by a young girl mad scientist.

Who wouldn't buy a ticket to see a movie based on this?

At just under two hours Howard the Duck feels a lot longer than it actually is, too many times the film stops cold for an overlong special effects or action sequence that barely moves the plot forward; we get Howard and Beverly’s escape from Dynatechnics because the police want to arrest Howard for being an illegal alien, then we get an endless scene at a Cajun/Sushi diner where a possessed Jenning uses his powers to explode stuff and telekinetically toss shit around, and then after Jenning kidnaps Beverly it’s up to Howard and Phil to rescue her before the possessed asshat can stuff one of his overlord pals inside her. This leads to a chase scene between the police and Howard, who along with idiot Phil, steals an ultralight that neither know how to operate.

 

You will believe a duck can fly.

The film’s climax consist of Howard strapping an experimental “neutron disintegrator" to some sort of moon buggy and shooting Doctor Jenning/Dark Overlord. Sounds like a great plan, what could possibly go wrong?  But sadly hitting Jenning with the disintegrator ray doesn’t quite have the desired effect for instead of disintegrating the villain it somehow forces the Dark Overlord out of Jenning’s body and thus Howard must then do battle with the creature in it’s true form. This final incarnation is a wonderful stop-motion rod puppet designed and operated by the great Phil Tippet but unfortunately by this time in the film I’ve completely given up caring about anything and am just praying for the end credits to roll.

 

 Now there are just a couple questions about this climax:

• Jenning/Dark Overlord types in the targeting coordinates of his home dimension into the computer and replies, “Laser is now targeting the Nexus of Sominus” but how exactly does that computer know the name of an alien dimension?
• The Dark Overlords cannot exist on Earth unless they grow inside a human body, which is why he kidnapped Beverly, but we see three Dark Overloads coming down the Laser Spectroscope’s beam. Can three of those things fit inside little ole Beverly?
• When the neutron disintegrator knocks the Dark Overlord out of Jenning’s body the once possessed scientists somehow reverts to normal. Earlier Jenning tells Howard and Beverly that “Something is growing inside me. It’s replicating and superseding all my internal organs.” I’m not sure how he survived that process, especially when at one point he walked into a nuclear reactor to charge up. Doctor Jenning should be a cancer riddled corpse.
• During the final fight the now full realized Dark Overlord hits Beverly and Phil with a beam from its tail that seems to be slowly disintegrating them, but doesn’t that destroy the hosts he needs for his brethren?

 

Cool monster but I still would have preferred a vampire cow.

It’s clear that I’ve put more thought into this movie’s plot than anybody involved in the making of it did. Sure this supposed to a fun science fiction/fantasy adventure comedy and we’re not supposed to over think things, but the key element in making an audience buy into the conceit of talking duck from another world is to have your story, no matter how farfetched, maintain its own intrinsic logic. Characters must act and react in a way that an audience can relate to or else it’s all just noise and nobody will care what happens next.

 

Ending your film with Howard doing a Marty McFly impression doesn’t help.

Needless to say the movie laid a colossal egg at the box office but that doesn't mean there isn’t anything to like about the Howard the Duck movie; as two million dollar duck suits go the one created for this movie is pretty good, Lea Thompson pulled off a believable rocker chick who falls for a talking duck, and ILM did their usual solid work with the special effects, but on the other hand I can’t say I’m fond of the manic comic turn that Tim Robbins gives us with his performance here as it gets old real fast. The real problem of course is that George Lucas took a character that he thought was funny and original and then handed it over to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz so they could remove all that made Howard the Duck funny and original.

 

This was not the Howard the Duck we knew and loved from the comics.

The film has developed a little bit of a cult following but despite Lucas’s views that over time the film will eventually be appreciated for the masterpiece it is I'm sorry say that it still looks as bad as it did back in 1986.  Sorry George.  Of course the big question is will James Gunn give us a real Howard the Duck movie some day? Gunn is a professed fan of the character, and Howard has had cameos in both Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, but sadly there are no plans for a movie starring him in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe schedule.

 

Maybe if we all collectively hold are breath Marvel will cave in and give Gunn the greenlight.