Thursday, May 14, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

He may be 70, but with Mad Max: Fury Road, veteran Australian director George Miller amply demonstrates that he still has a lot of fuel left in the creative tank as he enters the third act of his career, delivering what I can only describe as an audacious ball-tearer of an action movie, the kind that most arrogant young upstarts half his age could only dream of conjuring up, let alone pulling-off.
If you loved the original Mad Max trilogy and are planning to boycott this movie because there’s no Mel Gibson, or think it’s going to be a big CGI video game like most modern blockbusters, then you are really depriving yourself of a potentially great two-hour cinematic ride. Yes, Mad Mel will always be Mad Max, but let’s face it, even if he was keen to do it, Gibson’s name is pretty much box-office poison these days, thanks to nothing else but his own erratic off-screen behaviour. Tom Hardy, a fine actor and strong presence, makes an adequate substitute in a role that is short on dialogue and high on physicality, but it’s Charlize Theron who takes the acting honours here, forming the backbone for what is a surprisingly strong (and effective) female drive at the heart of the film.
As for the look of the film, of course CGI is utilized, but thankfully it is more to embellish and add scope and spectacle to enormous barren vistas, rather than to create entire unrealistic landscapes that lack depth or realism. The thrilling stunts and car chase sequences, for the most part, look real world and are executed with often jaw-dropping precision. There’s also some pretty bizarre yet stunning custom vehicles in action - designs that must have sounded ridiculously over-the-top and/or completely impractical at the development stage, but which are realised so astonishingly.
Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those films which could have so easily been a disaster, but ends up succeeding beyond most expectations (certainly my own - though just to clarify, I really enjoy the original Mad Max trilogy, but they are far from the top of my list of favourite Australian films).
A real gasoline-guzzling rollercoaster ride. Roger Corman is probably already planning his own low-budget take on it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG

Andrew Leavold has been enthusiastically spouting off about Weng Weng ever since I first met him, which would be getting close to twenty years. So it was no real surprise to see him dedicate virtually the last decade of his life to trying to solve the riddle of what happened to the diminutive Filipino actor, and chronicling his quest on film. The eventual result of Leavold’s obsession is the recent documentary, The Search for Weng Weng (2014), available on DVD in Australia from Monster Pictures.
For those unfamiliar, Weng Weng was born into poverty and with primordial dwarfism, a rare condition which causes the body to remain small throughout life, yet develop the same relative dimensions and body type as an average-sized adult. With his full height only ever reaching 83 cms (2 ft, 9 in), Weng Weng was adopted (or more accurately, borrowed when commercially convenient) by the low-budget husband and wife filmmaking team of Peter and Cora Caballes, who exploited his physicality for laughs and cheap thrills in a handful of low-budget action adventures and westerns, the best-known of which is undoubtably the delirious Bond-inspired For Y'ur Height Only (1981). Weng Weng’s star shone bright in the Phillipines for a while in the early-eighties, but when it burned-out (after the Caballes left filmmaking for Cora to pursue a political career) he retreated back to his small childhood home, where he suffered a debilitating stroke and died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 34.
Almost as much a story about the filmmaker’s personal obsession with the subject as it is a biography of Weng Weng, The Search for Weng Weng sees Leavold (and his producer/writing partner Daniel Palisa) finding an audience with everyone from survivors of Weng’s family (his brother describes him as being “like a Pepsi Cola bottle” when he was born) to Imelda Marcos herself! There’s also plenty of input from many of the important actors, directors, stuntmen and writers who worked with Weng Weng or were from the same period of Filipino exploitation cinema. A visit to Weng Weng’s final resting place towards the end of the film is rather poignant. I hope Weng Weng (not his birth name) at least got some personal enjoyment or fulfillment from his filmmaking years, as he came out of it with no money and was promptly forgotten about by the Caballes, who themselves had made plenty from the Weng Weng films. The one-time national star’s final years seemed to be spent in sad isolation, mostly sitting on the balcony or laying down, rarely saying anything, even prior to his first stroke. It’s a rather sad reality...
Highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in the history of exploitation and low-budget cinema, especially that particularly strange and eclectic brand known as Mondo Macabro (basically any weird or wonderful cinema from countries not known for their genre filmmaking). The Monster Pictures release is a 3 disc set (two DVDs plus soundtrack CD), which features some nice extras, including lots of extended interviews and a Weng Weng feature film, the 1982 western D'Wild Wild Weng.



DEATH WISH 3

Got around to watching Michael Winner's Death Wish 3 (1985) last night. The original Death Wish from eleven years earlier had a certain New York grittiness and some sense of heightened realism to it, while the LA-set Death Wish 2 (1982) saw things starting to go over-the-top. But in Death Wish 3, Winner really takes proceeding completely into the territory of violent comic book fantasy, with most of the action taking place in a single New York block that looks more like a street in Beirut, and is completely overrun by cartoonish young thugs who delight in terrorising the local oldies and robbing them of their money and possessions, all of which they seem to get away with with ridiculous ease. All until Paul Kersey (Bronson) returns to New York, and instantly starts dishing out his own special brand of street justice.
Tacky, lurid and stupid but terrific action entertainment from its era, and certainly a fine example of what Cannon Films did best. Like Death Wish 2, it features a great Jimmy Page soundtrack, Bronson mowing-down literally dozens of low-rent crims with a machine gun, and a fine scuzzy villain in Manny Fraker (played by Gavan O'Herlihy). Marina Sirtis, Ed Lauter and Martin Balsam are all fun to watch, as well.





BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH

Currently re-visiting Battle Beneath the Earth (1967), a film that seemed to be a perennial Sunday afternoon television matinee when I was growing-up. What a great opening few minutes - stock footage of beautiful vintage Las Vegas, a nut laying on the footpath with his ear to the ground telling bystanders "I can hear them crawling around down there!", and a title sequence featuring a cool, raucous jazz theme. The absurd paranoid plot - about rogue Chinese communists who plan to attack America by using machines to dig large tunnels underneath major cities and plant atomic bombs  - is the stuff of pure comic book pulp. The giant burrowing machines remind me of the mechanical dragon from Dr. No (1962) - early 007 was a clear influence here. A British production, the whole thing has a very low-budget, TV show look and aesthetic to it, but it's colourful and has lots of cool late-60's 'pop', and the film at times feels like it could have been made by Larry Buchanan or Ted V. Mikels. The Oriental make-up on the Western actors looks about as convincing as the Japanese make-over given to Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (released the same year). Director Montogmery Tully made the crazed Amicus sci-fi flick The Terrornauts the same year.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

FLASH GORDON AT CINEMANIACS

Was nice to see a decent crowd brave a rather cold and windy night in Melbourne to turn-up to the Cinemaniacs screening of Flash Gordon last night. Had fun doing my introduction talk, and happily no one threw any rotten fruit at me during it. Anthony Biancofiore also delivered an entertaining talk about the film as well. The costumes, colour, sets and special-effects looked mostly great on the big screen, where they deserved to be seen, especially with the Queen soundtrack blasting out of the cinema sound system (I love how The Backlot Studios have old drive-in speakers installed in the bathrooms and the bar area, so you can still hear what is going on should you need to quickly duck-out). Some great prizes were given away as well - highlighted by a copy of the original vinyl pressing of the soundtrack! Patrons were also given a complimentary copy of the special new Flash Gordon issue of Miss Glamour Puss' cool local fanzine Glamour (which is filled with info and pics relating to the various live-action interpretations of the character). 

Below is a transcript of my introduction:
























FLASH GORDON

Thank you for that introduction, and very honored to be asked back to introduce another of the wonderful Cinemaniacs screenings. Tonight’s treat, part of Cinemaniacs’ season devoted to Dino De Laurentis, is Dino’s entry into the post-Star Wars sci-fi space opera genre, the 1980 adaptation of the classic comic strip character, Flash Gordon.

Of course, while Flash Gordon may not have made it onto the screens in such a lavish way in late-1980 were it not for the success of Star Wars three years earlier, it can also be argued that Star Wars itself would not have even existed had it not been for the influence which the Flash Gordon character and universe had on a young George Lucas, who has often stated that the germ of Star Wars evolved from his original intention to remake the Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s as a feature film.

The character of Flash Gordon was created by New York born cartoonist Alex Raymond, and first published in black & white Sunday newspaper comic strip form on January 7, 1934, just over 80 years ago. Created primarily to compete with the success of the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, which had first appeared five years earlier, Flash Gordon soon became a heroic phenomenon of his own, both in his home country of America and abroad, including Australia, where for a time his name was changed to Speed Gordon, to avoid any connotation with what the Aussie slang for ‘Flash’ translated to. Of course, these days ‘Speed’ doesn’t exactly sound that wholesome a nickname either.

Flash Gordon was the stuff of classic pulp science-fiction, which at the time was just starting to dominate the newsstand racks, thanks to magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories of Super Science. Though he was initially depicted as a polo player from Yale University, Flash was later changed to a star college footballer, no doubt to make him appear more rugged and less of a toff. When Earth starts getting bombarded by fiery meteor storms, Flash and his girlfriend Dale Arden are kidnaped by the eccentric scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, who requires the duo's help to pilot a rocket ship he has built in order to investigate the source of the meteors, which of course end up originating from Mongo, a distant planet ruled over by emperor Ming the Merciless, a Fu Manchu-esque character who would become one of the great fictional villains of the day.

After making a successful jump from comic book strip to dramatised radio in 1935, Flash Gordon found an even greater audience as the star of three very popular movie serials, featuring former Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe as the titular character - 1936's Flash Gordon was followed by Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars two years later, and finally Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940. These were part of the classic run of cliffhanger serials from that period, short episodic adventures that would play before the feature film, and always ending with the hero in some sort of dire predicament, to help ensure the audience returned next week to catch the following installment and find out what happened (the Batman television show of the 1960s brilliantly parodied these cliffhanger endings of decades earlier). It was in these serials that some of the most popular and iconic images of Flash Gordon were formed, at least in the minds of the mass audience. Interestingly, at the same time he was depicting Flash, Buster Crabbe also played his main fictional rival, Buck Rogers, when his own serial adventures debuted on the screen in 1939. In today’s parlance, it would kinda be like the same actor playing both Batman and Iron Man at the same time in their respective movies.

The 1950's brought a live-action Flash Gordon television series, which starred Steve Holland, a former paperback cover model, as Flash, and ran for 39 episodes between 1954 and 1955. While the television show is fascinating for having been filmed primarily in Germany less that a decade after the end of World War 2, with glimpses of the real-life lingering destructing seeping its way into some episodes, Flash in the fifties was starting to get overshadowed by some of the more extravagant Technicolor science-fiction epics which studios were starting to produce that decade, classics like War of the Worlds, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.

While Flash was starting to seem a little passe, his initial impact on American culture was strong enough to keep the character alive through the remainder of the 1950's and into the early-70's, primarily through comic book appearances, original paperback adventures, and the issuing of the original 1930's radio broadcasts on record albums by various different labels. The success of the Batman television series of the mid-60's sparked a mini-revival of interest in the old movie serials, and several of them, including the Flash Gordon ones, became popular campus cult viewing for hip, pot-smoking students.

Flash Gordon was also one of the first heavily merchandised fictional characters, with colourful friction powered, tin litho ray guns and spaceships produced in the 1940's, which are today highly collectable and valuable. In the mid-1960's, Flash found himself chosen as one of the characters to represent Captain Action, a toy put out by Ideal to try and capture some of the success which Hasbro were having with their G. I. Joe line. Captain Action was a 12" poseable action figure that came in a generic blue and black uniform, which you could then buy separate costume accessory packs to dress him up as a range of superhero and pulp action characters, such as Superman, Aquaman, Captain America, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Phantom and, of course Flash Gordon. You could imagine the licensing nightmare it would be today, trying to get permission and rights to cross-pollinate characters belonging to so many rival publishers. Despite the novelty and the detail put into the costumes, Captain Action never really gave G. I. Joe a run for his money, and Ideal cancelled the line after only two years. In 1998, retro toy company Playing Mantis briefly resurrected the Captain Action brand, reissuing the action figure and most of the non-superhero outfits, including the Flash one. In addition, they also produced a Ming the Merciless outfit to go on Captain Action’s main foe, Dr. Evil (named so a fully 30 years before Michael Myers came up with it). And of course in the 70's, the famed Mego toy company manufactured a great range of Flash Gordon figures.

Flash achieved new levels on notoriety in 1974, when the sci-fi sex spoof Flesh Gordon hit the grindhouse adult cinemas and drive-in screens, in varying degrees of explicit cuts which ranged from R to XXX in rating. Sending up the style and tone of the 1930's serials, as a sex film Flesh Gordon is disappointingly sub-par, the performances stiffer than most of the male cast, and the screenplay is juvenile - instead of Ming there’s Wang, the planet Mongo becomes Porno and Dr. Hans Zarkov is now Dr. Flexi Jerkoff. Where the film excelled was in its production values, which despite the low budget exhibited a genuine creativity and aptitude for miniature work, costuming, special effects and some pretty darn cool stop-motion animation, provided by the well-known Jim Danforth and Dave Allen. Future Oscar-winning make-up genuis Rick Baker also served on the crew.  Flesh Gordon was one of the early adult films to send-up a popular film or iconic character, something which became a familiar site once the days of VHS porn of the eighties kicked-in, but at the time it was still a genuine novelty, and it helped the film enjoy a pretty successful run, both initially and on subsequent re-release. In Melbourne, Australia, Flesh Gordon played for an unbelievable 33 straight weeks at the (sadly long gone) Roma Cinema in Bourke Street. A belated sequel, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders, was released in 1989 and quickly forgotten about.

By the late-seventies, major studios were riding the phenomenal surprise success of Star Wars and spending big on space - there was Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Roger Moore’s Bond was going into orbit in Moonraker, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Kirk Douglas were rocking the intergalactic hammock in Saturn 3, and Disney took us on a (rather unexciting) journey into The Black Hole. Even the Italians were turning out their eccentric low-budget sc-fi adventures, such as Luigi Cozzi’s psychedelic and sexy Starcrash and Aldo Lado’s The Humanoid. Flash Gordon’s first sign of re-emergence amongst this new influx of space adventures was an animated television series, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, which debuted in 1979 and was produced by the famed and prolific Filmation studios, who were behind such fondly remembered cartoon shows of the 1960's and early-70's as The New Adventures of Superman, The Archie Show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Star Trek: The Animated Series, The Brady Kids and far too many more to mention. Interestingly, before the series debuted, Filmation produced an animated television movie titled Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, though for reasons unknown it was not televised until 1982, and has never been rebroadcast or released on home video outside of Japan and Bulgaria. Which is somewhat disappointing because bootleg copies that circulate amongst fans and online prove it to be one of the best interpretations of the Flash Gordon character and universe.

So this is where the Flash Gordon character was up to in his history and development when Dino De Laurentis decided to bring him back to the big screen in a lavish and epic way. And now to tell us about the actual Flash Gordon film, please welcome fellow Cinemaniac, and drummer extraordinaire for The Tarantinos,  Anthony Biancofiore to the podium...


Monday, April 13, 2015

HAMBURGER HILL

No, this isn't a haunting scene from a Lucio Fulci zombie film. Rather, it's an evocative frame grab from John Irvin's 1987 Vietnam War drama/actioner Hamburger Hill, my review of which has now been posted over at the Love & Pop website:


INVASION U.S.A.

Monday night - pizza, a cool beer and some Chuck Norris, a perfect combo! Invasion U.S.A. (1985) is quintessential Chuck at his 80's best, the kind of hyper comic book ultra-violent actioner which only that decade could have produced. One of Cannon’s better-looking action films, it achieves a nice epic scope, thanks in part to the filmmakers being able to literally destroy and blow-up an entire suburban neighborhood and part of the Dadeland Mall in Florida, both of which were due to be bulldozed. Solid direction by Joseph (The Prowler, Missing In Action) Zito, some impressive stunt work, and an entertainingly psychotic performance by the late Richard Lynch as the chief bad guy (though the great Billy Drago’s villain character is killed off far too quickly). AND it’s got a scene where Chuck lies on his seedy hotel room bed watching Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) on TV! The plot, about boatloads of terrorists storming ashore in Florida and fanning out across the state to spread random destruction and mayhem, is pretty ludicrous, but if the events of 9/11 had been depicted in an action movie in 1985, they probably would have seemed just as far-fetched.
This is the cover for paperback novelization tie-in, published by Pinnacle Books and written by ‘Jason Frost’ (an in-house pseudonym usually used by two authors, Raymond Obstfeld and Rich Rainey).


AGAINST CONTROL




















Enjoyed catching up over the weekend with English-born, Sydney-based author, lecturer and film festival curator Jack Sargeant at the launch of his new book, Against Control (published, in English language, by Swedish imprint Eight Millimetres). Sargeant’s fascination with - and studies of - the works and philosophies of William Burroughs are well known to those who move in such circles, and in Against Control the author has gathered together a selection of some of the best pieces he has written on Burroughs over the years, some of which have seen publication in magazines like The Fortean Times and The Wire, others transcripts of lectures which Sargeant has presented on the topic. 

Because I feel a closer connection to their subjects, I’ve always preferred reading Sargeant’s true crime and film-related books (such as No Focus, Lost Highways and his cult classic 1995 study of the Cinema of Transgression, Deathtripping). But even as someone who has never been completely seduced by the Cult of Burroughs, I still found Against Control to be an interesting and engaging read, well-written, intellectual without being head-scratching, and binded together by the author’s ideas, ruminations and interpretations on a variety of Burroughs-related subjects. 

Against Control traverses such touch-points as Naked Lunch at 50, the infamous flicker and dream machines,  a look at some Burroughs-related music/spoken word releases, and his work with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco (the Master Musicians later famously collaborated with Rolling Stone Brian Jones in 1968). A slim hardcover volume doted with some black & white photographs, it should be appreciated by scholars and admirers of its subject, while also offering the uninitiated several interesting drop-off points for themselves to further investigate and lose themselves in.

Available from Eight Millimetres:
www.eightmillimetres.bigcartel.com/product/against-control


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

SUPER 8

A few pics of my little collection of vintage Super 8mm digest film reels and related memorabilia.




Sunday, April 5, 2015

MACHO MANIA

My review of the recent documentary Macho Man: The Randy Savage Story is now up on the Love & Pop website (which I write for under my sometime pseudonym, The Graveyard Tramp).


POWER RECORDS

Digging through the record crates to gather research for an upcoming article...



YOUTH PAPERBACK PULPS

Cool to see an upcoming book project which I was involved with now up for pre-order on Amazon. Edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats is due for publication later this year, and looks at vintage youth culture paperbacks. Among my contributions to this book are pieces on Charles Manson-inspired paperbacks of the 1970's, and the Hot Rod paperback pulps of the 1950's and 60's.

CASTLE FILMS

New addition to the vintage 8mm collection - a fantastic old cardboard shop counter display sign for Castle Films, advertising their 8mm and 16mm home movie reels. Love that it features Dracula, The Creature Walks Among Us and Woodpecker from Mars on it. This sign looks to have been unused as the cardboard slots at the base have not been punched out. There was no doubt a second part to this display, which would have formed a stand either at the front or back. No date on it, but I'm guessing it to be late-60's/early-70's. Castle Films changed their name to Universal 8 in 1977, so it is certainly older than that. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

MONKEY PLANET

Recently finished re-reading Pierre Boulle's La Planete de Singes/Monkey Planet , the 1963 French novel upon which Planet of the Apes (1968) was based. I last read it as a confused 12 year-old, whom at that point had seen only the first two Apes movies and read the comic book magazine published by Marvel and Curtis. Reading it again as an adult has certainly given me a greater appreciation of Boulle's strange work. Perhaps the most interesting thing was recognizing elements of the novel which made it into not only the original Apes film, but its subsequent sequels, spin-offs and remakes. You can particularly see elements of the book which later ended up in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), while the novel's ending is actually more in tune with Tim Burton's maligned 2001 remake than those famous final moments of the original film, where Taylor (Charlton Heston) discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand, the stranded astronaut realizing he has come full circle and landed on the nuclear ravaged Earth of the far-distant future (as in the Burton film, the novel does not indicate that the monkey planet is Earth, though it does reveal evidence of a technologically superior race of humans preceding the rise of the apes). Interestingly, the novel doesn't hint at any kind of natural or man-made disaster being responsible for the downfall of human superiority on the planet, but rather points to a gradual deadening of the mental capacity of the human mind coinciding with a rise of intelligence in apes, who (ala Conquest) have been trained as household servants and manual workers until they stage a revolt.

Ending aside, the other main difference between Monkey Planet and Planet of the Apes  is the technology of the age in which the apes are dominant. While the film adaptation had the apes living in a very primitive society of horses and wagons and clay houses (guns and box cameras seemingly as advanced as they got), the apes of Boulle's novel were much more advanced, driving cars, flying planes, playing the stock market (!) and even starting to experiment with sending rockets into space. While the change in the film was an important one both thematically and cinematically, it's interesting that this more advanced civilization of apes was depicted in the short-lived Return to the Planet of the Apes cartoons series from 1975 (of course, a race of advanced apes was a lot more easier to visualize in animation than it would have been in live-action at the time).

Now to move on to Michael Avallone's paperback tie-in novelization of the second film in the series (and my favorite entry), 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes .


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

DAZED & CONFUSED

Was 40 years ago this week that stereo speakers in teenage bedrooms across America blasted out the strains of Rock and Roll All Nite for the first time. Dressed to Kill was KISS' third studio LP, and the last one before they hit the big-time with their double live set KISS Alive! later that year (1975). I'm thoroughly sick of Rock and Roll All Nite by now, but between 1975 - 80 it was a genuinely rousing rally cry for KISS and their Army of followers. Co-produced by KISS and Casablanca label owner Neil Bogart, I've always like the crisp production and sound on Dressed to Kill  - where the debut album KISS had a dirty New York glitter rock sound, and HOTTER THAN HELL had a murky, stoner-rock muddiness, Dressed to Kill has a simple, fun rock & roll sheen, which reflects the fact that many of the songs were written on tour during KISS' early US jaunts, resulting in sleazy road gems like Room Service and Ladies in Waiting. Rock Bottom, She (a leftover from Gene and Paul's earlier Wicked Lester days), Two Timer and C'mon and Love Me are other choice cuts on this great classic KISS release. The iconic cover of the band dressed in business suits (Gene wearing clogs that belonged to Neil Bogart's wife!) was taken by renowned rock photographer, Bob Gruen, at the southwest corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City.