Bittersweet Victory — Plan 9 from Outer Space

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Well, no film review website is complete without a review of this “gem”, so allow me to contribute one to the Silver Mirror.  Similar to my review of ‘Django’, there’s no point in reviewing this film seriously.  It’s cheap, it’s cliché, it’s meshing of gothic horror and science fiction feels awkward at best, and the story, if you’re determined enough to follow it, just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Yes, ‘Plan 9’ is a horrible movie, and its director, Edward D. Wood Jr., was a bad director; but you miss the point if that’s all you see.

Even as we mock and ridicule him, there is something to remember about Ed Wood before completing writing him off — he lived the dream.  Whether you can stand to watch his films or not, they are the hard-earned treasures for a man who fought against the studios and “won” (I use that term loosely.)

James and I can attest to this through our work in S&T Pictures: Even now, in a world of digital cameras and editing software, it’s not easy making movies.  They require time, money and resources; and for the silver screen that almost always means having to appeal to a studio, even if it’s just a small one, for funding and support.  And that’s not easy.  Studios, after all, are at least as interested in making a profit as they are in telling a story — often times more — and if you aren’t a big name, or your story doesn’t have enough commercial viability, you’re out of luck.  Heck, even being a big name won’t help you sometimes.  George Lucas, the man who almost single handedly reinvented Hollywood, was turned down by major studios for his film, ‘Red Tails’.  That shows you how unwilling most studios are to take the slightest risk.

This was the situation of Ed Wood.  The studios, even the independents, wouldn’t touch him.  His 1953 endeavor, ‘Glen or Glenda’ — a film of his that actually did have a separate producer — is bold, uncompromising and completely unwatchable.  It seemed to forever earn him hatred and distrust from studio Hollywood.

What was a man like Ed Wood to do?  Self-finance.  Sometimes he had to stoop pretty low to get money, but he got it, and he made his films.  Even if they’re considered the worst ever made, he did make them.  This is the American Dream, folks.  It’s not all glittery and made of gold, but it’s there and it works.

Sort of.

This brings us to ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, a film he supposedly made with funds from a church in Hollywood, promising them religious films with the profits from this one.*
The film’s premise of aliens resurrecting the earth’s dead (well, three people at least), combines sci-fi and horror mainly so that Ed Wood could continue to use actors he already knew and footage he had already shot.  Bela Lugosi of ‘Dracula’ fame, who had starred in two other Ed wood films, returns here as one of the resurrected dead, although this is really just pre-shot footage of him, done before his death in 1956 (three years prior to the film’s release).  Other actors include sexy television hostess Vampira, psychic Criswell and wrestler Tor Johnson.  It goes without saying, but none of these people, nor the “aliens” who look exactly like human beings, can act.  The footage of Lugosi, probably not amounting to more than three minutes (a double was used for the rest of the film), at least seems a little credible.  Lugosi had once been a good actor.

Should I talk about the effects?  It seems worth mentioning.  They are pretty bad, even by 1950’s standards.  Model spaceships fly on visible strings in front of obvious photos and paintings; the interiors of these space ships look like office buildings with giant radios sitting in the corner.  The graveyard set where the dead are resurrected is obviously fake, with plywood gravestones set on stands that are visible all too often.
The whole thing feels feigned and artificial, and believe me, it is bad.  But is it the worst? No.

Think about it: Ed Wood may have been a skilless director, but then again, his films were made on budgets of mere thousands and schedules of mere days.  He didn’t have the time for reshoots, nor the money for special effects. T hat he produced what he did given those limitations is actually sort of impressive.  Compare this to ‘The Room’, a film that far more deserves the title of worst movie ever made; if for no other reason than because Tommy Wiseau somehow sank six million dollars into it; and that movie didn’t even have any special effects.  Or compare ‘Plan 9’ to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie.  Can you honestly say that THAT movie makes any more sense than ‘Plan 9’ does?  That it’s any more watchable?  That it’s any less stupid, cliché?  And that movie had a budget of hundreds of millions.  Pound for pound, there are a good many movies that are better qualified to be called the worst ever.

Ed Wood was a man who was rejected by the system, fought back, and had something to show for it.  That he hung in there for as long as he did is commendable, even if his films are not.  Still, there’s a certain hilarious charm to them, and ‘Plan 9’ in particular.  So, if you can stomach it, you might just enjoy giving this one a go.

*The wondrous trust and gullibility of people before the Internet…

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Tough Love — (500) Days of Summer

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: As I said once before, we don’t really review “chick flicks” (or, films about relationships in general) on this website.  Partly because James and I are men and we have more masculine tastes; partly because they are an easily exploited genre, and finding truly worthwhile films to review can be, well, cumbersome.

That said, 2009’s cult hit ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is a little different.

I suppose people might have thought it was traditional romantic stuff when the film first came out.  You know, boy meets girl, they fall in love, a lot of “will they?/won’t they?” before they finally do.  But that’s not what ‘Summer’ does.  Very boldly during the opening, it announces that the boy and girl will NOT wind up together at the end.  Crazy, right?  But it works, for the most part anyways.
Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (‘Inception’!), is a young romantic who believes in true love.  Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a coworker who does not.  They slowly begin a relationship (though Summer maintains that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend), and the film, told from Tom’s perspective, chronicles 500 days of it, through good and bad, through their break up, and what we conclude is their final goodbye.  The entire film is told nonlinearly, showing their break up early in the movie, which, combined with the film’s opening promise that they won’t fall in love, manages to keep us involved throughout; we, like Tom, look back through the past to see what went wrong in their relationship.

But that’s just it: their breakup, sad as it is for Tom, is not due to any flaws in either his or Summer’s personality or any mistakes they made.  Neither was a bad person, neither was unreasonable.  Though it could be assumed that they broke up because of their different views on love, this isn’t really true.  That Summer does learn to believe in love at the end of the film (albeit with another man) shows that she was not beyond growth.  She admits that Tom was right about love, just not about them.  So, nothing really went “wrong,” beyond that they simply weren’t right for each other.

Thematically, this reminds me of the biblical Book of Job, which tells the story of a man who, while virtuous and god-fearing, still suffers greatly in his life.  The point of that story, I think, is that, while we like to believe that we can, in some way, “earn” a good life, we are ultimately always at the mercy of others, always subject to forces beyond our control.  Bad things do happen to good people.  And so it is with love.  We cannot win love, we cannot earn it, we do not deserve it, and we are not entitled to it.  Love is simply given and received.  All we can really do, then, is share our own love with others, and hope that they return it, knowing full well that it doesn’t always happen.  That, I think, is what Tom learns at the end of this film.

I said that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ mostly works.  It’s very well-crafted and creative, and I think it was right for someone to make a movie that, while not completely realistic, more or less draws from realty.  In that sense, ‘Summer’ is a very unique, important film.  Perhaps the only thing about the film, though, that doesn’t really work is the ending, which implies that, for Tom anyways, true love is “just around the corner”, which, while ending the film on a hopeful note, feels a bit forced.  But I won’t fault it for that.

That said, for those of us who have gone through what Tom Hansen went through, the film is a little painful as well.  It is uncompromising in showing that sometimes the people we love don’t love us back the same way, and sometimes our greatest hopes and dreams are smashed in front of our very eyes.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t see myself watching it again any time soon, if only because the experience itself was so harsh.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the kind of film that comes only occasionally, although that’s more than sufficient.  It’s a “tough love” story for the audience that will challenge more than comfort.  But it’s also a very good, truthful film, reminding people that, sometimes, even Summer has to end.

Cult Classic: Django

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review:  Attempting to review ‘Django’ seriously is the equivalent of giving a restaurant style review to McDonald’s: I’d just be criticizing something that was never intended to be quality, and that misses the point entirely.

This spaghetti western never wanted to be “good” in the traditional sense.  We aren’t watching it for any lavish production value — the set is one of the filthiest, muddiest and bleakest ever constructed.  We aren’t watching it to enjoy normal spaghetti-western-grade music — it’s pretty forgettable with the exception of a completely out of place pop song detailing the main character’s plight.  We aren’t here for the actors, who are all foreign and obscure, or for the plot, which is a rip-off of ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (and yes, I am aware that ‘Fistful’ stole its plot as well).

We are watching ‘Django’ for the sole reason that the main character’s weapon of choice is not a standard six-shooter, but a machine gun (yes, a machine gun) that he carries inside a coffin (yes, a coffin) that he drags around for no real reason.  And when he uses it, oh boy, does all hell break loose.

It’s ridiculous, anachronistic, shocking, completely out of place, and, for 1966, absolutely awesome.

‘Django’ is pop-cinema at its rawest; it’s a movie that relies on a gimmick to sell, and it works.  It works so well that it’s still talked about, lampooned, and paid tribute almost fifty years after it’s release.  If you want proof, a little filmmaker by the name of Quentin Tarantino is currently shooting a film titled ‘Django Unchained’.  Considering that it was a cheap, obscure Italian film, that is quite an achievement.

I understand why critics and film buffs readily pass up this film, not granting it a serious examination.  ‘Django’ just isn’t a film of great depth.  Heck, even I said at the beginning of this review that it never wanted to be a good movie.  But what it does have, and why this film is ultimately worth checking out, is attitude.  Even in the days of the modern action picture, when something like a machine gun is no longer quite so shocking, you can still watch ‘Django’ and get a sense of edginess.  You can still feel a twinge of amusement at the thought of some cheap 60’s Italian film studio, making a movie about a place they’d never been in a thousand miles of, and just saying (in Italian of course) “Screw it, give ‘em a machine gun.  It’ll be fun.”  No worries about history, or film codes, or critical panning; just a desire to give audiences something they hadn’t seen before.

It’s the willingness of B-movies to do gimmicks like that, to take chances on something new, to shake up a formula ever so slightly just so it can be a little different, to put real attitude into their films, that I admire so much.  Even if ‘Django’ is objectively pure trash in all other ways, it at least had the attitude, the audacity, to go somewhere others hadn’t.  It’s an attitude that inspired the likes of Lucas, Spielberg, and, of course, Tarantino, and frankly, we could use a lot more of it in the film industry.  So, despite its flaws, I have no choice but to recommend ‘Django’ to the world.  For once, it might do us all some good to take off our critical hats, grab a bag of popcorn, and just enjoy some machine-gun-induced spectacle.

Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

Cult Classic: Tron

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An innovative milestone and the father of many philosophical tangents, ‘Tron’ is valuable, aesthetically intriguing science fiction.

 

Review:  Science fiction is at its best when it permits us to review — literally, “see again” — the real world.  It’s not always about illuminating philosophy.  Sometimes it’s about challenging us to believe, just as long as we may, that there is an unseen world that coexists with our own.  It’s not necessarily that this supposed world is supernatural, but by contrast it seems incredible.  For Disney’s bomb-turned-classic ‘Tron’, the tagline sums up this conceit magnanimously: “A world inside the computer, where man has never been — never before now.”  Chalk that up as one of my favorite taglines in cinema history, just as provocative as “You will believe a man can fly”.  Does the movie measure up to it?

To my delight, yes.  It is a successful example of intelligent conceptualization and world-building.  The best word I can use to describe ‘Tron’ is iconic.  It revels in its imagery, visual and conceptual, to the plot’s degradation.  The story is good, but it meanders, if only to allow the audience the privilege of seeing all the CGI that 1982 could muster.  Yes, today, the film looks dated, but this isn’t a bad thing.  It adds a layer of nostalgia to the cake.  What’s great about the primitive CGI, in itself, is that it lets us see the naked architecture.  Lines are all-important in ‘Tron’s aesthetic.  This is, after all, “The Grid”, the combat zone of arcade games of yore.  There’s a distinctive spirit to vintage arcades, and ‘Tron’ may be its definitive cinematic incarnation.

I said the story is good, and not just because it complicates and untangles satisfactorily.  ‘Tron’ is philosophically complex, yet it doesn’t explore every question raised, sparking mental tangents which I’m sure have contributed to the film’s growing popularity.  The world of ‘Tron’ is populated by programs, each of whom has a relationship with its human user, which the programs perceive from afar as gods.  This has sobering implications in real life, with computer technology evolving at an incredible rate, and a growing number of scientists assuring us that true artificial intelligence, nay, artificial life is just around the proverbial corner.  How will we respond to a thinking being that recognizes us as its life-giver?  ‘Tron’ doesn’t answer this question.  Raising it may be enough.  But I digress.  In ‘Tron’, programs are created in the user’s image, literally.  They act as the user’s avatar, yet think of themselves as distinct persons, perhaps unaware of their resemblance to the humans they idolize.  The film’s plot centers on the Master Control Program, or MCP, who rebels against his user and seeks to extend his control beyond his system.  To this end, the MCP cuts off all contact between programs and users, calling the vital relationship an obsolete superstition.  He even goes so far as to pit rebel programs against each other in gladiatorial combat.  Jeff Bridges’ character, user Kevin Flynn, tries to confront the MCP and gets digitized into the computer world for his trouble.  He is now a user incarnated as a program, and indistinguishable from any other except in his power to manipulate data.  He fights to defeat the MCP and restore the programs to their users.  The film is, quite obviously, heedlessly unsubtle in its use of religious concepts.

‘Tron’ is an exciting, bizarre, surreal and innovate piece of celluloid.  It’s a milestone in CGI development and our popular conception of cyberspace.  It may have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, ahead of the game in its first release, but it’s plain to see that ‘Tron’ is not just another pleasant diversion.  It helps us review our world.  That’s why we go to the movies.

Cult Classic: Bubba Ho-Tep

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The premise may seem wild, but the message is sound.

Review: The whole of ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ is more than the sum of its parts.  Its story is an orthodox but daring mix of Elvis legend and Mummy-lore with just a dash of Kennedy conspiracy theory.  Sounds a little ridiculous, no?  But beneath all that is a powerful tale of redemption; of a man, long having fallen from grace, who finds something to fight for before he fades.

According to ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’, the real Elvis Presley switched places with an impersonator long ago so that he could “get away from it all”.  It was the impersonator that died, not him.  Elvis lived on, quite content, until an accident sent him to a rest home in east Texas.  Now old, sick, and crippled, he spends his days lying in bed, contemplating the mistakes in life, and occasionally talking to fellow resident Jack, who claims to be John F. Kennedy, also never having died.

Things become (even more) strange when other residents start dying off mysteriously at the hands of a cursed Egyptian mummy who feeds on the souls of the elderly.  It would take too long to explain how the mummy got there, but to make a long story short, it’s up to JFK and Elvis to stop him and save their home.

The story deserves major props for originality.  It takes the stuff of the best campy B-movies and mixes it together into one nice package; and that’s probably also why it’s a little surprising to discover that the film actually has a lot of heart to it.  That’s because it really isn’t focusing on Elvis Presley or JFK or mummies.  What it’s really about is a man (who happens to be Elvis) who has fallen from grace.  And his is the most tragic of falls-from a youth worshiped as a god and adored by millions, to a sick, elderly shell of a man; accused of delusion for trying to tell others who he once was.

What the mummy really represents, then, is a chance for redemption.  For all the mistakes in his life, for everything that has gone wrong, Elvis has one last chance to make a difference, to save the other residents, to set things right.  And because of this, though dying, he will not fade; he will not go quietly into the night.  He will take a stand for something and go out in glory.  Redemption is the most powerful message for the human condition, that no matter what one has done or where he is in life, if he is willing to give himself, he can still find salvation.  That is what ‘Bubba Ho-tep’ is really about it.  Beneath it’s comedic, horror, and camp elements, this film is truly emotional.

Made for just one million dollars, this movie is a testament to the potential of low-budget filmmaking.  The performances of Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK are just plain awesome, as is Brian Tyler’s score.  The guitar driven themes are touching and add much drama and weight to the film.  Though at times unnecessary vulgarity and seeming plot holes hamper it, ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ nevertheless succeeds thanks to a fresh, engrossing, and deep story with a wonderfully cathartic conclusion.  This is one for the books, boys.

Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.