Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, October 27, 2008

Alligator (1980)

dir. Lewis Teague

"Harry Lime lives."
-sewer graffiti

John Sayles has been the darling of left-leaning independent cinema for well over a generation. Avoiding the agitprop trappings of his progressive film-making peers, Sayles' films have instead humanized the people at the heart of such issues as class struggles, racism, and political activism. Through his nuanced and heartfelt characterizations, this intellectual has put a human face on themes so often presented in a blustery polemical fashion. How has such an unconventional voice in the cinematic landscape found the means to produce his pictures? Answer: by writing screenplays and doing rewrites for other folks. In the early years of his career, Sayles frequently worked for Roger Corman, writing such movies as Piranha and The Lady in Red. Making a few bucks through these and many other for hire projects, he has been able to bankroll his personal projects and avoid studio interference.

Truth be told, as interesting as Sayles' passion projects are, they are no match for the horror movies that he penned in the nascent years of his career. The pinnacle of his screenwriting work in this period is undoubtedly Alligator, a killer animal film that, unlike last week's installment, does not lack bite. In keeping with my killer animal theme it is appropriate that I would choose to review a film written by Sayles. He also wrote the aforementioned Piranha and The Howling (perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to lump The Howling with other killer animal movie fare but it is an awesome movie, nonetheless). Sayles was no stranger to this subject and he attacked it with the ferocious glee of one only too aware of the charms of this niche in the horror genre.

One of the hardest working men in the world of B cinema, Robert Forster stars as David Madison, a cop with a mysterious/sordid past who is intent on redeeming himself by exposing and offing a mutant 36 foot long sewer gator that no one else seems to believe exists. Why is it so hard for characters in these movies to latch on to the crazed rantings of the lead characters? Isn't it obvious that the limbs being discovered by law enforcement around sewage sites are the results of mutant gator attacks and not, say, leftovers from mob hits?

How is it that a mutant gator has come to roam the city's sewer system? A credit sequence set in 1968 shows the origins of the sewer gator. It is in this scene that the parents of young Marisa Kendall decide to flush their daughter's pet alligator as it has a tendency to shit all over the goddamn place. Landing in the sewer, it absorbs super chemicals dumped by the evil Slade corporation, chemicals this company uses in its animal experiments. The opener also contains a brief background TV newscast reporting on the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Aside from placing this scene in a historical context and adding a touch of political flavor, the riot news also works as a sly allusion to Forster's early work in Haskell Wexler's groundbreaking Medium Cool. This is the first of many cinematic/pop cultural winks. Among the others are: allusions to The Third Man, inclusion of a sewer worker named Ed Norton, and Jaws inspired music during the frequent gator attacks.

In attempting to understand the situation, Madison enlists the help of reptile expert Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker), the very same person whose childhood pet, unbeknownst to her, has turned into the current beast ruling the underworld. Now that's what I call screenwriting! When his intrepid investigation uncovers a link between Slade's chemical dumpings and the sewer gator, Madison gets his ass canned by the mayor, a friend of the Slade family. Madison remains committed, however, to eliminating this threat. He eventually tells Kendall about the source of his drive. In an homage to The Onion Field, it is revealed that when Madison and a previous partner were abducted by two criminals, Madison handed over his piece to the two goofs, which one of the lowlifes then in turn used to ice Madison's partner. The guilt has racked Madison all these years and he sees it as his duty to eliminate the gator and salvage his dignity.

When the gator finally emerges from the sewer and wreaks havoc on the population, the city gets gator fever -- panic mixed with a smidge of economic opportunism. Many attempts are made to bring down the gator, all to no avail. The cops even enlist the use of a renowned big game hunter. Unfortunately, for the populace, the big game hunter becomes the big game hunted (cue ominous music). This news is most unfortunate for the Slade family as they are to become the next victims. In perhaps the best wedding scene this side of The Godfather (no to mention one of the most cathartic scenes of animal on ruling class violence), the gator attacks a party at the Slade mansion.

After having its way with the the party guests, the gator destroys the head of the Slade family.

It is unfortunate for this Slade that he did not heed the advice of another important Slade.

It would seem that nothing can stop this beast. Nothing, that is, but Robert Fucking Forster. After his wedding rampage, Mr. Gator makes a run for it with Madison in pursuit. This hellbent cop travels down to the sewers, where the gator has returned, to go mano a mano with this beast, resulting in one hell of a finale.

What is amazing about Sayles' work in Alligator is the attention he gives to even the most minor characters. When the gator erupts through a sewer hole, interrupting a kids' street baseball game, one of the kids runs into his home and searches for a knife to use in attacking the gator. His mother, nursing a Bud and chatting away on the phone, completely ignores her son's warning about the killer gator and complains to her friend on the phone about the nuisance that is her child. This brief scene speaks volumes about characters whom we will never revisit. Few other screenwriters understand the need to make even the most minor characters compelling.

With all this attention given to Sayles, it should be noted that precious few words have been written about the film's director Lewis Teague. Teague and Sayles previously collaborated on The Lady in Red. Although not a director of particular note, Teague has churned out a stream of entertaining genre pictures, including Cujo and The Jewel of the Nile, and culminating with his crowning achievement Navy Seals. Although he does a decent job of directing here, most notably with the special effects, much of the film's charm is due to the nuanced characterizations and intricate plotting of Sayles' script.

Words can not begin to describe the awesome majesty that is Alligator. Sayles et al. truly understand the importance of delivering the goods in a genre picture. Indeed, the film opens with a balls to the wall alligator attack. From there the movie does not let up. It contains quite a healthy mix of character development, interesting story developments, and animal attacks. It is truly the Citizen Kane of urban-legend-inspired-flushed-alligators-turned-mutant-killer-sewer-beast films. Oh how far John Sayles has fallen.

teaser trailer:

Dave's Rating:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Frogs (1972)

dir. George McCowan
"With all our technology and all my money we still can't get rid of these frogs."
-Jason Crockett

Dashed hopes. Everyone remembers that first moment from childhood when something failed to live up to expectations or when a dream came crashing down. For me, this moment came at age nine when I realized that, not only would I never become a ninja turtle, but also that ninja turtles did not actually exist. Words can not begin to describe my heartache. Followed by the heartache, however, was an unexpectedly hopeful realization. When I became aware that someone invented these characters, I realized that I could also invent my own equally cool characters. As is often the case, divergences from our expectations sometimes result in unexpectedly positive outcomes. Maybe I'm just a glass half full kind of guy, but I always manage to be satisfied with whatever comes my way, regardless of my expectations.

Such is the experience I had with George McCowan's Frogs. After seeing the movie's poster in which a frog holds a severed human hand in its mouth, I knew I had to see this movie as soon as possible. Many are the days that I longed to see frogs take revenge on their human captors. Sure, it would be damn near impossible to match the awesomeness of this film's poster, but, at the very least, the film would probably contain some unintentionally hilarious frog on human violence. Oh how my hopes were dashed, beaten, and left in a gutter for dead when the movie did not follow through on any one of these promises. Honestly, though, should I have expected anything else? How on earth could a movie live up to such a poster? Frogs suffers from the same problem experienced by Night of the Lepus: how on earth do you make such harmless creatures as frogs or bunnies terrifying? In the case of Frogs, you don't ever show these creatures killing people.

Starring Ray Milland and a pre-mustache Sam Elliot, Frogs delights in many unexpected ways, however. Being as Frogs is an AIP production, it is not surprising that this film would have some surprising entertainment value (AIP being American International Pictures and not Alaskan Independence Party, the rabidly anti-American secessionist organization that Sarah Palin pals around with. [Side note: I swear I'll try to stop inserting completely unnecessary political commentary into my movie reviews.]). Serving as an outlet for numerous Roger Corman productions, AIP has a long storied history of being a testing ground for up and coming talent. By and large, however, AIP has served as an outlet for independent, frequently campy drive-in fare. No matter the subject matter, an AIP picture is certain to entertain. Operating on the outskirts of Hollywood, this company has produced movies that, while attempting to ape proven money making Hollywood fare, present a noticeably twisted take on genre films.

As with Day of the Animals, Frogs has a decidedly environmentalist slant. Ray Milland is Jason Crockett, the wealthy owner of both a toxic mill and a large island estate in the Florida everglades. This industrial tycoon has amassed his fortune at the expense of the surrounding environment. When not ranting about Government imposed environmental regulations, he spends his time racistly condescending to his black servants. And in his wheelchair bound state, this character elicits obvious parallels to Henry Potter. Occasionally, this man takes breaks from evil to hold lavish family parties. The grandest of these parties is an annual week-long Fourth of July celebration, which also celebrates the birthdays of three family members.

(Sam Elliot admires Adam Roarke's trophy)

Brought into this mix is the badass ecologist Pickett Smith (Sam Elliot). When canoeing near Crockett's property, he meets two of the Crockett clan, who invite him to their celebration. After discussing the recent surge in the frog population, the folks here rightfully grow fearful of a coming frog revolution. Unfortunatly for the viewers, it is not the frogs, but rather the other everglade animals that initiate this revolution. Pickett comes to the obvious conclusion that nature is taking its revenge on humanity.

In lieu of frog violence, McCowan opts to show numerous frog reaction shots, all set to ominous music. Although it is not an impossibility to imagine that frogs could instill fear with a simple gaze, there exists only one known frog with such power.

One would think that, although lacking a promisingly insane series of frog murders, this film's conventional animal on man attacks would still be entertaining. Oh how wrong one would be to think that. The attack scenes in this film are defiantly, proudly dull. In a movie chock-full of bizarrely uninteresting murder scenes, it is hard to pick out the blandest one. Would it be the scene in which lizards knock over bottles of poisonous gas, leaving a man to asphyxiate in a greenhouse?

Maybe it's the scene in which a woman is slowly killed by a lethargic sea turtle?

No, the winner would have to be death by tree moss.

The serious tone that the performers, particularly Sam Elliot, bring to such a ludicrous movie is a pure delight. They attack the material with the wound tensity generally found in political thrillers. It would seem that no one informed them what the movie was about. It should be noted, though, that far from being simply a dull killer animal movie; Frogs touches on many of the hot button issues of the day, including environmentalism, racism, and class inequality. Only at AIP could such a seemingly disposable piece of pop culture trash be rife with political and social commentary, however heavy-handed.

Where does Frogs stand in the grand pantheon of animals-gone-wild fare? To say it lacks bite would be a massive understatement. I thought I would live a thousand years for before I saw a man done in by tree moss. What it lacks in the interesting department, however, it more than makes up for in the oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-this-movie-got-made.-This-is-too-funny.-Pass-the-bong department. Despite, or maybe because of, its determined blandness Frogs manages to charm.

"Frogs" - The Flaming Lips (Why Not)

Dave's Rating:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My New Movie Rating System

Ever since they were introduced, rating systems have debased movie criticism. What should be thoughtful, insightful examinations of the many aspects of films and their relations to artistic movements and historical contexts, turn too often into simple, quippy pieces followed by empty letter grades. When a medium as complex and subjective as film is reduced to grades, readers are not asked to bring critical eyes to the medium. For these reasons I have refused to use any sort of ranking system when reviewing my movies. What kind of grade, for instance, could I give to a trash masterpiece such as Doris Wishman's Bad Girls Go to Hell? As in most instances, a grade would be irrelevant.

All that being said, a second part of me figured, "why the hell not jump on the ol' movie rating bandwagon? Everyone else is doing it, so why don't I?" After deciding that I would rank the movies I review, I realized I would have to devise my own system. Seeing as letter and number grades are essentially meaningless, I will use one of the subsequent pictures to show how much I liked the movie in question. I will use this system starting with my next review.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967)

dir. Jan Schmidt

"In the last three years I have lost track of where we are, and where we are going. Places have no name."
-Old Woman

Wow, I am quite the liar. Just last week I promised to regale you, my faithful/multitudinous readers, with tales told time immemorial of our four legged/winged/hooved/dolphined enemies and their attempts to decimate humanity. It was to be a glorious few weeks of animal fueled mayhem. In examining various cinematic warning tales of animal revolution, I would be doing a great public service in preparing the citizenry for an inevitable animal onslaught. The movie write ups would function less as reviews and more as prevention tips and solutions to the problem of animal domination. Alas, this week I have abandoned my duties and am taking a break from these movies, an act of criminal negligence, I realize. Instead I will focus on the significantly lighter fare of Jan Schmidt's post apocalyptic Czech New Wave picture The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Don't worry, next week I'll be tackling the killer frog movie Frogs).

Flourishing throughout the mid sixties, the Czech New Wave was, in part, the result of a political thaw in Czechoslovakia, similar to the thaw experienced in a post Stalin Russia. Although folks like Godard criticized this film movement as bourgeois in its take on Marxism, it is safe to say that Czech filmmakers had a better understanding of Communism, having lived under its rule (albeit in a more watered down version than that experienced in other Eastern European Soviet Bloc countries). The Czech New Wave has tended, also, to be overlooked in that its films do not exhibit similar stylistic sensibilities. Rather, they follow a similar political discussion. As varied as these movies are, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone still stands apart from the crowd in its harrowing depiction of humanity's end. Despite its non-conventional grungy/nihilistic trappings, however, this film does little to dispel Godard's claim of the Czech New Wave being a bourgeois reactionary movement (I have got to stop using so many slashes).

Schmidt's film follows a roving band of woman as they traverse a post apocalyptic wasteland in search of other signs of human life. Leading the group is the sagely Dagmar (Beta Ponicanova), referred to throughout the movie as old woman. Although specific causes for the dystopia are not given, it is implied that this was the result of nuclear war. (Nuclear war always gets such a bad rap in futuristic dystopia films. What up with that?). Indeed, much of the film is shrouded in mystery. For most of its duration it is unclear why women seem to have been the only ones to survive nuclear war. Also unclear is whether many other survivors exist.

Some of these questions are partially answered later in the film. The women eventually come across an old man who invites them to his home, The Hotel Ozone (hey, that's the name of the movie), where he lives alone. He reveals that the last human contact he had, a nephew, died of leukemia twelve years prior. The discovery of old man is joyous news for old woman. Her goal in trekking across the country was to find a man to aid them in repopulating and starting a new civilization (never mind that the subsequent inbreeding would lead to a brood of flipper babies). The young women, having never seen men, are initially suspicious of this bearded fellow. Soon, however, they grow accustomed to him and become enamored of his most prized possession, a gramophone.

In their previous treks across the country this group frequently engaged in acts of barbarism, including the torture and killing of animals. (Hey, look, I figured out how to bring the animal angle back. But more on that later) It is only when they join the pseudo civilization as represented by old man and his home, that they reform their ways. After old woman dies, however, the group decides to leave. Old man warns them that they would be leaving to their deaths and the death of humanity, as a vast uninhabited wasteland lies ahead of them (translation: he really wants to bang these hot bra-less amazons).

The gramophone becomes a high point of contention in the film's conclusion. Before leaving, the women decide to take the music machine. Old man fills with ire because of their demands and they respond by killing him. TEoAatHO's conclusion could be seen as a critique of collectivism. The only possible source of salvation left to this group, old man, lives alone surrounded by a few personal belongings. Most prized among these possessions are his gramophone and sole remaining polka record. The invading group sees this record player as a collective good and nonchalantly attempts to take it from the man. When he struggles to retain control of the last remaining vestige of civilization, a member of the group shoots him. To this group it is highly illogical that any goods would not belong to the entire collective, and when it is confronted by a plea for the idea of private property it offs the person who represents one of the only possible chances that this group will have at building civilization anew. More likely, however, this ending represents the tried and true theme that kids are just no damn good.

Although the blurb on this movie's poster suggests that this is "a Mad Max directed by Andrei Tarkovsky", a more apt corollary would be to the films Cannibal Holocaust and the Jenna Jameson vehicle Where the Boys Aren't 7. Although like the Mad Max movies this film takes place in a future wasteland, and like Tarkovsky pictures TEoAatHO unfolds in a slow deliberate pace, this is where the similarities end. Unlike Tarkovsky's films, Schmidt's work lacks a certain subtle indescribable beauty. Given the film's theme and setting, of course, beauty would have been the last thing on Schmidt's mind when making this picture. The languid pace, and inscrutable story and themes of TEoAatHO, moreover, seem less purposeful than they would in Tarkovsky pictures, and more the result of dicking around.

Indeed, Schmidt's picture frequently contains scenes whose only intention is to shock. This is most evident in depictions of actual animal cruelty. That is not to say that Tarkovsky movies are without animal cruelty. He did set a goddamn cow ablaze and kill a horse in Andrei Rublev after all. (Side note: the cow in that movie was covered in asbestos and the horse was taken from a slaughterhouse. I'm sure PETA would approve.) With Andrei Rublev, however, these animal killings, however barbaric, worked within the context of the movie. In Schmidt's work these are standalone pieces. The general tone of the scenes here is, "hey, look at how fucked up this is."

TEoAatHO feels more like a collection of ideas than a fully realized film. Without attempting to connect the disparate ideas and scenes in any meaningful way, Schmidt presents a montage of humans, both struggling to survive and commiting barbarous acts. Whether or not this film functions as a compelling story is pointless, however, as it contains the more important quality of lots o' hot bra-less women.

(the only clip I could find from this movie)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Day of the Animals (aka Something Is Out There) (1977)

dir. William Girdler

"God sent a plague down on us because we're just a bunch of no good fellers."

After reviewing Mike Nichols' beautiful, nuanced The Day of the Dolphin a few weeks ago, I was left wanting. Nichols' picture did not even come close to satiating my lust for animal on human violence. Sure it presented a thoughtful, and at times moving, portrait of man's relationship to the animal kingdom, but where was the blood? Where was the needless brutality? How is such a movie to instill the reactionary fear of and subsequent bloodlust for animals necessary for the survival of the human race. Suffice it to say, because of the substantial void left by The Day of the Dolphin, in the coming weeks I will attempt to get my fill of animals gone wild. Be prepared, as nature attacks like a motherfucker.

In examining a series of killer animal movies, there seemed no better point of departure than William Girdler's Day of the Animals. By the time Girdler made this picture in 1977, the killer animal genre had been well established. Indeed, Girdler even made a killer bear movie, previously, with Grizzly. Although he accurately portrayed the threat posed by these deceptively decent creatures, a threat that even the supposedly tough Teddy Roosevelt was too much of a pussy to recognize, he felt that there was something missing. This was an unfinished story. In an ambitious move, he decided to expand the scope and take a stab at the whole damn animal kingdom with Day of the Animals. If not a sequel in plot, this film is a sequel in spirit to Girdler's previous feature.

It is perhaps not surprising that with the burgeoning environmental movement of the seventies, this disaster movie would have a decidedly hippie bent. Although Day of the Animals is a killer animal movie, the cause of this pandemic is environmental destruction. Indeed, this film is perhaps the most accomplished killer animal/environmentalist film yet achieved. Throughout the course of the film, various newscasters report on this newfangled thing called a hole in the ozone layer. Because the ozone layer protects all living things from the harmful effects of ultra violet rays, its depletion is a cause for concern (pretty lame science fiction if you ask me). Although this hole's effects are not known, the populace is warned not to travel above 5,000 feet as the lower atmospheric levels will cause even more harm. They are soon to find out that the UV rays are turning all animals, especially those at high altitudes, into remorseless killing machines. Now that's what I call science!

Day of the Animals centers on a diverse group of hikers who trek through the wilds of the Rockies. How diverse is this group? Well, it contains a Madison Avenue ad exec, a Native American, a professor, a Beverley Hills society woman and her son, a soon to be divorced couple, a young couple, and a crippled and dying former NFL star. Much in the vein of George Romero's zombie flicks, this movie portrays the shenanigans that result when disparate people are forced to struggle together in a desperate bid for survival. Also, as with Romero's movies, this movie is less about an external danger than an examination of societal interaction and breakdown. Which animal is the biggest threat?

It turns out, it's man.

Given their remote location in the woods, the hikers never receive the latest news bulletins and are caught unawares when the sudden hole in the ozone layer forces all of nature to instantaneously go apeshit. Although most "scientists" would have people believe that environmental change is a process taking place over the course of many years with most damge to be experienced by future generations, Girdler et al set the record straight. Here, the environment acts like a killer in a slasher movie, taking its victims with a swift and sudden fury.

When the hikers become aware that the previously harmless animals (i.e. Satan's playthings) seem off, they become concerned (i.e. lose their shit). Everyone wants answers and everyone offers false solutions. Surely, these folks will pull together and figure a way out, right? Of course not. And don't call me Shirley. Almost as soon as danger appears, this group turns on each other. In the meantime, animals pick off various hikers one by one.

When tensions reach their boiling point, the group splits into two factions: one headed by experienced woodsman Steve Buckner (Christopher George) and the other headed by crazed ad exec Paul Jenson (Leslie Nielsen). Although Buckner is able to bring most of his group to safety, Jenson goes mad with power, killing one member of his group, threatening a child, and attempting to rape another before he gets his comeuppance in the form of a grizzly bear. [side note: It is a sad, nauseating fact that most exploitation pictures in this period contained at least one scene of rape or attempted rape. Even Frank Drebin was not above it.]

(Leslie Nielsen goes apeshit)

Whatever cult this movie has attracted over the years is largely due to Leslie Nielsen's maniacal over the top performance. Before striking it big in the eighties and nineties as a comedic performer in Zucker Abrams Zucker movies, Nielsen labored, in semi-obscurity, in TV and B movies. Nielsen especially excelled at playing toughs, and his performance here is the crowning achievement of this type. Perhaps, if Nielsen had not gone down the intentional comedy path in subsequent years, his performance here would not be as humorous to modern viewers; but there is no denying the high camp on display.

It is unfortunate that the present day environmental movement does not have an equivalent Day of the Animals. Too often, modern environmental movies are bogged down by facts and solutions, when they could make their points much clearer with some killer animals and raw insanity, Leslie Nielsen style. These non-violent environmental movies bring nothing to the cause but not people. If actists were actually serious about helping mother earth, they would make less movies like An Inconvenient Truth and more movies like Day of the Animals and Waterworld. It goes without saying, of course, that the one element most lacking in the modern environmental movie, is more shirtless Leslie Nielsens than you can shake a stick at.