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Tuesday, Jan 16, 2007


When one looks back at the golden days of Hollywood, back before big business turned the industry into a cash machine hell-bent on making every opening weekend the most important aspect of filmmaking, there was one name that guaranteed spectacle and larger than life entertainment. With a canon, both as producer and director, that ranged in subject matter from the circus (1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth) to the high seas (1958’s The Buccaneer), the Wild West (1937’s The Plainsman) to the frozen tundra of Canada (1940’s North West Mounted Police), Cecil B DeMille made movies for and of the masses. Known for his casts of thousands, his attention to historic detail, and sets that usually dwarfed his performers, DeMille guaranteed that moviegoers got their money’s worth, understanding that people could see all the everyday world they wanted right outside their own back door. To DeMille, movies were invented to tell the really oversized stories, to create the myths and the mystery that kept seats filled and box office registers ringing—especially when having to compete with the variety of vaudeville and the growing popularity of the newest home-based novelty, radio.


And when it came to the sacred in scope, the holy in histrionics, perhaps no one excelled in the telling of the ultimate legends carved out of The Bible than DeMille. Over the course of his fifty years in show business, he made at least half a dozen films with religion as its overriding theme, including the classic The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, and, naturally, The King of Kings. Treating these tellings as testaments to his own personal faith, and formulated to follow the scripture as closely as dramatics would allow, DeMille fueled his fanciful preaching with opulent sets, incredible effects, and carefully crafted, flawless filmmaking. The results were regal in their resplendence, luxuriant without being decadent, and filled with as much meaning and message as possible. Certainly, some efforts were better than others, but there is no denying how direct, forthright, and inspiring his films could be. Indeed, DeMille was on of the few filmmakers who could fill his frame with the actual sense of God’s omnipresence, power, and grace.


The King of Kings is an example of such sensational storytelling. It is cinema at its most artistic. It is also moviemaking at its most basic and effective. There are no massive overriding themes or brave symbolism to overshadow the situations. This is a simple, straightforward saga (the last few days in Christ’s life) told with skill and obvious sentiment. Like seeing a series of prayer cards come to life, or witnessing a literal imagining of imagery from the Gospels, The King of Kings is a somber, sobering experience in overall mood and atmosphere. DeMille designs his film like a Bible reading, highlighting passages to propel his narrative, and quoting chapter and verse to solidify his sacrosanct purposes. All throughout he hints at standard iconography, creates his own new vibrant visuals, and manages to dig down deep into the very core of Christ’s time on earth. Naturally, this means miracles (the curing of the blind, the raising of the dead) but instead of turning this title into some sort of misguided magic act (The Ten Commandments can occasionally be faulted as being too effects-heavy), DeMille keeps this a very personal, very profound look at Jesus, the man.


Compared to other versions of the life of Christ, DeMille’s reinvention is marvelous and quite moving. He knows the command in the parable and prophecy contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and builds off their fundamental narrative strengths to compel his story. His compositions are carefully constructed, used to accent the spiritual nature of each scene while keeping us connected to the characters. The King of Kings is really remarkable in its tone and talent. DeMille barely makes a wrong move here, picking the parts of Christ’s life that synchronize seamlessly into the overall significance of His life and works. The plot points out problems to be overcome, moral issues to be addressed, and Jesus is presented as the emblematic response, a period on the end of all ethical statements that solidifies the soundness of his teachings. Jesus is never shown as being too strong or overly passive, only using his command when absolutely necessary. But he is also shown drawing on his more humble vulnerability to make God a personified, approachable person. Unlike other Christs who seem, pardon the pun, holier than thou, DeMille’s Messiah is a completely three-dimensional entity, a near perfect epitome of consecration in human form.


This is not to suggest that The King of Kings is faultless. While the imagery is among the best ever created, some of the liberties taken by story scribe Jeanie Macpherson may confuse even the most learned Christian. Those who know their Bible should not expect The King of Kings to be historically, or even contextually correct. For example, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a king-making Jesus wannabe, living an impossible existence in his master’s substantial shadow. We constantly see actor Joseph Schildkraut (who is very, very effective, by the way) rubbing his hands together and flaunting his ego as he tries to sway some attention the Iscariot way. His retrofitted relationship with Mary Magdalene seems like a cheap meet-cute way of getting the famed religious figure in with Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. It’s almost as if DeMille needed to present Christ with a scoundrel more viable than a poorly described member of his disciples who would end up betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. From a short sequence where Judas tries to “cure” an insane child, to the final confrontation with the Council where he practically begs for audience sympathy, the new and improved Judas Iscariot will be, perhaps, the sole sticking point for Biblical purists.


No one could argue with the acting, however. As stated before, Schildkraut is amazing, less mannered than you would expect in the vain, villainous Judas role. Indeed, the hyper-serious nature of the story seems to have inspired DeMille to pull back a great deal on the typical silent movie Method acting. Usually so arch and over the top that modern audiences balk at the horrible hamminess of it all, The King of Kings contains some of the most naturalistic, normal performances in any religious epic. The rest of the cast is very powerful indeed. H.B. Warner essays the lead role of Jesus Christ with a near ideal depiction. Never too pious to isolate the audience, but never resorting to the kind of intense humanism that hampers other portrayals of Christ (especially Jim Caviezel’s gut wrenching Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion, or Willem Dafoe as the emotionally tortured Savior of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation).


Unlike other versions of this prophet and religious leader, DeMille is more interested in the deeds than the man, and it is left to Warner to center and suggest the inner sanctity of Christ’s unending love. And he does so brilliantly. From Ernest Torrence’s big bear of a disciple (Peter), to Rudolph Schildkraut’s (Joseph’s Dad) piercing portrayal as Caiaphas, we never once feel like we are watching one of those hoary old classics were people are playing it large and lumbering. There is more subtlety than show-off during this stirring drama, and it is one of the reasons why The King of Kings succeeds so well.


Still, some may seem put off by a silent film that takes a very picturesque, anglicized version of the Christ’s passion. DeMille is not trying to affect some kind of radical rethinking of the story of Christ. No matter what later genealogy or archeological findings would warrant, the director envisions his Jesus a Caucasian white male, traditional close-cropped blond hair framing a face full of noble virtue. Well-trimmed beard in place and eyes alive with deep inner warmth, there is never a moment when Warner doesn’t look 100% the part. But not everything DeMille does is mired in the mundane. In order to keep the cinematic aspects of the film fresh and forceful, DeMille does have some marvelous tricks up his sly sleeves. In a scene where Jesus drives the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene, the director uses a wonderful optical effect to have the horrible, harmful harpies surround their victim. By applying some splendid double exposure, we see several actresses made up to be grotesque decadent demons draping the figure of Mary. As expected, Jesus normally has a luminescence around him, a glorious glow that separates and sanctifies him for the audience. A bit with the Devil’s temptation is spectacle at its most amazing, and the ending is equally effective, filled with the kind of pre-CGI physical effects that used to be the studio system’s bread and butter. Once you’ve witnessed the quaking of the earth and the renting of the temple vestment in The King of Kings, you’ll immediately understand that DeMille was determined to make us believe in the truth of this tale.


DeMille also trusts the inherent narrative in the Bible (Judas jerry-rigging aside) to carry his story, and when he stays true to its tenets, The King of Kings is remarkably powerful. Naturally, there will be those who wonder if DeMille is as guilty as Mel Gibson for portraying the Jews as a bloodthirsty cult of stereotypes bent on feeding every negative image the world has ever had of Hebrews. The answer is no. DeMille takes a decidedly tame position on both the High Priest Caiaphas and the Romans (who ridicule Jesus, but don’t beat him with anywhere as near the insane fervor of Gibson’s gratuitous guards). Some could point to a few hackneyed actions or caricature-ish faces that fill out the crowd scenes, but one never gets the feeling that DeMille was out to condemn a people for the death of the Savior (this could also be the reason for the retrofitting of Judas). True, the crimes they pile on Christ seem stupid, and the decision to put him to death does derive out of a pathetic power struggle amongst a corrupt set of Council members, but the overriding idea is that Jesus’s untimely end is preordained, and that we are merely witnessing the motions that needed to be gone through to reach the resplendent Resurrection goal.


Since DeMille is a master storyteller, both from a production and a directorial standpoint, the end result is a movie that truly moves you with the spirit of its sincerity. Though Gibson’s modern marriage of mise-en-scène with emotion and message would present a far more potent set of cinematic pictures, The King of Kings is equally evocative for far less boastful reasons. DeMille believes the Bible is the greatest story ever told and he is willing to work within the parameters it provides to tell his tale. He then carefully casts his creation, manages the tone and the flow with expert efficiency, and finds just the right visual cues to bring it all back home in Heavenly respite. Inspiring and insightful, The King of Kings is classic old school theatricality at its most monumental. It truly lives up to the regal reputation of the individual it champions.


 


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Monday, Jan 15, 2007


A really mediocre week. Save for the two Criterion releases, there is not much here of real cinematic substance. You could opt for a nice selection of cutting edge cartooning or one of the summer’s less successful efforts. Then, of course, there are two terrible titles representing the year’s absolute worst. Consider your coinage carefully this week. You may end up with a nasty case of DVD buyer’s remorse. For the second week of January, here is our SE&L Pick:


Gridiron Gang


While it’s nice to see former wunderkind Phil Joanou back behind the lens, did it have to be for a standard issue sports film? You know the kind – hard ass coach with a well placed heart, juvenile delinquents needing leadership and indirect guardianship, an uncaring public, a set of odds to beat and pitfalls to overcome. Sadly, all those elements are here, amplified by the movie’s criminal justice setting. Still, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is good in the role of Sean Porter, real life California corrections officer who devised this ‘athletics as life lesson’ program for his underage offenders, and the film itself has a unique look and feel thanks to Joanou’s directorial flair. Yes, it’s derivative – but sometimes, the familiar can be just fine. It is here.

Other Titles of Interest


The Animation Show: Volumes 1 & 2


Recalling the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Beavis and Butthead‘s Mike Judge and fellow pen and ink expert Don Hertzfeldt created this post-modern version of the traveling animation festivals that once roamed the arthouse circuit. If you like your cartooning edgy, up front and exceptionally well done, this two volume collection is a terrific treasure trove.

Border Radio: The Criterion Collection


This odd little experimental film from directors Allison Anders, Dean Lent and Kurt Voss follows the adventures of three disaffected members of a local music scene who steal a bunch of money and head for Mexico. Mostly improvised, and filmed in stark black and white, this minor cinematic curio gets the full blown specialty treatment thanks to Criterion’s preservation experts.

Employee of the Month


Ugh and double ugh. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is “a slacker comedy starring Jessica Simpson and Dane Cook”. Still think this movie has some kind of humor potential? There is nothing interesting about this turgid tale of two warehouse workers who compete for the titular title in order to win Ms. Newlyweds one-note   affections.

Mouchette: The Criterion Collection


French film master Robert Bresson delivers another of his spirituality through suffering epics, this time concentrating on an adolescent waif whose impoverished existence becomes a cause for scandal in her local village. Using a non-contextual narrative style requiring audiences to fill in the cinematic blanks along the way, Bresson avoids the safety of storytelling to get his theological themes across.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


Poor Thomas Hewitt. Not only was he born with a freakish facial disorder, rendering him a lamentable laughing stock, but a bad familial foundation lead him to a life as a power tool wielding maniac. What was supposed to be an exploration of this genre giant’s backstory actually became a platform for actor R. Lee Ermey to chew the scenery.


And Now for Something Completely Different


The Red Skulls


For the last six years, brothers Andy and Luke Campbell have been making some of the best, most inventive outsider efforts in the entire realm of self-distributed DVD. Finally hooking up with the Troma-like Tempe Entertainment, their films Midnight Skater and Demon Summer have become incredibly engaging cult endeavors. Now comes their most ambitious project ever – a rockabilly gang film twisted onto a good old fashioned zombie gorefest. When the title bunch of hooligans is purposefully poisoned with some weird pharmaceutical brew, they mutate into bloodthirsty butchers, turning on each other with ravenous intent. Bathed in blood, overloaded with atmosphere and ambiance, and marking a substantial improvement in cinematic technique, the boys continue to grow as filmmakers. Here’s hoping they make the leap into the mainstream sometime soon.

 


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Sunday, Jan 14, 2007


There was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than The Munsters. There was the opera singing youth who performed at the famed Hollywood Bowl, the voluptuous B-movie actress with roles in some of the genre’s seminal efforts. There was the omnivorous sexual being, a woman who claimed 22 lovers in her scintillating autobiography, including Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor and Billy Wilder. And there was the Broadway star who gave Follies (and it’s showstopper “I’m Still Here”) its emotional heft. Last but not least, she was Lily, ghoulish wife to Frankenstein husband Herman and mother to weird wolfboy Eddie. Unfortunately, in a medium measured by a certain level of “what have you done for me lately” fame, DeCarlo was typecast for her brief stint in creature feature costuming. Though she never complained about the classification, it’s sad that one TV show more or less wiped out an entire other career before the public.


With her recent passing from natural causes at age 84 (DeCarlo died on 8 January) fans of her infamous macabre mother bit have reason to be in mourning. While Fred Gwynne gave The Munsters its manic energy, and Al Lewis enlivened the show with his embittered old bat shtick, DeCarlo was the homespun heart, the voice of reason in a realm overloaded with Gothic goofiness and juvenile joking. It was a peculiar place for the former Peggy Yvonne Middleton to be in. Born in the Canadian province of British Columbia, DeCarlo’s mother saw potential in her child from a very early age. Abandoned by her father when she was three, hers was a hard knock life of isolation, dance classes and dramatic studies. While performing provided an excellent escape from the loneliness and poverty of her single parent’s precarious circumstance, young Peggy still suffered. When she turned 15, Mom finally took her to Hollywood, hoping for instant success. Yet aside from winning Miss Venice Beach in 1938, no one was welcoming this adolescent actress. Without breaching a single studio door, the pair eventually returned to the Great White North, defeated.


Three years later, an 18 year old Peggy returned to Tinsel Town, and found steady work in chorus lines while seeking a screen test. Before long, she was working, unbilled, in several slight short films. When her turn as a bathing beauty got her noticed in 1941’s Harvard, Here I Come, the newly christened Yvonne DeCarlo (a combination of her grandfather’s last name and her middle moniker) became exotic eye candy for numerous forgettable efforts. Though a leading role in 1943’s The Deerslayer raised her profile a little, it wasn’t until 1945’s Salome - Where She Danced that DeCarlo finally got the big break she needed. She soon became known for her “sex-and-sand” epics, movies with names like Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Casbah and Desert Hawk. She was equally comfortable in a Wild West setting, where her smashing good looks and ample figure helped fortify such films as Frontier Gal, Black Bart, River Lady and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.


But it wasn’t until 1956, when noted spectacle specialist Cecil B. DeMille was looking for an actress to play Sephora, the wife of Old Testament titan Moses in The Ten Commandments that the actress finally arrived. DeCarlo won the role, and soon she was stealing glances as the faithful spouse who stood by her God guided man through all manner of trials and tribulations. Looking far more erotic than a Biblical bride should, rumor has it that costar Anne Baxter was angry that her Nefrateri had to compete with DeCarlo’s physical flower for the affections of Charleton Heston. A huge hit, Commandments lead the actress to another fine role as Amantha Starr in Band of Angels. Though today, this pre-Civil Rights look at the antebellum South screams racial (and historical) insensitivity, DeCarlo, along with Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable, gave a daring performance (she was even involved in a taboo testing interracial kiss).


As with most studio stars, the failing Hollywood system strangled the actress’s efforts to move forward. Television became a necessary repository for DeCarlo’s career goals, and she ended up co-starring on popular series like Bonanza and The Virginian. But it was the chance offer of a comedic role in a ridiculous sounding sitcom that finally secured the b-movie beauty a slice of immortality. It is said that former Car 54 costars Gwynne and Lewis did not want DeCarlo as Lily. They thought her too old (she was born in ‘22, with Lewis arriving in ‘23 and Gwynne starting off in ‘26) and saddled with a randy reputation loaded with sleazy innuendo (something Kenneth Anger chronicles in depth in his Hollywood Babylon book). This was supposed to be a family show, after all.


Once she put on the fright mask make-up and donned the ghoul’s gown, all fears were instantly alleviated. Lily became the show’s stalwart, the straight man allowing for Gwynne and Lewis’s laugh out loud craziness. As with The Addams Family, The Munsters used the comic premise to explore domestic issues and subjects usually avoided (racism, sexuality, conformity) by the standard sitcom. But just like its chief competitor, the public grew weary of the gimmick-oriented offering and The Munsters disappeared after only two seasons. Again adrift, DeCarlo tried to parlay her TV celebrity into more meaningful roles. Sadly, she seemed stuck in low budget quickies, dreary drive-in dreck, and the occasional exploitation effort. Thankfully, the Great White Way offered her a chance to shine, showing off the surprisingly strong singing voice that few in her fanbase knew she had.


In Follies, DeCarlo was Carlotta Campion, a former star reminiscing about her time in the limelight. Given a great showstopper by musical genius Stephen Sondheim, the theater proved a perfect format to fulfill DeCarlo’s lifelong dreams. The show ran for over a year, and remained an apex in the actress’s latter years. A few Munster’s reunion shows during the ‘70s and ‘80s kept her in the public eye, but by 1995, age and illness forced her into retirement.


Though she was married only once throughout the course of her career (a 13 year relationship with Bob Morgan resulted in two sons and a step-daughter) DeCarlo’s earlier after hours escapades remained salacious tabloid style scuttlebutt. Her tell-all autobiography in 1987 confirmed many of the more sensational aspects of her story, but nothing could really dissuade the public about her persona. Thanks to endless years of afternoon reruns, generations grew up loving the vampire-like matron with a strong, sensible streak, and Lily Munster’s legacy continued unabated. Even actresses who would take on the Munster mantle in various remakes and TV movies acknowledge that DeCarlo was the definitive version of the humble horror housewife.


Still, there was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than widow’s peaks, haunted house hilarity and an untamed libido. She’s a reminder that imagery and memory are a strong combination, a recipe to reduce even the most startling female figure into a lifetime of living as the bride of the monster. Tell someone that DeCarlo was Moses’s mate and they’ll probably ask you the name of the spoof you are referencing. Hopefully, as her career is considered, newcomers to the actresses canon will discover the diversity of her talents. Sure, she will always be Lily Munster. But that’s not all Yvonne DeCarlo was. Not by a long shot.


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Saturday, Jan 13, 2007


In the hierarchy of oversized Japanese icons, Majin (or Daimajin in the native tongue) barely registers on the fanbase firmament. Several slots below reigning king of all kaiju, Godzilla, and barely within breathing room of the giant lizard’s chief rival, the elephantine turtle terror Gamera, this legendary golem-like figure remains an afterthought in the whole Toho/Daiei rivalry. Created in 1966, when every child’s favorite amphibian was kicking some incredible box office butt, the mythic stone statue turned green faced avenger was introduced to movie audiences in the film Daimajin. Instantly successful (people just couldn’t get enough of humongous beings breaking up miniature communities as part of their entertainment ideals), two sequels quickly followed – Daimajin ikaru (Wrath of the Majin) and Daimajin Gyakushu (The Return of Majin).


But it took AIP, and their television division, for the warlord waxing effigy to make an appearance on American soil. Redubbed into English, stripped of their CinemaScope grandeur, and reduced to Saturday matinee kiddie fodder, the Majin films made a minor dent in the demographic, using their period piece pronouncements to further illustrate the Eastern obsession with tradition, heritage and honor. Barely remembered by new generations of Godzilla/Gamera lovers, Image Entertainment now releases a delightful double feature of the vengeance minded figurine’s first two films. Though barely passable when it comes to technological specifics (these are still the Western speaking full screen versions being offered) the actual films are filled with the kind of special effects ridiculousness that make most kaiju a crackerjack culpable contentment. 


Daimajin (here renamed Majin, Monster of Terror) follows the format set out by latter day Toho/Daiei epics from the era. Instead of giving us all kind of bad ass monster mashing right up front, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda (best known for his Zatoichi films) sets out to recreate the time and place of feudal Japan. He explains the historic pecking order, briefly breaches the samurai code, and then gives us a typical story of political uprising, a cruel warlord’s bloody coup, and the rescued royal offspring who will lie in wait until the time comes for their return to power. In between we get lots of ancient Japanese gods and rituals, a constant reminder than Shino (a friendly warrior entity) must be appeased, less Majin get mad and start kicking country rube rear end. In the first film, our evil dictator decides to tear down the stone figure sitting near the top of the sacred waterfall, even going so far as to have his men drive a stake in Majin’s forehead. The results, or course, are fatal as our sculpture comes to life with payback on its mind.


Naturally, this all Hell breaks loose action sequence takes about 80 minutes to arrive. Before then, Yasuda gives us riffs on The Ten Commandments (a slave building the warlord’s fort is left to be crushed by oncoming columns before a local man saves his life) and standard melodramatic mush (a young boy constantly pesters his imprisoned father about a dying mother Daddy can do nothing about) before bringing on the successful city smashing. It has to be said that Majin, Monster of Terror has some very good old fashioned physical F/X work, especially when you consider that some of the Godzilla/Gamera oeuvre is laugh out loud terrible when it comes to their blue screen silliness. Here, Yasuda takes the finale very seriously, and Majin is definitely not your standard fire-breathing beast. Instead, he crushes people underfoot (sadly, no blood is shown) and uses the giant spike in his head as a means of dispatching the object of his anger.


Cathartic in its approach to man in suit justice, Daimajin makes you feel like the spiritual world is setting things right amongst the players of the corporeal plane, and while it does contain those dopey, jaw dropping elements that make Toho/Daiei movies so memorable (overdone villains chewing the scenery, moments of narrative illogic), there is still a real feeling for the time and place presented. It’s a formula followed almost to the letter by the second film featured, referred to as Return of the Giant Majin (actually, Daimajin ikaru). Again, an evil overlord trounces the legitimate local authority, goes despot on the dominion, and needs a 10 ton stone reminder of why such authoritarian atrocities don’t float the ghost world’s boat. Before we know it, another rubber encased stunt man is walking ramshackle over balsa wood homes as a cast of thousands flee his rear projection wrath.


Like the first film, we must suffer through plot points that purposely exaggerate our desire for revenge (peasants getting killed, children in perpetual peril) and wait incessantly while everyone final figures out that, by praying to Majin, karma will come along and boot some totalitarian tocks. It’s interesting how serious the filmmakers take these last act destruction set pieces. For some reason, American’s never really got behind the whole giant being/city destroying genre. Examples were usually reserved for bad B-movies (The Amazing Colossal Man) or nature gone nutty extravaganzas (Them!, Beginning of the End). But the Japanese, obviously influenced by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, used the Godzilla/Gamera films – and all their Mothra/Rodan variations – as a symbol of how unstable life really is. One day, you’re a nation at war with the most powerful country in the world. The next, a mutant bomb wipes out an entire town.


Scholars have long discussed the correlation between nuclear proliferation and the Toho/Daiei efforts, finding parallels between the world’s rapid rise toward atomic armament and the destruction of the environment via global grousing and disrespect. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Majin movies don’t make a larger impression. There is no dialogue drawing a link between the statue and some simmer modern political problem, no symbolic stance where a transformed beast destroys the army that more or less created him. No, what we have here is cinematic vigilante justice, pure and simple, a chance for audiences to feel the cathartic curative facets of a malevolent boss belittled, a cruel taskmaster destroyed. While Godzilla and Gamera can definitely stand in for the natural order run amok, the more spiritual, theological nature of Majin keeps it insular and unique.


All problems with popularity aside, the Majin movies are still a great deal of fun. While it would have been nice to see all three films here (now out of print, ADV Films released the entire trilogy back in 2002), the pair offered up by Retromedia and Image recall rainy weekend days seated in front of the TV, juvenile eyes starring in wide delight as mythic beings beat the Bejesus out of each other on a glorified grand scale. Maybe one day, our man Majin will find a fan club capable of pushing it over the top, allowing it to take his rightful place alongside a massive moth, a revamped reptile and a titanic tortoise. As it stands, The Giant Majin Collection reminds us that certain styles of cinema are inherent to specific cultural setting. Thank god the Japanese love their bigger than life figures of retribution. Schlock cinema would be nothing without them.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of The Giant Majin Collection was released on 9 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Friday, Jan 12, 2007


By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964’s Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current “independent” movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker’s newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner’s powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston’s career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early ‘70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.


A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall, Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the “wrong side of the tracks” to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no “big fight” at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren’t just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God’s own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.


The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.


This is truly an actor’s movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn’t “play” Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it’s not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges’ turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges’ demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.


But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully’s onetime (and Ernie’s current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he’s ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell’s manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell’s bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.


While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn’t want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.


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