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Saturday, Mar 15, 2008


The aesthetic life of an artist has long been a cinematic source for stirring characterization. The connection between the gifted and the disturbed, the obsessive and the purely passionate has fueled many a motion picture portrait. From printers to sculptures, singers to writers, the ways of the skilled and special tend to juxtapose the socially acceptable with the personally profound. The result is a story centered in individual conceits, but decided via universal facets and germane generalization.


The gorgeous, luxuriant silent classic The Dragon Painter (new to DVD from Milestone Film and Video) wants to tell the tale of an eccentric wild man, a true master of form and shape who cannot break from his own internal strife. Vigilantly seeking a princess who he believes transformed into a mythic beast, we soon learn that it’s sorrow and desperation, not love and happiness, that fuels his most stunning, original work.


When we meet Tatsu, played by renowned early era Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, he is a dervish, a man literally lost in the wilderness and frantic to find the woman of his dreams. The locals all consider him crazy, talented but far too unstable. When a surveyor runs across the artist’s work, he knows just what to do. Seems noted master illustrator Kano Indara is looking for an apprentice to carry on his name. Until Tatsu, no one was capable of taking up said mantle.



After a rocky introduction, the two become teacher and student. Tatsu even falls for and marries Indara’s daughter, Ume Ko, believing she is his missing paramour. But happiness starts to stifle our hero. He can no longer paint, and has the urge to do little or nothing. Heartsick, Ko decides that drastic steps are in order. To save her husband, she may have to sacrifice herself.


Shot in the glory of a turn of the century Yosemite National Park and featuring a humanized, non-stereotypical portrayal of Asians, The Dragon Painter is a stunning visual and emotional achievement. A mere fragment of the justifiably legendary work done by Hayakawa during the early part of the past decade (he was one of the first Japanese performers to control his image and his output in Hollywood), this concise deconstruction of muse and the many ways it can be crushed/cured stands as something rare indeed. Beyond its humanistic approach and use of location, aside from the subtler acting and sporadic special effects, this is one of the most tender, telling depictions of affection ever captured onscreen. The minute our hero sees Ume Ko, the look in his eyes says everything.


Indeed, what one has to remember about The Dragon Painter is that it was made in an era when refinement and delicacy were far from motion picture mandates. Performances were still pitched right to the rafters, the result of so many theatre types entering the industry. Even worse, minorities were still mocked, relegated to humiliating places as racially insensitive comic relief or outright ethnic criminals. Here, under the insightful direction of William Worthington, the mainly Japanese cast (only master Kano Indara is played by Englishman Edward Peil Sr.) shows great restraint and even greater cultural compliance. There’s no buck toothed bigotry involved. In fact, many have called Hayakawa the Asian Valentino for his slow burn and smolder in films like this.



Such a magnetism is indeed present in every frame of The Dragon Painter. The story is purposefully simple, the better to allow our lead to shine. There are tinges of Barrymore and Fairbanks in Hayakawa, a suave and debonair demeanor that hides a turbulent inner fire. During the opening sequences, when Tatsu is running around the mountainside scribbling feverishly and acting unhinged, we see the method behind the actor’s purposeful madness. Our hero is not really insane, just heartsick. He so loves his lost princess that it turns his existence into the singular service of creation.


There is just as much power in the moments when Tatsu is no longer capable of painting. Watching the look on Hayakawa’s face, the devastating loss of power and skill is depressing. It’s a testament to his talent that we feel his waywardness and disillusion. The performance never oversells or overdoes the drama. Instead, director Worthington keeps the takes short and sweet. This allows these moments to resonate with an intensity that comes from the work onscreen, not the essential language of film. In the end, when the denouement is delivered and we see the purpose of Tatsu’s pain, we feel the same sort of epic uplift the movie depicts. It’s part of The Dragon Painter‘s profound magic.



It’s a shame then that Hayakawa is not as well known as his silent superstar brethren. If Milestone has anything to say about it, this dynamic digital package will change all that. Along with a nicely restored Painter, the company also includes another of the actor’s more accomplished works. The Wrath of the Gods, is a 60 minute movie from 1914 that offers an old Japanese parable with some intriguing miniature work. Subtitled The Destruction of Sakura-Jima, this tall tale of a cursed family, an old volcano, and the interracial marriage that could mean the death of everyone, has it all - old school melodrama, lynch mobs, and a literal fire and brimstone ending. Hayakawa is Lord Yamaki, almost unrecognizable underneath pounds of heavy make-up. Yet his presence helps propel this film along, helping a modern viewer appreciate the otherwise overwrought narrative.


Similarly, there are a series of DVD-Rom extras (essays, explanations) which help highlight Hayakawa’s significance. One of the easiest to get a handle on is the five minute short featuring Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray. Here, our star is reduced to playing a stereotype - in this case, what appears to be a Chinese railroad worker. While there is much dignity in the dopey interplay between the actors, this is the kind of role that actors of his ethnicity were frequently relegated to. Sometimes, it was all that they had. That Hayakawa overcame such intolerant typecasting (he eventually had his own company making his own movies) suggests how important he is to the history of Asians in Hollywood.


During the middle section of the movie, when Indara is questioning Tatsu about his work, the subject of the title creatures comes up. Looking over one of the many landscapes he creates, the master is curious. “Where is the dragon here?” Indara asks, pointing to a charcoal sketch of a lake. “There.” Tatsu argues, “He’s sleeping under the water.” As with all art, interpretation is clearly in the eye of the beholder. But what goes on inside the artist is equally important, and it’s this note that drives The Dragon Painter. A life in service of specialness - be it to a canvas or a camera - can often be clichéd and cruel. But thanks to the amazing work of Hayakawa and the rest of the silent film community, it’s not formulaic or flat. Here, it’s a revelation.


 


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Friday, Mar 14, 2008


What would you do for unconscionable wealth? How desperate would you have to be, financially, to face your past and all the humiliations and pain within it? That’s the question posed to recently unemployed musical instrument salesman Pruchit. Drowning in debt and unable to support his family’s growing needs, it seems like life is constantly kicking this hard working if harried soul. Into his miserable existence steps 13 Beloved.com, a website which - unbeknownst to him - offers an online reality game show featuring fabulous cash prizes. All our hero has to do is complete an unlucky number of tasks, and he will be handsomely rewarded to the tune of 100 million baht.


Of course, there’s a catch. Instead of standard stunts, Chit is required to sink deeper and deeper into the bowels of amoral activity. His first few goals are menial - kill a fly, eat said insect, make three children cry, etc. But when he reaches the fourth stage, and sees a dinner plate of feces awaiting him, both our lead and the audience know that things are only going to get worse - much worse. Indeed, as Chit plays along, he is challenged to both save and end lives, cause and prevent harm, and come face to face with his mixed ethnicity past, the father who abused him, and the horrible feelings of inadequacy and shame that such a situation fostered.


Overloaded with good intentions and definitely overreaching at the end, 13: Game of Death (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Group’s Dimension Extreme label) is a very ‘70s post-millennial movie. It gets a great deal of its clockwork thrills right. It also stumbles in significant ways while rushing toward the end. At nearly two hours, there is way too much material here, and director Chukiat Sakveerakul could have definitely cut out a subplot here and there. Since it’s based on a comic book, one must imagine the filmmaker feeling a debt of completist gratitude toward the source (co-screenwriter Eakasit Thairstana crafted the original Thai graphic novel). But the computer geek intern who sympathizes with Chit, along with the surreal storyline featuring the most uncaring family in the world, really don’t work. Even the flashbacks to our hero’s childhood feel superfluous until the end.


One thing Sakveerakul definitely knows is suspense and cinematic strategy. He is keenly aware that the inherent narrative drive - read: the 13 tasks - will keep even the most disassociated viewer glued to the screen. As long as he can deliver intriguing tricks and quests, we’ll follow along. At first, it appears the errands will be tame, following a standard formula of humiliation and taboo busting. But Game of Death defies many expectations, and when Chit must rescue a rotting corpse from an in-house well, we see there is much more to this movie besides challenges and choices. Sakveerakul’s attempts at humor are more or less effective, as are his violent set pieces. One semi-decapitated victim definitely leaves a lasting impression.


But there are also times when we fail to sympathize with Chit. He often comes across as purposefully ineffectual and weak, showing no backbone and even less will to change. Some may see the different confronts as a way of shaking him out of his shell, to stand up and be counted among the many making their way in the world. Yet there is a fatalistic feel to everything that happens to our lead. It’s as if the cosmos is convinced that Chit is a loser and is looking for ways to prove it time and time again. Thanks to the intrinsic nature of where the story is going, we continue to be invested. But Chit’s attitude tends to countermand such cinematic awareness.


And then there is the whole slightly surreal element that comes from the Thailand setting. Unlike other Asian horror or genre efforts, there is very little of the ghostly superstition or traditional terrors here. Sakveerakul keeps everything centered well within the real world, the better to make his occasional bouts of social commentary stand out. If you look carefully, you see slams against neglecting the elderly, police corruption, cyberspace anonymity and criminality, as well as slightly more goofy statements regarding cell phones and laundry lines. Clearly, 13 Game of Death is more interested in fear than focusing on major Thai concerns. But there are some subtle jabs intertwined with the dread.


That’s why we recognize how readily the movie harkens back to the more meaning-laced offerings of the Me Decade. Sakveerakul wants his ideas to resonate beyond the simple gore and torture porn many will infer into this film. Yet aside from a couple of blood soaked shots, the grue is relatively tame and the brutality centered on main character Chit. In fact, it’s safe to say that 13: Game of Death is one of the more unusual efforts to be associated with the post-Saw/Hostel world. While it reflects the mindset that made those films, it also argues for a differing, more unique approach to such subjects. It’s something that Sakveerakul discusses in the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an 18 minute Making-of featurette.


Still, the story remains all too familiar - a desperate man doing unspeakable acts for the sake of some strings-attached coin. The cabal-oriented conclusion feels tacked on and the major plot twist is telegraphed a good five minutes before it happens. Yet 13: Game of Death is a good little thriller. It keeps you occupied and finds a way to work, even in spite of itself. While it probably won’t change the world’s perspective on Thai horror, it will definitely delight the adventurous fright fan. And with a message about money and its roots of all evil front and center, it has something to say as well.


 


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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.


Like getting smacked in the face? Of course not - no one does. Aside from the physical pain and assault, there’s the demoralizing effect on one’s dignity and pride. Such an attack is a psychological affront, a meta- and physical reminder of every bad time you’ve ever had, every bad thought you’ve ever harbored. Yet this is the exact sensation one gets after suffering through the pointless ‘revisionist’ thriller Funny Games. While Austrian director Michael Haneke may be doing little except revamping his 1997 foreign language film for US distribution, this shot for shot retelling of a family vacation gone gangrenous is actually an outright assail on audiences.


You see, Haneke dislikes America. He specifically hates our love affair with violence. He believes - and perhaps, rightfully so - that we are obsessed with it. He thinks we get a vicarious, even erotic charge out of seeing individuals suffer on screen. He’s stunned by the brutality leveled in the name of entertainment and he thinks that such a sickening bloodlust needs a direct and slightly sarcastic denunciation. The result? Funny Games. In the serial killer playing mind games narrative, the filmmaker fiddles with genre expectations. Actions happen off screen or in long, laborious takes. Murder is undercut with cruel humor. Our heroes are weak and our villains smug. And above all, all sense of right and wrong is retrofitted into an ambiguous, grossly dissatisfying cinematic arrogance.


It’s clear that this director would love the above scribed dressing down. He sees similar criticism as the proper effect of his film. He wants viewers to question the logic and logistical set-ups. He begs that we fall for the formulas and champion the stereotypes. He wants to peak our inherent sense of vigilante justice and bemoan the lack of true criminal comeuppance. In part, this is aggravation as overly intellectualized confrontation - like creating a monster movie only to filter it through a partygoer’s everpresent camera POV. But the disastrous element of Funny Games is this blatant obviousness. Instead of trying to fool you with the preplanned perspective, it simply stands there and sucker punches you - again, and again, and again.


It’s the main facet of the film, and one that has both intrigued and repelled critics. Some have praised Haneke as taking a brave, even bravura tactic. By making the audience’s own reaction as important as that of the characters onscreen, Funny Games breaks down the fabled Fourth Wall and turns the viewer into a participant in the pain as well. Their distress and unease is all part of the maker’s intention. But this begs a significant question - does a filmgoer really want to be made uncomfortable? Now, we are not talking about the intrinsic reaction that comes with most genres - comedy/laughter, horror/fear, melodrama/sadness. Funny Games is not working in free association. It’s about rubbing your nose in your own morbid curiosity and enjoying the sour smell.


Again - is that a viable element of the motion picture artform? When rape is depicted as part of a director’s vision, some find it powerful. Others feel it’s provocative. And there are those who see it as exploitative, unnecessary, and gratuitous. Haneke seems to be suggesting that murder - one of Funny Games and the movies in general most fervent pastimes - be treated the same way. Of course, our cultural love affair with violence means that we have to be tricked into taking notice - thus his “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” approach. By busting through convention, this director wants you to acknowledge it. By thwarting your anticipated reactions, he hopes to undermine you appreciation of dread.


Yet all of this fails to address the initial premise - is it something cinema should do? Is something that is essentially amusing supposed to trip up our sensibilities so? The answer appears to be generational. Those raised on traditional ideals despise this kind of grandstanding self-centeredness. A filmmaker should never call direct attention to himself or his style - unless your name is Hitchcock. It’s like explaining the joke before you’ve told the set-up and/or punchline. But the younger demographic of movie lovers, the ones raised on hours in front of the VCR and endless premium cable reruns dig this new breed of brazenness. They will mistake a con job for con artistry and scream for more, more, more.


These are the Funny Games apologists, the ones reading way more into the movie than probably exists. They don’t mind the tension breaking asides directed to the audience, or the moment when a remote control literally rewinds the action to benefit the bad guys. To them, it’s all manipulation with a purpose, a full disclosure dance between the old guard and the fresh faces. But there is a flaw in this reasoning, something that stems directly from what Haneke wants to do. When a child suffers a horrendous shotgun blast, his viscera strewn around the living room set like so much Leatherface graphic design, Haneke keeps the event offscreen. Yet we still see the gore, the insinuation as nasty as seeing the act itself.


Then there’s the other brutality. Legs are broken, women defiled (if only psychologically), and animals are rendered into lifeless heaps. Haneke never once avoids a single one of these senseless shocker moments. Sure, we may have to experience the majority of the mayhem indirectly, but seeing a gaping wound or canine corpse remains standard scary movie procedure. To really give us the goose, Haneke would have kept everything out of sight - the body blows, the asexual strip tease. A dead child would have been a sonic cue only, a last act drowning a mere mention between murderers. But that’s not good enough for Funny Games, and the reason why stands as the film’s final undoing.


Haneke is not making this movie for free. He’s not selling his celluloid sermon via a self-run website and a homemade DV-R dynamic. No, he’s got a top flight Western cast (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts), a major studio (Warners Independent) push, and a great deal of ‘then and now’ comparative publicity. While he may claim his movie is all about the message, the truth is it’s all about the money. You don’t cast Dawson’s Creek level actors like Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet unless you’re trying to trade on their youth appeal, and you don’t stress the “darkly comic” edge of the story in ads to try and trap the over 40 crowd. In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.


Besides, the movie is reprehensible, obvious, polarizing, uninvolving, and in the end, a waste of talent and time. And even with all that being true, there will be those who stand back and praise such problems. It’s one thing to take a strong statement against violence and its cultural commercialization and translate it into an equally powerful work. It’s another to take the symbolic stance and have the audience do the majority of the heavy lifting. Funny Games is a farce and Michael Haneke is the fully clothed foreign film emperor. Unfortunately, the blood staining such threads is not insightful. It’s insidious. 



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Wednesday, Mar 12, 2008


Ah, abortion: the solid center to any motion picture entertainment, right? Why so many of today’s movies have shied away from this normal, non-hot-button issue is simply a mystery. How could famed producers and artistically minded directors not see the inherent visual appeal of seedy, back alley clinics, wire coat hangers, and post-procedure hemorrhaging? You’d think by the way they avoided it, there was some manner of controversy surrounding this simple, salient life option preferred by so many modern women. Even the exploitation element felt sheepish about broaching the topic - mostly.


When corn-fed gal Patty Smith arrives in LA from Kansas, she wants to experience all that the West Coast has to offer. But getting gang-raped by a bunch of swarthy toughs was not high on her “to do” list. A couple of bouts of morning sickness later, and Patty has a permanent souvenir of the City of Angels. Hoping for help in terminating this unwanted “with child,” Patty seeks her doctor’s advice. He preaches to her about legalities. Seeking a second opinion, she visits another physician. He sermonizes about ethics…and then demands $600 to “help.” Desperate for money, Patty heads over to her church looking for a loan. The local parish priest condemns her - and her unborn fetus - to an eternity of damnation. Besides, the diocese is short on cash (go figure).


At her wit’s - and first trimester’s - end, Patty seeks the assistance of a sleazy bar owner with “connections.” He spares her a lecture, but does suggest she simply “get it over with” and just turn whore. Finally finding a financially acceptable option, Patty takes $200 to a “floating” clinic and prepares for a safe, sanitary procedure. What she gets instead is another homily to legislative change and a rather deadly infection. It may be hard for the folks back home to understand, but such knitting needle options are simply part of The Shame of Patty Smith.



Over in Dentonville, Florida, folks are as overheated as a cat on a hot tin roof, and view their small town existence as one huge crass menagerie. Trading on her family name - and her physician father’s swollen back account - little Joan Denton loves to cruise the seedy side of the city and hornswoggle the local rough trade. Eddie Mercer is the lucky load who lands Joanie’s physical love bug, and it’s not long before seed has taken womb root. The determined debutante immediately puts the kibosh on further fetlock fun, and this devastates ol’ Ed. He wants her to have the baby. But Joan is too busy preparing for country club parties, going on shopping sprees, and looking for available abortionists in Tampa (which is apparently famous for said surgical saloons).


A confrontation leads to a misunderstanding and before you know it, Edward is in jail on trumped-up charges, Dr. Denton is arranging for the fertility flushing, and a snotty lawyer from Miami is sticking his bar credentials in everyone’s dirty laundry business. When it appears that her trip to one of Ybor City’s finest birth termination facilities is threatened, Joan goes jittery and grabs a gun. Orphans are threatened. Swamps are polluted. And a planned retirement community is turned into a pre-Poltergeist burial mound as death comes from the flash of a muzzle accompanied by the screaming sentiment, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!”



All joking aside, it’s clear that one of the reasons abortion has stayed a minor motion picture plotpoint is that The Shame of Patty Smith covered the subject so thoroughly and with enough debate-oriented detail that no other Tinseltown NOW testament could compete with its completeness. And inclusive is definitely one way of describing this legal and ethical diatribe.


Made 11 years before Roe v. Wade turned promiscuity into a viable vice option (at least in the Puritan’s mind), this cinematic amicus brief to the cause of choice gives every side - medical, religious, law enforcement, and backroom butcher - the chance to have his or her say. A lot of say. Too much say. While the arguments are cogent and the language intelligent, these discomfited conversational sidesteps turn the movie into something of a mad musical of soapbox stumping. Like one of those old MGM Technicolor classics, you can literally watch The Shame of Patty Smith‘s narrative and say to yourself, “I feel a speech coming on.”


Far too contemporary for its early ‘60s surroundings, this uncomfortable confrontation between life and privacy tries to address this most non-winnable of arguments in a realistic manner. Too bad it sacrifices salaciousness, drama and entertainment to do so. One has to wonder what the raincoat crowd made of this dull, detail-oriented offering. Never before has getting knocked up been so foul…or so thoroughly footnoted. The Shame of Patty Smith has good intentions, antithetical to a grindhouse good time.



If you ever wondered what an exploitation movie about unwanted teen pregnancy would look like had it been penned by Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, then settle back on your porch swing, pour yourself a frosty mint julep and whittle away an hour (actually, 73 minutes) with the powerful Denton family and their promiscuous daughter Joan. So steamy it instantly irons out the wrinkles in your drapes the minute it starts to unscroll onscreen, and so full of Southern-fried melodrama that Colonel Sanders once thought of including it with a bucket of his chicken, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” (changed from the original Touch of Flesh) is more Tobacco Road than classroom scare tactic.


Between the backstabbing family lawyer, the local police chief who proudly flaunts his lack of parentage, and a slinky slut who’s new to town but already at home with the horny swing of things, this peculating potboiler is as bodice-bulging as they get. Add in Joan’s sexual slumming, an elderly matron with the “hots” for Dr. Denton, and some gratuitous orphans, and this sleazy saga goes from bad to perverse.


Director R. John Hugh has a unique cinematic style. Placing his camera just a little too high in the frame, he forces everyone to talk down toward the floor, so we get very little actual eye contact. Everyone navel-gazes as they deliver their overly melodramatic lines filled with family secrets and prosecutorial proverbs. Barely touching on the divisive surgery controversy, “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” intends to show how an unwanted oven bun can lead to all manner of overacting. It succeeds in superbly seedy fashion. Not even old Ed can damage this randy rhetoric reading.


As unique as they are oblique, both The Shame of Patty Smith and “You’ve Ruined Me, Eddie!” represent motion picture moralizing at its most truncated and tawdry. They also stand as wonderful examples of abortion’s limited cinematic stance. Pro or con, these are a couple of crazy lessons in Constitutional constructions.


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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008


Blame it all on Godzilla. Or better yet, blame it on Toho Studios, Sandy Frank, and any other individual or entity that has a say in how Japan’s favorite oversized lizard gets manipulated and marketed around the world. When Rhino released Volume 10 in their recently halted Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection (don’t worry - Shout! Factory is taking up the mantle), it included the satiric show’s riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon. Famous for introducing the Ultraman-inspired Jet Jaguar, as well as a weird arms race theme (the undersea kingdom of Seatopia decides to fight nuclear testing by…sending a massive monster to destroy Tokyo?), it stands as a fan favorite.


Unfortunately, as with many movies in the MST3K catalog, issues over rebroadcast rights reared their ugly head. Devotees of the classic cowtown puppet show have long had to resign themselves to the fact that many of the series’ most memorable episodes would never see the light of a home video release. The reasons are many - post-commercialized claims, long unsettled legal disputes, family tiffs, limited use contracts - but the fact remains that both Godzilla and his success inspired turtle brother Gamera have been visibly absent from the Rhino releases. When Megalon hit, many thought the drought may finally have ended. Others believed it was too good to be true. They were right.


Indeed, aside from a few review versions sent to websites and publications for write-up, and a couple of accidental brick and mortar sales, Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Collection soon became an out of print prize. The box set was pulled, rumors surfaced and were settled, and anyone desperate to own the DVD version of the installment had to pay big bucks to collectors and/or price gougers. In response, Rhino is releasing a ‘replacement’ disc, an ‘upgrade’ if you will. Taking Gojira’s still warm seat in the digital package will now be the classic Season Four installment, The Giant Gila Monster. Starring the leg up vocalizing of Don Sullivan and directed by The Killer Shrews’ Ray Kellogg, this forced perspective reptile on the prowl picture is truly bad…meaning it makes for flawless MST fodder.



It seems that Chase Winstead and his fast driving teen buddies just can’t get enough of tearing through the dirt roads of their backwater burg. But when a pal and his pretty thing fail to show up for a rendezvous at the passion pit, the town gets worried. Seems the boy is the son of factory owner Mr. Thompson, and this rural entrepreneur loves to throw his weigh around. He especially enjoys bossing the likable Sheriff Jeff. When more people go missing, the mystery deepens. Then local lush Old Man Harris sees a giant Gila monster crossing the road. It causes a massive train accident where victims confirm the creature. It is up to Chase, his crippled sister, his French speaking girlfriend, and the aging lawman, to save the barn dance and destroy the beast once and for all.


In a clear case of Fourth Season syndrome (a theory among critics by which a television series reaches its first of possibly many creative peaks), The Giant Gila Monster stands as many MiSTie’s most memorable outings. It contains the sensational second on air cast incarnation - Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff - and finds the program banging on all of its sarcastic cylinders. From the sensational invention exchange (who doesn’t want to punch out Renaissance Fair stereotypes) to Tom Servo’s expose on how Kellogg employed the ‘bended knee as blocking device’ technique, it’s a marvelous installment. While it may not replace the mesmerizing “man in suit” dynamic of Godzilla’s Eastern promise, it satisfies in its own schlocky way.



Indeed, the movie itself is a mishmash of horror, rock and roll, melodramatic schmaltz, and standard formulaic filmmaking. Kellogg uses minimal sets (a garage, a barn, a soda shop) and lots of local Texas backdrops (the movie was filmed in the Lone Star state) to tell his tale, and via the use of miniatures and massive close-ups, he creates a well-meaning (if rather unexceptional) giant beast. Sullivan’s Chase Winstead is a juvenile delinquent in the Steve McQueen/The Blob sense. He’s a good kid, occasionally misguided in his engine revving routine. There are songs (composed and sung by the star himself), a wacky old drunk, some choice chest puffing, and a good amount of over the top orchestration. All of it tries to make The Giant Gila Monster more imposing than it is.


As for the MST material, it’s above reproach. The in-theater joking is marvelous, most of the mirth centering on giving the title character a rib-tickling running critter commentary. Though it admits to having a brain “the size of a chickpea”, the Gila definitely gives good wit. Similarly, there are numerous mentions of the actor’s everpresent knees, a complete deconstruction of Sullivan’s tune “The Lord Said Laugh”, and a choice skit where comic drunks are discussed. This is the kind of movie that easily lends itself to the MST3K treatment. It’s hokey without being completely horrible, pedestrian without plodding along. The combination of film and funny business represent the reason many think Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains the best show in the history of the medium.



Of course, what many outside the obsessive will wonder is - is this DVD worth getting? Rhino is selling them for under $8 (for those who already own Volume 10) and it will be included in every new version of Volume 10.2. The answer is a resounding YES, if only for the introductory material. Somehow, Joel, Trace, and Frank were all convinced to re-don their character costumes and recreate an opening sequence from the show. Within this older, balder, and bulkier version of MST‘s memorable players, Joel and the ‘Bots help Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank explain the “upgrade” process. It’s one of the best things the series has ever done, and a burst of badass nostalgia for anyone who truly adores the show.


But there’s more here than that. Along with a gallery of stills, the disc also houses a 12 minute interview with actor Don Sullivan. He expresses his love of the film, how MST3K helped him appreciate it even more, and how he came to Hollywood with big dreams and $3 in his pocket. He also talks about his songwriting, the meaning of “The Lord Said Laugh” and why he dropped out of show business. It’s an insightful Q&A, one of the best ones these discs have provided. As an added bonus, we get two audio-only tracks from the Sullivan catalog. They’re a hoot. It all turns a must-own DVD into one of the best format fortunes out there. So perhaps instead of blaming Godzilla and his monetary keepers, we should thank them. If for nothing else than the return of our favorite MST icons, The Giant Gila Monster makes Volume 10.2 terrific!


 


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