Movies I’ve Never Seen #2: The Exorcist

the-exorcist-2What is it: The world’s most famous demonic possession story, the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” was a global smash, a taboo-breaking story that also ended up nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. 

Why I never saw it: I love horror movies, but I’m more of a monster-movie dude rather than slasher-horror or Satanic possessions kinda guy. I actually read the novel of “The Exorcist” yeaaarrrrrs ago (younger than I probably shoulda) and I think I built up in my head that the movie was far too creepy for a gentle fella like me. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Definitely. It’s hard watching ‘classics’ sometimes where they’ve been so influential on other movies that what were originally groundbreaking, influential moments can seem almost like a parody when you finally get around to seeing the original source. But “The Exorcist” is creepy and filled with a sense of pensive dread, highlighted by Linda Blair’s remarkable performance. The movie builds up slowly (like most older movies do when viewed from the vantage point of today), but it works because it convinces us of how normal the relationship between Regan and her mother is.

levitating-above-bed-740x400@2xIt makes what follows later that much more profane and shocking. And the movie’s most iconic moments – the possession of Regan and her gruesome actions – are still truly horrifying today. Every parent of a teenager has that moment of disconnection when your child suddenly seems like an alien to you, and “The Exorcist” dramatises that perfectly to terrible extremes. 

How was it different than I thought? Like I said, a bit slower to start, but that actually works to the picture’s benefit. I also expected Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin to be more of a main character and didn’t realise Father Karras would be more of a focus. It was definitely as gruesome and harrowing as I imagined, and unlike some horror movies viewed years later, you definitely didn’t want to laugh at the scary bits. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Just maybe leave the lights on. 

When Bob Dylan was the greatest rock star in America

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I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s. 

Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point. 

But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce. 

In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere. 

He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here.  He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them. 

Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted. 

Batman mania revisited, 30 years on

2008_CSK_05425_0129_000()Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.

As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half. 

s3-BatmanWaikiki3It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.

Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….

“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep. 

84-ogBut Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission. 

I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable. 

Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip. 

Sellers’ market: The very worst of Peter Sellers

THERESAGIRLINMYSOUPLC8I have a bizarre fascination with the bad movies of Peter Sellers, of which there are many. 

I love Peter Sellers, but before his untimely death at just 54 in 1980, he wasted his protean talent in an awful, awful lot of trash. The chameleon was an actor who was reborn in each role in startling ways, from French detectives to Hindu partygoers to Christ-like savant politician. “The Pink Panther” series, “Being There,” “Dr. Strangelove” – the man starred in a lot of classic movies. 

But of the somewhere around 50 movies he starred in, many are clumsy, dated and a bit offensive by modern standards. He didn’t have a great eye for picking his projects, many of which scream “paycheck!” Yet I’m still drawn to Sellers in them, who holds the cinematic light like a candle in the dark through even the most slapdash of productions. 

magicchristian_ringo_sellersI’ve been making my way as a kind of punishing completist chore through the most obscure of Sellers’ oeuvre, movies that are barely remembered today. Sellers was a difficult, demon-haunted man, whose talent was crippled by bad health and serious psychological issues (there’s the famous quote “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,” which more than anything sums up the man). 

Many of Sellers’ best bad movies are those only-in-the-‘60s crazed drug dreams of cinema, like “The Magic Christian” with Ringo Starr as Sellers’ son, or “What’s New, Pussycat?,” the definitive swinging ‘60s all-star lunatic comedy. 

In the 1970s Sellers’ movies got weirder and worse, tipping from good-bad to bad-bad. There’s “Soft Beds, Hard Battles,” a weirdly inept WWII comedy about a brothel, featuring Sellers in six roles, including Adolf Hitler. “Where Does It Hurt?” is a justly-forgotten lame, sloppy 1972 “comedy” about a corrupt hospital that drags for 85 endless minutes, only lifted when Sellers’ malevolent hospital administrator stalks through the scenery.

project-of-the-day-ghost-peter-sellersAnd I am absolutely dying to see the new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” an entire film about the apocalyptic making of one of his flops, the pirate film “Ghost In The Noonday Sun.” 

“Being There” climaxed his career with an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t Sellers’ last gasp – that was “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” one of the strangest Hollywood movies of all time, with Sellers playing both “yellow peril” villain Fu and his nemesis Nayland Smith in another cobbled-together, rambling mess of a movie that ends with an Elvis impersonation. That one is good-bad-good-bad-bad on a whole new level. 

I wish he’d done a dozen more “Being Theres” instead of ten “There’s A Girl In My Soups” but sometimes you find gems in the dross, like “The Blockhouse,” an almost forgotten serious drama about D-Day which is one of Sellers’ best, least remembered movies. 

MV5BM2JiMjQ0NzQtZmUxZS00YTkyLWIxOWEtMzZiMTNhYjIxOThlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDY2NzgwOTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1247,1000_AL_There’s a kernel of something golden in even his worst movies. His Fu Manchu is objectively a racist joke played far too long, but there’s a strange sadness Sellers summons up between the lame puns in his portrayal of an immortal villain.

When they say something is “strictly for the fans,” I often think of Peter Sellers’ bad movies. They really are only for obsessed fans like me, who can watch a gifted, protean actor bring a little sparkle of talent to B-movie comedies that didn’t deserve him. 

The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams. 

Give me animation: The Disney remakes nobody ever really asked for

fullwidth.21a338c9So the first autumn cold of the season hit the household, and I spent most of a day prone on the couch undertaking a surefire cure for the blues: Cartoons. 

I mainlined a bunch of old Disney classics I hadn’t seen in years in between sips of lemon tea, like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And for the first time in ages I saw them through childlike (and decongestant-addled) eyes, as the remarkable works of art they are. Thousands and thousands of hours of labour went into their creation. Watching the lush colours and textures of “Pinocchio” unfold, it’s hard to imagine that this was only a decade removed from the black-and-white doodles of “Steamboat Willie.”

Disney is this kind of insanely massive corporate monolith these days, and that sometimes obscures the creative legacy of the company. Sure, they patented Corporate Cuteness (TM) and there is often a bland, monocultural sameness to much of their work. Yet at their best, the classics mainline the universal themes of the fairy tales they’re often based on to hit some primal notes. 

c03a6b0aa4c0296c0e21828cb06b7326I’d forgotten how bloody DARK “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio” are. There’s runaway children sold into slavery, a mother placed in chains, cruelty from the cartooniest of funny animals. (And we won’t even talk about “Bambi.”) 

The monolith Disney of 2019 is bashing out product on many fronts, some great (Marvel hasn’t put a foot wrong), some less. The frenetic urge to remake their animated classics with technically gorgeous, ultimately heartless CGI “live action” versions is pretty depressing. 

As pop culture continues to eat itself, Disney is avidly mining everything from “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Lion King” and “Mulan” for slick retellings that for all their pizazz never really live up to the simpler hand-drawn lines and colours of their inspirations. I’ve watched a few of these “remakes” and they vanish in the mind like mist, yet images from the original cartoons are un-eraseable. 

aladdin-genieI watched the upcoming “Lion King” trailer and I just felt bored. I don’t hate these remakes, but they seem pointless, just more grist for Scrooge McDuck’s vaults. They’re stretched out (1941 “Dumbo” 64 minutes; 2019 “Dumbo” 112) and excessive elaborations of the gorgeous simple lines of the originals. What’s cute becomes creepy rendered in vivid CGI — blue Will Smith in the also upcoming “Aladdin” remake is something I never really needed to see, and it’s kind of freaking me out. 

The real creativity was seen in the labouring of men and women working in the ‘30s and ‘40s on perfecting an amazing new art form of animation. Their work hasn’t dated in nearly 80 years. 

hqdefaultThere’s nothing I’ve seen yet in a CGI cartoon remake that approaches the stunning surrealism of the original “Pink Elephants on parade” sequence of “Dumbo” or the explosion of colour and passion of “Fantasia.” There have been lots of great original CGI cartoons from Pixar and the like of course, but Disney’s flood of redundant remakes is like a gift nobody really asked for.

Give me an original cartoon every time; it’s the cure for what ails me.