Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Matt Helm Week: The Wrecking Crew!

Despite some nice moments, The Wrecking Crew is probably my least favorite of the Matt Helm movies. It was directed by Phil Karlson, who also directed The Silencers, and its main problem is that repeats a lot of bits from the first movie. For example, Matt is introduced here through another dream sequence where he fantasizes about the models he's photographing.

However, here, the models are just standing around while he takes his nap. Huh?

There's also a line in one of the songs about "a cow that gives scotch." That's just too much.

The plot of The Wrecking Crew involves the theft of $1 billion in gold from a train guarded by ICE agents. Matt is brought in by the president himself to find the missing gold in 48 hours, before the markets get wind of the loss and a global financial collapse occurs. ICE is pretty certain that Count Contini (Nigel Green) is behind the theft, but they need to find the location of the gold, and Matt is sent to interrogate Contini's disgruntled ex-lover, Lola Medina (played by Gilligan's own Tina Louise).

Lola, however, is killed by an exploding scotch bottle while preparing Matt a drink, once again reinforcing the series' ambivalent attitude toward alcohol.

One of the film's major weaknesses is the presence of Sharon Tate as Helm's bumbling partner, Freya Carlson. Freya is primarily an extension of Stella Stevens's clutzy character in The Silencers, and Tate plays her with little enthusiasm. It is difficult to tell if Tate is a bad actress here, or if she is resisting playing the character as ditzy as the script demands. The script certainly isn't much help, as it requires her to vascillate inconsistently between competence and ineptitude. In the first movie, Stevens, at least, seems to be enjoying herself playing a similar role, and perhaps Tate would have been better off playing a more effective, competent partner like the characters that Ann-Margret and Janice Rule play in the previous two movies. By the end of the movie, it even seems like Dean is getting fed up with her.

Elke Sommer appears as the femme fatale and Nigel Green plays the villain, Count Contini, and next to Karl Malden, he's probably the best villain in the series. He performs the Count as a bored aristocrat who is completely confident in his plan, or "schedule" as he so frequently says with that particular British pronunciation. Both Sommer and Green appeared in similar roles in the 1967 Bulldog Drummond film, Deadlier than the Male, one of my favorite of the Bond knock-offs of the period.

Here's an early meeting between the Count and Matt Helm, which also leads to one of the film's first fights. The camera Matt uses is meant to blind anyone exposed to the smoke.

While The Wrecking Crew may be the worst Matt Helm movie, Dean Martin does kick somebody in the face, so it has that going for it. Also, one of the goons in this scene is played by Chuck Norris, and Bruce Lee is listed as the "Karate Advisor" for the film. All that should make this an awesome film, but it only ends up making it a curiosity.

Mack David and DeVol perform the film's theme song, "The House of 7 Joys," which wins the award for the most culturally uncomfortable theme song in the series, featuring a chorus that contains the line, "Ah so, ah so, welly nice!" Here is a lengthy scene that takes place in "The House of 7 Joys," and it's one of the more entertaining parts of the movie, with a nice pay-off at the end. You also get to see Nancy Kwan as the unfortunately named villain "Yu-Rang."

And finally, here's the fight scene between Sharon Tate and Nancy Kwan. The scene, unfortunately, does not live up to the potential that a girl fight between these two actresses, choreographed by Bruce Lee, should have.

It seems clear to me at the end of this scene that Dean Martin has become impatient with Sharon Tate, as he appears to be treating her a bit rough.

The ending of the movie promises the return of Matt Helm in The Ravagers, but the fifth movie was never made. I'm not sure why the series ended at this point, though it seemed to have run out of steam, and the whole spy craze was coming to an end as well. But, nonetheless, Dino cranked out four of these movies in three years, and they're all loose, fun portraits of their era and perfect vehicles for Dean Martin.

Thanks to everyone who showed up here for Matt Helm Week, especially dino martin peters and rogue spy 007, who provided fun, encouraging comments every day. Check out dino martin peters's I Love Dino Martin blog, which features some great Dinopix in the monthly Dinocalender.

I have some plans for covering other 60s spy movies here in the near future, so keep checking back!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Matt Helm Week: The Ambushers!

The preview to The Ambushers states, "You'll actually see Dean Martin save the world!" The addition of the qualifying adverb "actually" in that sentence indicates that there may be some doubt here, that the event is unlikely or even absurd. However, if anyone was paying attention, we've actually seen Dean Martin save the world twice already. What's to doubt?

The opening credit sequence to The Ambushers features a theme song by Boyce and Hart which implies that women themselves are the true "ambushers." As the song states, women are "like Injuns in the grass ... Then buster, you're General Custer!" I'm really not sure what is worse here: the misogyny or the cultural insensitivity. And, amazingly enough, this is not the most culturally insensitive thing said in a Matt Helm theme song.

The plot of The Ambushers involves the theft of an experimental interplanetary flying saucer developed by the US government and flown by ICE agent Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule). As later explained in the movie by ICE boss MacDonald (James Gregory), the experimental craft operates on the principle of electromagnetism, and "the electromagnetic field has a strange effect on the male of the species--it kills them, dead!" I don't know what about having a penis makes one vulnerable to electromagnetic fields, but I'm not willing to take a chance, either. I think this is one of those circumstances where we just have to accept science without questioning it.

On its maiden voyage, however, the saucer is stolen by the villainous Leopold Caselius, using some kind of ray that shoots out sparkles. Again, I don't pretend to understand science, so I'm just going to accept this at face value.

As is the case with the other Matt Helm movies as well, the opening scenes feature some of the best parts of the movie. The film shifts from the flying saucer abduction to the ICE Rehabilitation Center, where we get to witness the awesomeness of Slaygirls training. The Slaygirls are currently being taught how to use a device that dissolves metal. Such a device would be extremely useful if one of the Slaygirls were faced with a firearm, or if she had to break into a locked door. However, the primary purpose of the device appears to be dissolving the buckle on someone's belt to cause the pants to fall down. And we just know we'll be seeing this device again later.

Another key element of Slaygirls training appears to involve making out with Matt Helm, which shouldn't come as any surprise. Actually, I need to clarify that: the training involves making out with Matt Helm while listening to Dean Martin records! (Interestingly enough, a similar technique was used at the Los Angeles police academy in the early 80s, where female cadets were required to make out with T. J. Hooker while listening to William Shatner's The Transformed Man.)

It turns out that the training isn't solely about making out with Matt Helm; instead, this particular Slaygirl is being trained on the use of a bra gun, which prematurely goes off during the session. To this near-death experience, Helm responds, "When you say you're a 38, you ain't kiddin'!" And then, so as to wring out all the comic potential from this scene, he adds, "An agent should always keep abreast of the times." He does not, however, refer to the bra gun as a "booby trap," as that joke was used to describe Tina's bra holster in The Silencers. The Matt Helm movies are just too classy to repeat the same breast joke.

When Helm leaves that particular training session, he walks out to the quad to find another Slaygirl offering him a ride on her scooter. She warns him, "I go pretty fast--better find something to hang on to!" To which Matt responds by looking at the camera and saying, simply, "Crazy." Clearly, no punchline is necessary, as we all know exactly what he will be hanging on to.

Matt then goes to get a massage from another of the Slaygirls, and during this treatment his assistant, Lovey Kravezit, arrives. Lovey and Matt decide to move their "debriefing" into the steambath. (The subsequent steambath scene, by the way, does a good job of helping me recover from my still-troubling Eastern Promises trauma.) As Matt makes the moves on Lovey by beginning to unclasp her bra, MacDonald's voice suddenly appears. MacDonald has pulled the ultimate spy cockblock by hiding Helm's orders in Lovey's bra clasp. As with the orders hidden in the booze during Murderers' Row, Mac explains that he used this particular medium because he knew this would be the best way to get the orders to Matt.

ICE has connected the theft of the flying saucer with the Dos Equis beer factory in Mexico. The evidence includes a song used in a Dos Equis TV ad that also appears on an album of military marches called "Songs Men Have Died For," which I believe was originally available through K-Tel. I'm not sure how this all fits together, but the beer commercial features women in bikinis, and that's all that is really important in this film.

Matt is then ordered to pose as Sheila Sommers's husband and travel to Mexico under his photographer cover to investigate the Dos Equis beer factory. Really--setting a Matt Helm movie in a beer factory is nothing short of brilliant!

In fact, during a gunfight later in the film, Matt falls into a vat of beer, and he considers the option of drinking himself to safety. And as gun shots miss their targets and hit various tanks and pipes, Matt often gets distracted from the fight by putting his mouth to the spilling beer.

A common occurrence in Matt Helm movies: Matt gets drugged by the female villain (in this case, Francesca, played by Senta Berger, who also starred as the femme fatale in another great 60s spy film, The Quiller Memorandum). Here, it's lipstick instead of booze, but the effect is the same:

Matt Helm also gets some amazing gadgets in this film, including cigarettes filled with laughing gas (which get him out of a firing squad late in the movie), a belt that turns into a sword when it gets wet (!?!?), and a trick camera. One of the better Matt Helm gadgets also appears here: the inflatable spy pad.

I love that this inflatable camouflage tent includes a refrigerator.

The villain, Leopold Caselius (played by Albert Salmi), is not as interesting as Karl Malden's Julian Wall. His plan is to sell the saucer to the highest bidder, and the bidders include the BIG O (represented by Francesca), the Chinese, and an unnamed Middle Eastern nation. The Chinese make the highest bid, leading Caselius to declare, "The first man on the moon will be eating chow mein!"

We also find out here that BIG O stands for "Bureau of International Government and Order," which has to be the least threatening acronym for a global criminal cartel. I have no problems with any part of that name.

Since neither side got the saucer, Francesca actually helps Matt and Sheila defeat Caselius, who is killed when he is trapped inside of the saucer and its man-killing electromagnetic field.

The film ends with Matt Helm engaging in some more "training" for ICE's Slaygirls. Matt explains to his trainee that she may be put into a position where she has to "give herself to the enemy," and he shows her the right way to put herself in the mood for such a duty. He starts, of course, with some Dean Martin music, but this does not seem to help her. He then switches to Frank, and she's ready to go. That is some good stuff right there.

Next: Matt Helm returns in his final big screen adventure, The Wrecking Crew!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Matt Helm Week: Murderers' Row Part 2!

One of the main reasons why Murderers' Row stands above the other three Matt Helm movies is the presence of Ann-Margret. She is clearly the best actress of all the Helm girls (though Janice Rule in The Ambushers is more talented than the role deserves), and she seems to be having the most fun. Her character is also not written as a total airhead who serves as more of a hindrance than a help to Matt Helm, as happens with Stella Stevens in the previous movie and Sharon Tate in the final one.

Here is one of her early scenes which helps to establish her character and shows her wearing an awesome blue feathery night dress.

Another element that makes Murderers' Row the best of the series is its liberal use of hovercrafts, climaxing in an exciting hovercraft chase. The combination of awesome elements--Ann-Margret and hovercrafts--however, reaches its peak in a truly amazing action scene that is the highlight of the series and one of the high points in my entire movie-viewing career.

In a twist that would later be adopted for the movie Speed, the BIG O tries to eliminate Ann-Margret with a bomb that explodes when it reaches a particular speed. Here, however, the bomb is planted in a broach, and it's meant to reach its top speed while she is dancing. The faster she gyrates, ... well, you understand. Her dancing is incredibly frenetic and particularly exhausting to this particular viewer.

Helm, meanwhile, drives a hovercraft through the streets of Monte Carlo in order to reach the discotheque in time to save her. He then rushes into the club and, demonstrating the quick thinking that is characteristic of the super agent, rips the dress off of Ann-Margret and throws it at the wall. (This is also a common trope in the Matt Helm movies, where he is frequently forced to tear off a woman's dress.) The scene ends with a perfect coda: Helm throws the exploding dress at a projected image of Frank Sinatra on the wall, and Matt issues an apology to the Chairman: "Sorry, Frank."

Consistent with the previous film, the gadgets here are typically useless. Helm's car has a scrolling marquee on the back that sends voice-operated messages to anyone following him. And like the backwards-firing gun of the previous film, Helm gets a gun that shoots 10 seconds after the trigger is pulled. What usually happens here: Helm pulls the trigger, nothing happens, and the villain picks up the gun and looks at it, only to get the bullet himself.

Also, the villainous Coco Duquette (Camilla Sparv) has a freeze gun, which first seems only useful for chilling drinks--an essential task in these films--but later Helm uses it as a weapon to freeze BIG O thugs. This is a highly inefficient weapon, as it takes at least 10 seconds to freeze someone.

At one point in the movie, Coco reveals what is clearly Matt Helm's kryptonite: he is easily susceptible to drugged drinks, and this proves to be his weakness in other movies (also of note in the series: drugged lipstick, bombs hidden in bottles of booze). As noted in the last post, drinking is also Helm's "identifying characteristic," and he intentionally gives away his identity by grabbing a drink and kissing Coco.

When finally captured by the villainous Julian Wall (Karl Malden), Helm tries to send his boss, MacDonald, a secret message about an enemy agent that has infiltrated ICE. In order to tip off MacDonald that something is wrong, Helm mentions that he is enjoying a nice glass of bourbon. MacDonald immediately catches the tip, as he knows Helm never drinks bourbon. Therefore, we must conclude that, as often as his alcoholism gets him into trouble, it also saves him.

The concluding hovercraft chase is as exciting as one can imagine, and it must have caused a significant increase in the film's budget over the previous entry. In the end, Matt Helm and Ann-Margret are rescued from their out-of-control hovercraft by MacDonald in a helicopter, and Ann-Margret must, of course, cling to Helm's pants as they are pulled to safety, revealing Helm's cute heart boxers.

Here, for comparative purposes, are the two endings of Murderers' Row and The Silencers, respectively.

As we can see in each case, Matt Helm and his lady both end up wet, so to speak. The ending of Murderers' Row, however, is enhanced by the presence of the Slaygirls, who must spend their time hanging out in Matt Helm's pad waiting for him to come home. It should also be noted that they are still wearing their calender costumes.

And as the finale of Murderers' Row promises, Matt Helm (and Dr. K) will return in The Ambushers!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Matt Helm Week: Murderers' Row, Part 1!

It's been a couple of days, but I'm back, baby, and ready for more Matt Helm action!

Here's a trailer for Murderers' Row, which, as I said before, is my favorite of the 4 Matt Helm movies. This trailer is not included in the Matt Helm Lounge DVD set, but it is representative of the trailers used in this series.

First, in all the trailers, it's apparent that Dean did it in one take, though he clearly didn't quite nail it out of the gate here. Plus, in every preview, Dean's holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in another, inviting the viewer to come see his new movie. The effect of these previews, therefore, is to blur the line further between Dean Martin and Matt Helm.

The problem I have with writing about Murderers' Row is that the movie is wall-to-wall awesome, and the only way to do it justice would be to liveblog the whole movie. Barring that, I want to hit on some of the many elements that make this movie great.

I would argue that the best part of every Matt Helm movie is the first half-hour or so. During this point in the movie, Matt usually has to make the (reluctant) transition from his photographer day job to the mission. We also get the details of the villain's plot: here, the BIG O, led by Julian Wall (played by an over-the-top Karl Malden) has developed a solar weapon called a Super Helio Beam, which we see destroy a model of Washington, DC.

Wall's plan also involves the assassination of all the top ICE agents around the world (The Japanese agent, code-named "Tempura," is killed by a sponge-bomb while receiving a bath. This scene demonstrates a level of cultural sensitivity that will reach its peak in the final movie, The Wrecking Crew.). As each agent is eliminated, his picture is thrown into a fireplace. Matt Helm's picture, however, only reveals the back of the agent's head, as he is making out with a woman while holding a drink in one hand. The drink is circled and labeled as an "identifying characteristic."

Meanwhile, Helm is engaged in a photo shoot for a new calender, one which features a different state as representative of each month. When we see him, Helm is currently shooting Minnesota in January, and the model wears a fur bikini. Matt positions the model and tells her, "I want to catch you right near ... Duluth." Now, my summary can't really do this line justice, but, suffice it to say, Dean says "Duluth" as if it were the dirtiest word in the English language. Really, the Duluth Tourism Bureau needs to use that line in all their promotions.

Without taking a break, Dean then hits us with another great line when he moves the model again because "we don't want to hide the Twin Cities." I think we all know what cities he's talking about.

I wonder, though, if the writers couldn't have just kept going with this gag. I'm sure, with Dean's delivery, he could have done wonders with Bemidji or Mankato. Or how about, "Move to your left--I want to see Moorhead"? Now, that was a missed opportunity.

This scene also provides the return of Matt Helm's secretary, Miss Lovey Kravezit, who displays the unique talent of being able to take dictation while making out with her boss.

Matt's work, however, proves to be exhausting, and he decides to take a nap while Miss July gets herself ready for her shoot. Matt finds that his rest is hampered by the presence of Miss January in his bed. It turns out that January is the BIG O's assassin sent to kill Matt Helm. The technique she employs is rather elaborate: she activates Helm's automatic bed, which is to send the agent into his Olympic-sized bath tub, where the Helio Beam is shooting down through the skylight. Matt prevents her from escaping, however, and they both slide into the death trap.

Matt Helm is presumed dead, and ICE arranges for his funeral, complete with the Slaygirls all dressed in identical black trenchcoats and hats.

As we can all guess, Matt is not dead, but his death is faked to aid his cover for his mission to stop BIG O's plan for the Helio Beam and rescue the weapon's creator, Doctor Norman Solaris (and with a name like that, you are either destined to make solar weapons or really long, slow-paced Soviet sci-fi movies). Helm's boss, Mac (James Gregory) gives him the mission, and a new cover: "James A. Peters." The intelligence films Matt watches whenever he receives his missions are often not much more than borderline softcore porn, and this one features mainly girls in bikinis on the French Riviera.

Matt arrives in France with his new spy car, and like the one in The Silencers, this is also equipped with booze. However, when Matt opens the bottle to take a swig (while driving, naturally), he instead hears Mac's voice, which explains that this was the best way to ensure that Helm received his orders. Matt laments the waste of "a perfectly good bottle of booze" and then promises, "I'll show you--I'll join the AA!" At least he can admit that he has a problem. But then, he reaches into his inside coat pocket, pulls out a flask, takes a swig, and continues driving.

In one of the movie's more elaborate gags, Matt's investigation takes him to a local discotheque, where the band Dino, Desi, and Billy is playing. This pop band consisted of Dean Paul "Dino" Martin, Desi Arnaz, Jr., and Billy Hinsche (my mom always insisted that "Billy" was the son of Sammy Davis, Jr., and while that would have given the band a nice symmetry, it is not the case.)

Helm awkwardly tries to infiltrate this youth scene by dancing along with the band. Dino looks down at Helm and say, "Now you're swinging, dad," to which Matt makes a response about kids' slang these days. Matt's dancing partner, Suzie (Ann-Margret), then comments, "It's a wise son who knows his own father," and Helm returns with, "The way their wearing their hair nowadays, it's a wise father who knows his own son." This is yet another meta-joke to blur the line between Matt Helm and Dean Martin.

Murderers' Row is clearly too awesome for one post, and I haven't even gotten to Ann-Margret yet, so I'm going to save her for her own separate post tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here's an RC Cola ad featuring Dino, Desi, and Billy from around the same time as this movie:

I also want to link to a helpful article from Cinema Retro that discusses the Matt Helm movies in relation to the Donald Hamilton novels. The article also features some nice images. The novels are, of course, much more serious than the movies, and fans of the books were angered by the films' parodic tone.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Matt Helm Week: Interlude

First off, I just want to point out that I want to live in this world:

(Cover taken from Will Pfeifer's blog, who got it from If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.)

I thought today that I'd include clips from Dean Martin's variety show to give readers who never got to experience it an understanding of just how the show operated. Here's a bit with Dino and John Wayne, who had just co-starred together in The Sons of Katie Elder:

Now, this bit was clearly not rehearsed at all. Dean responds to the jokes as if he's seeing them for the first time. Would it have been smoother if it were rehearsed? Yes. Would it have been better? Probably not. A big part of Dino's charm was his ability to laugh his way through the rough spots.

One of the highlights of this show was the way in which Dino and his guests would just crack each other up during sketches, which probably couldn't have happened if they had seen the scripts beforehand. Here's a wild sketch, with Jimmy Stewart, Dino, and Orson Welles at a Men's Hair Salon (Holy Crap!):

The joke about "Tab and Rock showing up" to a party "in identical blazers" is interesting, to say the least.

The feeling always was with this show that Dean was having a party, and you were invited. That's also the feeling I get from the Matt Helm movies as well, and that's what makes them so enjoyable.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Matt Helm Week Day 1: The Silencers!

Before I get started on The Silencers, I just want to clear up one thing about yesterday's post: I am by no means critical of Dean Martin's work ethic. In fact, I aspire to it. No one has had more influence on my own work ethic and pedagogy as Dino has had. I look forward to the day that I can walk into a classroom, randomly open up a literature book, and begin talking cold about a poem that I've never laid eyes on before. WWDD?

The Silencers opens, after the fantastic credit sequence I posted yesterday, with a scene we find common to later Matt Helm movies: Helm must be stirred from his playboy lifestyle and his fashion photographer cover to once again enter the espionage game for his government employers, ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage).

In this case, he must be woken from the verge of a nocturnal emission (or in Matt Helm's case, more like an afternoonal emission):

Although this is a (wet) dream, at other points in the movie, when Matt is contemplating his mission, we hear Dean singing standards, but with new lyrics pertaining to the film's plot. Therefore, we are to assume that Matt Helm's interior monologue consists entirely of songs, which makes perfect sense.

In this scene, we also get to see that Matt Helm has the least efficient high-tech spy pad ever created. The rotating, motorized, pneumatic bed is one thing, but he also uses large, pulsing velour rods to dry off from the unnecessarily large bubble bath.

We are also introduced here to Helm's secretary, Lovey Kravezit--an employee for whom Matt just learns her first name despite the fact that she apparently does most of her work naked in his bubble bath.

There is, in fact, too much awesomeness to comment on in this scene.

The plot of this movie is relatively inconsequential. Helm's constant nemeses, The BIG O--led here by Victor "King Tut" Buono as "Tung-Tse"--plan something called "Operation Fallout" to disrupt some underground nuclear test in the Southwest by redirecting an American missle and blah blah blah.

Helm is reluctantly drawn back into the game when BIG O sends a female assassin after him. Helm returns to his pad to find a trail of women's clothes leading to his bedroom. Apparently, this is a common enough occurence for Helm that he is nonplussed by it. Helm assumes she comes from ICE as a means to entice him into the mission, and he explains that he has already taken a photography assignment to Acupulco.

"What's in Acupulco that you can't find here?" she asks, as she wraps herself around him.

"Mexicans," Helm responds, in a joke that is even funnier today (to Republicans).

In addition to having the least efficient spy pad, Matt Helm also gets the most useless gadgets. In The Silencers, his gadgets include a gun that shoots backwards so that it kills the person pulling the trigger and a sportcoat with giant buttons that function as grenades when they are pulled off. Both of these are rife with the potential to do more harm to the user than good.

And neither are as crazy or as awesome as the belt that turns into a sword when it gets wet, which we will see in a later movie.

In the course of the movie, Helm picks up Stella Stevens, who is a witness to the BIG O's plot and a potential double agent. In this scene, Helm tries to interrogate her while they drive to the site of BIG O's project, and we get to see just how much Helm's station wagon beats the shit out of any car James Bond has ever driven:

In this scene, we get two common tropes that reappear in later Matt Helm movies. First, the drinking and driving, which occurs with a frequency that is both alarming and entertaining. Second, the postmodern, metatextual gag where Matt Helm disses Frank Sinatra in favor of Dean Martin. We are to assume from these gags that Matt Helm exists in a world where there is also a Dean Martin, and that is a world that is too awesome to contemplate without causing an innercranial explosion.

Also, Stella Stevens is pretty hot here, though her character, Gail Hendricks, gets treated terribly throughout the movie, in ways that might, honestly, make some modern viewers uncomfortable. As everyone should know, Stevens also starred with Dino's former partner, Jerry Lewis, in the classic The Nutty Professor. According to Stevens, her appearance in The Silencers just a few years after costarring in The Nutty Professor led to Jerry shutting her out for over twenty years.

Next: The best of the Matt Helm movies--Murderers' Row.

An Airwolf in the Wind

Sad news in the comic blogosphere today as Dave Campbell of Dave's Long Box calls it quits today.

Dave's Long Box has been one of the most consistently funny comic blogs, and Dave has earned some much deserved success from it, including writing gigs on the The Official Handbook to the Invincible Universe for Robert Kirkman and the ongoing gig at the Live from LA blog for

And Dave, I just wanted to let you know personally how I feel about the passing of Dave's Long Box, in a way that can only be expressed in song:

Goodbye Dave's Long Box
From the young man on a far less popular blog
Who sees you as something as more than Airwolf
More than just our Dave Campbell

Your candle burned out long before
James Remar ever did

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Coming Soon! Matt Helm Week!

This week on the Spec, I'll be posting a series of entries on the most ridiculously awesome spy movie series of the 60s: The Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin.

The four films--The Silencers, Murderers' Row, The Ambushers, and The Wrecking Crew--were released over the course of three years (1967-69) during the height of the James Bond craze. While they lack much of the quality that many spy movies of the period had, they make up for that by being contagiously fun. Dean Martin functions here in the mode that he followed for his tv series: he clearly isn't trying very hard, and most of the time he's reading his lines off of cue cards, but his personality carries him a long way. And the films do a great job of playing off the hard-partying persona he developed during this period of his career.

In fact, a lot of Dean Martin purists dislike these movies because he seems to be wasting his talents. However, I always felt that one of Dean's many talents--and perhaps his most endearing one--was that he never seemed to work harder than he had to. So, while he certainly could act, as he proved in The Young Lions, Some Came Running, Rio Bravo, and elsewhere, his talents were such that he could easily coast on his personality alone. Plus, he gets to sing a lot in these movies.

The movies also benefit from having some incredible leading ladies, including Ann-Margret, Sharon Tate, Stella Stevens, Janice Rule, Senta Berger, Camilla Sparv, Elke Sommer, and Daliah Lavi.

Here's the great opening sequence from the first Matt Helm movie, The Silencers. The music is by Elmer Bernstein, who may be slumming a bit here. Cyd Charisse performs the theme song.

This sequence captures the feeling of unbridled hedonism that these movies all celebrate. When the stripper opens her top to reveal the film's title, you know exactly what you're going to get.

And the line, "And she's 38 where it is great to measure 38"--I really don't know what to say about that, except it makes me happy.

The opening credit sequence for the second film, Murderers' Row, features music by Lalo Schifrin. The music may be better here, but the sequence contains less stripping. The design resembles a more generic 60s spy movie style than the earlier movie does, too.

So, tomorrow we'll start Matt Helm Week off with The Silencers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

everything and nothing

While I was thinking about the great "All These Things that I've Done" musical number in Southland Tales, I was reminded of another musical number that gives me much pleasure: the "Madison scene" from Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (Band of Outsiders).

If I had to call it, I would say that this is my all-time favorite movie scene, and it encapsulates everything I love about the early French New Wave films. Like many scenes in Godard's early films, it serves no real purpose in terms of plot, but it does demonstrate a joyful freedom and and resistance to conventions. And similar to Richard Kelly's choice in Southland Tales, it appears abruptly and disruptively in the film. There is a sense here that anything goes--that the old rules no longer apply--and that can be incredibly liberating. But it also means, as viewers, we are operating without the safety net that our expectations and normal film conventions provide, and that can easily lead to resistance if the experience isn't otherwise pleasurable.

However, unlike Godard's early films, this scene was intensely rehearsed and choreographed, making it seem even more out of place in a movie that looks like it was mostly improvised and shot in one take. For almost 4 minutes, the film never cuts, but that fact doesn't seem as obvious here as it does in, say, the long tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil.

And, like Southland Tales, the scene is really funny, but it could be easily interpreted as pretentious. The diegetic music cuts off (though the actors continue the dance in silence, which is one reason why the scene needed considerable rehearsal) and the narrator chimes in to reveal the characters' inner thoughts. These seem fairly consistent with the characters, until he gets to Franz. As the narrator says, "Franz thinks of everything and nothing, uncertain if reality is becoming a dream, or dream reality." While on the surface that might seem like some faux existentialist wanking, it is also completely inconsistent with Franz's character in the rest of the film. He is more than likely thinking of how Odile's breasts look in her sweater than he is about the nature of reality.

And then there's Anna Karina. She looks gorgeous, and she's clearly having fun. When she smiles, we can just relax and be in the moment without worrying about trivial matters like rules or coherence.

There's also this great moment in Band of Outsiders, where the characters decide to take a minute of silence, and the film itself participates by cutting out all diegetic sound:

It's actually only about 40 seconds of silence, but it seems like forever.

Monday, April 14, 2008

In Defense of Southland Tales

I'm going to go far out on a limb here--I liked Richard Kelly's much-maligned new film Southland Tales, recently released on DVD.

The negative reviews of this film began when an earlier cut debuted at Cannes in 2006. That bad press seems to have colored most responses to the film, getting to the point that most reviewers seem to have dismissed it outright before even seeing it, and other viewers who might be drawn to less mainstream films reject it outright as damaged goods. Andrew O'Hehir's review at Salon probably comes closest to my feelings about the film. However, in this and other borderline positive reviews, critics seem almost apologetic for liking Southland Tales, as if the overwhelming weight of critical peer pressure causes them to question their appreciation of it. Or, more likely, the movie defies so many basic conventions of narrative storytelling and filmmaking that one feels automatically compelled to not like it.

But I'm not one of those closure-loving coherence-Nazis who need their movies to make sense. I embrace this movie's unpredictability, and I enjoy the ride it takes me on. This is not simply a movie about the end of the world--a subject Kelly also covered in Donnie Darko--it is, instead, an end-of-the-world film. That is, the film is made with such reckless abandon and jammed with multiple genres and wild swirling ideas that it feels like Kelly was trying to jam in every idea he had in anticipation of this being his final film before the apocalypse. It's an apocalyptic film that duplicates the chaos and madness of the end of the world.

The preview gives us some clues as to how to read the movie. It starts out looking like a pretty conventional trailer for an action movie, perhaps a buddy cop flick with Seann William Scott as the cop and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an actor on a ride-along. However, the preview gets progressively less coherent as other elements of the film are added, culminating in the final line by Cheri Oteri's character, about how violence would decrease if people would just do more cardio. This line effectively undermines the action movie conventions from the beginning.

It may be fruitless to try summarize the movie's plot, and I freely admit that most of the film does not make any sense. The film opens with an enormous amount of exposition narrated by Justin Timberlake's character, Pilot Abilene. Nuclear terrorism in Texas has caused an escalation of the war in Iraq into World War III, and conservatives have further tightened national security by ramping up the Patriot Act and requiring Interstate Travel Permits.

Southland Tales seems to focus on politically connected action star Boxer Santoros (The Rock), who has gone missing in the desert and has resurfaced in the Venice Beach apartment of porn-star-turned-pop-star-turned-chat-show-host (whose most famous movie is "Cockchuggers 2: Cockchuggin'") Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Geller), where the couple have completed an action-movie screenplay entitled "The Power." That movie tells the story of an LA cop named Jericho Kane, who discovers the earth's rotation is slowing down, causing a change to humans' chemical structure that results in a massive crime spree. It turns out the screenplay is remarkably prescient and ties in to a new alternative energy source called "Fluid Karma" developed by Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn). Boxer is also being used as a pawn by the Neo-Marxist Underground, and he's being sought by his father-in-law, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (who constantly quotes lines from the poetry of his namesake) in order to head off a possible scandal.

However, the movie may also focuses on Ronald and Roland Taverner, apparent twin brothers played by Seann William Scott: one is a police officer taken hostage by the Neo-Marxist Underground, and the other is impersonating him. The twins' importance, however, does not become clear until near the film's conclusion. Certainly, the lack of a central character appears to be one of the causes for critical frustration here.

The movie is very funny, which many critics don't seem to get, but the funny moments spring up suddenly, without much build-up or sense of comic timing, though I would not say that is necessarily a failing. Southland Tales is, in fact, funnier than Donnie Darko, though the humor is similar in both films. There are, in fact, seveal lines worthy of "I question your commitment to Sparkle Motion" here. In explaining "The Power," Krysta Now states, "Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted." She says this with such utter sincerity, in a way that much of the film's quasi-scientific explanations are delivered by other characters, that it takes a couple of beats to realize this is a funny line. Later in the movie, when Boxer is confronted with the cause of his memory loss, Boxer delivers, with full-on Rock charisma, the film's best line: "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide." This line, in fact, becomes very important by the film's end.

In addition to comedy and sci-fi, Kelly throws in a bunch of other genre conventions and elements, including this musical number, featuring Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers' "All These Things that I've Done":

More than any other scene in the film, this one signifies for me what Kelly is trying to do with Southland Tales: there is a sense of freedom and excess here that can be liberating as long as the audience abandons their expectations.

Favorable reviews compare Southland Tales to David Lynch's recent work, most notably Mulholland Drive, and I have to say that I don't understand how critics might malign Kelly's film and praise Lynch's, unless one were making the case for Kelly being overly derivative. Southland Tales, though, does not follow the kind of dream logic that Lynch utilizes. Kelly's technique seems to involve taking something familiar, like a genre convention or an action movie line or a well-known actor, and using it in a way that resists expectations. It's difficult to tell, therefore, if The Rock is playing an action star who is thoroughly confused by the events around him, or if The Rock is an action star who is thoroughly confused by the events around him. (The interviews with actors on the DVD's making-of documentary are interestingly frank on this score. No one, with the possible exception of Sarah Michelle Geller, seems to have a grasp on what is going on in the film.)

I also get the sense that Kelly anticipates his critics through the character of Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost, who often voices a kind of hostile confusion and befuddlement at the events that surround him. In one scene, Baron von Westphalen shares a new commercial for a "fluid karma"-powered vehicle, in which one SUV mounts another and proceeds to hump it. When the ad ends, Frost asks, "Did I just see two SUV's porking?" to which his advisor (John Laroquette) explains that the commercial is the European version. One can imagine many viewers responding in similar ways to most of the movie. Frost's neo-conservatism is clearly a target of Kelly's satire (two elephants are shown humping in a similar way to symbolize the Republican congressional victory following the terrorist attacks), so it's makes for an interesting reading of the film if one envisions Frost to also be the confused and critical audience as well.

There is a lot more going on in this film, and there's a lot more that I enjoyed. However, this is also a film that defies conventional criticism by resisting easy summary or explanation. I've watched the film twice now, just to see if my original reaction had more to do with the compelling sense of mystery and confusion I was feeling in my initial viewing, or perhaps was due to some unique, subjective experience during that first time. However, my opinion held up to the second viewing. I don't know if I understood the film any better after the second look, but I did find myself anticipating certain moments with some pleasure. I know that the vast majority of viewers who saw this movie strongly disliked it, and I'd be curious to get reactions from those who felt that way, though I'm also wondering if there is a core of Southland Tales fans out there who champion the film.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How to improve your comics

An earlier owner of this copy of Jimmy Olsen 43 was just thinking something that we've all thought at least once in our lives:

It's difficult to read the scan, but the budding comic author added a balloon for Superman that reads, "Hey, this is a good way to get rid of that punk, Olsen."

The other balloons are slightly revised as well.

The robot says, "You will never get rid of me, Olsen! I want you for my dinner!"

To which Olsen responds, "Golly, Superman, I don't know how to explain it! Whenever I use my signal-watch to call you, this weird creature tries to eat me!"

I would like to thank this previous owner. For though the revisions ruined the value of this comic, I would much rather read a story about a robot that wants to eat Jimmy Olsen than one about a robot that wants to befriend him.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Houdini fights a robot

Sorry posting has been light lately, but I'm just now getting back up to speed after the harddrive crash at the Dr. K Home Office. And now, this just arrived in the mail from Kino Video, and I don't think I'll be doing much else until this is competely flipped:

Contained in the Houdini boxed set is an incomplete 1919 serial titled The Master Mystery, in which Houdini plays a government agent named Quentin Locke who fights a robot named Automaton, while also seeking a cure for a disease called "The Madagascar Madness." This better be nothing less than the greatest thing ever.

The set also features three other full-length Houdini adventures, and a bunch of footage of real-life Houdini escapes.

Find out more here. I will report back to you when I'm done.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston, RIP

I feel a little weird doing a memorial for Charlton Heston after spending more than a week covering the Planet of the Apes movies.

I've never been a huge fan of either Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, though those two films were certainly holiday staples in my childhood. It's his trifecta of great sci-fi movies from the 60s and 70s that made me a fan of his: Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man.

Though it is the weaker of the three, Omega Man has some great moments that are often overshadowed by those in the other two movies. In fact, I think that this clip features a great Heston line that should stand on a level with those of Apes and the final line of Soylent Green:

He also didn't take himself too seriously, as was evident by the two hilarious appearances as host of Saturday Night Live in 1987 and 1993. The later one featured one of the best versions of a common bit on SNL: the monologue where the host takes questions from the audience. In this version, the audience is made up entirely of apes who all ask questions about how it is that Heston can talk. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a clip of this, but you can find the transcript here. And here's another script from a great sketch on that episode, "Bag Boy,", where Heston plays a 65-year-old bag boy named Elwin who vaguely threatens his manager whenever the manager corrects Elwin's mistakes.

Here, though, is another example of how he could make fun of himself: his cameo in Wayne's World, which he sells the shit out of:

And I usually watch Touch of Evil at least once a year. Heston gets a bad rap for this movie: he is miscast as a Mexican detective, but he makes it work, especially in the way his idealism contrasts Orson Welles's performance as the most crooked of crooked cops.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Day Job: Comics in the Classroom

I will be posting more about David Hajdu's great book, The Ten-Cent Plague, later this week. I had planned on running posts about it all week, but a computer problem at the Dr. K Head Office resulted in a harddrive crash. From the looks of things, most essential stuff was backed up, and the worst things that I lost were some images for the blog. But until the replacement harddrive comes, I can't use the scanner, so some stuff I was planning to do with the Hajdu book and other things will need to wait.

But, meanwhile, I'm still working on the reading list for the graphic novel class I mentioned in an earlier post. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions.

On a similar topic, I recently received a review copy of a new literature textbook--Legacies, edited by Jan Zlotnick Schmidt, Lynne Crockett, and Carley Rees Bogarad--and I was surprised to see that the anthology contains a work of graphic literature in each chapter along with the usual poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction.

The graphic literature selections come from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Lynda Barry's One! Hundred! Demons!, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese.

Individually, these are all fine selections, and I'm glad to see a lit anthology making this move to include graphic literature, but they also all tend toward autobiography, with the exception of the American Born Chinese exerpt on "The Myth of the Monkey King" (this section also suffers from not being reprinted in color). While autobiographical comics tend to be the dominant genre of "indy" or literary graphic novels, I would like to see more variety in an anthology like this (though I don't know what decisions went into the selections and how much cost and availability played as factors). I know this is a criticism that was lodged at the recent Best American Comics volume edited by Chris Ware, which seemed top-heavy with autobiography, and has been an issue of some controversy. Nonetheless, I think the editors of Legacies should be commended for this effort, and I hope this indicates a trend in lit textbooks.

I know Legacies isn't alone in this progress: I recently saw a manuscript of a new composition reader that included a short story by Will Eisner, and a lot of comp readers have moved toward including sections on visual rhetoric, which can include graphic literature as well as advertising, political cartoons, etc.

In preparing my graphic novel class, I've lamented the absence of a good, teachable graphic novel anthology that would serve my purposes, and this Legacies anthology has made me think about this issue more. Ivan Brunetti's Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories is the closest thing, but lacks any kind of apparatus or sense of historical scope to make it truly useful in the classroom. I can imagine, though, an anthology with a historical view, perhaps like the books the Smithsonian put out on newspaper comics and comic books, would be a nightmare of permissions and expenses that would make such a publishing venture cost-prohibitive, especially with its limited use in a specialized course. I wonder, though, as classes in graphic literature become more common, such an anthology will more than likely be forthcoming.

In addition, scholarly research in graphic literature is booming right now, and I'll have more to say about that trend in a later post.