Monday, September 26, 2005

B-Movies: Man with the Screaming Brain, Stealth, Cobra Woman

I don't know if any of these are actually "B Movies", which I gather were sort of like B-sides to singles, stuff used by theaters to pad out a double feature, especially when included with newsreels, cartoons, and other shorts. It's simply become code for "cheap, generally not very good genre movie", whether that movie is meant for theaters, television, or video.

I see Man with the Screaming Brain comes out on DVD next week, along with Alien Apocalypse, which has been sitting on my Replay since February, since I planned to watch it with Matt. I think I'll clear some space, buy the DVD, and await the inevitable borrowing the next time he comes over.

Also, I see Stealth has a 2-disc edition, which shocks me - they had to spend money on those extras, and is that really going to increase demand that much, unless it's "all the raw footage we shot of Jessica Biel in a bikini"? I re-iterate that that may be a fun one to rent and watch en espanol, enjoying the full force of the pretty pictures without the stupid words.

And, since it looks like HBS is still a little behind in my weird titles being added to the DB, more full-text reviews in the blog. Hey, makes me look more like a genuine blogger, right?

Man with the Screaming Brain

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2005 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Madness)

There are a lot of screenplays that don't get made, and not just because the writers don't have the proper connections. Consider the case of Man with the Screaming Brain, which writer/director/producer/star Bruce Campbell has had kicking around for nearly twenty years, roughly since Evil Dead 2. In that time, he's done a lot of decent work on television and film while friends and collaborators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert have gained power and influence in Hollywood. Campbell built something of a fanbase, too, but it wasn't until last year, when he signed a two-picture deal with the Sci-Fi Channel, that he finally got to make this movie. And although many fans were excited to see Screaming Brain finally get made, the truth is that it languished in development hell so long for a reason: It's not very good.

Sure, expect this story to be good is probably asking a little much. Campbell plays William Cole, an American business man in Sofia, looking to invest in the city's infrastructure. Along for the ride is his spendthrift wife Jackie (Antoinette Byron). Their ex-KGB cabbie Yegor (Vladimir Kolev) takes them through the gypsy section of Sofia, where they run afoul of Tatoya (Tamara Gorski), and ex-girlfriend of Yegor's who attempts to seduce William - and, when that doesn't work out, kills him. And Yegor, for good measure. But wait! Doctor Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov (Stacy Keach) has a theoretical process to combine two brains in one body! And his assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi) has built a primitive, shambling robot that a human brain could be transplanted into!

I like Bruce Campbell, and had reason to hope for good things here: He's a funny guy, more likely to err on the side of overacting than woodenness, and the plot of the film plays into one of his strengths. I imagine most people who have seen Evil Dead 2 would agree that Campbell is, in fact, quite good at the slapstick bit where two different minds are attempting to control his body, leading to a spirited fight with his own hand. He was also pulling in some decent talent - Ted Raimi won't make anybody's A List anytime soon, but he's got the same "good B-Movie guy" rep as Campbell, and Stacy Keach has some decent credits as well. Joseph LoDuca was part of the Renaissance Pictures gang with Campbell and the Raimis, and though Sam Raimi has mostly worked with Danny Elfman on recent films, I'd generally take LoDuca's scores over Elfman's recent work.

So you'd think, with a group of people who know B-movies inside out and have shown the talent to do higher-profile work, Campbell would be able to target what makes for a fun, rather than tiresome, B-movie and do it. This, sadly, doesn't happen. Part of it, I think, is that this material has been with him for twenty years, and perhaps he's too attached to the fairly primitive story that he wrote when he was young and inexperienced, just changing names when the filming location changed from expensive Los Angeles to eoncomical Bulgaria when it could have used a major overhaul. But that's not all; too often, the movie seems to be missing the excitement that can make an objectively sub-par movie into a guilty pleasure, the "if we don't put our all into this, we may never get a chance to make a movie again" energy. It's like watching a AAA baseball team which is filled with guys who have bounced around the minors or who just didn't make the cut for the big-league team. You can't really accuse anybody of dogging it, but you'd almost rather watch the AA team: They may be raw, but they're enthusiastic.

Not many raw but enthusiastic folks here. Campbell is playing a sarcastic, difficult-to-like ugly-American type, and the audience can't ever really get behind him. Kolev's Yegor isn't interesting, either, so we're never terribly interested in who's going to gain control of Cole's body. Jackie's a pretty standard character type, too, and Ms. Byron doesn't infuse her with a whole lot of individuality. On the plus side, Tamara Gorski is at least lively in her character's psychosis. Ted Raimi adds a goofy Eastern European accent to the combination doofus/put-upon assistant character, which is sort of his specialty. Stacy Keach, meanwhile, gives a clinic on how to properly mail in a performance - he puts what seems like zero effort into it, but his lines are generally entertaining, at the very least.

This isn't the first time Campbell has been in the director's chair, although his previous efforts have mostly been episodes of television series. And this looks like TV; it's very workmanlike direction, keeping the focus squarely on the action in the middle of the screen, not doing anything particularly interesting with composition, and a lot of the banter - whether it be Cole talking to Yegor's disembodied voice or with other characters - seems stiff. To be fair, Man with the Screaming Brain is made for TV, having received a brief theatrical run courtesy of Anchor Bay figuring his fans are good for some midnight show money. Still, made-for-television and direct-to-video movies have gotten better since this was first conceived. If Campbell had made this in the 1980s, it might have seemed like enjoyable campy cheese; now, it's just sub-standard.

I wanted to like Man with the Screaming Brain, I really did. And I still kind of enjoyed it, but I couldn't ever shake the feeling that I should have been enjoying it more.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2005 at Flagship Cinemas Quincy #3 (second-run)

W.D. Richter's got a lot of uninspiring stuff in his filmography. I didn't realize this; I, like I imagine most people who noted his name as the writer of Stealth, immediately thought of him as the screenwriter for the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or his involvement with quirky films Buckaroo Banzai (director) and Big Trouble in Little China (writer). But check out IMDB; he's got plenty of credits that will indicate that yes, he does have a movie as unimpressive as Stealth in him.

Stop me if you've heard this one: The pilots of the U.S. Navy's next-generation stealth aircraft find themselves potentially out of a job when the next-next-generation plane is revealed to be flown not by a pilot, but by an artificially intelligent computer capable of learning and going thoroughly haywire when struck by lightning. Since "EDI", left to its own initiative, will start World War III, pilots Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel), and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) are forced to intercept. Unfortunately, the lightning strike that scrambled its priorities didn't erase what it had learned, so it's going to be a tough one to stop. And, of course, this doesn't take into account the inevitable people who find it more imperative to safeguard the program and secret than protect the pilots.

Read the rest at HBS.

Cobra Woman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

It's heartening to see new 35mm prints struck and distributed for movies that are not classics. It's important to remember that name-your-favorite-decade wasn't some sort of Golden Age of Film from which the art form has devolved, but a time period that had good flicks and bad; it's just that the best ones are the ones we remember, restore, buy on video and book at rep houses. At the same time, though, if we're going to preserve some of these less-than-shining moments in American film history, they might as well be entertaining in their tackiness like Cobra Woman.

As the movie starts, it's a joyous time on Harbor Island - Ramu (Jon Hall) and Tollea (Maria Montez) are to be married the next day. At first, it's not seen as a big deal when curious youngster Kado (Sabu) encounters a blind and mute merchant (Lon Chaney), but the next morning he is gone, having taken Tellea. That's when her adopted father (Moroni Olsen) tells Ramu where he found Tollea - the infant girl had been hidden on his boat when he was mysteriously sprung from prison on Cobra Island, where the law says all outsiders must be put to death, even if they arrived accidentally. Ramu, of course, decides to sail to Cobra Island and rescue her. Kado stows away. On the island itself, the Queen (Mary Nash) tells Tollea that she is Tollea's grandmother, and Tollea must take the position as the High Priestess, for her twins sister Naja (Montez again) and the High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier) are bleeding the people dry with their religious fanatacism.

This is basic pulp adventure stuff, and that description leaves out the volcano, into which the natives are sacrified, and the chimpanzee sidekick. We encounter all of it in a compact seventy-five minute running time. Writers Scott Darling, Gene Lewis, and Richard Brooks throw every South Seas adventure trapping into the mix - Kado and Ramu even find their escape briefly delayed by quicksand - and they're lucky to have a director as good as Robert Siodmak and pretty Technicolor photography. The way I figure it, something doesn't become a camp classic (which Cobra Woman arguably is) by simply being so awful that folks laugh at it; it's badness that sticks out like a sore thumb among competence, tempered by the realization that these folks are, in fact, doing the very best they can, and are blissfully unaware that their project, by most objective measures, stinks.

Take leading lady Maria Montez. The "Caribbean Cyclone" had a fantastic body and no issues with showing it off within the limits of the Hayes Code. She was not only a bad actress, though, but she was a bad actress with a thick accent that doesn't match anyone else on the island where her character supposedly gew up and makes her dialog hilarious when it's comprehensible. And this movie's producers decided to cast her in a dual role! And to see her dance... It's awful, but since nobody seems to have any concept of her limitations, it's worth some jaw-dropping disbelief.

Frequent co-stars Jon Hall and Sabu (they did a series of Technicolor adventure movies for Universal during WWII) aren't quite so flamboyantly awful, but they (like Chaney) have pretty thoroughly physical parts - running, jumping, punching, climbing, swinging on ropes, that sort of thing. Sabu, unfortunately, gets stuck speaking broken English, sounding like a simpleton. He has a sleepwalking scene where I managed to completely miss the point; I thought Kado was supposed to be just fooling around, not really having a prophetic dream.

Uncredited is the chimpanzee who demonstrates unusual sewing ability, at least for a chimpanzee. Which is indicative of the sort of pure escapism this movie has. Oh, sure, there may be a line in there about how dangerous religious fanaticism can be, but don't read too much into that: It seems to apply more to people climbing the Thousand Steps to throw themselves into the volcano as opposed to, say, killing every outsider who comes to the island. But it does have an exploding volcano, pretty royal handmaidens in tube tops and high heels, people swinging over pits filled with sharp metal obects, and costumes that are minimal enough for both men and women to enjoy the scenery.

Sure, there's also a truly lame cobra puppet and a nonsensical plot. But I was entertained. They were trying hard enough for me to forgive the flaws and enjoy what was, in fact, enjoyable.


Anonymous said...

To understand the "Appositiveness of Maria Montez" read the essay by Jack Smith. Is this movie now available on DVD?

Jason said...

I don't think so, but studios seldom strike new prints just for fun - if they're digging into the vaults and cleaning the film up, it's probably to make some money off it.