Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Colossus of New York (1958)

Say what you will about the 1950s (and I know a lot of folks today love to bemoan how repressed and repressive it was underneath a false veneer of happiness; I personally love watching films from that time because the filmmakers had to be extremely sneaky and creative in order to discuss more subversive/unpopular topics), but that era had a tremendous amount of style to burn.  The future was still being sold as a predominantly positive thing back then, with everyone soon to receive their own personal jet packs and live in utopian cities comprised of fully automated houses that would take care of people’s every need and whim (and have a look at Tex Avery’s World of Tomorrow cartoons for some great parodying of notions like these, even though I believe they may have been produced in the Forties).  The future was sculpted in glass and metal, and it was a glorious interweaving of smooth curves and jagged angles.  It felt like the future should feel.  Fast forward to today, where the future lives.  It is still carved largely from metal and glass, but no one is buying its promises any longer.  People have become cynical to the point that no matter how good looking the future may be on a surface level, it’s not to be trusted.  There is an undercurrent of grime that just makes it all feel ugly and worthless, no matter how attractively designed.  We’re not encouraged to think about a positive future anymore, and when we do, we’re deemed naïve, unrealistic.  I know this because it has happened to me.  Further, I’ve become the cynic I used to think was holding me back.  I tend to criticize the negatives before I laud the positives.  Despite this, there is an ember of hope that still burns within me.  The odds on it being fanned into a flame are slim (there’s that cynic again), but it exists, and it is this sliver of light on which Eugene Lourie’s The Colossus of New York turns, even while journeying to some dark places.

Dr. Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) applauds his brother Henry’s (John Baragrey) innovations in automation, while he himself is gearing up (no pun intended) to accept a Peace Prize (I don’t recall the actual name “Nobel” being bandied about) for his work in fighting world hunger.  After Jeremy is killed in an accident, his neurosurgeon father, William (Otto Kruger), suddenly has a stroke of genius(-ish): with Henry’s assistance, he transplants Jeremy’s brain into a robot body.  Meanwhile, Henry starts to make time with Jeremy’s widow(-ish), Ann (Mala Powers), and surely all of this will work out splendidly, right?

When people think of Science Fiction from the 50s, most automatically conjure films of the Atom Age Monster ilk like Them! and The Deadly Mantis or Space Adventure films like Fantastic Planet and Queen of Outer Space.  But there were more toned down, slightly grittier movies to be found as well, and The Colossus of New York is one of those.  The film doesn’t fit snugly into a single category, and if anything it may be described as a Robot Gothic Melodrama.  It largely takes place at the Spensser family manse, and it’s all about the secrets and twisted inter-relationships among a family that appears happy so long as everything is going along smoothly (read: “a false veneer of happiness”) .  The chief antagonist is patriarch William.  He is obsessed with his son Jeremy and the idea of continuing his work to the point of monomania.  In contrast is Henry, who, even though he is well-regarded in his field and is essential to William’s scheme, is judged as the lesser brother by his father.  Henry’s pursuit of Ann, while a genuine expression of long held emotions, has an air of bitter revenge to it as well.  What better way to get back at his dismissive father than by taking something that meant so much to his favored sibling?  Ann and son, Billy (Charles Herbert, whom you’ll recognize from that same year’s The Fly), are the emotional lynchpin of the film, although even in that respect, the filmmakers are more concerned with the men of the family.  The relationship between the Colossus and Billy is far more important to the film and its characters than the relationship between Ann and pretty much everybody, except in how that motivates the deranged actions of the robot.  Billy is the Spensser male untouched by madness or poor decision-making skills.  He, above them all, recognizes good from evil instantly, and he doesn’t allow appearances to deceive him (he does, after all, trust a giant, metal man with a creepy voice within moments of meeting him).  It’s Billy who most deserves to be saved from this family, and it’s he who can deliver salvation to them (especially his dad), because he’s innocent (cynics might argue that he’s naïve).

The film also touches on ideas of identity, and it does so in several interesting ways.  The first and most obvious deals with the concept of the relationship between the mind and the physical, human body.  This is even brought up directly in a conversation between William and family friend John Carrington (Robert Hutton).  William scoffs at John’s idea that a person’s soul is the synthesis between their body and mind.  William believes that a person’s mind can exist and continue on without a flesh-and-blood body.  John espouses that the human mind removed from the human body is removed from humanity.  And of course, he is ultimately proved correct.  Once Jeremy’s brain is encased in the Colossus’ body, it’s a swift progression into inhumanity and insanity.  This is displayed in the Colossus’ visual perception and communication ability.  When he is first activated, Lourie provides the audience with shots from the robot’s perspective.  The screen is filled with static and television scan lines.  He is (and we are) instantly lost to the real world (of the film), a watcher from within his new body.  His voice, likewise, is unearthly.  It warbles and crackles, and many times it elevates into piercing screams that can unsettle even the hardiest of wills.  His face is inexpressive, and his voice is frightening.  Unable to articulate his “soul,” Jeremy’s mind descends into madness that much quicker.  There is a theory that the process of transforming Jeremy into a cyborg is flawed and may, in fact, have caused his derangement.  The implication is that, because this new body was made by men and not by nature/God/what have you, it is even more imperfect, more distant from the natural world, and therefore more impersonal/evil.  Nevertheless, this same detachment from humanity grants Jeremy a sense of ESP, as well as the power to (mechanically) hypnotize mere human minds.  With the granting of these new, formidable powers comes the classic corruption we’re perennially warned about, yet only the physically weakest of the characters is powerful enough to triumph in this spiritual conflict.

The Blu-ray of The Colossus of New York from Olive Films is pretty darned nice, despite its lack of extras.  The picture quality is exquisite, with deep pools of black accentuating the Noir-esque lighting and compositions.  The Mono audio is enhanced for DTS-HD, and it really brings out the sound effects as well as Van Cleave’s spare, stirring piano score.  I think it would be very difficult to top this release in the presentation department.  Check it out.

MVT:  The Colossus is one of those iconic, yet still somehow rarely spoken of monstrous creations that just works, especially for its budget constraints.  Charles Gemora and Ralph Jester’s design elegantly gives the character a sense of massive power without showing you every last rivet.

Make or Break:  You can see some influence of this film on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop in the scene where the Colossus first awakens, and it’s an astonishing scene that feels offbeat for its time.  If the Dutch director never saw this film, I would be surprised, but then again, great minds do think alike.  Or so I’m told.

Score:  6.75/10        

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Neon Maniacs (1985)

I used to love trading cards.  I mean, love them.  My (trundle) bed’s head board (and just about every other empty bit of real estate on it) was covered in stickers from the multitudes of packs I bought.  There were Tusken Raiders, Grand Moff Tarkin (even then I recognized the greatness of Peter Cushing), and good, old Chewbacca (are you sensing a theme here?), to name but three.  There were other kinds of stickers plastered there, as well (it’s just that none of them specifically spring to mind right now).  It’s interesting to me that, today, outside of the people who purchase trading cards because they’re collectors or because they’re trading card game players, you just never see trading cards around for sale at your local corner store.  It boggles my mind, because kids would love this stuff.  There were giant pictures you could make by flipping over certain cards and piecing it together like a puzzle.  There was some of the worst chewing gum in the world.  There were the aforementioned stickers (the adhesive properties of which I can fully endorse for use in the space program, if we still had one).  There were stories told over the entirety of some card series, providing all the more motivation to collect them all (the classic Mars Attacks series, being the most famous).  You could trade extra cards you had or cards you didn’t want with your buddies (hence, “trading cards”).  You could stick them in the spokes of your bikes and make a really cool noise as you pedaled your little behind off (you have to remember, this was back when kids went outside to play constantly rather than admiring the world they didn’t participate in through a four-inch screen, which I suppose also solves the mystery of why trading cards are no longer popular; yes, I’m old and cranky).  Had we the wicked trading cards discovered at the outset of Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs (which I think are more intriguing for what they don’t tell us than what they do), I could see myself still collecting trading cards today.

After some nifty cards displaying a variety of monstrous killers are inexplicably found nestled inside a cattle skull under the Golden Gate Bridge by a fisherman (yes, really), the Neon Maniacs make their appearance, dispatching the man and heading off to the city for some night time activities.  Meanwhile, Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) and her dickweed friends are cruising for some beer to celebrate Nat’s birthday.  After an awkward meet cute with awkward cutie pie Steven (Clyde Hayes), Nat’s friends party down in some local park and are soon set upon by the titular, murderous monsters.  Natalie survives the attack, but soon discovers that the Maniacs have it out for her personally.

This film has a few things going on beneath its façade, even though, by all accounts, the film’s producers were purely mercenary in their creative motivations (but in my opinion, that’s why they call it the sub-conscious).  One of the bigger themes has to do with social classes.  Natalie is a rich girl.  She is currently at home alone, because her (we can certainly assume) uncaring mother is jet setting around Europe with some boy toy.  Natalie takes tennis lessons, too; whether by choice or involuntarily, it’s one of those sports associated with the well-to-do.  We can also assume that all of her friends are affluent despite their slapdash appearances because of how they relate to Steven.  Steven is the son of a working man (his dad owns a market for which Steven has to make deliveries), and he is treated as a peon because of this.  At school, he wears a raggedy sweater (though this could just as easily be a punk kind of thing).  Naturally, Steven and Natalie were made for each other, opposites attracting and all that.  Yet, there has to be equalization between the two, and since Steven is most likely not going to hit the lottery during the film’s run time, Natalie has to be the one to acquiesce.  This is evinced in their big date scene, where Steven makes an eco-friendly excuse for having to take her on the subway (never mind that people of all stripes take the damned thing every day), but Natalie assures Steven that she doesn’t mind.  The Maniacs, then, are an analog for the truly poor and destitute (we’ll overlook that one of them is a “doctor”), and their vendetta against Natalie can be seen in the vein of “eating the rich,” as it were.  While characters like Steven and Paula (Donna Locke) normally might have been left alone by the creatures because of their closeness to the monsters’ own socio-economic status (though most likely not), their intermingling with Natalie is what makes them targets as well.     

This same type of relationship is also at play from a perspective of mindsets/lifestyles.  Natalie is “normal” in her lifestyle.  She hangs out with “normal” kids, who like to go out and drink and fool around, as can be expected.  Steven is an outsider, and this is summed up by his musicianship.  Rock ‘n roll was known for a long time as rebel music, and Steven sings pop rock in his own band: The Outlaws (this name being another indicator of his status and attitude).  Steven seemingly has only one friend at school, Eugene (P.R. Paul), the Ralph Malph of San Francisco if that gives you some indication of his coolness level.  Odder still is Paula, a monster kid who directs her own horror videos and loves special effects makeup.  In fact, she may be even odder than the Maniacs, at least outwardly.  She’s portrayed like she’s maybe ten-years-old, though her face looks like she’s in her early twenties (an issue with all of the “teens” in this film but more pronounced in Paula’s case).  On top of that, she’s a total tomboy, dressing in jeans, a letterman jacket, and a sideways baseball cap.  She is fascinated with the odd, and manages to follow a very obvious trail of Neon Maniac slime that the professional investigators obviously could not.  In theory, and in another world, Paula would love the monsters in this movie.  She would root for them to kill their victims in all manner of gruesome fashion.  But since the Maniacs target Paula as well, she fears them rather than adores them (fair enough).  The Maniacs, being the pinnacle of freakdom, strike out at what is normal and different from them.  As with the socioeconomic motivations, and likely more apropos, the monsters desire a leveling of the field for themselves (or barring that, the destruction of that which they oppose) by attacking normality.  By that same token, they are the threat of the unknown to normal society, so the two sides can never live in peace with each other.  

If you’re looking for coherence, don’t look for it in Neon Maniacs.  I know teenagers like to drink alcohol, but I was kind of dumbfounded at just how casually they do it in this film.  Natalie and her (I’m guessing underage) pals just go to a beer store on her birthday for some hooch.  Natalie offers Steven a beer after he delivers her groceries.  At the climactic battle of the bands (held at a high school, mind you), one of the kids openly walks around, sloshed, with a cup of beer in her hand (this also makes for one of the film’s more humorous moments).  Steven sleeps over Natalie’s house, unplanned, but has a change of clothes he gets into after showering.  Lieutenant Devin (Victor Brandt), dresses like Philip Marlowe and rides around in a black and white cop car from the Fifties.  Steven’s big plan for the finale not only makes zero sense but also places a hell of a lot more people in direct danger.  In the middle of being stalked by the Maniacs, Steven and Natalie make out (I’m not kidding).  If none of this convinces you of this film’s unintelligibility, here is the quote that opens it: “When the world is ruled by violence, and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs!”  Yet despite all of its collective dimwittedness, Neon Maniacs is a blast to sit through, and it does the job of turning your brain off for you, so you can just settle in to have your path brightened by the shadows and light cast on your screen by the film Neon Maniacs.               

MVT:  There’s a reason the film is called Neon Maniacs and not Steven the Delivery Boy with His Gal Natalie and That Annoying Kid Paula.  In other words, the monsters are the MVT.

Make or Break:  The finale at the battle of the bands has not one, not two, but three rockin’ tunes (two by Steven’s pop band and one by the farcical glam band Jaded [their singer brandishes a whip]), some pretty clever humor, and a whole lot of carnage (this despite the film being largely bloodless).  If you’re not giggling or shaking your head throughout, I can guarantee you will at least not be bored.

Score:  7/10

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tetherball: The Movie (2010)

Directed by: Chris Nickin
Runtime: 90 minutes

Time for something completely different. This unapologetically crude and amusing film is about three and a half friends who enter the strange world of semiprofessional tetherball competition.

The story follows Zach, Alex, Mikey, and sometimes Joe. Zack is a failed boxer and starting to get tired that his life has not changed since college. Alex is allergic to latex, can only get sexually aroused by women dressed in furry costumes, and has ten to thirteen kids. And Mikey who has been a functioning alcoholic since he was thirteen years old. They all work at a direct marketing company that sells offensive t-shirts and is managed by Joe, Mikey's brother and the only reason they are all employed.

Zach is unimpressed with his life and the fact that nothing has changed since college. So after a night of drinking Zack, Alex, and Mikey end up in a playground at six in the morning and play tetherball to sober up. This leads to tetherball becoming a popular sport on the internet. This also leads to Jack White (played by Ron Jeremy) and his son Vince White setting up a tetherball league.

So Zack, Alex, Mikey, and Joe end up being both sport heroes and internet celebrities. However this has not removed compilations from their lives. Joe becomes estranged from his wife in the most humiliating way possible. Mikey girlfriend wants him to be sober. Alex's negativity could tear the team apart. And Zack is not willing to deal with the reason that made him quit boxing. Also Jack and Vince White are trying to see which one of them Zack will sleep with.

Overall this is a fun film and it is nice to see crude humor that is not mean as well. Unlike anything Adam Sandler has produced in the last ten years. Also Dustin Diamond gave an amusing and strange performance as Coach McAger. This is a great film to rent or stream with a group of good friends and some great drinks. Or if you can't get annoying and very politically correct people to leave, put this movie on.

MVT: The writer took the time to explain how competitive tetherball would be played out. Including how penalties work. It made me laugh.

Make or Break: What made this movie for me is the way it took all the beats and cliches of sports hero's journey and did something interesting with it.

Score: 6.9 out of 10