A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: July, 2014

“A Life in the Theatre” (1993)

"A Life in the Theatre" poster


I wish I had a more poetic story to tell about how I got involved with theatre. Years of feeling downright petrified of being onstage ended not because someone took me under their wing and fostered a love for acting within me but because my college advisor needed bodies to fill out a show, and I was there. Make no mistake, I’ve since had some wonderful times performing with great people, but I can’t say that I’ve personally heard many of my castmates waxing romantic about their craft. 1993’s made-for-cable A Life in the Theatre acknowledges the joy and fond memories one gets from many a day spent under the spotlight, yet it’s also aware of how, sooner or later, all actors must realize when the illusion is over. The film stems from a play by David Mamet, who adapted the script himself and whose tough but fair treatment of his subject leaves the story with a truly experienced quality. Balance is key with A Life in the Theatre, as it recognizes not only how we need fantasy as an escape from reality but how true the reverse is, as well.

Our tale is a simple one, consisting of but two participants: Robert (Jack Lemmon) and John (Matthew Broderick). These two are, as you likely surmised, actors, with the former being a seasoned pro who has a million stories to tell and the latter a talented, somewhat wide-eyed new kid. Together, they spend a season on the stage and are called on to fill a multitude of roles, having to hunker down in the trenches of World War I one night and slap on an Easter Bunny costume the next. At first, their relationship is quite amicable, with John more than happy to let Robert regale him with anecdote upon anecdote about his years in the acting business. But soon, this often unbidden advice starts to grate on John, who’s begun pursuing work and setting up auditions outside of the company. Agitated and offended that his wisdom is being thrown back at him, Robert slowly begins to experience a decline, causing him to miss cues and fumble his lines. Resentment soon creeps into the air, and with more shows to be put on, it’s only a matter of time before their souring friendship spills out before a live audience.

We’ve all seen A Life in the Theatre before — not this specific story, mind you, but the general gist of it has been played out countless times prior. Old guy mentors young upstart, tensions rise, lines are crossed, and tearful reconciliations are made just before the credits roll. I’m not about to say that A Life in the Theatre bucks or revolutionizes this time-tested narrative, but it provides more reflective content than those tales that let the formula do all the talking. Although Lemmon’s Robert comes across as the more developed of our two leads and undoubtedly walks away with the lion’s share of the screen time, the film is wise enough to understand where both men are coming from. You totally get John’s frustration, how he comes to see his co-star as a nosy know-it-all who refuses to admit that he’s losing his touch. But on the other hand, you’re completely sold on Robert’s side of the story, feeling the heart-wrenching sadness as he comes to grips with how much his work is faltering. Mamet smartly avoids damning or deifying either character, instead merely positing how hard it can be for those who act for a living to wear so many faces all the time. He and director Gregory Mosher create a note-perfect environment that could only have come from people intimately familiar with the backstage game, capturing such details as the cramped dressing room quarters to burly members of the tech crew constantly pounding on something or other.

Also among A Life in the Theatre‘s many admirable accomplishments is the way it keeps you glued to the screen, even when only two people are sharing it. Though others are on hand to play waiters, stagehands, and the like, they remain seen but not heard, with Lemmon and Broderick as the undisputed stars of the show. The movie is ostensibly a team effort, but Lemmon can’t help but dominate here, showing the full extent of the dramatic capabilities for which he was so often underestimated. He brings a deluge of heartfelt touches to his performance, evoking sympathy without having to turn Robert into a doddering old man cliché. Lemmon gives a powerhouse turn here that only a fool would try to compete with, which is why Broderick deserves credit for staying as restrained as he does. He’s low-key but very effective as the newcomer torn between using Robert’s advice to help make a name for himself in the business and having to throw it back in his face. John and Robert’s clashes do make for some fun comedic horn-locking (especially as they perform what seem to be fifteen different shows in the span of a few days), but they’re equally up to the task when things take a turn for the serious (as when both men, playing surgeons, forget just how sick their patient is).

A Life in the Theatre is no scathing expose of the play-acting trade. It’s an honest but ultimately warm take on its subject, with whatever conflict that arises doing so naturally and with only a modicum of melodramatic flair used to prod it along. A Life in the Theatre is the very definition of bittersweet, a work whose seemingly gentle nature shouldn’t be mistaken for sugar-coating the rough times that every performer faces eventually.

(A Life in the Theatre is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Hercules” (1983)

"Hercules" 1983 poster


There’s a reason why the story of Hercules is one of the greatest of all myths. His tale is one of might and monsters, of a hero who possesses the power of the gods and the emotions of a man learning the art of compromise. There’s a wealth of material to fire up the imagination here, so forgive me for thinking it baffling that for those who’ve endeavored to depict Herc’s adventures on the big screen, this just wasn’t enough. For decades, filmmakers have had a field day with adding their own flourishes to the escapades of the world’s strongest hombre, no matter how ludicrous they might be. Take 1983’s Hercules, a flick that’s ten times as insane as its humble title and low-budget exploitation roots might otherwise suggest. Here we have a movie with one eye on Conan the Barbarian, the other on Star Wars, and enough visions of dollar signs rooting it on to try imitating both at the same time. To put it mildly, Hercules is really busy, and it could’ve even been maddeningly so, were it not for its barrage of head-tiltingly bizarre plot developments actually being part of the overall charm.

Long ago in the cosmos, darkness gave birth to light, and the gods followed soon after. These supreme beings bore witness as creation took hold throughout the galaxy, with the planets taking shape before their very eyes. But concerned about evil running rampant on Earth and wanting us mortals to have a fighting chance, the gods embedded powers of immense strength within one single person: Hercules (Lou Ferrigno). The son of a murdered king, Hercules would experience a Moses-like journey and become adopted by a loving family, until horrible circumstances inspired him to set out and seek his fortune. Many an epic adventure would come his way, but after his love, the princess Cassiopea (Ingrid Anderson), is spirited away, our hero embarks upon his most perilous quest yet. Herc’s travels bring him face to face with sorcery, mechanical monsters, and countless disposable thugs, but with his lady’s life on the line, there’s no force that can deter him from his destiny of becoming the world’s greatest champion.

The first thing you should know about Hercules is that nothing makes any goddamned sense. Not the story, not the characters, and especially not anyone’s motivations. You can certainly try to connect the dots as our omnipresent narrator heaps on scoop after scoop of bewildering exposition, but it’s a fool’s errand that you’ll tire of soon after starting. All you can do is sit back, let the movie’s nuttiness wash over you, and be dumbfounded at the notion of a script in which giant robots tear up Ancient Greece while Zeus chills out on the moon getting bankrolled. It’s also not the first of its kind, since cinema history is filled with titles that didn’t think twice before wanting to cash in on a hot trend and just made a bunch of bullshit up as they went along. But few are the times where this approach has been as strangely successful as with Hercules, which finds itself with an awful lot of crazy to process, yet half the fun is watching it all pile up. It can feel like a seemingly random mishmash of ideas and concepts, but it’s at the very least a distinct mishmash. Being half cosmic space opera and half swords-‘n’-sandals period adventure, it has a look similar to what the Masters of the Universe movie (also produced by the notorious Golan/Globus team) would accomplish with a bigger budget. But even though the changes it makes to the traditional legend boggle the mind, the film comes off with a genuinely unpredictable vibe, leaving you with no idea of what’s coming next; all you know is that it’s going to be wild, chintzy as hell, and awesome.

Also, when you have a flick called Hercules, it helps to have your star looking like he’s plenty worthy of assuming the titular mantle. This project came Ferrigno’s way right after “The Incredible Hulk” wrapped up airing, so he was in as prime of shape as he ever would be. Herc is called upon to do battle with sinister sea snakes and literally move mountains, and due to Ferrigno’s physique, you can buy him doing it all. It’s hard to comment on his acting, since he’s dubbed like most everyone in the cast (which is weird, considering the abundance of Italian actors would give the movie an increased Mediterranean feel if their real voices were allowed, but I digress). But you can’t argue with the dude’s swagger, which is surprisingly serious and devoid of self-aware winks to the camera, a tall order to fill when your feats involve chucking bears into outer space. The remaining actors unfortunately aren’t left with much to do; Anderson gets the typical damsel duties, William Berger’s King Minos is a pretty feeble and ineffective villain, and Sybil Danning is just around to show how ahead of the curve the Greeks apparently were in their bustier technology. But in the end, everyone seems in good spirits, not even close to treating the story like high drama but not resigning themselves to eye-rolling their way through all the camp either.

If Hercules were boring, it truly would be one of the most inept motion pictures ever conceived. But this is the kind of bad that I can live with, for it’s so imaginative, joyous, and restless as it thumbs its nose at the usual self-important toga party, it’s nigh impossible to despise. Goofy, over-the-top, and utterly ridiculous, Hercules is just enough of too much.

“Alan Partridge” (2013)

"Alan Partridge" poster


The “shock and awe” approach to comedy requires a surer hand to guide it than it’s oftentimes awarded. If you’ve seen Borat or Bruno, you know the style of humor I’m talking about, the kind that engulfs viewers in awkward situations and forces them to confront some uncomfortable topics. Sacha Baron Cohen scored victories with those aforementioned movies by having satirical ulterior motives in mind (lampooning American culture, exposing the vapidity of the fame-hungry, etc.), but 2013’s Alan Partridge shows faint promise at best of turning out in a similar manner. Based on a popular British radio/television character, the flick certainly isn’t short on off-color jokes that grab your attention, yet it’s at a loss on what to do when all eyes finally are on it. That’s not to say that Alan Partridge has no valid commentary whatsoever, merely that it could’ve used some of the time spent constantly harping on the protagonist’s buffoonery to let its smart side get in a few words.

24 Hour Party People‘s Steve Coogan plays Alan Partridge, a small-town disc jockey and all-around terrible human being. When he’s not belittling his long-suffering secretary (Felicity Montagu), he’s usually rattling off an insensitive remark of some kind and trampling over others in a never-ending struggle to look out for number one. As our story begins, a media conglomerate has bought Alan’s station and begun the process of cleaning house as they transition to a more generic format. With his job on the line, Alan is more than happy to throw his colleague Pat (Colm Meaney) under the bus and have him sacked, his eyes set on the coveted breakfast show time slot. Everything is smooth sailing, until a disgruntled Pat returns with a shotgun and holds the station hostage, declaring that he’ll only speak to the police through Alan. Will our “hero” stop being a selfish jackass long enough to save the day, or will the added attention inflate his ego and cause even more trouble?

Alan Partridge‘s pedigree suggests a product far superior to the one we’re ultimately delivered. Coogan has worked tirelessly in comedy for years (as well as recently nabbing an Oscar nomination for scripting Philomena), In the Loop‘s Armando Iannucci co-wrote the screenplay after helping conceive the character in the ’90s, and director Declan Lowney helmed several episodes of some hit UK shows. With talent like that behind the scenes and in front of the camera, it’s disappointing to see Alan Partridge turn out as pale as it does. I haven’t been privy to any other media that featured the figure, but the general atmosphere here doesn’t feel too far off from other TV-to-movie adaptations that didn’t have a whole lot of effort put into them. Old characters return, in-jokes are shared, and maybe a few more words than what’s usually allowed on the small screen are uttered. There’s a good deal of potential with a character who has no filter and clings onto whatever celebrity comes from being a small-town radio host with teeth-gnashing fervor, but nothing all that dynamic is done with the concept. The movie settles for pointing out over and over what an oblivious jerk Alan is, and even with the presence of a homogenous corporate machine in the proceedings, the most daring observation made is that, like, big media is bad, you guys.

In all fairness, even shock humor can get results, and as intently-focused on eliciting easy, knee-jerk reactions as it is, Alan Partridge does have a few laughs. Coogan turns what could’ve become a truly insufferable character into an entertaining blowhard, spending virtually all of the film’s 90 minutes putting his foot in his mouth and proving how woefully unsuited he is for human interaction. He’s especially quick to use the hostage crisis to his advantage, even turning what’s supposed to be a police negotiation in one scene into a literal stand-up routine. Coogan does well at bringing out Alan’s facepalm-inducing qualities without casting him as so unsavory, you want to hit the mute button whenever he opens his mouth. Still, there isn’t much variety to the proceedings, just the same process of Alan saying something tasteless, others acting offended, then moving on to the next comment. While they get little to do outside of reacting to the titular twit’s antics, the supporting cast does what it can to shake things up. Meaney plays it straight as the unhinged Pat, Montagu is actually very sweet as Alan’s put-upon assistant, and Tim Key has some amusing scenes as Alan’s radio sidekick, who has a groaner of a joke for seemingly every occasion.

I’m not sure how much justice Alan Partridge does to the character folks love to revile, but if the consensus is sub-par, I wouldn’t be surprised. Aside from some funny bits here and there, the humor is repetitive to a fault, the story is unexciting, and the satire fails to rise to the occasion countless times when it easily could’ve nailed it. For those who’ve preached the superiority of British comedy over America’s stuff throughout the years, allow me to present Alan Partridge as evidence that they can be just as middle-of-the-road as us.

“Ernest Scared Stupid” (1991)

"Ernest Scared Stupid" poster


The longevity of Ernest P. Worrell in comparison to other commercial mascots who dared branch out of their thirty-second comfort zones probably has something to do with how people forget that he’s a product of advertising. Jim Varney’s Ernest was employed to pitch everything from cottage cheese to Mello Yello, and he was so full of blind enthusiasm to tell you all about them, the hijinks that quickly blew up in his face were a given. He was a basic, easily-relatable character that could adapt to any premise without feeling like he was selling anything, sparing filmmakers the kind of headache they’d get trying to build a plausible plot around, say, the Keebler Elves. The well-intentioned bumbler enjoyed a few modestly lucrative comedies, the last hurrah of which would have to be 1991’s Ernest Scared Stupid. The final in its franchise to be backed by a major studio, the movie is in a lot of ways the most ambitious of the lot, with a lion’s share of its budget going to special effects that help get it into the spooky swing of things. But what it’s missing is the simple charm of its predecessors, as Ernest’s shenanigans here come across as forced and more detrimental to the overall fun factor than ever before.

He helped troubled youth believe in themselves. He saved a beloved holiday icon from perishing. But now, Ernest P. Worrell — jester of all trades — is up against a monstrous challenge that’s unlike anything he’s run into. Legend tells of a troll named Trantor that was stopped from summoning his demonic buddies to run rampant through the village of Briarville. Generations later, the townsfolk just think of it as a silly old story, but for Ernest, a descendant of the man who finally imprisoned Trantor, it’s about to become real in the worst way. Through his usual dunderheaded actions, Ernest ends up resurrecting the beast just in time for Halloween, allowing him to start rebuilding his army by turning Briarville’s children into wooden dolls to give him his power. A mere five kids is all it takes for havoc to come to town, and with time running short, Ernest and the local Cranky Old Lady (Eartha Kitt) race to find a way to put Trantor out of commission for good.

The less control comedic characters have over the mishaps that befall them, the funnier they more often are for it. Ernest Goes to Camp isn’t a great movie, but Ernest’s innocence works, selling you on all the silly stuff that backfires on him as he tries to do good. He rarely felt like he was grandstanding to get a laugh, a notion that the following sequels ditched as they got increasingly elaborate with the wacky situations Varney’s hapless handyman stumbled into. By the time Ernest Scared Stupid came about, this series thought nothing of stopping the plot dead in its tracks so its hero could perform some tangential skit or impression — which, in this case, is an act of great irony, considering the stakes here are bigger than in any of the movies that came before. It’s not about some teens missing out on summer camp this time around; butt-ugly trolls are rising from the netherworld to feast on the life essence of countless kids, so forgive me for thinking Ernest could take a break from showing us his catalogue of accents to maybe save a few lives. On that note, while it’s a Halloween-themed farce aimed at the younger set, perhaps the picture does too good a job of freaking out its main demographic. It doesn’t shy away from featuring children frozen in fear as wooden figures, an image that inspired yours truly to eject the shit out of that VHS tape and bolt under the covers at age seven.

Ernest Scared Stupid not only casts Monsieur Worrell as more of a mugging machine than ever, it surrounds his antics with goings-on that may be too grim for some of his target audience to handle. I’m actually surprised I never got into the flick as a kid, since as a bona fide “Goosebumps” junkie back in the day, this had my name written all over it. Even now, for as dumb and dense as much of the movie is, I can still pick up on a lot of the elements that might’ve coaxed my inner monster fan out into the open even earlier. The opening credits set the tone with a lovingly-assembled montage of clips from vintage horror flicks, and the make-up effects for Trantor and his deformed brethren (created by the Chiodos, of Killer Klowns from Outer Space fame) are actually really impressive. It is a shame, though, that these are among the scant few bright spots to which Ernest Scared Stupid can lay claim. The script is repetitive and uninspired, and while the late, great Jim Varney will hold a special place in my heart for all time, the character that was his bread and butter unfortunately emphasizes the latter part of the term “lovable loser” here.

As is the fate that’s met many a movie that failed to make a splash upon their debut, Ernest Scared Stupid has been assumed into cult cinema heaven. Stranded between the joyful simplicity of those very first flicks and the pandering doldrums of the straight-to-video follow-ups yet to come, I can certainly understand the nostalgic love for this excursion into lowbrow tomfoolery, even though I don’t share it myself. Ultimately, Ernest Scared Stupid is pretty harmless, save for some tired jokes even scarier than Trantor’s gut-churning kisser.

“Kismet” (1955)

"Kismet" poster


Where musical theatre is concerned, broad is usually the name of the game. There isn’t much room for nuance when the stage is jam-packed with so many actors whose costumes are as loud as their voices. The visual and vocal bang you get for your buck often trumps such trivialities as subtlety, and if you’re dealing with a play steeped in a foreign culture, you can expect accuracy to jump ship, as well. To be fair, I wouldn’t go so far as to brand stuff like 1955’s Kismet as insensitive, not by a longshot. Sure, nowadays, it’s a touch iffy to see a whitewashed cast parade around in a jaunty riff on the “Arabian Nights” motif, but the overall tone is innocent to a tee, with not a hint of malice to be spotted in any of its doofy little frames. Of course, this doesn’t mean Kismet is any good either, for it finds itself ineffectually piling on as many eye-catching accoutrements as it can think of to make a story that’s been told countless times seem like something more.

Once upon a time in old Baghdad, there lived a poor poet (Howard Keel) and his daughter, Marsinah (Ann Blyth). Day in and day out, the wordsmith takes to the streets in hopes of someone buying his rhymes, but more often than not, he resorts to thievery just so he and his child can have breakfast. But on one extremely eventful day, fortune smiles upon the poet in the strangest of ways, as a case of mistaken identity leads him from getting shanghaied by desert brigands to being declared a wizard and awarded a small fortune. As our man gleefully indulges in his newfound riches, young Marsinah becomes smitten with a gardener (Vic Damone) who returns her affections. But unbeknownst to her, this lad is none other than the town Caliph, who proclaims that Marsinah will become his bride. This doesn’t jibe well with the Wazir (Sebastian Cabot), who needs to convince the Caliph to marry a trio of princesses in order to fill his own coffers. Everyone has something to hide in this world, and no one is who they seem, leading to a snowballing series of complications that makes sure that all these players take the long way around to get the happy endings they desire.

Fate and the many funny ways in which it can futz with our lives has been a dominant theme in theatre virtually ever since the medium came to be. You can plug it into any number of scenarios, be they of large-scale or small, humorous or dramatically-inclined. The makers of Kismet undoubtedly chose the former in both of these cases, and they reeled in as much talent as they could score to get it to work. Produced by Arthur Freed, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Keel (the baritone-boasting headliner of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), this isn’t so much a movie as it is a convention for some of the greatest figures the MGM musical’s golden age had to offer. With all this experience behind the project and a hit Broadway show serving as its basis, there didn’t seem to be any way that Kismet could lose. But even with a confectionary visual palette and a perfectly well-composed soundtrack, the movie is hopelessly shackled to the very conventions that audiences of the era began to tire of seeing in their song-and-dance flicks. With so many plot conveniences to bail out characters when they’re in a fix and shove the narrative along, viewers never get a chance to experience anything close to suspense; if all present problems will be a memory in five minutes anyway, why even bother caring?

One could argue that this is the entire point of Kismet, that anyone’s fortunes can change for the better or the worse at any given moment. That everything on the film’s sizable docket of events take place within a single day further hammers home the joke, forcing you to loosen up that good old disbelief a bit more when it comes to accepting subplots like the Caliph and Marsinah’s whirlwind romance. The fairy tale-style setting definitely helps in this department, as does the fact that everyone looks like they’re having a grand time prancing about in some of the boldest colors that MGM ever conjured on the screen. Keel is big, boisterous, and heartfelt as our nameless hero, who uses his gift with words to sweet-talk his way out of imminent danger on more than a couple occasions. Blyth and Damone are an appealing pair of young lovers, and Cabot gets some laughs as the greedy Wazir. But as high as the cast’s collective spirits are, concern for what comes of their characters rarely lasts beyond however long they’re on screen, with the pleasant but utterly disposable tunes they’re tasked with performing failing to help them leave an impression.

Kismet was part of a dying breed when it came out, and it showed in its box office returns. Costing the tidy sum of $3 million, it brought in a little over half as much from theaters, signaling the start of peoples’ growing taste for musicals with increased substance and more modern twists. In the end, Kismet killed no careers (Minnelli would win an Oscar for directing Gigi three years later) and isn’t an unbearable watch in the least, but even in a genre notorious for letting its head get lost in the clouds, there is such a thing as being too much of a trifle.

(Kismet is available to purchase on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” (2013)

"Journey to the West" poster


For a second there, it looked as though we’d lost Stephen Chow. Nary a peep has been heard from the Hong Kong filmmaker since 2008’s CJ7, after which he became attached to and subsequently dropped out of or played down his involvement in projects like The Green Hornet and the ill-fated Dragonball: Evolution. But rather than be driven into disillusionment by the Hollywood scene, he headed back home with what became the desire to adapt one of China’s greatest literary achievements. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is but one of many works inspired by the 16th century novel of the same name, which include everything from stage plays and comics to TV shows and movies (one of which, the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, even featured Chow). It’s a concept that allows Chow to freely indulge in the elements that have become his trademarks: larger than life characters, physics-defying martial arts, and special effects so defiantly silly, pointing out how fake they are is a moot point. But for as much content as Journey to the West is packed with, the lack of a true compass to guide us through all the activity makes the whole mess a doozy to endure.

Our story takes us to a time when not only were monsters a reality, men and women scoured the country to take the nasty buggers down. Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) is one such soldier, although he’s set out to vanquish demons not with his fists but with kindness, hoping that a little compassion will awaken the good in even the most evil of creatures. Unfortunately, he’s met with little luck, being outclassed in the art of monster-bashing by hunters like Duan (Shu Qi) who favor a more violent approach. Still, Zang continues on his quest unabated, trekking through China to improve his craft and find ways to vanquish evil without using brute force. Eventually, his travels bring him to the den of a pig demon, a beast too powerful for even Duan’s techniques to have any effect. With this monster roaming free and other hunters converging to get a piece of the action, Zang is even more pressed for time in his crusade to quell not only this threat but an even greater one just waiting to be unleashed, as well.

I couldn’t tell you what a revelation Chow was to a college-aged me. Having been inducted into martial arts fanhood by the work of Jackie Chan, stuff like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle blew me away, as both films came alive with a fearlessness that was matched by the cartoony natures each wore on their sleeves. But their DNA was also embedded with a touch of humanity, and even though the stories got a bit rocky when things got serious, you knew you weren’t just watching a bunch of arbitrary silliness slapped across the screen. Journey to the West (which takes place before the book’s events — hence the subtitle) begins in much the same manner, mixing its source material’s philosophical bent with the slapsticky action that many Chow fans will be expecting as the main draw. We follow Zang’s misadventures as his efforts to stay true to Buddha and combat the forces of darkness with love usually result in him getting shoved around, the intent being to admire him for not straying from his path (which comes into play when a little enlightenment is what’s needed to fight the mother of all foes towards the end). But try as he might, Chow just cannot overcome the issue of constantly clashing tones that makes Journey to the West an honestly tough watch sometimes. It’s not that getting dramatic in a story where dudes sprout giant feet to stomp on monkey monster is impossible, but the proceedings jump around so frequently from the comedic to the outright horrifying and with no rhyme or reason, catching up becomes too tiring to bother with. One scene in particular has Zang mourning the dead in a village attacked by a water demon, and hand to God, between his over-the-top bawling and the fact that children were among those mercilessly killed in the aforementioned assault, I still can’t tell if the movie was being serious or not.

Not knowing what the hell is going on is a problem that plagues Journey to the West for its entire running time. For instance, from the moment Shu Qi’s Duan shows up, you know that a romance between her and Zang is undoubtedly brewing. That’s fine, but what you don’t expect is how abrupt and incredibly forced this subplot turns out to be. The fact that Duan literally throws herself at this schmoe who has shown zero interest in her and has done nothing of note himself to earn her affection is just one of the countless aspects about this flick that firmly wedged themselves in my craw. A few brief words about her admiration for Zang’s resolve is the most explanation her lovesickness gets, and that it’s played for goofs so much throughout the story makes the serious turn it takes in the third act even harder to stomach. The humor is shockingly lifeless, serving up a selection of tacky gay jokes, tired bickering between a trio of hunters who get dropped into the plot out of nowhere, and scenes of Zang getting shoved around that do such a good job of making him look ineffectual, you start wondering just why we’re supposed to want him to succeed again. As far as the action is concerned, the fights are alright, with the stunts definitely skewing fantastic but not overwhelming the movie. Chow really blew it all on the opening battle, though, as it’s the one scene where clever choreography comes into play, whereas the visual effects team is behind the wheel for most of the remaining brawls.

I admire Chow’s seemingly boundless energy and the tenderness at the heart of this latest work of his, but Journey to the West arrives with too many things it wants to do and not enough direction to keep it all in line. It looks like I’m in the minority on this one, though, as the movie was a massive box office success in China, with reports of a sequel featuring Chow in the works (then again, they said that about Kung Fu Hustle, too, so I’ll believe it when I see it). The man’s previous pictures mean too much for me to count him out anytime soon, but Journey to the West is an endeavor whose bigness and desire to have a multitude of cakes to munch on are its greatest downfalls.

“Hellzapoppin'” (1941)

"Hellzapoppin'" poster


With a medium like cinema that’s constantly pushing its boundaries, it can be enlightening to look back at where it started. Certain viewers have difficulty seeing anything “old” as a game-changer, but once upon a time, flicks like those were unprecedented to someone. Hellzapoppin’ can definitely be counted in such ranks, though not by way of addressing social issues through revolutionary means or anything so serious. No, it’s just plain baffling that something this frenetic, surreal and fourth wall-demolishing got bankrolled by a major studio at all, let alone in the 1940s. Yet here it is, the film version of a Broadway smash that brings just a touch of narrative to its source material’s cornucopia of crazy, disjointed skits. One might think that something this nuts made this early on in movie history would be pretty rough around the edges, but save for a botched gag or two, Hellzapoppin’ has a smoother time applying method to its madness than any number of subsequent farces.

After more than three years and 1,400 performances on the stage, it was only logical that Hollywood call upon Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves) to turn their hit revue Hellzapoppin’ into a feature film. But how does one adapt for the big screen a show that had no real plot, encouraged audience participation, and was rewritten all the time so as to ensure the most topical of jokes? Well, against the boys’ wishes, Tinseltown has imposed upon the whole mess a traditional love story, one involving a young playwright (Robert Paige) and the rich girl (Jane Frazee) that he adores. Olsen and Johnson themselves join the cast to play a pair of troublemaking propmasters, but that doesn’t mean they’re about to abide by any rules. In between evading a nosy private detective (Hugh Herbert) and keeping a handle on Chic’s man-hungry sister (Martha Raye), the guys engage the viewers, quibble about the plot, and argue with the projectionist (Shemp Howard), making this one of the biggest free-for-alls the musical genre has ever seen.

“Any similarity between Hellzapoppin’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.” So declares a title card not two minutes into the run time, and this is after we’ve already seen a chorus of dancers plunged into a fiery netherworld of demonic imps and dwarf cabbies (“The first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!”). But folks getting prodded by pitchforks and rubbing elbows with farm animals is just a mere sample of the insanity to come, for there’s hardly a frame that doesn’t have you wondering what sights will pop up next. Not even the “normal” characters are spared, as they’ll gladly interrupt a swoony ballad to tell a kid in the “audience” that his mom wants him to go home. There isn’t much rhyme or reason as to what takes place, and although this viewing was my second go-around with the flick, I still had my worries that all the randomness would be too much to endure. But surprisingly, I liked Hellzapoppin’ even more than the first time, and it’s all due to the movie’s near-impeccable timing. I couldn’t tell you the reasoning behind most of the editing choices, why Olsen and Johnson wanted to literally rewind the film or wheel out talking bears in some scenes and not others. But everything just works anyway, as some unforeseen product of wackiness is bound to make our expectations do an about-face each time we think we’ve got the film figured out.

Ostensibly, Hellzapoppin’ is mocking its own creation, satirizing the movie business and pointing out how foolhardy it is to try encompassing the Broadway-born zanython into one motion picture. But while this aspect of the movie is certainly evident, it’s not its entire reason for being, which is actually kind of a relief. The jabs Olsen and Johnson do take at the Hollywood system only last so long before they’re onto the next skit, making their point without being lingeringly smug about it. They really are just around to have a load of laughs, and while I can’t say how the show played out on stage, the guys seem pretty comfortable with airlifting what elements they could and incorporating visual trickery that only the movies could pull off to incite more chaos. Of course, as is in any comedy, there are bits that don’t gain as many giggles as others. Not being a fan of Herbert’s in the first place, his scenes as a disguise-donning private dick were among the film’s most grating for yours truly, and while Raye and Mischa Auer are energetic as can be, not much is done with the pair outside of having the former pursue the latter’s royal moocher for the whole running time. But the flick is ultimately much more hit than miss, tossing out gags at a blinding pace and screeching to an anarchic halt just as its welcome started wearing thin.

To date, Hellzapoppin’ has yet to receive a proper home video release here in the States. It’s an ideal candidate to be picked up and restored by some specialty label, one that would stuff it to the gills with one-on-ones with comedy scholars and the like to introduce the film to a world that’s largely forgotten who Olsen & Johnson were. If you stumble across Hellzapoppin’ during your cinematic travels, watch it; even if you hate it, you’re not likely to see anything else like it anytime soon.

“Hands of the Ripper” (1971)

"Hands of the Ripper" poster


It wasn’t that many years ago that I could literally count the Hammer horror pictures I’d seen on one hand. The number was woeful, and it soon led to a self-imposed crash course on every one of the studio’s genre titles I could get my mitts on. I watched a lion’s share of Hammer’s popular franchises and prominent thrillers, but it was their B-squad with which I became most enamored. Unable to rely on big-name stars oftentimes and forced to tailor their stories around tighter budgets, these movies made to fill out half of a double bill found the task of somehow attracting an audience doubly difficult. But once in a while, a gem like Hands of the Ripper would creep from this world and make a more concerted than average effort at clenching viewers’ collective fear factor in its grasp. The film is a bit slow-going by modern standards, the gore is sparse, and there’s no iconic villain present to inspire a string of sequels. But Hands of the Ripper has more than enough going for it in other departments, chief among them being a fantastic sense of atmosphere and a classiness that effectively marries bloodshed with the realm of suspense.

Saying that Anna (Angharad Rees) had a rough childhood would be an understatement for all time. Orphaned at a young age, Anna was brought up by a bogus medium (Dora Bryan) who’d have her play ghost in séances — that is, whenever she wasn’t being rented out as a private plaything for Parliament perverts. But no one knows just how horrifying this waif’s origins are, how she witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of her father…a man better known as Jack the Ripper. Sensing a darkness dwelling within Anna, forward-thinking head-shrinker Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) decides to take her under his wing and root out a psychological explanation for what’s troubling her. However, the answers that Pritchard seeks may be more than modern medicine can explain, for it’s a real demonic force that’s taken possession of poor Anna and is compelling her to resume the Ripper’s grisly rampage.

One of the more curious aspects about Hands of the Ripper is how upfront it is about who’s doing the slicing and dicing. With a story like this, you’d swear that Hammer would opt for the whodunit route (as they tried and failed before — I’m looking at you, The Gorgon), so telling us right off the bat that Anna is our killer du jour is a nice way to mix things up. Instead, Hands of the Ripper finds tension in how others approach her condition, how they presume to know how to deal with forces beyond their control that they refuse to acknowledge. This entails many a role being reversed, with those who have the best intentions at heart also being the ones who cause the most damage. Not only does Pritchard’s desire to keep Anna tucked away and crack her tortured psyche inspire a whole new slew of murders for him to cover up, his reasons may not be all that pure, with subtle hints of the doc viewing the girl as a replacement for his dead wife dropped left and right. Meanwhile, that aforementioned politico (Derek Godfrey) who starts off the film attempting to rape Anna is the only one who knows the score, pleading with Pritchard to accept a supernatural explanation for all the homicidal goings-on.

Hands of the Ripper also differs from much of its Hammer brethren in how it carries itself. The studio’s traditional sensationalism has been dialed back here, going for a look that skews elegant over pulpy. In addition to the costumes and production design feeling more natural than the norm, the requisite violence is far less cartoony in quality. There are still money shots aplenty, from a hooker’s eye getting pierced by needles to the phony psychic’s own impalement (which is a fantastic reveal, by the way). But Hands of the Ripper aims for a spontaneous and sinister effect with its gore, one it accomplishes while never crossing the line into exploitation or becoming too unpleasant to bear. It’s fair to say that for all the time we spend following Pritchard’s attempts to explain away Anna’s illness, Anna never quite develops into a strong character herself, stuck in a trancelike state and employed as a catalyst to cue up her caretaker’s reactions all too often. But Rees does what she can to portray a frail figure unaware of the evil she’s carting around inside, and Porter does a great job of alluding to Pritchard’s darker side without tainting his concerned visage.

After masterminding terrific Blu-ray transfers for less prolific Hammer titles such as Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, Synapse Films has performed another admirable upgrade with Hands of the Ripper‘s leap to high definition. It’s a movie well worth rediscovering, embedded with its parent studio’s stylistic DNA but altered enough so that fans aren’t left feeling like they’re seeing the same old slash and dance all over again. Some Hammer chillers are sexy, and some are charmingly low-rent, but Hands of the Ripper is a kind of no-frills creepy that doesn’t come around very much.

Hands of the Ripper Blu-ray/DVD combo bonus features:

The Devil’s Bloody Plaything, a 28-minute mini-documentary about the film’s creation

Slaughter of Innocence, a six-minute featurette showcasing Hammer’s gore and monster make-up effects throughout the years

-A still gallery

-A theatrical trailer

-Television spots

-An introduction to the film’s heavily-cut debut on ABC (audio only)