Sunday, July 8, 2018

Can't Cure Insomnia With Psychomania

By Steve Evans

Stayed up way too late last night laffing at the great guilty pleasure that is Psychomania (1973). This movie is a riot -- an occult, horror-thriller biker flick starring Malcolm McDowell lookalike Nicky Henson in a role not dissimilar to McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange, made two years earlier. I saw Psychomania decades ago on late-night teevee and was delighted to catch it again. The film only improves with age. Filmed at Shepperton, it has a Hammer Studios vibe, solid stunts and not-bad special effects.

Briefly, Henson and his rude biker gang commit suicide in novel ways, then use black magic to come roaring back to life on their motorcycles, terrorizing the English countryside as the living dead. Featuring an amazing wacka-wacka guitar soundtrack by a band called Frog. You can’t make up this stuff; I dare you even to try.

The great British character actor George Sanders (who co-starred in two Academy Award Best Picture winners, Rebecca and All About Eve, and won an Oscar himself for the latter) was nearing the end of his career when he appeared in this film. Sanders committed suicide shortly after Psychomania was made. Sadly, he did not come roaring back on a motorcycle.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Reflections on Dead Home-Entertainment Technology

By Steve Evans

On this day in 1975 Sony introduced the Betamax 9300, a "video recorder" almost the size of a footlocker and priced at $2,295 (about $11,000 in 2018 dollars). It had fat piano keys for controls and a crude LCD numeric screen. Made a fair amount of whirring noise, too. With the release of this brute of a component, Sony began the era of the home theater concept and forever changed the way people consume programming, since they were no longer at the mercy of broadcasters' schedules. That is, if you could figure out how to program the machine and set the timer to record the correct channel.

In less than a decade Betamax would be extinct after losing the videotape format war to VHS cassettes, which delivered noticeably lower image quality but were cheaper. We had a top-loading Betamax that ended up in basement storage when VHS took over and it was no longer possible to buy the smaller Betamax cassettes. I remember the owner of a local video rental store saying how happy he was when Betamax died because he no longer had to buy two copies of the same movie on different videotape formats. Blockbuster arrived a couple years later and he went out of business, anyway.

My first movie from that rental store was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) on a Betamax cassette. I had never seen the film, much less uncut, as there is no way any network back then would have shown that legendarily violent film as released theatrically. As a fledgling 14-year-old film buff, being able to rent and watch a movie on demand was a revelation (nor did the rental shop owner give a damn about whether I was old enough to be watching R-rated movies). Soon, most of my allowance money was going to movie rentals at the video store down the street. All of them were beat up and scratchy, even the new releases after only a couple of weeks, but I didn't care. In a town with only two single-screen movie theaters and cable TV service still a few years off, having a video rental store was like a passport to exotic lands of adventure.  

I'd bet that mom still has that Betamax monster socked away somewhere in her basement -- and it probably still works -- only there's no way to hook up the equipment to a modern TV because RCA jacks, and the red, yellow and white cables to connect them, are likewise a thing of the past.

Nothing lasts forever, except my ridiculous habit of renting and then buying films like The Wild Bunch on video cassette (twice), DVD and, more recently, on Blu-ray. If Peckinpah's bloody classic is ever released in the 4K format, I’ll buy that one, too. Obsessions always start somewhere. I have Betamax to thank for mine.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Today in History: Bonnie, Donnie and Clyde

By Steve Evans

Let's play a game of perception v. reality.

On this day in 1934 the murderous bank robbing duo Bonnie and Clyde were machine-gunned to death in an ambush set by a posse of Louisiana and Texas law enforcement.

Arthur Penn's celebrated 1967 film that bears their names did no favors for the historical record, although accuracy was not Penn's intent. Though possessed of low cunning, the real Bonnie and Clyde could best be characterized as moronic and sleazy -- quite a departure from their charming cinematic counterparts Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

Penn's film treats the pair as folk heroes and they were embraced as such by audiences watching the film at the height of the counterculture. The paradox here is that despite the picture's many liberties with historical accuracy, Bonnie and Clyde in their heyday were indeed heroes to many victims of the Great Depression, people who were angry at the system, at the banks Bonnie and her beau enjoyed robbing.

I could draw parallels here to Trump supporters, those disaffected yahoos who root for a rebel as balm (or distraction) for their own problems. There's no doubt in my mind that the rise of Trump coming on the heels of the Great Recession is no mere coincidence. His ascension is a maneuver of pure exploitation as clever as any Hollywood rendering of historical record.

Make no mistake: Bonnie and Clyde were only out for themselves. Trump is no different, as evidenced by each new day. He's just a little more polished than Clyde, a bit more slick.

As it happened, the frivolity came to an end for Miss Bonnie and her Clyde on May 23, 1934. Penn's film, in a daring-for-its-day climax, also brings harsh reality crashing down on the antiheroes of his long frolic of a film. It's a classic example of yanking the rug out from under an audience, forcing viewers to confront, finally, the nasty truth of the characters they've been rooting for and maybe don't even understand why.

Wondering if the Donnie Trump Story can deliver a conclusion at least as exciting.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Perils of Fortune and Glory

By Steve Evans

We are giddy with the acquisition of The Man Who Would be King (1975) in hi-def. A magnificent entertainment from the twilight of director John Huston's mighty career. Michael Caine and Sean Connery have made many enduring classics through more than six decades of working in cinema. The Man Who Would be King is equal to all of them and better than most.
Huston in the 1950s wanted Bogart and Clark Gable for the leads, though sadly, Bogart died of cancer before the project could get off the ground. A decade later, Huston dusted off his script, adapted from Kipling, and went after Paul Newman and Robert Redford for his stars. Newman told him, "John, much as I'd love to do this, you want Connery and Caine for this one." Newman was spot-on. 

Here is a perfect union of casting and material in a glorious adventure film that explores recurring themes in Huston's work: greed, machismo, obsession. You can see this in The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Moby Dick, but Huston took these themes to their logical, epic conclusion in this tale of two 19th century British soldiers, rogues really, who set out for the mythical land of Kafiristan in search of fortune and glory. Inevitably, dark clouds of fate follow arrogant kings with a god complex. 

Makes a terrific double-feature with Gunga Din (1939), another Kipling tale that Hollywood got right. Trivia: the Kafiristani woman Connery falls in love with was played by Shakira Baksh, also known as Mrs. Michael Caine, who married her two years before this film was made after declaring Shakira the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their union endures to this day.
Cinema Uprising copyright © 2018 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.