Friday, February 5, 2016

I have an idea for the next 'Child's Play' movie if anyone wants that.

The Chucktator.

I didn't really keep up with the Child's Play horror film franchise after the first couple of flicks. I haven't even gotten around to seeing 2004's Seed of Chucky, despite the fact that one of my personal heroes, John Waters, appears in it. I know that the murderous Chucky doll (voiced by Brad Dourif) acquired a female counterpart and some nasty, Frankenstein-like facial scars along the way. I'm still not wild about those scars, since I think they undermine the whole point of the character, which is that he looks like a creepy but harmless My Buddy doll from the 1980s. Anyhow, despite my almost-total ignorance of the property, I nevertheless would love the chance to write the next Child's Play sequel, if there is one. I have an idea ready to go. Be forewarned: This gets a tad convoluted.

Accurate but not respectable.
For whatever reason, I've been obsessed lately with the saga of General Idi Amin Dada (ca. 1923-2003), the military strongman who seized control of Uganda in the 1970s and terrorized and bankrupted the country for years as its dictator, killing off his enemies, real and perceived, by the thousands. YouTube, naturally, has countless hours of footage related to Amin: documentaries, news reports, interviews, etc. There, one can also find Amin: The Rise and Fall (or The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin), a sensational 1981 exploitation film featuring Kenyan actor Joseph Olita as the boastful African strongman. What's really surprising about The Rise and Fall is that, apart from the inclusion of some tasteless urban legends -- like the depiction of Amin as a cannibal -- the script largely sticks to the historical record and depicts Amin as he really was. Some especially horrific details -- like keeping the severed heads of his foes in his kitchen freezer -- are drawn from real life. So what makes this movie "exploitation" rather than an Oscar-winning, critically-praised "drama," like 2006's The Last King of Scotland, which also deals with the reign of Idi Amin? It's all a matter of tone, I guess. The Rise and Fall treats Amin's reign as a horror story, an approach that extends to the music, the camera angles, the acting, and the editing. It's all done for maximum shock effect. That makes critics uncomfortable.

While re-watching Amin: The Rise and Fall, I got to thinking that General Idi Amin, as a potential horror star, is a lot more effective than most of the major icons of the slasher genre, who tend to kill their victims one at a time. In terms of his overall body count, Amin leaves Freddy, Jason, and the rest in the dust. And he operates boldly in broad daylight, rather than skulking around in the shadows. Another advantage is that he doesn't have to do all the killing personally. He has soldiers and guards to do a lot of the dirty work for him. So then I started imagining a franchise film in which a famous horror character becomes the brutal dictator of a small country. Long-running horror franchises often tend to become gimmicky as the years go by, and this seemed no more extreme than, say, putting Jason Voorhees into outer space. But Jason's no good for this kind of picture. He doesn't talk, and he seems to derive no real pleasure from his killing. Ditto Michael Myers and Leatherface. It's difficult to imagine Freddy Krueger holding down a government job for long. Ditto Hannibal Lecter. So who's left?

Chucky, that's who. He's perfect. He seems like the kind of guy who'd get a kick out of bossing around a whole country. I pictured the little doll getting sick of causing mayhem in his home country and moving to some fictional country in Central America or South America, where he becomes known as "El Juguete," an incredibly corrupt, violent, and sadistic martinet. He'd have everything: an army of henchmen, a harem of love slaves, and a torture dungeon. And the image of little Chucky, still doll-sized, in a military uniform dripping with medals is surreal and funny and terrifying to me. I'd call it Reign of Chucky: Puppet Regime and advertise it with this tagline: "Running a country? It's child's play." As for the content of the movie, just watch this trailer for the Idi Amin flick and imagine that it's Chucky doing all of this awful stuff. Doesn't that sound kind of awesome?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The ultimate Tim Burton movie...

Look, either you get this pun or you don't.

No compromises. 

Did you know that, in addition to writing, directing, producing, and occasionally acting in motion pictures for 30 years, Ed Wood also edited at least four of his own films, including Plan 9 from Outer Space? As the picture above reveals, Eddie was a born cutter.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

This Seinfeld/Dennis the Menace crossover might be the only important thing I've ever done

A portly, balding man named George who is constantly ranting about everything in his life? A freeloading, wisecracking neighbor who is forever showing up, uninvited, at inconvenient times? A focus on the mundane, minute details of daily life in America? Yes, in all these ways (and probably no others), Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace is a precursor to Seinfeld. Ketcham's creation started as -- and still exists as -- a daily newspaper comic, but from 1959 to 1963, it was also a live-action sitcom, starring Jay North in the title role. The "Kramer is basically a grown-up Dennis" thing was my starting-off point for this crossover parody, which takes its dialogue directly from a real-life Dennis Sunday strip and its visuals directly from a real-life Seinfeld episode. As this mashup shows, Dennis Mitchell was the original "pop-in guy." By the way, when you read this, I'd like you to do so out loud in your best Jason Alexander impression. Really bite down on words like "computers" and "fence."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Another 'Dennis the Menace' was in need of a rewrite

Nothing much to report here, folks. Today's Dennis the Menace panel was especially stupid, even by the generous standards of that long-running feature, so I thought I'd give it a little rewrite. Originally, I thought I might have a hand reaching out from the snow, but then I decided it was funnier if he was just gesturing at nothing. By the way, not to brag overmuch, but I was just awarded with "Comment of the Week" at Josh Fruhlinger's Comics Curmudgeon blog. Good old Mary Worth came through for me again.

And here's a Hagar the Horrible rewrite for good measure:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My thoughts on 'Buddy Buddy' (1981): Billy Wilder's last film

Lemmon, Matthau, and Wilder: All together for the last time.

A poster for the film.
Call me morbid if you must, but today I decided to watch the final film directed by the legendary Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Its name is Buddy Buddy, and it's a farcical 1981 dark comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. To say the very least, the movie's reputation is not good. How not good? Roger Ebert started his one-and-a-half-star review thusly: "This movie is appalling." He ended his one-and-a-half-star review thusly: "Buddy Buddy is incompetent. And that is the saddest word I can think of to describe it." In between those two statements are 443 more words disparaging Buddy Buddy. Even Wilder himself, the film's director and co-writer, disowned it, claiming the project was foisted on him by the studio, MGM. "This wasn't a picture I would have chosen." Though I've seen many of Wilder's classics (Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and more), I'd never really even heard of Buddy Buddy until yesterday. That's when I accidentally stumbled on this 2012 quote from Quentin Tarantino:
I’m really well versed on a lot of directors’ careers, you know, and when you look at those last five films when they were past it, when they were too old, and they’re really out of touch with the times, whether it be William Wyler and The Liberation of L.B. Jones or Billy Wilder with Fedora and then Buddy Buddy or whatever the hell. To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography."
So for Tarantino, Buddy Buddy was a cautionary tale, something to avoid. Even though Billy Wilder lived 20 more years, he never directed another movie after this one. For whatever reason, that piqued my curiosity. What the hell could Buddy Buddy be about? I checked the cast list on IMDb and saw the names of  Lemmon and Matthau. That made sense. They worked with Wilder on The Fortune Cookie, and Matthau even won an Oscar for that. The next highest billed person in the cast is Paula Prentiss, an actress about whom I have no opinion whatsoever. Easily the most intriguing person in the cast, however, is Polish-born madman Klaus Kinski. What in the blue hell was he doing in this movie? I decided to find out.

Buddy Buddy was never released on DVD, the only Lemmon/Matthau film not to receive that minimal honor, but the whole thing has been uploaded to YouTube, so I watched it that way. I can now report, in good conscience, that Buddy Buddy is honestly not that bad. It is far from essential, but it is also far from appalling or incompetent, especially if you don't judge it against Wilder's most famous films. Lower your expectations until they barely reach your ankles, and the movie is even kinda, sorta fun. Occasionally.

The setup is solid, and it should be. Buddy Buddy is based on a popular 1973 French comedy called A Pain in the Ass, which has been remade a total of four times already! I won't waste your time with details, but Matthau plays a contract killer who just wants to complete one more job and then retire to a tropical paradise. He's already killed two key witnesses from an upcoming mob trial, and there's just one more to go. The problem is, Matthau's only opportunity to kill the third witness will be to shoot him, sniper-style, from a hotel window across from a courthouse. So he checks into that hotel and waits for his one and only chance. But the guy in the room next to him, a whiny, neurotic TV censor played by Jack Lemmon, is suicidal and hysterical as his second marriage falls apart, and Lemmon's antics are drawing a lot of unwanted attention to that particular floor of the hotel. Matthau has no choice but to pretend to be Lemmon's friend and become involved in sorting out his personal problems. Eventually, Lemmon's soon-to-be-ex-wife (Prentiss) and her current lover, a sex clinic quack (Kinski), are drawn into the chaos. Along the way, water pipes are broken (messily), a baby is born (cleanly), a laundry chute is utilized as an escape route, and Matthau has Thorazine injected into his ass at a most inconvenient time. It's that kind of picture.

Roger Ebert's review claims that the movie has absolutely no laughs, but I'll dispute his accounting practices. I counted at least two, maybe three laughs during my own viewing. For the most part, the movie is less a total disaster than it is a souffle that fails to rise. That's what we have here: a flat souffle. Despite the profanity and a smattering of sexual semi-candor, Buddy Buddy seems like a cheap made-for-TV movie or maybe a sitcom minus the laugh track. Wilder's direction neither helps nor hurts. He doesn't do anything to enhance the comedy, but he doesn't impede it either. Buddy Buddy doesn't blow any punchlines; it's just that the punchlines were never that good to begin with. Wilder claimed the script was a rush job, written under pressure with I.A.L. Diamond. That I can believe. Diamond and Wilder wrote a string of memorable comedies together, including Some Like It Hot, but this feels like a shaky, sketchy -- though salvageable -- first draft. A lot of the supporting characters, like the clueless cops (including Ed Begley, Jr.) and nervous hotel employees, feel like placeholders, as if Diamond and Wilder were planning to flesh out those roles "a little later" but never got around to it. As it is, they stand around with nothing much to do.

By and large, the movie is drab and flat. A lot of that is due to the fact that the majority of Buddy Buddy takes place in Matthau's dumpy hotel room. The place is just ugly enough to be displeasing to the eye, but not quite ugly enough to be interesting. The whole movie, except for the ending, is very beige and blah from a visual standpoint. I'm very sorry to report that Lalo Schifrin's slightly cheesy score does not help, even though Schifrin has composed a lot of great music for other movies and TV shows. A lot of Buddy Buddy feels like a mish-mash of different eras. The film takes place in 1981, but Matthau's character seems to have beamed in from the Eisenhower era, and the same goes for Dana Elcar's grousing police captain. I might have set the whole thing in the 1950s and shot it in black-and-white. It would have meant losing the hippie couple (don't ask), but trust me, that's no great loss. It would have also meant losing the "zany" sex clinic where Kinski works (ditto), but that's no great loss either. And losing the color would have been a massive improvement.

If there's a reason to see Buddy Buddy, other than as a historical curiosity, it's to watch Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau do what they do so well together. There's a reason why these two were cast as friends, enemies, and frenemies in films for decades. They're a perfect duo. Lemmon pleads and wheedles and dithers and pesters and overshares. Matthau grumbles and mumbles and seethes and cringes and lies. The movie is like a feature-length version of the irresistible force paradox, with Lemmon as the irresistible force and Matthau as the immovable object. Would the movie have worked better with a more serious actor like Clint Eastwood in the role of the killer, as Billy Wilder later suggested? I don't know. Maybe. You can only judge the movie that was made, not the one that wasn't made. Personally, I was glad to see the Matthau-Lemmon chemistry was basically intact during the Reagan years. Maybe they weren't at their peak, but they weren't far off it either.

Fans of The Simpsons might get a kick out of this movie, since Lemmon plays a bumbling, accident-prone sad sack very much like that show's Gil Gunderson character. Jack is in full-on "Gil" mode here. The best way to approach Buddy Buddy, in the end, is to imagine what it would be like if Gil were roommates with Fat Tony. Doesn't that sound at least a little funny?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Can You Take Me Back: A look at an intriguing Beatles song snippet

Can you take him back where he came from?: Paul McCartney in 1968.

In September 1968, Paul McCartney could not have gone back where he came from even if he had wanted to. For one thing, his band, The Beatles, were in the middle of the recording sessions for what would turn out to be the double-LP juggernaut known popularly as The White Album. But something even bigger, or at least affecting a greater number of people in an immediate way, was happening in England at the time.  The country was in the midst of torrential rains that made travel into and out of London difficult to impossible. The south of England, where The Beatles were at the time, was especially hard hit. London was temporarily isolated by rainwater: an island within an island. Good old Liverpool might as well have been ten million miles away: The roads and rails leading out of London were briefly closed in mid-September of '68. Though they claimed no lives, the dismal rains of that month have garnered the title of "The Great Flood of 1968."

An example of the 1968 flooding in England.
The dreariness of English weather seeps into the Beatles' catalog now and again. They had a whole song called "Rain," after all. (Sample lyrics: "When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead when the rain comes.") On Sgt. Pepper, recorded just the previous year, Paul sang of "fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering." And John's "I Am the Walrus" wittily devotes its bridge to the gloomy British climate: "Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun. If the sun don't come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain." From other songs, like "Good Day Sunshine" and "Here Comes the Sun," one gets the sense that the Fabs were especially grateful for every precious ray of sunlight they could get in England.

The historical records indicate that the Great Flood was peaking on September 16, 1968, a Monday, when Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr convened at Abbey Road's famed Studio Two for an after-hours White Album session. George's absence that day has gone unexplained, but the three assembled musicians recorded 67 takes of a then-new McCartney composition called "I Will." Why this simple, sparsely-arranged pop tune should have required so many takes remains something of a mystery, but Paul was still fiddling with the lyrics well into the night. Actually, the session didn't even start until 7:00pm. It concluded at 3:00am. So it was a typical workingman's eight-hour day; it was just a weird eight hours. This being his own song, Paul naturally handled lead vocals as well as the acoustic guitar parts and some "vocal bass." John and Ringo split the percussion duties: the latter on bongos, the former on maracas and cymbals. Some Beatle discographies imply that this was a Paul-only, completely solo recording, but this does not appear to have been the case. At the tail end of the session, John got the idea to briefly parody "The Fool on the Hill" by overdubbing a few seconds of a recorder (probably played by Paul) onto his self-referential "Glass Onion." Otherwise, "I Will" was the only real accomplishment of the evening.

It was Paul's nature to improvise little song snippets between takes, and this particular session yielded several such examples. "Los Paranoias" was a staple of Beatle bootlegs before being permanently enshrined on Anthology 3. Paul also took a stab at something called "The Way You Look Tonight," a slight but sweet variation on the Jerome Kern standard, as filtered through "I Will." It can be descried as a crossbreeding of those two songs. Nice stuff, really. But the real keeper of the night was an off-the-cuff number called "Can You Take Me Back?" The entire improvisation, in its uncut form, runs two minutes. About 30 seconds near the end were eventually excerpted on The White Album, linking "Cry Baby Cry" with "Revolution 9." The full recording is worth your time, though:

The complete recording demonstrates that John and Ringo were obviously and audibly present for the session, with John even shouting out a lyrical prompt ("Are you happy here, honey?") to Paul, who runs with it. There even emerges something of a vague narrative: A woman, having been unhappily transplanted to a new location, is pleading with her husband or lover to take her back home. The song seems to have its roots in American blues music. The characters in the song could be migrant workers who moved out West during the Great Depression to escape the dust storms that ravaged the plains in the 1930s, only to find California just as inhospitable to newcomers. Paul plays both the man and the woman, but the latter dominates, thus explaining Paul's high-pitched voice in the song. But there is no indication that her wish will come true; she seems to be hopelessly stranded in this purgatory or limbo. Her main question goes unanswered.

Musically, the song reminds me a lot of a Depression-era blues number called "Can I Do It For You?" by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. It, too, is structured as a dialogue between a plaintive man and an inconsolable woman.

The Memphis Minnie recording dates back to 1930, but it was revived, revised, and retitled in 1965 as "Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)" by Donovan, a countryman of The Beatles. "Hey Gyp" was first released as a B-side but was promoted to the status of A-side the very next year. Another group of English rockers, Eric Burdon and the Animals, covered "Hey Gyp" in 1966. So Paul McCartney would definitely have been aware of the song in some form. Who knows? He may have heard the original recording. It should be noted that Britain was in the grip of a full-on blues revival in the mid-to-late-1960s. The phenomenon of white Englishmen copying African-American music became so prevalent by 1968 that The Bonzo Dog Band felt compelled to record a satirical song called "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?" in spiteful response. The de facto face of the British blues scene, Eric Clapton, would contribute a guitar solo to another White Album track, George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," while John's "Yer Blues" is either his contribution to or his parody of the Brit blues subgenre. "Can You Take Me Back?" is less obvious or overt than that. The British blues scene was dominated by strident electric guitars, while Paul's song is humble and acoustic, hearkening back to the lean, spare blues sound of the 1930s, as heard on the recordings of Skip James, Memphis Minnie, and others.

Another factor setting Paul's song apart is that it is based on the pentatonic or five-tone scale. You can play the melody just using the black keys of a piano keyboard. Ebony and ebony living together in perfect harmony. For reasons I can never quite explain, five-tone songs have a mysterious, ineffable quality to them. What is it about those five wonderful notes that makes them sound so good together? Perhaps a musicologist can reduce it down to an equation. In any event, the result is haunting and haunted, memorable enough to have been sampled by Danger Mouse on his remix treatment of Jay-Z's "My 1st Song" from 2004's The Grey Album.

"Can You Take Me Back?" is one of those great little accidents in The Beatles' catalog, a track so modest and brief it does not even warrant being billed as a full-fledged song on the LP sleeve, yet as memorable as any of the full-length compositions surrounding it. I can remember first hearing The White Album via a third-generation dubbed cassette and thinking that I was hearing something secretive and magical in those 28 seconds of music, as if Paul McCartney had hidden this little song snippet deep within the recesses of the album for me to find. Listening to it now, I imagine The Beatles slogging away through another endless recording session, trying to keep the creative juices flowing as the rain outside refuses to yield. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever. Never seeing no one nice again. Can you take me back, my honey, can you take me back? Back to where I once belonged?

Friday, January 22, 2016

An artist has created composite sketches of some famous literary characters

Book version vs. Movie version: Different depictions of famous characters

When a reader immerses himself in a book, he essentially plays all the parts in a story—which makes it difficult for any cinematic adaptation to live up to its source material. The reader is the director, cinematographer, editor, costumer, and production designer. What movie or performance can compete with that? Over at his blog, The Composites, however, an artist and filmmaker named Brian J. Davis is taking some of those same words and transforming them into actual pictures, specifically composite sketches that look like the images of suspects and missing persons circulated by the police, and posting them on a biweekly basis. What does Stephen King’s telekinetic teen, Carrie White, really look like? According to Davis, this:

An artist's depiction of Carrie White.

So not exactly like Sissy Spacek, but not a million miles away either. Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s gory Western novel, Blood Meridian, have been awaiting a film adaptation for years. Until that happens, however, here is Brian J. Davis’ rendition of the book’s mysterious antagonist, the powerful, ruthless, and hairless Judge Holden.

"He says he will never die."

According to the Composites blog, Davis created these literal-minded, unsentimental, black-and-white images “using a commercially available law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters.” For those wondering how these police sketches match up (or fail to match up) with actual movie portrayals of these characters, Sara Barnes has a nice collection of side-by-side comparisons at My Modern Met. There, one will find Marla Singer, Jack Torrance, Norman Bates, Count Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, among others. Barnes begins her list, however, with Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen: On the page and on the stage.

Not bad, right? One amusing sketch, however, shows that if the makers of The Great Gatsby were really true to the vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the character of Daisy Buchanan might have looked a lot like a grownup version of Nick’s Angela Anaconda, minus the freckles.

Am I tho only one who remembers Angela Anaconda?