October 14, 2013

Brattle Theatre Watch-A-Thon Day One - Let's Get Culty!


I’ve spent the last month or so raising money for the Brattle Theatre so I could take part in their Watch-A-Thon Weekend, two days of back to back cult and classic movies from noon midnight.  Thanks to some of you wonderful folks, I raised over $300 for the Brattle, which means my weekend was effectively booked.

I arrived Saturday at noon and received a lovely gift bag for participating, including a pass for unlimited popcorn and soda as well as some gift cards for local eateries meant to encourage me to venture out into the world between screenings.  Sadly these enticing culinary offers came just as I had re-embarked upon my pre-wedding diet meant to combat my ever expanding waistline.  As it turns out there was only one other person participating in the Watch-A-Thon with me, and it just so happened that while my preferred seating position was down in front, his was up in the balcony.  We settled into our respective seats and prepared for out cinematic adventure, kicked off with three shorts: Mr. Bean Attends A Premiere, Nick Park’s infamous claymation Creature Comforts and one of my personal favorites, Duck Dodgers From The 24th And A Half Century.  I hadn’t watched that in years and it was the perfect way to kick off the festivities.

"I've seen The Exorcist about 167 times and it keeps getting funnier EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT!"
First up was Time Burton’s Beetlejuice, celebrating its 25th anniversary.  This is a movie I’ve seen a number of times, but it had actually been a while since my last viewing.  I forgot just how little Michael Keaton is actually in that movie; he’s so totally great you just assume the movie is wall-to-wall Keaton, but he's really used very sparingly and doesn't even fully appear until about halfway through.  I love the sheer banality of the afterlife’s civil servants, and Wynona Ryder is at her most adorably droll here.   At this point, watching stuff like Beetlejuice and Edwad Scissorhands depresses me more than anything else, since Tim Burton hasn’t made a movie this good in years.  At least not a live action one.

In the middle of the movie I suddenly remembered that I used to watch a Beetlejuice Saturday morning cartoon in which Beetlejuice was actually a good guy who got into weekly adventures with young Lydia.  That's a serious departure from the film where he’s a Loki-esque force of uncontrollable chaos.  Was Beetlejuice a big hit with kids when it was released?  It’s certainly not a family film but I can see the wacky appeal to kids.  It’s like the Ghostbusters cartoon, where Slimer was suddenly their lovable pet.   So weird.

"Smells mighty like a polecat!"
Speaking of weird.  Tiny Town is a 1938 musical western starring all midgets (their word, not mine). 

AND IT’S AWESOME.

Here’s the thing about Tiny Town.   While the actors are small of stature, they’re all clearly adults, with some of them sporting wrinkled, craggy faces that have seen some serious mileage.  But even still, most of the cast has fairly high pitched voices, so when they’re not in close-up it gives the visual impression that you’re watching children playing cowboy.  That’s all well and good I suppose, that is until we get to the scene with a sexy saloon singer crooning a tune about “when I make love to you.”  Then it gets super creepy, super quickly.  

That sense of proportional disconnect is amplified by the fact that, while everyone in the film is small, everything in the town is normal sized.  The saloon is particularly entertaining: there’s a big step in off the street that’s so high that one character has to use his arms to literally hoist himself up, the swinging saloon doors hang far enough over their heads that the cowboys can practically duck under them, and the bar is so tall that they had to build a platform for the actors to stand on.  In reality this is a budgetary matter; the studio surely had a stock “old west” set that they shot the film on to save money.  But within the context of the film it makes no logical sense at all.  If this was a town consisting entirely of little people then they surely would have built everything according to their own specifications.  So what’s the deal?  Did these little people take over a normal sized town?  Did the buildings come ready-made in some kind of Old West kit?  Are there bigger people elsewhere that we just don’t see, or is this movie set in a universe of entirely little people?  If that’s true then why is everything so damn big?  It’s the same problem I have with Pixar’s Cars, in which the cars are clearly alive and yet their world is clearly constructed for human beings that are never seen or discussed.  Is Cars secretly post-apocalyptic?  Did the cars evolve and overthrow their creators?  I NEED TO KNOW.

"Kill!  Kill!"
A classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu film about a clan of seven brothers, simply named No. 1 through 7, all masters of the long-poled spear who are betrayed in battle.  All but two are killed, and while No. 6 returns home completely unhinged, No. 5 immediately goes into hiding at a Buddhist temple.  He’s determined to renounce his name and his violent past in order to become a monk, but the order won’t have him.  They refuse to shave his head and brand the traditional six dots onto his scalp, so in a moment of fierce determination he takes a knife, dry-shaves his own head and then brands himself.  The monks allow him to stay and he demonstrates his skill at pole fighting, the monk’s kung-fu of choice.  They practice against wooden wolves with metal teeth, but rather than destroying the wolves they practice defanging them.  This sets up the final scene in which No. 5, after learning that his sister (No. 8) is being held captive by the man who betrayed his family, takes on an entire army using only his spear and a cart full of bamboo poles.  And just when he gets cornered and all looks lost, his fellow monks show up and proceed to literally defang the enemy soldiers, ripping their teeth straight out of their jaws.

It’s super entertaining and full of absolutely gorgeous production design.  And the fight scenes are all totally great, a mix of both the hilariously exaggerated and the legitimately kickass.  The enemy soldiers are armed with staffs with specially designed coiled ends that act like bungee cords (although they look kind of like bendy straws) that can wrap around spears and limbs alike to immobilize and disarm their opponents.  It’s cartoon-level stuff but it totally works, providing the opportunity to have men suspended midair in any number of uncomfortable positions.  It’s also clearly a favorite of Tarantino, as the lead role is played by Gordon Liu and the villain’s name is Pan Mei, which sounds a lot like the kung-fu master Pai Me that Liu played in Kill Bill Vol. 2.  I’d never seen a proper Shaw Brothers film before and this made me want to watch a dozen more.

DINNER BREAK!

The next film was I, Monster, a Jeckyll and Hyde-esque story starring Christopher Lee, but I skipped it to meet the wife and some friends for dinner at Grendel’s Den, a German restaurant just around the corner from the theater.  It was Oktoberfest weekend in Cambridge, and Grendel’s is our favorite place to celebrate each year, as they’ve got great imported beer on tap and tasty brats all for super cheap.


"It's all in the reflexes."
I returned to the Brattle at 8:00 for my next movie, which was originally supposed to be Zardoz.  Fortunately for me it was replaced at the last minute; I don’t think I could have taken another viewing so soon after my last.  Instead I was treated to John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China.  I had seen some bits and pieces of this over the years and I thought I had a pretty good handle on what the film was all about.  Kurt Russell as a truck driver who gets mixed up with some Chinese gangsters?  Sounds good to me!

I was WAY off.

How did I not realize this was a movie about ancient Chinese magic?  Talk about a game changer!  And Carpenter doesn’t do anything half-assed.  Not only are there ancient sorcerers, but there’s a floating eyeball creature and even a sort of giant Wookie demon.  Throw in Kim Catrall at the peak of her hotness and Kurt Russell doing a crazy John Wayne impression and the whole thing becomes a big ball of crazy in the greatest way possible.  I mean, wow.  This thing is paced breathlessly, like Carpenter was so anxious to get from one batshit crazy set-piece to the next that he didn't have time to stop and try to connect any of the dots.  I feel like the whole movie can be summed up in this single exchange:


Jack Burton: What's in the flask, Egg? Magic potion?
Egg Shen: Yeah.
Jack Burton: Thought so, good. What do we do, drink it?
Egg Shen: Yeah!
Jack Burton: Good! Thought so.

In other words, never let the plot get in the way of a good story.

I’m so grateful I got to see this in a theater with a vocal crowd, as I imagine that if I had been at home on my couch I would have just sat there in slack-jawed bewilderment wondering how I had gotten that movie so wrong for all these years.  So much fun.  I can’t wait to see what Russell does in the Fast & Furious movies.  Can I watch that right now please?

SECRET SCREENING!


All we were told about the final show was that it was a sci-fi classic and that, like Beetlejuice, it was celebrating its 25th anniversary.  I looked up what movies filled that description and came up with a list that included The Blob, Short Circuit 2, Mac And Me, Critters 2, Alien Nation, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Earth Girls Are Easy and My Stepmom Is An Alien.  Any of those would have been just fine with me.  My money was actually on They Live, which would have made a for a fantastic Carpenter double feature, but it was actually the anime classic Akira.  I’ve been meaning to watch this movie for years, especially since I suspect I actually saw this once as a young child but I’ve never really been able to confirm it.  Sadly, I had stayed up very late the night before recording a new podcast, so my brain simply didn't have the ability to handle subtitles that late in the evening.  I drifted off about 30 minutes into the movie and by the time I came to I had no idea what the shit was going on anymore.  Oh well.  I'll have to watch this again some other time.

Coming Up: Watch-A-Thon Day 2 - UFOs!  Seuss Pianos!  WHERE'S THE FALCON?!?!