Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It Came from Netflix! More Dead than Alive

Coming late to the revisionist ‘adult’ Western derby* (by which I mean films that meant to deconstruct the elements of the traditional Western), 1968's More Dead than Alive is as sadly inert as its hulking leading man, Clint Walker, a cartoonishly strapping actor so wooden he makes Charlton Heston look like Jerry Lewis.

[*Winchester ’73, the first of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann movies that really kicked off the trend, had been made way back in 1950. Henry Fonda’s anti-lynching drama The Ox-Bow Incident, meanwhile, was even more venerable, having been released in 1943.]

Walker is ‘Killer’ Cain, who is and has been in prison for the last 18 years, after being convicted for one of the twelve killings he had committed as a young man. He interferes with an attempted prison break, and is paroled soon after. He only wants an honest job and to stay away from guns. However, his past keeps him from gaining work, and the brother of the man he kept from escaping from prison is out to make his life a living hell.

Cain meets up with traveling showman Mark Ruffalo (Vincent Price, who unsurprisingly is the best thing in the picture), who travels from town to town with young quick draw artist Billy. Billy is unerringly fast and accurate with a gun. He is also a punk who constantly fantasizes about being around in the old days of the professional gunfighter, in which he imagines he would have been king of the hill.

Not being able to find other work, Cain finally takes up Ruffalo’s offer to join his show. Billy is a terrific with a gun, but Cain was a notorious killer, and that’s what draws crowds. Cain’s presence soon makes Billy bitter and sullen. At first he looks up to Cain as the sort of man he always wanted to be, but loses respect for him now that he’s turned non-violent. He also resents not being the star anymore, especially since he’s now far better with a gun than the older Cain.

Along the way, Cain periodically meets up with a weirdly emancipated woman painter (played by Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis), who represents his one chance at the kind of life he wants to live. However, his past….blah, blah, blah. The problem with the film is that it intends to be deep and philosophic and anti-violence, but isn’t very good at it. The movie lumbers forward, but is highly disjointed. It’s more a collection of incidents than a story.

It’s also one of those pictures where you know in advance that the end will be aggravating, no matter how things turn out. If the film shifts gears and goes with a happy conclusion, it will seem a cop out. If it goes for the more natural bummer ending, it will merely confirm the picture as annoyingly didactic and moralistic. This aspect isn’t helped by the theme song, a thuddingly obvious pseudo-hymn about man’s inhumanity to man that is bad to start with and moreover reprised a couple of times.

Few things are more annoying than inept message films. It’s not so much that More Dead than Alive is an awful movie ('lame' is more accurate), but just that there are so many better ones. The Western has probably produced more great American films than any other genre, and when you can watch The Naked Spur, much less The Searchers or Unforgiven or a dozen other much more sophisticated movies—or in this case, hundreds of more sophisticated or at least more entertaining examples—there’s little reason to waste time with stuff like this unless you’re just an omnivorous fan of oaters or (in this case) merely a Vincent Price completist.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

New on DVD (11/08/05)...

Some good TV this week for sci-fi fans. Aside from regular shows like The Partridge Family S2 and Remington Steele S2; we are getting The Kingdom (Lars von Triers’ well-regarded horror series set in a hospital, which was recently adapted for American TV by Stephen King; that too is available on DVD); Mystery Science Theater 3000 Set 8, featuring Phantom Planet, Monster a Go-Go, The Dead Talk Back and fan favorite Hobgoblins; and the short-lived Space Marines series Space Above & Beyond.

The Jabootu movie of the week is The Children, a forthrightly dreadful 1980 horror pic about a school bus full of kids that passes through a radioactive cloud. The youngsters become zombies with black fingernails and a compulsion to hug, although their embrace then microwaves the huggee to death. WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT WOULD HAPPEN UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES!! The jaw-dropping ending involves the leads learning that the only way to stop the precocious killer is to chop their arms off (!). So if you ever wanted to see an adult hacking off the limbs of a bunch of 10 year-olds with a sword, then here’s your chance.

With Christmas approaching, the year’s big movies are starting to come out, including Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both are two-disc special editions.

Old movie buffs (buy it for your parents as a stocking stuffer) will enjoy revisiting Spenser Tracy as ur-movie priest Father Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney as his number one charge, in Boy’s Town, the film that falsely taught a generation “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.”

Camp fans will probably enjoy Reefer Madness the Movie Musical, which is presumably akin to the b-movie-turned-musical Little Shop of Horrors. The original camp classic anti-drug film is also included, so you can’t really go wrong.

Aficionados of Japanese swordplay movies will want to check out The Lady Snowbird Collection (both films, which partly inspired Kill Bill!) and the 6-disc set of Lone Wolf & Cub.

Foreign film buffs will enjoy the latest Criterion releases, Pickpocket (another French crime classic) and Ugetsu, a well-regarded Japanese ghost story. Meanwhile, Kino releases three of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘mountain movies,’ which she made as an actress before becoming a propaganda director for Hitler. The titles are SOS Iceberg, Storm Over Mount Blanc and The White Hell of Pitz Palu.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Coming Soon to a DVD shelf near you...

A couple of nice TV show announcements.

First, baby boomer fans will be pleased to learn that a 4-disc, 20-episode set of the PBS classic Electic Company will be hitting shelves in February. Finally, the return of Letter Man! Not to mention Easy Reader, the first role for Morgan Freeman. Now where's Zoom?!

February also brings us the TV adventures of the submarine Seaview with the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Fans of the Jabootu site might remember that I love cinematic submarine stuff, so I'm very excited about this. Camp fans should be warned, though, that the first (black and white) season of VBS mostly involved somewhat low-key Cold War espionage stuff, and comparatively little of the very goofy monster and sci-fi stuff that marked the series' remaining fun. It was sort of like Irwin Allen's Lost in Space that way. Still, great news.