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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One of the greatest horror novels of all time (and it is non fiction)

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Possibly the most gut wrenching horror novel of all-time - and it is non fiction.
This book is so shocking that I don't know if I would actually believe it if someone without the journalistic, unbiased journalistic integrity Jeff Sharlet had written it. I wish someone with less journalistic integrity had written it, because I would like to think it was like the Blair Witch Project, which scared me to death when I saw it opening night, but found out the next day it was fake. I wish I could wake up tomorrow and read that The Family was a big hoax.
That said, this is one of the best, most important books I have read in years.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Superhero for Choice, Death to the Tinman and book review

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1925 (commentary by Steve Ahlquist)

When Larry Semon’s Wizard of Oz starts, it’s with the tacit understanding that everyone knows about the books, they were after all immensely popular, so we are immediately shown dolls of Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, merchandising from the book series. As a modern corollary, imagine if the Harry Potter movies began by showing us action figures of Harry, Hermione and Ron. The dolls are being gazed upon, somewhat reverently, somewhat creepily by an old man, who is immediately interrupted by a young girl (prototypically Shirley Temple-esque) who wants to be read the story from the book.

But, this being a movie, it will bear no resemblance to the book at all, and we are tipped of to that fact immediately as we are shown the opening page of the book, which becomes the screen credits for the movie. Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s story by L. Frank Baum Jr., Leon Lee & Larry Semon. What follows is a story that uses the book as a mere point of departure and comes off as more of a parody than anything else.

Good Lord, this film has dated poorly. How poorly? About 15 minutes into the film we are given the visage of a lazy black farm hand eating watermelon in the field. Ironically, this black man’s name is Snowball! Snowball will eventually travel to Oz, where, when threatened by lions, a white character will tell him, “…these alley cats prefer dark meat.”

The film is most famous today for co-starring Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) as the Tin Man. Oliver Hardy plays the Tin Man as a man without a heart alright, he eventually betrays his friends for power and glory.

Also of interest is the actor who play the “Phantom of the Basket” (You have to see the movie to understand.) The role of this sinewy dancing woman is played by Frederick Ko Vert, a famous 1920’s female impersonator and the costume designer on this film. He has a string of small roles in a variety of movies, including films featuring Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino, but sadly all track is lost of him when, in 1945, the LAPD vice squad arrested him with a “thick file of indecent pictures.” The only photograph of Frederick (outside ofmovie stills) is a bizarre, nude self portrait.

Dorothy Dwan plays Dorothy. At the time she was married to director/writer/producer Larry Semon, so it’s hard to believe that the name is a coincidence. I’m sure Larry saw this movie as a star vehicle for his wife, and secured the rights to the book based on the coincidence of the name. A silent screen actress, Dwan never quite broke into the A-list, and her career fizzled with the advent of the talkies.

Larry Semon’s career fizzled much more spectacularly. The movie wasn’t much of a success, and the movie bankrupted him. In the end Semon didn’t have the money required to adequately distribute the picture. After filing for bankruptcy in 1928, Semon returned to vaudeville, only to suffer a nervous breakdown and die in a sanatorium of pneumonia. He was 39. Larry plays a farmhand, in love with Dorothy, who becomes the Scarecrow. One unexpected bit of comedy involves a duck throwing up in his face. Larry here seems to be doing his best Harold Lloyd impression.

So what about the movie? Well, it’s not based on the book- much. But the MGM movie of 1939 is based on this movie- a little. You see, in this version of the story, Dorothy is accompanied on her journey to Oz by a trio of farmhands and her Uncle Henry.

Oz has been ruled by Lord Kruel with the help of Lady Vishuss and Ambassador Wikked. Yes, all these names are cringe worthy and well below the cleverness of the original source material by Baum. Though Kruel is a tyrant, he is opposed by Prince Kynd. Kynd, speaking for the people, demands that the Queen, missing since she was a baby, be returned to power.

Kruel calls on the Wizard to distract the masses while he thinks of a way to keep power. Instead of the grand reveal present in the original book and the MGM movie, here the Wizard is introduced, rather anticlimactically, as “a medicine-show hokum hustler.” Here the Wizard never gets to be the man behind the curtain. Rather than the bluffing con man who conquers a city through guile and showmanship, here the Wizard is merely an instrument of Lord Kruel.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas we meet Dorothy, a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, a rose read to be plucked. Pick your metaphor, she’s a stone cold hottie waiting for the right man. Her Aunt Em is all motherly perfection, but her Uncle Henry is a cruel, evil fat man who abuses the farm hands and tears up flowers. We are introduced to three farmhands: Oliver Hardy, the aforementioned Snowball, and Larry Semon. In the biggest departure from the book they will journey with Dorothy to Oz, and pretend to be the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow respectively.

This is the debt the MGM movie owes this version. In the MGM version Dorothy only dreams that these ranch hands have become her friends in Oz, in this movie the journey is more literal. No dreams here, until the end, when we are reminded that this is a story being read to a little girl by her grandfather, but then she wakes up from a dream. Huh?

On Dorothy’s eighteenth birthday an airplane from Oz lands at the farm carrying four of Lord Kruel’s minions. Kruel wants to make sure that Dorothy never learns that she’s really Dorothea, Queen of Oz. This bit is lifted from the second Oz book by Baum, Ozma of Oz.

There are plenty of other homages to Baum’s originals in the movie, but they are spotty and incomplete. The confusion with other fairy tales and the treatment of the work as a joke make the movie more of a burlesque than a drama or a fantasy. At one point Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are referred to as “Cinderelatives.” King Pastoria, Ozma’s father in the books, is name checked as a former king ofOz. The remnants of the All-Girl Army can be seen in the two girls in Lord Cruel’s court sporting page boy haircuts and uniforms.

The film has interesting special effects, animation and stunt work. Unfortunately fully half the movie is set on Earth. The twister that sweeps the four heroes to Oz doesn’t arrive until 45 minutes into the film, but the effects that launch the house to Oz are quite spectacular, and well worth the wait. The matte painting of Oz (actually a large painted backdrop) depicts Oz as a city of Russian style towers. The adventures in Oz are action packed, yet pedestrian.

So what can be ultimately said about Larry Semon’s Wizard of Oz? It’s a curiosity, an aberration, of historical interest. It has some pretty great scenes, some clever touches, but lacks a satisfying ending. It doesn’t reward the viewer. In the end, despite all the trials and tribulations of the hard working Scarecrow, the girl goes off with the handsome and insipid Prince Kynd, a do-nothing with a fancy suit and mustache. The Scarecrow is left to fall to his death in a airplane, revealing the dream within a book within a movie ending.

Tragic comical interlude. I am all for Planned Parenthood, but the idiot who green lit this car wreck “Superhero For Choice” should be beaten with a pillowcase full of oranges. Not only does this short portray Planned Parenthood as something being run buy the L.C.D. of compassion, but a/the GOP tool like Rush Limbaugh could air this on his website to make the point that liberals are idiots, and this cartoon seems tailored to make that point. It is a shame that this thing’s budget could not have actually gone towards medical treatment, education or free condoms. It is one of the weirdest animations of all time and watches like anti Planned Parenthood propaganda. Planned Parenthood was so ashamed of this they will do just about anything to get it off the web, so watch it while you can.

Death to the Tinman (2007)

Since we already featured the first Oz film, let’s go for the most recent. Death to the Tinman is a wickedly funny film by Ray Tintori, a 24-year-old director from Brooklyn. Tintori wrote and directed"Death to the Tinman" while attending Wesleyan University. The film received an honorable mention at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. This tory proves one thing, that unlike most people who dabble in new Oz fiction, Tintori actually read the source material, L. Frank Baum’s: . The Tin Woodman of Oz. If you have never read it his origin is a bit more grusome and disturbing than the one in Death to the Tinman.

“Bill loves Jane and she loves him, but in this small town, many are jealous of Bill, especially the volunteer firefighters. Bill calls them cowards, puts out fires by himself, and doesn't cooperate with small-town church values. The local pastor and others conspire against him, and soon Bill has suffered the loss of his arms and other injuries. His old friend Paul stitches him back together, giving him tin arms, then a tin body. Soon, Bill still has his heart, but the rest of him is tin. Then, Bill's heart-less body comes back to semi life, zombie-like. Jane takes this meat puppet into her home and into her arms. Bill is deeply hurt. He seeks Jane's love. Is there hope?” From IMDB

Freak Book Review:

The Monster at the End of this Book (Big Little Golden Book) The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was one of those books that my poor mother had to read to me daily. When I say I read it in 1972, I actually couldn't read yet so it was read to me, over-and-over-and-over...
I remember being afraid that my mom would get sick of reading it, so I always acted shocked when Grover is revealed to be the monster.
One of the great things about this book is that it is actually written by Sesame Street co-creator Jon Stone, so it is not just fluff "product." It feels like it could have been a bit on the show, but it had to be told in the form of a book for obvious reasons. Stone also worked on Captain Kangaroo, the early SNL Muppet shorts and was married to actress Beverley Owen, the original 'Marilyn' on the Munsters. Jon Stone exited this earth in 1997.
If you have not read his since you were a kid or have never read it, you should pick it up for $4.99.

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