Friday, December 12, 2014

Oddball Film Report: THE CHRISTMAS MARTIAN (1972)

   Gather round, children, as your Uncle Rock unearths another forgotten Christmas movie...

   Of note-worthy interest, to me at least, is this film's nationality. I have previously examined (and the very least) three Canadian movies in the Oddball Film Report. This marks my first cinematic journey to French Canadian lands. That really doesn't add much to the film's flavor, since it tries very hard to come across as American, but it's interesting to open up my cinematic map a little more (and incidentally add some flavor to the Oddball Film Report).

   Because the film is French Canadian, this version has been dubbed into English for consumption in the States, the rest of the Great White North, and whatever other English-speaking countries that might've seen this broadcast on December television blocks. Moreover, the looping is slightly off, meaning the dub even less syncs up with the movement of the actors' lips (although said movements often appear to be English....). The sound effects don't suffer from this, however, beyond a scene in a blacksmith shop where a hammer repeatedly clanks a good beat after we see it strike! 

   I honestly had no expectations for this, because I knew nothing about it other than the fact it disappointed Pop when he saw it as a kid. I can see why that was. This movie's idea of a "Martian" is little more than a guy in a raccoon coat with a net stocking pulled over his face (something like a "Martian" you might've seen as part of a burlesque skit in 1951, in fact). His flight suit is basically a pair of greenish coveralls with netting stretched over them. The full-size flying saucer is kinda neat in the night scenes, but that comes a bit late to really help.

   In short, our focus will jump back and forth between two young children and the man from space. Eventually, they'll meet up and befriend each other. Meanwhile, the town is alarmed over the presence of a monster from space and they converge on The Visitor just as he's about to take off for home.

   And it's nowhere near as interesting as it may sound.... 

   We open with Frankie and Cathy, two young children frolicking in the snowy streets of their idyllic small town while on their way to the local store to pick up a few items for Christmas dinner. After a minute or two, in walks the film's less than spectacular Visitor*, who quickly downs a jar of candy before taking off. For no reason at all, he's surrounded by bubbles during this.

(* Although he has a goofy name only he can pronounce, our titular being is credited only as The Visitor.)

   Since the Martian looks like nothing so much as an odd hobo, the kids carry about their preparations, which include going out to collect a tree. Meanwhile, the Visitor is still wandering around town. For no reason at all, he steps into a telephone booth and emerges dressed as a woman. When a taxi cab pulls up, the Visitor startles the driver by pulling out a giant matchstick and striking it along the side of the car. Somehow, this propels our hero into the air.

   As the locals stand around the general store and gab about the strange goings on (one man treats us to a flashback during which he saw an egg-shaped glowing object fall from the sky the previous night). The local police investigate the weird goings-on.

   Again, none of this is as interesting as it probably sounds. There's a very simple reason why this is, too. This is, at best, a 15 minute story dragged out to an hour long. That means that there are long stretches of repetitious or uneventful footage.

   Further dragging things down is that the film isn't really energetic even when it wants to do something. The police drive around, the kids walk around in the snow, the Martian observes things. Supposedly, the film is comedic, although it goes about it's duties in about as listless a way as possible.

   We'll occasionally check in with Frankie and Cathy's parents. Mother wonders why the kids are outside for so long. Father reminds her it's the Christmas vacation. For no reason at all, the majority of their scenes will be this same exchange.

   Out in the tundra, Frankie and Cathy cut down a Christmas tree as the Visitor watches from a distance. While dragging the tree home, the kids get sidetracked by some green footprints. They follow these, seeing they lead to a tree up on a hill. There looks to be someone behind the tree, but when the kids decide to get closer, the tree takes off running!

   The kids keep looking for the Martian. They follow the green footprints until the trail ends in an open field. Cathy finds one of the Martian's over-sized matches and strikes it. For no reason at all, this sends Cathy flying into the air. Frankie follows, eventually telling Cathy to ditch the match. When she does, she plummets to earth.

   This is as good a time as any to note the exterior scenes, filled as they are with endless blankets of snow and wintery skies, tend to wash themselves out. In particular the flying scenes, as Cathy (and everything else) just about vanishes from sight when not in close-up. This doesn't seem to be the print itself, as interiors look just fine. Maybe it's process shots, in which case, these are the worst process shots I've ever seen. Trust me, that's an impressive statement.

   The kids finally stumble onto the flying saucer (which in the first shot is practically invisible). Upon closer inspection (the full-sized mock-up is kinda neat) the kids find an access hatch. Instead of running to the authorities, the kids decide to climb inside...

   The Visitor is inside, but this doesn't phase the kids. What does is a clear glass tube which points in their direction. The kids take the tube for being a death ray. Instead, the tube rains candy down upon the two, practically burying them. After a giddy little scene of the three of them scoping up handfuls of the stuff, reversed footage sucks the remaining candy back up the tube.

   The Visitor is unable to communicate with Frankie and Cathy, so he produces a hand-held device which he instructs the kids to speak into. After a few seconds, the recorded information is fed into some kind of space mixer, and the results emerge as a colored liquid.... I know this is a kiddie flick, but it'd be nice if this made sense on some level. Anyway, the Visitor drinks the liquid and it allows him to speak Earth-talk. Takes him a couple of tries to narrow it down to English, though.

   Now able to communicate, the Martian is even less impressive. He speaks with a normal, not particularly commanding voice. That could work, but he doesn't really say anything of note. Normally, something like this would allow for lots of exposition on various scientific achievements (picture John Hoyt in THE TIME TRAVELLERS for an obvious example of what a scene like this should incorporate). The Visitor offers only scant information about his planet, and it's more fanciful than anything else (like the fact that his people let bees build their houses, seeing as bees are always building things).

   Anyway, the kids at some point here steal their Mother's Christmas turkey and feed it to the Visitor aboard his ship. In a throw-away bit later, Mother serves dinner and apologises for the lack of a main dish. Cathy notes her full tummy, but Mother fails to catch this.

   The Visitor plans to take the kids on a flight in the saucer, but discovers an important piece of equipment is damaged. In one of the quickest resolutions ever seen in a science fiction movie, Frankie takes the device to his blacksmith uncle and he rather quickly welds it to perfection. I was on the edge of my seat.

   There're further difficulties in launching the saucer. Despite it's VTOL capabilities, the area around the saucer needs to be cleared away with a snowplow. Frankie, who looks to be all of ten (if that) borrows his uncle's snowplow and clears the area himself! Some snow has landed on top of the saucer, however, and for some reason this requires clearing before the ship can lift off.

   Unfunny sub-plot here has the uncle calling the police to report his snowmobile missing after Frankie has made off with it. When the police Chief arrives on scene, the mobile has been returned. This bit is repeated with the snowplow.

   Back at the saucer, the Visitor and Frankie are shoving snow off of the craft. For no reason at all, Cathy is wandering around the cockpit area and sits in the command seat. Despite knowing the ship will start when she waves her hands over some neon tubes, she does so. The ship begins to lift off with Visitor and Frankie clinging to the outer hull. This is really the flick's most effective scene, as it's very easy to feel suspense for someone who'd be in this situation. Cathy manages to return the craft to it's original position.

   The saucer is suspended by a crane, apparently. To try to hide this effect, the saucer sports a huge, thick antenna on the central dome. This is more obvious in some shots than others, but in this sequence it's really bad. With people clinging to it, the saucer wobbles back and forth, making the truth just a touch too obvious. As noted, though, it will later be employed in night scenes and the effect is rather cool. For one thing, the lights rimming the edge of the saucer blink on and off in sequence to give the impression of rotating energy nodes. Seen against a stark black sky or surroundings otherwise lit only by the firework jets from the ship's bottom, this produces a pretty cool (if decoration-like) effect.

   With the saucer in working order, Visitor finally takes the kids on a trip around the globe. In one weird bit, Visitor notes the viewscreen isn't adjusted to our atmosphere so as to explain the impaired visuals on screen. Thing is, these look like effects you'd see in any science fiction film, so I don't know what he's talking about. If the producers are trying to cover for a cheap effect, this seems like the wrong one to try and explain away.

   Visitor returns the kids after dark. Frankie and Cathy skitter on home, but the police and townsfolk have formed a mob intent on capturing the Martian everyone is talking about. Having found the landing site, the mob closes in on Visitor just as he's making ready to take off. Although he has no reason to assume this, Visitor thinks the town is coming out to give him a send off. The earth-men make it quite clear the idea is to turn the space-man over to the authorities. 

   That would raise the budget of what looks to be a film made by a single town as a bit of a lark, so Visitor easily outwits the would-be captors by teleporting away anytime someone gets close to him. This, as one might guess, it done by the old turn-the-camera-off-and-have-the-actor-step-out-of-frame-before-rolling-again trick familiar to 60's sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie.

   Back at the kids' place and Father is dressed like Santa Claus to hand out gifts (he'd been a part of the great alien chase, but just gave up and went home!). For no reason at all, Visitor runs up outside the window -also dressed as Santa Claus. He rushes in and presents a gift of his own to the kids (a pretty neat model of his flying saucer). Then the police break in, knowing one of the Santas is the Martian. Father could just remove his fake beard, but for no reason at all the police round both Santas into the squad car.

   On the drive back to the station, the Chief gloats over the capture before Visitor makes with the bubbles again (remember those from way back in the first reel?) and blinks out of the car. Frankie and Cathy see the saucer pass by their window and wave off their new friend. The end.

   For a movie called THE CHRISTMAS MARTIAN, the Christmas setting really isn't used to much effect. In fact, the date adds nothing to the goings on! Presumably, the Christmas season was chosen because it's almost completely culturally universal. The Christmas title would, in fact, guarantee the film received some regular play on television, although the film looks threadbare even by UHF standards.

 To the extent Christmas is used at all, the holiday seems only there to explain why all the kids aren't at school. At one point, Frankie and Cathy ride around in a one-horse sleigh, but given the snowy surroundings (indeed, there are times the film seems to've caught snow blindness) such a conveyance hardly seems out of the norm. Indeed, this appears to be taking place on Christmas day and everyone is still at work!

   The film looks and sounds like a Chec import, but the dub finds no difficulty in moving this affair to American soil. The only strongly Canadian element here, and I didn't think twice about it until I began these reflections, is some kids seen playing ice hockey instead of the more typical baseball. Again though, with all this snow, hockey just makes more sense anyway.

   So there you go. Another kid's Christmas movie with science fiction trappings. Normally, I love that kind of thing, but this one drives home just how nicely constructed SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS really was.

   A very Merry Christmas to you all!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Before I became a cartoonist....

   I tried all sorts of things. I'd grown up drawing, though, so I figured that might be a part of whatever I ended up doing. First shown here are a couple of attempts at actual 'art' type art. Landscapes inspired by my youthful surroundings... I have no idea how old I was when I drew these. 12 or 13, maybe? Possibly younger?

   My first love has always been the screen, and a lot of drawings were geared toward it. Here's a design for a futuristic submarine my younger self dreamnt up for a possible teleseries....

   Eventually, I figured that if I couldn't work on the screen, I could use my many ideas for print. I drew up scores of crude drawings to see what would inspire a story I could write....

   My career as a short story author never quite panned out, despite much effort in that arena. It seemed comic books might be a better fit, so I began auditioning for comic book publishers (without knowing the first thing about doing so). One thing I tried out for was a horror comic in tribute to the old EC magazines. Although I was enthusiastic, it's obvious I hadn't yet learned how to draw human faces. Ironically, it was the female face I drew most poorly....

   Finally, I learned a few things, although not as much as I thought I did... Before I became a professional, I designed this cartoonist's post. I was obviously under the impression that I would be doing everything myself! Happily, I discovered there were professional inkers out there, so I could focus on the part I like doing best, pencils! 

   So many years later (although not that many in the big scheme of things) and I thankfully don't even recognise these hideous scribbles!

Friday, November 28, 2014

20 questions with Joshua Kennedy

It's a Gooey Life: The Joshua Kennedy interview

   When New Alpha released the opus of a 16 year old Texan named Joshua Kennedy, the company found itself with a hot property. The back-yard spoof ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE took off to become one of the company's best-selling independent contemporary releases. Almost overnight, the young writer-director-actor-etc became a noted name in the field of under-budget science fiction fun, and the film was immediately nominated for a Rondo Award. And it was obvious why. Despite his lack of budget, and a pool of locals for actors, ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE displayed an understanding and affection for it's material almost completely absent from larger budget attempts to do the similar.
   New Alpha eagerly took the chance to distribute subsequent Kennedy features, and the double feature of THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS and CURSE OF THE INSECT WOMAN was again nominated for a Rondo. Cranking out at least one new movie each year since ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE, Josh continues to grow in his skills, and his films advance by leaps and bounds. What he has achieved with no budget, makes his friends like me anxious to see what he'll accomplish with a budget. Josh recently allowed me to interview him, shortly following the completion of his most recent opus, SLAVE GIRLS ON THE MOON. (At the time of this posting, Mr. Kennedy is found working on a second 2014 release, AIRLINE '79!) The result of that interview is seen below....

Thanks for sitting down for this interview, Josh(ua).
   Sure thing; Thank YOU. To quote Peter Cushing in “Captain Clegg”: “There is nothing I like better than talking about myself…” Haha.

1)Let's start with your background. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got interested in making movies.
   Well, my name is Joshua Kennedy, of the House of Kennedy: David and Ana, and sister Kathleen. I am 20 years old, born and raised in Edinburg, Texas and currently studying film in NYC.
   I cant say there is a moment I can look back on and immediately think that was the Eureka moment where I wanted to do film but I do remember wanting to be a marine biologist for the longest time, but that slowly transformed into: Instead of researching cephalopods… why not make movies about them?!

2) What was your first complete film?
   The first movie I ever made was IT CAME FROM THE BATHROOM when I was five-years old. It was about a man who fell into the world’s biggest toilet and through some radioactive-exposure-transformation turned into a giant rubber-bouncing ball that proceeded to destroy the nearby town. Of course, this was all done on the floor of my bathroom with my miniature plastic toy soldiers and my model Alamo toy…

3) ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE (or, AOTOP, as it's affectionately known, was your first released feature. Reportedly, it's done very well for the distributor, New Alpha, and was even nominated for a Rondo Award. Tell us how you developed that project.
    It was one Christmas where I just had a string of absolutely atrocious films that I watched back-to-back. Now, usually during my couch potato marathons there are a few bad ones interspersed with the good ones I watch… but this particular time it was just a sledgehammer to the head of really bad movies. I then dreamt up a film that I would LOVE to watch, and decided to make it myself so I COULD watch it! Luckily, I had so many friends who were absolutely willing to help with the project, and in the end, they and every family member available in Texas ended up being my cast!

4) I imagine you were pleased by the film's warm reception. What was it like to hear you'd been nominated for an award?
   Oh, I was on top of the world and extremely honored.

5) You followed up AOTOP with the somewhat less spoofy CURSE OF THE INSECT WOMAN. What can you tell us about the development and production of that film?
   I was “The Fly” from RETURN OF THE FLY for Halloween that previous year and was dying to do something with that mask. The script ended up being a lot darker than I wanted at the time, and I was never fully happy with the final product. It was also done very last minute, and I was up until 2am the night before the premiere editing it. Looking back now, though, I think it holds up the best out of everything that I’ve done.

6) For VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF TEENAGE CAVEWOMEN, you graduated to color and scope photography. What did you think of the change? And what can you tell us about this as-yet un-released wonder?
   Well, it was the first major movie I shot with my new camera, so it was a welcome change from my $25 Target camera that shot AOTOP and COTIW. The final cut of the film (that has had about six different cuts) is a fun movie and I had one of the most cooperative casts ever: an entire bevy of beautiful cave-girls walking around in the desert barefoot, and two great co-stars wearing heavy army costumes in 115 degree weather. They were really swell.

7) What have you learned from the long journey in completing VTTPOTCW?
   The amount of versions that film has had is insane (going from 45 minutes, to 65 minutes, to 55 minutes, to 35 minutes) but it has been an extremely eye-opening experience which has made me realize that the cliché “show don’t tell” is so true. No one goes to see a movie called “Voyage to the Planet of Teenage Cavewomen” and wants to see scenes about people talking about a voyage to a planet of teenage cavewomen.

8) You followed up VTTPOTCW with the fun comedy MIRANDA GRACIA MEETS FRANKENSTEIN. This one was a character-driven comedy piece, and so stood apart from the previous films (in which most of humor came from the limitations of budget). What was filming that one like?
   MGMF had a smaller cast than my other films, and by some miracle everyone’s schedule lined up perfectly and we were able to shoot everything within two weeks so it was a welcome change from my other films where that seldom happened. That’s the thing that makes me stress out the most when making my films: Scheduling. 


9) I must take the hit for suggesting a song for use in MGMF which turned out to be copyrighted, which is the main reason for the film's hold-up in getting released. When it does see release, how do you think people will react to it?
   This is a good question. I feel it really captures the feel of a 1960’s made-for-TV “movie of the week”, but that is not everyone’s cup of tea… so we’ll just have to wait and see if it ever sees the light of day!

10) You did extensive location filming for VTTPOTCW. Did that have any impact on the construction of your next film, THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS? You again made use of the desert and included some location shooting in New York City. And what was the most enjoyable part of filming THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS?
   Interestingly enough, the entire film was originally set in NYC. I hadn’t a complete script ready until the middle of that semester, so each draft included less and less location filming until the very end, giving me a chance to film back home during the summer.
   Again, as with all of my films, I have been entirely blessed with absolutely wonderful friends and family that are so generous to donate their time to be in these films. It was a complete blast to work alongside my friend Ayssette Munoz who was extremely professional, and one of the best actresses that I’ve ever worked with.


11) For TMWFA, you shot in wide scope. What challenges/benefits did you find in going wide-screen?
   It was mostly inspired by THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and RETURN OF THE FLY actually. I think the main benefit was that it looks so cool! Only drawback in the long run is that it doesn’t translate well to smaller screens… but that’s the problem with ANY super widescreen film.

12) You must have been pleased when Alpha released a double feature disk pairing THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS with your much earlier CURSE OF THE INSECT WOMAN. This presented an interesting contrast allowing one to see how your skills as a film-maker have grown. (Since the writing of this question, said release was honored with Mr. Kennedy's second Rondo nomination!)
   Oh, yes. It’s also fun to see the actors that are in COTIW that return two years later to star in TMWFA and think back to the different experiences.

13) When you're not shooting a movie, you're mounting a stage production. Crowds have been increasingly impressed by your productions of shows like King Kong, The Ten Commandments, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Do you intend to continue this annual tradition? And what films would you most like to adapt for the stage?
   Oi, the great Summer Circuses, brain-child of my Dad which has been a tradition for 12 years. The basic premise is to bring students from all walks of life and put on a show with them in two weeks and perform it for the community. We’ve done Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Man of La Mancha, Hamlet, Annie, and an adaptation of The Gorgon when I was eight! This summer we opted for an adaptation of the TV show The Gong Show with all sorts of Texas talent. As with all these circuses, it nearly killed me.

14) What's the creative process for starting a film? How do you decide what kind of a picture you want to make?
   Haha, this is a great question that I really don’t have an answer for. I guess all I can say is that for the most part any movie that I want to make, is a movie that I want to see as an audience member.

15) Has your time in New York changed much to your approach?
   I wouldn’t say so. If anything it has given me a sharper and keener eye on every aspect of film and theater. In that city, one is just thrown into this gigantic ocean of talent and culture and people that it is near-on impossible to not be affected by it.

16) Tell us about your most recent production, SLAVE GIRLS ON THE MOON (details must be kept in check for the time being).
   A friend called it “A Stanley Kubrick-directed Quentin Tarantino science fiction script”. It is much more action-packed and modern than anything I’ve done. It’s the first film completed entirely outside of Texas, with another bunch of beautiful and absolutely angelic actresses. It’s a fun film, it was almost too fun to make, and I’m very proud of it.


17) What types of films do you eventually plan to make? Which genres are you looking forward to tackling?
    I always say I want to make an adaptation of Richard III. For now, I am happy in the science-fiction, B-movie niche I have burrowed for myself but have been interested in doing a 1970’s disaster film. But if there’s a movie I’m dying to see that hasn’t been made, I’ll be looking for ways to make it.

18) Are there any Hollywood actors/producers/studios you would like to eventually work with?
    Gene Wilder, if he ever decides to make movies again.

19) You're pretty much a one-man production crew. You write, act, direct, storyboard, edit, act as technician and stagehand, produce, compose, and we can only imagine what else. What job do you enjoy best?
   I absolutely love editing. That’s the final stage where I can finally see what I wrote down so many months ago come to life. Ha, it’s a bit like being Doctor Frankenstein by sewing together these dead pieces of unrelated scenes and then creating a living thing and unleashing it onto the world.

20) What's next?
   Only time will tell. If I can continue to keep making movies I would be entirely content!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am proud to announce an exclusive! First here, J.K. offers some details about his newest film....

   AIRLINE '79 is a project done for class at Pace University and is basically my experiment film; I'm trying things I haven't done before, most notably using studio lights and returning to the 4:3 aspect ratio. It's an homage (of course) to the AIRPORT films of the 70's and will have its world premiere January 3rd at Cine El Rey in Texas!

I'm certainly looking forward to seeing that! Thanks so much for your time, J.K.!

UPDATE! Feast your eyes on the inspired poster for AIRLINE '79!