Sunday, March 29, 2015

A fun blast from the past: Elijah Drenner's smart bio-doc appreciation, THAT GUY DICK MILLER

You know him -- even if you don't know you know him. I'm referring to actor Dick Miller, who will turn 87 come Christmas Day and who has made, according to his wife Lainie, more than 200 movies throughout his 60-year career (the IMBD gives him credit for a mere 175), begin-ning with Apache Woman -- in which the actor played bit roles as both a cowboy and an indian. Beat that for a dandy debut.

Writer/director Elijah Drenner (shown at right) clearly has a soft spot for American B movies from the eras in which Miller worked (and continues to work: this guy's redoubtable), and he has come up with a documentary that should prove loads of fun for anyone (like me) who already knows and loves Miller's work, as well as for neophytes ready to discover it. The guy has (and always did have) a great face. Good looking and with a great little body when he was younger, Miller was also such a solid, professional and talented actor that he could (and did) play every kind of role well -- from comics to heavies, bit parts to big parts to even playing the occasional leading man.

Watching the terrific assortment of clips from many of Miller's movies should make you want to see (and even re-see) them, so funny and juicy and miniscule-budget are so many of them. One of my favorites is Not of This Earth, which has perhaps the silliest space-alien monster in the history of films (I know, I know: the competition is fierce).

Drenner's movie alternates interviews (lots of 'em) with animation, archival footage and film clips to demonstrate his appreciation of and love for the Miller oeuvre. One of the most talked-about of these is Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood, but there are so many more that resonate, too. We hear all about the filming of various of these, especially The Terror, starring early Jack Nicholson along with late-period Boris Karloff -- the latter of whom, after completing one of Corman's low-budget, finish-'em-fast films, still owed the director three more days of work, so Corman built an entire nonsensical horror film around the actor. Hearing and seeing some of it here, complete with tell-all reminiscences is one crazy delight.

As many clips as we see from the 1950s through the 90s (the prime of Mr. Miller), we also spend a lot of time with him and his wife in present day (or nearly -- shown below) and hear what he feels and thinks about various topics. ("Today's actors are nice guys -- but they're not giants," he notes.)

We learn about Miller's love of portraiture (or maybe caricature). When he was a boy, Disney's people came to call, and he thought they wanted to hire him as an artist. When they told him, no, but as a child actor instead, he simply said, No thanks. A guy who evidently always went his own way, Miller is a man who might have been a much bigger star, had he played the game a little more typically. But then he wouldn't be Dick Miller.

We learn a lot about a later Corman-helmed venture, New World Pictures, that helped start directorial careers of quite a few semi-famous names, from Allan Arkush (above) to Joe Dante (front and center, below) to Paul Bartel, as well as hear from some of the New World acting stable like Mary Woronov.

We also learn the importance of the name and character, Walter Paisley and a certain pink jacket, and see our guy in classics like Little Shop of Horrors (originally titled The Passionate People Eater), The Howling and -- ah, yes -- Gremlins, with stops at movies that ought to have been better seen, such as Matinee (below, with Miller shown between John Sayles and John Goodman) and Explorers.

All told, this is one fine trip down memory lane, featuring a look at and appreciation of an actor who is clearly one-of-a-kind and memorably so. Thanks to Anthology Film Archives, That Guy Dick Miller -- distributed by IndieCan Entertainment, Canada, and running 91 minutes -- will be getting more than a week's run here in New York City, with Mr Miller in attendance with wife, Lainie, who will be here in person for opening weekend, Friday & Saturday, April 3 & 4. The opening night screening on Friday, April 3 will be hosted and moderated by Michael Gingold of Fangoria magazine, while director Elijah Drenner will present the screenings on Sunday & Monday, April 5 & 6. Click here for tickets/directions.

You will also be able to see some of these "classic" films, as AFA has scheduled quite the mini-festival of Miller's oeuvre. Here's the entire schedule, complete with AFA's comments regarding the films:

Roger Corman (shown above)
1959, 66 min, 35mm, b&w
In his most famous (and regrettably one of his very few) starring roles, Miller shines as Walter Paisley, an aspiring beatnik who stumbles on art-world success when he accidentally kills his landlady’s cat and, on a whim, covers it in clay. After passing the result off as a genuine sculpture he’s proclaimed an artistic genius. But soon he finds himself pursuing increasingly desperate and horrific means to produce new sculptures and maintain his artistic glory. A BUCKET OF BLOOD is an ingenious satire of counter-cultural pretension, and among the highpoints of Corman and Miller’s careers. Plus: Agnieszka Kurant THE CUTAWAYS 2013, 24 min, digital CUTAWAYS focuses on characters who ended up on the cutting-room floor. Produced in collaboration with the renowned film editor, Walter Murch, and starring Dick Miller, Charlotte Rampling, and Abe Vigoda in their original roles from PULP FICTION, VANISHING POINT and THE CONVERSATION, respectively, it stages a meeting of these phantom characters. –Fri, April 3 at 9:15 and Wed, April 8 at 9:00. DICK & LAINIE MILLER IN PERSON ON FRI, APRIL 3!

Roger Corman
1957, 61 min, 16mm, b&w
One of the earliest films in both Corman’s and Dick Miller’s filmographies, SORORITY GIRL is a scathingly brutal cheapie that traces the downward spiral of spoiled, sociopathic rich girl Sabra (Susan Cabot). Schooled in emotional stuntedness and inhumanity by her haughty, hateful mother, she wreaks havoc on her fellow sorority members at the University of Southern California, shamelessly exploiting and persecuting them. Typically for Corman, what would have been a cynical exploitation film in almost anyone else’s hands is, despite the conditions of its production, a blunt but remarkably perceptive portrait of a sociopath – though there’s bitchy fun to be had too! –Sat, April 4 at 5:00 and Sat, April 11 at 7:30. DICK & LAINIE MILLER IN PERSON ON SAT, APRIL 4!

Joe Dante
1984, 106 min, 35mm. With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman, and Dick Miller.
Joe Dante’s GREMLINS was produced by Spielberg and became a huge hit, but it’s no E.T. True, its ‘hero,’ Gizmo the mogwai, is an adorable, wide-eyed, furry little creature of unknown origins (by way of Chinatown). But, given as a gift to our human protagonist Billy (Zach Galligan), Gizmo comes along with three rules: never expose it to bright light, never get it wet, and never, EVER feed it after midnight. Needless to say, rules (especially in horror movies) are made to be broken, and soon the placid town of Kingston Falls is overrun with murderous, anarchic, and not at all furry Gremlins, who lay a path of destruction which Dante delights in portraying. A bona fide 1980s popcorn-movie classic whose mischievous spirit and Looney Tunes-inspired havoc remain fresh thirty years later, GREMLINS is also graced with one of the best latter-day performances by Dick Miller, as Billy’s Gremlins-menaced neighbor Mr. Futterman. –Sat, April 4 at 9:15 and Fri, April 10 at 7:00. Join us on Sat, April 4 at 9:15 for an historic occasion: GREMLINS cast members Dick Miller, Zach Galligan, and Phoebe Cates will be here in person to present the screening! 

Roger Corman
1958, 66 min, 16mm, b&w
WAR OF THE SATELLITES attempts Kubrickian themes on a Bowery Boys budget. As humans prepare to leave their planet, an advanced alien race sends down an agent to replace the mild-mannered scientist in charge of the space project. Once again, rebellious youth saves the day, as the professor’s assistant (the irrepressible Dick Miller) sees through the deception and takes matters into his own hands. What differentiates Mr. Corman from more dedicated schlockmeisters like William Castle and Jess Franco is his almost unshakable sobriety. He seldom falls back on making fun of his material, preferring instead to play by the rules and with a straight face.” –Dave Kehr, NEW YORK TIMES –Sun, April 5 at 5:15 and Sat, April 11 at 9:00.

Joe Dante
1990, 106 min, 35mm.
With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman, and Dick Miller.
Rare is a sequel that bests the original, but GREMLINS 2 manages to outsmart and undermine its blockbuster predecessor a hundred times over. A parable for our times (circa 1990), this improbable tale takes place in the towering Manhattan super-building of Clamp Enterprises, where poor furry Gizmo is being used as a guinea pig by gonzo billionaire Daniel Clamp (played with a Donald Trump-like zeal by the rubbery John Glover). Next thing you know Gizmo gets wet and, well, hell breaks loose. Luckily his pals Billy (Zach Galligan), Katie (Phoebe Cates) and Murray (Dick Miller, natch) are there to help save him and New York from the whacked-out antics of the deplorable, deadly Gremlins. Simultaneously a tribute to the great sight gags of Frank Tashlin and a riotous parody of disaster movies in the Irwin Allen mold, this great meta-film is 100% Joe Dante. –Sun, April 5 at 9:15 and Fri, April 10 at 9:15.

 Joe Dante & Allan Arkush
1976, 83 min, 35mm.
Print courtesy of the Joe Dante and Jon Davison Collection at the Academy Film Archive.
The directorial debut of both Joe Dante (THE HOWLING, GREMLINS) and Allan Arkush (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), this deliriously entertaining pastiche of exploitation film tropes was the result of a bet between producer Jon Davison and Roger Corman that Davison could make the cheapest film yet created for Corman’s New World Pictures. Dante and Arkush pulled off this impressive feat by shooting on leftover short ends of raw stock and by freely incorporating footage from previous New World films, including NIGHT CALL NURSES, BIG BAD MAMA, and DEATH RACE 2000. Amongst its many references and homages to drive-in cinema classics, it includes a cameo by Dick Miller reprising his role as BUCKET OF BLOOD’s Walter Paisley! –Mon, April 6 at 9:00, Thurs, April 9 at 9:00, and Sun, April 12 at 7:00.

Joe Dante
1981, 91 min, 35mm. With Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, and Slim Pickens.
A popular Los Angeles TV reporter is given doctor’s orders to visit a remote consciousness-raising retreat called ‘The Colony’ after a traumatic incident with a serial killer. The bizarre behavior of the residents begins to make sense once the reporter discovers that she is staying amidst a community of werewolves! THE HOWLING is not only a great werewolf movie, but also a witty and knowing commentary on the genre itself. "The film is as full of impressive werewolf transformation scenes as of social satire, which is no surprise given that the special effects were done by Rob Bottin (THE THING) and the screenplay was written by John Sayles.” –THE WEXNER CENTER –Tues, April 7 at 9:00 and Sun, April 12 at 9:00. 

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