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MORIARTY Rumbles About QT Quattro: SPY NIGHT!!

Hey, everyone.

"Moriarty" here with some rumblings from the Lab.

This is not a review. This is not an effort to get you to go see a movie or not go see a movie. This is not "news," per se. This is an experience, one that I consider myself fortunate to participate in each year, and one that I am delighted to be able to share with you.

The worst part of travelling for me is the fact that I get overexcited about where I’m going, about what I might be doing. I start thinking about things and once that starts, I can’t shut my brain off. As a result, I didn’t get a wink of sleep on Wednesday night. Having been awake since ten in the morning, I’d had a full day of work on some of the nefarious projects Harry Lime and I have brewing at the moment. I’d spent the evening with the lovely Marla Singer participating in our latest fleeting national obssession SURVIVOR (I’d called Rich as the winner weeks ago, but didn’t have the balls to bet on it… DAMN!!), and then I’d put in another full evening of work after that.

Despite all the energy expended, I still found myself awake, not even a wink of sleep to my credit, standing in line at LAX on Thursday morning, ready to pick up my ticket to Austin. There was a tall guy directly in front of me in line wrestling with his own luggage, and he kept turning to fix me with a pop-eyed stare he was trying to disguise as disinterest. I was almost convinced he was from INTERPOL (still trying to tie me to various crimes against the Crown even now) until he finally just turned to face me square on.

In a thick Kiwi accent, he said, "You may not be who I think you are, and if you’re not, I’m going to feel foolish for asking, but aren’t you Drew McWeeny?"

For one long moment, I was sure there had to be a Funt in the building somewhere. Finally, I put on my best "please don’t hurt me" smile and responded, "Yeeess…."

With a sudden burst of energy and accent, he explained that he was Anthony Tipson of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival, a print collector from New Zealand who travels with his prints for screenings around the world. He had been asked to bring in several films for the QT Quattro festival and was heading to Austin on the same flight I was. He said he recognized me from the now-infamous still from A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY, that SW documentary. Amazing. I can’t tell you how disconcerting I find the transition from total anonymity to a sort of pseudo-celebrity. Thankfully, the only people who have recognized me and approached me so far have been genuinely cool film geeks, people who just want to have a conversation, who just want to say hello. I ended up sitting with this guy on the flight, although my complete lack of consciousness probably ended up being a bit of a damper for any further conversation.

Once I arrived in Austin, I was picked up by none other than Big Red, Head Geek. Normally, he’s in Los Angeles, and I’m using one of the numerous transports here at the Labs to shuttle him around. I’m the tour guide. When I’m in Austin, though, I’m totally out of my element, especially this time with no Henchmen in tow. Harry arranged for me to stay with Annette Kellerman and Tom Joad for the duration of the festival, but we weren’t set to hook up with them until later, so we stopped by Geek Headquarters for the afternoon. As always, Harry just bombarded me with random coolness, and a few hours just whizzed by. We met Copernicus at Chuy’s for dinner, something which has become a bit of an Austin tradition for me (it was the first place we ate dinner last year, too), and I somehow managed to work my way through a chicken burrito the size of a Volvo. By this point, my lack of sleep was catching up with me, my excitement to be in Austin replaced by sheer exhaustion. I could feel myself ebbing, but we’d already made plans to hook up with El Cosmico, Tom Joad, and a few other friends for a late show of GODZILLA 2000. I had to agree with Harry that it seemed like a perfect warm-up for the type of thing we’d be seeing at the fest, so I went along, determined to make it through the film. Instead, I enjoyed another echo from last year, when I found myself fading in and out of ZULU all night long. G2K is solid entertainment, well dubbed and funny, and I have no earthly idea what it’s about. There’s a pompous serious scientist type who was evidently named "Getakitty," and there was a big flying rock, and a father/daughter team who track Godzilla’s movements, and the Godzilla of this movie is somewhere between destructive force and protector. When we first see him, he’s smashing shit up, seemingly at random, but when the flying rock starts to threaten Tokyo, Godzilla steps up to shut it down. The humans stand around and watch, and a lot of buildings get smashed. May have made more sense to anyone who stayed awake, but you know what? It was just about perfect the way I saw it, anyway. Lots of sudden loud moments, lots of explosions, and the important moral lesson that there is a little Godzilla in every one of us. Wouldn’t have changed a thing.

My first night at the Joad/Kellerman homestead was interesting. I’ve enjoyed meeting the two of them at previous AICN events, but this is a full-on immersion into their world. They’re gracious hosts, and it makes a real difference spending a festival like this either in a hotel or with friends. At a hotel, I’d be waking up, calling people, probably wrestling with a rental car and directions and trying to figure out the profoundly confusing street grids of Austin. Here, I wake up, walk out of the room where I’m staying, and find a plate of fresh-baked muffins and people planning the afternoon and a great computer with a cable modem hookup. An Evil Genius could get spoiled being treated this well.

Before the first night of the fest began, we met Harry and Father Geek at Threadgill’s, another restaurant that I had tried on my previous QT visit. It was as good as I remembered, and the meal sat solid on me as we made our way to the Alamo Drafthouse to claim our seats. We were early, and we got to watch the theater fill up around us. I saw people I recognized from both QT 3 and this year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and I met several new people as well. Before the film, Quentin himself walked down to where we were seated and shot the shit for a few moments. I could see how excited he was, how happy it made him to be kicking things off. He was like a kid with a new toy that he was about to get to play with for the first time. As the theater filled, dozens of spy movie trailers flashed by, most of them seeming to star Dirk Bogarde. There was a Dean Martin/Matt Helm film called THE AMBUSHERS, as well as MODESTY BLAISE, AGENT 8 3/4, OUR MAN IN HAVANA, THE VISCOUNT, AGENT FOR H.A.R.M., DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (which I later learned was almost one of the selections for the evening), OPERATION KID BROTHER (starring Neil Connery and most of the James Bond supporting actors), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE SILENCERS (another Dean Martin/Matt Helm film), THE LIQUIDATOR, and THE ODESSA FILE. It was a great reel of stuff, but I was distracted by everything else going on, and I only paid attention to the trailers in passing. One of the nicer moments was meeting my neighbors in the second row, Bryan and Jennifer, a couple that had driven in from Arkansas just so they could spend five days hanging out with us all at the Drafthouse.

Rebecca Campbell from the Austin Film Society finally kicked the evening off a little bit after eight. She thanked all the people who needed to be thanked, then introduced Quentin Tarantino and got out of the way. He bounded up onstage, grabbed his microphone, and started aggressively working the stage. He’s remarkable in person, both bigger than life and perfectly normal. The thing you realize the more time you spend around Quentin, and the more relaxed he gets around you, is that it’s not an act. Any of it. What you see is what you get. I really admire that in any of the people I meet, the ability to hold on to who they are and what makes them happy without buckling to some test-marketed demographically approved version of themselves. Quentin started out by commenting how strange the idea of corporate sponsorship is for a festival like this one ("The Omni Hotel is paying for us to watch SUCCUBUS. Now, that’s pretty cool."), then began to wax rhapsodic over his IB Technicolor prints for the three films we’d be seeing. For print collectors, IB Technicolor prints in 35mm are the ones to have, the Holy Grail, the dream. "Tonight, you are in dreamland," Quentin promised. He went on a rant about the various outfits worn by Judy Geeson in the first movie of the night. He then vented about how they blew it with the costuming for Vince Edwards, making him look far too Darren Stevens for the spy game. "You can’t go wrong with white shirts and black suits," Quentin said, getting an appreciative laugh from the crowd.

"Great artists don’t do homages. They steal the movie fucking blind." That is a pure statement of philosophy from Tarantino, and he let us in on his process when introducing the first film, telling us to keep our eyes open for the introduction of Beverly Adams. "You’ll know it when you see it. She’s dancing... listening to a record. It’s my kind of thing." He said he almost ripped the scene off for his new film, but he just doesn’t have time to give a character this kind of long moment. He said he’s still planning to rip it off somewhere down the road, so when we see it, we’ll know where it came from.

He bubbled on a bit more about the various lenses he brought along, new lenses that will help make the festival even better than previous ones. He’s got a new 16mm scope lens, and a pretty rare lens that translates matted prints into full 1.85:1 ratio, a process he says is so good that it looks like 35mm. He then closed out his introduction with an admonishment for the crowd. "This isn’t about loving these films because they’re bad films. Don’t be above the movie." It’s an important thought, and one of the things that I take into films is the knowledge of how they were made, of what effort was poured into them. I’m always willing to cut a film slack when it’s sent to me by a first-time filmmaker on videotape or when it’s playing the festival circuit, someone’s self-financed dream. The films that piss me off are the expensive stiffs, the giant wastes of resources.

As usual, things got underway with trailers. Each trailer ring this year seems to be specifically themed. I’m amazed at the stuff we’ve seen. We kicked off with a few films that we’re going to be seeing over the course of QT Quattro, including DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE ("a kiss-kill carnival in Rio!!"), and SAINT JACK (a trailer narrated by and starring Peter Bogdonovich behind the scenes, on location, a trailer which now has me rabid to see the film). Then we saw a couple of spy-themed trailers, including yet another Dean Martin/Matt Helm film, THE WRECKING CREW. It opens with Dino practicing his putt, sipping a drink, smoking, and horsing around as he introduces his four female co-stars, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, and Tina Louise. I wish the Matt Helm films were actually good, because Dino’s hysterical in them. He’s such a cartoon of a cartoon of a cartoon that you have got to give it up and smile about the whole thing. "You know, I’ve been in a lot of foursomes in my time..." Dino can sell that line and make you believe it. The second trailer was MODESTY BLAISE again. Monica Vitti, Terrence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde in some crazy little Euro sunglasses. Love his intro with his little weasel smile. "I’m the villain of the piece." I’ve never seen the movie, but it’s one of those that you can’t help but hope is as cool as it should be. I’ll find out one of these days.

And then HAMMERHEAD finally started, and we were into it. What a way to start. I don’t know about you, but I have a weakness for spy films. Hell... this is me, "Moriarty," movie spy. There’s a reason I got into this, and it’s not entirely because I think we genuinely help to make this town a little better. Part of it is just how much fun there is to be had in the art of being sneaky. Of course, spies in movies are rarely what I would call sneaky. Normally it’s the exact polar opposite. I mean, everyone in the world seems to know James Bond by name when they meet him. How top secret can he be?

This film jumps right in and sets the time and place by dropping us into the middle of a whacked-out art "happening" with body painting and declarations of revolution. In the middle of it, we find Charles Hood, the spy played by Vince Edwards, watching the whole thing dispassionately as he waits for his contact. They finally hook up and he gets the info he came for just in time for the police to break up the exhibit. In the midst of the raid, Edwards slips away, somehow ending up with an adorable little blonde in tow. This is Geeson, and it’s easy to see why QT is smitten with her. She puts me in mind of a very young Goldie Hawn, or even her daughter Kate Hudson, giggly but with something going on underneath.

At home, Edwards sets up his meeting with Hammerhead, his target. Edwards is posing as a private collector who’s going to sell off part of his collection of pornography, a particular weakness of Hammerhead’s. Geeson doesn’t particularly want to let Edwards out of her sight, and she manages to keep turning up, even after he goes to Lisbon for the meeting. Edwards ends up on Hammerhead’s private yacht, which is where the scene with Beverly Adams takes place that QT pointed out pre-movie. It’s a winner, alright. Adams is a raging hottie, and her dancing isn’t so much a form of expression as it is a declaration of war. She shakes and shimmies up a storm, and Edwards takes it all in, bemused and not interested. At the end of the scene, as Adams goes to leave, she fixes Edwards with a serious stare and asks, "How did you like my prayer dance?" Without missing a beat, he shoots back, "Baby, you’ve got the answer to empty churches."

Hammerhead makes his entrance in great Evil Genius style. I’d like to make special note of the fact that so many of my brethren are represented in this festival, in the trailers and the films themselves. It does the heart good. I’ll be giving a special award at the end of the festival for Best Evil Genius, and there’s some serious contenders thus far. Hammerhead gets extra points for his creepy girly white glove fetish and the way he gets lowered down from his helicopter in what looks like a confessional box. When he arrives, Edwards is flummoxed by the fact that Geeson is with him. He and Hammerhead then get down to the actual cat-and-mouse spy game, with Geeson and Adams providing ample distraction.

I ended up enjoying this film quite a bit. As a freak for the genre, I’m always happy to find a spy film I haven’t already seen to death, especially one that treats the business of spying as just exactly that... a business. Vince Edwards dresses like a civil servant in this film, which is pretty much exactly what he is. There’s a great car chase in the film with Edwards and Geeson locked in a coffin. This slick little film never stops moving, a real plus. The breakneck pace smooths over any rougher narrative moments. For the most part, the film is smart enough to avoid the typical pitfalls of the genre. The sense of humor is intentional, never campy, and that goes a long way toward keeping us involved. Judy Geeson is outstanding here, and I’m surprised she never crossed over into bigger roles. By the time the whole thing wraps up with an action sequence in the middle of another major art hippie "happening," I was won over, completely.

After a brief break, QT returned to the stage for a serious dissection of the repeated ass-shots of Judy Geeson on a motorcycle in the film. I think the crowd was in unanimous agreement as to the sheer genius of the shots, delighting QT to no end. He brought up the Matt Helm films as he wound his way through the intro, explaining why he didn’t bring any of them with him despite owning a great print of THE AMBUSHERS. He said the films are totally unwatchable, completely overdosing on that whole campy ‘60s thing that rarely if ever worked. He brought all this up as a way of working into the next film, one of those rare examples of a great spy film that managed to balance a perfect comic book tone with a sharp sense of style and smarts.

First, there were more spy trailers, including THE IPCRESS FILE, SECRET AGENT SUPER DRAGON, and THE LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS?, a "comedy" featuring the "comedy team" of Allen and Rossi, the latter of which may be one of the most particularly loathsome men I’ve ever seen onscreen in any capacity. I certainly can’t imagine laughing at anything he did. I was surprised that I recognized the Nancy Sinatra theme, considering how obscure the film looked. The last trailer on the ring was for a Frankie Avalon thriller (!!!) called THE MILLION EYES OF SU’MARU.

I consider it a real treat to have been introduced to KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE, and it was one of those films that I enjoyed right from the start. I handed myself over at the long helicopter shots of the waterfalls of Rio, and found myself smiling right away as we catch up with an expedition through the jungle led by the "Old White Father," looking almost exactly like Jane’s father in the recent animated TARZAN. He’s narrating the entire opening sequence as we watch it unfold. He tells us about his diary, how complete it is, how detailed it is. His group stumbles across a strange ritual being played out in a large clearing. All the women of a native tribe are doing a fertility dance, offering themselves to the men of the tribe, who seem completely disinterested. As the scientist moves in for a closer look, a shot rings out, and he collapses. Even as he dies, he continues to narrate, saying "Little did I know how important my diary would soon become."

And with that, the film kicks into high gear. In the grand tradition of the Bond films at their prime, an eyepopping stunt sequence against a familiar backdrop opens the proceedings. This is a footchase around and inside of and on that giant Rio Jesus. There’s a number of reality shots in the sequence that made my jaw drop. That’s really just a warm-up, though. There’s a great scene where our main character loses a tail in traffic. There’s a great scene with two scorpions and a shootout. There’s one great scene after another, all of them seemingly just building. When we meet Mr. Aldonian, the lead bad guy, I must admit that I was impressed. As Evil Geniuses go, he’s a winner. He’s got great henchmen who are willing to stalk the various women in his life, leaving Aldonian plenty of time to sit around and be creepy.

As lead actors go, Mike Connors proves himself to be far, far cooler than I ever knew. He’s so cool that he actually manages to pull off the nickname "Touch." I’m jealous. I wish I was cool enough to pull that nickname off, but Touch McWeeny sounds like a porn actor.

Aldonian isn’t out to rule the world, something that always pleases me when I see Evil Geniuses represented in movies. There are some really boring world domination plots I’ve had to sit through, so seeing someone who’s got a real dream, a clear vision of a better world that he can bring into being, can endear a film to me forever. We get early clues about Aldonian’s intentions when we see him using a SLIVER-like monitor room to watch all the various honeys in his life. He’s dating several girls, but if any of them dares to see someone behind his back, Aldonian has them killed.

This seems more than creepy enough, but that’s nothing. Aldonian actually means to render every single man on the planet impotent using a super-secret ray that he is going to put into orbit above the Earth. Somehow this improbable premise works, managing to balance the funny and the smart, the silly and the knowing. There’s an actual sense of mystery about the way things unfold, and we only learn things gradually. Connors earns all the answers he uncovers. For a big chunk of the movie, we don’t even know who is or isn’t an agent for the various intelligence communities. There’s a hysterical dance of betrayal at an embassy party, and it leads into a TRUE LIES sequence in which people reveal their actual identities to each other as a method of foreplay. The gadgets in this film are all delightfully realized, well imagined, and the cast seems enormously entertained by the various goings on. Terry Thomas has my favorite role in the film, the chauffeur to the female English agent who hooks up with Connors. He is the driver of a wildly tricked out Rolls Royce that does all sorts of tricks. For example, it converts itself into a billboard in the middle of a chase, providing Bulova watches with the single greatest example of product placement I’ve ever seen. The ending of the film is very funny, a genuine laugh instead of the groan inducing puns that the Bond films have degenerated into. To top it all off, there’s a wicked score that reminds me of BLUE VELVET that only manages to step up the cool factor by a factor of about a thousand.

In the lobby between movies, I bumped into Tobe Hooper and Amanda Plummer. I’ve met Tobe several times over the years, and recently saw him at a special 70mm screening of LIFEFORCE at the Egyptian in Hollywood. I’ve always been amazed by how soft spoken and friendly Tobe is, considering just how brutal and painful TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is as an experience. Once again, I thought he was charming, and I was equally impressed by Plummer, one of those actresses who can be forgotten in all the hype around each new flavor of the month, but who has done consistently daring work over the years. I had a long conversation with her about the current state of cinema in which she railed about the studio product at the moment and positively gushed about a new young Norwegian filmmaker named David Flamhonc.

The last batch of trailers of the night was made up of SUSPIRIA, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, TELEFON, and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. That’s pretty much where I started to tune out for the evening. I tried to hang on for the full run of LIGHTNING BOLT, but it didn’t stand a chance in the wake of KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE. I thought there were moments of life scattered here and there throughout the film, but after I got over the gimmick of the main character using his checkbook to get out of tight spots, the movie’s meager charms started to wear thin. Maybe if I hadn’t been shown such good films earlier in the evening, I would have worked a little harder to mine those nuggets, but QT actually outprogrammed himself.

We finally rolled out of the Drafthouse sometime after 3 in the morning and staggered out into the night, looking to grab a couple of hours of shuteye before we returned for the single longest night of the festival, the all-night marathon that is a mainstay of each year. But I’ll have my report on that tomorrow. Right now, sleep summons me again, and I know I’ll need it as the week wears on.


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