Wednesday, February 29, 2012

67. MAN ON WIRE (2008)

This extraordinary documentary by James Marsh (WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, PROJECT NIM) tells the story behind the planning, preparation and covert execution of Philippe Petit's unnanounced, illegal, death-defying high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Some dramatic recreations are included, but it's gratifying to discover how much documentary footage from the time exists.

You might think that a film like this would be at least somewhat cut-and-dried -- after all, we know that Petit was successful -- but it's not; MAN ON WIRE is not just about the event, it's about some preparatory events that primed him for this ultimate demonstration of his powers of balance and concentration, and also about his relationships with the support team so necessary to his various triumphs. Their comments about getting to the point where Petit was able to perform his feat are no less intense, no less daring on their own terms (some had to back away even from that level of responsibility), and the film as a whole must be counted as remarkably nerve-fraying for a documentary.

MAN ON WIRE is also one of those rare documentaries that work on a level well above and beyond the reporting of true events. Petit's journey to the top of the world on the narrowest of floors is vividly approached and conveyed as an artistic undertaking, a death challenge accepted for no other reason than to do something that is at once astonishingly poetical and singular in its achievement. It becomes a poem, in its own right, about what it means to be a visionary, about the beauty and terror of taking risks, about accepting the responsibility to push the achievements of your species that much farther beyond the cusp of human comprehension. Though no motion picture film footage exists of the actual WTC walk (it's depicted in numerous still photos), to watch this documentation is to feel the exquisite swordplay of its mortifications and manic joys, and to feel exalted afterwards.

The film is almost as fascinating in its study of the performance's aftermath. Petit (who was in a serious relationship) admits to succumbing to an admirer's seduction afterwards; clearly, he came so very close to death and ascended to such a vulnerable spiritual plane that he couldn't help but venture to the equal and opposite end of the physical, what he calls "the flesh." The mania resulting from his success also affected his other friendships, the details of which I should leave to your discovery. What could not have been factored into the eventual outcome of this 1974 footage was that it would only reach an audience at a time when the twin towers no longer existed, when many others fell or jumped to their deaths from the same building, when the feat would stand out so colossally as unrepeatable. It's these facts that make MAN ON WIRE such a powerful poem in its own right, and which reinforce Petit's dream as something other than madness. Because even if he falls, isn't it better to sacrifice yourself on the altar of a beautiful idea, a supreme expression of the enormous beauty of freedom, than to plummet as fallout from a declaration of war?

Viewed on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

66. UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (1961)

At the age of fourteen, Tolly Devlin (David Kent) spends New Year's Eve on the streets of New York, rolling drunks for wallets and wristwatches, until he's sobered up by witnessing a murder starkly silhouetted against the brick wall of an alley. The victim turns out to be his father and the evening's choruses of "Auld Lang Syne" brand his brain with old acquaintences he can never forget -- the small time crooks who croaked his old man, beginning with Vic Ferrar (Peter Brocco), the one assailant whose face he actually saw. The orphaned Tolly escapes from a children's home to embark on a willful life of crime calculated to lead him back into the presence of the imprisoned Ferrar. The adult Tolly (Cliff Robertson) finally finds his quarry on his deathbed, where Ferrar begs for forgiveness and, to receive it, rats the names of the other three killers before Tolly bids him farewell with the single word "Fink!"

The rest of the film follows Tolly, freed from prison in a self-made horseblanket suit, deeper into the underworld as he seeks his father's killers, who have ascended to the city's highest ranks of crime, controlling the areas of drugs and prostitution. As often happens in the films of Samuel Fuller, a glamorous gal gets in the way, met as part of the scheme and whose offer of love gums up Tolly's plans -- in this case, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), a compromised moll whom he saves from a potentially mortal beating from hitman Gus (Richard Rust). The dizzy dame loves Tolly, wants to have his kids.

Produced, directed and scripted by Fuller from a series of SATURDAY EVENING POST articles by Joseph Dineen, UNDERWORLD U.S.A. is slick, stylish and hard-hitting -- cameraman Hal Mohr (Joseph Losey's THE LONG NIGHT) turns the opening sequence into a tour de force of camera mobility and stark lighting as it follows the young Tolly through a labyrinth of back streets toward the most decisive moment in his life. This in turn is complemented by an equally mobile final sequence that follows Tolly -- stumbling down the streets, shot and bleeding profusely after single-handedly dethroning every mob boss in town -- back to what might well be the very same alley, ironically knocking over a trashcan marked "Keep Our City Clean" before collapsing in a heap under a poster asking us all to "Give Blood Now." Mohr's long tracking shots look like the classic noir scene that might have inspired the finale of Godard's BREATHLESS, but in this case it's BREATHLESS that came first.

If anything prevents UNDERWORLD U.S.A. from being top-flight Fuller, it's casting that feels in most cases a few steps to the right of perfection. The three killers are soft, not particularly memorable, which makes their ultimate defeat not especially cathartic -- which, granted, may be part of the point, but is not dramatically satisfying. Robertson is fine, but Tolly himself is a louse (witness his response to Cuddles' declaration that she wants to bear his children) and not given enough background to give his dedication to revenge sufficient motivation. Robert Emhardt is suitably sleazy as the pudgy, pool-ensconced Public Enemy #1 Earl Connors, and Rust -- who runs down a little girl on a bicycle -- makes a convincingly heartless trigger man (his penchant for putting on shades before performing his hits recalls Clu Gulager's star turn in Don Siegel's THE KILLERS). However, after her almost breathtaking first appearance as an angel face glimpsed in a world of moral squalor, Dorn's Cuddles doesn't quite live up to her promise as a female lead. More interesting is Beatrice Kay's world-weary Sandy, a kind of surrogate mother to Tolly who collects dolls because she's unable to have children of her own. The film was made independently on the backlot at Universal, resulting in the irony that "UNDERWORLD U.S.A." is sometimes composed of the same suburban streets we remember from such wholesome fare as LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Viewed on  Sony Pictures DVD, as part of THE SAMUEL FULLER FILM COLLECTION.

65. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

This Samuel Fuller thriller -- about a pickpocket named Skip (Richard Widmark), a "muffin" named Candy (Jean Peters) whose purse he rifles on a subway train, and the commie boyfriend (Richard Kiley) who was using her purse to transport a microfilm strip of atomic secrets -- is one of his most engrossing, perfectly realized films. I had the opportunity to see it recently on a friend's home projection screen set-up and, though I have a fairly large screen at home, seeing it this way was an object lesson in how Fuller's grandiose, operatic vision benefits by being writ large on a theater-sized screen. Emotions that otherwise look outsized, especially when bestowed on the lowest crust of society, suddenly seem in balance while moments of intimacy, such as the remarkable scene of Skip soothing the dame he's just roughed up, suck us in so close we can feel the heat between them and the extent to which he's manipulating her willing emotions.

Likewise, this is a movie about New York City. It helps to see it full-sized to appreciate how Fuller depicted it as both metropolis and microcosm. His NYC contains a world and an underworld as well as an invisible world bent on conquering both. It's usually Fuller's style to go with big and broad brushstrokes, but here it's his attention to minute details that give the film its reality, like the way Skip uses a crate and a pulley to keep his beer cold because his houseboat doesn't have a refrigerator. There's also an important scene that takes place in a train station -- an impressive standing set on the Fox lot that you may recognize from Fritz Lang's MANHUNT, the Falseface episode of TV's BATMAN and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Widmark is at the top of his game, pulling Candy much of the time for his own selfish gain, grinning at her mischievously and cruelly whenever her back is turned, and his satisfying character arc is fully complemented by Peters, whose Candy (a role Betty Grable turned down, leading to her studio suspension) is arguably the warmest, sweetest, most believably confused and enamored heroine Fuller ever wrote. But even her performance is eclipsed by Thelma Ritter's Moe Williams, a necktie street vendor turned informant who is carefully saving whatever dough she can scrape together to avoid a burial in Potter's Field. Considering what an acerbic comic figure she has been up to that point, her final scene opposite Kiley is terribly moving in its tenderness and humanity, and it won her a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Fuller (whose script is ripe with some delicious double entendres) can be briefly seen as a cigar-puffing attendant in a men's public bathroom. See it and, if at all possible, see it big.

Viewed on Criterion DVD.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

62 - 64. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO TRILOGY - EXPANDED EDITION (MILLENNIUM, 2010)

This made-for-TV expansion of the three films based on the late Stieg Larsson's series of novels -- THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Män som hattar kvinnor, 2009; directed by Niels Arden Oplev), THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (Flickan som lekte med elden, 2009; directed by Daniel Alfredson) and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST (Luftslottet som sprängdes, 2009; also directed by Alfredson) -- adds over two hours of footage to the films as released separately, resulting in a six-part series running 558 minutes.

I did not see the films individually, but the common response I heard was that they started out well then grew increasingly ridiculous; to the contrary, I found the miniseries experience remarkably balanced and entertaining. It's exceptionally good television, but television has never adapted well to the big screen, being keyed to more intimate viewing. This is not to say it isn't occasionally ludicrous -- it's clueless about how magazines are produced, for example. Donna and I laughed when we saw Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykqvist), crusading editor of the magazine MILLENNIUM, standing with his printer as a new issue was rolling off the presses, finished and perfect bound in great numbers, and asking the printer if a color on the front cover might be bumped up a bit! Also, though everyone in the MILLENNIUM office has a computer, the page spreads of the issue in progress are shown posted on a wall, so that the staff can pass by and note how well it's shaping up. So who knows how far afield the story goes from the facts of Swedish courtroom procedure or anything else... and really, who cares? The story has some socially responsible comments to make, particularly concerning cruelty towards women and how a male political hierarchy encourages secret exhibitions of abuse, but -- as the serial format practically screams -- it's not significantly more than escapist entertainment.

Noomi Rapace, though not Lisbeth Salander as Larsson described her (as a kind of adult Pippi Longstocking), is a fascinating heroine, withholding herself from the viewer and her fellow characters as she grows increasingly spiky in response to her distrust of the world around her. Nykvist is a robust hero, and I also liked Lena Endre as his warm but believably frazzled co-worker and lover Erika. (Where is the husband we keep hearing about? Evidently happily preoccupied elsewhere.) The supporting cast includes Per Oscarsson in one of his last roles as Lisbeth's last remaining relative, and the villains of the three respective pieces -- Peter Andersson as Lisbeth's abusive guardian, Georgi Staykov as Zalachenko, Anders Ahlbom as Dr. Teleborian, and Mikael Sprietz as the lumbering blonde giant -- are all top notch. Viewers may be left wondering why all the hubbub about the dragon tattoo, which is scarcely shown or mentioned; it's my reading of the story that it's there as a symbol of the pain inflicted upon Lisbeth by society, which is the dragon she must slay. Watching her do it is a pleasure, especially in this more detailed presentation.

Viewed on Netflix.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

61. ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN (SLAVES OF CRIME, 1986)

This film, nearly his last gasp of 1980s playful ingenuity, represents Jess Franco's almost certainly unauthorized return to Sax Rohmer territory, long after his late 1960s work in the Fu Manchu and Sumuru film series. Set in the Far East, “a paradise of drugs and corruption” (a title card informs us), it stars Lina Romay -- who passed away last week at the age of 57 -- as Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu (Fah Lo Suee in the novels), who controls all the vice in her part of the world from a hotel stronghold (apparently protected by a single nearly-nude woman in a G-string holding a machine gun) and who complements her work as a kingpin (queenpin?) of crime with exotic dancing in one of her many nightclubs-cum-opium dens.

The story attends her plan to exact great wealth from a rock trio known by the intentionally absurd name of Rocky & Simón – not to be confused with Simon and Garfunkel, as one of her acolytes does. The three members of the nominal duo – “the famous” Rocky Walters, Simon and Jessy – are abducted by members of Suee’s female army, wearing hallucinogen-tinged perfume that induces them, along with torture, into signing over the rights to their respective fortunes, after which they are killed. Neil Smith -- the son of Fu Manchu’s old adversary Sir Nayland Smith -- brings the story to a close, if not saves the day, by napalming Suee's headquarters from an AV8B Harrier jet. Though we hear Suee's voice promising “The world shall hear from me again… very soon!,” there were no more Suee adventures.

Its general outline prepares one for at least a moderate disaster but, as a pulp adventure filmed with little means, ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN overcomes such expectations as a curious and moderate success. Franco’s ability to conjure a semi-plausible Orient (in a WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN kind of way) from Spanish locations is admirable, considering that he had nothing more to work with than some pagoda-like architecture in Valencia and the ornate exteriors and adornments of some Chinese restaurants. In keeping with the visual direction of his work at this time, the exteriors are composed in ways to accentuate their cubist, geometric formality – locations are devised by juxtaposing shots of unrelated buildings and structures -- and the characters are filmed largely in close-up, encouraging the viewer to insert them into those disparate locations mentally. The same geometric formations are carried over into the arrangements of Suee’s comparatively few number of followers onscreen, in a manner recalling Franco’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL approach to filming THE GIRL FROM RIO; in one set-up, Suee’s imperious approach is filmed through the inverted V of a woman’s legs, meeting in the crotch and achieving a militarized visual symbol of female power.

For much of the film, Franco films Suee in ways that hint at her malefic presence rather than show her plainly; he achieves this with back-lighting, silhouetted profiles, and in one particularly effective instance, he shows Lina Romay’s Kabuki-painted face peering through a pane of pebbled glass, which has the effect of turning her visage into an abstract, pointillized portrait of herself. In such moments, Lina becomes Suee to an extent she cannot on the strength of her makeup alone, whose crudity in truth inhibits an otherwise ambitious performance. Franco also makes careful use of his Rainbow 8x camera filter – memorably used in the delirium sequences of THE SEXUAL STORY OF O (1981) -- allowing directly lensed light sources to bloom with parabolas of color, infusing certain scenes with accents of magic and the hallucinatory.

It’s a reasonably well-acted, nicely photographed little film, but given the embarrassingly low means at its disposal, there are points where it could find no way around laughing at itself. At one point, we see a character -- through a distorting lens -- using the cheapest possible "grappling hook" to scale a wall; when the actor steps up to make the climb, he's revealed as tall enough to simply throw a leg over. The finale, too, was written far beyond the production's ability to depict it; it's concocted from stock footage of a Harrier jet flight, closeups of Neil Smith sitting inside a car wearing a headset, tilted and violently shaken handheld footage of a hotel exterior, shots of Suee screaming at a window, and cutaways to burning heaps of whatever. If we take the entire film in a parodic sense, which is not out of the question given the silly rock star abduction plot, the finale and other half-assed action scenes become an amusing poke at other films in this same genre that didn’t have the creative ingenuity to pull off effects they couldn’t afford.

No other information or roles can be found for cast member Maite Saury, whose name one can’t help noticing may be a pun on the expression “mighty sorry.”   

Viewed on Spanish DVD-R with Spanish subtitles.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

60. WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

I wanted to watch something to commemorate Richard Matheson's 86th birthday and chose this film under the mistaken impression it had not resurfaced since Warner Home Video's laserdisc release. I subsequently found out that it was also available not only on DVD but on Blu-ray AND via Netflix, and that the DVD and Blu-ray editions contain an alternate ending that sounds more satisfying than the one director Vincent Ward used. Different things conspired to prevent me from writing about this film at the time I watched it, and over the last few days. Suffice to say, it's better than I remembered, being well-acted by its principals (Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Anabella Sciorra and Max von Sydow), visually imaginative and lush, and written with real spiritual and philosophic depth, but it suffers from tacking a pat, sell-out happy ending onto a far more complex premise. My appreciation of the overall effort may also have been hampered by viewing it on laserdisc under less than optimal conditions.

Viewed on Warner Home Video laserdisc.

Monday, February 20, 2012

59. ACROSS 110th STREET (1972)

Finally catching up with this slow-cooking cult item taught me that I had been living with two serious misconceptions: first, that director Barry Shear never made a better movie than WILD IN THE STREETS (1968); and second, that when Quentin Tarantino used Bobby Womack's theme song from this blaxploitation picture under the main titles of JACKIE BROWN, he was simply paying homage to one of his favorite films from the era and genre Pam Grier had ruled like a queen. Turns out his reasons ran considerably deeper than that.

Nothing I'd ever heard about ACROSS 110th STREET prepared me for a film that cuts through race to say something true about the dreams we all live with and the goals we set for ourselves to make life bearable. All of its principal characters share something crucial in common with the principal characters of JACKIE BROWN: they can feel the dancefloor shrinking under their feet, they're getting older, and they realize that the time to make a grab for the brass ring had better be now, if they're ever going to do it. ACROSS 110th STREET is about three black working stiffs (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard, Antonio Fargas) who pose as cops to rip off $300,000 from an apartment where it's being counted before being turned over to the Mob boss running Harlem. They're all 40-something and impoverished, living in tenements with rats and roaches, where flushed toilets back up into their sinks, with their stoic women and their shared dreams; Benjamin's character is also saddled with epilepsy.

But as Jean Renoir wrote in THE RULES OF THE GAME, "The real hell of life is that everyone has their reasons," and it's equally important for Nick D'Salvio (an uncommonly vicious Anthony Franciosa), as a 45 year old lapdog to crime boss Don Gennaro (Frank Macetta) who's been allowed to take it easy for too long, to recover that money and thus live up to the old man's expectation that he can "take care of" this problem. Yet even his dreams are trumped by those of police captain Matelli (Anthony Quinn), who at age 55 feels the tightening noose of retirement and craves one last chance to either redeem himself for a career of corruption or to simultaneously punish and glorify himself with an apparent hero's death. And then there's Lt. Kotto (Yaphet Kotto), younger and more principled than the higher-ranking Matelli, who is placed in charge of the case because he's black and lives for the opportunity to advance in his job because of the man he is rather than for the color he is. As it happens, all of their dreams begin to unravel when the heist driver Jackson (Fargas) cannot resist celebrating his success by living his dream by flashing his newfound wealth around similarly disadvantaged friends and hookers who want a piece of the pie for themselves -- $100, a dream to them which is in fact just a remaining morsel of a $5,000 bounty nibbled down to almost nothing by the middle men spreading the word.

This theme of time-sensitivity becomes all the more meaningful when we appreciate that it was scripted by Luther Davis (himself 55 at the time, working from Wally Ferris' novel ACROSS 110th), and that it was directed by Barry Shear at the age of 49, when the milestone age of 50 must have been dangling in front of his own ability to dream like an admonition to slow down. Shear's directorial feat with this film becomes doubly meaningful when we realize that he died in 1979 at the age of 56, and that his seven remaining years were spent almost entirely toiling in the trenches of television; he would make only one more theatrical feature but it probably wasn't a happy experience for him, in that THE DEADLY TRACKERS required him to take the directorial seat away from a man he must have admired: Samuel Fuller. But with ACROSS 110th STREET, whether or not he ever knew it, Shear realized a dream he shared with countless others who never got as close: he made a legitimately great American movie.

Viewed on Netflix.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

58. RAPE SQUAD (ACT OF VENGEANCE, 1974)

This film is among the titles reviewed by Kim Newman in our next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (#167). It's as unlikely a title to attract him as it is to attract me, but I frankly couldn't resist the opportunity to see it after reading Kim's incredible description. Could there really be a rape revenge movie from the director of the Count Yorga films about a pre-Jason hockey-masked cocksman who makes his victims sing "Jingle Bells" as they are being attacked? Well, it's all true -- and so is the hilarious dialogue Kim cites in his review, which I'll leave to him to share with you, for the most part.

Peter Brown (Deputy Johnny McKay on TV's LAWMAN) plays Jack, the rapist, who has such a high opinion of himself that he makes his victims repeat that he's the best they've ever had, and documents his daily activities on a tape recorder under the heading "Diary of a Champ." His initial victim is Linda, played by Jo Ann Harris of THE BEGUILED, who is so deeply insulted by the police handling of her case (hilariously overplayed) that she gets together with other victims (Jennifer Lee, Lisa Moore, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin) to assemble a Rape Squad. They take some after-hours self-defense courses from a judo instructor (former SHINDIG dancer Lada Edmund Jr.); it took Lada ten years of hard work to get her black belt, so her advice to them is more along the lines of "Stick a hatpin in a man's vitals and you can bet he's had it!" One night, while soothing their collective muscles in a nude hot tub get-together, the Squad meet another health club patron who tells them she was once raped by an ex-boyfriend, which is all the evidence they need to entrap him into a severe beating and apartment trashing that ends with them stripping him and pouring blue dye onto his genitals from a bottle labelled "Sulphuric Acid." Like the cops, Linda's hippie boyfriend tries to persuade her to stop but he too lacks the necessary finesse to make a convincing case ("You're gonna get yourself killed if you don't stop trampin' around like some diesel dyke!").  As the ladies are girding their loins for vengeance, Jack continues his campaign of rape, this time crossing the line into murder. ("I actually killed someone," he reports in 'Diary of a Champ.' "Not a nice feeling. I'll have to find me a new one and get over that.") The squad's attempt to set a trap for Jack backfires and they are ultimately led into one of his.

Having signed his Yorga films as "Bob Kelljan," the director reverted to his birthname of Robert Kelljchian for this film -- probably to protect his reputation rather than to advertise this as a more personal achievement. This is very weak tea, containing none of the style or energy evident from those better-known endeavors, nor the conviction necessary to treat such subject matter in an honorable way. It's also not as funny as you'd think from its idiot dialogue, and not because the rape scenes are sobering, because they're not. Instead, RAPE SQUAD (which carries the onscreen title ACT OF VENGEANCE) is basically hornier vengeance stuff concocted in the wake of Michael Winner's DEATH WISH, fairly dripping with cynicism in the way it sniffs up the skirts of its actresses as they bend over hoods to tuck anti-rape flyers under the windshield wipers of parked cars. Furthermore, as more women join Linda's cause and the narrative goes behind the mask to focus on Jack, Jo Ann Harris loses her centrality as the film's protagonist and never regains it, which deprives the film of the sort of righteous finale a picture like this demands. She does exact her vengeance, but also goes beyond it -- yet she isn't stained or compromised by her commission of murder, which shows how quickly forgotten by AIP was the concluding message of Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL only a few short years after its release.

Viewed on Netflix, where the image was squeezed at 4:3 and required widening on my monitor to 16:9. It's also available as ACT OF VENGEANCE on DVD-R as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection.

57. ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS (2011)

This feature-length film about Spanish filmmaker José Ramón Larraz (aka Joseph Larrath) is not precisely a documentary. Though it is actually the work of another filmmaker, Celia Novis, it feels closer to the realm of autobiographical essay. As such, it is illuminating as little of real use has yet been written about Larraz in English.

Now in his early 80s, Larraz has made nearly 30 films in a variety of different genres, primarily horror and erotica, but only a few of these are represented or even mentioned (specifically WHIRLPOOL, SYMPTOMS and VAMPYRES); Novis makes no attempt to tell his whole story or to come to editorial grips with his entire achievement. Instead, she poetically weaves together a free-form portrait of the artist -- as he is today, as a boy, as someone who began to make films in middle age (he made WHIRLPOOL at 41), as an artist who has, and continues to, also express himself in other media -- from original footage and sound bytes, combined with cleverly adapted autobiographic comics stories written and drawn by Larraz himself. The latter proves a point made by Josef von Sternberg, a pivotal meeting in Larraz' thirties, that he was already a film director before shooting any film because he had trained himself in the comics medium.

We see Larraz working at home, still using a typewriter, walking around and visiting a cemetery. He talks about the writers who most influenced him, about the house he shared for many years with a wife whose name we never learn, about the feelings of guilt that manifest to him at night in the faces of various unnamed lloronas from his love life to whom he now wishes he'd been kinder. He also remarks on the obscenity of growing old, which he says removes one from the ongoing film of life, which becomes a kind of living death when you realize there are no days ahead likely to bring you another kiss on the lips.

This one remark seems to hover above the rest, so it's a pleasure to see Larraz honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Sitges Film Festival, which is presented to him by the stars of his greatest success VAMPYRES (1974) Marianne Morris and Anulka (Dziubinska), whom he exclaims he never expected to see again in this life -- and an even greater pleasure when Anulka leans over, as camera flashes capture the moment, to kiss her director on the mouth.

Viewed on DVD-R, courtesy of the director. More details are available at the film's website.  

56. BLOOD BATH (1966)

This American International release -- signed by directors Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman -- is at the heart of one of the movie mysteries that helped to launch VIDEO WATCHDOG twenty-two years ago.

Here's the background in a nutshell: After making THE YOUNG RACERS in Ireland in 1963, Roger Corman travelled farther east across Europe in search of cheap exploitable product. He was offered a script about to go into production entitled Operacija Ticijan ("Operation: Titian"), a Yugoslavian thriller about art theft to be directed by one Rados Novakovic. The feature had no exploitable stars, so Corman offered to bring a couple of English-speaking actors aboard. Also part of the package was Francis Ford Coppola -- who had parlayed his grunt work as THE YOUNG RACERS' sound man into a pitch that led to his directorial debut with DEMENTIA 13, which he shot in Ireland during Corman's East European jaunt with YOUNG RACERS cast members William Campbell and Luana Anders, as well as local acting talent Patrick Magee; it would be his job to write an English variant of the Yugoslavian script and, in effect, parlay Novakovic's direction to the English-speaking actors. Operacija Ticijan was released abroad to no particular success in 1963, but the Coppola-supervised English version -- despite starring DEMENTIA 13's William Campbell and Patrick Magee -- was considered unreleasable by Corman. It never had a theatrical release and didn't surface until the end of the decade, via TV syndication. This was well after Coppola had made his name with YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW and FINIAN'S RAINBOW, so PORTRAIT IN TERROR (as it came to be called) was finally credited to a whole slew of phony names, topped by director "Michael Road."

Because PORTRAIT IN TERROR was not immediately (or for that matter, ever) profitable, Corman subsequently hired Jack Hill to build a new feature around the Yugoslavian footage AND the Ticijan footage, which had cast William Campbell as a painter named Antonio Sordi. Seeing points of similarity between the scenery of Dubrovnik and Venice, California, Hill proposed BLOOD BATH -- a PSYCHO-like film that would take place amid the Venice, California arts scene, with Campbell now playing a deranged artist who slays his models to create a popular series called "Dyed Dead Reds" -- an idea not far removed, even eponymously, from Corman's own A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959). Hill lured Campbell back in for reshoots and hired PLAYBOY Playmate Marrisa Mathes (June 1962) to play a female lead who becomes a victim, but despite work that seemed to be turning out well in Hill's estimation, Corman pulled the plug on the project, leaving BLOOD BATH stillborn. Subsequently, Stephanie Rothman was hired to concoct something from the assembled material of Novakovic, Coppola AND Hill, and this -- combined with new footage shot with Campbell, Sandra Knight and Lori Saunders -- became the barely feature-length film theatrically released as BLOOD BATH. In this incarnation, Sordi was not only a psychotic painter but a shape-shifting vampire! To make matters still more confusing, BLOOD BATH was subsequently expanded for television syndication with additional Ticijan and Rothman footage under the title TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE. Even the score by Ronald Stein is assembled from cues from other films, reaching as far back as a callipe cue from THE SHE CREATURE (1958).

I wrote an in-depth account of this history over three early issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG in a series of articles called "The Trouble With Titian" (VW 4, 5 and 7), but I did so without ever seeing the theatrical cut of BLOOD BATH, which is now finally available as an MGM Limited Edition Collection title. I can easily understand what I initially found so fascinating and mysterious about this oddity; it seems to simultaneously coexist somewhere in Europe, maybe Venice, and the California Venice, a conflated Venice of the mind. Hill's satirical scenes of the Venice arts community (featuring SPIDER BABY's Sid Haig and Karl Schanzer) riff on Corman's BUCKET OF BLOOD, much as Rothman's scenes involving Campbell and Lori Saunders as the taunting, witchy Melizza riff on the morbid romances of his Poe pictures. And Hill's scary set pieces -- the death of Mathes and the climax of the wax-encased dead breaking from their shells to have their revenge on the accursed artist -- have real flair, conspicuously from the same mind and eye that hatched SPIDER BABY. If we must assess BLOOD BATH as a whole, it's a piebald piece of junk, cobbled together from ill-fitting bits... but those bits represent the better efforts of a number of talented contributors. In short, it's not likely to interest the average viewer, but for those who can identify directors from their fingerprints should find its mottled complexion a source of endless fascination.

Viewed on Netflix.  

55. LOLITA (1962)

Stanley Kubrick's film of LOLITA remains a controversial picture, but for reasons people really didn't care about when Vladimir Nabokov's novel was riding high in the minds of the general public; namely, its paternity. It is not quite Nabokov's novel and, despite the screen credit, it's not even Nabokov's script, but what it is, is uniquely valuable, memorable, quotable and devilishly funny.

The broadest outlines of the narrative are from the novel, but the structure and tone are quite different. The dialogue tends to be playful in a Peter Sellers way, even when he's not delivering it, though some of Nabokov's language occasionally peeks through, like champagne bubbles through a mist of condensation. What is specifically missing from the film is three-fold: 1) the full force of its erotic transgression, as a fiftysomething college professor finds his ideal in the form of a young teenage girl, 2) a sense of its protagonist's past, to help explain the Poe-like origins and psychology behind his turbulent, corruptive feelings, and 3) the novel's preening tone of romantic longing, which makes of Nabokov's natural perspicacity a kind of peacock display of virtuosic virility. The film doesn't quite give us the light of Humbert's life, nor the fire of his loins.

Nevertheless, James Mason embodies Humbert Humbert in one of his finest performances, which miraculously straddles the comic and the tragic though the surrounding material itself is often disarmingly deadpan. When he hits his peak tragedian notes in his final meeting with the object of his obsession (Dolores "Lolita" Haze, played by Sue Lyon), he's played the game of love with her so cagily and playfully up till then that the real depths of his feeling overwhelm him (and us) from nowhere, but we are no less sympathetic for that. Shelley Winters is a delight as the selfconsciously artsy widow whom Humbert marries to gain chess-like proximity to her teenage nymphet daughter, played by 17 year-old newcomer Lyon with a bit too much sexual sophistication, which makes Humbert seem the corrupted rather than the corruptor. That said, their scenes together are unfailingly delicious, especially Lolita's delivery of Humbert's breakfast tray to his room ("Don't tell Mom but I ate all your bacon"), their impromptu poetry lesson ("Who is 'the divine Edgar'?"), and the "reward" -- when he swears he would never reveal any of her secrets -- she extends to him of a fried egg picked off his plate and dangled precariously over his mouth. Peter Sellers' supporting role as a TV writer named Clare Quilty is the make-or-break facet for many viewers; I sometimes enjoy him, because his man-of-a-dozen-faces recurrence in DR. STRANGELOVE makes him something of a Nabokovian ripple of recurrence (albeit in reverse), but for whatever reason, I had less patience for him this time around.

I love this movie and probably watch it once a year. Why? To describe LOLITA with absolute honesty, I'd have to say it's a film that shouldn't work (awkward structure, caricatures instead of characters, endless vamping in some scenes, the older casting of its key role, its free-handed tampering with of one of the great American novels) but somehow does, by virtue of the curious creative choices it makes. (To read Nabokov's own rejected screenplay is to understand how much more awkward it might have been.) Bob Harris' "Lolita Theme" keeps us sashaying along, lest we not deconstruct things too much along the way, and we're left with a real prize of quirkiness, a kind of paintbox of emotions and sly double entendres, all played with taste, skill and personality.

Adrian Lyne's 1997 version with Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain and Melanie Griffith (in the Shelley Winters role, ouch) is somewhat truer to the novel and has much to commend it, including Frank Langella as Quilty and an unabashedly romantic Ennio Morricone score.

Viewed on Warner Home Video Blu-ray. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

54. MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

This is Mark Hartley's hugely entertaining follow-up to his feature documentary debut, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION! (2008). Like that earlier film, MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! is an antic verbal history of foreign exploitation film production, devoted in this case to the Phillippines, and the greater familiarity of the titles covered and the commentators discussing them made it an even warmer and funnier viewing experience.

It begins in the late 1950s when Gerardo de Leon got the ball rolling with TERROR IS A MAN (1959), then goes through the 1960s Hemisphere Pictures acquisitions directed by de Leon and Eddie Romero  (including the "Blood Island" trilogy), subsequently devotes a large chunk of its running time to Jack Hill and Cirio H. Santiago's 1970s programmers for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, then sails into port with a look at the serial-influenced work of Bobby A. Suarez (THE BIONIC BOY, THEY CALL HER... CLEOPATRA WONG), which -- along with the changing political climate of the country where "the rich rule and the poor are shit" (according to director Brian Trenchard-Smith) -- drew the curtain on the Philippines production resources in the early 1980s. In terms of the story's chronology, the chosen turning point is the production of Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), in its emulation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" essentially a mega-budgeted war picture made in the style of BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, which producer Roger Corman described to its star Margaret Markov as an exploitation version of THE DEFIANT ONES. Hartley doesn't mention Coppola's apprenticeship under Corman in the early 1960s, but he does counter Coppola's silly press conference boast "My movie isn't about Vietnam, it is Vietnam" with actor/military advisor R. Lee Ermey sneering "That was nothing like Vietnam," and its production designer Dean Tavoularis saying that you couldn't pay him enough to make him watch it again.

This irreverent but loving film is fraught with hilarious comments, but once in a while, one of them rings true in a serious way. For example, there is an interesting section in which a number of the actresses who worked on the Corman productions (who still look fabulous) discuss how appearing bare-breasted onscreen at that point in time became for them a kind of liberating, empowering act. There is also this candid, clear-headed comment from John Landis: "I think everyone's affection for those films is based in tolerance." And this is an important thing to remember because -- in Hartley's brilliant, inspired assemblange of all the best/silliest/most non-PC moments from this realm of filmmaking, and the way he complements these with sparkling, high energy commentary (which sometimes, even often, seems cobbled together to say something that no one person ever actually said) -- he doesn't really convey what a tough slog some of these films can be to get through; even the best of them have stretches that encourage the mind to wander. In short, MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! may inadvertently misrepresent its subject because it's actually more entertaining than any single movie (or double feature!) it covers. The only real disappointment? No discussion of the Filipino Peter Lorre, Vic Diaz.

Viewed on Netflix. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

53. LILIAN (LILIAN, LA VIRGEN PERVERTIDA, 1984)

Very often, Jess Franco's films repeat earlier storylines in new configurations. In this film -- which had the dubious historic honor of being the first hardcore sex film released in Spain -- we have a reprise of the Sadean story in which an innocent 17-year-old girl (Katia Bienert) is lured to palatial surroundings to be corrupted by an older amoral couple, here played by Lina Romay (under her hardcore alias "Candy Coster") and Emilio Linder (a scenario previously used in such films as EUGENIE... THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION, PLAISIR A TROIS and GEMIDOS DE PLACER), as well as a reprise of the deathbed confession scenario previously seen in EUGENIE DE SADE (again with Franco himself serving as the Father Confessor), and on top of all this, the film reveals itself -- a little more than halfway through -- to be another of Franco's mysteries featuring his detective hero, Al Pereira (like ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS and DOWNTOWN) - a character named in tribute to the Hollywood art director, Hal Pereira.

This film doesn't quite run 75 minutes and, my guess, close to 10 of those minutes is spent in the snares of narrative-halting penetration, slurping and fingering. It's a shame because the film's first half is very promising, with committed dramatic performances from Franco (uncredited), Antonio Mayans (who plays Pereira, acting as "Robert Foster") and Bienert, who plays the innocent led to the brink of death by the heroin injections used to control her. (Bienert did not participate in the hardcore sequences, which is blatantly obvious.) Franco's frequent composer Daniel White (credited under his occasional music alias of "Pablo Villa") appears in the role of a corrupt police chief. The production diffuses the power of everything it so carefully sets up with a protracted third act stage show in which "Candy Coster" whips and fellates a nude José Llamas before being orally pleasured by two other women, while a young adult audience responds with all the merriment of a college crowd enjoying a stand-up comic... which they probably were, at the time they were filmed.

I presume there was an earlier director's cut of this, which didn't include all the graphic sex; that film would have been something worth seeing. This version is too, for Franco fans, though what it amounts to is disappointing. The direction is credited to "Clifford Brawn."

Viewed on DVD-R, but a Spanish-language import (now OOP) exists.  

52. DAMAGE (1992)

Louis Malle's penultimate film, scripted by David Hare (WETHERBY, THE HOURS) from a novel by Josephine Hart, is a tragic case of misjudgment in a significant directorial career. Jeremy Irons stars as a former doctor, now a member of Parliament being courted for Minister of Health, who experiences an uncharacteristic and destructive passion for a young Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche) who is dating his son; she entices him into believing their relationship can continue even after the other relationship leads to an engagement, and tragedy inevitably ensues.

The two leads could not be more unappealing or cold -- it's like "Boris Karloff, meet Eva Braun" -- and there is nothing at all subtle about what happens between them; as every still of Binoche and Irons together in the movie readily attests, their mutual irresistable attraction brings them together in frosty friezes of stiffened limbs, yoga positions, and the most selfish of orgasms -- and never so much as a discernible glimmer of joy. You've never seen a sadder blowjob. One interesting point that the film conveys late in the game is that these things sometimes happen between people for reasons that are purely chemical and transient. If they were to meet at any other time, they might well regard one another as no different than anyone else.

The reason to see DAMAGE is Miranda Richardson, who takes advantage of this film's chilly, emotional vacuum to let rip with a couple of the rawest, most vivid expressions of anger and grief you're likely to find in English-language cinema. Her work here received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations and won her the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Leslie Caron also makes an impression in her brief appearance as Binoche's mother, governing her family with more authority than Irons, a supposed politician of some standing, is shown governing from his office; she projects a remarkable authority and insight into human relationships. There is also a lovely score by Zbigniew Preisner, who subsequently scored one of Binoche's best performances in Krzysztof Kieslowski's BLUE.

Viewed on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

51. ROBINSON AND HIS WILD SLAVES (ROBINSON UND SEINE WILDEN SKLAVINNEN, 1972)

Jess Franco's filmography credits his direction to any number of aliases, but this is one of only two Franco films credited to "Frank Hollmann," both made for German executive producer Karl-Heinz Mannchen. (The other was 1970's SHE KILLS IN ECSTASY, one of his last films to star Soledad Miranda.) Scripted by Art Bernd with dialogue by Reinhold Brandes, this is a light-hearted WALTER MITTY-type story about a phramacist named Robinson Schmidt (Yoda Barkan) who is driven by a nagging wife (Ruth Gassman) and disapproving live-in mother-in-law (Linda Hastreiter) into books like Defoe's ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, erotic daydreams, and fantasies of life on his own private island.

Through an unlikely series of events -- like having a talking chimp lab assistant who helps him to invent a sleeping formula, an intrigue involving a beautiful actress (DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS's Andrea Rau) and a map that is passed down to him by his late father -- Robinson eventually sails away to find such an island. To make things perfect, it's also inhabited by two beautiful, nearly-naked women (Anne Libert, Ingebourg Steinbach) who are constantly fighting over his sexual services, and they are later joined by the actress... and, inevitably, also by the wife and mother-in-law.

There is not much Franco evident in the storyline, which (aside from the sex element) is on par with a German kiddie film, but there is a good deal of Franco invested in its execution. The island natives (white guys in grass skirts, led by -- of all people -- Howard Vernon!) look ahead to all the preposterous natives to come in his later cannibal films, the Daniel White-credited score leans heavily on one of the more festive tracks from Bruno Nicolai's EUGENIE score, and Franco himself plays a cameo as the short-tempered director of a movie whose production Robinson unwittingly disrupts. Even the lake made famous by A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and ZOMBIE LAKE makes an appearance. Frequent Franco repertory player Paul Müller (VAMPYROS LESBOS, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT) appears as the head of a pharmaceutical empire, and Vernon also plays two other roles: a crew member and the star of a porn movie being screened at a party, whose footage looks suspiciously like something that was shot on the sly during the productions of either THE DEMONS or VIRGIN REPORT. All in all, this may be the silliest wad of cotton candy ever spun by Franco, and it's fun entertainment if you're in the right mood for it. I was.

This German import is a two disc set that presents ROBINSON in cropped anamorphic widescreen in German only, and in a preferable 1.33:1 transfer with optional English subtitles. There is a three-second (3s) difference between the two.

Viewed on X-Rated Kult import DVD.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

50. RED STATE (2011)

This is not a bad movie, a badly acted movie, nor a badly made movie, but here's the rub. It basically pits one group of wiley but stupid people against other groups of wiley but stupid people -- add copious amounts of gunfire, staggered action cinematography and jagged editing, and you've got yourself the proverbial bag of hammers.

There seems to be an intelligence behind director Kevin Smith's incessant dialogue, because it's righteously indignant in the face of its own story -- three teens (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Ronnie Connell) respond to an internet sex offer that places them in the clutches of a local band of religious zealots, leading to a violent FBI rescue mission -- but it doesn't know when to stop editorializing, so it's probably more to the point to tag it as common, ordinary, street-staunch smart-assery. (Part of me wanted to applaud at the end, because the last spoken line is "SHUT UP!") Either way, Smith doesn't zip itself long enough to allow his audience to think for itself, or to sympathize with anyone caught in this idealistic crossfire, and when no one onscreen has anything worthwhile to say, the relevant Commandment says leaven thy dialogue with "fuck" generously. There's really no one here to care much about, but Michael Parks is always fun to watch, and he's in Big Bad Wolf mode and given a sermon to read that accounts for a respectable chunk of the picture.

Though I found RED STATE far more irritating than illuminating, I have to credit Smith for having the imagination to write and stage a climactic scene in which we're tempted to imagine that some actual Biblical promises may be imminent. For a couple of minutes, the cast stop talking for the most part and we get to wonder for ourselves where this movie might be headed -- magic realism? CGI? DOGMA 2? Anyway, it's scary fun while it lasts. The cast includes John Goodman and Melissa Leo from HBO's TREME, both fine actors. You also get to see Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin from MISTEROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD) fire a machine gun. And get blown apart by one.

Viewed on Netflix.

Friday, February 10, 2012

49. HUGO (2011)

Martin Scorsese's latest feature -- made at his wife's request so that his daughter might understand what he did for a living -- is a glorious fluke in a career heretofore determined by holding to an altogether different direction, and sometimes unfortunately bereft of a direction worthy of his immense gifts. Despite his extensive work in documentaries on the subject, HUGO is also Scorsese's most impassioned love letter to cinema and plea for film restoration, and as such, quite possibly the most important film he will ever make. Unlike any other film he has made before, Scorsese seems to have found here his true wingspan as an artist. If he was defined by MEAN STREETS, a film that also defined the cinematic voice of his generation, HUGO is his redefining moment -- something few artists are conscious enough to pursue, and even fewer achieve.

It's a superbly imaginative valentine addressed to French film pioneer Georges Méliès, based on THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, a 533-page children's novel with illustrations, drawn and written by Brian Selznick, whose earlier novels for children include valentines addressed to Harry Houdini and Lon Chaney (THE BOY OF A THOUSAND FACES). HUGO expands upon a footnote in the history of French cinema -- that Méliès (the founder of trick photography, special effects, the docudrama, and even the adult film) was forgotten by the industry he founded within his lifetime and was reduced to selling toys at a humble railway kiosk -- into a fuller, panoramic story about craftsmanship, culture, war and escapism, orphans and veterans, and the invisible complex ties that exist between friends and strangers and indeed between the living and the dead. Mind you, it doesn't tell a true story -- Méliès' downfall had more to do with failure to protect his copyrights and ownership than with melting his prints down to make boot heels (a resonant truth, given the current news stories about Marvel's legal bullying of GHOST RIDER artist Gary Friedrich) -- but it encompasses the truth of Méliès' story and gives him the happy ending his life of service and entertainment deserved. As such, it's immensely satisfying, as is the fact that, for all the different microcosmic stories it addresses, all the referents within its reach (from the automoton to Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST), everything feels in balance and has a thematic value. I defy anyone who loves movies to keep a dry eye as Méliès' sets are brought to life in color and three dimensions.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are charming as the young leads, but for all the strength and vision the filmmakers bring to the task at hand, HUGO would not have worked so well for this viewer if not for the central performance of Ben Kingsley -- not merely reverent, not always likeable or easily understood, but believably formidable and complex. It's impossible to say how true he is to the personality of the real Méliès, but he is such an astonishing replica that there was no need for him to be digitally inserted into the original silent footage the film accomodates -- he becomes the real Méliès to such an extent that no dissolves or other digital trickery are needed to bridge past and present. (As wonderful as she is, this could not be done with Helen McCrory, whose Madame Méliès is far more svelte than the original, who was lovely in the full-figured style of her time.) It is also a particular pleasure to see the venerable Sir Christopher Lee in a long-awaited collaboration with Scorsese and adding one more classic to his remarkable filmography, as a grandfatherly bookstore owner.

HUGO is being shown at different theaters in standard and 3D prints, but this is a film that must be seen in 3D; not only because it is probably the most remarkable use of this technology to date, but because this is a film about parlor tricks and 3D is the parlor trick invention of our time. Only if seen this way can the film communicate its points whole-heartedly and show how closely we related we still are to Méliès and the audiences of his time.

Viewed in a theater!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

48. DOCTOR X (1932)

Warner Bros.'s trailer for their Technicolor entré into the horror genre promised that "you will GASP... and then GIGGLE!" -- and DOCTOR X manages to keep this unseemly promise without seeming deficit or compromised in either category.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, designed by Anton Grot (previously SVENGALI, subsequently MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and THE GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933), and starring a wonderful cast twin-barreled by the delectable Fay Wray and dapper Lionel Atwill (in spats, no less), DOCTOR X is a stylish gem of 1930s horror. It also manages to shuffle some of the best possible cards from the wise-crackin' newspaper drama, the spooky murder mystery and romantic comedy, while boasting some  superlatively futuristic sets as well.

The story concerns a series of "Full Moon Murders" all connected by an element of what Atwill's Dr. Xavier calls "Cannibal-ism," committed by what he furthermore calls a "scal-pell" but followed by a literal bite taken out of crime. As police (and "Daily World" reporter Lee Tracy) investigate, they follow the unique brand of scalpel used in these violent deaths to Xavier's research clinic, whose staff of very queer-looking research scientists (Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe) amazingly have not only one but various connections to the subject or the act of cannibalism! In a plot twist that seems equally derived from Gaston Leroux's locked room mysteries and the "game test" set-up of A. Merritt's SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, Xavier puts a huge art deco laboratory to use as a prototypical lie detector, strapping in the suspects and tempting the real killer out into the open by restaging his most vicious killings on a makeshift stage.

The film's highlight, truly among the eeriest sequences in 1930s horror, finds one of the suspects applying to his face and scalp heaping gobs of "Synthetic Flesh" -- a word repeated with horrifying relish as the red and green scenics bubble and smoke and shimmer in diabolically amusing ways. Max Factor is credited with the monster makeup, a milestone in the evolution of special makeup effects. As Xavier's loopy domestics, Leila Bennett and George Rosener fill out the cast, which appropriately delicious.

Viewed as part of Warner Home Video's HOLLWOOD'S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION box set.

47. THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

THE WOMAN IN BLACK, the new horror picture from EDEN LAKE director James Watkins and based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, is the first Gothic horror film to carry the Hammer trademark in close to forty years. To give the film its considerable due, it's an immense pleasure to see a period horror film on the big screen that allows mood and suspense to build organically, rather than through accelerated editing and other post-production hot-rodding. Some of its best moments consist of nothing more than Daniel Radcliffe walking through a series of darkened corridors while holding a candle, and I applaud the filmmakers for having sufficient faith in this classic form of storytelling to rely on it. Though Hammer was in fact only one of seven different production companies involved (and not even the first mentioned onscreen), the village tavern and the old menacing house with a mezzanine inside the front doors lend some heartwarmingly nostalgic scenery to offset the chills -- and there are a goodly number of them.

It must be mentioned that Hill's often-staged novel was filmed previously within recent memory, also in England, for the UK's Central Television by director Herbert Wise, who worked from a script by one of the gods of fantastic screenwriting, Nigel Kneale. All things told, the previous version -- reviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #88 (as coincidence would have it, the issue with Daniel Radcliffe on the cover as Harry Potter!) and now suddenly no longer available on DVD but available for online viewing here -- is on balance the humbler but also the more effective of the two adaptations; it contains at least one shock so unsettling that this new remake didn't dare address it. As far as this new version goes, there is a modernist, Friedkin-like streak in its shock effects, which tend to be loud and sudden and bordering on the subliminal, and the cinematography has the expected digi-palette, this time accentuating inky blues, deep blacks and whalebone whites to the nearly complete omission of red. Also, while the previous version -- like the novel -- had notable points in common with Mario Bava's Operazione paura (US: KILL, BABY... KILL!, 1966), Watkins quotes Bava's film visually to such an extent that it feels like an inversion of it, with the little girl ghost now a boy, and the dead child's mother engineering his haunting from her grave rather than from her villa. The shots of spectral children glowering from dirty windows, cold dead hands pressed against frosted windowpanes, and the lonely toys of abandoned playrooms are so direct, the film walks a tightrope between hommage and remake.

I was amused by the fact that the Woman In Black was portrayed by an actress named (Liz) White.

Viewed at a local theater!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

46. LAST NIGHT (2010)

An attractively-shot British film by Iranian writer-producer-director Massy Tadjedin, LAST NIGHT attends a young marriage experiencing a crisis of trust and temptation. Michael Reed (Sam Worthington) is a businessman required to travel, and his wife of three years, Joanna (Keira Knightley), who is a stay-at-home writer, lashes out with insecurity after observing his intimate body language with an attractive co-worker (Laura, played by Eva Mendes) at a party, with whom it transpires he's taken unmentioned road trips. When Michael is called out of town on a business trip to Philadelphia with Laura, Joanna bumps into her past love Alex (Guillaume Canet) and they spend the evening together, deciding what they want to do together and what they're going to do together. Meanwhile, on the road, Laura confronts Michael about their mutual attraction and invites him to do something about it.

Aside from the amusing contrast between Knightley's anorexic figure and her unbelievable spacious kitchen, and the welcome presence of that great character actor Griffin Dunne as a sly, gregarious friend of Alex, I found this a sad but fairly realistic movie with some very well-observed lines of dialogue. The Reeds' marriage is loving but not particularly happy; they're only three years into it and there are no physical indications of playful affection between them; they are alone too much and yet already feeling confined, already torturing one another for the confinement they feel. Michael's one-night-stand with Laura is meaningless; he cares nothing for this woman and he will suffer as if it meant something; he will certainly pay as if it meant something. For her part, Joanna says "no" to her old lover, yet they touch, they hug, they kiss, they even sleep curled up in one another's arms; they do everything together but have sex, but she will suffer for her evening likewise, nevertheless. And the ending, which cuts to the end credits scroll just as Joanna prepares to confess her evening - what will she say to her husband? What can she say? What will her words provoke from him? So much insecurity, so much sadness, and all because we marry and continue to feel.

Viewed on Netflix.

45. PLAISIR A TROIS (1974)

"Pleasure For Three" is one of many films that writer-director Jess Franco signed in the 1970s with the name Clifford Brown, which invoked the memory of a bop trumpet genius who died in a 1956 car accident when he was only 25 -- circumstances similar to those attending the 1970 death of Franco's great star discovery, Soledad Miranda. It's a story that he told several times in several forms, adapted from the writings of the Marquis de Sade (uncredited here), previously as EUGENIE... THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1969) and later again as GEMIDOS DE PLACER (1983), among other films.

Martine de Bressac (Alice Arno, pictured) is released from a mental hospital after committing a razor murder and returns to her family chateau, where her husband Charles (Robert Woods) intrigues her in the acquisition of an innocent houseguest (Tanya Busselier) with the intention of first corrupting her, then adding her to Martine's dungeon "wax museum" of paralyzed conquests. The film focuses more on erotic excess than its scary synopsis might imply, and shows that Franco's mind was still haunted by the loss of Soledad four years earlier; much time is spent on an extended restaging of the "Dare" game sequence from EUGENIE DE SADE (1970). The film also features Howard Vernon in an unusually thankless role as the family chauffeur (he doubled as the film's stills photographer under his real name, Mario Lippert) and Lina Romay, still early in her association with Franco and only beginning to surface to more prominent roles, this time playing a mute, halfwitted maid of the Bressacs. Released in the UK under the deceptively frivolous title HOW TO SEDUCE A VIRGIN, this film never had a US release and it has only surfaced on video as VHS releases from Videobox and Fil à Film (France). Certainly intriguing, but not equal to the best work Franco was making for producer Robert de Nesle during this extraordinarily fertile and rewarding period, which yielded something like 25 films between 1971 and the end of 1973. The Amazonian Arno, always better in supporting roles, was put to more effective use in the subsequent "Hounds of Zaroff" pastiche LA COMTESSE PERVERSE.

Viewed as a Cinemageddon download, in French with fan-subtitles.

44. TRACK 29 (1987)

Some people consider this to be Nicolas Roeg's last great movie; I find its immediate predecessor CASTAWAY (1986) worthier of that title, but even Roeg's Roald Dahl adaptation THE WITCHES (1990) has aged better than this once-promising collaboration with Dennis Potter, the enfant terrible of the British teleplay (THE SINGING DETECTIVE, BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE). It's not a bad film, but rather an abrasive one due to its preference for caricature over character; the cast tend to repulse us before they do anything to repulse us -- yet it's a cold-bloodedly interesting film, more fun to analyze than to watch.

Based on Potter's 1974 PLAY FOR TODAY production SCHMOEDIPUS, which starred Tim Curry as an invasive stranger who introduces himself to a lonely, still-young housewife as the son she once gave up for adoption, Roeg's film tells the same story -- transplanted to Wilmington, North Carolina, home of the Cape Fear River -- with Gary Oldman (fresh from playing Sid Vicious and Joe Orton) and Theresa Russell, who lives in a veritable dollhouse stocked with collectible dolls while her doctor husband (Christopher Lloyd) loses himself in an upstairs model railroad haven. He's actually a figment of her imagination, where her yearnings for a child have become confused with her desire to have her husband's train return to her tunnel.

My fuller thoughts on TRACK 29 will appear in the April 2012 issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

Viewed on Image Entertainment DVD, which streets on February 21, 2012. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

43. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Strange as it may seem -- especially since George Clooney is already showing some gray and giving a fairly familiar performance here -- this freewheeling but heavy caliber collaboration between director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter/actor Quentin Tarantino is now rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary. That said, time is treating it well; it's aging into one of the more durable and yet representative artifacts of 1990s horror, in that it showcases the best and worst tendencies of its era.

In brief, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (conceptually anyway, a precursor to GRINDHOUSE in that its title has drive-in provenance and it sports a duplex structure) has everything going for it -- a powerhouse cast, directorial panache, inventive and funny writing, unpredictability, playfulness, as well as some surprising yet very welcome eroticism in Salma Hayek's instantly classic cameo as vampire stripper Satanico Pandemonium. It also has a third act that's heavily reliant on CGI and KNB special makeup effects -- admittedly well-done, but when you have a cast this impressive in front of the camera, wouldn't it be more satisfying to all concerned to let the actors act and let KNB focus their Raimiest resources on the aftermath of their attacks? The point is further driven home by the script's references to certain Hammer films like DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (Harvey Keitel's disillusioned priest must recover his faith to offer viable opposition to the Undead) and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (the climactic vampire bat raid), both of which made more indelible impressions on the vampire movie genre with a lot less money and conceptual and literal gunpowder. I can't forgive the movie for turning Hayek into some kind of cobra-headed cartoon as soon as she shows her fangs. Even if they'd had the technology in 1965 -- imagine what we would have lost if Hammer and Terence Fisher had done this to Barbara Shelley in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS! Technically speaking, we still don't have Salma Hayek giving a full performance as a sexy, voluptuous vampire and she's almost 20 years older now, so that is something we're now unlikely to see. But we are given one hell of a preview of this never-coming attraction.

Keitel is miscast (or at least cast in a role that doesn't complement, inspire or fully access his ability), the third act is seriously underwritten (if not unfinished, and yet it seems to drag on well past its end), and it plays its best performance hand with Michael Parks' impressive work as Sheriff Earl McGraw in the pre-credits scene (so impressive, he was brought back to appear in GRINDHOUSE and KILL BILL VOL. 2). And yet, for all that, it's a very entertaining package with Cheech Marin playing three different characters in the best Dick Miller tradition. Fred Williamson (wielding a sharpened pencil) and Tom Savini (doing his best work since KNIGHTRIDERS as Sex Machine) are fabulous and it's pure movie-going pleasure to see them, flanked by Clooney and Keitel, facing down the dregs of the vampire club in the climactic scene. Resulted in two DTV sequels I have still not seen.

Viewed on Netflix. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

42. TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (1981)

I observed the passing of Ben Gazzara last night by unwrapping a film I suppose I had been reserving for a special occasion, or at least a special mood, because it turned out to be the perfect choice. A Marco Ferreri film based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS is a character sketch of Charles Serking, an alcoholic street poet following his muse while living in Los Angeles. Gazzara opens the film with a tour de force soliloquy at what appears to be an open mike evening at an abandoned but palatial theater where some homeless people are sleeping. After walking offstage a few lines into the next poet's feminist reading, he seduces one of the residents (Wendy Welles, a diminutive drifter who's passing herself off as a 12-year-old girl), wakes up with his pockets emptied and a love note left behind, and returns home to his downtown apartment, opposite that of his ex-wife (Tanya Lopert). The film offers no continuous story save that of the character's search for inspiration among the women in his life. These include a random pickup at Venice Beach (Susan Tyrell, their high-drama sexual encounter at her apartment is hilarious), her heavy-set single mother neighbor (Judith Drake, whose womb he tearfully attempts to crawl back into), and a "not just pretty... devastating" hooker named Cass (Ornella Muti) who appreciates Serking as "the first man I've been with who isn't in a rush" but whose self-hatred runs to fits of self-mutilation. In a third act twist, Serking is invited to New York to participate in a well-compensated poetry program, but the wild animal does not take well to captivity.

There have been a number of films made about artists and their muses, and though Bukowski reportedly detested this one, Ferreri actually gets it right. If poetry exalts the commonplace and finds the universality in the extraordinary, so it is with the women in this film; even the most commonplace of them, the muu-muu-wearing single mother who prostitutes herself to him for a few bucks, becomes a creature utterly contrary to her first impression behind closed doors. And this search for the magic in squalor extends to the film's bars-at-midday ambience, which finds night in the afternoon and the hidden underside of a great city wherein he finds himself suddenly embroiled in characters and situations that point the way to the kinds of derelict magic realism David Lynch would make his own from BLUE VELVET onwards. Gazzara's final encounter with a young woman (Katya Berger) on the beach, experienced after his return to LA, a terrible loss and one hell of a bender, is specifically hard to peg as reality or fantasy but would be beautiful as either.

I already want to watch it a second time.

Viewed on Koch Lorber DVD, as part of THE MARCO FERRERI COLLECTION box set.

Friday, February 3, 2012

41. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)

I like to find representative images to accompany these screening notes as best I can, but every picture I could find online from THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT failed to convey an idea of what it really is: shots of actors smiling, shaking hands, hugging, laughing, grinning at each other over their plates at mealtime. There's pain and awkwardness and real human dimension in this picture; it's not one of those "here's-some-Motown-while-they-bond-with-basketball" movies. I also object to the word "smart" being applied to any movie, as the critical quotes on the poster were wont to do, because it's self-congratulatory -- not to the movie necessarily, but to anyone motivated by such a lazy term into seeking it out. I don't know that this movie is smart; it's intelligent, though, so deal with the syllables, people.

That said, I was reasonably pleased with this movie, which is dramatic without being overly earnest, which deals with an unusual family arrangement without obsessing over its eccentricity, or making it seem overly "special", and which had laughs that weren't derived from any obvious intention of being a comedy (they sprang naturally from real-life situations). The story is about a single restauranteur (Mark Ruffalo), a former sperm donor, whose approach to life changes when he is contacted by the teenage offspring -- an 18 year old daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and 15 year old son (Josh Hutcherson) -- he unknowingly sired via artificial semination with a lesbian couple (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening). The kids are motivated into exploring where else they came from by some signs of ordinary tension between their moms, brought on by Bening's increasing conservatism and alcoholism. 

The film was co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (HIGH ART), who reportedly lives in such a relationship with two AI'd offspring, which would account for the script's admirable attention to everyday detail, but which makes its frank and critical view of what's lacking from this central relationship, physically and psychologically, all the more impressive in its candor. (For example, the couple are shown pleasuring one another in bed while watching male gay porn, and are caught at it, causing them to awkwardly explain how they find a lot of female gay porn ingenuine, and how their internalized sexuality sometimes arouses cravings to see sexuality externalized... which is not only a fascinating insight, but lays the groundwork for Moore's bisexual fling with Ruffalo, which gives vents to the desires she's customized through pornography, and to his awakened desire to be part of his ready-made "family.")

Moore is outstanding as always, but she's equalled on the playing field by Ruffalo (who proves he can make even a fairly ordinary fellow fascinating - the film gives him "eclectic" music tastes for a male, including David Bowie and Joni Mitchell, the latter the namesake of his daughter, to subtly ingratiate him not only into this family but suggestively into its eclectic sexuality) and the remarkable Wasikowska, who may be the best young actress of her generation. Hutcherson's underwritten character, a sensitive jock, doesn't permit him as many opportunities, and the film's weakest link is reserved for Bening, whose preening, irritable, uptight, wine-crutching MD leaves her little room in which to be sympathetic or even lovable. The one moment when we're actually let inside her psyche, when she realizes the truth about the relationship between her partner and her sperm donor, is not left to her to evoke with skill but rather created artificially with camera effects. Extra points for casting the wonderfully wry and sly Zosia Mamet (Peggy's gay friend Joyce on MAD MEN) as Wiakowska's sex-obsessed best friend.

Viewed on DirecTV on Demand.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

40. GEMIDOS DE PLACER (1983)

Interviewed by Lucas Balbo in 1986, Jess Franco singled out this Marquis de Sade adaptation as one of his best recent works, explaining that the entire film was shot in sustained takes, about 20 in all. By my count, the entire film consists of 46 shots but this is still an amazing feat and one that is even more impressive considering the emphasis placed on editing today, when ADD-challenged audiences need to be kept awake. Told in something fairly close to real time, the story's unspecified source appears to be a contemporary update of Sade's novel JULIETTA, OR VICE REWARDED: Antonio (Robert Foster aka Antonio Mayans) invites his lover Julia (Lina Romay) to come to the southern coast of Spain, where he shares a fabulous villa with a servant girl named Marta, a mute guitarist, and his wife Martina (Rocio Freixas), who is being released from a mental hospital where she's been treated for schizophrenia and nymphomania the past four years. Unknown to Martina, Antonio plans to murder her with Julia's help during the evening's revels, but unknown to him, Martina and Julia have been lovers since they met in the hospital.

As with any Franco film I might watch in the coming months, I must reserve my fuller thoughts for a viewer's guide to his work that I'm preparing. That said, this is one of Franco's best films, especially impressive of his 1980s output, and his camerawork on the film -- credited pseudonymously -- may be the single finest technical achievement of his career. As a study in sustained takes, this film made with a crew of less than five people is more ingeniously staged and composed than either of Hitchcock's experiments along the same lines; it has a very sensual rhythm, communicates a powerful voyeuristic stance, and the adjustment by zoom from one composition to another within the depth of how the scenes were blocked and staged is brilliant -- but the critical mainstream will never acknowledge it, since it's a raucous softcore sex film in the final analysis. The principal cast consists of Franco's usual core team from this period, but they are all working at the top of their game -- the film had to be meticulously rehearsed and blocked in advance, so the actors convey more character and nuance than is common in his work, especially during this period. This Spanish-language film was never issued in an English-friendly version, but online fan subtitles can be found and downloaded.

Viewed on Cine Erotico Espanol DVD. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

39. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970)

Friends of mine who caught this Dan Curtis film at first run matinees remember it with the glee of a fever dream. For many youngsters who cut their teeth on the ABC-TV vampire soap DARK SHADOWS, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (sold with the memorable tagline "Come see how the vampires do it!") was an unforgettable first date with motion picture transgression: series fixtures were killed onscreen, makeup effects impossible to achieve on the cheap were up there on the screen (courtesy of the great Dick Smith), and it was bloody -- really bloody for a GP picture, thanks to its being distributed by a major studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Appearing in a promotional interview on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW at the time, star Jonathan Frid candidly opined that he felt the film had all the makings of a classic horror picture but went much too far in the blood and gore departments -- and undoubtedly reserved a few seats with his staid reservations. It's also important to remember that quite a few DARK SHADOWS fans in those days had yet to upgrade to color television -- indeed, the show itself ran for awhile in black-and-white and was videotaped -- so the impact of seeing these actors on the big screen, in color, on actual 35mm film, and bleeding bright red cannot be overstated.

Unfortunately, I didn't see it then; I had to wait till adulthood and VHS, then LaserDisc. I want to love this movie as so many of my friends do, and every time I sit down to revisit it, I do so prepared to love it, but I can't help it: I find it sloppy, ineptly blocked, and so badly staged and melodramatically acted for the most part, it's funny. It actually begins with the plainest red bargain basement titles superimposed, without any sense of flow or rhythm, over an ongoing suspense sequence, completely thwarting our entrance into the story. The first murder sequence contains some of the shakiest handheld camera footage ever seen in an MGM movie, and the day-for-night photography throughout is shamefully transparent. But its craziest birthmark is one of the factors that probably worked in its favor with a young crowd: the story is more synoptic than narrative; it feels like a half-hour of exposition has been cut out from between every scene. The rough cut, if they shot everything the dialogue alludes to, must have run at least six hours.

What we do get is so basic it could be deemed Vampires 101: graverobber Willie Loomis (John Karlen) unwittingly frees the vampire Barnabas Collins (Frid) from a locked casket; the vampire enslaves him and presents himself to the landowners (including "Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard") as a distant relative; he feeds on locals and meets governness Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) who is the twin of his lost love, Josette Duprey, from 200 years before. One of his female victims, Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), gets jealous and outlives -- or outdies -- her usefulness. Dr. Julia Hoffman (the incredible, nicotine-wan Grayson Hall) discovers the vampire's secret and offers to cure him but -- having fallen in love with him somewhere along the way -- sabotages his dose when he proudly announces his intention to propose. A suddenly ancient Barnabas (Frid in makeup that Smith later adapted to Dustin Hoffman for the Oscar-winning LITTLE BIG MAN) intends to proceed with the wedding, but her fiancé Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) determines to interrupt the ceremony, which he does with the rallying help of Willie, himself lovesick for Maggie. And who can blame him? Kathryn Leigh Scott, one of the few actors here who acts like she knows she's onscreen rather than onstage, wore the most flattering miniskirts and had the shapeliest legs on daytime television, and they translate to the big screen admirably. She subsequently won a nice scene opposite Dirk Bogarde in Alain Resnais' PROVIDENCE (1977).

The biggest chunk of the film's narrative focuses on the Nancy Barrett subplot, which culminates in a well-shot sequence wherein a group of local police descend on Carolyn's resting place armed with crucifixes instead of guns -- it has some of the intensity of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (which opened four months earlier) but counters its contemporary setting with enough Gothic trappings so that it melds the best of both classic Hammer and progressive independent. Carolyn is staked by liver-lipped professor Elliot Stokes (Thayer David), who later shows up vampirized without any scene present to establish his death -- one of countless hopscotched key points in the narrative, including a "before" to complement the "after of the vampire's renovated lodgings (the Carfax Abbey, if you will, of the film's Collinwood estate setting), the set-up of a costume ball, Julia's deepening affections for Barnabas, and so forth. The characters of Elizabeth and David (David Henesy), Collinwood's resident prank-playing youngster, literally disappear from the narrative without explanation or closure.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies, where the credits were letterboxed at 1.85:1 and then cut to a 1.37:1 presentation of the movie that was actually cropped on all four sides. TCM's previous airings of this film used an unmatted but much staler-looking master. See Ben Gart's frame grabs here.