Monday, December 31, 2012

224. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)


The title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film is only the first in a series of epic teases and perversely rewarding  disappointments of expectation. It is not his twist on the Italian Western, though it makes use of music written for some of them (Luis Bacalov, Riz Ortolani and of course, Ennio Morricone); it's more specifically an American Southern, his twist on American Antebellum melodrama from Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION to Richard Fleischer's MANDINGO, with some nods to Fred Williamson's rise from slave to outlaw to folk hero in the Nigger Charley films. With Tarantino doing it, one is prepared for him to venture beyond what has been done before in this area, but DJANGO UNCHAINED is not as offensively racist, not as bluntly violent nor as frankly erotic as MANDINGO, though it is sometimes as cartoonish and hyperbolic as Tex Avery's "Uncle Tom's Cabaña." It's not even about the shackled slave Django (Jamie Foxx) being unchained, which happens in the very scene that introduces him; if anything, it's a sweet, if blood-soaked rumination on how love is like a ball and chain. Everything that happens here, happens so a man can dance his horse in front of the girl he calls his "little trouble-maker."

It's also a story about the slaving days in which the black hero's best friend is white, and the white villain's best friend is black. It gives us Klansmen who don't want to wear their hoods. It presents us, early on, with parallels to Fritz Lang's DIE NIEBELUNGEN as Dr. Kurt Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a charmingly garrulous travelling dentist-turned-bounty-hunter of German descent, informs Django (whom he's bought and freed) that the name of the enslaved wife he longs to recover, Broomhilda, is a corruption of Brunhilda, the heroine of a great German legend. Django comes closer and wants the story told to him. Shultz relates it in reasonable detail, but the story that follows doesn't offer any parallels. If you're like me, and overthinking the coincidence already, you might tell yourself that Wagner told the story in his famous "Ring Cycle" and that Sergio Leone is remembered for depicting his showdowns in circular arenas, but no, sorry, it doesn't go there. She's just named Broomhilda -- Broomhilda Von Shaft, no less, perhaps the great-great-grandmother of Gordon Parks' John Shaft.

The wily Shultz educates Django in the business of bounty hunting, gregariously taking him on as a partner in a business notorious for its murderously greedy loners, which is hilarious if you think about it. They raise a fortune together over a long Corbuccian winter in the mountains, and then he determines the whereabouts of Broomhilda and figures out that she can probably be bought from her master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), for a stipend if they divert their real interest in her by pursuing the purchase of one of his Mandingo fighters for a more irresistible sum, like $12,000. Why not simply offer Candie the twelve grand for Broomhilda, especially since that amount looks like only half the bills Shultz is carrying in his wallet when it's finally paid out? Well, then the movie would have been much shorter, and Tarantino is all about taking it slow, pausing to smell the flowers, taking the scenic route. As you'll see when Django and Broomhilda are finally united, the whole film amounts to a elaborate, strutting dance of seduction. It may take the long way around a fairly small point on the compass, but it could be the fastest three hours you will ever spend in a movie theater.


Viewed in a theater.   

223. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

I've now seen this Quentin Tarantino picture three times and, though it unfolds at a far more leisurely pace than his earlier work, it is such rich earth and it continues to give rise to new ideas and insights each time I see it. All of Tarantino's work flaunts its verbosity, its mastery of language, like a fan of bright plumage; it validates him as a writer the way way his knowledge of film trivia confirms him as a lover of cinema; but this is a film about language and how a division of languages can inspire secrecy, deceit, conspiracy and evil. Its use of language also makes this Tarantino's most audacious movie -- for the first seven minutes, and throughout most of its action sequences, it is indistinguishable from a foreign-language film to American audiences. The heroine Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) doesn't speak a word of English, yet this became his greatest American commercial success. Making its success all the more remarkable is that it's not really about what it seems to be about: a plot to kill Hitler during World War II. We attend the story suspecting that, because of what we know about history, the heroine's plot will fail... but when it doesn't, when we see Hitler machine-gunned to death before our eyes, we realize that this is a movie about movies, about the singular ability of movies to bring us catharsis and closure; in the same stroke, it's also about the free-handed way in which movies have traditionally treated history, and -- on a deeper level -- it's about history itself and the impossibility of rendering an accurate history with so barbed and biased a tool as language. The title of the film is grossly misspelled, and the leader of the Basterds themselves -- Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (his very name a kind of misheard form of Aldo Ray) -- is a mumbly-mouthed mountain man from Tennessee who is out there fighting the sauerkraut-sandwich-eaters, defending a native tongue he himself has never learned to wield properly, certainly not with the elan of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), yet it's so much a part of him, he becomes completely transparent when he attempts to disguise himself as anything but an American.

Anyone who has seen this film will tell you that Christoph Waltz steals it -- in three languages, no less -- and he steals it almost right away and never once relaxes the iron grip of his charm. That said, the role was obviously written for this to happen and it is the only way it could have worked. What is doubly remarkable is that his character manages to more than hold his own amidst a veritable panorama of unforgettable characters and portrayals -- broadly sketched (Eli Roth as the Bear Jew), brazenly named (Mike Myers as "General Ed Fenech"), believably caricatured (Diane Kruger as German actress and double agent Bridget van Hammersmark), and deeply humanistic (Dénis Ménochet as the opening scene's soulful-eyed farmer, Perrier LaPedite), just to name a few. As with other Tarantino films, the film sets itself up as an adventure it has no intention of delivering; the climax is not really the strategic victory of the Basterds, but of Shosanna Dreyfus, and the deliberate disappointment of the set-up reminds me of "Mr. Agility" in the Andrea Bianchi-directed/Jess Franco-scripted WWII adventure ANGEL OF DEATH, who is hilariously wounded before he is able to perform a single stunt! Mélanie Laurent must go on record as one of the most hostile, unlikeable heroines on record -- again, the strict opposite of our silver-tongued villain -- but we never part company with her agenda, which is no less horrific than the Nazi agenda but affords us a spectacle of gratification denied us by history.  

The climactic sequence that turns Shosanna's into a velvet-curtained Aushwitz for the Nazi elite is the most operatic, imperiously chilling image in Tarantino's work, and its bloodline can be traced back to the movie theater shelter against the pending Cuban Missile Crisis holocaust in Joe Dante's MATINEE and the locked Berlin cinema mayhem of Lamberto Bava's DEMONS. Some reviewers have remarked that the film's closing line ("I think this just might be my masterpiece") is a little too self-satisfied or self-conscious, but as time passes, it's acquiring the ring of a fairly sober assessment.

You can see me discussing this film at greater length (and Quentin's other films, as well) with a group of colleagues (Elvis Mitchell, Stephanie Zacharek, Scott Foundas and Andy Klein) on the "Critic's Corner" disc in the newly released box set TARANTINO XX.   


Viewed on Weinstein Company Blu-ray.       

    

222. HELP! (1965)

For decades now, the accepted wisdom has been that A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is the great Beatles film, while the second one, HELP!, shoehorns them into a silly plot in ways not nearly so innovative. I have long sought to redirect this unfounded opinion. While it's true that, in 1964, no one had seen a youth culture film quite so energizing or liberating as A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, it was not without plot contrivances of its own -- Paul's "very clean" grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), for starters -- and it was given a black-and-white newsreel look that, combined with a set of songs written hastily and sometimes on demand, does not present the group at their best unless you consider their Beatlemania years their best. HELP!, on the other hand, opens by cocking a flagrant snoot at its predecessor, as black-and-white performance footage is suddenly interrupted by the color assault of flung darts.

It's a showcase for the ravishing color cinematography of David Watkin (THE DEVILS, OUT OF AFRICA), working in color-coded concert with art director Ray Simm and wardrobe designer Julie Harris, which more fully captures the spirit of the era -- not just the Beatles, but Carnaby Street and James Bond. The newsreel realism of HARD DAY'S NIGHT is also replaced with a more freewheeling surrealism, where the Beatles all live together in a common room behind a false row house façade, where pianos suddenly appear in the snow or rise up out of floors with JIMMY OLSEN comics where the sheet music should be, where recording studios are set up out of doors near ongoing military maneuvers, where spies in pink fire guns of matching pink, and where Paul McCartney can be shrunk to an inch-tall by a parfait-like drug in a lurid hypodermic, wielded by a scientist (Victor Spinetti) who hopes to -- dare I say it? -- rule the world. It's true and well-documented that the Beatles were much enjoying their pot by this time and their self-indulgence made the production harder to control, but their performances certainly don't suffer and the songs they bring forth are noticeably more mature and innovative than the previous batch. Much like The Monkees' HEAD (a film it particulary influenced, being about a rock group's escalating paranoia with success and recognition), HELP! is also one of the most deliciously quotable comedies of the 1960s. My favorite: "I thought she was a sandwich till she went spare on me hand." Director Richard Lester (approaching peak power here) credited screenwriter Charles Wood (working with Marc Behm, who provided the silly story about Ringo getting a sacrificial ring stuck on his finger) with the witty dialogue and kept him in harness on HOW I WON THE WAR, THE BED-SITTING ROOM and CUBA.

Two strange facts: 1) A HARD DAY'S NIGHT never verbally refers to the group as The Beatles; the group name doesn't appear onscreen until their climactic performance. And 2) in HELP!, the four stars of the film were not only identified as The Beatles throughout, but billed solely as such. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were so famous, it didn't matter that they weren't given individual screen credit for their acting.

Viewed on MPI Home Video DVD. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

221. HEAD (1968)

This was another re-viewing; my full-length review of Bob Rafelson's kaleidoscopic Monkees film -- in which I teased out some of its parallels to Roger Corman's THE TRIP, also scripted by Jack Nicholson -- can be found in VIDEO WATCHDOG #163. Watching it again, I realized that the Maharishi played by Abraham Sofaer is supposed to be Marshall (Maharashall?) McLuhan.

Viewed on Criterion Blu-ray, which has a spectacularly crisp image and one of the best 5.1 remixes I've ever heard. Now it's the only way I'll watch it.

220. CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1945)


Ah, subversion! The title of this fairly obscure Universal feature portends a breezy December entertainment. Even the DVD packaging of the British DVD release presents its two stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly cuddling and smiling as though they've just finished singing "Gotta dance!" But this is, in fact, a Robert Siodmak film noir, one of his very best, and one of the most subversive films Hollywood has ever foisted on an unexpecting but horseshoe-lucky public. It's got a kick like a mule.

Every time I see a Siodmak film, it's like I can hear him telling me, "You don't usually see characters like this in movies, but you need to know they exist." Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this one opens with an inversion of the "tragic telegram" scene you usually get in war pictures. This time, it's an engaged US lieutenant, Charles Mason (Dean Harens), preparing to go on Christmas leave to visit his girl in San Francisco, who receives a telegram from the lady in question telling him not to bother -- she's married another man during his absence. Angered to the point of being murderous, he boards the plane but Fate has other plans. A storm forces his plane down for a temporary stay in New Orleans and there, in a bar on Christmas Eve, he meets a pushy reporter (Richard Whorf) who takes him to the Maison LaFitte, one of those places that 1940s cinema couldn't come right out and call a joint of ill repute, but the reporter arranges for a pretty girl to come over to his table and cheer him up. Things again don't go quite as expected; the girl, Jackie (Durbin), pleads with him to escort her to a Midnight Mass, where she breaks down in tears. He offers to take her home, she asks if they might get a bite to eat first, and in an all-night dive where she's accustomed to wiling away the hours and probably looking for lonely men, she confides her story to the soldier. You can consider all of this the preamble, the frame around the real story Siodmak wants to tell, but probably couldn't tell at the time except in the step-removed form of a story within the story.

Jackie confesses that she's actually Abigail Martin, the wife of a serial killer sentenced to hang and currently in prison. It's in the extended flashbacks that we meet Gene Kelly, playing Robert Manette -- a fresh-faced, boyish, mother-fixated serial killer 15 years before Anthony Perkins rebranded such characters in his own indelible image. Because it's 2012, we've seen characters like this before, but unless some other important title is slipping my mind, audiences of 1945 had not. On the other hand, by 1945, American movie theaters had more than their usual share of fresh-faced, boyish young men in the audience who had been asked to kill on behalf of their motherland, sitting next to young women who, I'm sure, had to deal with those facts in their own ways upon their homecomings.

But the character new to drama in this film is Mrs. Manette, the mother, played with a glacial patrician quality by Gale Sondergaard, made to look somewhat older than she was, who protects her son, helps to cover his tracks, and steps forward as possibly cinema's first homicidal enabler. It's a role she hopes to pass on to Robert's new wife, and when he comes home late one night with blood on his pants, and charms his way out of the doghouse with his new missus, our heart sinks as Durbin smiles and says, in full recognition but without consciousness, "You devil..."

One of the best films I saw this year, possibly the best.

Viewed on DVD-R. 

219. BELOVED INFIDEL (1959)

Produced by Jerry Wald, Henry King's adaptation of Sheilah Graham's candid memoir of her affair with novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those Hollywood biographies so symptomatic of the 1950s: it deals with heavy dramatic issues like mental illness, extramarital love, money trouble, creative and sexual frustration and, above all, the ugliest sort of alcoholism, but it is so fundamentally a "woman's picture," one mostly feels the windswept narcissism of the protagonist. To see this film, as I did, in fairly close proximity to Deborah Kerr's subsequent work in THE INNOCENTS, one can see how toiling in high-profile, undemanding projects like this could encourage her to give so much more of her talents to those rare films that were genuinely worthy of her. Gregory Peck, badly cast as Fitzgerald but someone who had worked extensively with King on other pictures, doesn't make a convincing drunk, much less a convincing writer.

The film is most interesting not for its disclosures about Fitzgerald, but for its revelations about Sheilah Graham herself. Born Lily Shiels to slum-dwelling parents in Leeds, England, she is introduced as a single, independent woman who brought a self-taught posh accent to America with a book of clippings and fake references that tied her to those north and south of British royalty and basically fibbed her way from newspaper reporter to Hollywood columnist. (The film depicts her as second in popularity only to Louella Parsons.) It's extraordinary to think that Graham would have surrendered in her book those very secrets that were the foundation of her success, but further research shows she didn't surrender them all, at least not in this movie. The film shows her being kissed on the head in farewell by one "John Wheeler" (Philip Ober), but their relationship is not established, glossing over the fact that Graham's relationship with Fitzgerald began in her last year of marriage to John Graham Gillam, to whom she had been married since 1923. The film acknowledges that Fitzgerald entered into their relationship when his wife Zelda was institutionalized, but it does not admit to Graham's marital status, much less its duration. Though their cohabitation lasted from 1936 to 1940, the film -- shot inexpensively in available spaces like the 20th Century Fox studio lot, on the beach at Malibu, and on the winding streets of the Hollywood hills -- makes no attempt to suggest a period piece.

Shot in 2.35:1 CinemaScope by a seldom inspired Leon Shamroy (SOUTH PACIFIC, PLANET OF THE APES), BELOVED INFIDEL is handsomely presented on Blu-ray by Twilight Time, a label specializing in isolated music soundtrack releases. In this case, the score is by Franz Waxman and one can watch the film on disc with its original four-track stereo mix (unusual for its time, and pleasantly old-fashioned) or with the music isolated in stereo, complete with Waxman's countdowns and bits of studio chatter. With extensive liner notes by Julie Kirgo and an original theatrical trailer that presents Peck, out of character, referring to Kerr as the film's "Beloved Infidel." In fact, it's Fitzgerald who is depicted as breaking faith with Graham, when a professional disappointment latches him back onto the flowing teat of his other mistress, a whiskey bottle.

Limited to 3000 copies.

Viewed via Twilight Time Blu-ray.

218. MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

In this original script by director Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (CQ), two 12 year olds -- orphaned scout Sam (Jared Gilman) and bookish recluse Suzy (Kara Hayward) -- meet cute backstage at a play, and remember each other. Neither of them is happy or understood by the grown-ups in their lives, so they turn to each other, commencing an industrious correspondence that turns intimate and romantic. They decide to run away together and live in the wild on Sam's scouting skills. Their absence frightens the adult supervision in their lives (Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton), not least of all because it makes them appear irresponsible (the panic forces McDormand's extramarital affair with Willis out into the open), and they initiate a wacky search while the two children play house in a charmingly isolated inlet of their New English island.

Anderson's films tend to settle in a ring of quirkiness just slightly outside my range to fully appreciate, though never quite far away as to alienate me. I watch all of his movies -- not just THE LIFE AQUATIC -- in much the same bewildered yet fascinated way I would watch a television special about sea life found so far down that it requires its own luminosity. I can empathize with his subject matter, especially when it's personal as with this film or RUSHMORE, but his visual style reminds me strongly of folk art and I suppose that's not something I am eager to see move around.

For all that, I kind of loved this film, which -- in its use of familiar actors in cartoonish roles, and in its service to social satire -- reminded me strongly of the work of Preston Sturges, while the visual style, recognizably Anderson, had an alluring reason for being so, as an outward projection of the appealingly primitive illustrations in one of Suzy's storybooks. Perhaps one she'll someday write herself as a memoir of this adventure.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video HD.

     

217. DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1970)

This was a re-viewing for me of a film I've seen numerous times, and I was so impressed -- and, at the same time, confused by the seemingly deliberate preposterous nature of its various death scenes -- I watched it a second time with director Harry Kumel's audio commentary to better understand what he'd been thinking. Kumel explains that he made the film as a commercial concession, that it was his idea to make an art film within a genre for which (at the time) he had little respect or appreciation, and he defends the outrageousness of the death scenes (Andrea Rau recoiling from a shower into a straightrazor in the bathroom, John Karlen's wrists getting slashed by the two halves of a neatly broken glass bowl, the extraordinary Delphine Seyrig catapulted from her roadster onto an immense stake) by stating that the very character of the Countess Bathory is outrageous to begin with, so why not? With this surrealist wink in mind, I can better accept the playful spirit of these scenes, but I can now better see them as the furtive signature of Kumel's disdain for the genre -- in other words, a rather remarkable failure of taste. (From what he says, Kumel seems to feel more differently about horror cinema now, at least the classic horror cinema.) For all this, it remains one of the most stylish, inventive and cleverly written of vampire pictures, and one of the few in which the eroticism doesn't feel tacky, overdone or forced. Its flaws (which extend to an unnecessary coda) only lend complexity and enchantment to its beauty and its bouquet, and I don't hesitate in calling it one of the genre's offbeat masterpieces.

Viewed on Blue Underground Blu-ray.

216. CONTRONATURA (THE UNNATURALS, 1969)

This obscure horror melodrama from Antonio Margheriti, working under his Anthony M. Dawson alias, is a film I've wanted to see for some time and it did not disappoint. It complicated things, but it did not disappoint.

In brief, it's an ambitious return to the sort of existential horror film Margheriti had made with CASTLE OF BLOOD (DANZA MACABRA, 1964), where you become increasingly unsure how many, if any, characters are dead rather than alive. The Blackwood family of that earlier film is mentioned as part of a back story, which may connect the literary basis for this endeavor to Algernon Blackwood, as CASTLE OF BLOOD was. (It was an original story with its basis, if you will, in Blackwood's "The Empty House.")

But here's the complicating factor: CONTRONATURA bears considerable, surprising resemblance to Mario Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973), an arthouse-grindhouse hybrid that -- until now -- has been regarded by English-speaking fans as virtually sui generis within the horror genre. It's like the two films tell different stories adapted from the same literary source (possibly something by Blackwood). Like LISA, CONTRONATURA is set in an unspecified time that appears to be the 1920s and follows a carload of strangers on a strange journey to the end of night. Their limousine breaks down outside a secluded villa owned by a blind mother and her strange son, where they take shelter for the evening, during which they serially confront their relationships to one another and receive intimations and reenactments of a past life that resulted in their damnation. In this case, the mother is an aged crone hovering with dead eyes over a deck of tarot cards, and her son is played by Alan Collins (real name Luciano Pigozzi), the Italian Peter Lorre and a Bava crony from the early '60s who is indulged with one of his best and biggest roles. Making their similarities all the more impossible to dismiss, both films were scored by Carlo Savina, who (mischievously?) subsequently slipped one of the weeping, viola-driven cues he wrote for CONTRONATURA into LISA!

It adds further fuel to one's suspicions that CONTRONATURA was made the same year that Margheriti took over NAKED YOU DIE (THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE) from Bava, accepting screen credit as writer for a film that Bava actually co-scripted with Tudor Gates. (I know; I've read it and compared it to the finished film.) Margheriti is likewise credited with the story and screenplay of this film. The question hovers: Is it his work?

Whatever its true patrimony may be, CONTRONATURA is up there with CASTLE OF BLOOD as one of Margheriti's most unusual and ambitious horror titles -- until the ending, which suffers from some inadequate flooding special effects by the director himself. It deserves to be more widely seen.

Viewed on X-Rated Kult import DVD.

215. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

My full-length review of this disappointing, pointless reboot appears in VIDEO WATCHDOG 172, on newsstands now. Kudos to Martin Sheen and Emma Stone for making something for themselves out of very little.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video HD.

214. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)


I loved what Christopher Nolan brought to BATMAN BEGINS, because it was the first time a superhero film presented itself in a wholly plausible way. As time has gone on, and Nolan's claim on the character has gained volume and distance over Warners' previous, increasingly fruity franchise, my admiration has begun to slip, a shift of opinion that coincided with my noticing how much it had looted the mythos of another character, The Shadow. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, with Heath Ledger's Joker, seemed overwritten, overdone and overly concentrated in reality, to the point where the heroism aspect wasn't uplifting anymore. And this third and final film in the set literally incapacitates superheroism for the most part to focus on a pinpoint of straightforward heroism, embodied by a new character. It also deprives us of the story promised by the ending of the previous film, the story of how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continued to fight against crime while being publicly smeared as a criminal and vigilante in order to protect the late Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's reputation, a political lie considered more important to the hope of Gothamites; instead, this film picks up after a near-decade of inactivity on the part of the Batman.

I'm sure it's one of those love it or hate it things, and I know there are people out there who speak with reverence of "the Nolan Universe," but I'm just slightly south of ambivalent. It looks good, it's well-cut and mostly well-acted (I liked Anne Hathaway's Diana Monti-like take on Catwoman); it has moments, it even has clusters; but Bane (Tom Hardy) is too brutish to be intriguing and the Nolan brothers can't tell a story. Their characters can't stop orating even when there are seconds left to go on a ticking nuclear warhead. It's takes 10 minutes to pack some kids onto a bus. It often feels more like engineering than filmmaking, and less directed than air-traffic-controlled.


Viewed on Amazon Instant Video HD.

213. ADDIO ZIO TOM (GOODBYE UNCLE TOM, 1971)

This is a very peculiar film, made by Gualtiero Jacopetti (MONDO CANE) and Franco Prosperi. Most of its running time consists of lavishly produced yet thoroughly repugnant recreations of the capture, shipping, processing, abuse and servitude of African-born slaves in the mid-1800s American South, with various characters breaking the fourth wall at times to address the Italian camera crew. For all this, the film insists on its right to be called a "documentary," yet it's also a film made by white men who, in the considerably longer Italian version, call for the slitting of the white man's throat.

Exclusive to this version is a lot of documentary framing material from original and various news sources, narrated in such an incendiary, inciting tone that the US distributor cut it out, which had the further commercial effect of getting rid of its Godardian arthouse political conscience and making it more purely wall-to-wall exploitation. There is something mad about the picture that relates it to all of Jacopetti's work; it takes brutal, solemn subject matter and serves it up with a Felliniesque twinkle. It's awash in self-loathing. It scores some of the most offensive highlights of our nation's history with ravishing orchestral music by Riz Ortolani, whose "More" theme for MONDO CANE won an Academy Award.

Naturally, one's response to the picture can't help but be similarly divided. But this is the only one of Jacopetti's "documentaries" that doesn't feature the graphic abuse or killing of animals, so it's the one to seek out for the timidly curious. If you want to experience this world in a way that will present it to you without the Hollywood gloss of MANDINGO or DJANGO UNCHAINED, in a visceral way that will take up residence in your gut, this is the film to see.

Viewed on Blue Underground DVD. Both versions of the film are available as part of their box set release THE MONDO CANE COLLECTION.  

212. THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1973)

This sequel to THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY was directed by its producer, Larry G. Spangler (A KNIFE FOR THE LADIES), and seems more deserving of its predecessor's title, as it depicts Charley from the outset as a legendary folk hero whose name and exploits have been murmured from slave to slave, across state lines, as a reason not to lose hope for freedom.

Fred Williamson and D'Urville Martin return as Charley and Toby, who rescue an African-American child orphaned by a violent assault enacted by slave master Colonel Blanchard (Kevin Hagen) and his men. Learning that the Colonel is holding a number of black families as his personal property, Charley determines to liberate them. Not unlike a Tarantino film, a great deal of attention is paid to getting to that confrontation, which is then played out comparatively suddenly and quickly.

As with THE LEGEND, it seems impossible to see a decent copy of this film now, and I had to work from a faded, almost colorless, cropped and scrunched presentation on YouTube. It was enough to show me that Spangler didn't quite have the flair for direction that the previous director, Martin Goldman, did; THE LEGEND felt more like a tapestry, while SOUL is just another adventure where the stakes don't feel quite so high, though they are actually higher in terms of human life. What does elevate this film is the presence of Denise Nicholas, whose aura of introspection and intelligence had few opportunities in blaxploitation but fortunately found nourishing work on television (ROOM 222, etc). It's her character, an African-American woman ahead of her time, who gives this film an important humanistic edge and gives Charley his reason to succeed and survive. Director Spangler went on to direct another film starring and written by Williamson, the more emphatically Italian Western-derived revenge story, JOSHUA.

Viewed on YouTube. 

211. DJANGO, KILL... IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! (1967)

This Spaghetti Western by Giulio Questi (the communist Italian director responsible for the fascinating oddball giallo DEATH LAID AN EGG, 1968) became the stuff of legend, many years before it became commonly available, when Christopher Frayling wrote about its extreme and stylized violence in his seminal book SPAGHETTI WESTERNS: COWBOYS AND EUROPEANS FROM KARL MAY TO SERGIO LEONE. In preparing my list of films that helped inspire Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED for SIGHT & SOUND, I decided it was finally time to see it.

It's one of a hundred or so DJANGO films that haven't anything to do with that character; in Italy and elsewhere, the name became commercially synonymous for a fast-draw gunslinger, much in the way "Frankenstein" became Germanic shorthand for any kind of monster in West German film titles of the 1960s. This one is charismatically played by Tomás Milian (called "The Stranger" years before Tony Anthony adopted that moniker) as a Mexican, hired as cheap labor on a successful gold dig who was then shot and left for dead with his fellows by their greedy employer Oaks (Mario Bava favorite Piero Lulli). The Stranger alone rises from the burial pits for revenge and makes his way to a bizarre, Jodorowskian dreamscape of a town of dolorous women and circus freaks where the reigning villain Mr. Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel) is protected by a band of blatantly homosexual gunmen. Religious iconography ensues -- it occurred to me that this might well have been the Italian Western Toby Dammit was hired to star in, prior to his accident in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD -- and gold figures memorably in two of the death scenes, as men tear barehanded into a torso riddled with golden bullets, and again when another baddie ends up drinking it in its molten form.  

Screenwriter Franco Arcalli was principally an editor whose work included DEATH LAID AN EGG*, the "William Wilson" segment of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD, BLACK JESUS, ZABRISKIE POINT, THE CONFORMIST, LAST TANGO IN PARIS*, THE NIGHT PORTER, THE PASSENGER and 1900*. The asterisked titles he also scripted or co-scripted, along with LUNA and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Obviously, a name worth remembering and a career whose throughlines warrant closer study.

PS: Not a particular influence on DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Viewed on Blue Underground Blu-ray.

210. THE INNOCENTS (1961)

I decided to revisit Jack Clayton's classic ghost film while reading, belatedly and for the first time, its source story, Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." While I've enjoyed the movie on its own terms over a lifetime, I found myself far more appreciate of it this time, and not entirely on the basis of what my reading brought to the experience; I think it had equally much to do with what I've learned of life, people and human psychology since my last viewing. In the story, James has his initial narrator frame the story with a description of the time it was first related to him, by someone who in turn framed it by saying that the woman protagonist of this story was in love with someone and the reader must decide with whom. Is it the wealthy uncle, played here in a single scene by Michael Redgrave? Is it the children, played by the uncanny newcomers Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, or the boy more in particular? Or might it be Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the ghost of a libertine groundskeeper who corrupted the children, and whose lustiness might be summoned by the unmet, plainly pining needs of the spinster governess played by Deborah Kerr? Who might yearn to take the place of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), also dead, her literal predecessor?

The story doesn't answer the question but it is a fairly emphatic ghost story; the film, on the other hand, maintains Clayton's respectability as a highbrow mainstream filmmaker by remaining ambiguous -- not only about this question (which it doesn't even pose) but about whether the ghosts are real, or projections of her sexual hysteria, or if she's inventing the haunting as a device to force the return intervention of the children's remote uncle, who has, in effect, hired her to relieve him entirely of their responsibility. Kerr gives an extraordinary central performance, easily overlooked amid the atmosphere, the spare but jolting spatial shocks, and the astonishingly self-possessed performances of the children, who possess all the winning, seductive charm James described.

Quint's first appearance looks like a special effect but is pulled off with a simple lighting/dolly trick, strikingly similar to one of the sudden appearances by Javutich (Arturo Dominici) in Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, 1960), made the year before. There's no telling if director of photography Freddie Francis had seen it, but his elegant solutions to creating atmospheres of terror and those little aforementioned jolts showed why, as a director in his own right, he had some good horror films of his own up his sleeve.

Viewed on DVD.    

209. PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Based on a 1942 novel written by Cornell Woolrich but attributed to "William Irish," this Universal picture is one of Robert Siodmak's great films noirs -- his first great film noir -- made immediately following his excellent proto-noir horror picture, SON OF DRACULA (1943).

Like Woolrich's 1937 short story "I'm Dangerous Tonight," which was about a red dress that made a literal femme fatale out of a woman who wore it, PHANTOM LADY pinges on the element of extravagant fashion. When businessman Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is wrongly arrested and convicted for the murder of his wife, his devoted secretary Carol Richman (Ella Raines) sets about locating his only alibi: an unknown woman wearing a peculiar, one-of-a-kind hat, with whom he had been sharing some innocent conversation in a bar at the time of the killing. Siodmak follows this wholesome young woman on her crusade as if into annexes of Hell itself, searching for clues, placing her own innocence at risk, and increasingly placing her trust in her boss's business associate Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), who -- plainly to us, but not to her -- turns out to be the real killer.

Associate produced by Joan Harrison, a former and future associate of Alfred Hitchcock who had in fact served as his secretary a decade earlier, the film contains sequences of darkish, quietly sinister atmosphere that shows the influence of the films being produced over at RKO by Val Lewton, especially the two from the previous year: Jacques Tourneur's THE LEOPARD MAN and Mark Robson's THE SEVENTH VICTIM. It also shares something of the element of a wholesome dream turned horribly wrong, like Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT, also from 1943. The key instance in this regard is a justly celebrated sequence where Carol, masquerading as a loose woman, entices a drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who may have seen the "phantom lady" and her companion and gets invited to a private jazz session -- the scene, which reaches a frenzied pitch, seems to look back to G.W. Pabst's films with Louise Brooks and ahead to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's with Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa at the same time. The climactic cat-and-mouse game between Tone and Raines is not played out at that level, of course, but it's suspenseful all the same and staged in a stylized apartment that looks like the killer's mounting migraine.

Viewed as part of TCM/Universal's new DVD box set DARK CRIMES - FILM NOIR THRILLERS, which also includes THE GLASS KEY and THE BLUE DAHLIA.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

208. THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972)

In researching a sidebar article looking into the roots of DJANGO UNCHAINED, I felt an obligation to learn more about the screen career of former athlete Fred Williamson. Some titles were disappointing (like the aforementioned ADIOS AMIGO, #207), some made something good out of very little (like the Williamson-directed sleeper JOSHUA), and then there were the Nigger Charley pictures, which began with this fairly impressive saga, which I think would be more favorably remembered today if it had a less inflammatory title and hadn't opted to score its lovingly drawn images with funk tracks to drive home the idea of how relevant this story hoped to be to black audiences of the 1970s.

Acquitting himself well in his first starring role, Williamson plays an enslaved blacksmith who is granted his freedom on his slavemaster's deathbed, thanks to a request from his mother (who selflessly refuses his offer of freedom for herself), only to discover that freedom is something an African-American of his era must fight for every day of his life. With his slavemaster dead, Charley's writ of freedom is torn up by the original master's more hateful son Houston (IT'S ALIVE's John P. Ryan), who intends to keep him and has him whipped -- leading to a fight in which Houston is accidentally killed. With two fellow slaves (D'urville Martin and Don Pedro Colley, pictured), Charley runs away in search of a place where they might start a new life, but they encounter so much hostility from most white townspeople, they're goaded into embracing an outlaw lifestyle. In time, they are asked to work as live-in ranch hands and security guards for a white farmer (Doug Rowe) and his beautiful halfbreed Native American wife (Tricia O'Neil), who are being harrassed for their mixed marriage by members of a Klan-like organization led by a racist Reverend (Joe Santos). Thomas Anderson both lightens and deepens the tone of the picture as a supposedly halfbreed drunkard named Shadow, initial comedy relief who later, in a more vulnerable moment, admits to being of African descent and so old that he had to start passing for red (or pink, as it were) to soften the blows that have followed him his entire life.

As with a lot of Williamson's 1970s work, this film isn't generally available in optimal condition. The most common version around was edited for television, its mild cursing bleeped while the really hateful language was left intact, lending it even greater heat. Even in this less-than-ideal presentation (which can be found on YouTube), this is an entertaining, well-made, and reasonably thought-provoking film, worth tracking down.

Viewed on DVD-R.          

207. ADIOS AMIGO (1976)

Fred Williamson wrote and directed this comic Western, which had the clever idea of casting Richard Pryor as the "wily rascal" arcana character familiar to Italian Westerns (usually in the form of Eli Wallach), but unfortuntely, much of the film seems improvised, just as the camera often seems to be on automatic pilot.

The set-up is shaggydog simple: Williamson -- exuding his usual buff charisma -- is Big Ben, an honest cowboy minding his own business, who persistently gets blamed for the nearby misdeeds of one Sam Spade (Pryor), who shows a tendency to leave him in the thick of trouble with the salutation found in the movie's title.

I personally felt ripped off by the fact that Williamson cast actor James Brown in the film, in a minor role (they're all minor except the two leads), and made his name large in the advertising, surely misleading thousands of movie-goers into thinking the Godfather of Soul would eventually come along and teach knucklehead Spade a lesson. There's an amusing sequence that finds Spade invited to share food at the encampment of an old man and his two gorgeous daughters, starved for male companionship, but all in all, this was suffering to sit through. The film isn't done any additional favors by the video transfers in circulation; even on DVD, the scope framing is missing roughly half of its original image content.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video, where it's available in $1.99 and $2.99 streaming versions. I'm betting they both look the same.

206. NAVAJO JOE (1966)

Quentin Tarantino has said that screen violence was revolutionized in the 1960s by two directors, Terence Young and Sergio Corbucci: Young for masterminding the train fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), and Corbucci for overseeing Burt Reynolds' explosively physical performance in this racially-themed heist Western.

Reynolds, a Navajo, is hired by a white community to save a half-million-dollar Wells Fargo shipment from the Indian-scalping gang of scar-faced Aldo Sambrell (a Leone Western henchman promoted here to lead villain), who has become both iconoclast and sociopath in response to his fellow Americans' hatred for his status as the halfbreed bastard son of an Indian woman and a white man of the cloth. His self-loathing is so immense that he ends up putting a bullet in the back of his last loyal follower. Corbucci hasn't Leone's knack for characterization and the film fails to deliver a single white character of any real human dimension, but it cannot be faulted for its superbly iconographic use of Reynolds nor for its robust score by Ennio Morricone (credited, in the occasional way of Italian Westerns, to "Leo Nichols").

Viewed on Netflix.

205. GEORGE HARRISON LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (2011)

My second viewing of this Martin Scorsese documentary, which originally aired as a two-part HBO special and won two significant Emmy Awards for its achievement. I was somewhat disappointed the first time around, but now I see that my disappointment resided with my own expectations; I wasn't giving the film the opportunity to be what it wanted or needed, on the basis of the interviews it collected, to be. On second look, I was profoundly impressed and think this compares well with Scorsese's earlier NO DIRECTION HOME doc on Bob Dylan's early years, which took the remarkable and necessary step of staking a claim for Dylan's historical greatness. Harrison is a more problematic subject, suppressed as his younger talent was between the twin headlights of Lennon and McCartney in The Beatles, and subsequently reclusive by his own inclination (indoctrination?)... and yet it was his comfort around the subject of death (apparent here in a shot of him comforting John in the wake of Stuart Sutcliffe's fatal aneurysm) and his inclinations to mysticism that led The Beatles to the spiritual agencies (LSD, Eastern religion, Indian music) that most lastingly transformed their music. He was the first of the four to say "Don't Bother Me," years before Beatlemania registered on all four of their faces on the cover of BEATLES FOR SALE and their retreat from the rigors of the road. The film fairly well establishes him as the soul card composing the Major Arcana of the most important musical organization of the 20th century. True, it tiptoes around some of the less admirable aspects of his nature, such as his womanizing and a latter-day slip into non-expansive drugs, but it doesn't deny them either. What I admire most about the film is its editing, which shows disregard for the order of events and lets the story assume shape in one's consciousness from a whirling detritus of documentation in an almost cubist manner.

Viewed on HBO.

204. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)

I watched this sequel to 1931's DRACULA because it was chosen by my friend and colleague Richard Harland Smith as the film he was going to present during his guest host appearance on Turner Classic Movies last month. Also, it's the only sequel that Quentin Tarantino admitted was an important "human error" omission from his list of Top 50 Favorite Movie Sequels in the current VIDEO WATCHDOG (172). I've reviewed this film in greater depth for VW 27, so I won't do that here all over again, but I will make a few comments as regards how I feel the film plays for me now.

The vampire subgenre was so young when this film was made, it's almost like this is where it properly began to pick up speed and cut deeper. As RHS said so well during his post-mortem on the picture, it's at its best when it shows the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) exposing her staked father's remains to a crucifix (her own gaze averted) prior to cremating him; in Richard's words, it showed some of the things vampires "do for one another." Its other highlight is a memorable sequence that depicts the Countess coming to the apparent rescue of a hungry homeless young woman (Joe May favorite Nan Grey), whom she invites to her studio for a meal and the promise of cash if she poses for a portrait, leading to a confrontation that's often overplayed by commentators as a lesbian scene. (I suspect the scene was so written because a female vampire would have to seduce a male victim, thus making such a scene more explicitly sexual, whereas this way, she can more easily overcome someone of her own sex, who's weak from malnutrition anyway. There is a request that the model go behind a partition to disrobe, but if you approach the scene in alert search of lesbian content, you'll be disappointed. They are two women, and one of them does have an erotic aura that noticeably dims around men, but that's all you get.) The female vampire template was more memorably sketched the previous year by young Carroll Borland in Tod Browning's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE; Gloria Holden -- older, more thickly built and more dour of expression -- seems less vampiric than proto-Goth with a strong Sapphic vibe. Otto Kruger is the crustiest leading man Universal ever dropped into one of their horror films, but his THIN MAN-like banter with sassy secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill) is a pleasure, as is Irving Pichel's sepulchral sidekick Sandor.

Though director Lambert Hillyer (who also directed THE INVISIBLE RAY but specialized in Westerns) does a good job of dovetailing this sequel with its predecessor, it does suffer a bit from a preponderance of "I'm uncomfortable with horror" humor and lots of "meanwhile, back at the ranch" cross-cutting. In short, I find it losing some of its lustre as a horror classic, but I'm not saying it's without points of abiding interest.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.      

203. REVOLUTION (1968)

I'm a dedicated collector of films about the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco during the 1967 "Summer of Love," but this one somehow escaped me till now. There was a soundtrack album issued, which I've also never heard, featuring tracks by Country Joe and the Fish (maybe this is how some of the kids at Woodstock learned the words to "The I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag"), Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Steve Miller Band and Mother Earth (an all-woman band that subsequently adopted the name Ace of Cups), all of whom are shown performing live in one of the area's famous ballrooms, bombarded by the whirling blobbing projections of Glenn MacKay's Headlights, but the bulk of the film is not about the local music scene. Rather, it's about this new generation of creative, colorfil, experimental, philosophy-minded, free-loving kids and what they are likely to do with the world they're about to inherit. Fair, if not equal time, is given to the more adult, conservative element, who express fear and/or piqued curiosity, while one nun attending some sort of unidentified outdoor gathering compares the life she has chosen -- changing her name, donning special garb, dedicating her life to love and spirituality -- to those of many hippie girls she has met.

The footage is credited to a dozen or more independent documentarists, but the film was organized by director Jack O'Connell and sold to Lopert Pictures, which means it's now one of the neglected vault holdings of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. While the film is understandably unfocused, it does appear to occupy that short period of time before experimentation led to addiction for so many and before the area became overrun, trampled down and commercialized. We meet the managers and habitués of a free store, a coffee shop (more of a meeting place, taken to task by some broke kids objecting to their introduction of a 50-cent cover charge), an India goods store, a free clinic, etc -- that were experimenting with more socialized and aware approaches to business. If you look close, you can spot people like Daria Halprin (ZABRISKIE POINT), Dan Hicks and (I think) Marty Balin flashing by in the colorful scenery, but the film's protagonist, if any, is a personality among the common folk -- a hippie girl who, to remind herself of the opportunities that come with each day, has adopted the name "Today" Malone. The film shows her at the beach, visiting friends, selling underground papers, tripping and walking against a tide of other rubberneckers asking for spare change. (Haven't heard that phrase in awhile.) For a 1968 film preceding the arrival of the MPAA ratings system, there is also a surprising amount for frontal nudity by men and women, particularly during a choreographed performance art piece staged under the aforementioned Headlights light show and fraught with beautiful bodies.

REVOLUTION appears at first to be very locked into its own time, but there is more here than an opportunity to mock yesterday's quixotic values. In the clips it assembles of conservative and fence-sitting adults, in medical and religious spokespeople spreading fear and (sometimes worse) concern, and also in its proliferating pot use, it's surprising how much of this time mirrors tendencies stirring in our own. I find this somewhat reassuring, because it suggests, as this country becomes more disenchanted with the failure of capitalism, that another renaissance time like this may not be entirely impossible and might even work out better the next time. I miss hippie girls.

Viewed on Netflix.

202. NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE & BLUE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN HORROR FILM (2009)

Andrew Monument directed this useful documentary, based on a book by Joseph Maddrey, about the American horror film and what it has expressed, over the decades, about America, its people, its headlines and its changes of government. Narrated in warm, rough-hewn tones by Lance Henricksen (a good choice), it's heads above most of its kind throughout, full of sharp observations and good clips, but it's particularly insightful once the periods under discussion catch up with onscreen commentary by its creators, including Joe Dante, George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, Mick Garris and John Carpenter -- who isn't always the most eloquent or loquacious guy in the room, but is in top form here. It's occasionally guilty of overstating a film's historical importance to repay input from a couple of handy commentators (Tom McLoughlin's ONE DARK NIGHT, for example), but it never feels like it's wasting your time or repackaging information that's already been chewed to death.

Viewed on Netflix, but available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

201. SEXUAL CHRONICLES OF A FRENCH FAMILY (2011)

Aka Chroniques Sexualles d'une Famille d'Aujourd'hui.

As its title suggests, this film -- co-directed by Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr -- responds to the curiosities of its sexually isolated, thus troubled, teenage virgin protagonist, Romain (Matthias Melloul), by snooping into the way sex figures in the lives of all its members -- his parents, his bisexual older brother, his adopted sister and widowed grandfather. When Romain is suspended from school for using his cellphone to film himself masturbating in class, his mother Claire (Valérie Maës) determines that more open sexual communication in her heretofore conservative family has become essential. In some ways, her probing is shown to be a healthy thing -- it opens previously closed lines of contact between herself and her husband's father, for example -- but elsewhere, as with the gay son, it's met with a firm insistence on privacy.

The characters are vivid enough but the story doesn't amount to very much, other than a curiously anthropological study of how -- if we accept this family as a rule of thumb -- sex mutates over a lifetime from vulnerable contact with another person (as in Romain's eventual deflowering by a slightly more experienced girl, played by Adeline Rebeillard) to experiment (the bisexual brother is seen involved in ménages a trois and pleasuring himself to internet porn) to role-playing (as between the parents, who use a lot of fantasy and drama in their trysts) to a business arrangement (the grandfather, not wishing to tarnish the memory of a long marriage with a new relationship, visits a prostitute); that is, a gradual estrangement from real sharings of the self. And yet, when the father thoughtfully leaves a packet of condoms in his son's bedroom, knowing that he's invited his new girlfriend to dinner, it's not an opportunity for a coarse laugh but a loving act.

Viewed on Netflix.

200. SKYFALL (2012)

I'm not convinced this is Daniel Craig's great Bond film -- after shooting it, he told a reporter that it felt like his GOLDFINGER -- but GOLDFINGER wasn't Sean Connery's great Bond film either, nor is it Craig's favorite; it was one of the greats, and SKYFALL stands a good chance of becoming/being one of Craig's.

What surprise-director-choice Sam Mendes has done is admirable for its willingness to tamper with the formula, for doing well what the series has always done best, and for crossing some serious lines that can't be uncrossed, from introducing details of Bond's back story to elements of the homoerotic -- all decisions which genuinely move chess pieces of the franchise forward. If Adele's theme song seems to just lie there warbling, its close DNA fusion with the Bond theme holds it in the memory like some of the more legitimately haunting Bond music, and Thomas Newman's score, alternately familiar and exotic, sumptuous and brittle, feels both comfortable and bracing. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (who worked his way here via the Coen brothers) is perhaps the film's most valuable player, pulling off any number of visual tours de force, particularly during the scenes in Singapore that bridge the first act to the second with the introduction of Sévérine, a Eurasian prostitute played by Bérénice Lim Marlohe, whose hardened vulnerability, masked with just the right amount of overdone eye makeup, makes a near-series-best Bond Girl impression in an extended barside dialogue scene that establishes her, and our dread of Javier Bardem's breezily psychotic villain Silva.

I am resigned to possibly never knowing if the final act is a misstep or not. Its insights into Bond's past, avoided by the series lo these past 50 years (!), have their basis in Fleming's books but feel weirdly non-canonical being introduced after so long cultivating Bond as a man of mystery. And the last-minute identification of Eve (Naomie Harris) as a series regular, and one whom we saw interacting with Judi Dench's M in Pierce Brosnan adventures, is not only a tad too cute but chronologically confusing -- which makes its feeling strangely "right" all the more aggravating. All in all, while I think I can safely say it's no CASINO ROYALE, it's richer in places, and I was pleased. Whatever elements of aggravation it may possess are so modest, they won't seriously get in the way of its appreciation as one of the latter-day Bond triumphs.

Viewed in a theater.  

199. FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003)

I may be the co-publisher and editor of a film magazine that leans toward horror and the fantastique, but given what they so often are, I generally steer clear of today's horror franchises, which aren't particularly representative of the special thrills I come to the genre to enjoy. This (it's 10 years old already?) is the only film in the Final Destination franchise I've seen, and I watched it in preparation for my interview with Quentin Tarantino, who included it on a recently compiled list of his Top 50 Favorite Movie Sequels (see VIDEO WATCHDOG 172). Though it didn't make me want to seek out the others in the series, I thought it was well-constructed entertainment -- gruesome TV for the big screen, so to speak -- and I particularly admired the thorough (and thoroughly nasty) planning that went into the elaborate design of its show-stopping "chain reaction" highway accident sequence. Mario Bava fans should particularly give it a look; not because of any instances of garish lighting, but because it's essentially a reworking of his BAY OF BLOOD (aka TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, 1971) -- except the "13 characters, 13 murders" concept all happens in the early part of the film, with the balance of the film concerning Death's pursuit of those occupying the next ring of the ripples sent out from that opening catastrophic scything.

Viewed on Cinemax.

198. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

Interested readers are referred to my review of this film, which appears in the "DVD Spotlight" department of VIDEO WATCHDOG 172.

197. THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Interested readers are referred to my review of George Waggner's Universal horror original, which appears in the "DVD Spotlight" department of VIDEO WATCHDOG 172.

196. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

Interested readers are referred to my review of James Whale's classic sequel, which appears in the "DVD Spotlight" department of VIDEO WATCHDOG 172.

195. THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Interested readers are referred to my review of James Whale's puckish film of the classic H.G. Wells novel, which can be found in the "DVD Spotlight" department of VIDEO WATCHDOG 172.

194. THE MUMMY (1932)

Interested readers are referred to my review of Karl Freund's hypnotic film, which can be found in the "DVD Spotlight" department of VIDEO WATCHDOG 172.

193. ANATOMY OF HELL (ANATOMIE DE L'ENFER, 2004)

By and large, I like or am intrigued by the work of Catherine Breillat, but this, one of her best-known pictures, probably owing to its sexual explicitness, is one that eludes me -- and yet this could be construed as proof of its success, and perhaps mine as a human being.

Based on her novel PORNOCRACY, which I've not read, it's the simple story of a woman (Amira Casar) who is rescued from a suicide attempt by a gay man (Rocco Siffredi), whom she subsequently hires to attend her for four sequential nights, during which she strips and soliloquizes about sex and sexuality in ways that prompt them both to explore their mutual revulsions. The woman flaunts herself (via Casar's body double) to a man unlikely to respond to her, and engineers a torturous, exploratory experience for them both that leads to a place of mutual intimacy and flashes of compassion. It's been called a work of anti-pornography, a film that deobjectifies the body, but I find it moreso about what happens to people when they pursue a lifetime of sex based solely in physical attraction, without love. I applaud the film for its willfully literary, conjecturing, confrontational nature, which has become still more uncommon in the near-decade since it was made, but it presents a complete demystification of the erotic, deconstructing male and female carnality beyond the point of crudity, and is a punishing experience overall.

Watching as a straight male, it was curious for me to find a completely nude and visually available woman so unappealing and the male character so much more attractive and vital. It would be interesting to see this film remade by a man sympathetic to Breillat's intentions, because I can't help feeling that the man is objectified here in ways the woman is merely... autopsied. All in all, one of those films that might push one to seek out interviews, but is unfulfilling in itself; a kind of necrophilia story with two hearts beating instead of one.

Viewed on Netflix.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

192. THE MOVIE ORGY (1968)

Joe Dante made his entrance into features by cobbling together this mind-boggling 4½-hour (originally 7-hour!) compilation of footage from features, television, commercials, newsreels and other excelsior. He aptly describes it as the secret skeleton key to his filmography, and one can easily see why: not only can some of this material be found in his later feature work, but the themes of that work are already present here, fully grown, albeit submitted in a more boldly McLuhanesque way. Depending on how you want to look at it, THE MOVIE ORGY could play like "Short Attention Span Theatre" or as an elaborate essay, alternately gut-burstingly funny and sobering, on the theme of America as a place of illusion that habitually lies to its people for commercial gain and is seemingly in love with fantasies of its own imminent peril. And this was decades before the Internet or INDEPENDENCE DAY; it even predates Bob Rafelson's Monkees film HEAD (released the following year), which it foreshadows in a number of ways.

Unreeling throughout the film, as if on parallel channels, are such features as ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT CLAW, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS and SPEED CRAZY, the last of which finds Brett Halsey causing endless trouble as a racing driver whose big line is "Don't crowd me, man! I don't like to be crowded!" (Viewers can't help whispering variations of this line to friends at appropriate moments during scenes from other pictures.) Another highlight is a clip from the old Andy Devine childrens' series ANDY'S GANG, which shows him leading a cat (pinned inside a costume that makes it appear to play piano) and a mouse (ditto, but pounding a bass drum) through a jaw-dropping rendition of "Jesus Loves Me," the sort of intrusion of religion into kids' entertainment that was fairly common in 1950s programming, and I do mean programming. But the cuts from one subject to another are anything but random; they frequently jump track at a point that ventures some sort of witty comment, and we're made to face the dichotomy of the warm and cuddly nostalgia we feel for so much material that was actually fairly open about its manipulation of the public and its preparation of America for some kind of Doomsday, or at the very least danger; a spreading of terror that, one supposes, diverted audiences from (or perhaps inured them to) the coming realities of missile crises, assassinations and news of the wars we were waging in other countries.

Because it makes extensive use of copyrighted properties (strangely enough, moreso now than at the time), THE MOVIE ORGY cannot be released on home video nor can it play in theaters except as a free event. This is a tragedy because it's one of the most purely entertaining films I saw this year, and one of the most irreverent, thought-provoking political films released in its decade. It was a far denser experience than I expected it to be, and yet the hours seemed to fly by, piloted by Clint Eastwood and under the stern direction of Gen. Morris Ankrum.

Viewed at the Hi-Pointe Theatre in St. Louis.

191. THE HOLE (2009)

Joe Dante's latest theatrical release -- shot in 3D in 2009 but only given very scant release this year -- is much like what BARON BLOOD was to Mario Bava: a welcome opportunity to revisit some old haunts in a new way. Mark L. Smith's storyline has a marked resemblance to the 1987 Canadian film THE GATE: two brothers (Chris Massoglia as Dane, Nathan Gamble as Lucas) move with their single mom Susan (Teri Polo) into a new house in a new town and, with the pretty girl next door (Julie, played by Haley Bennett), they decide to see what's under that heavily locked panel on their basement floor. What's behind it is what appears to be the proverbial hole to China and time is spent testing its depth and even lowering a digital movie camera into its beckoning darkness to film glimpses of its possible depths. But we not only peer into the abyss, it peers into us, and soon enough things begin to emerge from the hole: a sinister clown doll, a little girl who walks in jerky stop-mo-like movements.

But because this is Joe Dante, the film isn't going to stop at a scary fantastical premise, even if this is primarily a spooky film for the PG set, a level on which it works exceptionally well. As the story unfolds, we realize there is more to the grumpiness of the two boys than moving to a new place, being taken away from their old group of friends, and seeing their mother going out on dates. Susan, who is shown having a somewhat adversarial adult rapport with Dane, has moved to protect her kids from her ex, who is presently incarcerated on a domestic violence charge. A letter soon arrives to prove that he still knows where to find them and, after the kids learn from the previous tenant, Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), that the hole manifests our own fears, reality overrides fantasy with the psycho father's escape from prison. (This movie doesn't tell us anything so obvious, but other movies about prison life have referred to jail as "the hole." There might even be a Freudian dimension to the object, since Dane also seems to be dealing with some adolescent fears where Julie is concerned, but I'd have to watch the film again with this in mind to see if this approach held any water.)

I first saw THE HOLE last year in a flat home video presentation via a Taiwanese DVD, but I had the good fortune to see it in 3D at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival, where Dante was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dante's mastery of the technology is such that every shot feels meticulously designed to evoke dimension (not just exploit it), and yet there isn't a moment in the picture that feels less like it was set up out of technical necessity. You can look at this movie in its flat version and tell, every step of the way, by the way the camera moves, by the objects that are shown special attention, that this is a Joe Dante picture. Some of my favorite 3D moments in the picture had less to do with the main elements of three-dimensional display than the little grace notes he thought to include: the dust motes dancing in the darkness of the Hole, the blade of grass floating in the pool when someone gets thrown in. Working here on an estimated $12,000,000 budget (his last major studio release came in for $80,000,000), the personality Dante invests in the storytelling is absolutely intact, and -- in the midst of a story about being young and embarking on one's own life -- he pulls off one of the screen's greatest metaphors for the panic of growing old as he shows Dern, sitting in a room illuminated by dangling overhead bulbs, striving to complete a modular set of drawings (which will be helpful to Dane) as the bulbs explode one by one, clearly panicked about whether he'll complete his work before the last bulb blows.

Not a major work, obviously, but perfectly entertaining -- and, for those young people who weren't around for GREMLINS when it first premiered, a solid introduction to one of America's great movie fantasists, and a film that will grow with them and speak to them differently as they progress through life.

Viewed in a theater -- but also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Big Air Studios. This domestic release does not include the 3D version, but the British import release from Entertainment One.

190. CHAINED (2011)

Jennifer Lynch wrote and directed this extremely dark, absorbing character study, based on a more traditional thriller-type treatment of the same story by Damian O'Donnell. Vincent D'Onofrio is frighteningly effective as a cab driver who abducts young women to rape and murder. His abduction of one woman (Julia Ormond) brings with it the baggage of a nine-year-old son, whom he subsequently raises as his own. The boy is told in no uncertain terms that he must serve and clean up after him (eg., his crimes) or face the consequences. When the boy, renamed Rabbit, reaches maturity (as Eamon Farren), his captor begins to face the challenges faced by any parent: how to get the kid an education, whether or not to trust him with the keys to the car, dates, and so on. What makes the film at all bearable is that it's about parenting, bad parenting, and D'Onofrio's character -- slumped in his easy chair with a beer in front of the ballgame, barking orders -- reminds us of various fathers we have known or met in our own lives, as Lynch's sardonic sensibilities guide Rabbit through various inventive perversions of the usual teenage rites of passage, including a fairly horrifying prom date. Up until the coda scene, this is as suspenseful and witty a character study as I've seen; unfortunately, the conclusion is a step too far, demanding that we process too much new information and tries to encase the preceding story inside another, larger one, without success. Still very much worth seeing.

Viewed in a theater, but available on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment and via Amazon Instant Video.  

189. ACE HIGH (1968)

Above average sequel to GOD FORGIVES, I DON'T in which returning protagonists Cat Stevens (Terence Hill) and Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer) lose their new fortune in gold -- after a few scenes that show us how painfully ill-suited they both are to wealth -- to a wily new acquaintence, a Greek thief named Cacopoulis (Eli Wallach). They track him from town to town, through a series of additional encounters, each of which puts them in more trouble than the last while Cocopoulis rides away. In the third act, our heroes are witness to the goals motivating his thievery: the need to be publicly acknowledged by Drake (Kevin McCarthy), a former associate who went on to fortune and success. Giuseppe Colizzi's rollicking film builds to a surprisingly tense and emotional confrontation with parallels to the heart-wrenching climax of Orson Welles' CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, in which Fallstaff finds himself publicly shunned by Prince Hal following his coronation as King Henry V. Wallach is outstanding, as always, and the fine supporting cast includes Brock Peters, Livio Lorenzon and Mario Bava favorite Federico Boido.

Viewed on Netflix.

188. AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION (1982)

Dino de Laurentiis brought Italian director Damiano Damiani (THE WITCH IN LOVE, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL) to the States to direct this sequel to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. The casting of the film sets up a far more interesting story than Tommy Lee Wallace's script wants to tell. In terms of the narrative, a family with three children (two of them teens) moves into the now-abandoned house and strange things start happening: Sonny (Jack Magner), the eldest of the kids, undergoes a devilish personality change that begins with him asking his sister (Diane Franklin) to remove her nightgown (she does! she's happy to!) and ends up with him fully possessed, even changing physical form, while stalking his family with a shotgun, and shedding his skin in some pre-Brundlefly spfx. Unfortunately, the casting of Burt Young as the family's short-tempered father subverts everything, as his barely subdued violence places his family under a dark shadow of abuse before they move into the house. The movie is surprising at times, pushing some unexpected buttons -- incest, patricide, fratricide, even Young telling off the local priest (James Olson) during his first welcoming visit -- but I found it impossible to believe for a second, and much more readily laughable.

Viewed on Netflix.  

187. BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987)

I don't think much of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE line of comedies in the first place, but this sequel has a Rat Pack sloppiness about it, in that few of the returning cast members can be bothered to act or contribute to a believable story. Eddie Murphy's a-gigglin' and phonin' shit in, while Judge Reinhold and John Ashton lurk guiltily in his periphery like actors playing hooky, who have sneaked into a party and must follow Eddie's mischievous lead or risk getting tossed out. There is a negligible story about Axel Foley (Eddie's character) investigating an attempted hit on Ronny Cox's police chief character, which brings in some surprising talent -- Jurgen Prochnow, Brigitte Nielsen (looking like a De Palma girl in her most impressive screen outing), Dean Stockwell -- but they aren't given much to do but wear good-looking clothes. The whole film gleams like a Ferrari under the direction of Tony Scott, a more stylish filmmaker than normally got anywhere near comedy at the time. His out-of-towner's eye results in views of Los Angeles that make the whole city look like Rodeo Drive. It's not very good, but it's interesting to look at.

Viewed on Netflix.    

Sunday, December 9, 2012

186. NORA (2000)

I regret to say that -- despite being an experienced reader of James Joyce, and interested enough in his body of work to have read his letters and numerous books about him, including Richard Ellmann's unmatched biography -- I found this Irish-produced biopic about his early years with Nora Barnacle almost immediately forgettable. Ewan McGregor's casting as Joyce surely got the film produced, but he's a bad choice, failing to embody the Joyce preserved in photos, which show us a shabby man dressed in a kind of casual, shabby style. The clothes in this film are too fresh, too clean, too pressed to convey a sense of the real people, as if the producers were afraid something closer to the truth might reflect badly on their ability to make an attractive film -- and consequently, McGregor comes across as rather louche and unlikeable, long before his jealousies concerning Nora's previous sexual experience get the better of him. (And his singing voice hardly lives up to the accolades won by Joyce's own singing.) Susan Lynch fares somewhat better as Nora, though she's not the bulkily built woman in the pictures either. Owing to the casting of attractive players as historical personages who weren't so attractive, but somehow managed to be robustly sexual people, the film also deprives itself (and its viewers) of the surprise one finds in reading Joyce's boldly erotic love letters to Nora. So what else is there? Some scenery and not much more.

Viewed on Netflix.

185. DUNGEON OF HARROW (1962)

This ambitious oddity was co-written, produced, edited and directed by Pat Boyette, who subsequently became an artist and writer for numerous Charlton and Warren comics publications (GHOST MANOR, THE MANY GHOSTS OF DR. GRAVES, CREEPY). In many ways, it's the imperfect illustration of a genre film that had everything going for it -- reasonable acting, clever set design, creative lighting and scripting -- everything, that is, except money. The quality of the script and the obvious ingenuity of the director make one wish the production hadn't been so stubborn about going its own way, though perhaps it had to be. Given the castle setting and most of the costumes, this appears to be a period film (the first mistake) in which a pair of male shipwreck survivors are offered the twisted hospitality of Count DeSade, though not all the wardrobe is consistent with the apparent period. It's far more traditionally competent than, say, an Andy Milligan picture; it plays like a rough draft for a Roger Corman movie of its time, or -- perhaps more appropriately -- a lurid, demented horror comic, closer to Eerie Publications in feel than Warren. Though something is unquestionably missing from its makeup, there is something decidedly lovable about the attempt, and I hope a more colorful source element still exists for this than the faded, almost sepia-toned PD copy I saw.

Viewed on DVD-R.