Sunday, September 06, 2009

Snack Bar

This would be the section of Plate O' Shrimp dedicated to short form critiques. In other words, all the thoughts I couldn't pad out into a full review. (Yet.)

Blast of Silence (1961, D: Allen Baron) Stark post-noir crime drama from 1961 about a moody expatriate New York hitman who returns home to carry out One Last Job™ and finds that being in his old stomping ground at Christmastime does a number on his head. Writer/director/star Allen Baron’s obvious labor of love may not be for all tastes – I can imagine the more lyrical aspects, particularly as delivered via a prevalent voiceover (written by Waldo Salt! (and delivered by Lionel Stander!)), rubbing some people the wrong way – but the sense of time and place is dead on and the tone is nicely raw. A must-see for devotees of curios, although it deserves a wider audience than that.

Caged Women (Italy, 1982, D: Bruno Mattei) Mattei does WiP (one of at least two that he did, along with ‘83’s Women’s Prison Massacre). Laura Gemser (whose appeal I get but do not personally feel) is a reporter who goes undercover as an inmate to investigate abuse, butts heads with the domineering prisoner, ends up clashing with the sadistic matron, i.e. everything we’ve seen before. There is the expected nudity and nastiness, and yet the movie also props up my belief that Mattei made genuine attempts to inject social relevance into his films. Crassly exploitative as the whole thing is, Mattei strays into some surprisingly progressive territory, largely by virtue of the character of the prison doctor, who is also an inmate himself in the adjoining men’s facility for Kevorkian-ing his wife. I don’t know if Mattei, like Deodato, ever tried to justify his work in such a way, but he might have had a case to make if he had. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that he was a terrible director and that segments of this film are over-the-top bad, a.k.a., terrific.

Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia, 1966, D: Jiri Menzel) One could be forgiven for wondering why a movie that takes place in a territory technically occupied by Nazis has so few Nazis in it, but that’s kind of the point. A young man in a small Czech town takes a job at the train station because it affords him the prestige of a uniform without him actually having to do anything. This being a mere checkpoint along the arms route, the denizens are free to worry about other matters, which always seem to involve their libidos. The war does interfere here and there, but this is mostly a study of that uniquely Eastern European ennui, and a surprisingly funny one at that.

Doulos, Le (France, 1962, D: Jean-Pierre Melville) Crime drama about assorted criminals and their assorted loyalties, with one played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the center of it all who may or may not be a police informant. I found the whole thing kind of meandering, until a scene about two thirds of the way through when all of a sudden everything that’s come before begins to make sense. I also have to wonder if the Coens were somewhat inspired by this film when they were writing Miller’s Crossing. Not only do both films have a lot to do with the allegiances of criminals, but Le Doulous has a hat theme as well. We’re told at the beginning that the title is slang for both an informant and a kind of hat, plus one important scene has a shot of a hat rolling across a room. Possibly a coincidence, but it did strike me.

NEW! Fair Game (2010, D: Doug Liman) I rarely get a chance to watch recent films, but a preview copy of this fell into my hands and it was one film that I had significant reason to want to see, both for the political nature of the story and the fact that I haven't stopped loving Naomi Watts since the cold December night when I first laid eyes on her at a showing of Mulholland Dr. at a theater on East 59th Street. I was a little leery of the fact that Doug Liman was the director, not because I have any problem with him - I just didn't know that the filmmaker behind such hyperkinetic fare as GO and The Bourne Identity was the person to helm a story of such grave, real-world importance as the outing of intelligence operative Valerie Plame as a way of punishing her husband Joe Wilson for daring to point out that the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq was crap. And, to be frank, the movie does come off as a bit slick at times. But it's not a huge liability, and it occurred to me that if a little bit of industry flash meant more people saw this, then so be it. In fact, I would gladly lobby for the story to be remade in as many different genres as possible - action, romance, horror (there are certainly enough monsters in evidence) - just to make sure as many people as possible become aware of what was probably the most repugnantly petty action of one of the most corrupt administrations this country has ever seen. Make a Muppet version while you're at it so the kids will know.

The Ghost of Mae Nak (Thailand, 2005, D: Mark Duffield) Serviceable, if unexceptional, Thai ghost story, written, directed and produced by people with decidedly non-Thai names, about a newlywed couple who buy a house only to be harassed by a (wait for it) freaky female ghost with long black hair. I think this was the first time I got any kind of good look at Bangkok, so that was cool. The lead actress was exceptionally cute, so that was cool too. One of the odder aspects of the whole thing is that a fairly somber tone is maintained throughout much of the story, which makes it strange that they seem to have chosen to play the somewhat graphic gore scenes for laughs. Worth a look if it’s within reach.

A Girl Cut in Two (France-Germany, 2007, D: Claude Chabrol) Having worked in a video store with a tremendous library, I managed to study pieces of a lot of different film movements and the entirety of, well, probably none. When it comes to the famed French New Wave, I wish to Christ I could get back some of the time I spent watching Godard’s more odious pieces so I could switch it with time spent watching the work of the director of this film, Claude Chabrol. And having said all of that, I’m not exactly basing that wish on this particular film. Ludivine Sagnier, the frequently naked co-star of Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, plays an up-and-coming TV personality who becomes torn between two men, one a middle-aged novelist and the other a young heir to a pharmaceutical empire. Both men hate each other for reasons we are never explicitly told. There’s obviously something being said here about arrested development – both men are basically kids at heart, only minus the innocence, the exact quality in her that makes each want to debase her in some way – but even with that potentially volatile subject, not to mention good performances and direction, it all feels rather weightless. Sagnier, keeping her clothes on this time, is a vibrant presence throughout. Speaking of famous nude people, Mathilda May, almost unrecognizable as the same woman who played Lifeforce’s space vampire, appears here as the novelist’s publicist, a vamp of a different sort.

Gore Whore (1994, D: Hugh Gallagher) Super cheap, super sleazy, badly acted, shot-on-video adaptation of Edith Wharton (one of those things isn’t true) about a dead prostitute (Audrey Street) who gets re-animated, steals the re-animating formula and then goes about murdering and re-animating a bunch of men by shooting the formula up their asses with a combination syringe/big black dildo. It took me two tries to get all the way through this, not because it’s boring – although it doesn’t really have anything going for it beyond the abundant filth and grue – and not because of the less-than-flattering descriptives listed above. Definitely not the latter, a fact made all too clear to me by the fact that around the same time I saw this I also re-watched Female Trouble, possibly my favorite John Waters, also super cheap, super sleazy and badly acted. But while Gore Whore has a certain energy to be admired, giving its all in light of where it falls on the cinema-of-limitations scale, and the cast are certainly game for the task, they simply don’t have the inherently gonzo personalities of the Waters stable. Having players like Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey, et al, it was as if Waters achieved a kind of cosmic confluence of camp the likes of which is unlikely to ever happen again. Try as hard as they might, there’s simply no way the makers of Gore Whore could have recreated magic like that, and it may be unfair of me to even make the comparison, but it was something that popped into my mind more than once while I watched it. At any rate, sleaze connoisseurs should definitely seek this out.

NEW! Juliet of the Spirits (1965, D: Federico Fellini) Fellini directs his wife, Giulietta Masina, in a surrealistic fantasy the plot of which is essentially a woman wondering if her husband is having an affair. As she interacts with her oddball friends and the mysterious woman next door (and her oddball friends), her suspicion intermingles with neuroses left over from childhood and her own lust, unleashing a series of bizarre hallucinations, but where does the line between reality and fantasy really lie? This is easily the most fascinating film I've seen in a while. This was, arguably, the first film in which Fellini really allowed his imagination to dive into the deep end of the psyche (taking up where left off, with his previous work, despite elements of his love for spectacle and caricature, tending to be more grounded in reality) and he assembles a circusload of characters and images that he utilizes with a remarkably deft hand. Masina is, as always, a riveting figure, no small feat in a movie with this much going on, and Fellini ups the ante by bucking expectations on a regular basis, such as having recurring disturbing images (one of which, a young girl with crazed eyes tied to a burning fence, would have been right at home in a giallo) pop up in the background of sunny outdoor scenarios set to Nino Rota's playful score, almost as if Italian horror had mated with one of the party scenes from a Blake Edwards movie. I have to believe both David Lynch and John Waters have seen this, the former because Fellini's use of sound, silence, and dualistic images would be right at home in one of Lynch's more gonzo works, and the latter because the next door neighbor's make-up and fashion sense are extremely similar to the look Divine sported in Pink Flamingos. An absolute must-see for anyone interested in surrealism, Euro-weirdness, or witnessing one of our world-class filmmakers directing with no brakes and yet no casualties.

NEW! Last Train from Gun Hill (1959, D: John Sturges) A marshall (Kirk Douglas) and a rancher (Anthony Quinn), former friends, find themselves in a deadly situation when Douglas comes looking for the man who raped and murdered his Native American wife and it turns out to be Quinn's son (Earl Holliman). Douglas then has to find a way to get Holliman out of the town of which Quinn is essentially the king, possibly with the help of Carolyn Jones as the resident damaged damsel. This is a perfectly servicable western story and yet it somehow falls just short of its mark. Maybe it's me, though; other westerns kept popping into my head as I watched it. The general hunting-the-man-who-raped-and-murdered-my-wife theme made me think of Lang's Rancho Notorious, and the extended sequence with Douglas and Holliman holed up in a hotel waiting for train time conjured memories of Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma. Not that I'm implying copycat-ism - both aspects are different enough to stand on their own - but something just seems lacking, despite a good cast, scattered stand-out moments and a strong finale.

The Love-Ins (1967, D: Arthur Dreifuss) Hair-brained story about a college professor who quits his job and becomes a Timothy Leary-style hippie guru, preaching free love and LSD use. It seems to want to represent the viewpoints, and assorted pros and cons, of both the squares and the heads, but when you’re pretty much portraying everyone as a hypocritical, reactionary asshole, minus any kind of genuine context, what’s the point? (i.e. The main character is portrayed as a man of principle until its suddenly convenient for him to be an opportunistic creep.) However, the Alice in Wonderland dance number cum drug trip is a must see.

Mad Max (Australia, 1979, D: George Miller) The society-in-decline movie about out-of-control joy-riding criminals and barely-in-control cops that helped launch both a post-apocalyptic genre and Mel Gibson. I’m not an action movie fan in general, and I hate cars, but I can’t deny that this is some knuckle-biting stuff. In regard to the other genre it represents, the film certainly stands as an interesting contrast to so many revenge films of the ‘80s, both in what they have in common and what they don’t. It hits many of the familiar spots but takes the time to develop a real sense of the world of the film with them, as opposed to viewing them as mere stepping stones to the payback. And when you consider that...[SPOILER]...the incident that sends Max into full revenge mode doesn’t happen until way near the end, whereupon he rapidly and efficiently takes out the bad guys (including a comparatively unceremonious demise for the ringleader), it really does reveal the numerous Death Wish imitators for the exercises in masturbatory violence that they are.

NEW! Man of Marble (Poland, 1977, D: Andrzej Wajda) A young Polish filmmaker struggles to complete a project about a famous bricklayer. That almost sounds like the sort of satirical description of an arthouse movie that they used to use on Frasier, but this is quite real. And, of course, there's a lot more to it than that. The majority of the film takes place in the past, as said bricklayer gains national acclaim for helming a building project that breaks a record for labor (and which is filmed for propagandistic reasons) only to fall from grace when he refuses to play the Party game. If this doesn't seem like the sort of thing for you, consider that director Andrzej Wajda (pronouned 'An-jay Vai-da' in case anyone was wondering) managed to get a roughly two-hour and forty-minute film out of it and it will probably seem even less so. And that's not even counting the sequel, Man of Iron, which runs a mere two hours and thirty-two minutes. I got this off of a City University of New York television program called City Cinematheque and it was accompanied by a half-hour interview by producer/professor Jerry Carlson with Wajda. One of the most interesting things Wajda talks about is that there was an extended period in Poland during the Soviet era when, contrary to the practice in many Soviet countries where artists had to get direct permission from the government to do whatever they wanted to do (often to very limited results), Poland utilized a system by which an intermediary organization would take the script to the government and, upon approval, take responsibility for the finished product. Subsequently there was no government "editor" on the set during production and scripts were often freely changed, resulting in finished products not quite what the powers that be were expecting. So, yay for artistic freedom. Distribution, on the other hand, was another matter. When Man of Marble was completed, the government tarred it as an anti-socialist film (despite being considerably pro-labor) and relegated its exhibition to a single theater. When the crowds that showed up to see it turned out to be too much for the venue to handle, they relented and allowed for two more theaters, but sternly declared that it would not be exhibited outside of Poland. Only, the regular French distributor of Wajda's films managed somehow (he doesn't explicitly say how) to secure a copy and it was subsequently shown as the unannounced "surprise" film at the Cannes festival, thereby unleashing it upon the world, whether the Polish government liked it or not. Wajda uses this as an example of how the smallest crack in an authoritarian power can allow things to slip from their control. One likes to think of the lesson that genuine advocates of freedom - of both expression and in general - can take from this, while inwardly cringing at what those who see no contradiction in "enforcing" freedom through authoritarian means might take away from it as well.

My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007, D: Guy Maddin) Documentary (of sorts) about avant-garde filmmaker Maddin’s hometown is a typically bold mix of the real and the surreal, B&W and color, fact and fiction, stock footage and new footage (much of it made to look like stock footage), etc. Recreated moments from his family’s life are mixed with stories of places within the city from the same period that have long since fallen victim to bad decisions, resulting in a brew of nostalgia, anger and regret that manages, as does so much of the director’s work, to be wildly hallucinatory and eerily sedate at the same time. I know some people find Maddin’s films off-putting, but outside the setting of a (completely) fictional drama, they might find his aggressively poetic stylistics easier to take. Personally, I found it utterly beautiful and mesmerizing.

The Oracle (1985, D: Roberta Findlay) Young couple moves into a new apartment and the wife begins fooling with a planchette (ouija type of device) left behind by the woman who previously occupied the place. She begins to realize that a murdered man is using the device to tell her who killed him. Additionally, whoever tries to get rid of the planchette is offed by a demonic presence, which may or may not be connected to the dead man (not a mystery the movie bothers to deal with). Cheap production, amateurish acting, and at least one scene of unrepentant tawdriness, as is to be expected from any production helmed by a Findlay (Roberta alone in this case; Michael had already died by this point), but I quite enjoyed this. The story is surprisingly solid – indeed, some of the more eccentric plot points could have been used to good effect in an offbeat noir the likes of which Sam Fuller used to make – there’s some decent gore, good use (typical of the Findlays) of NYC locations, and the lead, Caroline Capers Powers, is very cute, with a kind of a young Jennifer Connelly thing going on. A good choice for cheapo night.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947, D: Stuart Heisler) Susan Hayward plays a nightclub singer who gives up her job to marry her songwriter sweetheart (Lee Bowman) and have a child, only to have his career as a radio crooner take off while she devolves into alcoholism. This movie was the breakout vehicle for Hayward and even garnered her an Oscar nomination, for which she should have thanked her lucky stars, because the whole thing is really a lot of melodramatic piffle. Bowman was apparently not happy that so much attention was lavished on his co-star, and frankly, while he’s kind of wooden at times, he does come off a bit better even if only because his character is a lot more sympathetic. Best of all is Eddie Albert as Bowman’s songwriting partner who maintains his aw-shucks decency – and therefore his dignity as well – despite repeatedly being treated like a second banana in almost every situation. Marsha Hunt also has one really good scene as the talent scout who harbors feelings for Bowman. Not a bad movie, exactly, but be prepared to snigger when the movie wants you to sob.

NEW! Teenage Cruisers (1877, D: Tom Denucci & Johnny Legend (as Martin Margulies)) When a fellow devotee of cult-y salaciousness told me he was sending this to me, I somehow got the impresson that it was another teen T&A comedy. I was not prepared for the fact that it was hardcore. I was even less prepared for the fact that it's a quite bizarre, almost Dada-esque image pastiche, at least at times. There are recurring characters but no actual story. The legendary Johnny Legend plays a DJ and his segments in the radio station act as glue for a series of random scenes, some of which involve sex acts, some of which do not. There's a slapsticky feel to a lot of it (a scene involving two naked girls in a pie-making contest that devolves into a pie-throwing contest is the primary reason my friend sent it to me in the first place), some of the deliberately button-pushing humor deserves the laughs it seeks, some...doesn't, and an underlying current of morbidity slops up to the surface from time to time as well. I haven't run across many XXX movies that seem to demand a repeat viewing purely for artistic reasons, even in the period this came from before the whole enterprise devolved into rote bullshit, but if there are more like this out there, I guess I need to take another look through the Something Weird catalog.

Umberto D. (Italy, 1952, D: Vittorio De Sica) Aging pensioner finds himself in dangerous debt to his landlady – a woman he once helped when she was down and out – and does everything he can to make sure that he and his dog do not become homeless. Another one of Italian neo-realist De Sica’s studies of the sort of abominable treatment the downtrodden sometimes received in post-WWII Italy, this heart-wrencher - which sort of utilizes the dog in the way many of these films use children - does offer an ending that, while not happy, is at least hopeful. The humanist empathy of the neo-realists was undeniable, but that doesn’t make their movies any easier to watch.

Venus in Furs (UK-Italy-Germany, D: Jess Franco) Jazz musician is (slightly) surprised when a woman whose murder he (sort of) witnessed and whose body he subsequently found washed up on shore in Istanbul turns up in Rio where he has relocated, very much alive and just as hostile to the idea of clothing as she was before. Plus there’s Klaus Kinski and strange deaths. The tape I was watching of this got all hinky two thirds of the way through so I had to stop and fix it, which is detrimental to the viewing of any Jess Franco movie. It’s really best to let them wash over you without a lot of critical thought. In fact, having his main character be a jazz musician is one of Franco’s most appropriate meta-ideas since his own modus operandi seems to be setting a theme and then just riffing on it for as long as he can sustain it, plus sex. If you like Franco, you’ll probably enjoy this. If not...

NEW! White Nights (Italy, 1957, D: Luchino Visconti) No, not the Gregory-Hines-helps-Mikhail-Baryshnikov-defect movie. This is Italian auteur Visconti’s adaptation of the Dostoevsky short story of the same name. A young citydweller (Marcello Mastroianni) dealing with loneliness chances upon a young woman (Maria Schell) on a bridge at night. She tells him that she’s waiting for a man who went away after a brief courtship but who promised to return and marry her in a year’s time, which is right about then. He agrees to help her, all the while hoping she’ll abandon her folly and fall for him. Visconti manages to strike a good balance between faithfulness to the original story and his own invention, the latter most evident in a funny scene in which the pair try to join in at a cafe where people are dancing to Bill Haley and the Comets despite neither having any experience with rock music. There are additional changes, some practical (setting it in Italy instead of Russia), some dramaturgical (Mastroianni plays the character with a greater degree of selfishess than is evident in the story, which fleshes things out a bit), but it all works pretty well. But the thing that works best of all, whether the rest of it works for you or not (and frankly, the story is pretty much of a trifle), is that it is, like much of the director's work, a beautiful thing to look at. In this case, the credit goes to the fact that the entire thing was filmed on a set, the essence of an entire town constructed on the Cinecitta lot. Aside from being an impressive achievement, it manages to bring out the fairy tale quality of the girl’s story as well as suggesting the insular alienation that the man feels. This doesn’t seem to get mentioned as much as Visconti’s more grandiose works, such as The Leopard or The Damned, but it’s well worth seeing.

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