Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Top Ten Favorite Food Movies

With the relatively recent (2007) releases of “Ratatouille” and “No Reservations” my attention was drawn to the unusual phenomenon of “food movies.” Like love, food is a universal theme (witness the vast range of countries on the list below), but “food movies” are often dismissed by critics and crowds alike. The general perception, rightly or wrongly, is that they are light and shallow entertainment. Nevertheless (or because of this) they have greatly risen in production and popularity in the past few decades.

It is a slippery subgenre that clearly has certain common traits (sumptuous feasts, cooking montages, obsessive perfectionist characters and extensive use of food as a metaphor for life or sex or whatever), but it probably isn’t recognized as a distinct genre by most people. I’m not sure they have a special appeal to me (although who doesn’t love delicious food), but I decided to make a top ten list anyway. I certainly haven’t seen every food movie out there, but I’d like to share my favorites.

First of all, what are the ground rules? What counts as a food movie? Is it enough to simply have a restaurant owning character, thus accepting candidates like “Volver” (2006) and “Notting Hill” (1999)? Does it count if the film is focused around a giant meal like in “Festen” (1998) or “The Dinner Game” (1998)? What about the many great (and not so great) cannibalism films out there like “Soylent Green” (1973), “Blood Feast” (1963), “Eating Raoul” (1982) or “Cannibal: The Musical” (1996)?

As usual, I won’t be trying too hard to place restrictions on myself. I attempted to make the list fair enough such that anyone could understand why I would consider a film a “food movie,” but I had fun stretching the definition a little. There are movies from every category above (restauranteering, focal feasts and cannibalism) and plenty others, including films that simply revel in the sensorial delights of great cooking.

The ranking is based on a mixture of how much I liked the film in general and how well it does specifically as a “food movie.” My particular culinary likes and dislikes were given no weight, and indeed one mark of a success food film is that it can make you hungry for dishes you don’t even like! Enjoy the list!

(In reverse order)

10. “Felicia’s Journey” (1999) [Atom Egoyan] –Canada

This film might be the most arguable entry on the list, although I feel it is simply one of the more subtle, complex and psychological explorations of food as both a tantalizing obsession and everyday banality. The main character, Hilditch (played perfectly by Bob Hoskins), is a caterer whose mother was once a popular television chef. Hilditch meets Felicia, a naïve, but charming Irish girl who is searching rather hopeless for the boyfriend that abandoned her. Hilditch gradually befriends her, but we gradually learn that his troubled celebrity childhood and fastidious hobbies may spell trouble for the lonely companions. Unlike most of the Canadian-Armenian director’s films, “Felicia’s Journey” reverses Egoyan’s usual pattern of starting out disturbing and gradually revealing the underlying good-nature and normality of his eccentric characters.

9. “Delicatessen” (1991) [Jean-Pierre Jeunet] –France

“Delicatessen” was the first feature film by the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (who would later find success with “Amelie” and greatness with “City of Lost Children”). It’s a bit of an inversion on the food theme since it depicts apartment tenants in a vaguely post-apocalyptic France that live on the verge of starvation (there is an especial lack of meat). The landlord (and ground floor butcher) comes up with an inventive way of keeping his larder stocked: hiring handymen and covertly bumping them off in the night. The newest guest, Louison (Dominique Pinion), finds his life on the line even as he falls in love and encounters an underground food-hording resistance.

8. “God of Cookery” (1996) [Stephen Chow] –Hong Kong

Easily the most outrageous food movie I’ve experienced, “God of Cookery” is both a satire of the subgenre and a broader action-packed comedy, too. Chow (who crossed over to American success with “Shoalin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle”) takes things to extremes (as usual) and works some of the best hyperbole gags around. You can read my full review here.

7. “Babette’s Feast” (1987) [Gabriel Axel] –Denmark

This Danish film remains a classic of the food subgenre and even won an Academy Award, but tries a little too hard to be disarming, heartwarming and redemptive. The somewhat contrived plot features a former Parisian chef who is forced to flee her homeland and takes shelter with two pious Lutheran sisters in a small Norwegian hamlet. After helping the two sisters administer charity for fourteen years, she wins the lottery and spends it all on a massive feast the likes of which the town has never known. The experience reunites the sisters with their former potential lovers and provides a chance for a nostalgic reflection on what might have been. The film may be syrupy, but it’s also quietly moving and glazed with a quaint, beautiful atmosphere. The combination of the earthy tundra with its humble inhabitants and the luxurious feast with its hedonistic implications allows for plenty of gorgeous cinematography and spiritual rumination.

6. “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) [Louise Malle] –USA

While this film isn’t so much about food per se, it is the ultimate picture about a meal as a social setting and as a slice of everyday life (albeit the everyday life of two very unusual people). Actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (playing themselves) meet at a fancy restaurant. That is basically it. They recount stories from their past, argue over theater and philosophy and just generally chat. Much of the interest comes from the contrast of Shawn’s grounded New York attitude and Gregory’s free-wheeling experimental approach to life. This is one of the ultimate filmic examples of brilliance in simplicity, carried by the two performances and the elegantly polished screenplay.

5. “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992) [Alfonso Arau] –Mexico

Arguable the most successful magical realist film ever made (though ironically watered down), “Like Water for Chocolate” became an international hit immediately upon release. The film is adapted from Laura Esquivel’s novel about Tita, the youngest of three sisters living in the ranch of their oppressive matriarch. Tita is unlucky in love, but finds that her culinary gifts give her unusual powers; she can control moods and stimulate anything from memories to sickness to orgasms. The winding freeform tale sees the family through many celebrations and crises all the while accompanied by grand authentic cuisine. Americans would try something similar with the horrendous “Simply Irresistible” (1999), in which a magical crab turns Sarah Michelle Gellar into a food witch. Don’t see it.

4. “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) [Ang Lee] –Taiwan

Ang Lee’s follow-up to “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) is a feel-good family tale about a talented Taiwanese chef and his three career-age daughters. The gentle humor and skilled pacing makes the film irresistible, without seeming like it is begging for your approval. All four of the main characters are wonderfully crafted and convincingly acted. Fans of East Asian cuisine won’t be able to resist the many cooking montages, though the conversations and frustrations of the family who gathers around the table is the true draw. The ending is pleasant, but predictably unexpected (you heard me).

3. “Ratatouille” (2007) [Brad Bird] –USA

Pixar’s 2007 entry is yet another animated gem from the studio, and though it has more flaws than critics would like to admit and little ambition, it is an undeniable pleasure to watch. It teams a talented rat named Remy with an untalented teen named Linguini, who attempt to stay afloat in the fast and chaotic restaurant business. The mixture of adventure, humor and even action turns cooking into an exciting and invigorating experience (I don’t remember my stint at Sonic being so interesting, but there certainly were rodents) with CG dishes that look so appetizing you could swear they were real. The good voice acting and great visuals help gloss over the fuzzy characterization and the tried-and-true recipe and make this a sure fire hit with kids.

2. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989) [Peter Greenway] –Britain

Greenway’s most famous film was the object of some mild controversy, owing to it receiving one of the first NC-17 ratings in the US. The reasons include a fair share of nudity and the consumption of at least two items not generally regarded as traditional food. The somewhat allegorical film is an art-house triumph, with some of the most gorgeous sets ever assembled (primarily five color-coded segments of an enormous restaurant shot in graceful camera dollies) including a well-stocked kitchen and a first-class dining room. The plot focuses on the title characters: a gangster (Michael Gambon) has taken over a restaurant catered by a renowned chef (who has allegiances of his own) while his wife (Helen Mirren) begins an affair with a bookish customer. It arcs and ends in modernized Shakespearian tradition.

1. “Tampopo” (1995) [Juzo Itami] –Japan

“Tampopo” is for me the ultimate food movie. It plays on the Italian term “spaghetti western” and features Goro, a cowboy who comes to the aid of Dandelion, a damsel-in-distress who can’t seem to turn her ramen establishment into a flourishing investment. Goro lends his well-honed noodle skills and chef-warrior-artist philosophy to her cause in a comical adventure that plays on the clichés of westerns. Itami digresses into bizarre food-themed vignettes throughout the runtime and drops plenty of references for film buffs. The palette of yellow, blue and pink pastels, the creative editing and the versatile script make this movie work on every level.

Some food films with merit, that didn’t make my top ten:

Supersize Me
Mostly Martha
Big Night
My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review of A Blade in the Dark

“A Blade in the Dark” (1983) was one of Lamberto Bava’s earliest films, and it has a pared-down low-budget aesthetic that makes it more realistic and streamlined relative to his later successes like “Demons” (1986). Lacking money for show-stopping special effects or high production values, Bava instead opts to make a giallo boiled down to its pure ingredients. The decision doesn’t allow a lot of room for creativity, but the director manages to take the house+protoganist+killer formula and do it well.

The film opens with three children in a dark (presumably haunted and/or evil) house. The two braver children are egging on a young blonde boy to go into the cellar, a yawning chasm emitting malignant vibes. If you recognize the boy (an uncredited Giovanni Frezza) from “House by the Cemetery” (1981) than you no doubt already know that he’ll ignore his better judgment (and the screams of the exasperated audience) by descending into the darkness yet again. A few moments and a wicked laugh later, a single tennis ball hurtles from the void. It leaves bloody splotches everywhere it bounces as the surviving boys run away screaming.

As it turns out, this isn’t the beginning of the movie. It’s the middle of a film being scored by Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti), our protagonist. The director of the film, Sandra, puts Bruno up in a spooky house during the duration of the shooting schedule, to set the right mood for his work. The house isn’t really all that scary, but Sandra has her own reasons for associating the building with ill tidings.

Bruno’s music sounds like it could by Claudio Simonetti (and his name could be a reference to the great giallo composer Bruno Nicolai), but it’s actually scored by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. It’s effective and gets a few scenes to strut its stuff, but its a little too obvious to really work.
Bruno doesn’t have to stay in the house long before he is beset by strangers. A woman named Katia pops in and they give each other a scare or two. She has the manic, overly-aggressive and borderline inappropriate familiarity that recalls the similarly over-the-top performance of Daria Nicolodi in “Deep Red” (1975). She has just the sort of obnoxious personality that you miss as soon as the person goes missing-presumed-dead, which happens about ten minutes after she is introduced.

The killer, in this case, goes largely unseen except for his “blade in the dark” (actually just a razor knife). Considering that the blade has breakaway segments and could be easily neutralized by a horizontal swipe or even a mild show of self-defense, it is to Bava’s credit that he actually succeeds in making the item menacing. The evil-sounding click of its adjustable length being adjusted is its memorable signature. There’s a good scene straddling the fence between silly and horrifying, where the killer keeps trying to thrust the blade through a tightly-meshed sheet of chickenwire.

Not that this is the only weapon used by the villain, but it was my favorite. The film consistently characterizes the killer though images of everyday items used as weapons and gripped feverishly, creating intrusive diagonals across the frame. These shots aren’t just throwaway filler or tension fodder, but provide clues and even some psychological insight through the fragments of clothing visible, the choice of backgrounds and the stylized movements.

The day after meeting Katia, Bruno meets Angela, a friend of Katia’s who is trying to find her whereabouts. When Bruno offers her unlimited access to his pool, her conviction to find her missing friend wanes. After a series of voyeuristic scenes in which she changes into a swimsuit and takes a swim, she finds the razor knife on the pool bottom. She also gets stalked by the camera and a character or two, but surprisingly, nothing much comes of it.

However, far from getting off the hook, Angela ends up with the film’s best and most painful to watch death sequence. Finished with her poolside romp, she goes upstairs to shampoo her hair in the sink. Having thus maximized her vulnerability, the killer is irresistibly drawn to do her in. A shot where her hand is pinned to the table with a knife while groping for soap is brutally brilliant. The worst part isn’t even the knife going in, but the fact that she eventually frees her hand… without taking the knife out of the table.

With a seven person cast, the film is low on both victims and suspects. Considering that I’ve already spoiled that Katia and Angela are both dead (presumably), that leaves only the director Sandra, the groundskeeper Giovanni, the landlord (future giallo director Michele Soavi in an all-too-brief cameo), Bruno’s slightly-neurotic actress-girlfriend Julia and Bruno himself. Of course, there is an offscreen eighth character named Linda, who used to live in the building, but I won’t give everything away. The acting and dubbing keeps us from identifying too much with any of these characters, but also provides some unintentional comic relief.

[Image: Michele Soavi not looking the slightest bit dapper in the world's ugliest tie.]

This minimal setup allows Lamberto Bava to downplay the mystery elements and elaborate plotting in favor of a classical gothic approach. The few characters remain suspicious of each other by necessity and constantly scare one another. The dynamics between Bruno and Julia are so tense that one hardly knows whether they are about to kill each other or have sex.

Bava originally made the film as a multi-part TV special and so designed the script to have a major action scene every 25 minutes. The constraint seems to have helped his pacing and actually improved the finish product. The film has a tempo that is neat and regular, without patches that drag or burn out.

The house, while not particularly spooky, is a haunted house for a modern Freudian-informed audience. Gone are the contrived grim booby-traps we are used to: no huge fireplaces, suits of armor, gargoyles, stone cornices, spiky iron gates or crystal chandeliers. Mostly there is a blank emptiness, a feeling of stark impersonal abandonment and loneliness. Bava largely isolates the characters to play up this effect, leaving the few interactions for exposition, suspicion and accidental scares.

[Images: While granting that the barren sets are probably 90% the result of low-budgets and constrained art direction, the 10% or so that is intentional kind of works.]

Bava’s one bit of mise-en-scene flair (other than the chickenwire) is a bunch of old tennis balls. Once again, seemingly mundane (and in this case, not even pointy) objects are imbued with malice and meaning through the context, atmosphere and treatment of the film.
[Images: It may help make these screenshots seem appropriately chilling if you play some Goblin on your computer and look at someone chasing you with a knife and then back again a few times. Then again… maybe they would still just look like musty tennis balls.]

Despite, or perhaps because of the overall simplicity, the tension and sudden scares in the movie tend to work. They have an unadorned realism that has more creditability and less aesthetic removal than most heavily-stylized gialli. At the same time, Bava neatly skirts around the pitfalls in generic thriller territory and adds little twists and variations on such old ideas as the haunted house, the victim trapped in a house with the killer, the chase through the corridor, and so on. It all comes together in a note-perfect final action scene, ending revelation and illuminating coda (while borrowed from an acknowledged 1960 classic, it has been updated with giallo sensibilities), and reveals that Bava really was thinking out the structure and dynamics of the film quite carefully.

Walrus Rating 7.5

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Line Between Horror and Horrible

A recent email from my sister Meredith got me thinking more about the whole "torture-porn" debate still going on. I have been pretty silent on the issue except for the occasional derisive generalization or dismissive sigh. I don't have much to add that hasn't been said more eloquently elsewhere, so feel free to skip this post if you've already read three or more articles on the topic.

After the release of Hostel II, I followed the latest wave torture-porn discussion that raged across the internet. One of my favorite bloggers, Film Brain, had a succinct post a while back that made some great points. I stayed out of the discussion for the most part, just as I stayed out of the screenings, possibly because I'd already been burned by enough low-quality, high-shock material riding on notoriety and hype. I have to say that I don't like the films known by the "torture-porn" moniker nor do I understand the pleasure in watching them. I get extremely annoyed at the people who are only interested in "proving" how much gore and sadism they can take.

Keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who loves gialli and appreciates the mix of style, kitsch, murder and exploitation that gets stirred around in that frequently maligned subgenre.

Some randomly cobbled-together comments on the subject:

1) I think the phrase torture-porn is too loaded of a term and should not have become the accepted subgenre title. I think the individual movies have to be evaluated in terms of their modes of audience engagement, the filmmaker's intentions and the reception by audiences before they deserve the designation of "torture-porn" and sadly, I don't see anyone even attempting to do that seriously. It would make interesting reading for sure. That said, I too have tossed the phrase around with a derogatory tone and I admit it is convenient and widely accepted.

2) I usually feel that enough talent can redeem almost anything. I like plenty of intense, violent, exploitive and/or immoral movies, but usually they have to offer a good reason for their form and content. Recently I've grown somewhat troubled by films taking advantage of my weakness for artistic presentation. It gets frustrating in movies like "Hard Candy" or the works of Gaspar Noe when cinematic talent is used as an excuse to gain a critical or popular acceptance of what is essentially shallow shock value or malicious sadism. Still, I find these films to be better then their hackneyed siblings.

3) Meredith's mentioned the worn-out gender stereotypes and that hits upon two of my biggest problems with these films: sexism and uncreativity. They go hand in hand, since there is hardly anything less inspiring in our artistic community then someone regurgitating internalized patriarchal superiority and abusive gender stereotypes. And as Film Brain points out, the victims taking blood revenge doesn't justify the whole tedious exercise. It isn't that every movie has to be completely gender PC; most gender cliches (even boring positive ones!) can be happily subverted just by depicting characters as distinct and developed personalities.

4) To this day I am still more frightened by films like "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975), "The Vanishing" (1988) and "The Innocents" (1961) (which together have about a teaspoon of blood) then any dozen gory trips through shaky-camera ax chases, blood-drenched torture scenes and shriek-scream monlogues. The more unwittingly desensitized I become to violence and gore, the more I realize that what frightens me are abstractions like facing illness and death, societal wrongs, the unknown and the intricate depths of the human mind. Ironically, this ends up meaning that I am more scared when contemplating the psychology of some of these directors then I am when watching their movies.

5) I assume that, like every wave of shock and horror that has come before, all of this "torture-porn" controversy will seem like very tame and humdrum stuff to future generations. While that may be an unhealthy state for society to arrive at, it does mean that I can look forward to the day when nothing this side of legal shocks anyone at all. Then maybe directors will give up trying to shock and return to making interesting, insightful and imaginative horror films.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review of A Bullet for the General

[Image: “Like the Bandit... Like the Gringo... A bullet doesn't care who it kills!” -US tagline]

“Senor, you are an American? You like Mexico?” asks a chipper Hispanic boy. Bill Tate, jaded anti-hero of “A Bullet for the General” (1967), looks down at the smiling youth.

“No, not very much.”

It’s tough to imagine a more joyless and Machiavellian protagonist than Tate, a ruthless bounty hunter who makes similar characters in other spaghetti westerns look downright noble. Perhaps it’s because “A Bullet for the General” was early in a wave of Zapata westerns, a subgenre of spaghetti westerns with much more overtly Marxist underpinnings and extremely dark worldviews.

Set during the Mexican Revolution in 1913, Damiano Damiani’s film is at once a shameless action buddy flick and a daring social critique of capitalism. The film stars Lou Castel as bounty hunter Tate and El Chucho (Gian Maria Volontè, villain of the Leone’s Dollars Trilogy) as a Mexican bandit who frees him from the police while robbing a train. The two become fast friends, although Chucho doesn’t know that Tate’s rescue was staged as the first act in his play for 100,000 pesos. Tate is merely manipulating Chucho to get close to General Elias, the leader of the Mexican revolution. In his valise is a golden rifle bullet, which if properly applied to the right political skull, could make Tate a very rich man indeed. It would also forever end the dreams of closet-revolutionary Chucho and the oppressed Mexican peasantry.

Though the film opens with Tate blankly watching a firing squad gun down a batch of scraggly Mexican revolutionaries, its politics remain largely submerged within the action set pieces and character dynamics for the first 2/3. The early train robbery scene is a masterpiece of upping-the-ante on traditional westerns. The conductor pulls the engine to a stop as he comes into sight of an obstruction on the tracks: a crucified military captain still barely alive. Anyone who tries to help him is gunned down by the encircling bandits. Chucho is in charge of the attackers, and soon has the passengers riddled to rags with gunfire. Tate cuffs himself a dead soldier’s manacles and allows himself to be taken in by the thugs. They’re pleased to have what they presume to be an American outlaw in their company.

[Images: Crucifixion on a railroad track.]

Chucho’s gang includes the beautiful Adelita (Martine Beswick) and Chucho’s idealist brother El Santo (Klaus Kinski). When Kinski is playing the moral anchor and most sympathetic character in the movie, you know you’re in for nihilistic fun! Tate offers to help them bandits slaughter the government forces and gather arms to sell to the revolutionaries. Chucho becomes enamored with the idea of holding out in a poor town with their stock of weapons and volunteers, but his greedier pals don’t want to risk their lives without a clear profit to be made. When Chucho discovers a brand new machine gun, Tate decides to steal the weapon to lure the Mexican onward to the general.
[Image: Chucho describes his glorious new machine gun as “more beautiful than any woman,” shortly before making out with the device.]

The two lead men show plenty of chemistry, actually enhanced by the audience’s knowledge that Tate isn’t on the level and that both of the men are merciless killers. Chucho is enthusiastic and not very bright, an easy target for Tate’s manipulation, but the Gringo clearly warms to the companionship and brotherhood that Chucho offers. When Chucho finds Tate’s golden bullet, the bounty hunter claims it’s a lucky charm. The viewer can feel that their luck is soon to go down hill.
[SPOILERS next five paragraphs]

True to his hopes, the wagon full of rifles topped by the machine gun fetches a mouthwatering sum of $5000 for the small-thinking Chucho. He has fooled himself so well into thinking that he has supported the revolution with all his might that he is brought low when General Elias confronts him about abandoning the village. Apparently, the ill-trained, ill-equipped men that Chucho left behind were slaughtered in his absence. His brother Santo survived, and now jumps at the chance of getting his revenge. Chucho is so depressed and penitent that he agrees to be executed in the wasteland behind the camp. Meanwhile Tate loads his rifle on a nearby hillside.

Chucho hears the first gunshot, but it’s the second one that catches his attention when it kills his brother. Though his life has been saved, Chucho is bereft and stumbles back towards the revolutionary camp in a daze. The second bit of bad news hits him even harder: General Elias was assassinated by the first bullet.

Jump ahead to some time later and we see Tate collecting his bounty in gold (he turns down the paper money saying it’s “not the same.”) and returning to a fancy hotel. A drunk and distraught Chucho breaks in planning to kill his former friend, but Tate reveals that he has been waiting for him for several days. Tate is genuinely happy to see the only friend he ever made and readily splits the money with Chucho. In a state of shock, Chucho allows himself to be bathed, dressed and fed like a rich man.
Tate wants to take him up to the United States, but as he waits in the train station for Tate to buy the tickets, he begins to question his position. He gives a coin to a poor shoeshiner and tells him to “buy bread” and suddenly feels the guilt of his ill-got wealth. The train starts to pull out with Tate trying to pull Chucho onboard, but the Mexican finally realizes he must do something he doesn’t understand. “I have to kill you, Nino.” “Why?” “I don’t know, Nino. I only know I have to kill you.” And he does.

[Image: Having killed his only surviving friend and companion, Chochu breaks into uncontrolled laughter.]

Running between the tracks with the police in pursuit he whoops, throws off his hat and shouts back to the shoeshiner, “And don’t buy bread with that money, hombre. Buy dynamite!”

On the most superficial level, “A Bullet for the General” is an excellent revisionist western with regularly spaced action sequences that are clever and thrilling. Damiani knows exactly what additive touch will send a scene from cliché to inspired. Blowing a hole into a police fort by hiding explosives in a prostitute’s luggage too mundane? Why not synchronize the explosion with a cork popping off and have the prostitute take cover beneath her dainty parasol!

There’s a rambunctious caprice throughout the film that goes beyond mere violence and destruction. The film seems determined to have a good time and enjoy the ride no matter how despicable the murder, mayhem and manipulation may get. The visuals aren’t as over the top as other Italian features, but the gliding, striding camera work is clearly propelled by the same sense of excitement and destiny. The score by Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone also lives up to the energetic pitch, with some of the genre’s most memorable tracks.

On a deeper level, the film manages to show the balance between friendship, greed and political idealism. Unlike the Dollars Trilogy or the Django and Ringo characters, some serious consideration is given to the choices and consequences that Tate and Chucho live with. Tate certainly has the ice cold cynicism and premeditated betrayal that fans of amoral hired gunmen expect, but he is also human enough to respond to Chucho’s infectious extroversion. That the bounty hunter’s isolationist veneer masks a loneliness not fully satisfied by gold, make him only slightly less evil and quite significantly more interesting. It also sets up Chucho for a devastating inner struggle and ultimately leads to the unforgettable ending.

So whether you’re a fan of spaghetti westerns, buddy movies, dark anti-heroes, Marxist politics, moral crises or sprawling epics, this is a film that deserves your viewing.

Walrus Rating: 8

[Image: Martine Beswick has a rather decent role (by women in westerns standards) as the only character who is sagely skeptical of Tate’s “charms.”]

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XVIII

Master of the Flying Guillotine – (Jimmy Wang Yu) I debated several formats for writing this review: letting the title speak for itself (too short) vs. making a comprehensive list of things that the master of the flying guillotine could decapitate (too long). Suffice it to say, this long forgotten martial arts showdown (the negative was believed lost until 2001) is a nearly non-stop shamelessly-awesome fight sequence culminating in a battle between the blind title character and a one-armed boxer.
Artistry: ** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ***

Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People – (Ishiro Honda) The usual mish-mash of clashing personalities is stranded on a tropical island with little to eat in this 1960’s Japanese supernatural thriller. The rusty, spore-covered shell of military vessel on the coast is no great reassurance. Just as the title suggests, they are eventually attacked by (and transformed into) giant mushrooms. Unforgettable monster suits and some psychedelic sets in the final act lead to an amusing “important lesson” ending. The film is based on “The Voice in the Night,” a 1907 short story by horror grandmaster William Hope Hodgson (an influence on Lovecraft and later Stephen King), to date the only feature length film adaptation of Hodgson’s underappreciated work. His epic novels “House on the Borderland” and “The Night Land” are ripe for screen versions.
Artistry: ** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Microcosmos – (Claude Noridsany) This French documentary uses miniature cameras planted throughout a field to record the lives of insects on their own scale. Set to classical music and assembled with loving care, the world of bugs is brought to life more impressively than any Discovery channel special or fictional family film has ever achieved.
Artistry: *** Fun: ** Strangeness: **

Modesty Blaise – (Joseph Losey) Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti), as the title song proclaims, is a French 60’s super-sexy super-spy who is really anything but modest. The government hires her and her knife throwing partner (played by Terrence Stamp) to stop international villain/playboy Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) from stealing diamonds mid-shipment. Op Art, go-go dancing, spherical lights, umbrella guns and lipstick gadgets ensue. Note the way that the foxy duo’s hair changes color and style not just every scene, but mid-scene also.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Monsieur Hire – (Patrice Leconte) A masterpiece of subtly and mood, Monsieur Hire evokes the danger and eroticism that lies just below the surface of deadly crime. Voyeuristic Hire, a sex-murder suspect, falls in love at a distance with his neighbor Alice, and even as the romance begins to ignite in reality, the unspoken secrets that each possesses multiplies the tension. Eerie and effective, Leconte’s psychological thriller also shines in camera work and cinematography.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: **

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review of Five Dolls for an August Moon

What do these three moves have in common?
1) “The Ten Commandments” (1956)
2) “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)
3) The giallo for this review, “5 Dolls for the August Moon” (1969)

Answer: They are all adaptations of top 10 all time top selling books. Sadly, there have yet to be any good film versions of “The Book of Common Prayer” or “Quotations from Chairman Mao,” but I hear that Universal has optioned the rights to adapt “Pilgrim’s Progress” with Sylvester Stallone eager to play the lead.

“5 Dolls for the August Moon” is directed by Mario Bava and unofficially based on “And Then There Were None” (1939) by Agatha Cristie. It is also known as “Ten Little Indians” although it was originally published under a different (and offensive) name. I won’t write it here, but if you’re curious, look it up. The international smash hit tells the tale of ten guests invited to an island mansion by a mysterious host who never appears. Trapped in a ritzy mansion, they are knocked off one by one, each in a different manner. Can you solve the crime?

It might not be worth trying, since the solution is fairly elaborate and non-intuitive, but it makes for a good yarn. Over the years there have been nearly ten film adaptations and a highly successful Broadway version. None are particularly good, but at least “5 Dolls for an August Moon” is a giallo. As the title makes plain, the emphasis is on the female half of the ten stranded islanders who are all conspicuously attractive. They also just happened to have packed enormous wardrobes of revealing outfits as well. The similarities to “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) are striking.

The plot has also been changed to give the ten guests more of a purpose. They are meeting on the island to bid for a scientific discovery made by Professor Farrell. He is uninterested in their monetary millions and is determined to make his formula known to the world. The others don’t like this. Eventually people start getting killed roughly along the lines of the source novel. After the first body is found, there is so much distrustful glancing that you know the murder-floodgate has been thrown wide open.

[Images: …and so on.]

Could the murderer be Trudy, the professor’s cold, loveless wife…
or Peggy, the ditzy blonde…
or Isabel, the naïve youngster with a crush on Farrell…
or the sexually provocative Marie (Edwige Fenech before she was a leading lady)…
or Jill Stark, the abused wife of George, the corrupt mansion owner.
There is certainly good reason to suspect any of them, and the five men as well, simply based on their questionable morality. All sorts of crosses, double crosses, shady deals, sexual liaisons and outright crimes begin to mar the beautiful beachside getaway. When things turn really south, the guests realize that their boat has been sabotaged and they are trapped on the island. While they have plenty of victuals, the real danger comes for their shortage of scruples.

The plot tends to be a little dull, since the “secret formula” is used so obviously as a MacGuffin. The characters are all so unlikable that we are asked to revel in their backstabbing schemes and untimely deaths rather than to care or understand them. They take an undeniable glee in their mercenary, amoral behavior. There is a certain undeniable pleasure in watching the characters complete their predestined roles, but if it wasn’t for Bava’s direction the film would be fairly tiresome.

Here are quotes that lend a little insight into the character dynamics:

Nick: “Now what was I saying?”
Marie: “That I’m a dirty whore. That’s why I’m showering, so at least I’ll be a clean whore.”

Nick: “Well, well, if it isn’t Trudy. A beautiful icicle.”

Jill: “Why did you marry such a beast?”
Trudy: “All men are beasts!”
From the get-go, Bava transforms the straight-laced parlor room trappings of the original mystery into a stylish exercise in excess and indulgence. The characters all act with infinite arch-cynicism and permanent smirks. Their clothes are a source of amusement with a life of their own. The indoor set is turned into a celebration of 60’s interior decoration (complete with rotating couches) and the outdoor jungle becomes a single giant libidinous cue for the oversexed characters.

One of my favorite Bava touches is the fact that the survivors callously toss each new corpse into the mansion’s meat locker. For some never-explained uncomfortable reason, they also sever the heads and hang them from meat hooks. Every time Bava cuts to the row of swinging noggins, he plays a piece of peppy circus music (by prolific composer Piero Umiliani) that makes the mood downright comical.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a giallo if the death sequences weren’t given a little extra spice. They include film history’s favorite focus pull (victim-to-gun / gun-to-victim):

…as well as a beautiful scene of contrived artistic overkill, in which the camera follows a torrent of glass spheres pouring down a spiral staircase and into an indoor pool. The dramatic entrance leads us to Jill’s bleeding corpse and the suicide note she wrote on the mirror in PINK LIPSTICK! There is something hilariously flippant in her choice of mediums and yet it feels perfectly fitting. If only she’d dotted the ‘i’ with a little heart or finished with a smiley :)

Fenech, who is clearly not being given the star treatment that one finds later in her career, steals the opening scene with a kitschtastic striptease as the guests relax in the mansion’s main room. While “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and many other films have taught me that this was perfectly acceptable and even natural behavior for casual social engagements in Italy circa 1960, George ups the ante by strapping Fenech to a tree stump (that he keeps in his living room for just this type of occasion), donning a golden mask and “sacrificing” the girl to pagan god. It’s all a harmless joke, but makes for grim foreshadowing when, an hour later in the film, Fenech is found strapped to a tree and stabbed in a macabre parody of her earlier performance.

[Images: (top) Edwige Fenech pretending to be stabbed and (bottom) Edwige Fenech actually having been stabbed.]

Mario Bava claims to have hated the script and considers this one of his worst films, but when watching it I can’t help thinking he had a lot of fun with it. The whole thing benefits from not taking itself very seriously and interspersing moments of total weirdness. The ending is a slew of melodramatic posturing and ironic twists. It comes close to redeeming the plot with its audacious insanity.

While not a great giallo, and not even a first tier entry from Bava’s canon, this film is enjoyable for fans of the genre. Those who like Agatha Cristie and traditional mysteries will probably not be impressed, but they may find it worthwhile to view this exotic specimen just to complete their collection.

Walrus Rating: 6

And now for the art comparison, brought to you by Matisse: