Thursday, August 28, 2008

Review of The Plague Dogs

One of my complaints about western animation, particularly those films perpetrated by Disney, is that they are too complacent in targeting an undemanding child audience. Many of the attempts to widen the market have added adult themes, but still without showing any signs of maturity. Lack of imagination and poor writing remain common problems despite the freedom of the art form, but my outlook on animation has remained curious and hopeful. A while back I was happy to rediscover French maverick Rene Laloux. Recently I was pleasantly surprised by Britain’s “The Plague Dogs” (1982).

“The Plague Dogs” features the adventures of Rowf, a black lab mix, and Snitter, a fox terrier, after they break out of a Northern England animal research station. Talking animals on the run from mean scientists is nothing new. In fact, if this was handled in typical fashion, it should be old enough to turn me away right there. Yet author Richard Adams and director Martin Rosen (both of Watership Down fame) set out to do more than sell popcorn and plushies with a cheesy adventure starring cute anthropomorphized pets.

[Image: Snitter (left), voiced by John Hurt, and Rowf (right).]

Such ambitions are evident from the opening scenes, set inside a classified military research lab running senselessly cruel tests on animals towards mysterious ends. The facility is a disturbing den of bare cages and menacing equipment capped off by an ominous incinerator that may be the most humane way the test subjects can die. I’m guessing many parents with small children will flip the TV off at about this point.

When Rowf and Snitter escape, they must contend with the unrelenting struggle for survival. Food is scarce in the Highland moors and the dogs resort to killing sheep, drawing the attention of the locals. When a television reporter gets a hold of the story and connects the dogs to the lab, it leads to speculation that the canines bear an experimental strain of weapons-grade bubonic plague. Rowf and Snitter, aided by a fox named Tod, are barely scratching out a living through the bitter winter when the military is called in to exterminate the “national threat.”

There is a mist of doom enclosing the animals from their first taste of freedom and little doubt of their chances against the wilderness of nature and viciousness of man. Rosen often depicts them as little more than tiny blips against the countryside, simultaneously taking in the grandeur of the rocky gorges and grassy hillsides while emphasizing a sense of helplessness, exposure and danger. Like many of the great early Disney animations, the attention to detail in the backdrops provides the aura of realism and regional specificity, to say nothing of the beauty.

[Images: Seasonal changes and landscape detail.]

Rosen moves over these images with a camera that pans and tilts with relaxed reverence. He reserves canted shots for the laboratory interior to show the way it twists nature and brings life out of balance. On a few occasions his winding camera movements help put us on the meandering paths that trickle down the moors, though such unusual maneuvers must have made it hard to get the perspective and proportions right.

[Images: Simultaneous canting and tilting to simulate the sinuous paths through the moors.]

The relatively few character designs do occasionally experience visual glitches, but these faults are smoothed over by the above-average integration of dynamic characters with static backgrounds. The footprints and impressions left in the snow are particularly notable. Another coup for Rosen’s team is the animal movement, which really makes the characters come alive. They behave more accurately than almost any animal animation I’ve seen, from their rhythmic strides and subtle panting to their curious sniffing and twitchy shifts in attention.

This awareness of animal mannerisms is matched by a welcome attempt at capturing canine psychology. Though their speech is translated into understandable English and characterized by unusual intelligence – they are lab animals, in Adams defense – much of their reasoning is realistically primitive. Their reactions to sheepdogs, cars, helicopters, snow, etc. is tainted by inexperience, guilt, paranoia and solipsism. For instance, they assume snow was devised by humans as a way of tracking their movements.

Their psychology is troubled by the dysfunctional scars left by the lab. Rowf, a victim of swimming endurance studies, has a fear of water and a distrust for humans that colors his personality, making him grouchy, paranoid and fatalistic. Snitter is more optimistic, having once lived an idealistic life with a human owner. However, his master’s death in a traumatic car accident and lab experiments on his brain have left him prone to fits, dementia and hallucination. He experiences waking dreams and sometimes cannot distinguish the past from the present.

[Images: Brain surgery and the memory of his master’s death (Top) figure into Snitter’s inability to distinguish past (Middle) from present (Bottom) during moments of sickness or trauma.]

The focus is firmly on the animals, with enough time dedicated to them to really develop their characters and test their reactions. The humans are treated quite unconventionally, largely left as a peripheral menace no more resistible or even fathomable to the dogs than nature or fate. Rosen keeps their faces covered or out of frame in shots where their presence is necessary; portraying them with a dog’s-eye view with little for the audience to relate. To keep the action understandable, an unusual narration of dialogue snippets is used, with the voices of people miles away playing over the dog-centered adventure. It’s a solution with an eerie overtone, reminiscent of detached gods plotting the downfall of unsuspecting mortals.

[Images: Some of the many clever contrivances used to avoid showing human faces.]

Though Adams and Rosen cover issues such as animal cruelty, dubious defense research and sensational press coverage, they don’t harp on the social implications beyond the needs of the story. The focus is quite personal, with central concerns on freedom, exploration, survival, mental illness, cooperation and hope. Yet Rowf and Snitter’s adventure has definite allegorical interpretations for those who choose to see them. For instance, one could imagine them as the marginalized victims of homelessness, poverty, under-education and disease who are treated as a nuisance and even persecuted as an indeterminate threat.

What makes “The Plague Dogs” especially unusual is that, despite the honest care and sympathy the creators have for their protagonists, there is a refusal to compromise. Unlike most animated features a happy ending is not taken for granted; hope is not necessarily well-placed. Grim reality must be faced, whether it’s the savagery of a sheep torn to shreds or the quiet misery of malnourished skin growing taunt across ribs. One scene cut from all but the Australian release makes it clear that the dogs will eat human flesh to survive.

[SPOILER paragraph]

The pessimistic ending has been the source of much controversy. Cornered at a beach by the military, the dogs swim out to sea where they survive longer than expected due to their endurance training. In the book, Adams pulls an unlikely deus ex machine whereby a fishing boat rescues the dogs, Snitter’s former owner turns out not to be dead and a happy reunion caps off the escapade. Rosen takes the braver route, seeing the allegory through to its logical conclusion. It works as a pessimistic bookending with the film opening shot (see below) of Rowf bursting desperately above the surface of the experiment pool as his strength fades. The spiritual overtones of the final foggy image has a dignity that the animals deserve, though I think the final revival-tent hymn pushes the message a little too far (elsewhere the music is largely a tasteful hodgepodge of synth and Vivaldi).

British animators have not been particularly prolific and I’ve been disappointed by my other recent taste, the 1954 “Animal Farm,” so it’s gratifying to see a film as bold and effective as “The Plague Dogs.” It has a character integrity and emotional core that very few animated features achieve (“Grave of the Fireflies” and “Spirited Away” come to mind) and a visual distinctiveness that overcomes modest budgeting and staff. It is well deserving of its cult fandom among grown-ups, both animation buffs and casual viewers.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Monday, August 25, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: John Ford

John Ford vs. Anthony Mann

John Ford may be the most influential and respected director ever. He was universally well-regarded by his peers. He won best director Oscars four times (a record) and has 18 films, more than any other director, on the TSPDT top 1000 films, the largest compilation of critics’ lists from around the world. He also holds the record, at 10, for most films I’ve disliked.

Ford and I were just never meant to be. His specialty, classical westerns, is one of the very, very few genres that I don’t particularly like. His stock company includes some of my least favorite actors of all time, from leading man John Wayne to character actors like Victor McLaglen. I hate (not dislike) his taste in music. I find that his themes of courage, honor and manliness are undermined by his jingoism, hawkishness and chauvinism. I’m bothered by many of his reoccurring motifs, like favorable depictions of alcoholism, advocacy of boxing/brawling to settle differences and his use of extended dancing scenes.

I’m sure a lot people reading that last paragraph are thinking, “Wow. That’s just a list of personal hang-ups.” Yup. Pretty much.

I just don’t get the whole cowboys versus Indians infatuation. I don’t fall in with the cavalry uniform fetishism, the manifest destiny bravado or the gung-ho militarism. I can’t accept Wayne’s iron-jawed stoicism and paternal dictatorship as the American ideal. I can’t stand his condescending attitude towards women, which occasionally crosses over into outright misogyny (see “The Quiet Man”). Ironically, I think Ford did a better job casting women than men (who act about as real as toy soldiers), but he forced them to bear up under restrictive, monotonous roles.

Do I have anything good to say about John Ford? Yeah. I like his gorgeous outdoor photography. One can hardly overestimate the importance of moving the shooting location from the creaky sound stages of most studio westerns – where a fire in the foreground, a cardboard cactus in the midground and a painted backdrop were considered good enough – to the awe-inspiring vistas of Monument valley.

There’s also a few Ford films I can tolerate, namely “The Grapes of Wrath” (because it is so fantastically well-shot) and “Stagecoach” (for its neatness, balance and efficiency). Of what I’ve seen, I consider “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to be his only masterpiece.

My preferred alternative to Ford would have to be Anthony Mann. Mann shares the predilection for westerns and built up his own reputation for location shooting. Though Mann entered the genre decades after Ford, their careers overlapped and cross-influenced. They are both famous for their work with James Stewart, though they gave him markedly different roles.

Anthony Mann’s background in noir, a genre I really savor, certainly helped give his westerns an inflection I could appreciate. His heroes have doubts, flaws, fears, troubled pasts, questionable motives and dangerous obsessions. The old west isn’t [as] idealized, and anyone wishing to survive there has to contend with more than just Indians. There’s vicious bandits, unscrupulous business partners and corrupt lawmen, not to mention the harsh landscape, tight economy and “frontier justice.” Add a host of inner demons like revenge, addiction and lust, and you’ve finally mussed up the western’s buttoned-up, waxed-mustache image.

Though John Ford was a self-proclaimed progressive, his films tend to implicitly embrace a conservative agenda. Mann’s films come off as more concerned with the personal than the political, with a more ambivalent stance towards the government, military and society. This emphasis on the lone character has an existential quality I enjoy.

Mann doesn’t shy away from complicated plots and unusual structures. He often covers multiple winding lines of action with characters forced to fight or unite in unexpected combinations. His “Winchester ’73” is a good example of his structural innovation, following a rifle as the protagonist as it passes through the hands of men who cheat and kill to possess it. However, his dark and unusual spins on the western genre made him less popular than Ford, who was better tuned to the type of “good old-fashion” entertainment and classical Americana mythology that audiences loved.

Mann clearly borrows a lot of his cinematography from Ford, particularly in the triumph of capital-n Nature. Both directors held the opinion that the great outdoors was not to be tamed; rather it should be respected as an indomitable force that spared only the resourceful. They also knew its beauty and majesty, its faithful companionship and its generous gifts of food, shelter, hideouts and gold. To my mind, Mann took things a step further than Ford, adding to his visual toolbox by delving into the shadows and crevasses of the countryside and contrasting deep-focus close-ups of human faces with landscape long-shots that diminished men to decals.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider Anthony Mann the bridge from classical westerns to revisionist ones. He was the forward patrol that explored territory later settled by Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Ford fits into the lineage as well, and I can acknowledge that he is a necessary step, even a foundational one, in the evolution of an important American genre, yet I doubt I’ll ever be able to bring myself to idolize him as a grandmaster on the level of Welles, Hawks, Huston, et al.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Review of The Joke

“Optimism is the opiate of the masses. A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky.”

So writes Ludvik Jahn in a playful postcard to his girlfriend, teasing her for her gushing letters about the optimism and healthiness at her new Marxist school. It’s just about the only comedy in Jaromil Jires’s adaptation of “The Joke” (excepting a mildly humorous suicide attempt), a novel by Milan Kundera, author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

“The Joke” (1968) begins in 1965, almost 15 years after Ludvik penned the lines that would mark a disastrous turning point in his life. Now a moderately successful research scientist, Ludvik endlessly recalls the incident in his student days that turned him into the bitter, vengeful man he is today. The flashbacks fill us in on his frustrated attempts to bed Lucie, a beautiful communist zealot more interested in Marxist philosophy than sex. After Lucie show the satiric postcard to a communist official, Ludvik is brought to trial as a dissident Trotskyite.

[Images: Ludvik’s change of fortune is foreshadowed by his visits with Lucie before and after writing the letter. Notice that the framing and river background are the same, but plant life has turned to stone and the light tone (including Lucie’s clothes) has turned dark.

He is expelled from the party and from university, forced into a military labor group and eventually serves six years in the mines.

Unable to forgive or forget, Ludvik is now a numb, unpleasant man who enjoys “whoring around.” When he runs into Helena, the wife of the man who presided over his trial, he sees an opportunity to have his revenge by seducing her. What Ludvik doesn’t yet realize is that, once again, the joke will be on him: his nemesis has long since stopped caring about his wife and now enjoys the company of his apolitical free-love students. Learning this, Ludvik discards Helena, who reacts to being spurned with her own revenge.

[Image: (Left) Ludvik, (Middle) his nemesis Pavel and (Right) Pavel’s young mistress.]

“The Joke” is something of an anti-revenge thriller. There is no satisfaction, no payoff, in Ludvik’s loveless, lustless seduction. The film ends on a note of pessimism and disgust, as Ludvik vents his rage in a totally unfulfilling way, self-consciously aware of his own inability to effectively confront his past.

[Image: A heavily symbolic chasm between the Ludvik and Helena emphasizes their lack of intimacy and affection despite their imminent affair.]

It would have been easy enough for this to be little more than an absurdist critique of the party’s humorlessness, similar to Godard’s Maoist-cell satire “La Chinoise” (1967). Kundera and Jires turn it into a character study, highlighting the cycle of despair as Ludvik obsesses over the past and stews in his hatred. Every indication is that he was already cynical even in his student days (hence the postcard), but he blames his misery on what he sees as a universal betrayal by his girlfriend, classmates and humanity as a whole.

[Image: Failing to see the humor of Ludvik’s letter, the party votes for expulsion.]

Jires shows Ludvik’s history through frequent unbidden flashbacks. The editing jumps between Ludvik now and then with little fanfare, as if he lives every moment with his body in the present and his memory in the past. Every event around him, no matter how tenuous the association, recalls to him some hated detail of his punishment. His thoughts push there way onto the soundtrack and drown out the dialogue with contemptuous asides. It becomes clear how his inattentiveness, misanthropy and self-pity have made him insensitive to all others.

Meanwhile, Jires’s camera has a tendency to people-watch, picking up on and briefly following minor extras. It gives us a much-needed escape from the isolated selfishness of Ludvik’s mind and subtly undermines his belief that humanity can be reduced to a single faceless enemy.

[Images: Ludvik’s mood and expression remains relatively constant, but Jires is still able to make the emotional tone nuanced through brief digressions past anonymous characters.]

The lens also dwells on the faces of Ludvik’s friends, showing the different methods of survival under a communist regime: there’s a devout Christian who withdraws from society, a composer who remains neutral and resigned, a worker whose compensation for true commitment is death, a party leader who manipulates the system for personal pleasure, a prisoner (convicted for making cubist paintings) who gains official approval for his salacious nudes by throwing in pro-communist symbolism.

[Image: Despite the divergent coping mechanism, there is rarely more than shades of defeat in the eyes of Ludvik’s acquaintances.]

It’s a downbeat but very human film; acknowledging that reality rarely works out the way it should. It cracks a little into Ludvik’s shell, discovering an unhappy creature that few would want to meet in real life. Kundera and Jires never attempt to excuse or redeem their anti-hero, leaving Ludvik to condemn himself. The audience is left to wonder whether the man, the party or merely fate is to blame.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Incidentally, Jaromil Jires is also the director of “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders,” which is getting a restored region 0 release by Second Run on Aug. 25 (Monday!). It should be significantly better than the faded Facets release and features better cover art. It includes an introductory special feature by none other than Kinoblog.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Yasujiro Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu vs. Kenji Mizoguchi

Amongst the film writers that I most admire, speaking ill of Yasujiro Ozu is about like saying black and white films are no longer relevant. I’m given the impression that not loving Ozu means my taste hasn’t yet matured. In some ways this may be true.

Ozu international standing has only grown in the last few decades and he’s one of the most respected auteurs by both critics and directors (including many of my favorites of both). His unconventional, but highly-consistent, style has brought him to the attention of alternative film theorists and his deeply-felt, quiet humanism has earned him a great reputation even outside of film-nerd circles.

Despite all this, if I’m absolutely honest I have to admit that I don’t really connect with Ozu. When I first started watching his films I took them as gentle domestic dramas with a refreshing amount of genuine sincerity, but little lasting substance. As I began to appreciate his craft and study his career, I took more pleasure in examining his compositions (especially in his color films) and admiring his breaks with traditional editing methods. Still, my praise remained at the level of a decently charming romantic comedy, not a masterpiece by a timeless master. I have the nagging feeling that I’m missing the point.

I think part of the problem may be my disconnection from the 1930’s-1950’s middle-class Japanese setting that Ozu favors. As someone who was born in the midst of consumer culture, it’s tough for me to appreciate the clash of values and traditions during the transition period Ozu tends to feature. Typical of his generation, Ozu expresses skepticism for modern technology, rapid change and personal independence while whole-heartedly embracing family, community and the essential goodness of humanity. It probably makes me sound like a horrible person to say I’m pretty much the reverse: embracing the first group and regarding the latter with skepticism.

While I can recognize much of the humor and emotion (even the “uniquely Japanese” quality of mono no aware, the melancholic acceptance that all things are transient) in Ozu’s films, I find myself unable to connect with the naivety of his characters. Many of Ozu’s favorite roles, the demanding kids, the reticent grandparents, the self-sacrificing young adult on one hand and the selfish ones on the other, the sweet unmarried ingénue, the corporate climber, the sake-swigging old-timer, etc. all seem as stereotypical as American equivalents and I consider these cliches underserving of special treatment. For me, their impossible simplicity and minimal range make them difficult to accept as real regardless of whether it’s historical accurate. Their inability to express their desires, often times the only real crisis that provides the story arc, can be so frustrating for me to watch that I lack sympathy.

After trying to gain a better appreciation of his films, I’m now faced with the problem of Ozu Fatigue. Each additional film I watch by him seems more familiar, more tied to the same aesthetic choices and less shocking in its innovations. I find that the movies merge together in my mind, their stories and characters increasingly indistinguishable in retrospect. And all those season titles! “Early Spring,” “Early Summer,” “Late Summer,” “Early Autumn,” “Late Autumn,” “An Autumn Afternoon,” etc.

My enthusiasm for Kenji Mizoguchi, a contemporary of Ozu, somewhat contradicts my fear that I’m simply too far detached from the time period or the culture. Mizoguchi was also a technical virtuoso, particularly with regard to long takes and exquisite staging, though his style shows more flexibility and scope. A master of precise compositions in his own right, Mizoguchi tends to work with a more diverse set of tools and a freer camera. High angle shots and camera movement, almost never welcome in Ozu films, are staples of his work.

There isn’t any doubt that part of my preference comes from Mizoguchi’s more story-driven scripts, with involved plots and more shifts in setting. Mizoguchi’s films are often set in the past and cover long stretches of time. His characters evolve and take part in major journeys, scandals and tragedies, none of which tends to happen in Ozu’s work. Even Mizoguchi’s blighted wretches and doomed heroes seem more relatable to me than Ozu’s contented families. Even if I don’t agree with their pride, arrogance, stubbornness, self-pity or whatever, at least they grow, suffer, learn, and express multiple sides of their personalities.

I don’t think my emotional involvement in his films is much higher than in Ozu’s oeuvre, but Mizoguchi is less dependent on it. I’m still missing out on some of the pleasures of melodrama that both directors excel at, but I’m left more satisfied and enlightened by Mizoguchi. It may be that my personality is simply incompatible with Ozu’s, and that our relationship will always be just friends. However, I think there’s at least some chance that as I grow older, I’ll come to empathize with his humanism and reach that pseudo-spiritual relationship that can be glimpsed in the affection for Ozu shown by others.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks vs. Terry Gilliam

I’m starting out with what I consider an easy one. Sense of humor is generally so involuntary and so tied to each individual that one can hardly blame someone for not connecting with one comedian and not another.

Basically, I don’t think Mel Brooks is funny and that hurdle is a mile high. I’ve never been big into the prepackaged joke/gag/skit style humor. Parody, on the other hand, is a mode I’ve liked from a very young age and I was initially flattered by Brooks’ nods and winks, his trust that I would appreciate his send-ups of clichés and recognize his references to movies. Today, it all seems a little too easy. The inversions are just so obvious; too frequently reliant on crudity rather than creativity. With long, contrived windups and go-for-the-gut humor that works only on a single level, I end up seeing the punchlines coming, waiting for them to arrive and then sighing at their delivery.

Even when conflicting senses of humor crash, a film can still be salvaged if it has a solid core of characters, story and technical craft. “Young Frankenstein” (my favorite by Brooks) and “Blazing Saddles” both have characters that [just barely] manage to establish themselves as more than pale parody shadows, but the same can’t be said for most of his work. The plots are similarly bare and derivative (only “The Producers” manages an original premise), and although this may be intentional, it is not a requirement of parody. The recent work of Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) is a great example of how to make fun of a genre while still taking advantage of its pleasures. As for artistic merit, Brooks is too concerned with setting up gags to bother with beauty or style.

Terry Gilliam is my pick for a better alternative, though they might not initially seem similar. Gilliam has also worked in the skit format (Monty Python and the Flying Circus) and in feature-length parody (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but his films are characterized by the type of humor I particularly enjoy: absurdity, anarchy and unpredictability.

Both directors have used ironic post-modern endings: Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles” and “Spaceballs”; Terry Gilliam in “Holy Grail”, “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.” Yet Gilliam’s endings possess deeper meaning and emotional weight, whereas Brooks – planning only as far as the next episodic skit – blunders into abrupt pitfalls by failing to develop characters, prepare a climax or decide on a resolution. He finds himself in dead ends, ultimately climbing over the fourth wall to escape.

However, the top reason Gilliam always engages me more is his ability to creatively balance comedy with quality. His sense of atmosphere, for instance, is so encompassing that it’s like walking into a time period that never happened. Rather than comically undermining well-recognized archetypes like Mel Brooks, Gilliam invents characters like none we’ve ever met, and does so without sacrificing our desire to relate and cheer for them. His stories are full of originality, imagination and ingenuity, with humor rising out of a network of fresh ideas. Mel Brooks picks through well-worn material, turning genre clichés on their heads and roughly shaking the humor out.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Directors I Don't Love

I hate hating films and I’d rather not do it, but I don’t intend to lower my standards and I don’t think Hollywood has any immediate plans to raise theirs. Fortunately I’ve trained myself to smell crap from a long way off, so having my bile rise due to a film I outright loathe is pretty rare. Far more often is a reaction of mild dislike or unimpressed ambivalence.

Having these negative reactions to collectively reviled films is neither unexpected nor particularly bothersome to me, but I am often troubled by failing to connect with a famous or highly-praised work. This happens to everyone, though never with the same set of films, and by now we should have all learned to just accept these differences of opinion and move on. Of course, we don’t. We get angry, frustrated and defensive. We start flame wars, disseminate diatribes and log into our favorite review aggregators to correct people about how “boring and stupid” their favorite films are.

Every once in a while you see someone trying to work through their dislike for a film without resorting to the usual rant rhetoric. Rarer still is the reviewer who can break things down into the specific subjective and objective elements that turn them off and analyze them with honesty, humility and insightfulness. Nick Davis over at NicksFlickPicks is one such reviewer. I've found myself reading his great review of “The Travelling Players” several times over the years and relating to his description of the special pain and embarrassment that come with being a film critics and admitting that you don’t like a highly-praised or long-canonized film:

“Even fessing up to an underwhelmed reaction is only a first step, frequently compromised by the self-abasing rhetoric of bad break-ups: the problem isn't you, Orson, it's me (even though it's totally you, you know I think it's you!) For all I know, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) and Hou Hsaio-hsien's The Puppetmaster really are sublime experiences, but I found them dull dull dull. Still, there's that cautious inner voice, bred by the desire to learn and to be challenged, nourished by the Time Out Film Guide and the National Society of Film Critics, that urges appreciation even when it isn't fully felt. Maybe it's true that that which bores us but does not kill us really does make us stronger? Is it true that some cinema is just good for you, despite the medicinal taste?”

In addition to inspiring this series, I’m also borrowing Nick’s metaphor of bad break-ups. Hence the title “Let’s Just Be Friends.”

However, instead of looking at specific well-regarded films that disappointed me, I'm going to look at well-regarded directors. Usually I can find one or two films with the sparkle of brilliance that leaves others rapt, but some auteurs just don’t earn their reputations in my eyes. These cases are usually rare enough for me that I can find close facsimiles I prefer, and it recently struck me that this could be useful tool for figuring out why some directors just don’t click with me.

So as part of a new series I’m going to stand pairs of directors next to each other. One will be a famous director I don’t connect with and the other will be a similar director I prefer. One of my goals is to make this an interesting confessional and analytic experiment rather than just a whiny rant.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to prefer spotlighting great unsung films/filmmakers rather than wasting words tearing apart what I don’t like. Combine that with open-mindedness, a willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt and a natural desire to focus in on the best aspects of every film, and you can see how I get disproportionately positive about cinema. In that spirit, I want to emphasize that the directors I single out are not necessarily artists that I “hate,” just ones that I don’t love. We can still be friends.

One last point. I have not seen every film by any of the directors in this series and I am far from being an expert on their careers. To ensure that I’ve given each director at least a fair chance, I’m restricting my choices to those auteurs for whom I’ve seen at least five films.

I acknowledge that in many cases I just “don’t get it,” but I’m not content to leave things there. I’m endeavoring to run these comparisons honestly and intelligently. I’ll try to be explicit about whether my critiques are a matter of my taste versus their talent. If you are an adamant fan of these directors, your insights and rebuttals may help enlighten me, especially if presented in good faith. Nevertheless, I welcome any comments regardless of their temperament.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review of The Last of Sheila

Every once in a while I come across an American thriller that has the feel of a good giallo. “Alice, Sweet Alice” (1977) is perhaps the best example. “The Last of Sheila” (1973) also has the magic touch, likely due to its cynical tone, convoluted plot, extended twist ending and lead actor Richard Benjamin’s resemblance to Jean Sorel.

Alternatively you could see the minimal settings (most of the action takes place aboard a yacht) and single murder as heralding back to the golden age of detective fiction when detectives ushered mansions full of upper-class suspects into parlor rooms and announced shocking revelations. Certainly the all-star cast, tasteful lack of nudity and the complete absence of through-the-harp shots [1, 2] sadly mark this as a non-giallo film.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a successful producer who claims to be planning a feature film on the final days of his late wife, to be titled “The Last of Sheila.” He’s assembled a group of down-on-their-luck Hollywood talents including a writer (Richard Benjamin), his wife (Joan Hackett), an actress (Raquel Welch), her manager (Ian McShane), a director (James Mason) and a casting agent (Dyan Cannon). They are desperate enough for work that they agree to board Clinton’s yacht (named Sheila, of course) and submit to his elaborate week-long game titled “The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game.” It should go without saying that each guest knew Mrs. Green and was in the vicinity when she was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident exactly one year previous.

Clinton’s game involves issuing each player a “fictional” secret in the form of “I am a ______” where the blank might be shoplifter, homosexual, etc. Each night the players are given a clue and let loose at a port or island to try and find a piece of evidence that identify the owner of a secret. Once the person with that secret gets to the evidence, it is assumed that they destroy it and the round ends for that night.

The novel entertainment has all the requisite clever riddles and inter-player plotting, but the guests soon guess that it’s more than just a game. On the second night, someone takes it deadly serious. The resulting murder investigation hinges on Clinton’s intentions for how the week was supposed to unfold and the truth behind Sheila’s death.

“The Last of Sheila” can be divided pretty equally into four sections: the set-up, the game, the investigation and the twist. Unlike the typical murder mystery which lulls, often from the get-go, until the final act, “Sheila” pulls you in with its promise of intrigue and keeps things escalating. The game itself would make for a decent movie, but cutting it off with an unusual murder case ensures that things will stay interesting. The coup de grace comes just when things seem all wrapped up; in the final 30 minutes all the little hints and inconsistencies come together to reveal a really exemplary scheme.

One should expect no less from the surprising screenwriter pairing of actor Anthony Perkins (“Psycho,” “The Trial”) and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (“Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd”), whose efforts were rewarded with a best mystery film Edgar Award. They based parts of the film on their experiences arranging scavenger hunts for celebrities in New York.

The writers also took care to assume their audience would be mystery aficionados already familiar with the usual tricks, and so they laced the screenplay with morbid and self-referential humor (thankfully free of slapstick). Highlights include a murder victim in double-drag (a man made up as a woman dressed up as a priest) and a meticulous strangler who, unable to find gloves, dons a pair of garish sock puppets. Though the final answer is marvelously contrived, so many clues have been left for the audience that much of the mystery can be solved in advance and shouldn’t leave viewers feeling blindsided or cheated.

The key here is that the clues are not sealed away by a taciturn detective nor broadcast to everyone as dead giveaways. Hardly anyone fails to pick up on a minor character “casually” mentioning their a reclusive identical twin or an investigator surreptitiously noting that a suspect is left-handed or, really, a zoom shot on anything no matter how seemingly irrelevant. It’s an issue of efficiency: if a writer/director puts something in and the editor didn’t take it out, odds are that it’s important.

Good mystery writers know how to get around this problem. Weak solutions involve trying to do things really inconspicuously (which many people will still see through) or saturating the story with red herrings and irrelevant details to provide cover fire (risking leaving the audience confused, frustrated or bored). Stronger solutions involve giving the clues double purposes, one that has a direct application to the current action and one that has deeper meaning when placed in its final context. The Perkins/Sondheim team is quite adept at working in these dualities, ensuring that attentive viewers will pick up at least a few, but not without a little work.

By structuring the film as a puzzle game about a puzzle game, director Herbert Ross openly invites us to play along. For someone like myself, who enjoys riddles, lateral thinking puzzles, detective stories, gialli and ending twists, this is prime entertainment. But does it succeed as a movie?

I’ve already mentioned that the steady setup->game->investigation->finale division makes the pacing work, while the plot is well above-average for the genre. The seven diverse characters monopolize the screen, the better to carry out their primary duties of keeping the story rolling and the suspicions balanced. The quality of acting is clearly a secondary concern, despite the big names.

James Coburn is great as the self-satisfied sadist in charge of the show. You can tell that Dyan Cannon and him are both having a lot of fun while the others are a bit too serious. Raquel Welch is just there for eye-candy and Joan Hackett is around as the straight foil, both in dangerously dull roles, though not without necessary functions. Ian McShane is the most forgettable of the bunch while James Mason is disappointingly the most wasted. It’s Richard Benjamin, star of the short-lived SF TV show “Quark,” who provides the necessary core as the sharp, inquisitive lead.

Herbert Ross’s unadventurous directing is a good example of why the Italians had such an edge over American thrillers in the 1970’s. It gets the job done, employing zooms, POV sequences and flashbacks as a matter of functionality rather than style. Ross was never a great director, but he is clearly capable of handling a complicated script: telling the story with just the right amount of attention on each detail to keep the action clear and the filler concise.

If it lacks the excess of style that makes gialli such a treat, it does at least share one Italian hallmark: great set pieces. Despite the relatively small number of locales, Ross makes the most of them. The yacht is a good substitute for the traditional inaccessible manor, and the art director keeps it thematically stuffed with board games, puzzles and hidden clues. The two major landward excursions are suitably seasoned with local flavor, especially a crumbling monastery where hidden James Coburn recordings harmonize Gregorian chants. In fact, one area where Ross may exceed his European genre contemporaries is his staging. When he’s got nothing better to do, Ross moves his characters around the main deck like chess pieces preparing for a surprise mate.

All told, this is a mystery for the mind, a perplexing confection where dialogue, motivations and camerawork all kneel before and wait upon the enthroned plot. This type of single-mindedness usually bothers me when it is employed for the sake of emotional manipulation, but somehow I feel more forgiving when it’s done in the name of intellectual manipulation. Perhaps it’s because Perkins, Sondheim and Ross never forget to entertain.

“The Last of Sheila” belongs to the same postmodern comedy-mystery family as “Sleuth,” “Deathtrap,” “Murder by Death” and “Clue.” I think it’s one of the best of the breed, up there with another one of my favorites, “8 Women.” Don’t let me inflate your expectations beyond guilty pleasure limits, but do check this one out if your want some safe and reliable fun.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The X-Factor

For those who don’t know me personally, my occasional references to Katie might be somewhat mysterious. She's sort of the shadow organization behind the Film Walrus and also my live-in girlfriend of five years. She’s had to put up with my considerable appetite for films, not always ones she was particularly interested in.

Our relationship has weathered the usual tests and trials, like surviving the original 1972 “Solyaris” as a date movie (there were exactly three other people in the audience), a failed Friday night party with her five college roommates in which I showed “Weekend,” and a very uncomfortable midnight screening of “Cannibal Holocaust.” We’ve influenced each other’s taste in films so much that these days we often become absorbed in little movie-reference bubbles that leave outsiders baffled and annoyed.

We don’t always agree about every film, but having someone on hand to discuss films with has really helped me come to understand and appreciate films on a deeper level. And honestly, she’s much better then I am at remembering where we last saw a recognizable face. Katie’s been a key source of support for the Film Walrus, even when it means I’m typing away at the computer during the precious hours when we’re both home. She also runs her own blog, Pwning Adulthood, and you may see her helping out with a new series around here.

Anyway, the reason I mention Katie today is because I want to discuss "the x-factor." The x-factor is one Katie’s nicknames, owing to her selection of pseudo-random movies for us to watch. She's often forgotten what the film is about by the time it arrives in our DVD player so we don't have any particular expectations. My own film diet is pretty strictly controlled with films culled from several thousand I’ve become interested in through recommendations and research. We started referring to Katie as the x-factor when I awoke to the importance of introducing a less-regimented, more-random element into my movie watching.

For other people, their x-factor might be the schedule programmers at TCM or a local repertory theater. It might be randomly selecting DVDs when you’re in a hurry at Blockbuster or blindly taking recommendations from an eccentric blogger. For many, like myself, the x-factor is a person whose taste is different from their own, but still trustworthy or intriguing. The x-factor keeps you from getting in a rut, playing it safe, sticking to what you know, etc.

I don’t always like the movies Katie picks out (nor does she), but it does expand my horizons and provide an opportunity for us to share our time and our thoughts. Besides, with all the silent Soviet cinema, grueling European art films and crummy cult fodder I put her through, watching a few of her choices is the least I can do.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review of The Ear (Ucho)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to combine “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “1984”? It would be like “The Ear” (1970).

Conjugal strife and dystopic paranoia make for a high-strung film, set in the height of Czech suppression circa 1970 and even filmed amidst Gustav Husak’s political purges and brutal “renormalization.” Unsurprisingly, the film was banned for nearly 20 years, but when the wall came down, the curtain came up and the film received its long overdue theatrical debut. Today it is considered one of the great masterpieces of the Czech New Wave, though its stateside unavailability has made it something of an obscurity. I’m getting pretty familiar with that pattern.

The film is a two-actor show, an intimate night spent with Ludvik and Anna as their crumbling marriage and imminent imprisonment vie for their increasingly panicked attention. The film begins with the couple returning home after a high-class gala where revelry and camaraderie whitewashed the recent arrest of Ludvik’s boss, a minister, and most of his cabinet. Even though he’s just about the last man standing after the political cleansing, Ludvik doesn’t realize quite how vulnerable his position is until he finds his front gate unlocked and his power cut.

Ludvik’s bickering and backbiting with his inebriated wife in the darkness of their spacious home initially distracts him from connecting the dots, but when he notices the secret police lurking in the garden outside, he realizes that he may only have a matter of minutes to destroy his reams of compromising documents. Sobering to the danger at hand, Anna helps her husband burn his months of hard work, but soon lapses back into anger and resentment. Though a shared cause almost reunites the couple, fear washes over and gradual erodes a wider chasm between them.

Relief seems to come when a drunken delegation arrives and Ludvik learns that it’s his neighbor who has been arrested. Not wanting to seem suspicious, Ludvik invites the partiers in for a loud and rowdy nightcap, much to Anna’s consternation. Just when the last guest has left and the long night of terror appears to be over, Anna discovers that the house has been freshly bugged. They suddenly grasp that the unexpected visit was no casual accident; the revelers were spies come to continue Ludvik’s investigation. In Director Karel Kachyna’s nightmare vision of the communist regime, hope is just another mind game.

It is already too late to destroy any evidence of guilt – it was seized before they arrived home – and even Ludvik’s gun has been removed to prevent a self-inflicted escape. “When they want, they’ll do it themselves” he speculates, but nothing can prepare them for the listener’s real intentions. Kachyna’s final pitch black twist leaves them totally dumbfounded, with Anna final line, “I’m scared,” left to linger over the credits.

Throughout the film, Kachyna moves from shouts and screams to frightened whispers, as the battling duo constantly recalls the presence of “the Ear,” the nearly-omniscient network of spies and recording devices that force the population into a life of fear and self-censorship. The atmosphere of paranoia, where even on the balcony a bird’s nest may hide a bug, drives the maddening tension and the need to somehow defy the Ear. It reminds me of “Careful,” in which love, murder and betrayal take place in an alpine village where even the slightest sound might trigger a deadly avalanche.

The film’s structure neatly compliments the nagging anxiety of the protagonist. Though set within a single night, the film does not unfold with a simple real-time linearity. Instead, frequent flashbacks revert to the party earlier in the evening as Ludvik wracks his memory for hidden meanings in the gay frivolities and social niceties. As he awakens to his terrible plight, the flashbacks take on a desperate hue. “Did he call you Anna?” asks Ludvik, hoping that if the party officials addressed his wife by name, they couldn’t be planning their extermination mere hours later. Could they?

The contrast between the dazzling whiteness of the party and the power-outage darkness of the house helps us feel the friction between outward appearances and inner fear and highlights the abruptness with which fortune can change. One gets the impression that the film would be black and white even if it were shot in color.

The cinematography is dead-on, not quite on the level of “The Fifth Horseman Is Fear,” but carefully modulated to the action. It keeps us tightly bound with medium shots and close-ups, all the better to watch the eyes and lips for faint clues. The crude histrionics of husband and wife at war are captured with the same attention to details as the subtle gestures of social mixing. It may all be part of a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. As one guest at the evening banquet mentions, you can tell the “trained waiters” are all spies by watching their hands: they don’t know the proper etiquette for serving such fancy dishes.

Despite its political pedigree as an incendiary anti-government work, or perhaps because of it, “The Ear” is no grueling history lesson. It continues to work as a brisk noir thriller and claws-extended drama even outside of its original circumstances. Far from being light entertainment, it will nevertheless keep you in its tight, uncompromising grip.

Sadly, “The Ear” (or “Ucho” as it’s known in Czech) has never been released for the region 1 market. DVD distributer Second Run, sort of the Criterion of East European films, has released an excellent region 2 transfer with an intro by Czechspert Peter Hames and a great insert booklet. Second Run’s collection has been one of the motivating factors in my purchase of a region-free DVD player, which I’ve quickly fallen deeply in love with. It’s a highly a recommended investment.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Demolition Derby at the Drive-In

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) vs Death Race 2000 (1975)

[Images: Start your engines: (Top) The Cars That Ate Paris and (Bottom) Death Race 2000.]

The Film Walrus does not like cars. American society has explained to me in detail how patently uncool that is, but I remain uninterested. While I do consider transportation a necessary and important aspect of life, I find driving tedious, fuel expensive and the pollution excessive. For me, a vehicle is just a means to an ends; an expensive convenience bankrupt of the technical fascination, status symbolism and sex appeal attributed to it by car enthusiasts the world over.

So it should come as no surprise that I have zero use for NASCAR racing on TV and very little special love for the long tradition of gearhead road movies. I’m frequently left unimpressed by such “classic” car films as “American Graffiti,” “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Gumball Rally,” “The Cannonball Run” and “Christine.” With the brilliant “WALL-E” still fresh on my mind, I’ve even had several discussions about “Cars” being the weakest link in Pixar’s collection.

There are occasional exceptions. I think “Bullitt” and “The Driver” are fine films. Many road movies with more on their mind than the vehicle worship have earned my appreciation: “Thelma and Louise,” “Until the End of the World,” “Wild Strawberries,” etc. I love the way Godard exploits the auto as symbol of civilization in “Weekend” and, of course, there’s Alex Cox’s unusual auto mythology in “Repo Man.” I even like Spielberg’s “Duel,” a surprisingly lean and effective mini-epic on the frustration and danger I associate with driving.

Today’s Iceberg Arena is about two car movies from the subgenre’s heyday: the 1970’s. My choice of combatants reflects my rather unromantic view of cars. Driving hostility may also contribute to my enjoyment of “The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974) and “Death Race 2000” (1975), both films that satirize and revel in the violence and selfishness characteristic of the age of speed.

Incidently, Roger Corman distributed both pictures, though he directed neither. “The Cars That Ate People” was the theatrical debut for director Peter Weir (whose “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was in a previous Iceberg Arena). It met a weak reception in its native Australia, and Corman’s New World Pictures recut the film (and retitled it to the even more misleading “The Cars That Ate People”) for its minimal American release, ensuring a poor box office here as well. Corman did extract out some of the best themes and farmed them out to Paul Bartel (“Eating Raoul”), who upscaled the scope to a transnational road race for “Death Race 2000” and helped pave the way for consumer-friendly vehicles like the “Cannonball” and “Gumball Rally” films.

The Cars That Ate Paris

[Image: Our first contender gears up for the showdown.]

Arthur and his brothers are unemployed drifters, towing their modest possessions from place to place and trying to find a community to settle in. Arthur is planted forever in the passenger seat due to a vehicular manslaughter charge years back, so it’s his brother George at the wheel during a nighttime car crash in the Australian countryside. He wakes up in the tiny town of Paris (see “Paris, Texas” for another films involving non-France Parises) where he learns that his brother is dead and all his belonging have been consumed in fire. Timid and passive, Arthur is harassed by the local psychiatrist and talked into staying on with the suspicious mayor. Even as he begins to regard the town as his home, he senses its dark secrets and generation-gap friction.

“The Cars That Ate Paris” opens with a glamorous young couple speeding over winding country roads in their sparkling corvette. The scene is set to a spritely synth tune and runs like a bad commercial (intentionally) only to terminate in a fatal car crash. The tone is set, and will be maintained at a level of casual weirdness for the duration, but the plot is much harder to get a handle on.

[Image: A shot from Weir’s hilariously prescient product-placement plastered intro.]

At first, one assumes that the town Arthur is stranded in must be a typical locus of homicidal evil as films like “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “The Wicker Man” have taught us to expect the moment a secluded village offers conspicuous hospitality and rapacious smiles. But it’s not so easy. Paris seems almost pathetic; an economically depressed and obsessively isolated community with a guilty conscience, a “youth problem” and a very thin veneer of quaint civility over its powder keg of contradictions. The mayor and his family seem genuinely grateful for Arthur’s arrival, and welcome him into their family with a desperation that is almost disarming.

Lacking the pure horror that the title implies (this is more dark comedy than supernatural monster movie), it must have been difficult to market “The Cars That Ate Paris.” The poster features a string of questions “Where exactly is Paris? What kind of people live there? What are they trying to hide? Why do cars mean so much to them?” in lieu of a tagline. Even Weir seems frequently undecided about where he is going with the plot and tries to get curiosity to cover poor pacing during the uneventful first half.

Still, there’s something gutsy about eschewing big scares and sudden revelations. The unusual atmosphere and generous sympathy on display creates a movie relatively free of genre deadweight, but still capable of unsettling and amusing the audience. Though the rewards may be too slight for typical horror fans, the idiosyncratic characters help bring out the acquired charms of such a strange brew.

Weir’s quiet, slouching, unmotivated hero is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of a shy drifter almost embarrassed to be witnessing a local conspiracy. He gets to play the mildly likable straight man to the town’s eccentric personalities. The mayor is a beautifully accurate father figure, whose brand of benevolent fascism makes a great allegory for the way conservative leaders trying to “focus on family” and “overcome adversity” can remain blind to the way their compromises and corruptions poison the next generation. The local youth, a gang of inarticulate anarchists who crash luridly-painted spike-festooned cars for fun, makes a humorously polar-opposite contrast to the repressed villagers.

[Image: The mayor.]

My favorite character has to be the underused psychiatrist, who introductory speech includes the ominous, “You know, it’s really outside the cities where psychiatry has the freedom to experiment.” He forces Arthur to undergo a series of tests immediately after his car accident. The doctor presents photos and Arthur just says the name of the object he is looking at. The pictures are mostly neutral images like Cat and House interspersed abruptly with forensic snapshots of the crash site where George’s bloody corpse lies amongst the twisted metal. It’s sick, but so inappropriate that it’s funny. The same goes double for the film’s climactic Pioneer Day costume ball, where the doctor shepherds in his lobotomized patients dressed tastelessly as vegetables and robots.

[Image: Mental patients at the Pioneer Day costume ball.]

The truth about Paris is almost anti-climactic after all the insinuations and tension, but it has an uncharacteristic ring of melancholy realism to it. The town, having fallen on hard times, uses their intentionally ill-maintained roads (and other methods) to induce crashes. They then loot the bodies, the cargo and the cars, burning the remains and telling investigators that everything perished in the fire. The isolationist attitude of the town discourages nosy outsiders.

[Images: Never trust anyone who has enough Janguar hood ornaments that they can assemble a wind chime.]

The sense of economic necessity and emotional vulnerability that Weir gives the townspeople keeps them from being faceless evils. The mayor may be monstrously unethical, but there is something deeply human about his desire to induct crash survivors into his family. We eventually learn that his wife can’t have children and that their two daughters are adopted. A covered scar on one of the girls cues us to what happened to the original parents. Likewise, Arthur finds himself slipping into the role of the son the mayor never had.

“The Cars That Ate Paris” is most effective in the way it warps traditionally sanctioned institutions like family (similar to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Hills Have Eyes”) and community (again, like “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “The Wicker Man”). While this is nothing new to the horror genre, the sensitivity for folks “just trying to make a living” is unusual.

Since the livelihood of the locals is so enmeshed with autos, it is fitting that their demise should also be predicated on them. There is also a sense of justice that their comeuppance should be administered by their own offspring (members of family and community) rather than the stranger from the outside world as in most stories. One can thus read the finale – where the cars finally “eat” Paris – as either a critique of technological dependence (here in the form of automotive carrion-feeding) or as a fable about the dangers of repression and hypocrisy.

Death Race 2000

[Image: Our second candidate makes his pitch.]

Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult hit revs a much louder engine, with the comedy and action more sustained and expressive. It takes place in a future America run by the fascist Mr. President where blood-drenched TV spectacles are used as an opiate for the oppressed masses. The most popular event is the Transcontinental Road Race, where contestants drive from New York to L.A., scoring points by running people over with bonuses for women, children and the elderly.

The line-up includes battle-weary cyborg and popular favorite Frankenstein (David Carradine), “Machine-Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Matilda the Hun and Nero the Hero. Each rides a themed vehicle with a navigator/mechanic in the passenger seat. The story is told from the perspective of Frankenstein and his new navigator Annie Smith both of whom are falling in love even as they struggle to mask their real identities: Annie is the daughter of violent anti-race revolutionary Thomasina Paine and Frankenstein is a discontent pawn who plans to assassinate the President with a literal “hand” grenade.

[Images: (Top) Frankenstein’s reptilian ride and (Bottom) Joe Viterbo firing into the stands at anyone cheering for his rivals.]

A narrator is provided in the form of Junior Bruce (real-life DJ Don Steele), a flamboyant announcer who gushes and thrills over every development, whether it’s a contestant taking an unexpected route or the murder of an unwary pedestrian. His manic commentary is itself an exaggerated commentary on the media in general, perhaps the primary target of “Death Race’s” satire. Sports, America, France, Germany, religion and celebrity worship are also fair game as far as the movie is concerned, but the glorification of violence in the media and the sensationalism of the news take the hardest beating, albeit by a film that both glorifies and sensationalizes violence.

“Death Race” may be too determined to entertain to sincerely back its indictments, but its no-holds impertinence makes it a wilder and more engaging film than “The Cars That Ate Paris.” The comedy is just as dark, with humor that encompasses Matilda the Hun spouting Nazi rhetoric catchphrases, Nero the Hero lamenting that Boy Scouts run too fast, Joe Viterbo scoring points by running over his own pit crew and Frankenstein slaughtering the staff of a geriatrics hospital rather than their sacrificial offer of elderly patients. It might not sound funny, but Bartel’s uninhibited direction makes it perfect cult material.

[Image: Director Paul Bartel’s uncredited cameo.]

The film’s low budget is often masked by the exotically decorated cars and the effective driving photography, which had a major influence on later films. The interiors are less convincing, with the sparsely furnished “hotel rooms” clearly set in a warehouse.

[Image: Note the double doors (complete with “EXIT” sign) and conspicuously high ceiling in this rather unlikely “hotel room.”]

A low-budget may even aid the atmosphere. The themed costumes and bad hair, for instance are kitschy fun in themselves. Then set the whole thing in a dystopic future full of quotable near-non-sequiturs like, “You know Myra, some people might think you're cute. But me, I think you're one very large baked potato.” and you’ve got yourself a vintage throwback to the 1970’s. Ultimately it is the imaginative wackiness of the plot and the universal cast commitment to their distinctive characters that provide the finishing touch.

[Images: Simone Griffith plays love interest and rebel agent Annie Smith. News personality Grace Pander, who refers to every celebrity as “a great, dear friend of mine,” introduces her to Frankenstein as a “red-hot sexpot.” “She better be a red-hot navigator,” he replies. In this case, everybody wins.]

Both films have very different goals in how they handle their characters and tone. “The Cars That Ate Paris” gives us unconventionally sympathetic villains with arguably understated performances while “Death Race 2000” stocks its roster with conspicuously ruthless heroes famous for their insanely over-the-top conduct. There’s something richer and more meaningful in Weir’s measured deconstruction of a rural community, but I’d rather watch Bartel’s wanton destruction of urban society.

Winner: Death Race 2000

[Image: Anyone who says this movie has too much shirtless David Carradine is no friend of mine.]