Sunday, May 13, 2012
Trouble Every Day – The always-surprising Claire Denis brings us a revisionist vampire film that restores to the over-exposed monster its ability to horrify and disturb. Almost devoid of dialogue, the story unfolds elliptically through shocking imagery, precision editing and a throbbing soundtrack that crawls under the skin and gets inside the mind in a way that few horror films ever do. A movie this dense, implacable, blood-soaked and transgressive was bound to alienate mainstream audiences and critics alike. It only solidified my respect for the director’s intellectual and artistic rigor.
Unforgettable – Unforgettable, to most minds, is a quite the opposite. It has garbage airport potboiler script with a spin, that's really kind of a dumb. Ray Liotta is a medical examiner determined to find his wife’s killer. His primary edge is a serum that lets you experience another person’s memories, provided by obligatory hot scientist Linda Fiorentino. The movie would doubtlessly be miserably bad if not for John Dahl, a talented director who keeps below radar and turns out consistently above-average modern noirs. This is his only flirtation with sci-fi and, despite being one of his weakest films, still kept me engaged, but it tanked at the box office. Dahl’s filmography reads like marathon of better-than-they-had-to-be thrillers most of which I’d defend, including Red Rock West, You Kill Me, The Last Seduction, Joy Ride and Rounders.
The Village – Reviews of this film stank when it came out, and it’s now frequently referred to as the starting point of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s precipitous decline. Critics and audiences were especially dismissive of the film’s rather obvious twist (after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, everyone knew to look out for it) and the plotholes revealed therein, but I remember seeing this in theaters with my dad and thinking it was not only quite good, but a lot smarter than its given credit for being. The thematic investigations of fear, control and isolation are compelling to me, the mystery-thriller aspects really rather thrilling and the visual motifs well-handled. I don’t know if it would hold up to a second viewing, but I'm one of the few people who sound like they'd even look forward to a second viewing.
Vampires in Havana – In this animated Cuban movie that mixes vampires, music and politics, Joseph, a womanizing trombonist, gets caught in the middle of a vampire gang war centered on a sunlight immunity serum invented by his uncle. The potion would threaten the indoor beach resorts and blood-based speakeasies of the American cabal while the European gangsters plan to market it as a wonderdrug. The animation lacks a sense of place, character or artistry, but the story doesn't lack for energy and ideas.
Wanted – A secret society of assassins uses weaving errors in a mysterious ‘loom of fate’ to identify targets. As the movie begin, they send one of their top agents (Angelina Jolie) to recruit a regular office loser (James McAvoy) and teach him how to curve bullets by flicking a gun with superhuman speed. Soon he's on a mission to avenge his father. Cue explosions. Twist plot. Introduce exploding mice. This is how to make a stupid action movie and make it well (but still stupid). I came into this thinking that the film would be so ludicrous it had to be terrible, but Russian director Timur Bekmambetov keeps going one step further, rapidly leaving behind our conventional notions of the ludicrous, and entering into a dimension of pure entertainment where blazing action, the rule of cool, self-parody and idiocy magically coexist.
Wayward Cloud – Arguably the best musical about sex and watermelons, Wayward Clouds is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s worst reviewed film. I think it’s his best. Ming-Liang, one of the luminaries of ‘slow cinema’ previously experimented with including lip-synced Chinese pop ballads in his impressive low-key sci-fi film The Hole, but Wayward Cloud takes things to new heights with music numbers that include synchronized umbrellas and genitalia costumes. The story, a pessimistic meditation on the impossibility of romance in a porn-saturated culture, takes place during a drought that forces Taipei to depend on watermelons for hydration.
Wild Things – There’s no question that Wild Things owes its popularity to its canny use of its cast’s assets, most famously on display (unless you are watching the TV-friendly cut) during a threesome between Matt Dillon, Denise Richards and Neve Campbell. But this film would be nothing but empty late-night cable fodder if it weren’t for the surprisingly sharp script, which lets everyone involved really relish their bad behavior and then trots out a seemingly endless supply of twists (most of which work). The slick polish that only a Hollywood budget can provide also meant that some poor art director actually bothered to make the steamy noirish atmosphere and swampy bayou setting needlessly compelling. Sure, it’s the embodiment of guilty pleasure viewing, an unabashedly sexy thriller with no deeper message or higher truth in mind, but it’s better than it should have been.
The World's Greatest Sinner – Though it has been years since I saw this on a late-night TCM airing, Sinner has stayed with me ever since. This independent 1962 cult film follows a regular Joe (actor-director Timothy Carey) during his evolution from insurance salesman, to rock star, to political figure, to cult leader and finally, and most disastrously, to godhood. He spends a lot of the film seducing, and I do mean seducing, old women out of their life savings. Carey, though it seems unlikely, is bizarrely watchable.
Yes – I consider this one of the most wrongfully hated art house masterpieces ever made, with critics almost tripping over each other to spit on it (a 29% average score on Metacritic with the only perfect rating coming from Roger Ebert). Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill turn in brave top-notch performances with Allen playing a wealthy married microbiologist in love with Abkarian, a Muslim chef. The story is arguably rote, but it's carried to rapturous heights by director Sally Potter’s innovative camerawork full of delicate shallow focus movements, carefully captured details and a claustrophobic materialism. Most controversial of all, however, was her rhyming iambic pentameter script, which I felt was magnificent and perfectly wedded to the story and style but was ruthlessly torn to shreds in reviews, seemingly less for its actual quality than for the hubris of reviving unfashionable poetry in the new millennium.
You Are a Widow, Sir! – A Czech military satire sci-fi body-swap comedy with roots in the fast-paced anything-goes zaniness of the Marx Brothers. The army plots to assassinate the president after he disbands them for gross incompetence (they accidentally cut off his hand during a ceremony) and it’s up to a bumbling love-sick astrologer to foil their plans, which involve brain transplants, bombs and veal. Too convoluted to explain, it nevertheless makes internal sense upon viewing. Not only do I find this a truly funny little gem, I admire how the director leaps headlong into new complications and then, like an escape artist, digs himself out. I’m also a bit obsessed with Czech model/actress Olga Schoberova (I’ve tracked down some real crap just because she's in it) who earlier appeared in director Vaclav Vorlicek’s best work: Who Wants to Kill Jesse? Thankfully Jesse is slowly getting the critical attention it deserves, which is why I felt it was better left off the list.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Southland Tales – In the wake of indie hit Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly had pretty much a blank check for his next project. He threw together a mismatched celebrity lineup that included Dwayne ’The Rock’ Johnson, Sean William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake and half the cast of SNL. And what does he do with them? He makes a sprawling schizophrenic sci-fi satire with music numbers, commercials, news breaks and half a dozen plots. It’s a loud, cartoonish, self-important work where it’s tough to tell who’s in on the joke or what the joke is or why anyone thought the joke was funny. Still, there's sparks of inspiration glimmering in its cavernous depths and I must confess a certain fondness for it. This is glorious train-wreck spectacle, a chance to see famous people embarrass themselves and a large pile of money wasted in the name of something actually interesting and different. Critics, with the exception of J. Hoberman, hated the film and it made back less than 3% of its budget.
Starcrash – I’m a huge fan of Luigi Cozzi (The KillerMust Kill Again, Hercules), one of the cinematic history’s most unabashed hacks, whose name is celebrated only within the inner circle of Italian trash-movie lovers. Starcrash blatantly rides in on the coattails of Star Wars, but throws in everything from robotic cowboys to Amazonian warrior-women. When an evil lava lamp threatens the universe it’s up to intergalactic smuggler Stella Star (genre favorite Caroline Munro) and jedi prince Simon (David Hasselhoff) to fight back. Expect horrendous dialog, plenty of space bikinis and a poor understanding of science. Music by John Barry. This is like fine wine for connoisseurs of sci-fi cheese.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh – This was the first giallo I saw with Edwige Fenech, and I was immediately smitten. She plays a recently married woman with a dark past and a secret vice that both repels and attracts her. Her personal crisis is played out against the backdrop of a serial killer plaguing Italy and, of course, the two plots will be connected, but not without a rapid-fire series of last-minute twists and reversals. Fenech is the reason to see this film, but reliable director Sergio Martino is what keeps things moving, elevating the mediocre material with wonderfully stylish cinematography and a total indulgence in the 1970’s excesses of fashion, design, sex and violence.
Suture – Rich, WASP criminal Vincent is wanted for murder, so he fakes his death by planting a bomb in his own car and setting it off while his ‘look-alike’ good-guy brother Clay, an out-of-towner whose existence no one suspects, is driving. Clay survives, but loses his memories. Everyone, including Clay, believes he’s Vincent. Cliché? Well, what makes the film unusual is that Vincent is white and lanky. Clay (Dennis Haysbert of ‘24’ fame) is black and built. No one could possibly confuse the two. And yet, it's hard to say exactly what message about race or class is actually being made. The film is shot in crisp black-and-white amid stark modernist L.A. locales and is modeled, nobly, after the look of Seconds and The Face of Another (two even better, but somewhat more acknowledged, favorites).
Switchblade Sisters – Jack Hill, the exploitation maestro behind everything from Spider Baby to The Big Doll House to Foxy Brown, turned his ‘talents’ to the youth gang genre with interesting results. Adapting loosely from Othello, Switchblade Sisters follows the rise of Maggie within the all-girl gang The Dagger Debs (later The Jezebels) amid a rising tide of treachery and violence. To Hill’s credit, I think the film works better as radical feminist storytelling than as sleazy erotic exploitation, but it isn’t always easy to decide.
Tarkan vs. the Vikings – My favorite Turkish exploitation film, this cheesy epic of Viking intrigue and warfare concerns itself very little with history, but takes plenty of interest in important things like war hawks, bellydancing, sword fetishism, killer octopi, trampoline torture (yeah, it’s what you’re thinking) and women warriors clad in plushy pink miniskirts. If you can think of something for which the word ‘gratuitous’ could be applied, then it can be found in Tarkan vs. the Vikings. The music is stolen wholesale from Hollywood films, particularly Indiana Jones. Mondo Macabro, the company that plucked this from cinematic purgatory and got it onto DVD, made an important contribution to world culture. Irresistible!
The Thirteenth Floor – Douglas Hall finds himself investigating the murder of a scientist who was working on a virtual reality world as rich and detailed as our own. His search for answers leads him into the simulation where he meets a man dangerously aware that his world is fake. Hall gradually comes to realize that a great deal is at stake. The fertile plot doesn’t always hold together, but it’s the type of thought-provoking stuff I love. It was adapted previously by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the miniseries World on a Wire, recently released on DVD to wide acclaim (but it is so damn lifeless!). This version, disparaged by the critical establishment, had a huge influence on the genre. Sadly, it was overshadowed by a certain other noirish 1999 virtual reality sci-fi thriller. Though the acting is not, admittedly, very good, I like the supporting cast of Dennis Haybert, Gretchen Mol and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Tideland – Terry Gilliam was the first director who I recognized as a favorite when I was growing up, but I’d long since written him off as past his prime when he returned with Tideland, his most macabre and unsettling film. It follows Jeliza-Rose, a girl who wanders about the untilled Texan grasslands outside a farmhouse where her parents, dead of drug overdoses, are slowly decomposing. Her only friends are a collection of severed Barbie doll heads and a mentally challenged neighbor boy who heralds destruction. Critical reaction was overwhelming negative, but I think this is Gilliam at his best: a pioneering and playful visionary unafraid to enter into the frightened, and frightening, imagination of an unstable child.
The Tingler – This is Vincent Price in top form, playing a scientist who discovers why we scream when scared (spoiler alert): it’s because fear makes an interdimensional millipede grow on our spines and only screaming can kill it! Sufficiently frightening a mute person causes the monster, call The Tingler, to grow unchecked, burst forth and rampage through a movie theater (in fact, in a delightful twist, the very movie theater you happen to be watching the film in). Gimmick-king William Castle directs, delivering laughable camp and, more surprisingly, a couple decent scares including an impressive use of color in this black-and-white film.
Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea – The excellent title refers to an oft-revisited morning scene in this Czech time-travel comedy. Identical twin brothers involved with a time-travel tourism company get enmeshed in a convoluted neo-Nazi plot to win WWII for the Germans. This is another example of the Czech sensibility for soft science fiction, delirious humor and really careful structuring (I just love the way it all comes together at the end!). The writing works awfully hard, but the film could’ve benefitted from better production values.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Phase IV – Saul Bass is best known for designing credit sequences (Psycho, Anatomy of Murder, Walk on the Wild Side.) and corporate logos (AT&T, Quaker Oats, Girls Scouts of America), but he also directed a single film, Phase IV, an overlooked sci-fi thriller about ants inheriting the Earth. The film is focused and dispassionate, even giving equal screen-time to the ants (shot with exquisite macro-photography in scenes not lacking in tension or emotion and emphasizing the advantages of collective action) as to the small band of humans trying to hold off the swarming menace. Bass’s formidable eye for striking imagery and his approach to evolution as a double-edged sword are just two excellent reasons to see this film.
Phenomena - Jennifer Connelly (in her first starring role) plays a newly arrived schoolgirl who ends up investigating a murder mystery by telepathically communicating with insects. Donald Pleasance plays a wheelchair-bound entomologist who helps her, along with his lab assistant, a chimpanzee. With just those elements I'd have been happy, but this ends up being one of giallo master Dario Argento's best scripts with a full three ending twists, all awesome, that unfold one after another (and I didn't even figure out the full backstory, never spelled out for the audience, until the second viewing). Plus the Euro prog, goth and metal soundtrack, featuring Goblin, Bill Wyman, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Andi Sexgang, rocks.
Princess Raccoon – Japanese director Seijun Suzuki made a long string of subversive yakuza films in the 1960’s under studio constraints and starting from lousy derivative scripts. Often overlooked upon their initial release, many of these (like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill) are now hailed, and rightly so, as masterpieces. As a lesser known alternative, I almost chose Gate of Flesh, about a vicious prostitute clique torn apart by their own lust and jealousy. However Princess Raccoon, made about four decades after his heyday, is even better, and even further from mainstream acceptance. This historical fantasy musical is a candy-colored series of startling-composed highly-artificial tableaus featuring Zhang Ziyi and Joe Odagiri in truly outrageous sets, often complimented by (intentionally?) dreadful CG.
The Quick and the Dead – Over the years I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t really like Sam Raimi or the majority of his films. Not a popular opinion in cult film circles. So while I’m being unpopular anyway I’ll add that his box office bomb The Quick and the Dead may be my favorite. It’s basically a movie-length barrage of gunslinger duels, a genre-savvy acknowledgement that these are the reason we sit through many a B-western, established as a single-elimination shootout tournament hosted by Gene Hackman. Hackman just remixes his role from Unforgiven, but he’s so friggin’ ruthless you can’t help love him, especially in the midst of the all-star miscast that includes Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Boone Jr. and Gary Sinise. Raimi’s over-the-top, broad-stroke style is put to good use on the high-concept premise.
The Rapture – It’s starts out like a sleazy TV-movie about swingers and I almost turned it off. Then the protagonist has a spiritual awakening and becomes a born-again Christian and, again, I almost turned it off. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, as it goes into ever more unpredictable territory, eventually culminating in one my favorite movie endings of all time. It is profound material, the type of thing almost nobody wants to hear, and handled with intelligence, maturity and courage by a director who is neither a towering genius nor a great visual artist. That somehow lends it a very human sincerity which bridges the unnatural delivery and eerie disconnected atmosphere (which I think, though I can’t prove it, are stylistic choices al la David Lynch). Mimi Rogers performance in the lead is full of conviction, rarely tapped in her other roles.
Razorback – “900 pounds of marauding tusk and muscle” is the tagline of this ozploitation horror film which was meant as a parody of Jaws, but transferred to the Australian outback and replacing the shark with a razorback warthog. Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, god bless him, tries hard to make this a gripping thriller in all the visual glory of an 80’s music video, and, at its best, I think he succeeds. Plus there’s a great final showdown in an illegal dingo-dicing pet food factory.
Red Garters – There are plenty (I’d even say too many) musical comedy parodies of westerns, but few are as fun as the underrated Red Garters and almost none stand up as quality films in their own right. Red Garters may be sewn together from fluff and clichés and glossed over with knowing winks, but it’s still fast and lean and sharp. What makes this a favorite for me is the minimalist set design, with its bare suggestions of real objects and eye-searing hyper-saturated color schemes. Two other contenders for this list, camp-classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Czech ‘Eastern Western’ Lemonade Joe, are in a similar vein and are worth checking out for anyone who doesn’t take the mythologized Old West particularly seriously.
Return to Oz – This sequel to The Wizard of Oz took the bright and colorful musical and turned it into a nightmarish horror-fantasy far too dark for kids and families. Result: few people have even heard of it. Though it gave me sleepless nights as a child, I consider it more powerful, imaginative and atmospheric than the original. Dorothy, haunted by her memories of Oz, is sent to a terrifying mental clinic to receive shock treatment. She escapes during a storm and finds herself back in Oz where the Emerald city now lies in ruins and the kingdom is under the sway of Mombi, a witch with interchangeable heads, and the Nome King, an evil mountain. She teams up with Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, a moose- couch and her talking chicken to restore order. Weird and horrifying, but inventive. And a part of my childhood I couldn't possibly part with.
Schizopolis –Director Steven Soderbergh (who went on to mainstream success with Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven) attempted to cope with an early-career creative/professional/personal meltdown by making a stripped-down anarchist comedy with essentially no target audience. Playing like an uncensored brain-scan or dream collage, Schizopolis follows a discontent office worker (Soderbergh) speechwriting for the founder of Eventualism, a fictional school of New Age BS, and his wife (played by Soderbergh’s real-life ex-wife) who begins an affair with a dentist (Soderberg again) who becomes, in turn, fixated by ‘Attractive Woman #2’ (Soderbergh’s ex, again). Many other subplots are involved. In addition to starring and directing, Soderbergh also wrote, edited, composed and shot the film. Amid the chaos and self-indulgence is a fairly radical yet tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of relationships, language and filmmaking itself. Disliked by critics and ignored by audiences, Criterion believed in the picture enough to give it a fantastic DVD release. It remains amongst their worst-selling titles. My second favorite Soderberg film is probably his remake of Solaris, which was almost as poorly reviewed and such a dud with audiences that it was jerked from theaters within two weeks.
The Shout - “Greater than the frightening power of exorcism. More mystifying than any omen of reincarnation. The soul-shattering experience of... the SHOUT.” That’s from the actual trailer, folks. The Shout is based on a 1929 Robert Graves short story about a man whose wife’s soul is controlled by a charismatic, fearsome shaman, wielder of the all-powerful ‘terror shout’, capable of killing all who hear. Creepy and outlandish, this is a horror film for those who like creeping psychological tension. A-list cast includes John Hurt, Alan Bates, Tim Curry and Susannah York. Underrated Pole Jerzy Skolimowski directs.
Six-String Samurai – This is a post-apocalyptic martial arts film based on The Wizard of Oz and the aftermath of Elvis’s death. Our hero, a Buddy Holly lookalike armed with a guitar-katana, makes his way towards Lost Vegas after the death of The King leaves a vacancy in the political/musical upheaval of the Southwestern wasteland. Bowler assassins, cannibals, the Russian Red Army and the grim reaper (here symbolic of the rising popularity of heavy metal), among others threaten the protagonist’s ascendency to the throne. Rockabilly soundtrack provided by the Red Elvises. Friends sometimes accuse me of liking films just because they’re weird. Here’s a case in point.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Labyrinth – This is a movie I’ve been watching fondly since childhood, an early Jennifer Connelly vehicle which finds her navigating the titular trap-filled maze to rescue her brother from the goblin king (played by a magnetic glam-era David Bowie). The extensive use of sophisticated puppetry was provided by director Jim Henson’s workshop. Despite lousy reviews and ticket sales, the film quietly tightened its grip on my generation, emerging today as a recognized modern-day fairytale. The acting is a bit shaky, the plot is disjointedly episodic and one of the musical numbers is so bad I have to fast-forward through it, but my love for this movie is not mere nostalgia; there’s plenty of creativity, vision and heart here. Along with Phenomena, also on this list, this was one of Connelly's first starring roles and she's continued to be a favorite actresses over the years despite some odious missteps.
Lady Terminator – An Indonesian knock-off of Terminator, but with the buff cyborg from the future replaced by a busty witch from the past. She’s the Queen of the South Seas and, oh yeah, she’s got a deadly eel in her vagina. Lots of nudity and shooting. Laser eyes. Etc. Terrible film. Great fun.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra – Parody films are usually good at skewering their targets, but too often fail to stand on their own two feet. Lost Skeleton, however, is a refreshing exception, perhaps because of its genuine affection for the cheesy sci-fi B-movies of the 1950’s. It manages to get me to care about the characters and, rarer still, care about the low-rent minimally-talented actors who thanklessly portrayed them. Dr. Armstrong, a scientist, and his wife Betty are looking for an asteroid made of atmosphereum, a grail sought by two crashlanded aliens, who need it as fuel, and the evil Dr. Fleming, who plans to reanimate a telekinetic skeleton. The alien’s rampaging pet mutant and Animala, a sexy composite of forest animals controlled by Fleming, round out the mix. The intentionally execrable script and acting are note-perfect, reminding one that it takes great skill to find the humor and humanity in mediocrity.
Master of the Flying Guillotine – After they finish reading the title most people will have already decided whether they want to see this film or not. Those who do will not be disappointed. It’s basically a series of tournament style showdowns between a one-armed boxer and the imperial assassins sent to kill him, featuring plenty of creative weapons, destructible sets and fight scenes that fill the time often squandered by other films on plot, character development and themes.
Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People – Japanese director Ishiro Honda has a reputation as the king of giant monster movies, a reliable source of men in rubber suits ravaging Tokyo with gusto. Best known for his Godzilla series, I find myself gravitating towards Honda’s odder anomalies (Frankenstein Conquers the World, Mothra), especially this eldritch adaptation of William Hope Hodgson (one of the forgotten giants and early founders of cosmic horror), modernized into a metaphor for atomic-era fear and despair. My childhood fears of fungi and skin disease (which linger to this day) probably influence how effective I find this movie despite its obvious cheesiness.
Mr. Freedom – A wild, scattershot 1969 satire of American ideological imperialism, Mr. Freedom is now more relevant than ever in our era of expanded cultural hegemony literally symbolized by America's endless superficial superhero movies. The title character wears an American flag themed football uniform and, on a mission to protect France from communism, must battle with threats that include Muzhik Man (notable for his outrageous Russian accent) and Red China Man (a giant inflatable dragon that fills an entire subway). It may be hyperbolic, loud and one-sided, but it’s also audacious, funny and smarter than it lets on. I'm a big fan of Delphine Seyrig and Donald Pleasence, who make good use of second-rate parts.
Mr. Vampire – Probably the best of the ‘hopping vampire’ subgenre, a popular Hong Kong convention in which the undead, cramped by rigor mortis, must hop stiffly towards their intended victims. A group of bumbling Taoist monks attempt to seal off an evil vampire and deal with a seductive ghost in this martial arts horror comedy that was a big hit in Asia, but left Western audiences befuddled. The bad special effects should clash with the quality choreography, but it all fits together seamlessly thanks in part to the whiplash pacing that doesn’t give you time to think, which you probably shouldn't be doing anyway in a movie like this. A close runner up, perhaps a little too successful to meet my criteria, is A Chinese Ghost Story and its several sequels.
Myra Breckinridge – “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye.” So ran Time magazine’s review of this notorious Gore Vidal adaptation, who, like everyone else, disowned the film. Rex Reed plays Myron, a man who gets a sex change and heads to Hollywood under the name Myra (and now played by Raquel Welch) where she teaches aspiring actors about classic films and female dominance. The self-consciously outrageous bluster is punctuated by inserts from old movies, often for humorous effect. It’s all so random and faux-subversive, but it’s unbridled, unhinged and unprofitable; everything Hollywood tries scrupulously to avoid. Right up my alley, though.
On the Comet – This is one of Czech stop-motion animator Karel Zeman’s least focused works, adapting from one of Jules Verne’s most minor novels. It functions primarily as a collage of Zeman’s boyish fascinations: interplanetary travel, dinosaurs, dirigibles, war, castles, cavalry, idealized love, etc. I think there were even pirates. Story and character development are almost non-existent, but if you can tolerate (or in my case enjoy) 75 minutes spent inside the head of a daydreaming 8-year-old, you’ll be fine. Just don’t try to make sense of it. Zeman’s Baron Prasil is his masterpiece, but within the animation community that’s already well-established so I disqualified it from the list.
Paranoiac – Paranoiac is one of those gothic horror films where a twisted family and their associates vie for the upperhand in a decaying mansion and generally resort to all sorts of dishonesty and crime. Oliver Reed steals the show as Simon, a drunken, scheming lout whose main rival is Tony, his brother, long thought dead and suddenly back. Eleanor, the innocent and naïve sister, is caught in the middle of their inheritance struggle. Of course a serial killer is also at large and 90% of the characters, including the likable ones, may be insane. Underground director Freddie Francis does a great job amping up the tension and twists, gleefully ignoring realism. His day job was serving as cinematographer on A-list pictures (he even won a couple Oscars) and his trademark pristine deep-focus black-and-white work is on display here.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Happy Accidents – More or less an insignificant blip on cinema’s radar, Happy Accidents is a disposable feel-good romantic comedy (exactly the type of thing I normally ignore or, if pushed, hate) with a whimsical touch. Ruby falls in love with Sam, who’s a bit quirky but otherwise a real nice guy, except that he has this hard-to-swallow secret life as a time-traveler from the future. I’m probably heavily biased by my soft spot for leads Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei (and even a bit for 2nd-tier genre helmer Brad Anderson), not to mention my obsession with time-travel movies, but I was really charmed. Think of it as K-PAX meets Kate & Leopold. Actually, don't think of it as that. That sounds like crap.
Heart of Glass – This dreary Bavarian arthouse folktale follows a small village as it succumbs to apocalyptic madness and destruction after losing the secret of their famous ruby red glass. It may be helmed by Germany’s established national treasure Werner Herzog, but it remains amongst his least popular works, in part due to the uniformly dispassionate blankness of the cast, the result, purportedly, of his having hypnotized the entire cast. The turgid pacing, esoteric historical setting and cryptic epilogue didn’t help draw audiences either. I find that the total lack of affect in the performances perfectly complements the unforgivingly doom-laden mood.
High Strung – This forgotten low-budget black comedy consists almost entirely of an angry man who never leaves his apartment (writer Steve Oedekerk) ranting about all the minor annoyances in his life and revealing an array of paranoid phobias. He frequently concludes monologues by shouting “I’d rather be dead,” resulting in Death (pre-famous Jim Carrey) actually showing up to call his bluff. This is a shrill, unambitious and craftless film by the creative talent that went on to make such dubious hits as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Patch Adams and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, but even as a child I related to the curmudgeonly recluse. And also, it makes me laugh.
Hollow Triumph – Dr. Bartok is a psychologist with a theory that mankind intentionally ignores all details that don’t directly pertain to themselves out of lazy selfishness and convenience. An escaped convict, who looks exactly like Bartok except for a large facial scar, kills the doctor and impersonates him both professionally and romantically. But his own scar, self-inflicted, is based on a photo negative of the real psychologist and ends up on the wrong side. Will anyone notice or, irony of ironies, will Bartok’s theory hold true? Deliciously contrived 1940’s film noir whose ending twist adds yet more dark irony. Joan Bennet (who I think was more talented and prettier than she’s given credit for today) plays Bartok’s secretary. John Alton provides the shadowy cinematography.
Holy Blood – Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s penchant for spectacularly deranged visuals, anti-everything politics and dense allegorical tales color his works as eminently uncommercial and frequently opposed to the type of people and institutions that fund, market, distribute, view and buy movies. Holy Blood, shot in 1989, found a few champions amongst critics but alienated audiences, as usual, furthering his multi-decade financial freefall. The movie, a horror film about an ex-circus child whose armless mother exercises undue influence over his love life, doesn’t match the epic proportions, freestyle mysticism and mind-blowing imagery of his 1970’s output, but it showcases his most sincere and cohesive storytelling.
The Honeymoon Killers – Based on the true story of a pair of mismatched lovers, suave conman Ray Fernandez and disgruntled nurse Martha Beck, who swindled lonely women and frequently killed them, The Honeymoon Killers is the type of low-budget ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation that you know is going to be crude, uncomfortable and perfunctory. Only it’s not. Or at least, not in a bad way. Despite its failure at the box office, a growing circle came to appreciate its droll wit, spare cinematography and vividly drawn characters, especially Shirley Stoler as the unglamorous scene-shredding lead.
Hugo the Hippo – The Sultan of Zanzibar captures hippos to clear his spice harbor of sharks, but his people soon forget their debt and hunt the hippos to death until the plucky local children rally to save Hugo, the last remaining Hippo, from the sultan’s evil advisor and mad magician. 1973 Hungarian animated musical with naïve, but catchy, soundtrack provided by the Osmonds. Based on a true story. I love the loopy Yellow Submarine-esque visual style and still get the songs, unpolished as they are, stuck in my head to this day. Almost every scene is iconic, but the most essential involves Hugo being pursued through a magic nightmare vegetable garden come alive.
I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen – In the not so distant future terrorist bombs have caused women to grow facial hair, precipitating a national crisis. Shaving robots are unfeasible, meaning the only hope lies in travelling back in time to assassinate Einstein so that the physics underlying the fiendish technology never develops. This is Czech comedy at its wackiest and while a lot of the humor fails to live up to the originality of the premise, the structure is surprisingly tight and the ensemble cast scores points for chemistry and charm. Some of the ideas about time-travel wouldn't be recycled into American films for decades to come.
Keoma – Keoma is easily one of my favorite spaghetti westerns, but when asked by friends whether I love it sincerely or ironically, I can only answer “Both.” Director Enzo Castellari (a rising favorite for me) pulls no punches is his ruthless tale of a halfbreed Indian who exterminate his own family in a messianic vengeance quest. The go-for-broke attitude pervades every aspect of the film: Franco Nero’s steely-eyed werewolf-maned performance, Woody Strode as a magical black guitar-picking archery master, the operatic score (imitating an imagined duet between Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez) that functions as overly-literal Greek chorus, the slow-motion stunt-chocked action sequences and the heavy-handed religious parallels (including the wandering spirit of death, a plague ravaged Dante-esque mining pit, a crucifixion scene and a painful childbirth set during and crosscut with the climatic shootout). Castellari's previous films include Johnny Hamlet, a spaghetti western adaptation of Shakespeare.
The Killing Kind – Director Curtis Harrington is, today, written off as a hack when he’s even written about at all. There’s good reason for that, but within his oeuvre of limp horror films and failed experiments is this unexpectedly real and affecting study of a young serial killer played by John Savage (in his first starring role) whose relationship with his mother is uncomfortably intimate. Dark, lonely and sad, everything can be read in the nuances of Savage’s breakthrough performance.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Female Convict 701: Scorpion – Probably the best women-in-prison movie I’ve seen, this Japanese revenge thriller doesn’t actually need all the nudity to keep viewers interested (but don’t worry, it’s there, in spades). Every genre convention you might expect is present (shower room brawl, prison riot, senseless interrogation, etc.), but it’s the craft (stylish camerawork, above-average acting and well-paced script) that holds it together. I’m not into bondage, torture or mass nudity (it’s too impersonal), but I can get behind a ferocious performance of an avenging angel kicking ass when it’s handled with such traditionally unnecessary, given the genre, passion and skill.
Fidelity – Fidelity is Polish madman Andrzej Zulawski’s adaptation of the 1678 French novel The Princess of Cleves. I’ve read it and I can say they have this in common: homo sapien main characters with the same names and relationships. This is an epic romance that is often unbearably highbrow and B-movie trashy in the space of a single scene. I think of it as the final and most sophisticated homage to Zulawski’s long-term girlfriend, the beautiful Sophie Marceau, and through all the muddled chaos of yellow journalism, organ trafficking, wild sex and bad poetry one senses that he’s trying to deliver some aching inarticulate message not just to her, at the twilight of their 17 year relationship, but to the audience as well. A popular and critical fiasco, it’s hard to convince people to track down and sit through the even rarer uncut 3+ hour version that makes slightly more narrative and thematic sense. Even I must admit it falls well short of Zulawski’s magnum opus, Possession, (which only failed to make this list because I refuse to admit that it might not be perfect), but I found this to be another of his feverishly passionate cries sent echoing into the universe’s void. Who doesn't like those?
Flash Gordon – Flash Gordon, “King of the Impossible,” must rescue fetching journalist Dale Arden and save the Earth from Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who is raining down hot hail and sending the moon onto a collision course. His plan will unite perennial foes Hawkman (Brian Blessed) and space Robin Hood (Timothy Dalton), but not before they shout some pretty atrocious dialog at each other. The costume design and soundtrack by Queen would, alone, make this a favorite, but the film’s contagious sense of campy abandon puts it over the top, amply earning its eminent cult-circuit reputation.
Footprints on the Moon – Like Death Laid an Egg this is another one of those obscure giallo films that just doesn’t fit the mold. It has a sci-fi subplot, almost no murders and a cameo by the great German actor Klaus Kinski, plus a plot so abstruse and subtle that I had no idea what was going on during my first viewing. Alice, a woman haunted by eerie dreams from her childhood, visits a seaside resort she learns about from a postcard and begins investigating a woman who may be herself. The chilling ending is all the more effective for its otherworldliness. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) provides the excellent visuals.
Four-Sided Triangle – I don’t consider myself a fan of Britain’s Hammer studio, which churned out largely formulaic and forgettable horror and sci-fi movies from the 50’s to the 70’s, but this underrated gem is one of my favorite B-movies. There is no monster, no alien, no violence and hardly any special effects. There is only a love triangle (two scientists, friends since boyhood, who fall in love with their beautiful assistant) and the troubling ethical implications of an invention, a duplicator, which may provide a way for the triangle to, shall we say, expand into square. Of course, technology only makes things worse. Tragically doomed actress Barbara Payton (who is not ashamed) provides the female lead and, for me, it’s not hard to imagine how she could break a heart. Efficient, resourceful and perhaps deeper than it realizes, this is exactly the type of film I think low-budget filmmakers should strive for. It’s few viewers, however, seem to brush it aside.
Freeway – A modernized adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood with Reese Witherspoon as a highly independent trailer tramp on her way to grandmother’s house and Kiefer Sutherlands as the highway-prowling serial killer wolf. The usual damsel-in-distress scenario is reversed after Witherspoon pumps a few bullets into her would-be predator, but the legal consequences land her in prison. Undaunted, she fashions a homemade shiv and busts out with a pair of new friends for a final bloody confrontation at grandmother’s. Hilariously no-holds-barred and flagrantly over the top, it’s a pleasure just to see Witherspoon’s spit and vinegar performance (she got so safe and bland later!) and Sutherland at his most unctuous. Even the critics admitted liking this, but it’s the type of film we’re not supposed to.
Full Contact – Full Contact is Hong Kong action courtesy of Ringo Lam, creator of such classy cinema as City on Fire, Prison on Fire and Maximum Risk. I don’t remember the plot, but it involves Chow Yun-fat punching, kicking, shooting, chasing, fleeing, driving and crashing. Often in slow-mo. The movie gave us ‘bullet time’ seven years before The Matrix, and did it from the bullet’s own POV. It also gave us one of the great final lines, tossed off at the flamboyantly gay villain as he dies: “Masturbate in hell.”
Glen or Glenda – Director Ed Wood’s most infamous film, the staggeringly incompetent “Plan Nine from Outer Space,” gets more attention, but Glen or Glenda is arguably even worse, which, of course, makes it even better. Bela Lugosi, via senselessly over-the-top narration, presents us with the story of Glen/Glenda’s cross-dressing and sex change. For a film that achieves so many inadvertent laughs, it’s also strangely touching, especially in light of Wood’s personal investment: a cross-dresser himself, he stars in the title role playing against his real-life girlfriend, who wasn’t yet fully aware of Wood’s proclivities.
God Told Me To – In New York City random people are violently running amok, with the only common thread being their dying insistence that “God told me to.” A Catholic detective investigates, increasingly terrified by the possible truth. A surprisingly aspirational B-movie slushy of police procedural, urban horror, religious allegory and science fiction. In my opinion this is schlock staple Larry Cohen’s one brush with greatness.
Grendel, Grendel, Grendel – An Australian animated children’s musical adaptation of the 11th century English epic poem Beowulf, but told from the sympathetic point-of-view of the villain in the style of John Gardner’s experimental parallel novel. Peter Ustinov steals the show as the oddly genteel Beowulf, but sadly he doesn’t show up until the final act. The Schoolhouse Rock reminiscent limited animation, lukewarm tunes, uneven pacing and a lot of confusion as to whether a target audience for this concept even exists make the film, pretty much unavailable anyway, fabulously unpopular.
Monday, May 7, 2012
Death Laid an Egg – This giallo by the virtually unknown Giulio Questi is one of my favorite films in the genre. A twisted love triangle on a mechanized chicken farm, this is what a murder mystery melodrama might look like directed by Jean Luc-Godard. Jean-Louis Trintingnant stars. Beautiful women and cinematrography meet ugly revelations about murder and infidelity and even uglier boneless, limbless chick blobs. The story, acting, set design and themes are exactly what I look for in a rare horror gem, but the skeptics are unlikely to bother tracking this down in the back-alleys of the internet.
Death Race 2000 – Cyborg celebrity frontrunner Frankenstein (David Carradine) goes head-to-head against Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), cowgirl Calamity Jane, neo-Nazi Mathilda the Hun and gladiator Nero the Hero in The Death Race, a dash across America where points are issued for running down civilians along the way (bonuses for women, children and old folk). Annie Paine, Frankenstein’s sexy new copilot/mechanic is secretly a spy for an underground resistance group, but finds herself falling in love with the enigmatic driver. One of the most perfect 1970’s exploitation films, Death Race 2000 has an inimitable blend of style, violence, camp and fan service. The casting, vehicle design and script are just right.
Death Walks at Midnight – It’s hard to make up my mind between this and its sister film Death Walks on High Heels so plan on a double feature. Susan Scott (who, next to Edwige Fenech, is probably the best actress in the giallo genre) plays a feisty scene-stealing model who ill-advisedly takes a hallucinogenic drug and ends up in some embarrassing photos. The odd thing is that the visions from her bad trip match up with a murder that took place next door six months in the past. Some great suspense sequences and no-one-believes-me tension build towards a fine denouement. Villains include a killer with a spiked gauntlet and a giggling knife-throwing hitman.
Deep Blue Sea – Unfairly bashed before the gates even opened just for not being Jaws, this is still one of the best shark thrillers that money can rent. Saffron Burrows plays the requisite conspicuously-hot scientist who genetically alters sharks to increase their brain mass (which no matter how you explain it, still sounds stupid) and then must team up with the combined badassery of Samuel L Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard and LL Cool J to escape the resulting monsters and her slowly sinking ocean research lab. The script isn’t Shakespeare, but it keeps things fast, tense and peppered with convention-defying surprises.
Demolition Man – A supercop (Stallone) and his nemesis (Snipes) are cryogenically unfrozen in a ‘utopian’ future where all crime, vices and awesomeness have been eradicated. They immediately head to a museum to load up on guns and bombs. Things blow up. Sandra Bullocks is there. Stallone teaches her how cussing and unhealthy stuff is great. Shameless, gauche and tons of fun.
The Devil-Doll – Tod Browning became a household name on the strength of Dracula and Freaks, two films that defined the horror genre in the early 1930’s. However, I prefer his less-beloved silent circus melodrama The Unknown, about an armless knife-thrower, and The Devil-Doll, about an escaped convict who uses a shrinking serum to wreck vengeance on the Parisian bankers who framed him. Lionel Barrymore is incredible as the criminal mastermind, performing most of the film in drag. Despite the sensational story, his relationship with his estranged daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) provides a touching emotional core that few horror films ever achieve. The special effects were decades ahead of their time and still impress me today.
Doppelganger (2003) – One of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s lesser known films, Doppelganger is about a scientist working on an artificial body. Exhausted from stress, administrative skepticism and creative stagnation, our lead is on the verge of suicide when he is visited by a mysterious doppelganger who isn’t burdened by the same moral scruples. Of course, this type of devil’s pact never ends well, but Kurosawa’s last act genre shift into slapstick comedy wasn’t the ending twist the critics wanted. Koji Yakusho is, as usual, excellent in the lead role. Part of my love for this film comes from its moody, formalist use of triple split-screen (I’m a big fan of unconventional editing). Kurosawa’s little-loved existential eco-thriller Charisma could just have easily made the list, but I’ve written about it before.
Dr. Jekyll and His Women – Director Walerian Borowczyk was a Polish surrealist animator turned art-house novelty pornographer. His rarely seen (and even more rarely liked) adult-film adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde stars Udo Kier as a doctor stifled by the trappings of civilization and hesitant about his impending marriage to a loving society ingénue. His transformation into a sex crazed monster who kills with his… member, gives vent to his primal needs. Arguably a failure as art or porn, it still succeeds as a bracing, unique and profoundly disturbing horror film.
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On – A brilliant and still criminally unsung Japanese documentary about Kenzo Okuzaki’s investigation into mysterious deaths in the wake of the WWII New Guinea campaign. Though the truth is revealed to be devastatingly macabre, the sensational subject matter is gradually eclipsed by Okuzaki himself, a man clearly driven mad by righteous hatred. Utterly devoid of objectivity, restraint or fear, he is willing to beat the truth out of his interviewees (including his former military superiors) ultimately going so far that he loses the support of the victim’s families and, perhaps, the sympathy of the audience. Okuzaki eventually finds the man he hold responsible and, off-screen, guns down his son. The final title card tells us that Okuzaki has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Enemy at the Gates – At a certain age in every American boy’s life he plays a videogame that lets him snipe and he believes he’s found his calling in life. I was about that age when Enemy at the Gates came out and it reinforced my conviction that snipers were cooler than astronauts. Jude Law and Ed Harris stalk each other through rifle scopes. Rachel Weisz is pretty. Bob Hoskins is Russian (whaaat?). And of course Ron Perlman shows up, as he does for every movie like this.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Clifford – Critically mauled Martin Short vehicle in which he plays both an elderly priest and a 10-year-old boy (in a movie-length flashback which never loses its half-intended quasi-surrealism considering Short was well into his forties at the time) chronically obsessed with visiting the Dinosaur World theme park. Clifford’s uncle gets saddled with the problem child, who engages in woefully unfunny pranks like planting bombs. Similar to ‘What About Bob?’ in that it’s obnoxious and yet, at times, mesmerizing. God, it’s terrible. I’m not sure I can or even should defend it.
Con Air – Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Malkovich and Buscemi star in this overblown action film about a hijacked prison plane. I’m not a fan of producer Jerry Bruckheimer in general, but Con Air’s non-stop nonsense is so resourceful, lightning-paced and special-effect-laden that one forgets its total nonsense. Or one doesn’t care. The film tends to lose several stars if not seen while eating buttery popcorn.
The Crawling Eye – Also called The Trollenberg Terror, this is a vintage 1950’s black-and-white sci-fi B-movie about an alien invasion. The aliens, mind-controlling giant eyeballs with tentacles that hide in radioactive mountain-top clouds, are amongst my favorite monster designs of the period (up there with Fiend Without a Face). The film is somewhat schematic and plodding during the lulls, but the best parts are thrilling and the worst parts are funny.
Cruel Intentions – Filmmakers just love adapting Dangerous Liaisons, but since its 1782 inception it has too often been treated as high art period piece Literature and not as the salacious prurient-pleaser that it was in its day. Roger Vadim’s version comes close, but this 1999 modernization starring a cast of hot young stars (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Sean Patrick Thomas and Tara Reid) takes the cake for sheer shamelessness. Watching this film at 15 I was openly salivating over the meat puppets (Gellar as a brunette *swoon*) and completely into the killer soundtrack while being perfectly comfortable ignoring the clunky script, weak development and forgettable mise-en-scene (not that I knew what that was). I don’t have my age as an excuse anymore, but it’s still the Dangerous Liaisons version that I’m most likely to rewatch and, even if a bit ironically nowadays, to enjoy.
Cube – A bunch of people with nothing in common wake up in a large cube made up of many smaller cubical rooms, some of which are booby-trapped to kill them in all sorts of nasty ways. They try to figure out why they are there and how to get out. A great example of keeping viewers intrigued with only a single set, little acting talent and less money. The incoherent sequel Hypercube ran with the tagline “The first one had rules,” in an interesting case of producers trying to market a film by highlighting its greatest flaw.
Danger: Diabolik! – Diabolik is a sexy daredevil master-thief living in the height of 1960’s Italian kitsch. With his beautiful wife, he stages outrageous capers and makes fools of the government and criminal underworld alike. Even destroying the country’s tax infrastructure and stealing a multi-ton boxcar of gold hardly breaks his stride. Mario Bava’s film is light as a feather, but the heists are actually quite cleverly conceived and executed (I’m a sucker for a good heist). The humor, fashion and momentum win childish grins and clapping from me. On a more technical level, I like the way Bava uses bright colors and strong horizontals and verticals to break up the image in a way that harkens back to its comic book origins.
Dark Star – Astronaut hippies, unwanted by the space program, are given smart bombs and sent on an interminable semi-pointless mission to implode stars that might be inconvenient for future colonizers. One of the smart bombs develops sentience and begins to question the nature of its existence, forcing the hippies into a philosophical argument for their lives. Carpenter’s first film is a zero-budget student project that frequently transcends its visibly humble roots. Dan O’Bannon, later of Alien and Total Recall fame, wrote the script and helped with the endearingly low-fi special effects.
Day of the Dolphin – Do-gooder husband and wife scientists try to teach dolphins how to talk until terrorists force them (the dolphins) to bomb the president’s yacht instead. It sounds ridiculous, but everyone plays it straight and I was hooked. George C. Scott and his real-life wife starred. Prix Goncourt winner Robert Merle wrote it. Mike Nichols directed. I was apparently the only one who watched.
Deadly Circuit – Isabelle Adjani stars as a black widow killer hunted by The Eye (Michel Serrrault), a detective who has lost his daughter. In an odd twist, The Eye develops romantic/fatherly feelings for the murderer, whom he has never actually met, and begins to cover her tracks rather than pursue her arrest. When she falls in love with one of her prospective victim, relinquishing her life of crime, The Eye can’t take it and must act to restore their doomed trajectory. It is, perhaps, a throwaway thriller, but the unusual touches in the script by a young Jacque Audiard (later a fantastic director in his own right) and the cast (I can watch Adjani in anything and often times do) make this work for me.
Dear Wendy – Much-loathed critique of American gun fetishism by uneven Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. A group of misfit teens becomes a tightknit club of friends through a shared fixation on antique firearms and foppish wardrobes, but their idealistic code of honor is no match for simply human failings. Predictably, blood will flow. Over-stylized, misdirected, insincere, self-indulgent and hypocritical (given its own capitalization on violence), this is still a film that I feel has a timely story to tell, points worth mulling, a cast with chemistry and a presentation that catches the eye.
Saturday, May 5, 2012
The Boxer's Omen – The first time I saw this Hong Kong oddity I couldn’t initially tell whether it was a boxing movie, revenge drama, gangster film, softcore crossover, spiritual odyssey, martial arts thriller, horror movie, stop-motion cartoon or black comedy. It’s a bit of each, and all of that in just the first 30 minutes, eventually ‘settling into the conventions’ of the obscure HK micro-genre of Buddhist monk vs. Voodoo witchdoctor combat. I have to wonder if director Kuei Chih-Hung knew he was at the end of his career (his next film, appropriately named Misfire, would be his last of nearly 40) and tried to cram in every idea he had left. It pays off, though only according to its few acolytes. The hyperactive unpredictable imagination of its fast-paced, anything-goes plot left me breathless and happy. Its willingness to ignore good taste and common sense occasionally goes too far, especially in some expendable gross-out scenes, but I’m glad it never holds back. This is an all-time favorite.
A Boy and His Dog – Post apocalyptic SF written by Harlan Ellison and starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson as a wasteland youth hunting women to rape with the help of his telepathic dog. The second half gets weirder. The politically incorrect, frequently mistimed humor is not for everyone, but most agree the anti-romantic ending is priceless.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – El Jefe, a rich Mexican landowner, tortures his pregnant daughter to discover her lover’s name (Alfredo Garcia) and sets a million dollar bounty on his head. Bennie, a washed-up drunk, learns that Garcia is already dead, digs up the head, and plans to make a killing, except that everything goes to hell. Bloodsoaked, grotesque and riddled with amoral desolation, Sam Peckinpah’s film was critically savaged on its release, but hailed as a masterpiece decades later. I found it revolting on first watch, but Netflixed it a second time only a couple of weeks later after I couldn’t get it out of my head. I also considered including Peckinpah’s The Getaway, which is sort of the reverse case: a huge box office success in its day now considered beneath notice. I think it’s an action classic with some brilliant technical work (especially in the editing of the opening act), but it was made for all the wrong reasons: Peckinpah needed the money and McQueen and McGraw couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
Brother from Another Planet – An “alien” (who happens to look exactly like a black man) crash lands on Earth and has to survive in New York City without knowing anyone or speaking the language and while being hunted by space slavers (who happen to look exactly like white yuppies). The metaphor’s total lack of subtlety is part of the charm. Director John Sayles has made better films, but few with such a knowing sense of humor.
A Bucket of Blood – Roger Corman’s unexpectedly sensitive satire of beatniks finds a dimwitted waiter inadvertently transformed into the toast of the 1950’s avant-garde after he kills a cat (and later much more) and coats the corpse in clay. I’m a Corman apologist and considered several of his films for this list, ultimately running with A Bucket of Blood (that sounds odd out of context) though these days it might be considered an obvious choice. Prefer something of his more eccentric? I'm curious; throw it in a comment.
Cannibal: The Musical – An early film by the South Park guys, this is a musical based on the real life frontier cannibalism of prospecting party lost during a trip from Utah to Colorado. It’s low-budget, irreverent and surreal, but it’s surprising how often the film actually succeeds. The songwriting, especially, is rather memorable. (I'm playing back the musical numbers in my head and laughing. Some it you just has to be witnessed!)
Care Bears Adventures in Wonderland – Even the few professional critics who bother to review Care Bears movies, considered this, the third in the series, to be a confusing and unwelcome effort from the Canadian animation team. I watched this whenever I was sick as a kid and I still love their take on Alice in Wonderland, especially the cheery-dreary villain who wants to bring sanity to wonderland (how evil!) and desaturate all the colors (or something). A few bastardizations go too far, including a rapping Cheshire cat. Also new is a pair of red robots, piloted by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, which gave me nightmares.
Carnival of Souls – Carnival is sort of an art-house zombie movie, produced for peanuts and taking decades to build up word of mouth. Deliberate, brooding and mild-mannered, it gets under your skin, thanks largely to the inexperienced director’s earnest artistic ambition and the investment of his cast and crew. Part of the kick I get out of watching the film is having lived near both the primary shooting locations: Lawrence, KS and Salt Lake City, UT.
Cassandra Cat – Czech children’s parable about innocence, love and kittens. A small village is visited by a beautiful immortal magician who puts on a puppet show. The local young-at-heart teacher falls in love. The plot hinges around the lady’s magical cat who reveals the citizen’s true colors (literally) when it removes its stylish sunglasses. Essentially it’s about how authority, hypocrisy, taxidermy and most adults suck. Yeah, it’s a product of its time, but one I utterly sympathize with.
The Central Region – Michael Snow placed a camera that could rotate on every axis in the rocky shrub-strewn Canadian wilderness far from the nearest human habitation. For three days it executed pre-programmed patterns of movements in the absence of a director, cameraman or cast. Snow edits the resulting footage into a 3 hours film with no story. This is Structuralism, hardcore. More specifically it’s an experimental work that abandons conventional notions of narrative and performance in favor of analyzing form and technique, challenging us to see our world through alien eyes. Tedious? Yes. But after overcoming my fidgets I gradually synchronized with the film’s rhythm of motions and became strangely hypnotized. Enough to watch it several times!
Friday, May 4, 2012
Hey, I'm back with a big new 10 part series of capsule reviews! Expect it to be self-indulgent. Behold:
I have a tendency to defend movies. And not just the great ones. I like movies, I watch a lot of them, and I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’ve got my moments of snobbery (this IS the internet after all), but I rarely fail to find something of value in the movies I see. It helps that I leverage friends, lists, trusted critics, the internet and a bit of common sense to vet what I take in. Still, I’ve seen plenty of films whose merits were contradicted by all of those resources, which I’d defend. I'd probably lose the case, but I'd defend them. This is a list about those movies.
I’m calling this my 100 "Worst Favorite" Films. "Favorite Worst" Films implies that I think all these films are actually bad and, worse still, openly admit it. It took me a while to formulate exactly what I was going for with this list, but it amounts to this: what films do I value well beyond the critics/the public/anyone objective. So that includes movies deemed wretched that I think worthwhile all the way up to movies labeled mediocre that I consider brilliant. It includes titles I think are genuinely underrated or neglected as well as films I love, but can’t realistically call masterpieces.
I’ve tried not weasel out of embarrassing myself by choosing only obscure titles. I’m hoping everyone will recognize at least a couple films that will totally undermine my authority as a film blogger. For those films you don’t recognize (perhaps for good reason) I’ve provided blurbs that explain the gap between my opinion and the general consensus. And who knows, maybe a few of you will agree with me?
I’ve also aimed for variety, so while the list is dominated by sci-fi and horror (which lend themselves to flawed genius) I’ve also included art films, exploitation, musicals, documentaries, romantic comedies, children’s cartoons and 'adult' films. Where else will you find Care Bears Adventures in Wonderland on a list with Dr. Jekyll and His Women?
I’ll be putting out the list in daily installments of 10 films each. For any regular readers out there I apologize for recycling many movies that I’ve written about before, especially during the Hall of Strangeness series. Like most people, I'm biased towards films I saw in my formative years, the 1990's in my case, so I should apologize for that too. But I'm not going to. After all, this list is all about bias.
So now, blurring the line between recommendations and confessions, I present my worst favorites films for your enjoyment (even if, statistically speaking, the odds aren’t in your favor).
8-Diagram Pole Fighter – A classic martial arts films that is undergoing a welcome resuscitation, 8-Diagram Pole Fighter is, as one might expect, all about the pole fighting choreography. This is best displayed during the opening credits, a scene which the rest of the movie can’t often live up to. The film is severely handicapped by the death of one of the leads, who just disappears near the final act of the movie and isn’t mentioned again. Typical of the genre, the acting and dubbing are often outrageously bad. Of note: more teeth get knocked out in the final battle, which takes place on a pyramid of coffins, than in any five other films I’ve seen.
American Astronaut – A science-fiction western musical by inspired indie rocker Cory McAbee. Poorly paced, steeped in twisted insider humor and dreamlike to the point of occasional frustration, this is still a masterpiece of atmosphere, space-as-the-new-West revisionism and raw individual vision. Critics disagree with the nice things I said. I don’t think it ever even had a theatrical release and I’ve only been able to buy copies from the band’s website.
The Annunciation – A work of nigh unrivaled ambition, condemnation and pretentiousness, The Annunciation is a Hungarian adaptation of The Tragedy of Man, framed as a vision presented to Adam and Eve by Lucifer, just after the fall, in which they watch the consequences of sin throughout the history of civilization spanning ancient Babylonia, the French Revolution, Victorian England and more. The film would have been dark and daring enough had it not used a cast composed entirely of children ages 10-12, whose unnerving depictions of mankind’s treachery, lust, rage and, in rare glimpses, redemption, scandalized contemporary Western censors and left the few critics who caught a screening scratching their heads. A handful, like me, was riveted.
Apartment Zero – Colin Firth stars as an Argentinian stalker infatuated with Hollywood Golden Age cinema and his new roommate, who might be a war criminal. Firth seems harmless at first, but his character arc has a satisfying curve to it. Apartment Zero is a queer thriller that wavers pleasantly (for me) between creepy and campy, yet the genuine affection for the troubled lead and the inclusion of grisly real-life political issues can’t quite be laughed away. I tend to enjoy films like this where one can’t quite pin down the dominate tone or the intended reaction.
The Apple (1980) - In the distant future (1994), two Canadian folksingers must battle to save their music, and their souls, from dystopian music industry tyrant BIM (Boogalow International Music) and his mind-controlling disco beats in this ambitious sci-fi musical adaptation of the Bible. The costume design, choreography and songwriting are frankly amateurish, but in the best sense: full of crazy ideas and laughable wrongness that a ‘better’ director would have cut or failed to conceive. I have so much fun watching this awkward, enthusiastic time-capsule that it must be doing something right.
Bad Blood (1986) – Imagine a future in which youth is being wiped out by a new STD that kills people who have sex without love. Now imagine a movie that has basically nothing to do with that. This is both of those movies. The young cast includes early-career Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant and Julie Delpy. It’s so oozing with style that it congeals over and, thankfully, largely obscures the plot. The experimental lighting tends to obscure the action. But really its quite beautiful. And David Bowie’s music comes through pretty clear. I’m excited because Leos Carax, the director, is emerging from a 13 year hiatus with an upcoming parallel realities film called Holy Motors.
Barbarella – Pure silly space-romping future-camp full of 60’s psychedelic set design and goofy technobabble. Child dolls with gnashing metal teeth. A blind angel who lacks the will to fly. A giant sex organ (as in piano). Nothing makes any sense and doesn’t need to because everyone seems like they are having fun. Oh yeah, and Jane Fonda strips in zero G. If you like Barbarella make sure to check out Modesty Blaise, a close runner-up.
Billy Jack – Billy Jack is a half-breed ex-Green Beret who defends a hippy commune from small town America and their conservative authoritarianism using kick-heavy kung-fu. Director/writer/star Tom Laughlin can’t always decide rather he wants to make an exploitation film or a painfully sincere flower-power screed and ends up tipping towards the latter, allowing the film to make up for its laundry list of flaws on the strength of its naïve, but endearing, convictions. It actually makes me respect it a lot more that it sticks to its values even at the expense of being, you know, a bit more entertaining.
Blind Beast – A blind masseuse kidnaps a client who he obsesses over via touch. He imprisons her in his warehouse, an overwhelming menagerie of female body part sculptures (I can't do it justice without screenshots), where he plans to develop the sense of touch to an art form that will rival sight and sound. Masumura, one of cinema’s most underrated masters, both indulges and elevates the pulpy material with his expressionist sets, philosophical script and brave performances. His satire of corporate culture and the media, Giants and Toys, almost made the list.
Blindman – A blind gunslinger delivering 50 mail-order brides to a mining camp is betrayed and robbed of his human cargo. He sets out for revenge against a clan of foes with names like Domingo, Skunk and Candy (played by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr). Strange and misguided beyond measure, the film nevertheless knows how deliver memorable setpieces unlike anything the stagnant western genre has produced before. It all culminates in a gritty showdown between the two chief rivals, both now blind, scrapping desperately amid a field of nameless gravestones; a staggering metaphor for… something.