Friday, May 11, 2012

My 100 Worst Favorite Movies, Part 8

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How can you not love "Paint your Wagon" as one of the all time great bad musical comedy western parodies? Surely everyone is enthralled by Lee Marvin's husky, lusty, lyrical song stylings?