Saturday, May 12, 2012

My 100 Worst Favorite Movies, Part 9

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.

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