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|Thursday, February 26th, 2015|
|We could be in for a real storm.
There isn't much to write home about in Cornel Wilde's directorial debut, the snowbound 1955 noir Storm Fear
. Working from a screenplay by Horton Foote, whose attempts to inject drama into the proceedings largely fall flat, Wilde also produced the film and stars as Charlie Blake, a criminal on the lam after a bank robbery gone sour who holes up with two of his accomplices at his brother's cabin in the mountains. While he's there, the simmering tensions between Fred Blake (Dan Duryea), a bitter writer with chronic health problems, and his wife Elizabeth (Jean Wallace, Wilde's wife offscreen) flare up, with their uncomprehending son David (David Stollery) caught in the middle. Meanwhile, watching from the sidelines are Charlie's itchy trigger man Benjie (Steven Hill, whose tough-guy mannerisms quickly wear thin) and token moll Edna (Lee Grant), who isn't even Charlie's moll, leaving the viewer to wonder just what she's doing there.
Pretty much from the moment Charlie darkens Fred's door (right after his hired man, played by Dennis Weaver, has left to go into town, conveniently enough), the two brothers are at each other's throats, and Elizabeth is fighting the desire to escape her stifling home life. And the more time David spends with his "Uncle Charlie," the clearer their actual family bond becomes. The trouble is, none of these characters are interesting enough to justify how much time we spend watching them snipe at each other. It also doesn't help that Wilde keeps stumbling over his lines, although he does it consistently enough that one has to wonder whether it was a deliberate character choice. Either way, it's a distraction that the film could have done without.
|Wednesday, February 25th, 2015|
|One of the most important things in this place is don't volunteer for nothing.
The opening of Phil Karlson's 1955 noir Tight Spot
-- made the same year as 5 Against the House
and The Phenix City Story
-- establishes its stakes and the milieu perfectly and economically. A nervous, small-time hood named Pete is being driven to court so he can testify against a notorious mob boss, only for him to be shot dead on the steps of the justice building. Deprived of its star witness, the state's case is dead in the water unless someone else can be found to take the stand. That's where Sherry Conley comes in.
As played by Ginger Rogers, Sherry is what you would call a real brassy dame, hardened after spending four years in a women's prison (and probably plenty hard before she got sent up). Introduced showing the ropes to a recent arrival, Sherry is whisked away to the warden's office and released into the custody of police lieutenant Vince Striker (Brian Keith), who's tight-lipped about where she's going and what's expected of her when she's deposited in a hotel room. It's at this point that the film's origin as a stage play (Dead Pigeon
by Leonard Kantor) becomes evident. It's also when Sherry is filled in by government prosecutor Hallett (Edward G. Robinson), who impresses upon her that she's the only person capable of sending public menace Costain (Lorne Greene) away. Sherry's not the kind of girl to stick her neck out, though, especially when Costain makes plain the lengths to which he'll go to keep her quiet.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Vince and Sherry, which starts out antagonistic (as these things tend to do) and gradually shifts gears into something like love (as unrealistic as that is). Tight Spot
also slips in a sly critique of the upstart medium of television (which Karlson had done a fair bit of work in the year before) since the only program on the boob tube appears to be a weekend-long telethon hosted by a hayseed called Mississippi Mac. If that were my only entertainment option, I would ask to be sent back to prison, too.
|Tuesday, February 24th, 2015|
|It was a little rough, but he had it coming to him.
Decided to make it a film noir kind of day with a pair of them directed by Anthony Mann early in his career. The first, the docu-noir T-Men
, was made in 1947 with the full cooperation of the Treasury Department and presented a composite case entitled "The Shanghai Caper." (If T-Men
had been made into a television series, I imagine its episodes would have been similarly titled.) The lead agents on the case, Dennis O'Brien and Tony Genaro (Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder), go undercover as a pair of Detroit-based criminals in order to infiltrate the Vantucci mob, which is in cahoots with the Los Angeles-based counterfeiters they're really after. Thus, when they get a line on a low-level mug nicknamed The Schemer (Wallace Ford), Dennis flies out to L.A. to find him and start working his way up to the big boss.
As Cop #2 says in Reservoir Dogs
, "a guy has to have rocks in his head the size of Gibraltar to work undercover." That goes double for Dennis and Tony since they're suspected of being T-Men at almost every turn. And it goes quadruple for Tony, who's married and has his cover blown when he runs into his wife (played by June Lockhart) and one of her chatty friends on the street one day. By far, though, the most suspicious thing either of them does is haunt the city's Turkish baths, which is how Dennis runs down The Schemer. Appropriately, that's also where The Schemer schemes his last when he's cornered by the mob's muscle, Moxie (Charles McGraw), who's not afraid to get physical while clad only in a towel. I don't know what you would call it, but that kid's got something.
, which comes with stern, omniscient narration, 1948's Raw Deal
is narrated by one of its characters, the patient Pat (Claire Trevor), who's such a good sport she drives the getaway car when her jailbird boyfriend Joe (Dennis O'Keefe) breaks out of prison. This is all arranged by his boss, Rick (Raymond Burr), who's happy Joe took the rap for him, but would rather not have to pay the $50,000 he promised. Joe and Pat manage to slip through the police dragnet, though, by taking a hostage and her car. This is Ann (Marsha Hunt), a do-gooder who visited Joe in prison after reading up on his case and gets on his case about turning himself in. She also gets on Pat's nerves as it becomes clear she's coming between the once-loving couple. Other familiar faces in the cast include John Ireland as Rick's right-hand goon, Fantail, and Whit Bissell as a murderer at the center of a manhunt who provides Joe with an object lesson when he's cornered and runs headlong into a hail of bullets. For a brief time it appears Joe will avoid a similar fate, but with a tough customer like Rick, there's no such thing as unfinished business.
|A man has to draw the line somewhere.
If there's one noir narrative that tends to come up trumps, it's the one about the average Joe that makes one bad decision (usually while intoxicated by the beauty of a femme fatale) and spends the rest of the picture trying to dig their way out of it. The title of 1948's Pitfall
describes exactly the sort of trap terminally bored insurance man John Forbes (a deadpan Dick Powell) falls into when he looks up model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) to repossess the gifts her incarcerated boyfriend bought for her with embezzled money. Most are little trinkets, but one is actually a speedboat which he's willing to overlook at first, but has to do an about face on when Mac (Raymond Burr), the scuzzy private detective he hired to run her down, makes his intentions toward her known.
"Funny, isn't it?" Mona says. "I meet somebody who's kind. He tries to do something nice for me, and almost immediately he's in trouble." Neither of them knows just how much trouble Mac is prepared to make for them, though, until he starts dropping hints about telling John's wife (Jane Wyatt) about his momentary lapse of fidelity. And then Mac goes one step further by visiting Mona's boyfriend (Byron Barr) in prison and telling him all about her dalliance with John while conveniently glossing over his own obsession with her. Pitfall
may have come along early in Burr's career, but director André De Toth knew how to shoot him so he'd be the perfect heavy -- in more ways than one.
|Monday, February 23rd, 2015|
|He's probably just some punk fool with too much imagination.
Following in the creaky footsteps of 1992's Zipperface
, which was about a murderer in studded-leather S&M gear, 2009's Cornered!
follows the misadventures of a masked creep dubbed the Convenience Store Killer on the prowl in one of Los Angeles's sketchier neighborhoods. In his leather hood with zipper eyes and mouth, the Inconveniencer (as I'm choosing to call him) is a fearsome-looking foe, but having watched him in action, I have to wonder how he's able to see anything in the dim light with his eye-zippers closed. Seriously, he should be bumping into things constantly. I suppose all that matters to producer/director/story originator Daniel Maze is that he looks cool emerging from the shadows to pick off his wretched victims one by one.
Following the opening credits, which are interspersed with grainy surveillance-camera footage of the Inconveniencer at work and over which we hear snatches of bilingual news broadcasts filling us in on his m.o., we spend a good half hour getting to know his awful victims-to-be -- time enough to know they deserve whatever's coming to them. Top-billed Steve Guttenberg isn't one of them, though, because his character, delivery guy Morty, wisely ducks out of the store where all the action goes down before its raging asshole of an owner, Steve (Eduardo Antonio Garcia), locks in both of his employees and a couple of hangers-on so they can play their regular game of Texas hold 'em sans
distraction. Turns out that's not so simple since Steve's nephew Jimmy (James Duval) is strung out on dope and having a hard time kicking it, and phone-sex worker Mona (Ellia English) keeps getting calls from clients, which is allegedly amusing because she's an overweight black woman with a fondness for frozen treats passing herself off as a skinny white girl.
I wish I could say that was the extent of the awfulness, but at its base -- and it is very base, indeed -- Maze's story traffics almost exclusively ugly stereotypes. The only other female character of note, Elizabeth Nicole's Jess, is also a prostitute, and the only other male character, Peter Story's Donny, is such a doughnut fiend that he's earned the nickname "Donny Doughnut." As such, he's overweight, asthmatic, and a bit of a punching bag, which may be why he doesn't join in when the others start describing how they would mutilate the Inconveniencer (who has a $500,000 bounty on his head) if they had the chance. That he decides to beat them to the punch (and the eye-gouge and the Saran Wrap and so forth) is the closest thing the film has to a clever twist. Then again, when Steve describes what he would do in terms of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
and casually mentions that his store was a butcher shop at the turn of the century and that the basement is still stocked with cleavers, knives, and meat hooks, it's pretty much a given that they're eventually going to get used.
|Saturday, February 21st, 2015|
|The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job.
Even having only seen 1999's Rosetta
and their latest film, Two Days, One Night
, I feel confident in saying that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a good feel for the plight of the working class. Whereas Rosetta
was centered on a character working to survive on the fringes of society, Two Days
is about a worker who has to struggle to keep her job when management dangles a hefty bonus in front of her co-workers to get them them to vote her out. (Furthermore, their foreman, played by Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet, is an asshole and a bully, as evidenced by the number of people he's poisoned against her under false pretenses.) As the soon-to-be-laid-off Sandra (Marion Cotillard, who's positively stunning) discovers when she begins visiting them one by one to see if they'll change their votes, though, many of them have their reasons for wanting to keep their 1,000 euros.
Compounding matters is that fact that Sandra suffers from depression and starts popping Xanax with alarming frequency. At the very least, it's alarming to her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, another Dardenne regular), who keeps on her not to give up hope. That's a pretty tall order considering each person that agrees to vote for her raises her spirits, while each one that refuses all but destroys her. Some even get violent, making Sandra feel even worse about the situation. Remarkably, the Dardennes keep up the suspense throughout and manage to find the perfect resolution for their story that isn't a downer and doesn't go in for any unearned uplift, either. What matters is that Sandra comes out of the experience stronger than she went into it.
|It's a world with rules.
From the outside, the former armory that is the headquarters for the San Francisco BDSM porn site Kink.com is completely nondescript. On the inside, however, some very rough-looking scenes are planned out and shot by its staff, performed by its models, and posted to the web for anybody with an internet connection to see -- for a fee, of course. (Not many people make pornography out of the goodness of their heart.) This is the world presented in the 2013 documentary Kink
, and as one of its interviewees states, it is one with a lot of ironclad rules (including, one would presume, whether the site's performers are comfortable with being clad in irons).
Directed by Christina Voros, who has worked for producer James Franco in a number of capacities, including as cinematographer on his two 2013 features As I Lay Dying
and Child of God
opens with the site's founder and CEO Peter Acworth leading Voros and her small crew on a tour of Kink.com's facilities, including some standing sets that haven't needed to be redressed very much at all, then dives right into interviews with its stable of directors and other personnel interspersed with scenes of them hard at work. Along the way, they define some of the terminology of BDSM and address issues of consent and the need to adjust scenes to accommodate the models. (For example, one home-invasion scenario where four men in ski masks overpower a woman has to be reformulated when she freaks out after having a black hood placed over her head.) Also stressed is the need for aftercare so the models don't get stressed out from being pushed to their limits.
As titillating as Kink
can be at times, there's the sense that Voros catches some of her subjects in a defensive frame of mind, as when one director says, "I think a lot of people don't want to connect with BDSM because they're fearing their own desires." Ditto the set decorator who posits, "People probably really think that we're all fucking gimp mask-wearing maniacs in here." (No such luck.) As it turns out, the subject most on-message is the director who's talking through a scene with one of his models, telling her, "It doesn't have to be a bad experience." Sometimes it just has to look like it is.
|Friday, February 20th, 2015|
|We need to armor up, big time.
From George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead
to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead
to Peter Jackson's Braindead
, the zombie movie has been a durable proving ground for young filmmakers eager to show off their horror bona fides. To that roster we can now add the Australian-made Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
from brother Kiah (director, writer, editor, production designer, sound designer) and Tristan (producer, writer, production designer, costumer) Roache-Turner. A gleefully over-the-top action/horror film with a quirky sense of humor that brings to mind fellow countryman Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris
(along with a certain other Aussie export that is currently getting rebooted), Wyrmwood
is bursting with energy and creativity, no matter how shopworn some of its component parts may seem.
After an attention-getting pre-credit sequence, which mostly serves to frontload some zombie mayhem and show off the leads' fearsome-looking protective gear, the film does some backfilling as two of them relate where they were when the shit hit the fan. Aborigine Benny (Leon Burchill) goes first, telling how he and his brothers were out hunting pig in the Bush when an ominous meteor shower heralded the otherwise unexplained outbreak. When he turns to fellow survivor Barry (Jay Gallagher) and asks if he has any stories, though, the gruff reply that comes is, "This morning I shot my wife and child with a nail gun. I don't know how to make that into a story." Meanwhile, Barry's sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) is rescued by some soldiers in riot gear and then needs to be rescued from them
when she's deposited in the blood-streaked laboratory of the Hazmat-suited Doctor (Berynn Schwerdt), who's just loopy enough to cue up the disco anthem "Get Down Tonight" to bop to while conducting his experiments on the living and the undead alike.
Tapping into a rich vein of jet-black humor (periodically lightened by the ever-cheerful Benny), the Turners also toss some wild concepts into the mix, including the reveal that zombie blood is flammable and their putrid breath can be used as an alternative fuel source. They even have one of their side characters (the cautious Frank, played by Keith Agius) explain the title, tying the meteor shower seen by Benny to the Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation. ("That's pretty much the beginning of the end, Biblically speaking," he says.) The wildest development of all, though, is best left unspoiled. One thing I can reveal is that I look forward to seeing what Kiah and Tristan choose to do now that they've gotten this film -- which was reportedly four years in the making -- out of their systems.
|Thursday, February 19th, 2015|
|The dead don't walk around except in very bad paperback novels. They're dead, and that's that.
In the wake of Night of the Living Dead
's massive international success, movie producers across the globe (but especially in Europe) were quick to jump on the zombie bandwagon. Not long after Amando de Ossorio launched his "Blind Dead" series, one such producer dropped a script into the lap of Spanish director Jorge Grau, who turned out one of the bleakest zombie movies of the decade, put out by Blue Underground under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
. Released in 1974, it's a film puts the "grue" in gruesome and doesn't leave much hope that its zombie outbreak will be abating anytime soon.
Shot on location in the vicinity of Manchester, England (hence the alternate UK title The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
), with the studio work done in Italy and Spain, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
establishes its environmentalist bent right off the bat with all the inserts of pedestrians covering their mouths, car exhausts, emanations from chemical plants, and trash, trash, trash. It's only when leather-jacketed motorcyclist George (Ray Lovelock) gets out of the city (which is supposed to be London, but it's hard to buy that) that he's able to remove his scarf and breathe easy. In short order, though, his bike is disabled by woman driver Edna (Cristina Galbó, credited as Christine Galbo), who doesn't put up much resistance when he takes the wheel of her car so he can reach his stated destination, Windermere. She talks him into dropping her off as hers in Southgate first, which is how he gets embroiled in a bad situation not of his making, but then again, do any of us get to choose when we stumble into a zombie nightmare caused by an experimental ultrasonic ray designed by the Department of Agriculture to eliminate insects and parasites?
Befitting the times, George's distrust of the authorities is strongly entrenched, and it's only reinforced by the arrival of Arthur Kennedy's gruff police sergeant on the scene of the first zombie attack, which has claimed the life of Edna's brother-in-law Martin (José Lifante), who died trying to protect her heroin-addicted sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre). Naturally, the sergeant jumps to the conclusion that Katie killed him and is eventually convinced that George and Edna are Satanists that need to be gunned down after one of his constables becomes zombie food. Between his railing against society's permissiveness and George's rants about the state, which prevents him from being heard even though he's the only one who knows how to stop the zombies, it's no wonder everyone is ultimately doomed.
|Wednesday, February 18th, 2015|
|All black men are my friends, so you are, too.
Four years after making the explosively anarchic The Warped Ones
for Nikkatsu, director Koreyoshi Kurahara got the band back together -- almost literally -- for 1964's Black Sun
. Working once again with screenwriter Nobuo Yamada and actors Tamio Kawaji, Chico Roland, and Yuko Chishiro -- all reprising their characters from the earlier film -- Kurahara fashioned a hyperactive roller-coaster ride of a film detailing the tentative bond that develops between a jazz-mad Japanese thief and an African-American G.I. on the run from the military police.
Kawaji plays the thief, Akira, whose priorities are established right off the bat when he uses his ill-gotten gains to buy Max Roach's The Black Sun
LP, then browbeats a well-off couple into paying for a replacement copy when the woman accidentally tramples on it. Later, when he returns to the dilapidated church where he's squatting (and which he shares with his dog, Thelonius Monk), Akira is confronted by Sgt. Gill Jackson (Roland, who appeared in Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh
that same year and the Shochiku horror film Genocide
four years later) and the language barrier between them. Oh, and also the machine gun the desperate Gill keeps trained on him. Meanwhile, Chishiro plays bilingual streetwalker Yuki, who's brought back to the church to translate when Akira manages to slip away, but Gill is nowhere to be seen and doesn't reemerge until after she's left in a huff because Akira can't pay her.
In many ways, the see-sawing conflict between Akira and Gill prefigures the clash between the protagonists in John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific
, who similarly have to find common ground without being able to understand what the other is saying. There's also an uncomfortable racial component to some of the insults Akira hurls at Gill (always out of anger, not necessarily because he's a bigot). The scenes where Gill's face is painted white and Akira is essentially in blackface so they can go out in public are something else, though, no matter how much Akira says he loves black people.
|Tuesday, February 17th, 2015|
|We started to shoot not knowing whether we were ever going to finish.
Nearly half a century into their existence, it seems like we need another documentary about zombies like we need a shotgun-sized hole in the head, but when it's one that's focused on the making of the original Night of the Living Dead
, I'm willing to let it slide. It also helps that 2013's Birth of the Living Dead
puts George A. Romero front and center and keeps him there, even if it is somewhat disappointing that he's the only member of the crew who was interviewed for the film. Instead, writer/producer/director/editor Rob Kuhns corrals film writers (like Shock Value
author Jason Zinoman), critics (like Elvis Mitchell), and other filmmakers (including Glass Eye Pix honcho Larry Fessenden and The Walking Dead
executive producer Gale Anne Hurd) to discuss its cultural impact and legacy.
As Romero says midway through, "The only reason to do [...] a horror film is to sort of upset the order, upset the balance of things," and that is definitely what he and the other members of Image Ten (which grew out of Romero's industrial film company The Latent Image) did by making an independently financed horror film in Pittsburgh in 1967. The parallels with Vietnam and the racial tensions that gripped the country didn't become apparent until after it was released, though, and even then the critics weren't kind to it at first. Then again, as one of the interviewees says, "I don't think audiences were ready for Night of the Living Dead
." Now it can be shown to children who are then quizzed on Romero's zombie rules. That's what I call progress.
|Monday, February 16th, 2015|
|Preposterous to think that one man can make a fool of the entire police force.
Instead of The Heartbreak Kid
, the film I should
have watched on Valentine's Day was 1968's Danger: Diabolik
since the master thief and his comely accomplice are so completely in love, their relationship is ultimately rather touching. A film I've long been familiar with only in its Mystery Science Theater
is actually much, much better than the reputation accorded it as the last movie featured on the show. This can partially be attributed to co-writer/director Mario Bava, who took the enterprise seriously and marshaled a small army of technicians (paid for by producer Dino De Laurentiis) to bring the comic-strip character's outrageous exploits to life. I believe, however, that the lion's share of the credit should go to Angela and Luciana Giussani for creating the strip in the first place and entrusting it to the right people.
A marvel of production design and set construction/decoration, Diabolik
the film is at its best when showing off the sprawling underground lair Diabolik the character (ably embodied by John Phillip Law) shares with his lover, Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), and observing them as they go about the business of stocking it with millions of dollars in cash, jewels, and gold. Frequently decked out in a black rubber suit with hood and gloves (save for when the scenery requires him to opt for an identical outfit in white), Diabolik delights in outwitting Inspector Grinko (Michel Piccoli), whose every move he seems capable of anticipating. He even manages to keep the upper hand when Grinko is granted special powers and uses them to target crime boss Valmont (Adolfo Celi), who cries uncle and volunteers to capture the elusive thief, using Eva to get to him.
The main thing I got out of this viewing of the film was that it allowed me to see all of the material that had to get cut out of the MST3K
version for time. Some of the scenes that I had never seen before included the one where Eva and Diabolik both shower before making love on their pile of newly stolen greenbacks, one where the Minister of the Interior (Terry-Thomas) dresses down Inspector Grinko right before his disastrous press conference (echoed later on when Grinko and the police chief are dressed down by the Finance Minister), a lengthy scene at Valmont's groovy night club (which shows off Ennio Morricone's music to its best advantage), an entire subplot about Valmont using Eva's doctor to find her, and Terry-Thomas's return as the new Minister of Finance, who makes a public appeal after Diabolik destroys the government's tax records, thus robbing it of much-needed revenue. That last detail is actually somewhat integral to the plot since it's the reason why Grinko has 20 tons of gold fashioned into a single, giant ingot, which Diabolik finds to be an irresistible target. That also turns out to be his undoing, but just like his forebear Fantômas, he always has one more trick up his sleeve.
|Saturday, February 14th, 2015|
|I've learned that decency doesn't always pay off.
Sometimes you have to follow your heart, even if it means breaking somebody else's. I'm not a marketing guy, but if I had been when The Heartbreak Kid
was made in 1972, that's the tagline I would have suggested for it. I fully expect director Elaine May (making her second feature after the previous year's A New Leaf
) would have rejected it outright, but I believe it sums up the picture pretty well.
Beating the goofballs from the Police Academy
series there by a good 16 years, newlyweds Lenny and Lila Cantrow (Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin) drive from New York to Miami Beach for their honeymoon, only for him to grow disenchanted with her long before they get there. Even before they're out of Virginia, he finds himself increasingly annoyed by every little thing she does and unable to imagine staying with her for the next 40, 50 years. (It also doesn't help that the sex, which she made him wait for until they were married, isn't that good.) Then, when they finally hit the beach, Lenny is literally blinded by bathing beauty Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd), who's on vacation with her parents, and takes advantage of the painful sunburn Lila gets on the first day to spend as much time with Kelly as possible. His biggest obstacle is overcoming her father's (Eddie Albert) immediate and undisguised hatred of him, but Lenny is bound and determined to get what he wants, just as soon as he can figure out how to let Lila down easy.
For a film with a screenplay by Neil Simon based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman (a combination that also produced 1984's The Lonely Guy
, also featuring Grodin), The Heartbreak Kid
is surprisingly short on laugh lines (save for the ones about the subzero temperatures in Minneapolis). Instead, befitting its director's improv background, much of the comedy is behavioral, stemming more from the situation than what anybody says about it. And speaking of behavior, Lenny's is abominable. When Lila tells him, "You could be a little more sympathetic," I can hear a movie producer saying the same exact thing about his character today -- or seven years ago when the Farrelly Brothers remade this as a Ben Stiller vehicle. Considering how caustic this film gets at times, I can't even begin to imagine how much it had to get neutered on its way through the remake mill.
|Friday, February 13th, 2015|
|You hate my trade, but it's an art like any other.
Since co-writers/directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (along with screenwriter Gilles Adrien) take pains not to specify what kind of calamity has caused the severe food shortage that's turned the residents of a run-down apartment building into situational cannibals, their 1991 film Delicatessen
is free to follow its own twisted logic as far as it will go. That means when ex-circus clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) answers an advertisement for a new handyman, everyone in the building knows it's only a matter of time before he falls under the knife of their landlord and butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). The one hitch: the butcher's sheltered daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) has taken a shine to the clown who plays a mean singing saw and would rather not see him get sliced and diced like all the others.
Although many of them do salivate at the thought of consuming their fellow man (and the occasional woman), the characters in Delicatessen
are more recognizably human than the grotesques that populate The City of Lost Children
. Even the Troglodistes, an underground organization of militant vegetarians that call the sewers their home, are cuddlier than their City
counterparts, the Cyclops. (Then again, it helps that they're unmistakeably the good guys.) True, it remains to be seen how sustainable the "happy ending" they fight for really is, but even in the short term it has to be preferable to way things were
|Times are hard for romantics.
The perfect film to watch on the eve of Valentine's Day -- or the worst one depending on your situation -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie
has been charming romantics since it was released in 2001, but I believe the movie some people think it is prevents them from seeing the movie that it is. It's also the one that introduced Audrey Tautou to the world at large, casting her as the 23-year-old title character who decides to meddle in the lives of her neighbors and co-workers, for good or for ill. (It's mostly the former, but the one person she deliberately sets out to sabotage -- a singularly unpleasant grocer -- definitely earns the privilege of being taken down a few pegs.)
Working from a scenario he concocted with Guillaume Laurant (who also contributed additional dialogue to The City of Lost Children
, Jeunet drops us straight into Amélie's head-space, closely observing her as she takes note of the needs of the people around her while downplaying her own. Some of her exploits include inspiring her retired father (Rufus) to travel the world by arranging for his garden gnome to send him postcards from all over, setting up Georgette (Isabelle Nanty), the homely hypochondriac that mans the cigarette counter at the cafe where she works, with the possessively jealous Joseph (Dominique Pinon) to get him off the back of one of their co-workers, and sending videotapes of extraordinary television broadcasts to Mr. Dufayel (Serge Merlin), the reclusive artist who lives across the way. She saves her most elaborate schemes, though, for when she finds someone who makes her own heart flutter.
This would be Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose hobby is collecting torn and discarded photographs from photo booths all over the city, which is what he's doing when Amélie first encounters him. In time, she learns that he works at a sex shop and has a part-time job at the funfair dressing up in a skeleton costume and spooking people on the Ghost Train. Strange as it may seem, the scene where Amélie takes the Ghost Train has to be one of the most romantic things I've ever seen in my life. Now I'm wondering whether Nino ever gets to take the costume home. If he did, that would be quite the Valentine's surprise for his beau.
|Thursday, February 12th, 2015|
|It's hard to be original.
For the follow-up to their cannibal-themed art-house hit Delicatessen
, French directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet served up the wildly inventive dark fantasy The City of Lost Children
in 1995. Twenty years on, it's just as bizarre and oddly touching as it ever was, with its Rube Goldberg device of a plot about a simple-minded strongman named One (Ron Perlman) and his single-minded search for his "little brother" Denrée (Joseph Lucien) when the boy is abducted by a bitter old man who steals the dreams of children because he can't have any of his own. (Yeah, that old saw again.)
Working on a larger canvas than they had on their first collaboration, Caro and Jeunet (who take responsibility for the artistic direction and mise-en-scène, respectively) and cinematographer Darius Khondji fill every crevice with the most curious collection of cracked characters and cockeyed contraptions this side of Shinya Tsukamoto's filmography. Just in the lair of the dream-deprived Krank (Daniel Emilfork) alone, we're confronted with a half a dozen dimwitted clones (all played by Delicatessen
star Dominique Pinon), the diminutive Marthe (Mireille Mossé), and Uncle Irwin, a disembodied brain in a tank voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant. That's not even taking into account the rubber-raincoated army of Cyclops that does Krank's dirty work for him, or the Octopus (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), conjoined twins with a pack of pint-sized pickpockets at their beck and call.
One of those pickpockets, incidentally, is the unsentimental Miette (Judith Vittet), who reluctantly teams up with One to help him find Denrée more out of frustration than genuine concern for the boy's well-being. In a lot of ways, their relationship is the glue that binds the film together, along with the extensive effects work that still holds up remarkably well today. This is probably because it's a mix of practical effects and invisible digital compositing, only employing obvious CGI when we're in one of the dreams Krank is stealing, which goes a long way toward excusing the fakery. Then again, fans of Caro and Jeunet's work are accustomed to doing that already.
|This is a story of long, long ago, when the world was just beginning.
Leaving aside 1956's The Animal World
, which I've decided to can safely skip, the last film featuring Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation that I needed to see was Hammer's One Million Years B.C.
, which TCM was kind enough to air a couple months back. Made in 1966 and directed by Don Chaffey (late of Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts
) from a screenplay by producer Michael Carreras, this remake of 1940's One Million B.C.
was designed from the ground up to be a vehicle for Raquel Welch, who stars as Loana, a buxom blonde belonging to the beach-dwelling Shell Tribe. We don't meet her until nearly a half hour in, though, as we encounter them at the same time as Rock Tribesman Tumak (John Richardson, pleasingly hairy-chested), who's wandered away from his people after unsuccessfully challenging their leader, Akhoba (Robert Brown, the hairiest of them all), who also happens to be his father.
Compared to the Rock Tribe, which is extremely primitive and aggressive (not nearly nearly as much as the super-hirsute hominids that dwell in the cave Tumak has to duck into to escape the first dinosaur he encounters during his exile), the Shell Tribe is a haven of progress. Not only do they have cave paintings, indoor plumbing, agriculture, throwing weapons, and respectful burial practices (unlike the Rock Tribe, which leaves their old and infirm to the buzzards), they've also developed a sense of humor and have invented the concept of bathing. While Tumak learns all about these wonders, his brother Sakana (Percy Herbert) is consolidating his power as the new tribal leader after usurping Akhoba's position, thus priming the pump for a calamitous sibling rivalry manifested as an inter-tribal clash between the blondes and the brunettes.
Welch aside, One Million Years B.C.
's main points of interest today are the special visual effects created by Harryhausen, although it can't help but be a disappointment when the first "dinosaur" that shows up is just a lizard matted into the shots of Richardson (and vice versa), however well it's done. All the usual prehistoric suspects are present and accounted for, though, and animated to the best of the technical wizard's ability. Harryhausen was also in charge of the apocalyptic finale, when the volcano that that Rock Tribe lives in the shadow of blows its top, as it's been threatening to do for the entire movie. That's one way to put the petty squabbling of two tribes into perspective.
|Wednesday, February 11th, 2015|
|The earth is still drenched with the innocent blood spilled by your cause!
1966's Knives of the Avenger
wasn't Mario Bava's first stab at a Viking saga (that would be 1961's Erik the Conqueror
), but it's the first one I've seen. Co-written and directed by Bava, it's the kind of film where everyone in the cast save for American star Cameron Mitchell (late of Bava's Blood and Black Lace
) is given Anglicized names like Frank Ross, Jack Stuart, and (rather amusingly) Michael Moore, but there's no reason to keep up the charade half a century later. They're already Italians pretending to be Norsemen (and one woman). That should be enough.
At any rate, Mitchell plays the unnaturally blond Rurik, a wandering warrior who comes equipped with a seemingly endless supply of throwing knives. He also comes to the aid of the ravishing Karin (Elissa Pichelli, credited as Lisa Wagner), who's gone into hiding with her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin, whose hair matches Mitchell's) and pines for her absent husband, King Arald (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), who was reportedly lost at sea while searching for grain to feed his starving people. The man they're hiding from is the dastardly Hagen (Fausto Tozzi), who was banished after ruining Arald and Karin's wedding day a dozen years earlier by slaying a rival clan leader's wife and son, thus touching off swift and violent reprisals. (No points for guessing who the injured party is before he removes his fearsome-looking helmet.)
Mitchell's distracting hair aside, he acquits himself well here, especially in the scenes where Rurik is acting like a father to Moki, teaching him how to shoot arrows, throw knives, catch fish, and set animal traps (while presciently reminding the boy that people are just as likely to fall for them). Bava's way with moody imagery is also very much in effect (exhibit A: Rurik's fight with Hagen in a dimly lit tavern), as is his ability to stage a good action tableau. Bava may forever be known for the supernatural chillers and giallos he made his name with, but Knives of the Avenger
is proof that he could do good work in just about any genre he turned his hand to.
|Tuesday, February 10th, 2015|
|Why agree to a comeback? Fans could be disappointed.
There's a neat symmetry to the way the plot of Federico Fellini's 1986 film Ginger and Fred
-- about the reunion of a tap-dancing duo after 30 years on live television -- mirrors the return of his wife and muse Giulietta Masina to the fold after two decades. Last seen in 1965's Juliet of the Spirits
, Masina stars as Amelia (stage name: Ginger), who agrees to appear on a special Christmas edition of gaudy variety show We Are Proud to Present
with her former partner Pippo (a vanity-free Marcello Mastroianni) and frets that they aren't given time to properly rehearse. For his part, Pippo seems all too eager to take the money and run, not caring whether he makes a fool out of himself in the process.
In light of the film's depiction of the frenzied preparations for the television broadcast (hosted by Franco Fabrizi, also reuniting with Fellini for the first time in decades) and the jockeying for attention that surrounds the whole enterprise, it quickly becomes clear that Fellini doesn't think too much of the medium. (This is also reflected in the lightly satirized commercials and the way various characters' eyes are glued to the set by a dramatic football match or a flashy pop-music clip.) Underneath it all, though, there's an air of finality built into Amelia and Pippo's belated bid for the limelight, from the actor in a skeleton costume looming over Pippo's shoulder in the studio commissary to the choice of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" for the medley of show tunes the two of them dance to as "Ginger and Fred." Even if they are asked for their autographs while they're bidding each other farewell in the film's closing moments, the understanding is that this attention will be fleeting at best and they'll dip back into anonymity as quickly as you can change the channel.
|The younger you are, the higher the risk.
Leos Carax was all of 25 when he wrote and directed 1986's Mauvais sang
, his second feature. Denis Lavant was one year younger. Juliette Binoche was barely in her 20s. Julie Delpy was 16. Top-billed Michel Piccoli, on the other hand, was 60, which makes me feel a little bit better about being in my 40s without having a whole lot to show for it. Then again, it would be churlish to begrudge the success of anybody who had anything to do with the making of such an exuberant film.
Lavant, who starred as a character named Alex in Carax's debut feature, 1984's Boy Meets Girl
, plays another Alex in this one. (Tellingly, Alex is Carax's birth name.) Here, he's a streetwise youth who's good with his hands, having learned the art of prestidigitation from his late father, who is called up to sub for his father in a daring heist of a monolithic pharmaceutical company. The man attempting to recruit him is Marc (Piccoli), who assumed Alex's father's debts when he threw himself in front of a train and needs a big score to pay off a powerful figure who's only ever referred to as "The American Woman" (Carroll Brooks). Rather sportingly, she gives Marc and his dapper colleague Hans (Hans Meyer) two weeks to get the money, but everything hinges on getting Alex to go along with the plan.
Before he can commit to anything else, the first thing on Alex's agenda is discarding all of the trappings of his old life, including his apartment full of books (which he leaves to his best friend), his motorcycle (which he lets his teenage girlfriend have), and his teenage girlfriend Lise (Delpy). The next, more age-appropriate object of his infatuation, though, turns out to be Anna (Binoche), who just so happens to be Marc's young lover, which makes things a little awkward and puts the job (and Marc's health) at risk. In spite of the difficulty this presents, Carax pulls out all the stops, endowing Alex with a collection of wildly romantic gestures (including the justly famous "Modern Love" sequence) and even altering Paris's weather, which swings from a sweltering heatwave to a snow shower, both of which are attributed to the influence of Halley's Comet. And there's even a scene that takes place on the same bridge that Carax, Lavant, and Binoche would return to in 1991's The Lovers on the Bridge
. It must be said, though, the stars' romance comes to a very different end in that one.