Just as I did last year, I am again doing the March Movie Madness challenge. This was started on the Letterboxd.com social site, had a fairly good response, but does not seem to be organized again this year. I had fun last year, so I’m doing it again.
The challenge is simple, but carries a concealed weapon: A movie a night, but each movie must start with a different letter of the alphabet, from A on through to Z. Can he do it? Let’s find out.
A: An American Hippie in Israel (1972)
This one seemed to burst suddenly onto the scene a couple of years ago; I had never heard of it before The Projection Booth did a podcast on the subject. One of the major reasons to do these challenges is to actually set an appointment to watch some of the discs that have been building up in my collection over the years, and Grindhouse Releasing’s typically amazing limited edition disc had been waiting patiently in the box long enough.
Originally titled The Hitch-Hiker, this is an odd, allegorical relic of the early 70s. Mike (Asher Tzarfati) gets off a plane in Israel (though the country is never, ever specifically referenced). He’s traveled there from Rome because he heard the country was “cool”. He falls in with a young actress (Lily Avidan), who falls in lust with him during his Vietnam monologue, about “button-pushers” who turned him into a “murdering machine”. In the midst of his chorus of “Stop Pushing buttons!” Lily is upon him and pow, sex scene.
They decide to run off together and find Mike’s mythical place where they can live without laws, governments, or hang-ups. They fall in with another hippie couple (Shmuel Wolf and Tzila Karney), who help them find more hippies. They all agree to follow Mike to this promised land (one guy knows about a desolate island they can take over) which means DANCE PARTY and LOVE-IN!!! Until these two guys in undertaker outfits and whiteface (who have been pursuing Mike, he tells us) arrive and machine gun everyone except our four main hippies, who take off and find that island.
Everything is “Yeah, freedom!” and “Take that, The Man!” and “Wonderful feeling!” until our lovemaking idiots discover that they didn’t secure their inflatable raft, which drifted away on the night tide. Mike attempts to swim back to the car on shore, but is intercepted by two remarkably white sharks (if you forgot this was all allegory, it’s pretty obvious that the two melanin-challenged undertakers somehow turned into the sharks). Trapped without food or water, the hippies inevitably turn on each other, and (allegory again!) descend into pre-vocal caveman types, finally waging internecine war on each other over the goat they brought on the island. The end.
This has been described as “Tommy Wiseau remakes Zabriskie Point“, but that would have been much more entertaining. This has proven to be a great party movie (judging from the press and the extras); it has that mockable dimension that can only be derived from being completely and utterly earnest about your message. I found entertainment in one of the undertakers being a ringer for Howard Vernon (Jess Franco’s version of this would have had more snap-zooms and even more nudity), and that Shmuel Wolf reminded me a lot of Dario Argento, make of that what you will. That crack about Franco also reminds me to mention that director Amos Sefer hired professional cinematographer, Ya’ackov Kallach, and his work is amazing. It’s a pretty picture, if nothing else.
Poor Amos Sefer. He managed to get his movie made, then couldn’t get any traction in Israel, because it was shot in English. Couldn’t release in America, because it was too strange. Therefore, he could never get another movie made. And now, forty years later, it’s found its audience – not as a message of truth to a corrupt world – but as a comedy.
B: Battleship (2012)
After watching a movie based on a trading card fad, it seemed perfectly reasonable to watch a war movie based on a board game. I had been trying to get Dave to watch Battleship with me for months, finally gave up, and watched it by myself. (The logical rejoinder, “Screw you, you made me watch Superbad!” never occurred to me).
The plot is fairly simple: long-time screw-up Taylor Kitsch, on the eve of getting thrown out of the Navy, finds himself in command when an alien invasion seals off Hawaii and proceeds to establish a beachhead. Things blow up. Lots of things. They blow up real good. Honestly, this is a damned good alien invasion movie; by keeping the scope relatively restrained and the cast small(ish), it involved me way more than Independence Day, a movie I didn’t hate, but wanted to love. Dave Thomas really nailed it in a nutshell: this is a Michael Bay movie without Michael Bay’s shortcomings. There is a diverse cast, and each gets to shine, especially the eponymous battleship, the USS Missouri, making her second movie appearance, after Under Siege.
My only complaint: It takes a half-hour to get moving. A half hour of grinding Taylor Kitsch into the dirt. I really got that he was a total fuck-up in the first ten. Really. I got that his nemesis, Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) was a jerk, and from his first scene, knew they were going to have to work together and learn to respect each other. I got that. I didn’t need a half hour to get it.
And normally I don’t complain about spending time to establish character.
Everything after that first half-hour, though? Golden. I’m also one of those people who liked John Carter, so I have no idea what’s wrong with the rest of you people.
C: Children of Men (2006)
This is another one I have no idea why it took me so long to see. Dave, too, as he regards my not watching this, the complete The Wire, and all of Breaking Bad as a measuring stick for the worthlessness of my life. (Hey, screw you, you made me watch Superbad!). I probably should have slapped this DVD in the player the same night I saw Gravity.
Based on the novel by P.D. James, Children presents an all-too-believable depressed dystopia after 18 years of zero population growth the hard way: women simply stopped getting pregnant. The last child born, Baby Diego, is killed in an altercation outside a nightclub, triggering worldwide mourning. Britain is an insular gated community, and has started placing illegal immigrants and refugees (shortened to “Fugees”) in internment camps.
Clive Owen plays Theo, a former radical now a cog in the machine, who is called upon by his ex-lover, Julian (Julianne Moore) to help a Fugee girl, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) get transit papers so she can safely travel to the coast and get on a boat run by the supposedly-mythical Human Project. Theo does it for the money offered until he finds out why: Kee is pregnant with the first baby to be born in nearly two decades. At that point, he realizes Kee and her baby are to be used at the linchpins of several different conspiracies, and he will spend the rest of the movie in motion, trying to get her to safety and the Human Project.
Now, Alfonso Cuaron is one hell of a director; I was watching this on Oscar night when he received the Best Director award for Gravity, so the rest of the world apparently agrees with me. You are so swept along by the story that you don’t even realize Cuaron and his crew, notably cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have engineered the movie as a series of long, continuous takes, heightening the sense of reality and suspense almost subliminally. The amount of orchestration and choreography necessary to pull these scenes off is mind-boggling – one is set in the interior of a car and required inventing new camera mounts and actors moving out of the way of the camera and still pulling off a tough scene. Makes my head swim just thinking of it.
The scene in the car is incredible, but a climactic scene, also engineered as a single take, when the crying of Kee’s baby moves an entire battlefield to reverent silence, is positively breathtaking. The entire cast is marvelous – this makes the second time Michael Caine has moved me to tears – and yeah, if you haven’t seen this, you should.
Now I have to find time to do that long put-off project of watching the Harry Potter movies (still only seen the first one) to see what Cuaron did with Prisoner of Azkaban.
D: Dementia (1955)
Another oddity from another one-shot director. John Parker shot this moody black-and-white beatnik noir nightmare, based on a dream of his secretary. The Gamin (Adrienne Barret, the aforementioned secretary) wakes up in her cheap hotel room, retrieves an imposing-looking switchblade from a bureau drawer, and goes out into the night. She buys a newspaper from Angelo Rossitto (that was a surprise!) with the headline MYSTERIOUS STABBING!, smiles, and walks on. She’ll eventually be pimped out to a Rich Man (Bruno VeSota) who she’ll end up knifing and tossing off a balcony. He’s clutching her necklace in his hand, though, which she saws off – an event witnessed by a crowd of onlookers with no faces – and runs back into the night. Eventually, after an idyll at a nightclub that turns into a hellish jumble, she wakes up in her hotel room again, and notices the chain of her necklace peeking from the bureau drawer. Opening it, she finds the Rich Man’s hand, still clutching the necklace. The camera does a reverse version of the opening shot, as we hear her scream. The end.
Dementia shows a lot of promise and a lot of influences, notably Maya Deren. I’m largely uncertain though, why John Parker thought this could be in any way commercial; it’s not even an hour long, and the one theatrical showing it managed to score was in an art house, on a double bill with a documentary about Picasso. It had several notable battles with censors, who would positively swallow their tongues if they’d ever had a chance to watch an episode of CSI. Parker eventually sold the rights to the aptly-named Exploitation Pictures Incorporated, who managed to get the license to distribute with only one cut from the censors (which turned into two to maintain continuity, an odd concept, considering the rest of the movie’s imagery) and was released, with spooky narration by Ed McMahon (!) as Daughter of Horror, which promises us a peek inside the mind of an insane person.
It is under Daughter of Horror that you might have encountered it – it’s the movie being played in the theater in the 1958 The Blob. It’s an interesting curiosity, inessential but still worth seeking out. There are several iterations of the whole movie on YouTube; below is the first 10 minutes.
Man, they were a bunch of wusses back in 1955.
E: Eating Raoul (1982)
I hesitate to call Paul Bartel an “outsider” artist. I do wish he’d been able to make more movies. Eating Raoul is one he seemed to pretty much will into existence, shooting on donated short ends over the course of a year, featuring friends and comedians.
Bartel himself plays Paul Bland, a wine collector, and Mary Woronov is Mary, his wife. Both are reasonably happy sex-phobics who want to open their own restaurant, Chez Bland, and are also dismayed that their apartment building is being taken over by “swingers”. Needing twenty grand to make a down payment on their dream, and finding a lot of money on a swinger they kill when he is assaulting Mary, the Blands cheerfully launch into a new second career as murderers, luring in the much despised swingers, braining them with a frying pan, and pocketing their money.
Into this idyllic but sick relationship, enter Raoul (an incredibly young Robert Beltran, reportedly reluctant to do the movie until he found out Bartel directed Death Race 2000), a professional thief who realizes what a bonanza the Blands have happened upon, and volunteers to take care of the bodies. He sells the cars, the clothes, and the corpses (to a dog food company). He is also not blind, and helps Mary overcome her aversion to sex. Needless to say, this makes the ongoing shady business relationship rather complicated.
Eating Raoul is unquestionably of its time, with the obsession over Swinger culture, but Bartel really was a comic genius, and the gags remain timeless; most of the humor comes from the ridiculous extremes Paul and Mary go through to lure in their victims, especially in Mary’s costuming (a personal favorite is when she’s dressed as Minnie Mouse being chased by a pirate). The supporting cast, featuring Buck Henry, John Paragon, Ed Begley Jr., and Don Steele are fun to encounter, and a special nod has to go to Susan Saiger, as Dora the Dominatrix, who gives the Blands their primer course in catering to the swinger class (while feeding her baby in her suburban home). And I am always, always going to salivate over Mary Woronov.
How low budget is Eating Raoul? They couldn’t afford to mockup a newspaper with the ad the Blands put in the personals section – it was cheaper to place a real ad. (It is reported they had only one response). Bartel and Woronov made a little cottage industry of popping up as the Blands in other movies (most notably Chopping Mall), and damn, damn, damn, I wish they had done more together. You weep for the planned sequel, Bland Ambition, which reportedly got funded only a week before Bartel’s unfortunate death at the age of 62 of a heart attack. He also had liver cancer, so once again: fuck cancer.