The Situation Report

Even for a tax week, this one has managed to excel in getting increasingly sucky.

I won’t go into the income tax woes; everybody’s got those stories, mine are worse than some, better than others. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m a survivalist in movie matters and have been stocking up on movies for some time, just against a buying moratorium like that which is about to be enforced. I have a fallout shelter full of, not cans of beans, but DVDs.

Typos. Mainly I'm afraid of typos.

Typos. Mainly I’m afraid of typos.

No, other crap’s been going wrong out in the world. The saddest one is the shuttering of FearNet, which was a damned fine resource. I’m especially going to miss the reviews of Scott Weinberg, who is that rare critic that, while I may not have always agreed with him, was always enthusiastic and perceptive in his reviews, and was valuable in pointing the way to movies I might have otherwise passed over. I hope to hell he lands on his feet and gets a post somewhere else, because he deserves it.

Well, there’s not much I can do about that, except to send good thoughts his way and the way of many of my friends who have found themselves unemployed this year; I did that a few years ago and I don’t have to tell you how much it megasucked. Finding a new job when you’re over 50 is a thorny proposition, at best. I think my worst day there was being informed that I was not worthy of working at Walmart, for God’s sake.

flu15Making matters worse is the fact that my wife came down with the current flu two weeks ago, and it is one of those that just sets up shop in your lungs and hangs on, so constant coughing in the night is a given. Neither of us has gotten much sleep, and I’m exhausted enough that the damn bug has slipped through all the vitamins and supplements and set up shop in my mucus membranes, and when you work three part-time jobs, you literally do not have time to be sick.

This Friday is Good Friday. I expect to be unconscious for most, if not all, of it.

But enough bitching. Here’s some good news:

I am now a three-time Telly Award winner under my nom de guerre, Randall Williams. Honestly, I got really cynical choosing this last entry, and went for the cute animals. It worked:

But this is the one that cemented that, my story on a specific breed rescue organization:

But the one that started it all, the one I fought to have entered that first year? Zombies. Though a few cute dogs were included:

One of the better non-work things that I do, that I do not plug near enough, is the Daily Grindhouse Podcast, which I started doing again this year along with DG regulars Joe Cosby and Jon Abrams. Do you want to know more?

39919Episode #16 – Street Wars - Jamaa Fanaka’s last movie is a typically intriguing mix of solid exploitation tropes and painfully earnest social issues – earnest enough to keep you guessing. I think we were all surprised at how easily this came together for a first episode.

Episode # 17 - Vigilante Force - The under-appreciated George Armitage fights the American Revolution in vigilante terms in an odd thriller starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Kris Kristofferson. Mayhem ensues.

Episode #18 – Ghosthouse – It was Joe’s turn to pick a movie, and I believe my response to this was “Umberto Lenzi? You bastard.” A surprisingly restrained – until the very end – haunted house story that we fell on like hungry zombies. This was the first movie we universally trashed, and it felt good.

Episode #19 - Thriller: They Call Her One-EyeThis one was my choice, I admit. I had been meaning to see this since Synapse put out their limited edition of the uncut director’s version with the original sub-title, A Cruel Picture. Our first divisive picture – I recommended it (with caveats), Joe didn’t like it and Jon outright hated it. A really good episode, though, as we kick around why our opinions differ so much.

raw-force-1982Episode #20 – Raw Force – Edward R. Murphy only directed two movies, and trust me, this is the one you want to see, as it is insane from the first frame. This thing is like an exploitation smoothie with everything thrown into the blender, and then garnished with incompetence and cheap visual effects. Cannibals, boobies, bad kung fu, boobies, Cameron Mitchell, boobies, black magic, and finally, some boobies. And Fake Hitler backed up by The Village People. Code Red is supposedly working on a remastered version, and screw the IRS, I’m spending money on that. Needless to say, we have a ton of fun discussing it.

Episode #21 – Ganja and Hess – Hands down, our best episode so far. Mike White from The Projection Booth (pound for pound the best movie podcast out there) drops by to class up the joint as we mull over Bill Gunn’s moody, ethereal vampire movie.

Episode #22 – The Devil’s Express - This is how I repaid Joe and Jon for Raw ForceThe Devil’s Express is another of those movies that seemingly has everything – monsters, murders, gang wars, good old bad old New York, Warhawk Tanzania, bad kung fu, Brother Theodore… we had a fun time picking this apart, but don’t be fooled. we loved this movie.

Episode #23 – The Twilight People –  This was Jon’s choice, because it was a Pam Grier movie he hadn’t seen. I could have warned him that this is not truly a Pam Grier movie, but… our Guest is Dr, Gangrene, who loves the movie, which is good, because someone has to. I like Eddie Romero movies… except for this one.

Well, this has taken me a thousand words and two hours closer to that lovely, lovely Friday and my bed. (Homer Simpson drooling sound) Beeeeeeeddddddddddddd….




The ABCs of March, Part Five

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E  F through J  K through O  P through T

U: Upstream Color (2013)

upstreamA lot of us know about Shane Carruth through his first feature, Primer. If you’re any kind of a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it. If not, well… it’s currently not on Netflix Instant, which is where I first encountered it, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, a time travel story that’s brainy, dense, and remarkably free of the usual claptrap that surrounds such stories. Also, like the best Nolan movies, you need to pay attention every minute, and your gray matter is going to get a workout.

Now take that and square it, and you may be ready to approach Upstream Color.

Any attempt at a synopsis is going to get nightmarishly complex. Check out any of those on various streaming media, and you will find yourself wondering, “What movie did they watch?” I’m no better, but here goes:

A guy called only Thief (Thiago Martins) has found a worm that lives in certain exotic orchids; if a person ingests it, the parasite makes them instantly docile and extremely susceptible to brainwashing techniques, which he uses to steal every cent they have and cover his tracks… in case they survive the harrowing aftermath. At the beginning of the movie, he does this to Kris (Amy Seimetz), leaving her dazedly trying to cut out the worms scurrying under her skin with a butcher knife. Another mystery man called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) attracts her to a remote location with electronic music that is also coaxing normal earthworms out of the ground. He uses a crude but effective method to get the parasites out of Kris and into an anesthetized pig. The next day, Kris awakes as if from a nightmare, and attempts to try to put her completely destroyed life back together.

Eventually Jeff (our auteur, Shane Carruth) becomes attracted to her, and a relationship forms. Jeff, it turns out, has a similar black hole in his life, in which he abused his position as a broker to embezzle a lot of funds. They start finding out they have a lot of things in common, and a lot of things they shouldn’t have in common, because their identities are still fractured and bleeding into each other. The Sampler is not as beneficent as he seems; he has a whole herd of pigs, all carrying parasites from other victims, and he uses the connections these parasites still have with their former hosts to sample their lives.

upstream-color-pigs-croppedThat is about as bare bones yet cohesive as I can get. Like Primer, there is a hell of a lot of grist for the conversation mill here. Where it’s going to differ from Primer, though, is that much of that is so much more abstruse than its predecessor. The motivations of The Sampler are still beyond my comprehension, and that may in fact be the point: our lives are frequently shaped by unknowable forces, by people who we will never meet but nonetheless have power over us. I found it hypnotic and engrossing; others are just going to be pissed off.

One of my major frustrations with fiction is a perverse one – I love having a mystery to ponder, so much so that I feel let down when that mystery is solved (probably the main reason I liked Lost so much, even though most people use it as a swear word these days). I’m still chewing on Upstream Color days later. I like that.  Some people won’t. I’m okay with that. (This being the Internet, I also find that this tolerance is not reciprocated, and I expect I will soon be told why I am an idiot. Whatever.)

Upstream Color on Amazon

V: Vampyr (1932)

vampyrposterAnother one I had seen twenty years or so ago (on laserdisc, no less).

Carl Theodor Dreyer was looking for a more commercial property after his Passion of Joan of Arc was a critical and box office failure. (It is now, of course, widely regarded as a masterpiece) So hey, why not a horror movie? Remembering the problems Murnau went through with Nosferatu and a litigious Florence Stoker, he derived his inspiration from a collection of stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, In A Glass Darkly, which had recently gone into the public domain – so odd to consider that at the time, these things happened automatically 50 years after a creator’s death.

Supposedly Vampyr is based on the famous story “Carmilla”, which Hammer Films would go on to milk some forty years later. I say supposedly because the only thing the two have in common is a female vampire – and after gender, we draw the line.

A young traveler, Alan Gray (Julian West) stops at a remote inn; he is visited by a man who tells him, “She must not die,” and leaves him with a small package that is labeled “To be opened in the event of my death”. Gray investigates, and soon finds himself embroiled in the woes of a family being afflicted by the title creature,  aided by the village doctor. The man who visited him (the father of the victim) is assassinated by one of the vampire’s henchmen, so the package is opened: it contains a book about vampires, which turns out to be damned handy, as it even name checks the woman who is causing all the trouble.

vampyr460There is a delirious, dream-like quality about Vampyr, even before its most famous sequence, when Gray, pursuing the doctor into the night, passes out because he’s still weak from a blood transfusion given to the dying victim. He has an out-of-body experience in which his body is sealed into a coffin with a window over his wide-open eyes, and taken to a churchyard to be buried.

Besides the constant barrage of dream imagery and labyrinthine buildings for our protagonist to wander through, Dreyer’s camera is often in motion for very modern, swift dolly moves, at times feeling like a chiaroscuro Shining without benefit of a Steadicam. Most of the movie is silent, with the very few pieces of dialogue recorded by a still-experimental method; the silent parts show all the power and expertise of Dreyer’s mastery of that form.

The vampire storyline itself is pretty standard stuff these days, after almost a century of such tales. What sets Vampyr apart is that marvelous visual palette, and the embellishments wrought by Dreyer: shadows detached from the bodies that cast them, a vampire that is so obviously an old woman, certainly not the Ingrid Pitt Carmilla.

The major fun I have in considering the movie is that “Julian West” – actually the film’s financier, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg – looks a little like H.P. Lovecraft, and the villainous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko, a Polish journalist – Dreyer liked using non-actors) has a passing resemblance to Albert Einstein. I like to think of the two of them as pals, filming a movie with borrowed equipment on the weekends, Lovecraft playing hookey from his writing and Einstein from his chalkboards. That, though, is a silly thing, and shouldn’t take away from my admiration for Dreyer’s final product.

Vampyr on Amazon

W: White Zombie (1932)

Yeah, somehow I’d manaPoster_-_White_Zombie_01_Crisco_restorationged to live my life without seeing this one either.

In a Haiti with a curiously small black population, Neil Parker  (John Harron) has brought in his lady love Pamela  (Madge Bellamy) to get married. On the boat over, Pamela encountered rich scalawag Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who wants Pamela for his own. Under the guise of letting the two marry in his mansion, Beaumont sets to work trying to steal her from her man. When this doesn’t work, he enlists the help of local witch doctor Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi).

Using a drug Legendre gave him, Beaumont poisons Pamela on her wedding day. She apparently dies, is laid to rest in a tomb, and is later exhumed by Legendre and his hit squad of zombies, all former enemies he has now enslaved. Beaumont is troubled by the fact that the woman he wanted is now a blanked slate, a zombie herself, which leads Legendre to poison him, too, Meanwhile, Neal rouses himself from his multi-day drunk to take on Legendre with the aid of  a sympathetic missionary (Joseph Cawthorn).

White-Zombie-1932White Zombie has some memorable images – the one you see quoted in documentaries whenever the movie is mentioned is Legendre’s zombies toiling away in his sugar mill, with one zombie slipping and falling into the cane mill’s blades, without the other zombies noticing or caring. But really, the movie belongs to Lugosi, at the height of his powers, before he became a cliche over-used by hack directors. He has several moments of cold-blooded villainy that will simply take your breath away.

The movie gets points from me for employing “the zombie drug” alluded to in Serpent and the Rainbow, offering up a somewhat rational explanation for the goings-on, even if that goes out the window with Legendre’s psychic power over his zombie slaves, embodied in the “zombie grip” of his two hands clasped together. White Zombie has another thing in common with Vampyr, too, in that the older character – the missionary here, the manservant in Vampyr - does all the heroic stuff. Take that, you young hooligans.

White Zombie on Amazon

Is it my imagination or is that Criswell doing the narration on this trailer?

 X: Xtro (1983)

XtroWell, here’s a movie starting with X I hadn’t seen yet.

Sam Phillips (Phillip Sayer) is abducted by a UFO in full sight of his young son, Tony (Simon Nash). Three years later,  Sam returns, but in a spectacularly gross and gruesome way that results in the death of three people. He shows back up at his old apartment, claiming amnesia. His wife (Bernice Stegers) is understandably confused but sympathetic, her new boyfriend (Joe Daniels) is pretty pissed off, and the au pair girl (Maryam D’Abo, debuting here) just wants to screw her boyfriend. Tony is ecstatic to have his dad back, especially once Dad infects him with some alien DNA and he starts getting psychic powers.

As if his bloody, mutating return didn’t make it obvious, Sam is no longer human. His main mission seems to be retrieving his son, but there is a much darker purpose to his visit, and it involves eggs laid in Maryam D’abo. By the kid.

Xtro1Xtro is beloved by a lot of people, because it is pretty weird in all the right ways and gooey in others. The initial return, a costume utilizing a man spidering around with a face glued to the back of his head, is suitably freaky; but just as effective are more subtle scenes, such as Sam turning on a gas heater but not lighting it, contentedly breathing in the toxic fumes.

Where the movie starts losing me is when it falls into the 80s trope of becoming a body count movie, with Tony using his newfound psychic powers to get rid of busybodies and interlopers. The alien has a dozen different ways to kill people (and uses them all, just to keep the proceedings fresh) and the kid can apparently create matter at will, using the power of his mind. Why all the subterfuge? If these aliens are so immensely powerful, why do these things in secret?

There are at least two sequels, but unless I’m desperate again for an X movie, there nothing here to interest me.

 Y: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

220px-YoungmrlincolnYeah, there’s a change that’ll give you whiplash.

This is a rah-rah end-of-the-Depression years John Ford movie with all the fixin’s, produced under the steely eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Henry Fonda (with a fake nose and trick boots to make him taller) as the Great Man. And God, is it ever good.

This takes Abe from his early days running a general store (when a family who can’t pay for any provisions off-handedly mention they do have a lot of worthless old books in the back of their wagon, oh how his eyes light up); it skips over his time in the legislature and gets right to his days as a “jackleg lawyer”, operating only off the knowledge he’s gleaned from those “worthless old books”. He’s not doing bang-up business, either, until a murder at Springfield’s annual picnic gains him a client and a mission to save two young men from the gallows, not to mention a lynch mob.

yml1This is period-piece myth-making, a form at which Ford truly excelled. Though the case is based on an actual one, Lincoln was not the attorney, and he probably never pulled a 19th Century Perry Mason act either, dramatically revealing the true murderer at the last moment. But dammit, he should have, and I don’t mind being told he did. It’s an early example of the central tenet of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s not a documentary, nor was it ever claimed to be; but in this era of gritty reboots and revisionism, I don’t mind being told a figure I’ve admired across the ages actually might have been an okay fellow.

Young Mr. Lincoln on Amazon

Z: Zatoichi (1989)

zatoichiYep, I saved one for this. Also known as Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally, this is Shintaro Katsu’s swan song to the character, and it fell outside the scope of the Criterion Box Set I ran through a few months ago.

I’d like to give you a nice plot summary here, but there actually isn’t one. There’s the usual essential elements of a Zatoichi movie: a young and ruthless yakuza assassinating his way to the top, a thoroughly corrupt official, and… eventually… an attractive young lady for the official to attempt to force himself upon. Of course, a ronin who is impressed by Ichi, and is tasked with taking Ichi down. Groups of guys show up occasionally to kill him. We’re never really sure who’s sending them. Maybe it’s a subscription service or something.

Ichi meanders from one of these elements to another, once more trotting out his scam at a crooked gambling house where he makes the less scrupulous gangsters bet on dice that have fallen outside the cup, only to show that the real dice they should be betting on were inside the cup all the time. As usual, this results in a bunch of bilked baddies trying to kill him, but a high-ranking female yakuza chief intercedes. Later, she’ll have a dalliance with the aged Ichi in a bath, and we find out that “bring our efforts to fruition” is period slang for “simultaneous orgasm”.

zatoichi-1989Well, it’s an Ichi movie, so we know he’s eventually going to kill the corrupt official to rescue the innocent girl, then go up the street to kill all the local yakuza, who have been obligingly cutting their numbers in half with a turf war of their own, anyway. The thing is, Ichi’s dealings with these gangsters has been minimal, so that really is how it seems: he’s in the neighborhood, sword-cane’s out, might as well slaughter a hundred guys.

It’s an unfortunate, more-of-the-same end note for the character, or at least Katsu’s version, which was also the only version for nearly thirty years. One really hopes for more, but one also has to realize that not every cultural icon gets to make a Shootist or an Unforgiven. More’s the pity.


The ABCs of March, Part Four

Previously, on Yes, I Know:  A through E   F through J   K through O

P: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

the-phantom-carriage-movie-poster-1921-1020683962I always like to slip in a silent movie or two in these exercises, so why not an acclaimed one? Charlie Chaplin claimed it was the best movie ever made, and Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan. Based on a popular novel of the time by Selma Langerlöf, the basis of the story is a legend that whoever dies last on New Year’s Eve must drive Death’s carriage for the next year, picking up recently deceased souls and delivering them… well, that’s left unsaid, but for this unfortunate Designated Driver, “each day is like a hundred years.”

This story is told to professional wastrel David Holm (played by director Victor Shölström), who nonetheless is spending New Years Eve drinking with his pals, leaving his destitute wife and two children in their hovel, and worst of all, ignoring entreaties to come to the death bed of Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who, for some reason, loves Holm (even though he unwittingly gave her the tuberculosis which is killing her). It’s this last bit of heartlessness that gets him into a fight with his two drunken pals, one of whom crashes a jug over his head, and leaves him for dead, as the titular carriage drives up and comes to gather his soul.

vlc000092To no one’s surprise, the driver is the older reprobate who first told David about the Phantom Carriage, and who blames himself for the younger man’s life going so disastrously off the rails. David is to be the new driver, he is told, but first he has to relive every twist and turn of his wasted existence, a life spent mainly visiting misery on whoever dared try to love and improve him.

The story relies on a lot of heavy melodrama, but it is remarkably compelling and well-presented melodrama; Shölström manages to make Holm a man worth redeeming, even though he spends most of the picture being an unrepentant dickweed. His final realization that he has been one of the most worthless, hateful men alive is truly heartbreaking, and if the denouement seems a little too sugary, a bit too Spielberg – well, as with Spielberg, the emotion is there, too, and only the most cynical or bored viewer will not find themselves transported along.

Best movie ever made? I may disagree, but damn, is it a good one.

The Phantom Carriage on Amazon

Q: Quest for Fire (1981)

quest_for_fireThe letter Q is always a tough one. I’ve seen most of the obvious ones (Q the Winged Serpent, The Quick and the Dead) but you know what! Here’s one I haven’t seen!

1981 was seemingly the year of the cinematic caveman, though this was the only serious offering (the others being Ringo Starr’s Caveman and the first portion of History of the World, Part One). I recall everybody talking about it. It just wasn’t my thing, as it were.

In case you’re like me: This takes place 80,000 years ago, on the cusp between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, when fire was a valuable, essential commodity, and tribes kept firepits going constantly, to keep the valuable element at hand. One tribe loses their home cave – and their fire – in a turf war, and three of the tribesmen (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nicolas Kadi) strike out to find some more. They eventually steal some from a tribe of nomad cannibals, and in doing so, pick up Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a member of a much more advanced tribe who was being kept in the larder. Ika develops a sweet spot for McGill’s Naoh, who does seem to have a bit more on the ball than his fellows. When Ika runs off to her village, Naoh follows, to be perplexed and amazed as he is initiated into their ways… for one thing, they know how to make fire, at will.

MPW-56175A hell of a lot of effort went into this movie – three years of pre-production and funding, one year of shooting – and I really feel like a heel for not liking it more. The different tribes are cleverly designed, the makeup is superb (Oscar-winning, in fact), and there are a lot of nice little touches, my favorite being the fact that Ika knows how to laugh whereas her more brutal traveling companions do not (they do learn, however). But no, not even naked Rae Dawn Chong could get me totally into its camp. I do, however, like that this is Ron Perlman’s first movie, and even as a caveman, all his Ron Perlman-isms are fully formed and intact.

The different caveman languages were created by no less than Anthony Burgess. It seems that on my DVD there is an option for turning on subtitles, but come on. That would be cheating. Even if I do wonder what the hell Ika is chattering about practically the whole movie.

Quest for Fire on Amazon

R: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Rules-of-the-gameIt seems you can’t be a film buff without seeing The Rules of the Game. It somehow became a touchstone, the item with which all film educations begin, or something. Imagine my surprise, when I finally saw it, that it is basically a sex farce.

Most of Rules of the Game takes place during a getaway at a chateau, with the rich gunning down a lot of innocent animals as the proles beat the bushes and finishing up with a grand masquerade and talent show. Every man on the rich side of the line seems to love an Austrian woman, Christine (Nora Gregor) married to the host, the Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This includes a freshly-minted hero aviator, his friend Octave (director Jean Renoir himself) – who is also the childhood friend of Christine (and who loves her). The Marquis, realizing how much he loves his wife, attempts to disentangle himself from his mistress. Christine, finding out about this long-standing affair, decides to have an affair of her own. All this is mirrored on the domestic side by a roguish new manservant (and former poacher) flirting with Christine’s saucy maid, who is married to the estate’s gameskeeper. It all comes to a climax during the masquerade ball, with blows being exchanged and gun-wielding husbands chasing lovers through the bemused bourgeoisie. 

I’m not quite sure if Renoir is attempting a scathing satire of the idle rich in Pre-World War II France, as the form of the sex farce necessitates a certain level of caricature in all the roles. There is drollery aplenty, to be sure, and I certainly enjoyed it; I’m just unsure as to why its position is so elevated.

rulesofthegamegTo be sure, it came that close to being a Lost Movie. A terrible flop at the box office, Renoir kept trimming it down. It was banned in France a month after its release (bad for morale, it seems) and then the Nazis invaded, and they hated it even more, burning all the prints that could be found. Then Allied bombers destroyed the original negatives. Renoir fans managed to find enough pieces of the film to reconstruct it in the 1950s, and Renoir confirms that at present, only one scene is missing, a minor one of his character gossiping. Perhaps the fact that it was unavailable and presumed lost added to its prestige.

Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy it, and would recommend it. I’m just not sure precisely why this is considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

The Rules of the Game on Amazon

S: Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom

saloI knew I was going to have to deal with this movie eventually.

Last year, I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights. I loved them. Pasolini yearned for a time before commercialism, before even love and sex were made mere commodities. Though frequently shocking in their content, they were also just as frequently sweet, sentimental, and honestly earthy. In one of those perverse twists of fortune, they inspired a spate of soft-and-not-so-softcore porn movies dressed up as classic literature; Pasolini’s non-commercialism made commercial.

So it’s small wonder, really, that he then made one of the most angry, confrontational movies of all time.

I really have no truck with movies that only serve as a catalog of atrocities. Likely, the closest I’ve come is Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs, which was enough to convince me that I didn’t need to see any of the others. A Serbian Film, Philosophy of a Knife, any number of low-budget horror movies that revel in sickness, the Guinea Pig movies… hell I’m not even interested in any of the Human Centipede flicks, and I have people swearing by them.

And yet, here I am watching Salo.

Salo_ou_les_120_normalThe story is taken from the Marquis deSade’s infamous tract of the subtitle’s name, transported to the final days of the fascist regime in Italy (Salo is a town where the fascists had their last stronghold. Pasolini’s own brother was killed there). Four men, representing the power elite, the “Men Who Got Us Into This Mess”: The Duke, The Judge, The Bishop and The President, abduct nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls, and hole up in a villa, determined that there will be no limits to what they can do in their final days. One boy is shot trying to escape; one girl commits suicide the first day. They will be the lucky ones.

Much is made of the rampant nudity, and the frequent sex acts, but those are never seen in any explicit detail. Every agency that has condemned Salo as pornography is missing the point entirely; this movie is not about sex, it is about power, and the horrific misuse of it (“Fascists are the only real anarchists,” The Duke says. “Our power allows us the freedom to do anything.”). Anyone who feels Salo is a turn-on, well… don’t turn your back on them.

Facts never stopped anyone, though. I recall back in the 80s, the local repertory art house, The River Oaks Theater, showed it and was shut down for showing pornography, the management arrested. Yes, a good old-fashioned raid, cheese it the cops, everything. Oh, Texas, I love you, but you will probably never stop embarrassing me.

Pier_Paolo_Pasolini_SaloPasolini drops some surprises in as we navigate the circles of the movie, inspired by Dante; odd moments of levity, fleeting, very fleeting, moments of beauty… and a whole bunch of horror, unredeemed by any justice or retribution. There is also this: I attempted to read deSade’s book back in college, and there is one thing Pasolini gets absolutely right: after a while deSade just becomes cartoonish and tedious. Supposedly it was a pretty jocular shoot, with the numerous teens having a grand time in their first movie, playing pranks on each other. It wasn’t until the finished movie came out of the editing room that they realized how grim was Salo, how bleak and grueling.

I have now seen enough shit-eating to last me two lifetimes. I can’t recommend it. You’ll know if you’re ready for it or not.

(Also intriguingly: although nobody ever uses the Amazon links I’ve been putting up – still, I’m determined to keep up the experiment – the Associates site will not let me make a link to the Criterion Collection blu-ray disc I viewed. Hm.)

T: Thor – The Dark World

Until I get my Volstagg movie, this will have to do.

Until I get my Volstagg movie, this will have to do.

I knew I was going to need something fairly uncomplicated and hopefully ridiculously fun after Salo, and thankfully, for the sake of my mental well-being, The Dark World delivered.

I wasn’t wild about the first Thor – for a movie that took place in three different universes, it still somehow felt very small. Dark World is determined to be epic as hell – starting in pre-Odin Asgardian history, as Odin’s dad fights Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, who are trying to snuff out all light in all worlds. Malekith loses, and goes into hiding until his Ultimate Weapon can be recovered. Which it is, by Thor’s mortal girlfriend, Jane Foster. Of course.

All our old faves are back, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets more and better screen time; the doomed bond between Thor and Loki is given its best treatment yet, and Jane Foster is elevated above mere damsel in distress status. I still want more Volstagg, but I am always going to want more Volstagg. The thing that both of the Thor movies have excelled at is presenting super science that is indistinguishable from magic – probably to sidestep the thorny concept that the Asgardians are actual gods, and prevent picket lines from sullying a Disney product.

Best of all, Dark World  wraps its plot up quite nicely and still has me wanting to see what happens next.

Thor: The Dark World on Amazon

Crapfest: The Redemption

There is no doubt that the last Crapfest was scarring, the gom jabbar of the bad movie experience. So when I had an unexpected weekend off, we quickly pulled together. We had to get back on that horse, or we might never get back on it again. This time, we would explore the non-painful world of crap, we would enjoy ourselves.

Nice plan. Too bad they never survive reality.

We started out with a collection of blaxploitation trailers while foodstuffs were arranged and prepared. Turns out nearly two hours of blaxploitation trailers is too much for delicate sensibilities, so I put on something else to soothe the complainers, which naturally produced more outrage: an episode of the Dogville series from 1930, or as the whiners like to call it, “Vintage animal torture shorts”.

My response to all the haters was to point to Paul and say, “But look how happy Paul is!” Paul was indeed very happy with his all-talking all-singing and all-sorta-dancing doggies. Jeez, it’s only ten minutes long. You guys are a bunch of wusses.

The Other David finally arrived, and I had been saving something for him. He had just finished playing Macbeth in the play of that name; one night, in an after-show question-and-answer session, he had pish-toshed the superstitions surrounding that play.

The next day his car was totalled in a freeway crash. He was, thankfully, unharmed. But what came of this was he had never seen the episode of Blackadder the Third – nor any episode of Blackadder, seemingly – involving actors and Macbeth. This was what we refer to in the trade as A Mandate.

Well, that was enough quality. It was time to get underway.

Several weeks before, I had watched the delirious, incoherent, but undeniably exploitive movie Raw Force, aka Kung Fu Cannibals, for the Daily Grindhouse Podcast. That link will take you to that particular episode (with bonus whining from me about the last Crapfest). I found it perfect fodder for a Crapfest.

Raw Force 2Basically: the three guys that form the Burbank Karate Club seem to be booked as entertainment on a cheapass cruise liner. The big attraction seems to be some place called Warrior’s Island, where disgraced fighters are buried and some mysterious monks are rumored to be able to raise the dead. To hear the passengers talk, this must be cooler than Disney World. Unfortunately for all involved. Fake Hitler and his gang of Village People rejects are dealing with the monks, trading kidnapped prostitutes for raw jade, and they don’t want anybody messing with their operation.

That is a far more coherent synopsis than the movie ever bothers to give you. Once more, this is a movie where  you can quote Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – “Great movie, Pee-Wee! Action packed!” But the response here went more like “What the hell is going on?” every ten minutes. Among the many one-movie johnnies are a couple of faces you might recognize – Jillian Kesner from Firecracker (aka Naked Fist) or most certainly Cameron Mitchell, who I swear to God is improvising his lines. The mighty Vic Diaz is one of the monks, which immediately makes my evening.

At the end, one of our heroes – the one who can fly a sea plane because he flew a Huey Cobra in the ‘Nam – smiles at the camera, and instead of “The End”, we get a super stating “To Be Continued…” My fellow Crapfesters did not disappoint me, bellowing, “FUCK you!” in chorus.

After that many boobs, fight scenes and Village People jokes, a break was called for while Host Dave fiddled with the technology, setting up his choice for the evening.  During this, I found out an interesting thing: you see, I could have gotten Dave to stream Raw Force from YouTube (as far as I know, it’s still there – you can do it, too. I actually recommend it), but I’m all too aware of how such things can turn on us. This is why we had to put off Jaws: The Revenge for several months. So I had bought the Grindhouse Experience movie set from the Amazon Marketplace to get a hard copy, for that is how I roll. (The fact that in a 20 movie set I had only heard of two also intrigued me)

Totally forgot to mention Mexican Nazi Rapist.

Totally forgot to mention Mexican Nazi Rapist.

The set is a bunch of flipper discs, two movies on each side. It turns out that at the end of each movie, the disc does not go back to the menu, no, it simply goes on to the next movie, which was the Italian mondo movie Savage Man/Savage Beast. I was in the kitchen scooping up delicious spinach dip when screams summoned me back to the viewing room. Something about snakes eating monkeys. “It was hippies wrapped in plastic at fake Cape Cod when I left,” I said  “Snake! Monkey! The horror!” was the response. Wusses. I figured out how to turn it off, so I could at least go back to the spinach dip.

Well, at the end of the break, I finally had to go to the bathroom, and while I was in there, I once more heard muffled screams from the viewing room. Perhaps Dave had mischievously returned to the snake-eating-a-monkey footage, I thought. Wusses.

Then I returned to the viewing room. I needed only one line and one frame to identify why people were howling. “You son of a bitch,” I said.

He had put on Highlander II: The Quickening.

downloadI paid money to see this movie. On opening dayThat was how much I loved Highlander. Suffice to say this is one of those sequels that takes the original behind the barn, kills it, peels off its skin, wears that skin like a dress and tries to convince you it’s the original, but it did a really bad job of it.

Yep, everything you know about the original is wrong so that the now-mortal Connor MacLeod can be made young again (and Christopher Lambert can stop doing his Marlon Brando in The Godfather imitation), bring back Sean Connery as the world’s only Scottish Spaniard, and give Michael Ironside the chance to act with his teeth. Also: did you know subway trains can go 400 miles per hour?

I literally ran out of curse words to call Dave.

Then we got to something I had mercifully blotted out: Jeff Altman’s cameo. The screams were incredible.

You see, what our newbies did not know, was that earlier in Crapfest history, we had sat through all but one episode of Pink Lady & Jeff. That is the sort of thing that leaves a scar that never really heals, like a morghul blade. We fully expected Pink Lady to step out from behind a curtain and do some painfully phonetic English “joke”. Fortunately, Altman delivered his cheap laugh and left the story within a minute.

Here’s how quickly things go wrong in this movie: “I know! Let’s mix our movie with Dune!

There is a disc I carry with me. It is my Mutually Assured Destruction Disc. It contains such horror, no one will survive its unleashing. I started carrying it after Dave unleashed Nukie. I almost hauled it out, but there was a mitigating factor: Dave had never seen Highlander II. I could not kill everyone just for sheer ignorance. I had to be satisfied with sitting in the dark, my arms crossed, occasionally huffing, “My movie had boobies.”

So I let Mark deliver the death blow instead.

SkyscraperUKDVDMark had begun crowing that he had found a disc that would totally redeem Crapfest, and, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what he thinks it means. Because the movie he brought was SkyscraperPM Entertainment made a lot of straight-to-video action movies, and most of them are not terrible. Not amazing, but not terrible, either. Then they had the brilliant idea to make Anna Nicole Smith an action hero.

Let me repeat that. Anna Nicole Smith. Action hero.

He attempted to sell this with an outtake reel of Smith mangling her lines. I find such stuff painful, and couldn’t get through more than a minute of it.

So Anna Nicole is a helicopter pilot who shuttles her clients around the city; she picks up the wrong clients, a couple of guys who are putting together a suitcase of electronic equipment that must do bad things, but I never could get up the interest to find out what. vlcsnap-2014-03-23-02h06m14s115The leader, Fairfax (Charles Huber) likes to spout inappropriate Shakespeare and end all his conversations by shooting whoever he’s talking to – seriously, I have no idea how he got people to work with him. Anna Nicole has the briefcase, there are hostages, when the cops show up Fairfax pretends to be a terrorist. (Maybe they are  terrorists. I can’t say as I really care.) At least, that gives him a chance to do some Michael Ironside teeth acting.

Any attempt to be ironic and say, “So this is like Die Hard, except in a skyscraper,” is met with “Anna Nicole Smith!”

The fact that she’s ridiculously good with a gun is explained away by the fact she’s from Texas (as if her terminally twangy whines to her husband that “I want a BAY-BEE” were not enough to clench her regionalism). There are, as I recall, three sex scenes with La Smith and her storebought wares, one of which brings the main story to a dead halt while Smith has a flashback to happier, sexier times while hiding in one of the offices.

I think the real star of this is the editor, who (judging from those outtakes) worked many late nights and probably burned out two Avids to make the movie as good as it is. Which it isn’t. Which is to say, at least it’s not terrible. I should have sat there with my arms crossed and huffed, “My movie had real boobies,” but I totally blew that opportunity.

The-Mystery-of-the-Leaping-Fish1We decompressed with the classic 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. That’s the one where Fairbanks plays Coke Ennyday, the Holmes parody who is constantly injecting cocaine, when he is not consuming evidence in the form of entire cans of opium. Johnny Depp or Robert Downey, Jr. are shoo-ins for the remake.

So did we redeem Crapfest? Not totally, but at least this time I didn’t feel like driving off a bridge on the way home. That’s progress.





The Zatoichi Box, Part Six

Previously on Yes, I Know:   Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

one-armedThe second of two Zatoichi Team-up movies (the first being Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo). The One-Armed Swordsman movies were apparently very popular in Japan. In them, Chinese superstar Jimmy Wang Yu (well, superstar until Bruce Lee arrived on the scene) plays a man who loses his arm through treachery, but masters a form of swordplay using a shortened sword to eventually rescue the spiteful woman who maimed him. There are only two of these flicks featuring Wang Yu; by the time this entry in the Zatoichi series was made, he had split from Shaw Brothers and was replaced in The New One-Armed Swordsman by David Chiang. (There’s at least one more attempt in a 1976 Taiwanese movie, One Armed Swordsman vs Nine Killers, but it’s not really the same guy).

We can’t even really be sure this is the same One-Armed Swordsman, anyway, except for the fact that it’s Wang Yu, he still dresses in black and has the same broken sword… here his name is Wang Kong, and there are no references to the rich backstory of the Chang Cheh-directed movies. Wang Kong has been invited to live in a Japanese temple by an old friend who is a monk there; speaking no Japanese, Wang is glad to fall in with a traveling family of Chinese entertainers who enjoy living in their adopted country.

zatoichi-22-zatoichi-meets-the-one-armed-swordsmanThis group encounters a parade of samurai delivering abalone to the Shogun – the father tells Wang that everybody must clear the road, under pain of death. They do so, but their young boy runs into the road after a kite, and the samurai move to kill him. Mother and father intercede, are cut down, and Wang, naturally enough, cuts a bunch of them down with his shortsword before escaping into the woods. The boy also gets away as the samurai, to cover up that so many of them were killed by one man with a busted sword, slaughters everyone else on the road, blaming their deaths on a berserk Chinaman.

With Zatoichi’s usual luck, he finds the orphaned boy and eventually the fugitive Wang. The two men cannot speak each other’s language, and the boy is of little help. Wang’s distrust of Ichi reaches a peak when Ichi goes searching for food and information, and the yakuza hired by the samurai family kill the kindly Japanese hiding Wang and the boy. The surviving daughter, Wang and the boy make it to the Japanese temple, believing Ichi betrayed them for the reward. The truth is, Wang’s “friend” at the temple is the true villain, conspiring with all involved for money and power. This all leads to two grand battles: Wang against the samurai, Ichi against the yakuza. Then the two men meet, and Ichi, unable to speak with Wang, cannot convince him of his innocence, resulting in the final battle.

zatoichi_meets_one_armedThere are two remarkable things about this movie: the most obvious is that the samurai are confounded by what Wang Yu would call in Master of the Flying Guillotine “Good Jumping!” His (incredibly unrealistic, but who cares) kung fu leaps allow him to escape them on a regular basis. The second is (SPOILER ALERT) Ichi has to kill Wang Kong in self-defense, which is especially remarkable given Wang Yu’s reputation as a fairly disagreeable egotist. There are rumors of an alternate cut, of course, but it turns out that even this version didn’t get a home video release in Japan until fairly recently.

At the moment of his death, Wang realizes Ichi was okay, after all, and Ichi bemoans their inability to communicate. Overall, a pretty heavy message for an action flick.

Zatoichi at Large (1972)

zatoichi-23With his usual terrible timing, Ichi happens upon a woman on the road who has been attacked and robbed – on top of that, she is giving birth. After delivering the baby and the barest amount of information, she dies, leaving the masseur once more burdened with a baby and one hell of an obligation. He is also being followed by a child who will spend most of the movie chucking rocks at his head.

Ichi will find the woman’s family, and, sure as shooting, the village is being taken over by a thuggish yakuza boss, who was to be the recipient of the money the woman was carrying, payment for a debt. The local constable is seemingly ineffective, and in fact seems to resent the times Ichi stands up for the villagers against the villain. The rock-throwing kid will cause Ichi to be captured by the bad guys, but Ichi will be rescued by that other staple of the series, a ronin who desires a duel with a worthy opponent. We know it’s all going to end up with another battle royal, and Ichi will still get away, propelled to his next adventure on a tide of the blood of the wicked.

ZATOICHI_current_splash_image-300x169Things that set this adventure apart: the bizarre variety of traveling entertainers groaning under the new Boss’ taxes (I particularly enjoyed the monkey samurai drama), and the constable’s rebellious son. Rebellious teenagers were pretty big in Japanese cinema at the time, and this isn’t the last time we’ll see them in the series. This is actually the most solid Zatoichi movie in a while,and we should enjoy that warm feeling, as next up is…

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Zatoichi in Desperation.lgIchi meets an old woman when both are crossing a rickety bridge. The old woman is playing a samishen as she walks, and tells Ichi she is going to meet her daughter, a prostitute in a nearby village. The bridge gives way underneath her, and Ichi, unable to save her, of course has to seek out the daughter and try to rescue her from her life in a bordello. The major twist here is that the daughter, the popular girl in the house, enjoys her life there and doesn’t really want to be rescued, but when Ichi shows up with a stack of gold coins obtained at the local crooked yakuza gambling house, she allows herself to be swept away. She quickly gets bored when she finds out Ichi doesn’t want to have sex with her. The fact that Ichi spends so much effort trying to reform her means he misses out on the people who would usually come under his protection: a boy who is beaten to death by yakuza when he throws rocks at them while they’re grinding the faces of the poor, and the boy’s sister, who, rather than take the freed prostitute’s place in the bordello, gathers up the boy’s body and walks into the ocean to drown.

The prostitute eventually conspires with her lover to entrap Ichi so the local Boss can kill him for an even bigger Boss with a grudge against the masseur. Thinking she’s been taken hostage – and by this point, this is close to the truth, as the Boss shows his true viler-than-usual colors – Ichi surrenders himself, has both his hands stabbed through by harpoons, then is released again to await his fate at dawn, supposedly helpless. But this is Ichi we’re talking about, and he literally ties his sword to his bleeding hand so can still spend the rest of the movie cutting the yakuza to ribbons.

ZatoichiInDesperation02This is star Katsu’s second directorial gig, and his first in the series. That this should result in the bleakest entry in the series is a bit of a surprise. There are some self-consciously arty shots, and a lot of the shots seem to be close-ups through a telephoto lens. This is quite definitely a film of the early 70s, from the gritty nihilism to the cinematography to the downbeat ending. Downbeat endings are not uncommon in the Zatoichi movies, but rarely are they backed up by such an unrelenting story. Not a movie for a light-hearted evening.

Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973)

zatoichi-s-conspiracyIchi once more feels the need to visit his old hometown.This is about the fourth time he’s decided to do this, and it seems like it’s a different hometown every time, but what the heck. This time he hopes to visit the woman who wet-nursed him as a child, only to find she died a few years back. Ichi also runs afoul of a childhood friend who has returned to the village for different reasons:  farmers have been victimized by the local commissioner for years, pouring their tribute rice into a rigged measuring box, insuring perpetual tax debt. The prodigal pays the back taxes, but the villagers then find this gives him the right to stripmine the local quarry, whose stone they had been selling to make it through the lean years.

I told you that rebellious teenagers were the rage in Japanese cinema – this time there’s a full gang of four juvenile delinquents, three of whom – the guys – almost succeed in killing Ichi for the bounty placed on him (but they’re young idiots, and they do it by leading him into a bottomless bog, which means they’d have no proof, and therefore no bounty. They get scared and run away, anyway, leaving him to be rescued by the girl in the group).

Ichi will give his childhood friend three chances to leave town, which naturally gives the wretch three chances to kill Ichi, who will, as usual, get fed up and wind up taking down the villainous Commissioner and his minions, the old pal, and anyone else stupid enough to get in the way. The juvies redeem themselves, sort of, and Ichi walks out on yet another woman who loves him and who he loves. And that’s the end of the series.

Z25-5Except it’s not – Zatoichi would make the jump to television and have a successful run there for several years, an ironic development considering the (by this time) bankrupt and shuttered Daiei Studios saw the series as a tool to combat the encroachment of TV on their box office returns. Katsu would bring the character to the big screen one more time, in 1989 – but that is beyond the scope of this Criterion box set.

The character is enduring and fascinating, to be sure. Takashi Kitano would do a revamp of the character in 2003, there would be an attempt at a feminine reboot in 2008, and the influence on Western cinema is unmistakable, with movies from Blind Fury to The Book of Eli. 25 movies in little more than a decade is a sure indicator that something is there, something the public hungered for and rewarded… at least for a while. As a resource for examining this phenomenon, and the times in which it arose, the Criterion box is extremely valuable, and captures a slice of Japanese cinema history pretty darn thoroughly.

The Zatoichi Box on Amazon

The ABCS of March 2014 part three

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E;  F through J.

K: Kuroneko (1968)

KuronekoIt’s a setting we’re used to in Japanese movies: a time of civil war. A ragged, wandering troop of samurai, thirsty and starving, come upon a remote farmhouse and two women. Men being the animals that they are, the women are raped and killed. The cooking fire runs amok, and the house is consumed, leaving only one survivor: the black cat.

Soon after, at the nearby Rajomon Gate, samurai are being lured to an equally remote house where two eerily familiar women entertain them, and the men’s bodies are found the next day, their throats torn out. The man of the farmhouse who was missing at the beginning was conscripted to fight in the wars; he returns a hero, and is made a samurai. His first task: to find whatever is killing men in that grove and destroy it. In point of fact, the two are the spirits of his missing wife and mother, who had made pacts with dark gods to kill samurai and drink their blood until the end of time, or the end of samurai, whichever comes first.

Thus an old Japanese folk tale is complicated by familial ties, as man and wife, desperate to see each other, take to nightly trysts in an attempt to regain what they lost in the war. This causes the wife to renege on her pact, and she is sent to Hell – willingly, for the week she is allowed to spend with her husband. Then the man must face down his mother, or pay the consequences of failure.

goblin catKaneto Shindo has a remarkably varied filmography, but he is likely best known in the states for Onibaba, another tale of ghostly skullduggery during this tumultuous era. Shindo’s family was agrarian, so it’s small wonder that he always sides with the farmers in his period pieces. His samurai are vile dickweeds, make no mistake, and the mere fact that the protagonist’s inclusion into this class places him in mortal danger from his lost family is no mere plot twist: it is subversive in the extreme, given the revered status of samurai in most Japanese movies.

Kuroneko also includes the line, “You’ve slain a 1000 year-old goblin cat the size of a cow,” which I am going to try to work into polite conversation as often as possible.

Kuroneko on Amazon

L: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

600full-the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-posterIn which we discover just how educational exercises like this can be.

First of all, being a Yank, I had no idea of the cultural significance of the title until I was going through the supplements in the gorgeous Criterion blu-ray of the restored print. Colonel Blimp, I discovered, was a satirical newspaper comic character by David Low, famous in Britain in the 30s and 40s. Wikipedia describes it succinctly: “The cartoon was intended to portray attitudes of isolationism, impatience with the concerns of common people, and a lack of enthusiasm for democracy.”

These days, he would be re-cast as a member of the Tea Party. blimp_comic2He was always in a Turkish bath, towel-bedecked, and red-faced. Which explains the opening sequence, and our introduction to the character, who is never, ever referred to as “Colonel Blimp”.

Which is good, because none of that prepares you for the genial, affecting, downright human story that will unwind before you in the next two hours and forty-five minutes. Three hours that will flash by like three minutes.

the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-2The surrogate for Blimp is Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a decorated military man whose story begins in the Boer War. Through a determination to do the right thing, he almost creates an international incident and has to fight a duel in Germany; both participants wind up scarred (Candy’s causing him to grow the trademark moustache), but also results in the friendship that will last his entire life, with the German officer chosen to represent their Army, Theo (Anton Walbrook, here far more sympathetic than his turn in The Red Shoes). As the story progresses through World War I, Candy seeks out his embittered friend at a prisoner of war camp; Theo will also flee to England from Nazi Germany, only to find himself classed an Enemy Alien.

Blimp_Film_Page_originalThe further you dig into Colonel Blimp, the more complex it becomes; Candy’s relationship with Theo echoes the partnership between directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who created some genuinely classic films as “The Archers”: A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red ShoesDespite working on many propaganda movies during the War Effort, Pressburger remained an Enemy Alien, required to adhere to a curfew and carry his “papers” with him at all time. Theo has a very moving speech about this that you know came from Pressburger’s heart. and doubtless with his co-director’s urging and blessing.

I haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three separate roles as the women in Candy’s life (an amusing conceit commenting on Candy’s constantly surrounding himself with versions of his unrequited love, younger than himself). Kerr, only 20, is luminous in the three roles; she had her work cut out for her, sharing the screen with veterans like Livesey and Walbrook, and she rises to the challenge.

The-Life-and-Death-of-Colonel-Blimp-(1943)---Roger-Livesey,-John-Laurie-790944I find it incredible that this movie almost did not get made – Winston Churchill wanted it scotched completely. no cooperation was given by the Ministries of War or Information, which should have been the kiss of death. Yet, here it is, and thankfully so, as I find it the most quintessentially British movie I have ever seen. What some saw as a critique against a certain kind of patriot, I see as an ode to everything I love about Old Blighty (perhaps with a viewpoint just as jaundiced as its detractors): kindness, a belief in fair play, and just out-and-out decency. Candy admits he may be a bit of a laughable fool for believing in such things in modern times, but honestly – we could use a great many more fools like that.

Highest possible recommendation.

The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp on Amazon

Ah, the French. When they make a trailer, they know to get out of the way and let the movie speak for itself:

M: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

MPW-53767Kind of hard to leave wartime Europe behind, it seems.

Except that Mask of Dimitrios, the fifth of eight movies in which Sidney Greenstreet appeared alongside Peter Lorre, rather studiously ignores the thorny problem of World War II, instead taking place between the wars. Based on an Eric Ambler novelMask is the tale of Cornelius Leydon (Lorre), a successful mystery writer, who is told by an ardent fan (and police chief) about Dimitrios Makropoulos, a monstrous international villain and occasional spy, whose murdered body washed up from the Bosphorus that morning.

Intrigued by the possibility of writing about such a character, Leydon travels Europe, investigating Dimitrios’ former haunts and interviewing people inevitably screwed by this blackest of curs, and learning about the destroyed lives he left in his wake. Eventually the equally shadowy Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet), who has been tailing Leydon, makes himself known, and Leydon finds himself neck-deep in schemes and counter-schemes.

EpdAIThe largest part of Dimitrios is told in flashback, as each interviewee details Dimitrios’ foulness in a number of arenas. You’ve got the usual formidable array of Warner’s supporting cast with standout performances by Arthur Francen and Zachery Scott as Dimitrios, in his film debut. Scott holds his own against Lorre and Greenstreet, which is no small feat; the Texas-born actor went on to have, if not a flashy, star-making career, a steady one lasting up until his death in ’65… a true trouper in every sense of the word.

Greenstreet provides his usual eloquent menace and Lorre is charming and affable. This is the sort of movie that Warner Brothers did so well, for so many years, and cheers to Warner Archive for dragging it back out into the sun.

The Mask of Dimitrios on Amazon

Alas, no trailer, but here’s a little Lorre and Greenstreet to tide you over:

N: Night Tide (1961)

night_tide_poster_01This one’s considered a classic of indie horror; it’s remarkable it’s taken me this long to see it.

Young sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), on leave in sunny California, meets and eventually falls in love with Mora (Linda Lawson), an enigmatic young lady who earns her living pretending to be a mermaid in an “amusement pier” attraction.  Strange occurrences seem to indicate she might actually be some sort of legendary sea creature, doomed to eternally lure men to their death, especially when Johnny finds out his new love has had two boyfriends in recent months – both of which drowned.

This is the shamefully under-rated Curtis Harrington’s first feature-length movie, and it makes bountiful use of existing locations at Santa Monica and Malibu. Dennis Hopper, who could rightfully be considered a veteran at this point, plays the guileless innocence of a young man who joined the Navy to see the world very well. Linda Lawson is the proper mixture of exotic and down-to-earth. So much of the movie’s success rests on these two – Johnny is in almost literally every shot – that Harrington must have felt he hit the jackpot when he got them. Luana Anders is also on hand as a more normal girl interested in Johnny’s welfare, and acts as a winsome linchpin to the real world.

night-tide-8Night Tide provides us with a Scooby-Doo ending in which everything is seemingly explained rationally,  but is canny enough to make sure that some of it rings false, leaving the door open for speculation long after the movie has ended. For me, the most unexpected moment was when Johnny finally goes to a psychic who has been urging him to have a tarot reading… and it turned out to be one of the best such scenes I had ever witnessed in a movie, actually casting the cards not as an oracle, but a series of symbols allowing one to isolate and examine the tangled threads of life. Hearing the Hanged Man put in proper context was almost as shocking as the movies’s pivotal moment when an apprehensive Johnny goes scuba-diving with the possibly murderous Mora.

Night Tide on Amazon

O: The Orphanage (2007)

the-orphanage-poster-800This was originally going to be On the Waterfront, but it was late at night and I didn’t feel like something that raw (there will be another Challenge later this year based on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and doubtless this Elia Kazan movie will get its return match). Several people had been talking up The Orphanage, I had gotten a copy from the SwapaDVD Club, so… here we go.

Laura (Belen Rueda) comes back to the orphanage where she spent much of her childhood, intending to re-open it as a Home for Children with Special Needs. She and her husband (Fernando Cayo) are familiar with this; he’s not only a doctor, but their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) has HIV. Before you can say “Don’t buy that spooky old mansion,” Simon is talking to, and about, his new invisible friends and things proceed to go south from there.

Now, I’m admittedly a hard sell for ghost stories. I don’t know why this is, since if they’re done right, they deliver some of the creepiest moments in the horror genre. But I am, and I eventually reached a point in The Orphanage when I was considering turning it off. I had just seen everything they were doing so many times before. “Okay, movie,” I muttered. “You need to step up your game. Give me a reason to keep watching.”

OrphanageAnd it did. And it continued to do so every time my interest began to wane.

Simon vanishes after a hurtful fight with his mother and stays vanished through most of the movie. Unraveling the mystery of the orphanage’s haunting becomes instrumental in his recovery, and the central trauma causing it is so extraordinary, so horrific, it’s unreasonable the police seem to know nothing about it, but perhaps that’s my grumpy critical mindset over-ruminating on details. There’s a very nice paranormal research segment featuring Geraldine Chaplin as a medium, and I’ll always like a movie that approaches ghosthunting with a bit of respect, like Legend of Hell House and The Conjuring. Certainly more respect than it accords itself in a half-dozen “reality” TV shows that clogged the airways a few years back.

So I’m glad I gave the movie its ultimatum and it listened. The Orphanage does draw you in and keep you off-kilter with tragedy after tragedy, until its unexpectedly bittersweet ending, with more of an emphasis on the bitter. Not the best ghost story I’ve seen, but a good one.

The Orphanage on Amazon

The ABCs of March 2014 Part Two

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E

F: Following (1998)

followingChristopher Nolan’s first feature film, shot on weekends during his student days, has the whole Nolan package in a trim 70 minutes: duplicitous characters, fluidity of timeline, twists, turns, double crosses, and one hell of a final reveal.

Shot in gloriously grainy black-and-white 16mm, Following is the tale of Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a young aspiring writer who starts following random strangers, observing them and hopefully gleaning some material for his work. Then one of his targets turns the tables on him – Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional thief and amateur philosopher. Cobb takes Bill under his tutelage, burglarizing apartments and disrupting peoples’ lives, telling Bill “You take it away… you show them what they had.” Bill becomes enamored of this lifestyle, becomes involved with one of their victims – and then, things get complicated.

Like the best of Nolan’s work, it’s essential to pay attention while the story works its Byzantine path toward that amazing conclusion. Events are played out-of-order, and quite often an unexplained occurrence is explained several scenes later (there is an alternate edit on the Criterion disc that places events in chronological order, but it seems like that would be much less fun – less of a discovery tingle, there). It’s to Nolan’s credit that everything makes sense at the wrap-up.

Probably the best comparison in Nolan’s filmography is The Prestige – and that is pretty high praise. If you liked one, you’re going to love the other. Highly recommended.

Following on Amazon

G: Ganja & Hess (1973)

gan_hThis wasn’t originally in the plan I mocked up for MMM, but this was picked as the movie in focus for the next Daily Grindhouse podcast, so I slipped it into the G spot (so to speak) instead of Godfather III. Perhaps the Universe was doing me a solid.

This was produced largely as an answer to blaxploitation movies so popular at the time – it is smart, challenging, at times deliberately abtruse. It is a vampire movie that never uses the word “vampire”. It stars Duane Jones, who everybody knows from Night of the Living Dead, and that, along with this movie, should have had Hollywood hammering at his door because good God, is he incredible. Writer/director/actor Bill Gunn was some sort of certifiable genius, to be sure, whose career never really took off, and the color of his skin likely had a lot to do with that.

Ganja and Hess got a standing ovation at Cannes, and proceeded to go absolutely nowhere in America: there is whole lot of odd stuff with Gunn’s character before he goes bullgoose looney and stabs Jones with an ancient dagger that somehow infects him with vampirism, and even then your typical horror movie tropes are few and far between. Most people expecting Blacula Part II probably left the theater in the first 15 minutes.

Ganja01I’m not going into much detail here, saving it for the podcast (listen early and often, my droogs), but we’re currently looking for a copy of Blood Couple, a version recut into a more traditional horror movie form.

Recommended, but be prepared for a challenge. It’s been written that you’re supposed to connect with Ganja & Hess not with your brain, but with your core instincts – and they’re probably right. We needed a lot more from Gunn and Jones; it wasn’t so much that these men were born too early as that America had its head up its ass for too long.

Ganja & Hess on Amazon

No trailer, but have two minutes of typically beautiful strangeness:

H: Harold & Maude (1971)

harold_and_maude_ver3_xlgHarold (Bud Cort) a twenty-something rich young man obsessed with death, has several pastimes, most notably practicing suicide in an effort to get a rise out of his remote mother (Vivian Pickles). During another hobby – attending funerals – he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year-old lady with a contagiously free spirit. She also attends funerals of people she’s never met, but she regards death as only part of a life to be ferociously, and whimsically, lived. This blossoming relationship will change Harold significantly, and shock audiences as the two become lovers.

This is one of the movies on the MMM list that I had already seen, but not since the late 70s. Unsurprisingly, my head’s in a different place some 35 years later, and I noticed some things I had not in my callow youth. Most significantly, the possibility that Maude’s flaunting of the law (“borrowing” cars and in one case almost getting shot by a cop) may not be due to free-wheeling anti-authoritarianism, but the onset of some form of dementia. The hard-edged satire of Harold’s relationships with every other adult in his circle – his mother, psychiatrist, military uncle, various “computer dates” his mother sets up – all seem more than little heavy-handed, but welcome to 1971: this played so well to my generation, it was beyond reproach.

None of this shook my love for the film; if anything, it reminded me how important Hal Ashby’s movies were to me as my tastes and worldview developed, this one and Being There foremost. I settled into it and its Cat Stevens soundtrack (for some reason, over the years I had thought it was Harry Nilsson) like an old, comfortable friend, and finding fresh nuances was delightful. Perhaps the most surprising part was rediscovering how a movie could be simultaneously so challenging and yet so gentle, so black in its humor and yet so sentimental.

Harold & Maude on Amazon

I: Ivan the Terrible, part one (1944)

1944-Ivan-el-terrible-Sergei-M-Eisenstein-espanol-1Well, enough romances, let’s have some blood and thunder. Well. not too much blood and thunder to be found here, but it’s the basis for a lot of it.

Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine worked on retooling the lives of prominent historical Russian figures to better support the Soviet worldview, and for some reason (sarcasm intended) he especially liked Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia for almost forty years, expanded its borders, dragged his country out of the Middle Ages… and killed a whole bunch of people. Sergei Eisenstein. the genius of Russian cinema, undertook the project. It would take three years to shoot, would damn near kill him - he suffered his first heart attack after completing the editing on Part Two, and it certainly killed his career in his native land; Part Two of his epic was banned in Russia until 1958, and the planned third part never lensed.

But we’re here to contemplate the first movie, which is more origin story than anything else, providing the basis for Ivan’s later paranoia and draconian methods. Formerly the Grand Prince of Moscow, he is crowned Tsar of All the Russias at the tender age of 17, and immediately starts making reforms necessary to making Russia an Empire, taxing churches and minimizing the ruling class of Boyars (a flashback demonstrating why Ivan hates the Boyars was excised and placed instead in the reviled Part Two). He puts down a peasant revolt at his own wedding celebration, using only his canny wit, forceful presence, and a timely declaration of war against the Khanate of Kazan.

ivanterHis ultimate triumph over the Khanate is only a small part of the movie – most of it concerns the eddying tides of conspiracy and backbiting around his rule, culminating in the poisoning of his wife by Boyars, which signals the end of his reasonable phase and the beginning of his “Brotherhood of Iron”, a secret army loyal only to him. A brilliant statesman, he retreats to a nearby village and awaits the parade of common folk who beg him to return, one of Eisenstein’s best, most elaborate (and likely most expensive) set-ups.

But that’s the crown jewel in a movie full of tremendous setpieces and striking images. The acting and makeup seem to be still stuck in German Expressionist silent movie mode, but that’s a small thing when presented with such a compelling time capsule – and I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. This part of the saga received a Stalin Prize, which Eisenstein would enjoy for only a year, until the state censors saw its sequel.

Ivan the Terrible on Amazon

No trailer because that would be bourgeois.

J: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

JourneytotheWestConqueringtheDemonsWell, that’s quite a mouthful of a title.

We’re going to go into a couple of autobiographical detours here. First, if you’ve known or read me for any length of time, you know that I loves me some Monkey King. This can be traced back to the deeply strange anime movie Alakazam the Great – deeply weird because the folks involved in dubbing it attempted to Americanize it with great gusto, excising all mention of Buddha or any other Oriental figures. It was based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which is like 3 million pages long, and has been the basis of a lot of movies. One of my favorites is the Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey, of which I have a Canadian blu-ray under the title Monkey MagicDespite my determination to only watch movies I’ve never seen this year, that one gets trotted out frequently.

Secondly: Stephen Chow is a filmmaker I’ve been familiar with for many years. When a mania for Asian movies hit America in the early 90s, Chow’s movies were inevitably swept along, only to be met with confusion. I recall one critic bemoaning “some of the best action sequences in Hong Kong cinema” watered down by “goofy comedy”. I’m just going to point out that criticism was also leveled at Jackie Chan’s movies, then move along. Chow was enamored of word play, and the polytonal nature of the major Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, provided rich opportunities for that – opportunities that did not translate well into English. Still movies like the Royal Tramp series and King of Beggars had their fans… and then Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle hit, and Stephen Chow started clicking with American audiences.

journeywest1So now, here’s a combination of the two: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a “Gathering the Team” type version of the novel, a prequel of sorts, especially if you don’t mind messing with the original source material. I haven’t even read Arthur Whaley’s acclaimed abridged translation, so I’m not in the position to judge.

Our main character is novice demon hunter Zhang (Wen Zhang) whose methods of appealing to demons’ better nature is ineffective, to say the least. Constantly upstaged by the more proactive Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who is increasingly smitten with the young monk, Zhang is advised to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo) for aid in defeating the Pig Demon, currently running amok and too strong to capture.

There is going to be plenty of goofy comedy, but that long-ago critic was right about Chow’s action sequences: they are amazing, varied and entertaining. Throw in rival demon hunters like Prince Important and the Almighty Foot, and a portrayal of the Monkey King so duplicitous and savage that you finally understand why Buddha stuck him under a mountain for 500 years, and you have one crackerjack Chinese fantasy, no matter how many liberties taken.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Amazon


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