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

The ABCs of March, 2014 Part One

Just as I did last year, I am again doing the March Movie Madness challenge. This was started on the 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)

AmHippieThis 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.

AmHippie2Everything 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.

An American Hippie in Israel on Amazon

B: Battleship (2012)

Battleship-Movie-Poster-image-credit-DisneyDreaming.com_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.

BattleshipMy 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.

Battleship on Amazon

C: Children of Men (2006)

children-of-menThis 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.

ChoMThe 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.

Children of Men on Amazon

D: Dementia (1955)

dementia_poster_01Another 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.

daughtercropDementia 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.

Dementia on Amazon

E: Eating Raoul (1982)

eating-raoul-movie-poster-1982-1020198520I 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.

eatingraoulEating 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.

Film_625w_EatingRaoul_originalHow 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.

Eating Raoul on Amazon