Before The Gold Rush

I’m going on yelp and giving this new flu a bad review.

The last couple of weeks have been a delirious fever dream, as I pretty much lived on Dayquil and sugar-free cough drops. I punked out of work when I could, but most of the time I couldn’t. The most amazing bit, to me, was when my church asked for my voice at two Easter services and if I felt too bad I didn’t have to do it but could I please also do a rehearsal on Saturday morning, too? After the rehearsal, one musician reportedly said, “Darth Vader just opened our service.” Yeah, I sounded profoundly sepulchral. No problem hitting those low notes. I radiated gravitas. And phlegm.

caught fluSo after Easter weekend – when I did the Show, and the services, and made homemade chicken soup because I was the mobile one in Plague Central – I took Monday off, and then a surprising thing happened. Exhaustion took its toll and I actually slept through Monday night, awakening only occasionally to cough up a piece of lung. I felt good enough to go into work, pound that week’s story into shape and submit it before the deadline, go home, nap, go do audio support for that evening’s Economic Development Corporation meeting (honestly, I have watched un-subtitled Mandarin movies that were more comprehensible to me), slept again, and felt almost human Wednesday. Which is good, because I had a traveling show at a refinery in Deer Park (and it’s always good before a show to receive that little lecture about what to do if there were some sort of catastrophic accident while we were there), then run home, change clothes, and do a remote broadcast that evening.

I felt good enough that I won’t even mention that the remote was for a Candidate Debate between folks running for School Board and City Council positions. No, what I’m actually not going to mention is that one of the Council candidates was sick, so we had a Candidate Debate with one participant. That was good TV.

death1Oh, yeah, I watched some movies while I was sick, too.

First up was Death Promise, an odd little homegrown kung fu revenge flick from 1977. This was nowhere near as bad as I was told, and I found it pretty entertaining. Okay, admittedly the boom mike should have gotten a credit. Indications are we’re going to devote a Daily Grindhouse Podcast to it, so I’ll leave my blithering to that, and leave you with this truly remarkable fight scene, including a bad guy whose ki-ya sounds like an asthmatic cat who’s smoked too many cigars:

And oh yeah, ignore them. Buy this fine movie at Amazon.com.

Speaking of the podcast, one of the best things it turned me onto was the delightfully insane, inept-in-all-the-right-ways movie Raw Force, aka Kung Fu Cannibals. This was the first of two movies directed by Edward D. Murphy. We were all curious about his second, and last directorial effort, Heated Vengeance, but I was apparently the only one who cared enough to do something about it.

In other words, I took a bullet for the team.

heated-vengeance-movie-poster-1985-1020693907In the three years between Raw Force and Heated Vengeance, Murphy learned a few things, and got a better budget together. This is obvious from the very first scene, which depicts a Viet Cong attack on an American firebase in Laos. Richard Hatch is there as our heroic commanding officer, Joe Hoffman, who gets wounded and choppered away from his native translator lady love Michelle (Jolina Mitchell-Collins). Hoffman gets sent back to the States and his wife, and years later he returns to Thailand, newly divorced and looking for Michelle, now a doctor, and what could be his son. Too bad he runs into Larry Bingo (Ron Max), a guy in his command who was getting sent up the river for raping a native girl, but escaped during that expensive Cong attack we keep flashing back to. Bingo kidnaps Hoffman, takes him to his drug production base (set up in Hoffman’s abandoned army camp), intending to wreak some heated vengeance. Hoffman escapes, and goddammit, we’re watching The Most Dangerous Game again.

There is surprisingly little action in this action movie; there’s a lot of talk, though. Murphy still likes his villains kind of colorful, and Bingo leaves no scenery unchewed. Among his henchmen are Michael J. Pollard, being very Michael J. Pollard-y, and Robert Walker Jr., an unfortunate actor who Hollywood just never figured out what to so with. Things don’t start getting really weird until about the last twenty minutes or so when the wounded Hoffman is taken in by some Laotian natives, and Michelle and his son track him down with the help of a friendly traveling toilet salesman (a pretty welcome Dennis Patrick). By this time, Bingo is down to a flamethrower and Michael J. Pollard, and there is an explosive finale which Murphy could not have possible been able to afford, but he goes ahead and tries to do it anyway, which was the Edward D. Murphy I had been looking for all along.

heatedvengeance5big

“Wha? Heated? Vengeance? That’s a thing?”

It is a very good vehicle for Richard Hatch, though: he does the everyman with his back against the wall bit pretty well. But honestly, I spent a lot of time in this flick checking how many minutes it had left, and that is never a good thing.

So how do I recover from the disappointment of not finding another Raw Force? I watch Boardinghouse, because I’m an idiot.

I was pretty much unaware that Boardinghouse  even existed before noted sociopath Joe Cosby forced me to watch Things for Daily Grindhouse Podcast Mark I, and evidence showed that Things was inspired by Boardinghouse, at the time the most successful made-for-video Canadian movie evar. The video was apparently even transferred to 35mm for a theatrical release.

Huh.

boarding-house-movie-poster-1982-1020230391After an opening where we find out the titular house has a history of violent deaths (one involves an incredibly effective garbage disposal), most of which can seemingly be traced to a telekinetic sibling who’s committed to a mental hospital for life. The house eventually devolves to Jim Royce, who opens it as an all-female boardinghouse, with him as live-in landlord, figuring that this will be the ticket to a “bachelor’s paradise”. This means that he will soon be banging each and every one of his tenants, when he’s not meditating on his desk in his underpants, honing his telekinetic skills.

That’s right, there are two telekinetics in this movie, soon to be three when Jim teaches Debbie (Lyndsay Freeman) his methods. Good thing, too, because the original TK escapes from the hospital after forcing a woman to hang herself and a man’s intestines to jump outside his body.

vlcsnap-2012-07-07-23h03m57s59The women in the Boardinghouse are about as well written as your typical frat house movie, which is to say they are not written at all, and they appear to have little inclination or ability to be anything more than casually catty and evil to each other. There is an Asian girl who mysteriously vanishes after her sex scene – and it’s not like when another girl vanishes and it’s part of the plot, no, she just ceases to be. There is also a black girl, but we only see her when she’s going to work (and she’s the only one who appears to do so, so I guess that should be counted as a positive character trait). Well. she does show up at the big party scene at the end just in time to get killed, but – groundbreaker! – the black character isn’t the first one to get killed! Admittedly, it’s because she hasn’t been around for most of the movie, but still…

Maybe these two ladies have expanded roles in the Director’s Cut, which is  apparently a full hour longer, but I don’t care. I JUST DON’T CARE.

I will give it this: Boardinghouse tries to outdo Rock N’ Roll Nightmare in the bizarre, terminally-silly-ending-that-is-supposed-to-be-terrifying department, and it certainly gives Jon Mikl Thor a run for his money. This amazingly dark trailer should give you an idea of the visual splendor of the movie:

Folks, video equipment doesn’t do well in low light environments, unless you know what you’re doing, and even then... And oh, yes, “Horror Vision”. When you hear a sound and see a black glove, you’re supposed to close your eyes. It’s like Chamber of Horrors‘ Horror Horn and Fear Flasher, except the makers of Boardinghouse get tired of the gimmick about 45 minutes in and forget about it. Maybe it shows up in the last few minutes, but you know… care. Did not.

Folks, I watch a lot of crap like this. No dilettante I, I have seen shit that would turn you white. After a while, it gets to you, it really does. This is why I take off May and watch movies on my Wall of Shame, movies I should have watched years ago, almost all taken from Roger Ebert’s Great Movies List. At a low ebb, I kicked this off early and knocked one of those bricks off the wall: I watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

I hear many of you screeching about the whiplash injuries incurred by that sudden turnaround in quality. Fine. We’ll leave that for next time.

 

 

 

 

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