Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
April 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011
Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun.

I had considered closing out my week of stop-motion wonders with Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans, but instead, as a kind of April Fool's treat I went with Sam Raimi's 1992 cult favorite Army of Darkness, which is less a sequel to the first two Evil Dead movies than an action-adventure film in the Harryhausen mold. The key difference, of course, is that the hero of the film -- Bruce Campbell's Ash Williams -- isn't always as heroic as he could be and at times is quicker with a cutting remark than a courageous deed. Army of Darkness is also much more overtly comedic than its predecessors (which have their humorous moments, but not to the same degree) and less reliant on blood and gore (yet it still managed to get an R rating, which must have rankled Raimi). Regardless, horror fans still embraced it and a goodly amount of its quotable dialogue entered the cultural lexicon. People may have called things "groovy" before Ash manufactured his own replacement mechanical hand, but now when they do they're more apt to be trotting out their Bruce Campbell impression. I know I've done it.

I realize I haven't said much about the plot, but much like the Harryhausen films Raimi's emulating here, it's mostly an excuse to string together a series of action sequences (some of which cross the line into outright slapstick). I also haven't mentioned the supporting cast, which is headed up by a pre-Schindler's List Embeth Davidtz as Ash's love interest and features cameos by Bridget Fonda (who fills the role of his girlfriend in the opening flashback) and Ted Raimi (who actually plays three separate roles -- two of them in the same scene!). I chalk this up to the notion that Army of Darkness has such a built-in cult at this point -- either you work your way forward from The Evil Dead or you work your way back from the Spider-Man movies -- that a plot summary is largely superfluous. All you need to know is if you want to shop smart, then shop S-Mart. And the only good Deadite is a dead Deadite.

Saturday, April 2, 2011
How can you sit there so calmly and check box office receipts after that horrible catastrophe?

In the twilight of her screen career Joan Crawford starred in a pair of clunkers for producer Herman Cohen, both of which co-starred Michael Gough, who just recently passed away at the age of 94. The second was her swansong, the infamous Trog, but before that came 1967's Berserk, which was the backup feature to last weekend's TCM Underground film, Carnival Magic (which I decided to skip because life is too short to spend any of it on Al Adamson movies).

Written by Cohen and his regular collaborator Aben Kandel (they were responsible for I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga, among others) and directed by Jim O'Connolly, Berserk is about a traveling circus that's having a bad season when a fatal high-wire accident causes admissions to spike, which pleases co-owner and ringmaster Crawford but unnerves her partner and business manager (Gough), who wants out and gets his wish when he becomes the film's second victim. As the old maxim goes, though, the show must go on and Crawford quickly finds a new star attraction in a brash American tightrope walker (Ty Hardin) with a dark secret in his past and the burning desire to get into her pants. She's all business, though, which puts her performers on edge since they don't know who's going to be murdered next and loudmouthed slut Diana Dors is intent on slandering the boss every chance she gets. (Anybody who's surprised when Dors later bites the dust during her act, which involves being sawed in half, obviously isn't paying enough attention.)

Not content to stick with the characters and subplots it starts out with, Berserk eventually adds a fastidious Scotland Yard detective (Robert Hardy) and Crawford's daughter Angela (Judy Geeson), who was expelled from her finishing school for disobedience. Good thing the circus never wants for warm bodies, although mother is somewhat dismayed when Geeson volunteers to be the knife-thrower's assistant. Everything comes to a head on the night of the circus's London premiere, but the filmmakers are in no big hurry to wrap things up since they see fit to include an entire song performed by the troupe's resident strong man, dwarf, bearded lady and human skeleton. Loads of time is also killed thanks to the inclusion of various circus acts featuring elephants, horses, poodles, aerialists and lions -- not to mention the parade of performers from the Billy Smart Circus, which stands in for Crawford's troupe throughout the film. As for the identity of the murderer, I wouldn't dream of coming right out and saying who it is (like the film's Wikipedia entry does), but if you read between the lines you should be able to figure it out.

Everyone needs a plot of land -- a place one can call one's own.

I hadn't planned on taking a two-month break from Fassbinder at the end of January, but that's what wound up happening. To get back into the swing of things, this afternoon I watched Rio das Mortes, one of five films he made that were released in 1971. His third television film (the first two -- 1970's The Coffee House and The Niklashausen Journey -- have so far proved elusive), Rio das Mortes is about a couple of dumbasses (apprentice tiler Michael König and door-to-door salesman Günther Kaufmann) who dream of going to Peru to look for buried treasure. Naturally, this doesn't sit too well with König's girlfriend (Hanna Schygulla) since she's planning on marrying the guy, but once they commit to their crackpot scheme there's no stopping them from trying to bring it to fruition (despite the ample evidence that they don't know the first thing about how to do that).

As with a lot of Fassbinder's work from this period, the supporting cast is filled with a lot of familiar faces from his other films. In particular, I picked out Kurt Raab (who does not run amok) as a chatty gas station attendant and Ulli Lommel as an auto dealer who buys König's car for a pittance and then jacks up the price the moment he walks off the lot. And Fassbinder himself puts in an appearance as a man who dances exuberantly with Schygulla in a bar while König and Kaufmann watch from the sidelines, glumly bemoaning their failure to make any progress. Which is just as well because once they get to Peru they'll probably be just as clueless -- maybe even more so. For one thing, the actual Rio das Mortes is in Brazil.

Sunday, April 3, 2011
Is there anywhere we can be happy behind the backs of people who trust us?

Just as there is a wide gulf between the New York City of the 1970s and the city of the 1870s, the Martin Scorsese who made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is far removed from the one who brought Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence to the screen in 1993. Working with such distinguished collaborators as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, composer Elmer Bernstein, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and screenwriter Jay Cocks (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script with him), Scorsese proved that he was just as adept at navigating the ins and outs of high society as he was at relating to the average palooka on the street. In a way, this film can be seen as something of a companion to Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which was made a decade later but is set the decade before.

Narrated by Joanne Woodward, The Age of Innocence takes place in "a world balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper." More specifically, it's set in the world of well-heeled lawyer Daniel Day-Lewis, who is engaged to the very traditional Winona Ryder but becomes besotted with her cousin, the unconventional and fiercely independent Michelle Pfeiffer, whose scandalous marriage to a Polish count has made her a social pariah. (Of the three of them, it seems odd that Ryder was the only one nominated for an Academy Award -- for Best Supporting Actress -- but Day-Lewis wasn't entirely bereft since he received a Best Actor nod for In the Name of the Father.) The uniformly excellent supporting cast includes Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Gough (making the most of his small but pivotal role), Richard E. Grant, Mary Beth Hurt, Robert Sean Leonard, Miriam Margolyes (who practically steals the film as Ryder's dowager grandmother) and Jonathan Pryce, with Scorsese himself as a wedding photographer. Alas, the film's failure to recoup its budget may have prevented him from attempting any further period pieces (at least in the short run), but he already had his star when it came time to get the Gangs back together.

I'd like to tell a little beach love story.

I didn't get to see Agnès Varda's documentary The Beaches of Agnès when it was released a few years back, but thanks to IU Cinema, which programmed it as the final film in its "Women of French Cinema" series, I was given a second chance to catch it on the big screen. Completed in 2008 (the year Varda turned 80), it is a cinematic self-portrait of a singular talent who turned her eye for photography into a passion for the art of filmmaking. A woman working in a man's field (or what men would like to think of as their domain), Varda's first feature actually preceded the French New Wave by several years, but it was her second, 1962's Cleo from 5 to 7, that established her as a director to be reckoned with. If she isn't as well-known in the States as she should be, it's not due to lack of talent, that's for sure.

If I had to pick one word to describe The Beaches of Agnès, it would probably be "whimsical." How else should one approach a film that opens with its director setting up a menagerie of mirrors on the beach to capture images of the ocean as the tide comes in? If I were allowed two, though, I would have to add "heartbreaking," especially when Varda deals with the memories of her husband Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. Thankfully, she has carried on (her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I has now rocketed to the top of my "to see" list) and continues to create and inspire. The world will most assuredly be poorer when she is no longer in it.

Monday, April 4, 2011
These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams.

Well, it had to happen sometime. After steadfastly avoiding them for the past few years, I have finally seen my first 3-D movie. However, it was not an Avatar or a Drive Angry or a Thor that I lost my 3-D cherry to, but rather Werner Herzog's new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which would be stunning in any of a number of dimensions. And the best part is, I got to see it for free courtesy of IU Cinema, which is really hitting it out of the park with its programming this semester. Even better, tonight was the film's first non-festival screening in North America, in advance of its general release at the end of the month. (Don't know if this was the distributor's intention or not, but it's safe to say that it will encourage a lot of positive word-of-mouth -- this review included.)

I didn't know much about Chauvet Cave in southern France going into the film, but the fact that it contains the oldest known cave paintings in the world makes it an ideal subject for Herzog, who's long been interested in the stories people tell each other. As usual, Herzog narrates the film, frequently injecting his idiosyncratic point of view into the proceedings, but there are just as many times when the camera pans over the paintings and he lets them speak for themselves. As for his use of 3-D, it helps that he doesn't resort to too many gimmick shots. (I can count on one hand the number of times when it called attention to itself in any way.) Rather, the 3-D is there to lend depth to what is already there. What a concept!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011
When you let go of my hand, it is as if we were a thousand miles apart.

Decided to follow up Cave of Forgotten Dreams with Werner Herzog's first feature-length documentary, 1971's Land of Silence and Darkness, which is about the plight of the deaf-blind in German society. Written, produced and directed by Herzog (who let somebody else handle the narration duties), the film is centered on Fini Straubinger, an extraordinary deaf-blind woman in her fifties who spends much of her time visiting others who share her condition so she can attempt to communicate with them and overcome their profound sense of isolation. She also dispels some misconceptions about what it means to be deaf and blind (she didn't lose her sight and hearing until she was in her teens, so she had a distinct advantage over those who are born without those senses). The moments that stand out, though, are when Straubinger and her companions visit a botanical garden to touch the plants (including some cacti) and a zoo to interact with the animals. Definitely a film that makes one think about the things one takes for granted.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
These are the outtakes, you know. The bloopers.

Based on subject matter alone, one of last year's most unlikely films had to be Chris Morris's Four Lions, a pitch-black comedy about a quartet of bumbling British jihadists who seem decidedly ill-prepared to wage holy war, but give it their best shot anyway. (In a lot of ways, it's like a remake of Fassbinder's
The Third Generation that's been updated for the post-9/11 era.) Indeed, when we first meet them they're squabbling over the video message being recorded by one of their dimmer members (Kayvan Novak), who's easily swayed by his best friend, family man Riz Ahmed. Clearly the most levelheaded of the bunch, Ahmed also has his hands full with the other members of his cell, loose cannon Nigel Lindsay (a white convert to radical Islam who proves time and again that he is a major liability) and the excessively nervous Adeel Akhtar, and is understandably miffed when Lindsay recruits a fifth member (Arsher Ali) who seems more influenced by hip-hop than the prophet Muhammad.

As in The Third Generation, things turn deadly for the would-be terrorists the more committed they become to their mission, but the gags never stop coming. Even Ahmed's wife (Preeya Kalidas) takes the whole business in stride, telling him he was "much more fun" when he was going to blow himself up. Whether audiences will feel the same way is hard to judge, but there were plenty of people who thought Dr. Strangelove was in poor taste when Kubrick made that at the height of the Cold War -- and that's a film that ends with nuclear Armageddon. In comparison, the feeble efforts of Morris's disorganized suicide bombers hardly amount to a hill of beans.

Thursday, April 7, 2011
I'm enjoyin' what they call the golden years 'cause I can function yet like a man.

When Criterion added Terry Zwigoff's Crumb to the Collection last year, it was joined by the director's first documentary, Louie Bluie, which was made in 1985. An idiosyncratic portrait of country-blues and string band musician Howard Armstrong, who was 75 at the time of filming, the hour-long film captures the Tennessee-born renaissance man (in addition to playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, he's also a talented visual artist) as he reminisces about old times and performs with his contemporaries, who are often just as colorful as he is. It's easy to see why Zwigoff found Armstrong such a fascinating subject -- and I'm sure he'll have plenty more to say about him on the audio commentary.

Friday, April 8, 2011
There is landscape even without deeper meaning.

If there is a filmmaker who seems to have no qualms about putting himself in harm's way for the sake of getting a film made, it's Werner Herzog. Case in point: his 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, which was shot in and around the burning oil fields of Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. As one might expect, he has an unusual slant on the material, narrating as if he's exploring an alien world (when he's not reading from the Book of Revelation, that is). Progressing from barren desert landscapes to the interior of a torture chamber (where he refrains from commenting while the camera pans over the tables of torture implements), the camera swoops over lakes of oil before reaching the fields where fires burn uncontrollably, black smoke pouring into the air. Settling in, Herzog keeps his distance, declining to individualize any of the workmen trying to reclaim the wells. It's a dirty, dangerous job, but somebody's gotta do it -- and if they're going to do it dressed in dehumanizing protective suits, all the better.

Surprisingly enough, Lessons of Darkness was not the first film where Herzog planned to impose a science fiction narrative on documentary footage of barren landscapes. That was actually 1971's Fata Morgana, which was shot in and around the Sahara Desert but dropped the otherworldly trappings early on. Unmoored from any sense of narrative flow or forward momentum, the film (whose title means "mirage") is divided into three sections, each with a different narrator. (He isn't credited as such, but I imagine Herzog takes us through the second part, which is about a "Paradise" of sorts. Sample quote: "In Paradise, you cross the sand without seeing your shadow.") Herzog even manages to slip in a couple shots of burning oil wells off in the distance, but the camera spends more time lingering over dead animals and listening to a scientist who's studying the monitor lizard (whose spiritual brother is the marine biologist tormenting a turtle at the close of the film). Then there's the bizarre musical act in the third section which should be enough to convince anyone that Herzog's sense of humor had not deserted him.

Saturday, April 9, 2011
I am not responsible for anyone that comes here without invitation.

I wasn't terribly surprised to learn of Elizabeth Taylor's passing a couple weeks back (not after she had been ill for so long), but I did kick myself for not watching one of her films the weekend before as I had originally planned. That film was 1968's Boom! -- one I had recently found at IU library, which was a godsend since I've been wanting to see it ever since I read that it's one of John Waters's favorite films of all time. (It's not for nothing that its poster is displayed prominently in both Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos.) A true camp classic in every sense of the term, Boom! was written by Tennessee Williams, based on his unsuccessful play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, and directed by Joseph Losey, who was to direct Taylor in Secret Ceremony later that same year. This time out, though, she also had her then-husband Richard Burton by her side -- just one of many miscalculations since his part was originally written for a much younger man. Then again, Taylor's was written for a much older woman -- one who's been married six times before and outlived all of her husbands. No wonder she could relate.

I wonder if, in her last days, Taylor thought about this film at all since it opens with her character convulsing in bed while receiving a back massage and ends with her flat on her back in the same bed with Burton hovering over her, divesting her of all of her jewelry while her mortal coil shuffles off. In between, we see how her servants -- virtual prisoners on her private island -- cater to her every wish and listen to her dictate her memoirs to her personal secretary (Joanna Shimkus), frequently over the intercom system and at all hours of the day and night. Taylor also has a personal physician, a midget bodyguard (Michael Dunn) who commands a pack of cute but vicious guard dogs, a pair of sitar players, and -- with Burton's arrival -- a professional house guest. The other major character is the so-called Witch of Capri (Noel Coward in fine form) who is invited to dinner and warns Taylor that her house guest, in addition to being a failed poet and mobile-maker, has earned the nickname "the Angel of Death" for his habit of turning up on the doorsteps of terminally ill women. Well, everybody's got to have a hobby.

I freely admit I haven't watched too many of Taylor's films (as a matter of fact, I can still count them on one hand), but in this one she gives one of the most hysterical performances I've ever seen. As for Burton, he's admirably low-key, even when he's prowling around Taylor's house in a samurai's kimono (complete with sword, both provided by his host) and Williams's dialogue is at its ripest. (For example, when he speaks the title aloud, he goes on to explain that it is "the shock of each moment of still being alive.") In retrospect, it's not hard to see why audiences didn't flock to it at the time, but perhaps now a DVD release would inspire more people to check it out. Somebody get on that.

When there's no war, you have to make one.

When I attended HorrorHound Weekend last month, the last thing I expected to find was somebody selling Fassbinder DVD sets, but I did, and I wound up buying one because it contained a film (1971's Whity) that is no longer available through Netflix. Before I watch that, though, there's the small matter of the other film in the set, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, which was made for television the same year. Adapted by Fassbinder from the play by Marieluise Fleisser (which dates back to the '20s), the film is about a terminally shy, hopelessly virginal maid (Hanna Schygulla) who finds herself abandoned by her more experienced friend (Irm Hermann) when a group of army engineers comes to town, ostensibly to build a bridge. Schygulla falls for a private (Harry Baer) who has a habit of sleeping around and knocking up girls wherever he goes, while Hermann sleeps with soldiers for money, earning the enmity of a nice girl (Carla Egerer) who worries about their reputations.

Meanwhile, Schygulla's employer (Walter Sedlmayr) pushes his son (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) to make a play for her and even promises to buy him a car if he beds her. And Baer, through no fault of his own, manages to land in hot water with his sergeant (Klaus Löwitsch), creating a situation that eventually spills over to his whole platoon (whose ranks include Günther Kaufmann). Baer's not the only disgruntled one, though. "A real war would be better than what we have now," Kaufmann grumbles. "At least you'd know you were someone when you died." Kind of makes you wonder what his hurry is.

Where did the feathered appendage come from?

It's been instructive observing the progression of Bill Plympton's animated features from the early days of The Tune (a poorly disguised series of standalone shorts) and I Married a Strange Person! (uneven, but very funny) to the more recent Mutant Aliens (better-paced, a stronger story and even funnier) and Hair High (a delight from beginning to end). Hair High even boasted a voice cast full of name actors, so it's disappointing that it never got a wide release. (I was at the film's premiere at the Philadelphia International Film Festival where Plympton expressed his hopes that it would.) Now, seven years later, I've gotten to see his latest feature, Idiots and Angels, which started bouncing around the festival circuit in 2008 on its way to what could charitably be called an extremely limited release. I'm just glad that, thanks to the Ryder, Bloomington was one of its stops.

Eschewing dialogue completely, Plympton relies on his often-surreal visuals, creative scene transitions, sound effects and music to tell the story of an utter bastard named Angel (a typical day at the "office" involves staying holed up in a dive bar where he sells illegal guns) who spontaneously grows a pair of wings overnight. After he finds out they come back no matter how many times he hacks them off, Angel also discovers that his wings have a mind of their own and they seem most intent on making him do good deeds (or, rather, preventing him from doing bad ones). From there, the story takes some dark and unexpected turns, but Plympton makes sure the pace never flags and the eye-popping animation keeps popping. No matter the subject, it's always a treat to see what his twisted imagination will come up with next.

Sunday, April 10, 2011
Can we send this sort of man out into the field to represent our society?

Vincent van Gogh has been portrayed on the silver screen many times over the years, but never more famously than he was by Kirk Douglas in 1956's Lust for Life. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film borders on the melodramatic at times, but that's largely because Douglas seems to revel in playing the role of the tortured artist to the hilt. It was a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but Anthony Quinn was the one who took home the Oscar for his supporting role as Van Gogh's friend and artistic rival, Paul Gauguin, with whom he had many violent disagreements. The film also delves into van Gogh's contentious relationship with his minister father, his obsessive need to perfect his technique, and the trouble his art dealer brother Theo (James Donald) had selling his work during his lifetime. The thing is, at the rate Vincent was pumping paintings out, Theo would have always had a ready supply of them if he had had any takers.

At the screening I attended this afternoon, the film was introduced (at great length, I might add) by a professor and film scholar who asserted that Lust for Life is the best film about van Gogh. Me, I would give the edge to Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo, which is a somewhat curious position to take considering Altman didn't have permission to show any of the artist's paintings on screen. Minnelli, on the other hand, fills the frame with them at regular intervals and also includes numerous scenes in the narrative that are direct recreations of his canvases. It's an interesting effect, but it doesn't give us any more insight into the artist. Advantage: Altman.

He was as normal as pumpkin pie and now look at him.

On the audio commentary for The Friends of Eddie Coyle, director Peter Yates mentioned that the three films he was most proud of were Bullitt, Eddie Coyle and the 1979 coming of age film Breaking Away, which was shot on location in Bloomington. Now that I've lived here for four years I figured it was high time I gave it another look, especially since IU Cinema chose to screen a 35mm print of the film in advance of this year's "Little 500" race. Written by IU alumnus Steve Tesich (who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), the film follows four townies (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) who have been set adrift after graduating from high school without many prospects.

Of the four of them, Christopher is the main protagonist, a cycling enthusiast whose love for all things Italian irks his father (Paul Dooley), a used car salesman, and befuddles his mother (Barbara Barrie). He also poses as an Italian exchange student to woo a pretty co-ed (Robyn Douglass), which actually goes pretty well until the truth comes out. (I also spotted P.J. Soles, who was Quaid's wife at the time, as one of Douglass's sorority sisters.) In the end all roads lead to the Little 500, where Christopher and the other townies prove that they have what it takes to compete against the college teams. Even if they didn't win, that would still count as a victory for them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Look, there's somebody important over there.

If ever there were a Jacques Tati film that cried out to be seen on the big screen, it would be 1967's Playtime, which was shot in 70mm and used the format to its fullest extent. Alas, that is not an option for me at present, but I sincerely hope it will be at some point in the future. (Perhaps I can petition IU Cinema to have a Tati festival.) It's a film that was long in the works (it came out nearly a decade after the release of Mon Oncle) and was Tati's most ambitious statement about the rampant depersonalization in highly modernized French society. This theme is perhaps best illustrated by an early scene where Tati's perpetually befuddled Monsieur Hulot enters a forbidding office building and the doorman has some difficulty working the intercom system to announce him. "All these electrical thingamajigs!" the beleaguered man moans. "You gotta be careful with all these buttons." It's easy to come away with the impression that the man (who is unmistakably getting up in years) has been severely reprimanded in the past for pushing the wrong ones.

For a film that can go for long stretches without so much as a line of dialogue, Playtime is packed to the gills with visual jokes and physical comedy -- and not all of it is performed by Tati, who introduced a number of "faux Hulots" into the mix to keep audiences on their toes. If there's one thing the film doesn't have, it's a strong plot, but it's not like it needs one. (After all, this was the film where Tati gave himself time to play.) There's a running gag about Hulot's attempts to meet with a man at the office and getting stymied at every turn, and a series of vignettes about a gaggle of American tourists (including a girl, played by Barbara Dennek, who is always lagging behind and manages to catch Hulot's eye) whose whirlwind tour of Paris seems to miss every significant cultural landmark. (The Eiffel Tower is glimpsed once, but only as a reflection in one of the many glass doors in the film.) Eventually, everything and everybody ends up at the shambolic opening night of a fancy restaurant where the gags pile up so fast it's impossible to catch them all. Good thing Tati is the kind of filmmaker who makes you want to try.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011
That car is specially designed, a product of French imagination!

For his fourth and final film as Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati sent his signature character out to play in 1971's Trafic. He also gave him an occupation as the designer of a tricked-out camper van that runs into numerous delays en route to an auto show in Amsterdam. First, the truck it's being transported in keeps breaking down, then it gets held up in customs because its paperwork isn't in order, and finally it's in a multi-car pile-up that results in some superficial damage that needs to be repaired. As if that wasn't enough, Tati and his driver (Marcel Fravel) are dogged by the company's American PR flack (Maria Kimberly), who's a menace to herself and others whenever she gets behind the wheel of her own speedster.

Along the way, Tati takes time out to observe drivers in the native habitat, doing the sorts of things that people do when they think nobody's looking. And he has the action run concurrently with a lunar mission which is glimpsed on television at various points. If the comedy doesn't seem as sharp as it had been in his previous films, that probably has a lot to do with this one's road-movie format, which serves to space out the gags. Robbed of some of his ambition by Playtime's failure at the box office, it's hard to fault Tati (who, it must be said, was visibly getting up in years) if his heart just wasn't in this one to the same degree.

Friday, April 15, 2011
You are on my foot.

After retiring Monsieur Hulot in Trafic, Jacques Tati made one final feature, 1974's Parade, for Swedish television. Unlike his earlier films, which were built around a theme or location, Parade is a fairly straightforward filmed record of a series of circus acts with Tati acting as master of ceremonies. In between he also does a number of his old music-hall routines, including bits where he mimes being a goalie, a boxer, a fisherman, a tennis player, a horseman and a traffic cop. As for the circus folk, their performances are amusing for the most part (I especially liked the dueling magicians), but I have to wonder why so many musical acts are bunched together in the second half of the program. For that matter, I question why a rock band would be playing in a circus in the first place. (If you have any doubts about when this film was shot, all you have to do is take a gander at the bell bottoms on the dancers during this segment.)

I do like the framing device of opening with the audience arriving for the show and then getting up and leaving at the end. There's even an intermission where they go out to the lobby to buy ice cream and drinks, which allows Tati to slip in a couple of extra gags. He also includes numerous cutaways to two small children -- a boy and a girl -- in the audience who stick around after the show's over and play with some of the props. I suppose that was Tati's way of saying it's up to the next generation to pick up where he left off -- all they need is a little initiative.

Saturday, April 16, 2011
We found something strange up there, sir.

Completed this month's Kryptic Army mission (marking the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, which occurred on April 12, 1961) with a double feature of horror films that take place in space. First up was 1958's It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which many take to be the primary inspiration for Alien since it's about a bloodthirsty Martian that stows away on board a spaceship and goes about methodically wiping out the crew. Apart from a couple of exposition-heavy scenes that take place on Earth, the entire story (which is set in the year 1973) plays out on the trip home after the sole survivor of the first mission to Mars (Marshall Thompson) has been rescued. The trouble for Thompson is he's facing a court martial since it's believed he murdered the other nine members of his crew after their ship crash landed on the planet. (Don't pretend you wouldn't jump to the same conclusion.)

In addition to Thompson, the rescue ship also picks up the titular rubber-suited monster (played by veteran stunt man Ray "Crash" Corrigan) when the airlock is accidentally left open just before takeoff. (Isn't that always the way?) The ship's captain (Kim Spalding) is determined to get a confession out of Thompson ("There's only one kind of a monster that uses bullets," he says), but at least one crew member (Shirley Patterson, a former Miss California appearing in her final film) has her doubts about his guilt. Of course, that all falls by the wayside when the Terror from Beyond Space comes out of Its hiding place and starts eliminating them one by one. The way director Edward L. Cahn shoots the creature, though, it's a while before we get a good look at It. First we see Its scaly feet, then a clawed hand. Then It's glimpsed in silhouette, in deep shadow and through smoke. All the while, the crew discovers to their dismay that grenades and bullets can't kill It and electricity and radiation only make It madder. Say, do you think opening the airlock might be the solution? I wonder...

For the bottom half of the bill, I went with The Green Slime, which was the backup feature on TCM Underground last weekend. Made in 1968, the U.S./Japanese co-production was directed by Kinji Fukasaku the same year he made Black Lizard (which may explain why it lapses into camp so readily) and was filmed in Japan with a mostly American cast headed up by Robert Horton as an astronaut sent into space to blow up an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. (Say, that doesn't sound familiar at all, does it?) In order to get the job done he has to step on the toes of U.N. space station commander Richard Jaeckel, his former best friend and the current lover of his ex-girlfriend (Italian bombshell Luciana Paluzzi), a doctor on board the station. But who cares about their dumb love triangle? Bring on the Green Slime already!

As one might expect, the slime in question is a kind of sentient goo on the doomed asteroid that hitches a ride on board Horton's ship and feeds on energy which causes it to grow and eventually becomes a horde of one-eyed monsters scampering around, their electrified tentacles flailing. (Hey, I think I've just discovered the source of Japanese tentacle porn.) Like the creature from my first film, the Green Slime isn't able to be killed with conventional weapons (in fact, spilling its green blood only gives rise to more creatures), which forces Horton to call for the wholesale evacuation and destruction of the space station, an order that doesn't sit too well with Jaeckel but he doesn't have a whole lot of say in the matter. Before all is said and done, the two of them reach a state of mutual respect in the name of alien extermination, but since Sixties society didn't believe in threesomes, one of them has to kick the bucket so the other can live happily ever after with doctor bombshell. Does it really matter who, though? Let's be honest.

Let me show you something really swift -- a new world!

Next weekend IU Cinema is having a special screening of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, so tonight I played catch-up with the first two parts of the series. Made in 1989, Tetsuo: The Iron Man was the Tsukamoto's first feature and was practically a one-man production. Not only did he write, direct and edit the film, but he also played one of the main characters, did the art direction and was one of the cinematographers alongside Kei Fujiwara, who had her hands herself since she, too, played a major character and was the assistant director and costume designer. It seems only composer Chu Ishikawa got away with doing one job on the film, but his industrial score is so integral to its success that it may as well be pulling double duty.

I suppose it's possible to boil Tetsuo: The Iron Man down to a simple plot description, but attempting to appreciate it on that level is so far beside the point it's practically in the next prefecture. After all, this is a film that opens with a metal fetishist (Tsukamoto) painfully inserting a rod into his own leg and a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) who finds a piece of metal growing out of his face. Eventually we find out just how the two are connected, but in the meantime Taguchi has a terrifying dream where he encounters a woman with a metal hand attachment (Nobu Kanaoka) and, upon waking, terrifies his girlfriend (Fujiwara) with the metal attachments that are progressively taking over his body. The whole film is like a cross between Eraserhead-era David Lynch and Videodrome-era David Cronenberg, but I doubt either one of them would have conceived of a showdown between a man covered in metal and a man who has been magnetized by a piece of metal lodged in his brain. Or maybe they would, but since Tsukamoto has already done it that means they don't have to.

Three years later, Shinya Tsukamoto got most of the gang back together to make Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, which stars Tomorowo Taguchi as a family man whose latent ability to transform himself into a weapon is triggered by the abduction of his young son. Nobu Kanaoka also returns, this time as his wife, and Tsukamoto plays the role of the main antagonist. There are a lot more supporting characters this time around (including a mad scientist and a veritable army of musclebound minions), but the film turns on the battle between Taguchi and Tsukamoto, which everyone else stays on the sidelines for. Both films are visually striking (this one credits three cinematographers), but I have to give the edge to the original for its use of black and white. I also have to commend both for the predominance of in-camera effects (including stop-motion animation), which I hope carries over to The Bullet Man. A Tetsuo film overloaded with CGI just won't be the same.

Sunday, April 17, 2011
The blacks should be given more rights. Then they wouldn't get up to so much mischief.

Fassbinder Goes West? Indeed, he does in 1971's Whity, which mercilessly picks at the scab of racism underlying most westerns -- American, Germanic or otherwise. Günther Kaufmann plays the title character, butler to the Nicholsons, a family of wealthy ranchers headed up by patriarch Ron Randell, whose young wife (Katrin Schaake) is only waiting around for him to drop dead so she can inherit his estate. All she has to worry about are her two stepsons, drooling idiot Harry Baer and conniving cross-dresser Ulli Lommel, who somehow think they should have a say in the matter. (Well, Lommel does. Baer doesn't have much to say about anything.) To complicate matters, Schaake wants Kaufmann to kill Lommel, and Lommel wants Kaufmann to kill Randell, and Randell has paid a man to pretend to be a doctor and tell Schaake that he's dying. Kind of makes you wonder why Kaufmann puts up with all of their degrading bullshit.

That's certainly the question on the mind of saloon singer (and part-time whore) Hanna Schygulla, who receives nightly visits from Kaufmann and tries to convince him to go away. He sure doesn't seem very welcome in town, to the point of getting beaten up by Fassbinder and some of his associates when he stops by the saloon one night to listen to Schygulla sing (accompanied by pianist Kurt Raab). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the melodrama heats up to the point where something has to give and when it finally does (after Fassbinder has drawn things out to an almost ludicrous degree), it's pretty darn cathartic. Also worth mentioning is the sharp cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who was working with Fassbinder for the first time and may have been the one to convince him to tryshooting in anamorphic widescreen. (I'm sure Ballhaus will have something to say about that on his audio commentary.) Whatever the case may be, Fassbinder sure took to it like a natural.

There's something so sinister about these woods. Every night I've been hearing this howling.

Thirty years ago this month, Joe Dante's The Howling ushered in a new era for the werewolf film with its sophisticated in-camera transformations and a decidedly adult take on the mythology. By the end of the decade, however, the Howling series had devolved to the point where 1988's Howling IV: The Original Nightmare not only went back to Gary Brandner's source novel (much of which Dante and screenwriter John Sayles had wisely ignored), but was also the first sequel to go direct to video. Always a sign of quality.

Actually, according to Howling IV's opening credits, it's based on all three of Brandner's Howling novels, but for the most part the screenwriters stick closely to the story of the first book, save for the fact that the main character is no longer the victim of a savage rape. Instead, Marie (Romy Windsor) is a bestselling novelist who's having such disturbing dreams and visions (some of which involve a ghostly nun who keeps appearing and disappearing) that her doctor prescribes a liberal dose of rest and relaxation. ("She needs to go somewhere where her imagination won't be stimulated," he says. I wonder if watching this movie would qualify.) This prompts her bearded husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) to rent a rustic cabin up in the mountains so she can get away from the big, bad city, but the peace and quiet is shattered their first night there when Marie hears a wolf howling nearby and actually asks, "What was that noise?" Well, what do you think it was, genius?

To his credit, director John Hough manages to bring a sense a menace to the scenes that take place in the nearby town of Drago, but his efforts are hampered somewhat by the barely passable American accents on most of the townspeople (not much of a surprise considering the film was shot in South Africa). This problem also extends to Marie's agent Tom, who's played by Australian actor Antony Hamilton and mostly exists so Richard can have someone to be jealous of after he's been seduced and bitten by she-wolf Eleanor (Lamya Derval), an artist who runs the local knickknack shop. The other major character is an ex-nun named Janice (Susanne Severeid) who helps Marie investigate the strange goings on in town, but their sleuthing skills are amateurish at best. In fact, it takes them so long to put things together that nearly an hour elapses before somebody says the word "werewolf" -- and that's a hell of a long time to keep your monster off-screen.

With such a low budget, you'd think the werewolves in Howling IV would be pretty pathetic and in that respect you would be 100% correct. The main problem appears to be the makeup department's inability to pick one design and run with it. Instead, there are at least half a dozen werewolf concepts ranging from ordinary wolves with glowing red eyes to an upright wolf man on two legs. Then there's the matter of Richard's transformation, during which he dissolves into a puddle of goo and then reforms as a wolf-like thing. Meanwhile, all the other werewolves just sort of tease their hair out and grow fangs and claws so they can swipe at Marie when she attempts to escape from them. It's all pretty half-assed, which is why it's not too surprising that the filmmakers can't even be bothered to stick a proper ending on the thing. Suffice it to say, I doubt I'll be subjecting myself to the last three films in the series. There's only so many ways to skin a werewolf.

Monday, April 18, 2011
I come from another galaxy. A blue one, way, way beyond your world.

It's hard to know what category to put Werner Herzog's 2005 film The Wild Blue Yonder into. Is it a documentary because it uses footage of an authentic space shuttle mission and a diving expedition? Or is it science fiction because it's narrated by an embittered alien from the galaxy of Andromeda (played by a pony-tailed Brad Dourif) who occasionally appears on camera in dilapidated surroundings to berate his own race for being such miserable failures? Now that I think about it, it's probably best just to file it under "Herzog" and leave it at that.

Using NASA footage as a jumping-off point, Herzog has Dourif relate an alternate history of manned flight and touch on the Roswell cover-up before shifting gears and telling the story of mankind's search for another planet to colonize (with occasional cutaways to mathematicians discussing the theories behind space travel and what one of them calls "chaotic transport"). During a chapter on the history of civilization Dourif even references cave paintings in the South of France, prefiguring Cave of Forgotten Dreams by half a decade. And when the astronauts manage to reach Dourif's home planet (which is covered in a sheet of ice), Herzog uses underwater footage shot in Antarctica which was later incorporated into 2007's Encounters at the End of the World. As such, I would have liked it if we had gotten more of Dourif's alien perspective, but maybe I've been spoiled by hearing Herzog's distinctive voice on his documentaries.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Sounds like a jungle romance.

Since Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest feature, the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boommee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is coming to IU Cinema this weekend, I figured it was time for me to catch up with his 2004 film Tropical Malady (which also did well at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize that year). It's the story of the tentative love that grows between a gay soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) and an illiterate ice cutter (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who doesn't know quite what to make of his advances at first, but never outright rejects them. Then, just when it seems like Lomnoi is making progress with Kaewbuadee, the film switches gears and starts a whole new story -- this one based on a Thai folktale about the spirit of a shaman that turns into a tiger and prowls the jungles at night.

Lomnoi returns in the second half as a soldier who's trying to hunt down the tiger, and Kaewbuadee plays the spirit in its human (and completely naked) daytime form. Weerasethakul eases us into the story's fantastical elements with a scene where Lomnoi locates tracks that change from human footprints to paw prints, but soon enough he also encounters a talking monkey (which is helpfully subtitled) and the ghost of a recently deceased cow. From that point on, it's probably best not to worry too much about understanding what's happening on a literal level, which I've read is also the best attitude to take with Uncle Boonmee. Incidentally, that film is neatly presaged by the moment in the first half where Kaewbuadee casually says to Lomnoi, "Remember my uncle who can recall his past lives?" I daresay, how could anyone forget something like that?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
All cops are like me. I'm no different.

Well, it's Wednesday and that means two things: 1) it's Prince Spaghetti Day, and 2) it's about time I paid tribute to master director Sidney Lumet (who passed away on the 9th at the age of 86) by watching his 1981 film Prince of the City. The twin themes of crime and corruption were ones that came up often in Lumet's five-decade career, but this film's protagonist -- police detective turned government informant Treat Williams -- is quite possibly his most conflicted character. A member of the narcotics division of New York's elite Special Investigating Unit, Williams is initially reluctant to cooperate with the district attorney's Chase Commission, which is investigating police corruption, but once he makes it clear that he'll never turn on his partners, he's more than happy to wear a wire and place himself at risk of exposure.

Understandably, this puts a severe strain on his relationship with his wife (Lindsay Crouse) and eventually places him on the outs with his former partner (Jerry Orbach). He also finds himself at odds with the very district attorneys and federal prosecutors (whose ranks include Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen and James Tolkan) he's supposed to be working with, much like Matt Damon's overeager corporate whistleblower in
The Informant! (which makes me think Steven Soderbergh must have run this a few times while he was preparing that film). Remarkably, the pace never flags over the nearly three-hour running time, which is a tribute to Lumet's fluid direction and the sharp screenplay, which earned him and his co-writer, Jay Presson Allen, the film's sole Academy Award nomination. That was one of five Oscar nominations Lumet received over the course of his long career (the other four were for directing 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict), but the only one he got to take home was the honorary award he was given in 2004. It's hard to think of anybody more worthy of recognition.

Friday, April 22, 2011
You'll have to wait a bit. The meat and vegetables were on a very low flame.

I have off for Good Friday (as opposed to getting time off for good behavior), so I decided to spend part of my day (three hours and 21 minutes of it, to be exact) with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which was this week's TCM Import. Made in 1975, the film was written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and stars Delphine Seyrig (best known to me for her roles in Buñuel's The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) as a widowed homemaker with a teenage son (Jan Decorte) and a daily routine that includes prostituting herself in the afternoons along with all of her other domestic chores. (In a way, she's like a middle class Belle de Jour if Catherine Deneuve had chosen to work out of the home.) Akerman makes no bones about what her protagonist does for a living, revealing it right at the top of the film like it's no big deal. And in fact, Seyrig treats it like just another household chore, squeezing her clients in between cooking, cleaning, shopping and her daily trip to the bank to deposit the previous day's earnings. (She also gets to show off her practical side, putting a pot of potatoes on the stove before letting her first client in.)

A born multitasker, Seyrig also has a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder since she never strays from her routine (which is so regimented that she serves the same menu week in, week out without variation) and always turns off the lights when she leaves a room, even if it's just for a minute or two. (This is a habit she's also passed on to her son, who appears to be humoring her more than anything else.) The cracks in the facade don't begin to show until halfway through the second day (after the film has lapped itself), when Seyrig overcooks the potatoes, throwing her routine off-kilter and forcing her to dispose of them and run out to buy another bag. (Why couldn't she just serve mashed potatoes? Because they don't have them until Thursday.) After that it's almost inevitable that she'll snap at some point and, indeed, on the third day she's extremely distracted to the point where she starts running behind and taking too long on trivial tasks. She does make sure she's home in time for that day's client, though (much to his regret, I would imagine). And Akerman wisely ends the film before Decorte gets home from school. Confrontation scenes simply do not play in the Dielman family.

Saturday, April 23, 2011
Once in my life I wanted to make a movie without all the responsibility.

Fassbinder was definitely in a playful mood when he conceived 1971's Beware of a Holy Whore, which is about a West German film crew on an underfunded location shoot in Spain. Instead of playing the temperamental director himself, though (as Truffaut would a couple years later in Day for Night), he gave that role to Lou Castel, who's very demanding but has an extremely loyal core group (as Fassbinder himself did). He also has a crush on his lead actor (Marquard Bohm), who doesn't return his affections, and takes out a lot of his frustrations on his hapless assistant (Ulli Lommel). Meanwhile, his producers (Fassbinder and Karl Scheydt) try to get money from wherever they can to keep things going, his frazzled set designer (Kurt Raab) always seems on the verge of a breakdown, and his flirty lead actress (Hanna Schygulla) commences an affair with their foreign star (Eddie Constantine, playing himself), who's beside himself over how unprofessional the whole production is and seems intent -- along with most everyone else -- on drinking himself into a stupor. (I have to wonder whether this film was underwritten by the Cuba Libre Council because that's all anyone seems to order.)

For the most part, the first half of the film takes place in and around the hotel bar, with Michael Ballhaus's roving camera capturing the comings and goings of the cast and crew while they speculate whether they're actually going to be shooting the next day or not. (Seems the film stock hasn't arrived from Munich and doesn't look like it's going to.) This allows us to eavesdrop of various conversations and get the lowdown on who's screwing whom, who'd like to be screwing whom, and who's just getting screwed over. Once they move to the villa where the shoot is taking place (and which Castel naturally finds inadequate), the film becomes much more fragmented, abandoning the long takes and complicated camera moves of the first half for a series of vignettes, some of which only last long enough for a single line of dialogue (e.g. Fassbinder's "The only feeling I can accept is despair.") before moving on. If this is what it was really like to be on the set of a Fassbinder film, then I have to say, it's a miracle he managed to complete one film, let alone 40.

Clients are clients. It's just in and out.

Between Jeanne Dielman and Beware of a Holy Whore I must have prostitutes on the brain because this afternoon I watched Paul Verhoeven's debut feature, Business Is Business, a broad comedy about the sex trade in Amsterdam's Red Light District. Made in 1971, the film was Verhoeven's second collaboration with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who had scripted the 1969 television series Floris (which also introduced him to actor Rutger Hauer), and his second time working with cinematographer Jan de Bont, who had shot the short film The Wrestler in 1970. I'd like to see both of those at some point as well, but I suppose this film (which was called Diary of a Hooker when it was first released in the U.S.) is as good a place to start as any.

Based on a collection of stories by Albert Mol, Business Is Business follows the misadventures of a prostitute (Ronnie Bierman) whose clients all have bizarre fetishes and whose upstairs neighbor (Sylvia de Leur) occasionally gets roped into the act, which is one way for her to get away from her abusive boyfriend (Jules Hamel). While Bierman tries to get de Leur paired off with a nice man (with Mol getting a cameo as a particularly unsuitable candidate), she herself is pursued by a married man (Piet Römer) who impresses her by taking her out on dates, although his choices (a strip club, a fancy concert) leave something to be desired. Eventually, de Leur winds up with a clean-cut gentleman (Bernard Droog) and Bierman is unceremoniously dumped by Römer, but things work out for both of them in the end. And Verhoeven learned not to play comedy quite so broadly in the future (the exaggerated sound effects wear out their welcome fast, as does Bierman's unsubtle acting). However, if you're looking for a film where a man and two women, clad only in feathers, chase each other around a room while clucking like chickens, then look no further. I have found it.

Welcome to the newest chapter in the history of iron!

Nearly two decades have passed since the last entry in Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo series, but that didn't stop him from once again piling a bunch of metal on some dude in 2009's Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. This time the target is a half-Japanese tech industry executive (Eric Bossick) whose latent shape-shifting powers are triggered when his son is killed in an auto accident. Of course, his wife (Akiko Mono) doesn't believe it was an accident and urges him to hunt down the killer (Tsukamoto), who helpfully comes to them, but only after Bossick has transformed himself into a human weapon (who nevertheless makes an effort not to kill anyone). Bossick's mutation is genetic in origin, though, thanks to the biotech research done by his parents (Stephen Sarrazin and Yuko Nakamura) and a healthy dollop of "android DNA" (which is probably the most outlandish concept in the whole film -- and that's saying something).

At the end of my Tetsuo II write-up, I expressed concern that Tsukamoto might have been tempted (or maybe even forced) to use CGI for the special effects in this film and I'm happy to report that this was not the case. If there was CGI, it was used sparingly and in a way that didn't draw attention to itself. If anything lets the film down, it's the performances -- although I expect the decision to shoot it in English is what tripped up many of the actors (Tsukamoto included). I'm guessing that was done so it would be easier to market in the States, but let's face it, the type of person who would be inclined to check out a film called Tetsuo: The Bullet Man probably wouldn't be discouraged by the presence of subtitles. That's just my two cents.

Sunday, April 24, 2011
Ghosts aren't attached to places, but to people, to the living.

Ever since it won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, I've been patiently waiting for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to arrive in Bloomington. Now, thanks to IU Cinema, my wait is over, and long as it was, it was most definitely worth it. Furthermore, it is with the utmost confidence that I can say I doubt I'll see a more ravishing film on the big screen this year. The lush jungle scenery, coupled with Weerasethakul's spellbinding story, adds up to a truly unforgettable moviegoing experience.

As the title character, Thanapat Saisaymar radiates stoicism as an aging farmer facing his own mortality who's visited by the ghost of his long-dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-missing son (Jeerasak Kulhong), who returns in the form of a hairy, red-eyed Monkey Ghost. To prove that he's not hallucinating, these visitors can also be seen by Boonmee's sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son (Sakda Kaewbuadee), who have come to stay with him in his final days, and his Laotian caregiver (Samud Kugasang), who sees his boss calmly interacting with them and says, "I feel like the strange one here."

As for the past lives he's recalling, those are harder to pin down. Is he the cow that slips away from his owner at the start of the film or is he the man who has to follow it into the jungle to retrieve it? Is he the homely princess who sees her more beautiful reflection in the water or is he the catfish who uses that image to lure her into the water so he can have intercourse with her? And what's going on in the scene where two characters appear to have an out-of-body experience? Weerasethakul never tells us one way or the other, which is perfectly fine. Anybody who goes into one of his films expecting everything to be spelled out for them has obviously bought their ticket in error.

Monday, April 25, 2011
I'll get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who deserve to die.

It's been exactly half a century since wandering ronin Toshiro Mifune first strode into a dusty town besieged by two rival gangs in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but the intervening years haven't lessened its impact in the slightest. Released on this day in 1961 (in Japan; American audiences had to wait another five months to see it and even then it was severely cut), the film presents Mifune as the ultimate badass -- a cunning samurai who fights with his wits as much as his sword and who won't rest until he's put things to rights. It's a story with a lot of set-up -- which Kuroasawa and his frequent collaborator Ryuzo Kikushima punctuate with regular action beats -- but the payoff is substantial, especially when it comes to Mifune's main nemesis, the unpredictable Tatsuya Nakadai, appearing in his first Kurosawa film as a gunfighter who always seems like he's ready to go off half-cocked.

Mifune and Nakadai aren't the only interesting characters, of course. (If they were, it wouldn't be much of a film.) I'm always impressed by tavern keeper Eijiro Tono's ability to deliver reams of exposition without making it seem like exposition, and I'm highly amused by the antics of Daisuke Kato as the half-wit brother of one of the gang leaders and Namigoro Rashomon as the giant enforcer who wades into battle wielding an enormous hammer. And Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura also puts in an appearance, albeit in a smaller role than usual, as the lecherous sake brewer. I wonder if he has an equivalent in Sergio Leone's uncredited remake, A Fistful of Dollars. Since that's the film I have on tap for tomorrow night, I'll find out soon enough.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
If you don't mind doing a little killing, you will have no trouble finding someone eager to pay you.

Akira Kurosawa was quick to capitalize on the success of Yojimbo by immediately producing a sequel, Sanjuro, which came out the following year. And two years after that Italian director Sergio Leone (whose only previous directing credit was on the sword-and-sandal epic The Colossus of Rhodes) capitalized on it in his own way by transposing the story to a western milieu with 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, the first part of what came to be known as the "Man with No Name" trilogy. And while Clint Eastwood may have been far from his first choice to play the foreigner who rides into a town divided and proceeds to play the two warring factions against each other, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. That's just how these things go.

A Fistful of Dollars also marked the first of Leone's many collaborations with composer Ennio Morricone, whose contribution to the film is immeasurable. And it saw him working with a number of Spanish and Italian actors who would become mainstays of his spaghetti westerns, chief among them Gian Maria Volonté in the Tatsuya Nakadai role as a boastful rifleman who pits his shooting skills against Eastwood's in the climactic showdown. Of course, since everybody in this film is packing heat, Leone and the co-writers had to come up with another way for Eastwood to get one over on him. For the most part, though, they're using the same basic building blocks, including the subplot about a kept woman (Marianne Koch) who's reunited with her husband and child thanks to Eastwood's intervention, which results in a bloodier beat down than even Mifune received (or maybe it just seems that way because this film is in color). Makes me wonder how much more brutal Walter Hill could be when he delivered his own take on the story with 1996's Last Man Standing. (No points for guessing what I'm watching tomorrow.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011
You know, for a guy with no principles, sometimes you act kind of peculiar.

Three decades after A Fistful of Dollars belatedly made it to American movie screens, Walter Hill took a shot at his own, official Yojimbo remake, 1996's Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis as the laconic gun-for-hire who works both sides in a gang war between rival bootleggers in a dusty West Texas town during Prohibition. Unlike his forebears, though, Willis narrates the whole tale in voice over, which is a surefire way of robbing him of some of his mystery. Or maybe I'm just not as invested in his exploits because I essentially know what he's going to do before he does.

Of the two gangs fighting it out, Hill stacks the deck in favor of the Irish mob by casting David Patrick Kelly as their boss, who's big on shouting, and Christopher Walken as the resident loose cannon, who favors a Tommy Gun because each successive film's antagonist has to up the ante over the previous ones. Operating somewhere in the middle are barman William Sanderson (always a fount of information in these films) and crooked sheriff Bruce Dern (who makes it his business to be looking the other way when things go down). And on the female end of the spectrum are Karina Lombard as the half-Mexican beauty Kelly keeps under wraps (who proves to be Willis's undoing), Alexandra Powers as his source of insider info on the rival Italian gang, and Leslie Mann (in one of her first films) as a squeaky-voiced whore he goes to bed with, leading to a scene where he has a shootout in the buff. And that's one of the more restrained action set-pieces in a film where the gun play is practically the definition of overkill. At least Hill makes a point of showing when Willis has to reload. That's a detail these kinds of ultraviolent shoot-em-ups have a way of overlooking.

Thursday, April 28, 2011
To a guy like me, the greatest crimes are the crimes against human dignity.

Forty years ago today, Woody Allen went Bananas -- or maybe he just made a film by that title. One of the two. Working with his Take the Money and Run collaborator Mickey Rose, Allen fashioned a crazy quilt of largely self-contained gags and comic set-pieces about a nebbishy New Yorker who travels to a fictional South American dictatorship in a misguided attempt to impress a politically conscious activist (played by his ex-wife, Louise Lasser) who couldn't be less interested in him. There he gets caught up in the revolution and, through a bizarre chain of events, becomes the country's new president when the rebel leader proves to be mentally unstable. (In retrospect, the revolutionaries probably should have known he was a little touched when he unveiled their theme song.) Like most of his early films it can be wildly uneven at times, but the comedic heights Bananas scales (aided by Marvin Hamlisch's jaunty score) more than compensate for the occasional bit that falls flat or doesn't play as well as it probably did in 1971.

First-time viewers of the film may be surprised by just how much of it actually takes place in New York before Allen even has an inkling about going to San Marcos, which is established in the opening sequence where Howard Cosell (as himself) reports on a political assassination as if he were doing the play-by-play on a sporting event. Taking time to establish Allen's job as a product tester for a company that markets exercise equipment to busy executives (with future Diff'rent Strokes dad Conrad Bain as one of his overseers), it also sees him tangling with a couple of hoods on the subway (one of whom is an uncredited Sylvester Stallone) and recalling a strange dream to his therapist about trying to parallel park while nailed to a cross (with Allen Garfield as another crucified man who steals his spot). And just before he leaves for South America he visits his parents (with future Diff'rent Strokes housekeeper Charlotte Rae as his mother) in the operating room while they're in the middle of surgery. Probably not the best time to drop a bombshell on them, but they're evidently very busy people.

Friday, April 29, 2011
It's terrible when a short man marries a tall woman. Must give him complexes, eh?

Fassbinder had reached a turning point in his career when he made 1971's The Merchant of Four Seasons, the first of his films to show the influence of the Douglas Sirk melodramas to which he had recently been exposed. Set in the '50s -- Sirk's most fertile period -- the film stars Hans Hirschmüller as an ex-soldier whose life since he returned from the foreign legion has been less than rosy. A fruit-seller by trade (he had been a policeman at one point, but was thrown off the force after getting caught with a prostitute), Hirschmüller is a disappointment to his mother (Gusti Kreissl) and, when he's had too much to drink, abusive to his wife (Irm Hermann), who leaves him one night after a particularly vicious beating. I'm not sure why she goes to his mother instead of her own, but that's where he finds her being consoled by his sisters (level-headed Hanna Schygulla, judgmental Heide Simon) and brother-in-law (Kurt Raab) and, while trying to reclaim her, promptly has a heart attack.

Once he's recovered, Hirschmüller's doctor prohibits him from drinking or lifting heavy objects, which means he and Hermann have to hire some help to keep the business going. This immediately causes problems because the first employee he hires (Karl Scheydt) is the man Hermann had a one-night stand with while he was in the hospital. He has better luck with his second pick, a fellow legionnaire (Klaus Löwitsch) who's not only trustworthy, but is also eager to help his daughter (Andrea Schober) with her homework. This comes in handy when Hirschmüller grows listless and withdraws from both the business and family life, and eventually sets out to drink himself to death for reasons that he mostly keeps to himself. He does relate the story of his deadly encounter with a Moroccan (El Hedi ben Salem from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) -- one of many flashbacks that litter the film -- but the main thing that reveals is that he's been living on borrowed time for the better part of a decade. I guess he decided it was finally time to settle up.

Saturday, April 30, 2011
You just won't die, will you?

Having seen the first three Scream films (and enjoying them to varying, if diminishing, degrees), it was inevitable that I would catch the latest installment while it was still in theaters. Once again written by Kevin Williamson (who sat out the last entry) and directed by Wes Craven, Scream 4 picks up a decade after 2000's Scream 3, during which time four more sequels in the increasingly ridiculous Stab series have been pumped out, but there has been no real-life mayhem until the nigh-invulnerable Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), author of self-help bestseller Out of Darkness, comes home to Woodsboro to wrap up her book tour. Faster than you can tweet "omg reboot," Ghostface starts racking up a body count among the next generation of ready-made (and self-aware) victims, this time centered around Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts).

Also returning from the original trilogy are David Arquette (who's been promoted to sheriff) and Courteney Cox (now his wife, just like in real life, although they're having marriage difficulties, just like in real life), as well as Roger L. Jackson as the voice of Ghostface (or, rather, the "Ghostface app"). As for the new victims-- I mean characters, they're given little in the way of depth, but that's pretty much a given with these kinds of films. Sidney's publicist (Alison Brie) is relentlessly perky, Jill's ex-boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) is a creepy stalker-type, and her other classmates are either hot chicks (Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe) or geeky boys (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen). Williamson's major concession appears to be making one of the hot chicks (Panettiere) just as much of a horror fan as the boys, but if all that means is she can breathlessly rattle off every single horror remake from the past ten years, that doesn't make her a well-rounded character.

Alas, the adults don't fare much better. Mary McDonnell puts in an appearance as Jill's mother, but is given next to nothing to do, and Marley Shelton is annoying as fuck as Arquette's overeager deputy (and one of the sources of his marital discord). And Anthony Anderson (who earned his horror stripes by appearing in both Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4) and Adam Brody trade a few quips about the survivability rates of cops in slasher movies before they both fall victim to the killer. However, as Scream sequels go, this is easily the best since the original, which is referenced in ways that are fairly obvious (a screening of the first Stab, which was apparently directed by Robert Rodriguez) and a bit more subtle (the fleeting glimpse of the bust of Henry Winkler in the hallway at Woodsboro High). I can't imagine how this is supposed to kick off a new trilogy, though. Just let it lie, fellas. There's no shame in going out on a reasonably high note.

Get yourself some sweet revenge, kid.

Wes Craven never directed an episode of Masters of Horror, but if he had a good one for him to tackle might have been We All Scream for Ice Cream, which ultimately fell to Tom Holland (whose last genre effort had been the 1996 adaptation of Stephen King's Thinner). Based on a short story by John Farris, We All Scream is about a spectral ice cream-hawking clown named Buster (William Forsythe) who returns after a few decades to get revenge on the six men who pulled a mean prank on him when they were kids. How he does this is he gives magical ice cream to their children which, once bitten into, somehow causes the men to dissolve into pools of melted ice cream. Admittedly, it's kind of a ludicrous concept to build a horror tale around, but Holland was able to make a scary movie about a doll that gets possessed by a violent criminal, so I expect he felt up to the challenge. Plus, it doesn't take much to make clowns creepy. The makeup does 90% of the work for you.

So why does We All Scream come up short in the scream department? I suppose it could be the fault of the bland protagonist, a cipher of a guy named Layne (Lee Tergesen) who moves back to his hometown after being away for who knows how long and can't get the old gang back together because they keep dissolving into puddles of goo. Even in his own flashback, which comes up when he tells his wife (Ingrid Tesch) the reason why he moved away in the first place, he's the least interesting character. That means it's up to Buster (who's played as a mentally challenged stutterer by Forsythe) and unrepentant bully Virgil (who's played as an adult by Colin Cunningham) to make an impression, but neither of them inspires much fear -- unless it's the fear that Virgil will rise and reveal his nakedness when Layne confronts him while he's sitting in a tub. Now there's a missed opportunity.

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