Monday, April 27, 2009

Farewell, Marilyn Chambers

The Ivory Snow girl passed away last week, so I felt obligated to give her a fine send off, with two of her better known movies.

First up was Angel of H.E.A.T (1983, directed by Myrl A. Schreibman), one of her "straight" pictures, in which she plays a secret agent up against a plot to send an army of androids against the world. Yeah. It's pretty bad, but there is copious nudity, as you might have expected. The real surprise was the copious amount of skin the film shows on co-star Mary Woronov, who I love to pieces, so no matter how much the movie sucks, we'll always have that. And it DOES suck. It's incompetent on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin.

It almost seems strange that the Mitchell Brothers notorious Behind the Green Door (1972) is a step up, given that it's one of the cornerstones of hardcore cinema, but there it is. Where many exploitation films intend to shock, it's a rare one that actually manages the feat. 1972 is pretty early in the history of pornographic movies, and it's a period when the makers of such films still made an effort to make films rather than pointing the camera at the awful thing in motion. The Mitchells might have had the talent to make it in the mainstream if they so chose, but that wasn't their particular muse, so we get a disjointed film in which the gynecological close-up is a frequent intruder in the flow of the film. Pity. As for Marilyn Chambers herself? She's achingly beautiful in this, and so young. Watching the film defile her is disturbing, an effect amplified by the fact that she doesn't have a single line of dialogue.


Having finished up the first season of Rome last month, my partner and I are taking on the first season of Six Feet Under this month. By pure coincidence, the fifth episode, which we watched this week, concerns a porn star who has been electrocuted in her tub. The porn star was played by Veronica Hart, a porn star from the golden age of porn. She appears to have been a pretty credible actress, though the episode itself is not particularly concerned with her place in the universe. As is the formula for the series, the corpse acts as a counterpoint to the various relationships in the Fisher family. The highlight of this episode was the visit Claire and Ruth pay to their Stepford Wife-y cousins, but the developments between Nate and Brenda give the episode (and, for that matter, the show as a whole) that uncomfortable sense of intruding on intimate moments. HBO might just be the savior of television.


I also watched Apache (1954) to start off my Robert Aldrich project. It's an awkward, ungainly movie that almost works, even if it does show that the director didn't yet have any kind of mastery of his craft. The development between this and the next year's Vera Cruz is dramatic. I'll have more to say about this in a day or two.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Train in Vain

I think I'm finally beginning to warm up to Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli fans will excuse me for not falling deeply in love with his movies). I've been dealing with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) for two decades now, ever since seeing the New World Pictures recut of the film as "Warriors of the Wind" on cable all those years ago. That cut has some serious deficiencies. I've had the full cut released by Disney for a couple of years now. I think the last time through, I must have been cranky or something because I didn't have a very good time. This time, with no expectations, I was thoroughly transported. I mean, it was always plain to see that the world-building in Nausicaa was a triumph of imagination. That even comes through on the New World cut. But I've never really trusted the narrative until now. I don't know. Maybe it's a film I had to get used to to appreciate. Or maybe I had to overcome my own prejudices against Japanese animation and its idiomatic conventions. Whatever. In any event, one constant in Miyazaki is the joy of flight, and this is the film that gives the joy of flight its most unbounded expression. There are all kinds of fanciful aircraft in this, as well as the giddy rush of speed and wind (natch). It's got too many serious themes on its mind to be a "fun" movie, but it is a joyful one.


The main difference between Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot, and his follow-up, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) is that the wounds inflicted by the characters in Queen Margot actually shed blood, while those inflicted in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train don't. Otherwise, they're equally deep. This film pretty much follows a Robert Altman-ish formula in which a large cast is assembled for some central event--in this film, it's the funeral of Jean-Baptiste Emmerich, an artist who acted as a father figure for many of those in his personal and professional orbit--and they are examined as they interact. In the first half of the film, our sundry characters are transported from Paris on a train per Jean-Baptiste's wishes (hence the title), and from a stylistic perspective, it's striking. This is shot with a controlled run and gun hand-held style that moves through the corridors of the train with startling energy. It's certainly vivid. The restless camera moves through the train, introducing us to the characters and resisting any exposition that might provide a landmark for the viewer--this also similar to Queen Margot (which was also ambivalent about providing back-story). Among others, there are two couples, gay and straight, who are on the downward side. Several of the characters are Jean-Baptiste's ex-lovers (again gay and straight). And there's his estranged nephew. None of them seems to really love the man, and, really, after the opening where we hear his voice describing who he is, he's not really a player so much as he's a McGuffin. For the most part, the characters we meet in the first part of the film are pretty disagreeable. At one point, I asked myself if I was interested in meeting any of them in real life and the answer I gave to myself was "no." But they are intense, and intensely performed by a superior ensemble, especially Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Claire, whose relationship is falling apart in spite of her pregnancy, and Pascal Gregory as François, whose boyfriend has met and fallen in love with his own ex-lover.

Fortunately, there are only two characters of any pith and moment introduced in the second half of the film (any more and the thing would burst, I think--Chereau includes a metaphor for his own movie late in the game when much is made of a pot of milk that has over-boiled). These are Lucien, Jean-Baptiste's brother (both are played by the terrific Jean-Louis Tritignant) and Vivane, who used to be Frederick, played by Vincent Perez. Both of them share a scene together towards the end of the movie in which the healing power of a pair of red pumps is demonstrated, but beyond that, they ground the film by providing a safe haven for the audience. I suppose it's possible that Vivane's character archetype was intended to be just as screwed up as the others--she is a transsexual, after all--but to my mind, she's the least screwed up person in the whole film. There's a short scene, also late in the film, where she lounges on a couch and it's clear that she's completely comfortable in her own skin while those around her are tearing their own personae to shreds.

Edited after the fact: One of my friends on the IMDB (who pointed me at the film) had this to say to me:

I assume Viviane is meant to be a force for calm - she's not perfectly settled, certainly, since all that bakery fantasy is surely a way of describing the perfect peace that still seems hazy (and always will, who ever sorts their life out totally?).
My response:

I think this is right, although I also think that Vivane's fantasy about being a baker woman is probably also intended to show her as, perhaps, the character with the sanest ambitions for her life. This is a difficult argument to make, given that the ambitions of the rest of the cast aren't made explicit. I would imagine that the disappointment that seems to inhabit them all are indicative of out-sized ambitions that have been thwarted. But then the movie doesn't really delve that deeply into the motives of any of the characters, beyond the surface of the present. For a while, I suspected that Vivane was a kind of "magical other," but the movie does an admirable job of deflecting that possibility. She's just as easily hurt as the other characters (when Claire says "You're not a woman or a man," the expression on her face is deeply wounded). Unlike the others, she takes it without retaliation.

I should also note that the movie gets one thing exactly, perfectly right in having Vivane relate her fantasy: many transsexuals long for a more mundane "normal" life, if only because most of us never have it.

As a side note, the American disc for this movie from Kino sucks. It's an absolutely horrible transfer. I'd be interested to see the Region 2 version, because it's GOT to be better than this.

Monday, April 13, 2009

More Godzilla. Drinkin' Wine Spodee odee.

A pretty light week for me.

Horror and related:

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000, directed by Masaaki Tezuka), in which Godzilla is attacking nuclear power plants for their energy. The G force, tasked with taking Godzilla out, has a new toy that creates artificial black holes. Unfortunately, it goes haywire and lets something IN to our reality (well, the Godzilla reality, anyway). Monster mayhem ensues. Frankly, I don't like the design of the Godzilla suit in this movie. It never truly looks like Godzilla. At least, not to me. Still, it has an interesting premise, and it's always fun to watch guys in rubber suits wreck model cities. I always thought that building those model cities would be a fun job.


Bottle Shock (2008, directed by Randall Miller) is an amiable recounting of the so-called "Judgement of Paris," a 1976 wine tasting in which a panel of France's elite wine snobs blindly picked a California wine as the best of show, to the horror of French wine snobs everywhere. The movie follows wine snob Stephen Spurrier (Alan Rickman) to the Napa valley, where, expecting vinegar, he finds ambrosia. He also finds struggling vintner Jim Barret (Bill Pullman) and his underachieving son, Bo (Chris Pine), and the various characters in their orbit. They don't make these characters "quirky", thank god, but they do spend an ungodly amount of time on sweeping panoramic shots from helicopter fly-overs of the Napa valley. Alan Rickman is always fun to watch, so my partner and I had a fine time watching this. Minor, but fun.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

My New Annual Project: The Films of Robert Aldrich

I've been scouting around for a movie-related project ever since I finished up my last movie-related project (last year's march through a field of broken glass to watch 366 movies). I think I may have found my muse.

A few years ago, I had an interesting discussion with one of my online friends about the films of Robert Aldrich. Aldrich is one of my favorite directors, but he's not a filmmaker who often comes up when film nuts talk about the great filmmakers of the American cinema. And why should he? He never catered to critics, really. He just made great movies. Lots of them. Many of them in disreputable, or downright seedy genre idioms. I mean, look at just a short list of his best films:

Kiss Me, Deadly
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Dirty Dozen
The Longest Yard
The Emperor of the North Pole
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte

There's many a critic's darling that doesn't hold a candle to that resume. Plus, I propose to show that Aldrich was a true auteur in the original meaning of the word. There's an overriding thematic similarity in his films that show his hand as the guiding force behind them. There's clearly a personal statement being made over the course of his career. The conversation that sparked this project hashed out some of my own thoughts on the matter. I think Aldrich's films are generally Gothics, even when they're disguised as something else. This comes fully to the fore when there's a "hysteric" quality to the films, but it's there, too, in Aldrich's films about men. Sometimes, it manifests itself in genre (some genres--like film noir--being derived from the Gothic), other times it's an unusual combination of elements over-layered on top of other generic forms.

My friend kind of scoffed at the idea that a film like The Dirty Dozen is a Gothic, but look at the elements: confinement and microcosm, insanity, the Byronic anti-hero, the manor house as object and setting. In my view, this is Gothic to the core. You can apply the same paradigm to The Flight of the Phoenix and The Longest Yard, too, to say nothing of lesser-known films like Twilight's Last Gleaming.

Aldrich on the set of The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Of course, I'm saying all of this without actually having seen all of Aldrich's films. I've seen most of them, I think, but I'm going to rewatch them all in the coming months--probably not in chronological order, though I may try for that--and I'm going to make an effort to track down the ones I haven't seen. Some may take me longer as I try to lay my hands on films that are not conventionally available, though surprisingly few of Aldrich's movies are unavailable. I sincerely hope that I don't have to rely on 20 year old memories of ...All the Marbles or The Choirboys to do them any kind of justice. We shall see. In any event, these posts will alternate with my normal weekly postings about the movies I'm watching, and I sincerely hope that others will chime in with their own ideas about Aldrich's films, because, believe me, this is going to be a learning experience for me. Meanwhile, all interested parties are encouraged to go read Alain Silver's excellent overview of Aldrich's life and career over at Senses of Cinema. And check back here next week when I'll kick things off with Burt Lancaster in either Apache or Vera Cruz.

Also in the mean time, check out this catalog of women in film over at House of Mirth. It's a welcome respite from movies designed to appeal to teen-age boys.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Blood and Sand

I finally got around to restarting my Netflix this week. They didn't have the disc at the top of my queue at my local distribution center so they sent it afterwards and sent out an extra movie. I'm not complaining. The disc to which I was most looking forward was Street Angel (1928, directed by Frank Borzage), which I've only ever seen on crappy public domain VHS sources. Borzage is one of the great unheralded directors, and his work makes up the bulk of the Fox Murnau and Borzage box that came out last year, which Netflix claims to have. Unfortunately, that's not what they sent me. They sent me a public domain disc with a copyright date two years before the Fox box, and with a transfer that's among the most unwatchable things I've ever seen. I think I got ten minutes in. Imagine my disappointment. Grrrr...

Anyway, next in the queue was a Spanish horror film called Satan's Blood (1978, directed by Carlos Puerto), in which a young couple and their dog accept an invitation to come out to the estate of a man who claims to be the husband's old college buddy. Many Satanic hijinks ensue, including an ominous session with a Ouija board, a four-way, wife-swapping orgy, and a double suicide. For the most part, this film is an excuse to take advantage of Spain's then newly-lax censorship standards, and there's flesh aplenty in this movie almost from frame one. As for the rest? Well, it's a nicely nihilistic little film. It makes the most of its microcosmic setting. None of the actors is of much worth, but they are nicely apportioned for the numerous nude scenes. The ending seems a bit too Twilight Zone-y, and the film's conception of Satanism is very 1970s. Still, I've seen a LOT worse from Spanish horror of the period. Take that however you like.

I did another kung-fu movie night this past Saturday, and, again, we dipped into the Shaw catalogue. This time, we came up with a piece of insanity called Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983, directed by Chin-Ku Lu), which shows the Shaws trying to capture the lightning of the newly dawning HK New Wave in a bottle. The movie that this most resembles is Tsui Hark's Zu: The Warriors of the Magic Mountain, but as filtered through Shaw's stock players, stock sets, and stock direction. Just add special effects and completely insane fantasy elements and shake well. The result is completely absurd, the kind of movie that would play well to children if it weren't for all the bodies piling up. My favorite character in this is the guy whose main kung-fu technique is a demonic laugh that bursts organs, but I also love the Golden Snake Boy, a minor, but pivotal character played by Hsueh-erh Wen (a woman). Add this to the pile of transgender kung fu movies.


Has there ever been another filmmaking career like Clint Eastwood's? Has there ever been a late flowering like his late movies? I'm trying to remember why I gave Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) a pass when it was in theaters, and the answer I keep coming up with is "because I was stupid, that's why." Holy cow, this was good. Eastwood's unfussy direction is perfect for this portrait of the Japanese before and during the battle of Iwo Jima, and he manages to get better performances out of his principles in Japanese than he got out of his English-speaking actors in The Flags of Our Fathers (this film's companion piece). This film doesn't try nearly as hard as its weak sister, and as a result, it conveys its themes with admirable grace. Ken Watanabe is the standout here, playing the Japanese general who gets command of the forces on Iwo Jima, and he's a paragon of military virtues. He's the kind of commander George C. Scott's version of Patton would have called "you magnificent bastard." Eastwood invites the audience to genuinely like the characters here, which is rare enough in an American WW II movie. That he manages to turn their lives into high tragedy is no small feat. This stands with the great Japanese war movies (Fires on the Plain, Black Rain). It may be the best WW II movie from Hollywood that I've ever seen. But don't hold me to that.