Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973)

The little film. Overshadowed at the Academy Awards, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) had three collaborators up for a nomination (the credibility and weight of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I leave to you). According to Amazon, specifically its editorial review by Dave McCoy, Jack Nicholson's performance as "Bad Ass" Buddusky was "overshadowed" by some of Nicholson's other performances in the 1970s; although according to the Internet Movie Database, specifically its reference to Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, Nicholson's performance in The Last Detail ranks the highest (the credibility and weight of Amazon, The Internet Movie Database, and Premiere Magazine, I leave to you). According to the Wikipedia entry, The Last Detail's other collaborator up for a nomination, Robert Towne, adapted a screenplay which was initially met with studio pause and trepidation for its litany of profanity but later celebrated (or rather sold) for its expletives: "No *#@!!* Navy's going to give some poor **!!@* kid eight years in the #@!* brig without me taking him out for the time of his *#@!!* life." (the poster tagline for The Last Detail; the credibility and weight of Wikipedia and Columbia Studios, I leave to you). The Last Detail's final collaborator up for a nomination, the baby-faced and relatively inexperienced Randy Quaid, as Meadows, was either a big risk or a perfect piece of casting. Hal Ashby's contribution perhaps was downplayed and not least of all, the performance by Otis Young as "Mule" Mulhall is often overshadowed/shined/looked by popular trivia tidbit, the "Before They Were Famous Small Roles" of Gilda Radner, Nancy Allen, Carol Kane, and Michael Moriarty. Yet, for whatever reason (standout performance, bold script, etc.) The Last Detail is one of the finest American films of the 1970s, period. But which?Robert Towne's fine screenplay of The Last Detail, adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, has as its narrative the story of three sailors: two "lifers," Navy careermen, Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Young), who are interrupted from his quiet sleeping and ironing, respectively, by an order of the "MAA" (Master-at-Arms). The "detail" (or "shit detail," as Mulhall likes to point out) is to escort recently-convicted Meadows (Quaid) from their Norfolk base to the prison in Portsmouth. Eighteen-year-old Meadows attempted to steal forty dollars from the "old man's old lady's" charity fund and received a "DD," dishonorable discharge, and eight years in prison. The duo has five days to deliver Meadows (we're talking "per diem," here, says Buddusky, so the two attempt to make the journey worth their while). The Last Detail then begins, as a series of episodes in various cities and their locales on the way to Portsmouth. There are scenes of the trio in a bus, in a bus station, on a train, in a train station, in the train station's bathroom, in restaurants, in a train's dining car, in an arcade, in an adult bookstore, in a whorehouse, in an alley, on the streets, and in Meadows's childhood neighborhood. Not to forget a very long sequence where the trio are in their underwear in a hotel room, getting drunk and chatty. The five-day order of the detail, ending with the delivery of Meadows at the prison, creates an inherent ending to the narrative. At its most basic story level, The Last Detail is a "plot-driven" film, but not a plot, in the traditional sense, really worthy of admiration. No circumstances of intricate development are explored to create the sense of intrigue or the unexpected for the viewer or any intricate webs of various storylines which all converge to an apex, where everything is revealed as neat or tidy and consistent. A chronicle of five days is hardly a strong plot framework in cinema, not least of all in 1973 (see George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973)).The Last Detail is also not a traditional "character-driven" film, where the film's characters create situations from their own actions and then have to make choices which drives their storylines (see Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973) and George Lucas's American Graffitti (1973)). Also, in the traditional "character-driven" film, it is the character(s), rather than the plot, which experiences the acts and the arcs, ending with not a climax but a revelation or an epiphany. The fates of the characters in The Last Detail are determined from the beginning: one of the trio is going to end up in prison, and the other two are still going to be "lifers." While the pair of Buddusky and Mulhall walk away from the prison, at the end of the film, the attitude towards the "shit detail" hasn't really changed and both are eventually going back to Norfolk. As for Meadows, sitting in his new cell, he will have a lot of time to think about whether he has accepted his fate.
So what about the performances? Nicholson's "Bad Ass" Buddusky, shown in the opening scenes asleep and waking up grumpy when the sailor arrives with orders from the MAA, enjoys the predictable and secure routine of Navy life but also loves just cutting up and being mischievous and fun. Likewise Nicholson's performance is a reflection of this character: often he patiently speaks to Meadows, as if talking to a big child, then gives Meadows a corresponding look to Meadows's answer, as if a big child gave a predictably dumb answer. In certain scenes, Nicholson's Buddusky becomes amazingly animated, for example, when he pulls his pistol on a bartender for refusing to serve Meadows a beer or when he uses the bathroom in a train station only to have the opportunity to pick a fight with some Marines. Don't you ever just get angry? asks Buddusky. Sometimes, answers Meadows. Buddusky is seemingly not a complex character but a dual-sided one, and Nicholson's performance has two volumes, quiet and loud. Baby-faced Quaid, as Meadows, towers over Nicholson and Young. His large stature really reinforces his most glaring character trait as a big child. Quaid cries quite a bit in The Last Detail and keeps his chin down, shrugs his shoulders, and often mumbles quietly. Young's Mulhall never really gets emotional: he plays his character as one who is grateful for his Navy career. Mulhall occasionally may be diverted by Buddusky on a small frolic or detour but Mulhall's got a job to do and is going to complete the "shit detail."If you couldn't tell by now (unless you knew me personally), I am being a complete asshole towards Hal Ashby's The Last Detail. The script, the direction, the authentic locations, and the performances, and about everything else, are all worthy of the highest admiration available. The spiritual glue (keep chanting) that keeps everything together is The Last Detail's overwhelming sense of genuineness and sincerity. From feeling the harsh snowy cold as the trio eat grilled hot dogs from sticks to the telling look on Nicholson and Young's faces as Meadows is quickly shuffled upstairs by two marines, The Last Detail feels so very real. In one particular scene, for whatever reason, had me laughing aloud. The screen becomes black, as Meadows turns off the lamp, and the trio goes to bed (in very close proximity to each other) and deliver this exchange:
Meadows: Bad Ass?
Buddusky: What the fuck is it now, Meadows?
Meadows: If you're Catholic, do you think it's sacrilegious to chant?
Buddusky: Did it get you laid?
Meadows: No.
Buddusky: Then, Meadows, what the fuck do you want to go on chanting for?
Mulhall: Chant your ass off, kid. But any pussy you get in this world you're going to have to pay for, one way or another.
Buddusky: Hallelujah.
Just the actors' voices. In one of the film's most heartfelt scenes, Buddusky and Mulhall take Meadows to see his mother. Upon arrival, the three learn that she has taken a day trip and is gone. Buddusky suggests that at the least, Meadows should wait inside "his own house." Buddusky pushes open the door and with one cinematic glance at the interior, Ashby paints a powerful portrait of Meadows's childhood and upbringing. The Last Detail is filled with unassuming and unexpected touches of emotional vulnerability. As Carol Kane, as the young prostitute to whom Meadows loses his virginity, sits with her hair covering her nude body, she allows Meadows to gently stroke her arm and the side of her thigh. "I have a very good body," she says. "Not a great one but a very good one." She shares one of her supposed shortcomings after Meadows shares one of his. The driving emotional force of the film is the total inequity of Meadows's sentence compared with his crime. Nicholson delivers to Young, with his head snuggled as far into his collar as possible out in the snow, that this poor kid is going away for a long time and there's nothing they can do about it. Nicholson, with seemingly little effort, conveys in a small exchange the love the two have developed for Meadows. When the final fifteen minutes or so begins in The Last Detail and Buddusky says, "We don't have to be there until eighteen hundred," the viewer doesn't want this detail to end or to see these three characters split up.
A master artist is one who is able to craft characters, despite their flaws, actions, or shortcomings, who every viewer comes to love. Ashby, Towne, and the actors all deliver. Mightily. Finally, the biggest "fuck you" isn't delivered within any dialogue in The Last Detail but with the film's completion by its collaborators: they all made a film that they wanted to make regardless of its reception (a favorite here on this blog and its credibility and weight, I leave to you).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Paul Verhoeven's Spetters (1980)

Portraits of unheard young voices from Paul Verhoeven's Spetters (1980):

Rien #2

Rien is shown with Maya. He ditches his friends to make love to Maya in the middle of the night. Later that night, Rien professes his love to Maya. Rien is a fine competitor, riding on motorbikes, and focuses. An out-of-towner gives Rien two motorbikes, which are the beginning of the culmination of his dreams and the beginning of the ending of his life. A later act of celebration awakens Rien to his ending.

Gerrit Witkamp

Witkamp does. Gerrit is the local hero, who rides motorbikes, while everyone else is in the shadows. Witkamp “doesn’t even have to place first in order to win.” Gerrit’s competitors fall to the wayside outside of the race. Witkamp indulges his would-be competitors to make everyone laugh. While everyone celebrates for Witkamp, the surroundings are torn down and tumbled.

Eef #1

Eef, on his motorbike, is shown first, in the shadow of his father, riding on his tractor, who is in front of him and holding him up from going to work.

Hans #1

Hans is shown third, on his motorbike, while his father, who is behind him, is giving him a push to help him start.


Maya does. She works diligently at the grocery store, diligently loves Rien, and quietly sacrifices. When she is hurt by Rien who goes after Fientje, Maya turns to someone else. When Fientje is freed by Rien, Rien is hurt and Maya turns back to him. When Rien is freed, Maya returns to the same someone, again.

Rien #1

Rien is shown second in front of his father, who is working behind the bar. After asking for an advance on his paycheck and taking some bottles of beer, Rien leaves on his motorbike.

Eef #2

Eef is shown up dancing. He, and his friends, accosts two lovers in the middle of the night. Later that night, Eef is unable to make love. Eef is a fine mechanic, working on motorbikes, and wanders. An out-of-town trip with Hans allows Eef to spy two lovers, which awakens Eef to violence. A later act of violence awakens Eef to a lover.


Fientje does. She works diligently at the french-fry stand, diligently looks for love, and loudly sacrifices. When she is hurt by most, Fientje turns to herself. When Fientje is freed by her hurt, she allows herself to be loved. When Hans performs a later act, Fientje is freed and returns to her heart.

Hans #2

Hans is shown up by a would-be lover. He accompanies his friends, accosts two lovers in the middle of the night, and gets ditched by one and his lover. Later that night, Hans pretends to make love. Hans is a poor competitor, riding on motorbikes, but hopes. An out-of-towner awakens Hans to love, which awakens Hans to what he has always wanted. A later act, in a sequence with two names in neon, ends the film.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Herman Yau's The First Seventh Night (2009)

Herman Yau is best known to Westerners for his Category III (restricted rating in Hong Kong) classics, The Untold Story (1993) and The Ebola Syndrome (1996). Both star one of Hong Kong's best actors, Anthony Wong, who won a Hong Kong Film Award for his role in the former; and also both were extremely horrific and sick and compellingly watchable. Subsequent to Ebola, Yau would turn from the visceral to the supernatural and deliver his anthology ghost film, starring a young Louis Koo, Troublesome Night (1997). He would helm the series' next five sequels over a period of a couple of years (the Troublesome Night series would reach nearly twenty sequels). In 2006, Yau made Cocktail, a love story set in a bar, populated by semi-tragic, love-worn-and-torn characters, and highly-influenced by Wong Kar-wai. Wong Kar-wai might have influenced Yau, thematically, but WKW really woke up Yau creatively and created a film maker just as important to current Hong Kong cinema, as WKW, Edmond Pang, Johnnie To, or Tsui Hark, for example. Lethal Ninja (2006) followed Cocktail and it is a coup d'etat of B-cinema, for its boldness of ninja hijinx, ridiculously wonderful characters and plot, and ninety minutes or so of pure movie-going bliss. Yau's darker On the Edge (2006) follows, and his streak continues, as it is the best of the post-Infernal Affairs (2002) wannabes, even surpassing the original in creativity and intensity, with stellar performances by Nick Cheung and Anthony Wong. A Mob Story (2007) would come and become a Yau favorite of mine, as a surreal love triangle combined with hatchets to the face and the introduction of a character named "Goblin." This is just a sampling of Yau's diverse filmography and while his output is inconsistent both thematically and qualitatively, Herman Yau is a major talent. I've never held consistency as shining attribute of an artist, as I believe the artist should take risks: stand or fall on his/her own two feet.
Yau's latest, The First Seventh Night(2009) is about a taxi driver, whose nickname is "Mapking," who is world-worn and traveled (knows the streets better than anyone). He lives out of his taxi, as the opening shots of the film quietly show Mapking (Gordon Lam) changing clothes from the trunk of his taxi, bathing, and cooking dinner at the front of the grill of his car. He's hanging out with the rest of the cabbies on a late-night shift waiting for fares. Over the radio, another cabbie calls in. He needs a taker for a fare: a trucker must be led into the Sun and Moon village. Double the fare plus a few thousand over. None of the cabbies know the location but Mapking. He offers to give directions but with an upped sum for a fare and some badgering, Mapking reluctantly agrees to escort the truck into the village. The trucker and Mapking begin talking on the CB to pass the time. Mapking tells a story that happened at a hotel in the village, run by pretty young Fong (Michelle Ye) and her child Long. Fong is raising her boy all by herself and running the inn and she's tired and down. The hotel doesn't get many visitors, but during the evening, a group of thugs arrive, fresh from a heist. They decide to stay for the evening, and ask Fong to go and cook for them. Fong puts up with their shenanigans--their drinking, loud mouths, and constant demanding. She takes her son upstairs and attempts to rest. One of the thugs steals away from the group and rapes her. The thug comes downstairs and plays cards with the group, saying nothing. Fong and Long quietly later come downstairs and begin to light candles in the shape of a trail. Seven days ago, Fong's husband died, and on the seventh night, his ghost returns. Don't look, says one scared thug, just let them have their greetings, share some hugs, and go away. None of you offended the lady or her husband, did you? The violence comes fast and furious in the form of supernatural gun play, and it's quite bloody, enough to earn its Category III rating. The story of the incident at the inn is pivotal to the film, and what follows after Mapking's telling of the tale is the remaining two-thirds of the film. After Yau's Chaos (2008), I was curious to see Yau's return to the genre at a very low-budget. He succeeds. The First Seventh Night hangs on the nighttime: the scenes with Mapking and the trucker are extremely intriguing, as both characters (with equally strong performances) are hiding something deep within them (of course, later revealed). The use of nighttime scenes only darkens the secrets, ups the tension, and links the present narrative with the story at the inn from the past. The inn sequences are well-done. The inn looks extremely genuine and authentic, from Fong's cooking area to the broken telephone to the candlelight reflected from Fong's vanity mirror. The tension is inherent in the dark atmosphere and it flows fluidly through the story of Fong's visit from the thugs. A low-budget has never been a deterrent for Yau: his visuals are often creative; however, Yau's screenplays, when they are lacking, are often the low point of his work. Not this time. Yau co-scripts a tight thriller with some horrific violence. The dialogue is rich and charged, also terse and focused. All of the performances are tops, not least of all Lam and Ye. The First Seventh Night is creative low-budget filmmaking from a real artist and craftsman. Everyone should be watching what Yau does. It's often exciting.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker (1972)

Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is both the quintessential and stereotypical investigative news reporter. Kolchak hits the streets and collects his facts, with numerous sources around town who give him hot tips, and writes his stories with the sole aim of accurately describing a series of newsworthy events to keep the public informed. Kolchak is impulsive, ambitious, and talented; however, he is also sometimes abrasive, especially to those in control, like his editor or the district attorney's office or the sheriff. For either being abrasive or abrasively inquisitive, Kolchak has been run out of all of the nation's major cities and their newspapers. Kolchak is now in Las Vegas, has a pretty girlfriend, Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), and new story: another pretty young female has been found dead with all of the blood drained from her body. Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak is a wonderful portrait character in John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker (1972), penned for the small screen by Richard Matheson. As much as Kolchak appears stereotypical, his character is somewhat of an enigma. Over the course of his investigation of the titular night stalker, Kolchak uncovers some serious and eye-opening facts, and if those facts are proved true, then that truth would be enough to shake anyone's foundation for rationality, morality, and even reality. All appearances of this killer, who is steadily draining the Vegas strip of young female victims, point to this perpetrator having all of the characteristics of a classic vampire. However that cannot be. Las Vegas Law Enforcement will not accept that idea: it's ridiculous and will cast the officers in a poor light and put the population in an unnecessary panic. Kolchak's editor won't even hear of this vampire theory: Kolchak can produce all of the facts that he wants, but no one, absolutely no one, will weigh those facts as credible. Kolchak persists. In his investigation, he begins with the assumption, informed by his intuition, that the killer believes that he is a vampire. The coroner supports Kolchak's theory: human saliva was found on the first victim's sole wound on her neck. The police are stubbornly not adhering to that theory: the killer is regular folk, like anyone else, and increased police awareness and diligence will capture the killer. A robbery at a local hospital raises a few eyebrows but gets little notice by the press. Kolchak makes the logical link between the robbery and the murders: the thief stole blood from the hospital and Kolchak thinks it's the wannabe vampire's work, getting blood from the source to satiate his needs. After a police confrontation at another robbery at the hospital by the killer, the police and the hospital staff get tossed aside like rag dolls by the killer, and the police fire multiple bullets into the killer's body, who still manages to escape. Kolchak presses the police for answers, and the Sheriff (Claude Akins) and the District Attorney (Kent Smith) give him evasive ones. Kolchak, himself, doesn't really believe the killer is actually what he purports to be. Kolchak is after the hot story that will put him back on top, and whatever the underlying truth is, it just is. One evening, Gail puts some books on vampire lore in his lap and demands sweetly that he read them. Kolchak's ambition to uncover the truth is rivalled by his personal ambition. He wants out of Vegas and go back to New York, and the story is big enough to get him to the Big Apple. Kolchak proposes to the District Attorney and the police that each officer be given a silver cross and a mallet and wooden stake to take down the killer. The police agree with conditions: if Kolchak's theory is true, then he gets the exclusive rights to the story; but if his theory is wrong, then Kolchak has to leave town and never come back. Kolchak's ambition rings true and he accepts the deal. Made for television during an era where the audience was witnessing one of journalism's finest hours in the uncovering of truth during the Watergate scandal, Moxey's The Night Stalker is ultimately about the revelation of the truth, regardless of the consequences of its revelation. Kolchak seemingly does not care or subordinates the actual existence of vampires. If the killer is proven a vampire, the consequences will later be borne by society. Richard Matheson's teleplay of The Night Stalker is one of his finest accomplishments. Matheson, who penned one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century (about vampires), I Am Legend, informs his script with his previous treatment of vampires: non-romantic and animalistic yet keeping the classic traditional notions, such as crosses, sunlight, coffins, etc. In fact, the "vampire" character in The Night Stalker never speaks a word. Matheson's teleplay is about the uncovering of actual truth and and society's unwillingness to accept to it. In a lot of ways, The Night Stalker can be seen as a playful satire of the Watergate scandal. All my hot air and theorizing aside, Darren McGavin is absolutely fantastic as Kolchak. McGavin would later appear again as Kolchak in another made-for-television film, The Night Strangler (1973), before making twenty one-hour episodes in a short-lived Kolchak series (1975). McGavin's performance is extremely likable and endearing; however, his character has a little bit of a sharper edge than did his famous role as Ralphie's father in Bob Clark's classic, A Christmas Story (1983). Just imagine McGavin pronouncing "fragile" correctly but with the same charm in both pronunciations. Moxey is an interesting director and delivered a couple of terrific thrillers with Christopher Lee, The City of the Dead (1960) and his terrific carnival mystery, Circus of Fear (1966). Moxey would go on to have a very prolific and diverse career in television. Visually, his style is more suitable for the stage, but the narrative of The Night Stalker is handled adeptly and competently. Matheson, as noted, crafts a wonderful teleplay: a rather difficult form, where the writer has to craft his dramatic breaks around the almighty dollar...err, I mean commercials, to keep the viewer from switching the channel. Kolchak's confrontation with the killer is standout for its dark atmosphere and dread. The Night Stalker is full of mystery and intrigue, and seventy-five minutes flies by. Totally unassuming, The Night Stalker is fun from another era, equally fun today.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Umberto Lenzi's The Hell's Gate (1989)

By the time Umberto Lenzi helmed The Hell's Gate in 1989, he had been directing films for nearly thirty years. His filmography prior looks like a timeline of popular Italian genres, both sensational and commercial: Robin Hood, Gladiators, Pirates, Spies, Westerns, Crime, War, Thrillers, Gialli, and of course, Horror. Lenzi is a film maker whose gun is for hire; and occasionally, his work is slick and sublime or clunky and uninspired, but almost always, his work delivers. It is indisputable that Lenzi knows the conventions of the particular genre in which he works, and Lenzi is often a strict adherent to the genre conventions. When he steps outside of the conventions, Lenzi is brilliant: for example, his masterpiece, Nightmare City (1981) is a would-be zombie war film; or his perverse thriller with Carroll Baker, Orgasmo (1969). When Lenzi strictly adheres, he sometimes remains brilliant, for example, his tale of tanned-bodied cave people, Iron Master (1983) but he does often miss the mark. Maurizio (Gaetano Russo) has been living in total darkness in a grotto for seventy-eight days and has set the world record for such inhospitable living. Above ground, Dr. Johns (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) awaits his return within an hour alongside the eager press to begin a series of medical tests on Maurizio to study the effects of the long cave dwelling. Dr. Johns has three assistants: Anna (Barbara Cupisti), Paul (Pietro Genuardi), and Manfred (Lorenzo Majnoni). Chatting with the press, Dr. Johns reveals that his team has watched all of Maurizio's movements via closed-circuit television for the whole duration. What the hell is that? Static. Shit. Anna call off the press and lets don our multi-colored spelunking gear and go down and get the poor bastard. Wait! Enter Laura (Andrea Damiano), a beautiful young scholar, who has been studying the ancient church on the hillside top. Laura is accompanied by the whining Theo (Mario Luzzi). Laura wants to enter the grotto with Dr. Johns and his crew, because she believes the grotto is literally and figuratively linked to the church and wants to explore. Sorry, lady, but this is an emergency. Laura's trump card is an archaeological map of the underground caverns. Okay, lady, you can come but stay out of the way. Enter horror theme: the church atop the hill might have been populated by heretic priests. Dr. Johns and his crew immediately begin looking for Maurizio. Theo wanders off. Laura finds exactly what she is looking for: a crypt. Inside the crypt, Laura discovers a stone tablet with writing in Latin. She pulls her cassette recorder from her satchel and begins translating and transcribing. 7 hundred years ago, 7 monks predicted their return to open the 7 Gates of Hell. In order to open the gates, 7 sacrifices must be made. Dr. Johns and his crew equals four plus Laura and Theo, which makes six, and Maurizio snugly inside the grotto, makes 7. Ain't this a bitch. Laura, having delivered the film's backstory and exposition, gets iced. Theo's aimless wandering leads him inside of a cage that comes crashing down from the cave's ceiling. Theo whines on his walkie-talkie to Dr. Johns. By this time, Dr. Johns and crew have found Maurizio, who lies injured with a broken leg stuck in a rock. How about some morphine, Maurizio? John and Manfred go and help Theo.

John and Manfred, en route to Theo, stumble upon the crypt. John picks up Laura's tape recorder and the duo learn what the text on the wall means. Hey, that would put the 7 monks return in 1991, wouldn't it? What year is it? Maybe, we should tell Dr. Johns. Theo is found in the cage. Damn, Theo is dead. He has been impaled by 7 daggers that fell from the ceiling. Paul and Anna attempt to persuade Dr. Johns that perhaps sinister and supernatural forces are at work, down in the dark depths of the grotto. You people are irrational. This is the twentieth century, and all of this is just coincidence. Famous last words. The Hell's Gate is a film about repetition. Not only is 7 used over and over and over, but so are the caverns. The Hollywood joke about the two cowboys who pass the same rock multiple times on a linear journey comes to complete fruition here. The caverns of the grotto by their look alone would approximately only cover about twenty or so square feet, but with the addition of characters' dialogue, the caverns become labyrinthine and vast. The dialogue is repetitious, as well. For example, when Anna and Paul attempt to persuade the scientific and logical Dr. Johns that maybe the devil's doings are going on, Anna makes her case and then Paul makes his case, not differently but exactly the same. No new approaches, here. So is this annoying? Hell no! Lenzi makes cinema, as best as he can. Lenzi is fully aware that the grotto set design falls short and the dialogue is daft, so he shoots the film with a minimum of wide shots and focuses on the close-ups of the character's faces. It's an attempt to go for the claustrophobic look, and the technique sometimes works. For example, one of the characters gets attacked by spiders and suffers (are you ready?) 7 deadly bites. The sequence is shot tight on the victim's face and closely on the scary arachnids, so close the bristles of the spiders' hairs tingle. Lenzi brings the expected gore scenes, as well. The gore scenes are not Fulci-esque and over-the-top but they are not anemic, either. Lenzi's photography highlights the red hues and effectively masks the shortcomings of the FX with the quick cuts and tight shots. Lenzi's making every veteran shortcut in The Hell's Gate, and I cut him a lot of slack. The script, the acting, and the budget are working against Lenzi the whole time, but he is fighting against the dying of the light. Unfortunately, Lenzi is far from successful, but The Hell's Gate is sometimes b-movie magic from an Italian master.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Aleksey Balabanov's Cargo 200 (2007)

Aleksey Balabanov's Cargo 200 (2007) is about an incident that happens in a farmhouse outside of Leninsk in Russia and the chain of events leading into and events arising out of the incident. Balabanov announces at the onset of his film that it is "based upon real events" prior to the credit sequence and during the final frames in small Russian print at the bottom of the screen, it reads that Cargo 200 took place during the second half of the year 1984. While being woefully ignorant of most intimate history from other countries, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the depiction in the film of the real events nor can I claim to know exactly which specific events are real and fictional, despite doing some hasty yet focused research. The specificity of time, however, during which Balabanov sets Cargo 200 is larger in a sense and was more accessible for me to grasp and placing the film in historical context. The Soviet Union and Russia were in a transitional period. Soon, Mikhail Gorbachev would assume power, beginning the ending of the Iron Curtain, and the bloody and unsuccessful war with Afghanistan would be coming to an end (a good summation and introduction is here). The current economic climate in Russia is powerfully felt in Cargo 200, and the entire film feels like both a dawn and a dusk are in the background. This history is either the canvas for the art or the slave to it, as Balabanov takes a Pasolini-like approach to the subject matter--polarize through the extreme and make the normal seem abnormal and absurd. The result being disorienting, the imagery powerful, and the message resonating. Perhaps, also, very real.
Cargo 200 begins with brothers, Misha, an army colonel, and Artyom, a professor of scientific atheism at a university, eating dinner and talking on the balcony of Misha's flat. "Imagine," says Misha, "what is happening to the rest of the country." Misha is speaking of his current job: Cargo 200, twenty-six coffins, arriving from Afghanistan, housing Russian soldiers. Misha locates the relatives, delivers his heartfelt condolences, and makes arrangements to bury the coffins. His daughter Liza arrives with her fiance, Valera, and the two say hello, before having some tea. Valera and Liza have to get up early the next day for a trip, but Valera says he's got to go out for a bit. Valera is going to a disco and getting effed up, unbeknownst to Liza, and will be sharing the same road to Leninsk as Artyom, who is going to see his mother. Artyom's car breaks down on the road to Leninsk, and unable to flag anyone down, he walks to a farmhouse, where a sinister-looking older man stands at the gate. The sinister-looking older man says nothing to Artyom about help and cocks his thumb towards the farmhouse behind him. Inside the farmhouse, Artyom encounters a soldier, indicated by his blue-and-white shirt, cleaning a shotgun. He welcomes Artyom in for some dinner and vodka. Meanwhile, Valera is at the disco, getting drunk and running into Liza's girlfriend, Angelica. As the night wears on, the soldier, Alexi, his gardener, Sunya (a Russian corruption of his Vietnamese name), Arytom, and Valera, all become inebriated. Three remain sober: Angelica, who has left the dance with Valera to go to the farmhouse to get booze, Tonya, who can barely hide her contempt while cooking for the drunk men at the farmhouse, and the sinister-looking older man lingering outside of the farmhouse.Cargo 200 has the calculated appearance of its narrative rambling but it reveals itself in the end to be very well constructed and richly-filled. The dialogue between Alexi and Artyom is painfully funny, as Alexi asks the professor what he teaches: "scientific atheism." Artyom begins in his verbose and intellectual way to talk about Marxism and Leninism, but Alexi fuelled by a couple of glasses of vodka cuts to the chase: "Does God exist or not?" The country soldier reduces the city professor's profession to a simple yes-and-no question. The look of humility on Artyom's face is more telling than yes or no, and it's a nice touch of commentary from Balabanov. Balabanov throws the joke back at Alexi's face, however. Alexi manufactures alcohol on his property on which he wants to build supposedly a church, but his dream of church building is not a reality but one which appears out of his mouth when he has a lot to drink. The church dream stays alive but unbuilt with the help of Alexi's alcohol consumption, perpetually. Artyom fortuitously exits, with Sunya having fixed his car, and Valera arrives. After Alexi and Valera pass out at the farmhouse, the events of the film get much darker, surreal, and violent. The remainder of what follows in Cargo 200 should remain hidden but needless to say, the remainder is extremely charged, artistic, and often cruel. Cargo 200 is a non-nostalgic look at recent history in Russia, and I can say now, if it wasn't apparent before, Alexsey Balabanov is one of contemporary cinema's finest film makers. His film Brother (1997), starring Sergei Bodrov Jr., is an amazingly intense and bleak crime picture, fuelled by recent events and a very adept eye behind the camera. Balabanov would follow Brother with his surreal Of Freaks and Men (1998). Balabanov's take on America comes in Brother 2 (2000) with the seriously-intense War (2002) following. In a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from Brother, Balabanov would get extremely playful and often nasty with his crime flick, Blind Man's Bluff (2005), only then to violently change direction again with the sentimental and affecting (and nostalgic) It Doesn't Hurt (2006). Balabanov's visual style is the very definition of unassuming and his compositions feel so organic. Perhaps a lack or minimal use of dramatic music or the use of such soft colors lull the viewer into complacency, which is often violently disrupted with powerful images of emotion, commotion, or violence. Cargo 200 shares his unique and compelling style and regardless of what happened on screen, I remained glued. There are some sequences within Cargo 200 which are unbelievably too fantastically surreal to be true or real. However, when I view the sequences, I am never full of doubt, as if I've been looped through the extreme back into normalcy...if that makes any sense. While Russian viewers I am certain will get more of the intimate history, viewers from all regions will be affected by Balabanov's art. Balabanov is a film maker that I will continue to follow, wherever his art will take him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Francesco Munzi's The Rest of the Night (2008)

Portraits from Francesco Munzi's The Rest of the Night (2008) of unheard voices:

Maria is Romanian and a maid. She's accused by her mistress, not directly, of stealing her pair of pearl earrings. While serving dinner, the master asks Maria has she seen them. A look of guilt or fear from the accusation appears on Maria's soft face. She is terminated. Maria later reveals in the palm of her hand the pearl earrings, and she freely admits to have taken them. Whether she took them after the accusation or before is entirely unknown. Unable to find work, she goes back home into the arms of a old lover, where she is met with both contempt and warmth. Maria hurt the one she might have or might have not loved before, but he welcomes her again. Maria will not have a stable home.


To the best of my knowledge, her name is never spoken or acknowledged within the film. Silvana is wealthy. And alone. She attends a self-help lecture at the beginning where the lecturer asks his audience to abandon the Western world's fixation on material wealth and surrender. Silvana is accosted by gypsy children on the way home. Her husband acknowledges her when she is speaking by responding with speaking of his own. He doesn't listen. Her husband has someone else. Her teenage daughter has someone else. Silvana has no one. The people who she loves around her hurt her, and Silvana hurts the ones around her who she does not love.


To the best of my knowledge, his name is never spoken or acknowledged within the film. Marco is an addict at the height of his addiction and near the lowest part of his life. He lives with his mother and is resentful that he is under judicial supervision. Marco has a very young son, Luca, who lives with his mother and her new man, Ahmed. Marco is angry that his son has taking a liking to his mother's new man, so Marco takes Luca. Marco could have Luca without taking him but he feels as if he needs Luca to get out from under the eye of the court. Marco is a thief and doesn't think that anyone cares about him. Marco has long abandoned any love that he once might have had for himself.


Ionut is Romanian and a thief. He lives in squalor with his younger brother with hopes that his earnings will allow them a better place. His mother recently died. His heart was recently broken. Ionut is tired. A woman that he once loved comes back into his life, and the day-to-day sadness is lifted. Ionut is energized, but his new energy makes him move hastily. The patience for a better life diminishes, as he is willing to risk everything for a heist. The risk will be highly successful if Ionut is successful or shattering if Ionut fails. Ionut has the biggest and most trusting heart.


Victor is Romanian and alone. He alternates between feeling a burden, ignored, and an outsider. He's quiet and loves his brother more than anyone in the world. If he has to sleep on the couch, then he will sleep on the couch. If his brother asks him to go out into the cold for an hour, then Victor will go out into the cold for an hour. Victor will follow his brother into a better life or a worse one as long as he is with his brother. In the end, Victor is a Romanian and he might not be alone.

Monday, July 13, 2009

David Gregory's Plague Town (2008)

A dysfunctional family that is very normal in its familiarity. They're on vacation, which is really nowadays a job, and it becomes more stressful than a job. The father, Jerry, has brought along his new girlfriend, Annette, and Jerry's daughters, Molly and Jessica, aren't really taking a liking to her. These Americans are in Europe, where Jessica, three days previously, has met a new British beau, Robin, and has decided to bring him along. As the five disembark the local bus unto a lush, expansive, and green field, shining brightly on a beautiful day, the circumstances are going to become more stressful than any could ever imagine. A family that needs to unite, unable to do so because they've literally been too close to each other, is going to be torn apart by another desperate family, hiding in the outskirts, amongst the woods, waiting for nighttime.
Fourteen years prior in a flashback sequence in David Gregory's Plague Town(2008), a priest enters as an unlikely visitor to a birthing. Not to deliver a blessing, the priest arrives for a killing, but the young mother, in a powerful image, wraps a sash around her legs to prevent the child birth. The children of this village are unwelcome visitors, because they are akin to a plague. The child is born, but the new father kills the priest. The child lives. During the present time, amongst the fields where the American family is walking, the sounds of a child whispering come from the camera's p.o.v., as young Molly is sneaking a smoke. She spies an old man digging a hole. The five approach the stranger, who says they must stay the night and also inappropriately touches the cheek of young Molly. The five stop for lunch in a barn where they fail to discover the rotting corpse behind a haystack. Night falls. Having found not a lick of civilization, the five stumble upon a car, unlocked and abandoned. They take shelter, and Robin, in a bit of chivalry, decides to brave the cold night with his flashlight and go look for better lodging. Jessica defies her old man's wishes and follows. The two encounter a freakish-looking older chap standing by a tractor. The freaky dude offers shelter: "better come with me, sweetheart," he says to Jessica, "I hate to see you go to waste." He pulls a rifle and shoots Robin in the neck. Jessica runs. Perhaps, the whispering child and her friends have found the remaining three at the car? Who's David Gregory? An essential person to the current DVD world, to say the least, and Plague Town, with its story of Americans in Europe, is a mix of American storytelling combined with European atmosphere. Plague Town adopts the tried-and-true (and maybe tired) formula of "whoops, we should've stayed at home": the outsider encounter with the violent locals. The locals of Plague Town are children, and the rendering of these antagonists is where Gregory delivers. The children are demonic-looking and savage; their behavior is playful like children but imbued, even the most innocuous movements, with a chilling, sinister intensity; and they're cold-blooded killers. For example, during one scene, a character happens upon a small house with a dim light visible through the window. Inside, two girls are spied by the viewer through the window. A young girl is brushing the hair of another whose mirror image looks like Linda Blair at the height of her possession in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). The two scatter when the character enters the house. Donning theatre masks with hooked noses, the two children dance in and out of the dim light into the shadows. Each appears from the shadows holding separate ends of a large sharp wire and each continues dancing around their victim. They stop abruptly after the wire is encircled around the victim's head, and with a quick pull, off goes to the top. The European atmosphere of Plague Town overshadows the tired American formulaic storytelling. Gregory channels some of the more poetic imagery evocative of its masters, such as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. The character of Rosemary is an older child, pale and blind, whose eye sockets are filled with glass ones. They are literally soulless eyes and she moves not at the direction of her hands feeling her way or at the direction of anyone's voice but some other unknown sense. She is simultaneously sickening and compelling at first glance. Her appearance in the film is a highlight.Finally, the first third of Plague Town adeptly sets up the action of the second and third acts, taking time to introduce the characters and build up the suspense with foreshadowing and menace. This family is extremely familiar and likable in their familiarity. When night falls, Plague Town shines, and I was entertained and engaged for its running time. A hybrid of old-school American horror combined with European atmospheric dread, Plague Town should appeal to fans of both styles.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thanakorn Pongsuwan's Fireball (2009)

Tai-Tan has seen better days. He's struggling financially in a bad part of town. He's watching a beautiful girl deteriorate emotionally, as they both cry over the recent severe injury to a good friend, who lies comatose with little hope of recovering. So, what's Tai-Tan to do? Go and play some hoop and seriously f*ck some people up. We're talking Thanakorn Pongsuwan's Fireball (2009), where the Muay Thai hits the hard court. No one has yet seen elbows thrown on the court like these, in addition to knees, fists, and fast kicks. Tai-Tan joins an underworld boss's illegal basketball team of which each syndicate boss has one. Simple rules: first basket wins, no substitutions, or last man standing. Some plot and backstory is provided between matches. One of Tai-Tan's team members is dealing with racism and a pregnant wife. Another is the team's stellar shooter whose hopeful winnings will allow his brother to go to school and put a roof over his mother's head. Another is playing for his integrity--rumor has it that he threw last year's matches. Tai-Tan's final team member is a phenomenal fighter, and Tai-Tan is just angry. Their boss is an up-and-coming member of the underworld, and he wants to impress the head. New teams just don't make it, not just to the finals, but team members just don't survive. Pongsuwan's Fireball is total punk rock. It belongs in that rare class of films--loud, violent, nasty, and nihilistic. Its sisters are Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's Crank (2006) and Pou-soi Cheang's Shamo (2007). There is something heart-racingly exciting about watching a guy go up for a lay-up only to watch Tai-Tan swipe the ball out of his hands mid-air and throw an elbow to his jaw before either's feet hit the ground. The locale of the actual matches in the film look very similar to Snake Plissken's court in John Carpenter's mediocre Escape from L.A. (1996), except there is a real energy to the crowd behind the chain-link fence, like the crowd present in John Carpenter's excellent Escape From New York (1981) during Snake's wrestling match. Fireball's players look authentic as well: t-shirts and jeans, here, and no one-hundred dollar sneakers and loud shorts with corporate logos. Clothes aren't going to matter, anyway, because in the end they would all be covered in blood. Thailand is producing today's best martial arts films. Tony Jaa became a household name amongst genre fans with his high-flying elbows and knees and acrobatics with Prachya Pinkaew's Ong Bak (2003) and continuing in Pinkaew's Tom yum goong (2005). Jaa better look out, however, for Thailand's next rising star, JeeJa Yanin, who lit up the screen with her fighting skills in Pinkaew's Chocolate (2008). The martial arts of these recent films is without CGI and wirework. There might be some camera speed-ups and quick cuts, but these moves are genuine. Often, it looks like the participants in the action are actually hitting each other. These hits look sweet, too: fluid kicks and spins and choreography, never coming off as staged or fake. Thailand's recent martial arts cinema is about realism; and this realism gives the films a lot of credibility in film fans' eyes. The fighting is more akin to the bouts in a mixed martial arts competition, than an old Shaw Brothers flick (which I would watch with glee on any day). Fireball is on par with its country's current streak. The martial arts scenes are intense, fast, and incredibly exciting. Quite brutal, as well, so be forewarned. Not only do these punches look unforgiving but they sound unforgiving. Nasty. Fireball has some light fun, as well. There's a parkour-like scene where the boss offers his team members some extra cash for the first one to make it from the rooftop of a high, crowded building down to the very bottom on the court and make a basket. Over balconies, through apartments, and back over fences, the scene is kinetic and a highlight. The team members all bond through their circumstances, and although this is not a rich and deep film emotionally, I really got the sense of fraternal love here, especially during a couple tragic scenes. The basketball brawls are the appeal and the standout of Fireball, and these sequences alone merit a viewing. The finale? Let's just say the old cliche: Pongsuwan and his actors saved the best for last. So, pop this one in, turn it up, and watch basketball--it's life or death.