Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (2007)

When I watch an Abel Ferrara film, my mind always hearkens back to homilies that I've heard, the Catholic education that I've had, and my own adult-life experiences. Ferrara makes films about vices and within each film there is a character who is struggling with a tenuous control over his/her vice: Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant (1992); Lili Taylor in The Addiction (1995); or Matthew Modine in The Blackout (1997). As with these examples, the vice controls the character or vice versa. However, to put it another way, Ferrara makes films about sinning. Each character is actually struggling with human weaknesses. There is either redemption or there is not. Hate the sin, not the sinner. For Ferrara, it's love the sin, love it a little more, and then, by the end, forgive me for loving it.

So much for that junk. Go Go Tales (2007) gave me ample opportunity to let my erratic and guilt-ridden mind go for a hundred minutes or so and absorb the eye-candy. This Italian/American co-production is set in a strip club, the Paradise Lounge, run by Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe). Ruby loves the ladies, like a father of a seriously dysfunctional family. His club is about to fold. His hairdresser brother, Matthew Modine, as silent partner, is about to pull out of the venture. Bob Hoskins plays the barker; and he's incredulous why the Chinese tourists want to eat crab across the street instead of look at the lovely ladies.

Ferrara loves the ladies, as well. Asia Argento and Stefania Rocca standout as two of the ensemble. Argento plays Monroe, the new dancer. She's a dog lover and likes to have her menacing mutt lay next to her on stage while she works the pole. Rocca plays Debby, who's really an actress about to score that big part. Ferrara's camera doesn't shy away from showing many a female dancing up a storm. The film is set almost entirely in Ray's strip club. It's completely dark, save for ambient lights of various neon colors. Near the end of the film, the strip club shuts down: time for a talent show.

Like my description, the film is all over the place. Go Go Tales feels like a CD skipping, which I wished would just catch and finish a song. Ferrara went for a comedy, and unfortunately, wasn't successful. It is quite beautiful, ironically, and that's about all I can say for it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Made for Television: Kingsley Amis's The Green Man (1990)

I was fortunate during my undergraduate years to have taken a seminar on British author, Kingsley Amis. I immediately fell in love with the author's work, favorites being his literary classic, Lucky Jim (1954), Girl, 20 (1971), Jake's Thing (1978), and this one, made into a television, 3-part series, The Green Man (1969). I vaguely remember the stories or the discourse in the seminar on the culture which produced these works, Amis's misogyny and fondness for alchohol. Likewise, I went to school in New Orleans and had my own fondness for chemical, ahem, inspiration. In any event, I'm inspired to pull some of my old paperbacks off the shelf for a reread.

The Green Man was made in 1990 as a three part miniseries as a co-production by A&E Entertainment and the BBC. It stars Albert Finney as Maurice, who runs the title "Green Man," as a bed-and-breakfast. Maurice is an alcoholic and a womanizer and his hotel has a fun history of ghosts roaming the halls, much to the chagrin of the guests. Recently, Finney has noticed that the supernatural goings on in his hotel have become very real. So it's either cut down on the alchohol (not happening) or investigate the ghostly goings on.

The Green Man was directed by Elijah Moshinsky, whose work included exclusively television work and who now directs opera stage plays. Although The Green Man is dated, it really captures a lot of the spirit of Amis's novel. The mystery unfolds in an always engaging and often humorous way. Of particular note are the supernatural scenes, and Finney has two encounters with ghostly figures, which would in poor hands come off as ridiculous. The encounters are quite credible and atmospheric. Did I mention Finney arranges a menage-a-trois with his mistress and his wife during the whole goings on? He does, and it unfolds quite unexpectedly, as well. Sarah Berger and Linda Marlowe give wonderful performances.

Anyone who likes good British ghost stories, dramas, or mysteries would probably enjoy this one as I did. While it's not wholly successful, it's a fun balance of supernatural horror and somewhat humorous drama. All the acting performances are tops, not least of all Finney.

Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounters: 1st Kind (1980)

Tsui Hark is an enigma. Arguably, Hong Kong cinema, in the last quarter of the twentieth century would not have been the same without him; and his presence in the first decade of the new millennium has not been completely welcome. A simple cursory glance at his filmography at the Internet Movie Database supports the former, while films like his own recent remake of Zu (2001) and Missing (2008) are examples of the latter. Then again, what does this white guy from the West know anyway?

It is indisputable that The Butterfly Murders (1979), We're Going to Eat You (1980), Dangerous Encounters: 1st Kind (1980), and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) are bona fide masterpieces of the "new," post-Shaw Brothers Hong Kong cinema. I've watched each numerous times and will, more than likely, watch each a bunch more. Dangerous Encounters: 1st Kind is unique in a lot of respects; however, one stands out amongst all of Hark's filmography: he would never make a film like this again.

Dangerous Encounters stars Chi-lin Chen as Pearl. She's angry. She has a penchant for torturing animals (be warned; those scenes look genuine). She lives with her police-officer brother, Lo Lieh, in a crowded tenement building. Pearl's sick of her social worker and if a gun is left laying around, she'll point it at the screen. One night she witnesses three teenagers kill a pedestrian while joyriding and Pearl blackmails the reluctant three into a series of escalating terrorist acts.

To reveal any more would shave the edge off of this film. Pearl is seemingly a repellent character, but Hark balances the scenes. The viewer gets more than a glimpse of other facets of her life. The subject matter of the film is very dark, angry, and nasty, but Hark is able to interject an amazing amount of humor into it. The humor doesn't lighten the mood; it only makes it more disturbing. Only Hark can film dousing people with gasoline or a flubbed suicide pact in a humorous way. The film is shot in glorious wide screen with full effect. The ending is jaw-dropping.

The film was heavily censored at the time of its release in Hong Kong. The whole experience would be a turning point for Hark in his career. Likewise, Dangerous Encounters was quite the experience for me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Final 2 by Bruno Mattei: Island of the Living Dead (2006) and Zombies: The Beginning (2007)

Bruno Mattei is a god, little g. By far one of my favorite Italian film directors with a distinct flavor all of his own. The last two films directed by Mattei before his sloughed off his mortal coil in 2007 are Island of the Living Dead (2006) and Zombies: The Beginning (2007). His litany of sins is as follows:


1. Plots: I have a profound dislike for plot synopses and hate writing them. Mattei must hate writing them also, because he often takes the scripts for his films from preexisting ones.

2. Dialogue: In addition to plot lines, Mattei had no problem cribbing the characters' dialogue right off the page either. In either English or Italian, only a translation was necessary.

3. Footage: From page to screen, if it was filmed before by someone else, Mattei's magical pair of scissors would borrow it for his own flick.

Stealing? Cheating? Not quite. Stealing often implies surreptitious action and a malicious heart. Cheating is also out of the question. Cheating implies that one through nefarious and fraudulent means achieves the level of success of one through honest means. No claim can be made for Mattei of either.

Island of the Living Dead shares the basic plot framework of Steve Beck's mediocre Ghost Ship (2002). However, instead of a group of salvagers on a large luxury liner, Mattei's disparate group arrives on an island to encounter supernatural events and zombies. Lots of them. Of particular interest is the wardrobe. Seemingly whatever clothes an actor wore to the set on the first day of shooting became that character's wardrobe. A favorite is a grey Snoopy t-shirt worn by one.

All jokes aside, the zombie and gore fx are quite competent. Also for a low-budget, shot-on-video production, it looks quite nice. Although Mattei did not edit this one or Zombies, it moves at a steady clip with little filler. Mattei often edited his own films, brilliantly I might add. He would edit from the perspective of a director who didn't fall in love with his footage but rather from a viewer's perspective, sacrificing the boring for the explosion.

The ending of Island serves as perfect beginning for Zombies: The Beginning. James Cameron's Aliens (1986) provides Mattei the plot, a lot of the scenes, some of the dialogue, and maybe a little bit of footage. No aliens, though, but zombies. Island's Yvette Yzon returns for Zombies as a would-be Ripley. The same wonderful zombie fx returns with a whole lot of ineptitude and machine-gun action. Both films are tremendous fun.

I believe that I've suffered quite a bit of brain damage watching Mattei's movies. However, like a vegetative hospital patient, I am defenseless against the horror. God bless you, Bruno Mattei.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rachel Getting Married: The Best Film of 2008

If Rachel has a cinematic father, then he would be John Cassavetes. Cassavetes has long been held as the "father" of modern American independent film at least thematically. His films often took a very painful and realistic look at life with a focus on the finger-pointing inward. His characters are extremely vulnerable, and the audience gets more than a glimpse of pure human emotion.

Cassavetes was never heralded as a visual visionary. He chose his subjects in natural light, in realistic settings, and the hand-held camera was primary. Music was infrequent. It seems now, Cassavetes' vision has won the day also in this arena. His work is always welcome for a visit.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is a beautiful film about a woman's (Gena Rowlands) decline into mental illness and the effect it has upon her husband (Peter Falk) and her children. In a perfect quiet scene, Falk accompanies his three small children home in the back of a work truck. As they huddle together, Falk shares intermittent sips of beer with his children. The quiet continues as he puts the children to bed as he arrives home. Cassavetes films the scenes, as if he were one sitting amongst the characters in the back of the truck or laying aside one of the children. It's a powerful quiet film which has affected me for a very long time.

Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008) is a child of A Woman Under the Influence. Stylistically and thematically, it is a film that Cassavetes could craft for today. Anne Hathaway gives an amazing, heart-felt performance as the lead. When she gives a speech at the wedding rehearsal, it was easy to feel the other characters' embarrassment and the shunning she received as she tried her best. Emotions were new to this character, and Hathaway portrayed an unbelievable amount of vulnerability. Another beautiful scene involves Rachel bathing Kym the morning of her wedding--no dialogue, just the images, and it is incredibly haunting. Demme, like any master filmmaker, imbues life into every character. All are capable of understanding and all are loved (at least a little bit) by the viewer. Exposition is minimal, because it's not needed. The characters speak for themselves.

To say this one is a must-see is an understatement.

3 by Jeffrey Lau: The Haunted Cop Shop (1987), The Haunted Cop Shop 2 (1988), and Mortuary Blues (1990)

I first learned of Jeff Lau through his collaboration with a little-known Hong Kong director named Wong Kar-wai. Prior to Lau's creative collaboration with WKW on 90s classics, such as Ashes of Time and Fallen Angels, WKW would co-author two HK horror/comedy scripts from the late 80s, The Haunted Cop Shop (1987) and The Haunted Cop Shop 2 (1988). WKW would even briefly appear in the latter.

However, this blog entry ain't about WKW. I would have crossed paths with Lau in any event I'm sure, being a huge fan of HK horror/comedy. Almost every subsequent HK horror/comedy film owes a considerable debt to Sammo Hung's seminal classic Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980), and Lau created some real gems.

The Haunted Cop Shop (1987) stars Jacky Cheung and Ricky Hui as a pair of bumbling cops on the trail of thief, "Sneaky" Ming. Like Hung's classic film, Haunted Cop Shop has the thinnest of plot lines (a Japanese general is resurrected as a vampire causing havoc in the area!) and is more a series of comedic episodes with a horror/supernatural theme. Both leads are wonderful and quite funny. Lau injects a real energy and sense of fun throughout. Highlights are ghostly Mah-jong, underwear worn upon people's heads, and a discourse on Bonzai trees. There is also a not-so-subtle lift from Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985).

The sequel, Haunted Cop Shop 2 (1988), would reunite the two leads from the original and place them amongst an ensemble cast. Again the thin plot concerns the creation of a new police unit, a "ghostbusting squad," but the plot line only serves as a framework for another series of comedic encounters. A police raid at the beginning is standout. It also has some quite offensive jokes and lacks the charm of the original but it's worth seeing.

Finally, Mortuary Blues (1990) is an even-more hyper-kinetic. incoherent film. It's also completely charming HK horror/comedy. An opera troupe arrives on an island where there is a curse. There's also a treasure hunt and a resurrected evil king. The plot soon falls to the wayside. The jokes are primarily of the toilet variety with an ample amount of sex jokes thrown in as well for good measure. Mortuary Blues is low-brow art of the highest caliber.

All three are worth a gander for fans of 80s horror, HK horror/comedy, or low-brow art. This genre is truly unique and Lau's three films are staples.

2 by Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Sweet Home (1989) and The Loft (2005)

One weekend, almost ten years ago, I saw three Asian films, all of which I hold in the highest regard today: Hideo Nakata's Chaos, Kim Ki-duk's The Isle, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse).

Kairo, released in Japan in 2001, is one of my all-time favorite Japanese films. It is also the film that introduced me to its gifted director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It would be released in the U.S. nearly five years later, long after the death of J-Horror to lukewarm and unfavorable critical reviews. The truly awful American remake is better known. Those same critics, however, are chomping at the bits for his forthcoming Tokyo Sonata, which I anticipate will make many a top-ten list and garner quite a bit of praise for its director.

Over a decade before Kairo and twenty years before Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa made Sweet Home. A Poltergeist riff about a television crew which encounters paranormal events in an old mansion. The film shows a heavy hand from its more-famous producer (who also gives a performance alongside his wife) and is highlighted by the special effects from a master at the top of his game. All the scenes with Nobuko Miyamoto are particularly endearing, and she really shines. While the film as a whole is hampered by a tired story, Kurosawa really creates some beautiful atmosphere and imagery. It's a film worth seeking out.

The Loft was seen as a setback for Kurosawa. After having made the experimental and interesting Bright Future and Doppelganger, this film was seen as an unwelcome retread of J-Horror. Quite wrong. It's a beautiful green film about neighbors. Miki Nakatani is a writer who lives in the Japanese countryside next to a university building, where Etsushi Toyokawa is investigating a mummified corpse found in a local lake. No plot synopsis can give the depth of this film justice. A wonderful complex relationship develops between the two, amongst the backdrop of a lush green countryside, dark shadowy supernatural (?) goings-on, and a tight little mystery in the middle. This one is ripe for a revisit. Highly recommended.

While neither film captures the quiet cool of Kairo, I believe each is worth seeing. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a true artist and an amazing filmmaker.

My Altman Vacation Ends

Over a week and 13 films. Here are some thoughts:

1. Altman is an artist.
2. He is a quintessential American artist.
3. Mia Farrow is powerfully miscast in A Wedding.
4. Altman made bona fide masterpieces in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the first decade of the new millennium.
5. These blogs were an experiment for myself about an experimental artist.
6. Lists suck; as do some of these blog entries. However, there are some that I'm quite proud of.
7. Seven is a good number to stop.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Perfect Couple (1979)

Dooley and Heflin are decent peeps. They're normal peeps. It's easy to want them to be together.

This, the last Altman film of the 70s, is more about the music. It's dated and it took me out of it. Easily the most commercial and traditional film of 70s Altman.

I would have been four this year and more than likely have been running around outside. I wanted to be doing that while I watched this film. Not a bad film and not a fair mood to be in while watching it. Easily the most forgettable of an unforgettable decade of cinema.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quintet (1979)

Part of me or perhaps a lot of me has a profound dislike for logical and deductive reasoning. I rely upon it for the majority of the day. Language should be so freeing and discursive.

Quintet is a game. Its rules are never formally announced in the film. I ain't going to ask Sartre for a ruling neither. Vivia, Brigitte Fossey, and Ambrosia, Bibi Andersson, are wonderful characters and both actresses give wonderful performances.

This futuristic film feels set on a film set and looks like it. Even the snow feels artificial. Some beautiful quiet and vulnerable moments, mostly with Newman with Fossey and Andersson.

One film left in the vacation.

A Wedding (1978)

This film is the progeny of M.A.S.H. "Dairy Queen. Sound's perfect."

This is a film where the sane people are doped up which makes them crazy. It is also the film where shouting "don't panic" gets everyone into a panic.

Irony abounds. It's also a film where the filmmaker and the audience are on the outside looking in.

Monday, March 23, 2009

3 Women (1977)

A long, long time ago (1977) in a galaxy (California "which sure does look a lot like Texas") far, far away, there were three women: Pinky, Millie, and Willie.

This is the film I had in mind when I wanted to start blogging about cinema. I don't know what the future holds for the digital age of cinema. I have to admit I absolutely love softly- lit films. There's a certain lack of literal focus to the image, and the light hits everything in a wonderfully blended and blurred way.

I had no idea how little Sissy Spacek is; or maybe, Shelley Duvall is quite tall. No matter. Spacek has beautiful golden hair in this one. The painted murals in the pool are amazing against the backdrop of the desert. I love all of the images in the film of Janice Rule.

The score is something else; it's a mix of dark tones with whistles. See it...at least three times.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)

Included as a supplement on the DVD is the original featurette, made by the studio, which lets potential moviegoers in the know. There are scenes of the film's star, Paul Newman, walking around with a cup of coffee in one hand and his script in the other. There are shots of the director, Robert Altman, directing the film's star in the film's final scene.

Sitting Bull is Buffalo Bill's newest diva. He competes only with Buffalo Bill for top billing and biggest ego. Annie Oakley's a star, as well, and from time to time, she lets everyone know that.

A film which is a curiosity at its inception is still a curiosity and an oddity, today. Absent are any Altman quiet moments, which I've grown accustomed to during this vacation. There is perhaps one, but it's lost on me. The scene comes off as a character, an aging star, having a bout of morning DTs. Little resonance beyond that.

This is a film more looked at than watched.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nashville (1975)

The year of my birth. The preceding year, Nixon resigned, and the following year was an election year. I was born in Georgia and I remember my parents having a crazy amount of Carter buttons in junk drawers around the house. 1976 marked a special occasion for the United States of America.

I went to Opryland once as a child on a vacation and I don't remember it. However, I would probably remember all of the events of this film over the course of a couple days, regardless of my age.

I watched this film with English subtitles. I wanted to read the lyrics of all the songs. The subtitles were probably hell in the making for the person making them. However, almost every audible piece of language is transcribed. The subtitles do not distract from the images. I have no idea how Altman would have felt about subtitles for his film.

The actresses really standout in this one, all of them. Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, and Ronee Blakley standout amongst them. This is a wonderfully dated film which perfectly dates the period in which it was made.

California Split (1974)

This is a film about addiction and the people that you meet in addiction. It shows both the lonely side and the fun part and the result.

Like Thieves Like Us, there is another beautiful scene in a bedroom. Another quiet moment where two characters, thinking no one else is around, open up to each other.

I've never had a liking for casinos. Still don't.

There's a wonderful scene where Ann Prentiss digs her TV Guide out from under a couch cushion upon which George Segal is attempting to get some sleep. I love how she opens it up and reads a little bit of it and falls asleep. I completely understand that ritual.

This one's totally surreal and very real. Nashville's next.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thieves Like Us (1974)

Mississippi during the Depression. Interestingly, Altman captured a real feel of the state. It's still a little surprising how much it hasn't changed.

This is a film about the transition from youth to adulthood. Carradine and Duvall really shine in their quiet moments together. I cannot think of another film where there was really vulnerability shown between two characters. I also love the old-time radio programs playing throughout the whole film, a very beautiful touch.

Another empty church appears off of a country road. Coke bottles and Coke signs are everywhere. The Coke imagery doesn't feel like a modern product placement. It feels very much like Americana and part of the landscape.

One of my favorite memories of 2008 was driving through the Delta and watching the sun come up over the fields. I love the open road with wide fields on either side. Old farm equipment and shacks, here and there.

This one's a real jewel in Altman's filmography. Like his previous films, this one has brilliant touches of the surreal. I love how he seemingly can tap into that vein with ease.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The private eye film. I absolutely love crime fiction and crime films. This one's a real gem of not only the 70s but of all time. Gould's portrayal of Chandler's Phillip Marlowe as chain-smoking, mumbling, and to-the-point is classic.

I love the soft photography of the film. Los Angeles was certainly growing during this period. The shots of Gould standing near the shoreline of the beach, as a reflection in the glass are beautiful. Really indicative of the whole tone of the film--here's a loner and an outsider just reaching in to life in the big city. While it grows and changes, the city's culture grows and changes. Marlowe stays the same, but in the end, he's a little wiser for the better.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Images (1972)

The darkest film of Altman's, so far into the vacation. With the exception of Rene Auberjonois, there are not many familiar faces.

I am a very passive viewer of films. Mostly, they put me to bed after a long day. Sometimes I fall asleep after five or ten minutes and sometimes I can't get to bed and end up watching two or three.

This one I just let go. The reoccurring images of wind chimes, hanging prisms, and the like; the printed mirror; the idea that several actors are really portraying one or no men; York's doppelganger; and the wonderful Irish countryside. These are a few of the things that I caught.

I didn't pick up on the children's story that York narrated in voice over throughout the film. The credits reveal that she also authored the story. An obscure film, and I believe that the DVD is OOP.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe is shy, introverted, and inarticulate. He has a fondness for liquid courage. Mrs. Miller is direct, ambitious, and smart. She's quite fond of opium. Both fall in love with each other in this tale of American ambition set in the Northwest.

Wonderfully shot with a beautiful brown hue, it's totally nontraditional and surreal. I love the idea of the built-up town, wherein the church lies completely unused, save for a stockpile of junk. The idea that people's reputation often precede them is subverted and shown as quite often wrong. Moments of vulnerability are often shown alone. Warren Beatty's best scene is of him getting dressed, pouring his heart out to Christie.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Brewster McCloud (1970)

Pee Wee Herman's bicycle ain't in the basement of the Alamo, but Brewster McCloud lives in the fallout shelter in the Houston Astrodome. This is the "something else" from the director of M.A.S.H.

This was the only film of Altman's that was unavailable to me on DVD. I purchased a copy on VHS from a seller on the Amazon Marketplace. The over-sized, sun-faded VHS box brought back many a memory to me of video stores of VHS boxes lining shelves. This one must have sat near a window for many a day.

I currently hang my hat in Houston, and it was fun seeing a lot of Houston landmarks. Streets that I often drive are name-dropped. Places that I visit, like Humble, are sped through by the characters in this very surreal film.

This film makes fun of a lot films of its day and the evocative images within those films, such as the modern machismo of Bullitt and Shaft. Altman even makes fun of M.A.S.H., allowing the viewer the opportunity to see Sally Kellerman topless in a fountain, whereas in M.A.S.H. she was covered by well-placed benches, lighting, and her own towel. Shelley Duvall is about the cutest thing that I've ever seen. I absolutely love this one. Altman's batting two-for-two.

The Astrodome, bright and shiny and new in this film, isn't home to the Astros anymore. I don't know what kind of events are held there today. There might actually be someone living in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome today. And more power to them.

M.A.S.H. (1970)

While America was in the midst of the Vietnam War, Altman chose to make a film about the Korean War. It does not have one scene of combat.

When I was a kid, I often watched reruns of M.A.S.H. on television. I had no idea that it was first a film or that it was set in Korea.

Altman's film is truly a piece of Americana. It highlights the intellectual, logical, and dedicated doctors, who are very human. Intense on the job and mischievous and loose when off. Just about everything is ripe for comment: war, racism, religion, sexism, feminism, science, and politics.

I absolutely love the fact that Altman almost fills the final third of his film with a football game. I've always thought that no matter what was happening in the world that I would still be sitting in front of my television watching football on Sunday. The best scene in the film is when the wartime doctors take the young Korean kid, who they've been housing on their base, in to town. There is this overwhelming sense of humiliation and defeat in the scene as the crew realizes that their joke isn't going to work this time. Altman plays the scene with little melodramatic effect and most of the impact of the scene comes much later. In fact, a lot of this film stayed with me for a long time later. A must-see.

My Altman Vacation

I am really fortunate to have a working vacation during March, and for whatever reason, I've decided to watch all of Robert Altman's films from the 70s. Some I have seen more than once and some I have not seen at all. I miss Altman and really miss his creative spirit.