Monday, November 30, 2009

Jess Franco's Sex Is Crazy (El sexo está loco) (1981)

During his interview included on the Severin disc of Macumba Sexual (1983), Jess Franco talks about his return to his native Spain after making myriad films in other European countries. He intimates that Spanish culture was certainly different in the era after Francisco Franco's reign ended. The authors of Immoral Tales write about the changing culture in Spain; its effect on cinema; and Jess Franco's role during this period:

As the demand for erotic sex films went up, the gap between films became much shorter. Much of the finance came from Spanish companies like Golden Films who were eager to cash in on the softening up of censorship that took place after the death of the Spanish dictator, General Franco...After Franco's death the production of softcore comedies increased, censorship became slightly more liberal, and film makers were allowed to show nipples on the screen for the first time...The next stage was the development of the "S," or slightly more explicit softcore film. Film-makers still weren't allowed to show penetration, but they produced a wide range of sexploitation films for the home market, supplemented by imports. As one of the premier low budget European sexfilim makers, this was a good period for Franco.

This period would produce Franco's Sex Is Crazy (El sexo está loco) (1981) which thematically is both a celebration and a playful commentary on this liberal period in Spanish cinema and culture.
"'Sex is Crazy' is a piece of mayhem that fully illustrates Franco's bubbling creativity. Eschewing any plot discipline, Franco has fun mystifying the spectator by presenting the story as an erotic nightclub floorshow, which is imagined by a lonely wife in a 'quadrilateral' marriage, who is in turn an actress in the film inside the film. Are you still with me? Don't worry, I didn't understand it the first time I saw it!" (from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco)
One of the most creative and playful sequences begins with Lina Romay and Robert Foster's characters laying in bed. Romay's character is frisky, but Foster rolls over for more sleep. Nude, she walks to the glass doors and looks out upon beautiful seaside scenery. Romay's character walks into frame from behind the camera and outside (in cute detail, Franco realizes from behind the camera that Romay's bum is not completely in the frame and gives the camera a slight pan down to correct. Whether it was an intentional shot or not is unknown, but it wasn't removed in editing.) After sitting amongst the rocks on the seaside, Romay is visited by Foster who embraces her before the two begin some lovemaking. Another couple (Lynn Endersson and Antonio Rebollo) spies Romay and Foster and become aroused which in turn leads to their lovemaking (whereupon another couple spies Endersson and Rebollo which in turn...). Beyond Franco's signature voyeuristic motif, this humorous sequence resonates louder: an overwhelming sense that "coupling" is literally in the air and no longer does the sexuality have to be hidden (from neither the camera nor in the culture).
This scene concludes with Romay and Foster meeting Endersson and Rebollo. Endersson and Romay's characters begin a dialogue. Endersson and Romay break from their characters (into other characters possibly) and question each other as to whom is supposed to deliver a certain line. Franco steps into frame from behind the camera to direct the actresses and resolve the dilemma (only to exit the frame in the static shot to resume filming). The meta element of Sex is Crazy is as playful as its themes, and primarily upon what Franco is riffing is erotic cinema and its participants (and its burgeoning home market). More than once, Franco behind the camera is shown in a mirror. In one, Romay sits at the mirror while her lover exits the shower. Romay's character accuses her lover of cheating, and the two actors play the scene seriously (Romay as accusatory and her lover as defensive). Franco behind the camera is in center frame during the static shot, and his voice is heard by the viewer when he asks the two to redo the scene in a lighter manner. The two redo the scene, the dialogue is almost the same, the tone is different, but one thing remains constant: both attractive actors are still nude. One character, Rosalinda, is shown briefly from time to time laying upon a bed, as the camera tracks from her head to her toes or vice versa. She is always accompanied by a voice-over narration that never fails to comment that she is the producer's girlfriend and how excited everyone is that she will be the next star. While the scenes with Rosalinda are inserted into the film seemingly randomly, when she makes a pivotal appearance in a later scene, Franco reveals that the Rosalinda scenes are a set up for a clever joke about erotic actors and drama. Needless to say, there is quite a bit of flesh on display in Sex is Crazy, and nearly all the scenes in the film would fall into the category of (or wouldn't be unusual within) erotic cinema. The scenes range from cold and contrived, like the opening "alien nightclub" scene, to intimate ones, as with Endersson and Romay alone (in a parody of the "swinging" scene), but above all, the scenes are mostly bizarre (which drives the humor).
Low-budget and creative, Sex is Crazy is another oddity from Jess Franco. It has been recently released on DVD by label Sinful Mermaid. Buy it here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jean Rollin's La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire) (1969)

With humility, Jean Rollin speaks of the final sequence of his second film, La vampire nue (1969) (no spoilers): "Again, the screenings were punctuated by laughter and sarcastic remarks. For me the most painful laughter came during the scene on the beach; on the pebbled shore a vampire suddenly emerges from a box. This is one of the most unusual images of my cinema, and despite the whistling and heckling it remains dazzling for me. It's there that true strangeness lies." (quote taken from Jean Rollin's essay on La Vampire Nue included in Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publications, Germany, 1997, edited by Peter Blumenstock) Rollin's second film brought him the opportunity to make a "real film," (following his feature, Le Viol du Vampire, two shorter films shot to create one full-length film) with adequate time to write a script and prepare for the production. Unfortunately, Rollin admits he managed the film's budget poorly but being able to complete photography before editing. To compound matters, considerable debt was incurred for the sophomore film maker, and a bed stay during editing for its director, having been injured after being hit by a car. Nonetheless, Rollin does have fond memories of the production, including having "succeeded in including certain images that were important to me." For me Rollin's images have always been important. Having first viewed his cinema and La vampire nue, well over twenty years ago now from Nth generation VHS dupes without a lick of knowledge of francais, his imagery was always striking. The images spoke in their own language and told traditional tales, often romantic, conveying a poetic sense that few artists would be brave enough to dare (in this Post-Modern era where irony is the norm).The authors of Immoral Tales write, "La Vampire Nue (The Nude Vampire; 1969) was based around the idea of 'mystery.' Each sequence was to heighten the mystery and lead it forward to the next sequence. Any explanation that had to be given was to be held off until the very last possible moment." Rollin begins with a silent sequence, shrouded in mystery, as presumably scientists, donning brightly-colored cloth masked hoods, draw blood from a nude female, save a cloth hood masking her identity. Iron gates are opened with the following sequence, and a young woman wearing wrapped shear fabric peeks out of her fortress to wander the streets. The streets hold several lurkers, donning elaborate masks of animals, and among the night shadows, these figures give the young woman chase. Rollin introduces a signature motif: the male chance encounter with the beautiful young woman. The young man, later revealed as Pierre (Olivier Martin), senses the young woman (Caroline Cartier) is in trouble. He attempts to flee with her only to be trapped in an alleyway, where the woman is subdued and carried away back to the fortress. Pierre escapes, and with his new obsession, he is determined to gain entry into the fortress and discover the young woman's identity. The sequential narrative of La vampire nue is at times intriguing and at times a would-be annoying contrivance, if the visuals weren't so amazingly fantastic and striking. (Rollin would wisely adopt looser and more traditional narratives for his subsequent two films (and two of his best) Requiem pour un vampire (1971) and Le frisson des vampires (1971) as canvases for his imagery.) Each sequence, instead of a puzzle piece for an escalating mystery, is rather a stanza of arresting poetic visuals. Pierre needs help and he calls his friend, Robert (Pascal Fardoulis). Robert is an artist, and preceding Pierre's phone call, Rollin introduces Robert behind his easel with brush in hand. The subject of his painting is a beautiful young nude woman. As Robert eyes his model, he observes her curves, watches the way the light reflects upon her skin, and instead of being inspired as to how to render her image, Robert becomes seduced by her beauty. Hearing no brush strokes and sensing Robert's longing looks, the model actively seduces her artist. It's an intimate scene without words and save Pierre's phone-call interruption of the subsequent lovemaking, the scene would have no narrative weight. Rollin's sequential mystery cannot compete with his imagery: all intrigue in La vampire nue comes not from some plot revelation but from an artist's imagination. Another of Rollin's signature visual motifs would appear in La vampire nue: the image of a pair of young women. As a visual motif, often Rollin's use of the pair is affecting, as it is evocative of the Gemini twins. In La vampire nue, the pair is portrayed by "the two Castel twins, serious as popes, two little hairdressers thrilled to be realizing thier Hollywood-dream, coming of age just before the shoot." (Catherine Castel and Marie-Pierre Castel; Rollin would continue to work with both or either during the seventies.) In this passage, Rollin gives some anecdotes about working with the two but also reveals a little of his obsession with pairs or twins:

I wanted them by my side every day, until the production director Jean Lavie let me know that I was "vampiring" them, sapping them of their energy and wasting them away. They looked like two little celluloid dolls dressed up for some perverse game. Jio Berck's costumes resembled sadistic machines like the ones described by the Comptesse de Segur in "On ne prend pas les mouches avec du vinaigre." One of the twins knocked herself while falling down a flight of stairs. (The scene is in the film.) She was very proud of it and is still talking about it today.

Beyond their visual power, the image of the pair conjures the idea of "together." No journey will be taken alone. The Castel twins are a highlight of La vampire nue, and Rollin seemingly goes out of his way to focus his compostions upon the two. Their roles are important to the narrative, yet Rollin is having more fun using them in his "perverse game" than as characters advancing a plot.
La vampire nue is a haunting experience of images disorienting, fantastic, and surreal. Rollin's cinema is highly influenced by some of the earlier French cinema, like Louis Feuillade (Les vampires (1915), for example) and Georges Franju (Judex (1963), for example), but with La vampire nue, Rollin would make his own mark and begin to develop some of his more personal themes. Jean Rollin would eventually become a truly unique film maker whose work I greatly admire and love. La vampire nue is a striking early work.
All quotes from Rollin and objective facts about the production are from his essay on La vampire nue from Virgins and Vampires. All other facts are taken from their sources as noted within.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jess Franco's Succubus (Necronomicon) (1968)

Jess Franco's Succubus (Necronomicon) (1968) has a sensational production history and release. It's original collaborator and producer, Karl Heinz Mannachen and Adrian Hoven, respectively (the former was visited by Franco with a eight-page script after Franco came up with the film's idea) could only secure enough money for a few days shooting in Lisbon, Portugal. At risk of running out of money for the production, Hoven invited his millionaire friend, Pier A. Caminecci, to the set to induce him to invest the production. It worked. Caminecci took over Succubus financially and even secured himself a part in the film. Upon completion, Caminecci gave money to Franco, Hoven, and Mannachen and made his own cut of the film, which was retitled Succubus for the English-speaking market, where it was successful (U.S. and England). This is the version here under review. Apparently, Caminecci's inducement to finance the film was a strong attraction to its star, Janine Reynaud, with whom Caminecci began an affair during its production, while her husband, Michel Lemoine (who had a part in the film and also a film maker himself), remained in the background. One of the most famous fans of this film is legendary director Fritz Lang, who described the film as a "beautiful piece of cinema."
Not having a fondness for writing plot synopses and frankly believing I am completely unable to do so here, I will forgo even attempting writing one. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Franco had "virtually no script" for Succubus (Necronomicon) and would write dialogue scenes the night before shooting, while in the morning star Jack Taylor would translate the Spanish dialogue into English. This film is all about Janine Reynaud: the star who would capture the attention of its producer; whose character, Lorna, is the total desire of the other characters; and whose images could only be captured by Franco. Succubus is a fitting title for a film about a seductive woman who also hides a darker side. No one is more seduced than the viewer with Jess Franco's dreamy and surreal film. The opening sequence is powerful. Reynaud's Lorna, brandishing what seems a riding crop, comes out of darkness to encounter a bound female and male, both scantily-clad in tattered bits of clothing. She has her way with the two. A pervasive feeling within the scene, although the two look raggedy and bound intentionally, it seems the two are willing captives, seduced by a powerful sensuality. Jack Taylor, as William, comes home to his apartment, after a night's drinking at the cabaret, where's Reynaud's opening was revealed as a performance. Mysterious Lorna is waiting for him and the two go to bed. These two opening sequences are mirrored at the end. Mysterious Lorna is still in William's apartment when he gets home (to his surprise) and she takes him into his arms. Lorna performs her act as a rehearsal, just before this scene, which ends when another power takes over Lorna (possibly someone whom she is under control? The film dissolves time to time into the eyes of a character, beckoning to her). Symbolism is pervasive throughout Succubus with a heavy emphasis on the meta aspect of capturing female imagery. Gorgeous Lorna seduces a beautiful young blonde woman (again, seduced or willing lover is unknown) in a scene littered with mannequin models which Franco places side by side his female characters. All of the characters in Succubus are drawn to Lorna: she has two encounters where strangers approach her whom Lorna denies knowing; the people in her life, like William, are extremely possessive of her; and there is possibly one character who is controlling Lorna in a mystical or supernatural way. Ultimately, Succubus is a film about a desire to capture and possess the female spirit, despite making any true attempts to understand or accept it. A beautiful-looking film, I was entranced during its whole running time.All objective facts about the production, save the quote from Fritz Lang, are taken from Cathal Tohill and Pete Tomb's extremely essential film book, Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984. The quote from Fritz Lang is taken from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco.

Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998)

The Son of Man (Martin Donovan) and Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) arrive in New York City on New Year's Eve 1999, the final evening of humankind. The duo have arrived to open the Book of Life, found in a locker numbered 666 in the form of a Mac powerbook, to facilitate the coming apocalypse as prophesied in the Book of Revelation and to reveal the names of the few who will be saved from eternal doom. The Son of Man is a fan of NYC and is not completely ready to complete his task. The Devil (Thomas Jay Ryan) sits depressed in a bar and tries to take one more soul before the end.
Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998) was seemingly made for European television, runs a little over an hour, and now over a decade removed, its millennium theme lacks an immediacy and possibly some relevancy. But that's okay. Writer and director Hal Hartley is a unique American film maker and a personal favorite. He possesses a sharp wit and an observant critical and satirical pen, and his dialogue, heavily evident in his early films (The Unbelievable Truth (1989); Trust (1990); Surviving Desire (1991); and Simple Men (1992), for example), is delivered by his actors in his signature staccato style. Often his main character(s) is smack in the middle of a life-defining, spiritual dilemma and the dialogue delivered by all of the characters are really monologues delivered in conversational form, as if each character is constantly "thinking aloud" but having someone present to contradict, confirm, make fun of, or relate to the speaker's ideas. Prior to The Book of Life, Hartley directed Henry Fool (1997), which many fans and critics alike consider his most mature and best work. Often when a film maker completes a contrived, meticulous or operatic work (for example, WKW with Chungking Express (1994) after Ashes of Time (1994); Sogo Ishii with Electric Dragon 80, 000 V (2001) after Gojoe (2000); or QT with Death Proof (2007) after his epic two volumes of Kill Bill (2003-04)), he or she will follow it with a more relaxed and looser work (and possibly a lot more fun): a little invigoration for the artistic soul. The Book of Life, appropriately, appears this way.
The inclusion of singer, P.J. Harvey (of whom I'm also a huge fan), as Magdalena, who also provided music within The Book of Life, gives the film a lot of its spark. Although as Magdalena she is a pivotal and essential character to the narrative, Hartley takes the time let Harvey just be. After Donovan and Harvey's characters separate, with the Book of Life in Magdalena's red backpack, she goes to a music store and at a listening kiosk, she dons earphones and sings. The tune that she is singing doesn't match the song playing over the scene as the film's soundtrack, yet Harvey's natural beauty and charisma and incredibly beautiful voice become the viewer's focus. It's a scene which is really non-essential to the narrative but completely essential to the film's energy. When Harvey tells the biblical story, "let those without sin, cast the first stone," it is amazingly endearing (and concluded quite humorously). Beyond its other charm, The Book of Life is worth seeing alone for P.J. Harvey.
My other favorite scenes take place in the bar where "terminally good" Edie (Miho Nikaido) serves drinks to Thomas Jay Ryan's Satan and hapless Dave (Dave Simonds). Ryan's character exposes to Dave Edie's love for him and his own love for Edie. Satan says "try the lottery" to Dave and in exchange for Dave's material wealth, the Devil will take Edie's soul. Edie picks Dave's winning numbers, and how this scenario plays out is extremely fun. Nikaido appears to have a naturally sweet nature which Hartley emphasizes well. Those who enjoyed Ryan in Henry Fool will not be disappointed here: his character (and accompanying performance) is sardonic, self-deprecating, and sharp. Simonds's performance is an excellent final puzzle piece to this trio, and these three characters are terrific.
All is not light, however, in The Book of Life. In a signature scene, Donovan and and Ryan meet to discuss humanity's fate. Although their conversation is played out with humor, a real depth and sensitivity rings true. Donovan, likewise, shares several traditional monologues throughout the film that are also thought-provoking and well-written (and delivered). All of the performances are tops. Hartley really loosens up with his visuals and with digital video, he plays with the colors and the imagery. All in all, The Book of Life is an infectious blend of energy and is worth seeing for those like Hartley, playful and creative.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Herman Yau's Laughing Gor-Turning Point (2009)

Hong Kong cinema has forever changed its image of the undercover cop. John Woo's Hard Boiled (1992) is my earliest memory: Woo's phenomenal action sequences accompanied by excellent performances by Yun-fat Chow and especially Tony Leung Chiu Wai, as the undercover cop. Leung's representative performance is a man torn: a cop so deep into Triad life that he assumes the lifestyle completely, and his police identity known only by one within the force. His actions do not conform to a righteous police officer or a wholly nasty gangster. His loyalties are always divided as with the two worlds in which he lives, he has made oaths and allegiances to both. Spiritually, it is too much for the character, and his internal conflict becomes his undoing. In 2002, Andrew Lau directed the massively popular Infernal Affairs, which starred Hong Kong's biggest names and was remade by Martin Scorsese in 2006 as The Departed, which garnered him an Academy Award and also starred some of America's biggest actors. Watching both in close proximity, either film reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Neither Infernal Affairs nor The Departed is particularly compelling. There were more interesting films to come with this new archetype, deeper and more complex situations into which the undercover cop is truly torn.
While Andrew Lau would direct two more Infernal Affairs sequels and produce cash-ins made in their wake, such as Billy Chung Siu-Hung's Undercover (2007), it would be Herman Yau who would make a truly notable contribution to the genre with his On the Edge (2006). The film took as its premise the cop previously in deep cover now exposed: how would his life turn out, if he donned the police uniform again and played just the one side? Nick Cheung gives a memorable performance as the officer, supported by equally strong performances by Anthony Wong Chau-Sang and Francis Ng (with a smart script and assured direction from Yau). Yau's back at it again with Laughing Gor-Turning Point (2009), taking the undercover cop theme as deep as it gets.
With few frames, Yau sets his exposition. Lit behind a sliding window, a silhouette makes a call to the police, speaking of an "operation" and begging for, this time, a "signal." The police rush out of the station in two units, one being led by Officer Xian (Yuen Biao). Cut to the club, and amidst the flashing lights, sits flamboyant, mohawked Brother One (Anthony Wong), who gets a nudge from one of his numerous ladies and then hits the streets. The police are trailing Wong's Brother One, who constantly changes his final destination, sending his driver erratically all over Hong Kong to allude the police. In the confusion, the police vehicles get into an accident. Officer Xian is seriously injured and his unit out. The second unit heads to intercept Wong's operation. At a local dock, the Triads are unloading drugs, cigarettes, and other contraband. Brother Laughing (Michael Tse), accompanies Wong at the crime scene, and the police arrive. Tse's Laughing attempts to flee but injures his leg. The police nab him, and as he is violently being interrogated by the cops, Brother One, Master Ford (Eric Tsang), and Zatoi (Francis Ng), the three Triad heads, are meeting to discuss Laughing's fate.
A complex web of relationships is weaved. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Tse's Laughing is the mole. It would be a spoiler, however, to reveal which side, Triad or cop, as to where his allegiance lies (if either). It is not a spoiler to reveal that Wong's Brother One and Ng's Zatoi do not like each other, as Yau's initial scene with the two reveals, cleverly. With one frame, Yau creates the power relationship as the three are sitting at a table with Master Ford at the head, and Wong and Ng sitting across from each other. During this same scene, Master Ford reveals that Wong's Brother One was once a cop now completely a Triad (and accepted fully by the organization). It is also revealed during this same scene that it was Wong who brought Tse's Laughing into the organization. Brother One and Laughing have an interesting history which is shown in flashbacks throughout Turning Point. Michael Tse's character as the undercover cop and his development as a Triad/cop is the focus, buttressed strongly by an external struggle involving Brother One and Zatoi with the police having a strong influence. The story is extremely well-written as each subsequent scene plays out unexpectedly. There are a few overly-melodramatic scenes which are now staples of this genre, such as Tse pouring his heart out more than once that this "life" is killing him.
Yau continues his impressive visuals and action sequences. In one particular scene, very early, Tse's Laughing is discovered at a hideout. As he makes his escape, Yau virtually forgoes any showing of combat. Through a rising tension, such as Laughing picking up a cleaver before opening an unknown door, and some clever edits, such as Laughing calmly encountering a patrolling policeman, Tse makes his escape. Michael Tse gives an excellent performance, yet it's the veteran actors, Wong and Ng, who are the highlight. Outwardly, Wong plays one of his most outrageous and flamboyant characters yet, with a mohawk, sometimes wearing a shawl or boa or even lipstick. Inwardly, however, his character is extremely complex whose intensity is only revealed in his quiet moments. In a seemingly innocuous scene, Brother One details the evening plans to his ladies while riding in the car. With a veteran actor's timing, Wong's delivery of his lines creates a powerful tension and revelation. Ng's Zatoi is initially a mysterious character but as the film plays out, he also hides a strong internal conflict with very strong conflicting loves (from which a brilliant scene comes from Ng.)
The cultural genesis and some facts about the production are included here which also serves as a link for purchase.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fernando Di Leo's Slaughter Hotel (1971)

Under a beautiful purple dark night sky sits the asylum setting of Fernando di Leo's Slaughter Hotel (1971), his sole contribution to the horror/thriller genre, a genre, perhaps, for which Di Leo had little love. Its opening sequence is a signal: a dark caped figure is prowling outside the asylum grounds. The figure gains entrance into the quiet place and eyes an axe to pick up, after playing with the iron maiden which sits in its lobby (I always associate torture devices and weaponry from within the walls of medical facilities). Slowly upstairs, the caped figure ascends to spy beautiful Cheryl (Margaret Lee) in her birthday suit and in total slumber. Cheryl makes an innocuous movement with her hand and signals the nurse. The lights come on and the dark figure gasps and disappears. All sound and fury. Cue credits.
Di Leo intimates (during his interview included on the region one DVD of Shriek Show's release) that inherently the mystery or thriller genre is limited: there are only so many red herrings that one can put to the viewer with a limited number of characters to produce a satisfactory conclusion. The narrative, which Di Leo co-wrote with Nino Latino, soon fades away. Although Slaughter Hotel has numerous titles for its various world releases, perhaps a fitting one would be Sensational Hotel. Aided by his laissez-faire attitude towards the genre, a talented cinematographer with Franco Villa, a wispy and catchy score (also sometimes minimal and haunting) by Silvano Spadaccino, and Klaus Kinski and a bevvy of beautiful actresses, Slaughter Hotel is a melange of atmospheric and effective erotic sequences juxtaposed with equally atmospheric and effective violent sequences.
Di Leo doesn't hide his affection for beauty Rosalba Neri who plays patient Anne. She tells the doctors, "I just want to make love," a desire which earned her a stay at the clinic. Neri's first appearance is memorable: in a revealing black pants suit, Di Leo's camera focuses on Neri's powerful sensuality. In a playful and erotic sequence, Anne goes to the greenhouse to shag the groundskeeper. When two orderlies come hunting for Anne, Di Leo lets Neri go. She sashays out of the greenhouse to encounter the curious orderlies. She falls into the arms of the two, and with feline movements rubs her body and gropes the young men with her arms and kisses. While it would seem the two have been looking quite a while for Anne combined with Anne's lack of reluctance to go with them, the orderlies aren't moving. They'll stay frozen for a minute or two like statues until Neri gets bored with them. Look close and you'll even see a smirk on the face of one of the actors. Neri's confrontation with the killer is also memorable. After a very long voyeuristic sequence of viewing Neri dream while writhing nude upon her bed, the killer enters and Anne begins her seduction. The scene is a combination of flesh and shadows and emotions of arousal and repulsion.
Mara (Jane Garret) is a lonely patient and feels an outsider, with whom Nurse Helen (Monica Strebel) is fascinated (or perhaps fascinated with the idea of Mara). Di Leo films the two's relationship initially as sensitive caretaker bonding with sad and friendless patient, as they sit on the bench outside on the grounds. A kinship is formed, but these ladies will not become sisters. Di Leo films the two in a series of erotic sequences, escalating in sexual tension. In the first, Helen massages a nude Mara, then comes Mara's bubble-bath bathing with Helen's assistance (of course, she removes her nurse's outfit in order to facilitate a better bathing), which ends with the two dancing before inevitably making love. These sequences are all for the benefit of a male audience, and Di Leo doesn't disappoint by delivering the eye candy. As with Neri, Di Leo focuses on these characters almost exclusively in a visual fashion. Strebel has gorgeous big eyes and fiery red hair, while Garret's aloof demeanor and quiet looks provide the simmering sensuality.
Kinski, like the actresses, was chosen by Di Leo's for his "dramatic face," and like the ladies, he's eye candy. Klaus Kinski plays Dr. Francis Clay who has a burgeoning love for Margaret Lee's Cheryl. Kinski's expressionistic face with his piercing eyes and brooding demeanor hides mystery (which Di Leo plays on). Kinski walks the halls and gives some of the most uncomfortable cigarette-smoking sequences (I'm not a gambler but I would bet Kinski is not a smoker). Kinski and Lee display a light romance, straight out of any dime-store paperback.To Di Leo's credit, the compositions of the killer are well shot. In a haunting sequence, the killer is brandishing a sword, and all alone he swings it in a madman's fury before his next frenzied kill (the swings of the sword are accompanied by low-octave notes delivered by Spadaccino's minimal score). In a humorous (yet effective) scene, a nurse passing the grounds at night walks within inches of the killer and does not notice him. A scythe is in the bushes, and as soon as she passes, the killer picks up the scythe to decapitate her. The nurse turns and screams before her death. The scene comes off as the very definition of perfunctory: okay, I'll walk by you and pretend you're not there. Get the nearby weapon, which I also conveniently fail to notice, and kill me.

Despite almost a pure display of cinematic exploitation, Di Leo drops in a little of his trademark socio-political commentary. An early scene of a husband coldly dropping his wife off at the front door of the asylum is effective. A clinic which houses only women patients with seemingly the only rule being "you can't leave" pervades the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. It is also extremely difficult to discern what actual afflictions these patients have. The doctors are often shown as incompetent and less-than-professional. The police, when they finally show, can talk. That's about it. I own both the Shriek Show (Media Blasters) and Raro releases and recommend both. Facts about the production, I took from Di Leo's interview included on the Shriek Show release.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chan-wook Park's Thirst (2009)

Father Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song) sits in the confessional and counsels a young nurse who is thinking of suicide after her boyfriend has dumped her. Sang-hyun tells her three things: he gives her penance, "twenty hail marys,"; seek the help of science by taking anti-depressants; and offers some friendly advice, "forget the bastard who dumped you." The nurse is a little taken aback, perhaps even resentful, that the priest has crossed some personal boundary. "Father," she says, "I'll deal with the bastards and the worldly matters. You just stick to praying, Father." These words sound loudly for Sang-hyun, and he consults his mentor, Father Noh (In-hwan Park). Sang-hyun wants to help people by volunteering for an experimental treatment and vaccine for the EV virus, which causes complete blistering of the body before death takes over. Sang-hyun feels his prayer is ineffectual, since one patient at the hospital where he visits has died and another recently entered into a coma. Sang-hyun goes for treatment, despite Father Noh's attempts to dissuade him. Sang-hyun is overcome with the virus, dies on the surgery table, and comes back to life within minutes. Despite his attempts to help humanity with science, Sang-hyun exits the treatment facility to a large crowd of on-lookers who view the man a miracle and seek his prayers and healing. Sang-hyun continues his work in the hospital, doing magic tricks and the like for the ill children, when Ms. Ra (Hae-sook Kim) humorously bangs on his window. Would "The Bandaged Saint," only survivor out of fifty treated for the EV virus, come and see her ill son? Sang-hyun meets the son, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin), who remembers Sang-hyun from his childhood. Sang-hyun was an orphan. Kang-woo is married to Tae-ju (Ok-vin Kim), also an orphan. Sang-hyun is welcomed into Ms. Ra's home, and so begins his looking, longing, and living in Chan-wook Park's aptly-titled and ironic Thirst (2009).
Despite the nurse's confessional insinuation that Sang-hyun has no real knowledge of worldly matters, the priest gets a crash course on real life after becoming one of the "undead." Apparently, those blisters reappear on Sang-hyun's body, but when he consumes human blood (which he now craves), the blisters disappear. Sunlight also has a searing and blistering effect on his skin. The priest is also craving "sinful desires." Sang-hyun consults Father Noh, again, and candidly relays his dilemma. Noh doesn't see his affliction as a dilemma and freely offers his cut hand for Sang-hyun to feed. Noh views Sang-hyun's affliction as a gift and desires for Sang-hyun to share his blood with him. Noh is disabled and blind and has a simple wish. He delivers perhaps the most important line in Thirst, "I wish I could see the sunrise over the sea before I die." Sang-hyun says that is not possible for a vampire. Sang-hyun is taking his new life in a more complex direction: a little gambling with some Mah-jong, a first kiss from a Tae-ju, eventually making love to her, and falling in love. The priest's curiosity eventually leads him to murder, and then events really get worse.Thirst is not a cautionary tale about worldly transgressions, small or big; it doesn't sing the praises of science; nor does it want its viewer to seek the simple spiritual life. Thirst reveals the deficiencies in all three spheres of life: the worldly, the spiritual, and the scientific; and shows that life is not made of absolutes but human living. Sang-hyun gets to experience love with Tae-ju, but it's not perfect: she's not an idyllic damsel in distress who needs saving: Tae-ju has her own personality, attributes and flaws, both glaring. Sang-hyun devalues his spiritual work: Park cleverly distracts the viewer with Ms. Ra's humorous banging on the window, as it is shown that Sang-hyun's magic tricks are bringing joy to the ill children. Also, the intense treatment that Sang-hyun received in order to achieve a vaccine in the name of science and humanity only brought those with strong religious faith more hope and a stronger faith in God. Thirst doesn't align itself with any solution: it only reveals its characters, unique and individual, and their epiphanies. What Thirst's viewer does get to certainly experience is Chan-wook Park's most mature film to date, wonderfully dark, often both funny and intense.Kang-ho Song is one of the best actors working in Korea today. His starring role in Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is a personal favorite and he gave an essential supporting role in Chang-dong Lee's little-seen and wonderful Secret Sunshine (2007). Park draws a rich character with Sang-hyun and Song commands the dramatic range. It's an excellent performance. I fell in love with Ok-vin Kim in Kyun-dong Yeo's The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan (2008), and it's quite obvious after her role as Tae-ju in Thirst, she is an actress to watch. Park draws an equally wonderful and rich quirky role for Kim, and she's always attractive on screen, whatever she's doing. Park's visuals, despite any criticism he might receive for his films' narratives, are always exciting. Thirst doesn't disappoint in this arena unsurprisingly. Some of the hidden beauty in the film are with his small shots, seemingly focused on just the little things. How appropriate. Buy it on DVD here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pou-Soi Cheang's Accident (2009)

A young woman has a flat tire in the middle of a crowded street in Hong Kong. The older gentleman behind her is irritated that she won't move her car to the side, so he takes a right turn down another street. The older gentleman inches by a large truck, and its cargo of water splashes onto the street and into his window. With the water stunning him momentarily, the older gentleman is blindsided by a banner which falls onto his windshield and covers his view. The gentleman exits his car to remove the banner, and in the exact spot where he is standing a chain breaks and a large piece of glass falls directly on his head. The gentleman dies from the injury.Accident? Of course not. The older gentleman was a Triad boss and his hit was performed by Kwok-fai Ho (Louis Koo), aka "The Brain," in Pou-Soi Cheang's ironically-titled Accident (2009). The young woman with the flat tire (Michelle Ye), never named in the film; the truck driver of the water cargo, elderly Uncle (Shui-Fan Fung); and a man in a room above the banner, Fatty (Suet Lam) are part of Brain's crew; and this team's modus operandi is staging meticulous and intentional hits and giving the appearance of the victim's death as an accident. For a sum of money, of course. Produced by Johnnie To and his Milkyway Production Company, Cheang delivers a fantastic character study, surrounded by an intriguing plot, with Accident.The crew preps for their next hit: their mark is a disabled, elderly father whose son is their client. Koo's character takes the job and begins observing the son and the father's behavior. He notices, almost like clockwork, that the son pushes his father's wheelchair across trolley tracks on the way home at the end of the workday. The Brain's elaborate plan is to use the trolley tracks' electricity and shock the old man in his wheelchair as he crosses. Rain and a well-placed conduit wire is necessary to complete the task. The crew assembles after a long duration of planning, only to wait, night after night, for the perfect culmination of rain, darkness, and crew persistence. When all the elements come together, one evening, the hit is performed successfully, with only a slight hitch. As Koo's Brain walks away from the "crime" scene, he is almost hit by a bus, skidding in the rainwater, which ends up ramming into a car, sliding into a fence, only after the bus has hit and killed Fatty head on. Brain doesn't think the bus had an accident, after he arrives home and there's been a break-in. Every cent of money that he's ever earned on a job has been taken and his flat ransacked. Unlike his previous two films, Dog Bite Dog (2006) and Shamo (2007), Accident is very slick-looking and calculated, more like a To film, and lacks the raw intensity and emotion of the former. It is a perfect style, however, for a film about a man who desperately tries to manipulate and control people and events involving risk, coincidence, and chance. After the Triad hit, the crew assembles in their hideout, and the woman chastises Uncle for being careless and leaving a cigarette butt at the accident scene. Uncle tries to go back to the scene to retrieve it, but the woman said she's already taken it. Uncle tells the woman and Fatty to forget about it. Uncle insists that his carelessness won't happen again and hopes Brain doesn't find out. Too late: Brain's got a bug in his hideout. He wants to know everything going on behind his back. Koo's character has the butt from the crime scene and asks Uncle why he lied. After the hit on the disabled, elderly father, Koo's Brain follows the son to the insurance office and spies through his telescope, the son and the insurance agent (Richie Ren). Their body language appears odd to Koo's character: he begins a meticulous surveillance of the insurance agent, by renting a nearby apartment to spy on him, bugging the interior to hear his conversations, and learn his every day rituals. Koo believes the bus was trying to intentionally kill him and now he trusts no one. The truth, he believes, will be revealed at some point by the insurance agent. Observation, diligence, and patience is all that Koo needs.The initial imagery of Accident, depicting a car crash accident and woman's death, resonates throughout the film, both for Koo's character and the film's theme. Accident is a journey and meditation on the theme of control. Is one able to control his/her actions and emotions? Is it possible to determine and manipulate the future with an accurate degree of certainty? Accident, however, is solely not an intellectual exercise. Louis Koo truly carries the film with an excellent performance, quite possibly his best performance of his career. It is through his eyes that the viewer sees Accident, and the mystery which unfolds is so engaging that it is only at the ending where the viewer can step outside of the narrative and reflect. Like Koo's character, Accident is meticulously written and shot with an adept eye to detail. In order for Koo's Brain and crew to be successful with their "accident" hits to fool the police, the accidents have to look genuine. Likewise, Cheang has to make the scenarios and set-ups look believable and credible to the viewer: he's successful. Visually, Cheang's film is on par with the work of his producer. Anyone who has seen, say, Johnnie To's Breaking News (2004), with its fantastic opening shootout, or his more recent Sparrow (2008), with its elaborate pickpocket sequence in the rain, knows the man can shoot a slick-looking, elaborate, and exciting action sequence. Accident is both cosmetically beautiful and rich substantively. The film is garnering praise as one of the best films from Hong Kong this year. While I haven't seen that many films from Hong Kong this year, Accident is one of the best films that I've seen this year, from anywhere.

Ruggero Deodato's Raiders of Atlantis (1983)

Brilliant. Phenomenal. Amazing. These are words that describe Ruggero Deodato's Raiders of Atlantis (1983), and perhaps, I'm the only one who is using them. Mike (Christopher Connelly) and Washington (Tony King) are ex-soldiers turned mercenaries. At a Miami mansion, the two perform a flawless kidnapping by incapacitating their target and taking out all of the henchmen. They deliver their target to "The Colonel" and get paid a cool fifty grand. Time to disappear for a while, so Mike and Wash (or Mohammed, as he likes to be called, since he's been reborn) gas up the boat to head to Trinidad. Meanwhile, off the coast of Florida on a platform, a group of U.S. scientists and military are attempting to float a Russian submarine located on the ocean bottom loaded with nuclear missiles. An interesting artifact is found (an ancient tablet found near the submarine), and helicopter pilot Bill (Ivan Rassimov) flies in Professor Cathy Collins (Gioia Scola) to decipher the language on the tablet. She meets Professor Peter Saunders (George Hilton) and tells him that the language on the tablet might be the key to proving the existence of the city of Atlantis. Soon, the Russian sub is floated, the sky mysteriously darkens, and a large storm swirls up in the ocean. A glass-domed island appears from beneath the ocean, while back in south Florida, a group of marauders, the Interceptors, have been waiting for this day to come. The Interceptors are led by a man donning a crystal skull (Bruce Baron).
Ruggero Deodato is one of the most talented Italian film makers of his generation. I often find it difficult to prove my case with this theory, because his films, substantively, are often extremely violent, transgressive, or sexual. The material and themes within his cinema often detract from his very slick visual style and story-telling ability. His Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is masterfully shot and its story told in an equally powerful fashion. While I would never willingly subject anyone to a viewing of Cannibal Holocaust (a film for the seriously curious risk-taker who is advised to do extensive research on it before viewing), a film such as his Raiders of Atlantis is much more digestible; and its most extreme aspect is its entertainment value. In my opinion, Raiders is one of the best genre films that the Italians delivered in the 80s: extremely likable characters accompanied by enthusiastic performances; an odd and intriguing genre blend and atmosphere; exciting and over-the-top action sequences; and above all, fun.
American actor Christopher Connelly as Mike spent the bulk of his career acting in myriad American television programs. However, in the 80s, alongside his television work, Connelly would appear in a number of notable Italian films, such as Lucio Fulci's Manhattan Baby (1982); Antonio Margheriti's Jungle Raiders (1985); Nello Rossati's Django 2 (1987); and Tonino Ricci's Night of the Sharks (1988), for example, before dying before the age of fifty. Connelly would appear in some of the Italians' finest action films of the period: Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982); Fabrizio De Angelis's Cobra Mission (1986); Bruno Mattei's sublime Strike Commando (1987); and of course, Raiders. While not an imposing figure physically, Connelly is charismatic, sweet and kind, and determined and persistent. He brings these qualities to his character, Mike, and despite his amoral mercenary nature, Mike is a hero to root for. Mike's romantic interest and a fantastic character all on her own is Gioia Scola's Cathy. Beyond her role here, the only other film in which I can recalling seeing her is in Gabriele Lavia's Evil Senses (1986), where she delivered a nude scene at the beginning and then seemingly disappeared. As Cathy, Scola is smart, sassy, sweet, and funny. Her inclusion brings an excellent balance to the testosterone-driven action, and her character is pivotal to the narrative. Tony King, prior to his role as Wash, would appear in three films from Antonio Margheriti: Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), The Last Hunter (1980), and Tiger Joe (1982). King is totally credible as an action star and delivers some of the best humorous lines within Raiders with an infectious enthusiasm. Last, but definitely not least, are Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton, two of the most well-known Italian genre actors and stalwarts. Their contributions to Italian genre cinema are too numerous to cite here, but both are absolutely perfect in their roles as Bill and Saunders, respectively.
Mike and Wash's opening kidnapping sequence is a well-executed action sequence and a fitting opening for Raiders. After the exposition curiously unfolds during the first act, the viewer is truly treated to bizarre fun. The leader of the Interceptors, Crystal Skull, is taking his band of marauders (who all look as if they walked off the set of George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981)) and killing everyone in south Florida. Mike and Wash survive the island rising and ocean storm in their boat. Cathy, Bill, Saunders, and a couple others are the only platform survivors and are rescued by Mike and Wash. The survivors have no idea what happened; although they get a hint when Manuel (John Vasallo), Mike and Wash's deckhand, begins threatening to kill everyone and kidnapping Cathy. Cathy is an essential figure who the Interceptors need for her specific knowledge of the ancient tablet. When the motley crew of survivors arrives back in South Florida, they are treated to a destroyed and desolate sight. In a brilliant and haunting sequence, the crew hears the skipping of a song. Inside a church (?), a bloody-sheeted corpse is dangling from the ceiling while its lifeless body is hitting the side of a jukebox: a truly odd and disorienting sight. The Interceptors arrive and the action starts.
The initial firefights between Mike and company and the Interceptors are straight out of the Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 school and traditionally and perfectly executed and exciting. Deodato adds his bizarre touches, such as the Interceptors burning one victim and sending a crossbow arrow through the mouth of another victim (shot in a close up with a prosthetic head (one of many used in Raiders, by the way)). During the battles, King's Wash gives his trademark satisfactory laugh, as Wash, Bill, and Mike take out foes with military precision. Cathy is eventually captured by the Interceptors, and Raiders follows with its action highlight set piece: Mike and crew taking out foes from their red school bus as the enemy helicopter flies overhead. The sequence is shot kinetically and all the stunts look dangerous and genuine. Deodato makes this cinema look easy. The final third on the island should remain hidden, here, as the sci-fi takes an even more bizarre turn, the humor becomes unintentionally hilarious, and the action remains continuously exciting.
Despite gushing over a thousand words about Raiders of Atlantis, I do not believe that I can adequately describe my love for this film. Once the score and theme song by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis (as Oliver Onions) is heard, it will be forever stored in the mind of the viewer and is as unique as the film is. Raiders of Atlantis shows a talented director, who's never conservative, having fun and translating it to celluloid. See it multiple times.