Thursday, December 31, 2015

The twelve days of Christmas (or at least the first seven) and On-Demand Viewing

Christmas was pretty chill this year.  My two siblings spent Christmas with the family of each’s respective significant other which left me as the sole child at my parents’ house.  My Mom didn’t feel the compulsion to cook anything elaborate, and my father worked most mornings that week.  It was a relaxed affair for all involved and was one of the better Christmas’s in a very long time.  I spent my mornings as an early-riser and filled the a.m.’s with movies from various On-Demand services.  This post will serve as both a chronicle of those viewings and as a wrap-up for 2015 at Quiet Cool. 

Judy (2014)
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Emanuele De Santi’s Adam Chaplin (2011)—a superhero gore film that moved at a furious pace, well-suited alongside the Troma classics of the 80s.  His follow-up film, Judy, is a hundred-and-eighty degree turn.  A whacked-out group of street performers with a serious philosophy of brutality live on the periphery of the city.  A beautiful blonde woman loses her way in the city and stops her car in a secluded area to use her cell phone.  The matriarch of the whacked-out street performers approaches her car and begs for some money.  The beautiful blonde refuses to give her money and even goes so far to pull her pistol on the woman for her to leave her alone.  Back at her flat, the beautiful blonde woman attends to her dog, Judy, and the film, subsequently, never leaves this location.  The blonde soon loses track of Judy, and distraught, she goes looking.  As she explores her flat and the close proximity, the blonde slowly grows to realize that someone is fucking with her.  Judy is more of an interesting experiment than a fully satisfying film and well worth a viewing (as the initial one will hold most of its power).

Applesauce (2015)

I am a huge fan of Richard’s Wedding (2012) and really enjoyed Summer of Blood (2014).  Director, writer, and actor, Onur Tukel is easily one of the most interesting currently working in American independent film.  Applesauce is his best film yet.  Tukel plays Ron who listens to shock jock, Stevie Bricks (Dylan Baker) on the radio.  Bricks has a call-in segment once a week where he asks his listeners to relate the worst things that they have ever done.  Ron can’t tell his story, because his wife, Nicki (Trieste Kelly Dunn) summons him away to a restaurant with friends, Les (Max Casella) and his wife, Kate (Jennifer Prediger).  Over dinner, Ron tells the story of the worst thing he’s ever done:  in college, he got into a fight at a frat party during which he slammed the door upon the fingers of his combatant, severing them completely.  Ron never knew what happened to the guy.  Ron begins to receive body parts in conspicuous locations throughout the film.  Les and Kate, motivated by Ron’s story, relate to each other each’s worst deed.  Les is crushed when he learns Kate’s story.  Each character’s revelations is the catalyst for each’s dramatic action, which all unfold in rather darkly humorous fashion.  A very witty and entertaining film.
Christmas, Again (2014)

Kentucker Audley plays Noel who comes from upstate New York once a year down to Brooklyn to plant his camper and sell Christmas trees and wreaths to the city folk.  He’s depressed this year, as it is apparent he is no longer with the woman he loves.  Late one evening, he sees a young woman passed out on a park bench.  He brings her into his camper away from the freezing cold.  She awakens the following morning and flees, embarrassed.  She later visits Noel with a kind gesture, and near the conclusion of Christmas, Again she spends Christmas Eve with him.  Audley really excels at playing shy, mumbling characters, and over the course of the film, the viewer accompanies him as he interacts with myriad folks who come looking for a Christmas tree.  A very good, character-driven film about a spiritual journey.
Fighting Fish (2010)
David (Val Emmich) is a sensitive, would-be writer who lives in upstate New York, forced to care for his two younger half-siblings while his mother recuperates in a hospital for her depression.  David is resentful of his burdens.  His wayward sister, Alice (Anna Moore), shows at the house for a visit, and she ignites strong emotions in him.  David meets a pretty girl at the pet shop where works named Chris (Halley Feiffer).  Fighting Fish then plays out the dilemma of David indulging his new romantic feelings for Chris (and their freedom) or rekindling his romantic feelings for Alice (and experiencing all its familiar heartaches).  Fighting Fish would be good, if the writer/director, Annette Apitz, had more a command of dramatic confrontation.  Scenes which should be emotionally-charged are allowed to fizzle, and she doesn’t use the pacing of the film to build any real energy or intensity.  Apitz has a fondness for the montage or long, single shot whereupon an indie-rock song plays over.  There are too many of these scenes, and they eventually become laughable.  There are few precious scenes in Fighting Fish to make it worth seeing but these scenes hardly make it memorable.
The Attic (2007)
Elisabeth Moss is currently one of my favorite actresses, so her inclusion as the star of The Attic (2007), directed by Mary Lambert of Pet Sematary (1989) fame, made this one a must-see.  Moss plays Emma, an agoraphobic, who lives with her mother and father (Catherine Mary Stewart and John Savage, respectively) and her mentally-disabled brother, Frankie (Tom Malloy).  They moved into an old home which houses an odd history of the supernatural bent.  Emma’s fragile mental condition combined with the supernatural proceedings around the house in short course cause a madness within her…or not.  There may really be ghosts fucking with her, but no one believes her.  The Attic is a total misfire.  Its pace is glacial.  Lambert’s direction is pedestrian:  for example, one of the strongest tools of a filmmaker is her use of lighting.  Lambert forgoes any interesting use of lights and shadows.  The entire film is lit for coverage and only exacerbates the boringness of the film.  Catherine Mary Stewart, a talented actress, is reduced to scenery.  The screenplay is born of clichés from The Turn of the Screw.  Moss’s performance is the sole attraction, and The Attic is only recommended for her die-hard fans.
Homemakers (2014)
I loved Homemakers.  Rachel McKeon gives a Parker Posey/Greta Gerwig-esque performance as Irene, an aimless and passionate lead singer of a shitty punk band in Austin, Texas.  Her off-the-wall antics prompt her bandmates to kick her out, and erstwhile, Irene learns that her grandfather devised his dilapidated home in Pittsburgh to her.  She makes the journey to see the property and hooks up with a distant cousin named Cam (Jack Culbertson), who shares her penchant for hard drinking and inane fun.  Irene enlists Cam to “fix up” the house, which initially amounts to them getting drunk and fucking it up to Irene and Cam making it into a home, a place where they both feel comfortable.  Irene’s girlfriend and former bandmate, Kicky (Molly Carlisle) visits Irene in Pittsburgh to persuade her to come back to Austin (it appears a record label will not sign them without Irene).  Irene must choose between the two locations.  It’s fairly easy to glean from my brief synopsis where this indie comedy is coming from.  McKeon as Irene is amazingly captivating, and Homemakers is a wonderful independent film.
A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
I wasn’t a fan of director Adam Wingard’s Home Sick (2007) nor was I a fan of his You’re Next (2011).  However, there is a lot to like within both films.  A Horrible Way to Die is an earlier collaboration of Wingard with writer Simon Barrett and stars three of my favorite indie actors, A.J. Bowen, Amy Seimetz (also a fave director), and Joe Swanberg (also a fave director).  A Horrible Way to Die is my favorite film now from Wingard.  A.J. Bowen plays a notorious serial killer, named Garrick Turrell, who escapes from custody and is heading towards the home of his girlfriend, Sarah (Seimetz) (presumably, this element is not explicit in the story).  Sarah has relocated and has entered AA with a few months sobriety.  She meets a kind fellow from her home group, Kevin (Swanberg) and she begins an awkward but loving romance with him.  There is a real sense of dread and melancholy throughout A Horrible Way to Die as Bowen’s and Seimetz’s storylines lead to convergence.  Even the flashback sequences, which show Bowen’s and Seimetz’s relationship are emotional and tension-filled.  Wingard’s visuals are tops.  Barrett’s screenplay is excellent, and he has blossomed into a fine writer.  His story, “Dead Air,” an audio drama produced by Larry Fessenden and Glen McQuaid’s Glass Eye Pix in season two of Tales From Beyond the Pale is a personal favorite.  Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg all give outstanding performances.  I cannot wait for what these peeps do next.
Alps (2011)
Alps is Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to Dogtooth (2009).  If Lanthimos was not yet a major world filmmaker, then with Alps he is.  A group of four people, a nurse (Angeliki Papoulia), an ambulance driver (Aris Servetalis), a gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her coach (Johnny Vekris), come together to provide services to the loved ones of the recently deceased—one of the four will act as a substitute for the deceased loved one to aid in the grieving transitional process for the family.  They name their group after the titular mountain range.  The nurse attends to the death of a young tennis player and offers her services to her parents.  She does this without the knowledge of the group.  As Alps progresses, it becomes less and less clear as to what are the genuine motives of the group members.  For example, is the man living with the nurse actually her father?  Why is the nurse offering to be a substitute for a family without telling her compatriots?  A beautiful and absurd film.
Sidewalks of New York (2001)
I am a huge fan of Edward Burns, as an actor and director.  I tend to like all of this films, even the uneven ones.  I missed Sidewalks of New York during its original theatrical run.  I do remember his film being given a delayed release, because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Unfortunately, Sidewalks ranks as one of my least favorites from Burns.  Burns shoots his film as a faux documentary, focusing on six New Yorkers of various ages talking about dating and relationships in New York City.  Stanley Tucci plays the husband of Heather Graham who is having an affair with a young waitress, played by Brittany Murphy.  Edward Burns plays a recently single television executive who begins dating again.  He has a fledgling relationship with Rosario Dawson.  My main complaint with Sidewalks is that there is too much of Tucci’s character.  It is not that his performance is poor, but rather, Tucci’s character is extremely repellent.  Almost of all of Graham and Murphy’s scene involve Tucci.  Dawson is given relatively little screen time.  The most endearing relationship of the film is between Graham and Burns, but it only really begins in the final act.  A film of missteps.
The Deep Dark (2015)
The plot synopsis of The Deep Dark sounds as if it would be right up my alley:  a sculptor (Sean McGrath) who makes mobiles is having a difficult time selling any of his artwork.  Desperate, he call his successful uncle who offers him a month’s let of flat that he can use as a workshop.  Inside of the dilapidated flat, the young sculptor discovers a small hole in the wall that begins feeding him written messages.  The hole soon begins speaking to him in a female voice, promising to help make him successful.  The hole releases a fleshy mass in the shape of a ball which he attaches to his mobile.  The hole produces several of these.  His art captures the eye of the most important art dealer in town and has a very interesting effect upon all who view it.  In return, the hole in the wall demands to have an intimate relationship with the sculptor.  The Deep Dark could have been a truly weird piece of alternative cinema, but it is way too conservative and traditional to be entertaining.  At the midpoint in the film, the director chooses to make the burgeoning relationship between the art dealer and the sculptor focal, and this choice is far from appealing.
The Big Bad (2011)
I started to zone out towards the end of The Big Bad, so any real criticism of it is probably unfair.  Another interesting premise and opening act:  a young woman camps out all day inside of a bar, desperate to get the attention of an excitable bar patron.  Eventually the young woman forms a bond with the excitable young woman.  She reveals to her that she is looking for someone, and this same person may have infected others.  The excitable young woman then begins to turn monstrous, and the film reveals that the young woman is chasing a werewolf conspiracy towards a group that killed her loved ones.   The filmmakers made some interesting choices in telling their story, but The Big Bad never really captured my attention very much.
Uptown (2009)
Ben (Chris Riquinha) contacts Isabel (Meissa Hampton) via email in an attempt to cast her in his new independent film.  They exchange flirty emails and agree to meet for a date.  Uptown begins as they meet for that date at a restaurant.  After dinner, Isabel tells Ben that she is married.  Throwing caution into the wind, Ben implicitly agrees to continue the date, and they spend the city walking around the city and talking.  Their relationship remains platonic as they agree to meet each other some more, and they begin to have strong romantic feelings towards each other.  Eventually, they have to confront each other about how they really feel.  Uptown is the essence of “mumblecore” and is based around strong characters and a lot of conversation.  The premise of the film is fairly incredulous; but if you are able to buy into it, then Uptown is a satisfying alternative to traditional romantic cinema.
Ritual (2013)
I didn’t like Mickey Keating’s Pod (2015), but I greatly admired its style:  it’s a film that begins slowly in building its tension and escalates increasingly as the film progresses.  Keating’s previous film Ritual adopts the same style and it’s a better film.  A young woman, Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) calls her estranged husband, Tom (Dean Cates), in the middle of the night to a secluded motel.  When he arrives, Lovely reveals in her hotel room that she has killed a man, claiming it was self-defense to rape.  Tom and Lovely are flustered and struggle to do something.  They decide to cover up the murder, and as Tom searches the dead man’s car, he finds a video camera.  Inside the room, the couple views the tape, and it shows a satanic ritual, replete with a human sacrifice.  They become extremely fearful when the phone in the room begins ringing.  Ritual is really evocative of seventies, grindhouse cinema and well-directed and executed.  Looking forward to more work from Keating.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Unrated) (2015)
I admit that I like this one.  However, I don’t know if my like of this latest installment of Paranormal Activity is relative.  The Marked Ones and Paranormal Activity 4 were awful pieces of cinema.  If you remember your Paranormal Activity folklore, then remember the childhood home of Katie and Kristy mysteriously burned to the ground when they were children.  Cut to present time and a new home has been erected on the property which houses a new family, a young couple with a small daughter and their very attractive nanny.  The father’s brother arrives for a Christmas visit, and while the brothers are plundering around the garage, they find an ancient VHS camcorder along with a box full of tapes.  The camcorder is still operational, and the young father is able to capture very interesting, vague images around the house.  They watch the tapes which show ritualistic images of Kristy and Katie.  The young daughter begins talking to an imaginary friend, and her behavior subsequently becomes disturbing.  The beginning of Paranormal Activity starts slow, replete with bad jokes and characterization, but as it progresses, the tone becomes more serious and the imagery and pacing are quite good.  Worth a look, at least for the fans of the series.
The Russian Woodpecker (2015)
The Russian Woodpecker is a wonderful documentary about Ukrainian artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, who alleges that the Chernobyl meltdown was a deliberate act by a Russian minister, to cover up for the failure of the expensive spy radar that sits in the shadow of the reactor.   Alexandrovich interviews key members of the Russian government involved at the time and makes a credible case towards his allegation.  Overshadowing his investigation is the escalating tension between the Ukraine and Russia, and the toll that his investigation is taking upon him and his family.  The Russian Woodpecker is almost Hertzog-ian in its artistry; and the viewer gets treated to many performance pieces by Alexandrovich.  A must-see.
Go Down Death (2013)
Go Down Death is a black-and-white art film which is made up of loosely-connected performance pieces, either involving playful, elliptical conversation or musical sequences containing lyrics of the same.  It is set primarily in an Old West Saloon and involves the prostitutes and their johns.  Outside in the forest, a war rages on.  Non-traditional, experimental cinema, like Go Down Death, can be appreciated in the right frame of mind (e.g. in the right mood), and there is a lot of humor and wit to appreciate here.  I’m certain it will gain more power with subsequent viewings.
Be Good (2012)
Amy Seimetz and Thomas J. Madden play Mary and Paul, respectively, a married couple with a newborn baby girl.  Be Good begins when Mary ends her maternity leave and has to go back to work.  Paul stays home with their daughter.  He is an independent filmmaker working on a screenplay.  He has little time to work on it, because his infant daughter demands most of his time.  He has no funding for his new project and is not producing any income for the family.  Mary doesn’t want to work and wants to come home to care for her daughter.  Over the course of the film, Paul has to confront the decision of abandoning his filmmaking to get a nine-to-five job to support his family.  Be Good follows the spiritual journey of Paul in various episodes as he makes the adult decision to pursue his art or fully decide to care for his family.  Be Good has a strong verisimilitude, good performances, and an overall wholly positive message.  Recommended.
Beneath (2013)
Larry Fessenden’s latest directorial effort, Beneath, continues his obsession with ecological horror.  A group of recent high-school graduates visit a lake where a large, carnivorous fish swims within.  Two girls and four guys float a canoe and paddle out to the middle.  One gets attacked by the fish while three are swimming.  They eventually lose one of their group and the two oars to paddle the boat.  Stuck out in the middle of the lake, they turn against each other in an attempt to survive from the monstrous fish.  Like Larry Cohen, Fessenden, despite his screenplay firmly rooted in B-movie, creature feature, creates a real sensitivity to his characterization and the drama.  Ultimately, a big fish isn’t really the killer, but rather the selfish motives of each character.  Wonderfully visualized and executed, Beneath is an excellent horror film from Fessenden.   
Generation Um... (2012)
Generation Um... would have disappeared into Indie-movie limbo had it not been for the casting of Keanu Reeves as the lead.  Reeves plays a forty-ish drifter, engaged in a relationship with two obnoxious, party-hard young ladies, played by Bojana Novakovic and Adelaide Clemens.  Wandering in the city, after a night of partying, Reeves’s character steals a video camera.  This video camera becomes his metaphoric new eye on life:  he begins questioning his existence by asking child-like questions and taking videos of simple things, like trees in a park.  When he hooks up with the two girls the following evening, he asks the two a series of questions and just generally allows them to perform however they want in front of the camera.  Obviously, confronting the answers to the essence of existence is rarely very pretty.  Generation Um... is generally an unpleasant film, showing its characters as shallow and selfish; and when they begin to question their values, they retreat to either anger or alcohol.  I would recommend most people to view this one with an open mind.  It’s probably due for a reconsideration.
Tu dors Nicole (2014)
Tu dors Nicole is a wonderful, French-language Canadian film about Nicole (Julianne Côté), spending her summer at home with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent).  Nicole’s older brother shares their house, along with his two bandmates, while their parents are away on vacation.  Nicole is trying to figure out what to do with her life.  She falls in love with the drummer of her brother’s band.  She has a big fight with her best friend.  She loses her job.  All familiar subjects of “coming-of-age” cinema, but there is a real sensitivity and energy to the film.  Shot in black-and-white with excellent performances, Tu dors Nicole is a sleeper hit.
Last Shift (2014)
Last Shift is an excellent, low-budget horror film.  Rookie cop, Jessica (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned to the night shift on the last evening of an old police precinct.  She is all alone and she isn’t told that previously the cops in the station experienced several paranormal episodes.  Three members of a Satanic, Manson-like cult committed suicide in one of the holding cells, and on this evening, the spirits have come back.  Harkavy is really sexy and is also a very talented actress.  She carries the film.  I expect to see her in more high-profile roles in the future.  Eschewing familiar J-Horror tropes for effective, creepy tension, Last Shift is well worth seeing.
Man Up (2015)
Man Up stars Lake Bell as a cynical, single woman in her mid-thirties who is mistaken by Simon Pegg to be her blind date.  Instead of telling the truth, she pretends to be his date and go out with him.  The two have a strong chemistry.  Halfway through the film, Pegg discovers Bell’s ruse, and the two separate.  In romantic comedy fashion, the final act ends on a high note.  Man Up is nothing new to romantic comedy.  Its visuals and energy are at times evocative of the work of Edgar Wright, and a lot of the jokes are reused or familiar.  Nevertheless, Pegg and Bell make an endearing couple, and it is their performances that make Man Up worth seeing.
Meadowland (2015)
Meadowland is a depressing-as-hell drama about Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson who play young parents whose son is kidnapped.  A year later, the film begins, and they know nothing about the whereabouts of their son nor if he is alive or dead.  Wilde plays a school teacher who has become detached about the welfare of her students.  She grows a strong attachment to an autistic child attending her school.  She stops taking her medication and as Meadowland progresses, she becomes almost totally disassociated from reality.  Wilson plays a beat cop, and like Wilde, he has less passion towards his work.  He’s bottling up all of his anger but is attempting to get help and find some closure to his son’s disappearance.  Meadowland is extremely well-done and prescient.  The film contains myriad strong performances in supporting roles from the likes of John Leguizamo, Juno Temple, Elisabeth Moss, Giovanni Ribisi, and Kevin Corrigan.  I’ve only seen Wilde in few choice roles but I think she is a very talented actress.  I hope more good roles come her way.  Meadowland is way too depressing for a re-watch but definitely worth seeing for people who like real adult drama.
Soft in the Head (2013)
I loved Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms (2014), so I decided to give Soft in the Head a watch.  Sheila Etxeberría plays Natalia, an attractive and aimless woman in her mid-20s who gets thrown out of her boyfriend’s apartment.  She also has a drinking problem.  On the street, she is found by kind-hearted Maury (Ed Ryan) who houses her in his apartment, along with a group of ragtag derelicts.  The brother of her best friend, Hannah (Melanie J. Scheiner), named Nathan (Carl Kranz), falls in love with Natalia.  He’s shy and very socially awkward.  His overbearing parents disapprove of Natalia, because she is not Jewish.  Soft in the Head follows Natalia as she fucks up everything in her path, because of her drinking, often with darkly humorous results.  It is a very well-done film about the limits of control:  how much can one control his/her life, beyond his/her behavior?
Best films of 2015:
4. Uncertain Terms
3. Mistress America
2. Digging for Fire

1. Queen of Earth

Friday, November 27, 2015

Un silencio de tumba (1972)

I probably like Un silencio de tumba more than I should.  I watch a lot (read a shitload) of low-budget movies but rarely as I am impressed with Jess Franco.  During my second viewing of Silencio, I had an epiphany, which should seem obvious after viewing a hundred plus Franco flicks, that the man had such a creative talent that Franco could take so little materially and make provocative and entertaining cinema.  Silencio is a murder mystery.
On a remote island, a film crew takes a long weekend vacation.  Upon the island is a villa, owned by famous actress, Annette (Glenda Allen), and is occupied by her sister, Valerie (Montserrat Prous), her child, Christian, and few servants, among whom is Laura (Kali Hansa).  Annette and her guests, which include Juan (Alberto Dalbes), a detective and friend and Jerome (Luis Induni), her producer, among others, arrive via a chartered boat (the only way to reach the island).  Valerie stoically greets her guests, and they are not welcome:  Valerie harbors a deep resentment towards her sister and her lackadaisical attitude towards rearing her child.  Valerie believes that Annette lives a selfish life and will be damned if her sister takes her child away from Valerie.  During the first evening, after a revelry has ended, the child is kidnapped and a large ransom is demanded.  When the money is acquired and placed at the agreed-upon location, the child is still not returned.  Paranoia turns the guests against each other whom all begin to die in short order.
Two performances stand out in Un silencio de tumba:  Montserrat Prous and Alberto Dalbes.  Even after seeing her in Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff (1973) and Le journal intime d’une nymphomane (Sinner) (1973), I have failed to realize how truly beautiful and talented an actress Prous is.  There is an easy sexiness about her, as she is strumming a guitar upon the veranda (the music by Franco and Fernando García Morcillo is a favorite).  There is also a vulnerability to her character despite her hatred towards her sister and her guests and her obsession to keep the child at any cost.  This vulnerability engenders quite a bit of sympathy with her character.  Likewise, if Prous is the sail of Un silencio de tumba, the Dalbes is the anchor.  A recognizable face from Spanish genre cinema, I often fail to recognize his talent, often because he is consistently so good that I have grown accustomed to him.  While the rest of the ensemble of Silencio is fueled by emotion, it is Dalbes’s Juan who keeps a level head and drives the story.  The story of Silencio is familiar and not of particular mention.  Franco, wisely, tells his story through Prous and Dalbes:  as Valerie loses her grip on reality because of her obsession, is Juan trying to keep her leveled or is he manipulating her, driving her further into paranoia for his own gain?  Never was I, even during repeated viewings of Silencio, looking for clues in the story or trying to determine who was a suspect. Rather I was fixated upon Prous and Dalbes and more interested in how their characters were evolving.  Perhaps the irony of Un silencio de tumba and why it occupies a second-tier among Franco fans is that while he should have been crafting a murder mystery, Franco, either intentionally or negligently, crafted a fine dual-character study.
As Franco tells Un silencio de tumba through the eyes of Prous and Dalbes, his visual style focuses upon close-ups of his actors.  Prous’s Valerie is the lone character to be afforded monologues, and despite their antiquated feel, they work towards heightening her obsession.  Silencio is not a poor murder mystery.  Franco actually handles its atmosphere remarkably well.  Past the midpoint of the film, the power goes out in the villa, and the few remaining characters reach the breaking point.  In shadowy corridors and rooms, conversations, once mundane in the daytime, take on a sinister edge in this darkness.  Prous and Dalbes alternate between possible allies to would-be lovers to combatants by the end of the film.  The ending of the film has a twist, but whatever—the rest of the film leading up to it more than satisfies.  Un silencio de tumba deserves more praise than its title will allow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Hugo Stiglitz Chronicles, Volume Three

“Who’s in the house? Stiglitz’s in the house.”

Repeat four times.
This is a song that I wrote.  Enjoy.
El vibora (2002)
In El vibora (2002) (the IMdB lists the film possibly as Matar para vivir (2002)), Stiglitz gets second billing with his named spelled correctly in the credits with “Stieglitz” on the DVD cover.  It has been well over a week since I have seen the film, but I remember the simple plot as such:  in Mexico, an anti-terrorist police force nabs a terrorist who runs the nerve center of the terrorist cell.  They hold him indefinitely and use various methods to extract information from him with little gain.  Stiglitz is the head of the terrorist cell and lives in Houston, Texas.  When he learns that his compadre has been captured, he arrives in Mexico to either free him or kill him.  Both sides attempt to gain information about the other with little success.  Stiglitz has a meeting with one of his partners at a bar, and the two have a conversation, relating important information, in front of a shoeshine boy.  This boy has a fortuitous run-in with the lead officer of the anti-terrorist squad which leads to a fateful confrontation with Stiglitz.  Three scenes stand out:
1.       Upon arrival in Mexico, Stiglitz meets his compatriots at a bar, and they discuss their plan.  Each is served a cold bottle of Corona beer.  The meeting is short, so when it concludes, each leaves a bottle of beer in front of him, half- to three-quarters full.  Stiglitz takes his beer with him.
2.       Two police officers raid a karate dojo and nab a potential suspect.  After some questioning, the police realize that he is not a suspect and attempt to apologize and leave.  The sensei of the dojo challenges the two officers with his best two students.  One of the police officers wins his competition with martial arts.  The other ends his sparring match by pulling his gun.  Definitely not “the way of the empty fist.”

3.       Before the fateful confrontation with the anti-terrorist squad, one of Stiglitz’s henchmen gets cold feet and attempts to flee.  Stiglitz guns him down.  About to put a gun down the front of his pants with a hot barrel, Stiglitz opts not to.  Instead he smells the barrel and shows no emotion.

El vibora is average.  I have never been too fond of political thrillers, so I am really not this film’s proper audience.  The film is a game of one-upsmanship with a lot of talky bits.  Its Stiglitz-tude is lacking.
Un hombre salvaje (1993)
In Un hombre salvaje (1993), a large, good-looking man is engaged in martial arts sparring at a local gym.  He goes too far and attacks his opponent violently.  His good-looking girlfriend appears at the gym (she is a dancer) and chides him for his violent behavior.  Back at their apartment, their rent-to-own furniture is about to be seized.  The large, good-looking man, who is later revealed to be a cop, borrows some money from his homey who runs an appliance repair shop.  When negotiations fail with the repo men outside of his apartment, the cop takes to violent action and starts beating the men.  His girlfriend steps in and stops them.  They take away their color television.  The cop returns to his homey to give him the money that he borrowed, but Stiglitz shows up as a crime boss.  (He is dressed with an overcoat around his shoulders with a cigar in his mouth.  This is the attire of a crime boss.)  One of Stiglitz’s cronies subdues the cop, and Stiglitz ices the appliance repair shop owner.  Stiglitz’s character is engaged in shaking people down and drug trafficking.  He is fourth billed in this picture.  The cop takes to the streets, determined to bring Stiglitz down for icing his homey.  Unfortunately, his aggressive, violent actions may be his own undoing.
Average, Un hombre salvaje is.  The final confrontation in a warehouse with Stiglitz is the highlight.  The weirdest scene entails a small party where three men are drinking with three women.  One of the men beats upon his date and drags her into the bedroom where he intends to rape the woman.  The two remaining men in the living room remain cool, but one of the other ladies excuses herself to the bathroom where she calls the police.  The violent cop arrives with two partners.  While agonizing screams are heard inside, they take the time to form a plan.  The lead cop, going against the plan, busts through the front door.  He has a fight with the would-be rapist and kills him.  Problem solved?  No.  He apparently is not supposed to kill suspects in the act of rape whom attack him.  The cop does not ask to see the manual.  Stiglitz wears a fedora and a vest for the majority of the film and chews a cigar.  He becomes animated during the final-act gunfight.
Cabaret mortal (1998)
Cabaret mortal (1998) is by far the weirdest film of this three.  Stiglitz is top-billed with his name spelled “Stiglits” in the opening credits.  A dude owns a bar.  It is a happening place:  live music, dancing, an occasional erotic dance, and general comradery.  He employs some extraordinarily gorgeous women to work as hostesses.  He sleeps with them, too, and showers them with flatteries but one at a time.  In the opening sequence of the film, a hooligan accosts the bar owner and makes moves towards his hostess.  He challenges the bar owner to a fight, whereupon the hooligan kicks his ass, pretty bad.  He kidnaps the hostess.  The following morning, the bar owner finds his hostess and the hooligan.  The bar owner kills the hooligan in a knife fight.  He takes the hostess home and sleeps with her.  The following evening, the bar owner picks a new girl upon whom to shower flatteries and with whom to sleep.  Apparently, the ladies are quite competitive as to whom is going to be “top girl.”  One day, a good-looking transient appears at the bar and asks for a job.  The bar owner gives him a job as a doorman.  Enter Stiglitz.  He is a douchebag who is forcing the bar owner to use his club as a front for drug trafficking.  Now let us let go of conventional reality for the remainder of this synopsis.  The doorman convinces the bar owner at the next drug exchange in which he is involved to turn the tables against Stiglitz and company.  They engage in a gunfight whereupon all the thugs are killed.  The bar owner is most impressed, and the doorman and bar owner form a strong bond.  In the subsequent scene, the two engage in the most homoerotic knife-fight sparring scene that I have ever seen.  Granted, this is the only knife-fight sparring scene that I have seen, but I feel all future ones will be judged against it.  The doorman is given nice clothes and money and is no longer forced to serve as doorman.  Remember the original lady who was kidnapped by the hooligan and later rebuffed by the bar owner?  Now, jealous that the bar owner is engaged with another lady, she begins a fight on the dance floor.  The bar owner smacks her around, and the former doorman steps in to rescue her.  The bar owner is pissed, and the former doorman escorts the lady home.  They sleep together.  In the final scene of Cabaret mortal, the bar owner and the former doorman have a slow-motion knife fight which ends with one or both dying.  On the dance floor.  Remember Stiglitz?  His plotline ends unresolved.
Cabaret mortal takes a while to get cooking but once it does, its weirdness overshadows the lack of Stiglitz.  There is a wholesomeness to the live music/dancing scenes, as if everyone is having fun in a family-friendly manner.  It is almost as if I could ask out the pretty girl at church for a date there, for dancing and to drink soda.  However, if I were to take her on the night that the exotic dancer occupied the dance floor, then she might be offended and get the wrong idea while the exotic dancer gyrated and caused all of the blood to rush into men’s crotches.  What if we showed up on the night of the slow-motion knife fight?  Stiglitz, finally, for the record, misses all of these scenes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

El asesino está entre los trece (The Killer is Among the Thirteen) (1973)

El asesino está entre los trece (The Killer is Among the Thirteen) (1973) plays like a Who’s Who of Spanish 70s genre cinema:  Patty Shepard, Jack Taylor, Dyanik Zurakowska, Eusebio Poncela, and Simón Andreu, for example, head the cast; while Paul Naschy delivers an extended cameo with future superstar Carmen Maura featured in an early role.  This cast plays a group of leisure, invited for a weekend sojourn by Shepard, with highballs, inane conversation, extravagant dinners, and possible evening bed-hopping on the agenda.  As the title would indicate, this representative class of the boo-gee has a sinister character amongst their number who plans on reducing it before the weekend is out.

While it is not anemic, the first murder of El asesino está entre los trece does not occur until the end of the second act.  Several signature features of the giallo are present:  black gloves, razor blades, and the first-person point-of-view of the killer.  The murders are not graphic, and the love scenes are tame.  The camera cuts away when a bra is unstrapped or when a blade enters into someone’s flesh, usually.  With the sensational elements considerably toned down, El asesino está entre los trece feels like Renoir-lite:  the values of the middle class are exposed, and because of their values, the middle class do themselves in, rather than the maniacal killer the title suggests.
Shepard plays Lisa Mandel, a recently-widowed wealthy woman who invites the group to her secluded home in the countryside.  Her husband died a couple of years ago in a plane crash, its jet he was piloting.  Barbiturates were found in his system with a non-lethal dose enough to make him fall asleep.  Lisa believes the killer visited him slightly before he took off and drugged him.  That person is among her group of invitees, and she reveals this information to them during the first evening’s formal dinner.  Every single one of them had an opportunity to kill her husband.  Lisa has invited the group to discover each’s motive and reveal the killer during their stay.  Even Lisa’s cousin, Francis (Poncela), and her aunt with whom she lives cannot be ruled out as suspects.  A mild case of paranoia sets in among the guests and slightly hampers their fun.
Tension and dread is sorely lacking in El asesino está entre los trece and this is its chief flaw.  A murder mystery, intuitively, should focus on murder or mystery, but they are almost wholly absent from the first two acts of the film.  Andreu plays Harry Stephen, a very flirtatious playboy.  His aim, apparently, is to seduce every single woman that the film presents.  The lovely, little maid, Elena (Rosa de Alba) is his only successful seduction.  First, he encounters her in his room and showers her with flatteries.  During their second meeting, he dares a kiss.  Finally, he attempts to fuck her in his bedroom, but Elena, by this time totally infatuated with him, suggests a clandestine rendezvous in the pool house.  They meet at the midnight hour and fuck in the pool house.  At the conclusion, Elena asks, “Will you take me with you when you leave?”  Andreu, as Harry Stephen, suggests that they slow down.  Naschy, incidentally, plays the jealous handyman who is having a relationship with Elena.  (He has a love scene with Rosa de Alba, and I am sure he thanked his director, Javier Aguirre.)  Not only do these scenes feel as if they are out of The Rules of the Game (1939), but they occupy a substantial portion of the film’s ninety-minute runtime.  Also, no one’s personality, or boo-gee status, really reveals anything that he or she may be the killer.  This is a fantastic cast, and I do enjoy watching them work.  However, I kind of wanted a murder mystery, and El asesino está entre los trece, on the whole, does not deliver.  I do not think that I am asking for too much.
The music by Alfonso Santisteban is wonderful.  The acting by all of the participants is excellent.  The direction is competent.  Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Aguirre and Alberto S. Insúa, is dull and antiquated.  El asesino está entre los trece does have its charms as a curiosity of 70s, Spanish genre cinema, but these charms are only for us, the diehard fans, who could still find better to behold.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Hugo Stiglitz Chronicles, Volume Two

More Stiglitz.

La mara salvatrucha (2002) (??)
La mara salvatrucha (2002) is listed on the IMDb as Veteranos de la M-18 (2007), although my DVD shows the former as the title with its year listed in the end credits.  The film is about a street gang.  They don’t work; drink and smoke weed; and commit acts of heinous violence.  The leader of the gang is tight with his sister; and one day, as he is gunning down a fleeing foe, his sister rounds the corner and is gunned down, too.  The leader is devastated and as La mara unfolds, he begins to lose his shit.  In an exemplary scene, the gang attempts to rob a warehouse full of goods which is guarded by armed men.  Now constantly inebriated, the leader stands vacant and still as bullets fly around him.  He gives a slurred speech and pumps some bullets into the warehouse’s boss.  It is unclear whether the gang claims any booty from this robbery.  He and his gang go to a cemetery where they encounter the parents of one of their victims.  The gang guns them down.  He rapes a young woman who, devastated by her trauma, turns to heroin.  The leader begins shooting up with her, too.  It is clear the path that this young man has chosen will lead him to certain death.  By the end of ninety minutes, at least.  Stiglitz plays “El jefe,” and he sees his soldier on the street, the leader of the street gang, causing nothing but trouble for the entire syndicate.  A showdown is inevitable.

La mara is a low-budget exploitation film, where I found myself fascinated as to what kind of shit was going to happen next.  There is an aimlessness to the action which, in a creative touch, mimics the lifestyle of the street gang.  There is something undefinable about watching the tragedy of someone self-destruct juxtaposed with the same person committing ruthless acts of violence (like brutally torturing a foe, only to, with venomous passion, force one of his comrades to murder the man).  La mara is oldschool exploitation.  I couldn’t really tell what was up with Stiglitz:  he’s so cold and icy that it is hard to read his emotions.  He dies really good in this one.  He is also billed as “Stiglis.”
Pistoleros del traficante (1999)
Not only is Stiglitz top-billed in Pistoleros del traficante (1999), he appears as the protagonist, as opposed to the supporting role I find myself familiar with.  He is an officer on the front lines of the drug trade and is actively attempting to stop drug trafficking…with little success.  During a dangerous raid, Stiglitz and company manage to interrupt a drug trade and nab one of the dealers.  A fellow officer shoots the suspect before he can talk, and Stiglitz has to shoot him down.  This scene is representative of Stiglitz’s dilemma:  everyone around him, including his so-called compatriots on the force, are on the wrong side of the law.  Stiglitz meets one of his homies at a bar, and the fellow seems an affable chap.  (Although in the first scene of Pistoleros, after a concert scene, this same fellow is seen gunning down two dudes in cold blood.)  Stiglitz’s homey is one of the key, upper-echelon figures in the drug trade and he has turned his sights towards turning Stiglitz to the dark side.  He commands his voluptuous lady to seduce Stiglitz at every opportunity she can get.  Stiglitz is actually cool with that, despite having a gorgeous and loving wife.  Eventually, one of Stiglitz’s crooked colleagues on the force makes a fatal mistake that identifies him as a bad guy.  Stiglitz, with six-shooter in hand, shoots everybody.

Pistoleros feels polished, and Stiglitz is a compelling badass as the lead.   The plot of Pistoleros is nothing new:  Hong Kong cinema has made a cottage industry out of the genre, and almost every country is familiar with police corruption.  This film has a real energy; and while it isn’t memorable, it certainly is entertaining for its run time.  There are musical sequences which are nice.  The action sequences are very well-done.  When Stiglitz takes over, it’s win-win.
Cementerio de cholos (2003)
Stiglitz does not appear until about fifty minutes into Cementerio de cholos (2003) (out of ninety minutes).  He does receive top billing.  Cementerio is about young friends who enjoy the pleasures of youth:  dancing, playing basketball, socializing, and drinking and smoking weed.  Dampening their fun is a bunch of assholes, a vicious street gang.  In the opening sequence of the film, the young friends are dancing to live music in the open air.  The street gang arrives and begins making trouble.  The leader of the street gang has eyes for the pretty betty with the cool kids, but she rebuffs him.  The next day, she is walking home and gets kidnapped by the street gang.  They take her to a secluded place and gang rape her.  She escapes.  She finds solace first in the hands of a religious zealot (who later immolates himself in the film); second, she returns home to find her mother passed out drunk; and finally, she turns to her friends and explains her trauma.  Revenge is on tap, ready to be served cold.  It becomes a little lukewarm when the two groups meet to fight, as they are kind-of lame in execution.  As the film nears its conclusion, the young friends begin killing the members of the street gang.  It appears that Cementerio will not end until the street gang is completely wiped out.  Or ninety minutes ends.  Stiglitz is the police officer attempting to end the violence among the groups.

Cementerio depicts another ruthless street gang.  This gang even enjoys fighting among themselves.  They murder a cop.  Murder a business owner during a robbery.  Bet on dog fights.  Lose on dog fights and beat and rob the winner.  Gang rape women.  Shoot some more people.  Ruin parties.  The highlight of Cementerio shows that the unity of young people is strong, and this unity is, simultaneously and ironically, wholly absent among many young people.  Stiglitz chews the scenery.  He points his gun more than he shoots it.  The film feels like a slice-of-life docudrama played with the seriousness of an afterschool special.  This is unique, in its own way.  I would have preferred, as usual, more Stiglitz, but I would not be lying if I said that I was entertained for ninety minutes.