Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Best First Time Viewings: 2020.
(Part # 2 of 3)

I’m sorry once again for the delay in getting this post to you. If you missed it, don’t forget to read part # 1 of this list here.

30. Golden Queen’s Commando 
(Chu Yen-Ping, 1982)

Months after viewing, the utterly ridiculous adventures of Black Fox, Black Cat, Dynamite and the rest of the gang as they navigate an inexplicably Nazi-riddled, Morricone-soundtracked Asian Old West in search of…. I’m still not entirely sure what, to be honest… continue to resonate. See my full review from September for more. (Sort-of sequel ‘Pink Force Commando’ wasn’t quite as good incidentally, but it had its moments.)

29. So Sweet, So Perverse 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1969)

Umberto Lenzi’s second Carroll Baker-starring giallo of 1969, ‘Così Dolce... Così Perversa’ (as Italian audiences had it) may not be particularly remarkable in terms of its heavily ‘Diaboliques’-indebted plotting, or indeed its quotient of sex n’ violence, which remains surprisingly low for the most part. As far as quasi-sophisticated, late ‘60s Euro-pudding thrillers about the seedy lives of the decadent rich go however, it proves pretty f-ing definitive, representing the moment in Lenzi’s career which saw him coming closest to overcoming his battlin’ b-movie origins and establishing himself as a slick, mainstream-acceptable director (or so I’m assuming).

Certainly, this is some of the most stylish and accomplished filmmaking Lenzi ever signed his name to, to some extent prefiguring Martino and Argento’s re-invention of the giallo aesthetic over the next few years, as subjective cameras glide around empty, kinkily decorated apartments, wrought iron lifts and spiral staircases are milked for all their inherent suspense, and torrid, sleepless nights are illuminated with a barrage of outré visual effects. (Not to take anything away from Umberto, but perhaps this superficial resemblance the genre’s later classics can to some extent be explained by the fact that Sergio Martino takes a producer credit here alongside his brother Luciano, whilst the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi handles script duties..?)

As locations range between Paris and the Riviera though, more than anything it is that impossible-to-replicate aura of louche, J&B-sozzled glamour which will keep you coming back to to this one. I mean, by the time we reach the thirty-minute mark, Jean-Louis Trintignant has been having it off with Baker, Erika Blanc AND Helga Liné, whilst also being menaced by Horst Frank as a delightfully sleazy blackmailin’ photographer/sadistic fiend! What more could you ask of a ‘60s Euro thriller, quite frankly?

Quite how he also manages to find the time to run the ill-defined but evidently lucrative factory business he has inherited and keep up with his clay pigeon-shooting and water-skiing, god only knows. Poor Jean-Louis! No wonder he scowls so beautifully, radiating such exquisite boredom, through the entire picture.

28. Hollywood Boulevard 
(Joe Dante & Allan Arkush, 1976)

And so it came to pass that, in late 1975, eager young New World Pictures trailer cutters Dante and Arkush managed to convince Roger Corman to let them loose on a minimally budgeted feature with full access to the studio’s equipment, stock footage, props, costumes etc, with the eventual result being this outrageously slipshod, in-joke saturated full spectrum piss-take of the company’s production methodology.

Most of the gags may be of the knee-slapping / old-as-the-hills variety (company slogan: “if it’s a good film, it’s a Miracle”), whilst multiple rape jokes and industrial strength quantities of Corman-mandated T&A may not play terribly well for 21st century audiences (and there was me thinking that Mr Dante was such a nice man). But, for anyone with a soft spot for ‘70s b-movies (particularly those of the New World/AIP axis), or an appreciation of the absurdities of low budget filmmaking in general, this thing is an absolute riot.

Happily, everyone you’d hope to see in a movie like this turns up immediately, in roaringly good form - Paul Bartel as the self-important, jodhpur-clad director making girls-with-guns flicks in The Philippines (“..but my films - my films will outlive all of you”), Mary Woronov as the vindictive, bitch-queen aging starlet (“you’ll never be a star now, you little cunt!”), and best of all, the late Dick Miller as a perpetually sweating, wise-guy talent agent, named, of course, Walter Paisley (“you want an amazon girl and a giant python? Hold on a second...”). For all that though, my favourite line came from an interview segment with the one-eyed cameraman played by George Wagner: “two years ago, I didn’t know what an F-Stop was, now I practically am one”.

In short, I cannot really defend this film in any way, shape or form, but watching it late in the the evening with a few drinks under my belt, I laughed so much that an ambulance was nearly required. Essential feel-good viewing for… a very particular kind of viewer, let’s put it like that. (If you’re one of them, you can probably be my friend.)

27. Matinee 
(Joe Dante, 1993)

And, completing our Joe Dante double bill for the evening…. this immensely charming film-about-films couldn’t be much more different in tone from the one which precedes it on this list.

Essentially comprising a kind of low key ‘Cinema Paradiso’ for ‘50s/’60s monster kids, ‘Matinee’ gives us John Goodman as a struggling, William Castle-esque producer/showman valiantly attempting to premier his latest atomic monster movie, together with its inevitable barrage of outlandish gimmicks, at a beach-front suburban theatre on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For all that this is essentially a nostalgic, period comedy attempting to wring some more quote-unquote ‘magic’ from an era already thoroughly strip-mined by baby boomer filmmakers however, Dante’s portrayal of the ground level fear inspired by the nuclear brinksmanship being played out both literally and figuratively above the film’s West Coast navy town is refreshingly direct and unsentimental, with the director’s own childhood recollections no doubt helping him to capture an authentic sense of surreal, gut level dread which sits incongruously alongside the story’s more light-hearted, screwball capers.

Likewise, Dante’s proven ability to imbue his pre-teenage central characters with real personality and intelligence remains a rare thing indeed within the realm of quote-unquote ‘family’ movies, whilst the film-within-a-film footage from Goodman’s character’s movie (‘Mant!’ - complete with ‘Them!’-esque typography on the poster) is a hoot - perhaps the most perfect, affectionate send-up of ‘50s monster movies I’ve ever seen. (Most DVD/blu-ray editions of ‘Matinee’ include the complete ‘Mant!’ footage as a stand-alone short film, and it’s well worth a watch - cracks me up every time.)

With all due respect to Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Milius et al in fact, if you only watch one film in your lifetime in which a director born in the ‘40s puts on his rose-tinted glasses and starts banging on about the good old days, you could do a lot worse than make it this one.

26. The Color Out of Space 
(Richard Stanley, 2019)

The last movie my wife and I managed to see in the cinema before covid hit back in March, Richard Stanley’s big feature film comeback after over two decades in the wilderness may not exactly be a world-beating instant classic, but it is an accomplished, highly enjoyable and authentically weird piece of contemporary horror filmmaking, so that will do very nicely, thanks very much.

Going back to some notes I made immediately after viewing, it struck me that, in a weird sort of way, Stanley’s film actually fits quite neatly into cycle of ‘60s Lovecraft adaptations which I examined at length on this blog a few years back, in the sense that they were all basically attempts to make commercial horror movies in the standard (ie, gothic) style of the era - but adding a slight twist of Lovecraft to the mix knocked each of them off balance, making them strange. 

Likewise, ‘Color..’ plays like a slick, 21st century American horror film which has been left out in the rain too long and has gone a bit warped and peculiar as a result. (Admittedly however, the strangeness in this case seems more likely to have resulted from the combination of Stanley, Nicholas Cage and way too much weed than from any engagement with Lovecraft’s source text.)

In terms of tone and pacing in fact, ‘Color..’ is absolutely all over the place, and I’ve spoken to some people who have hated it as a result. Personally though I found that this rambling/dissociative approach allowed Stanley to capture the uneasy mixture of genuinely disturbing ideas and outright goofiness found in Lovecraft’s writing quite well.

Much in the film - from the alpacas and the day-glo CGI bugs, to the blatant borrowings from ‘The Thing’ and ‘Poltergeist’, to Nicholas Cage doing his “Nicholas Cage” thing - is just plain ridiculous, but nonetheless, whilst we’re being distrcted by all of that, Stanley is busy imbuing his doomed characters with a sense of humanity emphatically lacking in Lovecraft’s source material. As a result, the final act, which drastically shifts gear to become a kind of supernaturally-enhanced meditation on the horrors of cancer, palliative care and euthanasia, becomes horribly upsetting in a manner which I daresay many viewers found difficult to reconcile with the laffs and kerfuffle which proceeded it.

More than anything though, it’s just been really spiriting to see Stanley returning to the fray with such a strong and (prior the the effects of pandemic-related fuckery at least) commercially successful movie. It’s typical of the director’s bad luck I suppose that he happened to achieve this shortly before the film industry as we know it effectively collapsed, possibly never to fully return, but be that as it may, you’d better believe I’m still on-board for the remaining instalments of his proposed ‘Lovecraft trilogy’, as and when they manage to make it through the gates of our flat-screen, sofa-bound dimension.

25. A Quiet Place To Kill 
(Umberto Lenzi, 1970)

Yet more fish-eye shots through poolside whisky decanters here, as we hit Umberto Lenzi and Carroll Baker’s third, and arguably most enjoyable, pre-‘..Crystal Plumage’ proto-giallo thriller. This time around, Baker is a champion racing driver(!) who screeches off on a sudden whim, leaving her non-plussed boyfriend on the side of the road as she motors down to the Spanish fleshpots to hook up with her irresistible, gold-digging duplicitous bastard of an ex-husband (a magnificently caddish turn from Jean Sorel), only to find herself reluctantly drawn into ‘Diaboliques’-esque cahoots with ex-hubby’s unsatisfied, murder-minded second wife (Anna Proclemer).

A harpoon gun-based attempt on Sorel’s life does not go according to plan however (especially when it emerges that Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbes caught the sorry episode on camera), leaving Baker and Sorel wrestling with a whole hornet’s nest of crushing guilt, shifting sand allegiances and sanity-threatening anxiety which is only intensified once Proclemer’s teenage daughter unexpectedly returns home from boarding school with her own investigative/seductive agenda.

Moreso than the earlier entries in this loosely linked series, the plotting here veers more toward the kind of shenanigans you’d expect to find in a ‘90s erotic thriller than to anything which could be comfortably pigeonholed as a ‘giallo’, but, as usual, Lenzi keeps the twists and turns crashing in with such speed and dramatic hysteria that we’ve no time to catch our breath or to start splitting hairs. And, once again, the sheer intoxicating essence of conspicuous wealth, 1970 style, on display here proves impossible to resist, with an even greater emphasis than usual placed on potentially life-threatening sporting pursuits (hunting, grouse-shooting, spear-fishing, scuba diving and high speed motoring all get a suitably perilous look-in). Utterly shameless, decadent fun of the highest order.

24. Paganini Horror 
(Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

Perhaps the last gasp of classic Italian gothic style to make it to the silver screen before the wrought iron gates finally slammed shut, I reviewed this weird and wonderful impoverished delight back in May, and had a great time with it. 

Merely thinking about it makes me happy, and getting another opportunity to share Enzo Sciotti’s magnificent poster artwork with you makes me even happier. Get your 2021 off to a good start and watch it tonight in tribute to the late Daria Nicolodi!

23. Kansas City 
(Robert Altman, 1996)

This underrated Altman film, set in the director’s home town across a few eventful days and nights in 1934, seems to be chiefly remembered for its musical content, as the script’s tale of crime, corruption, kidnapping and murder is intercut with passages from a mammoth jam session taking place at a fictional backstreet club, wherein contemporary jazz players take on the roles of assorted luminaries who passed through Kansas City in the early ‘30s, including a central, seven minute recreation of a legendary ‘cutting contest’ which took place between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, with a teenage Charlie Parker waiting in the wings.

All of which is absolutely great, with Altman’s controversial decision to let the players step outside of period jazz convention and explore their own, somewhat more modern, styles lending the performances a sense of raw energy and excitement. But, it should not, I feel, detract from the movie’s plot and characterisations, which are equally worthy of attention.

In particular, Jennifer Jason Leigh is great here as Blondie, a tough-talking, insecure tomboy whose attempt to kidnap the spaced out wife of a local politician (Miranda Richardson) in order to effect the release of her small-time crook husband, who is being held captive backstage at the jazz club by splendidly named gangland kingpin Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), forms the central axis of the action.

Though it shares the cross-cutting, map-like structure of Altman’s other “place films”, wherein multiple characters bounce off each other within the boundaries of a fixed geographical area, ‘Kansas City’ is essentially a film about stasis. A fog of political corruption and race and class-based prejudice hangs heavy over the city, as thick as the more literal haze of cigar smoke, cement dust and exhaust fumes evoked by Oliver Stapleton’s murky photography.

Almost without exception, the people we meet here are content to keep their heads down and to ‘know their place’. Like the seemingly endless jam session at the club, which stretches out far beyond the point of sun-rise and exhaustion, the gears of the city’s crooked machinery will continue grinding away indefinitely, with the same grafters or their descendants forever at the wheel. The only characters in the entire movie who demonstrate any sense of individual initiative are Blondie and her husband - and it’s probably not much of a spoiler to reveal that their attempts to affect change don’t exactly end well, precipitating a harrowing, noir-worthy denouement which simultaneously recalls both ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ and ‘Chinatown’.

Perhaps it was this dispiriting, rather depressive tone - together with the cast’s tendency to veer more toward extended monologues than to Altman’s patented improvised/overlapping quickfire patter - which led to the movie being overlooked upon release, but viewed simply as a beautifully-rendered, thoroughly cynical, period crime film, it’s well worth making time for.

22. The Exorcist III 
(William Peter Blatty, 1990)

Though it will never supplant John Boorman’s ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ in my weird movie affections, Blatty’s second sequel to the movie adaptation of his own novel is really quite the thing - eccentric, cerebral, unconventional, stylistically bold and, as Youtube users across the globe have noted, jump-out-of-your-seat terrifying. As I set out in my equally rushed review from back in October, I’d also contest that it was curiously ahead of its time in anticipating many of the developments seen in the horror genre through the late-90s and early-00s.

21. Cherry 2000 
(Steve De Jarnatt, 1987)

Proving that his extraordinary ‘Miracle Mile’ (see my ‘first viewings’ list from last year) was no fluke, Steve De Jarnatt pulls off some admirable silk-purse/sow’s-ear type business here on his directorial debut, helping turn an unpromising sounding studio property (part PG-rated post-apocalyptic adventure, part sci-fi romantic comedy?) into a charming and unpredictable mish-mash of consumer culture satire, humanist philosophical musings and Quixotic pop art camp.

As in De Jarnatt’s later masterwork, the decision to use relatively inexperienced actors in the lead roles (including, in this case, Melanie Griffith as tooled up desert tracker E. Johnson), cushioning them with a wealth of more grizzled/charismatic character players (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Tim Thomerson, Brion James, Robert D’Zar, to name but a few) works wonders, whilst Michael Almereyda’s off-kilter script is consistently entertaining, the surreal, comic book production design is a delight (imagine a more inventive and generously budgeted take on one of those demented Donald Jackson ‘Roller Blade’ movies), and…. did I mention that this movie also includes the most jaw-droppingly elaborate / dangerous action sequence I saw in any film during 2020, wherein the car containing Griffiths and male lead David Andrews hangs suspended from a magnetised crane above a vertiginous desert canyon as they exchange rocket launcher and machine gun fire with Thomerson’s goons..? It’s pretty stunning.

I’d say such an inclusion was ‘unexpected’, but, as with ‘Miracle Mile’, just about everything that happens in ‘Cherry 2000’ is unexpected, cementing it alongside its successor as real diamond in the rough.

20. Odds Against Tomorrow 
(Robert Wise, 1959)

Skimming back through my review of this one from February, it seems I had some kind of problem with it. I can’t imagine why. I mean, ok, Harry Belafonte’s casting maybe doesn’t seem a natural fit, but he makes the character work, and the more I look back on the film, reflecting on the exceptional photography, Robert Ryan’s remarkable performance and the insightful, no bullshit approach Abraham Polonsky’s script takes in exploring the ambiguities of racial and class strife, the more ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ seems to sit naturally alongside ‘A Touch of Evil’ as one of the stone-cold classics of the original noir era’s last gasp.

Side-bar: if we take those two films and Fuller’s ‘The Crimson Kimono’ (which I wrote about in the first part of this list) as a starting point, do you think there’s a case to be made for 1958/59 as the point at which the American crime film suddenly began to deal head-on with the issues of race and racism..? Might be a book proposal or two in that, were I a writer of a more academic persuasion.

19. Majoran 
(Seiji Izumi, 1984)

Another complete one-off, this little-known Japanese youth film is a breezy, big-hearted rock n’ rollin’ delight, somehow managing to transplant the spirit of 50s/60s music-based coming of age films to a down-at-heel, proletariat corner of Osaka’s docklands, where ‘80s hair metal rules supreme.

Casually detourning the cynical/materialist narratives usually associated with this era and genre however, ‘Majoran’, rather wonderfully, portrays glam metal as a kind of grass roots, DIY scene, played in tiny neighbourhood bars by good natured devotees driven on by the love of friendship and rock n’ roll. Director Seiji Izumi favours an unshowy, documentary-like approach (the brief montage of apparently real bands performing is absolutely wonderful), effectively drawing us into the world of teenage Rei (Yuko Watanabe) as she drifts away from her delinquent high school friends during the summer break, instead finding herself irresistibly drawn toward the vibrant world of rock, which welcomes her with open and reassuringly non-gropy arms.

The tale of Rei becoming torn between the affections of charismatic rockabilly bar owner Sabu (Ginji Gao) and moody virtuoso guitarist Daisuke (actor unknown) may be pure boilerplate stuff, and the sub-plot about a bar hostess and a wild boy ‘punk’ vocalist succumbing to drugs is heavy-handed in the extreme, but the performances are so endearing, the naturalistic surroundings so fascinating, the fashions so consistently awesome and the frequent back street brawls so exhilarating, that ‘Majoran’ never wears out its welcome.

Rarely seen in the West (or, for the most part, in the East) before it turned up online in fan-subbed form last year, this is a great little movie which richly deserves wider exposure.

18. Sword of Doom 
(Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

And, on completely the other end of Japan’s cinematic spectrum meanwhile… Kihachi Okamoto’s nihilistic samurai epic will need no introduction for many, but somehow I managed to put off actually sitting down and watching it until 2020 - and needless to say, it’s as coldly precise an exercise in expressionistic celluloid menace as I possibly could have hoped for.

Though the film is lumbered with a needlessly convoluted, historically detailed script (my understanding is that the film was intended as the first instalment of a proposed trilogy which never came to fruition, leaving secondary characters and plot points hanging in limbo), canny viewers will soon realise that the vast majority of this can be disregarded in favour of simply revelling in the extraordinary, chiaroscuro visuals, the baleful, carefully poised camera movements, and the terrible, brutalist beauty of the stylised, blood-drenched action sequences.

What really grants the film cult immortality however is Tetsuya Nakadai’s performance as the psychotic young ronin Ryunosuke Tsukue. As terrifying a portrayal of blank-eyed, remorseless psychopathy as has ever been seen on-screen, Ryunosuke is a living, breathing condemnation of the twisted value system encouraged by Tokugawa-era bushido (for which read: 20th century fascism) - a man who has been systematically drained of humanity, leaving nothing behind but a cackling, why-faced killer, balancing perilously on the edge of complete mental collapse… an edge from which he effectively takes a flying leap during the extraordinary, Kaidan-styled self-immolation which comprises the film’s final act. A fatalistic howl from some nameless, inhuman abyss, these final scenes see the film almost literally tearing itself apart at the seams as it descends into a pure, abstract hellscape.

As much as we cineastes may allow ourselves to be awed such unprecedented, bravura craziness however, it’s perhaps understandable that, back in ’66, the movie’s producers found themselves grimly eyeing up part # 2 of the trilogy under Okamoto’s direction on their production schedule and thought, “y’know what? Let’s just not.”

17. The Scarlet Empress 
(Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Both the greatest folly and most uncompromising artistic statement of Josef von Sternberg’s turbulent career, this suffocating, unheimlich epic, ostensibly telling the tale of Catherine the Great’s rise to power within the Russian monarchy, is chiefly memorable for featuring the most aggressively overwrought, insanely OTT production design I have ever witnessed in a motion picture of any vintage.

Making his other exotic Hollywood fantasias look like models of minimalist restraint by comparison, von Sternberg here seems hell-bent on jamming every last inch of the square, 4:3 frame with densely-packed, utterly superfluous detail, battering us into senseless submission with a parade of towering gothic edifices, huge tolling bells, smoke-belching censers, gleaming golden icons, grotesquely twisted martyrdom sculptures, lavish feasting tables, self-flagellating crowds, verdant, impossibly fertile-looking gardens, gigantic bouquets of cut flowers, stampeding hordes of cavalry, feral packs of tittering bridesmaids, chanting retinues of white-bearded monks, gigantic, King Kong-scaled wooden doors, torture chambers, humans skulls leering from man-sized birdcages, vertigo-inducing painted ceilings, red-cheeked pig-tailed maidens, virile glowering Cossacks, fetishistic royal bed chambers…. you get the idea. And that’s before we even get onto the costumes! Those hats, my god.

Never resorting to a hard cut when a long, slow super-imposition can be cross-faded through the lens instead, von Sternberg’s visual excess at times becomes so crazed here that his film - ostensibly a garishly flamboyant, commercial spectacle - begins to feel positively avant garde, as the loose thread of the narrative is gradually drowned in a proto-psychedelic whirlpool of Kenneth Anger-like abstraction.

Pitched against this constant, hyper-compressed visual babble, the only characters who can really punch through the flimsy storyline are those who are simply too emphatic to ignore - Louise Dresser as the remorseless matriarch Empress Elizabeth, and Sam Jaffe as her childlike, boggle-eyed son, Grand Duke Peter. Played by Jaffe like a psychotic Harpo Marx, he is a singularly horrible figure, truly the stuff of nightmares.

In the prominence accorded to these grotesques though, we see the fatal flaw of Von Sternberg’s mad masterwork. So overpowering is the whirligig of excess that he has built around his beloved and sanctified Marlene Dietrich that she herself becomes lost within it, her commanding presence and poised beauty faltering for the first time into goofy camp as she’s cast adrift amid the chaos.

16. The Iron Fisted Monk 
(Sammo Kang-Bo Hung, 1977)

As much as I’ve enjoyed exploring the world of Hong Kong martial arts cinema over the past few years, I rarely cover it on this blog, simply because it’s difficult to find much to say about many of the best exemplars of the form. Lacking as I am in knowledge or experience of the behind-the-scenes culture which created these films, there’s not much of a hook for me to really hang any writing on, beyond simply echoing one of the old English dub soundtracks by stating, “‘Iron Fisted Monk’ (1977), your kung-fu is very impressive!”

This time around though, I can at least single out Sammo Hung’s debut as both star and credited director as one of the very best of the first wave kung-fu comedies, easily standing alongside Jackie’s ‘Snake in Eagle’s Shadow’ and ‘Drunken Master’, with the essential characteristics of Sammo’s game-changing approach to action cinema (bone-crunching impacts, slo-mo, dramatic zooms and the all-important ‘power powder’) already in full effect, alongside an anarchic, free-wheeling spirit shared with the aforementioned classics, and, of course, lashings of Sammo’s beloved, if frequently mystifying, Cantonese street humour. And if that’s not enough to make you want to go and watch it… you should probably just keep on walkin’.


To be concluded…

No comments: