Saturday, 30 January 2021

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

Finally got there! This final instalment turned into a bit of an epic, Im afraid.

(Don’t forget to read parts # 1 and # 2 of this list here and here.)

15. The Car   
(Elliot Silverstein, 1977)

I put off watching this desert-set ‘Jaws’ variant for years, just because, well… it sounds really stupid. Well, more fool me it turns out, because having finally caught up with it last year, it proved an absolute delight (albeit, a really stupid one).

I’ve often declared in these pages in the past that the first rule of monster movies is that the ‘human story’ has to be just as engaging as the ‘monster story’, and it is in this regard that ‘The Car’ really shines. Indeed, the laidback ‘70s vibes which characterise this tale of eccentric cops, teachers and redneck assholes living their best lives in a remote Arizona desert outpost prove so rich and intoxicating, it’s difficult not to find oneself drawn, fascinated, into these characters’ strange day-to-day, to the extent that all that damned ‘killer car’ jive just seems to be getting in the way much of the time.

James Brolin! What a guy! A luxuriously-moustached single dad cop, ridin' to work on his chopper, sans helmet. I salute him. (Well, perhaps not so much his disregard for basic road safety, but y’know - movie.) Backing him up, a crack team of supporting players including R.G. Armstrong, Ronny Cox, John Marley and Kathleen Lloyd make for a suitably off kilter assemblage of humanity, but don't forget to crane yr neck and look behind ‘em, because boy, this movie is just SO beautifully shot. The Utah scenery (standing in for Arizona) is absolutely breathtaking, and DP Gerald Hirschfeld’s presentation of it is worth the entry price alone.

If, like me, you’re a devotee of the hardy “70s cops in the desert” aesthetic in fact, this one is an absolute must - right up there with ‘Electra-Glide in Blue’ and ‘Vanishing Point’, however distant it may otherwise seem in terms of genre, artistry and critical acumen.

Come to think of it, I suppose “demonic car” movies could actually claim a similar place in my affections to ‘Deliverance’-style backwoods survival thrillers. By which I mean that neither of these concepts really appeal to me at all on paper, yet the films which have emerged from these hyper-specific sub-sub-genres over the years have almost inevitably been really good. So, just as ‘Southern Comfort’, ‘Rituals’ and ‘Just Before Dawn’ all defy the odds by being absolutely fantastic movies, so we could say the same for ‘Duel’, ‘Christine’, and now... ‘The Car’! Perhaps we could throw in the Lance Henriksen segment from ‘Nightmares’ (1983 - see part # 1 of this list) as well, but don't want to push my luck too far. I liked it, at least. 


14. Cop 
(James B. Harris, 1988)

Would you believe me if I tell you that, when a bi-annual viewing of John Carpenter’s ‘Vampires’ led my wife and I to undertake a brief James Woods binge earlier this year, we were entirely unaware of the actor’s more recent reinvention of himself as a hateful, far-right demagogue? Sad but true.

Was he always like this I wonder, or did he just flip his wig at some point? I’m not really familiar with the guy’s bio, but it seems a bit of a ‘chicken & egg’ situation. Did his unparalleled achievement in the field of playing rage-choked assholes in movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s push him toward a new career path… or was he just being himself the whole time?

Well, be that as it may - if you can find it in your heart to tune out more recent developments and return to the happy days when Mr Woods’ assholery was safely confined to the silver screen, 1988’s ‘Cop’ delivers pretty much everything you could hope for from a 1988 James Woods movie named ‘Cop’. Well, maybe not so much on the action side to be honest, but all that sweet, sweet procedural detail, multiple sleazy sub-plots and Woods fronting like an out of control bad-ass more than makes up for any perceived deficiencies in the ‘stuff blowing up’ department.

The scenes in which Woods totally alienates his wife by crazily yelling at her about how dark and evil the world is, and how he’s going to tell their daughter bedtime stories about pimps and drug-pushers rather than sugar-coatin’ it with all that fairy tale shit, are (inadvertently?) Nicholas Cage-level hilarious. Wisely, she immediately packs up and moves out, thus opening the way for our ‘hero’ to spend the rest of the movie sleazin’ around every female suspect/bystander who comes within groping distance, shifting most of the burden of actual police work onto the shoulders of the always great Charles Durning, who does especially fine work here as Woods’ much-put-upon partner.

In the second half of the film, Woods goes out of his element, tangling with the treacherous world of feminist poetry (didn't see that one coming), whilst the “no one believes there’s a serial killer on the loose except ME” type plotline morphs into something straight out of a high school slasher movie, climaxing with an extended mano-a-mano death match in a nocturnal gymnasium. Of course I won't spoil it all for you, but the abrupt “fuck you!”/fade-to-black ending is a golden cinema moment too.

I’m sure that the James Ellroy novel this film was ostensibly based on must be super dark and serious, but here we just get loads of riotous, macho cop movie fun, hitting up the clichés as if they were ducks at the shooting gallery, with a few truly strange, “eh, let's just go with it” diversions thrown in for good measure. Sitting perfectly alongside such shamelessly coked up ‘80s crime fare as Frankenheimer’s ’52 Pick Up’ or Ferrara’s ‘Fear City’, this is clearly a disreputable, under-appreciated classic of some strange kind. 


13. Gemidos de Placer [‘Cries of Pleasure’] 
(Jess Franco, 1982)

I have a half-written review of this one which I’ve been trying to find time to finish off for months at this point, so for now I’ll keep my powder dry, so to speak. But suffice to say - each time you think you’ve pretty much got the drop on Jess Franco’s labyrinthine filmography, something new will pop up and surprise you.

On the face of it for instance, I would never have expected that this Golden Films quickie, seemingly shot in a few days and briefly released to Spanish porno cinemas in 1982, would turn out to be one the director’s most disturbing and experimental excursions into the suffocating realm of darkest sex-horror, ironically shot against the blinding sunlight of a luxurious holiday villa, and executed - ala Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ - as a series of carefully rehearsed, fixed camera extended takes. Yet another extraordinary achievement from a filmmaker whose catalogue of impoverished masterpieces seems to grow more remarkable with each year that passes.

12. The Exterminator 
(James Glickenhaus, 1980)

Glickenhaus’s envelope-pushing urban vigilante epic is, like so many action films of its era, basically a Vietnam movie in civilian drag, delving yet again into the plight of a man turned into an emotionally disconnected killing machine by the good ol’ military-industrial complex.

More-so than Stallone’s sad-eyed, muscle-farmer in ‘First Blood’ though - or even William Devane’s implacable avenger in the more tonally comparable ‘Rolling Thunder’ for that matter - Robert Ginty’s nocturnal warrior in this one is a truly disturbing figure. Closer to a serial killer than any kind of folk hero, the empty, defeated demeanour he exhibits by day stands in stark contrast to the brutal and baroque methods he employs by night, as he cuts a bloody swathe through NYC’s criminal underclass.

With Ginty delivering a resolutely closed, inexpressive performance, we’re never allowed to get inside our ‘hero’s head here. He expresses himself solely through his actions, with the stomach-churning nature of the punishment he doles out sitting uneasily alongside the fact that his victims (a mob boss, a predatory paedophile etc) are so comprehensively loathsome that it’s difficult for even the most liberally-minded viewer to avoid feeling a certain thrill as they receive their just desserts.

A more morally ambiguous and intelligently conceived venture than most of the macho revenge fantasies which would follow in the ‘80s, ‘The Exterminator’ also spends a surprising amount of its screen-time unpacking the means by which crooked political and civic interests attempt to take advantage of Ginty’s reign of terror, building a sense of jaded, backroom cynicism which seem to belong more to the knotty complexities of the post-Watergate ‘70s than the coked up, comic book action movies of the Reagan era.

Similarly, the parallels drawn between Ginty and equally violent and obsessive fellow vet Christopher George, playing the detective on his trail, adds another interesting element to proceedings, reminding us that the same psychotic behaviour patterns which make Ginty a dangerous criminal outsider can just as easily be channelled into a respectable, state-sanctioned career by those able to grit their teeth, fake a grin and jump through the necessary hoops.

Not that any of this should distract us of course from the movie’s more down-to-earth virtues. With evocative location-shooting, brutal action choreography and confident direction, it stands as one of the best independent American genre movies of the grindhouse-to-VHS era, making for an unseemly, grit-choked pulp-art classic. 


11. Phantom Lady 
(Robert Siodmak, 1944)

I reviewed this unique film noir / Hitchcockian wrong man caper / proto-serial killer movie back in April.

Not one of my better pieces of writing I fear, but the basic strengths which I tried to highlight within - the exquisitely wrought noir-bordering-on-gothic atmospherics, hard-boiled nocturnal energy, implications of brutal violence and ragin’ backroom jazz sessions - were hopefully conveyed to some extent by my over-excited rambling.

10. Ladrones de Tumbas [‘Grave Robbers’] 
(Rubén Galindo Jr., 1989)

Boy, this Rubén Galindo Jr fellow sure knows how to make a good horror movie! His ‘Cemeterio del Terror’ (1985), which graced one of these lists a few years back, proved a pretty good time, but THIS one…. good grief. This delivers everything I could possibly ask of a beer-chugging Friday night horror movie, in vast quantities. In fact, my Fun-o-Meter short-circuited about thirty minutes in, and it’s not been quite the same since.

Going straight for the jugular, proceedings begin like a Paul Naschy movie on steroids, with an axe-wielding, hooded Satanist about to impregnate a naked lady bound in the centre of his blood-daubed pentagram. But wait! Suddenly, he is overpowered by the cowled monks of the Inquisition, who proceed to subject him to the tortures of the damned in their own cobweb-saturated crypt, eventually plunging his own cursed chopper into his chest, safe in the knowledge that this will keep his evil spirit at bay… until such a time as it is removed!

Cut to however many centuries later (I mean, who’s counting?), where we join a gang of denim and headband-clad ‘punks’ (or possibly metal fans - hard to tell), who have apparently been reduced to traipsing around derelict rural graveyards in search of “treasure”, using the intuition of a girl who purports to be psychic to lead them in the right direction. Naturally, she leads them straight to the Crypt of the Inquisitors, where of course a certain malevolent bag o’ bones is soon separated (temporarily) from his shiny battle-axe, precipitating the synth-rock soundtracked resurrection of an unstoppable zombie-Satanist killing machine! Oops.

With both a jeep-load of hair-spray happy female campers and, oddly, a pair of poncho-clad vaqueros (well, this is Mexico after all) drafted in to up the body-count, we’re soon knee-deep in severed limbs, split craniums and good ol’ arterial spray, as the revived warlock goes absolutely berzerk, seemingly determined to show up the era’s more popular franchise slasher icons for the rank amateurs they are.

Never fear though - earlier in the movie, we saw the reassuringly moustachioed local sheriff testing out his new Uzi 9mm, and a studious priest is meanwhile busy assembling his god-fearing congregation for a fiery, evil-banishing vigil of some kind, so we know our Satanic bad boy’s got a proper fight on his hands.

After a plot synopsis like that, it’s probably surplus to requirements to note that, contrary to many viewers’ preconceptions of ‘80s Mexican horror, ‘Ladrones de Tumbas’ also features breathless, action-packed pacing, excellent nocturnal photography, fine gothic throwback production design, rocking music and moderately awesome gore effects. Although Vinegar Syndrome’s blu-ray edition may have landed on my doorstep a bit too late for last year’s October horror marathon, if you find yourself casting around for the perfect movie for your 2021 Halloween party in a few months’ time, take my word for it - THIS IS THE ONE. 


 9. Terror Train 
(Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

I have an unusual relationship with ‘80s slasher films I suppose, in that, unlike many horror fans, I didn’t grow up watching them. Lacking the kind of nostalgic warmth which keeps the sub-genre’s devotees endlessly returning to Friday the 13th part whatever year after year therefore, my tastes instead tend to gravitate toward the ones which are either, a) actually really good, or b) just really weird.

Delivering mightily on column (a) with just a little bit from column (b) to keep things fruity, ‘Terror Train’ is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best of the bunch, and sorely underrated by the fans. Although the plot - which concerns the mentally scarred victim of an especially cruel college prank returning from the nut-house to wreak vengeance upon his tormenters - is pure boilerplate, the talent of those marshalled for the purposes of telling it is considerable.

Director Roger Spottiswoode was going it alone here after a long stint as Sam Peckinpah’s editor of choice, whilst DP John Alcott had just completed the gruelling process of shooting ‘The Shining’ for Kubrick, having previous worked on ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (he also shot Gary Sherman’s incredible Vice Squad shortly after this). In front the camera meanwhile, Ben Johnson does great work as the obligatory adult authority figure - muttering and grumbling his way through his role as the guard on the college kids’ privately hired train as if he were making a movie in an entirely different genre ten years earlier - whilst the ever-reliable Jamie Lee Curtis heads up a surprisingly convincing cast of hard-partyin’ youngsters.

Trains hurtling through an icy wilderness usually make great settings for horror films (cf: ‘Horror Express’, Night Train Murders), and this one is no exception, with Spottiswoode and co wringing a maximum of Hitchcockian suspense from all those dark, empty corridors, claustrophobic sleeping compartments, insufficiently secure exterior doors and padlocked storage rooms.

And, on the ‘weirdness’ side of the equation meanwhile, the presence of a young David Copperfield as a smug stage musician no one remembers booking for the trip proves a total curveball, and the random new wave bands we briefly see rockin’ out in the train’s converted dining carriage are delightfully kooky.

Add a barrage of DePalma-worthy plot twists in the hysterical final act, and we’re really cookin’ with gas. In fact, if you’re looking for a second feature for Halloween 2021 after ‘Ladrones de Tumbas’, well, you won’t go far wrong with this one. So, all-aboard! Next stop… well, perhaps not ‘terror’ as such, but a damn good time, certainly.

8. I Start Counting 
(David Greene, 1969)

A key entry in the loose cycle of off-kilter, genre-adjacent ‘60s/’70s British thrillers which really should have seen release through the BFI’s Flipside imprint [Surprise! - late minute update Ed.], ‘I Start Counting’ is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time (I’ve even owned the reissued LP of Basil Kirchin’s soundtrack for several years), but, perhaps wisely, I managed to put off actually watching it until the new Vinegar Syndrome/Fun City blu-ray (yep, them again) reached these shores a few months back.

Suffice to say, I was floored. Expecting a low-key curio, I found myself hit with an accomplished, multi-faceted piece of work, eminently worthy of cult reverence and critical reappraisal. Nice when that happens, isn’t it?

As a unique amalgam of an innocence-to-experience coming of age tale, a kitchen-sink social drama and a fantasy-tinged serial killer thriller, there is an awful lot to unpack in ‘I Start Counting’. Far more than I really have time to get to grips with here in fact, but I’ll do what I can in a few short paragraphs.

The hints of stylistic innovation David Greene brought to his earlier horror film The Shuttered Room reach full flower here, as a wealth of dissociative, expressionistic techniques, unconventional framing choices and flowing, tidal editing rhythms draw us into the emotionally slippery, conceptually uncertain world of our teenage protagonist Wynne (a brilliant early performance from Jenny Agutter) as she hangs perilously on the verge of adulthood, occupying a headspace both drably prosaic and perilously unreal.

Charting a similar journey to that experienced by the protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s thematically similar ‘Deep End’ (1970), Wynne’s confused striving toward self-determination and knowledge of the adult world is mirrored visually in the period-specific transition her suburban surroundings are undergoing, as the archaic, cosily-haunted ‘slum’ housing in which she grew up now finds itself scheduled for demolition, her family and friends relocated to the more sterile, modernist environs of a new-town Bracknell (which the adults we meet all assure us is better, although we never quite understand why).

For viewers of a certain age or inclination in fact, one of the most beguiling aspects of ‘I Start Counting’ will be its function as a kind of cultural time capsule. From the film’s opening crawl across Wynne’s bedroom - in which we see The Observer Pocket Book of Wild Flowers arrayed alongside other evocative teenage detritus, before the camera treats us to an unsettling still life of a Popeye alarm clock, a wall-mounted crucifix and a sinister, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ stuffed rabbit - the film’s casual yet highly specific accumulation of cultural ephemera and architectural eeriness proves a constant source of wonder.

(Of particular significance to me in this regard was a brief scene in which we visit some kind of high street record shop wherein customers can seemingly sample the latest discs by sticking their heads into a series of transparent plastic ‘sound domes’(?!). As if to demonstrate the extent to which the lysergic visions of the counter-culture had begun to permeate even the grey hinterlands of commuter-belt suburbia by the end of the ‘60s, we can clearly see someone in the background of one shot pulling a copy of my personal favourite weirdo-rock totem, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s thematically appropriate ‘A Child’s Guide to Good & Evil’ LP, from the racks! Far-out, man.) 


7. Dragged Across Concrete 
(S. Craig Zahler, 2018)

In the months since I went to bat for S. Craig Zahler’s third feature film back in May, it seems to have become mired even further in controversy, its production company involved in some kind of sex scandal (don't ask), its IMDB page reportedly turned into a full-scale warzone (I can’t bear to look), and… well, it also occurs to me that the scene in the first act, in which Mel Gibson kneeling on a Hispanic suspect’s neck for an excessive amount of time is essentially played for laughs, will reeeeeally not go over well with a lot of people in a post-George Floyd context. So much so in fact that I'm surprised the film hasn't been pulled from streaming services in panic.

The latter point at least is just an unfortunate accident of history (akin perhaps to Kurt Russell landing on top of the Twin Towers in ‘Escape from New York’), but regardless - I sincerely hope that all this palaver will not entirely destroy the reputation of what remains one of the best American films of recent years.

Like Peckinpah before him, Zahler seems to enjoy blowing the odd raspberry in the direction of liberal propriety (the stunt-casting of Gibson here is a good example), but the terrible irony of the controversy surrounding ‘Dragged..’ is that I genuinely do not think the director is trying to push any kind of right wing/reactionary agenda, in this or his earlier films.

On the contrary, he strikes me as one of the few voices in current American popular culture who seems determined to present people of all social demographics as three-dimensional human beings, whose problems and patterns of behaviour cannot be boiled down to an easy set of black and white moral judgements. If anything, ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, like most of the best hardboiled fiction, functions as a harrowing tour through an uncertain world of ethical greyscale, and is all the more compelling as a result. Like Peckinpah’s work before it, I would defy anyone to actually watch this film and tell me that the man who made it is a bigot or an idiot.

And… I could probably continue in this vein for some time to be honest, so I’ll leave it at that for moment. But again -- if the press around this film has put you off, I don’t blame you to be honest. I had my doubts about it too to be honest, but please, just watch the damn film and try to take it on its own terms before passing judgement. If you like crime movies, good acting and good storytelling (and have a strong stomach), I’m confident you won’t regret it.

6. Shanghai Express  
(Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

“ took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly..”

The pinnacle of Joseph von Sternberg’s flickering gospel of aestheticism, textural excess and yearning eroticism, ‘Shanghai Express’ remains an unforgettable visual experience, the better part of a century since it first slithered through a projector.

Though the stodgy yarn about Walter Oland’s inscrutable commie colonel harassing the cabal of spluttering, one-joke Westerners travelling aboard the shanghaied train of the title rumbles on incessantly, haemorrhaging screen-time all the while, it is ultimately of the small concern - the Great Director’s interest clearly lies elsewhere.

Aside from anything else, he’s busy creating a dense, Orientalist dreamworld of chaotic far-eastern railway stations on a Californian backlot, and doing so with such aplomb and maddening attention to detail that the results remain astounding to this day. But, even that remains a sideshow compared to his primary purpose - the full spectrum celluloid deification of his beloved Marlene.

Watch, stunned, as the feathered, man-eating bird-women of the film’s incendiary opening act (memorably described as “..a notorious coaster, a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast”) is transformed under the heat of von Sternberg’s arc lamps into a creature of sombre and ineffable spiritual beauty - the holy virgin of a renaissance master, with light and shade on loan from Rembrandt, any hint of camp, Hollywood materialism banished to the margins as the peanut gallery shuts up and says its prayers.

The holy virgins of the renaissance masters, however, were rarely found sharing train compartments with the ever-wonderful Anna May Wong, kicking up more Sapphic sparks than a warehouse full of heavily insured pornography as they rock saucy jazz records on their portable gramophone, the steam-powered rocket propelling them through the war-torn Chinese interior, bound for mystery and adventure.

Oh yeah, did I mention there’s also some English chap named Clive Brook in this movie? He’s alright, but he’s a bit of a grump and he takes up way too much space. He’s no Anna May Wong, that’s for sure, and whatever socially acceptable direction the boilerplate scripting may push or pull our characters in, we all know in our heart of hearts Shanghai Lilly would likely agree.

5. Cure 
(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Some directors, when making their existentially disturbing, high concept horror films, tend to hammer the point home with extremist aesthetics and vein-popping, headache-inducing audio-visual masochism. (Naming no names, but, is that ROBERT EGGERS I see scratching his way up the walls of that there abandoned well over yonder?)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa however takes a rather different approach. Though 1997’s ‘Cure’ does largely take place within a conventionally ‘creepy’, ‘X-files’/‘Jacob’s Ladder’-like landscape of decrepit or derelict municipal buildings, and dutifully delivers the requisite moments of shock and gore, for the most part the film is a more low key, contemplative experience - its naturalistic, unhurried staging of soft-spoken character exchanges are likened to “..a spooky Ozu” by Kim Newman in a piece included on Eureka’s blu-ray release - and is all the more effective as a result.

Framed as a kind of warped police procedural, as world-weary detective Yakusho Kôji tries to make sense of a series of seemingly unmotivated murders committed by unconnected individuals who, inexplicably, share a common, serial killer-like MO, the story draws us in as confidently as any desaturated Saturday night crime drama, but proceed to lead us far beyond comfortable, genre terrain, arriving at a place which feels both wholly original, and singularly unsettling. (Did you know, the practice of mesmerism and hypnosis was outlawed in Meiji era Japan, forcing its practitioners to operate as a kind of underground cult? No, me neither!)

Though ‘Cure’ won’t make you want to cry, vomit or tear your hair out whilst watching it (and, as noted, is all the better for it), it is in the dark of the night, a day or two after viewing, that the true terrors touched upon by Kurosawa’s film will begin to become evident. As plot points remain gnomic or ambiguous, the imagination is forced to drift further out in search of resolution, as the essential questions the film posits loom ever larger.

As ‘Cure’s desultory, amnesiac antagonist repeatedly asks his ‘victims’: who are you? And for that matter, who is the person sleeping next to you? What if, at some point, you are no longer you? What might you then be? And what might you do?

Sweet dreams everybody.

4. Wheels on Meals 
(Sammo Hung, 1984)

And, on completely the other end of the Asian cinema spectrum meanwhile…

Given that I tend to have a hard time with much of the humour in Hong Kong films, I’d tended to side-step the more overtly comedic of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s golden era Golden Harvest films, but… holy cow, this one is great.

A perfectly balanced mixture of actually-rather-charming slapstick capers, jaw-droppingly audacious action and stunt work, and just a touch of mystifying weirdness. (Why is Sammo working as a private eye in Barcelona? Why not!)

Right from the opening scene - in which Yuen Biao jumps from a second floor window and lands on his ass on the tarmac below, all in one take, with no padding - it’s clear that we’re dealing with some seriously high level buffoonery here. And indeed, all three stars are on absolutely top form here, casually ripping through feats of astounding physical dexterity in a zany, good-natured manner which feels entirely removed from the dreary concentration on toil and self-discipline which, up to this point, had conventionally defined the parameters of martial arts cinema.

Highlights are plentiful, but the heroes’ final act assault on the villain’s mansion stands out as a particularly unbeatable tour-de-force. As the three friends split up to take on different opponents, Sammo gets to indulge in some high stakes swashbuckling, whilst Yuen enjoys some combat trampolining across a series of alarmingly expensive looking leather sofas…. but of course, it is Jackie’s one-on-one showdown with world kickboxing champion Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez which really takes the cake.

Frequently, and justifiably, lauded as the greatest screen fight of all time, it is indeed quite the thing, as Jackie responds to Urquidez’s no-punches-pulled aggression by summoning up a level of resolve and brutality rarely seen in his on-screen roles, whilst Sammo’s visceral direction and inspired cutting wring every last drop of drama from this nigh-on super-human throwdown. Action cinema simply doesn't get any better.

Rocketing straight up the list of my favourite Jackie Chan movies, and indeed my list of favourite Sammo Hung movies (for my sins, I do not yet have a list of favourite Yuen Biao movies, but I’m working on it), ‘Wheel on Meals’ is an absolute hoot from start to finish. A perfect movie to cheer you up when you’re at a low ebb, you’ll hit the end credits roaring, laughing and feeling slightly confused… which is certainly all I could ask for, midway through the persistently troubling experience history will henceforth record as “2020”.

3. Parasite

(Bong Joon Ho, 2019)

Speaking of which - I realise it seems like a lifetime ago at this point, but remember back in February 2020, when the Academy actually turned around and gave all the Oscars to a really good movie? In retrospect, a sure sign of the forthcoming apocalypse.

As a thriller, ‘Parasite’s stand-out sequences feel as instantly memorable, carefully conceived, and - as I daresay we’ll discover over the next few years - as worthy of imitation and pastiche as those in ‘Psycho’ or ‘Les Diaboliques’ must have seemed to their original viewers six plus decades earlier. With immaculate visuals (somehow managing to feel expressionistic without ever departing from realism), pitch-perfect performances and ruthless, methodical pacing, it’s about as perfect an exemplar of the “everything meticulously pre-planned” school of filmmaking as you’re ever likely to encounter.

In terms of social commentary meanwhile, the film is equally finely balanced - challenging, even-handed and thought-provoking to the nth degree; a catalyst for post-screening debates which threaten to rage long into the night.

To return to what seems to be becoming a running theme on this list, what I most admired about Bong Joon Ho’s script I think, is that it refuses to take the easy way out by categorising any of its characters as heroes or villains. Drawing on a dramatic tradition which stretches at least as far back as Brecht, Ibsen and that whole mob, no individuals are really responsible for the dreadful events which transpire herein, and no one really ever does anything which strikes the viewer as too unreasonable, in view of their circumstances.

Rather, it is cruel and perverse socio-economic structures within which the characters are forced to dwell which create the conflict around which the story revolves, precipitating violence, chaos and bad karma wherever the seemingly unbridgeable tectonic plates of social inequality begin to grind together, horribly.

My other immediate response to ‘Parasite’ meanwhile was to wonder at the fact that, even as recently as twenty years ago, this story would have played as Orwellian science fiction - a portrayal of a world in which inter-personal communications technology has created a kind of inescapable, one-on-one surveillance culture, whilst divisions between social classes have meanwhile been stretched to a disgusting, almost feudal extreme.

To audiences in 2019/20 however, this is recognisable (albeit somewhat far-fetched) reality; a story whose essential elements you could scroll past on your daily newsfeed and not even blink. One generation’s dystopian SF has become the next one’s kitchen sink. Happened pretty fast, didn’t it. Where next, Columbus?

2. The Stunt Man
(Richard Rush, 1980)

Oh boy, what can I possibly say about this one? A multi-layered wonder of a film about filmmaking, this is the kind of sky-scrapingly over-achieving picture which I think it will take many repeat viewings over many years to really get to the bottom of. But, happily, it practically demands such return visits, simply by vestige of being so immeasurably entertaining that, time allowing, I could pretty much go straight back to the beginning after the end credits roll and start again, watching it in a kind of endless cycle to the exclusion of all other cultural input.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, ‘The Stunt Man’ ostensibly tells the tale of a PTSD-damaged Vietnam vet (Steve Railsback) who, on the lam as a result of his Rambo-esque misdeeds, stumbles onto the set of an epic World War One movie, and finds himself taken under the wing of the film’s highly strung, quasi-messianic director (Peter O’Toole), helping the production avoid legal difficulty by standing in for (and effectively assuming the identity of) the leading man’s inconveniently deceased stunt double.

From that simple(?) premise though, Rush’s film casually spins us down a rabbit hole of worlds within worlds, frames within frames, as Railsback’s character becomes a kind of feckless, emotionally decimated Faust, doggedly trying to figure out what kind of story he’s been catapulted into the middle of, as O’Toole - in a magisterially OTT, divinely unhinged performance - hovers perpetually above him, swooping about on his celestial crane-chair like some foppish Mephistopheles, shifting the sands beneath his protégé / pawn’s feet on an hourly basis. Possibly just for a lark, or possibly for something altogether more sinister, who knows?

Whether viewed as a metaphysical odyssey, a hilariously plausible take on the gonzo madness of movie-making (the whip-smart dialogue of Lawrence B. Marcus’s script, combined with the chaotic, Altman-esque naturalism of Rush’s staging, is an absolute joy throughout), or simply as a rip-roaring, mad-cap action picture (it delivers all the high octane thrills promised by the film’s title in spades), ‘The Stuntman’ is… well, I’m running out of synonyms for ‘extraordinary’ by this point in the evening to be honest.

As Chaos Theory apples fall symbolically from the sky and Dusty Springfield coos conspiratorially on the soundtrack, I suppose I’m duty-bound to point out, as per most contemporary reviews, that ‘The Stunt Man’ may not be a movie for everyone. Casual punters, the crits felt, may tend to find it a bit overwhelming, a bit mystifying. A, perhaps they did. As far as those of us who truly love movies, and who can embrace the lunacy which surrounds them, are concerned though - well I think we can all find ample room for Rush’s cracked masterpiece in our hearts, let’s put it that way.

1. Across 110th Street
(Barry Shear, 1972)

Though frequently categorised as a blaxploitation film - the success of Bobby Womack’s incredible theme song probably has a lot to so with that - ‘Across 110th Street’ can perhaps more usefully be considered as that rarest of things, an excellent, seriously intended crime movie whose characters happen to be predominantly black. Naturally, all of the additional rage and complication that inevitably brings to stories told in an American context ensues, but it is by no means the whole story.

It’s difficult to really put into words what I loved so much about this movie, but let’s just say that, whilst the standards I demand of crime movies tend to be pretty high, the feeling of exhilaration when everything demanded by the form comes together perfectly - when the writing is intelligent, the performances committed, the pacing relentless, the settings believable, the situations chaotic, the music rocking - is one of the greatest rewards popular culture has to offer.

Crime movies of the ‘70s tend to hit particularly hard in this regard, and ‘Across 110th Street’, according to my current calculations, sits in the very top tier of ‘70s American crime movies. Though mystifyingly underrated / little seen within the canon, for my money, every aspect of the movie delivered.

But enough hyperbole, let’s get down to cases. Plummy old Anthony Quinn seems like an odd casting choice for a grizzled Harlem police captain nearing retirement, but he sure puts some gumption into the role, which is appreciated. On one level, Quinn’s character is precisely the kind of corrupt, obsolescent monster that Yaphet Kotto (as the clean-cut, college educated cop being groomed as his replacement) takes him for. He uses racist language and casual violence to intimidate suspects, takes money from the local gang boss and gets riled up at the idea of a black officer taking over his turf. At the same time though, he’s also on first name terms with everyone out on the street, and lends his coat to a grieving widow without a second thought. Acting as much like a tough-love social worker as an authoritarian brute, he exhibits precisely the kind of human warmth and empathy that the ice cold Kotto notably lacks, making for an interesting, morally ambiguous, dynamic between our two leads.

Filmed for the most part on genuine Harlem locations, the film’s action is as brutal and intense as could be wished for, with a hair-raising ‘open streets / no permit’ feel that seems to take the chaotic, faux-vérité style established by William Friedkin and Larry Cohen and crank things up even further, particularly during the opening massacre and frenzied car chase which kick-starts the movie’s plot, as a gang of opportunistic black crooks take down a Mafia number racket and high-tail it across town in a state of blind panic.

Often playing like a Chester Himes novel, minus the self-decrepitating humour, the parallel thread exploring the plight of the robbers is, if anything, even more compelling than the stuff with the cops. Antonio Fargas, always a stand out in blaxploitation casts (cf: ‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Cleopatra Jones’), is as brilliant as ever here, rocking his usual sneering, rat-like pimp persona, but the crippling beating he suffers at the hands of the mob’s enforcers is truly harrowing - like a cold dose of reality thrown over the film’s remaining vestiges of pulp-y/self-parodic hi-jinks.

The movie’s real heart and soul though lies with Paul Benjamin as the leader of the heist gang; an ex-con and aspirant black radical, he rises above the rat-trap society has set for him with a doomed, stone-cold nobility, and his eloquent justifications of his violent actions are powerfully conveyed. Which, naturally enough, means it won't be much of a spoiler if I reveal that he’s destined to go down in a hail of bullets (the whole rooftop finale, incidentally, is another fantastic set-piece). 

I mean, what kind of self-respecting noir/gangster movie-derived saga could possibly offer an exit sign to a guy this straight up? Not one as good as ‘Across 110th Street’, that’s for damn sure.


C. Rancio said...

I make few comments here, but I must say that your blog is a sure guide for my movie choices.

Ben said...

Thanks so much C. Rancio! I hope that these posts help turn you on to some good stuff, and that my relentless hyperbole doesn't spoil it all for you.

Ian Smith said...

Interesting to see your thoughts on 'The Car'. This film has special significance for me, as it was the last ever film shown in the cinema of my little country hometown (population 8000 people) before it was closed down in 1977. So those demonic flames leaping into the sky at the film's end were the last ever image shown in the town inside a proper cinema... And the only movies that budding little film fanatics like myself got to see for years afterwards were those shown on the three terrestrial TV channels (while we sat around waiting for someone to invent the video rental store).

'The Car' was shown as the second half of a double bill, and I can't help thinking that the old cinema would have had a less dignified closure if the first film on the bill had been shown last -- for it was William Girdler's cheap disaster, 'Day of the Animals'.

I was too young to get in to see 'The Car' at the time, but I caught up with it on TV in the 1990s and, inspired by your review, sat down and watched it again with my better half the other night. Interestingly, if you check its Wikipedia entry, you'll find that it was totally panned by the critics at the time. It was treated as real Golden Raspberry material. Stephen King actually made one of the nicer comments about it when, in his 1981 tome 'Dance Macabre', he dismissed it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.

Maybe it shows how cinematic standards have slipped in the last 40-odd years that something that was damned as low-budget exploitation trash in the late 1970s seems like a meaty, workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable, if unambitious, B-movie today. Then again, I remember seeing lots of other movies from that time like 'Empire of the Ants' or 'The Giant Spider Invasion' (or indeed, 'Day of the Animals') that, even as an 11-year-old, I could have told you were true examples of low-budget rubbish. They made 'The Car' look like 'Citizen Kane' in comparison.

While there are some undeniably daft bits, like the car leaping through someone's living room or hospitalising James Brolin by batting him into a ditch with one of its doors, I like how the film conveys a sense of a genuine community under siege -- a community where the car's murderous activities really do hurt. (See the moment late on where the doctor tending to James Brolin turns out to be the bereaved father of the girl cyclist who was killed in the film's opening sequence.) Also, it's impressive how the officers in the police department progressively become more disheartened and are pushed to breaking point as the car takes out, successively, their old sheriff, a bunch of their colleagues and, 70 minutes in, someone whom you really don't expect to get killed. No dumb heroics or glib wisecracking here.

Finally, some completely gratuitous trivia... My better half pointed out that the sibling child-actresses playing Brolin's two cute little daughters are now reality TV stars in 'The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills'. Which sounds like true horror -- they were better off when they were being terrorised by the car.

Ben said...

Thank you so much Ian for your wonderful comment, which I only just saw. Really enjoyed reading it.

That's such a fantastic story about 'The Car' closing the final night at your local cinema - sounds like it could be the basis for a good screenplay it itself - the travails of growing up in a town without cinema, etc.

I'm told that I attended a Disney marathon on the final weekend of small town cinema my Dad used to manage, but of course I was too young to remember anything.

And yes, I guess it stands to reason that 'The Car' would a sitting duck for critics, being a shamelessly opportunistic studio-backed picture with a really dumb, exploitation-style premise, but it stands out today as very very charming, probably for reasons which were entirely overlooked on its original release. It really seems to have gained a big following over the years - each time I mention it, people just seem delighted.

In a lot of ways, I think the fact it was made by one of the big studios actually works in its favour in this regard -- there's a sense in it that, as silly as the script is, we're still basically in the pre-Star Wars / New Hollywood era, when the studios still took pride in making movies for grown ups, hiring good actors and giving them time to make something of their parts etc, in a way that the independent monster movie guys were generally unable to.

And it's that character-building and sense of place which essentially makes both 'The Car' and "Jaws' work so well... you could imagine versions of them without their respective monsters, and they'd still be worth watching, because we're interested in these characters and their lives.