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.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Todd Stadtman.

Please excuse this brief interruption to our first-viewings countdown, but I need to take a moment to express my great sadness upon learning today (via tribute posts on Teleport City and that Todd Stadtman – proprietor of the Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! and Lucha Diaries blogs, amongst many other things - passed away earlier this month.

Unlike the authors of the aforementioned posts, I can’t claim to have known Todd personally (my interactions with him have been limited merely to a few exchanges of blogger comments over the years), but his writing on film, and his relentless enthusiasm for shining a light on the stranger and more culturally distant corners of what we might broadly term ‘international pop cinema’, has always been a great inspiration to me – not to mention a veritable fount of knowledge when it comes to uncovering wondrous realms of world culture which, despite his noble efforts, remain terminally obscure bordering on actually-totally-forgotten to this day.

Oft was the time, back in the glory days of both 4DK! and his work for Teleport City, that I’d find myself overcoming the boredom of my day-job by covertly clicking across to a web browser to read, dumbfounded, about the latest extraordinary, subtitle-free discovery he’d dug up from the darkest VCD-trading corners of Taiwan, The Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico, Argentina or goodness only knows where else. Who knew, prior to Mr Stadtman’s evangelism, that pretty much the entire globe had once been busy cranking out rip-roaring, culturally specific entertainments full of garish colours, monsters, robots, disco dancing, high-kicking heroines, spies, cavemen, mini-submarines and guys in skeleton suits? Well, I’m sure some people did – but not I.

All these years later, I’ve only managed to watch the tiniest fraction of the stuff Todd wrote or spoke about online, but, speaking as someone who always enjoys learning about other nations primarily through their pop culture, I found his work hugely educational, as well as funny, concise, unpretentious and – crucially – always respectful of the people and cultures who created these amazing movies, retaining a tone of open-minded bewilderment which I’ll always take hands down over the kind of misplaced mockery and snark which tends to predominate whenever fragments of this kind of stuff find themselves washed up on English-speaking shores.

Todd’s 2013 book Funky Bollywood is a fantastic read (although I’ve STILL not managed to find a source through which to acquire most of the movies discussed within it), and his myriad podcasting endeavours have always been worth a listen, most particularly the long-defunct Infernal Brains series recorded in collaboration with the aforementioned Tars Tarkas. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every episode of this podcast will take you to a place on the cinematic map you never even knew existed, and their series of episodes on the work of Taiwanese action heroine/director/mysterious lost genius Pearl Cheung-Ling borders on the life-changing. (Well, it certainly changed my bank balance slightly at any rate, as I scoured the shadier corners of the internet trying to track down watchable copies of her films.) [Links: part one, part two.] 

Outside of film, even the briefest scan of Todd’s blog reveals that he was something of a renaissance man to put it mildly – a novelist, musician, songwriter and DJ, just for starters – and, having followed his endeavours from a distance for over a decade at this point, I would also venture to suggest that the picture which emerges from all of his work is that of a very nice man indeed.

Even in a many-steps-removed online kind of way, his presence will be greatly missed. My thoughts go out to his family and friends, who must miss him terribly. R.I.P.

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…