Next (Lee Tamahori, 2007)
More films have been made from Philip K. Dick short stories than novels. Next continues this trend. Based on the story The Golden Man, Lee Tamahori’s film was adapted by Gary Goldmana long-time Dick fan with his name in the credits of Total Recall and Minority Report. Despite (or perhaps because of) Goldman’s participation, Dick’s name should probably be removed from this film as the relationship to the short story is tenuous at best.
The only similarities between "The Golden Man" and Next come from the main character’s name and ability to see into the future (Dick calls this "prethinking"). He must also share an undeniable charm to females, otherwise the relationship between our protagonist, Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage), and the woman he’s destined to meet, Liz (Jessica Biel), would just be too difficult to believe. Unless Liz is simply a sucker for Cris’s orange (golden?) tan, hair extensions, and self-sacrifice (he sleeps in a car while giving her a hotel bed all to herself).
While the title of the film refers to Cris’s ability to see two minutes into the future, the short story could have shared the title but would have referred more to Cris being the next link in the human evolutionary chain, albeit perhaps not the most desirable one. In Dick’s post-WWIII story, Cris is another in a series of mutations. He’s managed to elude capture and euthanasia. While Cris can see into the future it’s more instinctual than cognative. In fact, he has no higher powers of reasoning and runs on animal instinct alone. He doesn’t even have the ability to speak. That Cris is undeniably attractive to women with his golden skin and Adonis physique, it’s without a doubt that his DNA will carry on and someday usurp the current human genome. None of that can be found in the screenplay by Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Paul Bernbaum.
The film opens strong, showing Cris at work in Las Vegas as a cornball magician and skilled gambler. When one of his good deeds backfires on him, he makes a daring precognistic escape from a casino. Afterwards we meet Irva completely throw away role that wastes the talents of actor Peter Falk. From there, we enter into territory that feels closer to Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears or Tony Scott’s Deja Vu than anything by Dick when Next becomes a by-the-numbers "vaguely European terrorists have a nuclear bomb and we have to stop them" plot with a futuristic twist.
I had a fun time watching Next until the film abruptly resets itself at the end, leaving the audience hanging and hoping that everything works out. While the filmmakers undoubtedly thought this was a clever twist, it’s a gimmicky anti-climax that fails to satisfy the need for closure.
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon, 1973)
Sporting $300 suits and driving a bad-ass car, Mr. T (Robert Hooks) has "the cool," that indefinable quality that puts him a cut above the hustlers, muthas, and thieves that populate his Los Angeles. Mr. Tthat’s "T" that rhymes with "P" and stands for "pool"runs his gig out of the local pool hall where he rules the table with finesse. Lording over the hall, T holds counsel like a Nubian Godfather while watching the balls drop. Trouble with your landlord? Problems with your son? T is there to help... for a few bills of course.
Two local heavies, Chalky (Paul Winfield) and Pete (Ralph Waite), hire T to investigate who’s hitting their underground crap games that keep getting boosted by a gang of masked thugs. But, don’t look now, it’s a set up. The interracial duo is vying for a piece of Big’s (Julius Harris) action. By throwing T into the middle of a gang war, they hope to muddle the picture for the police and pin any necessary bloodshed on him. Baby, you’d better believe that T isn’t going to stand for that shit. Instead, he rolls with the punches and decides to take Chalky and Pete down hard.
Directed by Ivan Dixon just prior to his amazing turn at The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Trouble Man was unavailable as a legitimate video release for twenty three years. Its release on DVD heralds a great day for the blaxploitation genre. Mr. T isn’t a hustler like Superfly or a pimp like The Mack. He may carry a private eye’s license but he isn’t some jive-ass private dick like Shaft, even if he does have an awesome theme song by Marvin Gaye. Trouble Man is not to be missed.
Stomp! Shout! Scream! (Jay Wade Edwards, 2005)
A throwback to classic creature features such as Them ! (Gordon Douglas), It Conquered the World (Roger Corman), Horror at Party Beach (Del Tenney), and The Eye Creatures (Larry Buchanan), Stomp! Shout! Scream! stars the Violas, a trio of luscious female rockers, on tour in their less-than-reliable vehicle. They end up stranded a backwater burg, in the middle of some intrigue. It seems that some nasty debris has washed up on the beach bringing with it a "skunk ape" from the Florida Everglades.
Aided by scientist John Patterson (Jonathan Michael Green), the local constabulary bungles two steps behind the stinky Sasquatch as it feeds on tourists and beach bums alike before turning its attention on the Viola’s lead singer, Theodora (Claire Bronson). Though she may be pursued by the skunk ape, the scientist, and the mechanic fixing her car, Hector (Travis Young), Theodora wants nothing to do with them. You see, she’s got a secret in her pastone that makes her feel that she’s "damaged goods."
Director Jay Wade Edwards (not to be confused with Jay Edwards of the "Tight Bondage Collection"), perfectly captures 1966. Rather than parody (like John Paizs’s Top of the Food Chain), Edwards does a straight up rendition of the era and its films in Stomp! Shout! Scream! Beautifully shot with some terrific performances, the film also boasts a truly rockin’ soundtrack.
Ultraviolent (Kurt Wimmer, 2006)
In the second Lone Wolf & Cub film, a wounded Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) confronts his enemies at a well. Bound and hanging over its mouth is his son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). The boy kicks off a sandal, sending it plummeting into the inky darkness below. Ogami measures the seconds until he hears the gentle "plop" of the sandal meeting the deep water before he obliterates his foes. Engaged in combat, the man who held Daigoro’s rope allows the boy to fall. Ogami slices his way through the group to grab the rope just in time to save his son.
A well in 1800s rural Japan makes sense. A well in a church "somewhere in the future" doesn’t. Yet, that’s par for the course with Ultraviolent, a quasi-vampire action film from writer/director Kurt Wimmer. The latest in the "created in a computer" movies (think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or Casshern), Wimmer’s tale is long on exposition, heavy in style, and thin on substance or sense.
Along with Lone Wolf & Cub, Ultraviolent borrows heavily from The Matrix, Blade, Aeon Flux, and a host of video games and comic books. Rather than being a clever amalgam, Wimmer’s work is a messy hodgepodge that brims with tepid gunfights and excessive chase scenes.
Funky Monkey (Gene Quintano, USA/France, 2003)
While doing a little research on one of my favorite actors, Taylor Negron (see interview page 80) I came upon a film that I simply had to see based on the title alone, Funky Monkey. Not to be confused with the Ben & Jerry’s flavor "Chunky Monkey" (or "Chubby Hubby"), this work by writer/director Gene Quintano stars Matthew Modine as McCall, a super spy with a chimpanzee sidekick.
The chimp, Clemens, is property of the Zoological Institute of Technology (Z.I.T). There’s some intrigue involving the head of Z.I.T., Flick (Negron), who wants to use Clemens for evil. It doesn’t take much prompting for McCall to bust his little buddy out in kind of a cornball Project X move. Soon thereafter, they cross paths with Michael (Seth Adkins), a high school dweeb. Of course, Michael is the product of a single parent household and romance between his mother and McCall is sure to bloom after some wild misunderstandings. Meanwhile, Clemens teaches Michael valuable lessons about life, love, and how to beat up bikers with a tetherball. It’s like E.T. if the alien had constantly done those high-pitched "chimp screams" or The Karate Kid if Mr. Miyagi had opposable toes.
Most of the time, the chimp is played by a short person in a bad mask (Jean-Luc Orofino) or a dwarf in an ape costume (Alexandre Aubry). Those French actors belie the fact that this film was initially shot in France as A Hairy Tale. However, Warner Brothers was unhappy with the film and called for extensive re-shoots, leaving only a fraction of the original footage intact.
I’m not sure how awful the original French film may have been but the American product makes M.V.P. (Most Valuable Primate) look like the Citizen Kane of chimp films. The biggest perpetrators of groan-inducing buffoonery are Flick’s henchmen, Peters and Drummond. These two roles were completely re-cast, replacing Heio von Stetten and Jason Flemyng with Pat Finn and Bodhi Elfman. Meanwhile, Fred Ward and Pierre Cosso’s roles were consigned to the cutting room floor (probably to their relief).
And, for the record, chimpanzees are not monkeys, they’re apes.
Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy (Takashi Tsuboshima, Japan, 1974)
To say that Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy looks like a live action cartoon isn’t quite accurate. It’s better to say that it’s live action anime. Director Takashi Tsuboshima perfectly captures the lunacy of Japanese anime in this adaptation of the long-running manga series by Monkey Punch (formerly Kazuhiko Kat) which, itself, is based on the Arsène Lupin character of Maurice LeBlanc.
Starring Yuki Meguro as Arsène Lupin III, we first see the gentleman thief driving and pining for a woman in the vehicle next to him. That this other vehicle is a prison van on the way to the local penitentiary doesn’t phase him. He inadvertently breaks out his new love, Fukijo Mine (Hideko Ezaki), making him a man wanted by the police, especially hard-nosed Inspector Zenigata (Shirô Itô) who’s such a badass that he "can even make cranky kids behave."
Rife with goofy sound effects, cheesy special effects, spontaneous musical numbers, fourth wall breakage, and comical performances, Lupin III has fun with its rather trite cat and mouse plot as Lupin tries to impress Fukijo and elude Zenigata. It isn’t until about fifty minutes into the film that Lupin faces a real challenge as he becomes the target of a cadre of Japanese crime lords.
Reminiscent of Isao Hayashi’s Harenchi Gakuen/ Shameless School (based on manga by Gô Nagai) and Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers, Lupin III will leave some viewers perplexed, some frustrated, and others (like me) delighted by the absolute strangeness and pop sensibility of this wacky romp.
Crank (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, 2006)
One of a handful of action movies that came and went fairly fast in 2006 (The Marine, Running Scared, et cetera), Crank stood out from the crowd due to its star, Jason Statham. While Statham’s not always box office gold (Revolver, Chaos), he’s got a loyal following (of which I count myself a member) and undeniable charisma. He’s one of the best British exports of "tough guy" leading men in recent years along with Clive Owen, Daniel Craig, and Vinnie Jones. (Ewan McGregor was going to be in this group but he’s wussing out).
As Chev Chelios, Statham awakes at the outset of the film to learn that he’s been poisoned and has one hour to live. Let’s not dwell on the fact that he was unconscious when he was poisoned and it’s unknown how long he’s been out, calling the one hour timeline into question. Unlike Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film D.O.A. (or the 1988 remake), Chev knows exactly who set the countdown clock on his life (and even knows some details of the junk running through his veins). It was that scoundrel Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo)! Luckily, Chev doesn’t spend his final moments dwelling on the past and assessing his downfall. Rather, he wants Cantillo for company in the pit of hell.
Chev makes his way to the elusive Cantillo, cutting a swath of destruction across Los Angeles. While he tries cocaine, Red Bull, and "trucker uppers," Chev learns that only epinephrine might keep his heart from seizing up. Along the way the audience learns more about Chev’s life as a professional hit man, his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart), and his plan to reform. We’re also treated to some stylistic flourishes and self-reflexive shenanigans from directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor that recall those of the French New Wave. For example, when Chev asks if he’s got the word "cunt" written across his forehead, it’s superimposed there.
More than the Nouvelle Vague, Crank often feels like Neveldine and Taylor took a lot of crib notes from other Stratham vehicles such as Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and other methamphetamine-inspired titles such as Jonas Åkerlund’s Spun. Despite the name film’s title, meth (crank) only makes a brief cameo appearance in the film (unlike the video game "Robotron," which shows up numerous times). This poor title choice may have added to the movie’s brief theatrical run. It might have been better received had it been dubbed "Handsome Rob: The Later Days" or "The Transporter 4." I’m just glad that it was far more entertaining than the other D.O.A.-inspired film of 2006, Mission: Impossible 3.
Short on substance and big on action, Crank is a great way to while away an afternoon. A very enjoyable little romp, this is a must-see for Statham fans.
A Sound of Thunder (Peter Hyams, 2005)
One of those "blink-and-you’ll-miss-it" theatrical releases, this little 2005 sci-fi film is only one step higher on the evolutionary ladder than those cheesy creature features produced on a weekly basis for the Sci-Fi Channel. Based on the 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury, I couldn’t help but continuously think of "The Simpsons" Treehouse of Horrors parody, "Time and Punishment," while watching Peter Hyams’s film.
"If you ever go back in time, don’t touch anything. Even the slightest change can alter things in ways you can’t possibly imagine." Truer words were never spoken. While Travis Ryer (Ed Burns, the poor man’s Ben Affleck) and his crew of Chrononauts respect this prime directive, the clients of Time Safari’s boss man, Charles Hatton (Sir Ben Kingsley), do not. The inadvertent death of a butterfly proves out Grandma Simpson’s admonition, causing literal ripples in time that really ruin Ryer’s day. His present day timeline changes with "time waves" that bring about a surge in plant life, bugs, and some odd hybrid creatures like the vicious baboonosaurus. It’s up to Ryer, his team, and the grouchy Dr. Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack) to put things right again. Will they make it? Of course they will. The real questions are "What order do they die in?" and "What is Sir Ben Kingsley doing in this film?"
Another puzzling aspect to the film is the budget. Was everything spent on catering? Certainly, very little was donated to special effect work. Street scenes feature actors walking against backgrounds of looping "futuristic" cars that look like they were accomplished with chroma-key effects done at the local Public Access Cable studio. A Sound of Thunder was doomed not only by its horrible effects but by the cinematic saturation of the Novikov Self-Consistency Principlethis being the fourth of four films to explore that chronological precept. While two others, John Woo’s Payback (2003) and Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber’s The Butterfly Effect (2004), shared the same core idea, they boasted far better marketing. A Sound of Thunder was all fury and no thunder when it came to marketing, coming out with a whimper only equal to Richard Donner’s forgettable Timeline (2003).
It would be a few years until another such timeline film would get that amount of funding: Tony Scott’s Deja Vu. Even then, the time travel aspect was minimized and only visible in previews that ran before fantasy or sci-fi films.
Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)
The last time I caught a movie that was shelved for months for being "just too darn bad" in the opinion of the studio that backed it and actually liked the results was Alex Winter’s 1993 film Freaked. Otherwise, it’s been downhill. Still, I was willing to try Mike Judge’s Idiocracy which was snuck in and quickly ushered out of a handful of theaters in fall 2006.
When one can see shit like Three Strikes, Dragonfly, or Sliver in theaters, I figured that Idiocracy had to be worse than that. With expectations appropriately low, I was pleasantly surprised by Idiocracy.
Starring the lesser-annoying Wilson brother, Luke, as "Average" Joe Bauers, a soldier flying under the radar who’s happiest when sitting on his ass watching TV all day (shades of Office Space’s Peter Gibbons). Volunteered for a top secret experiment, Joe and civilian Rita (Maya Rudolph) are put into stasis under the assumption that they’ll be in a human hibernation for a year. Of course, things go terribly wrong and the pair awake five hundred years in the future (shades of Juliusz Machulski’s Seksmisja (1984)).
Due to medical advances that usurp Darwinism, least common denominator entertainment, and rampant breeding by the dregs of humanity, director Mike Judge paints the future as an evolutionary nightmare where the population has been dumbed down to sub-moronic levels. Communication consists of grunts, "huh?"s, and a lot of "shut up!"s. The environment is a disaster, the economy is in the shitter, the President of the United States (Terry Alan Crews) is a former wrestler, and the highest rated television program is appropriately titled "Ow! My Balls!" Joe and Rita are trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare where they’re misunderstood, ostracized, and pursued by the "shoot first, never ask questions" police.
Overall, Cashiers du Cinemart writer Rich Osmond summed up Idiocracy best for me when he said, "It felt like a skit that goes on too long." There are enough ideas here for a ten-minute skit or, at most, a half-hour short but at 84-minutes there are a lot of dead areas to the film. Luckily, these aren’t filled with excruciatingly bad jokes; just a few chuckle-worthy moments where Joe and Rita easily outsmart their stupid contemporaries.
If anything, I would think that our future five-hundred years from now could be far worse than Judge portrays in Idiocracy. I can imagine that the English language, if it still exists, will be unrecognizable. Likewise, "Ow! My Balls!" seems fairly sophisticated compared to some of the things I’ve seen on Fox lately. In short, Idiocracy is good for a few smirks but it’s not any kind of subversive gem that 20th Century Fox kept from public view.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, United Kingdom, 2006)
I wasn’t sure if the delay of Children of Men from September 2006 to a limited Xmas/wide January 2007 release was a good thing or not. While release delays are usually a death knell, that kind of push probably meant that the studio behind the film (in this case Universal) felt that the film had a shot at garnering some Academy Award nods. Another thing that really put me on edge about the film was its director, Alfonso Cuarón. I’m one of the few people who wasn’t impressed with Y Tu Mama Tambien and who felt that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a horrible misstep in an otherwise well-played franchise. And, finally, to hear that a handful of writers took a hack at the screenplay didn’t inspire much confidence either. Too many cooks, you know.
Despite of my trepidation, I found Children of Men to be a fairly effective dystopian tale of the near future. The film stars a haggard Clive Owen as Theo Faron, a cog in the bureaucrat wheel of a United Kingdom tearing itself apart in the wake of a global infertility crisis. Over seventeen years have passed since a woman has successfully conceived a child. The world is in shambles as a reaction to the futility of a future without progeny and England portrays itself as the last bastion of civilization. Yet, not all is hunky-dory in old Blighty.
Faron fills the voidonce held by the child he lost years beforewith alcohol. His ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), fills it with social activism. She’s the leader of the Fishes, a radical group who spout all-too-familiar rhetoric about "the revolution." They chomp at the bit over Britain’s ineffectual response to the global crisis and the government’s pitiless program of immigrant deportation. But, like most holier-than-thou activists, there’s little agreement as to what they can do to about their displeasure, coupled with ruthless infighting amongst the group.
Julian goes to Faron with an offer of five thousand pounds in exchange for his help getting official papers for an illegal immigrant (called "Fugees" in the film’s parlance) from his cousin, Nigel (Danny Huston), a government bigwig in the book, turned posh art collector in the film. The immigrant needing help, Kee (a strong performance from Claire-Hope Ashitey) might be the "key" to the future.
Nigel gets short shrift in Children of Men. In P. D. James’s original novel, Nigel is his cousin’s antagonist. He desperately seeks out the "Kee character" (a combination of the film’s Julian and Kee) in order to save his flagging political career. This shift from book to film is typical of the smart decisions made in the adaptation of James’s work. The story moves with much more purpose and direction on screen than it did on paper. The only possible item lacking being the upper-crust’s disillusioned reaction to the infertility crisis with the creepy baby doll birthday parties and anthropomorphized pets.
Rather than being a fantastical post-apocalyptic tale, Children of Men portrays what could happen with just a nudge from any kind of crisis. The seeds have already been planted. Bombs already go off in streets. Immigrants are already openly despised. Islam is equated with abhorrent radicalism. Idealists already are short-sighted. One of the other clever ideas is to not pin down the exact cause of the infertility. No one in the movie knows. It could be the plumes of smoke and pollution that fill the air, it could be gamma rays, it could be the wrath of some unnamed deity, it could be a food-borne disease, or it could be one of any number of other factors.
The soundtrack to Children of Men is particularly interesting. It’s highly British and references the "glory days" of the ’60s music scene all the way up to more modern fare. That the flying pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals is so prominently featured was not my first tip-off that the music in this film tells a story on a different narrative plane. I feel that this topic alone could be a pretty weighty paper for a sophomore film student somewhere.
Children of Men works best during its long, harrowing single-take handheld shots. Cuarón’s mix of quasi-documentary style with melodrama makes for interesting viewing and the film’s themes make for some good food for thought.
Banlieue 13 / District 13 (Pierre Morel, France, 2004)
Called "parkour," "yamakasi," or "free running," depending on what circle you’re in, this "art of movement" gained popularity in France in the ’90s. Since then it’s been popularized by director Luc Besson in films he’s produced and co-written such as Yamakasi (Ariel Zeitoun & Julien Seri, 2001) and Banlieue 13. (The "sport" was later introduced to American audiences in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)).
Banlieue 13 owes much of its plot to John Carpenter. Set in 2010, the less-desirable districts of Paris have been walled off to keep the riff-raff away from the decent people. Not everyone inside of B13 is a bad egg. In fact, Leito (David Belle) openly defies the will of Taha Bemamud (co-writer Bibi Naceri), the district’s criminal overlord. Through some amazing acrobatic fighting and an intense chase, Leito and his sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo), bring Taha to the last working police station in the district. He’s told that the cops are "slowly packing things up." Rather than turning into Assault on Precinct 13, the cops throw Leito in jail and give Lola to Taha before setting the bad guy free.
Six months later, the cops need Leito’s knowledge of the borough when Taha steals a neutron bomb (under suspicious circumstances). The clock is ticking. Hot shot cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) goes undercover and breaks into B13 with Leito in tow. The two form an uneasy partnership as they re-enact Escape from L.A., each vying for the Snake Plissken role. Their motivations for making it into B13 are tied together, literally, as Lola is chained to the bomb. The two fight their way to their goals via some astounding set pieces. To picture these, think of twenty Jackie Chans running through the streets of Paris and you have a good approximation.
This film was released on DVD in the U.S. in 2006. I have yet to see this version but I can only hope that the were updated from the bootleg I managed to see in 2005. This had butchered English subtitles that used the letter "z" rather than "s" in most cases and employed terms like "skweak" (squeak) and "tackless" (tactless).
Hard Candy (David Slade, 2005)
Playing like a ballsy version of Extremities, David Slade’s Hard Candy is a hyperchromatic melodrama of revenge against a sexual predator by one of his potential victims. In a terrific performance, Ellen Page stars as Hayley Stark, a dangerously clever fourteen-year-old who chats online with professional photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-two-year-old single man whose walls are lined with stunning examples of his workartful photographs of the young women who have modeled for him in the past.
Often coming across as a two-person play (the majority of the film is contained in Kohlver’s house), Hard Candy doesn’t pull any punches. I kept expecting some awful turn of fate in the film to rob it of its effectiveness. Luckily, this never happened. Hard Candy stands as one of the strongest films I’ve seen in a long time. A great double feature with L.I.E. or Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys, as the second feature.
Moog (Hans Fjellestad, 2004)
A documentary about Robert Moog, one of the most important figures in electronic music? Yes, please, sign me up. Alas, the premise goes awry from the outset. This mishmash of a documentary feels like a collection of outtakes from a better work. I don’t need to see Robert Moog talking about pepper plants and Money Mark diddling around on a synthesizer.
Moog demonstrates that sometimes it’s best to not rely on the subject of the documentary as the subject matter expert of the film. Robert Moog is not the most well-spoken advocate and historian of his life’s work. Likewise, showing the electronic guts of his machines doesn’t do much to explain how they work or why Moog’s work is important to the music world.
When utilizing archive footage, Moog works. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, leaving Moog a mumbling, meandering mess for its interminable seventy-two minutes. Moog and electronica deserve better.
A far more effective work about music, sampling, and manipulating sounds comes from Nate Harrison with this seventeen-minute documentary Can I Get An Amen? (2004). Primarily an audio piece (the screen image consists primarily of a single take of a turntable), Harrison discusses the origins of one of the most famous breakbeats in music history. Rivaled only by James Brown’s "The Funky Drummer," the Winstons’s "Amen Brother" has been used in whole and in part by artists as diverse as N.W.A. and Squarepusher.
Check it out online at www.nkhstudio.com.
The Pet (D. Stevens, 2006)
In this laughable tale, Mary (Andrea Edmondson) is unappreciated by everyone in her life including the boyfriend who killed her cat. It seems that only the slimy Frenchman Philip (Pierre Dulat) understands Mary and what she needs. He introduces her to lifestyle BDSM (Bondage Discipline SadoMasochism) and, by locking her in a cage, frees her to be his GG ("good girl"). Previously inexperienced with "the lifestyle," Mary adopts the conventions of her newfound slavery with a questionable ease, taking to her triangular cage as if she had been born there.
Rather than explore the dynamics of D/s ("Dominance/submission"), training, and various forms of play as done in Molly Weatherfield’s Carrie’s Story, Kim Corum’s Breaking the Girl, Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, or Puppy Sharon and Steven Toushin’s The Puppy Papers, The Pet moves quickly from lukewarm erotica into tepid thriller territory with a human trafficking plot. If the lame first half was too much for the actors to handle, this boost in the melodrama is almost enough to put them into histrionics.
Yes, the acting in The Pet is bad. To call Andrea Edmonson "wooden" would be an insult to trees. The acting is even worse than the barrel bottom production values. D. Stevens manages the impossible; by creating such an awful bit of drivel masquerading as adult content, he makes Zalman King look like Douglas Sirk. Worse, all of the marketing of The Pet positions the film as being aware and empathetic of real BDSM but none of this comes across on screen.
Matalo (Cesare Canevari, Spain/Italy, 1970)
For years this was one of the most difficult euro oaters to locate. The bootleg copy available left much to be desired in terms of picture quality. Moreover, it boasted a soundtrack that was apparently from a PAL source that someone tried to synch with a NTSC video, making the already tenuous dubbing all the more out of step with the characters’ mouths and actions. Fortunately, in 2006, Wild East Productions produced a DVD version of this overlooked entry into the Spaghetti Western pantheon.
Also known as Kill Him!, this Spanish-Italian co-production begins with Bart (Corrado Pani) being lead to the gallows. Before last rites are finished, the townsfolk are slaughtered in a rain of bullets and a thunderous guitar track begins its assault. This introduces one of the film’s major players, Mario Migliardi’s raucous soundtrack. The buzzing fuzz rock and marimba flourishes plays perfectly with the anachronistic oddball feel of the film.
With an assortment of odd noises peppering the soundtrack, split second cuts to extreme close-ups, wild slow motion sequences, trippy camerawork, and magical surrealism; Matalo feels more like a horror film than a western.
The "ghost" of Bart haunts his compatriotsthe duplicitous Phil (Luis Dávila), the earthy beauty Mary (Claudia Gravy) and the silent, stewing Ted (Antonio Salines)after he’s been left for dead. The immoral quartet of outlaws in claustrophobic ghost town settings makes Matalo reminiscent of Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flats (made into Four of the Apocalypse by Lucio Fulci five years later).
While many Spaghetti Westerns focused on antiheros for protagonists, that’s not the case with Bart. He’s no Django, Ringo, or Sabata. He possesses nary a redeeming quality, thriving, instead, on robbery, murder, and cruelty. Yet, he’s the closest thing to a main character in Canevari’s film. The movie’s alleged protagonist, Ray (Lou Castel), doesn’t arrive until 30-minutes into the proceedings. It’s no small coincidence that Ray appears around the time that Bart "dies." He could be considered a resurrected doppelganger of the dastardly gunslinger. So unlike Bart, Ray can’t even bear to touch a gun.
Ray and two innocent women get in the way of Bart’s gang. The women aren’t considered much of a threat but Ray suffers unbearable torture at the hands of his captors. He’s tied to a tree to roast in the unforgiving sun, denied a drop of the water that pours a few feet away. That’s when Ted’s not beating him with a chain. And, worse of all, he’s denied his hip paisley coat. But, like any good Spaghetti Western, it’s inevitable that Ray will have to make the outlaws pay for their misdeeds. That he does so wielding an endless supply of boomerangs just adds to the outright, lovable weirdness of Matalo.
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973)
Sandwiched between Don Siegel’s Charlie Varrick (1973) and Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), The Laughing Policeman is yet another Walter Matthau gem. Adapted by Thomas Rickman (Hooper), the film is based on the book Den Skrattande Polisen by prolific Swedish husband and wife authors Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Their recurring character, Martin Beck, has been brought to the screen a dozen times. Additionally, he was the main character of a television series in Sweden. Despite his native popularity, Beck hasn’t made much of an impact on the United States. Apart from The Laughing Policeman, only one other Beck film was readily available in the U.S. on VHSBo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof (1976).
Inexplicably, in The Laughing Policeman Martin Beck’s name is "Jake Martin." Apart from the name change, however, Martin is the same hang-dog cop of the Wahlöö and Sjöwall books. Martin’s kids don’t appreciate him. His wife (Shirley Ballard) doesn’t even notice when he’s out all night on a case (could be because he’s sleeping on the couch). His kind of burned-out detective was making a comeback in the ’70s in films such as Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), and Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix (1978).
The film begins with a massacre on a city bus in San Francisco. An unseen assailant boards and mows down the passengers with a machine gun. Among the victims is Dave Evans (Anthony Costello), Martin’s partner. Along with Martin, the other detectives on the case are a veritable who’s who of ’70s stars such as Bruce Dern, Lou Gossett Jr., Val Avery, and Anthony Zerbe. As Martin’s new partner, Leo Larsen, Dern is particularly memorable. He’s a boorish cop who finishes his more offensive sentences with, "Know what I mean?"
Far removed from anything resembling a slick action film, The Laughing Policeman chronicles the nitty gritty of police work. We follow the investigation as Martin and his fellow detectives interview countless dead end leads, trying to connect anyone to the crime. Their journey takes them through the San Francisco underworld of pimps, hookers, strip clubs, Hell’s Angels, dopers, mad gunmen, hare krishnas, and other unsavory characters. Martin slowly unravels the mystery, tying it in to an old cold casethe murder of Teresa Camererothat might also involve his partner’s girlfriend, Kay Butler (Cathy Lee Crosby in her feature film debut).
The Laughing Policeman over-flows with great character actors like Paul Koslo, Clifton James, and Gregory Sierra. This undervalued policier should have been the start of a long string of Matthau as Martin movies. Unfortunately, audiences would only have a few more chances to see Matthau in action before he was sucked back into the quagmire of Jack Lemon and/or Neil Simon films.
The Tenth Level (Charles S. Dubin, 1975)
William Shatner stars as psychology professor Stephen Turner who performs a series of experiments wherein two participants act as "teacher" and "student." The teacher lists four sets of adjectives and nouns. The student has to associate the correct noun with the correct adjective under penalty of electric shock. If a student answers incorrectly, the teacher administers the shock with higher voltage each time. Turner’s experiment isn’t about memory under duress. Instead, it’s about obedience. The student is not the subject of the experiment (he’s a confederate and never gets shocked). The real purpose is to see how far the teacher will go; how much pain he will administer. Will a human being cause another person pain, even when the student moans and pleads for mercy? Will the teacher bend to the authority of the experiment’s administrator?
Turner relates his findings to previous incarnations of people being pushed to harm other human beings who were "just following orders" such as French torturers in Algeria and SS officers in Nazi Germany. Through his work, Turner uncovers a disturbing aspect of human behavior. A surprising number of "teachers" go the entire distance, giving their "students" the maximum amount of pain; the titular tenth level.
The Turner character is based on Stanley Milgramauthor of the "six degrees of separation" conceptwho performed a similar series of tests at Yale University in the 1960s. Not the only filmic reference one can find about Milgram (the extrasensory perception test in Ghostbusters comes to mind), The Tenth Level is said to have had Milgram as a consultant (according to www.stanleymilgram.com).
The experiment breaks down, literally, when Turner employs Barry Dahlquist (Stephen Macht) as a test subject. The laid-back carpenter goes wild, smashing Turner’s equipment and making the authorities at the American Psychological Association (APA) take notice of the potential immorality of Turner’s work. A hearing is convened wherein all members of the faculty involved and subjects are interviewed. Things look grim for Turner even after Dahlquist testifies that he came to admire Turner for showing him "the beast inside."
This made-for-TV movie eluded me for years. Shot on video tape on soundstages, The Tenth Level has barely survived its sole 1975 airing on CBS. Colors have faded and the harsh studio lighting washes out actors’ faces in the extreme close-ups director Charles S. Dubin employs when trying to wrench up the drama. While Shatner sits at the center of the story, he’s not on screen as much as one would hope. He plays things relatively subdued, even in his post-hearing crisis of faith.
Some sources cite that John Travolta was in this film. That is not the case. The only Travolta/Shatner pairing, as of this writing, is Robert Fuest’s The Devi’s Rain (also from 1975).
Grindhouse (Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez, 2007)
If you remember the first time Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made a movie together, you’ll recall that the results weren’t pretty. In Four Rooms, the Tarantino and Rodriguez chapters were the high points of this botched affair. Even then, everyone was comparing the two filmmakers. Tarantino’s entry was a simple rip off, er, remake of the "Man from the South" episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Rodriguez’s was simple, solid storytelling. Luckily, their ventures since thenFrom Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, et ceterahave been marked improvements.
Two feature films plus a handful of trailers for a three-hour extravaganza of entertainment sounds like a great idea, and it is. I loved the overall experiencethe damaged prints, the bad splices, the old-school ratings animations. That all worked. So did Robert Rodriguez’s film, Planet Terror. This gore-infested zombie film is a real hoot. It stars "Six Feet Under" undertaker Freddy Rodríguez as "El Wray," a man with a wrecker and a past. He encounters a luscious figure from his "the good old days" at the local BBQ joint when he meets up with Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who once dreamed of being a doctor.
Planet Terror brims with inter-esting characters that, while archetypes, are fun archetypes nonetheless. Two favorites include a craggy Michael Biehn as the crusty small town sheriff who’s on the outs with his brother, Jeff Fahey, over his secret barbecue recipe. Along with this familial conflict, there’s political intrigue, medical drama, crazy babysitters, blazing gunfights, and testicle collection. The whole thing is set to an all-too-familiar score reminiscent of John Carpenter. In fact, quite a bit of the film plays like a Carpenter/Romero lovechild. Think Assault on Precinct 13 meets Day of the Dead.
On the other end of the spectrum from this rip-roaring blast of action is the second feature of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Essentially, this film is comprised of dialog: it’s one scene after another of two groups of girlfriends talking about a whole lot of nothing. Think of it as a movie version of "The View" with (more) pot, drinking, and swearing. Kurt Russell hangs out in the background for most of the film as Stuntman Mike, really only having two scenes that count in this tedious and talky exercise that makes Before Sunrise look like an actionfest.
The overlong set up to the first action scene of Death Proof demonstrates that watching people text messagingeven if it’s set to Pino Donaggio’s score from Blow Outis deathly dull. I like women’s revenge flicks as much as the next Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! fan, but these girls are so talky and trite that I detested all of them, especially Jungle Julie (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). Stuntman Mike was doing the audience a favor! The embodiment of classic cinema, he should have triumphed over the boring, chatty triumvirate of film-geek chicks. Instead, he’s defeated.
The script to Death Proof explains more than ended up on screen, but neither script nor finished film provides motivation for Stuntman Mike. Some viewers have even tried to read meaning into a story where there isn’t any by claiming that the second half of the film takes place before the first chronologically. Knowing how Tarantino likes to muck around with time (Death Proof is set before Planet Terror even though Planet Terror is shown first), there is almost a desperate need to explain Stuntman Mike’s scar and misogynistic bloodlust. Otherwise, audiences are denied insight and are without a character with whom to identify.
Every cinephile knows what they can expect from a Quentin Tarantino film: pop culture-laden dialog, backgrounds festooned with movie posters, other films’ soundtracks pilfered for his film’s soundtrack, an embarrassing director cameo, and bare female feet. Death Proof has these in spades. Yet, this film doesn’t seem to have the formula right. Having ample opportunity to pilfer and emulate classic exploitation films should have provided Tarantino with inspiration to make his grindhouse tale an unstoppable homage. Instead, he seems to have been shackled to ceaseless scenes of girls chatting.
Sure, the girls chat about movies. They refer to Vanishing Point, Cannonball Run, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and others (for more on these films see "The Chase Is On" in Cashiers du Cinemart #11). The one film not mentioned, Two Lane Blacktop, appears to have provided inspiration, as Stuntman Mike is cut from the same blowhard cloth as G.T.O. (Warren Oates) in the Hellman film. The girls even parody the "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" poem by Robert Frost that’s used in Telefon. However, Death Proof comes nowhere near the intensity of any of these films. With apologies to David Lynch, The Straight Story moves faster than Death Proof.
Another odd thing about Death Proof is the lack of "print damage" when compared to Planet Terror and the four fake grindhouse previews. There’s some minor mangling of the print near the beginning of the film (and a clever re-titling) but it quickly disappears, not to appear even around reel changes. There’s a moment where Death Proof utilizes a conceit that there’s a reel missing from the film. This is done, apparently, only to avoid an awkward scene of Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) giving Stuntman Mike a lap dance. This same "Reel Missing" trick is also used in Planet Terror. In Rodriguez’s film, the "missing reel" is made out to have contained a wealth of action sequences to which other characters elude when the audience is plopped back into the story. This creates a knowing wink at the audience and counts on them to be smart enough to get the joke (despite what Harvey Weinstein may say, there is no "missing reel" to Planet Terror).
When seeing Grindhouse, do yourself a favor and leave after the preview for Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. By that point you’ve gotten all of the entertainment you’re going to get out of the experience.