Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Short Film: Hasta Los Huesos / Down to the Bone (Mexico, 2001)

This wonderful short film comes from Mexico, that American country of culinary delights that shares a common border with the US; Mexico, a land that has supplied the States with not only a lot of cheap labor but has also enriched the cinematic world with such entertaining psychotronic masterpieces as (among others) Santo vs The Vampire Women (1962/trailer) or Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters (1970/trailer), numerous Paul Nashy Spanish/Mexican co-productions and, relatively recently, the nihilistically fun and unjustly ignored and critically castigated (in the US, at least) Tarantino-inspired pop crime flick Nicotina (2003/trailer).
This short film, entitled Hasta Los Huesos / Down to the Bone, may have won awards around the world but it to remains an unjustly overlooked visual thrill. Written and directed by René Castillo (website), a self-taught animation filmmaker, the short is a truly masterful clay animation film that tells the touchingly morbid and sad tale of a man who must come to terms with the fact that he is dead. Or, as the Tribecca Film Institute describes the plot: "A man arrives in the land of the dead and, with the help of a beautiful hostess, joins the eternal party."
Hasta Los Huesos is claymation at its best. Anyone who likes this type of animation will probably already swoon the first time the wind blows through the hair of the little boy riding his tricycle though the graveyard. Drenched in the symbolism and language of the traditional Day of the Dead as seen by the great Mexican graphic artist Jose Posada, Hasta Los Huesos features music by the Grammy Award winning Mexican band Café Tacuba, a group far more worth listening to than most of the crap that gets a Grammy; the hauntingly poignant singing voice of Catrina (performing a traditional Mexican song entitled Mexican song titled La Llorona / The Crying Woman) is supplied by Eugenia León. Needless to say, much is lost in the low resolution presentation found on YouTube, and the film really should be seen on screen or at least in a better quality, but even in the resolution found here some of the power of the film still manages to come across.
Of equal interest and of equal technical mastery is the first short film of René Castillo, Sin sostén / No Support (found here). Made in 1998, the film almost seems like a prequel to the events in Hasta Los Huesos. When screened alone or as a pair, the viewer is only left hoping that one day soon René Castillo will grace the genre with another masterpiece.

Pale Rider (USA, 1985)

(Trailer.) Two years after directing the unexplainably popular Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact (1983/trailer), the only Dirty Harry film Clint Eastwood directed and the most inexcusably repulsive of them all—and almost the most retarded of all the films the good man ever directed (second only to The Eiger Sanction (1975/trailer), which was less repulsive than simply bad)—Eastwood obviously found it time to do another Man with No Name film and made this flick, his version of Shane (1953/trailer). And, like virtually every western to grace the silver screen that features Squinty Clint, Pale Rider is one fucking cool movie. And not just because he looks damn hot and sexy (for an at the time 55-year-old) as he squints and strides about in his nifty outfit and spurs, but because the film is a well directed and well acted ride that manages to transcend its derivative roots and become a solid chapter narrating a brief interlude that could easily have occurred in the twilight years of the famed character that graced the three classics of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.
Not that Eastwood ever sold the film as such, but when an unnamed gunman (played by Eastwood) rides in from nowhere, saves the day and then rides away to only god knows where, the said gunman can only be seen as such. OK, in Pale Rider the character played by Eastwood is often called Preacher, but it is the name given to him by others (as was the case in Leone’s films) and, furthermore, it remains doubtful throughout the film whether or not he truly is a preacher or merely dresses as one. Other trademarks of the Man with No Name that are missing include his classic cigarillo and poncho, but much likes the guns that "Preacher" retrieves from a safe deposit box late into the movie, those accouterments might have been given up over the course of the years. No and, ifs or buts about it, even if the Pale Rider isn't supposed to be an older version of the nameless Spaghetti cowboy, he is nonetheless truly a man with no name. (A man with no name that, in another couple of years and under a new name, could easily be “Unforgiven”.)
But is the hero even a man? As alive as Preacher is in Pale Rider, it almost seems as if he has been sent by powers above to help those in need, for his first appearance comes not long after the young Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) reads from her Bible: "And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." That he is possibly a supernatural entity returning from the dead to finish a job of vengeance is further supported by a brief scene of him washing himself reveals the scars of a load of bullets that should well have killed the man. But this slight supernatural angle is never played in full, for as able and unstoppable as Preacher may seemingly be he also comes close to being killed twice, and in both cases is only saved through the unexpected intervention of someone else—first by Club (Richard "Jaws" Kiel), who obviously changes sides midway into the film when repulsed by the attempted gang rape of Megan, and later by Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), who just happens to show up at the right second.
Shot amidst the impressive beauty of Sawtooth Range of the Rocky Mountains (in Idaho), the movie has an oddly pro-ecologist feel to it: strip mining is used as an obvious symbol of the evilness and inner moral rot of Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart), the man out to control the region. A moral rot that is shared by his son Josh (a pre-bloat Chris Penn) and everyone else of his entourage—including Marshal Stockburn (John Russell) and his deputies, all of whom wear the badge of the law but are obviously only obeisant to the almighty dollar.
As a whole Pale Rider is hardly the most innovative of Westerns, but it is a solid and enjoyable retelling of the classic western plotline of the beleaguered honest man being downtrodden by the stronger and dishonest man in power, only to achieve new hope and strength by the sudden arrival of a mysterious hero who helps save the day. In this case, those beleaguered are a camp of impoverished prospectors mining their claim outside of the town of LaHood, California. They are the thorn in the eye of Coy LaHood, the man who runs the town, who tries to rid himself of his unwanted neighbors through threat, physical violence and bribery. Hull Barret, who lives with Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress), the deserted mother of Megan, is the moral core and strength of the prospectors, but he is fighting a losing battle. While in town to pick up supplies Hull is beaten by LaHood’s men and is about to be set aflame when his life is saved by the sudden intervention of a mysterious man who, after taking up Hull’s invitation to stay with him, reveals himself to wear a cleric’s collar. But for a cleric, he is both low in Bible quotations and more than physically able to protect himself (and, likewise, not averse to taking advantage of the hospitality of others in more ways than one). The appearance of Preacher leads to new hope among the prospectors, which first causes the disagreements between the two camps to increase and, after the arrival of corrupt marshal and his men, the body count as well. Then, as suddenly as he came, the Preacher is gone—only to return a short time later fully armed...

Kung Fu Zombie Vs. Tigerkralle (Hong Kong)

(Trailer.) Now here’s a Hong Kong obscurity. Entitled Kung Fu Zombie Vs. Tigerkralle for its German DVD re-release by Cult Cinema International, it also seems to be known by a half-dozen other English-language names, including Tiger's Love, The Tiger Love, Love of the Tiger, Legend of the Tiger, Tiger's Kong Fu and Tiger Love—none of which bring up a production on IMDB, that internet bible of films. Neither, for that matter, does a search under the names of the director (Lin I Hsiu), the producer (Hui Keung) or any of the actors. (The German DVD release title, by the way, literally translates into "Kung Fu Zombie vs. Tiger Claws".)
A search of the world wide web is slightly more productive, but among those who have bothered to write of the film there seems to be some disagreement regarding its original release date, which is given variously as 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1981, as well as the plotline. (It is a typical Hong Kong pre-industrial age tale and not a contemporary police drama—but, as such, the plotline of the film doesn't even match the description supplied on the back of the Cult Cinema International DVD cover 100%.)
In the US, it has fallen into the public domain, and while it isn't yet available on the Internet Archive, it can be had cheaply at Public Domain Torrents—which is from where the time-coded screen shots image featured here was taken.
The DVD release from CCI, which features both an English-language and German-language, is pretty scratchy and not the best quality, but it would be hard to argue that the film would be any better than it is were the quality of the transfer any better. The DVD version is, in any event, 8 minutes longer than the original German theatre release… though it is almost hard to believe the film ever made it to any cinemas anywhere.
Kung Fu Zombie vs. Tiger Claws is pretty crappy to say the least, but that doesn’t mean that it isn't entertaining in its own peculiar way. With a few beers and a toke or two, Kung Fu Zombie vs. Tigerkralle functions rather well as a trashy, laugh-inducing cinematic oddity. But rest assured, nowhere in the whole film does a single "kung fu zombie" ever make an appearance—instead, during the last 20-odd minutes when the flick suddenly changes over from a love story cum revenge drama into a revenge horror flick, the viewer is confronted with a shape-shifting tiger demon. A rather schizophrenic development, but it does substantially increase the entertainment level.
Kung Fu Zombie vs. Tigerkralle opens two young lovers—the male played by Lo Lieh, the female by Hu Chin—from feuding families on the run. Caught atop a cliff-side, Chin's family seemingly kills Lieh and Chin jumps off the cliff. Unbeknownst to each other, they both survive. Chin, pregnant with Lieh's child, lands atop of a tree where, once she awakens, she is confronted by a tiger. Terrified, she promptly pees on its head, whereupon we learn that if a woman pees upon the head of a tiger it is henceforth subservient to the woman. The two wander off into the forest where she in due time gives birth to a child which she raises together with "uncle" tiger. Once the son is a young adult (played by an ineffectually dorky-looking Stephen Tung), the truth of his origins comes out and he goes into town to seek others of his kind. He finds even more: His father and his father's wife. While Lo Lieh prefers to stay with her big, wild pussy in the jungle, Tung decides to become a city-slicker. In now time he falls in love with the daughter of the rival clan (namely, Lieh's family), which makes neither family happy.
At this point the film takes its backbeat from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, but the final situation is reverse (i.e., the lovers are the ones that survive). First Tung kills his girlfriend’s brother in self-defense, and then his girlfriend’s family decimates everyone in Tung’s family—including his real mother, who first manages to make him swear not to take revenge (the killers are, after all, her real family). The tiger, freed from her subservient bonds, decides to do what any good slave would do: avenge his master. So he changes into a fanged and clawed, shape-shifting old hag and goes about killing everyone else. The final confrontation features Tung and his girlfriend battling the tiger demon—and the little lady proves to be rather resourceful.
For fans of sock-em chop-em refuse, this cheesy production from the early age of Hong Kong Kung Fu flotsam offers an enjoyable level of trash entertainment, although it is not empty of dull moments and the fights can hardly be described as well-choreographed or exciting. The first ten and the last twenty minutes of the film are far more fun than the low-cal stuffing between, but at no point within the flick does one ever really begin to fall asleep.
Still, given the choice between Kung Fu Zombie vs. Tigerkralle and, say, Mr Vampire (1985/trailer), only a masochistic fool would choose the former.

Clay Pigeons (USA, 1998)

(Trailer.) David Dobkins directorial debut might not be a masterpiece, but it does manage to get good laughs out of many a situation that probably shouldn't be funny. Likewise, it is miles better and indefinitely more subversive than any of the films he has made since then, namely Shanghai Knights (2003/trailer), Wedding Crashers (2005/trailer) and Fred Claus (2007/trailer). In Clay Pigeons, he still displays some of the black and infantile humour that is also found in his only script credit to date, 1995's entertainingly sick, cheesy and seriously odd horror comedy Ice Cream Man (1995/trailer). Indeed, although Clay Pigeons is decidedly cheeseless, it is a seriously odd, sun-baked redneckville black comedy – something you might expect someone like J.S. Cardone to make, if he only had a sense of humour.
Like the similarly entertaining but flawed Heathers (1989/trailer), Clay Pigeons is one of those films that appeal to a certain kind of humor—one that most people don't usually have, but that should seriously appeal to any regular reader of A Wasted Life. As should the film’s soundtrack, which is one of the all time most fabulous cornpone soundtracks since the documentary The Atomic Café (1982/the whole film). OK, Clay Pigeons does feature some serious laps in narrative logic for the sake of advancing the story (such as the "big clue" of torn-off cigarette filters being introduced and then forgotten until needed later and the fact that the FBI never even bother physically going to Lester Long's supposed workplace) or effect (most noticeably being the movie's rather disappointing last scene), but then, what film doesn't? (What comedy – or drama, for that matter – have you seen lately that had logic?)
Clay Pigeons tells the sad tale of Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix, supposed vegetarian, ex-big name and current rap artist), a resident of Mercer, Montana, one of those little places which you miss if you blink. Having made the mistake of bonking his best bud's psychopathic bitch wife Amanda (Georgina Cates) once too often, his buddy Earl (Gregory Sporleder) offs himself in such a way that it looks as if Clay did it, so Clay arranges to make the suicide look like an accident. Amanda, a mega-bitch in heat, sees no reason to stop bonking, but Clay does, so she ends up stalking him and offing the hot-looking local waitress he next shares his waterbed with. Body two gets disposed of and then Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), a man with a ten-gallon hat and a laugh that should set off warning bells in everybody's head, enters the picture. Soon Amanda lies sliced and diced and Clay's life gets really complicated, cause as FBI agent Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) says at one point: "You're dating one victim, you're having an affair with another and you find the body of the third. Kind of a coincidence, wouldn't you say?" Life ain't going well for Clay, but then, Lester Long never forgets a friend….

James and the Giant Peach (USA, 1996)

(Trailer.) Three years after having his contribution to the fabulous stop-motion animation film A Nightmare before Christmas (1993/trailer) as director be totally eclipsed by Tim Burton's producer credit, Henry Selick returned with this film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's story of the same name. The actual book was first published in 1961, and supposedly Dahl himself was loath to have it made into a film, so it is hardly surprising that the good man had to die first (in 1990) before could Disney swoop down to make a film of it.
But to give Disney credit where credit is due (and Selick, too, of course), at least they did not totally whitewash and remove the occasionally macabre and scary content of the story for a G rating. Instead the book, which is number 56 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books, was converted into a technical and visual marvel that, although nicely moral, still has some right proper scares and mildly grisly aspects—enough, at least, to earn a PG rating. And thus, much like A Nightmare before Christmas, which was also a PG film and is comparable in its balance of morals and scares, James & the Giant Peach proved to be less than majorly successful at the box office. (As to be expected when the music sucks, however, the score got nominated for an Oscar.)
A shame really, for both films are truly exceptional treats: visually fascinating filmic adventures that are sweet yet startling, and funny and sad, but never boring for either a child or adult. True, at least in the case of James & the Giant Peach, the musical interludes (written mostly by Randy Newman) are unnecessary, unexceptional and forgettable (with the exception of Grasshopper's violin interlude in which he plays—according to IMDB—Bach's Partita for Violin solo No 3 in E major, BWV 1006: 3rd movement, Gavotte en rondeau), but even during Newman's pointless and second-rate tra-la-la-la songs, the stop-motion animation is such a visual treat that one gladly suffers the music just to see the figures move.
It is tempting to say that the stop-motion animation of James & the Giant Peach puts Ray Harryhausen to shame, but seeing that he is both the Great Godfather of the technique and his films are still enjoyable and masterful feats today, let us just say that Selick actually manages to take all that Harryhausen ever managed to do one step further. Had the Great Master been around to see this film (or A Nightmare before Christmas, for that matter), he would have undoubtedly felt great pride in seeing what his talents has wrought a generation or two later, at a time when his time-consuming technique had long been relegated to the mothballs and been replaced by CGI. (Although, possibly, he would have been even more proud about Selick’s next film Coraline (2009/trailer), which finally truly proves that Selick is not simply a reflection of Tim Burton's production and taste but that the odd vision represented in his films is truly his own.)
James & the Giant Peach is not purely stop-motion. The stop-motion sequence is that of James’ adventures while within the peach; it is framed at both the beginning and end by live-action sequences. The art direction of the live action scenes, particularly the first one, is rather reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but in all truth the transition between the two styles is a bit jarring—especially at the end of the film. But special credit must be given to the presentation of James' two horrid aunts, Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973/trailer) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes, who played the twins Therlma & Selma in Plots with a View (2002/trailer)): Unbelievably horrid during the first interlude, in the second they have the full appearance of vampiric, walking dead—they are truly as frightening as they are funny.
The plot starts oh-so idyllic, with the young James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) living happily with his fab parents by the seaside. They all plan a wonderful trip together to NYC, but then the rhinoceros comes and eats his parents and the orphaned lad is sent to live with his evil aunts Spiker and Sponge who treat him like a slave and feed him fish heads, if anything. Given a bag of magic crocodile tongues by a mysterious old man (Pete Postlethwaite), he accidentally drops them at the foot of a dead peach tree. A peach the size of a house does grow, and his greedy aunts use it as a money-making tourist attraction. One night, in hunger, James takes a bite and ingests a magic crocodile tongue, whereupon he can enter the magic peach and meet the insect inhabitants: Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Earthworm (David Thewlis) and Glow-worm (Miriam Margolyes, again). The peach ends up rolling down the hill and into the ocean, and thus starts the adventures of all the peach inhabitants. The rag-tag groups succeeds at their goal to reach NYC despite the seemingly insurmountable dangers faced, including living skeleton pirates—including both a "Skellington" and a bone Donald Duck—and a mechanical shark. But no sooner do they arrive than do all the insects seemingly meet their demise at the hooves of the raging rhinoceros that killed James' parents, but the Aunts arrive to lay claim to both the peach and their unwilling slave…
Oh yes, and the moral of the story: Believe and yourself and in friendship.

Ravage (USA, 1996)

Ravage is a direct to video ultra-low-budget, multi-violent, homegrown crime film that should better be titled Bullets & Blood. The cheap credit sequence and shoot-out that open the film are a good foreshadow of all that has yet to come: bad visual quality, bad sound, bad lighting, bad special effects, bad editing, bad acting, bad script—a true home movie, starring family, friends, neighbors and anybody else who had the time to take part. There is loads of blood but no suspense, and the only real tension to be found is due to the film’s soundtrack, a true aural horror which tortures the viewer’s ears for most of the entire 80 minutes this video nasty runs. Featuring a world of K-Mart interiors in which virtually everyone is 10 pounds or more overweight, the body count in Ravage is as big and the blood flow as copious as most of the actors are corpulent. (Of course, I say this as someone living in Europe; by US standards everyone is probably “average”.)
The plot of Ravage follows a tried and true, cut and dry B-Movie scheme: Psycho kills Daddy’s kiddies in front of said parental figure, Daddy survives, killer gets away, killer comes back and kidnaps Daddy, Daddy gets away (somehow the fat new girlfriend does too), Daddy wants REVENGE. Tracking down someone he believes to be the killer, Daddy goes to Chicago and promptly stumbles upon Samuel, the leader of some multi-violent religion complete with a flock of blood thirsty and dedicated murderers. Then, suddenly, surprise!!! Unknown to everyone, Samuel has an equally crazy twin brother, the real killer of Daddy’s family, who finally shows up on the scene, burnt face and all, with a long, blood-gushing trail of mayhem behind him. The fists get swung and the bullets fly and the blood explodes and gets spit everywhere before everyone but Daddy dies—finally. But is Daddy now a psycho too? Well, the sequel—if there ever is one—will answer that question.
Ronnie Sorter, the writer and director of Ravage, claims that having seen too many lousy low-budget trash films, he decided that he could do better himself, and, along with friend Todd Reynolds, began to do so. Knowing that this film is their third completed feature production, one is almost forced to respect their ambition and drive, even if the film itself never even reaches B-Movie status but instead grovels around Z-level. In all truth, though, Ravage is probably not that much different from the very trash that inspired Sorter to make films in the first place—only with a lot less technical aptitude.
Without any of the humor (intended or otherwise) and endearing ineptitude of such master trash film makers of yesteryear and today, be it Ed Wood Jr., Al Adamson, Fred Olen Ray or Michael Bay, Ravage is also much too new (and badly shot) to have the nostalgic patina of past tastelessness caught on film that render so many filmic atrocities of yesteryear so enjoyable to watch. True, the film does feature an enjoyable police station shoot out and buckets of buckets of buckets of blood, but when watching the film, one can’t help but think that people with talent and no money make something like Glen or Glenda (1953/trailer), Night of the Living Dead (1968/trailer), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964/trailer), Pink Flamingos (1972/trailer) or Street Trash (1987/trailer), while people with no talent and no money make something like Ravage.

The Boneyard (USA, 1991)

Some trailers make you want to avoid a film like the plague, some tell you absolutely nothing about the film, some act as a condensed version and tell you everything that happens and some simply whet your appetite for a film. The trailer to The Boneyard, which you can view below (or here, if the embedded YouTube version doesn't work), more or less falls into the latter two categories—providing, of course, you are partial to trash films. It very much makes you want to see the film, but once you have seen the film you realize that (almost) everything worth seeing was already shown in the trailer. OK, perhaps the trailer is with a lot less gore than the film (if you see the uncut version), but it's also without the occasionally tedious exposition and the numerous spots that drag.

The Boneyard is the first directorial effort of James Thomas Cummins, (his myspace site) who also wrote the script. Prior to the film, he had honed his talents primarily working on the special effects of films as diverse as (to list only the "good" ones) The Exterminator (1980/trailer), Dead & Buried (1981/trailer), The Thing (1982/trailer), Strange Invaders (1983/Siskel & Ebert review), Enemy Mine (1985/trailer), DeepStar Six (1989/trailer), Slumber Party Massacre II (1987/trailer). Needless to say, if nothing else The Boneyard does impress with its special effects, which span the broad spectrum of (assumedly intentional and laughably) lousy to truly effective.
Actually, this schizophrenia in regard to the special effects is endemic to the whole film, be it the script, acting or direction. (This explains, perhaps, why [according to imbd] the original VHS rental came with two boxes, one promoting the film as horror, and the other as a comedy.) Nonetheless it is safe to assume the film was meant to be a horror comedy (after all, it features both Phyllis Diller and Norman Fell in the cast), and as such it very much falls into the range of films where you can't help but wonder “What the fuck!?!”
The exclamation, of course, can have two different meanings—good or bad—and in The Boneyard, both meanings come to play: In a good way whenever the monsters come around—particularly the fabulously cheesy killer poodle—but in a bad way for almost everything else. And that includes the interminable scenes leading up to the arrival of the (initial 3) leads at the city morgue, which go on forever and are neither funny nor well made. The whole first half-hour of the film and the setup used to bring in the fourth sympathy figure (a failed suicide) are narrative accidents that scream “Re-write needed! Re-write needed!” Regrettably, no one was listening, but nonetheless The Boneyard is not a total loss. It has some good one-liners and off-the-wall situations as well as gore, slime, zombie kids, tacky monsters and a great scene of a fat-assed character getting stuck in a trapdoor while trying to escape.
The plot involves two detectives, Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and Gordon Mullen (James Eustermann) calling upon the psychic Alley Cates (a terrifyingly overweight Deborah Rose) asking for her help in finding out the identity of three rotting kiddy corpses down at the morgue. She is reluctant, but after having a vision of one of the dead kids she found in the past during which the rotting little girl seems to be thanking her, she decides to help. (One thing for sure, when it comes to the dead kids in this film, they really look horrific.) At the morgue, there is a long unfunny interchange with the night attendant Miss Poopinplatz (a wigless Phyllis Diller) and her poodle, and the introduction of a variety a would-be zombie fodder—including Dana (Denise Young), the unsuccessful suicide and Shepard (Norman Fell), the coroner that survives the longest—before the shit hits the fan. The three little corpses aren’t dead: They're man-eating zombies (leftover from some Chinese ritual performed three decades earlier) taking a nap. The numbers of those locked below dwindle as one possible means of escape after the other doesn't pan out. Worse, when the goo of an undead tyke is eaten, the given consumer mutates into a cheesy, kill-happy monster…
The Boneyard is a bloody and truly wacky flick that could have been a lot better than it is but that, when watched as a social event amongst bad movie fans, can instigate loud guffaws and popcorn throwing. Beer and drugs will help support the viewer’s pleasure, though.

Footsteps in the Dark (USA, 1941)

(Trailer.) An inconsequential but pleasantly entertaining star vehicle for the ever smooth Errol Flynn, shown here both in chest-shaven profile and in full glory. A criminal comedy, Footsteps in the Dark tells the story of Francis Warren, a rich, married businessman who leads a second life, unknown to his family and business associates, as a mystery writer. (Likewise, the police know him only as the mystery writer, and not as the wealthy business man.) When the police chief berates him as probably incapable of solving a real crime, Warren decides to solve the murder of a jewel smuggler. His detective work results in his wife suspecting him of having an affair with a stripper named Blondie (Lee Patrick) and the police believing that he is the actual murderer of the smuggler and, later, of Blondie. All’s well that ends well, and by the end of the film the innocent get off free, the guilty get caught, and Warren runs off to solve another crime, this time with his wife by his side.... one thinks there had been hopes to create a new series similar to that of The Thin Man films (1934-47), which this movie so obviously emulates in a decidedly second-class manner (and without the alcohol).
Footsteps in the Dark is nonetheless a painless and inconsequential 96 minutes with more than a few mild chuckles. Lightly screwball in nature, the film takes place at a time when the public could still identify with unrealistically rich, fast-talking heroes living in a perfect world in which husband and wife slept in separate beds, wives stayed happily unemployed at home, strippers only shed their gloves and no one died who didn’t actually deserve it. (And face it, a stripper—even one that only removed her gloves—deserved it!)
A familiar face amongst the various characters in the film is that of William Frawley as the incompetent detective Hopkins, more or less rehearsing an incompetence he would specialize in later as Fred Mertz in The Luci & Desi Show. Likewise of mild interest is the brief appearance of the young Turhan Bey, making his screen debut at the tender age of 19. Director Lloyd Bacon had a career that began with the silents in 1925 and ended with a cerebral hemorrhage on November 15, 1955. Averaging 1 to 2 movies a year (or more, before talkies), Bacon was a competent studio system streamliner who, while never innovative in nature, always directed his films in a fluidly competent if not somewhat mundane style. This film is no exception. Among Bacon’s last films before he died was the 1953 3-D curiosity The French Line (trailer), a typical musical of the time starring Jane Russell and her bust.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Species II (USA, 1998)

Back in 1995, Natasha Henstridge, onetime trailer-park trash turned successful international model, made a less than auspicious film debut in Species (1995 / trailer), a Hollywood rip-off of Alien (1979) on earth with a name cast. Henstridge was cast as an alien out to fuck in a film that was low on logic, tension or any technical or structural aspect that might have made it good. Of course, the film ended in such a way that a sequel was virtually guaranteed, providing the flick was a success.
Well, it was a success and three years later Species II splattered across the screen. And, oddly enough, the sequel was even directed by a talented veteran, Peter Medak, the man behind such truly good films as the anti-establishment comedy The Ruling Class (1972 / trailer), the traditional ghost movie The Changeling (1980 / trailer), the artsy gangland drama The Krays (1990 / trailer) and the twisted corrupt cop film Romeo Is Bleeding (1993 / trailer). But, on the other hand, Medek also made Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981 / trailer) and directed episodes of Space:1999, Hart to Hart and The Beauty and the Beast, so somewhere beneath his talent must also lie a certain hack sensibility.
In Species II, his hack sensibility explodes with a fury matched only by that of the scriptwriter. Everything lacking in Species is completely missing here, replaced by even more naked tits and sex and gore and topped off with a total lack of continuity. Species II has absolutely no redeeming values and follows the basic porno film structure of dialogue to action to dialogue to action for a full 93 minutes of minimal plot. The plot? Well, nasty aliens want to fuck, basically, and if mankind doesn't stop them, they'll fuck us out of existence. And, oddly enough, like the average fuck-fest film populated by good-looking babes, Species II is pretty god-damned entertaining. (For all the hot-looking naked flesh that undulates, you ain't gonna get no hard-on, however, unless you are one sick motherfucker.) 
Okay, you can't help but laugh at the holes in the story and gaps in the continuity and logic, but the non-stop tits are fabulous and the gore and special effects extreme. Species II has taken a lot of flak for being as bad as it is, but give it another ten or twenty years and people will be as fond of it as they are of the original Humanoids of the Deep (1980 / trailer), which obviously is the inspiration for the numerous exploding tummies in Medak's big budget sleaze-fest. The only thing truly surprising is that the filmmakers go so far with the nekkid skin, but then still can't bring themselves to show a single naked man frontal.
Species II does not take off where the first film left off, and chooses to ignore the fact that going by the first film there should be rat-alien-human mutants all over the world. Instead, the movie opens with a really cheesy, fake-looking mission to mars intro in which Martian soil ends up actually being alien DNA and infects the capsule's unknowing occupants. Back on earth, no sooner does the first male astronaut (Justin Lazard) wet his willy and deposit his fertile load than does the babe's belly bloat up like a starving Somalian and out pops an alien kid. For the rest of the film Mr Fertility goes around searching for healthy snatch and, aside from those we see, must pop a good two dozen bellies going by the number of little kids he has hidden in his barn. The female astronaut, played by Myriam Cyr, the gal with eyes for nipples in Ken Russell's mildly diverting Gothic (1986 / trailer), is less lucky. When she finally gets her clit tickled, it's her belly that bloats and pops, shooting forth some sort monstrous alien slime tongue that kills her husband.  
Oddly enough, while the alien itself is un-killable, the various slime-protrusions are easy enough to kill by simple shooting. Likewise, though the alien's blood is capable of transforming into lethal organic projectories, when the projectories get killed and their blood spurts everywhere, they stay dead. Makes about as much sense as Michael Madsen running around with a gun when everyone knows bullets can't stop the roving alien prick anyway. 
But then, as was already said, Species II makes little sense – anyways, the filmmakers were obviously not even interested in the concept of logic or anything else that might have helped make the film good. Of course, it is indeed this low, base attitude, this total lack of anything redeeming that saves the film and makes Species II enjoyable. Watch, ogle at the tits, gross out over the gore, laugh at the stupidity of it all and try not to think about how many really good films Ed Wood could have made with this film's budget.

Per un pugno di dollari (Italy, 1964)

"Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one to there to help. Now get moving."

(Trailer.) Per un pugno di dollari—better known to the less linguistically inclined as A Fistful of Dollars—is the second credited directorial credit of the then 34-year-old Sergio Leone, a man who became known as the Godfather of Spaghetti Westerns. His first solo credit was the mildly entertaining "sandal film" Il colosso di Rodi / The Colossus of Rhodes (trailer) staring Rory Calhoun, a 1961 film which was described by one IMDB commenter as a film "rife with scantily clad men whose rippling muscles and impeccable abs are fully exposed while they wrestle with each other or undergo whippings, torture, and bondage."
Whatever The Colossus of Rhodes may be, it is hardly a genre highlight and gives little indication what Leone would achieve a few years later with this western—namely, launch the lasting and noteworthy careers of a formerly relatively unknown composer (Ennio Morricone), a second-tier television actor (Clint Eastwood) and an unknown movie director (himself) as well as reinvigorate (if not set the standard for) the modern Western. Not that everyone was of that opinion when the film came out. Time magazine, for example, forever in touch with the heartbeat of America, dismissed the film with the following: "Like the villains, the picture was shot in Spain. Pity it wasn't buried there."
A Fistful of Dollars is often credited as the first Spaghetti Western, but for all the things the film is, that it is not. Untold Westerns had been being made in Italy (or as Italian productions and/or co-productions) for years, but most had followed the tried and true formulas of the classic American Western. Some, like Harold Reinl’s Karl May adaptations such as Der Schatz im Silbersee / Treasure of Silver Lake (1961/trailer) or Winnetou Teil 1 / Apache Gold (1963), were more child-friendly and traditional, while others, such as Sergio Corbucci's Massacro al Grande Canyon / Massacre at Grand Canyon (1964) were more stylistically searching, but none of them were something to write home about. With A Fistful of Dollars, however, the European Spaghetti Western finally rediscovered the genre and made something new—not that this is obvious now, some 40-plus years later, when every innovative aspect introduced in A Fistful of Dollars (and so many other equally noteworthy Euro-Westerns that followed) has long since been re-appropriated back into the American Western.
(A small aside about the term "Spaghetti Western": while universally acknowledged and recognized, most Italian Westerns were actually international productions that pulled in talent and money from around Europe and, often, tossed in an American “star” or two for the US audience. They were as likely to be filmed in Yugoslavia as Spain or Italy, with a director from any given Western European land. For all the Italians involved in A Fistful of Dollars, for example, the cast also included Germans (Marianne Koch as Marisol, Wolfgang Lukschy as John Baxter), Austrians (Sieghardt Rupp as Esteban Rojo and Joseph Egger as Piripero) and Spaniards (José Calvo as Silvanito and Margarita Lozano as Consuelo Baxter). Furthermore, the film was a coproduction of Constatin-Film, a German production firm that is still highly (and internationally) active today. In that sense, Euro-western would probably be a more exact description, although it sorely lacks the unforgettable punch of the originally derogatory term "Spaghetti Western". Be what it may, with A Fistful of Dollars, the "Spaghetti Western" finally took on the shape and form for which the genre is known.)
The seed for A Fistful of Dollars first germinated at the 1961 Biennale in Venice where Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (trailer) won the Volpi Cup. Yojimbo, an international critical success, told the story of a wandering samurai of questionable morality that comes into a town ruled by two equally evil rival clans and proceeds to play the clans against each other until only one man is left standing: Yojimbo. Seduced by the simplicity and effectiveness of the story, Leone simply transplanted the plot into a Western setting (for a film originally entitled Texas-Joe, il magnifico straniero), an action for which he was later taken to court for plagiarism. (The settlement saw the makers of the Japanese film getting both credit and residuals from the western—rumor has it that in the long run they have actually earned more from A Fistful of Dollars than Yojimbo. Indeed, do you anyone who has ever seen Yojimbo?)
It is almost ironic that Leone got problems for plagiarizing the story, seeing that the Japanese film itself lifts its plot completely from Red Harvest, one of Dashiell Hammett's early and most violently uncompromising (and unjustly overlooked) novels, a tale about a "Continental Operative" who arrives in a small mining town ruled by rival gangs and then proceeds to set the one against the other (and who, at one point in the story, no longer knows for sure whether or not he might also have possible committed murder).
And the story of A Fistful of Dollars really isn’t all that different. Shortly after the American Civil War, an unnamed stranger (Clint Eastwood) arrives at the border town of San Miquel, a town ruled by two feuding clans, the Roccos and the Baxters, where only the undertaker seems to earn an honest living. (Called "Joe" by the undertaker Piripero, the unnamed stranger never does offer anyone his real name, and thus the legendary character of "The Man with No Name" is born.) His nebulous character is quickly established in an opening scene during which he does nothing when a drunken gunman takes potshots at a child—a scene (one of many) far removed from any seen in the romanticized US Westerns. Following an unwelcoming reception from some of the Baxter's men, he learns the situation of the terrorized and torn town from Silvantino (José Calvo), the owner of the town’s deserted saloon. "Joe" quickly realizes that with the Baxters over there, the Rojos there, and him "right smack in the middle […] there's money to be made in these parts." Establishing his credentials, so to say, by putting the four men who gave him the unfriendly welcome under the ground, Joe begins to cleverly play the warring and equally evil factions against each other as he fills his pocket with blood money. That he himself is not a man totally lacking in positive aspects he reveals at the turning point of the film when he helps Marisol escape from the imprisonment of the Roccos and returns her to her husband and son so they can flee together across the border. His duplicity discovered by Ramone Rocco (Gian Maria Volontè), he is beaten almost to death but manages, with the help of the undertaker, to escape town even as the Roccos, who assume he has taken sanctuary with the rival family, obliterate the Baxters. Recuperating in a nearby deserted mine, he finally confronts the Roccos for a last showdown when they capture and torture Sivantino...
A Fistful of Dollars is the first but not necessarily best of what was to become known as Leone's Dollars Trilogy, the series of three films he made with Clint Eastwood which includes the later films Per qualche dollaro in più / For A Few Dollars More (1965/trailer) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo / The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966/trailer). But even if A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of Leone’s Westerns, it is nonetheless a masterpiece of the genre and as such essential viewing for (not just) Western fans. Leone takes full advantage of all the possibilities offered widescreen both in long shots and close-ups, and as a result the film (like all his films) is sorely emasculated by the pan and scan transfer used to make films fit the traditional television screen. His staging and blocking of scenes may be common now, but in 1964 they were both radical and iconoclastic, as was his for the time relative lack of qualms regarding violent situations and blood (much of which is cut from the prints that sometime turn up on television). In 1975, when the film was first screened on US television, ABC pulled in cult director Monte Hellman to shoot an uncredited and pointless prologue to establish some background to the Clint Eastwood character, but the prologue is totally irrelevant and unnecessary, and had it not been directed by Monte Hellman it would probably be forgotten today.
Without a doubt, A Fistful of Dollars should be watched in the form in which it was originally made; anything else is a visual crime.... but even in a criminal version, the film still packs a punch and beats any US Western of the time.
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