Monday, February 25, 2008

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

* The guy movie to end all guy movies: A bunch of misfit, mean-eyed macho motherfuckers band together to blow the fuck out of the Nazis... THEIR way. As the soldiers grunt and sweat and bond under the sternly watchful eye of their maverick leader (a template that would fuel many films in the wake of this box-office smash), the testosterone practically oozes through the screen. I think my otherwise smooth-n-clammy self sprouted some chest hair while watching this.

* Manliness extends to the accidentally-iconic casting. A cast that includes Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, John Casavettes, Jim Brown and Lee fucking Marvin is bound to have a certain red-meat contingent to it, but it's kind of stunning to realize that this wasn't on purpose -- aside from Marvin, none of these guys had hit stardom. Live-wire Casavettes the clear frosh standout here (no wonder he was the only cast member nominated for an Oscar), though Donald Sutherland also gets a great starmaker of a scene ("Neeeever heard of it.") and Bronson shows off to great effect the steel-eyed minimalism that would define his career.

* Robert Aldrich was the right guy for the job here. His tough, gritty sensibilities serve well in both the training scenes and the action scenes, and he knows the specifics of male camaraderie in and out (as evidenced not only here but in some of his other works, e.g. Big Leaguer). He's jaundiced enough, though, to keep this from becoming a hawkfest. Pro-war feel is inevitable, but Aldrich doesn't lose sight of the irony in that these army rejects, these rapists and murderers, are the most competent soldiers in the film.

* There's a certain amount of narrative choppiness, especially during the war-game sequence, that could either be an unusual amount of trust in the audience's ability to fill in blanks or just lax storytelling. I'd like to think it's the former while suspecting it's the latter.

* Submission of the individual to the collective gets an elegant literal representation in the assignation of numbers to the Dozen and their subsequent identification by those numbers alone, only getting their true names back after the mission is completed. Because of the nature of the mission, this results in a few people being re-named posthumously. Such is war.

Grade: B

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Contempt (1963)

* Spoken opening credits mark this right off as a big-budget film without the feel of a big-budget film; the Andre Bazin quote (wrongly attributed, according to Rosenbaum) clinches it. Jean-Luc Godard got the money and the producer interference that comes with major-market filmmaking, but he still held fast to his sense of pranksterism and his talent for subversion. Thus, we have a film that trips itself up whenever it can.

* Godard famously has Fritz Lang say that CinemaScope is not useful for people, only for "snakes and funerals." He then throws that out the window by giving us one stunning 'Scope composition after another. The central setpiece, with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli arguing in their apartment, is particularly stunning -- a rapturous study of spatial relations, with the movements of the actors and the constant panning of the camera across rooms and through walls literalizing the affection/rejection verbal dance that is happening in front of us.

* If Godard's subversive nature works on a visual level, though, it doesn't work at all on a storytelling level. We're deliberately not given an identification figure, just a bunch of types who range from morally compromised (Piccoli) to out-and-out rotten (Jack Palance as a dumb, venal producer). Furthermore, there's nothing that can be done with Bardot -- she's not an actress, she's a clothes hanger with eyes. The only character even remotely sympathetic/interesting is Lang, and he's here solely for his status as Fritz Lang. So a man's marriage falls apart, his career fizzles, his ideals get sold out and there's no reason to feel any way about it beyond a shrug. You can lead a man to cinema, but you can't force him to give a crap.

* I admit part of my antipathy towards this is driven by my dislike of films centered around squabbling married couples. Even Scenes from a Marriage, which I like overall, lost my interest when the hostility between Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman went from unspoken to overt.

* Maybe in a way, this film was always destined to destroy itself. I mean, it's right there in the title: Contempt made this film, drove it, formed it into the interesting but unsatisfying work-of-many-colors that it is. It's said in the film, "We must rebel when trapped by circumstances," and that seems to be what Godard did here.

Grade: C+
Olga's House of Shame (1964)

* Pretty much more of the same as White Slaves of Chinatown, the first entry in the Olga series, except even more ridonkulously fun. Tonally matter-of-fact yet overwrought narration and general seediness make this feel less like a typical exploitation film and more like some maniacal off-world mondo flick. (Example: The narrator refers to narcotics as "this human misery!")

* Unlike White Slaves, this has a couple of synch-sound dialogue scenes. These scenes really don't mesh with the rest of the film at all, mainly because the involved actors are better at projecting menace and/or fear than forming words. Still, it does allow us to bask in the awesomeness of W.B. Parker, who plays Olga's brother/henchman Nick; he's like the Joker mated with Paul Lynde and squeezed into corduroy pants.

* Starts with the barest of plots, something about Olga consolidating her underworld power in the prostitution/narcotics world by punishing the disobedient and crushing the competition but kicks into overdrive when it stops caring about telling a story and starts tossing the early-roughie action at the audience in great sticky gobs of sick. There's a 15-minute section in this film right past the half-hour mark where the only thing on screen is one in a procession of naked girls getting manhandled in some manner by Olga (electrocution, whipping, slapping, bondage, etc.). Director Joseph P. Mawra knows what you came here for, and he's more than happy to give it to you; quite a fair change of pace from the average grindhouse feature which stingily parcels out its saleable elements in between long stretches of dull dialogue.

* Obviously shot quickly and cheaply, House of Shame still manages to demonstrate that Mawra, despite his station in the industry, might have been a born filmmaker. His compositions are generally pretty sharp, and every now and then he'll do something (like the dominant-position shot of chief torture subject Elaine as seen from between Olga's legs) that hint that he's not just a point-and-shoot nobody. The cut from Olga masturbating to the jiggling breasts of a belly dancer: Best cut ever.

* It's not often you get to say this about two-buck sleaze cinema, but Audrey Campbell cuts a genuinely iconic figure as Olga. She exudes a hateful glee at her naughty, brutal acts that says more than any mess of dialogue could. Also, she gives pretty good haughty voiceover.

* Despite it all, this is still a pretty bad movie. But it's bad in a wonderful, mesmerizing kind of way. There are times when I can't tell if the goofiness was meant to be intentional (the narration seems too ludicrous to be true at times). Most memorably, there's a big chase scene that seems to be taking place in amber -- everyone's moving just a little too slow, as if they didn't really want to exert themselves too much. It's really kinda great.

* Hope you like "Night on Bald Mountain," because it gets played during this film. A lot.

Grade: B-

Monday, February 18, 2008

Crazed Fruit (1956)

* Japanese iteration of a youth/Beat film displays similar ideas about post-war aimlessness and malaise, with boredom being seen not as a condition but as a way of life. No surprise that said boredom and restlessness leads to delinquency, moral turpitude and other such shocking things (idle hands, ya know); what is surprising is the rich vein of humor that gets mined before the grim finale. (Great Moments in Dialogue: "Long hair doesn't go with Hawaiian shirts.")

* Plot centers around a love/lust triangle created when young, innocent Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) falls for sweet young thing Eri (Mie Kitahara), arousing the jealousy and competitive nature of his old brother Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara). Before things go south, director Kô Nakahira demonstrates his perfect understanding of the ways of adolescent love -- that horrid sense of being young, awkward and attracted.

* There's a scene where Haruji goes looking for Natsuhita, instead finding an older lady-friend of his. After a short dialogue scene, Natsuhita shows up, Later, he tells Haruji that although this lady-friend has been with many men with no feeling attached, Haruji "made her heart go pitter-pat." That there's some cruel foreshadowing.

* Nakihara's framing is really tight in a bunch of scenes, just a little too tight so that visual information gets crowded out of the frame. Faces are cut in half, conversations are one-sided, people reach for things offscreen; the prevailing sense is one of exuberance, of so much being expressed that it can't all fit in the space allotted for storytelling. Pretty nifty, methinks.

* Dark ending has a character in a boat literally leaving a wake after committing a brutal act of violence, a nice visual reminder that our actions do not occur in a vacuum.

* Recurring motif: Things in this film are often said to be happening, "the day after tomorrow." Is this the present-weary characters looking to the future or an admission that tomorrow will be just as fucked as today?

* First thought upon seeing female lead Kitahara: DUDE SHE'S ROCKING A MULLET

Grade: B

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rambo (2008)

* Not, to my surprise, the unintentionally funny fiasco expected from the adverts (especially the Interent red-band trailers); instead, Sylester Stallone's latest is mostly a decent, economically paced action film. Blood and thunder rule the day, but the hyperbolic violence meshes surprisingly well with the downcast, almost mournful tone that dominates the film's first two acts.

* Much in the vein of what I understand Rocky Balboa to be, this is in part an old man, maybe a bit past his prime, indulging himself in a bit of ambivalent nostalgia. Stallone is examining one of his iconic characters, trying to get down into him and find out what it means to be John Rambo, man of war without a country to call home. Coming from an actor who himself has to be feeling a bit displaced in the modern action-film landscape, I can't lie and say I wasn't a bit stirred by it all.

* Notable is the reconception of the lone-wolf Rambo. Here his solitude, his go-it-alone nature, has turned against him and made him an outcast from society. His isolation, in essence, strips him of his heroism. It's only through teaming up with the soldiers of fortune he escorts down the river that he can regain his place as American Crusader.

* Remember when the idea of Sylvester Stallone, director, conjured up shivers and frightening visions of Staying Alive? He's apparently improved a bit since then. Direction is tough, fast with just the right touch of chaos & shaky-cam. It's not awards-calibur, but it's pretty tight genre expertise. Every now and then, too, Stallone finds an unexpectedly poetic image, like the burning village reflected in the opaque glasses of the evil Burmese general.

* Major weakness is the depiction of the villainous Burmese armada. It's all well and proper to show their savagery; in particular, the gambit with the mines is pretty brilliant, establishing their loathsomeness without dialogue in the span of a couple of minutes. (It gets even better when Stallone shows it again and translates the dialogue this time, thus providing context to what's actually happening.) But true to his meat-and-potatoes origin in the good-evil dichotomy of the Reagan era, Stallone pushes too hard to make them less like humans and more like animals. The initmations of pederasty by the evil general are especially ill-advised, as they have no bearing on the plot and serve only to make the general more hissable and hateable. It's films like this that make me appreciate what Werner Herzog did in Rescue Dawn all the more.

* While Stallone shows a surprising facility for images, his dialogue is often clunky and forced. This is only exacerbated by the modestly talented cast of relative unknowns that populate the film. Some of these lines (I'm thinking in particular of anything that stumbles out of the mouth of Paul Schulze) come off as nigh well undeliverable.

* Action climax: holy shit. Pure vicious adrenaline, a stunning release of carnage after the slow boil of acts one and two. I was impressed the most by the way Rambo uses a long-dormant bomb, but the heralded jeep-gun massacre was also pretty jaw-dropping. Best of all, Stallone had the good sense to excise the instantly-notorious decapitation-by-fist that was featured in the red-band previews -- that would have tilted the film directly into camp.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Naked City (1948)

* Some films don't age well. This is one of 'em. Despite its status as a crime-drama classic, Jules Dassin's procedural is pretty awful.

* Even cutting the screenplay a lot of slack for presumably inventing many of the cliches it flogs, it's hard to believe that this was nominated for an Oscar back in its day. The super-explanatory voiceover narration, unnecessary as it is, goes a long way towards sinking this all on its lonesome. Write a book while you're at it, fellas.

* Clumsy dialogue isn't helped by stilted acting. It's like an entire cast filled with summer-stock rejects. Worst offenders: The "Midwest" parents of the dead girl. The impression I get is that of a flat-footed play that someone decided to film without really trying to make a movie out of it.

* Authenticity of locations is a big selling point here (this was mostly filmed on location in New York City), which makes it a shame that much of the film is confined to a series of rooms. And the NYC-street scenes end up looking like backlot photography anyway. So, ya know, big fucking whoop.

* Chase climax at the Williamsburg Bridge is pretty keen, pointing towards a confluence of location and action that the rest of the film wishes it was. It's about 80 minutes too late to save the film from itself, though.

* The same guy who made this made Rififi? Really? Damn.

Grade: D+
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

* Slow to get rolling, but once it does, damn. Debt to The Birds is pretty obvious, but there's something uniquely disquieting about a semi-redux that replaces the avian attackers with murderous children. Doesn't wimp out or shy away from the uglier aspects of its premise, either. This is one fucked-up film.

* The "slow to get rolling" part nearly lost me, though. The setup, with its husband/wife leads taking their sweet time getting to the island and then even more sweet time figuring out their predicament, is painfully dull. Major doses of pedohysteria, too. Won't SOMEBODY think of the children???

* Opening your horror film with seven minutes of genuine atrocity footage is a really, really concrete way to make the subsequent film feel frivolous.

* Turning point is the creepy piñata scene; the film eventually overcomes its handicaps through taut, assured direction by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, razor-sharp editing and its willingness to undermine its own previously mentioned pedohysteria. Essentially, the grimmer and more frantic the protagonists become, the better the film gets.

* I'm a bit confused on what happens to the wife near the film's end. But if it's what I think it is... oof.

Grade: B
Submission (1969)

* Look, I know the softcore-sex genre isn't the most impressive of genres. But there's one thing you have to do if you're going to inhabit it -- you've got to show us some good fuckin'. It's simple: Sex is exciting. Movie-watching is a safe form of voyeurism, and voyerism can be exciting. If you've made a film with no plot and lots of bare flesh, and somehow that bare flesh is unexciting, you're doing it wrong.

* I'm really not sure what happened in this film. We're given the thinnest skeleton of a narrative, per the usual, but I'm unclear as to what that narrative is. I think it involves a rude sadistic guy and his attempts to keep various chicks in a boarding house under his thumb. Then there is sex. And more sex. Then a scene with a couple of people standing around. Then more sex, and so on.

* As kinky as director Allen Savage tries to make his film (there's lesbianism, group sex, rape-fantasy sex and other stuff), he never quite tops the bizarre pull of the early scene where the Guy lords his power over some chick (his girlfriend, I presume) by throwing out her secret stash of chocolate bars.

* The musical score is really awful -- it's eerie minimalism better suited to a sci-fi or monster movie. This may be one big reason why the myriad sex scenes aren't sexy.

* One wan positive is the odd interesting shot or angle that floats through every so often like the shot of two post-coital lovers, legs still locked together, bodies splayed in opposite directions. I think the aim was to give this the high-class gloss of a Joe Sarno or Radley Metzger film, but the impression given is rather one of second-year art students slumming in a genre they despise. Still, it's something worthwhile, and we take what we can get around here.

Grade: D+
We're back in business, folks. Starting today, the writing will return. The format shift I promised? Well, I'm still short on time these days, so it's all about the bullet points. This way, I can at least get my thoughts out about the things I see without having to worry about whether or not I'm being coherent. I never am coherent anyway, so it's not like much will change.