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Grapes of Death (1978)

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Oh, Jean Rollin… What does it even mean when I say that this is probably my favorite Rollin film? As with his contemporaries Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco, you don’t go into a Rollin film expecting excellence – you expect abstract, face-melting sleaze! If you are like me, you will struggle through vast fields of mediocrity from these directors in search of those few glorious moments of utter, mind-blowing transgression. But does Grapes of Death deliver? Cheesy, creative gore? Check! An endless parade of impressively-endowed nekkid wimmin? But of course!

Make no mistake, the camerawork is often impressive, utilizing natural light to the fullest. There is a series of amazing tableau shots and beautiful, surreal tracking sequences through the ruined French countryside. There are even a couple sincere shivers, such as the reverberating scream of a blind girl, Lucy, being dragged off to her death. But let me be honest – the real thrills are to be found in the utterly bizarre shock centerpieces! Sure, it’s a little creepy when Lucy’s screams echo through the burning French village; but get ready to drop a fucking load in your pants when she is subsequently crucified nude to a chateau door and decapitated by her boyfriend while he moans, “Luuuucy! I looooove you!” Then he makes out with the severed head. With tongue. Oh! Jean Rollin!

In the abstract, Grapes of Death is interesting if only because it holds the distinction of being the first French zombie film. Granted, I only know of one other French zombie movie, 2004’s They Came Back, but to me it’s fascinating that a film as epically weird as Grapes of Death came out the same year as Romero’s sublime Dawn of the Dead, the standard-bearer for this tiny, beloved sub-genre. True, Rollin’s antagonists seem more like really depressed people with leprosy than zombies, and there is no great philosophical or sociological corollary on display, but there are some fantastic set pieces that will certainly please the zombie aficionado in your life.

[rating:6]

Doomsday (2008)

Friday, March 14th, 2008

In John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York, a military-type badass with an eyepatch infiltrates a quarantined area on a political mission for a government he doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) trust. In Neil Marshall’s new picture Doomsday, a military-type badass with an eyepatch infiltrates a quarantined area on a political mission for a government she doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) trust. Throw in a healthy dash of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, a little 28 Days Later, and a weird curveball’s worth of Gladiator, and Marshall has created a monster – an amalgamation of other people’s genre triumphs (well, roll with me on Thunderdome) that somehow manages to be lumbering, dumb, and ready to throw a little girl into a lake.

The kicker of it is, Marshall is (was? will be again?) a fantastic director – I feel comfortable calling his first feature, Dog Soldiers, one of the best werewolf films of all time, and his 2005 picture The Descent is without question the best British (if not flat out best) horror film of the new millennium. But Doomsday is so unforgivably bad that, try though I might have to enjoy it, I couldn’t help but be crushed under the weight of its ample absurdity – and this is coming from me, whose academic focus is firmly rooted in exploitative trash.

It’s clear that Marshall is shooting for a Carpenter-style pulp-actioner, but he makes the fatal mistake of playing it utterly straight. Whereas Carpenter’s Escape movies, or for that matter They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, deliver serial-style thrills with a generous side-order of nudges and winks, Doomsday shambles on humorlessly, destroying what could have been enjoyable scenes with grim determination. And for a movie this insane, a movie that asks so much from its audience, levity should be essential.

Doomsday doesn’t just jump the shark. It jumps the shark, then finds the shark’s mom and fucks her up the ass for half an hour. In a film full of silly mini-premises that run from clever to barely-tolerable, you will eventually experience what will henceforth be known as The Twist, capital letters, a “surprise” so fucking unbearably stupid that it defies all defense. It is not an overstatement to suggest that I was desperate for this movie to end.

Right before we hit The Twist, Adrian Lester (whom I resolve to still like despite his role in this catastrophe) prophetically throws his hands up and says, “Fuck it!” I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the film’s motto, if it was embroidered on the wrap jackets of the cast and crew. If you want to see what Marshall can do, pick up The Descent and prepare to be blown away; should you find yourself eyeing Doomsday, even out of sheer curiosity, I urge you to follow Lester’s example, and fuck it.

[rating:2]

Drunken Master (1978)

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I’m a Jackie Chan junkie, and so it was a pleasure to watch Drunken Master, the film that catapulted Jackie to stardom when it was released in Hong Kong in 1978. It takes the familiar martial arts story of Wong Fei Hung (a role also played by Jet Li during his early career in the Once Upon a Time in China movies) and turns it on its ear, making Wong a big fucking jackass who likes stealing food and groping women. It’s a pretty typical HK screwball comedy high concept, albeit translated onto a very atypical historical figure!

Druken Master definitely suffers from a weak first act, although there are some excellent fight sequences as the story develops. Even at this early stage in his career, you can see Jackie’s trademark, lyrically-choreographed kung fu and stuntwork taking shape. There are also some sincere, huge laughs, mostly once then-66-year-old Simon Yuen takes to the screen as Jackie’s titular drunken mentor. This was one of Yuen’s last roles, and you’ll have a hard time believing some of the acrobatic stunts he pulls off in his advanced years, although there are a few noticeable uses of a body double.

Like most fight films of the period, the plot is mostly an excuse to usher in the next kung fu exhibition. Thankfully the fighting is uniformly excellent (as well as the comedic training sequences, which show off Chan’s admirable physique), particularly the final battle, where Chan seamlessly utilizes eight different forms of drunken kung-fu to dispatch his foe. Of particular note is that this is also one of the few chances you will have to see Jackie consistently get the shit kicked out of him. His stunt falls are truly inspirational, with more spins and somersaults than you can imagine.

Though not one of my favorites, Drunken Master offers a welcome look at Jackie’s early development, featuring some great laughs and just about the most kung-fu per minute of any martial arts film you’ll ever watch! If you really want to get into the spirit, have some drinks handy for your screening; in the immortal words of Simon Yuen, “Power and wealth are to no avail – let only our drinking prevail!”

[rating:7]

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Monday, March 10th, 2008

It’s not my intention to be throwing around high-star ratings willy-nilly so early in our endeavor, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize what I believe are the best movies out there simply because I have this nagging feeling that there is some kind of predetermined allowance of nigh-perfect films that I can’t exceed. And so we come to The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s otherwordly epic of the Vietnam War.

Early on in The Deer Hunter, Mike (Robert DeNiro) uses a bullet as part of an object lesson. “This is this,” he says. “This is not something else. This is this.” He’s setting up the major theme of the picture’s first act, the idea of immutability and America, about the steel mill and its community and its vision of the war as a microcosm of American thought. A is A – why question; why change?

Indeed, the film is so powerful precisely because it thoroughly demolishes this well-developed superstructure. Russian roulette may be a metaphor for the arbitrariness of war, but moreover it demolishes free will, it demolishes immutability. The certainties of blue-collar thought and immigrant struggle are revealed as defense mechanisms against a country that is openly hostile to both; God is erased from the sky, from the minds of the characters and hearts of the audience. The holy trinity of the departing soldiers is torn asunder by torture and glued together again by three tiny bullets, all symbols erased and replaced with the random and tangible. The soldiers are inexorably drawn to the game of roulette again and again, because any immutable judgements about character or religion or the nature of a bullet are dwarfed by this last true certainty, the inevitability of death.

In the final, heart-breaking tableau, the cast mourns the death of their America as much as their friend. Americans, here and now, may have lost the ability to create another film of this caliber without reaping scorn or apathy. We seem content to leave it to our forebearers (and our forebearers’ art) to answer our most difficult questions about patriotism.

[rating: 9]

Debbie Does Dallas (1978)

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Debbie Does Dallas is one of those much-talked about porn classics that few people have actually taken the time to see. For my part, I’ve seen it about eight times over the course of the past decade and used it as a teaching tool. I’ve watched two different modern remakes and I even took in the off-Broadway musical version during my first year in the Big Apple. Theoretically, I should be the biggest Debbie fan in the world! But in the final analysis, its originality notwithstanding, it’s a difficult picture to recommend outside the context of its obvious historical importance.

And Debbie Does Dallas is definitely an important work. It may features all the hallmarks of early porn: a straightforward narrative story, unremarkable-looking actors, a funky if erratic original score and lots of hair; but what we may perceive as a relative lack of sophistication today was unique and groundbreaking in 1978. Debbie is arguably the first modern teen sex comedy, the progenitor of that storied genre, from Porky’s to American Pie. In fact, it is so liberally cribbed from within this genre that it begs the question: why haven’t more people seen it?

Honestly, because it hasn’t stood the test of time; to be fair, almost no films from the dawn of porn have. The producers of early theatrical releases of this nature could not possibly have predicted the omnipresence of pornography in modern culture. At the touch of a button, we can experience a vast array of unimaginable sexual activities; the curve of filth trends ever upwards – nothing stays shocking for long. Narrative porn has gone the way of the dodo – its power to titillate long ago surpassed its ability to entertain. And in this world of infinite sexual possibilities, no one wants to watch the same porn they watched last week, much less an awkward, half-funny mess made thirty years ago.

These days, Debbie is a museum piece, ancient history; she got old, and though we’re all content to examine her legacy, no one wants to watch her fuck anymore.

[rating: 4]

Days of Heaven (1978)

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

It seems difficult to write something new and exciting about a cinematic masterpiece that’s been studied and analyzed for thirty years, so you’ll excuse me if I abandon profundity in favor of enthusiasm. Days of Heaven is of course the second of Terrence Malick’s four film communiqu├ęs to the outside world, a beautiful stream-of-consciousness poem that many (myself included) consider his finest. The story may revolve around a love triangle between two farmhands and the farm’s wealthy owner, but I’d like to write about another important character: the land itself.

The farmhands may be caretakers of the land, but their attachment to and reliance on it is absolute; working, but also praying, reveling, sleeping. Time passes in erratic bursts, sounds moving in and out of the foreground, jockeying for position with Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score. Each painstaking edit is a reminder of the monolithic presence of nature and the tenuousness of man’s existence within it. Nature is overpowering, and not to be fucked with. Fuck not with the towering canyons or swaying fields of grain dwarfing humanity, nor with the multitudes of animals who tolerate the passing actions of man.

I tried to keep a tally of the staggering number of animals onscreen, from the first majestic appearance of the buffalo to the otherworldly swarm of locusts that indifferently destroys the farm’s fragile equilibrium. Otters, pheasants, horses, rabbits, frogs, deer, grasshoppers, ducks, wolves, fish, peacocks, seagulls, antelope, cranes, sheep – a never-ending parade of the voiceless who nevertheless form a phalanx of central characters.

And while the land is immutable, the owner’s house is always a distant and flimsy icon, a grim beacon of interiority amongst a people freed by their communion with the earth. It isn’t until halfway through the film that we see the first real interior shot, the human space that locks out the wild and shits on the rhythm of life and makes people suspicious, devious, murderous. Here the illusion of tamed nature is briefly perpetuated, nature viewed through milky glass or glimpsed in a picture book.

But the deception can’t last. Seeds sprout, fires cut a swath of destruction and renewal, a colossal forest crawls towards the sky. But for all its focus on natural law, I think Days of Heaven is still a profoundly human story, and one that resonates precisely because it operates within a humbling context: the entirety of existence.

[rating: 9]

The Medusa Touch (1978)

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

They certainly don’t make movies like Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch these days, and that’s a crying shame. It’s wickedly clever and features a host of excellent performances, including wonderful turns by Richard Burton as John Morlar, a dying writer who may possess the ability to kill with his mind, and Lino Ventura as the dapper French detective sent to discover who tried to murder him. It’s a picture that happily defies categorization, starting as a very mannered murder mystery and ending as a supernatural thriller.

The film plays with illusions of choice beautifully – or as Ventura puts it so eloquently as he passes a war memorial, “To build a cenotaph, first choose a million victims.” As Morlar descends into madness, he comes to see his own hand in every death and disaster the world over, and with increasing flippancy he dispatches the people that surround him. Does his choice, however wanton, eliminate or enforce the arbitrary nature of death? Indeed, when Morlar himself is confronted with death, the audience must ask whether or not they believe in his power, and if they do, is his attempted murder really his method of committing suicide?

Labyrinthine logic of this nature abounds, and for the most part the film stays on the rails. The dialogue is exceedingly clever and worth the price of admission all by itself. Burton is a whirlwind and naturally reaps the choice lines, although Ventura’s casual, confident style is the movie’s secret anchor. Morlar’s psychiatrist Zonfeld, played by Lee Remick, is definitely the weak link in what should be a solid trio of memorable performances, although the character’s linear trajectory could be more interesting than it appears at first glance – from the second she met Morlar, did she cede control of her actions to his will?

Not content to remain a pure psychodrama, the film also blithely juggles Freud, nuclear proliferation and a homosexual relationship for Ventura. With so many interesting themes and two such charming leads, the film suffers most from being as short as it is. But though some dangled threads are never pulled, there’s little to keep me from recommending The Medusa Touch to anyone looking for wit, class, and some devilish twists.

[rating: 7]

The Driver (1978)

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

It’s time to take a look at an early work by another writer-turned-director, Walter Hill. Hill is an icon, writing or co-writing the first three Alien movies and Peckinpah’s excellent heist pic The Getaway, in addition to helming perennial underground favorite The Warriors.

The Driver has developed quite the cult following amongst car-chase aficionados, and it’s easy to see why. There are three first-class chase sequences spaced evenly throughout the picture, and each one has its own stunt set-piece and funky internal logic. The best of the three is definitely the staged chase in which Ryan O’Neal, as the titular unnamed protagonist, shows his skills to a trio of potential clients by systematically destroying their car during a parking-garage psych-out. The chases are very composed and serene by today’s standards: the first is completely silent except for the persistent wailing of police sirens – wordless, no soundtrack – many cuts to O’Neal’s stoic face set in concentration but no glimpses of the pursuing officers, until it starts to seem like he’s being chased through Manhattan by a pack of eerie howling wild animals.

Outside the car, O’Neal does his best Steve McQueen impression and keeps his mouth shut, fitting right in with the film’s stark aesthetic. Hill’s vaguely noirish structural riffing is great fun an even half of the movie, and a little hard to swallow the rest of the time. The dialogue is as hard-boiled as it comes, and not always for the better – some lines clearly read better on paper. Bruce Dern hams it up as the detective bent on bringing O’Neal to justice, but his performance clashes with the overall tone, and I found myself impatient for the police-related interludes to end. The film locks into a tight groove in the last 30 minutes, but by that time the meandering stylistic inconsistencies almost kept me from jumping back in for the ride.

The Driver is an interesting, even charismatic little picture that always keeps a close orbit to its all-important chases. But it’s clear that at this point in Hill’s career he still had one foot in his screenwriting shoes and one in his directing shoes, trying to figure out how to walk a straight line without hopping on one leg.

[rating: 7]

I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

spit2.jpg

Precious few exploitation films retain the power to shock and disturb as decades pass and audience tolerance evolves, making Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, the great-grandma of the rape/revenge genre, all the more impressive. By turns reviled or sheepishly apologized-for, the time is well-past due for a reevaluation of this picture.

Grave’s dirty secret, of course, is that it is neither as bad as one would expect from the genre in terms of artistry, nor as unrelentingly horrifying as the sensationalistic title or poster would suggest. Zarchi is no genius, but he’s smart enough to build tension slowly and let more innocuous scenes linger unnervingly long, keeping the viewer off balance by interrupting any natural cadence. The lengthy spaces surrounding the film’s more acute atrocities ramp up the panic-inducing quotient considerably.

The gang rape is truly distasteful, and in a genre practically devised to portray rape as titillating, Grave is notable for being deliberately and monumentally uncomfortable. I find it interesting that none of the scenes of sexual violence are as protracted as the “foreplay rape” scenes, those scenes of harassment and dehumanization that precede the act of physical violation. The short, sharp shocks never last long enough to blunt their edges; this is mettle-testing material.

Despite an enjoyably epic castration scene (complete with operatic score), the revenge portion of the picture is more uneven and sports an utterly weird aquatic denouement. Part of my ambivalence towards this second act stems no doubt from my fundamental problem with the rape/revenge genre’s structure. The murderous retribution of the survivor, The Revenge, has always struck me as a particularly male-oriented brand of feminist wish-fulfillment. Are the emotions of any survivor as simple as homicidal rage? An eye for an eye can make for a superficially satisfied audience, but can this ultimately reductive view truly satisfy after such a harrowing and thought-provoking first act?

[rating:7]