Violence! Hilarity! Violence, again! Breathers on the phone! What the hell is going on here? That’s right: it’s “America during the war.” Vietnam War. But let’s face it; America has been enamored with violence since our cursory inception. This here tale just happens to take place in the late 60s/early 70s.
Alfred is a self-ascribed "apathist." He doesn’t care either way about, well, everything. As long as he can take his photographs, there are no problems. Constantly tormented and accosted by Manhattan street thugs for apparently no reason, he idly complies and daydreams his way through the relentless beatings until his assailants wear themselves out. Along comes Patsy. Witnessing one of Al’s beatings from her apartment window, she heads down the elevator to help him out. Alfred slyly walks away amongst the compounding brouhaha as if nothing has happened and continues snapping his pics with self-satisfying glee. Patsy is appalled. Shocked. “What kind of a man are you?!” she indignantly exclaims. Well one thing leads to another and they’re off dating. Imbibing in the standard bourgeois dating procedures of the time - golf, tennis, ‘a day at the lake’ - Alfred remains apathetic, content with verbal gestures such as “I really think I could trust you.” Violence? Hang on...Continue Reading
Meet the Feebles
One summer night in 1996 I was out with a group of friends who ended up at Chicago’s Brew & View movie theater/bar in the Lakeview neighborhood to see something called Meet the Feebles. All I knew about it was from my friend Joe who said that it was supposed to be crazy and involved puppets. I’m not big into degenerate spectacles involving puppets, in theory, but what I saw that night changed my life. It was so incredibly disgusting, yet so powerful, that it took my breath away. A backstage melodrama like nothing I had ever witnessed, I finally had to lie down on the sticky floor of the theater because passions writ so large and impossible on the screen were overwhelming me to the point of exhaustion and I had never been subjected to something so simultaneously powerful and gross in my life.
Meet the Feebles is a film with so many illustrious qualities I’m not sure I’ve even discovered them all. It’s a movie about the corruption of show biz life as embodied by the Feebles, a British Muppets-esque variety show troupe with some really horrific and yet remarkably relatable problems. The film manages to address drug abuse, sexually transmitted disease, the parasitic nature of the entertainment press, the naiveté of young performers just aching to be given a chance, and a lot of incredibly depraved stuff that should probably never have been filmed. And all with a cast of puppets!Continue Reading
Like all great cities no one film best sums up Los Angeles. The city is too fractured, the personal narratives of its citizenry too outlandishly varied, for any one film to seize on everything. But if you want a sense of what the city can do to a person – a starry-eyed, beautiful, blonde, female person with dreams of Hollywood – this is probably the most artful and poignant one you could find. On one level it’s a mysterious love story involving a sparkling ingenue from “Deep River, Ontario” (I have no idea if such a place exists) and a gorgeous brunette with a head injury who doesn’t know who she is or how she got to the ingenue’s apartment (technically her aunt’s apartment). They meet awkwardly but soon become each other’s trusted confidante. The possibilities of a new romance and the thrill of being in the most magical slash sinister city on Earth, new to them both (since one is an amnesiac), set us up for a strange, hypnotic love story. But this is David Lynch’s movie and things get really dark really quickly.
A film director (played by Justin Theroux) with a wife who cheats on him (with Billy Ray Cyrus, in fact) has his Hollywood career ruined in a day by nefarious forces he doesn’t understand. Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita’s (Laura Harring) relationship, at first so full of the giddy, dangerous thrill of a new romance, turns into something obsessive and horrifying as the characters mutate into different people, or different versions of the same people. The ingenue becomes a frightening, jaded shell of who she was. The mysterious brunette becomes a cold, calculating, and manipulative trophy wife (at least I think that’s what happens).Continue Reading
Over The Edge
It's exciting knowing that once upon a time the music of Cheap Trick inspired chaos and teen violence. With the Vietnam War over and lost, Nixon out of the White House and Disco past its apex, what was left to rebel against? In the case of these pot smokin' rock'n & rollin juvenal delinquents it's the closing of the local rec center that gets their panties in a wad. Over The Edge is an amazing relic from 1979, like its East-Coast cousin from the same year, The Warriors, it perfectly captures its period and its only-in-America geography. Instead of the ethnically diverse landscape of the street gang classic this one is an all-white, pre-Spielberg suburban West Coast sprawl, when kids were either jocks or burnouts, but all could agree that school sucked, parents are hypocrites, and cops are fascists. I bet the designers of Dazed And Confused took a look at this film's style. Also it's been said that it inspired Kurt Cobain's teen rebellion opus "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
It also mark the debut for Matt Dillon who would reign over filmdom as the king of mumbling teen rebellion for the next decade. What a run he would have. He followed Over The Edge with the summer camp virginity-losing caper, Little Darlings (still not available on DVD and out of print on VHS). He then would play Moody, the ultimate high school bully, in My Bodyguard. And then he would win the James Dean wannabe sweepstakes in the SE Hinton misunderstood teen trifecta of Tex, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish (the later two would mark the end of Francis Ford Coppola as an important filmmaker). Of course in recent years Dillon can be found mugging his way through such dribble as Herbie Fully Loaded (oh, how lucky James Dean was to die young).Continue Reading
Returning from nearly a decade of making films in Europe, Anthony Perkins stars as Dennis Pitt, a mysterious young man with a history of being emotionally disturbed. Like many character actors who had such iconic roles as Perkins (see Psycho), it’s hard to imagine him as anyone else. But in retrospect it is easier to see him as the great talent that he was. Simultaneously charming, terrifying, and maniacal. A slapstick master to boot.
Dennis’s parole officer, Azenauer (the late John Randolph), sets the cautionary tone in the first 5 minutes with his predictive warning to Dennis: ”You’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place for fantasies.” Not only warning Dennis but we, the audience too. There is a lot of misconception and confusion thrown our way over the next 90 minutes. Dennis settles into a New England industrial town where he meets Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld). Its rural Massachusetts locale isolates it from the tumultuous atmosphere of city life during the 1960s. Essentially in a bubble, this film could’ve been made anywhere, in any time, and I think that’s the real strength of the story.Continue Reading
The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."
Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.Continue Reading
There are multiple attitudes through which one can examine the film Radio On. It’s another example of the phenomenon of a film critic becoming a director. Christopher Petit was the editor for the film section of Time Out London from 1973 to 1978, and though he never achieved the notoriety of the Nouvelle Vague directors who once wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, his film career has turned out far better then Roger Ebert (who penned the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or Susan Sontag (who lost some of her critical credibility for the ill received Duet for Cannibals). Radio On is also a unique British-German coproduction, written and directed by an Englishman, but produced and shot by two Germans, Wim Wenders and Wenders’ ubiquitous cameraman Martin SchÃ¤ffer. The art direction of the film is best compared to David Bowie’s album cover for Low, no coincidence considering Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden” is the song that starts the film. Actually, Radio On might one day be added to the list of films that will be better remembered for their soundtrack’s significance than the film’s cinematic merit. The film makes prominent use of hipster favorites like Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, and Devo, and includes a cameo from Sting in one of his first roles. Now Sting is not a hipster favorite, and probably never will be after boasting of his tantric exploits to multiple media outlets while promoting his adult contemporary hit “Desert Rose” in a slick Jaguar commercial. That doesn’t mean that we should forget Sting is a gifted actor, his performance in Brimstone & Treacle being a particular favorite.
It’s perfunctory to synopsize the plot in any film review, but here it seems somewhat irrelevant. A factory DJ drives to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, but the plot is only a pretext for long periods of listening to the radio broadcasting the hip music and chaotic news reports of Northern Ireland bloodshed and conservative outrage that prevailed in Thatcherite England, as well as to look out the window at the excellently photographed landscapes. Once the DJ arrives in Bristol he becomes distracted by a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) looking for her five-year-old daughter, Alice. This is a clumsy attempt by Wenders to expand the narrative of one of his own characters from his 1974 film Alice in the Cities, where Kreuzer plays a woman who abandons her daughter nine-year-old daughter of the same name. Wenders tries to create an impromptu prequel and belatedly illuminate the viewers of his previous film that Alice’s mother had once traveled to England to search for the child she would subsequently abandon. Considering Radio On is so sensitive to the politics and music of the decade it occupies, it was unwise of Wenders to ignore the glaring asynchronicity of Alice being five in 1980 and nine in 1974.Continue Reading
Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).Continue Reading
Alejandro Jodorowsky. The name is familiar among cult fanatics, and to some, is one that requires forgiving. Film critics over the years have regarded him as a has-been for the most part, looking only to his most popular works, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as his redeeming accomplishments. His filmography, while considerably short, is oddly consistent in a strange way. Fando and Lis is fairly well liked, and for a surrealist working very little well-past middle age, having at least a few adored films is something to be proud of. Besides Tusk and Rainbow Thief (both regarded as disasters), Santa Sangre remained his most inaccessible film; I'm sure diehard fans remember their efforts to hunt down bootlegs and imports of these works. For the first time in a very long time, Santa Sangre has been given a formal U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray, though it was a bit of a letdown to hear that the rumor of a Criterion release was untrue.
The movie has an enthralling background and was made almost two decades after Holy Mountain. It is thought to be his one and only horror film and was produced by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento. I should add, with no disrespect to Argento fans, that the imagery and use of color in this film far surpasses any Italian horror film to date. The going rumor is that Jodorowsky was inspired to direct the film after meeting a serial killer in real life. So, mixing that with the lack of limitations from an uptight producer, Jodorowsky created a movie that was truly more unique than his others, which also stars his sons and shares similarities with what are thought to be his best works.Continue Reading
Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.Continue Reading