Thursday, October 31, 2013

Midnight Madness #2- images

The Unholy (1988)- 80's schlock, but highly entertaining.

Haxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)- it's certainly no "Nosferatu".

Night of the Demons 2 (1989)- it's a sequel, and that's all one really needs to know.

The Nude Vampire (1975)- No Halloween would be complete without one Jean Rollin, but even this preposterous, Gallic mannered one is weak.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Midnight Madness #1

V/H/S 2

 Even despite the extreme gimmicky nature of this particular horror anthology, the "V/H/S" franchise so far has been very entertaining. Part 2 is no different.... as a young private detective and his girlfriend break into a house searching for a missing man and discover a cache of weird tapes.... in which they unduly watch. Gaps in logic aside- such as why would one VHS tape feature subtitles???- part 2 is better than the first, its highpoint being Gareth Evans long middle section entitled "Safe Haven". What happens in this episode, as a journalism crew explores the inner workings of a cult in Singapore, goes from terrifying to insane and then just bat shit insane. It's a brilliant, deplorable, jaw dropping exercise in first person mayhem. If nothing else, V/H/S 2 may be my new favorite perennial horror film just because of this section.

The Gorgon

Hammer horror film that matches Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as, basically, equal good guys for a change. In the village of Vandorf, people are dying and being turned to stone. There's talk of an evil entity stalking the nearby woods. Directed by the workmanlike Terence Fisher, "The Gorgon", like all the Hammer films, relies on atmosphere and blue/green mists to convey its sense of impending doom. This film has all that, and a Medusa-like demon. My unapologetic interest in the Medusa myth had me hooked at the beginning, but "The Gorgon" is also an old-fashioned treat.

Deadly Blessing

This 1981 slasher has a few things going for it: an early role for Sharon Stone, an early film by Wes Craven, and lots and lots of gooey, creepy crawling things to add an ick factor. Besides that, its story of Hittite (!) preacher Ernest Borgnine and the presence of young pretty girls in his supposed land is a rote effort. Although for someone like myself with an acute fear of spiders, this is probably the most terrifying film of the three!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Francesco Rosi Files: The Palermo Connection

By the time "The Palermo Connection" was released in 1990, Italian director Francesco Rosi was in a precarious state. His run of international political thrillers ("The Mattei Affair" and "Illustrious Cadavers") and generous remembrances of family ("Three Brothers" and "Christ Stoped At Eboli") had dried up and his previous film, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold", failed to make a splash beyond its Spanish setting... and still nearly impossible to find today. With "The Palermo Connection", there were several things on his side: a big name American cast including Jim Belushi and Mimi Rogers, and the interest in Italian-American relationships stirred up by Francis Ford Coppola's divisive third part of his "Godfather" trilogy. Unfortunately, none of this aided Rosi's film as it came and went in theaters and is still relegated to only shoddy VHS prints today. Being the Francesco Rosi fanboy that I am, I had to weigh in on this (often) misunderstood effort. Jim Belushi is Carmine Bonavia, a city councilman running for New York mayor. Disgusted by the rampant proliferation of drug pushers in and around the city, he makes it his campaign promise to work towards the legalization of drugs. This gives him a rise in the polls, but alienates the mob in the city. When he and his new wife, Mimi Rogers, travel to Italy to visit his relatives, the mob presence creates a tense situation for Carmine and his new bride. 

Positioned somewhere between those late 80's direct-to-video actioners and a more serious-minded exploration of the politics behind the Old World mafia, Rosi's "The Palermo Connection" is still an interesting work. Judging by the vitriolic IMDB comments, people were obviously expecting a fast and furious action film when there are, ironically, only a few scattered gunshots during the entire film.... one of them leaving a lasting impression though. "The Palermo Connection", like most of Rosi's work, is first and foremost a travelogue film.... placing characters in a specific time and place and then spinning out a grand tale that takes into account local customs, dialects and superstitions. Once Belushi and Rogers hit Italy, the film slows down to a crawl where Rosi's gliding camera effortlessly tracks down wind-swept marble balconies and abandoned castle rooms. "The Palermo Connection" is clearly in love with the old country, and Belushi and Rogers are along for the ride. One of the more fascinating asides the film makes is its introduction of a character simply known as the Prince, played by Vittorio Gassman. He tells Rogers that he cannot leave his plush hotel room to take a picture with her. Later, a delegate from the American embassy tells them that the Prince once tried to take on the mob and was given a choice: live in this hotel room for the rest of his life or be killed. Exaggerated as it seems, this type of human banishment feels like an all too real punishment in the Old World.

There are flaws with "The Palermo Connection", though. A hurried denouement doesn't really coexist with  the leisurely pace Rosi developed up until that point. Frankly, Mimi Rogers and even Belushi, in certain scenes, feel miscast. And the central idea of a mayoral candidate leaving the US in the middle of a heated race for a jaunt around Europe seems highly irresponsible. Still, the seamless blend good hearted politics colliding against the criminal enterprise is an idea Rosi has toyed with since the beginning, and while "The Palermo Connection" isn't as sharp as say "Hands Over the City" in that regard, it does deserve a better fate than that-Jim-Belushi-film-no-one-talks-about-anymore.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Halloween Kick Off Double Feature: The Addiction and Ganja and Hess

Bill Gunn's "Ganja and Hess" (1973) and Abel Ferrera's "The Addiction" (1995) are unique "vampire" films, if one's even inclined to label both efforts. I don't know if I'd even lump these films into the horror genre as both works are defiantly independent takes on the idea of the mythological blood-addicted creatures, whether through budgetary constraints or, most likely, their individual director's extreme avant garde prerogative. Both films explore the psychological consequences when an intelligent person (African-American doctor Hess, played by Duane Jones and white undergrad student Lili Taylor) become infected and crave human blood. While Ferrera's vision of this horrific perma-life is carried out in the comfortable, seedy confines of his New York City (and in saturated black and white to dilute the bloodletting), "Ganja and Hess" resides in a more dreamy, classical large manor. Both films are mood films in the purest sense, at times explaining nothing and allowing the angry socio-political views of their authors to overtake the narrative force. "Ganja and Hess" itself is a call to arms for radical independent African American filmmakers of the 70's. Not many people besides Marvin Van Peebles and other blacksploitation artists where seeing their visions on large American screens. Ferrera's "The Addiction" (still not available on home video or DVD) spends more time questioning mass genocide and the Vietnam war than actual 'vampirific' acts. Needless to say, both films had much more on their mind than vampires, and it shows.

Released in 1995, "The Addiction" came at the crest of a wave for Ferrera. Coming off critical acclaim for a string of films including "The King of New York"and "Bad Lieutenant", "The Addiction" is a terrific example of the burgeoning mid 90's indie scene..... a scene that spawned a couple of introspective, well crafted but marginalized vampire films like Michael Almeryda's trancing "Nadja" and Larry Fessenden's "Habit". Starring Lili Taylor, the film opens as she's in the middle of a stressful student year at NYU. Confronted with images of slaughters in Vietnamese villages and constantly thinking about war atrocities as she studies to be a psychiatrist, it's not 5 minutes into the film when she's whisked away down a dark alley and promptly bitten by Annabella Sciorria in a scene that, in my opinion, rightly justifies Ferrera's splendid use of black and white. It's a quick and violent infection, just as if the war atrocities were being inflicted upon her body as well. From there, "The Addiction" is a relatively straight-forward tale of blood lust as Kathleen (Taylor) stalks her campus, eventually infecting her best friend (a young Edie Falco) and teacher (Ferrera regular Paul Calderon). Her bloodlust begins to spiral out of control though, which is one of the many modern inflections Ferrera and screenwriter Nicholas St. John add to the vampire myth. Her psychology background, the writer and director's ever present Catholic guilt, and modern cinema's own need to rationalize and re invent genre in self reflexive ways, drive Kathleen to exorcise the habit overtaking her. In what's probably the best scene in the movie for its quiet acceptance of death, Kathleen lies on a hospital bed and asks for the blinds to be open. Ferrera anchors his camera at the foot of her bed as the sunlight slowly creeps down the wall towards her. Not only is it one of the film's most operatic moments, but it fits so nicely into the Ferrera mold of self immolation and mythic redemption.

"Ganja and Hess" also features a self imposed act of exorcism. Starring Duane Jones as Dr. Hess, the film explains through opening title cards that doctor Hess was studying ancient tribal mysteries when he comes into the possession of a dagger that is "diseased". Hess takes in assistant George (played by director Bill Gunn himself), a mentally unstable man who eventually stabs Hess with the dagger, "wherein he becomes addicted and could not be killed or could not die". It's in these careful framing words that director Gunn sets up the implications for something larger than blood lust. After killing George and stuffing his body in a basement freezer, Ganja, George's wife, returns to the States and takes up residence with Doctor Hess, awaiting the outcome of her husband's "disappearance". She and Hess fall in love, although it's quiet the sadistic relationship. Ganja, played by Marlene Clark, takes pleasure in insulting Hess's butler and promptly throws her weight around the house. Even after finding her late husband's body in the cellar, she marries Hess and establishes quiet a unique marriage.

Like "The Addiction", "Ganja and Hess" is an art film first. A victim of its time (early 70's funk cinema and Times Square exploitation), "Ganja and Hess" feels, looks and sounds cheap.... all things that filmmaker Gunn makes up for in dreamy narrative. Images of the tribe bleed into real life with droning chant-like sounds.... jump cuts establish no rhythm and force us to recognize the interaction between people quickly, and the blood that Hess so craves is often orangish tomato juice. But its the ideas that give "Ganja and Hess" its creative power. Like "The Addiction", this is one way to substitute the universal struggle of addiction into an easily identifiable means of expression. Whether that addiction is substance based or the paralyzing fear of mass destruction and the apocalypse, both Kathleen and Dr. Hess are just inquisitive, educated people inoculated by the dangers of our time. Separated by 22 years, both films create a dazzling double feature that feels almost interchangeable. In "Ganja and Hess", one scene has them lying in bed together when Dr. Hess asks "do you think I'm still psychotic?" Her reply of "everyone has their freaky side, baby...." would fit right at home in the punk rock nihilism milieu of Abel Ferrera's cinema.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Current Cinema 24


Denis Villanueva’s “Prisoners” certainly deserves some admiration for spinning a tale that’s as black and brooding as a Hollywood funded film can get. With an all star cast- yet sometimes one can feel the overwrought big acting moments- it’s a film that ponders the twisted morality behind vigilante justice and anchors itself perilously close to the procedural grittiness of “Zodiac”. When two girls go missing in a small Pennsylvania suburb, fathers Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard find themselves out for blood while local detective Jake Gyllenhall has to not only fend off their violent tendencies, but unravel the mystery as well. Like “Mystic River”, ‘Prisoners” is more interested in the volatile dynamics of how grief perpetuates moral sadism in the face of a tragedy than the murders themselves, which becomes increasingly clear when the film stumbles towards its climax of neat resolution and killer unmasking. It’s here where the film falters a bit, undoing some of its brooding momentum, yet “Prisoners” is still a strong film. With cinematography by Roger Deakins that ranks as one of the best looking films of the year, full of low angle shots through doorways and crisp tracking shots, it also features one of the most bracing scenes of the year as cop Gyllenhall races through a rainstorm to reach the local hospital. The mixture of sepia-tinted nighttime shots with a camera that seems to be mounted somewhere up above the car and the quiet interior as his siren flashes blue lights across his blood-stained face add up to a sequence that had me holding my breath.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The nostalgic 70’s western noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a derivative effort, but a tremendously well made and well-meaning one. Written and directed by David Lowery (whom I had the pleasure to exchange words with over the years through his now defunct blog), his first full length film is a throwback film of the highest order, evoking everything from “Bonnie and Clyde” to the mumble core movement which he’s been a mainstay in for several years now. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the film opens with their separation after the lovers-on-the-lam are arrested and Affleck is sent to prison. He eventually escapes, and the rest of the film charts his desperate attempts to get back to her. Also circling in her life is local cop Ben Foster, in what is certainly the best performance in the film and probably of his intense career. All low-key and humble, Foster personifies the small town sheriff in touching and accurate ways. And those descriptions could ft the entire film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a quiet but revelatory film that dispenses plot in whispers and charged glances. Yet Lowery also understands the language of violence and dread…. both factors that play out in superbly realized and edited sequences. Filmed in and around my own stomping grounds of Central Texas (as well as parts of Louisiana), “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” feels like an authentic Texas film as well, maximizing the droning sounds of cicadas that flourish every sundown here in Texas and creating baroque symmetry out of stark, disheveled wooden barns that one often stumbles across. Yes, I’m completely in love with this film.


Ron Howard’s re-creation of the 1970’s racing feud between hot-shit Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is all fumes and no real spark….. including the character driven moments that give us no appreciation or understanding of the men themselves. “Rush” barrels through its emotional build-up like the racing scenes, which are competently filmed, yet fail to provide any depth behind the atmosphere. For example, Olivia Wilde is given a thankless role as Hunt’s first wife. When they separate, it feels like a narrative plot point checked off. Just a generic effort.

Don Jon

I'm in the middle on Joseph Gordon Levitt's directing debut. At one level, it's refreshing to see a young actor (like James Franco) attempting something adventurous like "Don Jon", a film that is focused in its worldview of a generally unaccepted mainstream subject- watching porn. And for the first half of the film, Levitt does an adept job at utilizing editing to convey the titillating aspects- at least for men. But then, "Don Jon" turns a bit inconsequential. It also follows the now ubiquitous structure of indie filmmaking- establish a shot routine and then continue to follow that thread throughout the whole film... overhead shot of Levitt making his bed, walking up the steps of his church and the lateral pan across the faces of his family. It's effective, but safe.While Levitt does eventually tread into some ambigious territory (featuring a nice, awkward supporting turn by Julianne Moore), the feeling of "safe" hovers over the entire film.