Friday, May 20, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 3: SPACE B.C. (BEFORE CHEWIE)


A longer time ago in a galaxy farther, farther away (i.e., pre-1977), a number of great space-related films laid the foundations for our beloved modern classics: Star Wars, The Thing, Lifeforce,
Apollo 13, Gravity.
Even respectable newbies like The Martian and Midnight Special bear their indelible traces. Believe it or not, George Lucas/Disney's cherished franchise was not the product of immaculate conception. As Lucas admits, there were numerous forefathers (Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Flash Gordon serials, etc.), but the degree to which Star Wars turned the film industry on its head and put it in blockbuster hyperdrive for decades thereafter sometimes gives it the illusion of miraculous virgin birth. For many nerds of a certain age, it's as if May 25th, 1977 is Day One on their life calendar. Every movie that came after A New Hope is A.D. (After Darth). Every flick that came before is B.C. (Before Chewie).

I'm definitely not the biggest Jedi disciple out there. Nor am I typically a sci-fi deep diver. It's embarrassing how non-conversant I am in the expanded universes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. But there are certain pre-Star Wars space movies that, as a film geek, I KNOW I should've seen, ones that when mentioned in passing conversation send me into a cold, guilty nerd-sweat. Many of these films have been on my to-watch docket for years. Some have been lingering in long forgotten queues and on dusty discs for more than a decade (Solaris, I'm talking to you). I spent the last few weekends catching up on some of these unseen "Space B.C." movies and re-screening a few old favorites (2001, Close Encounters). Consider the nine films below my trip to the Cinephile Confessional, the capsule reviews my whispered Hail Mary's. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...it's been 10 years since my last trip to the Monolith."

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) - 
Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


As a John Carpenter fan and devotee of the '82 remake, this one was LONG overdue. What kept me away for so long? Probably the fact that "the thing" is played by a day player from Gunsmoke in a bald Frankenstein costume instead of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's fantastically goopy F/X. As guessed, the monster portions of the original Thing are heavily dated and largely goofy. Arness's lumbering linebacker sprung from a chunk of polar ice won't faze modern moviegoers who've made a few trips to Jurassic Park. He doesn't infect your blood the way Carpenter's elusive shape-shifting entity did. Basically, you can fend him off by dousing him in kerosene or zapping him with electrified chicken wire, sometimes just closing a door on his arm (don't worry, it'll grow back...he's composed of regenerative vegetable matter).

And maybe this is why the multitudinous characters in TTFAW seem so casual about their Arctic alien visitor. One of the more interesting aspects of this relatively brisk film is just how much time it expends on witty/flirtatious banter amid the standard where-did-it-come-from, what-does-it-want-from-us exposition. If you listen to the Carpenter commentary track (guilty as charged), he'll remind you that this is the genius touch of Howard Hawks, the man who reportedly ghost-directed the film over protΓ©gΓ© Christian Nyby's shoulder. He'll also point out (if you can't tell from the pics above) the astounding number of characters he's able to fit into each frame. Craft-wise, the original Thing is a fun, educational watch for these and other reasons. But if you're looking for legit scares, probably best to stick to the '82 remake.

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) - 
Fred M. Wilcox πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


If someone had told me that Robby the Robot could duplicate filled whiskey bottles on cue, zap a capuchin monkey stealing fruit without looking or heat a coffee pot just by touching the surface it's resting on, I'm sure I would've watched Forbidden Planet YEARS ago. Hell, I probably would've purchased my own model Robby. These are practical applications I could use in my own home (lousy with capuchins and room temperature coffee pots).

If monkeys and robots aren't your bag, there are numerous other reasons to seek out a crisp HD copy of FP. That old time Metrocolor really pops, and the Cinemascope compositions are wide and brimming with matte-painted beauty. The actors in those frames aren't half-bad either. Walter Pidgeon runs the show as wizened Dr. Morbius, a cross between Shakespeare's Prospero and Hammer's Vincent Price. There's a charming (if chaste) space romance between astronaut Leslie Nielson and Morbius's daughter played by Anne Francis (think Naked Gun without the full-body condoms). There's lots of diverting talk about a highly advanced, highly extinct native space race (The Krell). But, honestly, who really needs a Krellian "plastic educator" when Robby's right there to read your New York Times feed to you and re-heat your morning cappuccino?

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965) - 
Mario Bava πŸš€πŸš€1/2


I wouldn't call Planet of the Vampires a classic must-see, but one could definitely argue for its influence over later, greater space movies...Alien, Lifeforce, maybe even Pitch Black (another I still need to see). It's among the first (if not the first) to use the time-tested storyline of an astronaut crew searching a second crash-landed ship only to find it infested with...in this case, zombie-vampires. Pretty soon, the new crew members become infected/possessed one by one, and you can probably guess the rest. If I hadn't seen this plot played out a couple dozen times already (especially last month), I think I would've been more intrigued. 

What bowled me over were those costumes. Planet of the Vampires features some of the most snazzily designed crew uniforms in space movie history. Leather with goldenrod racing stripes. Smooth-as-a-softened-grape streamlined helmets. Those high arched collars that make everyone (not just the infected) look like Count Dracula. Somebody was definitely working overtime in the Wardrobe Department. I may not want to revisit the Planet of the Vampires anytime soon, but I know what I'm wearing for Halloween next year.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) -
Stanley Kubrick πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


What else can I say about Stanley Kubrick's game-changing space epic that hasn't already been said in greater detail by others with better critical faculties and more time on their hands than me? Not much. 2001 is one of those movies I need to revisit every decade, the existential head-scratcher that keeps on giving. As an early devotee of Kubrick, I'd already seen the film multiple times, but it had been a while since the last viewing (possibly as long ago as 2001). It may have been a worn-out print at the New Beverly, possibly even a VHS copy (letterbox, not pan and scan...I may be a lapsed cinephile, but I'm not an aspect ratio heathen!). This year, I watched on a DVD of respectable quality. Next decade, I'm sure I'll upgrade to Ultra HD 3D or whatever new format they're pimping then. Maybe I'll even board the Discovery One and hang with Dave and HAL by way of virtual reality. 

What did I geek out about this time around? The camerawork as usual, but maybe the effects more than the norm. After watching a bunch of old sci-fi movies, I really have to hand it to Stanley...this is the first movie where space looks like space (or what we now know of space). The weightlessness, the emptiness, the endless depth of field, the apes. 

OK, maybe not the apes. The obvious monkey suits at the beginning of the film still tend to yank me out of 2001's otherwise hypnotic pull. I know children and animals are hard to work with, but Kubrick was such a perfectionist-- why didn't he just use the real thing? Also, I locked into the Clavius conference room/moon monolith scenes more than in the past. For some reason, I'd forgotten those parts, all that fantastic space age bureaucracy. I mostly remembered the more obvious stuff...monkeys throwing bones into the air, the long menacing stretches with HAL. And, man, does that stuff just get better with age. No other filmmaker can siphon paranoia and dread from spare parts like Kubrick. Give the guy a simple glowing red light and a calm, even-toned computer voice, and I'm crapping my pants every time. 

MAROONED (1969) - John Sturges πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Sure, you've seen Ron Howard's Apollo 13, but have you seen its big brother, Marooned? Me neither. I recorded this on DVD-R years ago from Turner Classics during a Gene Hackman marathon, then quickly consigned it to a bin of other forgotten discs. The recent closure of the Ziegfeld Theatre (R.I.P) put it back on my radar, as Marooned was the very first film to grace its very large (and now very blackened) screen. 

If you've seen Apollo 13 or Gravity, the beats will feel familiar, despite Marooned getting there first. Some doohickies on an Apollo spacecraft fail during mission re-entry (those damned retro-engines!), and time and oxygen are quickly running out for the crew. Will they make it back in time? Will one of them cut his oxygen supply, take one for the team? You've seen this crisis before but maybe not with such fine actors. Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna and, of course, Gene Hackman. For me, the highlight of Marooned was watching Hackman play against type. Rather than his usual hothead or reticent mastermind, Gene gets to play full-on lily-livered. He is without a doubt the crew's weak link, its pansy, its spazz. He jeopardizes the crew several times, once by pocketing his "calm down pill" (see above), eating up valuable oxygen when he later goes off on a panicked rant. The ending is also pretty nifty, considering this was the era of the Cold War. SPOILER ALERT: Some kindly orbiting Russkies may or may not be integral to the crew's rescue.

SOLARIS (1972) - Andrei Tarkovsky πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Did someone say orbiting Russkies? Yes, no doubt Solaris is Soviet in origin, but that's not what kept me away from it for so long. I have no issue with subtitles, nor do I mind a good, long arthouse brood (run time: 166 mins). But with a film like this I need to make sure I'm wide awake, have downed at least three cups of coffee and am in a "Tarkovsky mood." This doesn't happen every day. I saw Stalker a few summers ago, so I kinda knew what awaited. I'd also seen Soderbergh's 90-minute remake when it came out in 2002, which was probably bad form. "Bless me, Andrei, for I have sinned, it's been 14 years since..." You get the point.

In a nutshell, Solaris is everything I hoped and feared it would be. Beautiful and impenetrable, emotional and glacial, affected in its design yet accessible in its themes (lost love, memory, grief), a space movie that, other than one or two spaceship-esque interiors, you'd never know took place in outer space. The best parts don't in my opinion, those long, gorgeously photographed "before and after" sequences with Kelvin at his childhood home. I guess I'd rather watch a guy gaze through a farmhouse window as it inexplicably rains INSIDE his kitchen than watch him gaze into a planetary ocean which feeds on brainwaves, conjures recurring manifestations of his dead wife. Call me sentimental. Just don't call me over to re-watch that sleep inducing five-minute traffic scene.

SILENT RUNNING (1972) - Douglas Trumbull πŸš€πŸš€


Long before Matt Damon was growing poop-sourced tubers on Mars, Bruce Dern was fretting over his carefully tended carrots in a geodesic dome orbiting Saturn's rings. But unlike botanist "Mark Watney," Dern's "Freeman Lowell" does not have the luxury of living alone. He's stuck with a crew of ATV-riding layabouts, fratboys in space onesies basically. Freeman wants an idyllic commune comprised entirely of the last remaining Earth-sourced produce. These other chuckleheads? They just want to play Texas Hold 'Em all day. When orders come down from Mission Control for the domes to be destroyed, the normally pacifist Lowell predictably takes shovel in hand (see above) to defend his cosmic co-op. Nobody's going to lay a corporate finger his goddamn root vegetables!

Silent Running has to be the ultimate Lapsed Hippie in Space movie (correct me if I'm forgetting one). And like many a hippie bromide, the film's pro-ecological message is well-intentioned but clunky and ham-fisted in its delivery. It's amusing (unintentionally, I'm guessing) how quickly peacenik astro-farmer Lowell turns to brute violence when his crops are threatened. This is not a knock against Dern. No actor in the '70s could go from free love to white hot rage better than him. But once his crew mates are whacked (relatively early in the film), there's nothing much for him to do but play rummy with his two robots, Huey and Dewey, disobey more orders, tend his fragile, dying crops and listen to Joan Baez on the soundtrack. Reportedly, F/X wizard turned director Trumbull used some leftover Jupiter footage he did on 2001 and repurposed it for this film's Saturn sequences. So at least there was some real-life sustainability involved.

FANTASTIC PLANET (1973) - RenΓ© Laloux πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've read this blog before, you might recall that I have something of an "animation block." For some unfathomable reason, I just can't get into rendered characters, especially the CGI Pixar stuff. Even as child, I mostly avoided what I called "cartoons," opting for 100% human portrayals. There are exceptions to the rule: tactile things like stop-motion or puppetry got a pass (I love the Quay Brothers and The Dark Crystal). Non-Disney, hand-drawn films that pre-date 1990 and originate from countries other than the U.S. also tend to sit well. That said, I can't claim to have ever sat through an entire Miyazaki flick.

Fantastic Planet is one of those rare exceptions...I made it all the way through! It may have something to do with the old school paper cut-out techniques, the striking compositions, the psychedelic colors and imagery, the groovy French jazz soundtrack. Whatever element is to blame, I was engaged by the allegorical struggle between the Draags and the Oms, those tiny humans the blue alien Draags keep as pets until they decide to rebel. It reminded me of Animal Farm and Where The Wild Things Are but then also of Jodorowsky and that old Porno for Pyros song ("We'll make great pets, we'll make greeeat pets..."). If I ever have children, I will definitely force them to watch Fantastic Planet. If I can snag the copy of Zootopia out of their sticky mitts first.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) -
Steven Spielberg πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


I know, I know. Technically speaking, Spielberg's very first alien flick is not a "Space, B.C." movie. It came out the same year as Lucas's ubiquitous space opera but not until a few months later, in November of that same year. I'm including it here because, along with Star Wars, Close Encounters  marked a turning point in portrayals of outer space, when the blockbuster B-picture was born and every movie thereafter with a UFO was expected to be an event. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Small-scale speculative sci-fi becomes big box office fantasy spectacle, losing a bit of science along the way. Not necessarily a bad thing, but Lucas and Spielberg are certainly two gents who can bear much of the blame.

Watching Encounters again after many, many years, I was reminded what a bastard child of the decades it is. The story begins with typical Cold War era space visitor paranoia ("they've come for us") and ends on a note of distinctly '70s touchy-feely optimism ("they've come for us, yes, but they just want to jam"). The last 30 minutes of the film is basically a Speak-N-Spell version of a Pink Floyd laser light show conducted by none other than Francois Truffaut. It's a far cry from Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds remake, which stuck closer to the '50s malevolent visitor playbook, while upping the property damage significantly. About the only thing which really gets destroyed in Close Encounters is Richard Dreyfuss's complexion (that two-toned UFO face tan) and his kitchen, the scene where he manically throws every plant, mound of dirt and stretch of chicken wire from his backyard through his window to build the Devil's Tower replica.

All those scenes (the mashed potato tower, etc.) still work the best for me. Give me a semi-crazed Dreyfuss to balance out the saccharine Spielberg wonderment, the soaring John Williams score, the cherubic blonde toddlers and friendly pre-E.T.s, and I'm happy. Pauline Kael called Close Encounters "a kid's film in the best sense," and I tend to agree. It's part and parcel with my childhood, frequently blends with the original Star Wars in my earliest movie memories. The only difference is format: One I saw in an actual movie theater sitting on my mother's lap (Close Encounters), the other (A New Hope) on a long since vanished Betamax.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 2: ALIEN RIPS


When Ridley Scott's Alien first burst onto movie screens in May of 1979, adult cinema goers finally had their R-rated answer to Star Wars, a heady sci-fi-horror hybrid thick with atmosphere, sexual tension and a host of strange bodily secretions. Its template was the haunted house movie, the twist that the house was now an orbiting spacecraft. The monster at its center was a not a ghost rattling chains. It was an extraterrestrial that clung to your face and laid eggs down your throat only to have its embryos violently pop out while you were eating dinner, the worst kind of acid reflux. Finally, a space movie even Grandpa could get behind.

The Nostromo's crew was less than action figure ready, a mixed race, mixed gender assortment of surly professionals. No star-gazing farmboys named Skywalker. No charming rogue smugglers named Han. No cute bickering droids, unless you count the "skin job" (Ian Holm) secretly sent by the company to do them all in. The closest thing to a Wookie on this ship? Harry Dean Stanton. For most of Alien's run-time, there is no single protagonist. But as the creature begins picking the crew off one by one, a hero finally emerges...better yet, a heroine. Not a princess per se, but a practical, resourceful warrant officer who doesn't want to save the planet or preserve a new alien species. She just wants to get home in one piece.

Much like Star Wars, the critical and commercial success of Alien spawned many modestly budgeted imitators. Some of them were good, some not so good. A few took the narrative lessons learned aboard the Nostromo and expanded them. A few even borrowed key creatives from the Alien franchise (Dan O'Bannon, James Cameron). Most, of course, squandered their teachable moments with chinsy Giger-monster knockoffs and extra helpings of space sex. Though none of these Xeroxed xenomorphs could match the shock of the original or duplicate Scott's knack for atmosphere, a few of them do still entertain. I watched a handful of Alien "rips" over the last few weekends and lived to tell the tale, Ellen Ripley-style. In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can certainly hear you thieve.

CONTAMINATION (1980) - Luigi Cozzi πŸš€πŸš€1/2


aka Alien Contamination. aka Toxic Spawn. aka Contamination: Alien on Earth, directed by "Lewis Coates." When the title and director of a movie are this up for grabs, you know it has to be terrific, yes?

Actually, it's not a total stinker, though the movie itself revolves entirely around rotten eggs. When an abandoned Colombian coffee barge in the New York harbor becomes a delivery system for alien pods instead of Juan Valdez, a female government spook and male NYPD beat cop team up to trace the source of the pulsating, green lactating orbs. First, this takes them to the South American plantation that shipped the eggs, then to the aborted Mars space mission that brought them back to Earth. They uncover a plot to hide the eggs in the New York sewer system (the place where all '70s-'80s horror movie conspiracies begin and end), an unsettling prospect in that the eggs when touched tend to scramble people's insides and expel them violently through their chests.

If you're looking for a tried and true space movie, Contamination will disappoint. The movie is mostly landlocked, the only space scenes told in flashback on cheap miniatures where the alien pods appear to be un-shelled edamame. But if you're looking for an agreeable Alien rip with frequent chest-bursting, laughable dubbing and a one-eyed Cyclops monster that looks like an inbred version of the Giger xenomorph, you could do far worse. Also, if you're a fan of the Italian prog rockers Goblin (not their best score, but still...Goblin!). I hadn't planned on watching this movie originally, but Cozzi's Star Wars rip, Starcrash, was so good I figured why not give his Alien cash-in a try. If only there was a Caroline Munro cameo...

GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) - Bruce D. Clark πŸš€πŸš€1/2


It never takes long for Roger Corman to hop aboard the blockbuster rip-off bandwagon. Less than two years after Alien hit screens, he'd already dropped his own space-horror hybrid. Galaxy of Terror sticks closer to the Ridley Scott playbook than Contamination, keeping its characters in space for the duration and having the source of their extraterrestrial woes also come from a previously crashed vessel. There are slimy creatures that attach to heads, wrap tentacles around necks, sometimes eat you whole, especially if you are an adult female who, for specious reasons, happens to already be undressed. There's also some hoodoo about empaths, telepathy and a pyramid structure on the planet that used to house extinct races. But I'm pretty sure the only pyramids the writers were interested in here were those on the backs of U.S. currency (with a movie like this, yes, I assume they were paid in cash).

Galaxy of Terror's heavily borrowed plot is definitely nothing new and definitely not its most interesting aspect. For me, the joy was delighting in its wildly diverse astronaut cast. Joanie from Happy Days. Laura Palmer's mom from Twin Peaks. Zalman King, the softcore Red Shoe Diaries producer. The guy who played Freddy Krueger. A glowing Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The ubiquitous Sid Haig from just about everything else. This is a spacecraft I wouldn't mind being trapped in...or at least a craft services table I would've loved to loiter around. As for the movie itself, it's fun in fits and starts. Go ahead, take a peek.

FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982) - Allan Holzman πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


One year later, Roger Corman produced a knockoff of his own Alien knockoff, repurposing some of the James Cameron sets from Galaxy of Terror and recycling a few scenes from his 1980 Star Wars rip Battle Beyond the Stars. Common knowledge says that a copy degrades the integrity of the original, but in this instance-- a copy of a copy-- somehow the results were better. 

How so? Because Forbidden World (aka Mutant) mostly dispenses with plot and revels in its exploitation movie roots. It goes all-in on the space scuzz. The genetics aboard this Xarbian research station are dicier than the norm, the monster in question a mutant with both human and alien DNA. The actors are unknowns and the air aboard the vessel thick with lust. It feels like a porno scenario could break out at any moment ("Ding dong! You ordered a pizza from the Sombrero Galaxy, ma'am?") and, for an R-rated early '80s movie, it at times comes kinda close. There's a sub-Carpenter minimalist electronica score that's kinda catchy and probably cost $2 but somehow works to the film's advantage. The effects are cheap but cheaply effective...goopy, bloody, lots of rubber cement, Karo syrup and spirit gum. It reminded me a bit of Cronenberg's The Fly, though not as philosophically inquisitive. Or maybe a daydream Paul Verhoeven had on the set of Starship Troopers directed by someone less talented than himself. 

Despite its sketchy heredity, Forbidden World is yummy, trashy fun, the forbidden fruit of Alien clones. See if you agree.

ANDROID (1982) - Aaron Lipstadt πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've committed to watching a bunch of sci-fi/horror quickies from the early '80s, it's only a matter of time before you must contend with Werner Herzog's (and the world's) favorite wildman antagonist, Klaus Kinski. Kinski isn't the primary character in Android, but his disturbed presence looms over the entire film like a future Dr. Frankenstein. Also, a horny Dr. Frankenstein. He really wants to sleep with his half-human, half-robot creations it seems, not to mention anyone else so unlucky as to board his ship. 

The plot in a nutshell: Imagine Alien but from Ash the Android's POV. Imagine him as he grows more sentient, begins to question his creator's programming (Kinski, not Weyland Corp). Imagine him learning about human sex from in-flight instructional videos, then imagine what happens when a fully-human female space prisoner (Brie Howard) and her two male cohorts crash land and are forced to come aboard. Human-robot sexual power struggles ensue, and sorting the humans from the robots is not as easy as it would seem.

Still confused? OK, then just imagine Ex Machina from Ava's POV, if Alicia Vikander looked a bit more like Jackie Earle Haley. Android is nothing you haven't seen before or read in your high school Mary Shelley. But it's a mercifully brief and frequently amusing. And need I repeat...Kinski, Kinski, Kinski.

CREATURE: THE TITAN FIND (1985) - 
William Malone πŸš€πŸš€


Speaking of Klaus, his glorified cameo as the sole surviving German astronaut in Creature: The Titan Find is really, for me, the one and only reason to give this tired Alien rip a go. When he strolls aboard the downed American spacecraft on a Titan moon midway through the film, scenery chewing with glee, you realize immediately what a good actor can bring to even the most formulaic of movies, the gift his mere presence can be to the most humdrum of directors. All they really have to do is hit record, keep the boom mic out of frame. Fortunately, director Malone does that for this one scene. As for the rest of the movie...

To be kind, let's just say it's highly derivative of the original Alien and not in the most charming way. The movie is called Creature after all, the most vaguely generic version of the Alien title possible. It's like that can of no-name Budweiser everyone drinks from in Repo Man labeled simply "Beer." The story beats are nearly identical, minus Ridley Scott's flair for slow-burn suspense, interestingly lit interiors. This director bathes everything in blue gels instead, the scenes mostly under-lit as to hide the cheap effects. The scripting and staging are tone-deaf, and the "creature" looks like an ambulatory space lobster. It's got nothing on the Alien alien, not to mention the Aliens aliens. Probably the best thing that can be said for this 1985 knockoff is that it landed a few of the FX crew jobs on Cameron's fantastic sequel the following year in '86.

LIFEFORCE (1985) - Tobe Hooper πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Can you even call the whacked-out, otherworldly thing of beauty that is Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce an Alien rip? Hard to say. It definitely shares some of '79 original's genre lineage and even one of its screenwriters (Dan O'Bannon). But its source material pre-dates the original Alien, a 1976 novel called The Space Vampires. Either way, Lifeforce is that singular, exceptional case: It tosses what, by then, had become formula (the haunted house in space) into the creativity blender and comes out with a glorious sci-fi/horror smoothie of a movie that is startlingly, refreshingly new.

The film begins in familiar enough outer space movie territory. A crew of astronauts discover a second starship stocked with specimens trapped in suspended animation. Instead of warty alien eggs, however, the specimens appear to be three nude humans housed in glass cases. In the case of one Mathilda May, they are very naked, very beautiful humans (see here for further pervy film nerd commentary). Then the film takes an interesting narrative turn. It jumps forward to the point where the specimens are already back on Earth in a London research laboratory and, for now, leaves us in the dark as to what happened during the rescue mission. An autopsy is about to be performed on the comatose female specimen until-- wouldn't you know it--a security guard saunters into the lab and is captivated by her beauty. She suddenly awakens and approaches him, seemingly for a kiss. Before you can shout "Look out, space vampire!" she's not just sucking the blood from his shriveling body but draining the "lifeforce" right out of him.

Sound like a bad relationship you've had in the past (definitely a few I've had)? Well, I promise it's more interesting than that. The space vampires turn out to be equal opportunity soul-suckers, with the ability to shape-shift and hopscotch bodies after they've drained them. The comely young Mathilda May not your bag? Then how about this older British redhead. Still not your preference? Then how about the body of Patrick Stewart. Eventually astronaut Steve Railsback (Charlie Manson from Helter Skelter) shows up in a crashed escape pod to fill us in on what happened in outer space. It turns out that when hypnotized he can psycho-sexually "tap into" the female alien (lucky sonofabitch). Things get wilder and weirder from there, and suddenly London is lousy with shape-shifting soul suckers and surprisingly great FX. I hereby refuse spoil the rest.

Surprisingly, this wonderful movie was a box-office dud when it came out. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Audiences were probably exhausted with space horror by that point. But thirty-one years later Lifeforce still holds up beautifully, aged like a fine extraterrestrial wine, Alien rip or not. Perhaps all it needed was a lengthy spate of hypersleep.

Monday, March 28, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 1: STAR WARS RIPS

Long before internet pirates and torrent sites were ripping high quality Blu-ray copies of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, industrious filmmakers around the globe were ripping off the original box office behemoth, A New Hope, tapping into the late '70s space opera zeitgeist, earning a fast buck. Their motivations may have been less than artistically pure, but the "sweded" movies these cinematic robber barons churned out were frequently delightful, liberally borrowing plot lines, settings and archetypes from the original Star Wars and warping them to their own creative ends. In some cases (The Man Who Saved The World or "Turkish Star Wars"), they actually smuggled copyright-infringing space battle footage into their films, lifted music from the soundtracks of Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark because, hey, why not?

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, then the seven Star Wars clones I watched over the last few weekends are certainly blowing the sweetest of Huttian joonga smoke straight up George Lucas' derriere. You know that scene in Empire when C-3PO gets dismembered in the Cloud City recycling plant and then poorly (but charmingly) reassembled by Chewbacca a few scenes later? Well, I like to think of these laughable but largely entertaining Star Wars rips kinda like that.

Here are some quick (space) capsule reviews of the films I watched, with rocket ship icon ratings in place of stars. Yep, I can be just as cheesy and opportunistic as the filmmakers featured herein.

MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) - Kinji Fukasaku πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Leave it to the Japanese (and my favorite Japanese yakuza movie director) to get to the Star Wars exploitation game first. At this point in history, they were churning out automobiles better and faster than Ford and Dodge, so why not the movie assembly line too?

As with Lucas's space opera, Message begins with a peaceful planet (Jillucia) in danger of destruction by an evil empire (the Gavanas). The Darth Vader in this scenario is an evil emperor in kabuki makeup with mother issues. Instead of a hologram hidden in a droid, the leaders of Jillucia send eight magical Liabe Seeds into space to help them recruit rebel heroes to defend their planet. Basically, the seeds are intergalactic walnuts that glow intermittently (see above). If you happen to be in possession of one, it's something like having a bite-size piece of "the force." Woe to the hero who receives a seed and is not up to this noble challenge. Woe to the hero with a serious peanut allergy.

The ensemble cast borrows liberally from New Hope character tropes. There's a spunky princess (Emeralida), two wisecracking "rough rider" pilots (think Han and Chewie with less fur), a heroic prince played by Sonny Chiba, a lovable droid by the name of Beba-2 (note: Beba-1 suffers a cruel demise in the beginning, R.I.P.). Best of all, there's Vic Morrow in what could only be described as the alcoholic Obi Wan role. With every line of cornball cosmic wisdom he delivers straight-faced and ruddy-cheeked, you can see the question behind the great actor's eyes: "How did I get here? In space? In Japan? Spouting faux wisdom to a garbage can with legs?" For Morrow's sake, I hope the Suntory they plied him with was not just "movie scotch."

Message makes very little sense in any galactic language. It has way too many characters, and probably too many Liabe Seeds. But, thanks to Fukasaku's energetic direction, it's a peppy trash compactor full o' fun. Sample the Message for yourself right here.

STARCRASH (1978) - Luigi Cozzi πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


The Japanese might have gotten there first, but, in the case of goofball Star Wars clones, the Italians absolutely got there best. Starcrash has everything you could ever hope for in a drive-in friendly, late '70s exploitation movie, Star Wars themed or not. A beautiful model-turned-actress (Caroline Munro) who wears a revolving door of skimpy outfits and occasionally gets to kick ass with equal style. A hero with a sketchily defined mystical powers and a John Holmes curly perm that's even more mystifying. It's got a robot with a Georgia accent for no apparent reason, a glowing Christopher Plummer cameo in which he actually glows. It's got stop-motion robot/creature fighting that falls just short of Clash of the Titans quality, a villain played by a Scorsese veteran and the original Maniac (Joe Spinell). Most importantly, it's got a young David Hasselhoff...at least for a few minutes. Blink, and you might miss him. In case you were worried Starcrash isn't Star Wars violating enough, yes, it actually ends with a green light saber fight.

I have no idea how this movie passed me by as a youngster. Had I seen it, I know I would've loved it as much as Star Wars, hounded my parents ceaselessly for a Stella Star action figure, an Elle droid which when you pressed its stomach shouted something along the lines of "darn tootin'" or "gosh darn dang." Seeing it a few weekends ago was gift enough though, and I'm pretty sure I'd rather re-watch Starcrash any day of the week than any actual Star Wars movie new or old. Pop a freeze-dried brew and treat yourself if you haven't. Here's a link to the full movie. Here's the MST3K version if you want a commentary track. If you only have time for highlights, here's a fun trailer narrated by Eli Roth, who I usually can't tolerate but, in this case, will endure as a kindred fan.

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) - John Barry πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Decades before Disney was buying legit rights to the world's most lucrative sci-fi franchise, they were shamelessly aping its business model in 1979's The Black Hole. I never caught this one as a kid but remember going over to friends' houses where it was playing in the background, wondered how they could get as excited about their V.I.N.CENT and Maximillian action figures as everyone else did about R2 and 3PO. Even at that tender age, the whole thing whiffed of cash-in. I remember the merchandising attempts in toy stores more than wanting to see the film in the movie theatre or on TV. To put it in '80s sneaker parlance, Star Wars was Nike; The Black Hole was Zips at best.

As it turns out, The Black Hole has a little more going on narratively than your average Star Wars rip. The storyline is more Heart of Darkness than "let's ban together to destroy the Death Star." A crew of astronauts (and great actors) including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine and Yvette Mimieux happen upon a lost craft orbiting a black hole, cautiously decide to board. Inside, they encounter eccentric scientist Dr. Reinhardt (a perfect Maximilian Schell), a Kurtz-like figure who may have gone off the deep end, turned his entire crew into drones and now has designs on piloting his ship (and his new guests) directly into the black hole.

Like Starcrash, there's another robot with an inexplicable Southern accent...B.O.B., a damaged version of V.I.N.CENT voiced by Hollywood's then go-to hick Slim Pickens. Unlike Starcrash, The Black Hole doesn't have much of a sense of humor beyond that, though watching Perkins slowly get indoctrinated under Schell's spooky cult leader influence is kinda fun. It's a handsomely mounted production with a quality John Barry score, and there's an interestingly ambiguous black hole dream sequence near the end which, this being Disney, of course must conclude unambiguously upbeat. Ever heard of a white hole? Well, someone at the Mouse House surely did.

BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) - 
Jimmy T. Murakami πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


George Lucas has always claimed the heaviest influence on his "space western" Star Wars was Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress). So it's only appropriate Roger Corman's rip-off of Star Wars would be ripping off one of the first westerns to rip off Kurosawa, namely The Magnificent Seven.

Battle Beyond the Stars, as penned by a young John Sayles, is basically an hour and a half long recruitment film. When peaceful planet Akir (yep, short for Akira) is threatened by an evil space tyrant (John Saxon), Richard Thomas ("Johnboy" of The Waltons pedigree) takes it upon himself to gather up the best of the best in the galaxy, a motley crew of space mercenaries including Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a beautiful brainiac doctor's daughter (Darlanne Fluegel), a well-endowed Amazonian warrior (Sybil Danning) and a reluctant master assassin in hiding (Robert Vaughn) who's persona non grata throughout the cosmos but looking for a new planet to couch crash. I'm probably forgetting three or four other recruits, but that's OK...by the end of the film so will you.

The best parts of Battle include a group of albino clones called Nestor (top right) who share a single consciousness and are absolutely fascinated by Earth-imported hot dogs. The movie also boasts the most judgmental, hen-pecking on board computer system in movie history. If you thought HAL in 2001 had a passive-aggressive chip on its shoulder, wait until you spend a little time with NELL. Her primary function seems to be denigrating Richard Thomas's Shad, to the point where you wonder if she is truly his ship's navigational system or the voice of his Jewish mother beamed in from Nyack.

TURKISH STAR WARS (1982) - Cetin Inanc πŸš€πŸš€


Of all the Star Wars rips I watched, The Man Who Saved The World (aka "Turkish Star Wars") is certainly the most literal objet d'theft. Virtually all of its outer space scenes are cribbed footage from Star Wars scrunched together in the wrong aspect ratios and overlaid with abrupt music cues pilfered from John Williams, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon and, most baffling, Ben-Hur. The Turkish talking head actors spout nonsensical subtitled dialogue against rear-screen star field projections, and occasionally a poorly recorded narrator booms across the soundtrack making even less sense. Things get more fun once our two buddy heroes crash land on a desert planet, begin karate chopping and high-kicking creatures that look like oversized plushies or benign adult furries. Our placeholder Luke and Han make awkward advances at local space women and indulge in five minute training sequences that involve lots of running and jumping in canyons and tying boulders to their legs. There's also a bad guy somewhere in here who looks like Ming the Merciless with a cadre of Tin Man henchmen.

Is Turkish Star Wars a good movie in its own language? I tend to doubt it. Is it even a good Star Wars rip? Well, if it didn't have literal stolen footage and music from Star Wars, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have known what movie it was ripping off. That said, at times it reaches a level of inspired absurdity that left me gasping at my screen. It's like that long buried VHS epic you made with your friends in grade school (if you happened to go to grade school outside of Gaziantep), an amateur effort you'd probably rather stayed buried. But just in case you're feeling archaeological or nostalgic, here's the link to see for yourself.

SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN 
THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) - Lamont Johnson πŸš€1/2


After watching five unseen Star Wars rips, I decided to circle back to my childhood comfort zone, revisit a few space operas I remembered enjoying as a kid. For some reason, Spacehunter always held a sweet spot in my movie memories, but seeing it again some 30+ years later I'm not sure exactly why. The Forbidden Zone isn't really that forbidding. And our hero Wolff (Peter Strauss) is kind of a drip, Han Solo without the caustic wit.

Perhaps it was the 3-D. Spacehunter was among the first movies in the early '80s 3-D revival craze, reportedly one of the most expensive too. I know for sure I saw it in the theatre, so I must have seen it originally with those ubiquitous red and blue lens specs. Perhaps it was Wolff's shrill young sidekick, Molly Ringwald. Sixteen Candles came out around the same time, and my affection for the film could have been the byproduct of some adolescent crush. Ernie Hudson as Spacehunter's comrade in arms? Doubtful. Ghostbusters didn't come out until the summer of '84. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with the OTHER movie Spacehunter was ripping off. The souped post-apocalyptic trucks and armored transport vans. The chain mail outfits. The obstacle course fortress of the evil Overdog (Michael Ironside) that reeked of "poor man's Thunderdome." Two words, neither of them Star Wars. I'm talking Road Warrior, folks.

THE ICE PIRATES (1984) - Stewart Raffill πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


By 1984, the last of the original Star Wars trilogy had come and gone, I was speeding dangerously towards puberty and growing weary of all things Jedi. Girls were becoming the new creatures worthy of prolonged contemplation, and the sci-fi action figures littering my bedroom floor were starting to seem like sad opposable jokes. Apparently, I hadn't gotten all the Wars out of my system though, because I remember being quite excited about this new space opera that had just hit Betamax and VHS. It was called The Ice Pirates, and, boy, was I in for a cold splash of water to my still acne-free face.

The shock was that the movie itself was in on the joke. Couched somewhere between Star Wars homage and its later, funnier straight-up spoof, Spaceballs, Ice Pirates was an odd '80s middle child. It mucked about in the George Lucas Universe but also made half-hearted attempts to breach the Land of Zucker Brothers too. Put it this way: A few of the robots in the movie speak "jive," one or two of them are working pimps. There's a subplot involving an outbreak of "space herpes" (pictured, bottom left), fleshy nubbins that erupt from cracked pods and scuttle about the spacecraft. The movie is rife with eunuch jokes, and the most memorable scene in the film involves a factory castration device that chomps people's private parts. Did I mention that Bruce Vilanch is in this thing? First as a decadent space king/queen and later as a wisecracking severed head.

Long story short, I loved The Ice Pirates, maybe more now than I did then. 50% of the jokes do not connect whatsoever, but, light years later, I finally understand the very adult-oriented targets at which they're taking aim. Open Letter to Rian Johnson: I'll give you $100 if you give a major character in Episode VIII a nagging case of space herpes, $50 if you squeeze in a cameo by a bodiless Bruce Vilanch. Just for kicks, mind you. I'm pretty sure, given the box office returns of Force Awakens, he won't be needing the cash.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

JJL: BLACK + BLUE FOR YOU


It all begins with a hard elbow to the face.

It's late December 2015, fifteen minutes into an opening weekend matinee of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8. John "The Hangman" Ruth has just delivered an unexpected, bone-crunching blow to the nasal bridge of his already bruised prisoner, Daisy Domergue, in a stagecoach bound for Red Rock. Now Daisy's nose is pouring blood, and bounty hunters Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson are howling with laughter. Worse, the audience around me is bellowing louder. I suddenly feel queasy. Sure, this "Daisy Domergue" is a nasty customer—a convicted murderer, an unrepentant racist who's mostly got what's coming—but she also happens to be played by one of my favorite actresses, an artist whose work I've followed faithfully through the years. In that moment, John Ruth wasn't just cold-cocking Daisy Domergue. This was Tarantino, the director, gleefully punching Jennifer Jason Leigh.

My gut reaction was to be outraged, offended: "Hasn't JJL endured enough brutality over the years? Does your overly long, overly loquacious western really warrant this?" Even when Daisy licked the blood from her lips with a masochistic smile and Jack White's "Apple Blossom" kicked in—"Okay, so she likes it?"—I remained uneasy. The whole scene read as needlessly sadistic, especially from a noted cinefile who I knew must be steeped in her past work. Would QT have treated Pam Grier this way in Jackie Brown? I highly doubt it. But, alas, with JJL he was just getting warmed up.

The brutality heaped upon Daisy only mounted as the movie continued. In the first 20 minutes, she's not only elbowed harshly in the nose but also cracked on the head with the butt of a gun, punched out of the moving stagecoach. Over the course of the three hour film (more if you caught the roadshow version), she has scalding hot stew thrown in her face, blood vomited onto her face, her brother Jody's brains sprayed onto her point blank. Her front teeth are punched out, her prized guitar smashed to smithereens (a real-life antique). The final images of the film include JJL being strung up from the haberdashery rafters to die a slow, creaking death before our eyes. Coming out of the movie, I was shell-shocked. I couldn't decide if Daisy Domergue was Tarantino's perversely backhanded celebration of JJL and her past work or just another case of a "misogynist" male director pissing all over her resume. Was he using this brilliant but semi-retired actress in her early 50s as some kind of retro punchline? Worse, a retro punching bag?


For those not familiar with Leigh's filmography, take my word: she's already suffered plenty of heinous physical abuses onscreen throughout the years. She didn't need extra help from old QT. Whether they are being pulled apart between two semi trucks (The Hitcher), gang-raped by sailors on a shipping dock (Last Exit to Brooklyn) or ravaged by medieval hordes (Flesh + Blood), Jennifer Jason Leigh's characters have endured their fair share of traumatic events. For a post-grindhouse era actress, sexual violence and its after-effects have featured shockingly regularly on her early CV. For a large swath of  her career, she was known for playing victims, prostitutes, addicts, "crazies." Let's face it: Many of her characters are less than inspirational figures. Most of her earlier movies would not pass the much ballyhooed Bechdel Test.

You could argue this was a product of typecasting. But, given comments Leigh's made in interviews throughout the years, you could also say that she actively sought out these punishing roles. In the '80s and early '90s, if you needed an actress to give 110% body and soul to a performance, you gave JJL a call. She would get "black and blue for you"…emotionally, physically, literally. Though many of her directors throughout the years were males with a reputation for artistically rendered sadism (Verhoeven, Schroeder, Altman), JJL has also worked with a more than average number of female directors (Lili Zanuck, Angelica Huston, Agnieszka Holland). Her choices can't so easily be written off as just another case of a fine actress fallen victim to the Old Boy's Club (despite JJL featuring briefly in an '86 movie titled The Men's Club). Violence, and more specifically sexualized violence, was not just an unfortunate side item in her work; it seemed to be the running theme, one she was choosing voluntarily to explore. You could say she was a body artist in this sense, her own bared and bruised skin the frequently mistreated canvas. But now, some 30+ years into her career, what is the takeaway?

When Jennifer Jason Leigh was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Hateful 8 in early February, I was still in something of a quandary about her Daisy Domergue. On the one hand, the nomination seemed like the Academy being late to their own party as always, playing catch-up with a great actor they should've showered awards upon years ago. If it were my vote, JJL would've already snagged a Best Actress Oscar in the mid-'90s for one of her stellar leading roles in Georgia or Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle, if not both. On the other hand, why quibble? JJL was finally being recognized by the industry, even if it was for a lesser Tarantino film, one that largely kept her silent among bloviating men for the duration, treated her as a repository for body blows and copious amounts of upchucked blood. Given the movie's emphasis on violence, was this nomination a perfect summation/celebration of her talents or just another exploitative smack in the face?

I decided to further investigate, revisit Leigh's career from the beginning, re-watch some of my JJL favorites and catch up on some of her lesser known films. It would take me approximately 25 movies and several loose groupings of the roles she's played throughout the years (rather than a strict chronological ordering) to come to a verdict. And, if not a verdict, then at least a renewed appreciation. The "body artist's" body of work, viewed through the lens of one of her filmography's dominant themes.

The "Good Girls": Tracy, Casey, Stacy


Eyes of a Stranger (1981)

An uncredited guest spot on TV's Baretta notwithstanding, JJL's first silver screen appearance at the age of 18 was in this mostly routine slasher flick. Here, she plays Tracy, the blind, deaf and mute teenage daughter of a TV anchorwoman (Lauren Tewes) who's investigating a local serial killer. For the most part, JJL's role is marginal. If it weren't for the last 20 minutes, you could write the whole thing off as Leigh earning her obligatory SAG card (and reportedly losing out on her real life high school diploma at the same time). But in the closing minutes, when young Tracy becomes the focus of the killer's revenge and is brutally attacked in her home by an assailant she is unable to hear or see, a real actress emerges in the process…as well as a recurrent theme. In a questionable turn of events, the attack Tracy narrowly escapes miraculously restores her hearing, vision and speech, all of which she finds again in a stirring moment staring at herself in the bathroom mirror once the killer is dead. Redemption/renewal through violation? This seems to be what this otherwise run of the mill horror flick, intended or not, is oh-so recklessly suggesting.


The Best Little Girl in The World (1981)

That same year, Leigh would star in a TV movie which would become her serious actor calling card, a role which was originally to go to the already established Jodie Foster. Like Christian Bale in The Machinist (a movie JJL was also in years later), young Leigh would shed a massive amount of weight (a reported 86 pounds) to take on the role of Casey, a suburban teen battling anorexia. For a primetime-friendly "ABC Movie of the Week," the telefilm contains some heavy adult subject matter. Though the script generally pins the cause of Casey's eating disorder to her parents' obliviousness (she's the family "good girl," her older sister the "bad girl" who gets all the attention), her vomiting and furious midnight sit-up regimens don't really begin until she's nearly date-raped in a parked car by an overzealous high school crush. Soon, Casey is dropping an alarming amount of weight (her skeletal profile in the doctor's office gave me nightmares as a kid), being force-fed peanut butter sandwiches by her desperate father (Charles Durning). Several hospitalizations later, she's finally got a caring therapist (Jason Miller) with a pinball machine in his office who convinces her to talk out her feelings, indulge in the healing powers of ice cream. Remember, this was network TV.


Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

If you're familiar with any of JJL's early work, then you're probably most familiar with Stacy Hamilton, Ridgemont High's (and Tom Petty's) resident "American Girl." Stacy was Leigh's breakout role and Fast Times the movie that truly catapulted her film acting career (not to mention a few of her contemporaries). For a relatively good-natured '80s high school coming of age comedy, it still seems refreshingly candid about sex, the growing pains of making out and hooking up. Though a hop-scotching ensemble piece, the movie's emotional core is, without a doubt, Stacy. The script is built around her first tentative forays into relations with the opposite gender, and Leigh proves the very relatable center axis around which a dozen or more caricatures spin (Jeff Spicoli, I'm looking at you, bud). Whether she's learning oral sex techniques from more experienced friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates), having sex for the first time with an older man in a baseball dugout under a disturbing splash of graffiti ("Surf Nazis") or falling prey to a poolside "fuck-n-run" from the school's resident ticket scalper, Damone (Ray Romanus), JJL suffers a host of sexual disappointments. Of all the bad things that happen to Leigh's characters throughout her career, one could argue that Damone's failure to show for her scheduled abortion appointment is a particularly cruel low. But, never ye fear, this was a movie penned by Cameron Crowe, so JJL does get the nice guy in the end (Brian Backer). Even if he also happens to work at the mall movie theatre and is nicknamed "The Rat."

The "Bad Girls": Allison, Agnes, Allegra


Easy Money (1983)

After graduating Ridgemont High and a second TV movie where she was sold into a white slavery karaoke ring in Japan (Death Ride to Osaka, 1983), JJL was finally getting offered a few "bad girl" roles. By "bad girls," I don't mean Daisy Domergue bad…more like adventurous, liberated women who actively enjoyed sex on their own terms (i.e., "modern"). Easy Money is mostly a throwaway in JJL's career—an intermittently funny Rodney Dangerfield comedy in which her role as his Irish Catholic daughter is little more than a glorified cameo. "Allison" begins the movie as a wedding night virgin, appalled by the acts her new husband (Taylor Negron) is suggesting in their roadside motel honeymoon suite. But it only takes a few pages into The Joy of Sex before she's getting with the program so much that she's running the program, a source of worry to her new groom now that his wife has seemingly become a "sex freak."


Flesh + Blood (1985)

Leave it to director Paul Verhoeven to bestow Jennifer Jason Leigh with arguably her best "bad girl" role. Also, her most problematic in terms of gender politics. Agnes is a spoiled 15th century Plague-era princess raised in a repressive convent and now chomping at the bit for Experience with a capital E. She forces one of her handmaidens to have sex with a field worker for her personal entertainment, then sups on wine and mandrake root and suggests to her husband-to-be (Tom Burlinson) that they do the same. But before the newlyweds get a chance to consummate, Agnes is stolen away by a band of mercenaries headed by Rutger Hauer. On the verge of being ravaged by his men, Leigh is "saved" by Hauer…but only so he can have her for himself.

What would normally be just another eye roll-worthy, male-directed rape scene soon takes on an added layer when JJL's character turns the tables on Hauer in the middle of the act. "You think you're hurting me, but I like it," she says looking him fearlessly in the eye, robbing him of his conquesting pleasure. Theirs is an S&M-tinged relationship, one that lays the groundwork Daisy Domergue-John Ruth's in The Hateful 8 (it's no big surprise QT played clips of F+B before his Hateful roadshow). The two soon become something like equal partners in sex and pillaging. JJL even gets "top-billing" in the medieval hot tub scene. Only in the film's conclusion, when she's finally "rescued" by her husband, does it dawn on Agnes what has actually occurred. "I just realized what happened to me," she says, as if coming down from a nasty case of Stockholm Syndrome in lieu of escaping the Black Death.


Existenz (1999)

Though JJL played numerous world-weary escorts and sex workers in the intervening years after Flesh + Blood, it wasn't until David Cronenberg's virtual reality teaser at the end of the '90s that another of her characters was given the opportunity to so gleefully embrace the peculiar comforts of perversion, assume the dominant role. Here Leigh plays Allegra, the designer of a virtual reality game called Existenz. All the game controllers (their "joysticks," for better or worse) resemble female genitals and need to be stimulated by touch in order to start the game. As the game's creator, JJL operates like a goddess or dominatrix within the world of Existenz, and the "security expert" (Jude Law) accompanying her through the labyrinthine storyline functions as her fall guy/boy toy. Watching the movie again, I began to lose track of the number of times JJL mischievously licks her finger and penetrates the "bio-port" at the rear of Law's back, a highly sexualized combination of USB slot, anus and tramp stamp. In Existenz, it seems Cronenberg has given JJL (at age 37) her most sexually empowered role. Watching the delight Allegra takes in toying with the men in her game is like watching JJL get some measure of revenge on the more pedestrian parts of her resume. It's a mystery how the "body artist" and the longtime master of body horror never hooked up before this.

The "Crazies": Lucy, Carol, Hedy


Sister, Sister (1987)

By the late '80s, Leigh was in her mid-20s and entering a fertile period in her career, one frequently populated with characters plagued by childhood traumas, many of them violent in nature. Mental illness and its outward effects was becoming a recurrent strain in her portrayals. "Troubled" would be the polite term for many of these women; but "certifiable" could certainly describe one or two. JJL's first troubled character of note was in Bill Condon's directorial debut, Sister, Sister, an overheated Southern Gothic thriller in the lapsed Tennessee Williams mode. Here she plays Lucy, the psychically fragile, sheltered younger sister to Judith Ivey in an old money plantation on the Lousiana Bayou. Lucy suffers from very vivid (and often highly eroticized) dreams. She claims she sees dead people and is mostly kept under lock and key by Ivey. When a potential suitor enters the picture in the form of Eric Stoltz, sisterly jealousy abounds and those locks tighten. As it turns out, Ivey may be the real crazy one (not much of a twist), both sisters suffering from a kind of shared PTSD after murdering a local man (gasp! Stoltz's older brother!) who tried to molest them as teens.


Heart of Midnight (1988)

The following year, Leigh played Carol, another fragile soul with a troubled past who inherits her recently deceased uncle's sex club after recovering from a nervous breakdown. Given her history with horrible men, I'm guessing JJL would've just preferred cash. Carol wanders about the club talking to herself, singing to herself, hiring day laborers to spruce things up, despite the club being located in the seediest of neighborhoods (imagine the East Village but 30 years ago). There are glimmers of hope that Carol may be able to turn her life around…until a gang of toughs led by a young Steve Buscemi burst through the doors one night and Carol falls victim to (you guessed it) another rape. Add insult to injury, the cop assigned to her case is a Grade A sleazeball (Peter Coyote, an ace at playing sleazeballs) who isn't sure if she's telling the truth but decides to make awkward predatory advances on her nonetheless. Sadly for Carol (and this terrible movie) he is the closest thing she's got to a love interest.

Soon Carol is having disturbing visions of the club's sex dungeon past, and Club Midnight becomes a veritable echo chamber of her past traumas. It's also a good excuse for director Matthew Chapman to poorly ape David Lynch. Heart of Midnight may be the queasiest I've ever felt watching a JJL movie, more so than Hateful 8. Not because of the grim subject matter, but because Leigh gives an 110% performance to a movie and director who are, simply put, not worthy of her talents. Perhaps her upcoming role in the Twin Peaks revival will serve as a corrective; she will get to work with the real deal Lynch for a change.


Single White Female (1992)

A few years later, Leigh would finally get her chance to nail the psychological thriller genre to the wall (with a hook!) and play her most famous of "crazies"—Hedy, in Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female. Unlike JJL's previous borderline characters, Hedy's problems mostly derive from having lost a twin sister at an early age rather than some violent childhood encounter. The film's deft (but decidedly genre-bound) script by Don Roos allows JJL the space to grow into her psychosis. At first, Hedy seems like the perfect no-drama roommate to Bridget Fonda's Upper West Side software designer. Then, some 30 minutes into the film when the clothes borrowing begins and the expensive matching haircuts come out, we begin to realize Hedy is a needy, neurotic obsessive…maybe something worse. For a relatively boilerplate '90s Hollywood thriller, Leigh's performance in SWF is a carefully modulated thing of beauty. Just watch the scene where her character is called upon to first seduce Fonda's boyfriend (Steven Weber), then emotionally blackmail him, then convince him why he needs her, why Fonda needs her, and then, when she doesn't get her way, just as casually stab a stiletto heel into his eye. So much emotional territory to cover in one scene, and JJL does it seamlessly. Then shoelessly.

The Working Girls: Tralala, Susie, Lois


Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)

By the early '90s, JJL's career was in full ascendancy. But rather than expend her new found industry capital in a slew of bubbly ingΓ©nue roles or big budget rom-coms, she chose to go deeper and darker, by exploring the seamier sides of the world's oldest profession in several key  smaller films. In a recent SAG-AFTRA retrospective of her work, JJL describes an audition for 1990's Pretty Woman wherein director Gary Marshall suggested she was playing the character of "Vivian" (later played by Julia Roberts) as too morose. He explained that Vivian was still new to being a prostitute and "should be having more fun with it!" It was then when Leigh realized that the mainstream Hollywood portrayals of sex workers based on Roy Orbison songs was probably not the best way to go.

Despite her sing-songy name, Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn is nobody's version of warm, fuzzy pop song (a tragic barroom blues number, perhaps). Part neo-realist Italian streetwalker in the Fellini-Masina tradition, part Horatio Alger nightmare by way of the BQE, she's a byproduct of her working class Brooklyn neighborhood (Sunset Park, as per the book). She "turns tricks" by tricking sailors out of their money, picking them up in rundown bars, then walking them out to the docks where her gang of male co-horts bop them over the head and steal their money before she's ever undressed. Only on rare occasions does Tralala offer the full scope of her services, and when she does it's usually for bigger payoffs with more well-to-do johns in Manhattan so she can score bragging rights back home in "the neighborhood." Tralala's not really looking for betterment across the bridge; she's already given up on that. She just wants the fattest, fastest buck she can get.

JJL is in peak character actress form here, her squeaky outer borough accent and hip-thrusting vamp walk always dancing dangerously on the edge of parody, a perfect blend of Old Hollywood hooker homage and real-life working girl. Though Tralala ultimately suffers one of the cruelest, ugliest fates in movie history (i.e., being drunkenly gang-raped on the docks by a string of drunker men), JJL portrays her as more world-weary predator than tragic victim. Whether employing her "count to ten" method of bar pickups, shouting her self-advertisement "best tits in the Western World" to a barroom full of leering johns or screaming drunken taunts as she's being violated to bring on more and more men—"I'll fuck 'em blind!"—Leigh does her best to remind you that Tralala is as much aggressor as these men. She's a survivor when all is said and done. Even after her brutal rape, when the neighborhood boy who loves her comes to find her semi-conscious on a dirty mattress, it's not Tralala who does the weeping. It's Tralala who comforts him.


Miami Blues (1990)

The following year, JJL would play a different breed of prostitute in a small crime film co-starring with Alec Baldwin as "Susie," reportedly one of her favorite film roles. Though they share the same profession (if not the same climate), Susie from Lake Okeechobee couldn't be further in personality from Brooklyn's Tralala. Whereas Tralala is all jaded opportunism, Miami Dade business major Susie still looks at the world with sun-kissed vivaciousness, despite her dubious side gig. She is optimism personified—a multi-tasker with big (mostly crackpot) future plans. When she's not meeting sociopathic career criminals in downtown Miami hotel rooms, she's taking haiku courses, water ballet or Spanish lessons. She's got "10 grand in a bank money CD" and big dreams to open a successful Burger World franchise. Of course, these plans all go to hell when she meets Freddy Frenger (Baldwin), and if there's any tragic flaw to Susie it's that she makes the mistake of pinning all her dreams to a bad, lying man. She probably shouldn't have broken the first of rule of the call girl game, kissed him on the lips during that first "date." But then Susie, as JJL plays her, is just a good-hearted small town Florida girl with high hopes and low standards in men. "He never hit me," she bluntly explains to cop Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) at the end of the film, her explanation for how she could stay with Frenger as long as she did. Considering what Susie's seen in life (and what JJL had already experienced in her career), that rationale almost makes sense.


Short Cuts (1993)

Though not technically playing a prostitute here, Leigh's brief appearance in Robert Altman's sprawling Short Cuts as phone sex operator and work-from-home mom, Lois, is noteworthy for its connection to the recurrent theme of sexualized violence running through her work. This time, the violence is fortunately not enacted on JJL, but the film's narrative seems to suggest it's her character's blasΓ© attitude about her job and its effects on her marriage that urges her long-suffering pool cleaner husband (Chris Penn) to murder an innocent teenage girl in Griffith Park at the film's end. Watching Lois casually dirty-talk anonymous strangers to orgasm on the phone while she's changing his children's diapers eventually drives Penn's character to despair. That, and the fact that she's too tired after a full day of talking sex to have actual sex with him before bed. There's also the incident at a jazz bar where a sleazy patron offers her money for back alley oral sex, and Lois doesn't give the money back soon enough for Penn's tastes. In truth, Lois is just an overworked mom trying to make ends meet. But, as seen through her husband's intensely jealous male gaze, she might as well be the worst of Mary Magdalenes.

The Jaded Addicts: Dorothy, Sadie


Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)

1994 was a very good career year for JJL, perhaps her best. Fresh off her success in Single White Female, she'd just worked with Robert Altman in Short Cuts, then the Coen Brothers in The Hudsucker Proxy, playing the fast-talking Hepburn-esque '50s investigative reporter Amy Archer. Though a fun role that allowed her to employ a funnier accent, it didn't exactly call for her to "go deep." That chance would soon come, however, when Altman suggested to colleague Alan Rudolph that he cast Leigh as legendary screenwriter and wisecrack practitioner Dorothy Parker in his upcoming biopic. Her vocal inflections would be similar to Archer's, but Dorothy's cadence slower, her witticisms harsher, her most withering remarks aimed directly at herself. The real life Parker was known for her alcoholism as much as her acerbic wit. She was a highly literate depressive and generally disregarded the services she performed for Hollywood as "hack work."

JJL plays her as one of the industry's walking wounded, a boozy fountain of sugar-coated despair. She's in love with her platonic writing colleague Robert Benchley (a very good Campbell Scott), but they both know their mercurial personalities will never allow a traditional love relationship. Her self-hatred is palpable in every passing quip, every bon mot another psychic bruise she's trying to cover up. Though she suffers only one physical blow in entire movie (a slap from her alcoholic first husband played by Andrew McCarthy), JJL has Dorothy react more amused than hurt, so accustomed as she is to weapons coming in the form of words. It's like she's saying: "Why bother slapping me? Can't you see you see that the damage I'm doing to myself on the inside is far worse?" JJL's Dorothy is addicted, yes, but mostly to her own misery.


Georgia (1995)

The next year, Leigh tackled a more personal portrayal of addiction in Georgia, a screenplay written by her mother, Barbara Turner, and reportedly influenced by her relationship with her own sister. Here Leigh plays Sadie Flood, a hard-drinking, drugging and drifting alt-rocker who lives in the shadow of her successful folk singer older sister (Mare Winningham). "Sadie," as JJL portrays her, is all jangly nerves, a vortex of quivering need. She doesn't have what you'd call "natural talent" as a singer; the best compliment you could give her is that she is "raw" and persistent. She's not a person you'd want to spend a lot of time with in real life, but, given the truth that JJL instills in her performance, you're always pulling for Sadie to patch things up with her sister, pull her life together, finally hit those high notes. It might be Leigh's most mannered performance, but it's also one of her best. Call it a companion piece to Nic Cage's alcoholic screenwriter in Leaving Las Vegas that same year, though Georgia (or Leigh) didn't get nearly the same amount of press.

The Cautious Romantics: Catherine, Sally, Lisa


Washington Square (1997)

By the late '90s, Leigh was into her mid-30s and entering that typically difficult age range for mainstream Hollywood actresses. A few female directors came to her rescue, however. The first was Angelica Huston in 1996 in a Showtime movie about a southern family with a history of abuse, Bastard Out of Carolina. For once, Leigh wasn't playing the abused party but the mother of the abused. More notably the following year, Agnieszka Holland gave her a crack at period piece romance in the Henry James adaptation, Washington Square. Here, Leigh plays the shy, clumsy and not terribly bright society wallflower, Catherine.

Once again, Leigh's character is caught between two crap men: her domineering father (Albert Finney) who wants to protect his inheritance, and the handsome young suitor, Morris, who's been inexplicably nosing around (Ben Chaplin). Catherine develops enough self-awareness (and self-doubt) to realize that Morris may only be after her father's money, but for a large stretch of the movie she allows herself to be cautiously optimistic that he's not. In the end, Morris turns out to be the manipulative cad her father (and the audience) expected and her father something worse—a punitive miser. She doesn't get the money or her man, but when the last will is read JJL plays Catherine as oddly relieved. Her life is finally free of both men. She's come to better know herself.


The Anniversary Party (2001)

"Know Thyself" could almost be the alternative title to JJL's self-starring directorial debut several years later, The Anniversary Party. This shot-on-video film plays like an extended (albeit entertaining) JJL therapy session. Here Leigh segues heavily autobiographical as "Sally," a Hollywood actress "of a certain age" who's just reunited with her writer/director boyfriend, Joe (Alan Cumming). Insider industry talk abounds. She's worried that her days as a successful thespian might be drying up. A party guest is heard to say about Sally that "she always gets robbed at the Oscars." She loves Joe madly but is also suspicious of his new, younger blonde ingΓ©nue (Gwyneth Paltrow). Considering events with JJL and her husband Noah Baumbach years later (Greta Gerwig, anyone?), these scenes now read as uncomfortably prophetic. It's an exhausting film to watch, especially when the Ecstasy tabs come out and all the characters begin oversharing, countless emotional rescues delivered poolside. The best scene comes near the end between Leigh and longtime real-life pal Phoebe Cates. They have a candid "truth talk" in front of a poster of the two of them from the Fast Times days. But, this time, the conversation is not all about the men in their lives. Finally, a JJL film that passes the Bechdel Test!


Anomalisa (2015)

After her 40th Anniversary, JJL's acting career finally began to enter the fallow period she had practically prophesied in her directorial debut. Other than some supporting roles playing supportive wives in big budget Hollywood films and two small roles in then-husband Noah Baumbach's movies, she'd become a mother in real life and reached the point where she nearly decided to retire. "I thought I'd had a good run," she's said frequently in recent interviews. But year 2015 proved that that run was not quite over. Her role in The Hateful 8 might've made the bigger splash and finally earned her an Academy Award nomination, but it's the animated Anomalisa that could prove more interesting in the long term, a harbinger of bigger, better roles to come.

Here, Leigh plays Lisa, one of only two non-Tom Noonan voiced characters in the movie. To the ears of salesman Michael Stone (David Thewlis), her voice is a revelation the first time he hears it, as is JJL's to the audience after so many years away. Lisa is earthy, natural, hesitant. She's made of opposable plastic but also very real. She's an older woman (30s? 40s? 50s? hard to tell with puppets), but she's managed to preserve some degree of optimism in her years. She's a scarred character—literally, her face is scarred from an unnamed accident—but she's learned how to protect herself in life and in love.

Despite being limited to a sound performance, JJL's "Lisa" blooms in the mind, a compendium of her past characters. There's a little bit of Stacy's innocence in Lisa, some of Catherine's embarrassment. There's a bit of Agnes and Tralala's bravery, some of Dorothy's self-deprecation. There's a good deal of Susie's sunniness and maybe just a touch of Hedy's  disturbing neuroses…though I'd wager Lisa is taking meds for that. Best of all, Lisa suffers zero physical violence in the film. About the worst thing that happens to her is being on the receiving end of an awkward bout of oral sex.


Which brings us back to…Daisy Domergue. For me, whether or not Leigh's performance is Oscar-worthy is not the interesting question (I absolutely believe it is). The more interesting question is: At this point in her career, is Daisy Domergue worthy of Leigh? Where does Daisy fit into the JJL resume? Honestly, I'm still at a bit of a loss.

She's definitely no kind of "good girl" and arguably the baddest of Leigh's "bad girls." She's got a whole lotta "crazy" in her and, though not technically a "working girl," you could easily imagine Daisy turning a trick if pressed. Is she jaded? "Well, duh" in Daisy's own words. Is she an addict? Sure, addicted to beef jerky and jarring racial epithets. Is she at all romantic? Hmm, that's a tougher one. She certainly seemed to love her brother (Channing Tatum) a little too much before his brains were sprayed into her lap. Does Tarantino's hateful, highly abusive western do this finest of actresses justice? And will the industry finally do the same? I guess I'll have the answer to that one come Sunday when I settle down to watch the Academy Awards…JJL's latest brutal three-hour endurance test.