Tuesday, September 01, 2015

SEPTEMBER: ALTMAN SHORT ENDS


In six days, this humble film review blog will turn 10 years old. It's hard to believe I've been bloviating about movies in written form for that long. On September 6th, 2005 (just after the Labor Day weekend), I made a ridiculous pact with myself to "clean out my VHS closet," watch 120 analog movies in the remaining 119 days left in the year and blog about them all. This was before the heyday of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, mind you. Blogs were actually a COOL NEW THING at the time and BINGE BLOGGING even cooler. This particular blog didn't bear the name it has now (which came later in 2010) but the address was the same. Browse a few old entries and you'll quickly discover...I didn't even know how to upload pictures, much less make a banner head.

Despite a few technical difficulties and some year-end exhaustion, I mostly got the job done. I watched 100 of those suckers before year's end, even assigned them handy cassette-based ratings. In case you're wondering, yes, I was mostly out of work that fall of 2005, living in Los Angeles where it's far easier to be gainfully unemployed. And, yes, I had way too much time on my hands that probably could've been put to better use (like scrounging up another screenwriting gig). Surprisingly enough, I did have a live-in girlfriend at the time (who had her own blog, of course), though from what I recall we were fast headed for a break-up. Who knows...this blog and my nightly hogging of the TV (a tube monitor) may have been the final nail in that coffin. That, and the fact that she pulled a "Meryl Streep in Manhattan" on me. Yep...even my break-ups are cinema-themed.

What does all of this have to do with Robert Altman? And what do I mean by "short ends"? Well, the very first theme (weekly, not monthly then) of the very first review on this blog was "Altman Odds and Ends." Altman, one of my favorite directors of all time, was still alive at that point, and I'd seen the majority of his work but not all of it (the man's filmography is DENSE). So I took it under task to watch those films of his I hadn't seen which I possessed on VHS. Well, it seems I completed that job but not the one of finishing out Altman's complete filmography, the few remaining theatrical films I still need to see...his "short ends." And by "filmography" I do mean FILMography. There's no way I will ever get through all of his TV work, though I'm going to take a crack at one HBO miniseries this month, in addition to rounding out his unseen film work. I'm gainfully employed, living in Brooklyn and ten years older now. A man only has so much stamina for that many episodes of Combat!, The Whirlybirds or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

There's another reason for the "short ends" in the post title. One, because I don't have many Altmans left to watch, so this month will be "short" on content. Also, because after I finish out these Altmans, this blog, after ten long years, will "END" in so many words. Or at least go dormant for quite a while. Or possibly take on some other lifeform. I haven't quite decided yet, but the "end" is definitely nigh. If you couldn't tell by the declining quality of posts over the last few months/years (or the gimmicky postcard, GIF-themed months etc.), I'm getting a bit tired of this blogging thing. So very tired. I'm even a little tired of watching movies, heaven forbid. When Labor Day 2015 rolls around, I will need to focus my labors on other things. More to come on this decision. "Stay tuned," as they say.

In the meantime, let's circle back to this humble blog's beginnings and watch a few last leftover Altmans before Cashiers closes out the register and shuts off the store lights for the last time. What a long, strange decade it has been...

Monday, August 31, 2015

4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH (2011) - Abel Ferrara


Hopefully, when the End of Days finally comes, I'm not online nearly as much as the characters in this film. Seriously. A better title may have been 4:20 Last Day on Skype.

When Dafoe and his live-in artist girlfriend aren't watching a 24-hour feed of NY1, having lazy sex, ordering in Vietnamese food (yes, they still DO still deliver on Judgment Day), or making bad artwork, they're chatting it up with relatives online, watching old Dalai Lama/Joseph Campbell YouTube videos and generally waiting around for the massive hole in the ozone layer to erupt and a blinding white light to evaporate the world. This being an Abel Ferrara film, ex-junkie Dafoe is, of course, also resisting a strong urge to go score heroin at a local friend's apartment. He mostly manages to resist...but only after a pretty unwatchable confrontation scene with his clean and sober girlfriend (i.e., Ferrara's girlfriend) in their bathroom. And that's not even mentioning the VERY UNWATCHABLE scene in which his girlfriend catches Dafoe Skyping with his ex-wife.

I get it...The Apocalypse as just another humdrum day. It's an interesting premise, and for a while I was on board with 4:44 in concept, if not the execution. Until it started to feel like everyone was only on Skype or watching the Tube because the production itself didn't have enough money to go on location. I wonder if there was enough money in the budget to pay Paz De La Huerta for her entirely extraneous two-second cameo. I wonder if NY1's Pat Keirnan at least got some free Vietnamese.

Friday, August 28, 2015

CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS (2008) &
NAPOLI, NAPOLI, NAPOLI (2009) - Abel Ferrara


In the interest of finishing up (or coming close to it) the Ferrara filmography, this week I watched a few of his location-based documentaries with "dramatic reenactments" interspersed throughout. The first was about the Chelsea Hotel, then in the midst of a "new management" crisis. The other was about the mafia drenched city of Naples, which, judging from countless poliziotteschi films with "Napoli" in the title, has always a problem with crime.

In both cases, Ferrara gets more interesting results when he just sticks to the facts--the documentary footage or interviews with non-celebrities telling their personal stories, longtime denizens of the Chelsea (including himself) or, in Napoli's case, its overcrowded prisons' many inmates. Where he lost me was the dramatic reenactments, which are especially forced and hard to stomach in Chelsea, with name actors recreating imagined scenes involving Sid and Nancy or Janis Joplin. I'll put it to you this way: Bijou Phillips plays Nancy Spungen. Are you buying that? Though I do admit it was nice to see Milos Forman in the lobby refusing to take off his coat.


The reenactments in Napoli go down easier, if only because they're in another language (Italian), don't have a lot of dialogue and feature actors you wouldn't otherwise recognize. It's mostly handheld, police stakeout type footage, and plays like a grungier Gomorrah or an old Fernando di Leo film mixed in between the talking heads. Is it hard-hitting news that Naples is a depressed, crime-ridden municipality? No, probably not. And Ferrara isn't exactly David Simon--his tendency is to stay more on the surface of things rather than go systemically deep. There are some interesting, heartbreaking stories here and there. But the highlight definitely comes at the end, underneath the closing credits...the Dark Prince of Indie Cinema himself onstage at one of the prison's playing an acoustic version of Schoolly D's "King of New York." It could just me, but there's something infinitely amusing in hearing Ferrara sing-speak the lines: "Cause all I care about is selling my lleyo / Makin' money like a nigga make mayo."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

GO GO TALES (2007) - Abel Ferrara


Finally, an aughts era Abel movie I can get behind! I guess it took a strip club setting and a sort-of remake of a Cassavetes film (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) to get the job done, hit that sweet spot in the middle of his two divergent operating modes as a director...pretension and sleaze.

Go Go is definitely in his NYC comfort zone (though most of it was filmed in Rome's Cinecitta Studios). Willem Dafoe plays the owner of a semi-tasteful Manhattan burlesque club so far behind on his rent that he's taken to purchasing fixed lottery ticket numbers to save his club from becoming a Bed, Bath and Beyond. But when his lucky number finally comes up, guess what, somebody lost the ticket. Lots of thick New Yawk accents and shouting about paychecks ensues. We even get to hear Dafoe croon on stage at one point. 


That's right, this is Abel Ferrara doing intentional comedy. And nailing it. Go Go may be the closest he ever comes to a Robert Altman film. It reminded me of a few of Altman's one-location pictures, say, Come Back to the Five and Dime or A Prairie Home Companion. The plot is mostly as an excuse to glide around the club and catch lots of spirited improvising. But it's good improvising, this time (unlike, say, The Blackout). So many great actors milling about. In addition to Dafoe...Bob Hoskins, Sylvia Miles, Burt Young, Matthew Modine (again). And then there's also Asia Argento. 

This movie didn't get a lot of press (or distribution) when it came out for some reason. If you've heard anything at all about it, it was probably that Argento plays a stripper who french kisses a Rottweiler. This is, indeed, true. So on the sleaze to pretension scale, Go Go is definitely weighted more towards the sleaze. Though, who knows, maybe the Rottweiler was named "Antonioni."

MARY (2005) - Abel Ferrara


I feel Matthew Modine's pain. First he had to suffer the slings and arrows alcohol/crack addiction and pretentious direction in The Blackout. Now, in Mary, he has to portray Jesus Christ and the Abel Ferrara-inspired director of said Christ movie both in the same film. Talk about your double whammys. But enough about Jesus-Abel-Modine. This movie is called Mary and is, I think, supposed to be about an actress named "Marie" (Juliette Binoche) who gets so into the role of Mary Magdalene that she "stays in character" even after the filming ends, undergoing her own sort of religious conversion. This might have been interesting, but Ferrara gives that plotline and Binoche the short shrift for the most part, choosing to focus too much of his run time on a Charlie Rose type journalist (Forest Whitaker) and his crisis of faith while covering the film and its director. Whitaker is solid as usual, but the script he has to work with isn't much help. Imagine the scene in Bad Lieutenant in the church where Keitel is breaking down and whimpering and calling the embodiment of Christ a "ratfuck." Now remove that "ratfuck," anything resembling a sense of humor (dark or light), but keep the boilerplate crisis of faith stuff and, wala...Mary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

THE BLACKOUT (1997) - Abel Ferrara


I'd heard it was bad, but man! The Blackout hereby gets my vote for the most self-indulgent indie film of the 1990s. Basically, 98 arduous minutes of Matthew Modine pawing lecherously at a bored Beatrice Dalle when he's not pining and sobbing over her pre-recorded video image. Don't get me wrong: If you're going to spend a whole movie pawing or pining over any French actress, Betty Blue would certainly be at the top of that list. But the manner in which Abel has poor Modine paw and pine (all improvisation from the look of it)..well, it's just a shameful, shameful thing.

This being Abel in the '90s, there are also stops along the way for excessive binge drinking and hits of crack cocaine. Modine is a spoiled actor going through a "existential crisis," after all, though his character is too much of a douche for you to feel sorry for him in the slightest. Even when he finally starts to get over Dalle and marries Claudia Schiffer (not bad for a model-turned-actress), the dude still binges. HE STILL COMPLAINS. Add in a few needless scenes with prostitutes and Dennis Hopper as a manipulative video director doing a half-assed Frank Booth impression, and what have you got? A navel-gazing self-reflexive mess even harder to sit through than Dangerous Game.

CAT CHASER (1989) - Abel Ferrara


Who do you turn to after striking out with Shakespeare? Why the Shakespeare of American Crime Fiction, of course.

While Cat Chaser isn't the best Elmore Leonard adaptation I've seen (for my money, still a two-way tie between Soderbergh and Tarantino), Ferrara here at least seems to be on surer (if sandier) narrative ground than he was in China Girl. Sleazy dealings are afoot as ex-soldier turned hotel owner Peter Weller (aka "Cat Chaser"), um, cats around with Kelly McGillis, the wife of a shady Dominican general (Tomas Milian). Frederic Forrest is on hand for some drunken comic relief. And the always game Charles Durning makes for a great corrupt cop. There's a particularly funny scene in the uncut version where he uses a basic beer can to trick his captors into thinking he's taking a pee break, then traps them in the bathroom at gunpoint, makes them strip down, ends up shooting them anyway.

Speaking of guns and "uncut," there's a pretty suggestive scene involving Tomas Milian making love to McGillis with his preferred weaponry. I read somewhere that Cat Chaser is the movie that made McGillis want to quit acting for years. I'd lay odds that it had something to do with this scene. It did not seem pleasant for anyone involved. Other than the gun, maybe.

CHINA GIRL (1987) - Abel Ferrara


Abel goes gutter Shakespeare in this interracial Romeo & Juliet update set on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. A perfect location, but the Bard (and a timeless love story at that) is maybe not the best fit for the Bad Boy of Indie Film. The movie starts out promisingly enough: An ominous title sequence with the local Italian residents on Mulberry Street stewing as they watch another new Chinese restaurant hoist a sign on their block. It seems like we're in store for a tense NYC racial potboiler, something along the lines of Do the Right Thing with a touch of The Warriors thrown in. But then the characters start speaking, and we quickly realize we're light years from the Globe Theatre or anything authentic. All the Chinese characters talk to each other in bits of Cantonese before switching (arbitrarily) to full-on English. After a while, David Caruso comes bopping along to deliver a handful of obvious epithets, and, needless to say, the prerequisite turf war ensues.

The fight scenes are PG movie bland, though this is an R rated film. And the dance scenes are harder to watch. Everyone's so off-beat it's obvious they weren't dancing to music that ended up on the soundtrack. It doesn't help that the two young leads are both limper than wet pasta/rice noodles. They exude very little "heat," doomed romance or not. If only they'd gone uptown once or twice, kept their clandestine trysts to Central Park instead of all those fires escapes on Elizabeth Street...

Friday, August 14, 2015

'80s TV WORK - ABEL FERRARA


This week, in mourning the loss of Daily Show episodes to stream during lunch breaks (not to mention the Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camps I've already burned through), I watched some of Abel's '80s TV directorial output instead. Though all of them would fall in the "crime drama" and not comedy category, there were definitely a few inadvertent laughs to be had. Sort of like the finale Season 2, True Detective...

Miami Vice (1985)

"Home Invaders" - The only Tubbs-free episode in Vice's five year run. It involves a solo Crockett chasing down a group of hockey masked robbers headed up by David Patrick Kelly ("Warriors, come out and play-yay!") who are knocking off mansions with house keys lifted by local parking valets. There's a great sequence in a hair salon set to Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life" (I used to crush heavily on Sheila back in the day) and a nifty cameo by the always reliable Sylvia Miles as, what else, a horny old society lady. Not bad!

"The Dutch Oven" - Yes, you read that episode title correctly. And, yes, the Urban Dictionary definition for that is most apt. Pew! This one's a Trudy (Olivia Brown) episode, and there are some howlingly bad flashbacks of her and her boyfriend set to terrible '80s music. Also, a very half-assed concert performance by David Johansen in a top hat doing "King of Babylon." However, there's a flashy early Giancarlo Esposito ("Gus Fring") performance at the center and, better still, Crockett gets a giant bag of cocaine thrown in his face at the end. He does a scene afterwards with the blow still clinging to his schnoze ala Scarface. I'd like to think this was Ferrara's input, but with TV who can tell?

Crime Story pilot episode (1986)

After doing some tenure on Michael Mann's more stylish cop show, Ferrara directed the feature-length pilot episode of this grittier '60s Chicago PD set crime procedural also produced by Mann. I'd never seen a single episode before, but this one was interesting enough, despite being dated, that I may want to check a few more out. There's another howler of a flashback sequence, this one involving Lt. Torello mourning his dead partner's ghost. But any show built entirely around real life ex-Chicago cop Dennis Farina is mostly a good thing. There are some other snappy roles for a young David Caruso and, even better, a less bald Jon Polito (a Coen Bros favorite). The period soundtrack supervised by Todd Rundgren is chock full of golden oldies. And, considering this was made for TV, there's a better than average handheld camera shootout in a shopping mall that almost makes up for those flashbacks. Nice shooting, Abel.


The Gladiator (1986)

Imagine Death Wish meets Death Proof meets an after school special about the dangers of drunk driving. That's kind of how this 1986 vehicular vigilante made-for-TV feature starring Ken Wahl (Wiseguy) plays out. In other words, a semi-interesting but mostly failed effort that might have had more pizzazz were it not timeslotted somewhere between Mr. Belvedere and Dynasty. Wahl plays a mechanic who soups up his truck and takes his vengeance out on the road after his kid brother gets killed by a joyriding driver in a muscle-bound "death car" (sound familiar, QT?). He says "hell" when he really means to say "fuck" (but can't because it's network TV), rigs his flatbed with a ludicrous harpoon device that he shoots at other motorists. He makes a lot of citizens arrests and occasionally knocks boots with lady radio host Nancy Allen, who's doing on-air think pieces about this most mysterious crusader "The Gladiator" who, yep, like a low-rent Superman and Lois Lane, she also so happens to be dating. This was obviously a money gig for Abel and bears little, if any, of his directorial stamp. Certainly not the parts that discourage drinking while driving. Mind you, this was still six years before Bad Lieutenant. Imagine what Harvey Keitel might have looked like in Times Square at the end of that one, dead with a harpoon through his chest.

Friday, August 07, 2015

THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) - Abel Ferrara


The first time I saw The Driller Killer just so happened to be my last day living in Los Angeles. All my moving boxes were packed, my horrible Honda Echo (with racing stripe!) was gassed, all my old VHS tapes quarantined to the dumpster down the street to make room in my tiny trunk for a crate of newer, crisper DVDs. All tapes...but for one. I was feeling a little melancholy about leaving the next day but, at same time, homesick for the East Coast. I was in the mood for something grungy, low-budget yet escapist, something definitively "New York." After six wasted years as a minor cog in the slick, soul-free Hollywood Machine (the last one actually living in Hollywood), I needed some '70s East Village dirt on me, maybe a couple pints of Old Bowery blood. So I popped a Budweiser tab (the first of several), settled down on my furniture-free carpet, put that last VHS tape into my unpacked TV/VCR. Cue Abel Ferrara's first "official" film...


To make a long (blog) story short, Driller Killer hit the spot. It was exactly what I needed that night. Gory and hilarious (much of it inadvertent) and definitely a product of that fairer metropolis. Was it the most appropriate night-before sayonara to the City of Angels? Probably not, though it might have been a fine f-you. I'm guessing Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Drive or, if sticking to low-budget horror, even Nightmare on Elm Street (filmed a blocks down) would have been more Angeles apropos. But as a reintroduction to the city I was (eventually) moving back to there couldn't have been a better pick. After all, Ferrara plays a struggling artist named Reno who paints green buffaloes and goes crazy then starts killing winos with power tools just because he can't make his $500/month Union Square rent. Apart from that price tag being wildly outdated, how much more Big Apple can you get?


Revisiting Driller Killer some eight years later (and in the appropriate city this time), I think I enjoyed Driller Killer even more. As a horror movie, it's just OK...the drill kill scenes are kinda fun, and the fact that Reno's big inspiration comes from seeing a Port-O-Pak commercial is a nice twist. But where TDK really stands above and beyond is as a late '70s, early '80s East Village time capsule. Ferrara obviously used real "characters" from the neighborhood (himself included), and this is where he makes up for the minuscule budget, really gets the authenticity bang for his (lack of) bucks. You can tell the No Wave band who plays LOUDLY at all hours in apartment above is actually a local band (a pretty good one, too). The two girlfriends he shares the studio apartment with scream "neighborhood hip," especially the thinner, spacier one (see drill "spacing" pic at the top). You worry she could collapse from malnutrition (or overdose) at any time mid-dialogue. As for the stolen shots of winos puking up their guts in Bowery doorways and on sidewalks? Yep, pretty sure those aren't CGI.

And what about that Green Buffalo anyway? Did Ferrara himself really paint it? For the sake of his art, I hope not. But for the sake of his next feature (see "unsuccessful" Kickstarter page here) I hope he still has it hanging around. Maybe he can sell it as a collector's item on eBay along with the original Driller Killer Port-O-Pak. If I wasn't too busy scrounging for Brooklyn rent myself, I'd probably bid on that.

9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976) - JIMMY BOY L.
(aka Abel Ferrara)


I warned you this month's director career retrospective would be comprehensive, right? Yes, I'm afraid to admit that I have now seen Abel Ferrara's career kickstarting porno.

9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (also titled 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat in some circles but, honestly, does that addition really change anything?) is exactly what it sounds like...a series of loosely connected pornographic interludes in which a bored young heiress (Ferrara's girlfriend at the time) hooks up with men or women or some combination thereof in horse stables, mansions, gas station bathrooms, narrating her trysts in Penthouse Forum letter style to her lesbian lover (I think) back at home. She also reads tarot.

As you can probably guess, there isn't much of artistic merit to relate here. 9 Lives is your basic hour-long 1970s bump n' grind quickie. Tons of pubic hair, a dearth of dialogue (good or bad), recycled close-up shots of certain anatomies, the nagging suspicion that everyone involved was high on something far more potent than their own creativity. Professionally, this was obviously just a job for Ferrara and, unless that was a body double in one particular scene, also one of the "blow" variety for him personally. The only thing of minor interest that, er, sticks out was the fact he cast himself as an old man when only 25 years old, the father of two teen girls in a flashback family dinner scene (see above). Yes, that is the Bible in Ferrara's hand. And, yes, his character does have sex with both daughters. So in a sense you could say his entire decadent lapsed-Catholic filmography sprang from this (do I really need to type it?) "seminal" sequence. Jimmy Boy L.'s Garden of Eden, if you will, his Genesis. "In the beginning there was scuzz..."