Monday, November 24, 2014

AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998) - Tony Kaye
& THE BELIEVER (2001) - Henry Bean

Were all Neo-Nazi youth in the late '90s, early aughts named "Danny"? Judging from this weekend's entertainment, it would seem so. Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) meet Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling). The two of you have a lot to learn from one another. You're both on the fast track to a violent, untimely death, thanks to your backward beliefs. Or maybe thanks to your older brother's influence (Edward Norton). Either way, one last Aryan bullshit session over Bitburgers seems in order. Even doomed Neo-Nazis need new besties, right?

Though I'd heard good things about both of these films years (and years) ago, I'd yet to have the displeasure of meeting either Danny. Watching them one after the after, I couldn't help but be reminded of another pair of similarly themed coming of age flicks from earlier in the decade...Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. It might seem counterintuitive to compare those South Central gangland staples to a duo of movies about White Power teens (one in L.A., one in New York). But I see it like this: They're all street movies about powerless young males (black or white) from lower class surroundings reacting (poorly and violently) to their environments. They are all about race and racism but from flip sides of the coin. Too easy? Too reductive? Maybe. Just go with me on this very SAT-like analogy. It will make for a shorter blog posting, at least.

American History X is to Boyz N the Hood as The Believer is to Menace II Society. There, I said it. Now what does that mean? It means American History X is the flashier but also the clunkier of the two. There are some brilliant, harrowing parts. The scene in the street where Venice Beach neo-Nazi Edward Norton stomps a black carjacker to death in his underwear and Doc Martins as his young brother looks on is just about as disturbing as you can get (I will forever be haunted by the image of teeth clamped down on a concrete curb). The prison laundry room scenes where Norton befriends a black inmate and begins to learn the errors in his thinking do not come off too forced. The monochrome flashbacks are annoying at first, but you get used to them. Even the tragic twist ending doesn't feel like a total cheat. But for every Edward Norton scene that works (B&W or color) there's one with Edward Furlong that plays like an after-school special. I mean, the framework of the entire film is about a school assignment he's writing about his brother's life entitled American History X. So when all is said and done you're left with an uncomfortable feeling of having done homework...Hitler Youth: The Hollywood, Cliff Notes Version.

The Believer, like Menace, digs a little deeper into a similar milieu. It is American's wilier New York cousin. As a well-educated Jew who turns his back on his upbringing then turns his anger into a worrisome belief system (cherry-picking parts of Nazi ideology where he needs it...sometimes just for shock, sometimes not), Gosling's Danny is a far more compelling character. He's not only at war with all the minorities around him, he's first and foremost at war with himself. This guy doesn't need an older brother to look up and/or fear. All he has to do is look in mirror, see the prayer gartel strapped about waist...hanging out from beneath his swastika-laden tee, of course.

Yes, there are also a few heavy-handed black and white flashbacks in The Believer, mostly to do with Gosling's character fantasizing about being an SS torturer in gruesome WWII scenarios. But his character's journey, despite ending in a similarly tragic fashion, in the end doesn't need to rely on a twist. An infinite loop maybe (Danny climbing an unending set of stairs where he meets his old rabbinical school teacher at the top of every flight), but definitely not a twist.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BETRAYED (1988) - Costa-Gavras

Poor Debra Winger. In terms of leading men, the '80s started out pretty great for her. A handsome mechanical bull riding Travolta in Urban Cowboy. A young, heroic Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. She even got some rogue Nick Nolte action in Cannery Row.

But then come the mid-to-late '80s, and things get sketchier. Husband Jeff Daniels ("Flap") not only cheats on her in Terms of Endearment, but cheats on her WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. In Mike's Murder, her one night stand winds up dead then turns out to have a been drug dealer and possibly of a different sexual orientation (i.e., he REALLY wasn't that into you). In Black Widow, she lands a wealthy tycoon for all of two seconds until her real love interest, Theresa Russell, kills him off almost as fast. Then comes the end of the '80s and Betrayed, and who does Winger wind up in bed with? A militant racist Tom Berenger...and in a muddled, middle of the road Joe Eszterhaus script. Watching this movie, I couldn't help but feel for Winger (Sympathy for the Debra?), one of my actress faves. Betrayed? Yes, indeed.

Plus, the original synopsis I read for this flick was kind of a misnomer and therefore a bit of cheat in terms of this month's theme. In Betrayed, the man FBI agent Winger is investigating (Berenger) is not so much a Nazi or Neo-Nazi. He's more your garden variety racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic redneck murderer who also happens to own a very large cache of guns. Kinda of like Sgt. Barnes in Platoon but without the U.S. military imprimatur. In fact, there's a scene (above) where Berenger, with Winger along for the ride, rolls up next to some actual Neo-Nazis selling antique Lugers at a racist retreat (think Disneyland for the wildly intolerant). He spits in contempt, shouting after they leave that his "granddaddy died fighting those bastards in WWII." It's actually kind of a funny scene (intended or accidental), a peek into the extravagantly compartmentalized mind of your average country bigot. Berenger's character doesn't seem to realize that they are, by default, on the same side.

Beyond the odd Nazi vs. Peckerwood showdown, there's not a lot to recommend about Betrayed. Costa-Gavras is not the most subtle of directors, and this is by no means his classic Z. There is one disturbing scene where Winger goes to tell one of Berenger's kids a bedtime story, only to be met with a spew of racist epithets. Out of Berenger's mouth, these would sound routine. Out of the mouth of indoctrinated babes, however, it's nothing short of creepy.

File this movie under "Otherwise." And next time, let's find a Winger a nice certified public accountant with zero past to shack up with and/or investigate. Agreed? Agreed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

DOWNFALL (2004) - Oliver Hirschbiegel

The Hitler movie that launched a thousand screaming memes. I'd never seen it before and only one or two of the YouTube parodies. Turns out, it's also quite good in its unabridged, two and a half hour form. There are even a few moments when Hitler (a brilliant Bruno Ganz) almost seems relaxed. Almost.

In case you haven't been on the internet in a decade, Downfall is the story of Der Fuhrer's final hours in the bunker as the Russians are bombing Berlin to smithereens outside, told from the POV of one of his secretaries. Yes, there are almost too many Raving Adolf scenes to count. The man is very, very angry and generally clueless up until the very end as to the extent to which his battered German forces are FUBAR (fickened up beyond all repair). There are nearly as many ritual suicides, especially when it becomes apparent that all Nazi hope is lost.

Though Adolf's self-offing is the Big 'Un everyone's waiting for, Hirschbiegel makes the interesting narrative choice of placing it not at the end of his film but closer to the middle (there are still about 30 to 40 minutes left when he takes a Walther to his head along with a poison capsule). This being Hitler, there's not much love lost when it happens, even less considering how much the man seems to thoroughly disregard the legacy/survival/safety of his own people. The hard ones to watch are the scenes with the children, Mrs. Goebbels roofie'ing her six children to sleep then placing poison capsules for them to bite down onto while they snooze. Harder than this, Hitler poisoning his own dog, Blondi (a German Shepard, of course).

It's one thing to dose a gaggle of Aryan moppets who would probably grow up to be horrible people. But, I'm sorry, the dog, too? Hitler, maybe you haven't heard the latest report from the front. You weren't just history's most horrible person. You were the world's biggest dick to boot.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

SALON KITTY (1976) - Tinto Brass
& STALAG 17 (1953) - Billy Wilder

You probably won't find Salon Kitty and Stalag 17 paired very often, say, in a WWII-focused film festival or Nazi-themed retrospective. And if video stores still existed, you'd be hard pressed to find them on the same aisle. One's a comedy in the Hogan's Heroes vein by one of the all time great American √©migr√© directorsThe other, a sexploitation film by the same Italian guy who directed Caligula. One takes place in a raucous German prison of war camp, the other in a racey SS cabaret-brothel. Other than the fact that, yes, they do both contain Nazis and Nazi intrigue, you'd guess the similarities end there. You'd mostly be right, except for the fact that both venues are BUGGED. Clandestine surveillance within the German high command...this is their link.

In Salon Kitty, Nazi officer Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) recruits the most comely and willing National Socialist nymphs from all over Deutschland and installs them as working girls in a Berlin brothel, Salon Kitty, a brothel where the "love rooms" happen to be crawling with wall-to-wall wiretaps. But Wallenberg's not looking to get vicarious jollies so much as to ferret out reluctant Nazis, those not fully converted to the Fuhrer's cause. When his number one girl Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy, McDowell's sister in Caligula) falls for a soldier with divided loyalties, Wallenberg has him killed. Only to have Margherita undertake her own private wiretapping experiment on the voyeur officer to get revenge.

The clandestine surveillance in Stalag 17 is slightly less technologically savvy, significantly less perverse. It involves a chess piece (don't touch that Queen!) with a removable top in which notes can be passed, notes which alert the German officers at a POW camp about American plans to escape or revolt. Everythone thinks it's William Holden who's the Nazi stool pigeon. But it's not, it's...OK, I won't spoil it outright. Put it this way: Have you ever seen Airplane? Have you ever seen a grown man naked? Do you like movies with gladiators, Joey?

Hmm. Maybe these two flicks have more in common than I thought.

To sum up, Salon Kitty is a better, smarter film than expected (though about as nudity-rich as one would guess). And Stalag 17 is a good, but lesser Billy Wilder picture where a lot of the jokes fall flat. Still, Otto Preminger as a Nazi Commandant? Sure, I'll heil to that.

Friday, November 07, 2014

THE KEEP (1983) - Michael Mann

The only thing recognizably "Mann-ish" about this supernatural Nazi horror tale might be the synthy Tangerine Dream score, and even that only brings to mind scattered scenes in Thief (also scored by TD). The rest of the time you're watching and wondering, "Wait, could really be the same Michael Mann? He of Miami Vice, Manhunter and assorted, intelligent crime tales? After all, 'Michael' and 'Mann'...these are very, very common names. Perhaps it's a different German director."

Well, I'm very sorry to report, yes, it is THAT Michael Mann. And, yes, as I had heard rumored, The Keep is kinda terrible. Greedy SS Men get a vague, otherworldly comeuppance when they take over an ancient Romanian "keep" inhabited by a being that looks like a cross between the Metropolis robot and Predator-era Schwarzenegger. Don't expect any intricate Mann-style plotting here; when these Nazis want to rob the silver crucifixes (actually, nickel) on the wall, they simply take a hammer and crowbar to them. Frank from Thief or Neil McCauley from Heat and their complicated heisting timetables need not apply.

Even The Keep's Nazi elements are pretty tame (you'll find no Swastika-tatted Waingro's here). Here's what you get instead: Jurgen Prochnow as a gentle "good guy" Nazi, Gabriel Byrne as the token blustery bad Nazi, Scott Glenn as a "magic man" whose eyes occasionally glow and body occasionally, unexplainably bleeds green. Not to mention a young Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as a rapid-aging Jewish academic brought in to translate the Keep's secrets and the mom from Spanking the Monkey as his daughter brought in to...well, who are we kidding?...basically be the only female in the film and, eventually, service Scott Glenn in a laughable softcore love scene.

So, yes, if all it takes is a few unintentional laughs and handful of humorless Nazis or very outdated SFX to keep you entertained, then by all means check into The Keep. Otherwise, do yourself a solid, stay far away and illegally download the soundtrack.

Saturday, November 01, 2014


Everybody loves a good Nazi. Allow me to rephrase (for is there such thing as a good Nazi?). "Everybody loves a good movie Nazi." Pfew, Twitter scandal averted...and I'm only on Blogger.

Cinematically speaking, the Third Reich is the bad guy gift that keeps on giving, the Evil Incarnate shorthand. When you need the perfect movie antagonist but have limited run time to explain motivations or get hung up on past childhood traumas, don't worry, Old Adolf and his Swastika Boyz will be there (see Raiders of the Lost Ark, et al.). When you do have the run time and are hankering for an Oscar, don't worry, they will probably be there too (see Schindler's List, et al.). When you need a solid butt for your extended filmic joke that absolutely no one will feel guilty laughing at (see Mel Brooks and much of his oeuvre), go ahead, make a tap-dancing Nazi that butt. When you need a well-known character actor to go serious, dark and deep without losing an ounce of McConaughey movie weight (see Ed Norton in American History X, et al.), go right ahead, cast them as Neo-Nazi. And when you need an unknown foreign actor to become speedily known (see Christoph Waltz, et al.), well, what are you waiting for? Cast them as a charismatic SS Man.

So why devote an entire month to these horrible, horrible (yet terribly reliable) movie people? Well, several reasons: 1.) This, after all, is a theme blog and I happen to have a handful of unwatched Nazi-related flicks lying around 2.) November is an election month, and with all the mud being slung I guarantee some politician somewhere (left or right) will be comparing his competitor to a "Nazi" if they haven't done so already 3.) We're now knee-deep in Oscar Bait season, and there's got to be-- JUST GOT TO BE--a Nazi and/or Holocaust-themed prestige flick coming down the chute one of these weekends, right? 4.) I've just started reading Martin Amis's new book, Zone of Interest, a love story set in a concentration camp, and crave audio-visual companions 5.) I haven't seen Fury yet and am looking to hate on some Nazis but in the comfort of my own home.

Rest assured, all of these November Nazis will be abhorrent bad guys in one way or another. But some will be the protagonists, others the villains, one or two serving as background "color." Some will feature in serious dramas, some in exploitation films, maybe one in a WWII comedy, another in a supernatural horror/sci-fi. "Heil November," as they say. Let's watch some nasty Nazis get their due. Neo, original, "extra crispy" or otherwise.

Friday, October 31, 2014

BASKET CASE 2 (1990) & BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1992) - Frank Henenlotter

Is there an odder creature in all of cinema than the Basket Case trilogy's Belial? The half-formed Siamese twin brother of Duane Bradley who makes a wicker picnic satchel (and often Times Square) his home? And could there possibly be a better companion (sometimes conjoined, sometimes not) for All Hallow's Eve?

If there is, don't tell me...I don't want to know. And if you choose to contest this hypothesis, well, I'm sorry but you're wrong. When I first saw the original Basket Case a few years ago, I didn't think low-rent cult movie sleaze could get much better. Until I watched Parts 2 and 3 over the last two nights. So many foam and latex atrocities left to explore! So many hilariously bad taste Belial scenarios left for Henenlotter to mine? I mean, who would have thought Belial had it in him to become a father? Sure, he kinda looks like a sex organ (male or female...take your pick). But I never knew he possessed his own working equipment as well.

In lieu of a proper review, I give you ten pictorial reasons why Belial (and the entire Basket Case trilogy) is the worthiest of candidates for your Halloween scary-funny creature movie queue, culled from all three films...

1.) He will be there for you when you eat too many caramel apples, drink too much pumpkin beer and have the runs.

2.) He will allow you to reattach him to your side in moments of despair, should you get lonely or despondent.

3.) He has numerous Facebook friends at the bar to introduce you to.

4.) He'll be there to catch you (possibly kill you) when you fall.

5.) Should you get pulled over for drunk driving by the cops, don't worry, Belial will handle it.

6.) Should you be admitted to the ER and need to sign out in a hurry, don't worry, Belial will handle it.

7.) He's a whiz in the kitchen (especially with pasta dishes).

8.) Even better in the bedroom (especially with other twins).

9.) Any rental fees you might pay will go towards towards his child support (12 Belial Babies at last count).

10.) Still don't believe me about his bedroom skills? Take a gander at this...

Is there a finer odd creature in all of cinema? Who knows. But there's definitely no better Other Kinda Brother than Belial.

Happy Halloween.