Monday, August 18, 2014

THE HOT SPOT (1990) - Dennis Hopper


THE FEMME: Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), southern belle spouse of a Texas used car dealership owner.

THE FALL GUY: Harry Madox (Don Johnson), drifter, petty thief, semi-professional salesman, volunteer firefighter (but only when he needs an alibi).

HER MOTIVATIONS: Extreme small town boredom. A fierce resentment of good girl dealership brunette Gloria Harper (Jennifer Connelly). And, of course, a hot spot in her loins for drifter Harry.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Odd jobs and petty chores designed to get you back to her empty house. Sexy shaving rituals. Handguns as foreplay. Skinny dipping as foreplay. Abandoned grain silos as foreplay. Abandoned lot automobiles as foreplay. Anything as foreplay, really. Dolly doesn't discriminate.

SEXINESS SCALE: 9 (out of 10). For a bottle blonde with visible roots and a tenth grade education, Dolly (i.e., Madsen) really puts her best assets to work in this film. The only reason she doesn't get a 10...I mentioned a 20 year old Jennifer Connelly was also in this, right?

BITCH INDEX: High (Level Orange).

BODY COUNT: One. Her husband...a heart attack in the sack, if you couldn't guess.

LINE TO DIE BY: "There's only two things to do in this town. You got a TV? No? Then you're down to one."

POST-MORTEM: I've always thought of The Hot Spot as an underrated little '90s noir. Rewatching it again, I still feel the same. It lags in a few plot points, but the acting and tone...hot, hot, hot.

BLACK WIDOW (1987) - Bob Rafelson


THE FEMME: Catherine (Theresa Russell), a freelance trophy wife and professional chameleon with a string of rich dead husbands in her wake.

THE FALL GUYS: Countless rich dead husbands (Dennis Hooper, Nicol Williamson) but this time a fall girl...federal agent Alex Barnes (Debra Winger).

HER MOTIVATIONS: Dollar dollar bills, ya'll. And perhaps a burgeoning Sapphic attraction to Winger.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Frequent costume changes. An advanced knowledge of poisons and inheritance loopholes. "Ondine's curse."

SEXINESS SCALE: 2 (out of 10). To be honest, Russell was sexier in Straight Time. I think she's one of those actresses who's less sexy when she's TRYING to be sexy. Debra Winger on the other hand...effortless. But then I'm a sucker for husky-voiced brunettes (see also: Lizzy Caplan).

BITCH INDEX: High (Level Orange). Also, the color of one of Russell's fright wigs.

BODY COUNT: Countless. I threw in the towel early on.

LINE TO DIE BY: "The black widow...she mates and she kills." Also the one-sheet tagline.

POST-MORTEM: Black Widow does not hold up well, a descendant of those heady late '80s days when film noir became a bad word and therefore morphed into "psychological thrillers." That said, I think I would have enjoyed a little more at least if Russell and Winger had swapped roles.

BODY HEAT (1981) - Lawrence Kasdan


THE FEMME: Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), bored Florida wife of wealthy industrialist.

THE FALL GUY: Sleazy and frequently sweaty ambulance chaser, Ned Racine (William Hurt).

HER MOTIVATIONS: $$$. Also, sex. But mostly $$$$$$$.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Short fire-engine-red skirts, legs that won't quit, lips that won't quit, accidental sno-cone spills, back porch wind chimes, a secret knowledge of wills and estate law, a secret connection for acquiring explosive devices, a dear old friend that looks just like her from behind (body switch anyone?).

SEXINESS SCALE: 11 (out of 10). Turner is OFF THE CHARTS desirable in this flick. Scorching hot, no matter the season, no matter the state. That said...

BITCH INDEX: Severe (Threat Level Red). Tangle with a woman this greedy, this flammable and your death is assured.  Worse...your lifetime incarceration.

BODY COUNT: 2, both burnt to a crisp (her husband, her dear old friend). The unseen Spaniard dude on the beach at the end is probably next.

LINES TO DIE BY: "You don't want to lick it?" (re: the sno-cone spill in her cleavage)

POST-MORTEM: Still remains one of the best neo noirs of all time. Certainly the best of the '80s. If you don't believe me, just watch this clip of arsonist Mickey Rourke lip syncing Bob Seger.

CHINATOWN (1974) - Roman Polanski



THE FEMME: Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway), wife of deceased L.A. Water and Power tycoon, daughter of most evil man on the planet, Noah Cross (John Huston).

THE FALL GUY: Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a nosy parker with the nose bandage to prove it.

HER MOTIVATIONS: Equal parts obfuscation, romantic attraction and fact-finding.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Threat of lawsuit, followed by a hefty finder's fee. Classy hats and veils, blood red lipstick, a generous bedside manner than involves luxuriously twisting your armpit hair post-sex. A slight stutter whenever her father's name is mentioned. Also...secrets, secrets, SECRETS.

SEXINESS SCALE: 5 (out of 10). Evelyn may dress like the discreet socialite she is, but she also wears her "damage" on her sleeve. Dunaway is a stunner as always, but her character here is more victim than predator. And, thus, harder to lust after guilt-free.

BITCH INDEX: Low (Level Green). Sure, Evelyn has a nasty habit of lying about her alarmingly twisted family tree ("She's my sister! She's my daughter! She's my sister and my daughter!!!"). But can you really blame her when it looks like an inverted bonsai? Also, she helps Gittes out of several scrapes when she doesn't have to. She looks like a femme, talks like a femme, but deep down you can tell she's a good (if a little cracked) egg.

BODY COUNT: Herself. Sadly. By stray Chinatown gunshot.

LINES TO DIE BY: "I don't get tough with anyone, Mr. Gittes. My lawyer does."

POST-MORTEM: Forget it, Jake...it's Chinatown. What else is there to say?

Monday, August 11, 2014

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) - Billy Wilder


THE FEMME: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), one-time star of silent screen...now a profoundly delusional cougar on the make.

THE FALL GUY: Desperately out-of-work and car-less L.A. screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden).

HER MOTIVATIONS: One word...stardom. Or a return thereto. OK, extreme loneliness as well.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Extravagant displays of wealth, a free run of her ginormous Sunset Boulevard mansion, usage of her vintage automobile, lavish dinner parties with no other guests, Kabuki line readings and Charlie Chaplin impersonations, multiple suicide attempts, cigarettes that hold themselves (see above), strange funeral rites involving deceased pet chimps.

SEXINESS SCALE: 1 (out of 10). I hate to hate on the older ladies, but clueless, celebrity-obsessed Norma is what they call in the biz "a real boner killer." The late in the game plastic surgery (see above) helps a little but not much.

BITCH INDEX: Guarded (Threat Level Blue). Sure, Norma has no qualms about shooting you in the back when you burst her Hollywood fantasy bubble and try to escape her gilded cage. But she can barely hoist the gun she's so dramatically verklempt. Maybe she should've gotten a fancy holder for the gat instead of the cigarette.

BODY COUNT: 1 (waterlogged Joe Gillis). 2 if you count the chimp. 3 if you count the ruined soul of butler/secret first husband Max (Erich von Stroheim).

LINES TO DIE BY: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" (presumably before the rhinoplasty)

POST-MORTEM: Sunset Boulevard...still the ultimate in doomed May-December couplings. Next time they repo your car, seriously think about just taking the bus.

GILDA (1946) - Charles Vidor


THE FEMME: Gilda Munson (Rita Hayworth), knockout redhead nightclub chanteuse and new bride of Argentinian casino owner Munson.

THE FALL GUY: Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), casino manager and "minder" of Gilda (a job many a guy wouldn't mind).

HER MOTIVATIONS: A torrid love-hate relationship and past history with Johnny back in the States. A zestful love of life that knows no bounds (or chastity belts). Gilda would probably tell you to "blame it on Mame." But, really, it's all her fault.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Standing room only strip-teases, private backroom chanteuse-ing, rampant infidelity and jealous husband-baiting, a hair flip introduction for the ages.

SEXINESS SCALE: 9 (out of 10). This is NOT the girl you bring home to mom. For she will probably end up sleeping with mom. Dad, too.

BITCH INDEX: Low (Level Green). Other than her rampant infidelity and general life-of-the-party harlotry, Gilda is not really out to hurt anybody. If you're on the right side of her "good time," you might even have lots o' fun.

BODY COUNT: Zero. Gilda's love comes with all the complications of a gorgeous, free-spirited femme, but it proves less than lethal. The only real murder here is perpetrated by Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant.

LINES TO DIE BY: "I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?"

POST-MORTEM: A mildly diverting story and an INCREDIBLY enticing Hayworth. I have trouble calling this one true film noir though.

MILDRED PIERCE (1945) - Michael Curtiz


THE FEMME: Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth), Mildred's full-time spoiled rotten daughter and part-time hack piano player.

THE FALL GUY: Technically, her father Bert for Monte's murder. But, really, for about everything else her mother Mildred (Joan Crawford).

HER MOTIVATIONS: A profound sense of entitlement, unrepentant social climber tendencies, an aversion to anything resembling manual labor, an aversion to anyone resembling Mildred, her mother.

HER MANIPULATIONS: A constant dissatisfaction with her mother's career achievements and/or the family wealth status quo. Sleeping with her mother's second husband. Shooting her mother's second husband and framing her father for it. Expensive piano lessons (I'm guessing).

SEXINESS SCALE: 2 (out of 10). Veda is a cutie-pie by '40s standards, but, oh, that entitlement...what a turn-off!! It she were alive today she'd probably live in a Williamsburg loft and be a character on Girls. Or, worse, have her own reality show on Bravo.

BITCH INDEX: Severe (Level Red). Again, the entitlement. Really, Veda, is that any way to treat your own mother?

LINES TO DIE BY: "With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls."

POST-MORTEM: James M. Cain at his most sympathetic, melodramatic (not necessarily a bad thing). We feel bad for Mildred. We wish she would have aborted Veda in the first trimester. Really we do.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) - John Stahl


THE FEMME: Spoiled socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney).

THE FALL GUY: Novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who bears a striking resemblance to her deceased father.

HER MOTIVATIONS: Serious Daddy issues (see the dumped ashes in the urn above), an unparalleled tendency toward extreme jealously.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Machinations involving family doctors, scathing literary critique, strategic whining and pleading, non-accidental miscarriages, non-accidental drownings, her own suicide.

SEXINESS SCALE: 7 (out of 10). Though Ellen is relatively chaste by today's standards (she even dumps Vincent Price outright before officially tying the knot with Wilde), make no mistake...this is one hot Technicolor noir ginger! This is mostly due to her intensity, what she's willing to do to have you ALL TO HERSELF. Her stockings may never come off in the course of the film, but, rest assured, this femme is all about the STATIC CLING.

BITCH INDEX: Severe (Level Red). When a woman is willing to take the life of her unborn child by tumbling down the stairs just to spite you, it's safe to say she's kind of a bitch. When she's willing to take HER OWN LIFE to spite you and frame her own sister, she's most definitely a bitch. But when she's willing to coolly watch your disabled brother drown in a lake and not lift a single oar to help, she's something else all together. She's Walter White.

BODY COUNT: 3, possibly 4 (her unborn child by stair-fall, Richard's disabled brother by way of aquatic neglect, herself by purposeful poisoning, maybe her own father...we don't quite know for sure, do we?)

LINES TO DIE BY: "I'll never let you go. Never, never, never."

POST-MORTEM: Shot like a Technicolor romantic melodrama, but with the blackened soul of a hardcore noir. This one sneaks up on you. Leave Her to Heaven...just make sure Ellen Berent stays buried deep in hell.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) - Billy Wilder


THE FEMME: Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), bored Glendale housewife with a honey of an anklet.

THE FALL GUY: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), flat-foot Los Angeles insurance salesman.

HER MANIPULATIONS: Convincing Walter to fudge a phony life insurance policy on her wealthy husband, then convincing him to help her leave his dead body on the railroad tracks.

HER MOTIVATIONS: A double indemnity payout worth $100,000. Also, her contempt for hubby Dietrichson and, arguably, her love for Walter...though you'd be ill-advised to argue too fiercely for that.

SEXINESS SCALE: 5 (out of 10). Phyllis' sexuality is generally subdued, strategically employed. Apart from appearing at the top of the stairwell in nothing but a towel and that aforementioned anklet, she mostly keeps the hormones in check.

BITCH INDEX: High (Level Orange). She will turn on you on a dime and with little shame. Worse if you have more than a dime to your name.

BODY COUNT: 3, that we know of (her husband, her husband's former wife when she was a nurse and...spoiler alert...Walter Neff)

LINES TO DIE BY: "No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I'm rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That's all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn't fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me."

POST-MORTEM: Phyllis may not be the sexiest femme of all time, but she is among the most devious in the granddaddy noir of them all that still delivers DOUBLE even after multiple viewings.

Friday, August 01, 2014

AUGUST: FATAL LADIES


For the last two months on this blog, the fairer sex has gotten the short shrift. British gangsters, Japanese yakuza...these are male-dominated worlds, "sausage fests" for better or worse. Unless you're a gun moll or a prostitute, well, you probably didn't get much bandwidth. This month, however, that extra X chromosome will finally get its due with a vengeance. August is the hottest month already, so why not?

And I do mean a VENGEANCE. We're talking femme fatales here, ladies and gents. And, gents especially, do be on the lookout. Because these "fatal ladies" will gladly rip your heart out while taking you for every last penny. Or, worse, convince you to commit murder for them instead. Beware of bored, beautiful wives with wealthy husbands and healthy life insurance plans. Beware of smokey cabaret nightclub singers. Beware of aging silent screen starlets in decrepit mansions. Beware the best-selling crime novelist with a tendency to cross and uncross her legs.

Beware the scheming seductress in all her myriad guises...both in color and black & white.

Some of the selections will be old favorites. Others will be new (old) ones that I wasn't able to catch last month at Film Forum's fantastic Femmes Noirs festival. New or old, we will put these elusive spider women under the microscope and see what makes them tick. That is, if they don't stub us out like Lucky Strikes beneath their stilettos before we have the chance.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

YAKUZA: LIKE A DRAGON (2007) - Takashi Miike


Another middling yakuza effort from Miike, this one based on a PlayStation 2 game. By no means a textbook ninkyo eiga or even a run-and-gun jitsuroku, Like a Dragon follows several sets of characters in the course of one scorching night (sound familar?). None of them are particularly compelling, which I'm guessing has to do with the fact that they were sourced from game play avatars in the first place.

There's the overly sentimental Luc Besson style story of a stoic ex-yakuza who helps a little girl look for her lost mother (above). There's the Warriors-inspired bad yakuza who prefers to incapacitate his opponents with line drives from his Louisville Slugger (below).


There's the Pulp Fiction Honeybunny and Pumpkin thread of two convenience store employees who decide to start sticking up other stores for cash. Meanwhile, an even more inept (and air conditionless) bank heist is taking place downtown. In one of the few amusing scenes, the hooded assailants treat their captive hostages to an impromptu sushi break. After that, I began to snooze.


I never thought I would lump Takashi Miike and Woody Allen together in a sentence, but, seriously, both of these guys are prolific to a fault. More than two films a year (Miike gets close to ten sometimes) and quantity really starts to trump quality. That said, I'm still excited about the upcoming Yakuza Apocalypse. I'm talking about the next Woody film with Colin Firth in the lead yakuza/Woody surrogate role, of course.

Monday, July 28, 2014

YAKUZA DEMON (2003) - Takashi Miike


Oddly straightforward for a Takashi Miike yakuza film. Nothing you haven't seen before or seen Miike himself do with more zest (Ichi the Killer, the Dead or Alive trilogy).

Perhaps he was growing weary of warring clans at this point.

I feel his pain. Or numbness, rather.


FULL METAL YAKUZA (1997) - Takashi Miike


Fully avoidable, but not terrible, Full Metal is one of Takashi Miike's mid-'90s direct-to-video efforts (and, oh, there are many). Basically, a riff on Robocop in the yakuza world but lacking Verhoeven's satirical edge and more sizable budget.

Miike completists need only apply. Are there still any of those out there?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (1975) - Kinji Fukasaku & GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (2002) - Takashi Miike


Like Street Mobster three years prior, Kinji Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor centers around another unhinged yakuza who you know from the very first minutes has a definite appointment with untimely (and, in this case, aerial) death. He pisses on the street (and on people) whenever he wants, pisses off the wrong underbosses routinely, shoots off his mouth at the wrong time, shoot his gun at his own brothers, even ends up stabbing his own oyabun-- a big no-no in this Yakuza world, one that shuffles him off to prison and earns him a ten-year ban from his own clan. Like Bunta Sugawara in Street, his attitude is definitely devil-may-care. But the difference here is there's no rise to Rikio's (Tetsuya Watari) career trajectory. It's all fall right from the beginning. Yes, a grave and a graveyard does factor in. But the film could just as easily been called The Loser Yakuza.


And that's what makes Graveyard a more daring, compelling character study than Fukasaku's other yakuza films. He goes all-in on the despair, letting the audience soak for a long stretch in Rikio's post-slammer heroin addiction (see above B&W hued opiate malaise). Yes, he initially acquires his lady love Chieko through an act of arguable rape (seems to be a running theme with Fukasaku) and later gets her strung out on the H to boot, but when she dies prior to him there is legitimate remorse. When he goes to his boss to try and make amends and takes a cannister of her bones along with him, abjectly popping them in his mouth and crunching on them like so many funereal chiclets, it's an act not borne of disrespect but deep grief. If The Yakuza Papers is Fukasaku's flashier 20-year Godfather saga, then Graveyard is its more reigned-in, melancholy cousin, his Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia if you will. It's my favorite Fukasaku I've seen so far.


Takashi Miike's 2002 remake, on the other hand, is all about indulgence. It's Bad Lieutenant but set on the other side of the globe, on the other side of the law. His version of Graveyard runs forty minutes longer, is far more splattery (it's Miike...obviously), features twice as many drugged-out interludes (see two minute "heroin crawl" tracking shot below). It follows the same basic trajectory (down, down, down) as Fukasaku's true life yakuza story, but instead of melancholy Miike's primary operating mode here is nihilism. Sure, he adds a downbeat, effective jazz score into the mix, but the added sax can earn his Rikio so much gravitas. After all, dude sports a "punch perm."


Are they both good yakuza movies? Absolutely. And an interesting study in how two masters of the genre approach the same material. I'd probably opt for Fukasaku's leaner, meaner version in most cases. But then watching Goro Kishitani's kinky-headed junkie yakuza cold-cock a brothel madame with an offhanded "Bam!" or half-heartedly exhaust his arsenal onto a sea of cops from his balcony like Tony Montana on the wrong kinda white powder...well, there's something to be said for that, too.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE YAKUZA PAPERS: BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (1973-'74) - Kinji Fukasaku


Where have I been for the last two weeks? Well, heavily entrenched in a five-part, twenty-year mob war on the mean streets of Japan. I thought keeping up with all the players in Fukasaku's Sympathy for the Underdog and Street Mobster was tough. But keeping track of all the warring gangs, their respective cities, the hundreds of dead or imprisoned yakuza, their various severed thumbs (and sometimes whole arms) in Fukasaku's multi-installment Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a sheer impossibility. By the second film of the five, I gave up trying to remember the names. By the fifth film, I stopped reading the onscreen character obits all together. The key, for me, was to indulge the mayhem and not the minutiae. Seriously, you could sprout an aneurysm trying to keep tabs on who is dishonoring who at any given time.


The five-film series (based on a series of magazine articles and the life of one Kure yakuza boss) is loosely built around the crime career trajectory of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara from Street Mobster, more cool-headed here but just as good). He starts out an ex-soldier wandering the black market in 1947 in Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Opportunities are scarce and the Japanese are jaded from losing in WWII. He quickly falls in with a gang in Kure and soon after his first stretch in the slammer (one of several during the course of the series).  

From there, Hirono gets involved in some lucrative election rigging. He is amoral, sure, but of all the well-inked scumbags abounding in these films he seems to hold some small shred of loyalty and decency above the rest. During the times when the series departs from Hirono's story to follow other threads (which it does from time to time), you can feel the absence. The killings and machinations, though energetic and relentless, also become anchorless.  For better or worse, this Japanese Goodfellas needs its Henry Hill.


Hirono mostly disappears for part two, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, along with the change in location. Other than unwittingly eating a meal composed of dog and running a scrapyard, he doesn't have much to do. Instead, this one largely revolves around a doomed love story between a new young yakuza (Kin'ya Kitaoji) and the widow of a former kamikaze pilot. Thankfully, an uncharacteristically unhinged Sonny Chiba (see above) is around to fill the void left by Sugawara as a rival gang tough. It's a delight to see him play the Johnny Boy role for a change. It's all the kamikaze you need.


Part three, Proxy War, is the hardest to follow and therefore probably the weakest of the bunch. Lots of players vying for supremacy, lots of meetings to discuss strategy, lots of scenes in conference rooms with rotating fans blowing on the sweaty participants. Hirono/Sugawara gets more screen time in this one and gets to play the Tom Reagan/Miller's Crossing/Red Harvest role, the guy who quietly plots on the side amid the chaos of other factions murdering each other. But this entry is so DENSE with plot and players it's somewhat difficult to enjoy Hirono's steady rise.

Part four, Police Tactics, deals heavily with the public's/police's dissatisfaction over the rise in gang warfare and their attempts to crack down in the lead-up to the '64 Olympics. It's a welcome bit of reigning-in, almost as if Fukasaku/the series itself is saying "OK, all this nameless killing has really gotten out of hand, no longer interesting." Let's beef up the police presence, make these murderers retreat to closed doors for a change. Let's make them consider their image, their PR, do a "yakuza makeover." Before you know it, the bosses are operating more as a brokerage firm than a headbusting syndicate. This welcome change of pace mostly manifests in the last film, Final Episode, along with the even more welcome the appearance of Seijun Suzuki stalwart Jo Shishido (he of the puffy cheeks and boiling rice addiction) as a frequently drunk mob boss (see below).


But things in Yakuza Land can only stay cordial/corporate for so long. The street killings begin to escalate again with even more brazenness than before. And everyone's fretting which side Hirono (in prison, naturally) is going to take when returns to the streets. Will he be forced to retire? Will all the yakuza factions kill each other off before he gets the chance? And, most importantly, did Martin Scorsese watch The Yakuza Papers at some point before 1989? A quick Google search and I can't find a single interview out there where he name-checks this series or Fukasaku. But the man sees EVERYTHING. He had to have seen it...right?