Sunday, April 13, 2014

VAMPYROS LESBOS & SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (1970) - Jess Franco


From Japanese kink to '70s Spanish-German erotic fare. Jess Franco is one of those cult directors that Netflix is constantly trying to recommend to me. But then I take a look at his MASSIVE filmography and don't know where to begin. Or I see that most of his flicks hover around a middling two-star user rating. Or I see titles interspersed on his IMDB page like A Penis for Two or A Buttcrack for Three or Lulu's Talking Ass. I'm not one to fault an old director for dipping into hardcore when times are tough (especially this month). But I had to wonder: Were any of these Franco flicks (even the non-hardcore ones) worth the time?

Answer: So far, not really. But then again I was under the influence of possible influenza when I watched both of these the other night. You might think otherwise, but '70s softcore and Ultra Soft and Strong Puffs do not necessarily mix.

I will give Franco this though: He knows how to cast gorgeous women and put together a mean sitar-infused score. I could see dumping the soundtracks of both these films on my iPod...but never watching a frame of either film again. Also, the man's all about truth in advertising. The movie's called Vampyros Lesbos, and that's what you get-- bi-curious females who occasionally drink blood. She Killed in Ecstasy? You betcha. The lead heroine knifes men to death in the middle of sex.  I appreciate Franco's directness. But it's the directing thing that needs some work.

LOVE EXPOSURE (2008) - Sion Sono


This is my second go-round with Japanese cult director Sion Sono after streaming Strange Circus a few months ago and getting a taste of his style. I was intrigued enough to proceed and figured, hey, why not jump into the deep end with his four-hour ode to first love, upskirt photography, religious cults and cross-dressing. But maybe I should've been more cautious, gone with the 99-minute Suicide Club instead.

Watched over two nights, Love Exposure was kind of a blur. It's a twisted coming of age story about a generally well-mannered kid who wants to cheer up his priest father (his mother just died) by confessing more interesting sins to him each night at dinner than everyday "unpure thoughts." So he gets involved with a gang of hooligans whose specialty is the aforementioned panty pics, which they then sell to a porn company for cash. This leads to cross-dressing disguises, which leads to him meeting the girl of his plaid-skirted dreams during a street fight while he's dressed as a woman. Tootsie/Three's Company type misunderstandings and comic subterfuge ensue. But that's only half the movie. There's still another two hours to slog through. And that part is mostly a drama.

Like Strange Circus, Love Exposure has some compelling ideas/perversities floating around in it. But two things killed it for me: the pacing and the random kung fu. The first half of the movie plays out through multiple narrators, complete with chapter breaks (Nymphomaniac anyone?), like a novel that's being speed-read to you. Later it slows down (or, better yet, bogs down) yet generally preserves the same style at a much more sluggish pace. Also, there are pointless kung fu fights interspersed throughout. I know martial arts helps you sell your movie in all territories, but, seriously, Mr. Sono, your movie didn't need it. Why would these kids even know kung fu?

According to Wikipedia, this is the first in Sono's Hate Trilogy. Should I bother proceeding to Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance? Hmm...

A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002) - Shinya Tsukamoto


More arty kink by way of Japan, several decades later. This one comes from the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

In a nutshell, a married office worker (Asuka Kurosawa) begins receiving strange personal phone calls from a client, then more disturbing blackmail photos of her enjoying "some quality alone time" both in public and at home. She fears her straight-laced husband will find out. Though, to be honest, hubby seems too concerned with unclogging the bathroom shower drain to care (he is a VERY fastidious cleaner).

For me, the stakes were a little too low to get pulled into the story. I mean, really, the wife's only cheating with herself. But then Japanese men tend to have a lot of weird sexual hang-ups, so this might play more as a horror movie abroad (the anxiety of gender role reversal). That aspect didn't really stick for me, but I did appreciate the blue-tinged monochrome color palette and the fact that it was under 80 minutes long.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

BLIND BEAST (1969) - Yasuzo Masumura


You couldn't find a more apropos film for this month's theme ("Arty/Kinky"). A blind sculptor, posing as a masseur who makes house-calls, chloroforms and kidnaps a fashion model and takes her to back his lair-- basically, an installation art space filled with seeing eye sculptures, drooping tongue wall collages and, of course, gigantic papier-mâché breasts. And did I mention he lives with his mother? Better yet, do I even need to? It is the tail end of the '60s. Psycho had already been out for a decade. And Freudian theory in circulation for at least a good 50 years.

Yet, this twisted psychosexual fable feels fresh coming by way of Japan and under Masumura's groovy lens. You're not necessarily surprised when Mother (Noriko Sengoku) grows jealous of her son's new in-house nude study or when the model (Mako Midori) develops a simultaneous case of Stockholm Syndrome and mommy envy. You may, however, be slightly thrown when she asks her new blind beau to hack off both of her arms.

Masumura also directed the second film in the wonderful (and equally warped) Hanzo the Razor series. After seeing this perverse little gem, I may need to check out more of his work.

ANITA: SWEDISH NYMPHET (1973) -
Torgny Wickman


Now that I've endured both volumes and all four-plus hours of Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, I don't feel it's rude of me to ask...was it all a lark? Nothing more than an unofficial, epic-sized remake of the above-pictured and long-forgotten '70s softcore cheapie? The parallels are difficult to ignore.

A self-proclaimed nymphomaniac plays out her feelings of worthlessness through a series of random, often violent sexual encounters with men. Check. Stellan Skarsgard (very young here) plays her de facto psychologist (and eventual fondler). Check. Much psychobabble ensues. Check. As do some dabblings in lesbianism and religious iconography. Check. The all-elusive clitoral orgasm is deemed "the cure." Check and check. Buzz goes the vibrator or thwack! goes the riding crop upon the bare buttocks, take your pick. All that's really missing with Anita is the fly fishing and a Willem Dafoe cameo.

OK, maybe I'm oversimplifying. Nymphomaniac does have that great Uma Thurman "whoring bed" scene, a couple of quality sight gags involving humorously framed erections, and the scenes with Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) flogging and disciplining Gainsbourg have a certain warped romanticism to them. But, mostly, it's Von Trier up to his old tricks (I saw the Seligman shocker ending coming a mile away) and with his head too far up his own buttocks in terms of self-reflexivity (Gainsbourg naming her own "chapters" and commenting on the entertainment value of her story as she tells it, the tease of another toddler in mortal danger ala the opening of Antichrist, etc). Is it top-shelf Von Trier? Absolutely not. Is it better than Anita: Swedish Nymphet? Of course. But there's something to be said for seeing Seligman in his younger days. And for seeing Christina Lindberg in various states of undress. Pair the two films accordingly. Then leave out all the LaBeouf parts.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

APRIL: ARTY/KINKY


Death and taxes, sure. But how about sex and taxes? And could that possibly be the same "Chaos Reigns" fox from Antichrist staring at Young Joe's buttocks above?

April is going to be one of those loosey goosey, catch-all months in terms of themes. Like the very liberal-minded heroine in Von Trier's Nymphomaniac (still need to see Volume II), I'm going to cast a wide net (or fly fishing nymph) and be somewhat indiscriminate about my choice of cinematic hook-ups this month. The only requirement is that they deal in some way with subjects of a sexual nature and attempt to deal with them in artfully (i.e., no gonzo). Preference will be given to ones that, like Von Trier's sexual double-header, don't pull too many punches and ride that slippery line between art cinema and raincoat cinema. Ones that attempt to channel the best of both worlds...art and porn.

There could be a lot of films, there could be only a handful-- I'm not sure yet. But, rest assured, the final number will be a Fibonacci. So let's get randy and a little bit arty. Spring is sprung, and so is this blog.

Monday, March 31, 2014

THIEF (1981) - Michael Mann


Forget Michael Mann's mesmerizing nighttime shooting. Forget the awesome Tangerine Dream score, the brilliant hardboiled Chi-Town dialogue, the well-researched safecracker details. Forget Willie Nelson, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi even. All those things are wonderful, but without the Caan Man you got bupkis. Watching Thief again, for the third or fourth time, I'm convinced it's his best movie. And he wears it well, like one of Frank's so-called "800 dollar suits."

You're probably thinking: "What about The Godfather?" Yes, yes, yes...all bow down to Coppola. The Godfather may be the better movie top to bottom (though it's close). But Thief is the better Caan performance, the one I'd rather re-watch. Sonny Corleone was an enjoyable hothead, sure, but as Frank in Thief he's a tightly coiled spring, running out of time, only opting for violence when it's absolutely necessary, when he's out of other options. For his trade, Frank's a consummate professional, just like the man who plays him. If only he would've turned down the mob's shady offer, stuck to freelance.

You don't need watch the heist scenes. Just watch the long dialogue scene in the diner where he details for Tuesday Weld his anything-to-survive outlook in prison, then shows her the "life collage" he made and tells her his five-year plan. It's both heartbreaking and a little deranged. His conviction to see the plan through no matter what cost is more disturbing than, well, his actual prison conviction.

If that's not disturbing (or amusing) enough, then give the scene at the adoption agency a try, when ex-con Caan and Tuesday go to adopt. First Caan plays nice and humble, then bargains with the social worker for a "less desirable kid," then tries to bribe her with a pinkie ring before going on a full-blown I-was-state-raised manifesto. It's Caan at his best, in all his glory. I'd like to think I'd give him that kid if it was my decision. But, hey, whaddya want from me? I just gave him a whole friggin' month.

THE KILLER ELITE (1975) - Sam Peckinpah


No, you're not having a Fu-bruary flashback. That is indeed James Caan battling a ninja on a boat with a cane in the shot above. Just ignore it though. Because director Sam Peckinpah certainly does. He cuts the big climactic fight scene in The Killer Elite as a laughable afterthought, something to get out of the way so he can get down to real business...from what I've read, a craft service table of filled with whiskey and cocaine.

But then whole movie plays like an afterthought, a potentially good film that fell through the cracks. Caan teamed with Peckinpah...there are possibilities there. But Caan doesn't have much to work with and Peckinpah doesn't have much in the way of a script. Supposedly, Peckinpah wanted to take the boilerplate CIA story and use it as a vehicle to satirize the action movie conventions he'd grown tired of. But producers wanted more straight-ahead fare and, as was customary with Bloody Sam, they clashed. I remembered that clash as being more entertaining; I was wrong. It's just a half-assed mess.

Caan isn't bedridden, as in several of his other movies, but he does waste a good half-hour of the flick recuperating from a gunshot wound. He has a half-assed romance with a nurse in the hospital. Then assembles a half-assed team once he gets out to protect an Asian asset (Mako), but really to get revenge on his old partner, Robert Duvall. Burt Young as a driver, Bo Hopkins as the weapons/demolitions expert...even those guys can't do much to spice things.

The only scene that stands out is the only one I really remembered from my first viewing years ago. Caan and Duvall are hungover after going to a party the night before with many loose ladies, lots of booze. Duvall tells Caan that he found a doctor's note in the purse of the woman Caan just slept with...something to do with "vaginal disease." As Duvall laughs his ass off, Caan shrieks behind the wheel: "Why didn't you stop me? Why didn't you say something?" What's worse than shooting your black ops partner in the back? In a Peckinpah movie...not informing him he's about to get an STD.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) - Richard Rush


I've been doing my Caan'ing on weekends mostly this month, and I hadn't planned on rewatching this '70s buddy cop classic. But when I was trolling around on IMDB yesterday, I saw that it was both Caan AND Alan Arkin's birthdays (Caan 74, Arkin 79). So I figured, it being a month devoted to The Caan Man, I had to squeeze in a late night second look-see.

This movie is even more irresponsible than I remembered. A loud, violent, devil-may-care cop movie filled with random (sometimes gleeful) police brutality, bigoted characters, cars crashing through everything in sight (innocent pedestrians, whole apartment buildings), a villain who happens to be a transvestite, a plot that makes very little sense. Basically, the stuff of every action movie in the '80s and '90s but, oddly, done a decade earlier. Yet, you enjoy it for one reason...the Caan-Arkin chemistry, their priceless (and seemingly improvised) banter in every scene. But, if you're like me, you feel a little queasy/guilty about it afterwards. This movie template, while fun, can only lead to bad things. It can only lead to Bad Boys II.

Caan is a ball of walking-talking-preening energy as a generally misogynistic/racist San Francisco flatfoot. According to Wikipedia, he gives himself a "4" on the Caan Self-Appraisal Scale. I'd tend to agree...he's good but seems like he's ad-libbing as much as acting most of the film. The always reliable Arkin is more fun as his (get this) Mexican partner whose wife is two-timing him. The scene where he tries (and fails) to interrogate his whip-smart bride, TV's Rhoda Valerie Harper (also doing "brownface" and channeling Rosie Perez basically), is one for the Arkin career highlights reel.

I'm thinking there has to be an Arkin Month coming sometime soon. Maybe April, maybe August. I've got the movies if Arkin's got the time. Until then, back to Caan and one or two more old faves. Happy birthday, gents. Here's a bday GIF...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

POODLE SPRINGS (1998) - Bob Rafelson


Caan dons the Philip Marlowe fedora in this solid made-for-HBO movie, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's final unfinished novel with help from Robert B. Parker and playwright Tom Stoppard.

A little "sleepier" than the classic The Big Sleep and shorter than Altman's superior The Long Goodbye, Poodle is still a fine whodunit. Most of the enjoyment comes not from parsing the scattershot plot but from seeing the iconic ladykiller detective in newly-married, recently-retired mode. As far as big screen Marlowes go, Caan isn't quite Bogart and more classical in his approach than the rambling, shambling Elliott Gould. I'd say he's squarely in the Robert Mitchum ballpark though.

As for the rest of the cast, there are solid turns by Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers!) as Marlowe's rich bride, David Keith (An Officer and a Gentlemen!) as a sleazy porn photographer with multiple names and Joe Don Baker (Fletch!) as...well, Joe Don Baker but with much more money than usual.

Also, it's good to see director Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) ended the decade on a solid noir note. After the two '90s Nicholson duds (Man Trouble and Blood and Wine), I had kind of scratched him off the must-see list.

HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT (1980) - James Caan


Caan stars and fills the director's chair his first (and only) time in a ripped from the headlines thriller about a man who loses his family to the Witness Relocation Program when his ex-wife's new husband gets a hit put out on him.

As with many actor-turned-director efforts, the performances are solid across the board, but the direction/pacing/script leave something to be desired. Caan, Danny Aiello, Joe Grifasi and Barbara Rae as Caan's estranged wife all create credible, lived-in roles. And the mafia-related parts are real world believable, not hyperbolic in any way, Caan obviously applying some lessons learned from Coppola to this film. There are many nice blue-collar Buffalo touches. I was waiting for Vincent Gallo to hobble through the frame at any moment, clutching his bladder and looking for a place to drop trou. But the story lacked any dynamic engine other than the slow creaking wheels of justice Caan's everyman hero finds himself up against. And the ways in which he goes about fighting the system often seemed clumsy and harebrained (though probably true to life).

I kept wanting to reach through the screen and shake Caan's character by the collar and say: "I know you want to see your two adorable toddlers again badly, but you do realize all this fuss you're making...you're kinda putting them in more danger? After all, they're in Witness Protection for a reason. Come on, JC, you were in The Godfather. Need I remind what happened to Sonny at the Long Beach toll plaza?"

Sunday, March 16, 2014

CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973) - Mark Rydell


A movie that starts with an off-duty Navy sailor getting an boil on his ass removed (excuse me, "pilonidal cyst"), now that's a '70s movie! Now that's the Caan Man!!!!

Not to worry...Caan doesn't stay bedridden for long in Cinderella Liberty. Pretty soon he's hitting the bars and red light district of Seattle, hooking up with a prostitute (Marsha Mason) after hustling her services for free in a two-out-of-three billiards game. Turns out, working girl Mason has a TON of other Navy customers...and a half-black teenage son at home. Before you can say "sailor with a heart of gold" (the hooker's heart in this instance, not so much), Caan is palling around with the kid, offering to pay for his orthodontics with his Navy benefits and generally playing her unwanted protector and de-facto husband. In other words, cutting heavily into her business model and just a teensy bit into her heart.

Remember that boil on Caan's ass at the beginning? That's kinda what he becomes to this mother-son duo...a very benevolent pain in the butt.


If this all sounds too sweet for a solid '70s movie (or solid Caan movie), think again. It's written by the same writer who wrote the book, The Last Detail (another classic Navy guys on shore leave '70s flick). It knows how to do sweet but melancholy and profane at the same time. And the teenage kid (far left, above) is not some adorable moppet who takes a shine to Caan instantly. He's wary for much of the film, curses him out routinely. The last thing he wants or need is another just-passing-through military daddy. Kirk Calloway, props to you wherever you are for holding your own against the Caan Man.

Caan is great in this. He gives himself an "8" on the personal appraisal scale (as per Wikipedia), but I might nudge it a notch higher. Something I've learned about Caan: Anytime he takes on 'hood kids by himself in a game of basketball (The Gambler, this movie and probably many others), you instantly know it's a good film. Eli Wallach, Burt Young and Bruno Kirby are also solid as always. And Marsha Mason is quite good, though you kind of hate her character for much of it (bad mother, etc.). Then again, for a working girl, she does let Caan get under the sheets with her gratis. And never once does she complain about the thing on his ass. So, you know, there's definitely some love there...of a certain '70s kind.

SLITHER (1973) - Howard Zieff


This James Caan ex-con crime comedy starts with a bang (literally...Caan and his partner trapped in house under heavy gunfire which later explodes to smithereens) and spends the next hour and fifteen minutes whimpering to a close. Or should I say "slithering" to a close? I'm not sure. I really have no idea why this movie is called Slither. There are no snakes on this plane (or in the Airstream camper Caan travels in). Perhaps it is a comment on the film's pace itself...which is s-s-s-s-slow. And not the good '70s rambling road movie kinda slow either. Just slow as in no interesting destination.

Then again I watched Slither for the Caan, not the plot. He's just OK and mostly winces his way through every scene, as if he knew he was trapped in a go-nowhere film perched somewhere between comedy and action drama but not delivering on either end. According to Wikipedia, Caan's self-appraisal rating for his performance in this film was a "4." I'd say that's just about right.

There are other interesting actors in this film as well, none of them with much interesting to do. Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco. Sally Kellerman really gets the plum role as a hippy-dippy love interest who robs diners on the side. There's a weird moment where before sleeping with Caan at a roadside motel she asks him if he slept with any men in the joint, not because she cares if he's gay but because she wants her body to remain pure and clean. Safe sex? Pre-AIDS? In the '70s? Caan doesn't really answer the question ("Do I look like the type of guy..." etc.). Whatever. She sleeps with him anyway.