Wednesday, July 01, 2015

JULY AMUSEMENTS


Last month's film selections got a little dark there towards the end, a little too "rapey" maybe. I apologize. As mentioned, the revenging theme was research for a related writing project. To make amends, July's theme will focus on lighter fare (mostly). I've done many a month centered around a particular director, actor, genre, sub-genre or random theme, but I have yet to do one based solely on location. "Location, location, location!" as they say. And so this month all the movie selections will take place at amusement parks of some sort. Why not? It's the summer, people are on vacation, and the number one grossing movie in America (I think, I don't keep up on the trades) is about a dinosaur-laden amusement park.

And speaking of Vacations, there's that remake coming down the pipe at the end of the month. From the trailer, I'm guessing it will be horrible, but the original National Lampoon's Vacation did hold a special place in my heart. I always wanted to go to Wally World with the Griswolds, even if it ended up being closed. Especially if it was closed. No lines! This was definitely not the case at my own local childhood amusement park.

Since there's little quality control involved in picking movies based purely on location, I'm guessing this month will feature some of the worst selections in Cashiers history. I'm entirely OK with that. Sometimes you just need some mindless summer fun. Like a roller coaster. Or a movie called Rollercoaster. There will probably be a handful of bad sequels in the mix too. After all, there is one of the Vacation sequels I didn't see. Not to mention one of the Beverly Hills Cops. I'm figuring the reviews will be brief and postcard size, if not written on actual postcards.

Wally World might be closed for the summer, but, for some ungodly reason, this blog still isn't after nearly 10 years. Let's sing some Lindsey Buckingham together. Bring on the amusing flicks...

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

AMERICAN MARY (2012) - The Soska Sisters


Spend a month studying up on female-centered revenge movies, and due diligence demands at least one of them be directed by a woman, right? How about two? Two women directors that is (twins!), not two movies.

American Mary chronicles a (Canadian?) med student who uses her budding surgical skills to take revenge on her silver fox professor after he roofies her, assaults her and films it at an after-hours college mixer. Turns out Mary's been doing some back alley "body mod" surgeries on the side to help pay off her student loans. She's gotten very handy with the scalpel doing transdermal implants and bifurcating tongues, and Professor Handycam is certainly due for an involuntary makeover.

The revenge portion of the film is your standard mid-aughts torture porn affair. If you've paid yourself the disservice of watching any of the Hostel, Human Centipede or Saw movies, you probably won't be shocked or surprised. The revenge is taken pretty early in the film, leaving Mary to putter along on some other uninteresting plot strands involving a skeezy sorta love interest who runs a strip club for the remainder of the film. But the body modification community bits interspersed throughout are of interest, mostly because the twin directors used real-life patients. It lends these scenes a unsettling early-mid Cronenberg vibe.

Though the Sisters Soska seem a little too green (and a little too grindhouse) to be in their fellow Canadian's league just yet and light years from the Brothers Coen, there are hints of promise sprinkled throughout. Like their student protagonist, they've obviously been pulling all-nighters boning up on their Takashi Miike. The casting of Mary in American Mary was, for me, the biggest misfire, other than the twin sisters casting themselves in a few scenes (with terrible German accents no less). The actress eye-rolls her way through a majority of her lines (not that they're great lines really) and, thus, comes off like a goth Tara Reid on extra helpings Xanax. However, I did greatly appreciate the real-life body mod Betty Boop. I would even consider streaming a stand-alone sequel that follows just her plot line. Saskatchewan Betty, maybe?

DIRTY WEEKEND (1993) - Michael Winner


British director Winner made his name (and, surely, most of his wealth) in America directing male-centered vigilante films, most notably the first three films in the diminishing returns Death Wish series. The women in these films were generally victims-- wives, daughters, girlfriends-- who were there to be hastily violated or murdered in the first reel (often both) so that Charles Bronson could suit up in his trench coat, his stocking cap and his Magnum and spend the rest of film taking revenge in their stead. Dirty Weekend (based on the controversial novel by Helen Zahavi) finds Winner once again on familiar avenging turf but this time in his home country of Britain and with a female protagonist for a change. This switcheroo serves him well. Apart from 1972's The Mechanic, I think it's probably the best Winner film I've seen.

As the opening titles so bluntly tell us: "Bella was a woman who'd had enough." She's just been dumped by a cad of a boyfriend and wants to be left alone in her new basement flat in Brighton to recoup. Instead, she's receiving disturbing phone calls from the peeper across the street (Rufus Sewell), which quickly turn from heavy breathing to outright harassment. He calls her constantly, telling her what he's going to do to her sexually, even follows her to the park to detail these future violations in person. Bella appeals to the police, but they are lax to do anything because "Tim" has yet to act upon these threats physically. In frustration, she goes to see a Persian mystic (or crackpot, depending on your POV) who tells her to stop waiting to be the victim. He tells her to become the predator rather than the prey.

And so begins Bella's "dirty weekend." After breaking into Tim's house and bashing his sleeping skull with a hammer on Friday, she finds she rather enjoys the predatory lifestyle and goes looking for fresh meat. Cut to a hotel bar pick-up with an overweight psychologist Saturday night that turns into a deadly BDSM tryst. Cut to a Sunday morning visit to the dentist which turns into death by automobile. And, hey, is that Mike the Cool Person from The Young Ones as one of the three drunk yuppie males Bella's knifing in an alleyway Sunday night? Yes, I believe it is.

Dirty Weekend is one of the more interesting femme-avenger movies I've watched this month because it tracks a woman who takes revenge BEFORE the crime is committed (although "Tim" REALLY should have been given a restraining order at least). It has a sense of humor about itself, something these films so often (understandably) lack. Bella's "empowerment" is brutal by all means, but it's also told with a light-dark comedy touch, handling her various predatory paybacks as "just a bit of fun." In that sense, it's kind of like the female companion piece to American Psycho. It'd be interesting to see Bella and Patrick Bateman go on a date. I wonder who would pick up the check. I wonder which one would survive the night.

HANNIE CAULDER (1971) - Burt Kennedy


Some appreciatory Tarantino interview led me to commit this simplistic lady revenge Western to DVD-R years ago. Also, director Burt Kennedy's name in the credits. I liked some of the work he did as a screenwriter for Budd Boetticher and was interested to see how he handled the lens. Surprisingly, the writer-turned-director's visual palette is not my beef with Hannie Caulder (as it often is with many writer-turned-directors). The film is gorgeously shot, especially the "Western on the beach" scenes in Mexico where Robert Culp teaches Raquel Welch to use a firearm. It's the script that's just too threadbare. Hannie's husband is killed by three bickering outlaws, then she is assaulted by same. She hires bounty hunter Culp to teach her to shoot, he teaches her to shoot, she gets her revenge. And that's basically it...as naked a plot as Welch is beneath her poncho for much of the film. It would have been nice if there was a little more narrative intrigue and, for Welch's sake, an athletic bra maybe. It's the Old West, and fabrics back then were rough. That poncho's gotta chafe.

MS. 45 (1981) - Abel Ferrara


If you set out to watch any number of movies about women taking revenge, you eventually (unfortunately) will have to contend with that most unpleasant of sub-genres, the rape-revenge film. I Spit On Your Grave. The Last House on the Left. Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Etcetera, etcetera. I've never been much of a fan. I'm not a prude when it comes to exploitation films in general, but films in this particular sub-genre often attempt to ride that very queasy line between titillation and condemnation in portraying a very touchy subject (i.e., rape). The directors (generally male) seem like they're trying to have their narrative cake (a justified revenge) while eating it too (rampant female nudity, wanton sexuality). By film's end you're feeling like the director is as much if not more of a rapist (visually, conceptually) than the coterie of lascivious backwoods rednecks or urban street thugs he relishes enacting so much bloody comeuppance upon through the hands of a wronged woman (sometimes with an axe, sometimes with a gun). The means simply don't justify the ends. Was it worth putting this fictional woman (not to mention the very real actress) through all this onscreen torture? Just so a couple of peckerwoods get their due?

Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 is a standout in this most maligned of sub-genres and has already been written about extensively by a number female film critics, feminist theory professors, often in a laudatory way. Take a look around Google...you'll find it even provides the cover jacket for one or two. Therefore, I will keep my own (apologetically male) commentary brief and defer to the ladies with a link below to a lively roundtable discussion on the film's merits and provocations...

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/on-ms-45-and-revenge-movie-feminism

All in all, I agree that Ferrara's film is one of the few in the sub-genre that's self-aware in its manipulations (director Ferrara actually cast himself as mute seamstress Thana's initial attacker). And, for an '80s vigilante flick, it's unusually attentive to the victim's post-trauma psychological trajectory (from victim to vigilante to misandrist to straight-up serial killer). In short, far more advanced than your average Game of Thrones episode 30 years later, which routinely chooses to portray sexual violence committed against women, at times violating them further by cutting to another (male) character's POV of the deed presumably in "good taste" but, really, just robbing the character/actress all the more by doing so. That much-discussed Sansa-Theon-Ramsay wedding night scene? Yes, I'm staring back at you. Better yet, a 1980s Abel Ferrara is.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

MEDEA (1969) - Pier Paolo Pasolini
MEDEA (1988) - Lars Von Trier

 

Long before conniving queen Cersei was taking extended (and extensively body-doubled) walks of shame, the baddest mythological mother of all was committing filicide as payback for her husband Jason's betrayals. I watched two versions of the classic Euripdes tragedy transposed to screen this week, a feature-length by Italian director Pasolini and a telefilm by the melancholy Dane himself, Lars von Trier. The two Medeas couldn't be more different. OK, I guess they could...if one featured Tyler Perry's Madea, which, come to think of it, could be interesting if dropped arbitrarily into the earlier film.

Pasolini casts opera legend Maria Callas in the title role and films the desert-locked proceedings with a neo-realist approach, alternating between distant shots of people going about ancient rituals and ceremonies in documentary-like fashion to extreme close-ups of faces that often do not tell us much (mostly non-actors, I'm guessing). When it comes to the soundtrack, he has a similar tendency to shift between giant chunks of expository dialogue where names of various kings and queens and their relations are dropped then play out the more intimate, emotional scenes (for instance, when Medea first meets and later beds down with Jason) with little to no dialogue, a silent movie in effect. That is, when the North African tribal horns aren't wailing over top.

This matter of fact approach tends to strain the attention span, and in spots you may not know what's going on unless you're already familiar with the Greek myth and all its players. Considering the film is titled Medea (and not Jason and Medea), he arguably begins the film earlier than needed before the two have met, then skims through the whole golden fleece ordeal (the most interesting part of the myth pre-Corinth), stopping long enough to have Medea lop off her brother's head...in an obscured long shot, of course. Later, he films Medea's discovery of Jason's infidelities with the princess Glauce in a curious manner, having Callas react strongly to a tableau of Jason cavorting around in a courtyard playfully with a bunch of other men. It seems as if she's discovering for the first time that her husband is gay and not under the spell of Corinthian princess. Some of Pasolini's own sexual predilections peeking through perhaps?

For me, Von Trier's more heavily stylized Medea went down better (and faster...a brisk 76 minutes). He begins the story later with Medea and Jason (Udo Kier!) already parents of two adorably doomed offspring, already in Corinth, with Medea already well aware that's she's about to be shunted aside for the younger, fairer princess. So doom and gloom reigns from the very first swampy, ochre frames (Von Trier's Corinth is more of a bog than Pasolini's desert setting).

Von Trier shoots the dreary proceedings in the same muddy analog video he will later use to good effect in Breaking the Waves, interspersing some effective rear projection shots that he will also rely on heavily in his breakout feature Zentropa three years later. This visual approach only amplifies the silent Carl Dreyer channeling he's going for (he based the film on an abandoned Dreyer adaptation of the play) and underlines the myth's black as pitch ending. Here, Von Trier unsurprisingly doubles down on Pasolini, filming the crime of dual filicide more viscerally. Whereas Pasolini had Callas rock her children to sleep then vaguely set their dwelling ablaze, Von Trier has his Medea slowly, excruciatingly hang her two cute moppets from a gnarled tree (with their assistance, no less!) so that Jason could stumble upon his children's limp bodies thereafter. Leave it to the prankster Dane to one-up the disturbing factor on the man who later gave cinema one of its most unsettling concoctions, Salo.

Monday, June 15, 2015

THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968) - Francois Truffaut


The chilliest (and best) of the femme-revenge pictures I've watched so far. Leave it to the French to make mortal payback seem so refined. The brilliantly staid Jeanne Moreau's expressionless face for the duration has a lot to do with it. Also, Truffaut's no-nonsense, Hitchcock-adoring direction. Moreau's black bride runs through her hit list of male targets like a housewife casually ticking off items on her grocery agenda (she actually has a handwritten list). "Tomatoes, check. Vinegar, check. Push man off high rise balcony, check. Plunger man's arak bottle with poison, check. Pose as artist's model of the huntress Diana, then shoot artist in the back with arrow...check, check and check." All this to avenge an accidental murder...her husband by random church tower gunshot on her wedding day. I guess it just goes to show you DO NOT f*%k with a lady's nuptials. Especially a French lady. She will cross you off her list as casually as picking up her morning baguette.

SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE (2005) -
Park Chan-wook


I'd seen this visually rich vengeance flick years ago when it first came out but, given this month's theme, thought I'd give it a second look. Glad I did. I'd forgotten large swaths of the plot and was able to enjoy it anew. For instance, I completely blanked that Lady Vengeance's revenge scheme was not only personal but on behalf of a group of bereaved parents (an avenger's support group if you will), a nice wrinkle on the old familiar eye-for-an-eye. Also, the lushly photographed sequence with her dragging Mr. Baek's beheaded head attached to a dog's body around in the snow. Watching it again, I kept waiting for that scene to pay off. "When she's going to behead him? Whose poor dog will provide the body? Where'd she get the sled?" These questions remained unanswered, obviously, in that the sequence was more snowy fever dream and not a foretelling of actual events (which are also gruesome, if less imaginative). That Chan-wook...such a prankster, such a shameless stylist. This used to be my least favorite of his Vengeance Trilogy. Now I'm thinking the Lady's Vengeance might be more compelling than the Mister's.

LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973) &
LADY SNOWBLOOD 2 (1974) - Toshiya Fujita


In the great big grab-bag of film references that was Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2), this is the film Tarantino grabbed from the most. Plot, soundtrack, snowbound fight sequences, the chapter headings...it's all here in Lady Snowblood, 30 years prior and, in this blog's humble opinion, 30 times better. Director Fujita gets his dirty business done efficiently in the course of a lean 90 minutes, charting Yuki's single-minded quest for revenge on the four people who killed her mother and father with a lyrical touch and a relentless pace. As a child "born of vengeance," she never gets a chance to develop much of a personality in the first film, only realizes what her family bloodlust has robbed from her (namely, a life) while bleeding out into the snow from a mortal stomach gash at the film's end.

Obviously, it was just a flesh wound because Yuki returns for the unnecessary but enjoyable sequel. Having gotten her vengeance in the first film, she's somewhat adrift in the second, doing the local government's avenging for them to escape a life in prison. You could say she's "contractually obligated," probably like the director after the first film turned into a modest Japanese hit. Still, there's a well-choreographed beachside sword fight at the beginning (from snow to sand!) and some interesting business with the man she's been tasked to kill, an anarchist penning a politically charged treatise complete with comic book style panels. It goes down a lot easier than the animated O-Ren origin story wedged into Kill Bill because, well, this is where that origin story originated in the first place.

Monday, June 01, 2015

JUNE: AVENGING ANGELS


Revenge is a dish best served cold...especially with a side of estrogen. As the heat index rises and the summer multiplexes become more clogged with sausage and bad testosterone (Entourage, Ted 2, Magic Mike XXL etc.), what better time to flip the script, opt for some at-home, air-conditioned lady vengeance?

Temperature metaphors notwithstanding, this month's theme is more functional than the norm. Most of the films I'll be watching are in conjunction with a separate writing project I'm working on. Consequently, there will be a little less time to blog. The femi-avengers featured herein will probably be far from angelic. Some will be maligned mothers of Greek mythology. Some will be livid lady samurai. Another will be a wronged woman of the Old West, another a med student far too handy with a scalpel. There's sure to be at least one nun with a gun (well, sort of a nun). She may as close to "angelic" as I'll get. But all of them -- good, bad or somewhere in between -- will be out for some kind of personal payback, taking matters into their own hands.

Cashiers has seen Vengeful Vets (mostly dudes) and Angry Young Men in the past, but June belongs to the Fuming Femmes. These ladies may be angrier than May's Furiosa. After all, she only wanted "redemption."  Gents, be advised: Sporty or not, you may want to wear an athletic cup the entire month.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

MIRACLE MILE (1988) - Steve De Jarnatt


Yet another End Times '80s flick I resisted for far too long. I'd heard whisperings over the years from random strangers about Miracle Mile being a juicy day-in-the-life nuclear thriller (shot mostly at night). But, like Anthony Edwards receiving his accidental 3 A.M. payphone warning call from a missile silo in North Dakota, I guess I didn't want to believe the shocking, unfathomable news. A quality apocalypse thriller starring the Gilbert from Revenge of the Nerds and the not-Demi-Moore-actress from St. Elmo's Fire? Directed by the guy who co-wrote Strange Brew with "Bob and Doug McKenzie" (a classic comedy but, still a comedy)? One that all takes place within a mile of the La Brea Tar Pits? No, please, say it ain't so!


Well, I'm here alive to tell you...it is so. Miracle Mile lives up its quiet, low-key hype. As a last day on earth love story and a disturbing doomsday scenario, it works on several levels with some oddball After Hours humor thrown in and one out of the blue Eddie "Mr. Blue" Bunker cameo (well-armed, above). Though it tells the "biggest story of all" (the destruction of the Earth by nuclear warheads), it's a movie made of smaller moments, idiosyncratic character details. You actually care about the people who are about to be vaporized. You're constantly thinking "hurry, hurry, hurry" because you want them to catch that last ditch chopper to Arctic safety (which, let's be honest, probably wouldn't save them anyway) and not because you want the movie to hurry up and end.



The film really only has one "money shot," the scene with Edwards on the 'hood of a car looking out over the sea of traffic-choked cars with explosions in the distance (a matte painting). Unlike, say, San Andreas, a disaster flick which I'm guessing from the trailers is a bunch of CGI money shots strung together and character as nagging afterthought. The scene is harrowing, but Miracle Mile doesn't really need it. The scope, the magnitude of impending danger...you get it from the characters, the offbeat occurrences in margins of the story, sometimes caught in the corners of the frame. A cop catching on fire in the distance. A coyote come down from the canyons to eat in an abandoned diner. A man and woman rutting with abandon in the alleyway as our chaste, doomed couple flees down the sidewalk. Or what about This Guy on the roof, taking some unnamed mind-melting hallucinogen and screaming into the sky "This better not be just another earthquake!" because, fuck it, there's only 20 minutes left to live, why not?


I'm kinda glad I didn't see this movie when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure it would've scared the beejeezies out of me, and The Day After had already shell-shocked me enough. It's the perfect storm of all my childhood Reagan Era fears (nuclear holocaust, woolly mammoths trapped in quicksand, first loves). And, ATOMIC SPOILER ALERT, it doesn't cheat on the downbeat, black as tar ending (though it does end on a romantic, diamond-cut nod to posterity amid its inevitable fade to blinding white). The only thing that disturbed more now than it probably would have then was Mare Winningham's extreme business up front, party in the back mullet. Oof, what a unfortunate look on such a nice lady! I'll take the apocalypse over that haircut any day.

CHERRY 2000 (1988) - Steve De Jarnatt


Cherry 2000 is another dystopian future movie I always wanted to see but kept on the backburner for unexplained reasons. It came out right around the time I had a serious Melanie Griffith crush thanks to Something Wild ("Chaaarlie," those black bangs, the handcuffs, that hotel scene). You'd think that and the title alone would have earned it a post-adolescent rental, but no. What was I waiting for? The year 2000? The actual apocalypse? I'm not sure, but I definitely missed out.

In a nutshell, future businessman Sam (David Andrews, kinda forgettable in a good way) short circuits his love-robot wife (or "gynoid") after a particularly spirited bout of soapy dishwasher sex (above). Problem is, Cherry 2000 is a rare model, not so easy to replace. Sam's heartbroken and tries normal dating with actual women, but apparently the singles scene in the year 2017 is worse than 2015. Women take their "sex lawyers" with them to bars (here, played by Laurence Fishburne), and men are required to sign contracts before even chatting them up. Also, both parties seem to be required to show video of their past performances on little bar monitors, evaluate each other's sexual skill sets, a more bureaucratic than erotic proposition when it comes right down to it. Sam hears rumors of spare parts for his broken beloved in a lawless part of the wasteland called Zone 7. There, he hires a notoriously tough tracker, E. Johnson, to help him find a new Cherry and, wouldn't you know it, the tracker turns out to be a woman...Melanie Griffith. Wa-la, the post-apocalyptic rom-com is born.


Though the setting of Cherry 2000 is not quite post-nuclear and a Manic Panicked Melanie Griffith not the world's most believable tracker (those lazy line readings as if delivered through a thick haze of quaaludes, her careless rocket launcher firing form), this movie still has much to admire and many surprise cameo treats (Harry Carey, Jr, Ben Johnson, Brion James). Unlike, say, Radioactive Dreams, the humor in a decidedly non-humorous setting generally works. And the love story, though obvious, ("Will he fall for the real woman instead of the robot? WILL HE?!!") goes down smooth. Heck, post-nuclear or not, rom-com or Road Warrior style vehicular mayhem, I can't fault any movie where a character's dinner is baked rattlesnake made in a repurposed toaster oven.

Friday, May 29, 2015

RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985) - Albert Pyun


When I was a young film nerd still peddling my BMX Schwinn to the local video store, this VHS box cover always caught my eye but, for some reason, never my 99 cent rental fee (usually provided in coins, my weekly grass-cutting allowance). The drawing on the front stoked my overactive imagination then plagued nightly by mid-'80s nuclear war anxiety dreams. The two guys on the cover were dressed in anachronistic '30s detective duds and appeared to be having a grand old time among the apocalypse. They looked like they were being chased by Road Warrior style motorcycle gangs and--even better!--accompanied by a New Wave soundtrack. I immediately flipped the bulky clamshell over to read the back.

Sure enough, the characters' names were Philip Chandler (Dean Stockwell) and Marlowe Hammer (Michael Dudikoff), a mash-up of some the noir detective greats, due to the fact that they'd lived most of their lives in a fallout shelter and only had Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane novels there to read. Now they were coming out of the shelter to meet the Apocalypse, and I imagined something along the lines of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a Mad Max setting. Just two guys hanging out in vintage duds, speaking in outdated hardboiled dialogue, maybe killing some mutants and meeting a few mutant dames along the way. Sounds like a fine way to spend two hours, no?

If only...if only I had left the disc in my flipbook, as I once wisely (and inexplicably) left Radioactive Dreams on the Mr. Video shelf. The movie plays out nothing like I described. Director Albert Pyun's wasteland is a lifeless, low budget affair, the humor hackneyed sub-'80s spring break movie quips and the detective-noir angle is mostly incidental. There's a recurring joke with two little kids dressed as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever who love to curse and shoot guns which you'd think would be an easy laugh but is particularly trying to endure.

When Pyun does attempt the hardboiled dialogue, it sounds simply wrong, as if he read no more than a paragraph of the books in his heroes' fallout shelter and just wanted to put one of them in a fedora. The new wave soundtrack is there as advertised, but it's strictly C versions of '80s B sides. And Michael Dudikoff is...well, he's Michael Dudikoff. He should probably stick to American Ninja, steer clear of sarcasm and the apocalypse (though I still contend he's a perfect candidate for yet another Expendables movie).

I guess some dreams are better left unrealized. Until they make Fear and Loathing in Barter Town, I'll keep watching the pre-teen version in my head.