Thursday, 6 September 2012

Deep Red (1975)

For some Argento's followers it's Suspiria, where he mastered his combination of hard-hitting, visual predatory and out-of-this-world plotting. But for me Deep Red stands higher a notch retaining tight script quality and deadly suspense of a classic Italian thriller. As Suspiria dips in galaxies of coloured lenses, it also loses the edge bending slightly to the realms of an absurd. In comparison Deep Red is a pure breed occult giallo, which marks high point of Argento's career as a director and a storyteller. And last but not least Deep Red carries a heavyweight soundtrack of Italian psych/prog mindbenders – Goblin, who are witnessed here in their highest form (soundtrack of Suspiria was never that convincing for me).

In Deep Red Argento keeps his usual way of telling a story through the eyes of an accidental witness – kicked off as we remember in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) – but gets deeper into occult and subconscious imagery, which is one of these things keeping the viewer busy pondering all the possible connections. But as scripts were never strong side of giallo movies – we can really count all good ones with one hand – Argento's storyline is only a little above the line of average. Intrigue is set and running when main character gets tangled up in a mysterious murder... and then obviously playing the shrills follows as everything is boiled down to one-direction whodunit plot. This is balanced by flashes of retrospection on the other hand – a really sweet ingredient of Deep Red, which at least gives us a feeling of looking at something more than stereotype cheapie.

For those, who didn't see it, Deep Red features a story of psychopathy and murder! When Marc Daly (played by David Hemmings of Blow-Up fame) – a jazz pianist – casually passes a piazza in Rome on his way home, he becomes a witness of a ferocious assasination of a German psychic in her apartament, who's been just attending a parapsychological summit, where she discovered an evil apple while scanning the public, who decides to kill her. Haunted by what he saw, Marc cannot lay all the responsiblity on local police and starts his own, private investigation instead... convinced he's seen the face of a murderer, but cannot quite recall it until the end of the movie. He soon pairs with a local journalist – Gianna, who'll be of a great help and one of Argento's red herrings as well. She'll be pointed to as a possible doer more than once, but in the end she'll become a victim too.

Freudian madness is a driving force behind the movie and although Argento grabs mainly impressionist means to unveil it, it serves as an interesting background of a character of a killer. There's no point in pointing at the loopholes – as I said before, giallo as a genre has its obvious limitations – but Deep Red definitely serves its purpose as a classy weekend night thrill. Argento is all about topping Bava's Blood & Black Lace here, but he never really manages to do it, instead left tiptoeing behind. Well, there can only be one giallo master and for me that plays out between Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Argento was never my favourite – too baroque on one and too funny on the other hand. But if you one wanna see his swansong, I guess you need to look down here. Otherwise, just make two steps back and go straight to the original blueprint.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Howl (2010)

The Beat Generation seems to be catching another wave of interest recently as modern filmmakers struggle to bring never directed visions to the silver screen, although it would be probably more correct to say that Beat poetry and prose never went out of style managing to carve its own niche in minds of scholars and literary rebels from around the world. I guess Howl has been made for this type of public – however you might call it: my people, our people or just these people – that appreciates Beat Generation's immortal energy and anger still rediscovering Ginsberg's greatest poem as it's been coined yesterday. And there's nothing wrong about it as some gutsy art just never gets old, in the worst case just sinking in to become a distinctive, cultural background.

Howl definitely carries the message with its vivid animation sequences by world famous, Leftist illustrator Eric Drooker, who put a lot of work to translate Ginsberg's poetic jazz into spiderweb of breathtaking images – I'd say it's the best thing about Howl, a kind of Waking Life stuff. A lot of work has been done by young James Franco as well, who plays Ginsberg in the movie treating his persona as it's been handed down on a plate with relaxed interpretation and no trace of pretentiousness (this self-conscious burden, that kills plenty of potentially great roles every year) although maybe short of some insight. Eventually we need to bow down to script writers, who cared about original trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti so much, that they copied its words verbatim, which helped the actors to get a firm ground for character development.

The film hovers around Allen Ginsberg's personal life, his debut in The Six Gallery in San Francisco and the famous case of alleged obscenity filed against City Light Books in 1957, which originally issued Howl. The poem itself becomes a leading thread, a narration and a pretext for overlaying it with stunning animation for which the trial stands as a back story weaving in and out, either meeting it straight-on or jumping to "interview with Allen Ginsberg" and then carrying on. However we might find this concept, as fas as doing a simple portrait of one of the most important American contemporary poets is concerned it quite fits the picture. Thus we get through Ginsberg's homosexuality, his affair with Neal Cassady, his stay in mental institution and obviously his friendship with Jack Kerouac, and you won't hear a bent out note, oh no... the problem is that you won't get jerked up either.

For that reason my feeling about Howl is mixed. Film's irectors (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) lost a big chance to come up with a bigger picture of Ginsberg's life, his significance for counterculture of the 60's, for gay movement or for American poetry/art in general. Frankly it feels like cutting corners – Howl lacks emotional depth, rarely sparkles and after all doesn't come up with a flash of brilliance (I always expect)... in other words it fails to deliver spiritual madness of Beat Generation... this element, which for me is the most important, secret ingredient of their classic writing. Too normal for me? I'd say so, this is not what you really expect from a film about a guy, who at one point wanted to load everybody with LSD and Hare Krishna chants. Couldn't they reach for a little bit more than just a simple framework of legendary crumbles – however neat it is? I guess, we'll still have to wait for a talent, who wants to fuck Beat Generation open and show its dark underbelly.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Obscene Mirror (1973) [Italian Cut]

This offbeat 70's shocker by Franco, which became cult cult mainly cause it's hard to get hold of – at least in my opinion – also known as "The Other Side Of The Mirror", has been released in three cuts: Spanish, Italian and English with first one extremely rare. Although not as good as director's earlier works like "Venus In Furs" (1967) or "Justine" (1969), the film has got interesting script and pretty protagonist, who boldly takes the story ahead. Filmed somewhere on the coast Of Italy, it features very giallo story, somehow resembling Argento's "Four Flies on The Grey Velvet" (1971) and classic for erotic movies of the era, easy listening soundtrack. Italian cut titled "Lo Specchio del Piacere" contains all juicy sex bites, which serve as a sleazy eye-candy and fill the gaps of this titillating, paranormal exploit.

When Marie (Lina Romay) – one of two beautiful daughters of famous professor of archeology – commits suicide in despair trying to prevent her younger sister's marriage with Norwegian scholar, Annette (Emma Cohen) decides to leave an island of Madeira, where she's been living since she was born and finally get a job as a professional pianist. Although of very fragile character and striking beauty – working as a magic charm for the men – she carries inside a dark call from the the other world! Her older sister's ghost is haunting her and not letting Annette make a connection with any man. Although dark messages from the other world concern mainly incest, lesbian sex fantasies, they successfully take over girl's life and make her a puppet of dark forces. Eventually she becomes an assassin with personality crisis, slashing freshly met studs in a blackout until she meets her destiny.

Although plot is silly and Franco uses it mainly to show two girls licking their pussies with occasional dick swinging, the film ticks all the boxes as a genuine 70's euro sexploitation picture landing boldly in the land of softcore due to quantity of sex scenes and great close-ups (you won't see these angles in any modern adult movie). Although ghost and spiritual possession are part of the game here, it's not a horror by any means, so followers of this genre shoud stay away. However Franco's fans should be delighted with vintage jet-set enter the world of carnal pleasures aura, which has few good moments. Definitely not an obligatory viewing, but worthwhile, pleasurable experience, that brings its reward. Still, only for weird sexploitation connoisseurs and Lina Romay completists.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Pull My Daisy (1959)

Although not even coming near to dark, surreal visions of William S. Burroughs and Anthony Balch, pictured in underground gems such as "The Cut-Ups" or "Towers Open Fire", "Pull My Daisy" is one of these obscure, experimental Beat movies, playing around with images and words to create a vision of hipster's soul. Written and narrated by Jack Kerouac it brings Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie as directors and Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky as actors (who play themselves). Moreover, we get Thelonious Monk bebop style soundtrack, which swings about as the movie goes on. Weaving on and off it supports a casual, accidental mood of the film.

"Pull My Daisy" shows Beat cohorts gathering in an usual Lower East Side apartment for couple of hours to swing, read potery, drink beer and smoke weed while they're interacting with tenants: railroad worker and his wife. Later on the party is being visted by the anonimous bishop and his partner. The only sequence shot outside the apartment is a strange street gathering, in which all characters jerk frivolously around the American flag. Narration is a goofy word spilling as Kerouac runs his jazzy overflow throughout the footage (inspiring and uplifiting our spirits). Breaking away from the linear his delivers lines more in a tonal, poetic way than tries to tie them up with logic. I'd bet they're heavily improvised anyway.

Ginsberg and Corso are dubbed by Kerouac to answer questions about buddhism and zigzag frenetically as they get tipsy. But when Peter Orlovsky finally arrives, it kicks into sort of artistic chaos. They swap bottles with booze, squeeze on the couch or play brass instruments, we know they cannot really play. Everything is innocent fun here and although straight people do not really get the meaning of this fooling around, they are embraced by the Beat wave of madness if they want it or not. Angels with dirty faces are here and they're gonna change the world (as we'd read it back then). Light-hearted, experimental short – an interesting artifact from America's important cultural and literary movement.

Click this link to watch full movie

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Death Race (2008)

Although many tried their take on classic exploitation themes in the last couple of years, I haven't touched such miserable crap as "Death Race", even "Bitch Slap" was better. Pitching a classic story of New World Pictures, unforgettable "Death Race 200" (1975), directed by Paul Bartel, which cost $300.000 to produce, this new independent movie brought to the ground all that made the original such a cool piece of budget filmmaking. Let's recall that the oddball pruduced by Roger Corman became a sort of cult flick throughout the years bringing forward the idea of "future sports" genre (originally derived from 60's pulp science-fiction novels) and directly inspired such film masterpieces as "Mad Max" if we are to believe its creators.

The modern "version", starring Jason Statham, hunts for old school cheap thrills, but completely misses the point in a fervour of blowing up everything on the screen. This is actually one of these things putting me off modern action movies as you really need to microwave your brain first. While AIP and NWP B-flicks were low budget fantasies, which featured cheesy special effects and weird scripts, they followed so called Corman's formula embracing "action, sex and humour". Due to this peculiar mixture often involving hints of anti-establishment stance or even over the top plots involving leftist revolutionaries, embedded in context of the stories, they made the trick of operating on more than one level and survived the sad times, when drive-ins eventually became history forcing producers like Corman to go straight into VHS.

"Death Race" nicks the original story with Corman's official blessing (executive producer credit) putting it in 2012, while American economy collapses and millions of workers are laid off, which causes general havoc and provokes bloody riots. Main character, Jensen (Jason Statham) shares the pain as he's been kicked out as well and paid dime. But coming back home won't be smooth as he's wife gets brutally butchered and he appears to be framed into beaing a murderer. Convicted by the court he's transported to a corporate, maximum security prison (public prisons have been erased in favour of private prisons, operated by international corporations), where he faces inevitable death from hand of the inmates if he doesn't agree to take part in Death Race... as Frankenstein, the biggest hero of this sport, who just died after a fatal car crash.

And there it goes, folks! 95 minutes of violence, car chasing, violence, car chasing and more violence. I personally reached for this movie when saw Corman onboard, nevertheless got bored with it after half an hour. The reasons are plenty. First of all, it bears scarce to none resemblance to "Death Race 2000". Second of all, oldtimers' exploitation formula has been ditched completely. There's no nudity, sex or even occasional tits dancing, so forget about a real fun, guys. Dialogues are as dull as in the shittiest Hollywood blockbuster, this feeling of having them written by a computer program applies well. Political musings are not completely absent, but they're quickly munched by monster car chasing. In fact the only idea of pumping up the action is to bring some locomotive-car with superdestructive firepower (so fuckin' gross). Don't even bother to give it a try if you have a long watchlist to go through, it's just a waste of your precious time.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Born Losers (1967)

One of my favourite biker movies of all times is a typical product of the golden period that opened right after Roger Corman kicked the door out with "The Wild Angels" provoking a maniacal craze of wacky B-flicks featuring rebellious, leather-clad, chopper riding brutes in every titillating scenario known to a man. Although from today's perspective biker genre was a rather mixed bag with only few off-beat productions entertaining enough to become classics and a lot of crap I wouldn't even use in a private, toilet screening, it gave a lot of water to 70's gangsploitation, passed primitivist, scruffy esethetics to post-apocalyptic movies like "Mad Max" and last but not least became a direct inspiration for "Easy Rider" (the ultimate biker movie in a way).

"The Born Losers" was supposed to be a genuine Billy Jack workout initially, but as Tom Laughlin coudn't find financing for his first draft, he decided to take AIP alley and amp it up with a bunch of nasty biker characters. As Samuel Zarkoff and Jim Nicholson were rolling high at that time, flush with cash from Corman's international success of "The Wild Angels", they wanted to see some more golden eggs – biker movie was the word of the day! The same year "Rebel Rousers" with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern was made (icky shit released in 1970!) and also "Devil's Angels", both for AIP. There would be at least 20 or 30 other takes on the genre, produced till the end of the 60's by all independent American film companies. Most of them as dull as it gets with joke of a script, cheapish backdrop and waiters-to-actors cast over night. However, even these dumb chunks of schlock get hugged by a bunch of biker movie aficionados.

While later films with Billy Jack are better remebered for their saucy, martial arts action, "The Born Losers" carries a real story or even two stories, roughly mingled together as it's hard to figure out which one is the main plot. Half-indian, ex green beret and survival specialist, Billy Jack just came back from Vietnam and he treks through the wilderness eating raw fish, but soon he'll have to hit L.A. to wire some dear cash... in the end he's forced to sell his jeep for a cup of piss, but that's the way it is, man! Unfortunately enough Born To Lose MC are rumbling through the hood ("getting their kicks from torture and violence" again) and they accidentally cross their dicks with Billy Jack, who takes the fuckers, but is fined by the court afterwards for using the rifle to shoot one of the brutes. Hence the message is coined: "Doing good will get you nothing, but trouble".

But the bikers will have a new challenge soon when they pull a biker girl in white bikini off two-lane blacktop by fixing the road sign and trapping her in dead end (some slapstick humour here). As they find out, she's a proper child of the social revolution and seeing a brutal rape going down any minute, she chooses to be nice and enter their pad for the official initiation. When a proposition of making it out on acid and speed cannot be met as boys are tapped out, she flees knocking out one of the bikers first. They will go after, catch and pork her, as well as three other city girls the same day. From that point it's clear, that these bikers do not obey, they piss gasoline & shit nails in your face, hijack police cars and also terrorize victims when a case is filed against them in court. They are bad motherfuckers with guns, rifles and nazi helmets flashing with lastest, fashionable outfits like black turtlenecks, native ponchos, denim cuts and badges glorifying happy life on drugs.

Stoners, dropouts, drunks and scumbags is how bikers are drawn here and their prez is played by Jeremy Slate. They have everybody by the pubes and only Billy Jack is not gonna shit his pants – that's basically the main line. The rest is a usual mixture of AIP's exploitative salt & pepper. Some social references to late 60's psychedelic culture, ridiculous, over the top acting, eclectic style of directing, which blends para-documentary realism with 300 cuts in one day Corman's quickie, mild nudity (always edited in with violence scenes) and proto-punk (or post-beatnik?) costumes. Honestly, this is a long and "elaborate" film, which calls for a good bong. Genre fans will have definitely plenty of fun checking out Born To Lose MC vs. Billy Jack and The Girl In White Bikini plot. I'm not sure if it's laid-back vibe or its salacious, roguish musings – kind of exploitation surrealism – but every new twist helps you pull through it till the end. Davie Allan & The Arrows biker sound themes are nice touch as well. You're not gonna go further up from here in the genre, at least not very often.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Getting Straight (1970)

Without any hesitation my favourite film by Richard Rush, preferred even to highly acclaimed "The Stuntman", shot ten years later. Scored after hippiesploitation classic "Psych-Out" it gets a grip on the 60's counterculture in transition... when days of love & protest suddenly exploded in wild rage and resistance never witnessed before. Stepping down the duct of intoxicating, artistic power – freshly reclaimed by New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper, Bert Rafelson, Mike Nichols or Peter Bogdanovich – Richard Rush finally broke away from exploitation flicks and reached to his rebellious homeground, coming up with a modern tale of love and identity crisis in a cracking American society. Apart of a vivid story "Getting Straight" is also significant for Rush joining his forces with great Laszlo Kovacs for the last time – this duo could have pulled it off like no one else in my opinion – making you raise your eyebrows when all that well-balanced, technical mastery starts popping out.

But it would have never been such a great picture if not Elliott Gould with his vibrant, absolutely brilliant performance as Harry Bailey – impoverished, ex left wing activist, who wants to drop back into straight society (that's where the title comes from) by finishing his M.D. and starting new life as a school teacher. But as Harry is to gather soon: in this life it's not what you do decides about your destiny, but who you really are. He might not want to live a life of political radical anymore, but his past can be hardly shaken off in the midst of student riots on the campus, which get more nasty and brutal every day. On the top of that his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) has just had enough of his intellectual, arrogant temper and starts a fling with a rich gynecologist... to decide if her middle class dreams are still there to be followed.

As Harry's final oral exam is closing in with all the odds staked against him, he slowly begins to lose his new conviction in shitstorm around. Although an excellent student for few university good ole' boys, he seems a danger for many other professors, who demand to keep rabid revolutionaries at bay. In the same time young activists cannot get over him going full front square, expecially his dropout friend Nick, who never seems off LSD or hash brownies. Hanging now between two worlds, Harry needs to choose what values he wants to stay committed to. But sometimes the most important decisions are taken as if we weren't in driver's seat at all. Zonked out or straight, you need to move forward sooner or later. But as our main character discovers in the end, we're all entangled pretty deeply in a web of emotional and spiritual relations, which determine our steps.

With countercultural vibe a la "Easy Rider" or "The Graduate", dashing photography by Kovacs and spirited script by Bob Kaufman (based on a contemporary novel by Ken Kolb), Elliott Gould shows his horns in a classic, theatrical manner, rarely seen in American cinema. His acting energy waves high as he utters charged, badass bits on the screen involved in verbal duels with either his girlfriend or stodgy professors. Although not without a certain comedy edge, the movie is more of an artistic commentary on the late 60's with a hearty layer of anti-establishment musings and rather intellectual, slow-pacing action. It's not one of those later silly comedies screwing around with cliches of hippie naivete to pass revolutionary stance as a drug fueled fad, which in the end turns economy into making more money on alternative lifestyle and products... it stays true to it's time and it watches today as good as it did 42 years ago.

Constructed around two weeks of real time, narration of Rush's film might seem truly obsessed with details and monologues, but it sneaks away from a trap of barely scratching a surface of the topic on the other hand. "Getting Straight" should be treated as an obligatory viewing for auteur cinema aficionados and also a precious jewel for those having a soft spot for counterculture related works. I'd say it's main value lays in smart perspective of 60's revolution as that one of profound social, cultural and individual change with interesting take on the evolution of main character and looking down on both sides of the baricade... as a curiosity Harrison Ford plays here an episodic role. Followers of Richard Rush's film career should definitely give it a go as well. They won't be disappointed, I promise.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke (1978)

Wherever you are in terms of weed smoking, this cult flick was a huge box office blast in 1978, which seems like ages ago now. Can you imagine it done nowadays? No way! Defnitely could have only happened in the 70's as at the time it was as close to legalizing weed in USA as it gets. In fact Jimmy Carter won the ticket to the White House two years before officially backing it up and even Hunter S. Thompson swallowed the bug. It's a real pity it never happened as Carter's aide was busted with a big load of snowflake and his progressive, liberal agenda was promptly flushed in the toilet when media caught wind of the scandal. In a way late 70's – although driven by everlasting, cocaine high – were the highest mark of countercultural dreams gone big – if we measure them purely in media and entertainment pitch. Cheech Martin & Tommy Chong could have never found a better time to pop up with their homegrown comedy style.

For many people "Up In Smoke" is the best one in whole Cheech & Chong's series and although it worked for me I have to say I personally found "Nice Dreams" to be much more of an inventive oddball, just dripping with this peculiar, stoner aura. Still, we cannot really go through Cheech & Chong's astonishing film career without bumping on their first, groundbreaking picture. It's cool, it's hilarious and it's definitely baked! How many times it's been ripped off afterwards it's hard to count and that includes recent lame, stoner shit. What makes "Up In Smoke" a wild card and prevents it from aging though is a genuine vocation behind it... this feel of auteur's loco so much buried in the 80's by the big studios cashing on countless clones of "Star Wars", "Jaws" and "The Exorcist". Even if decade under influence was almost over by the time Cheech & Chong caught up, few great movies have been made even as late as 1980-1981.

A plot of "Up In Smoke" is obviously as loose as high mind can be. Two amateur musicians meet casually somewhere around Los Angeles – one just crawled up from a ditch by the beach actually – and they immediately hit it by sharing a gigantic joint (packed partly with Mauie Wowie and partly with labradorian shit). Shortly they get so stoned that driving is impossible anymore and while cult line "I think we're parked, man" comes off of a screen we surely know this bender's gonna last and it does! But the adventures of two dropouts – Pedro de Pacas and Anthony, are not really addressed to any straight viewers, so beware! However, if you've reached for your dear bong or just finished a phat one, they'll leave you spaced out in no time. Among many silly scenes you'll witness a weird music rehearsal and you'll meet wasted Vietnam veteran, who unfortunately flips out while guys want to score some dope from him. You're also gonna drown in some very bizarre ideas like crossing USA-Mexico border in a car made out of liquid marijuana.

In the end you'll have to face a struggle between our anti-heroes and local police forces led by unforgettable sergeant Sedenko, always alert to bust the hipsters as key personalities of a drug-dealing network... and you'll see their gig on young talents night at The Roxy, including obscure californian New Wave and punk rock acts. A cool cat Chicano-black-street speak adds to the flavour making it one of the least pretentious picture of all times and while it contains some lightweight, countercultural agenda it should be watched mainly for these mythical 10 lbs of hysterical giggle. If you have the right attitude and give it a first try, it will definitely blow your mind with it's off-beat pacing and revised version of Marx Brothers humour. You need to know, that only few 60's/70's movies have gained such a cult following with time and while comedies among them are scarce, this is the top. A fantastic trip in glorious past of a truly entertaining cinema, which will grab every serious toker "by the boo boo".