Saturday, August 30, 2014

August Quick Picks and Pans

The Mystery of Rampo (aka: Rampo) (1994) Naoto Takenaka stars as notorious Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (his nom de plume was a play on “Edgar Allan Poe). After his latest book is banned by a censorship board, he falls into a slump, but subsequently finds inspiration in a turn of events that seem inextricably linked to his story. He becomes enthralled by a strange woman who was accused of murdering her husband, using the exact same methods his story described.  Directors Rintaro Mayuzumi and Kazuyoshi Okuyama do a good job of skirting the line between fiction and reality, and with the help of cinematographer, Yasushi Sasakibara, display a strong eye for visuals. While the story is a bit thin, it’s a great looking modern film noir that rewards with beautiful imagery and a plot that will keep you guessing.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

The Devil Doll (1936) If you ever wanted to see Mr. Potter in drag, now’s your chance. This curiosity from director Tod Browning, based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn, might be one of his silliest. Lionel Barrymore plays escaped convict Lavond, a former bank executive convicted of embezzlement. After serving 17 years in prison, he vows revenge against the three bankers who framed him. Along with skunk-haired mad scientist Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), Lavond plots an elaborate scheme involving tiny people (people shrunken to doll size) that obey his bidding. He appears as a kindly old lady (similar to Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three) to hide his identity, and sets up a toy shop as a cover. In the process of exacting his revenge, he attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan). Although it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for his disguise, Barrymore is always watchable as the bitter Lavond. Despite a ridiculous plot device and iffy special effects, it’s impossible not to submit to the film’s earnest charms.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Santo y Blue Demon Contra Dracula y El Hombre Lobo (1973) The fact that my knowledge of Spanish is spotty at best and the DVD didn’t have English subtitles did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this Mexican wrestling flick with a horror twist. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, with our hero Santo and his buddy Blue Demon going toe to toe against the dark forces of the night. Dracula (Aldo Monti) and The Wolfman (Agustín Martínez Solares) are revived and on the prowl, with the assistance of their loyal minion, and only our masked heroes (seriously, they never take them off) can stop them. The plot is something like a wrestling match. Just when you think Santo and his tag team partner Blue Demon are down for the count, you know they’ll prevail in the end. Good stuff.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Werewolves on Wheels (1971) It’s Easy Rider with werewolves. At least that’s what director/co-writer Michel Levesque would have you believe with this genre hybrid featuring an abundance of wheels, but a shortage of werewolves. When the members of a motorcycle gang, Satan’s Advocates, stumble into a ceremony with some demonic monks, predictable consequences ensue. While the movie is only 79 minutes long, you’ll wish it ended sooner, with interminable scenes of the annoying bikers wandering aimlessly in the desert, getting drunk/stoned, and arguing. The title creatures don’t make an appearance until roughly half-way through the film, and even then you only catch a momentary glimpse. Many scenes are so dark, poorly shot and edited that I had no idea what was going on. As a biker film it’s weak, and there are too many decent werewolf movies to justify watching this, even for die-hard enthusiasts. My advice: keep looking.

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Where the Green Ants Dream

(1984) Directed by: Werner Herzog; Written by Werner Herzog and Bob Ellis; Starring: Bruce Spence, Wandjuk Marika, Roy Marika and Ray Barrett; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“Dreams and dream time are very complex religious and cultural Aboriginal concepts that are hermetical and almost inconceivable to us.” – Werner Herzog (from DVD commentary for Where the Green Ants Dream)

Many thanks to lover of all films great and small, Todd of Forgotten Films, for hosting the 1984 A-Thon. Be sure to check out his week-long tribute to one of the finest years in film (at least in my lifetime), featuring reviews of 1984’s best and worst. For my part, I chose to re-visit one of the lesser-known offerings to come out that year, Where the Green Ants Dream.

Aside from submarine movies, another type of flick I’m powerless to resist is anything taking place in the Australian outback. If it’s set in the outback (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Road Games, etc…), I’m there, at least from the safety of my living room. After the mental, physical and financial ordeal of shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon jungle, director/co-writer Werner Herzog decided to set his follow-up project amidst this desolate, foreboding landscape. While Where the Green Ants Dream (aka: Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) didn’t present the logistical challenges of its predecessor, it’s no less fascinating. Filmed in the northern South Australia* town of Coober Pedy, the story was based on a real-life trial between Aborigines and a mining company.

* The Aborigine actors featured in the film actually hailed from a town in Northern Australia.

It’s a clash of cultures when village elder Dayipu (Roy Marika) and his spokesperson Miliritbi (played by Roy’s real-life brother, Wandjuk Marika) bring a halt to a mining company’s exploitation* of their tribal land. They contend that any further action by the company will threaten the dreaming of the green ants that reside there. The Aborigines believe the ants are inextricably linked to their existence, and further disruption would result in their collective doom. Caught up in the middle of this conflict is company geologist Lance Hackett.

* Although not expressly stated in the film, Herzog confirmed that the mining company was likely surveying the ground for uranium deposits.

Bruce Spence, notable as the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, takes a rare turn in a leading role as the reflective, melancholy Hackett. With his tall, gangly frame, he towers over the other actors. By accident or design, his stature lends a certain degree of poignancy to the film, as he rises above the disputes of both parties to perceive the big picture. At first, he sees the Aborigines as a hindrance to his work, but does what he can to placate them. In the process, he begins to experience a change. He’s a lonely man with only his thoughts to keep him company, and doesn’t seem to belong in either world. In a futile attempt to bridge the cultural gap, he discusses non-Euclidean Geometry (don’t ask me) with Miliritbi, to illustrate his concept of the true shape of the universe. Miliritbi simply responds, “You white men are lost…” Looking back on the scene 20 years later, Herzog commented he didn’t like the scene or its “righteous tone,” but in this case I have to differ. Taken into the context of the film, the scene worked well to underscore the vast divide between the men’s respective philosophies.

Some have taken Herzog to task regarding the fabricated mythos of the green ants he constructed for this film, as if his artistic choice were somehow disingenuous. Because this is a work of fiction however, and not a documentary, Herzog was not obligated to rely on the facts alone to tell his story, but chose to create a focal point that distilled the conflict between the known and unknown worlds. The green ants are emblematic of a mystery, which so-called “civilized” society is incapable of comprehending. When Hackett meets an entomologist studying the life cycle of the green ants, he learns that some will take wing to establish a new colony. This links to the big green plane that figures prominently in the plot, which the Aborigines wish to appropriate for their tribe’s survival.

Where the Green Ants Dream features what could only be called Herzog touches. Cinematography by frequent Herzog collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein captures the feel of the remote, dust-choked locale. In a non-sequitur side story, an old lady (Colleen Clifford) enlists Hackett’s aid in searching for her lost dog. Although her scenes do nothing to advance the plot, it’s an interesting tangent. Her fruitless quest parallels Hackett’s peripatetic search for meaning. As he wanders off into the desert, surrounded by countless anthills, we’re left to form our own conclusions. The anthills in Herzog’s film are as enigmatic as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are reminded there are things outside our sphere of existence that we can scarcely understand.

The downbeat ending and esoteric flourishes probably ensured Where the Green Ants Dream would fail to resonate beyond the arthouse crowd. Aside from some quirky characters and a few humorous bits, it’s not the “feel good” sort of experience most people wanted to see. That’s unfortunate, since audiences missed out on an opportunity to see a well-crafted film with fine acting (especially Spence’s understated performance), and themes of cultural imperialism that are still as relevant as ever. While it may not be one of Herzog’s best films, it’s a solid effort that deserves to be re-discovered.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game

(1932) Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by James Ashmore Creelman; Based on the short story by Richard Connell; Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“…We barbarians know it is after the chase, and then only, that man revels.”

– Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks)

If you think The Most Dangerous Game looks a bit familiar, it’s because the basic premise has served as a template for many other films over the past several decades. Based on a story by Richard Connell, with a screenplay by James Creelman (who also co-wrote the King Kong script), the 1932 film utilized the same creative team as 1933’s King Kong.  In fact, many scenes were filmed simultaneously for both films, which shared many of the sets, actors* and crew members. Originally envisioned as a much larger production, The Most Dangerous Game ended up with a budget close to half of the original $400,000 amount.  Budgetary constraints required drastic cuts to the script, with scenes omitted, spare effects shots, a smaller cast and a shorter running time.

* According to film historian Bruce Eder, star Fay Wray put in 12-hour days while working on both films. Eagle-eye viewers might also spot Noble Johnson, who played Zaroff’s mute Cossack assistant in this film and a tribal leader in King Kong.

Modern audiences might not find much common ground with protagonist Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea). An accomplished hunter, Rainsford travels the world, killing animals for sport and writing about his conquests. Outside of hunting, which seems to be his only vice, he doesn’t possess much of an edge. His version of character growth is to display the vestiges of empathy for the prey, as the tables are turned on his hunter role.

The main draw for The Most Dangerous Game is Leslie Banks’ memorable portrayal of the suave, amoral Count Zaroff. As a member of the Russian aristocracy, he escaped the Bolshevik revolution with his fortune and constructed a secluded island home* where he could continue to pursue his passions, away from prying eyes. Unlike Rainsford, he has grown tired of the hunt, but in recent years has found a new prey to re-ignite his vigor. He finds new stock for his quarry in the shipwrecked individuals that wind up on his island. Banks obviously relishes his role as the complex, sociopathic Zaroff.  Sophisticated, yet savage, he’s a cultured man with a vicious streak.  He’s as colorful as Rainsford is bland.  A scar on Zaroff’s forehead, a relic from an old hunting injury, is a fitting metaphor for his twisted mind.  When he touches the scar, it serves as a constant reminder of his disfigurement, but also provides a clue to what compels him. The closer he approaches death, the more rapturous his victories must feel. When Rainsford appears on his island, Zaroff identifies the soul of the hunter in Rainsford, and wants to bring him into the fold.

* Fun fact: The dogs that appeared on Zaroff’s estate were on loan from Harold Lloyd, who reportedly was none too pleased when they were returned to him with darkened coats.

Fay Wray doesn’t have much to do as Eve, other than play the woman in distress. The victim of a shipwreck, she represents a different type of prey for Zaroff, an object of conquest. Her character strays from Connell’s original story, which didn’t include any female characters, but she was added at the behest of the producers. Her inclusion brings another dimension to the story, and underscores Zaroff’s obsessions. Robert Armstrong (who appears as Carl Denham in King Kong) doesn’t engender much sympathy as Eve’s oafish brother Martin. With his drunken swagger and, non-existent manners, Martin is the polar opposite of Zaroff.  Apparently it was the intention of the filmmakers to make his character obnoxious. If so, they succeeded beyond expectations. It’s clear he’s just being set up to become one of Zaroff’s victims. After several scenes goading Zaroff, you’re almost thankful when the inevitable happens

In his Criterion DVD commentary, Bruce Eder states that Rainsford and Zaroff represent two sides of the same coin, but I’m not sure if this is exactly the case. Both men are energized by the chase and extinguishing of life, exploiting nature for their own ends. The principle difference, of course, is that Rainsford refuses to cross the line into killing humans. By his reasoning killing animals for sport is justified, but killing people for sport is murder. While one is a universal taboo, the other is rationalized by some, including Rainsford, as a socially sanctioned form of recreation. Instead of two sides of one coin, perhaps the distinction between the two characters is better exemplified as a continuum, ranging from “acceptable” to unacceptable murder. Only a thin veneer of civilization separates them.

The Most Dangerous Game packs a lot into a very brief running time of 63 minutes. The original cut, which included more footage of Zaroff’s trophy room, was 78 minutes, but was trimmed because the scenes were deemed too graphic and disturbing by test audiences of the time. Instead of dwelling on what was lost, what was left in the final cut is sufficiently tantalizing. What remains of the trophy room scene still provides chills, and the film’s final chase sequence gets the blood pumping. The fundamental DNA of The Most Dangerous Game continues to influence other films, from direct remakes (including the 1945 Robert Wise-directed A Game of Death) to films that recycled aspects of Connell’s story, such as Predator and Battle Royale.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV

(2000) Directed by Lloyd Kaufman; Written by: Trent Haaga, Patrick Cassidy, Gabriel Friedman and Lloyd Kaufman; Starring: David Mattey, Clyde Lewis, Heidi Sjursen, Paul Kyrmse and Joe Fleishaker; 
Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ** ½

“…the fetus fight scene is still the best intra-uterine fistfight committed to film despite the fact that our fetuses didn’t have short, stubby fingers.”  – screenwriter Trent Haaga, on the decision to use eight-year-old actors instead of little people (from the book, Make Your Own Damn Movie! by Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Jahnke and Trent Haaga)

The following is my contribution to the Troma Super SummerSpectacular Blogathon, hosted by the one and only Vern of Vern’s Video Vortex.  After tackling The Toxic Avenger Part II a little while back, I thought it only appropriate to return with a review of the third and (so far) final sequel to Troma’s enduring series about “the first superhero from New Jersey.”  I apologize in advance if what follows (to paraphrase The Dark Knight) is the Troma review we deserve, but not the Troma review we need right now.

Nowhere is the term “critic proof” more applicable than with the output of Troma Entertainment and its brand of low budget filmmaking.  Over the past four decades, Troma films garnered legions of fans with their signature recipe of bad acting, sophomoric jokes, bodily excretions, gratuitous nudity, misogyny and copious gore.   Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV* was obviously created with this specific audience in mind, conditioned to expect these elements.

* According to Lloyd Kaufman, he would have preferred the title, A Tale of Two Toxies.

The film starts out on a dubious note, at once apologizing for the previous two sequels and proclaiming to be the real sequel.  This time around, the title character is played by David Mattey, who also appears in a dual role as Toxie’s sociopathic doppelganger, the Noxious Offender (aka: “Noxie”).  In a move displaying Troma’s usual penchant for subtlety, he’s joined by morbidly obese sidekick Lardass (Joe Fleishaker, doing double duty as out of work physicist Chester). Heidi Sjursen plays Toxie’s blind, pregnant wife Sara, and Noxie’s deaf girlfriend Claire.  Another recurring Troma character, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD (Paul Kyrmse, also appearing as Evil Kabukiman), rounds out the list of dramatis personae.  

When a gang of adults dressed as infants terrorize a classroom of defenseless special education students, Toxie springs to the rescue.  Unfortunately for all parties, a bomb explodes, opening a portal to a parallel universe.  As a result, he switches places with his malevolent counterpart.  Instead of fighting evil, The Noxious Offender is evil.  Once he realizes what has happened, it’s up to Toxie to return to the correct universe, and right Noxie’s wrongs.  Director/co-writer Lloyd Kaufman leaves no stone unturned to ensure there’s something to offend everyone.  This fourth installment of the Toxic Avenger saga relies predominantly on middle school-level humor, taking potshots at feeble targets (such as the mentally challenged) along the way.  Depending on your tolerance for lowest common denominator humor, this film could seem like manna from the gods or an endurance test.  There are a few inspired moments scattered throughout, however, including a fight between Toxie and Noxie’s fetuses in Sara’s womb.

A recent re-watch of John Waters’ seminal 1972 schlockfest Pink Flamingos reminded me that Lloyd Kaufman and Troma didn’t pioneer the niche of bad taste cinema.  They’re simply carrying the baton that Waters passed along.  But something seems lost in translation, three decades later.  While Pink Flamingos was spontaneous and groundbreaking a few decades ago, Citizen Toxie appears calculated and self-conscious in a modern context.  One was an example of true guerrilla filmmaking that blindsided unsuspecting audiences, while the latter movie is a branded product designed to cater to a specific demographic.  Who am I to say Troma is wrong?   They have a winning formula.  You’ll never convince Troma’s detractors there’s anything good in these movies.  Conversely, you’ll never convince the Troma fans they’re wasting their time.