Thursday, August 18, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... POUND OF FLESH

Only now does it occur to me... that we may now fulfill our lifelong dream of seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme once again waking from a near-death experience in a bathtub full of ice, since UNIVERSAL SOLDIER never really did enough to scratch that itch.

Jean-Cold Van Damme stayin' cool in '92...
 
....and 2015.

If you're confused about what's going on, everything you need to know about this film can be summed up by the tagline: "They Stole His Kidney––He Wants It Back."

The above shot is the exact moment he discovers the aforementioned missing kidney, and as you can see there's a lot of classic JCVD "pathos face" combined with a lot of patented JCVD "posterior views," both of which really play to his strengths as a performer. (Remember, I theorized in my review of BLOODSPORT that the entire subplot with the female Kumite reporter existed solely to shoehorn in a gratuitous JCVD ass shot.) Perhaps it is unsurprising that JCVD is an executive producer of this fine film.

But wait, there's more––check out this scene, set in a discotheque:

I don't know if you can adequately tell from the still frame, but JCVD is clearly standing in front of a greenscreen. This is confirmed in the following shot, when JCVD's body double walks past, on set.
(Clothed) backside of Jean-Faux Van Damme on the left. Though Daniel Bernhardt is the only true Jean-Faux Van Damme I will ever need.

Now why on earth would they need to greenscreen this? I was under the impression that trashy discotheques were essentially JCVD's natural habitat. Truly a mystery for the ages.

Finally, for those of you assigned to "Splits Watch," we do indeed see one of his notorious splits, performed in slow motion alongside a moving car:


While the leg extension is not up to 'golden age Cannon Films'-levels, I'm willing to let it slide, cause the man is in his fifties. Also, JCVD is apparently the star of a new Amazon-distributed Comedy-Thriller series. How 'bout that?

Only now does it occur to me... THE LONG HOT SUMMER

Only now does it occur to me... that when weather this stifling comes around, the only solution is to watch some Southern Fried Sleaze-O-Rama! (As previously documented in my reviews of THE BIG EASY, TIGHTROPE, and THE PAPERBOY.) Today, that meant watching THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, a lurid, golden age melodrama based on three works by William Faulker ("Spotted Horses," "Barn Burning," and THE HAMLET) and featuring sweaty Paul Newman:

well-oiled n' corpulent Orson Welles:

steamy Angela Lansbury (chuggin' all the beers):

moist Joanne Woodward:

clammy Tony Franciosa (best known to me from Argento's TENEBRE!):

and damp Lee Remick:

(among other perspiring members of the Actors Studio).

Directed by Martin Ritt (HUD, HOMBRE, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD) and set to a sensationalized score by Alex North (SPARTACUS, CLEOPATRA, THE MISFITS), this is a film about handsome strange-uhs and busyin' youh-self with the vapours and the juleps and the pink lemonade, and it contains more Faulknerian sexual entrendres than you can shake a swampy, Bayou-drippin' stick at. In short, I enjoyed it quite a bit. 

Also worth mentioning is the DVD cover, which features a pull-quote from a VARIETY review:

"...Strikingly Directed...Steamy With Sex." 

Apparently confused by the review's lack of attribution (it's from an uncredited "staff" review) the DVD producers decided to go with the first name they saw: Martin Ritt. And thusly, THE LONG, HOT SUMMER's DVD cover came to feature a rave recommendation seemingly uttered from the lips of its own director!

(And if you dig Faulknerian wordplay, might I direct you toward a piece I wrote for McSweeney's last year called "Winners of the Yoknapatawpha County Spelling Bee, 1929-1940.")

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Television Review: ROADRACERS (1994, Robert Rodriguez)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Tag-line: "Rent all the action!"
Notable Cast or Crew: David Arquette (EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS, SCREAM), John Hawkes (DEADWOOD, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), Salma Hayek (DESPERADO, FRIDA), Jason Wiles (KICKING AND SCREAMING, THE STEPFATHER '09), William Sadler (BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, DIE HARD 2, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE MIST), Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, INNERSPACE), Mark Lowenthal ("Walter Neff" the insurance salesman on TWIN PEAKS, SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS). Co-written by Robert Rodriguez and Tommy Nix (a Rodriguez crony who appears as himself here, and has cameos in DESPERADO, SIN CITY, PLANET TERROR, etc.).
Best One-liner: "Little dab'll do ya."

In the mid-90s, Debra Hill (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG), William Kutner, and Lou Arkoff (son of the legendary Samuel Z.) produced ten made-for-TV movies for Showtime, each intending to pay homage to 50's and 60's American International pictures, the kind of teensploitation populated by greasers, good girls gone bad, rock n' roll bands, biker gangs, and other sorts of juvenile delinquents. The directors were given $1.3 million and twelve days to shoot their work with a minimum of studio interference. I've seen all ten of these now, and they definitely vary wildly in quality––there are highs like SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROCK! (Allan Arkush's prequel to ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) and RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS (some Joe Dante silliness that sort of functions as a HOWLING reunion), lows like COOL AND THE CRAZY (Ralph Bakshi tries live-action while Jared Leto tries very hard to be simultaneously "cool" and "crazy" while achieving neither), and oddities like JAILBREAKERS (William Friedkin directs Adrienne Barbeau and Shannen Doherty in a 'cheerleader-gone-bad' tale?!). Of all of these films, I must say that the best of them is probably ROADRACERS, by then-up-and-coming action maverick Robert Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, fresh off of his debut (EL MARIACHI), strives for what none of the REBEL HIGHWAY veterans does: he injects his episode with style. It's legitimately cool, in a rockabilly Jean-Luc Godard, Jim Jarmusch-in-a-leather-jacket kind of way.

(Come to think of it, why didn't they ask Jarmusch to do one of these?  Or John Waters?)

Squealin' rockabilly saxophone works wonders

As a REBEL HIGHWAY episode, ROADRACERS is unique in almost every aspect. The plot is very free-form, nearly Linklater-esque, and Rodriguez meanders between the scenes, ideas, and locales (diners, gas stations, clubs, movie theaters, etc.) that most fascinate him. I suppose, abstractly, it's a film about musicians and dreams, though it's also about teen love and impulse, rural malaise and the thrill of escape, small-town weirdness and bloody revenge. In the latter two respects, it has an almost Lynchian specificity, helped along by the fact that the characters are idiosyncratic and feel very "lived-in."
 
Take David Arquette's sassy bad-boy greaser, for instance––a little more bizarre and nihilistic than your traditional lead, the character's not particularly likable, but he's unpredictable, and always compelling. Oddly, he's a little more Jean-Paul Belmondo than James Dean.

In a scene of typically gleeful Rodriguez excess, David Arquette piles some pomade in his hair that looks more like ectoplasm, or the xenomorph Queen's saliva:




Then there's John Hawkes as Arquette's sidekick/Sal Mineo, a character who gives a poignant diner monologue about a school of philosophy best described as "French Fry Existentialism."

ROADRACERS ain't playin' it safe, pally!

Or observe William Sadler's vicious small-town cop (who still lives with his mother), introduced while giving a monologue (to Mark Lowenthal, a TWIN PEAKS bit player) about pigs-in-a-blanket:




It's fuckin' creepy, and really sets a tone. Whether he's doing sinister, naked tai chi, taking on Bill & Ted at Twister, or murdering the exonerated for The Cryptkeeper's amusement, Sadler is one of the great cinematic villains.

We also have Jason Wiles as an antagonistic, "Do you know who my father is?!" sort of small-town brat.

I really enjoyed him as a lovable goofus in Noah Baumbach's KICKING AND SCREAMING, so it was especially fun to see him here dripping ominous n' whiny sleaze.

Salma Hayek, in her American debut, is given a bit of a short shrift; ostensibly she's here to be Arquette's love interest, though she gives the character quite a bit of weight in a relatively small amount of screentime.

Additionally, she's the only Latina (with adoptive white parents) in this entire backwater town, and consequently there are a number of opportunities for piercing social commentary and Sirk-style melodrama, and while the film briefly explores these, we're left with the feeling that most of it was left on the cutting room floor.

In any event, it was enough to snag her the lead in DESPERADO, so there's that.

Ultimately, Rodriguez, working within The System for the first time, does manage to make the film his own. There are Mexican stand-offs with switchblades:

a drag race, puncutated by the surreal imagery of a woman's hair on fire:

a cameo by Kevin McCarthy (I wonder why he didn't pop up in Rodriguez's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/THE THING/SCREAM mash-up, THE FACULTY?) appearing as a fourth-wall-breaking theater-goer during a screening of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS:

You're next?

and finally, in the manic, LOST HIGHWAY-prefiguring conclusion, we reach peak levels of cheerful Rodriguez nihilism. I like to image that Arquette drives straight out of this movie and into RIDING THE BULLET.

All in all, I really enjoyed this thing, and additionally got a big kick out of the DVD's cover art, which pretends that all of this is somehow a missing chapter of SIN CITY (?!):

I wholeheartedly recommend. (Also, check out J.D.'s illuminating review over at Radiator Heaven!)

–Sean Gill

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... HAIL, CAESAR!

Only now does it occur to me... that the Coen Brothers must be closet HIGHLANDER fans. Why else would they cast Clancy "The Kurgan" Brown:

and Christopher "Connor 'The Highlander' MacLeod" Lambert:

in the same film? (aside from the fact that they're both great, and wield a mean broadsword).  With Sean Connery retired, I suppose my only complaint is that Michael Ironside didn't make the cut.

Regardless, this film does not in fact revolve around HIGHLANDER sequel/prequel fan-fictions, though from the standpoint of a character-actor fan, it has much to offer. Amid the pastiche of Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli-style musical numbers, there are wonderful bits by Robert Picardo as a finicky, test audience rabbi:

Fisher Stevens (who really knows how to make an entrance) as a furtive, blacklisted screenwriter:

Tilda Swinton in dual roles as twin-sister gossip columnists:

and Dolph Lundgren as the silhouette of a Russian submarine captain:

(since it's the 1950s,  I can't tell if he's Ivan Drago's father, or the father of his henchman from A VIEW TO A KILL). 

Sure, it's no BARTON FINK, but I enjoyed it!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Film Review: THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953, Roy Rowland)

Fingers: 5,000.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Wonder Musical of the Future!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Tommy Rettig (LASSIE, RIVER OF NO RETURN), Hans Conried ("Captain Hook" in Disney's PETER PAN, THE TWONKY, Hitchcock's SABOTAGE), Mary Healy (SECOND FIDDLE, THE YANKS ARE COMING), Peter Lind Hayes (ZIS BOOM BAH, THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET), George Chakiris (WEST SIDE STORY, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT).
Best One-liner: "You have no right, you have no right, To push and shove us little kids around... Now just because your throat has got a deeper voice, And lots of wind to blow it out, at little kids who dare not shout, you have no right, you have no right, to boss and beat us little kids about... just because you've whiskers on your face to shave, you treat us like a slave.."

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T might be the most unhinged children's movie ever released by a major studio. Hell, it might be the most unhinged movie ever released by a major studio.

The studio in question was Columbia Pictures. The film carries the "Hollywood prestige" heft of producer Stanley Kramer (HIGH NOON, THE DEFIANT ONES, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?). It was written by Allan Scott (IMITATION OF LIFE, TOP HAT) and Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, who helped envision some of the visuals. I must also mention that it is a live-action piece, and a musical as well (with music by Friedrich Hollander, a Weimar-era composer who escaped the Nazis in 1933).

I was just writing on here the other week about INNERSPACE, a Joe Dante film from 1987 that presents a well-earned anarchic world. Essentially, that film places the visual style of Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones into a live-action format. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T does the same, but for Dr. Seuss. Let me show an inkling of what that entails:






The result is a labyrinthine nightmare that must have scarred many minds over the years, young and old. Its plot is nearly like a Kafka fairy tale––an evil piano teacher, "Dr. Terwilliker," a.k.a., "Dr. T," is obsessed with making young boys practice the piano, and in his bondage-obssessed dystopian-fantasia-world fortress (called the "Happy Fingers Institute"), he plans to capture 500 boys (hence 5,000 fingers), strip them of their identity,

and force them to play a giant piano in his... basement, I guess?

"Practice... practice... practice..."

I don't want to think about it too much. But don't worry, all of this is presented as a "bad dream"––although 97% of the movie takes place within the dream, so the frame story feels kinda tacked on, as if by a studio too skittish to release this morbid tale without qualification.

Its visuals are Seussian by-way-of Salvador Dali, like a kitschy TALES FROM HOFFMANN. It definitely held the mantle of the "creepiest and most aesthetically creative" children's movie until WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY came out in 1971.



Dr. T is played by Hans Conreid, who plays it in a lovingly "over the top" fashion, like a 1950s John Lithgow. I'm pretty sure that his performance and costume inspired another finger-obsessed character: "The Master" from MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.

Tom Neyman as "The Master" in MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.

It bears mentioning that the film often feels like it's addressing institutionalized pedophilia in an off-kilter way; when our hero (child actor Tommy Rettig, of LASSIE fame) comes to his mother and father figure with allegations of Dr. T's abuse, they confront the doctor but are charmed by his gifts of free cigars, cocktails, and hypnosis (!), all while he shovels money into his wall safe.

This is sufficient for the parental figures to shrug off the accusations, whereupon our hero is returned to his dungeon cell, the unnervingly named "lock-me-tight."


Yeah... I don't think I'm reading too much into this.

There's another terrifying scene, the "Elevator Song," whereupon an S&M elevator operator announces the floors of the dungeon complex (through song) like he's announcing the departments at a Macy's during Christmas season.

I told you this was scary
 
He goes on to describe the sorts of punishments in store for our hero:


This is no joke: after test screenings, they cut the elevator operator's references to "gas chambers" and "scalping devices."

But the dungeon's not all bad. You see, Dr. T hates every musician who is not a pianist, and has therefore imprisoned the rest, who spend their days performing nightmare ballets. This particular scene is a creative tour-de-force, like something out of THE RED SHOES or AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

WEST SIDE STORY's George Chakiris is actually in there somewhere, under that green paint.


Mouth-trumpets. As in, "trumpets fused to your mouth." It's H.R. Giger-esque whimsy!


On the left is a man wearing antlers with bells hanging from them. He plays his instrument when he is choked by the man beside him.  The gents to the right are playing some kind of horn made from plungers and hookah parts.


I'm pretty sure this gong scene is referencing the Rank Organisation's logo: 

which played before all the Powell & Pressburger films, like THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMANN, both of which clearly influenced this film.


Just look at how many people are on screen at once! Damn, I love it.

It's Technicolor dance mayhem, and one of the most startlingly artistic and bizarre sequences I've ever seen. I might also refer you to THE BAND WAGON, a Vincente Minnelli musical from the same year that traffics in similar levels of beautiful madness. Apparently in 1953 Hollywood, outré was in!

Beyond the aforementioned MANOS reference, DR. T has influenced many disparate works: for instance, the title character was the inspiration for THE SIMPSONS' "Sideshow Bob," and a basket chase set-piece may have sparked Spielberg's imagination for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK:


In closing, I must say that this THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T is a tremendous achievement in filmic and theatrical artistry. It's forward-thinking and heavy-hitting in its condemnation of unchecked authority and institutionalized child abuse. In any event, I wish they'd have let Dr. Seuss put his grotesque stamp on more live-action films!

–Sean Gill