Monday, March 30, 2015

Film Review: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973, Robert Aldrich)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 118 minutes.
Tag-line: "Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine Meet in the Fight of the Century!"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Lee Marvin (THE KILLERS, THE DELTA FORCE, THE DIRTY DOZEN), Ernest Borgnine (MARTY, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE DIRTY DOZEN), Keith Carradine (THE DUELLISTS, NASHVILLE), Charles Tyner (COOL HAND LUKE, HAROLD & MAUDE), Malcolm Atterbury (THE BIRDS, RIO BRAVO), Simon Oakland (PSYCHO, WEST SIDE STORY), Elisha Cook Jr. (ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE MALTESE FALCON), Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY, COFFY), and an uncredited Lance Henriksen (ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR).  Written by Christopher Knopf (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, HELL BENT FOR LEATHER) and based on a short story by Jack London.  Directed by Robert Aldrich (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, THE DIRTY DOZEN, KISS ME DEADLY).
Best One-liner: "You have as much a chance as a one-legged man at an asskicking contest!"

This movie's sleazier'n a bumfight in August, redder'n a hot poker, and madder'n a hobo gettin' whipped with a chain!  It's sweaty, dirty, and foamin' at the mouth.  The concept behind this film is as ridiculous as it is brilliant:  Ernest Borgnine is 'Shack'- a railroad man who'll risk his life to kill any bum who tries to hitch a free ride.

Lee Marvin is A-Number 1, a bum who lives by the bum's code, and will risk his life, just on principle, to hitch a free ride on any and every train.  
Keith Carradine is A-Number 1's protege who may or may not have what it takes to be "Emperor of the North Pole."

This movie is dripping with testosterone, tobacco juice, and blood; it calls hobos "hoboes" in an opening crawl that seems culled from a MAD MAX movie––

it features an uncredited Lance Henriksen (I think I blinked and missed him) and a young Sid Haig:

and the entire affair is as brutal as a 2x4 thwack to the guts.  And that thwack just might be accompanied by some gentle honkytonk piano.  Wait a second. Did I just see some street urchins get beaten with a live chicken by Lee Marvin?  You bet I did.

A statistically insignificant amount of animals and children were harmed in this production.

And wait for the scene where Lee, holding a live, purloined turkey, taunts a cop who asks him what he's doing with the bird.

Lee insists it's his pet dog, who's offended by the comparison to a turkey, and could the officer please...bark...nowThe now-terrified policeman quickly complies with some bow-wowing,

and Lee lets loose with a priceless facial expression that can only mean 'You'd better start barking better.'

I feel as if this is the movie that set the 'Sons of Lee Marvin' (a fan club formed by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Jim Jarmusch, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, John Lurie) into motion.  I'd say it's a huge influence on Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, for one.

The whole thing leads up to a merciless conclusion––a no-holds-barred fight between Shack and A-Number 1 that involves hammers, spikes, axes, 2x4s, chains, and the train itself.  It's one of the most visceral battles in cinema.

It, and this entire film, are a credit to director Robert Aldrich (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, THE DIRTY DOZEN, KISS ME DEADLY)'s ability to merge action and character study; Lee Marvin's sheer, enduring, haggard presence; Ernest Borgnine's twisted, gnarled, vile energy; and the ability of all three to collaborate in a manner where somehow nothing strains your suspension of disbelief.  God bless this movie.  Five stars.

–Sean Gill

Friday, March 27, 2015

Coming Soon: Ernest Borgnine Week!

I mean, every week is kind of Ernest Borgnine Week.  So this will be like every week, only moreso.
Could you say "no" to that face?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... MAVERICK

Only now does it occur to me... that MAVERICK is a real "Donner Party."  By that, I don't mean that it involves cannibalism, torture, or Mel Gibson Jesus-poses,
Though if this isn't in his contract, I'll eat my hat.

instead I mean that its director, Richard Donner, has packed the film with actors and references from other "Donner" films.

Obviously, it stars Mel Gibson (of 4 Donner LETHAL WEAPONS and a CONSPIRACY THEORY), but there's plenty more where that came from.

Margot Kidder (Donner's SUPERMAN 1 & 2, he also produced her appearances in TALES FROM THE CRYPT and DELIRIOUS) shows up as a grouchy spinster obsessed with a stolen wedding dress:

Alfred Molina (Donner's LADYHAWKE) appears as a recurring villain and instrument of Gibson-torture:

Stephen Kahan ("Captain Murphy" from all 4 LETHAL WEAPONS, but also appeared in Donner's SUPERMAN, INSIDE MOVES, THE TOY, SCROOGED, CONSPIRACY THEORY, 16 BLOCKS, RADIO FLYER, TIMELINE and a few TALES FROM THE CRYPTs) plays a riverboat card dealer, who shares an unusual interaction with Mel Gibson, whereupon he congratulates him on his win (with familiarity), and takes the chair with him as he stands, prompting Mel to nearly crack up.

Then, for the piéce de résistance:  Mel Gibson and Geoffrey Lewis are shootin' the shit inside a bank when three robbers bust in to relieve them of their wallets and blow the safe.  The lead robber piques Mel Gibson's interest and there is a note of recognition.
He pulls down the robber's bandana to reveal Murtaugh himself, Danny Glover:
And to the strains of the LETHAL WEAPON theme, they share a moment, then decide––nahh, this ridiculous.  Glover goes on his way, revealing the rest of his gang:
Corey Feldman (of Donner's THE GOONIES, and the Donner-produced THE LOST BOYS and BORDELLO OF BLOOD), country musician Hal Ketchum, and apparently transportation coordinator John M. Woodward, who coordinated such on LETHAL WEAPONS 2-4, CONSPIRACY THEORY, and TIMELINE.  I think that qualifies as a Donner Party!

Oh yeah, and even in the Wild West, Danny Glover is getting...
...too old for this shit.

BONUS QUIZ:  Can you identify which of the following pictures are screen captures from MAVERICK (featuring the lush cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond), and which are Western Americana picture postcards?






It's a cheap trick question––they're all screen captures from MAVERICK!

PS––and apparently, the brilliant Linda Hunt (THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, THE BOSTONIANS, KINDERGARTEN COP) and my fave glam rocker Alice Cooper had their scenes deleted (damn!) as "The Magician" and "The Town Drunk," respectively.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... THE OTHER

Only now does it occur to me... that THE OTHER (1972) is sort of the missing link between SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (the novel, 1962) and PHANTASM (1979).

Like Ray Bradbury's best work, it's saturated with boyhood nostalgia, tinged with creeping dread, and peppered with dark carnivals and secret hideouts and fleeting bucolic pleasures, like cattail fluff drifting in the summer breeze.
Bradbury-esque summer fancy...

...and secret foreboding.

Like PHANTASM, it has a disorienting sense of unreality and a flair for the grotesquely nostalgia; i.e., the graveyard as a site of childish fancy (before true horror is revealed)
Graveyard playtime in PHANTASM...

...interrupted by harsher truths in THE OTHER.

or the sentimental revealed to contain the unspeakable––say, a severed finger in a child's treasure box:


A dear friend recommended THE OTHER to me during my "Melancholy Horror" kick (mostly chronicled here in "Junta Juleil's Guide to Melancholy Horror," which is probably due for a part two at this point), and it's quite good.  Based on a novel by the same name by writer/actor Tom Tryon, it's not easy to define without giving too much away––but in addition to what I've already described, I'll say that it traffics in the "freaky children" subgenre, such as THE OMEN or the classic TWILIGHT ZONE "It's a Good Life," 
ancestral horrors reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft,
and a Gothic ghostly atmosphere out of THE INNOCENTS or THE HAUNTING.
There's wonderfully evocative cinematography throughout by Robert Surtees (BEN-HUR, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, THE GRADUATE), 
an understated, eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith (ALIEN, GREMLINS), and workmanlike direction from Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, INSIDE DAISY CLOVER).  I also have to give a nod to the legendary Uta Hagen as a mysterious, old-country Grandmother, and to John Ritter who appears in essentially a bit part:

In all, it's a solid work of melancholy horror from the golden period; far from flawless, but with an impeccable, hazy atmosphere, and enough twists and turns to confound your initial expectations. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Only now does it occur to me... WATERSHIP DOWN

Only now does it occur to me...  that out of every hardboiled caper, martial arts tournament film, bloody shoot 'em up, or gritty gang movie of the 1970s, the most badass tagline of the decade just might belong to an animated film about rabbits.

Seriously, though:
"All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you...
But first they must catch you." 

(It also bears mentioning that this is a wonderful, poetic, brutal work, a true labor of love from its makers, and one of the all-time great animated films.  I advise you to check out the recent Criterion release, as well as another, lesser-known film from the same novelist/director/vocal talent, called THE PLAGUE DOGS.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Film Review: XXX (2002, Rob Cohen)

Stars: XXX of 5.
Running Time: 124 minutes.
Tag-line: "A New Breed of Secret Agent."
Notable Cast or Crew: Starring Vin Diesel (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, PITCH BLACK), Asia Argento (LAND OF THE DEAD, TRAUMA), Marton Csokas (THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS), Samuel L. Jackson (PULP FICTION, UNBREAKABLE), Danny Trejo (DESPERADO, MACHETE), Thomas Ian Griffith (VAMPIRES, BEHIND ENEMY LINES), Eve (BARBERSHOP, THE WOODSMAN), and Tony Hawk.  Music by Randy Edelman (KINDERGARTEN COP, GHOSTBUSTERS II).  A soundtrack featuring Rammstein, Drowning Pool, Hatebreed, Joi, Flaw, Orbital, Mushroomhead, N.E.R.D., and other 90s bands you may have forgotten.
Best One-liner:  "Welcome to the Xander Zone."

The bastard child of James Bond and the X-treme sports fad, I had long avoided XXX, largely because it was not made during the 1980s, the golden period of cheesy action.  How foolish I was!  For a movie named after Vin Diesel's (fictional) tattoo and featuring a gang of villains named Anarchy 99, it is surprisingly palatable.

 I have no idea if I would have liked this as much if I'd seen it when it came out in 2002, but XXX has aged like a fine wine.  Or at least like a wine in comic strip that's served in a bottle marked "XXX."

From the director of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, DRAGONHEART, and DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (Rob Cohen, the man who directs movies with the word 'Dragon' in the title more often than any comparable director), XXX is a spectacular undercover glimpse into the exclusive world of Eurotrash rave culture and high-level secret government operations.  Here are eight things I liked about it:

#1.  Asia Argento.

Cult, horror, and Italo-trash legend, she's essentially why I decided to watch this in the first place.  And yet this was her first foray into a major Hollywood film.  Why 2002?  Why XXX?  I figured it out: it's not that Asia had to wait around for Hollywood to find a trashy role; Hollywood had to wait until Asia decided they'd come up with a movie trashy enough to meet her rigorous trash standards.
Here she is, pretending to dance, on all the drugs.

Throughout, she maintains a consistency of performance, even (especially?) when her scene partner is the impressively wooden and hilariously flat Vin Diesel.

Don't scowl, Asia––he's still better than most of the cast of DRACULA 3D.

She's technically the "Bond girl," but in a movie this trashy, I say she's the star.

#2.  I mean, the opening scene is a Rammstein concert in a Euro-cathedral, where a man is assassinated and then crowd-surfed amid gouts of flame and other pyrotechnics.

They shot James Bond?

Later, there are more raves and tesla coils and techno music.

This picture could not exist without the subtitle "Techno Music Playing."

And cranberry club sodas.
Er, what––

#3.  Let's take a moment to talk about Vin Diesel and that wondrous jacket, shall we?

Yes, that furry-collared jacket (complete with a stylishly gaudy medallion) appears in roughly an entire third of the film, which leads me to believe they thought it was quite the trendy fashion statement.  It's nearly as great as Kramer's in that one SEINFELD episode where he's mistaken for a pimp.

Highest marks.  But who is Vin Diesel's Xander "xXx" Cage?"  Who is he really?  What makes him tick, besides cranberry sodas and furry collars and stilted line readings?

#4.  xXx is a crusading everyman.  He talks straight into little video cameras (addressing the nation?) and makes confessional rants about "The Man" and video games and explicit song lyrics.   He is an iconoclast, a man of letters, a philosopher.

But when it comes to solving problems, where Plato used the Socratic method, xXx uses... X-treme sports.  In fact, you could say that is the main thrust of the film is the use of X-treme sports to solve matters of international diplomacy and intrigue.

Whether it's X-treme Dirtbiking:

Thank God there happened to be an offroad crotchrocket lying around.

X-treme Rockclimbing:

"Get a grip!"

X-treme Para-snowboarding:

X-treme Regular Snowboarding:

"Nothing like fresh powder!" –an actual line in this sequence

X-treme Para-sailing:

And, my personal favorite, X-Treme Silver Platter:

which leads to X-Treme Silver Platter-Skateboarding:

Pictured: a typical European street scene.

And yet all of these personality traits make the following even more satisfying (albeit briefly):

#4.  Danny Trejo, with a machete, torturing Vin Diesel.

This is the sort of thing that's worth the price of admission, even if it only lasts for two minutes.  And look at Danny Trejo, boldly transitioning from "Prisoner" to "Guy with Machete."  But, oh, he does it well.

#5.  Potato Explosion!  This is the best potato-related car chase sequence explosion since the one in PET SEMATARY TWO.

"Now that's what I call a 'tater crater.'"  –not my proudest moment

#6.  Facial-scarred Sam Jackson phoning in––nay, mailing in––a performance as the 'M' of this universe, comparing Mr. Diesel to a snake

Technically, in this context, said 'snake' would be on a plane––and four years before they made the movie!

and delivering a hearty (and self-referential?) slow clap when Vin Diesel does what he didn't in PULP FICTION––kick the asses of some stick-up artists in a retro diner:

Not quite as good as the slow clap in ROCKY IV.

#7.  And continuing with the James Bond analogy, there's also a 'Q' scene, with all the requisite gadgets.  Though, when Vin Diesel tries out the X-ray binoculars,

it bears mentioning that he briefly becomes XXX: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.

#8.  The Xander Zone.

I think this is a good note to end on.  Amen.

–Sean Gill