Sunday, November 30, 2008

GRAND SLAM (Ad ogni costo, 1967)

Edward G. Robinson is Professor James Anders, a schoolteacher retiring after 30 years of humble service in Rio de Janiero. The children serenade him at the airport in tribute to his work. This can't be right. His plane takes him to New York City, where after strolling through Times Square (The Bible is playing at Loew's State) and Rockefeller Center, he calls at a mansion that doubles as a swanky strip club. He has a business proposal for the proprietor, who's played by Adolfo Celi of Thunderball fame. Twice a year, Robinson explains, there's a major diamond delivery at the building across the street from his old school. In his spare time, he's figured out how four men could rob the place. This year is the best opportunity because the diamonds will be kept there longer than usual due to the coincidence of Carnival. All Celi has to do is recommend four men for the job.

Ad Ogni Costo is a caper film; it portrays the detailed planning and hopeful execution of a crime. It's virtues are usually superficial, but in Giuliano Montaldo's international caper those virtues are plentiful. The main visual selling point is the location work in Rio with documentary Carnival footage. Blue Underground's DVD (which I got in a 2-for-1 package with Sergio Sollima's Revolver) is a snazzy widescreen edition that emphasizes the picturesque qualities, including the scantily-clad revelers. Another virtue is Klaus Kinski as former military parachutist Erich Weiss (holy Houdini!), the toughest and surliest of Robinson's recruits. He mostly glares at people early on, but comes to life past the halfway mark as his enmity for pretty-boy Jean-Paul (Robert Hoffman) comes to the surface. Hoffman gets more screen time since it's his job to seduce Janet Leigh, the keeper of the key to the diamond vault. This is the major subplot of the film and has a cool twisty payoff. Yet another virtue is the score by Ennio Morricone. I wasn't impressed initially, since it starts as a very dated imitation of Herb Alpert, but the maestro comes into his own over time. If I were giving star ratings, I'd have to give the film an extra fraction of one because the burglars have to defeat the super-sensitive "Grand Slam 70" alarm system.

I can't go into as much detail here as I have for other films since caper films depend on details for their suspense value. I may give things away by saying it has a relatively downbeat "nobody wins" ending, but I don't think the Euro-cinema fan will mind finding out more for themselves. The trailer will give you some large hints, but not too many. I found it at DailyMotion, a worthy rival to YouTube for the movie trailer fan.

The Original O.J.

A stormy moment in the reconciliation of Oscar "O.J." Jaffe
and Mildred "Lily Garland" Plotka aboard the Twentieth Century limited.

Oscar Jaffe is involved in a mutually self-destructive romantic relationship with a blonde. Despite theatrical threats of suicide, the woman leaves him. He thinks he can do without her, but in time he grows desperate. When chance throws them together, he becomes maniacally manipulative, again using the threat of his own death to get her to rejoin him. She has succeeded without him, but despite her protests they are a perfect match. Both are self-dramatizingly hysterical, capable of tantrums that can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat. Although she treats her eventual return to him as a defeat, each is really the other's best audience. They are arguing furiously at the end, but it is really a happy ending.

The film is Twentieth Century (1934), starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Howard Hawks directed it. Historians treat it as an early specimen of the "screwball comedy." That's always been one of the more vague genre labels. It usually seems to mean that characters act crazy, but characters frequently acted crazy in movies before the turning-point year of 1934, which also saw It Happened One Night emerge as a kind of founding film. I guess two things really distinguish screwball from the movies of the Marx Bros. or other zany comedians. First, the vaudevillian tendency to break the fourth wall and address the audience is gone. Second, the romantic leads rather than outright comedians carry the burden of the comedy. You could almost think of screwball as the second stage of a contagion that the Marxes and other acts spread from the advent of talkies to a point when it spread to the general population. Hawks' 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, with Katherine Hepburn as a screwball heiress, is usually considered the peak of the genre.

Barrymore gives a self-parodying performance, as he was a "Master Thespian" of his day before booze destroyed him. It's self-parody on another level thanks to all the references to Svengali, since Barrymore had made a rather good movie of that story back in 1931. I don't know how deep in drink he was at this point, but he's camouflaged by actors Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns who do more blatant drunk acts at different points in the picture. I found Carole Lombard to be rather shrill, but it's okay for her to be obnoxious since this isn't one of those stories where you're necessarily rooting for the likable lovers to get back together.

The mentality of the film is more like that of a Coen Bros. film in its overall hard-boiled attitude. That attitude is often equated with cynicism, but I think it can be described more subtly as fatalism plus perseverance. It's the attitude of people who are not optimists, yet do what they've got to do. It contrasts strongly with the introverted self-pity that characterizes most acting in our time. It's probably a Depression attitude, though it can't be called "depressed." It involves an understanding that if you're going to try to survive in hard times, you can't waste time bemoaning everything. It's an attitude that may make a comeback soon if Americans apply themselves. It's one of the qualities that makes Twentieth Century a fairly funny film. Another, from my personal perspective, is the use of a religious fanatic (and all-round lunatic) as comedy relief that ultimately adds an element of farce to the plot. The film is definitely worth a look the next time it turns up on Turner Classic Movies, where I saw it this morning.

Friday, November 28, 2008

DEATH OF A CYCLIST (Muerte de un Ciclista, 1955)

Here is a Spanish film from the time of the Franco dictatorship that could just as easily have been an American film from the contemporary noir era. After seeing it on a Criterion DVD, I'm surprised that Americans haven't tried to remake it. It shares many noirish qualities, particularly the story formula of someone who makes a mistake and sees it multiply and escalate until it threatens to destroy him.

There are actually two people in danger: Juan Soler, a college instructor, and Maria Jose Castro, married to another man. After the film opens with a long static shot of the presumably titular cyclist riding into the distance, we see their car appear swerving out of the distance. Juan pops out of the car to check whether the cyclist is dead. Satisfied that he isn't, they hurry away. We quickly learn that the crisis impacts them in different ways. While Juan feels increasing guilt over the cyclist's eventual death, Maria Jose seems more concerned that inquiries will expose their affair. She's especially worried because Rafa, a creepy art critic in the George Sanders or Clifton Webb mode, lets on at a party that he knows things about her. Rafa despises being a mere ornament to the high society the Castros dwell in. "I see your sins, classify them, file them away,...and wait," he tells Maria. In return for his silence (about what, she isn't sure), Rafa wants her.

Juan pores over the papers looking for news of the cyclist. When he sees a report he's in the middle of proctoring a huge class while Matilde, a student, labors at a two-story blackboard on a mathematical problem. Distracted, he drives her out of the classroom, provoking a new crisis when she blames him for a failing grade. Her complaint escalates into a mass campus protest of students demanding Juan's resignation while he worries over the cyclist, visiting the man's slum neighborhood, looking in vain for his widow and eventually attending his funeral. He's self-analytical to a fault, sometimes comparing his plight to a character in a "dime-store novel." While he carries on his affair with Maria Jose, he still resents that she married Miguel Castro, a wealthier man, instead of waiting through the war (Spanish Civil, presumably) for him.

Rafa attempts to manipulate the lovers and Miguel at a party held for some visiting Americans. Sick of his insinuations, Juan confronts him in a men's room, where Rafa says he knows "despicable things" about our hero. "I have the upper hand now," he sneers, "You're all filthy scum." Juan loses it and knocks him down, but Rafa smiles. "Bad move. Now the fun starts."

Drowned out by flamenco music, Rafa whispers first into Maria's ear, then into Miguel's in a tensely edited sequence. Then a waiter summons Juan into a hall to tell him the police are waiting outside. Taunted by Rafa, Juan's ready to smash him with a chair or table before friends restrain him, while Maria is desperate to know what he told Miguel. The husband tells Rafa he doesn't believe anything he said and takes Maria away. In a rage, Rafa throws a bottle through a window. Surprisingly, this is the last time we see him.

The director, Juan Antonio Bardem, cuts from Rafa's throw to a different projectile crashing through a different window, taking us to the campus protest. It turns out the police were after Juan for his own protection because of conditions on campus. Matilde herself reappears to repent her role in the scandal, which may have escalated beyond her control. Juan assures her that everything will be fine. Then, at the cyclist's funeral, Maria assures him that "we're saved" because Rafa knows nothing about their affair. Now she suggests that they "do something for that poor man" -- the cyclist -- perhaps some money for the widow. By now, Juan has different ideas, and it turns out that Miguel is more suspicious than he let on.

Unhappy lovers Maria (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas) are only going to get unhappier in DEATH OF A CYCLIST

One thing I really liked about this film was the complexity of Juan's character. It looks at first as if he's going to be the good guy because he cares about the cyclist while Maria is more self-centered. But it becomes more clear as the film continues that Juan is going to an extreme beyond even what vehicular manslaughter justifies. He grows all too insistent about the need for both he and Maria to purify themselves. By the time he tells his mother, without going into detail, that "I'll be a sort of hero" by confessing his guilt, you can empathize with her comment that "I've never known how to help you." Meanwhile, Maria Jose is selfish. Miguel tells her that "your selfishness is all I've got," his only weapon in a battle to keep her. Selfish as she is, Maria also seems honestly torn between a selfish desire to remain a rich wife and her selfish desire for Juan -- with her own need for atonement possibly thrown in. But the ultimately noirish thing about the movie is the sense of doom that decisively settles over its final act. Once we have Juan musing about his future at the roadside and Maria at the wheel of a car, the outcome suddenly seems predetermined -- though not necessarily the aftermath.

This is the first film by Bardem that I've seen, and I'm impressed. He has a crisp style, preferring jump cuts to dissolves or blackouts, that looks forward in film history rather than backward. He can do sharp montages like the flamenco scene with long, moody takes of star Alberto Closas trudging through blighted cityscapes or collegiate track ovals. The transitions can sometimes get showy, but that doesn't undermine the overall effect. The cast is very good, with Italian beauty queen Lucia Bose (dubbed into Spanish) convincing as Maria Jose and Carlos Casaravilla going over the top as Rafa. I was especially impressed that Bardem pulled this off, including those college protest scenes, under a fascistic dictatorship. Possibly the only concession I can see is the "crime does not pay" fate of Maria at the end of the picture, and that's not much different from what the Breen Office (which might well have felt at home under Franco) would have insisted on in a Hollywood film of the time. As it turns out, by the time the film was winning international awards, Bardem was in jail for political reasons. Thankfully, his newfound celebrity helped him get out and back to directing.
It may be monotonous to say this, but the Criterion Collection deserves a lot of credit for reviving this item, and the Albany Public Libarary deserves some for putting it in their every-growing foreign film collection. If more Bardem films appear on DVD, I'll be in line to look.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

THANKSGIVING: I couldn't resist.

Portions of the following trailer may be too intense for, well, most people. Consider it rated R as in: Click to play at your own Risk.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

CHINESE HERCULES; Or, Whatever Happened to Working-Class Kung Fu?

The movie more correctly known by its officially translated title as "Freedom Strikes A Blow" is the story of a fighter overcoming his guilt at having killed an enemy by accident by learning that it's worthwhile to fight for a good cause or, more specifically, for the common people. You would be forgiven for thinking that the famous trailer for the American rendition of the film is advertising an entirely different movie.

You can split the difference if you think of CHINESE HERCULES as a monster movie. Like many a good monster film, it makes you wait for the title beast to appear. Until he does, we follow the sad career of Lee Hsi, an ardent martial arts student ("I never sleep. I practice every night.") who has issues with his girlfriend's brother. The brother provokes a fight ("It's no fun just hitting you.") and gets the worst of it. As his cronies cry out that he's dead, our horrified hero flees into the night. He heads out to a rocky beach and smashes his best fighting hand on the rocks, swearing that he'll never fight again.

He changes his name and begins a new life in a crappy village, apparently not far from the earlier beach, where the people depend on ships arriving at the pier for their livelihood. He goes to work under the name of Chung San (that's my best guess), but some astute co-workers figure that he's hiding something about himself. The anamorphic widescreen edition from BCI that I saw gives the location a picturesque squalor, but the business practices are even more squalid. The paymaster takes an instant dislike to our hero and dumps his first roll of bills on the ground to humiliate him. Our man then gets on the wrong side of the boss by intervening when the boss's goons set about beating two petty thieves to death. Since the hero will not fight, he offers to pay for what they stole. The boss says he'll pay for everything the urchins stole in the past, too, and if he can't, then he can take their beating. He's got two friends to stand up for them, only one of whom can fight (the other being a pudgy comic-relief type), so it's up to old Uncle Lo, the foreman, to save Chung San's skin by begging for mercy.

Later, Lo lectures his men. "Our boss is a real bastard, and don't forget that," he says, as if this were the Dilbert of martial-arts films.

In any event, our hero's ordeal has endeared him to more of his co-workers as well as the poor thieves. He chides the pair for doing stuff that could get people killed, remembering his own indiscretion. Meanwhile, the boss is fawning over a wealthy visitor who represents The Syndicate. The Syndicate wants exclusive use of the pier for their traffic in "special girls." No other ships must be allowed to dock there, and the current work crew must all be fired. The boss has a moment of conscience, telling his guest that the people of the village have no other means of support. The Syndicate guy opens a suitcase full of gold ingots. End of discussion.

The situation deteriorates as the workers fight back against the downsizing effort. One of our hero's friends storms the boss's compound while he's fondling and kissing the ingots and ignoring his mistress. As she watches dispassionately, the boss's goons eventually beat the malcontent to death and bring his body to the beach where the workers have gathered, apparently for the funeral of the fat guy's dead bird. The boss's taunting is more than Chung San can bear, but then again, it isn't. Still unwilling to fight, he faces another beating until Uncle Lo steps up and says he's had enough. It just so happens that he once killed someone in combat, also, and also vowed never to fight again, but this is more than he can stand, he can't stand no more. The boss "needs a lesson" and gets it. Uncle Lo is the "old" in the trailer, but easily outclasses and cripples the boss.

The boss licks his wounds at the Syndicate guy's compound, where Chiang Tai, aka Chinese Hercules, is lounging at a table in an open shirt. We saw him briefly when the Syndicate visited the pier, but now, more than halfway through the story, he begins to take a more active role. After the pier boss explains his failures, CH gets up and strolls over to him with a cup of tea, only to swat him to the ground. CH whips his shirt off so the director can study the massive back of Yang Sze, the artist latterly known as Bolo Yeung. Then he sets to work crushing the boss's skull with his bare hands. When the Syndicate guy asks who the second-in-command was, the boss's underlings take that as a threat and say nothing, but the mistress appoints herself to the post, promising the Syndicate that "I'm very cooperative."

Yang Sze, who eventually acquired the name of his character
"Bolo" from Robert Clouse's Enter the Dragon (1973)

At approximately 56 minutes into the picture, it's time for Chinese Hercules and his handler to visit Uncle Lo. The handler explains to Herc that Uncle Lo is a fool, then quizzes the big guy on his catechism in a motif to be repeated later.

Syndicate Guy: What do we do with fools?

Chinese Hercules: We kill 'em and dump 'em.

It's a surprisingly even fight, and old Lo is actually getting the upper hand when the Syndicate guy flicks a lit cigarette into his face. That gives Chinese Hercules the opening he needs to, as the trailer will put it, put a crush on Uncle Lo. Herc is a poor winner, however, turning on his minder and throwing a childish tantrum. "I DON'T NEED HELP!" he screams, but the Syndicate guy mollifies him by explaining that he just compulsively throws lit cigarettes around. It must be a nervous habit.

Meanwhile, a lone ship appears to break the ban on docking at the pier. Alas, the only cargo unloaded is our hero's girlfriend from the start of the film, searching for her lost love. Describing him as a great fighter, she gets little help from the workers, since the only recent arrival, Chung San, "has no idea how to fight." At the same time, the two thieves have literally stumbled across their dying Uncle Lo, who tells them to fetch Chung San. On their way back with him, they cross the girlfriend's path. He denies his identity and runs away from everyone. The delirious Lo doesn't know the difference and tells the absent hero that "I know you're a fighter....You're one of us, now. You've got to help them." The object of his concern has slunk back to hear the last of this from outside. He flees again.

Now everyone is very sad, and it is time to bury Uncle Lo. Our hero watches from a distance, but the girlfriend sees him. He may be a coward, she thinks, but she's not. She promises the workers to lead their resistance to the Syndicate, in combat if necessary. The two thieves still believe in our hero, but he's sinking deeper into self-pitying madness. "Can't you see it?" he insists, "My hands, they're full of blood!"

We get some front and back views of Chinese Hercules as he practices for his handicap match against the pier workers. A stroll on the beach with the Syndicate boss brings him face to face with an angry proletariat. The boss is dismissive.

Syndicate Guy: Chiang Tai, there are a lot of people here. What are they waiting for?

Chinese Hercules: For death.

Let's give the workers credit for taking the battle to Chinese Hercules. This melee is where most of the footage in the trailer comes from. It's pretty one-sided. By the way, if you pay close attention to the trailer you might notice that Chinese Hercules doesn't actually fight the hero's girlfriend. That honor goes to the Syndicate guy. Syndicate kung fu is actually pretty good, as he gets the better of the fight and invites her to surrender and go to bed with him. Fortunately, a surviving elder solicits a truce before Chinese Hercules kills everyone or the girl suffers the fate worse than death. The defeated workers will now have to pack up and leave.

Our hero watches sulkily as the peons move out. The fat guy spits on him. The girlfriend goads him; "if you really think you're guilty, why haven't you killed yourself?" she asks, "If you're trying to live, at least try to redeem yourself." At this he walks away. She takes this to mean he's now going to fight the bad guys. That realization inspires second thoughts, since "he hasn't practiced in three months." She also explains to our hero's erstwhile pal the fat guy that, her last statement notwithstanding, her brother isn't actually dead. He only got knocked out on that fateful day. She saw fit not to tell her boyfriend about this important detail because maybe he needs to fight Chinese Hercules, or die trying, to be a man again. "Perhaps I'm wrong," she allows, and through this the fat guy looks like he's thinking what I'm thinking.

So now our poor doomed man faces the enemy on the beach. The boss is surprised to see even one holdout.

Syndicate Guy: He must be a dead man. What do we do with dead men?

Chinese Hercules: Pick 'em up and dump 'em in the sea.

This proves more easily said than done, despite another timely flick of the cigarette from the gangster and another tantrum from Herc. You can guess the outcome but I'll leave you to see how the hero does it for yourselves. Before moving on to a more general topic, let me add that Chinese Hercules is part of a Grindhouse double feature disc, accompanied by Black Dragon, which boasts a commentary track from star Ron Van Clief. You can watch the films individually or opt for the "grindhouse experience" including trailers and snackbar ads. I don't know if better copies of Chinese Hercules are available, but I'm pretty sure that worse can be had quite cheaply. You may as well opt for the pictorially sound copy, since the action is reasonably well staged (though sometimes the dubbing is badly timed) and widescreen really does justice to the location work. It's an entertaining film and the real star really sells his character arc to hold the story together. It also has that quality I find lacking in many more recent martial arts films....

* * *

"So when, three decades ago, kung fu films became popular, was it
not obvious that we were dealing with a genuine working-class ideology of
youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their
bodies, their only possession?"

I don't know if they make movies like "Freedom Strikes A Blow" anymore in the Chinese-speaking world. If they do, they're not getting exported to the U.S. like they once were. My memory's first impression of "Kung Fu Theater" is of a poor people's cinema, just as kung fu and other (usually) weaponless disciplines are poor people's martial arts. The grungy milieu of Chinese Hercules reminded me of The Big Boss and countless other films that seemed to root the genre in the working class experience, or a working-class fantasy of power. There were always period pieces as well, and I know now that the more fantastical wuxia (swordplay) films were being made all through this period, but now it seems like wuxia products like House of Flying Daggers are China's primary cinematic export, while no one seems to have filled Jackie Chan's shoes by making more mundane martial-arts films. The nearest I see anywhere to old school "Kung Fu Theater" are the Thai action films of Tony Jaa and his peers. But I bet that when Thailand gets richer we'll see more FX-laden legendary stories and less does-his-own-stunts meat & potatoes martial arts. Maybe the way the Chinese see it, the old-school kung fu movie was their equivalent of the American B-western and nobody wants to make those kind of movies anymore. But maybe it's a sign of cultural confidence and affirmation that they can make these state-of-the-art epics instead of movies about working-class fighters.

This isn't meant to reflect on the Chinese, either. You can see what you might call a bourgeois-ification of genres elsewhere in the world. American comedy is a great example. The silent slapstick classics were mostly set in a working-class milieu; a lot of the comedy derived from workplace props and seemed rooted in workplace experience or mass anxieties about workplace performance. But I don't know if there's been sustained working-class comedy since the Three Stooges. Would Cheech and Chong count? The prevailing comedians today all seem to be firmly middle-class, and I don't know how often you might find blue-collar workplace humor in American movies today.

I'm not saying working-class genres are superior to all others, because the bad heavily outweighs the good in Chinese martial arts movies and American slapstick. But something does seem to be missing, or at least I'm missing it, when the movies can't find material in the experiences of the majority of their viewers.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Vampire Connoisseur Contemplates TWILIGHT

One of my best friends is a vampire buff. He's an omniverous consumer of vampire fiction in all media. His fascination with vampires dates from childhood, but he's developed a connoisseur's appreciation of the genre. "What I like about vampires," he tells me, "is the way the myth has evolved over time, from the bogeyman in the night to the immortal romantic fantasy." At the movies he's firmly rooted in the Anglo-American tradition. The few European vampire films he's seen have left him cold.

In anticipation of Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight, my friend "Wendigo" bought Stephanie Meyer's novel and its sequels. Judging the movie as a literary adaptation, he rates it above average. Inevitably, the movie alters the story structure, but in most cases he thinks the changes were fair. In particular, he cites the inclusion of a subplot involving a murder spree as a corrective to the first novel's relatively unthreatening presentation of vampires. The "bad" vampires, as opposed to the "good" Cullen clan, are emphasized more in the movie than in the book, and the climactic fight between hero Edward and villain James is more graphic on film -- necessarily, since the book fight takes place offstage.

Wendigo credits screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg with a sensitive adaptation that renders Meyer's dialogue more cinematic. Too literal an adaptation would leave the characters sounding relatively stilted, he claims. A telling difference he noted is that, while in the novel Edward and Bella are constantly declaring their love for one another, neither character in the movie ever says "I love you" to the other. This was probably done to make it more palatable to audiences beyond the target market of teenage girls. There's also more outright laugh-out-loud humor in the movie than in the book.

Hardwicke's direction, in his view, is generally well done. She stages scenes to include background details that readers will recognize even when she doesn't have time to bring them to the forefront. She works well with her actors, particularly Kristen Stewart as Bella and Billy Burke as her dad, who reportedly does a lot with very little material. The relatively low-budgeted (and thus destined to be very profitable) movie shows its limits occasionally in effects that are "sometimes hokey," including the usual obvious wirework.

Overall, Wendigo rates Twilight "pretty good, actually, and better than the reviews I read." How should horror fans approach it? "It's more of a horror film than the book is a horror novel," he says, "but the movie is still more a romance than a horror story. It isn't really a 'vampire film,' since it adds nothing new to the concept apart from 'sparkling in the sunlight.' It's really a fairy tale with vampires in it. Edward is the handsome prince under a curse. Bella is the classic romantic heroine who finds someone who loves her for what's inside. Together, they're iconic star-crossed lovers. I'd rate it relatively low as a vampire film, but much more highly as a romance."

If anything, my friend views the movie as a retrograde vampire film, but to some extent he considers it a step in the right direction. As readers get deeper into the novel series, he says, Meyer drives home more forcefully than in the first book that there's a downside to being a vampire. Too many vampire stories today, including some movies he's liked, present vampirism as if there were no downside, and vampires themselves as nothing more or less than cool fantasy creatures who only benefit from their condition. Twilight, my friend concludes, partially bucks that trend while re-romanticizing the vampire concept.

I have no plans to see Twilight, so I'll let Wendigo's comments stand as the final word unless someone wants to post a different viewpoint. In the future, I hope to convince Wendigo to contribute a list of favorite vampire films along with further thoughts on the genre and the directions it's taking.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

CROSS MISSION (Fuoco Incrociato, 1987)

Watching Italian films set in Latin America or in the Third World is like stealing a glimpse at the end of the world. The Italians went to places in their collective imagination in the 1970s and 1980s that few others would dare or want to visit. At their best (qualitative standards may vary), these films have an apocalyptic or fin-de-siecle quality, an extremity that other viewers might see as evil. It's probably no accident that when Thomas Harris tried to imagine villains worse than Hannibal Lecter, he included an Italian film crew on the bad guy's side. Some people feel that way about it. But this is only a long way of saying that Alfonso Brescia's Fuoco Icrociato carries a whiff of that Italo brimstone, but distinguishes itself by taking off on its own milder tangent of madness.

With cannibals played out by the late 1980s, the thing to do in the jungle was mercenary movies. So the movie starts with General Romero leading a U.N.-authorized helicopter raid against a reputed drug plantation. The land is set afire, and the international media wants to learn more, particularly Helen, a reporter who doesn't like being stonewalled by the General's press representative. "Manana ain't good enough for us," she protests. Meanwhile, the aide dismisses rumors of a "contra" rebellion in the jungle.

With ominous Stelvio Cipriani music playing, a private plane lands at the local airport. An official greets William Corbin (I think that's the last name) and sets him up in the same Sheraton where Helen's staying. She learns from the desk clerk that Gen. Romero himself reserved William's room for him. Looking for a new angle on the story, she spills some casino chips on him as he relaxes at the roulette table. "Brigitte Porsh," our female lead, will attract men's attention naturally. They go out for a walk and get attacked by some guys for no apparent reason. William is surprised to discover that Helen can hold her own in the fight. "A girl has to know how to defend herself," she explains. Fully seduced, he agrees to secure her an interview with the general following his own meeting.

On their way to his compound, Helen raises some disturbing questions about Romero. William explains that the general calls himself El Predestinado just to make himself sound important. He confirms that El Predestinado possesses psychic powers by virtue of his mother having been a "macumba witch." So he's at least a crazy man, and this intelligence builds our interest in meeting him again.

On meeting Romero, William reveals himself to be some sort of gangster or representative of gangsters who collaborate with the general in the international drug trade. The raid at the start of the movie was all for show, and there are bigger, more lucrative plantations in operation. William warns him not to screw up or else he or his bosses will expose El Predestinado as a fraud -- at least so far as his drug-fighting prowess is concerned.

After dinner, Helen gets her turn with the great man. He scoffs at the so-called liberation movement while boasting of his drug-eradication program. And, yes, he is a psychic with "power I can transmit to other subjects." He actually sells himself short. He has the power to make another subject appear out of nowhere, a little familiar named Asteroth. The general fires a bolt of energy, and there the little guy is! This is one of the rare film appearances of the late Nelson de la Rosa, who's probably most famous for playing Marlon Brando's sidekick in John Frankenheimer's Island of Dr. Moreau remake. He doesn't do much apart from parade about a bit before El Predestinado makes him go away, but the psychic demonstration isn't done. Observing that mechanical lie detectors can give false results, the general announces that his hands are infallible lie detectors with the power to cure or kill. He claps his hands together and energy crackles between them while Helen watches in pure stupefaction.

"That's just the way he is," William explains straightfacedly as we cut to the couple driving back. If you, too, find that transition hilarious, then we share some of the same aesthetic sense -- or whatever that sensibility is that allows us to appreciate "bad" cinema. You'll also appreciate Helen's reply: "Whatever the truth is, he certainly has a complex personality."

The real story of the movie now begins. Our heroes' jeep breaks down, so they have to catch a bus and gripe about the fare. A roadblock soon exposes the fact that guerrillas are on the bus. A chase and gun battle begins. In the crossfire a little girl Helen befriended is killed. This drives her into a killing rage. She grabs an abandoned machine gun and starts blasting away at the government troops. There's some nice stuntwork here as performers fling themselves from moving cars onto the roadside to sell the shots. The army eventually captures the whole group. They subject William to rough questioning, and he tells them to let the general know his whereabouts. Romero slaps an underling around for mistreating his pal, then calculates that public opinion will turn his way if the world learns that an American and a reporter have been killed by the rebels. He decides to leave William and Helen to their fate.

The main guerrilla group learns of the capture and plan a rescue operation. They assume the American is friendly, leading one fighter to reflect on "Americanos -- you know, they have no worries about their own freedom, so they worry about other people's freedom." As this is not 2008, that's apparently meant as a compliment. They intercept our crew on their way to "the gates of paradise," a slave-labor camp where prisoners are worked to death.

Now the rebels start torturing the army guys, but William suggests a more rational approach. For reasons yet unclear, perhaps assuming that Romero has betrayed him, he suggests a more carefully planned attack on the camp. While Helen sneaks around taking pictures and one rebel chews a drug to make himself impervious to pain, William undergoes a lock-and-load, face-painting transformation until he stands in full regalia before the awestruck guerrillas, who must think him a god, or the next-best thing. "A marine!" one says admiringly.

The guerrillas are a co-ed group, and the women will actually lead the way for the attack. They tart themselves up to pass as prostitutes to seduce the guards, then clobber their johns as a full-scale assault begins. Amid explosions aplenty prisoners are freed while Helen pauses to snap pictures of corpses. By the time everyone realizes she's been left behind, reinforcements are closing in and Gen. Romero has personally captured Ellen.

William wants to rescue Helen and the rebels agree to help because "he has taken to heart our suffering" and it's a chance to "cut off the last head of the hydra." How much William himself is suffering is unclear, since he has a makeout session with Myra, the female guerrilla leader, before the final action begins.

Meanwhile, Helen undergoes torture. El Predestinado brandishes a whip and tells her "Every time you don't replay I will stroke my cat and it will purr." Here's a sample of his questioning technique:

Q. Why did you persuade him [William] to help the rebels?
A. I'll never tell!
Q. I'll answer for you. Because you are a whore! You spread your legs to persuade him!

Tiring of handling both sides of the interrogation, Romero summons Asteroth to give Helen a good zapping. Meanwhile, his men bring in a guerrilla who's surrendered with information about the rebel attack. The general decides to verify the information with his bare hands, as only he can, but he doesn't notice the rebel put something in his mouth beforehand....and here I'll stop, since I don't want to spoil the rest of the story for the curious. Can William overcome both the General's shock troops and his shock dwarf? Why is he doing any of this, anyway? Maybe this trailer prepared for Asian markets will give you some clues.

Cross Mission is available as part of Mill Creek Entertainment's Suspense Classics 50-movie, 12-DVD box set. The set is available in stores for as low as $14.95, so this one movie really puts you back approximately 30 cents. Who would say that it's not worth that price? It's a prime example of a "bad" movie by literary or thespian standards that nevertheless goes the extra mile of desperate creativity to entertain us. The only justification something like this has is to show us something we won't see every day, and adding that nutty supernatural element to the mix meets that imperative quite nicely. The Mill Creek edition is cropped, as are the majority of movies in any of their box sets, but has the unexpected extra of the theatrical trailer included before the movie starts. So I didn't get the surprise some audiences must have gotten when Asteroth appears, but on the other half, that trailer is why I went on to watch the movie before most of the others in the set.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A WONDERFUL NIGHT IN SPLIT (Ta Divna Splitska Noc, 2004)

Split is the second city of Croatia, located on the Adriatic coast, but from this account, courtesy of director Arsen Anton Ostojic, it could just be another suburb of Sin City. It's New Year's Eve and a street concert is under way. The camera looks down from a bird's-eye view, gliding over rooftops and peering into alleys. A man staggers and falls, calling out, "He came to get me." An old woman opens a window and screams for help. A group of American sailors hear her and prepare for action.

A cuckoo clock goes off while a couple makes rough love in a kitchen. They shift the table toward the stove so the woman can tend to her cabbage roles without interrupting the coitus. Maria is a bit of a masochist. She urges Nick to slap her during the act. The rumpus awakens her son Duye, who doesn't understand why the man is hitting his mom. He gets a gun out of a drawer, but nothing comes of it -- yet. But remember what happens when you see a weapon in a movie.

Nick heads out -- he has business in Munich, disappointing Maria, who'll be alone tonight with her boy. Our hero is on his way to Blacky's, blowing off Antish the panhandler on his way. Blacky gives him a package to take to Munich on the next bus. Before he goes, he heads back to his tenement apartment and frees his pet bird. He also passed those American sailors on the way -- they're looking for a prostitute.

Nick panics when cops board the bus, but he fights his way free and eludes pursuers in the station. We notice that someone else on the bus has a similar package, but stays on board. On a hunch, Nick opens the package and samples the contents: no good! Blacky has set him up. He heads back to Blackys and fights with him. He appears to choke Blacky out with an iron gate, but gets stabbed in the process. He heads back to Maria's place, and Duye confronts him on the stairs, gun drawn.

It turns out that Nick is the guy on the ground at midnight, and we've just caught up with the start of the movie. Just as we register that this is that kind of film, it's back in time again to 10:00 p.m. Now we follow Maja's desperate quest for a fix, which takes her past Antish and into Blacky's place just as Nick was leaving the first time. Blacky sends her away, but rethinks his refusal when a stuttering minion tells him about the sailors and their quest for prostitutes. He retrieves Maja, who like him can talk reasonable (dubbed) English to the sailors. She'll be paid in drugs to provide consolation to Frank, one of the sailors who's been dumped by his girlfriend. Frank is played by none other than Coolio, who was perhaps attempting to establish himself as a Cameron Mitchell for the 21st century.

Blacky borrows a room from an old widow, and has apparently done this often enough to warn her against peeping through the keyhole. Frank isn't that eager for consolation. He tries to engage Maja in conversation, which she indulges up to a point -- being desperate for the fix and all. He shows her a picture of the girlfriend, and ultimately explains that she dumped him because "I am a coward." He produces a gun and invites Maja to shoot him -- until he notices the needle tracks on her arm. Discovering that "you're a damn junky," he gives her some heroin he happens to have. As she cooks it up, he counts down the final seconds of the year before giving the old lady cause to scream, just as we remember from the start of the movie.

Let's turn back the clock two hours again and discover another couple making out in the street. Angela tells Luke that she doesn't want to start the new year as a virgin. They need a place to do the deed, and Luke knows someone who can provide one. They arrive at Blacky's just as the gangster, who's just had a rough encounter with the guys with the drugs, has placed a call with the cops to set up Nick at the bus station. Luke isn't interested in drugs tonight, and eventually he and Angela find their way to "the best place in the world," with a great view of the street and the concert. Then she offers him some acid, and they share it. They share a modest trip (Skidoo this isn't), united in the conviction that the building is leaning and might fall. They head for the roof and watch pigeons flying "to Neverland." Luke decides he ought to join them. He walks to the edge of the roof and is caught in a spotlight from below. As the crowd and the M.C. (who is Blacky's supplier) invite him to come on down, Luke feels certain that he's growing wings, and at the stroke of midnight we gain a new perspective on the events at the start of the film, or else we understand our original perspective.

* * *

Ta Divna Splitska Noc is slickly made with masterful aerial camerawork providing a commanding, nearly godlike view of the alleys of Split. If anything, it's too slick. Its flaw, for me at least, is its formalism, its self-consciousness of continuing the film noir tradition by way of Tarantino's non-linear narrative style. Ostojic's story is less like Pulp Fiction than like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, which repeatedly went back in time to bring different characters forward to a common present. Still, in Tarantino's wake the non-linear approach has come to be a cliche that undermines the authenticity of the stories Ostojic wants to tell. This impression isn't helped by the fact that Split is made in glorious black and white -- too glorious, sometimes, in its homages to noir. Take a look.

The movie has its moments. I like the performers, and moments like the opening lovefest on the kitchen table rang true for me. I also appreciated the way Ostojic refrained from going crazy with Luke and Angela's acid trip. You actually appreciate better how fried they are because the director keeps an objective distance and lets the kids tell us what they're seeing. Overall, however, the movie didn't quite ring true for me. It seemed designed to catch the U.S. video market (hence Coolio and ample English dialogue in the Maja section) rather than appeal to shared Croatian experience. I should acknowledge, though, that the film ultimately isn't meant to ring true in the way I was expecting. The ending takes Split into the realm of urban fable or magical realism, depending on how you interpret it. If you anticipate this approach from the beginning, you'll better appreciate the movie's legitimate virtues. It's definitely worth a rental from a well-furnished library for neo-noir buffs and anyone curious about international cinema.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

PARIS VU PAR (Six in Paris, 1965)

Here's an anthology of six comic sketches set in different areas of Paris, from directors of varying degrees of fame. I admit to not really knowing half of them (Douchet, Rouch, Pollet) and the film is ordered so that they're the opening acts for the bigger names of Rohmer, Godard and Chabrol. It's the sort of film that becomes more of a documentary over time and becomes worthy of interest aside from its cinematic merits. Its artifice is flimsy in the first place, so I grew more attentive to the colorful imagery of mid-1960s Paris. Because it was filmed in 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, it reminded me, despite the major talents involved, of a lot of the movies I've seen on DVDs from Something Weird Video. At a certain point, or at a certain minimal level of financing, the aesthetics of the Nouvelle Vague and U.S. exploitation cinema converge. In some cases, the latter may be influenced by the former, but it may just be a coincidence.

Anyway, of the six stories, I was most impressed by Jean Rouch's effort, which was done almost in a single take. A young couple bickers because the impending obstruction of their view of landmarks by a new building symbolizes to the wife the shutting off of opportunities due to the husband's lack of ambition. Storming out to work, with the camera following her down with the elevator and out the front door, she has a chance encounter with a man who might offer the escape she's looking for, but the stakes involved in the encounter are higher for him than she realizes. Ultimately, though, we get a shock ending with little point to it. Otherwise, they're silly stories (Rohmer's tale of a man worried that he killed a bum with his umbrella is especially silly) that I'd probably dismiss out of hand if they were domestically produced, with Godard's contribution (filmed in collaboration with Albert Maysles) notable for its misogyny. The poster (or is it a box cover?) references the Pollet section about a French nebbish's awkward encounter with an older, surprisingly patient prostitute. That episode was at least convincingly awkward.

Thanks to the Albany Public Library, this was a free rental for me. It's a fullscreen DVD which probably does justice to the colorful original material, and comes with some extra interviews with participants that I didn't watch. It's worth a look if your library has it or if it turns up on cable, but it's a keeper for New Wave completists only.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Favorite Foreign Films: France

French cinema doesn't seem to have the stupendous thematic range of Italian film, but American audiences have never received as broad a cross-section of Gallic movies. What we get seems to be intended as the cream of the crop, mostly for the art house rather than the grindhouse. But what the French do, they do well and with something like a national style. Here's an alphabetical list of my current favorites, in order of their most familiar titles, English or French.

Army of Shadows (L'Armee des Ombres, 1969). Why Jean-Pierre Melville's thriller about the Resistance took so long to reach America -- nearly 40 years -- is a mystery to me. Melville brings the cool empathy of his crime pictures to a wartime subject, and I understand the mix annoyed some French critics. But it seems like the perfect way to approach the clandestine desperation of the period, and the harsh necessity it imposed on patriots. It combines suspense in the simplest situations with a sense of imminent tragedy that's finally fulfilled in the fate of Simone Signoret's character.

Au Hazard Baltazar (1966). I borrowed this one from the remarkable Albany Public Library collection not expecting to like it much but curious about Robert Bresson. The only film of his I'd seen before was Lancelot du Lac, which was interesting but also sort of off-putting, but Bresson is highly touted by highly regarded writers. Baltazar impressed me in a way I didn't expect. It's a masterpiece of pathos that really does leave you feeling compassion for that donkey, as well of the people who cross his path.

A Woman is a Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme, 1961). Jean-Luc Godard is a hit-or-miss proposition for me. I couldn't get through Bande a Part on my first try. The difference may have been the widescreen vistas of vintage Paris and Raoul Coutard's lush colors. They make you think you could walk into the living world of the Nouvelle Vague, and Godard's then relatively unambivalent love of moviemaking (and/or of Anna Karina) shows in every frame.

Contempt (Le Mepris, 1963). Godard again, striving to master the imperatives of producer Joseph E. Levine and wild elements like Brigitte Bardot and a authentically impatient Jack Palance. I haven't see that much of Godard, but this looks like the height of his classical form, with Raoul Coutard and composer Georges Delerue at the height of their powers as well.

Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966). Melville's last black & white film with my favorite performance so far (in my still limited experience) from the mighty Lino Ventura. He's a doomed criminal, manipulated and outwitted but ultimately unstoppable in his determination to set things right according to his own sense of justice. His final gunfight is a classic scene with a two-climax that inspired legions of lesser films.

Grand Illusion (1937). Perhaps the most cosmopolitan of "foreign" films, Jean Renoir's multilingual P.O.W. drama was one of the first French films I ever saw and is still one of my favorites. In idle moments I've imagined trying to translate the story into an American Civil War setting, where the tragic friendship of enemy aristocrats might also be possible, but the spirit of Renoir's movie is probably inimitable.

Lacombe Lucien (1974). Louis Malle's film is the antithesis of Army of Shadows -- the story of a collaborator. It's an anti-epic of someone who picks a side for no good reason, yet Malle manages to make his antihero's actions understandable without approving of them. I suppose it's really like the rise and fall of a young criminal, and as with Army of Shadows, the transposition of the crime genre onto a war story, which usually invites different moral expectations, has an eye-opening effect that awakens unexpected empathy. Considering the odious subject, it's a great humanistic film.

Vagabonde ( Sans Toit ni Loi, 1986). I have an odd interest in discovering low life in foreign lands, so I was bound to be a sucker for Agnes Varda's saga of a young woman wandering toward oblivion. But Varda brings what I take to be a characteristic French eschewal of melodrama and moralizing to her subject, allowing you to appraise her heroine as you will. In an often beautiful landscape or in convincing squalor, Varda's naturalistic approach lets you draw your own conclusions.

The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Henri-Georges Clouzot's dynamite trucker drama is one of the grimmest, most hard boiled of thrillers. This is the one where they have to drive a tanker full of nitro through the jungle for not enough money. It says something about man's exploitation of man and man's willingness to be exploited, and it's not pretty, but it is powerfully made.

Wooden Crosses (Les Croix de Bois, 1932). This is the French counterpart of All Quiet on the Western Front in theme and visual force. Raymond Bernard gives the story dynamic direction and righteous indignation at the same time, conveying the chaos and futility of World War I in street fighting as well as in the trenches. There aren't many great Great War movies, but this is one of the few.

I was tempted to swap one of the Godards or one of the Melvilles for Jean Rollin's Fascination, but I'll settle for giving that an honorable mention. I still have a stack of French stuff to work through, so this list is subject to change at any time, for what that's worth.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

THE TALL T (1957)

Randolph Scott is the man whose whereabouts the Statler Bros are always asking about. His is the name that can reduce the population of Rock Ridge to a scene-stopping chorus of awe. So I assumed for a long time that he was just a hokey cowboy hero. Then I saw Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, Scott's final film, and I began reading about Scott's teaming with director Budd Boetticher. They made seven films together, and growing ranks of fans seem to rate them on a level with the '50s westerns of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart. That's a big claim.

Hollywood's '50s westerns should get more credit than they do. They may be mistaken for '50s TV westerns in some minds, or the lot are lumped together in unfavorable contrast with the Italian westerns of the '60s and '70s, but I think both genres benefit from the comparison. The spaghettis have their virtues, and the best from '50s Hollywood simply have a different set. The output of Columbia Pictures in particular is pretty formidable, from Mann & Stewart's Man From Laramie and Rudolph Mate's The Violent Men through Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma and Cowboy, through Robert Rossen's quasi-Western They Came to Cordura. Columbia released five of Boetticher's seven Scott films, starting with The Tall T. That fact may clinch the studio's status of Western champ for the decade.

Like 3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T is taken from an Elmore Leonard story, but Martin Scorsese suggests in his intro to the DVD that Burt Kennedy's screenplay isn't very faithful, or at least not pleasing to Leonard. The movie, at least, deals with Pat Brennan (Scott), who's come to the town of Contention (which also figures in 3:10) to buy a bull. We first see him stopping at a switch station where he visits with Hank the stationmaster and promises to bring back some cherry striped candy for Hank's son. In town, he checks in on stage driver Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) and meets his passengers, Willard Mims and his new wife, the daughter of a copper baron. Brennan loses his horse in an attempt to win a bull on a bet and has to walk home. He hitches a ride on Rintoon's stage over Mims' objection and returns to Hank's station to find it seemingly deserted.

The station has been taken over by a three-man gang: Frank (Richard Boone), Billy Jack (played by Skip Homeier, and no relation to the stink-footed '70s hero), and the outrageously named Chink (a baby-faced Henry Silva). They were expecting a mail stage to rob, but Rintoon has come through ahead of schedule as Mims' private driver. This gang won't take disappointment well, but Mims intends to save himself by suggesting that Frank hold his new wife for ransom, which he'll solicit from the old man.

The bulk of the picture deals with Frank, Chink, Brennan, and Mrs. Mims waiting for Mims and Billy Jack to return. This is where the film gets really interesting. We get an instance of what I understand to be a recurring theme of the "Ranown" films, with Brennan and Frank emerging as almost mirror images of one another. Frank wants to settle down on a piece of land like Brennan has, but sees crime as the only way to achieve his goal. He doesn't see or comport himself as a villain, but as someone who does what he has to, as he imagines everyone else does. He adheres to his own code of honor, which emerges in his treatment of Mims and his chastisement of Mrs. Mims for protesting it. When Brennan questions his claim to moral superiority over Mims, Frank protests: "If you don't understand the difference, I can't explain it to you." As it develops, he's too honorable for his own good, while Brennan, our hero, proves as ruthless as survival requires. Both men have eyes on Mrs. Mims, but while Frank seems only to tentatively offer her some food, Brennan later forces himself upon her (within a certain limit) while exhorting her to stand up for herself. Later still, Brennan sows distrust among the gang, but Frank proves more loyal to his men -- to his eventual ruin -- then Brennan would have the boys believe.

The Tall T impressed me with its brevity. It's done in 77 minutes, a running time comparable to the early Universal horror classics, and as with them, you don't feel shorted. Even when, at my first glance, the picture seemed to take its time really getting started through the comedic business in town, it still managed effective character development amid the natural beauty of the location. It does quite well without the gratuitous picturesqueness or iconic posing that bloats many modern films (influenced in part, alas, by spaghetti westerns). It benefits most from dialogue designed for meaningful underplaying from Scott, Boone and even Silva in what could have been more of a showboat role. Theirs are the sort of performances that sometimes get dismissed as non-acting because they lack the emotive histrionics that earn Oscars, but what they achieve at their best is an illusion of authenticity that fits the film perfectly. Only Arthur Hunnicutt really sticks out in the hammy role of an old coot, but we're not burdened with him for long.

Two standout visual moments for me are Brennan's fight with Billy Jack and a tense showdown with Chink. The former comes to a shocking shotgun climax with more blood then you might expect from a '50s film. The latter is wonderfully timed as Brennan gives Mrs. Mims a loaded gun to fire repeatedly at Chink's location while he takes another position. Boetticher intercuts perfectly from Doretta firing to Brennan and Chink successively counting down the shots, ratcheting the tension toward the moment when Chink will break out from cover.

This is the first film in Sony's new box set of the Columbia Ranowns. I watched it on my modest HP monitor and it looked good except for the credits, which seemed to have a layer of irremovable (?) grit on them. The next time I watch, I have the option of hearing historian Jeanine Basinger comment on the film. This first disc also includes a documentary about Boetticher that first appeared on TCM, along with the Scorsese intro. There's also a trailer that looks as run over as the opening credits, and the usual Sony promos. I'll keep you posted as I work through the remaining films in the set, but The Tall T is a good start for anyone discovering Boetticher and Scott.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

ELITE SQUAD (Tropa de Elite - Brazil, 2007)

Reportedly the most popular Brazilian film ever, and a controversial winner at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Tropa de Elite has been accused of a fascist tendency, as is just about any film that appears to applaud extreme measures against criminals. I usually regard that as an absurd charge, especially when lone-wolf vigilantes are called fascists -- since when have you ever heard of lone-wolf fascists? How well would the charge stick this time? I determined to find out by checking out the DVD.

First, here's an attempt to sell the film to the English market.

This trailer gives a somewhat wrong impression of the story. Take a look at the Brazilian trailer and you'll notice a different emphasis even if you can't follow the Portuguese.

The point of contention in determining whether Tropa de Elite is a "fascist" film is its attitude toward its protagonists. If anything, the Anglo trailer suggests a more "fascist" film since it presents the movie unambiguously as a story of heroes trying to clean up the system. The movie itself is more ambivalent.

The movie opens on the night of a street party in a Brazilian slum in 1997. A narrator explains that Rio de Janiero has 700 slums infested with gangs that own military-quality ordinance. Outmanned and outgunned, most cops content themselves with taking bribes and looking the other way. The narrator explains: "Honesty isn't part of the game. When honest cops go into the streets, bad shit usually happens." We see some about to happen. Two snipers look like they're about to shoot a cop. After they fire, chaos breaks out, but before it can resolve itself, the title card comes up, and we flash back six months.

The narrator is Capt. Nascimento, who's contemplating retirement from the BOPE, our titular Elite Squad. Numbering only 100 men, they are reputedly incorruptible and ruthless, as much the enemies of corrupt cops as of the gangs of the slums. They sport a death's-head logo and use "Skulls" as a nickname and battle cry.

The two snipers from six months later are introduced as rookie officers Neto and Matias. Neto is a hothead, Matias a straight-arrow who wants to be a lawyer. He attends college classes and hooks up with classmates in an NGO operating in one of the slums -- as can only be done with the consent of the gangs. Matias' storyline gives ammunition to critics who want to question the movie's political agenda. He's shown rebelling against the conventional wisdom of the classroom, where Foucault-reading potheads parrot the lefty line that cops are nothing but corrupt instruments of plunder and oppression. During a classroom discussion, he tells his peers (who don't know he's a cop) that "sometimes there has to be repression" and that they've been brainwashed by the news media. Writer-director Jose Padilha seems contemptuous toward the students, who're portrayed as naive irresponsible elitists whose addictions empower the slum gangs.

Neto is assigned to a motor pool and grows increasingly frustrated by the poverty of the department, which has to cannibalize newer cars to fix older ones. He and Matias are friends from childhood, and as they learn about the corruption throughout the force, they hatch a plan to steal some payoff money to buy parts for the cars. They discussed this with another cop who ultimately didn't take part in their scheme, but looks likely to get blamed forward. Now we're back to the beginning of the picture, and we learn that Neto and Matias are trying to prevent the other cop's assassination. They emerge with honor from the fracas, and enter the BOPE training program.

It isn't until the film's halfway over that we get the brutal boot-camp sequences that usually come earlier in such a movie. Capt. Nascimento explains that only five out of every 100 trainees makes it through. The object is to learn who won't crack under pressure. Nascimento is especially interested in this class because he wants one of them to replace him. His wife's having a baby and is pressuring him to quit the squad. All this is happening in the middle of a campaign to clean out a particular slum near where the Pope plans to stay during a visit to Rio. The training involves mass beatings and gross-out ordeals such as having to eat slop off the ground in only ten seconds. When the grass isn't licked clean in that time, one unlucky cop is ordered to eat all that remains. When he pukes upon it, everybody has to join back in the repast. Eight men make it out of the first round, including Neto and Matias.

Meanwhile, a newspaper photo showing Matias at the scene of the slum battle outs him as a cop for his college buddies and their gang patron, Baiano. He plans to ambush Matias when the good cop meets a slum kid to give him a pair of glasses, but Neto ends up going instead. Neto screwed up during the final training exercise, a live slum raid, but has done well since then, killing 30 people in one week as part of the ongoing "Operation Holiness." This avails him not, as Baiano's men fatally wound him. Upon learning from a tattoo that he's BOPE, Baiano freaks out, since he understands that the Elite Squad will take ruthless vengeance on all involved. He takes out his anger on some college kids, one of whom is necklaced, trapped in tires like a Michelin Man and set ablaze, in the movie's most extreme sequence.

Baiano knows his enemy. Matias has had enough of the "stupid potheads" who are mourning the college kids but not his friend Neto. He wades into a memorial march and starts punching people out and pretty much kisses off Maria, his onetime girlfriend. He joins the manhunt for Baiano, in which torture is a routine investigative tool. Baiano is finally tracked down for a brief rooftop chase that leads to Matias' final test. Nascimento, who first envisioned Neto as his successor, will put it on Matias if he can execute Baiano in cold blood (in the face optional). But it's already too late for Nascimento. He threw a fit at home after Neto's death, provoking his wife to leave him.

So it's a hard knock life for the Tropa de Elite. There aren't happy endings for anyone. Nascimento's life is ruined, Neto is dead, and Matias appears to have given up his ideals of the rule of law. None of them are made heroes for their trouble, and in the end, how much have they accomplished? They made a dent in one slum. There's damned little of the glory that true fascists would heap upon such men. If anything, Padilha seems to see them as a symptom of the disease of massive inequality, rather than a cure. They're part of an overall brutalization of society, not really an attempt to reverse it. Audiences may applaud Matias' final act -- I don't know if they did -- but you could just as easily regard it as a tragic ending, given his original aspirations. If fascism requires a leader or group for people to rally around, neither Nascimento nor his Squad fits the bill, and I think that's the way the filmmakers meant it.

I enjoyed Tropa de Elite, but on the first viewing that's due more to its revelations of the breadth of corruption in Rio than its aesthetic qualities. Padilha's work strikes me as appropriately low-tech and gritty for a subject that should be handled in a realist style. It's a fair companion piece to City of God, the film that put Brazilian crime on the movie map. The films share a writer, Braulio Mantovani, who appears to be a key figure in the developing Brazilian crime genre. Padhila, who also made Bus 174, will be one too if Hollywood doesn't poach him soon. But the Internet Movie Database tells me that he's set to direct Don Cheadle in a film due in 2010.

The American DVD is a no-frills affair, the only extras being three trailers (The Aura, Chronicle of an Escape, and Days of Glory). I watched it on a ten-year old TV, so I can't make meaningful judgements about picture quality, but it's at least a serviceable widescreen edition. You can watch it in the original Portugese or an American dub. I opted for the original but sampled the dub. It's not terrible but the voices all sound generically American, which kills the film's authenticity. Fans of international crime or cop cinema ought to like it

Friday, November 14, 2008

Favorite Foreign Films: Italy

Between movie reviews, and when time permits, I'll occasionally post lists of favorite films in different categories. There will be favorites by genres as well as favorites by nationality, the latter series beginning here with ten of my favorites from Italy, that most fertile ground for genres and sub-genres. They're listed in alphabetical order of their English-language titles.

The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventu) 2005. I'm a sucker for the sprawling historico-political epics, and this one picks up almost where 1900 (see below) leaves off. It's long enough to instill a sense of history in its running time while keeping the main characters' connections and conflicts in focus. This is a rich story that rewards patient viewing, and it made me wish for a while that I had lived through that time in Italy.

Blood & Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assesino), 1964. Mario Bava's exemplary giallo combines fashion, murder and the mighty Cameron Mitchell in feverish color to define an epoch in international genre cinema. Lovely to look at, disturbing to see.

Cannibal Holocaust, 1980. Ruggiero Deodato's masterpiece was recommended to me simply as some shocking trash, but I was stunned by how good it actually was. It follows the pattern of the cannibal/zombie genre, including the obligatory start-off in New York City, masterfully delays the worst as our present-day explorers actually fare well in their encounter with natives, only to finally hold the mirror of our own guilty pleasures in our faces until we flinch. Not the best horror movie, but one of the most honestly horrific ever made.

Divorce Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana), 1962. Pietro Germi's gem is the funniest intentional comedy I've seen from Italy, with a brilliant star turn by Marcello Mastroianni. It works for me on that extra level of showing me a genuinely foreign society populated by universally recognizable human beings.

Fellini's Roma, 1972. I haven't seen so much of Fellini's work that I'd have been jaded by the time I came across the visionary, episodic essay film. I was simply blown away by everything from the primal shadow of the wolf stalking the streets to the tragedy of the unearthed murals to the motorcycle gang storming the city at the end. It stands almost halfway between Mondo Cane and F for Fake, and that's good company as far as I'm concerned.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo), 1966. For a while I preferred Once Upon A Time in the West, but I've decided that the earlier film is Sergio Leone's best. I could do without the latest restored scenes with Eastwood and Wallach's elderly dubbing, but they don't really hurt the show, which remains one of the all-time best action-adventure flicks. Eli Wallach as Tuco puts this film over the top on my Leone list.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (Addio Zio Tom), 1971. Gualtieri Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's magnum opus would be my personal pick for the single most underrated great film on earth. It's an epic indictment of slavery and slaveholding on a staggering scale. I've seen the film called racist, but the filmmakers themselves acknowledge the moral risk of their project and portray themselves, time-travelers arriving by balloon to film their documentary, succumbing to racism amidst the mass degradation of a race. Composer Riz Ortolani comes through her as he would with Cannibal Holocaust with one of those uncanny Italian soundtracks that shouldn't fit the film, yet does.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), 1963. I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen at the Brattle theater in Cambridge, and I was so blown away by Luchino Visconti's direction that I didn't much mind the fact that they got a couple of reels mixed up. I can see the thing in proper order on my Criterion disc, but the bigger the screen the better for this movie. Burt Lancaster's presence transcends the dubbing of his voice into Italian, and to be honest, it's preferable watching this in the original than in the cut U.S. version with Lancaster's own voice. You really feel like you're present at the end of an era in an epic based less on battles than on detailed observation of a dying society.

1900 (Novocento), 1976. Bernardo Bertolucci's over-the-top chronicle of class conflict and the rise and fall of Fascism features a young Robert de Niro, a young and fit Gerard Depardieu, an iconic Burt Lancaster seemingly borrowed from The Leopard, and an insane performance by Donald Sutherland as a villain who kills cats by ramming them with his head, among other atrocities. As it happens, there are also Italians in the cast. It just took my breath away to see a movie on such a scale take a Marxist stance and yet stand up as one man's vision of history. It's not a propaganda film, unless you take any talk of class to be such, and if you share my taste for the epic in length as well as the epic and scope, you'll find a lot to like here.

Umberto D., 1952. I can dig Italian neo-realism (as I do the modern Iranian version) simply because it's foreign. It's not just ordinary life, but life in another country and culture. This effort from Vittorio de Sica tends toward tearjerking, but the tale of an old man getting downsized in the postwar wreckage of Italy is inescapably poignant. This is one of the bleakest films you'll ever see, even if the dog doesn't die.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TV Diary: CHAINED HEAT (1983)

While channel surfing randomly last night I stumbled upon the beginning of CHAINED HEAT on one of the Showtime channels. It was commercial-free, of course, and helpfully letterboxed.

Here's how the movie advertised itself in 1983. When you're done with the trailer, I'll tell you whether Chained Heat delivered on its promises.

Paul Nicolas's film is said to have revitalized the women-in-prison genre for the 1980s. Personally, I see hardly anything vital about Chained Heat. Linda Blair, whose nudity was presumably a major selling point for somebody, is Carol Henderson. "I killed a man with my car," she explains on her way to her first-ever stint in stir. As you might expect, prison is where the criminals are. Warden Bacman (John "Dean Wormer" Vernon) has a jacuzzi in his office and videotapes himself romping with nude prisoners. He also runs the prison drug racket, except that someone's horning in on his action. Those someones, in fact, are Capt. Taylor (Stella Stevens), the head prison guard, and Lester (Henry Silva), who lurks around the prison infirmary, cheats on Taylor with blonde prison gang leader Ericka (Sybil Danning), and smuggles girls out of prison as entertainment for decadent parties at nearby mansions. Ericka is waging a race war with Duchess (Tamara Dobson), the leader of the black prisoners. She seems to be sexually omnivorous, as she comes on to innocent Carol in the communal shower, advising the "prison virgin" that she'll need a friend to protect her in the cuthroat environment.

You'll notice that our main character is almost peripheral to the main storylines. For half the film, Carol is mainly a passive spectator of the proceedings. Scared after her encounter with Ericka, she visits the warden, who recruits her as a stoolie in his quest to find out who's smuggling dope into prison. After a disastrous night as one of Lester's party girls, she finds one of Ericka's minions murdered by Duchess's gang. She runs to the warden and inadvertently betrays Lester's racket. This starts the dominoes falling. Fearing exposure of her ties to Lester, Capt. Taylor has one of her guards drown the warden in his jacuzzi and kill Val, Carol's best prison pal, whom he'd been filming ("Don't call me Warden, call me Fellini!" he says). Once Carol knows the score, she launches a slo-mo attack on Boots, the murderous guard, only to get dumped in solitary for her trouble. Taylor decides to eliminate her rival, Ericka, by framing her for Val's death. Now Carol rallies all the convict factions to unite against Taylor, sparking a riot, an interracial alliance of former enemies, and a fatal showdown with the villain on the prison roof.

And all of it amounts to little more than an inert mass. That's a fair description of Linda Blair herself. I'd heard that she was a bad actor as an adult, but here is proof. The only kind of emoting she can manage is crying. Otherwise she hardly even tries -- and she isn't much to look at either. Nor is anyone, really. Danning and Dobson strike me as past their prime, and all the women have that early-MTV look: big hair and fashions that exemplify '80s bad taste.

With few exceptions, the cast is guilty of the irredeemable sin of bad cinema: they don't even try to entertain us. Not that you can blame them. Nicolas's script, written with Aaron Butler, is basically a camped-up collection of cliches thrown together with no conviction. As a director, Nicolas is equally uninspired. The climactic riot put me in mind of those women's club wartime re-enactments you would see on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Worse, the director seems to chicken out when it comes to violence. Showtime may have run an edited print, since I note different run times in different countries, because their broadcast, at least, cuts away anytime anything especially brutal is going to happen. As far as I know, however, they kept all the nudity in. But even those bits have a by-the-book quality to them. Everything about Chained Heat seems derivative. Nothing about it has the visceral quality of Sweet Sister, which is just as dumb a film in its own way. It's really the worst kind of exploitation movie; the sort in which the filmmakers feel they don't have to do anything but go through the motions once they've got you in the theater.

With such a film, it's up to the actors to save it. Of the cast, only Stella Stevens really seems to take it seriously. For all that she supposedly lusts after Henry Silva, she actually looks the butchiest of the main actresses, though that angle isn't really played up. But Stevens takes it too seriously and really just plods through her role. Silva doesn't take it seriously at all, but at least seems to be having a good time. John Vernon really seems to be having a good time in the most over-the-top role. At the very least you envy him cavorting with the girls in the jacuzzi. If anything, however, his presence undercuts the film and makes it seem like National Lampoon's Women in Prison. This doesn't happen automatically when Vernon's in a movie -- The Outlaw Josey Wales will teach you otherwise, but when a film like Chained Heat is already kinda campy, Vernon can easily exacerbate that condition.

To meet my standards, for what they're worth, an exploitation or grindhouse movie has got to go for it in a way that I felt Chained Heat did not. I saw nothing in it that I didn't think I'd seen before and done better -- and I haven't seen that many women-in-prison films. But what I saw as obnoxious campiness others might see as knowing self-parody, and Chained Heat may be funny enough in its fashion to amuse viewers of different tastes. It's not the business of a blog like this to tell anyone not to see a movie, but I will tell you that I didn't like it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

TV Diary: SKIDOO (1968)

As viewing for a Sunday night, Otto Preminger's all-star gangsters-vs.-hippies comedy Skidoo had three strikes against it. First, it would be shown cropped rather than letterboxed. Second, it was being shown as an episode of Off-Beat Cinema, the 14-year old Buffalo TV phenomenon that I see on Retro TV. That meant Skidoo would be cut for commercials as well as edited down so the three beatnik-wannabe hosts could cut their intros and include their various vignettes all within a two-hour time slot. Finally, Skidoo is probably one of the worst movies ever made.

Think about it: the worst films would have to be comedies or attempted comedies, since the worst possible moviegoing experience, one imagines, is one in which you can't even laugh. Since the worst efforts of all other genres are at least likely to make you laugh, that leaves the worst comedies as the films most likely to be the least entertaining. Other bad films may at least unintentionally amuse you, but something like Skidoo can only leave you bored to oblivion or open-mouthed in awe of its awfulness.

Otto Preminger was one of the most successful A-list directors of his time. His successes included The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of A Murder, Exodus, Advise & Consent, and In Harm's Way. Nothing in any of these films prepared audiences for a Preminger comedy. Nothing could. To sum up: Jackie Gleason is a retired gangster who gets sent to prison so he can whack a potential stool pigeon. His daughter is dating a hippie, and his cellmate in the prison (where they all wear cartoonish striped uniforms) has stationery laced with LSD. Gleason gets to act out an acid trip, and Preminger gets to visualize one: a bad idea both ways. Later, he gets the entire prison tripping so he can escape. This frees the cast of prisoners and guards apparently to improvise or simply act out. None of it counts as comedy. Gleason has done all this at the behest of "God," the head gangster incarnated by Groucho Marx.

Mr. Marx was 78 years old at the time. Even though audiences had grown familiar with Groucho's real hair and moustache from the You Bet Your Life show, Preminger decided that the great man should look like himself from the 1930s by darkening his moustache and wearing a toupee. There isn't anything automatically wrong with this idea, but the fact that Preminger didn't give Groucho anything funny to say, and Groucho's bored readings from cue cards, reduce the great comedian to a sort of animatronic Disneyland version of himself. Groucho wasn't senile yet -- he had some good talk-show appearances and a one-man show still to come at this point -- and the idea of Groucho as a Godfather type ought to have inspired some comedy. But such was Skidoo that the opportunity was hideously wasted in favor of Carol Channing singing the title song -- bad for bad -- in a British Admiralty uniform that reminded me of David Lee Roth in the Van Halen "Pretty Woman" video.

You will now hear part of the song as part of a theatrical trailer that enlisted no less a cultural authority than Dr. Timothy Leary to recommend Skidoo to young audiences. If you did not think already that Leary was a charlatan, what say you now?

Watching it on TV, Skidoo cut for length is of course even less coherent, but the cropping of the image was something it probably deserved. But since the beatniks on Off-Beat Cinema were only recylcing vignettes I'd seen from them before, they may as well have subjected their viewers to the full ordeal of Skidoo. It would give them something to boast about to their grandkids.

Eight Favorite Directors

Most moviegoers probably don't know many directors by name. For the great majority, a director's name is not a sufficient draw for a movie. They may know such names as Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Tarantino, but beyond that I have my doubts. They probably still think of Clint Eastwood more as an actor than as a director. Few, I suspect, go to the trouble of identifying a director with a film they've enjoyed. They're unlikely to follow the director of Beverly Hills Chihuahua to his next project, for instance, unless it's the sequel. That probably wouldn't be a mistake, since in contemplating a film of that kind we come against the limits of the auteur theory that has dominated film criticism for the last half-century. The theory (or doctrine) dictates that a film's director is its principal author, and that the finished product (ideally) should reflect the director's ideas and career-long thematic concerns. Common sense tells us that the theory applies more to some directors than others. Certain directors have always aspired to creative control of their work, and once they have enough power or security to pick their own projects, they can definitely be considered auteurs. Others cannot be considered that way, and need not be thought of that way by critics or ordinary audiences. If some future film is advertised as "from the director of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, fans of that film would be right not to care unless the new project had something to do with talking dogs.

I offer the above as a caveat to my own ranking of favorite directors. If you like a film, the director shouldn't necessarily get most of the credit. In the days of the Hollywood studio moguls, directors were often treated like interchangeable parts, and their work was subject to re-writes, re-edits or re-shoots beyond their control. While the "Golden Age" studio system is pretty much dead, that doesn't mean that every film you see represents a director's personal vision. But you should know a real vision when you see it. The eight I like best today had and have such visions. It's customary to round up to a top ten, but while I was thinking about this I realized that there were only eight that I felt absolutely certain about -- today, that is. I offer them in alphabetical order, and you can draw your own conclusions about my tastes from the list.

Joel & Ethan Coen (1954-present). Some of you will already draw conclusions from this first entry. The Coen Bros. are a love-them-or-hate-them proposition. Many dislike them, finding their films cold, mocking and inhumane. But I appreciate their satirical vision, and I don't have the middlebrow's need to "care" for the characters in a movie. I can recommend all their films until their weak run of films from The Man Who Wasn't There through The Ladykillers. No Country For Old Men was a comeback and a change of pace, and Burn After Reading showed them their old selves again, albeit impatient with their old material. The Coens are probably the funniest guys on my list, which says something about my sense of humor, I suppose.

Kinji Fukasaku (1930-2003).My appreciation of this Japanese genre genius dates back to my purchase of a grey-market videotape of his late-career stunner Battle Royale, a film pretty much unshowable in public in the United States due to its students-with-guns storyline. DVD allowed me to discover his classics from the 1970s, including the "Battles Without Honor or Humanity" series (aka Yakuza Papers), the World War II expose Under the Flag of the Rising Sun and the historical epic released here as Shogun's Samurai. Fukasaku has a violent visual style, filming brutal action scenes with handheld cameras, that gives his movies a gritty vitality. The "Battles" films are said to have demolished the popular myth of the honorable yakuza, and are sometimes equated with the Godfather films. Allowing for cultural and budgetary differences, that's a fair comparison.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-99). Same as with the Coens, Kubrick is accused of inhumanity and contempt for his characters, but I needn't repeat myself on that point. I admire his visual rigor, the perfection of his compositions that others find cold and forbidding. He didn't make enough movies, and Eyes Wide Shut hints that he was losing it toward the end (AI, had he done it himself, might have confirmed this), but let's be grateful for The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Lots of directors made many more films but have fewer classics to their credit. Killer's Kiss, Spartacus and Lolita have their moments, too. Barry Lyndon is still much underrated, but it rewards a patient viewing with a final duel that's one of the most nerve-wracking sequences on film just because it's done so slowly and deliberately.

Akira Kurosawa (1910-98). Some critics say that he's too "American" for a Japanese director and thus inferior to more culturally embedded makers of more mundane stories. But I won't judge Kurosawa (or Fukasaku) by a standard of Japanese-ness any more than I judge the Americans on my list by some standard of Americanism. Cinematically Kurosawa is a citizen of the world, as best proven by his Russian film, Dersu Uzala. That he didn't get to film Runaway Train in the U.S. in the '60s despite extensive preparation is a tragedy of film history. I don't apologize for preferring action epics and just plain epics from Seven Samurai through Ran to dramas of families sipping tea. Kurosawa's modern-dress thrillers, including The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low, are just as good, and Ikiru proves that he could do slice-of-life as well as anybody. He has some clunkers in his filmography (The Idiot and Dreams come to mind) but those are overshadowed by his masterpieces.

Fritz Lang (1890-1976). He made Metropolis, but his two Niebelungen films from earlier in the 1920s are even better. I'm willing to say that Lang is the best director of the silent era -- not as fancy with the camera as some, but probably the most effective cinematic storyteller without sound. He mastered sound with M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse before fleeing Germany, eventually landing in the U.S. to help invent film noir. Lang spent about 20 years here and had problems with the studio system but still managed to make strong films from Fury, in which Spencer Tracy plots vengeance on the men who tried to lynch him, through While the City Sleeps, in which sleazy journalists compete to track down a serial killer. He tried his hand at everything from westerns to war movies, but in America he did his best work chronicling the criminal impulse and its consequences.

Anthony Mann (1905-67). His reputation is steadily growing stronger as people rediscover more of his output from the 1940s through the 1960s. Mann made his name with intense films noirs ranging from the more-relevant-than-ever Border Incident, which portrays the perils of illegal immigration, to the one-of-a-kind Reign of Terror, a noir set during the French Revolution. In the '50s he became a Western specialist, leading the evolution of the genre in a more mature direction, making Jimmy Stewart a plausible antihero in films like Winchester 73, The Naked Spur and The Far Country. Then he tried his hand at full-scale epics, and his El Cid is probably the best of its kind. He may be the best director of outdoor action ever. He jumped the shark with The Fall of the Roman Empire, but that film still has much to recommend it, especially compared to Ridley Scott's overrated knockoff effort, Gladiator.

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73). John Woo cites Melville as a major influence, but don't hold that against the Frenchman. Melville's work is quite unlike Woo's hysterical exaggeration. His crime films have a stark, almost clinical quality that still lets you feel for doomed protagonists like Lino Ventura in Le Deuxieme Souffle ("Second Wind"). Stripped of the melodrama typical of many American films, Melville gives you the feeling that you're discovering a genuine underworld of real people rather than archetypes. He directs with an unpretentious clarity that enhances the suspense of his stories. He was often ignored in this country while he was alive because he wasn't really part of the "New Wave" of more intellectual, experimental French directors, but he's come back from the grave with a vengeance. His Resistance thriller Army of Shadows (1969) wasn't even released theatrically here until 2005, and then some critics said it was the best new film of the year.

Michael Powell (1905-90). In the middle of the 1940s this British visionary was most likely the best director on the planet. He combined a Romantic sensibility with an overpowering eye for art direction for a streak of films culminating in the fantastical A Matter of Life and Death, the feverishly exotic Black Narcissus and the ballet-world tragedy The Red Shoes. There was yet to come the pioneer serial-killer movie Peeping Tom, a contemporary of Psycho that caused a scandal in Britain that effectively ruined Powell's career, but is now considered a masterpiece. His are some of the most beautiful movies ever filmed. Martin Scorsese treated Powell like a guru, and in some films you can see the great American straining for effects that Powell achieved seemingly by magic.

So there are my eight directors. It's probably not the most adventurous list, lacking as it is any really transgressive, bad-good or plucked-from-obscurity choices. But it isn't meant to stake any controversial claims. It's only here to give you a clue of where I come from aesthetically and thematically when we come to the more high-end films. My standards for evaluating grindhouse product are another story entirely, and for another time.