Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Michael Mann's Public Enemies, the latest cinema version of the hunt for John Dillinger, opens this week. That makes this as good a time as any to revisit a past favorite account of the same story, John Milius's directorial debut from 1973 with the great Warren Oates as the title bandit and Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis as a Gorch-vs-Gorch showdown across the American midwest. I don't do this to set the Milius up as a standard for Mann to match. Dillinger's story is eminently available for anyone to make a movie from, and it had been done long before Milius, back in 1945 with Laurence Tierney starring. Many different takes on the Dillinger or Purvis stories are possible, but it's inevitable when I go to Public Enemies this weekend that I'll be comparing it to the 1973 film.

Dillinger is a product of its own time as much as it is of Dillinger's own. It's part of a cycle of films about country bandits of the Depression years that dates back at least as far as Bonnie and Clyde and probably can be traced all the way to the Untouchables TV show. As part of that cycle, a key ingredient of the film is extreme violence. I think it's safe to say that more characters die in this movie by a wide margin than were killed during the actual Dillinger crime wave. This is violence for its own sake, killing for the love of killing, not to mention the love of squibs and blood packs and stuntmen falling off rooftops and landing on cars. There's a gratuitous visual focus on the moments of impact that probably won't be seen in Public Enemies, but some of the set piece battles staged by Milius could well look like a challenge to the director of Heat.

Violence: A woman run down by Dillinger's getaway car.

Dillinger steps over the corpse of accomplice Reed Youngblood
(Milius stock player Frank McRae)

There Must Be Blood: From the Little Bohemia raid.

Michelle Phillips as Billie Frechette stands by her man.

"Things ain't been going right for me today." Harry Dean Stanton goes up in a puff of gunpowder.

The country bandit films have a kind of master premise that crime was the only way some poor people were ever going to realize their particular American dreams. Dillinger embraces that idea, with emphasis on fame as the real goal for both Dillinger and his publicity-hungry pursuer. As one wannabe gang member says, "I'm already a murderer, so I might as well be famous." In one scene, Dillinger forces bar patrons to cough up their money, only to throw it all down on the floor once he's satisfied that they know who he is ("Look at my face, you sons of bitches!"). In his opening scene, he makes the fame-matters-more-than-money argument to a bank teller at gunpoint.

These few dollars you lose here today, they'll buy you stories to tell your children and your great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments of your life. Don't make it your last.

For Dillinger, fame is to be enjoyed while alive. When one of his partners is killed, he buries him in an unmarked grave with a twenty-dollar bill in place of a cross. He calls his pal a "well-known man" and compares him with the legendary outlaws of the Wild West, but he buries the man anonymously in order to save the corpse from exploitation by people who might dig it up and put it on exhibit. Fame is double-edged, however. Hiding out in Arizona under an assumed name, he finds that people tell him, "You look like John Dillinger." Photographs and newsreels make his face perhaps even more famous than his name. During a prison break, he accosts a mechanic who gapes at the sight of him. "I've seen your picture in the newspapers!" the mechanic exclaims, "You're him!"

Fame matters to the lawmen, too. The officer who first captures Dillinger makes sure to identify himself as Big Jim Willard, the killer of 35 men. Purvis is desperate to be recognized as a hero and envious of his boss J. Edgar Hoover stealing the spotlight. He's offended that children would rather play crook than G-Man and see no point in going to school since Dillinger didn't. But Purvis earns a good name at least among his enemies. When he takes down Pretty Boy Floyd, for instance, Floyd says, "You must be Purvis...I'm glad it was you." On both sides, it seems, a concern for reputation extends to having worthy opponents. Purvis himself says of Dillinger, "I've grown rather fond of him myself in a strange sort of way." Historically, Purvis never got the degree of fame he considered his due; the movie reminds us that he committed suicide in 1961 (Wikipedia says 1960) after breaking with Hoover and failing as a private detective.

Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis exults in press coverage of his single-handed destruction of Wilbur Underhill, the Tri-State Terror.

To an extent, however, Milius loses track of the fame theme as the violence escalates, climaxing in his exaggerated version of the Little Bohemia raid. The film sort of sputters to a stop after that, as Cloris Leachman appears for little more than a one-scene cameo to set up the ambush outside the Biograph theater. While Milius has been exaggerating if not falsifying events throughout the picture up to this point, he fails to dramatize Dillinger's last days in any way. The statement that Dillinger likes to go to the movies is maybe meant to remind us that the man is sort of starstruck, but this is told of him rather than expressed by him. It seems like there should have been a final scene to give Oates a chance to sum up his and Milius's interpretation of the doomed criminal, but it either didn't happen or it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson picks on someone his own size.

A perfunctory finish and a bit of overindulgence in montages that mix black-and-white stills of the cast with newsreel and old movie footage are flaws, but overall Milius's Dillinger is a dynamic action film that is also a kind of American idyll in Fordian scenes that reunite Dillinger with his family and show a camaraderie among criminals that extends (perhaps improbably) across racial lines. The exception to this spirit is Richard Dreyfuss's surly hothead, Baby Face Nelson, a big man when threatening nuns but easily put in his place with a good bitch-slapping at the hands of Oates, one of cinema's master bitch-slappers in perhaps all senses of the term.

Billie Frechette once dared say that John Dillinger looked like Douglas Fairbanks (senior, presumably). The bandit was not flattered.

A glory of Seventies cinema is the fact that such a man as Oates could become a top-billed star of such mighty works as this one, Cockfighter, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. There's an uncanny quality to the man that I can't quite call charisma. It's more like a sense that here is a man, perhaps the last real man or the last of a certain kind that was once more common hereabouts. It comes through even when he plays a cocky narcissist like Dillinger. It's a telling difference between then and now that Johnny Depp is the Dillinger of our time -- no offense intended to Depp, but you see what I mean. It's the same difference between Ben Johnson and Christian Bale, again with no offense to Bale, who I believe is actually closer to Purvis's real age at the time of the story. I look forward to Public Enemies and expect good things from it, but these are differences that mean something, if not to the particular film than to the movie industry as a whole.

This guard's skeptical declaration, "That ain't real!" when confronted with Dillinger's soap gun has long been my private mantra whenever I see an unconvincing special effect in a movie.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, it seemed like the past was just around the corner. I could go into used book stores and antique stores and buy old issues of Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, etc., for pittances by today's standards. There were parts of town that seemed to have hardly changed from twenty, thirty, forty years earlier. When I look at the location work in Milius's Dillinger and the open country roads I feel like I'm transported not directly to 1934 but to my own childhood, when it seemed that I could reach the Thirties on foot if I only knew the right route. If this be nostalgia, make the most of it. I don't expect the same sensation from Public Enemies, but if it achieves that on top of what I do expect, it'd be icing on a cake.

Here's the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by tvsdavid316

And as a bonus, old time newsreel footage of the real man in life and death, narrated by Lowell Thomas, who calls our culprit "Dilling-grr." It was uploaded by mrpitv

Monday, June 29, 2009

This Way to The Land of Whatever

As promised, Hobbyfan, who reviewed Anvil for us yesterday, has launched his own blog, The Land of Whatever. It's going to cover a lot more territory than I do within the wide realm of pop culture. If you're interested in professional wrestling (mark or smart), for instance, check out Hobby's tirade against Vince McMahon's need to be the star of his show at an advanced age. You can expect to see Hobby opine on television as well as movies, and on more subjects beside those as the mood strikes him. He'll never let good taste get in the way of making a point, so prepare to be amused, confused or abused, depending on your mood and his. This may be the start of something good.


Japan's World War II movies are equivalent to America's Vietnam movies. Military defeat provokes a lot of soul-searching and self-recrimination, and probably some defensive rationalization or justification as well. Not surprisingly, the rest of the world sees the movies in which Japanese writers and directors say that the war sucked. Kon Ichikawa's film, based on a controversial novel by Shohei Ooka and adapted by Ichikawa's wife, says that the war really sucked toward the end, and does an effective job illustrating that point.

Early in 1945, the Japanese still occupied parts of the Philippines, but their situation was deteriorating fast. Rations and other resources were dwindling away. This is bad news for PFC Tamura. Though diagnosed with tuberculosis, he's been booted from a military hospital because he can still walk and able-bodied grunts shouldn't be using up the hospital's scanty provisions. This doesn't seem to bug Tamura much until he reaches his unit. They don't want him either, mainly because he's an extra mouth to feed. Back to the hospital he goes, but they still don't want him. He's stuck hanging around outside with other rejects, including the team of Yasuda and his apparent flunky Nagamatsu. These guys are down to their last yams, but Tamura has some extra goodies he took from a Filipino farmer on his way over. When the Americans start shelling the area, the officers get away, Tamura and some of the rejects manage to get away (though he loses track of Yasuda and Nagamatsu) and most of the sickest people get blown to hell.

Eiji Funakoshi as PFC Tamura in Fires on the Plain.

Tamura is on his own for an odyssey that takes him through abandoned villages for various adventures. In a great shock moment, he's attacked from behind by a feral dog as the camera follows him through a village. He has to kill the beast with a bayonet, and while Ichikawa isn't going to give you a real money shot of impaled dog, scenes of monochromatic blood spattering the ground and Tamura's face put the point across quite well.

As he trudges on toward a rendezvous point, Tamura starts to lose his bearings. In a coastal village he encounters a young couple who've returned to recover some hoarded salt. When the girl screams in panic, he lowers his weapon to assure them of his peaceful intentions. In the next moment, on an inexplicable impulse he shoots her in the chest. The man runs away, leaving Tamura to grab the salt, which will serve him well later when he runs into three stray soldiers commanded by a would-be badass who tries to tell him that this is all nothing compared to New Guinea, where they had to resort to cannibalism. He has to be kidding, right?

On the road, Tamura catches up with Yasuda and Nagamatsu. Yasuda's still suffering from an injured, swollen leg, so he has Nagamatsu hawk tobacco leaves to passing officers. Yasuda keeps these leaves wrapped around his chest for security and, perhaps, added pungency. When Nagamatsu presents his wares to an officer, the superior slaps him in the face and tells him to stop malingering. Yasuda chides his sidekick: get the money before you show them the leaf next time!

To reach their rendezvous point, the Japanese have to cross a road and stream under heavy enemy fire. Many don't make it, and Tamura finds himself pretty much on his own again, wandering through a hellscape of corpses and wreckage. Along the way there's a brilliant sequence involving boots on a muddy road. There sits a reasonably intact pair of boots that someone's abandoned. A soldier finds them and shucks off his ragged pair to walk off with them. Another soldier decides that that pair can replace his practically sole-less boots, which he leaves behind in the same spot. Finally Tamura comes along, sees little to choose from between those and his, and decides to go on barefoot through the mud.

Eventually Tamura finds Nagamatsu again. It's vice versa, actually, as Nagamatsu finds him collapsed in the wide open. He tries to revive Tamura with a piece of meat he fishes from his bag, but Tamura's gums have rotted to the point where he can't chew properly. He has to spit it up, and Nagamatsu puts it back in the bag. What was that stuff, anyway? Monkey meat, Nagamatsu explains.

"Monkey meat." Uh-oh. Kinji Fukasaku's Under the Flag of the Rising Sun taught me what "monkey meat" means, and it ain't monkey. Worse, Nagamatsu hunts "monkeys" to keep himself and Yasuda in an approximation of health. But he and his pal aren't getting along the way they used to. In fact, Nagamatsu is convinced that Yasuda, crippled leg and all, is out to kill him and eat him. Taking Tamura in his confidence, he makes plans to win that battle when it comes. When it does, Nagamatsu marks his triumph in a hair-raising scene that again shows what Ichikawa can do with suggestion. You don't need to see the man tuck into Yasuda Italian-style, but a splash of blood on the ground and the blood-spattered, blood-drooling visage of the crazed soldier tells us and Tamura all we need to know, and probably a little more. The only questions left are whether Tamura can avoid becoming monkey meat himself and whether he has any chance of reaching civilization of any kind again....

Mickey Curtis as Nagamatsu deserves mention alongside the many notable cinema psychos and terrors who strode across movie screens in the 1959-60 period.

Making Nobi in black and white allows Ichikawa and his cinematographers to make a film that's beautiful in its barbarism. Like many Japanese directors, Ichikawa took to widescreen like a duck to water, and the film is spectacular to look at if you can stand the horrors-of-war imagery. Eiji Funakoshi (whom some may recognize from the first Gamera movie) effectively conveys Tamura's blasted consciousness beneath a facade of mannered stoicism, but is often a straight man for the more extreme ravings of Mickey Curtis (don't let the name fool you, though he speaks fluent English in an interview for the Criterion Collection) as Nagamatsu and Osamu Takizawa as Yasuda. Curtis is especially freakish as a character who evolves from a sort of flunky of Yasuda's to a full-throttle psychopath. This may be a black-and-white war movie, but it has many of the qualities of horror or more extreme cinema, and all rendered with a clear artistic touch. I don't know if I can say that American Vietnam cinema ever touched the depths the way this film does, but the Japanese in WW2 had it worse than our boys did in 'Nam. In any event, anyone who digs 'Nam movies in particular (and war movies in general) will find a lot to admire here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On the Big Screen: ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008-9)

Mondo 70 presents its first-ever guest review, the occasion being the local release of a highly-acclaimed documentary about a band that could be and probably has been called a "real-life Spinal Tap," right down to the uncanny coincidence of its drummer being named Robb Reiner. The reviewer is "Hobbyfan," who will be recognized for posting occasional comments on this blog. He's one of my correspondents with whom I have regular real-world contact, and I've been encouraging him to start his own blog. This he has agreed to do, so look out for the debut of "The Land of Whatever" in the immediate future. For now, here's his take on Anvil. We saw it together at the Spectrum theater in Albany in the second week of its run, with an audience of less than ten people total.

photo by Brent J. Craig.

They say that in show business, you've got to have a gimmick. In the 80's, it wasn't enough to call yourself a heavy metal band. You had to have some sort of gimmick to stand out from the rest. That's why you saw the emergence of "hair bands" like Bon Jovi (who've since lost the long hair and are more of a pop-rock combo), and "glam bands" like Motley Crue & Twisted Sister.Anvil didn't fit into either of those categories. They were a group of average guys from Canada trying to make it big. The closest they had to a gimmick was lead singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow wearing a bondage collar and using a dildo on his guitar. Kudlow and drummer/co-founder Robb Reiner had been friends since they were teens, and despite the arguments and disputes that come with the territory, they stuck it out, never giving up the dream.

"Anvil: The Story of Anvil" opens with the band sharing a bill at a 1984 concert with the Scorpions, Whitesnake (who'd actually break through 3 years later), and Bon Jovi, who were just starting out and had released their debut album. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich may have actually hit the nail on the head when he suggested that maybe what held Anvil back was the fact they were from Canada. The Great White North had given us in the 80's acts as diverse as Triumph, Bryan Adams, April Wine, and the McKenzie Brothers. Triumph was the closest thing to a metal band that Canada had to offer, though Anvil kept pounding on the door. What hurt Anvil more was a glaring lack of faith from the independent labels that signed them, and poor management. Yet still they soldiered on.

Anvil's story, really, is no different than the dozens, nay, hundreds of bands of every genre trying to make it in the business every day, every year. All the hard work that goes into cutting demos, rehearsing, booking gigs, etc., has to have a payoff somewhere. It's the fact that Anvil had been on the doorstep of fame 25 years ago, then disappeared practically overnight, that makes this story, coupled with Kudlow's unwavering vision. It speaks to the blue collar, aspiring musicians who've endured the same hardships, though perhaps not as extreme as Anvil's, in their quests to make the big time. Rating: A.
Hobbyfan adds: "I happen to think that the target audience in our market (mostly aspiring musicians), if they haven't seen it, will wait for the DVD. That's where this film will make most of its money."

For my part, the movie reminded me a lot of The Wrestler, though that may just have been because of all the hair. I think Hobbyfan has the right perspective on the band's predicament. I watched the film wondering what was exceptional about them that they didn't make it when their apparent peers did. I was looking for a "why" that the film never really decides upon. But Hobby reminds us that Anvil really belongs to the great majority that never make it, though they came closer than many. The band and by extension director Sacha Gervasi blame their failure (to date) on poor management and poor production, but that really begs as many questions as it answers. My own view is that, from what I heard of the songs, Kudlow is just a crap lyricist, but whether he's really much worse than more successful writers I can't say. In any event, I don't judge the movie by the case it made, but by the picture it presents, and Anvil is an often hilariously tragicomic portrait of perseverance in pursuit of fame. The band's travels in Europe, Asia and Canada give the film some of the flavor of an old-school mondo movie, and it raises some of the same questions about whether dramatic scenes were really spontaneous or whether events were manipulated by knowledge of the documentary being made. Those questions don't stop the film from being very entertaining, whether you come out liking Anvil or not.

Here's a British trailer, uploaded by WorksUK

Saturday, June 27, 2009

In Brief: TAKEN (2009)

There's a women-in-captivity movie feebly struggling to exist in the middle of Pierre Morel's surprise hit, but neither he nor mastermind Luc Besson have the guts to take their movie in that direction. The PG-13 rating constrains them, and constraint is the main characteristic of this surprisingly lame effort. What did people see in the advertising that lured them to the theaters? I wonder whether it wasn't the other side of the "torture porn" equation, the invitation to identify with the torturer in a fantasy of unrestrained righteousness, Jack Bauer style, as opposed to the dare to empathize with victims the horror films throw down. There was clearly an appetite to see a wrathful paternal figure run amok, but amok proves to be an over-generous estimate of Liam Neeson's intensity in this slumming exercise. He's clearly the wrong man for the role, but the character of Bryan Mills is arguably hopeless: a self-pitying shlub with class-envy issues and daddy anxieties focused on a teenage daughter. It's as if Al Bundy proved to be a sleeper-agent hitman and someone had kidnapped Kelly.

A friend I watched this with said it reminded him of Commando in some ways, but it lacks that film's enthusiasm. The foolish movie thinks it's an A picture rather than the exploitation rampage it needed to be. It lacked the courage to implicate itself in the exploitation it portrayed on screen. A true exploitation film would have dared to eroticize the predicament of Neeson's daughter and relied on your own guilty conscience of enjoyment to enhance the horror of her plight. It would also have allowed Neeson to show more enthusiasm, panache or just plain rage in his action scenes. Instead, the transition from shlub to cool ruthless customer is so instantaneous that it loses any credibility. Neeson has no time for genuine anxiety, fear or even indignation. The part needed someone more self-combustible. I naturally think of Mel Gibson because of Ransom, but it seems that plenty of people could have done it better than Neeson. His performance only makes sense if you think of the entire film as a vindication of the wise father and an affirmation of his paternal authority. The father-knows-best theme is cemented when the daughter is marked for doom almost literally from the moment she steps off the plane in Paris. Neeson is only ever performing his fatherly duty, but there's no emotional reward for him except for showing off his connection to a pop star that had already been established before the film's plot actually got started -- at a painfully late point in a relatively short feature. But here's some instant exploitation brainstorming that could have improved the film. Wouldn't it have made Dad even cooler in his daughter's eyes and definitively one-upped ex-wife Famke Janssen if our hero actually ended up with the pop star at the end of picture? Taken is littered with many such unexploited opportunities, and I kick myself for thinking that it's popularity and Neeson's presence meant that it had anything going for it. It didn't.

I give it credit for not getting too neat and tying the daughter's kidnapping to Neeson's secret past, but that meant that the white-slaver villains needed to be more colorful, more evil, more something than they are. But the film works on the assumption that the mere thought of white slavery, along with occasional glimpses of drug-addled victims flopping about, is enough to keep us interested in the bad guys' destruction. It isn't. This project is fatally halfhearted about nearly every aspect of its story, and Neeson isn't even that committed to his work. All I can say in my defense is that at least I waited until I could rent the thing from the library. It cost me no money, at least. If somebody liked it, fine. I'd even be curious to learn why, but I don't expect to be won over. Feel free to try just the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


There are certain places in the wild world of cinema where you find yourself looking into an abyss, where exploitation cinema seems to become more than a marketing concept and life looks as cheap as a movie's budget might be. It's a quality that Cannibal Holocaust captures and satirizes perfectly in its portrait of filmmakers dedicated to capturing barbarism on screen who actually perpetuate it. A lot of films made in the late 1970s and into the 1980s had this quality of barely repressed atrocity, or aspired to it, from Apocalypse Now at the summit to a bunch of post-apocalypse knockoffs, mercenary movies, and women-in-captivity flicks from around the world. You know that morbid quality when you see it; it might make you feel dirty watching such a film, or you might walk away thinking you've seen a glimpse of the end of the world, or of civilization.

Cirio H. Santiago worked in that vein fairly often in his long career, which ended with his death last year. The results were hit or miss, but many of his films that I've seen have that flavor of a director simply finding someplace in a state of social or moral collapse and setting up his camera. Women of Hell's Island, for instance (also known as Hell Hole or Escape From Women's Hell Hole), is consistently sleazy and brutal, though not as intensely so in either case as some might want. To an extent the effect is undercut by some really bad dialogue and other inanities, but these can also be seen as typical of a band of barbarians trying to make a movie like civilized people. I don't mean that as a reflection on the Philippines, though it might be a fair hit on that country's exploitation film industry. You could say the same thing about Italians, Japanese, and others, -- including the enterprising Americans who often allied with Santiago.

Women of Hell's Island follows a pretty simple formula: take a bunch of pretty women, kidnap them, and put them together in a fate-worse-than-death captivity scenario. After a pre-credits opening showing a failed escape attempt, we're introduced to several women -- a stripper, a jogger, a British journalist's girlfriend -- who are promptly kidnapped. They are all taken to an island compound operated by "The Lady," who runs a network of mercenaries and assassins. "There seems to be more call for mercenaries these days," she notes happily. The kidnap victims are going to be sex slaves for the mercs. The Lady's assistant questions the practice. "Kidnapping women isn't exactly the same as buying a steak," he explains, "Beautiful women don't just disappear. People look for them." Well, we'll see about that.

The sex-slaves are put under the command of a redneck American warden whom we only ever know as "Warden." His attitude toward his charges is summarized in his appraisal of the new captives: "Not bad for a bunch of sluts!" He doesn't take any crap from them. When one fails to respond promptly to her number at a roll call, he guns her down in cold blood.

The newbies meet some veteran prisoners, including the standard-issue tough black chick, Maggie (Ingrid Greer) who sneers at the idea of tunnelling out of their vast cavern dungeon. They quickly learn the routine. They are to be showered, drugged up with a powerful aphrodisiac, and as one veteran puts it, "from then on it's a matter of survival, every girl for herself." This is illustrated in a nasty montage of several women servicing various killers in erotic slow motion while Nonang Buencamino's music goes all trippy. Santiago is daring you to be appalled and aroused at the same time. You wonder whether the target audience would actually feel appalled.

Then it's explained that the aphrodisiac has nasty side effects. Constant dosage eventually fries the girls' minds. This is illustrated by one woman going berserk after sex and throwing herself out a window. Later, another traumatized prisoner throws herself onto an electronic fence rather than go through another round of manhandling. "Shut up and give us a hand with this dumb bitch," Warden tells his minions afterward. While they deal with the corpse, some of the women exploit their preoccupation to climb out of their outdoor pit and run for it. Land mines and other booby traps take out most of them, with one surviving to be thrown into The Hole.

The prisoners are split between the tunnelers and Maggie's faction, which wants to get weapons and bust out in force. She gets her chance, but ends up outgunned by the guards. She survives to be flogged by Warden. Santiago shoots this scene from multiple angles so he can cut rhythmically with every crack of the whip. It's an odd note of artistry in such a film.

Warden has a lot of pent-up energy left over from the whipping ("Hell, I didn't hurt that broad that bad, anyway"), so he decides to partake from the prisoners himself. This goes badly, and here's a lesson if you're ever in charge of a sex-slave compound. It may be advisable to keep a knife at hand when you want to rape a prisoner, but you shouldn't leave it someplace where the woman can reach it before you can. Don't end up like Warden. The extent of his injury is left vague, but we get a shot from the rear (which I've spared you) of blood apparently streaming from his crotch. Later, he suffers taunting from the compound doctor, to which he ripostes cleverly, "fuck you!" The doctor's comeback: "You couldn't even if you really wanted." But it can't have been that bad, because he's up and about and just as mean by the time we're ready for the finale.

Maggie's failure and her punishment has brought her around to the tunnel approach. But when the prisoners break through, they end up having the best of both worlds. After somehow managing to take out some guards more or less bare-handed, they have guns to blast a path to the airstrip with. Much payback ensues. It all makes me wonder whether The Lady was wasting her resources. Given the way the women show instant competence with machine guns and automatic weapons, the way they rout the mercenaries, and the way one of them can fly the rest to freedom, I'm thinking that it might have made more sense to kidnap beautiful women and just train them to be mercs and assassins. But wouldn't they want sexual satisfaction, also? Well, that would be another story, and maybe we'd need Jess Franco to tell that one....

Women of Hell's Island provides the occasional depraved thrill, but it's pretty flawed. It includes an ultimately pointless sequence in which Madden, the British journalist whose girlfriend Cindy was kidnapped, goes to the U.S. embassy to complain about the local government's failure to investigate the case. This leads you to think that Madden is going to take some action to rescue Cindy, and the scene drops a hint either that the Americans are going to attack the island themselves or that they're complicit in the activities there. But none of this is followed up on, and we never see Madden again. Aesthetically, it just didn't look right to have a gang of sex slaves wearing what look to be standard gym-class uniforms down to the sneakers -- sans bras, of course. The ladies jiggle well enough in these outfits, but the circumstances seemed to demand something less perky looking -- depending on your meaning of perky. On the other hand, I thought it was a clever touch that the only catfight in this women-in-prison movie is a hoax staged by the women to divert Warden's attention from the tunnel. That's in keeping with the paradoxical female-empowerment theme of many such films, though the charm (if you can call it that) of the genre is its ability to have it both ways, combining empowerment and abject subjugation in an attempt to please everyone but the fastidious. This movie never rises or sinks to real extremes, but people looking for a little flesh and a little blood and a few explosions should find this a diverting hour and a half -- approximately.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More (and Better?) Academy Award Nominees!

Ten pictures released in 2009 will vie for the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture of the year according to a ukaze from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The decision consciously hearkens back to the Golden Age, when ten finalists was the rule for a while. In a year like 1939, of course, you could have ten nominees and still complain that some deserving films were left out. In some recent years, however, whether you could field ten credible nominees was subject to debate.

There are two reasons to make this change. One is to allow studios to promote more films as Academy Award Nominees, whether while still in release or for DVD purposes. The more likely reason, I think, is to boost the ratings of the Oscar telecast by giving more people a rooting interest in the result. The most likely result, I imagine, is the inclusion of more pop films of the kind that get excluded by the annual December rush for prestige. That's more likely than more independent films making the cut. This could be good or bad. A year ago, it might have meant The Dark Knight getting the nomination I thought it deserved. This year, ...what? If the list becomes less "elitist" than it supposedly is already, I tremble at the prospect.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


They say that imitation is a form of flattery, but I doubt whether Giuliano Carnimeo or Gianni Garko felt especially gratified by the proliferation of cheap movies using the name of Sartana, the character that Garko more or less created and Carnimeo developed into a spaghetti western institution. But such were Italian copyright laws, it seems, that there was nothing to be done about the exploitation of that good name. I guess you couldn't copyright a proper name in Italy; hence all the Djangos, Ringos, Trinities and so forth. Come to think of it, that may explain the weird elaborate titles attached to so many Italian genre films, horrors and giallos especially; they're less easy to copy.

But how quickly should we blame producer Enzo Boetani for the preposterous rip-off that Sartana nella valle degli avvolti proves to be? I don't know enough about the production or distribution history of the film. Looking at it, you could imagine that Boetani and writer-director Roberto Mauri had no intention of making a Sartana movie. Their idea seemed to be to put William Berger into a decent suit of clothes and try him out as a hero rather than a villain of the sort he portrayed in the first "true" Sartana film, If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death. It's Boetani's first film as a producer and the first and only for the production company, Victor Produzione. In some countries, it wasn't released as a Sartana movie. In Germany, from whence the DVD used by VideoAsia for their Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 2 set derives, the title is simply Der Gefuerchtete. In the U.S., it was both a Sartana and the more generic Ballad of Death Valley. But in France, Spain and Italy itself, it was clearly offered to the public as the latest adventure of Sartana.

What a crock! Berger bears no resemblance to either the early stubbly Sartana nor the later Garko model with the clean chin and blond moustache. He sports a more-or-less clean shaven face and a mop of blond hair, and his costume bears no great resemblance to the genuine Sartana wardrobe. But if you believed that Sartana was the only reasonably well-dressed gunfighter in the Old West, I suppose Berger might pass muster. You might even believe that Sartana is in some form of deep cover for the duration of the picture, since he is never -- in this English dub, at least, -- ever called Sartana by anyone at anytime.

Instead, everyone in Valley of Death is determined to call Berger by the name Lee Calloway, under which he has a $10,000 price on his head for bank robbery. We first meet him in a mirror, as a bounty killer walks into a tavern where he's playing cards. This Calloway promptly guns down his hunter ("He wanted gold but ended up with lead.") then visits an erstwhile partner who's been holding his money from a recent job. The partner has decided to keep the money and collect the bounty on Calloway. Instead, he dies. Fleeing, Calloway finds himself and his horse surrounded by a posse. Time for some very fancy gunplay or an all-out massacre, you suppose. What actually happens is hard to explain. Mauri shows Calloway firing low, as if, as I first suspected, at the posse's horses. Then there's an explosion of some kind at street level, breaking up one wall of horsemen so Calloway can ride out of town. There's nothing in the movie to set up that there was something he could blow up with a bullet. Maybe it's just a very powerful gun, though he never uses such heavy ordinance afterward.

So he gets out of town and the posse follows, but he's faster, except for two guys who ride up to him and explain that they are not part of the posse, but have a proposition for our hero. We next see Calloway breaking the three Gregg brothers out of jail. They stole a gold shipment, and Calloway's idea is that they should pay him half their plunder for freeing them. Their idea of gratitude is to immediately begin plotting to kill him. First they have to make a few stops, including a visit to a man who makes those music boxes with the little dancing girls on them, the sort they sell for a princely three dollars at the local saloon. The idea here seems to be that the tinkle of a music box (or a pocket watch) is an essential part of the spaghetti western soundscape. Anyway, the man seems to have ripped the brothers off, so they assume, so they kill him and decide to do away with Calloway, too. Any last notion you might have had that this Calloway is Sartana should be dashed by the ease with which the Greggs (Jason, the leader, Coughy, who coughs a lot, and Willy) beat and tie up our protagonist before leaving him to be blown up by a stick of dynamite. They forgot that the music-box guy had a daughter who comes home just in time to save Calloway and mourn her dad.

Calloway catches up with the Greggs and has it out inconclusively with them. He disarms them, but Jason and Coughy get away while Willy is killed in a melee. They have no weapons, but Calloway has lost his horse. They know he won't kill them until he finds the gold, so they decide to have some sport with him, leading him on a trek through the titular deadly valley and letting him sweat while they keep at a safe distanct to taunt him from.

"You silly Calloway person! Your father was Sartana and your mother was a herring! You make excellent target practice for our taunting, boy cow!"

Our hero barely makes it through the desert, and has only enough strength to fire his weapon to catch the attention of a passing stagecoach. As the Greggs watch, the coach's female passenger picks up the poor man, conveying him to her hacienda. The Greggs hang around outside rather pointlessly (Coughy recognizes this, but Jason wants to avenge Willy) while gets a good invigorating bath of soapy water, followed by just as invigorating a flesh bath courtesy of his hostess. In a profound case of second thoughts the morning after, she tells her ranch hands that this is Lee Calloway the wanted criminal and urges them to catch him. But mere lassos can't hold the mighty Calloway. He shoots down the ranch hands, silently judges the lady for a moment, and moves on.

He finally catches up with the Greggs, who finally got tired of waiting on him and went to claim their gold. The finale piles lameness upon lameness. Don't expect a big showdown between Calloway and Jason Gregg, because Mauri thinks it'd be more interesting if he suspensefully crosscut between the gun battle and a scorpion crawling around. He throws in a few shots of music box dancers, too, which Calloway has brought to the show for no good reason. The payoff: Jason is dispatched not by our ersatz Sartana, but by the scorpion. The sting kills him in about two minutes, which I'm given to understand is record time. Maybe someone should make movies about the scorpion. And then the U.S. Cavalry arrives. Do they want their gold back? Hell, no! Turns out there was an important strategic document mixed in with all the gold. That's all they wanted Calloway to fetch for them. The gold? He can keep it!

At best, Valley of Death is an idiot cousin to the genuine Sartana series. Berger tries to project some of the attitude, mostly with a persistent smirk, but the script undercuts the mystique by requiring Calloway to get his ass kicked by the bandits and endure near-death in the desert. Part of Sartana's appeal is based on his mostly-unflappable mastery of all situations. Comparing him to James Bond makes sense in that respect. Calloway, by comparison, is set up as a master criminal, only to be made a hapless victim for the middle part of the story before being outrageously rewarded at the end. It's as if the first reel or so was from a different movie. The actual story of the film is pretty flimsy, as you may have noticed. In its present form, it's only 78 minutes long, but manages to seem both choppy and padded.

Nevertheless, it is occasionally picturesque thanks to some decent outdoor cinematography by Sandro Marconi, who did similar work for If You Meet Sartana. Also, good film music wasn't hard to come by in Italy, no matter how cheap your movie was. Augusto Martelli gives this show a decent score and a theme song, "King for a Day," that is actually picturized, as the Indians say, within the film by the comely Betsy Bell, who must endure some foot fondling by Coughy for her trouble.

Given VideoAsia's reputation, I'm surprised they didn't take a completely unrelated film and call it a Sartana movie to fill out their set. But this item looks like it comes from the German set that provided source material for several other Sartanas in the VideoAsia collection. Like those, this one has German titles at the beginning, and while they run, the characters on screen speak in German. The film is letterboxed, but it doesn't look like the 2.35:1 claimed at IMDB. The picture quality is good, but it does look like some of the image is cropped on the sides, though not defacingly so. Overall, it's okay to look at, if not to watch. If there are William Berger fans out there, they ought to like it. Otherwise, it's for spaghetti-obsessives only. You might as well look at it if you get the Sartana set, but it wouldn't be worth getting in its own right, I'm sad to say.

In lieu of a trailer, here's SpoonMHD's upload of the Italian opening credits, including the first version of "King for a Day."

Sunday, June 21, 2009


The last time I tried to watch Michelangelo Antonioni's American debut was about twenty years ago, when I rented a VHS from the always-abundant Albany Public Library. My interest was prurient. I had heard that there was a large-scale orgy scene in the middle of the film. Watching the tape, I was impatient for the orgy to appear. It ended up disappointing me; it wasn't as pornographic as I'd hoped. The orgy done, I hit the stop button and rewound the tape.

Zabriskie Point was also known to me for being a great flop when it came out, another manifestation of Hollywood's desperation over reaching the new youth audience. The beginning of the Seventies was a time when the studios seemed ready to throw money at anyone from Antonioni to Russ Meyer, and the money often ended up going right out the window. My younger self had heard of Antonioni, and had even tried to watch L'Avventura some time earlier, without really appreciating it, though I had better luck with Blow-Up. Since then, and quite more recently, I was lucky enough to see The Passenger on a big screen. So when I heard that Zabriskie was coming out on DVD, I decided to give it another chance, as a real movie this time, and the Library dependably acquired the disc this month.

The one detail I remembered well apart from the orgy was the opening student radical rap session. I'm something of an historian, so this bit interested me even back then. I think people make a mistake when they look for something substantive or meaningful in plot terms in all the talk. It's really meant, I think, to create an atmosphere, a feeling for the moment in history. This seems to be Antonioni's approach throughout. Zabriskie Point is an immersion in the sights and sounds of American circa 1970, and this type of protest conclave was part of the collective mindscape. There are moments of amusement for the attentive (Black radical: "White radicalism is a mixture of bullshit and jive.") but it's not meant to inform or enlighten you. Agitprop it ain't. What ends up being relevant is our protagonist Mark's dissatisfaction with all the deliberation. "I'm willing to die, too," he tells the group, "[but] not of boredom." A friend explains that "Meetings aren't his trip," but another radical remarks: "That bourgeois--bourgeoisie individualism that he's endorsing is gonna get him killed." Because of what follows, we might be tempted to take this as the story's moral in advance, but I don't think Antonioni and his team of writers are really that interested in morals or politics. When someone closes the scene by saying, "denounce bourgeois individualism," it's more of a punch line than an editorial statement.

Mark is simply impatient. "The chick at the meeting said people only move when they need to," he tells his pal, "Well, I need to sooner than that." He stocks up on guns, making things easier for himself by telling the gun-store owner that he lives in a "borderline" neighborhood and "we just have to protect our women." Peaceful demonstrations just get his friends put in jail, and he ends up doing a little time himself when he tries to bail his pal out. A dumb cop asks for his name. He gives, "Karl Marx." "How do you spell it?" the cop asks.

Looking for action, he finds the cops about to storm a campus Liberal Arts building occupied by black radicals. When the pigs blow away one of the men, thinking he was going to pull a gun on them, Mark decides to pull his gun on the pigs. But before he can draw or fire his weapon, he hears a shot and sees a cop go down. "I wanted to, but someone else was there," he later explains. Assuming that he'll be a suspect, he steals an airplane with ridiculous ease and flies it into the desert. On his way, he playfully buzzes a car driven by Daria, who's driving through en route to her boss's lair in Arizona. This is meeting cute on a gigantic scale, and Antonioni doesn't fake a thing. That's Mark Frechette in the plane, and there aren't any soundstage pick-up shots in this near-parody of North by Northwest.

Daria is an alienated young woman who works for a vaguely alienated, vaguely unscrupulous boss played with vague authenticity by Rod Taylor. Earlier in her trek, she was menaced by a pack of feral kids who play amid overturned cars and broken pianos and say such cute things as, "Can we have a piece of ass?" After that, being harassed by an airplane might have seemed somewhat less menacing. After Mark lands, they make friends and then make love after some typical hippie babble. Daria smokes, but Mark doesn't. "This group I was in had rules about smoking," he relates, They were on some reality trip." "What a drag," Daria commiserates.

Daria Halprin has a healthy appetite for life in Zabriskie Point. Spin that dress, girl!

She suggests that "It'd be nice if they could plant thoughts in our heads, so nobody would have bad memories." Mark is before long planting something else in her, but this seems to plant thoughts as well. This is the famous orgy in the desert, which is really Daria's erotic delusion of polymorphous perversity (is she imagining she and Mark multiplying their own bodies?) and universal love covering the world in twos, threes and fours.

Mark approaches things more prosaically.

Mark: I always knew it would be like this.
Daria: Huh?
Mark: The desert.

Despite knowing himself innocent, Mark seems to be having final thoughts. After nearly killing a cop who passes through, he dumps his ammo on the sand and decides to return the plane he "borrowed" after applying a semi-psychedelic, semi-sophomoric paint job to it. Quite abruptly we're left without our hero, or this film's equivalent of one, with twenty minutes to go.

So Daria carries on with her trip and arrives at Taylor's lair. And I do mean lair. This little palace seemingly carved out of a mountain looks worthy of a small-time Bond villain, and ends up rather the same way, at least in Daria's mind.

The movie's infamous finale is a bookend to the orgy. Having learned via car radio of Mark's fate, Daria's romantic idealism is destroyed, and like Mark and many others of his generation, she succumbs to fantasies of absolute destruction.

Two things about Zabriskie Point seemed to trip up initial audiences. First, there was an assumption that Antonioni was making some sort of personal political statement and that it wasn't flattering to the United States. People reacted as if he endorsed the opinions expressed in the rap session or advocated the detonation of refrigerators and bookshelves Daria fantasizes about. They harped on his constant attention to billboards, logos and other advertising art as if they assumed he was condemning it all. If that's so, then mine is a perverse appreciation of the film, since those details make it a realistic reproduction of the world of my childhood. I don't think that this foreigner's attention to superficial details means that he's condemning some perceived American superficiality. Rather, it's just the easiest way to define America in cinematic terms, and no different in that respect than his soundtrack, which ranges from Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia originals to "The Tennessee Waltz" in one old cowboy's moment of serenity over beer in a bar and Roy Orbison singing, "Zabriskie Point is anywhere" over the end credits. One can go overboard with a thesis contrasting the ad-ridden city with the purity of the desert because...well, it's a desert! A fine place to have a be-fruitful-and-multiply fantasy, don't you think? As a matter of fact, yes it is, because Antonioni likes deserts, and one suspects that the location was kind of an end in itself for him.

One man's scathing critique of consumerism (above) is another's blatant product placement. If Antonioni had real critical intent behind his commercial imagery, it'd probably be lost on many modern viewers; some might even call him a sell-out.

The other detail that riled people was the self-evident amateurness of neophyte stars Mark Frechette (soon to be a real-life criminal) and Daria Halprin (soon to be Mrs. Dennis Hopper). But dare I suggest that they're supposed to be shallow, and that we aren't meant to see them as brilliant, lovable individuals who undergo intersecting character arcs and complete each other? Let's face it, anyway: lots of us know people in real life who are pretty much ciphers like these. Once you understand that Zabriskie Point is a broad-stroke sketch of the U.S. with a Euro sensibility indifferent to concerns for closure or other narrative niceties, and mainly a pretext for Antonioni to let rip with masterful self-indulgence, the sooner you'll lower your expectations of the actors and accept them for the types they are. There's a certain sensibility that needs to care for characters and will never appreciate films like Zabriskie, but movies are about more than characters and can sometimes thrive even without careful attention to them in the novelistic manner. Some people will never accept that, but I hope they might at least stop confusing their preferences for aesthetic laws.

Dean Tavoularis did wonders as Antonioni's production designer. You have to see this bit in motion with the waving flag and the rotating clocks on Taylor's TV screen to get the full effect.

That VHS from twenty years ago was not letterboxed. That made a world of difference, because the widescreen DVD reveals Antonioni's vision in its proper proportions. Whether he's taking in the sprawl of the desert or filming Rod Taylor in his office, nearly every image in the film (some seem to be stock or news footage of student protests) is a marvel of composition. Antonioni is the Michelangelo of widescreen (for who else could be?) and Zabriskie Point is art run amok. I hope the snips have made that clear. It took a while, but I learned how to appreciate this film. I commend it to the faster learners in the wild world of cinema.

The trailer (uploaded from TCM by foxter65)offers a fair sample of airplane antics, billboards and orgy action. Check it out.