Sunday, February 28, 2010


"He's a prophet, he's a pusher..." These are the lines of a Kris Kristofferson song that Cybill Shepherd quotes to Robert de Niro, to Travis Bickle's indignant confusion ("I have never pushed!"), in Taxi Driver. Moviegoers first heard the actual song in Bill L. Norton's Cisco Pike, which "introduced" Kristofferson in the title role (he had already performed in Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie)while giving top billing to then red hot but here relatively little-seen Gene Hackman. Kristofferson is credited with writing and performing four songs on the soundtrack. This one in particular raises questions. Was it composed by Kristofferson for the picture? If so, is it Kristofferson's commentary on the character he plays, or should we think of it as a song written by Cisco Pike? In that case, is it Pike's way of truth-telling on himself or is the song an ironically unselfconscious commentary intended for someone else? The song itself describes its subject as "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," so perhaps we should leave it at that.

Cisco Pike is a singer-songwriter and onetime band leader who had at least one hit song ("Breakdown") and a few successful concerts around 1966 before declining into petty drug dealership and jail time. Out of prison for now, but still in some legal jeopardy, he's determined to go straight and return to the music business, encouraged by his aspiring yogi girlfriend Sue (Karen Black). Since creative success wouldn't make much of a movie, Cisco finds himself bedeviled by a corrupt narc, Leo Holland (Hackman), who's nabbed 100 kilos of pot from a drug dealer and wants to make money from it. We'll learn that he's about to be dumped from the force due to a medical condition one year short of eligibility for a pension. The $10,000 he expects to make from the pot will be his nest egg, but Cisco will have to sell it for him, over a three-day weekend, or else Holland will make sure the musician ends up back in jail.

Good and bad influences: hippie Karen Black and cop Gene Hackman.

The plot is a scaffold for a series of episodes illustrating Cisco's descent back into the drug demimonde on the borderland of the music scene our hero hopes to re-enter. He visits recording studios and nightclubs and hooks up with old cronies and colleagues, but his main purpose is to move "keys," and he finds quite a few customers in his old milieu. Sometimes Holland screws up deals by lurking too close for buyers' comfort, and sometimes Cisco has to abort sales when he recognizes other narcs from details like polished shoes. He tries to give the dope back to Holland at one point, but the cop convinces him at gunpoint to resume his salesmanship. The weekend carries Cisco further away from Sue's presumably positive influence until he's cheating on her two women at a time. Worse, his old bandmate Jesse Dupre (Harry Dean "H.D." Stanton) turns up in a very needy state. He'd be happy to reform the band or score some major drugs. His main problem is that, while he feels the pressure to sell before Holland's deadline, he also finds his adventures too much fun for his own good, for a while.

Norton's episodic script has a cumulative atmospheric effect, immersing you in the hazy border zone between the world Cisco wants to reclaim and the one to which he must return. Their close proximity, the effective borderlessness of the scene, is part of his problem. How he responds to the challenge brings us back to the question of the correspondence between Cisco Pike and Kris Kristofferson. The real man was not the first choice for the role, from what I've read, but his presence and his song contributions tempt us to ask how good a musician Cisco Pike is supposed to be. If a different actor played the role, we could more easily assume that Pike's talent is actually pretty limited and that his early success may have been all he could have expected. Either way, of course, Cisco Pike is a tragedy of thwarted potential, but if Pike is supposed to have written the Kristofferson songs, and is stuck where he is, then it's arguably a tragedy of a different order. As an actor, Kristofferson further obscures matters. I've never really cared for him but others clearly respond to his perceived authenticity or his gravelly-voiced masculinity. He was obviously a talented songwriter, but could he play one on film? What would one look and sound like, anyway? Obviously there's no set type, but Kristofferson playing Pike still leaves me wondering whether the actor was effectively portraying a relatively untalented artist or ineffectively portraying a superior talent.

Familiar '70s faces: Harry Dean Stanton and Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas

The Kristofferson enigma doesn't necessarily determine whether Cisco Pike is good or not. As a Seventies buff, I was impressed by the locations and the ambiance, and the lead is supported by a strong cast of period stalwarts and iconic performers. Hackman doesn't really earn his top billing despite striving to make his character eccentric; nevertheless this is from a period when his presence is always welcome. Overall, I think any Seventies enthusiast will find items of interest in this folk-rock noir. If you think that decade was a golden age of American cinema, it can't hurt to give this representative film a try.

Fans of Seventies violence won't be disappointed either; Cisco Pike climaxes with a gunfight between a man (center) and a helicopter.

With no trailer available, here's Kristofferson's original performance of "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" from his 1971 album The Silver Tongued Devil and I, as uploaded to YouTube by woudshoorn.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Zhang Yimou's dynastic drama comes into my hands via my friend and frequent correspondent Crhymethinc, who found a cheap copy recently. His qualified recommendation convinced me to finally watch a film I'd been avoiding for a while. I'd gotten tired of overproduced Chinese epics after Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, but it'd been years now since I'd seen one.

Crhymethinc's description of the story made it sound like a Chinese version of The Lion in Winter. The basics are there: a monarch and his estranged wife; three ambitious sons of varying intelligence; intrigue aplenty. And for half the picture Golden Flower plays out that way as the family gathers for the annual Chrysanthemum (i.e. "golden flower") Festival. But while Lion is ultimately a comedy in which everyone stops short of family feud or civil war, Golden Flower plays its hand to the tragic hilt. Crhymethinc's own word for it was "Shakespearean," and that's a fair assessment.

The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning his wife (Gong Li) by adding a helping of Persian black fungus to her hourly medicine. He isn't out to kill her, as far as we can tell, but his object seems to be to make her a "cretin." This may be so she won't plot against him. Their was an arranged and quite possibly loveless marriage that lent legitimacy to a usurper, the Empress being an authentic princess. She seems closer to her sons than her husband, and is shown disputing the eldest prince's guilty protest against an incestuous relationship. It isn't really incest, she says, and she knows whereof she speaks. Elder Brother has stronger feelings for the daughter of the court physician, the very woman who brings the Empress her toxic dosage on the hour. Middle Brother, a more militant type, is also close to Mom. When he learns about Dad's poison plot, he plans an uprising to force the Emperor from his throne. Meanwhile, Younger Brother is the Prince John of the trio, a bit dull but just as ambitious, and envious to boot. The Emperor cruises above it all, an annoying know-it-all who lectures everyone on the importance of rituals and the necessity of taking one's medicine regularly. You soon find yourself rooting for him to get his comeuppance.

So far, so good for the first half. The second half, however, is like The Lion in Winter if it had been directed by Cecil B. De Mille, remade by Peter Jackson, and turned into a video game that was then adapted into a Zhang Yimou movie. The moment the Emperor's black-clad, black-masked army of assassins swoops down upon the court physician's household, it becomes a challenge to take the story seriously. Zhang simply doesn't know when to quit. There is no narrative problem that he can't answer with "more!" You can keep track of the tragic threads of the story, such as the revelation of a real incestuous romance and Younger Brother's temper tantrum in the guise of a half-assed coup d'etat, but all the epic exertions of Chow, Gong and their supporting cast are overwhelmed by Zhang's endless, overchoreographed battle scenes. After a while it begins to look like Zhang is intercutting between a genuine Shakespearean tragedy and an extremely well-detailed Playstation adventure.

Zhang's excess doesn't really dilute the film's tragic power, however, as long as we mean tragic in the modern sense of something deeply demoralizing. Curse of the Golden Flower left me wondering what Chinese audiences, not to mention the Chinese government, made of this film. Did they infer any analogy with the modern-day state in the movie's portrayal of an evil ruler and a dubious ruling family? If so, the government, at least, may have been satisfied with a climax that emphasizes the ruler's ruthless omnipotence. If this film has a moral, it's probably along the lines of "Don't mess with the state," or "Resistance is futile." It reminded me of what I disliked about Zhang's Hero: its argument that tyranny may be unpleasant, yet may be necessary to unite all under heaven. Golden Flower at least doesn't dare say that the Emperor's triumph is for the best, but it expresses a similar pessimism about rebellion that rubs against the American grain. It may be more realistic than an imagined American attempt to tell the same story, but there's something mean spirited to it that's only augmented by the nearly pornographic glee with which Zhang piles army on top of army while portraying the extermination of the rebellion.

If you can watch Golden Flower without thinking about it politically, you can probably lose yourself in the lavish cinematography and art direction. It's often a beautiful film, even in the too-elaborately composed battle scenes, but it always threatens to grow monotonous and vulgar in its richness. That's the De Mille part of the equation, along with the heralds always announcing the arrivals of royal persons and the universal endowment of female characters with ample cleavage. Maybe it's an authentic fashion of the period (though Wikipedia tells me that the film isn't as precise about its time period as the English subtitles claim) but somehow Zhang films it so it doesn't look that way. Feel free to ogle, though, or thrill to the spectacle of thousands clashing in combat. There's a lot here for different tastes to enjoy, but I question whether anyone can enjoy it all equally.

Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by YojimboADK:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Blaxploitation lives. I don't mean in the throwback, intentional cult movie form of Black Dynamite, but as an ongoing grass-roots phenomenon of low-budget cinema. Not that Mark Hicks's movie has no ties to the past; its ties are actually fairly strong. But this is blaxploitation for the 21st century, albeit in a relatively family-friendly form. It's also a martial-arts comedy that's as dumb as a bag of hammers, and the first movie I know of that claims to be inspired by a YouTube video.

The Afro Ninja legend begins in 2004, when Hicks, a stuntman, was auditioning for a Nike commercial. He threw a back flip but flubbed the dismount, shall we say.

When the clip was uploaded to YouTube some time later, it became one of those viral videos that I sometimes hear about. It even got shown on The Tonight Show, and Hicks's movie borrows footage of Jay Leno ragging on him. Hoping to get something more than fifteen minutes of fame from his flop, Hicks turned to screenwriter Carlton Holder to shape a story around the footage that would allow him to poke fun at himself but also transcend his infamy.

Hicks plays Reggie Carson, a dorky postal worker who joins fellow workers in coming to work in costume on Halloween. His idea of a costume is a ratty wig that's supposed to make him look like Jim Kelly. Neither his colleagues nor his elderly Aunt Sally (Marla Gibbs of Jeffersons fame) buy it. But the outfit inspires him to play the hero when a crazy veteran menaces the post office with a machine gun.

There must have been some magic in those nunchakus he found, for when he grasped them in his hands...

Attempting to intimidate him with martial arts, Reggie executes (in the sense of nearly killing himself) the backflip, which is caught on a surveillance camera to become the original Afro Ninja video. The vet gets the drop on him, then reveals that the machine gun is a water pistol. Then he produces a grenade. "You should see the look on your face," he tells Reggie, "This will wipe the face off of your smile!" Is that Carlton Holder's idea of crazy dialogue or did the actor flub his line? I don't know. I do know that Reggie sees the grenade, cries "bomb!" and escapes with the other workers from the unconvincing post-office set before it blows up.

Before this went down, Reggie found a long-forgotten package that has somehow been laying around the office since 1975. It was sent from Japan and intended for one Cleavon Washington. Inside are a pair of nunchakus that glow when Reggie touches them. Meanwhile, a dying Japanese woman breathes some glowy essence into his mouth. The long-term effect is something like a radioactive spider bite. He awakens with ripped abs and an afro. He has unconscious martial arts skills and can read Japanese fluently. He has become Afro Ninja for real and under that name starts to fight crime, most of which is organized in secret by shoe magnate and martial-arts champion Jerome "Black Lightning" Gordon, who we learn was a renegade student of the long lost Cleavon Washington, who we learn, in turn, was Reggie's father.

"I know this sounds cliched, but your ass is grass." Actual dialogue from Afro Ninja: Destiny.

As Afro Ninja, Reggie learns to stand up for himself and his dreams, finds love with a co-worker, becomes "anal with clean" after years of slovenly bachelor living, and learns from an occasionally materializing Japanese master that "Sometimes you must tumble to stumble onto the right path."

Hicks is no Jim Kelly (as proven when the man himself materializes to give our hero his blessing) but he's no Rudy Ray Moore, either. The martial arts aren't sophisticated or stylish, nor are they marred by wirework or CGI. The fighting consists of stuntmen punching and kicking one another, and they do it with enthusiasm, especially in the final showdown when Afro Ninja invades Black Lightning's dojo. The only special effects in this sequence are the lights glowing in the villain's eyes and the sparkles when Reggie repels machine-gun fire with his nunchakus.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jim Kelly.

You know you're dealing with a low budget project when Hicks lets Marla Gibbs take top billing over him on the box cover, but like Kelly Gibbs is a link with a legendary era in black entertainment and despite her obvious enfeeblement she's a welcome presence in a project like this one. It was also a treat to see Kelly, however briefly and inactively, in what IMDB tells me is his first screen credit since 1994. Afro Ninja is quite conscious of its cultural heritage, and while it isn't set in the Seventies it doesn't quite seem to be of the present day, either. It's definitely not a hip-hop movie by any stretch of the imagination, nor a good movie for that matter. But it has a certain naive charm and its heart is in the right place in its affection for oldschool martial arts. It might make a good second feature to go with Black Dynamite (which my local library doesn't have yet, to my knowledge), and this one you can play while the kids are still up.

These three ladies parade provocatively through scenes often enough to make you expect them to go all Charlie's Angels on somebody. Disappointingly, that never happens.

Here's the official trailer posted by none other than afroninjadestiny to YouTube:

Monday, February 22, 2010


Leonardo Tanzi is one of the interchangeable tough-cop characters that Maurizio Merli played for Umberto Lenzi and other directors during the heyday of the Italian police genre in the 1970s. In this follow-up to Lenzi's Rome Armed to the Teeth, however, Tanzi's no longer a cop. He's retired to become an editor of mystery novels for some publishing house. One of his old enemies, "the Chinaman" (Tomas Milian, back after playing a different character in Rome) doesn't make such fine distinctions. Fresh out of prison, he's determined to have revenge on Tanzi, who put him there. He leaves pre-printed death notices as his calling card. Tanzi finds one but manages to escape a deathtrap with only a shoulder wound. The cops knew that "China" would come for him, but they were detailed to a Communist demonstration and didn't have the manpower to protect their old pal. That's one of those bits of local color I appreciate in foreign films.

If you've seen a Maurizio Merli movie, you know that Tanzi isn't going to run off and hide in Switzerland like the cops advise him to. Instead, Il Cinico, L'Infame, Il Violento raises the ethical stakes of the Merli persona's tough-cop tactics by turning him into an outright vigilante, acting without any authorization whatsoever to take out the Chinaman and possibly China's new employer, the American Frank DiMaggio (John Saxon) in the bargain. Cop or civilian, Merli's position always seems to be the same: draconian measures are needed to destroy organized crime; criminals like China and DiMaggio are better off dead than in revolving-door prisons. In this film Tanzi gets to make a teeth-baring speech to that effect, which tells me that Lenzi and writer Ernesto Gastaldi knew that this was red meat for the target audience. Merli's fans must have wanted to hear someone say stuff like that, the sort of rhetoric you hear in some American crime films from the 1930s.

I don't know who's the cynic and who's the rat between John Saxon and Tomas Milian (above), but I'm pretty sure that Maurizio Merli's the fist.

On the other hand, Il Cinico lacks the intensity of other Lenzi-Merli collaborations. It may be just a quirk of the American dub I heard, but the script almost seems to send up the Merli persona a bit. In one scene, one of Tanzi's victims describes him to China as a bleached blond with a big moustache, and China, now suspecting that his arch-enemy isn't dead, summarizes the description as that of a "fag-looking cop." Other criminals call Tanzi a "faggot" later on. That may be how Gastaldi or the dubbers imagined criminals would speak to cops, or they may have recognized something about the way Merli looks. In any event, it doesn't surprise me that Merli shaved off the moustache eventually, though I feel he took most of his personality with it. This issue aside, The Cynic has more of a slapstick quality and a lot less of Lenzi's trademark brutality. Some of the fight scenes are clearly played for laughs, and there isn't really a good chase scene to match the motorcycle racing in Violent Naples.

The overall story doesn't grow as complex as it should have been. Tanzi's strategy is to drive a wedge between China and DiMaggio and drive them to destroy each other. This culminates in a robbery of DiMaggio by China's men, secretly facilitated by Tanzi to set up a final showdown between the two gangsters. But China knows that Tanzi is up to mischief and says at one point that his strategy will be to play Tanzi and DiMaggio off each other -- yet we never see this happen. DiMaggio, for all we know, doesn't know Tanzi from Adam, and this is typical of a role that gives the mighty John Saxon relatively little to do but gripe at China. Acting honors this time go to Tomas Milian, who goes against type, as far as Lenzi is concerned, and plays the Chinaman as a calm, cool customer who apparently earned his nickname for demonstrating an "oriental" patience and dispassion. Milian's one concession to the grotesque is the bandage China sports on his head through the whole picture, suggesting a wound that won't heal and thus symbolizing some inherent corruption in the character. Compared to his other work for Lenzi, which is more like Lon Chaney's for Tod Browning, this is an effectively subdued performance that actually makes China a more serious villain.

Maurizio Merli on the run.

While this isn't as good as the other Lenzi cop films I've seen, Il Cinico is still a fairly energetic and entertaining film. Lenzi displays his mastery of urban landscape yet again and most of the fight scenes are reasonably well done, apart from some overdone, out-of-sync sound effects. At the end, the English-language script finally hits the note of ambiguity it's been aiming for throughout when a detective tells Tanzi that he doesn't know whether to thank him or throw him in jail -- and when he tells Tanzi to "come on," we don't really know what he'll do. The Italian audience of the time may have assumed or insisted that Tanzi would go free, but from our cultural, historical and critical distance we can wonder what really would have been the right thing to do.

There's no English-language trailer available online, so here's an Italian one uploaded to YouTube by trailersdaculto.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Are you a sports fan? Do you get tired of team sports where they don't let defenders defend? Where the defense gets penalized for brushing the hem of the offensive players' garments? Well, the film industry of Thailand has a new sport just for you. It's "fireball," -- yes, that's what they literally call it -- and it adds to the existing thrills of basketball the extra excitement of that ancient custom of running the gantlet. The rules are simple: the first team to score wins. But won't it be over quickly? Isn't this basketball, after all? No, it's fireball, and that means if you want to score a basket you've got five guys in front of you to beat down before they beat you down. There's no shot clock, and given the people trying to punch, kick and elbow you as you try to line up a jumper it could well take a while to sink one. But the rules take that into account: if no one scores, then the team with the last man standing wins.

According to Thanakorn Pongsuwan's movie, fireball's been around since 1974 -- the league still has the original game ball -- but this is the first time it's been depicted on film. The release of Fireball may reflect a liberalization of the sport, since the film's expose of corrupt practices in management might not have made it past censorship during the period when most people didn't realize that the game existed. It turns out that league teams are run by gangsters who can make more money by making and taking bets than they'd earn in championship prize money. For that reason many games are fixed, and the players get in on the act sometimes for various reasons. One guy has his twin brother's medical care to worry about. Another's trying to pay his girlfriend's debts to avoid her relapsing into prostitution. Still another, half black, has a baby on the way to take care of. Things are tough all over in the world of fireball. Off court, a good deal of the action takes place in a sprawling dilapidated apartment complex, and given the dirty goings on the Fireball movie sometimes comes across like a cross between Gomorrah and Gymkata.

The film ultimately falls on the Gymkata side of that equation. For the country that aims to set the modern standard in martial arts movies, Fireball is pretty bad. The main problem is the director's frantic, edit-happy manner of shooting the film. The virtue of superior Thai fight films is our clear view of unwired action, but Thanakorn films Fireball like a music video. It's all too obvious that he has to fake most of the basketball action -- not that there's much of it. You'd expect shooting baskets to be filmed the way a decent Thai action director shoots fight scenes. Instead, Thanakorn will show a player heaving the basket, then cut to the ball sailing toward the basket. Then he'll cut to a reaction shot from someone. Then it's back to the ball coming in for a landing. Then another reaction shot, and then the ball finally goes through the net. At many points you can easily lose track of the action. In the middle of one game the guy with the ball eludes some pipe-wielding defenders, and as they ask where he went he seems literally to have disappeared from the game and the movie for a few minutes. Thanakorn reduces his game too often to just plain chaos.

Overall it's hard to follow the action because the sport as Thanakorn has imagined it really doesn't make sense. The rules change from game to game. The first contest we see opens with a jump ball, with the two teams on opposite sides of a midcourt line. But the next game opens with the two sides charging one another Braveheart style from opposite ends of the court as the ball is shot into play. Finally, for the championship game, the court (the cargo hold of a freighter) is littered with piles of pallets for the players to jump up and down from to attack each other. Throughout, the first-score-wins rule makes you wonder what the spectators expect to see. You'd think a marginally competent basketball team could pass the ball downcourt and sink the winning pill in a matter of seconds, perhaps before anyone hits them. But you get the impression that the fans, apart from having betting interests in the outcome, come out to see the teams beat the pee out of one another. The players certainly spend more time doing that than trying to score, and when foreign objects are thrown into the cage it's obviously not to help anyone shoot baskets.

For a moment I thought Fireball was going to finish with a real flourish, with its chain-link basket becoming an improvised flying guillotine, but the film is not that imaginative.

In practice, the basketball side of fireball looks pretty superfluous. Perhaps it was imagined entirely in the hope of attracting an American audience. But it went straight to DVD in this country last month, so so much for that idea. Fireball is really a hopeless proposition. Its Thai fighting is second rate, and the only way the basketball angle would have meant anything to American audiences is if there'd been an American character in the movie. That leaves indiscriminate violence as the only potential attraction for anyone other than those on the alert for bad movies. I rented this from the Albany Public Library fully expecting a bad "new sport" movie, though holding out hope for something better. I suppose I wasn't really disappointed, since I expected it to stink, but unless you're into utterly mindless violence that doesn't even stink in a memorably entertaining way you can abandon hope before renting Fireball.

The film does have it's admirers, and if you want a second opinion here's a review from someone who's seen more Thai films than I have. And here's an English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by richyjac:

TROUBLED WATER (De Usynlige, 2008)

The original Norwegian title translates to something like "the invisibles" according to one IMDB reviewer, but the American title of Erik Poppe's spiritual thriller refers to both a fatal stream and the Simon & Garfunkel song which Thomas, our protagonist, plays on a church organ for a field-trip audience of schoolchildren. Thomas is an ex-con who learned to play the pipe organ for prison services. He got an early release to find work as an organist. He was convicted along with a friend for the murder of a small boy whom they snatched from its mother when she wasn't looking. Thomas has always insisted he was innocent, and his flashbacks show the kid apparently dying from a fall took while running away from the bigger boys. Thomas made matters worse, however, by putting the boy's body in the river, from which it's never been retrieved. But while he insists that he didn't murder little Isak, he clearly feels guilty about it, and he doesn't trust himself around small boys. I should add that, from what I could tell, there was nothing sexual about his or his friend's intentions toward Isak; they just wanted to mess around with him.

Thomas's friend is a little jealous of the early release and arranges a parting beat-down for the lucky bastard. Despite damaged fingers he impresses the church staff even though they'd already told him they'd hired someone else, and since the someone else can't take the job right away Thomas gets it. He's a little uncomfortable working in a church because he's no believer, but it's a living -- only there's this one boy who hangs around and seems awfully interested. He turns out to be Jens, the son of Anna, the resident priest of this Lutheran church. It's an interesting twist to have a single mother performing the mass, as if in imitation of Mary rather than Christ, but I think Poppe underdevelops the spiritual implications of Thomas's growing attraction to Anna and the eventual shoulders-and-sheets consummation of their mutual attraction. The main action of this section is Thomas's overcoming of his alienation and his mistrust of himself as he edges toward a big-brother if not paternal relationship with Jens. His new life is threatened, however, by the coincidental presence in the same town of the parents of Isak, the drowned boy. We learn that the mother has been questioning church people about him and that she got into his stuff in the organ booth at least once. When Thomas goes to confront her, the father throws him out. Nothing short of the confession of murder that Thomas refuses to make will satisfy them.

For Thomas, music rather than religion is his mode of spiritual expression, but it can't stave off all feelings of guilt and dread.

Still, Thomas and Anna's romance grows. He finally comes down from the organ booth to take communion and then enjoys a kind of carnal mass with her in naked privacy. He's also taking Jens on outings and errands, and it's on one of these that the boy disappears.

Anna offers Thomas the Body of Christ, but we know whose body he really wants.

When Poppe cuts from Thomas's frantic search for Jens to Agnes's frantic search for her son Isak in the past he hopes to have the audience hooked. He's inviting us to jump to a conclusion about what's happened to Jens, but before we find out he sends us back in time, now following Agnes through scenes we've already seen, some we've heard about regarding her, others which we've seen already but didn't know she was in. We see a woman who's rebuilt her life with two adopted kids and a career tending to kids as a schoolteacher, with a husband who takes steps to prevent her from encountering Thomas but can't control all events. Trine Dyrholm portrays a woman going mad with hate and fear, and Poppe portrays her like someone on the opposite side of a funhouse mirror from where we and Thomas had been standing. We see her through the plexiglas of car windows, and in one eerie scene in a swimming pool she seems to be arching through the air above the water rather than swimming in it.

Trine Dyrholm as Agnes

The big question I can't answer without spoiling the picture is whether you'd be right in your assumption that Agnes has kidnapped Jens. I can only say that I found the climax a little too melodramatic and a little too neat in its note of reconciliation. Agnes gets to hear what she's wanted to hear at one point, but I wonder whether it was necessary to the story for Thomas to say it or for what he says to be true. Maybe Poppe worried that Agnes would look too much like a villain otherwise, because he doesn't intend to punish her as one. In fact, it may seem unfair to some viewers for the denouement to have Agnes return to the embraces of her family while Thomas is left in suspense as to whether he'll have one someday.

Past and present on Troubled Water

For the most part, De Usynlige effectively maintains a tone of dread while we remain unsure of the feelings Thomas struggles with and we worry about what Agnes may have done. It benefits from an effective ensemble of actors, with Dyrholm standing out. Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen best conveys Thomas's distress in action scenes, when he rides his bike through the night in a state of moral panic or when he's searching for Jens. Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Anna the priest is more a romantic interest than a spiritual leader, or maybe Poppe and writer Harold Rosenlow-Eeg think her spirituality resides in her romantic potential. Because she's eclipsed by Agnes as the main female character, Anna isn't as fully developed as she should be given the inherent drama in her vocation. Then again, maybe Norway takes female priests for granted in a way many Americans can't just yet.

Troubled Water is another Film Movement DVD presentation, which I've borrowed from the Albany Public Library. I'd say any library that wants to have a respectable foreign film collection ought to subscribe to this outfit's output. I get the impression that the film hasn't been seen much in the U.S. apart from the Hamptons International Film Festival, where it won an audience award and probably earned the blurbs from Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore that adorn the box cover. While those may not be the most authoritative reviewers, I'll tell you that it's worth a look at least to keep up to date on Norwegian cinema. I liked it overall, but I can imagine other viewers liking it better than I did.

Here's an unsubtitled Norwegian trailer uploaded to YouTube by paradoxaf. I hope I've given you enough information to make it comprehensible.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Former stuntman George Montgomery (no relation to Robert and Elizabeth) is star, producer, co-writer and first-time director of this colorful B-adventure set during some of the darkest days of World War II. He's Capt. John Larsen, a frustrated, alcoholic soldier whose leave is interrupted by the Americans' need to evacuate the Philippines. No one seems very bugged by the idea, however. The opening scenes have no sense of urgency whatsoever. "Say, I hear they're going to declare Manila an open city." "Yeah, I guess so." If Larsen is angry, it's because the withdrawal disrupts a good drunk he had going on at his favorite nightclub.

We get the idea that Larsen drinks because he's pissed off about not being able to fight with a hand missing. We learn later that he lost it fairly recently in an alcohol-induced accident. When he's sober he's out to redeem himself, and when he hears that an American general is lost in the countryside, he volunteers to get him out before the Japs find him. The tip is that a Filipino guerrilla (a "half-bandit," one officer says) has the general, but wants $5,000 for him. Larsen takes the mission and the money. In good time he finds the guerrilla/bandit Santana, or if you prefer, Santana finds him. He also finds a new love, Lolita, who is not underage but almost childlike if not doglike in her devotion to the American. She's also incredibly hapless, always wandering into the path of snakes, getting in the way of Japanese bullets, etc. Larsen's the sort of guy who doesn't care too much for clinging women unless he wants to cling to them. He warns her not to follow him and Santana's gang but along she comes. When he jokes that he's no longer interested, she tells him to go to hell and heads off in a huff. That turns him on. He chases her down and practically rapes her in a stream, but she seems to like it, and they cuddle afterwards.

Talk to the hand... If only he could.

Larsen and Santana have to travel because Santana neglected to mention one detail about the general: he doesn't have the guy. Oh, he had him once, but they had to leave him behind when the Japs closed in. So our heroes have to liberate the general from the enemy, and for the occasion Larsen forges ... the Steel Claw... which just happens to be a hook. This disappointed me a bit. I was hoping for a whole metal hand, maybe with different weapons in each finger, or at least something Larsen could punch through walls or people with. But it's just a hook.

Lots of things don't live up to expectations in this movie. Worst of all, once they rescue the general with the help of a competent female guerrilla leader, he turns out not to be a general. In a twist probably inspired by William Holden's role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the liberated American is a sergeant who grabbed the general's uniform after the superior officer broke his neck in a parachute drop. When Larsen finds this out, he's not appreciative of the sarge's survival skills, but beats the snot out of him. That's just round one of the battle with the increasingly crazy soldier, who finally ends up killed by Japanese before the big finale.

Friend or foe: Carmen Austin as guerrilla leader Rosa (above) and Paul Sorenson as an American soldier of questionable rank (below).

The Steel Claw looks like one of the "sweats," the lurid men's-adventure magazines that succeeded the pulps in the Fifties and Sixties, come to life. What it lacks in dramatic momentum, it makes up for in vibrant atmosphere. Even in a degraded copy in Mill Creek Entertainment's Combat Classics box set, it's pretty vivid, and the Philippine locations give Montgomery natural production values he probably couldn't afford otherwise. He's not much as an actor but he does put his character over as dissolute at first, self-pitying later, and man's man when it counts. Doing most if not all of his own stunts certainly helps his cause. Ultimately, The Steel Claw is more interesting as a cultural artifact, a period piece of macho fantasy, than as a work of cinematic art. If the men's-adventure and its aesthetic sense interest you, then in all likelihood so will this film.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Talbot vs. Dracula, Part II

When Larry Talbot responded to a woman's distress call in Dr. Edelmann's house, he had no idea until after the fact that he was about to have a close encounter with Count Dracula. It's unclear from the evidence of House of Dracula whether Larry even knew that "Baron Latos" was a fellow patient of the great scientist. Yet the next time we see Talbot, he is a sworn enemy of the Count and all his evil works (whether Dracula knows this or not), tracking him across the Atlantic to thwart his latest scheme. Asked why he must battle Dracula almost on his own, and definitely without police aid, Larry tells a new friend that going to the cops would require him to explain "why I know what I know." But what's to explain? Why can't Larry simply say that he was being treated at the late Dr. Edelmann's clinic in Visaria when he encountered the vampire? Leave aside whether American cops would believe the vampire part; unless Talbot has a compulsion to tell the whole truth he shouldn't have to say that he was a werewolf, or believed himself to be, at the time....that is, unless Larry was talking about something else that explains why he knows what he knows about Dracula.

There's an obvious temptation to try to draw a line of continuity from House of Dracula to Bud Abbott [and] Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), to give the film its full title, but is it necessary to try? My friend Wendigo says he used to wonder how Larry's cure from the previous film failed. For amusement purposes only, he speculates now that Dr. Edelmann's surgery simply lacked lasting effect. The pressure on Larry's brain may have reasserted itself, or his curse may have. While there is no compelling reason to identify Charles Barton's comedy as a sequel to Erle C. Kenton's monster rally, Wendigo, like many people, can't help thinking of it as one. When Larry talks of what he knows, then, he could just be referring to the events of House (which Dr. Edelmann would have to have filled him in on in the doctor's declining moments of sanity) or he could be dropping a hint of a to-date untold story that may link Talbot's pursuit of Dracula to the resurgence of his curse.

My own view is that A&CMF is as much of a cartoon, if not obviously more so, than House of Dracula was in their common disregard for continuity. While HofD barely acknowledges its predecessor, House of Frankenstein, A&CMF acknowledges HofD not at all. Dracula never calls himself Baron Latos (it's "Dr. Lejos" instead) and no attempt is made to explain his latest escape from exposure to sunlight. Since it's unclear whether Latos even knew that Edelmann was keeping the Frankenstein Monster in a separate lab, HofD can tell us nothing about how the master vampire hooked up with the creature. There's definitely a tale to be told here if you feel a need to explain how everyone got from House to Florida, but we can just as easily take House out of the equation altogether and consider A&CMF a kind of default Universal Horror film with the classic monsters in what might be assumed was their typical state. And because Larry Talbot was essentially a good and righteous man when he wasn't the Wolf Man, he's naturally going to be Dracula's enemy.

Pitting Talbot against Dracula and the Monster is actually a stroke of genius on the part of Abbott & Costello's writers -- all veterans of Bud & Lou rather than the horror cycle. Compared to the House movies, A&CMF is a masterpiece of plotting with all the monsters integrated thoroughly into a single story. Larry's alliance with Wilbur Gray and Chick Young also integrates the comedians into a fairly straight horror-fantasy story beyond Dracula's plot to implant Wilbur's brain in the Monster's body. It makes Bud & Lou more than hapless scaredy-cats constantly on the run. Instead, they're part of a team that can take the battle to the enemy, even to the point of Bud Abbott, normally a monster of selfishness in his own right, rallying a guilt-stricken Talbot to invade Dracula's lair to save Lou from doom.

Lou Costello stoically faces Bela Lugosi's silent command (above) and Glenn Strange's silent scream (below).

The writers actually magnify this team effect by adding not one, but two femmes fatales to the mix, one on each team. Dracula's ally is Dr. Sandra Mornay, who's seduced Wilbur to lure him into their trap. She's both a femme fatale and a mad scientist over whom Dracula has (at first) some blackmail power because she's wanted in Europe for some questionable experiments. With Sandra, Universal was thisclose to an awesome trifecta of villainy: femme fatale, mad scientist and Nazi. Against her, the good guys have Joan Raymond, an intrepid insurance investigator dedicated to tracking down the "museum exhibits" Wilbur and Chick allegedly stole from the obnoxious wax-museum owner Mr. McDougal. She's a femme fatale because her method is also to seduce Wilbur, in the hope of finding out where he's stashed the "exhibits." The women are strong enough characters to have an important scene to themselves as they try to spy on one another's activities.

Dr. Mornay (Lenore Aubert) spies while Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) scans The Secrets of Life and Death at a costume party. Below, Mornay likes to dress up as an evil crypto-fascist nurse for professional occasions.

It's another great feature of this film that McDougal remains a wildcard factor throughout, making mischief for the good guys while remaining clueless about the true nature of his stolen goods. This movie is full of great characters, with the glaring though minor exception of the dull scientist Dr. Stevens, Mornay's unwitting assistant, who ends up with Joan by default.

For many monster fans, the highlight of A&CMF is Bela Lugosi's return to the role that made his name, whose name he made. Wendigo thinks it's always great to see him back, especially since he looks in much better shape than he did in the (still good) Return of the Vampire. Compared to that film of five years earlier, it looks like at least five years have fallen away from him. But have the years changed his approach to Dracula? One change that occurred to me was that the character now has to deal with the legend of Dracula (by concealing his identity) in a way that Tod Browning's Dracula didn't. For his part, Wendigo sees some subtle differences in the two performances. There's a hint of doomed melancholy to the 1931 Bela, and a sense that Dracula is an unnatural force of nature. In 1948 Dracula is more evil, more of a schemer, more inclined to revel in villainy. But there are more differences between Lugosi and his imitators (Latos, Alucard) than between the '48 and '31 models. For starters, those so-called Draculas are hapless creatures with few survival instincts. More signifcant is Dracula's dominance of a briefly-defiant Mornay compared to Alucard's virtual victimization by the femme fatale of Son of Dracula. Bela makes it plain: "I am accustomed to obedience from women," and he gets it. Another difference: the pseudo (or crypto?) Draculas from the Forties get by with mesmerism, a learned skill almost, while Lugosi's Dracula dominates people by overwhelming force of pure will. He can command from a distance in ways his emulators can't dream of. However you may feel about the way the monsters are used here, Bela's Dracula is the real deal.

Lou mugs like mad, and brilliantly, in the "young blood and brains" scene, but he has to to keep Bela from stealing the scene just by wearing that smoking jacket.

It wouldn't surprise us if fans don't feel the same way about Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man. As Larry, Lon is impeccable, as impressive and heroic as he's ever been despite his bouts of despair and guilt. But the Wolf Man is still under the constraints necessary for the film to treat Larry as a good guy. That means he has to be an ineffectual monster in two scenes in which he proves incapable of even pouncing on Wilbur, instead tripping and tangling himself in every possible impediment. It's fair to ask what's worse: the fact that the Wolf Man can't escape from a locked hotel room or the fact that Lou Costello bops him on the nose, mistaking him for a masked Abbott, and survives? It's also fair to remind ourselves that the film is meant as a comedy, and that, as Wendigo reminds, me, Chaney was a very good sport about taking his monster's pratfalls. None of this compromises Larry Talbot's role as a hero, if not the hero of the movie. Wendigo adds: if he can't consider The Munsters a travesty of the Universal monsters, he can't complain about this film.

"Grrrrrr!" Even Bud makes fun of the Wolf Man, but his playacting gets him in trouble later in the picture.

In any event, the Wolf Man redeems himself a bit by taking down Dracula after a rather absurd battle that sees the desperate vampire throw everything he can lay hands on at the persistent lycanthrope. Bela even resorts to hitting him with a chair, rasslin'-style. You can ask whether the Wolf Man attacks Dracula because he knows the vampire is the enemy, or just because Dracula is there? On the other hand, the vampire's enmity toward the werewolf seems to be a matter of panicky disgust, as if Dracula had seen a large rat. In any event, Larry gets the job done even if it means a dip in the rocky drink. Do they both die? Well, Dracula is clearly out of action because the plunge breaks his power over Joan Raymond, but on the evidence of Talbot's suicide attempt in HofD it's definitely debatable whether the drop would kill the Wolf Man. It may be best for us to wish Larry Talbot godspeed on his long, long journey home -- or back to Europe, or wherever.

A&CMF, of course, is the top-billed team's big comeback film, restoring a declining pair to audience good will by riding their lingering good will toward the Universal Monsters. The comedy is knowing rather than contemptuous (unless you disapprove of the Wolf Man's clumsiness) and is arguably the first filmic expression of the fandom that would blossom with the spread of television in the next decade. As for Bud and Lou, once upon a time you could see a movie of theirs at least once a week on cable TV. Now this film is one of the few Abbott & Costello movies that turns up occasionally on stations like TCM. It's been a long time since we've seen any other besides their awful public-domain films. A&CMF shows the team in top form after a series of non-team experiments. Lou gives as good as he takes here in an incredible performance, talking back to everyone, going nuts with pantomiming the monster's movements, reveling in the attentions of two beautiful women and coping with the creatures with childlike credulity. Costello often strikes me as a progenitor of the obnoxious infantile men of modern movie comedy, but Lou brings something extra to the show: a self-consciousness that cracks the fourth wall and invites you to share his enjoyment of the ride. His character may be a sap, but he's a sap and he knows it, and in a redeeming way he seems to know more than he thinks he knows. You can't leave this film feeling contempt for Lou Costello, and the more you watch the more little details you catch, including his titanic scene-stealing battles with Lugosi. His interplay with Abbott (and Chaney, for that matter) is note perfect.

"Back...back... He thinks I'm Dracula."

Abbott & Costello are Wendigo's favorite comedy team, and he has many fond memories of Sunday morning double-features on WPIX. I didn't like them as much as he did back then, but every time I see A&CMF I get an urge to see more of their films. Some time ago I put this film on my list of ten favorite comedies, and I'd say that Lou Costello gives one of my favorite comedy performances ever in it. With Bud and Lou in top form and the return of the monsters, I'm inspired to ask: does any other Hollywood studio have a film in its library that is as definitive an expression of its creative identity as this film is for Universal? Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is Universal's monument.

And here's the Realart trailer, uploaded to YouTube by horrormovieshows