Friday, October 31, 2008

Tower of Evil

Jim O'Connolly | 1972 | 89 mins | UK + USA

This groovy-age-of-horror gem falls squarely between a cheesy Hammer film and an '80s gore-fest / excuse to show boobs. Some American backpackers go to a deserted lighthouse on mysterious "Snape Isle" and end up butchered, possibly by one of their own. The surviving girl (near-comatose from shock and terror) is brought to a doctor on the mainland who tries to extract some story about what happened from her by hypnotizing her with flashing multi-coloured lights.

Meanwhile, a group of archeologists, excited by the golden dagger with which the girl seems to have murdered her friends, head to the isle to search for ancient Phoenician treasures, or possibly a shrine to Baal. Baal was apparently the Phoenicians' sun god, worshiped in orgiastic rituals in ancient times, but has since fallen out of favour and is in the Christian tradition known only as a demon and harbinger of evil.

So much for the historical back-story. When the scientific posse arrives on Snape Isle, there's a bit of creepiness and a whole lot of soap-opera-esque melodrama. It seems that saucy Nora (Anna Palk) once slept with prim Rose's (Jill Haworth) fiancé, Adam (Mark Edwards). But now that they've broken up, Rose has taken up with Nora's estranged husband, Dan (Derek Fowlds, the secretary from Yes Minister). Now the bickering foursome are stuck in an old lighthouse with a mysterious investigator and a couple of hapless locals who seem to be hiding something rather sinister.

Throw in some fabulous '70s outfits, a few boob shots, some goofy gore and some unrealistic but fun sets, and voila: you have Tower of Evil! It's fairly obvious who's behind the creepy killings about midway through the film but it doesn't keep the ride from being fun.

I Sell the Dead

Glenn McQuaid | 2008 | USA

I was so exhausted on the final night of the Toronto After Dark festival that I assumed I'd end up napping through half the closing night film, not because I wasn't looking forward to it but because I wouldn't be able to help it. I'm happy to report that this fun, Hammer-esque period horror comedy had just enough charm, gore and bewildering monsters to carry me through the night fully awake.

The setup is easy: a priest (Ron Perlman) comes into Arthur Blake's cell the night before his execution by hanging in order to hear his last confession. Blake (played by Dominic Monaghan, who was one of those adorable hobbits in LoTR) launches into a weird and wonderful tale about his life as a grave robber alongside mentor/partner Willy Grimes (a hilarious Larry Fessenden).

Seems that the unlikely pair were making a decent living stealing corpses for the creepy Dr. Vernon Quint (Phantasm's own Tall Man, Angus Scrimm) until they discovered there was even more to be made in pilfering undead corpses. Why do people need so many fresh bodies that grave robbing is a viable profession with stiff competition in old-timey England? Why are vampire cadavers worth so much dough? Why do Blake and Grimes' rivals (the scary Murphy gang) seem to have zombies in cages? The answer to this and so much more is: who the hell cares?

This film is a fun, humorous and loving homage to the schlocky horror films of yore, and can be enjoyed in absolutely the same way as an old Peter Cushing gem. If you like this stuff, you'll like this playful updated version of the genre.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tell No One [Ne le dis à personne]

Guillaume Canet | 2006 | 125 mins | France

This tight little thriller starts out quite promising, with the story of a man whose wife was mysteriously snatched while they were away together at the family's lakeside cottage. The man himself (Dr. Alexandre Beck, played by François Cluzet) was hit in the face with a bat, fell in the lake, but later woke up in a hospital not remembering anything. The wife (Marie-Josée Croze) was found mutilated and killed, and everyone assumed she was the unfortunate final victim of a serial killer who was soon captured.

Eight years later, the good doctor (a pediatrician who lives a quiet life) receives an email from an unknown address, with a subject line that refers to a shared moment only his wife could know about. They were childhood sweethearts, after all. They knew each other better than anyone, and until this moment he never doubted that she had been dead all this time. He clicks on it, only to see a clip from a closed circuit security camera in which his wife appears to be standing.

From there, Dr. Beck's life takes a sharp and vertiginous turn for the worse, as new evidence in his wife's murder points to him as a likely culprit. The cops are after him, some shady characters seem to be tailing him, and people are turning up dead. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as Hélène Perkins, Beck's lesbian sister in law. Who the hell new she was fluent enough to carry a leading role in a French film without even the hint of an accent?

Without giving too much away about the film's twists and turns, I have to say that I felt the first half was expertly crafted and full of great action sequences and funny characters (the thug with the hemophiliac son, one of Dr. Beck's patients, for example). Unfortunately, in the final act, when all the mysteries are finally explained, I was left puzzled by a few obvious holes in the internal logic of the film. It tries hard to tie up loose ends, but ends up leaving a few big questions anyway.

Still, I'd recommend this film based on the charm and acting ability of veteran French actor François Cluzet alone. Plus, some of the action sequences and interesting shots make it much more interesting than the average Hollywood thriller. One moment in particular, when Beck slips on some pavement while running and takes a sideways fall, made me cringe more than any gory shootout or punch-up ever could.

Bonus points for the most tense use of an old U2 song in a movie, ever. "With or Without You", in case you were wondering.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Big Fix

Jeremy Kagan | 1978 | 108 mins | USA

A very young and astonishingly charming Richard Dreyfuss stars as an ex Berkley activist turned private eye in this love letter to 1960s radicalism. Dreyfuss was riding the highest wave of his career, in the aftermath of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl, so I guess it's no wonder that he plays the character of Moses Wise in this fun little crime-comedy with so much natural charm that you just want to pinch his cute, rosy cheeks all the goddamn time. After all, he was on top of the world!

Seriously though, the film is terrific. Moses Wine is a gumshoe and divorced dad who's perpetually late on support payments to his exasperated ex, Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia). When former flame Lila Shay (Susan Anspach) comes back into his life and asks him to investigate possible sabotage on the campaign of one Miles Hawthorne, a dull liberal running for Governor of California, everything goes haywire.

It seems that someone has been passing around fake flyers on which '60s radical Howard Eppis (now living underground after a famous conviction) is shown endorsing Hawthorne. Since associating with a known criminal and wanted man could sink the whole campaign, Moses is sent off by ambitious campaign manager Sam Sebastian (John Lithgow) to find the elusive Eppis.

Eppis (F. Murray Abraham) is a prankster activist whose appearance and notoriety were obviously modeled after real-life radical Abbie Hoffman (who was living underground at the time the film was made), with a bit of Weathermen-esque violence thrown in for good measure. As Moses draws closer to Eppis and to the answers, a torrent of nostalgia for the '60s rains down upon the film so intensely that you're gonna miss the good old days even if you weren't even a glimmer in your hippie mom's eye at the time.

I could easily watch a series of five or six Moses Wise films, in which the pot-smoking P.I. takes his kids on stakeouts and solves mysteries in his yellow convertible VW Bug.

Halfway through this film my movie date turned to me and asked "who's the Richard Dreyfuss of today?", and I have to admit we were both stumped. Please weigh in on this important question, loyal readers.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Last of Sheila

Herbert Ross | 1973 | 120 mins | USA

I love gambling in a video store on something I've never heard of that either has an interesting cast, an curious sounding description or some other factor that will, on the basis of the box alone, compel me to rent it (or, if it's a dollar rack in a used store, buy it - see: Impulse, for an example of how this strategy can be incredibly successful).

The Last of Sheila was just such a video store gamble, and one that worked out amazingly well. The all-star cast and intriguing plot were enticing, but I wasn't really and truly sold until I discovered on the back cover of the video box that this film was co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Just the thought of those two drunk queens sitting around some beachside villa and coming up with the story for this Hollywood insider whodunit was so appealing, I couldn't resist.

The story goes like this. James Coburn is Clinton Green, a rich, mean (but oh so funny) producer whose wife Sheila was killed in a hit and run accident a year earlier. Incredibly wealthy and clearly successful, Clinton has invited all the people who were there on the night of Sheila's death to spend a week on his yacht (aptly named Sheila), discussing the possibility of making a film about her life. In attendance are Philip the director (James Mason); Tom the writer (Richard Benjamin) and his rich wife, Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine the talent agent (Dyan Cannon), Alice the sexy starlet (Raquel Welch) and her rough-around-the-edges Brit boyfriend, Anthony (Ian McShane).

All six cloying guests are a bit too desperate to work on a hit picture, so they naturally go along with Clinton's desire to play a little game. Each is given an index card which reveals a secret crime that occurred in the past. The others must discover the identity of each "criminal" through a series of clues and activities while they are in port. Soon the guests start to realize the game may be more than a bit of fun, as real secrets from their own pasts start coming out to haunt them.

Is any of this connected to Sheila's death, or is the host just playing a cruel joke on his travel companions? As tensions and suspicion rise on the boat, everyone starts to wonder whether they've seen or heard the last of Sheila.

This film really made me wonder where the hell Richard Benjamin's been lately. Shouldn't he be playing all the roles that keep going to Alan Alda?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Donkey Punch

Ollie Blackburn | 99 min | 2008 | UK

Donkey Punch starts by introducing its characters underneath a blaring, try-too-hard mix of hip indie pop music like The Knife and Broadcast. The characters are three pretty cardboard cutouts with tits who're on vacation in Spain, and four pretty cardboard cutouts with dicks and access to a yacht.

Things obviously wind up on the yacht, which is well stocked in booze and drugs. During a swim in the sea, the guys and girls get talking about the most "hardcore" sex acts they've heard of. One of the guys schools them all on what a donkey punch is, they do more drugs, and a bunch of them go below deck to get really hardcore. After some skin is bared, a donkey punch is delivered (look it up if you don't know what it is) and one of the girls' neck is broken.

In the middle of the sea, and now outnumbering the girls by two, the guys decide to throw the body overboard and tell the authorities that she fell over the rail drunk. Obviously the girls don't like the idea of covering up the killing of their friend, and tensions flare.

Because the girls are outnumbered and overpowered, the film actually achieves some great tension when it's focused on their vulnerability in the situation. If Blackburn had spent more time with the girls, rather than spending a near equal amount with the guys, who don't even really seem that worried ever, it could have been a solid thriller. There's very little time spent on the morality of the spot they've found themselves in either. The guys seems to be on auto-pilot, only interested in saving their own asses; the value of human life be damned.

The girls eventually fight back and bodies start to pile up in supposedly creative ways that fail to shock or entertain, which leaves the film with very little going for it. Director, Ollie Blackburn was at the screening to introduce the film and do Q&A. He was very keen on letting the audience know that the film has received an NC-17 rating in the US, that penises are going to have to be blurred out when released in Japan, and that we were seeing the uncensored version. Speaking as though they were badges of honor somehow; like he'd really shaken things up and shown the Man something he'd never seen before. Unfortunately by the end of the movie, I felt a bit like I'd been on the receiving end of a really weak donkey punch where the sex wasn't very good, and then whose final blow was more of a flick to the back of the head than the full forced whack that it should have been.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson | 2008 | 114 min | Sweden

Set amid the darkness of the Swedish winter, Let the Right One In is essentially an adolescent love story: two misfits, a young boy and girl, find each other and make both of their days a little more bearable. Many of it's tropes will be recognizable. The awkward first meetings, the slow confiding in each other, and the growing to help each other with the trials of bullies and family are all there. The difference in this story is that the young misfit girl is actually a vampire with an elderly lover who harvests the blood of innocents for her to survive on. Granted, that difference is a significant one, but at it's heart Let The Right One In is still a story of naive human desire and affection in a world of fantastic horrors.

The boy, Oskar, is lonely at home and abused at school. He spends his empty nights fantasizing about revenge on his tormentors and filling a scrapbook with stories of brutal local murders. When the strange young Eli moves into his building he is immediately drawn to her. She is mysterious, strong-willed, and, most importantly, responds to Oskar's intense desire for companionship. As it dawns upon Oskar that Eli is a vampire, her nature is still less monstrous to him than the tortures he endures each day at school. And that's why Let The Right One In is so striking. The banal human ordeals are more recognizable and more horrible than the warmth and protection offered by Eli. The eerie performances of both young actors bring this home in each scene. Those creepy fucking young actors.

I will cut short this review to spare you too many reveals. All you need to know is that Let The Right One In is visually stunning, and by turns awful and beautiful. It hit all the right notes for me and is a film I expect to be thinking fondly of for a long time to come. This is a rare gem that surpasses the qualifier of being a "great horror" and is simply a great film.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Darren Lynn Bousman | 2008 | 98 mins | USA

The man who brought you Saw II, III and IV is back, and this time he's got a futuristic goth musical starring Paris Hilton and Giles from Buffy! Wait ... what?

Repo! The Genetic Opera is a bizarre experiment which is unsurprisingly (but perhaps unfortunately) creating some of the most excited buzz at the Toronto After Dark Festival, which launches on Friday, Oct 17.

Essentially, the film is a musical set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, in which a biotech company called GeneCo saves the world from an epidemic of organ failures by offering transplants with an easy payment plan. Unfortunately, those who miss their payments are hunted by the dark, mysterious, merciless Organ Repo Men.

Alexa Vega plays a young woman named Shilo (the daughter of quiet scientist Nathan Wallace, played by Anthony Head), who's looking for a cure to a rare disease that keeps her locked away in her father's mansion. She's also looking for some answers about her family's shady history and her mother's mysterious death, which seems to be in some way connected to GeneCo.

Meanwhile, in the GeneCo offices, patriarch Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) rules a roost of petulant, spoiled children - plastic-surgery addicted Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton), the abusive and murderous Luigi (Bill Moseley) and the gross-tastically faceless Pavi (Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy).

I know what you're thinking. How could something so star studded possibly be bad?

Well, let me tell you.

First of all, the music. Like many musicals, Repo! is packed to the gills with songs - in fact, it's so full of songs that there's hardly a moment of spoken dialogue. This would get a bit tiresome in the best of musicals, but unfortunately Repo! has at least three so-so numbers for every catchy hit, so the mediocre-melody fatigue starts to set in pretty early.

Secondly, the editing. The sets and costumes in this film are impressive (Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag is probably the best designed character, but the rest are nothing to sneeze at either), but unfortunately we hardly get to see any of it as the camera zips around maniacally. It's hard to appreciate the work that went into all that art direction when there are no moments of stillness. Elaborately choreographed dance numbers are hard to take in when the DP never pulls back into a wide enough shot that we can actually see it all.

Initially, I thought I also disliked the weird character of the Grave Robber (Terrance Zdunich) who functions as an omniscient narrator, and whose commentary bookends the film but is mostly absent in the middle. On second thought, I realised that I really enjoyed this guy, found him charming and fun, and thought his musical numbers were among the best in the whole film. "I wish I'd seen more of that Grave Robber" is what I left the theatre thinking!

Here's the thing about Repo! The Genetic Opera. I thought it was shit, but I think goths are the dumbest subculture, and I've never been to see Rocky Horror on the big screen. If you enjoy Dark Raves or have ever dressed up like Death from the Sandman comics, then you will unapologetically love Repo!, and that's ok. This isn't just any bad film. This is a bad film with a built in audience who will revel in it (and quite possibly turn it into a cult fave over the years, thought the jury's out on that) the way I go batshit insane for dollar bin VHS finds, y'know?

So, if you read the above and are vaguely curious but undecided about this train wreck, I advise you not to bother. Instead, go see Let The Right One In, Red, Donkey Punch, Tokyo Gore Police or I Sell The Dead - or any of the other more intriguing titles TAD has to offer. If, however, any part of you was like "Oooh, Sarah Brightman!" or "what part of goth musical doesn't sound awesome?!" or "OMG Giles from Buffy" then please, knock yourself out. This one's literally made for you.

The Thin Man

W.S. Van Dyke | 1934 | 93 mins | USA

If you find the this-year's-Juno tone of the advertising for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist unappealing at best, why not treat yourself to the original Nick and Nora, the quick witted, silver tongued, utterly charming pair from the Thin Man films. This was my thinking the other night when I finally rented The Thin Man, a mid-30s whodunit that I'd always meant to see but never had.

Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are a married couple whose wedded bliss seems to consist of a never ending string of quick witted conversations had over an array of appetizing cocktails. No hangover is bad enough to keep tomorrow's party from happening, or crippling enough to keep the jokes from flowing.

When we first meet the duo, Nick (an ex-detective) is in a bar teaching the bartender how to shake a martini (always to a Waltz rhythm, apparently). Nora (his sassy, rich, fabulously independently-minded wife) joins him at the table, orders a martini and immediately asks him how many drinks he's had. Upon learning that he's on his sixth, she beckons the waiter to bring her five more. Hard not to fall in love with them, right?

Nick and Nora are in New York for Christmas, and even though Nick's retired from sleuthing, the disappearance of an old friend, inventor Clyde Wynant, under seemingly shady circumstances threatens to bring him back into the game. It doesn't help matters much that the missing man's money-hungry ex wife Mimi and his loving daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan - you might know her as Jane from 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man and about four other early Tarzan films) desperately want Nick to take the case. Not to mention the fact that an assortment of underworld characters (including Mimi's new beau, played by a very young and swarthy Cesar Romero) all assume he's involved from the get go.

When the simple missing person's case leads to a young woman's murder, the sleuthing marrieds have no choice but to get more deeply involved. In what would become a staple of all six Thin Man films, the debonair Nick Charles invites all those involved over for a dramatic showdown. What better way to solve a murder than by having the suspects for dinner?

This terrific comedy/mystery privileges witty banter and razor-sharp wit over action and suspense, and is a much more memorable film because of it. Plus, Myrna Loy's costumes are out of this world.

Oh, if only married life were an eternal cocktail hour full of quips as sharp as olive spears!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

Ethan Coen + Joel Coen | 2008 | 96 mins | USA

I heard a lot of hubbub about how amazing John Malkovich is in this film before I saw it, and now that I've seen it I have to say that the real killer performance award belongs to Brad Pitt. I mean sure, Malkovich is very good as the beleaguered, drunk ex-CIA agent whose frigid bitch of a wife (Tilda Swinton) intends to divorce him as his life falls apart. But really, considering the depths of weird creepiness that the man is capable of reaching, this feels a bit like phoning it in. Don't get me wrong, he nails this role. But it's a bit like being impressed with an Olympic gymnast for doing a really good cartwheel.

I will concede that he deserves major bonus points for his amazingly annoying and accurate (you know these people and they make you cringe too) insistence on pronouncing words like chèvre and memoir the "proper French way".

Pitt, on the other hand, is pure perfection as the carefree gym-rat (read: idiot) sidekick to Frances McDormand's plastic surgery obsessed Linda Litzke, a simple woman trapped in an elaborate game of international espionage that is entirely of her own invention.

There are some laugh out loud moments, and one or two instances of unsettlingly out of place violence, but on the whole the film is good-but-not-great. I don't say this because No Country For Old Men blew everyone's minds last year and now the bar's been set too high. For me it just falls into the Coen-crime/suspense film versus the Coen-comedy. I love the former and find the latter almost always good ... but not great. And yes, that includes Raising Arizona.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Ed Harris | 2008 | 114 mins | USA

Ed Harris returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2000's Pollock, and the result is, at best, a so-so western. Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as Virgil Cole and his trusty sidekick Everett Hitch, two lawmen-for-hire who arrive in the dusty town of Appaloosa in order to rid it of the scourge of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men, a crew of miscreants who have been abusing the town's reluctant hospitality.

Cole and Hitch quickly lay down the new law, and bring Bragg in to stand trial for the murder of a local Marshall. Of course, then a woman has to come into the picture and muck it all up. Enter Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a recent widow who falls for Virgil (or is it Everett)? It's too bad Zellweger, a native Texan, sounds so wooden and awkward with her half-southern accent, and is so hopelessly unsexy as the woman who seduces everyone. Maybe they're just into her because she is literally the only woman in the entire territory.

When Ring Shelton (Lance Henricksen) blows into town and kidnaps Mrs. French (banking on Cole's affection for her as a bargaining chip to exchange her for Bragg), our two lawmen are forced to embark on a mission to set things right.

There's an obvious morality play at the centre of this story between what's lawful and what's right, but it's all too often awkwardly articulated in ham-fisted, expository conversations between Mortensen and his hooker confidante (Spanish actress Ariadna Gil), who only appears in the film to give him an opportunity to voice things that might have been more subtly communicated or even left unspoken. As if the opening and closing voice-over narration weren't enough!

I wanted to see more of the struggle between the Cole and Hitch. While Hitch is moral to a fault, overly bold and often guided by an emotional compass, Cole's tough guy facade hides a passive doormat whose adherence to the law comes at the price of his personal happiness, making him a spineless cuckold. The tension between the lifelong friends would have been a more interesting avenue to explore than the tepid pseudo-love-triangle.

Jeremy Irons is pretty good as the cold-hearted Bragg, but it's unfortunate that his low voice and semi-successful attempt to not speak with a British accent makes him sound a bit like Daniel Plainview. He's better than that, but it's not always apparent in this film.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Turkey Shoot

Brian Tranchard-Smith | 1982 | 93 mins | Australia

After seeing the doc Not Quite Hollywood at TIFF this year, my interest in Ozzsploitation was understandably piqued. I'd seen a few of the films described in it, but not enough! Perhaps the most simultaneously hilarious, action packed and nonsensical seeming option was Brian Trenchard-Smith's Turkey Shoot, which I got a chance to experience last week.

Turkey Shoot, a.k.a. Blood Camp Thatcher, a.k.a. Escape 2000, takes place in a futuristic, fascistic Australia in which "deviants" are sent to a sadistic rehabilitation camp, where they are reprogrammed through a strict regimen of abuse, torture and the like.

Steve Railsback is Paul Anders, an honest to goodness revolutionary who's escaped from every detention camp there is and has finally ended up in the toughest of them all - Thatcher's. Olivia Hussey is Chris Walters, a girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is now stuck in the camp. Along with a few other inmates, they are about to become the human targets in a Most Dangerous Game-esqe amusement planned by the camp's vicious leader and some other miscellaneous mean rich people. Each hunter has his or her own target and weapon of choice (exploding arrows, machetes, big red ATVs - you know, standard human hunting accessories), and while poaching is against the rules, the contestants seem disinterested in following them.

There's enough zany action and over the top gore to keep the film interesting, but just in case your attention wanes, Trenchard-Smith introduces a few genuinely bizarre surprises along the way (hot tip: when a character named "Alph" shows up, this movie will go up at least 10 points on the awesome scale).

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the turkey!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Emperor of the North Pole

Robert Aldrich | 1973 | 118 mins | USA

There was a whole spate of films about the depression made in the 1970s. Paper Moon, Hard Times and Where the Red Fern Grows come to mind right off the bat, but I'd never heard of Emperor of the North Pole until last night, but it's a bit of a star studded gem.

Lee Marvin is A-No.1 (that's pronounced A Number One, in case you had any doubts), a top notch hobo who won't take anybody's guff and is determined to take down "The 19", a train that no hobo has ridden before. Ernest Borgnine is Shack, the merciless and sadistic railway conductor who wields a hammer against any hobo who dares set foot on the 19. An young and pretty-faced Keith Carradine is Cigaret, the brash young hobo-wannabe who latches onto Marvin's star and tries to ride it into the sunset.

I'm not sure that this strange, train-hopping adventure qualifies as one of my top ten Lee Marvin films, but considering the fact that Marvin starred in some of the best movies of all time, I guess that's not too harsh a criticism. The character of A-No.1 is loosely based on real-life Hobo King Leon Ray Livingston, who hoboed it up under that alias and is credited with being one of the gents who perfected the hobo symbol system. Livingston died in 1944 and did most of his rail riding before the Great Depression, so this isn't exactly based on real events, but it's still a really fun ride.

A-No.1 manages to get onto Shack's train only to find that he's been tailed by a loudmouthed tenderfoot (the adorable Carradine). In order to keep the kid from fouling up his plans, A-No.1 sets their hay filled train car on fire and crashes through the partially burned wooden side, leaving Cigaret inside to face the consequences of being found.

When rumours start to spread about some dirty 'bo riding Shack's train, A-No.1 takes it up a notch by announcing his intention to ride it all the way to Portland, by writing his travel itinerary right up on the a big tower adjacent to the train station. Shack gets ready for a battle, Cigaret gets ready to tag along, and A-No.1 gets ready for an epic battle.

There's a great deal of hobo wisdom to be learned from Emperor of the North Pole (for example, men are not trains, because men who are out of fuel can still run on dreams). Lee Marvin's climactic "you coulda been a meat eater" speech (delivered, of course, from the back of a speeding train as it careens through the scenic western countryside) is so stirring, it's almost the hobo version of Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech from On The Waterfront.

The title itself is a nod to some Depression Era hobo lingo, referring to the joke that the world's best hobo was "Emperor of the North Pole" (i.e. the ruler of a desolate tundra). On the whole, this [essentially woman-less] film is about the romance of the rail-riding life, and it does paint a pretty compelling picture.

Extra points for an incredible poster.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

George Miller | 1981 | 91 mins | Australia

I can't believe it took me this long to see the goddamn Road Warrior.

When I watched and loved Doomsday earlier this year amid the flurry of critiques about whether it was an "homage" or a "rip off" of Mad Max, I kept saying to myself "you've really got to finally see Road Warrior". It took a few months, but here we are!

Handsome, young Mel Gibson reprises his role in the original as the lone wanderer, scavenging for (now-priceless) petrol in the devastated wastelands of Australia's outback.

He finds a compound of good people running a small oil refinery and becomes embroiled in their efforts to transport their gas to safety without getting killed by a vicious post-apocalyptic motorcycle of punks in terrifying gimp masks and ass-less chaps (they're more awesome/scary but no less gay than I'm making them sound).

Chock full of amazing car chases, death defying crashes and at least one totally incredible explosion sequence (that must have comprised about 75% of the film's budget), Mad Max 2 is really quite awesome (and incredibly topical in our peak-oil obsessed world).

Leave it to the Australians to be 20 years ahead of the game in terms of pithy social commentary in their action flicks. After the third Mad Max joint, director George Miller went on to do The Witches of Eastwick. His most recent film was Happy Feet. What is he trying to tell us about women and the environment that we just aren't ready to hear yet?! His next project is Justice League: Mortal. Clearly the end is nigh.

Perhaps I overdid that tangent. The point is: am I telling anyone anything they don't already know about the Mad Max franchise? Probably not. Am I encouraging you all to rent a copy of this and watch it on the largest TV you can find? EMPHATICALLY YES.

Next up on my "catching up on things I should have seen already" list: Babe: A Pig in the City.

Exte: Hair Extensions

Sion Sono | 2007 | 108 min | Japan

A young girl is found inside a massive shipping container, dead, without many of her vital organs, and with a VERY full head of hair. So full that her hair fills the shipping container. Yamazaki, a worker at the morgue notices that even after her corpse has been shaved by the coroner, her hair begins to grow back. A hair fanatic, he can't help himself; he takes the girl's body home with him and puts it a hammock that hangs in his apartment.

Meanwhile, a young aspiring hair stylist named Yuko (Battle Royale and Kill Bill's Chiaki Kuriyama) is training with great enthusiasm to become one of the best stylists in all of Japan. She's given the responsibility of looking after her young niece, Yuki, however, while her bad seed sister spends time with her dirtbag boyfriend. When Yuko discovers that Yuki has been abused, she has to juggle her studies and helping Yuki overcome the damage that her mother has caused her.

Yamazaki decides he can make some money if he makes hair extensions from the hair of his hammocked beauty, and starts selling them around town (out of a bird cage). The hair, we soon find out is filled with the angry spirit (or something like that) of the murdered girl, and anyone who puts the extensions in their hair becomes violent.

Obviously later, Yamazaki, Yuko, and Yuki's paths all cross through the hair extensions and CGI hair violence ensues to a satisfying climax.

Exte doesn't have much to offer in the way of story, and could have been thirty minutes shorter, but the acting is all around solid, and its effects sequences are inventive gross out fun that if you have long hair might stay with you longer than you want them to.

The Butterfly Murders

Tsui Hark | 1979 | 88 min | Hong Kong

Set in a time when 72 martial arts clans roamed China, all wanting to be no. 1 in the martial art world; a number of martial artists and Fong, a martial arts writer, find themselves at Shum Castle to investigate a number of deaths said to have been caused by butterflies. As they investigate the mystery of the poisonous butterflies, members of the party start to drop off like common flies.

The Butterfly Murders was Tsui Hark's first feature, and it shows. Not in terms of quality, but rather in terms of how much Hark stuffed into the one movie. Martial arts? Check. Butterfly horror(!!!)? Check. Scooby Doo style mystery? Check.

Some of the horror stuff isn't very effective, but it's a difficult task, to make butterflies seem threatening on film (which is accomplished on a few occasions). The action is good, solid stuff, just like you'd expect from Hark. It's not as kinetic as his later films, but his visual flair is very present; as is his impeccable sense of geography in his camera setups and editing.

What's most impressive about the genre hodge podge nature of the film is that never do any of the different elements seem out of place. I quickly accepted that it's a loose movie that has no interest in being straight-forward and conventional. If you're looking for that kind of film, look elsewhere. This one's called The Butterfly Murders!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Harsh Times

David Ayer | 2005 | 116 min | US

So David Ayer is kinda just into this one thing, hey? This "crazy day of drugs and guns in LA" thing? The writer of Training Day made his directorial debut with another of his screenplays here. At least this one is better than Training Day. That statement might not seem like much, but it is remarkable when you consider how over the top Christian Bale's performance is here. Despite his wild-eyed, screaming, crying, overwrought acting, he is still surpasses Denzel Washington's horrible scenery chewing by leaps and bounds.

Bale plays Jim Luther Davis, a fucked up Gulf War vet who has come back to Los Angeles as an unemployable, drug-addled psychopath. He clings to his last shreds of sanity in the form of best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez). The two laugh, drink forties, pretend to look for jobs, steal from drug dealers, et cetera. Typical summertime fun. Then things get weird, people get high and uncomfortably weepy, and the whole back-to-normal-life-after-the-war fantasy falls apart mightily. Its a light snack for Bale, but if you like him, you should enjoy Harsh Times. It looks, feels, and sounds like Training Day, except its good. Why did anyone like that movie?

The Opening of Misty Beethoven

Radley Metzger | 1976 | 85 mins | USA

After falling in love with Camille 2000 last year, I decided it was time to check out some of Radley Metzger's other sexy fare. This hilarious porno-Pygmalion provided fewer incredible costumes, but a much more lighthearted and fun storyline overall.

Misty Beethoven (Constance Money) is a cute but prudish hooker. Dr. Seymore Love (the semi-legendary Jamie Gillis, who notoriously inspired that limo scene in Boogie Nights) is a sexologist who's determined to transform her from "the nadir of passion" into someone who inspires it.

Dr. Love and his wealthy patron Geraldine Rich (Jacqueline Beudant) take Misty to Geraldine's mansion in Europe for some intensive months of training. At the lavish estate, Misty is forced to endure a variety of strict but sexy practice regimens (often depicted as wacky montages, complete with dildo bloopers), while Dr. Love looks on critically and an assortment of butlers and maids give head to anyone who happens to pause for more than a second.

Misty's many "tests" include having to seduce an obviously gay art dealer and ultimately vying to become the new "Golden Rod Girl" (European sex-society's top honour, apparently). All the while, in true Pygmalion-esque fashion, she's clearly falling for Dr. Love, who does nothing but mistreat the poor dear.

Great cinematography, a top notch score but some genuinely funny dialogue (not to mention competent acting) make this film one of the crowning achievements of classic '70s XXX cinema.

Interesting Factoid: The Opening of Misty Beethoven has the distinction of being the first widely-released porn movie to feature female-on-male pegging, during a ménage a trios between Constance Money, Ras Kean and Gloria Leonard. Apparently, Kean used an ass double. No joke!


Graham Baker | 1984 | 91 mins | USA

I purchased Impulse for a buck or two from a VHS rack outside the local BMV a few weeks ago because the back cover entertainingly promised a tale about "desperate lovers caught between terrifying fantasy and brutal reality". I was totally unprepared for the incredible gem Impulse would turn out to be.

Jennifer (Meg Tilly) and Stuart (Tim Matheson) are an upwardly mobile couple who return to her hometown after her mother's unexpected (and failed) suicide attempt. The town is recovering from a minor earthquake, but the young couple can feel that there's more going on than just a few aftershocks.

As time passes, a sinister recklessness seems to grip everyone around them - people are losing their inhibitions and willfully disregarding social conventions, as if every internal filter and censor had been switched off. A parking spot misunderstanding turns into full-on road rage, a child's prank nearly turns a farmhouse into a towering inferno and a young man's fit of barroom jealousy provides one of the most intense moments ever committed to film.

Bizarre, unsettling and self-destructive behaviour abounds as Jennifer and Stuart try to understand what is happening around them without being swept up themselves. Impulse manages to be both explicit and suggestive at the same time, walking the fine line between suspense and horror.

There's a creepy subplot involving Jennifer's brother Eddie (Bill Paxton doing his very best Angry Young Man) that's fascinating even though it's left barely explained.

If Impulse came out in 2009 (I envision Christian Bale in the Matheson role), very little would need to be updated for it to be one of the best suspense films of the year. Seriously worth seeking out!


Russell Mulcahy | 1986 | 116 mins | USA

Sometimes, after a festival like TIFF, it can take weeks to get back into normal habits and movie watching patterns. It's easy to develop a severe case of film fatigue, and even easier to slip quietly into a post-fest depression that makes it difficult to drag oneself out of bed and to the couch, no matter how warm or inviting the VCR or DVD players look. For me, two weeks of silent weeping over the sudden, brutal lack of Clancy Brown in my daily life have finally given way to a sort of dull resignation that this is just what reality is like now. Sigh.

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is dust yourself off and watch some old favourites to get back in the game. And what better choice than the 1986 Clancy Brown classic, Highlander?

I haven't seen this film since I was about 10 or 12 years old, and I have to say that while it didn't terrify me nearly as much this time, it really held up amazingly well. Probably, nobody needs the plot of this stellar classic re-capped for them, but here it is anyway, for readers who were born in the '90s.

After being killed (but not killed!) by a mysterious, skull-helmet wearing opponent (Clancy Brown as The Kurgan) on the Scottish plains in 1536, Connor McLeod (Christopher Lambert) finds himself banished from his village (after all, who but the devil can come back from the dead?) and befriended by a dapper gent with a pearl earring named Ramirez (Sean Connery). Connor spends the next 400-ish years learning about his immortality and preparing for "The Gathering" at which all the remaining immortals (who haven't had their heads lopped off over the centuries) battle for "The Prize", because, as Clancy often reminds us, "there can be only one".

Between 007's bedazzled Spaniard and Clancy's immortal-punk psychopath, there's a lot of awesome star power supporting Lambert's beleaguered swordsman. When The Gathering turns out to be taking place in modern day NYC, pure awesomeness ensues.

Plus, I had nearly forgotten the great Queen soundtrack. I was probably too young to appreciate it in 1986.

Side Note: I realized while watching this film that every idea I've formed in adulthood about what my dream home might look like is straight out of Highlander's awesome, multi-story, floor-to-ceiling-windowed New York penthouse. Yep, even the circular weapons room with the sunken couches.