Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

(Directed by Harold P. Warren, 1966, USA)

Ouch! my brain still hurts!

This dreck is so bad it makes many B-movie cheesy flicks look like fine cinematic masterpieces. After this 16mm celluloid crime was lifted from obscurity (where it should have remained for all eternity) as the subject of a famous episode of MST3K in the early 90's, "Manos" still retains its awfulness among the true cinematic offal. Whatever you do: DON'T SEE THIS!

Well, if you must: it concerns the story of Mike (the movie's director, Harold P. Warren), his 'wife' Margaret (Diane Mahree) and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) and Debbie's rather lackluster puppy driving around endlessly and getting lost until they finally reach a 'shack' in an isolated area, caretaken by someone named Torgo (John Reynolds). Torgo (who claims he's caring for the place while "the Master' is away), has a tendency to repeat everything twice, like "It'll be getting dark soon. There's no way out. It'll be getting dark soon..." etc. Torgo (for unidentified reasons) has huge knees and an incredible case of either the fidgets, DT's or Parkinson's Disease. After warning the unfortunately lost and clueless family ominously (sort of), about "the Master being displeased", he is ordered by Mike to bring the family's bags out from their car into the shack. And ordered to bring them back to the car again. And vice-versa. At this point my brain rebelled and I needed to go somewhere else for awhile, for about 5 minutes. Unfortunately the movie was still on when I returned. The Master (Tom Neyman, in an awesomely bad performance) eventually does awaken from his rest with his wife posse: all six of them. The wives engage (after arguing in geese voices) in an epic catfight: meanwhile, the puppy gets killed, Debbie vanishes, Debbie reappears with a Doberman that runs away (smart dog); Margaret gets molested by Torgo, and on and on: it's the first horror movie wannabee shot in real time. Or something like it. While going on and on for 69 minutes, through the magic of synergy, the actual running time seems to extend into 3 hours of viewing, or what feels like standard paint-drying time.

For me, the highlight of the movie was Mike getting knocked out by Torgo: how many times have you wanted to see really bad directors get popped into unconsciousness? but that gratuitous act of violence didn't stop this movie, no sirree! After many non-scary moments, let's just say it all ends with a twist and then the credits roll (with the requisite "The End?" postulation), and some Shirley Bassey-type lounge singer singing "I'll forget you"....yeah, sweet consolation.

I've often wondered what really makes a bad movie: Manos seems to contain all the elements: bad script (why does the master have six wives? why are they asleep or to quote Torgo, "not alive on this plane", are they satanists? Free-love swingers gone bad? the undead? from New Jersey?); bad continuity: people standing in a frame for a full 10 seconds before realizing they need to speak their lines, and then a rapid cut repeatedly to something else, then back to more dead air dithering: Mike and Margaret stare for so long at a painting of the Master and a Dobermann, it seems like they're meditating and the camera cuts to a bored Debbie...and over and over again, several times. atrocious acting: Margaret's role consists of continually yelling "Help Mike!" throughout the entire movie. The Master seems to have wandered in from "Master Thespian" class and intones in a stagy voice, the voice of DOOM. And then there's Torgo, helpfully repeating his lines as if we didn't get it the first time. Bad camerawork : The camera used was a 16mm Bell & Howard that could only film for 30 seconds and the camera's sound recording was broken, causing for choppy editing and out of snc sound. One blogger said hilariously that the director was follwing the "Zapruder School of filmmaking"
The subsequent dialog sound was dubbed with three voices: it really sounds that way. Oh yes and then there's that cheesy Manos parka with the hands outstretched has the makings of a wonderful Halloween costume.....NOT! Needless to say, no one in this atrocity ever acted in a movie again, it's just for the best. If you must see this, it might scar you for life, but an ideal viewing might consist of getting a group of friends together along with the poison of your choice: whoever makes it through the entire movie still awake with relatively functioning brain cells wins!

If you're looking for the worst of the worst, you can't go wrong with this incompetently made turkey. Just remember: you won't forget the experience, no matter how much you want to.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

(Planet Terror directed by Robert Rodriguez,
Death Proof directed by Quentin Tarantino,
Trailers: Machete directed by Robert Rodriguez,
Thanksgiving directed by Eli Roth,
Werewolf Women of the SS directed by Rob Zombie,
Don't directed by Edgar Wright. USA, 2007)

"Grindhouse" consists of two movies: "Planet Terror" directed by Robert Rodrigues and "Death Proof" directed by Quentin Tarantino. Along the way, amid vintage '70's coming attraction notices are trailers, spoofs of imaginary films: "Machete" directed by Robert Rodriguez; "Thanksgiving" by Eli Roth (of the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises fame), Werewolf Women of the SS" directed by Rob Zombie and my ultimate favorite "DON'T" directed by Edgar Wright (of "Sean of the Dead" and the recent "Hot Fuzz").

I saw this for free and would like to say I enjoyed it... but I didn't. OK, "Planet Terror" was fun, except that Rose McGowan doesn't get her machine gun leg until nearly the end of the movie, later she returns as a blonde for Tarantino's "Death Proof", and ultimately gets dispatched. "Planet Terror" was good trashy fun, "Death Proof" was rather boring and I snoozed through a small part of it. "Planet Terror" does take on every 1970's zombie horror movie cliche and gets a lot right. "Death Proof" is more of an homage to "Two Lane Blacktop", "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" and other 1970's car chase road flicks. "Death Proof" neatly divides itself into two: the first part with the grisly demise of radio female disk jockey Jungle Julia with a few gal pals by 'Stuntman Mike' (Kurt Russell channeling Kris Kristofferson)in his suped-up 'death proof' car and the second part deals with Stuntman Mike getting his comeuppance by a stuntwoman and her badass gals who take him on. Along the way, there is talk, driving, more talk, circular talk, circular talk with circular camera pan...around that point I snoozed for a few. The ultimate showdown speeding life-or-death car race (after the first brutal part of the movie) is a bit of a let-down, but then we're seeing the theatrical version; the 'new and improved' version of "Death Proof" hasn't been released yet. Tarantino fans should be overjoyed. Others will feel nostalgia and turn on any dreaded late night movie....oh no! INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS!

"Grindhouse" just made me long for the real thing, it was fun but a carbon copy of something that shouldn't be copied in the first place.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rain (1932)

(Directed by Lewis Milestone, 1932, USA)

Ah! Pre-code Hollywood! Was there ever a time that Hollywood movies were unexpectedly naughty and inexplicably innocent at the same time; with dialogue full of coded sexual innuendo?

For pre-code unbelievabilty, there is the recently restored and released "Baby Face" from 1933 with the immortal Barbara Stanwyck (eventually I'll write about that classic later).

However, as part of our Joan Crawford reconsideration series (after viewing "Mommie Dearest), "Rain" is the sultry tale of Sadie Thompson, the hooker with a heart of gold and her showdown with the holy-roller reformer Alfred Davidson. Based on a novella by Somerset Maugham, the movie is about the clash of moral values set in a tropical zone, in this case Pago Pago.

The aforementioned Sadie Thompason is stranded in tropical paradise for a spell with the reformer couple Davidsons and a troop of bored marines, one of whom Sadie 'fraternizes' with. The heart of the movie is the clash of the free-spirited Sadie with Reverend Davidson (played by Crawford and Walter Huston respectively). He wears her down, discovers a secret from her shaded past and attempts to reform her.
It works briefly, until the final twenty minutes of the film.

Crawford was on loan here from MGM and considered "Rain" to be one of her early flops (since it made no money at the box office). It's interesting to see her in this before shoulder pads, the red gash lipsticked mouth and all the other things we've come to expect from viewing Joan Crawford movies. Her performance here is fresh, slighly raw and believable. The fact that she was following in the footsteps of legendary stage actress Jeanne Eagels, who made a great stage success portraying Sadie Thompson, didn't help matters either. The public still associated Eagels with this role and she died four years before this film was made. To her credit, Crawford tried to make her character believable, and her toughness works for her here, from her first seductive "He-llll-o boys" to her unrepentant last line.

It is the showdown with Walter Houston that makes this stagy movie fun, the two extremes: vice and hypocrital virtue make for very lively viewing. It is rather sad to realize that fundamentalists are still as bigoted today as they were depicted here, 77 years ago.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

(Directed by Guy Maddin, Canada, 2006)

The Canadian director Guy Maddin seems to make movies for film geeks and afficionados, obviously being one himself. His films are beautifully photographed, while his stories are deliberately over the top, so much so that they defy any attempt at synopsis and analysis.

His latest work "Brand Upon the Brain!" is being shown theatrically in two ways: as a live multimedia "happening" complete with live celebrity narrator, foley artists and small theater orchestra and also as a prerecorded narration by the wonderfully voiced actress Isabella Rossellini. If I ever directed a silent film, I would want her to narrate it.

Well, dear readers, I saw the latter version. An older 'Guy Maddin" returns home to the isolated island where he grew up, to paint the lighthouse where his parents kept the "Mom and Pop Orphanage", he will refresh the place with a fresh coat of paint. And then the memories start coming back and the movie is an extended flashback to Guy's childhood and the subsequent baroque intensity/insanity. As with most Maddin's current work, this involves a lot of Freudian complexes worked into the plot as well as a lot of absurdist plot complications as well. Some are resurrection, weird substance abuse and anti-aging serums, a Nancy Drew character dressing as a boy and entering into a lesbian affair with Guy's sister SIS and other assorted mayhem.

It's nice to say that Maddin has improved on his editing since the earlier "Cowards Bend the Knee", indeed this film is reminiscent of the earlier one: with rapid fire montage, very deadpan title cards and beautiful images recalling some of the earliest surviving film images and silent film techniques. Some surrealism is apparent too in this film: the 'aerophone' that distorts everything coming out of it and holds on to earlier spoken commands and the sentence "Father was replaced by a hamster and a metronome" among others.

Let's just say you can watch this film as you experience a dream, letting each successive image wash over you. If this is not your cup of tea, there's probably another movie ending with '3' awaiting you at the multiplex.

The live show sounds like fun, if it's playing at a theater near you, see it!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mommie Dearest (1981)

(Directed by Frank Perry, 1981, USA)

What can be said about "Mommie Dearest" that hasn't already been said? Since I've never read Christina Crawford's 'tell-all' memoir, I can't really compare between her book and the campy, cheesy cinematic train wreck/adaptation that is this cult film. Yes, 'it's so bad it's good' comes to mind, Faye Dunaway does an exceptional acting job channelling Crawford except when she crashes off the rails (at least three times during the movie). I do admit that Faye gives an awesome performance here, even when she is 'over the top', not just acting: she lives, breathes and IS Joan Crawford that, on a recent youtube search, many posters lampooning this movie thought that she WAS Joan Crawford. It's unfortunate that she refuses to talk about this movie after 26 years and no longer wishes to be associated with it. Besides the scenes where she soars completely over the top (the notorious 'No wire hangers!" scene, the garden butchery, and the scene where she tries to strangle Christina in a reporter's presence), she is totally convincing. Yes, we remember this film for the alleged child abuse depicted, but there are also scenes where Dunaway shows the character's vulnerable side. These scenes occur during the second half of the film featuring the actress Diane Scarwid as the teenaged Christina, the first part of the film featuring Mara Hobel as a younger Christina are the most excruciating to watch. There is a 'laundry room scene' where a tearful Joan confides about her future to the teenage Christina and, towards the end of the film when she visits Christina's NYC apartment with a gift of pearls.

Yes, and then there are the famous lines, which I don't need to repeat here (they can be found on the Internet Movie Database entry for this movie). My favorite comment comes from the real-life Christina Crawford who (after seeing this movie) declared: "They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!" (not sure if this is true or not, but it's great that Joan C. gets revenge from beyond the grave!!!).

When the bestseller "Mommie Dearest" came out (around 1979), there were two Crawford camps: for and against. The book and subsequent movie did a great deal of damage to the memory of Joan Crawford and her posthumous fame. Being a Bette Davis fan, I never really saw much of Crawford's films until cinema studies classes and TCM. I remember a summer night watching "Mildred Pierce" in Bryant Park and the audience cheering on her every move. A revival of Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" was revealing: how bizarre it was to see two strong women duke it out in a western no less. "Mommie Dearest" makes you want to rewatch "Mildred Pierce" and other Crawford films, you want to discover who this woman was, what made the actress unique, why she was such an icon for so long.

The "Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty" DVD is a real hoot, with a hilarious commentary from John Waters, and a few features on the making of this movie and its continuing 'popularity' as a high camp classic.

It's hard to watch this without feeling that queasy reaction of not knowing whether to be shocked or to laugh, it just continues to tread that line between camp and melodrama.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ipejji) 1926

(Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

As my first entry , I am pleased to offer an appreciation of "A Page of Madness", an avant-garde Japanese silent film from 1926, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.

The Backstory

Supposedly made without knowledge of the current silent cinema of the time, "A Page of Madness" (aka "A Crazy Page" or "A Page Out of Order") is a classic work of silent Japanese cinema that was way ahead of its time. The legend has it that the film was lost for 50 years (believed to have been destroyed in a fire) until a print was discovered in 1971. Kinugasa's film has often been unfairly compared to Robert Wiene's expressionist silent classic "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" but it is much more advanced in film language than the German 1919 film. For one, the film employs numerous techniques that were state of the art for that time: multiple exposures, distorted perspectives and camera angles, mysterious and bizarre visual juxtapositions.

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary aspects to this film is in its montage editing, somewhat reminiscent of Eisenstein's great early works (i.e., Potemkin and Strike). The film relies on rhythmical and rapid editing, similar to musical themes developing within a given sonata or symphonic work. Given the presentation of a rather disturbing story and its radical cinematic presentation, "A Page of Madness", while nearly breaking Kinugasa finacially (since he self-financed this film), the film was a huge hit in Japan. Kinugasa made a similar film, translated as "Crossroads" ("Jujiro") but it is unavailable in the West (even though it was the first Japanese film to be released in the West). As director, he had one of his greatest successes with "Gate of Hell" (1953).

The Story

"A Page of Madness" concerns an elderly man, formerly a sailor and now a janitor at an asylum whose wife is an inmate. His wife has drowned their infant child long ago, which triggered her breakdown into madness. Their teenage daughter visits and is trying to marry, she is unaware that her father is working at the asylum. Her visit triggers memories and flashbacks in the older man of happier times. In one of the films' saddest scenes, the janitor forces his wife to escape: he literally drags her from her cell, while she screams at being confronted by the stormy outside world, until she meekly crawls back to her cell and four walls. The janitor fantasizes about killing the young doctor at the asylum, dreams about happiness and finally is resigned to his fate, and his monotonous chores in the asylum.


This is a very hard film to write about. Besides the main story, the film contains no intertitles or dialogue cards. The film is very dream-like, as it shows the distorted views of the inmates. The first person we see in the film is a dancer:

After a lyrical, rhythmic montage of a storm and a car travelling through the storm, the camera settles on a costumed woman in a surrealistic night club scene (complete with large fuzzy ball with a zebra stripe), at a certain point there is a shot of her shadow flashing outside of a cell and the camera settles on the dancer in rags, dancing herself either to death or exhaustion. This is one of the most striking instances early in the film and later on, the same dancer causes a riot before her fellow patients:

The view of her becomes distorted, bending into abstract shapes and the viewer realizes that these distorted hallucinations are what the patients are seeing. There are a few instances of this in the film and it is visually striking.

After its rediscovery in 1971, the film played at the New York Film Festival, and occasionally resurfaces at various film fests and societies around the worl. As far as I know, the only copy available is a VHS copy from Facets Multimedia. Once seen, you will not easily forget it.