Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 02/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Before the turn of the millennium, the Coen brothers filmography was pretty much pure gold.  The 21st century, though, has been far less consistent.  I would posit that it’s garnered them two very good films, No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), several middling but interesting films, and one out-and-out stinker, The Ladykillers (2004).

As many have noted, with the Hollywood period setting, Hail, Caesar! echoes of Barton Fink (1991) and its apparent genre as a comedy, flecks of Intolerable Cruelty (2003) or Burn After Reading (2008)?

Increasingly, as I walk out of the theater from their latest picture, I am trying to sort out my reaction, which is often less than enthusiastic.  I don’t know how I feel, about Burn After Reading, about A Serious Man (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), about Hail, Caesar!

Politics and Communism, the Studio System, Church and Religion, genres, genres, genres.

All the actors are good, playing glib cartoons on the whole.  There are a few great scenes, particularly  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich — a stand-out) battling director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), “Would that it were so simple?” and Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” dance number.

But I don’t know.  It hasn’t jelled yet for me.  Time will tell if it will.

The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015) movie poster

director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/06/2016

Faux found footage is the last refuge of a director in career crisis.  Case in point, The Visit and M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan has been on a downslide ever since the world discovered him and The Sixth Sense (1999), and what a slide it’s been.  Though I’ve followed his career and watched his movies with increasing amounts of schadenfreude, even I jumped ship for After Earth (2013).

I’ve long disdained faux found footage, largely because it’s over-employed, typically without real creative interest, mainly for cheap camera-work and cheaper shocks.

And yet, The Visit is still probably Shyamalan’s best film in years.  It’s not great, maybe only good, but that’s a big leap up from The Last Airbender (2010).

Really, it could be considered distinctly ageist.  It’s horror of the elderly, terror of dementia.

The casting is a big part of the film’s success.  Olivia DeJonge is a stand-out as Becca, older sister of Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) who go to visit their estranged and never before met grandparents on at their rural house.  The grandparents, Deanna Dunagan playss Nana and Peter McRobbie is Pop Pop, veer back and forth between kindly old folks and increasingly disoriented and frightening weirdos, thanks to dementia and other ills of old age.

It’s got a Shyamalan twist of course, one you’ll probably see some miles away, but the film works in part because it’s not utterly clear from the very beginning exactly what the nature of the danger is.

Has Shyamalan made a comeback?  I watched a couple minutes of the “making of” featurette, which focused entirely on him and his “creative process”.  He may have made a minor success but believe me, the ego has not landed.

The 10th Victim (1965)

The 10th Victim (1965) movie poster

director Elio Petri
viewed: 02/05/2016

In the future (the future of 1965), you can play a game where you can kill 10 people (or be killed yourself).  In this hunt, half of the time you are the hunter, half of the time, the hunted.  And when you are the hunted, anyone can be your killer.  You can kill your killer, but if you kill anyone else, you will be executed.

The 10th Victim is a bit of a cross between The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and the more modern incarnation, The Purge (2013), at least conceptually.  Adapted from a 1953 Robert Sheckley short story, it’s actually a prescient and inventive film in many ways.

Usula Andress is an American hunter, and Marcello Mastroianni is her “10th Victim”, her final necessary kill to retire and live in luxury.  She heads to Rome to track him down, where he has just picked off his 5th victim.  Her kill is to be promoted, produced and marketed by Ming Tea, a sponsorship, which is a new innovation in the process.

Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), director Elio Petri employs the trappings of modernity of the time as the designs of “the future” in fashion, architecture, automobiles, and accessories.

The film is both comic and satirical but I’d hesitate to call it a comedy, per se.  It’s sharp and funny and pointed and Andress and Mastroianni are quite perfect.  A clever, mod flick, very interesting.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (1964) movie poster

director Mario Bava
viewed: 02/05/2016

I don’t know at what point I decided that Mario Bava was one of my favorite directors, but it definitely happened, somewhere over the past several years, working my way, unmethodically, through his oeuvre.  I’ve ended up at the odd point of now semi-slowly moving through his films that I haven’t seen, holding back so that I still have some more new Bava discoveries ahead of me.

It’s amazing what Bava could do with a dark set and a few colored lights.  He made gorgeous cinema vistas with budgets far below what anyone would guess while gazing upon it.  In Blood and Black Lace he’s got the camera moving a lot, tracking through rooms and compartments, over and through and from behind things.

Like his film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Blood and Black Lace was a formative film for the giallo genre and a prototype, which he would further refine in A Bay of Blood (1971) (though not as gorgeously), for the slasher films that would come in slews following.

What most struck me about this film, oddly, was the relatively violent, if mostly bloodless murders.  The masked and trenchcoated figure in black gloves, faceless as it is, attacks the models of a fashion house with great brutality, whether strangling, stabbing, or burning the women.  The scenes aren’t overly protracted but they are intense and emphatic set-pieces that are quite rough.

As with gialli, the story is ultimately a kind of convoluted mush, with an unlikely twist or two which it’s usually all the better to not contemplate.  It may well be that Bava’s greatest strength is in his visual design, compositions, and aeshtetics, which transcend his shifts (or inventions) in genre.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) movie poster

director Mark Hartley
viewed: 02/04/2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is director Mark Harley’s third documentary on alternative or subculture movie history, following Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010).  This time he turns his historical perspective, interview lens, and films clips on The Cannon Group and in particular Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the two Israeli cousins who turned a small independent studio into a temporary player in Hollywood in the glorious 1980’s.

Everyone has their own relationship with the films from Cannon, and I too recall the odd mixture of optimism and pessimism that struck me when I sat down for a movie and saw that logo come together.  They truly channeled the independent spirit and strategies honed by the likes of Roger Corman, only they really wanted a place at the bigger Hollywood table.  In a lot of ways they extended the cult and drive-in genres beyond the 1960’s and 1970’s deeper into the 1980’s than perhaps any one else really did.

They made a lot of junk.  Some of it great junk.  Some of it serious junk.  Some of the junk transformed into movie classics and much-loved flicks.

Hartley’s approach is pretty standard fare, but he gets some good stories, some reasonable (and less reasonable) takes on things, stokes ironic nostalgia, and invokes a number of imitations of Golan and Globus.  It seems anyone who ever met them learned to do an impression.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) movie poster

directors  Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 02/04/2016

What a hoot!!

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has referred to Gold Diggers of 1933 as one of the best movies of the Depression, and Boy Howdy if I wouldn’t agree!

The pre-code comedy features Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ruby Keeler as three showgirl roommates barely scraping by when Warren William shows up with a great idea for a show: a show about the Depression, what it’s really like.  And when he hears the music of Dick Powell, an aspiring songwriter neighbor of the gals, and then Powell turns out to have the money to foot the show, well, we’ve got us a musical!

Blondell and MacMahon are hilarious, leading Powell’s blue blood brother and his partner around by the nose and then eventually the heartstrings while they try to mash out the show.  You know, showgirls have a reputation….

The comedy is fast and funny as hell, but then you’ve got the phantasmagorical musical numbers staged, choreographed, and directed by legendary Busby Berkeley.  Have you ever wondered why Busby Berkeley is a legend?  Just watch Gold Diggers of 1933 and you’ll have no more questions.

From the opening number “We’re in the Money”, performed by Ginger Rogers, to the finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” (all songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin), these utterly cinematic dance and performance numbers stunning, vivid, surreal, fantastical.  Words don’t do it justice.  Just see it.

All of this, comic and music and fantasy escapism, yet all set solidly in the world of the Depression, a direct reflection of the outside reality of the time.

This is a movie I could watch again and again.  And I plan to.

Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

Mesa of Lost Women (1953) movie poster

directors Ron Ormond, Herbert Tevos
viewed: 02/03/2016

What?  “A Howco Production” doesn’t signify quality?

I think that the real key to understanding 1953’s Mesa of Lost Women is simple: the Ed Wood, Jr. connection.  It is threefold (perhaps more).  1. The notorious flamenco riff that repeats throughout the film also shows up in Wood’s Jail Bait (1954) (Howco’s 1st in-house production of the following year.)  2.  One of the mesa’s lost women is none other than Dolores Fuller!  And 3. The narration is wonderfully intoned by Lyle Talbot who among the numerous roles in his long career appeared in both Glen or Glenda?  (1953) and Jail Bait alongside Fuller.

However loose the connection, Mesa of Lost Women is a hysterical disaster of a picture, worthy of Ed Wood, Jr.

You’ve gotta love the science (administered by a mad scientist played by Jackie Coogan) that takes extracts from human pituitary glands and injects them in spiders, resulting in giant spiders, gorgeous and deadly spider-women, and misshapen and physically degenerated men.  All this in the Mexican desert of Muerte!

I also found it particularly funny when another scientist who rejects Coogan’s ideas is enfeebled, put in an asylum, escapes, and then takes a couple hostage with their small plane.

Perhaps the most Woodian thing about the film is the utterly bizarre and comical narration by Talbot.  It’s exactly the style that Wood would later employ in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), bombastic, booming, and insane.

I know a lot of folks have found this movie intolerable, but I found it sublime.

The Devil’s Hand (1962)

The Devil's Hand (1962) movie poster

director William J. Hole Jr.
viewed: 02/03/2016

A remarkably unremarkable horror film, what it lacks in style, it doesn’t really make up for anywhere else.

Robert Alda (Alan’s dad) stars as Rick, a not overly caring beau of Donna (Ariadna Welter); he shows up 20 minutes late for a date in the first scene.  Turns out he’s having weird dreams of another woman, which leads him to a very unusual doll shop in which there are dolls made to look like Donna and his mystery woman.  And further, this mystery woman, Bianca (Linda Christian) turns out to be a witch in a devil cult and she’s been using her devil-given powers to seduce him away.

Frankly, my favorite part of the movie was seeing Neil Hamilton (TV Batman’s very own Commissioner Gordon) as high priest of a devil cult.  He’s not terribly sinister but has a great voice, sounding era-appropriate male authority.

The cult itself is oddly diverse, at least with a token Asian couple and black couple.  They all sit and shift their weight to the sound of a tribal drummer.  Wherever the devil Gamba comes from, it’s not entirely clear.

Directed by William J. Hole, Jr., the film has a sort of bland TV style to it, which may be due in part to the fact that that is what Hole shot mostly.

Interesting tidbit I stumbled on: Linda Christian and Ariadna Welter were sisters in real life.  Not something you would guess at.

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972)

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972) movie poster

director Ted V. Mikels
viewed: 02/02/2016

The general response, it seems, to Ted V. Mikels’s Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is simply one of the lack of “truth in advertising”.  There is little “Blood”, no “Orgy”, and “She-Devils”? Who knows?

After watching a few Mikels films, including Dr. Sex (1964), The Astro-Zombies (1968), and The Corpse Grinders (1971), as well as the somewhat recent documentary on the man behind (and in front of) the camera The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008), I think it’s likely that for all his Exploitation street-cred of his movie titles and posters, his films are decidedly PG affairs, slight on blood, gore, and boobs and pretty disappointing if you think you’re going to get what the title suggests.

After watching the documentary, I felt like catching another of his films, and oddly didn’t really have a great notion which of them was the best one that I hadn’t seen.  I went for Blood Orgy because it was the last of his “horror” type films, as he migrated into spy stories and women’s prison pictures and other stuff.

I can’t tell you what this movie is about.  It’s bizarre and at times laughably terrible.  Laughably terrible in fun ways, that is.  It’s a tremendous amount of incoherent nonsense, light-horror and gore, bad visual FX, goofy acting and dialog, etc. etc. etc.

So, yeah, I can see why people hate it.  Rate it as low on the star system scale as they can.  Feel ripped off.

But for some reason, I think I liked this one as much as any of his films I’ve seen.  It is so confused that it becomes surreal.  One long bad dream (actually it’s only 73 minutes).

I feel like I need to see this again to really say something about it.  So, I’ll leave it at that and take what you can from this.

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008)

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels (2008) dvd cover

director Kevin Sean Michaels
viewed: 02/02/2016

Cult movies are a wondrous thing.  Even before I ever laid eyes on Incredibly Strange Films by Boyd Rice and V. Vale or the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Micheal Weldon, before I ever knew what Cult film was, I was into it.  Even before I ever found on Famous Monsters of Filmland, I knew what I liked.

One of the great things about the present time from the past is the access to information, the interwebs.  You don’t have to live in ignorance (though maybe in misinformation-land at times).  And all the weird things you ever had curiosity about are now essentially at your fingertips.  The loss of obscurity has some downsides (the “coolness” of being into something no one else knew about is radically diminished), overall it’s actually great to know and learn about the backgrounds of things, the people behind them, the stories that were hidden by circumstance.

One of the other things has been the proliferation of documentaries about some of these odd subjects.  Costs of production going down with digital video and new outlets in streaming for marketing and distributing, there have been a number of films about Cult icons capturing them in their late years, recounting their experiences and thoughts.  And lucky so.  A lot of them are getting on in years, if not already passed.

Where Ted V. Mikels sits in regards to the pantheon of Cult cinema, I’ll let others posit.  Though I was familiar with his films, namely The Astro-Zombies (1968) The Corpse Grinders (1971), and to a lesser extent The Doll Squad (1973), I had never seen them until last year when Fandor got a spate of them and I couldn’t have told Ted V. Mikels from a hole in the ground.

The documentary The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels answers a lot of questions.  He’s here, already almost 80 when interviewed, recounting his life from childhood magician to eventual independent filmmaker of 50 years (or even more).  The film recounts in chronological order the more significant of Mikels oeuvre and gives background on them.

John Waters narrates (always a good thing).  And Tura Satana (R.I.P.), Francine York, and Shanti are on hand to give their insights.  It’s telling that Mikels has remained good friends with Satana and others, employing Satana in a number of films even into his more recent digital video efforts (he has continually made films, switching to digital in the 1990’s for cost concerns).  It’s telling because one of the other aspects of his life is his “castle” home into which he moved in the 1970’s after splitting with his wife, where he maintained a rotating harem of 7 beauties with whom he collaborated, both literally and with lots of innuendo there too.

This is the one shortcoming of this film.  It’s hardly an objective one.  It allows Mikels to tell his story as he wants with supporters who share those views.  And it’s all reasonably good fun.  But the stories behind his discreet bragging must be very interesting.  All that may be left to obscurity and speculation.

Which is kind of interesting since his films, bizarre and exploitative as they are, are also extremely tame by other standards of Cult and Exploitation peers of his.  There is a distinct lack of blood, guts, and nudity where you might expect to find them.

It also calls to question what is his most significant film.  Presently, though I have yet to watch it, I might speculate that it’s The Doll Squad which they openly state that Aaron Spelling stole and turned into television’s Charlie’s Angels a few years later.