Bad Company (1972)

Bad Company (1972) movie poster

director Robert Benton
viewed: 06/27/2014

Bad Company recently played at the Castro Theatre, and though I couldn’t make it to the showing, I was certainly intrigued by the write up and queued the film up.  It’s the first feature film directed by Robert Benton, one of the figures of the American film scene of the late 1960’s-1970’s, not one with which I’ve had as much exposure.

It’s a very fine, melancholy revisionist Western, starring a remarkably young Jeff Bridges with pretty equally remarkable Barry Brown (an actor died an untimely .death at his own hand at the age of 27).  It’s the story of a gang of young men who hie out to escape inscription into the Civil War and take to the West as would=be outlaws.

It’s easy to see the parallels to then contemporary Vietnam protestation and anti-War feeling, but more than directly addressing the war itself, the film is focused on the directionless, scrappy youth as they encounter the harsher reality of the outside world.  Brown plays the educated, monied Drew Dixon who takes up with Bridges’ Jake Rumsey and his gang of young men after he is mugged by him.

The boys’ exploits veer from the amusing and bittersweet to the brutal and tragic.  And while the film ends on an open-ended, assumingly positive note, the whole is drenched in a much darker, tragic circumstance.

It’s a very good film, an excellent emblem of the time, perhaps even further imbued with tragedy given the sad end of Barry Brown, who showed great charm and character in his part as Dixon.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1972)

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1972) movie poster

director Brian Clemens
viewed: 06/27/2014

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter isn’t your massively typical Hammer horror film, though it’s got vampires in it.  These are a slightly different ilk of vampires that suck out young women’s youth, turning them into old, old hags who then die.  And there is a bit of mystery here as to who the real vampire is.

But there is little mystery about the swashbuckling hero of the film.  It is titled “Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter”, after all.  Played by Horst Janson, he’s a blond swordsman with a penchant for slaying vampires with his hunchbacked sidekick Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater), who has such vast knowledge of vampires that what he doesn’t know about blood-suckers “wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece,” or so says Captain Kronos of him at one point.

It’s really a pretty decent romp, with some comedy, some violence, some drama and even a dash of dashing sword-fighting to fill it out.  You get the impression that there was some hope on the part of the producers to get into a series of films with further adventures abounding.

Good fun.  Don’t think I’d ever seen it before, even in my days of watching every Hammer horror film that television threw at me in childhood.

Cocaine Cowboys (2006)

Cocaine Cowboys (2006) movie poster

director Billy Corben
viewed: 06/26/2014

Recommended by a friend, Billy Corben’s Cocaine Cowboys recounts the seriously dark days of Miami, South Florida, and ultimately the whole United States.  Having grown up in Florida in what can only be considered a parallel universe, I was virtually unaware of any of this stuff at the time.  I’ve still never actually been to Miami, myself, though I have a number of friends from there.

Truth is more fucking bananas than fiction.

And yet, it all makes sense how it came to be.  Florida is perhaps the weirdest state in the US, certainly that is how it is perceived outside of there.  But this sleepy, tropical, deep South is also truly a segment of the Caribbean, and in the days before this infusion of murder, drugs, and insanity, was a wholly different place.

Actually, Corben’s film is kind of like a machine gun itself, ratatatting out facts, clips, quotes, information in such rapid fire, it’s almost impossible to take it all in.  It has a hyperkinetic cutting style of television (formerly what used to be called “music video style”).  It’s a pace that is exhausting in its almost two hour length.   There is a lot to be taken in here.  A lot.

Corben interviews a few of the drug runners, Americans who were key parts of the machinery flying cocaine into Florida from Columbia, working out the systems with the brutal leaders of the Medellin Cartel, names that have atrophied into legend.  He also interviews another man who is still in prison as an enforcer for the Cartel.  And while this is vital core testimony and some really fascinating insights, it adds to the flurry and chaos, rather than sifting through it.

Some of the most shocking numbers, the pure body count of homicides in Dade County from 1979 up through the 1980’s is absolutely shocking.  The impact of the Cuban influx from Fidel Castro’s exiles is also stunning, though something that I’ve come to learn about in other forms.

The latter part of the film diverges into a focus on Griselda Blanco, the female capo in the Columbian mafia whose name has also become legend.  Though I wonder if it’s in part from this film that her legend has become to be more widely disseminated.  Corben did actually make a sequel to this documentary that focuses even more on her.  She’s certainly worth the focus, but with this broad basis of narrative, it’s kind of a shame, and suggests that this film has too much in it to have the kind of focus that would make it as impressive as it could be.

Still, it’s a crazy, crazy tale about the Miami of yesteryear, of the time, and how it has come unto the present.  A city that was built on drug money, and how that money was built on brutal violence and a world that was wide open at the time.  It might be interesting to see Ted Demme’s Blow (2001) again, which is a biopic, quite different, certainly, but of a similar universe.

Still, mind-boggling.

Robot Monster (1953)

Robot Monster (1953) movie poster

director Phil Tucker
viewed: 06/25/2014

Oh, Robot Monster, how did I fail to have ever seen you?  It’s kind of funny but since I decided to head along this road of watching the “worst movies of all time” alongside my trek of getting through major works of cinema that I’ve never seen, I have to say that I’ve been enjoying the former a bit more overall to an extent.

While there are no definitive lists of either “the best” or “the worst” of all time, I think that the list of worst is a bit more consistent.  I mean, “the best” is a particularly hard to define grouping, very much a matter of taste, and even the lists that are considered the most legitimate, like Sight and Sound’s Top 10, it’s a changing, changeable thing.

The worst films have stood the test of time largely.  And like any of these lists, recent entries tend to take up too much space and have yet to prove themselves, you find yourself going to the core of the classification.  The classics of bad cinema, if you will.

Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster made Medved and Dreyfus’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Time list and still remains on the Wikipedia page of worst films.  That is stamina.

It’s a completely unbaked sci-fi story of an alien invasion of one, a robot monster called Ro-man who has come to slay all Earth people.  Ro-man is a man in a gorilla suit with a sort of robotic headpiece where the gorilla’s head would be.  It is in many ways the exemplar of the lamest monster design in movie history.  And what’s funny is that something so lame can become so iconic as a result.

Ironically iconic.

Clocking in at only 62 minutes, it’s also funny how many extraneous shots of Ro-man walking up and down hills there are.  There is even an “Intermission” which is actually kind of cute.

The title sequence features lots of magazines of the day as the backdrop, which is kind of cool.  But there are also non-sequitur moments spliced in from other films of dinosaurs (both stop-motion and one with an alligator with a fin on its back wrestling a gila monster.)  Both moments get played twice.  And the ending…

Oh, the ending…  It’s all a dream…or is it?  But the best is the three shots in a row of Ro-man appearing from the cave at the very end.  This film was shot in 3-D but why the three times through on this ending is perplexing and also part of why this film is so pleasurably a classic in bad movie-making.  It truly belongs up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

What can I say, it’s terrible.  I kind of loved it.

Jug Face (2013)

Jug Face (2013) movie poster

director Chad Crawford Kinkle
viewed: 06/24/2014

I can’t recall where I stumbled upon Jug Face to place it in my film queue, but it was showing up both in Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming and so seemed to really be trying to tell me to watch it.  I’ve been venturing through both classics and anti-classics so it seemed a good time to watch a contemporary horror film…about which I knew virtually nothing.

It’s a strange concept for a film, a small backwoods community that worships a hole in the ground, “the pit”.  They make moonshine to sell in the nearby town and when “the pit” calls to a potter and tells him to make a “Jug Face” (a jug with the face of someone in their little community), he makes it from the mud of the pit and then that person has to be sacrificed to the pit.

You know, the kind of horrors that we all have.

The film stars the young Lauren Ashley Carter as the girl whose face shows up on the most recent jug.  She’s been having sex with her brother, even gets pregnant by him, so when she sees she is to be doomed, she hides the jug and tries to figure out a way out of the mess.  Only “the pit” starts slaughtering people at random in apparent punishment of the community for forsaking its desire.

The concept is odd enough and earnest enough to make it pretty compelling.  There are moments of “pit vision” when Ada (Carter) is seeing through the pit’s eyes that are done in pretty lame effect, which is my biggest complaint about the film.  Carter herself is quite compelling.  I’m definitely keeping an eye out for more movies from her.

An odd, interesting little film.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972) movie poster

director Buichi Saito
viewed: 06/24/2014

Chapter four of the six film series of Lone Wolf and Cub that was produced in the early 1970’s, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972) is the first film not directed by Kenji Misumi, but by Buichi Saito.  Though some of the players shifted throughout, it carries on the story without dramatic stylistic changes, though does feature some of its own characteristics.

You’ve got the very pulpy lead in with the topless and tattooed Oyuki waylaying a gang of killers with her knife.  As in the other films, the Lone Wolf is often sympathetic to the brutality against women, though here is charged with killing Oyuki.  He allows her her own vengeance and offers her a noble death.  All while the Yagyū clan comes in larger and larger numbers to get their revenge on him.

The battle at the end of Baby Cart in Peril is not so unlike that of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972), a showdown on a cliff resembling a quarry with the Lone Wolf blasting away with the guns inside the baby cart and then slaughtering the would-be slaughterers.  Only this time, there are even more of them, and the fight goes on in a labyrinth-like pit at the bottom.  And this time, the Lone Wolf takes a heck of a greater beating, pretty seriously bloodied up.

Pulpy is probably a good way to describe this episode.  Oyuki is a pulp character and the dismemberments and blood geysers are plentiful, if not gratuitous.  All with the watchful eyes of Daigoro, the cub, fearlessly facing the world, would-be killers and the killed, even his own death with complete placidity.

I’ve taken my time getting through this series but have decided to push forward and watch the rest with some relative alacrity.

Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959)

Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959) still

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 06/23/2014

It was actually Aleksandr Rou that turned my tipping point to getting a Roku box and joining the streaming movie universe.  Netflix DVD service had one Aleksandr Rou film available, the quite amazing Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939).  Hulu Plus offered three later Rou films and I keenly queued them up.

I am still learning about Rou, the Russian fantasy filmmaker.  I learned of some of his films from Scumbalina’s Atomic Caravan, but haven’t had the chance to see the two that she wrote about, 1964’s Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors or 1973’s The Golden Horns.  And really I haven’t much context for the director, the genre, its history, contemporaries, or perception.  It’s all new to me.

Of course, fantasy films are fantasy films.  These are Russian fairy tales, featuring evil kings, kidnapped women, transformed frogs.  Whether you know the stories or not, you recognize the scenarios.

In this one, a happy-go-lucky soldier is returning home when he encounters first two baby bears crying for their grandfather to be released from a trap (Vasilissa the Beautiful also featured some pretty remarkable trained bear acting).  The soldier then stumbles upon a young boy whose mother has been kidnapped by king from under the sea and goes on a venture to save his mother, the “wonderful weaver” of the title.

The effects in this film weren’t nearly as dramatic but the art design was pretty amazing and cool.  The colors of the film may have been more vivid at one time, and some of them are very effective.  There are brief musical interludes and a goodly amount of comic play.  My favorite was Prime Minister Croak, the frog man, coated with a very thick green paint until he falls into the boiling water and remains red for the rest of the film.

The film reminded me vaguely of things like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and other American fantasy films from the 1960’s to 1970’s, aimed at an audience of children and fully indulging the beauty of the form, wheeling out a good yarn, with gentle humor, adventure, and strange fantastic beings.

I will venture further into the work of Aleksandr Rou and Russian fantasy films.

Sex Madness (1938)

Sex Madness (1938) movie poster

director Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/23/2014

What’s there to say about Sex Madness?  First: Great title.

For me, the real reason to see this particular exploitation film is that it is the work of one Dwain Esper, whose 1934 film Maniac I found to be one of the most mind-bogglingly wild movies I’ve ever seen.  I figured his later film on the horrors of syphilis and gonorrhea had to be worth seeing, even if it is on a pretty shitty copy on DVD.

This is the reality of movies in the public domain.  For all the film restoration that goes on, some movies are never going to really warrant the work.  And the version of Sex Madness I watched was as poor a copy of any movie I’ve sat through in the past decade or so.

It has its moments.  A bunch of young people go to a burlesque show and get all hyped up on sex.  In fact, in a throw-away moment, the film intimates that one man all hopped up on sex from the burlesque show hunts down a child to rape and kill.  The others just go to a party at a house to pair up and “get it on”.

Oh, but there are diseases.  Shameful diseases.  Pretty devastating diseases if untreated.  We even go to a hospital to see the ravages of syphilis on the human body.  It can ruin a good person.

The film is actually quite progressive in its way, actually trying to foreground the talk about sexually transmitted diseases rather than shaming and hiding them.  It encourages people to know their facts and seek treatment, to “come out” if you will about their illnesses.  So, give it credit for that.

It’s no Maniac, sadly.  Still, quite interesting in its way.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/22/2014

Ah, Man.  Spartacus.

This was another one of those movies that I’m not sure how I managed to go 45 years without seeing.  It’s Stanley Kubrick.  Most film dudes (and dudettes) have seen every Stanley Kubrick movie, right?

Me.  Not even.  I still haven’t seen Killer’s Kiss (1955), Paths of Glory (1957) or Barry Lyndon (1975) and oddly enough, it’s been eons since I’ve seen most of them.

Epics are a slog.  I mean Spartacus is over three hours long.  And you know from the opening moment that you are in for a long haul.  It opens with a title card of “Overture” and a black screen plays back a rather forceful musical theme for quite a while before the pictures and title come.  If you didn’t know before that, you know pretty quick that this is one long movie.

It’s got a great cast.  Kirk Douglas leads with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton playing the Roman leads.  It came at a time of a lot of big Biblical epics were cramming the screens, so this piece of historical cinema jogs just aside of the Christian story but still gets to pit itself against ancient Rome.  That while it’s more subtly about the Hollywood blacklist and the import of the Civil Rights movement.

It was interesting to see Olivier because I don’t think I’ve recently watched any movie that he was in.  And Peter Ustinov.  He’s very appealing as well.  Douglas seems a little long in the tooth for the role of the slave revolt leader, but he produced the film and dammit, that’s just how Hollywood works.

Apparently, Spartacus was the only of Stanley Kubrick’s films that he did not have final cut on and one which he dismissed from his oeuvre.  You can kind of see that.  It’s more a Hollywood epic than a personal vision, though it’s good, well-made entertainment.  Maybe that’s it.  It’s good, well-made entertainment.

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tokyo Drifter (1966) movie poster

director Seijun Suzuki
viewed: 06/21/2014

What can I tell you about Seijun Suzuki and Tokyo Drifter that you don’t already know?  I suppose that depends on who you are and what you know.

Seijun Suzuki is in a kind of class by himself.  I can’t really think of anyone remotely like him, though his work verges into areas like surrealism and uber-stylized action.  Still, working almost exclusively in the yakuza gangster film, he veered away from conventions while actively flouting and flaunting those conventions.

The most typical cases in point are Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill (1967) because these were two of his final films as a director at Nikkatsu Studios, the ultimates in stylized genre movies that became less and less about the story that was being depicted and more and more abstracted and strange.  Both films are the exemplars of his sort of wacky approach that got him canned and made him a legend.

I think I prefer Tokyo Drifter but I’m not sure.  Suzuki pulls from a lot of varied things to put together this particular film.  In fact, it’s got so much going on in it, it’s kind of hard to discuss in brief.  Any one scene may feature sequences of abstraction or strange artifice, jump cuts, genre jumps.  It’s most like perhaps some of Jean-Luc Godard’s early work but with a lot more emphasis on style and less on pure audience awareness.

Style Suzuki has in spades.  In fact, he uses style like he has it in spades.  Abstracted into weirdness.

So what can I tell you?