Imitation Girl (2017)

 Imitation Girl (2017) movie poster

director Natasha Kermani
viewed: 07/27/2018

The always appealing Lauren Ashley Carter stars in Imitation Girl as NYC-based porn actress and as the alien who takes on her image on arrival on Earth somewhere in the Southwest.

Natasha Kermani’s debut feature is ambitious and sincere, though not as strong as it would like to be.

Vaguely in the mold of say, Brother from Another Planet or maybe Under the Skin, this low budget science fiction takes on the experiential discoveries of intelligent alien life come to Earth and learning about the world. Kermani plays with the doppelganger motif, contrasting disillusioned New Yorker Julianna with her wide-eyed and fascinated double.

Caged Heat (1974)

Caged Heat (1974) movie poster

director Jonathan Demme
viewed: 07/22/2018

I bet Quentin Tarantino wishes he made Caged Heat. Not that he could have.

Stylish and unusual, Jonathan Demme‘s first feature film as director, Caged Heat hits all the Women in Prison movie tropes while at the same time, subverting and/or playing with the subgenre’s characteristics. Pulpy as it needs to be, Demme also imbues the film with a sense of humanism, his interest in the casual faces in broader scenes, using extras as a human landscape.

Is this Demme’s best film?

Terrific soundtrack by John Cale.

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) movie poster

director Jeff Burr
viewed: 07/23/2018

It’s easy to see why some people consider A Whisper to a Scream (a.k.a. The Offspring) to be one of the best horror anthologies of the 1980s.

Vincent Price stars in the wrap-around story but the whole movie is rife with excellent actors in small roles and contributions: especially notable are Clu Gulager and Terry Kiser, but you’ve got Cameron Mitchell, Susan Tyrell, and Rosalind Cash too.

The stories have the eerie irony of classic The Twilight Zone, but heightened with a darkness and nastiness that eventually made Price bemoan his participation. The creep factor blends wonderfully with the sleaze and gore, giving the movie a quality and interest much above other films of the period.

I watched a crappy old VHS version of this on YouTube. It deserves much better. It deserves to be seen.

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990)

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) movie poster

director  Jim Abrahams
viewed: 06/09/2018

Welcome Home, Roxy Charmichael is not as iconic a film as Edward Scissorhands ( also 1990), but it’s a more pleasing prime Winona movie, non-blonde and outside the social cliques.

It’s also a flawed though well-meaning portrayal of someone with not just awkward but maybe mentally ill. Winona is at her best playing contemporary young women out of step with the center of culture, though not really that far from it. At first Dinky (Ryder)  seems like she might be a homeless girl, by the edge of the lake with her menagerie of cast off creatures. She’s unkempt and generally disliked by her home town, virtually disowned by her adoptive parents.

But we come to find out that she’s a misunderstood smart girl (almost straight A’s), who doesn’t identify with her family, school, or town. And even though she develops an obsession over the town’s favorite daughter, Roxy Carmichael, this isn’t further insanity, but a wish-fulfillment escapism of a sound mind.

It’s kinda sweet, seriously. Though also a bit pat and winds up with a rather typical “happy ending” in which boy and girl are united, everything is happy, and everything upholds the social norms.

Roxy Charmichael also features a good, less notable but solid B character cast beside the principals.

The Jeff Daniels aspect of the film is interesting in ways, too. He’s Roxy’s ex-boyfriend, father of a baby she left behind. Though supposedly happily married, the promise of Roxy’s return throws him for a loop, and his wife walks out on him. He can’t come to terms with his obsession. Roxy Carmichael, though never “seen” and vaguely mysterious for what she is famous, is a feminine ideal, swathed in pink, Daniels’ ardor and Winona’s aspiration.

I’m not sure how I never got around to seeing this before.

The Death Kiss (1932)

The Death Kiss (1932) movie poster

director  Edwin L. Marin
viewed: 05/28/2018

The Death Kiss is a pre-code B-picture murder mystery, starring Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan who appeared together one year earlier in the much more heralded Dracula (1931).

It’s a little meta, opening on a scene in which a woman kisses a man, marking him for execution by gunfire. A scene that is a scene on a movie set of a film called “The Death Kiss”. Only, someone set up some real bullets and killed the actor. Now we’ve got a murder mystery! At a Hollywood studio!

Frankly, it’s nonessential but not uninteresting. Outside of the notability of the cast vis-a-vis their prior, more famous grouping, and the film-within-a-film thing, it’s got little to really recommend it. There is, however, at the finale,  some kinda cool hand-tinting color of flashlights and gunfire, a reminder that odd innovations were still commonplace in the early Thirties.

And the movie poster is Deco cool.

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/21/2018

“If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love)” is an excised musical number by Marlene Dietrich, trimmed from Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. It’s an apt conceit for what the film portrays, which many have read as a thinly veiled interpretation of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s relationship, with Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual standing in for the director. Dietrich, as Concha, is as always, herself.

Cut down and re-titled, The Devil Is a Woman isn’t as successful as other films of Dietrich and von Sternberg. The director also shot the film, and the sequences of the carnival are lush and vivid as anything from his earlier films. But the story and the writing, told in a large part in flashbacks as Atwill regales the young, good-looking Cesar Romero of the way that Concha has strung him along, feels less sophisticated than perhaps it should.

While the film portrays something romantic and dramatic, there is also something farcical running through it. A tone I took as intentional, a self aware sense of irony, perhaps?

The Devil Is a Woman isn’t my favorite, Dietrich-Sternberg film, but as always, Dietrich’s wardrobe is amazing.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.

 

 

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) movie poster

director Asia Argento
viewed: 01/28/2018

Maybe they should have read the title more literally.

“The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” comes from the Biblical book of Jeremiah. Deceit, indeed.

When Asia Argento adapted J.T. LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, she really believed it to be the more or less true life tale of a young, troubled boy who went on to literary fame and stardom. She also probably knew by then that the person who would appear as J.T. LeRoy was actually a young woman, not a young man. One way or another, she went into this thing in earnest.

As earnest as her intentions, I wonder how intentionally camp this whole thing was. Because camp it is. Campity-camp-camp-camp.

Argento stars as the mother of the author, speaking with an Italian accent-inflected version of West Virginia trailer park. She is not alone. The cast includes Jeremy Renner, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt, Lydia Lunch, Winona Ryder, and Marilyn Manson.

It’s a tale of abuse, outsized abuse, to a young boy (played very well by Jimmy Bennett as the youngest, and twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, a little older).  Were it all true, it would be lurid enough. Would it be quite as camp?

This movie is like a super-loaded drunk who just doesn’t know when to quit.

And strangely, somehow, even though it’s like nine parts hilarious and ridiculous, it also manages to have a soul.

Argento, of all the famous folks, is the person who was the most outrageously deceived and exploited by the J.T. LeRoy cavalcade. She had an intimate relationship with LeRoy’s avatar Savannah Knoop, and she produced this manic wonder of a film, only to find out before its release that she and the world had been duped.

I file this under another unique spot in my film-watching archives: Movies I’d like to watch with John Waters. It’s a cult film waiting to be embraced.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) movie poster

director Jeff Feuerzeig
viewed: 01/28/2018

I can’t recall now how aware I was if J.T. LeRoy before his unmasking in 2005. I might have missed out on the whole thing we’re it not a local story and so highly emblazoned in San Francisco media. As the story played out, I didn’t really get it, figuring the literary hoax just some flash in a pan nearby.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but when so complexly interwoven, it gets stranger still.

Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story seeks to set the matter straight,…from the perspective of Laura Albert, the 40-something year old woman who was writing as a gender-fluid teen from the meanest of streets. Turns out that Albert, a victim of abuse herself, developed LeRoy as a character she used in therapy over the phone, calling in an at risk youth hotline. Her therapist turned LeRoy onto writing, then helped them get published. Albert approached writers like Denis Cooper and others as LeRoy (always by phone) and developed significant relationships with them, those suspecting they were helping a troubled, talented youth who had AIDS and was doing what he had to in order to survive.

Literary success and celebrity recognition transformed something arguably therapeutic into something much more of a fraud. Albert employed her 19 year old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to dress in a wig and sunglasses and to “be” LeRoy in real life.

It was a gateway to fame and celebrity that sucked them all in and makes for one of the strangest scenarios you can imagine.

This version is Albert’s and portrays a damaged artist who sort of accidentally got caught up in a fraud, pulling in her family and duping the literary world, the film world, and the music world in Warholian scheme.

While it’s easy to see Albert’s side of things here, one of the most bizarre aspects of Author is the amazing amount of recorded dialogues that supplement and depict this story, spanning over a decade. Apparently Albert recorded virtually every conversation she ever had and most of the people had no idea they were being recorded. This sure adds to the movie but it’s so insanely dubious, further underscoring how much everyone who touched LeRoy’s world was being manipulated and used. And why most of them felt such acrimony for them afterwards.

I’ve fallen into a real rabbit hole here, and rabbit hole it is. An alternate documentary The Cult of J.T. LeRoy is apparently more incisive. Knoop went on and wrote a memoir of her experiences which is now being turned into a movie with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. Everyone at the heart of the thing is getting their own versioning of the story.

It just goes on.