Convention Girls

Ah, the good old days — when an introspective B movie with an incongruously complex, multi-threaded narrative got sold on the drive-in circuit as a straightforward sex comedy. Directed in Miami Beach by NYU film school grad Joseph Adler, and shot in 16mm, it all takes place over the course of a couple of days at a toy manufacturers’ convention. One “convention girl” is looking for sweet corporate revenge against her ex. An older wife is looking for no-strings-attached sex with a genial cabana boy. Another woman is trying to sell the industry on her anatomically correct Barbie and Ken, including Ken’s tiny, magnet-induced erection. I’m not making any special claims for the quality of this generally drab little movie, but it clearly has things on its mind — infidelity, parenting, sexism, depression — and it’s an interesting artifact.

Buddha's Palm

Buddha’s Palm

Seeing an outrageous cult movie on DVD is one thing; seeing it projected from a 35mm print on a huge movie theater screen is another. In your living room, Buddha’s Palm might be a mildly headache-inducing oddity from the twilight years of the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. In a movie theater, it’s a mind-altering hallucinogen, stuffed to bursting with wizard battles and wuxia action and edited with a head-spinning propulsiveness that can make you wonder if shots, scenes, or entire reels have gone missing.

I’ve seen a lot of Shaw Brothers films, but none of them like this —which probably just means I haven’t dipped deeply enough into the studio’s 1980s catalog, which chronicles a time when the studio ventured further into low-budget genre territory, borrowing ideas from American horror and science-fiction films and incorporating them into very Chinese narratives. Buddha’s Palm has animated FX that are strongly inspired by the Star Wars movies — at one point someone switches on a lightsaber, and, I swear to god, the sound-effects editor swiped a snippet of audio from The Empire Strikes Back, including Darth Vader’s breathing, to match the visual — but it has its own charms, too, including the out-of-nowhere appearance of a strange sort of dog-dragon hybrid that perhaps anticipated Falkor in The NeverEnding Story. It’s completely phony, of course, just two guys in a suit. (I kept imagining Secretariat from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson up there with the swastika-blasting grandmasters, with a huge grin on my face.) But it’s also raggedly impressive, like something you’d want to applaud if it appeared in a live performance on stage. And then there’s the killer combo of a very big man carrying a very small one (a child? a dwarf? I couldn’t tell you, officer; it happened so fast) who squirts skin-burning acid from a, erm, sizable pimple on his chin. Yeah, holy shit.

At times it all seems kind of … let’s say inept and desperate, but then again there are moments so perfectly judged — like a breathtaking decapitation near the climax — that you know there was talent at work here, though probably squeezed by time and money constraints that made just getting this thing in the can a herculean task. It’s amazing, especially in a theatrical print with those trademark Hong Kong-movie subtitles that force you to swivel your head back and forth like you’re taking in a tennis match just to scan every word from the lower-left-hand corner of the screen to the lower right. I’m just trying to say: I had a fantastic time with this. I’ll never forget it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again — at least not without a crowd — but does it exponentially increase my interest in this period of the Shaw Brothers catalog? You bet.

Machete Kills

Machete Kills

Well, this got panned on its release — perhaps justly. But now that it’s on Netflix Instant, where you can queue it up without earmarking any money or committing much time to the experience, it’s in its element. I watched it at the beginning of a long holiday weekend after making a shaker full of margaritas (tequila, triple sec, fresh-squeezed lime juice, no mixers or any bullshit like that) and found that it fairly reliably delivered the laffs, one after another.

No, it’s not an action movie. I think it fancies itself a satire, but it’s not a very good one of those, either. And as grindhouse pastiche, it’s unconvincing. It’s just a live-action cartoon, with inane gags — starting with the garishly spotlighted Wilhelm Scream (presumably a Morricone parody) that punctuates the opening credits — that connect just often enough to keep things interesting. It has Lady Gaga! Mel Gibson! An absurdly brief Walton Goggins cameo! Some tongue-in-cheek reflections on American border paranoia!

I still cringe at the unconvincing CG blood and bullet holes (really? you couldn’t be bothered to just have a make-up guy paint a gunshot wound on that guy’s kneecap?) but when it’s used to allow Machete to tangle a bad guy’s intestines in a whirring helicopter rotor? I guess I’m OK with that. At the very least, it’s rarely boring. And, in contemporary Hollywood, giving a 70-year-old actor of Mexican descent a multiplex action franchise is a mildly subversive act on its own. Would I watch Machete Kills Again … in Space!? Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t pay 12 bucks for the privilege.

Felissa Rose in Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp

Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling [...]

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Consider the pig. Pork is damned near a gourmet food these days. Celebrity chefs will serve you layers of pork belly wrapped around potatoes, figs, even pineapple. They’ll dip bacon in chocolate, infuse it in vodka, or drape it across an ice-cream sundae, resplendent in its brown glory. Your local organic market probably sells artisanal bacon cured with dark, fine-grained muscovado imported from Mauritius and flavored with angel farts and faerie dust. The recent cinema has also celebrated the pig, [...]

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Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone.

Set in Scotland during the 1970s and [...]

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Elizabeth Olsen

Gojira, Gilliam, and R.I.P. Gordon Willis

Godzilla left me more or less cold. I could barely find enough to say about the latest Hollywood franchise reboot to fill up a Letterboxd diary entry. And yet smart people waxed rhapsodic over the damned thing. What am I missing? I see a film with a few exceptionally clever moments and technically brilliant CG work that never finds its narrative footing. Not as scary as War of the Worlds or as much fun as Jurassic Park, it doesn’t measure up to even second-tier Spielberg. And as gloomfests go, it doesn’t squeeze the cheer out of the room anywhere near as effectively as a Christopher Nolan pic.  I didn’t dislike it, exactly, largely because it does many things right. It even gets some of the hard stuff right. (Godzilla as hero was totally the way to go this time around.) But it gets some easy things wrong — first and foremost by putting the single blandest character in its homo sapiens line-up front and center — and never works up a real head of steam.

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in Manhattan

R.I.P. Gordon Willis, ASC. The cinematographer behind the camera for The Godfather, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and more has passed. He got that dim, shadowy look for The Godfather by deliberately underexposing film and not pushing it quite enough in processing to make up the difference. (“A lot of cameramen work to increase the quality of the image,” he said at the time, “but in this specific case I’m working to decrease it.”) You can see much of his finest work on really good Blu-ray versions — the latest Godfather reissues and the Woody Allen films are top-drawer — but the indignity of a revisionist HD transfer of All the President’s Men that he described as “all fucked up” tarnishes his legacy. (“You call these [home video] guys, it’s like talking to a head on a stick,” he memorably told Jeffrey Wells.)

Terry Gilliam is making his Don Quixote movie again. This per Variety, which reports that casting has begun anew. (Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor were set to star in the previous incarnation of this project, and of course Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp were attached once upon a time.) Good luck, old buddy.

Those Ennio Morricone concerts in New York and Los Angeles have been canceled.

Ullmann. Bergman.

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan

Twin Peaks, Criterion, David O. Russell, etc.

Twin Peaks gets a Blu-ray release. I was kind of enraptured the first time I noticed that Netflix was offering HD transfers of old Twin Peaks episodes among the vintage trinkets on display in its junk shop of the cinematic mind. I kept myself from watching too much because I figured a proper spinning-disc release had to be in the works — and here it is. Crazy as it might sound, the assemblage of all 29 episodes of the original series (including the international version of the pilot, which wrapped the show’s central mystery up all tidy-like in the final few minutes of screen time) is not the real draw for Lynch diehards. Nore is the mere inclusion of the theatrically released prequel, Fire Walk with Me, that special. No, the siren’s-song of this overstuffed set is the arrival of an hour and a half of Fire Walk with Me deleted scenes. The existence of that footage was widely publicized before the film came out on DVD and, as I recall, New Line Home Video investigated the possibility of a massive special edition before crushing fan hopes with a relatively bare-bones release back in 2002. Well, it’s all coming now. The project seems to have been officially announced on Tumblr and Twitter (above). Of course. I remember this seemed like a pretty poor excuse for a movie when I saw it at what I remember as a pre-release midnight screening, but I’ve watched it since then and it has aged well. And if you buy Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery from Amazon, gets a kickback.

All That Jazz

All That Jazz

Criterion announces August titles. Will anyone have the money to buy them after shelling out for the Twin Peaks and Werner Herzog boxed sets in July? Anyway, here’s the line-up: Latter-day John Cassavetes picture Love Streams, Alfonso Cuaron’s NC-17 Y Tu Mamá También, Almodóvar’s NC-17 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Átame!), Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine (a longtime Criterion favorite dating to the days of laserdisc), and Bob Fosse’s lacerating self-portrait All That Jazz are all coming soon to Blu-ray and DVD. I haven’t seen the Imamura, and I’m sure I was too young and callow for Love Streams to make an impression when I saw it in the 1980s, but my clear favorite from that bunch is All That Jazz.

I’m not a big David O. Russell fan. Still, I always see his movies. And I find interviews with him pretty interesting since there is something genuine about him. I like the part most of the way through this one with Terrence Rafferty, for the DGA, where he seems to get bitchy and defensive — not so much about the questioning, I don’t think, but rather about what he thinks the questioning reveals about the way people think of him as a director.

Jezebel selects nine films that pass the Bechdel test in 2014.

Harrison Ford has been offered a role in the Blade Runner sequel. (Oh, how I choke on those words: Blade Runner sequel.)

Elizabeth Moss. Katharine Hepburn.

Elizabeth Moss

Elizabeth Moss

[via a dame like me]

Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco

Grace of Monaco, Missing Reels, etc.

So Grace of Monaco is apparently a big loser. In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw’s takedown says it’s “so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire risk.” Other reviews are more kind; in Variety, Scott Foundas calls it a “cornball melodrama,” and for Vanity Fair, Jordan Hoffman allows that it’s “entertaining and watchable,” if ridiculous, which sounds like a grudging endorsement to me even though the subhead calls it “bad.” A writer for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang,  describes a screening punctuated by guffaws from the assembled critics. In Time, Richard Corliss at least defends Nicole Kidman’s titular performance (if only David Thomson were at Cannes this year!), but the bottom line is there are seven reviews at at this writing, and none of them are “fresh.”

James Gray on his influences. Man, director James Gray is a terrific interview. Intelligent, respectful, and fairly candid. On the occasion of the release of his The Immigrant, Steve Erickson talked him up about all the different films he swipes ideas from, from Rocco and His Brothers to A Short Film About Love. Stephanie Zacharek reviews The Immigrant, which is getting a very limited release: “In today’s movie-marketing climate, The Immigrant probably has too much feeling for its own good. But anyone who cares about movies, and about what movies can be, should try to see it on the big screen.”

Classic film specialist Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, is publishing her first novel. Do you work at a bookstore or are you somehow otherwise engaged in bookselling? If you can figure out a way into Book Expo America, the annual industry trade show that takes place  at Manhattan’s unlovable Javits Center, why not show up on Thursday morning and pick up a signed galley of Missing Reels? It’s by New York Post film critic Farran Smith Nehme, perhaps better known online as blogger Self-Styled Siren, and it’s coming from a real publisher, film-friendly The Overlook Press. It’s set against the backdrop of the New York repertory movie-theater scene in the late 1980s; the synopsis reminds me a little of the Theodore Roszak classic cult-film yarn Flicker, but maybe with a happier ending! She says she’ll be signing books around 11:30 a.m. at the Overlook booth; in my experience you may or may not be able to get your hands on a galley if you miss the event.

Billy Wilder, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon.

Billy Wilder, Shirley MacLaine, and Jack Lemmon.

From Irma la Douce (Wilder, 1963).

[via chained and perfumed]

Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson


In early 1965, under the influence of the French New Wave, half dead from pneumonia and subsequent antibiotic poisoning, and depressed by more than just the view from his Stockholm hospital bed, Ingmar Bergman cobbled together some ideas for a small movie about two women. Addled by the administrative headaches of his position as the head of Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre–and probably discouraged by the frosty reception that greeted his recent comedy and first colour film, All These Women–he felt a [...]

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Scarlett Johansson

Under the Skin


Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.

Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.

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Nastassja Kinski

Cat People

Amid the American horror boom of the late-1970s and early-1980s, when everything old was new again and once-dormant studio properties like Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Thing from Another World, and The Fly were suddenly valuable franchises, the script for a remake of Cat People, one of the most subtle of all horror classics, somehow ended up on Paul Schrader’s desk. Why Schrader? Dumb luck, mostly. Certainly he had no great love for the source material, a 1942 horror film directed by [...]

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Nastassja Kinski


In the annals of feel-bad literature, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a corker, pitting natural beauty and goodness against a battery of opposing forces–the church, the aristocracy, modern technology, human avarice–and finding beauty debased. It was a loaded area of study for Roman Polanski, who adapted it as a Hollywood artist in exile, working in France rather than nearer the book’s setting of Wessex, England, for fear of his deportation to the U.S. on rape charges. Just as Polanski’s bloody Macbeth has [...]

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Eva Green

300: Rise of an Empire

It’s been eight years since the release of Zach Snyder’s beefcake epic 300 put movie buffs on notice that the future of action cinematography was endless slow-motion, excruciating speed ramping, and ever more phony-baloney green-screen tableaux. That might not seem like a long time, but in Hollywood terms it’s a freaking eon. It only took two more years than that before Sony kicked Sam Raimi to the curb and rebooted the Spider-Man series entirely with a younger, cuter director. So maybe Zack Snyder is lucky Warner Bros. greenlighted a straightforward sequel to 300 rather than handing a remake to Fede Alvarez or somebody.

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Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, a robot, and Farrah Fawcett

Saturn 3

There are bad movies and there are tantalizingly bad movies, and Saturn 3 is the latter–the type of bad movie that tickles the imagination and demands an explanation. On first blush, there’s nothing unusual about it. Released in 1980, it was clearly trading on the post-Star Wars mania for sci-fi movies. The casting of Farrah Fawcett, at the time a big star, was a reasonable commercial gambit. And the release of Alien a year earlier certainly explained the idea of a monster movie set in [...]

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The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

I am not entirely sure why many critics seem to be writing about this as if Robot Chicken wasn’t earlier, funnier, and conjured in a more perfect spirit of the kind of exuberant creative anarchy that the carefully licensed Lego Movie pretends to endorse. I guess they’re swept along in the movie’s silly enthusiasm and spirit of borderline-surreal invention, which do keep it aloft for nearly 80 percent of its running time.

I was swept along until the film took a sudden, final-reel swandive into a transparently preachy live-action ode to Lego-enabled childhood imagination — a borderline-smarmy attempt to sneak some heavy branding for the world’s most highly capitalized toy company into a kid pic. (It wouldn’t be out of place if it were part of an industrial film made to seduce the masses at a Toy Fair, or rev up the salarymen at a Lego sales meeting.) The film sets up this weird dichotomy between vision-starved adults, who have apparently forsaken the innocent pleasures of youthful experimentation, and fabulously inventive children, who continually bust the mold by linking up Lego blocks in admirably unforeseen combinations. The notion that an adult could take real joy in assembling bricks according to someone else’s blueprint — in appreciating the prodigiousness of someone else’s creative mind — seems to be beyond the film’s own imagining. But what rankles is the literal-minded way the film intrudes on and deconstructs its own fanciful universe — the way it short-circuits the response of anyone who was enjoying the picture as an actual flight of fantasy, rather than a direct endorsement of the way Big Toy thinks we all should play with our dolls.

Also disappointing are the film’s gender politics, which start with the character of WyldStyle, the film’s sole major female role (who functions primarily as one vertex of a love triangle), and end with a nearly preverbal preschool girl who’s into Duplo and destruction. In fact, the film’s idea of playtime is so sexist in its conception that it reaches a kind of apotheosis when Mom, no shit, calls down from the kitchen to her big man and her little man, sequestered in the romanticized cloudcuckooland of their prodigious imaginations, to let them know that she has finished preparing their meals.

Oh, sure, there are some good laughs to be had — but a bad taste lingers. Remember the good old days, when directors were lauded for smuggling subversive content into films that looked at first glance like commercial product? This one is a flattering commercial message disguised as subversion.

Klaus Kinski


I’m pretty much on board with a horror movie about a creepy landlord who stalks his college-aged tenants, waging a low-level terror campaign against them by deliberately releasing pests into their living spaces. If he’s a sadist and a serial killer who keeps souvenirs of his victims (by which I mean body parts in jars), that just seems to go with the territory. If he’s also a hardcore Nazi sympathizer with a daddy fixation and a concentration-camp victim locked up [...]

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Inside Llewyn Davis image

Inside Llewyn Davis

My Letterboxd review of this one, written while I stood at the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, waiting to grab some chicken and rice directly after a screening, reads like this: “The Ballad of the Unlikeable Protagonist: Coen Brothers’ Greatest Hits (CBS 2013).” I couldn’t figure out on short notice what else to do with Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s maybe the first Coen Bros. film that seems to settle into sampler territory — it has the frustrated creative protagonist from Barton Fink, the Odyssey references and period-music revivalism of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the John Goodman character role from, well, several of ‘em. And its folk-singing wannabe title character really is a piece of work. Abrasive, overly serious, and a mite noxious in his sense of entitlement and estimation of self-worth, frustrated New York folkie Llewyn Davis is the epitome of problematic artistic temperament — a lost cause from square one.
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John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

The first of two low-budget films that John Carpenter wrote pseudonymously and directed in and around downtown Los Angeles in the late-1980s, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is one of the creepiest movies ever made. Underrated at the time by critics who called it “cheesy” (Vincent Canby) and said “[it] stinks” (Richard Harrington), Prince of Darkness was clearly made fast and on the cheap, and it’s roughly crafted by Carpenter standards. Still, it’s a triumph of mood. Filling out a [...]

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Autumn Sonata

By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s [...]

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