Thursday, May 5, 2016

On the Big Screen :: A Day at the Movies: The King, a Trickster, a Prince, and Oh, Captain My Captain.

About a week ago I had a scheduled day off with nothing to do. There were also an obscene amount of new movies out that I really wanted to see. And since my hometown has only one first run theater, and since this multiplex is the absolute worst when it comes to turnover and making room for new films -- unless you wanted to see Zootopia again (-- absolutely loved it but already saw it three times), or Miracles from Heaven (-- now in it’s sixth, no, seventh week), I hatched a plan for a 160-mile round-trip to spend a day at the movies in a better theater with a sketched out, theoretical, bona fide quadruple feature:

It really could have, too.

Wait. Could have, you ask? Well, see, when the fateful day arrived and I prepared to skedaddle, with the threat of rain all day in the forecast I decided to grab my mail first and bring it in since there is nothing worse than a porous mailbox full of soggy envelopes; and inside I found a statement from my insurance provider, running down what they would cover and what they wouldn’t cover for an *ahem* incident suffered earlier this month when what I thought was a blood blister on my ankle turned out to be a varicose vein that I stupidly picked open, which, to my incredulous surprise, caused a highly pressurized stream of blood to spray all over myself and my bedroom floor. (Seriously, it was like Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days in there.) And since it really wouldn’t stop, and the blood loss began to mount as well as a sense of panic as the minutes tic’d past, I got to scratch “Make a 911 call” off my bucket-list of things to do. After the EMTs arrived, and I sprayed more blood around my house to unlock the door to let them in, they staunch’d the blood fountain while I arranged transportation to the emergency room. Of course by the time I got there it had FINALLY stopped bleeding. And of course I sat there for about an hour waiting for a doctor to examine it and explain what the hell just happened, but I did have a great conversation with the nurse in the interim. Here’s a transcript:

And when the doctor finally arrived, she said, “Yeah, that’s pretty terrible” but there wasn’t much they could do, feeling it didn’t need to be cauterized, then, “Keep it covered and moisturized, and good luck to you.” They didn’t even bother to re-bandage it. And that was the extent of my visit to the ER, which saw me leaving caked with blood from my hands to my elbows, with one leg covered in spatter, the other solid crimson with essentially all my clothes ruined. (I recall giving a young, wide-eyed toddler a thumb’s up as I left through the automatic door.) Now, several weeks later, I look at what I will have to cough-up to cover this glorified, drive-by consultation, and suddenly, any notion of spending the day in Lincoln was scotched due to being an adult with adult financial responsibilities. *sigh* At least I got to have friends over for a crime-scene clean-up party, so, there’s that.

Thus, I had a day off with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And as I moped around the house, trying to decide what to do with myself, I started working some creative math inside my head. Frankly, I still couldn’t really afford it but sometimes, Boils and Ghouls, ya just gotta say, Screw it, and do it, which is exactly what I did.

Now, there was one casualty as this initial delay blew my window of opportunity, thus reducing this adventure to a triple feature, meaning one of those movies would have to go. As to which one got skunked, I decided to just follow my nose and see where it led me after re-consulting the schedule after I got there. What I did know for sure was that one of those films was a dead-solid lock as the one I really wanted to see, and so, 80 miles later, this binge began with a screening of Liza Johnson’s Elvis and Nixon (2016).

According to legend, this infamous historical “incident” is all Paul Frees’ fault. Seems the legendary voice actor -- Rocky and Bullwinkle, a ton of stuff for Hannah-Barbera and Walt Disney as well as doing dub work on things ranging from Blood and Black Lace (1964) to King Kong Escapes (1967) -- was allegedly an asset for the Federal government, working undercover for the Bureau of Narcotics (later morphing into the DEA). And for this he had been issued a badge as an “undercover agent at large”, which, as the legend continues, he reluctantly showed to Elvis Presley. And Elvis being Elvis, he decided he needed one of those for his own self. And to satiate this wild hair, he went on an impromptu expedition to the gates of the White House to see the top man himself and make his pitch to the President. And while Richard Nixon was currently one of the most powerful men in the world at the time, no one said “no” to Elvis Presley.

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and this all really did happen. Alas, this was before Nixon started secretly recording everything that happened in the Oval Office so what really transpired between these two men, who were not as disparate as you’d think, on that fateful day in December, 1970, is left to conjecture, hearsay and a precious few photographs. (I, for one, feel Elvis’ patriotic pitch was a load of crap. Just a means to an end as all he wanted was that badge.) This tale was already told once in a really good TV movie called Elvis Meets Nixon (1997), and the feature film covers a lot of the same ground, with nearly 2/3rds of the run time showing the efforts to just get into the White House. 

Spacey delivers, as we all knew he would, bringing some true character to this caricature, but the real surprise here is Shannon who is a constant revelation every time I encounter him. He may look like he’d be more suited for a bio-pic on Arch Hall Jr. but he just nails the character, especially the bits where he reflects on the false facade of his public persona and how the loss of his twin brother gave him the luck of two people to help balance out the comical spin of the film in general, making for a wonderful comedy of errors. And it was pretty hilarious. Too bad when I bought the ticket the cashier told me I was the only seat sold for the matinee, which explains why I and I alone sat in an otherwise empty theater and laughed and laughed until I could laugh no more. (I might’ve even peed a little when the Secret Service forced Presley and his entourage to disarm themselves.) Man, you all missed a really good movie.

When the film got out I consulted the big board to try and plot out the rest of the day and was confronted with a choice. I also really wanted to see Green Room, which I could’ve seen next, but that would’ve meant Purple Rain was out altogether and a long, long wait after that for a late, late screening of Everybody Wants Some. However, if I did Purple Rain next it would only be a short wait after for a second Green Room showing and then maybe, just maybe, I could still squeeze in a fourth feature at midnight.

And so, I went with Purple Rain next, which gave me some time to kill; and so I scurried back to the parking garage to snag my glasses, which I had left in the car in my haste to make the first show. (I don’t really need them except while driving at night but I kinda get instant Hi-Def if I wear them in the theater.) There was also time to grab a bite at a nearby Qdoba, a burrito bar, where I gorged on one the size of my own head. (Author's note: I have a really big head, too.) Then back to theater, where, unlike the first private screening, the theater was already pretty full and I got to see an extended featurette on Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2015) for a second time that day, another film I cannot wait to see -- a featurette I’d get to see yet again later and didn’t mind one bit. And as the theater filled up, my row was soon packed pushing my slight social anxiety disorder into overdrive. I thought about moving to another seat for some breathing room but there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. Thus, I hunkered in. I’d already seen the King, and now a Prince. (See what I did there?)

Now, I think the first time I ever saw Prince was on Friday Night Videos, a lifeline to us rural bumpkins who had no MTV, which wrapped up one episode with “When Doves Cry”. What the hell was that? said I, anxious to watch, hear and experience it again. More videos followed, I was hooked, and soon bought the album, which would serve as the basis for Purple Rain (1984), a kind of star vehicle piece that you don’t really see any more. 

I wouldn’t say I am a huge Prince fan, and he kinda lost me when he changed his identity, but back in the Prince and the Revolution days, man, that was the sh*t. And it was easy to get swept up again when the film opened with a live (canned) version of “Let's Go Crazy”, which sets the tone for what was to follow.

Here, Prince plays “The Kid”, a musical prodigy on the precipice of “making it” but whose life is falling apart around him both personally (his abusive father has gone officially out of control) and professionally (his band is rebelling over his obsessive creative control, and a rival constantly tries to torpedo him), making it the perfect time to fall in love with a protege (Appolonia), looking to make it herself. 

I had never seen Purple Rain before, and now that I have I can say it was definitely better than Graffiti Bridge (1990), but I thought Graffiti Bridge was pretty awful, so, interpret that as you will. The film suffers ah-lot from the Kid being protected by a designated hero status as otherwise his actions would brand him a total dick. Prince is actually a pretty good actor, I think, raw, but there's something definitely there; he was just saddled with a poorly written character plugged into a rote After School Special plot; so that's all on Albert Magnoli, who wrote and directed. The real message, I guess, is breaking the cycle of violence as our *ahem* "hero" appears to be on the same self-destructive path as his father, as both like to use their love interests as punching bags or heap tons of emotional abuse when they don't get their way or aren't getting enough attention. (Highlighted by a performance of "My Darling Nicky", used as a middle-finger salute.) 

And somewhat miraculously, against all evidence shown, the Kid manages to pull this off, honoring his parents, placating the band, and saving his career in one, fateful final musical number. And so, as a movie, Purple Rain isn’t so hot -- but as a musical showcase for Prince and the Revolution it is indispensable. And before we move on, between this and Graffiti Bridge, can someone please explain to me why Morris Day hasn't gotten his own movie yet?

There was time for a quick bathroom break before seeking out the right theater for the third feature, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), a nasty little piece of business cut and bled from the same vein as the writer and director’s earlier backwater noir, Blue Ruin (2013). 

Here, a near destitute punk band, living out of a van out on the road in the Pacific northwest, are in desperate need of a paying gig. And so desperate are they, the group – lead singer Tiger (Turner), guitarist Pat (Yelchin), bassist Sam (Shawkat) and drummer Reece (Cole) – agree to take a job from a guy who knows a guy out in the boonies. Well, turns out this gig is at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. And despite their best efforts to get their heads caved in by the choice of baiting cover-songs, the group survives the set but then see something they shouldn’t have seen in the green room before clearing out.

Things get really exacerbated from there, with witnesses needing to be eliminated – and eliminated most gruesomely to fit a forensic cover story, meaning no bullets, only blades and trained attack dogs. Thus, there is no real mystery or suspense to Green Room. Not that this is bad thing. Instead of shocks, the film deals and trades in a ruthlessly methodical brutality (perhaps too methodical for its own good) as each band member meets their fate while the others keep on fighting to stay alive and disrupt the “scene of the crime.” (Life in horror films in a post-Hostel world, I guess.) 

Now, the main reason I wanted to see this, as are many others, I’m sure, was to see Patrick Stewart stretch his acting legs a bit as Darcy, the leader of these skinheads and owner of the bar. (Insert your own haywire holodeck joke here.) And I am happy to report that he is really, really good at being a bad guy. So calm, cool, and collected and lethally calculating as he orchestrates this massacre to fit what he needs. In fact, it is the cast that elevates the film several notches above a perfunctory plot that efficiently gets us from A to Z with plenty of grue in-between. Thus and so, to say anymore would spoil too much as it all boils down to who lives and who dies. If asked Was it worth seeing? The answer is a definitive Hell yes.

Checking the clock as the theater emptied, I saw there was just enough time to get a ticket and catch the last screening of my fourth desired feature. However, if I did that, I would still have to drive home and not get there until around 4am. Still, I had come all that way. I then saw the lone cashier was swamped by a fairly long line for, I assume, another showing of Keanu since there was like only four other people watching Green Room with me. And yet I was already here and I normally don’t go to bed until 5am anyways. Ultimately, it was that burrito I had consumed earlier that made the decision for me, which had turned into a rock inside my stomach, which meant Everybody Wants Some would have to wait, and so I decided that three films was enough and called it a day -- and a very good day it was at the cinema. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

There's Always Room for Giall-O Shots :: Death Takes a Stroll in Arrow Video's New Luciano Ercoli Double-Feature Boxset, with Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Several years ago while writing up a review for Giulio Questi's completely demented Death Laid an Egg (1968), I tried to do the impossible by explaining what made a gialli a gialli -- a term derived from the standard yellow-hued book covers for a series of lurid Italian pulp novels, which was then co-opted to describe a certain breed of Continental cinematic thriller. At this I mostly failed, but the effort was valiant because defining the difference between a gialli and a more conventional mystery is like trying explain how a square can be a rectangle while said rectangle cannot be a square. Essentially, the basic elements are present in both: a murder or string of murders; a murderer; a protagonist caught up in the investigation to catch said murderer; a few clues, a few suspects, and maybe a late twist or two to add some punch before wrapping it all up for the closing credits.

Now, where the gialli starts to differentiate itself from this formula is that it seems to be more interested in the howtheydunit as opposed to whodunit -- and the more baroque theydunit, and the cooler wheretheydunit, the better -- and whytheydunit is basically irrelevant or taken care of with a massive plot dump at the end. However, to get to that, these things are absolutely Rube Goldbergian in structure with a byzantine twist, starting with the protagonist, serving as a surrogate voyeur for the audience, witnessing something -- usually a murder -- that sets off an unstoppable chain-reaction of other nefarious events/murders/blackmail, usually made worse by the protagonists efforts to stop them. False starts, false leads and a healthy dose of hedonistic red herring and human collateral damage doesn't help make things any easier to unravel and decipher. Nothing appears to be what it seems on the surface. Nothing is concrete, and mass confusion is your new best friend. And while the audience, and the protagonist, begin to question their own sanity while focusing on one thing, nine times out of ten our eyes and attention should be focused somewhere else.

For, once the dominoes start falling in these twisted menageries, it's hard to keep up with each separate line of falling blocks as some stall out, others reach a dead end, and some make pretty designs and a lot of noise but in the end prove pointless and irrelevant to the bigger picture. Which is usually why, when the climax is reached and the whys and why-fores come out, a viewer's frustration factor might be needling into the red a bit. And that's completely understandable when the big pay off craps out, but sometimes ... Well, sometimes the view along the way is still worth the trip.

And that is definitely the case for the films of Luciano Ercoli, beginning with his first film, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), which also marked his first collaboration with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, who turned out pages for all kinds of genres, from horror [Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1963)], peplum [Medusa Against the Son of Hercules (1963)], and spaghetti westerns [The BIg Showdown (1972)], and worked with several genre legends, including Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi. Together, Ercoli and Gastaldi spun a labyrinthine tale of blackmail and murder where a wife (Dagmar Lassander) is forced into having sex with another man (Simón Andreu), who holds incriminating evidence of murder against her husband. From there, the plot kinda sorta follows in the footsteps of The Naked Edge (1961), where on one hand the wife gathers evidence of her husband’s guilt, while on the other she defends him anyway. And as things get out of control no one will believe her and begin to question her sanity, including her best friend (Nieves Navarro -- billed as Susan Scott), who may or may not be behind the whole scheme to begin with.

As this plot continues to pretzel itself while we barrel toward the eventual resolution in Forbidden Photos, Ercoli’s camera brings an intoxicating sensuality to these proceedings, be it a scrumptious background setting or delectable character, blurring the lines of what is real and unreal. You’d never guess this was a first time effort. Often cited (or blamed) as the originator of bringing a sexual-component to these protracted murders, I don’t think we’ve quite reached the tipping point of ‘sex equals death’ yet as Ercoli’s films are still about resolving who the killer is and not how the victims died; a short, slippery slope that will wind us up in the deep end of the stalks 'n' slasher pool as the decade progressed.

As for myself, I instantly fell in love with the movie, and Navarro, who kinda steals Forbidden Photos out from under everyone with her mere presence, eye-popping wardrobe and sexually aggressive behavior. Ercoli also took note of this, which explains why Navarro was destined to star in his next two pictures, Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), two films I had been anxious to see ever since screening Forbidden Photos but whose limited availability and out of print status thwarted me at every turn. But now, thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video, we have a brand spanking new ‘Death Walks Twice’ box-set featuring both those Ercoli films on DVD or BluRay.

In fact, if Death Walks on High Heels has one flaw, and it is nearly fatal, it’s that Navarro’s character essentially disappears when the movie is only half over. It begins with an exotic dancer (Navarro) being pursued by a masked man with striking blue eyes, who thinks she knows where a stash of stolen diamonds are. In fear for her life, she dumps her surly boyfriend (Andreu) and flees the country with a diplomat (Frank Wolf) who is dangerously obsessed with her. Murder soon follows, but whodunit? And why? And why won’t anyone believe our heroine is in real danger? 

We take an abrupt left turn from there as the film settles into a fairly standard police procedural groove as Scotland Yard’s finest (Carlo Gentili) tries to unravel the mystery and a diabolical money-grab. This, takes a while, as red herrings pile-up and bleed-out, which leads to the film’s second flaw in that it is too long for it’s own good (clocking in at nearly two hours) as I felt my attention wandering off on several occasions. A few fast plot curve-balls at the end do add some punch, but it might be a case of too little, too late for some.

Despite these beefs, the film looks just incredible, with Ercoli’s set-ups and set-pieces easily curb-stomp all concerns about the meandering plot. I also have some more good news to report as, once again, Ercoli seems to have learned from his mistakes for his third feature, as Death Walks at Midnight has rocketed into my top five favorite gialli of all time thanks to Ercoli’s keen cinematic eye and kick-ass performance by Navarro as a fashion model who is duped by a reporter (Andreu yet again) into taking a hallucinogen, and while tripping-out she sees another woman being brutally murdered by a man wearing some kind of medieval gauntlet.

Once this all sees print, our heroine soon finds herself neck-deep in sordid puzzle pieces, dead bodies, and a narcotics ring currently embroiled in a lethally violent management restructuring that she must sort out all on her own when, once again, due to her admitted psychotropic drug use, the police, the reporter, and even her boyfriend (Peter Martell) don’t believer her, meaning if she wants to survive she’s on her own because frankly, in this movie, it’s always midnight somewhere.

It is Navarro’s feisty independent streak that endeared me to her through these films, even in Death Walks on High Heels she takes no crap from anyone. (Though there is one racially charged dance number that is sure to rightfully raise a few eyebrows.) Sure, she’s also a knock-out, and a living and breathing embodiment of haute couture fashions of the day, but it goes much deeper than that.

See, there’s this one particular scene early in Midnight that sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s right after Navarro’s character has been drugged and taken advantage of for a salaciously dubious article on narcotics, which causes her to lose her next gig. And as she passes a newsstand, plastered with photos of her seized in abject terror, which really gets her dander up, you know from here on out there will be no cowering in fear from her. No more victimization. And that her next act is to go and beat the crap out of the guy who duped her into those photos is just gravy. Pure gravy. And then, even as the noose began to tighten around her and she gets ever closer to the truth, the character will fight to the bitter end; and while it appears a man pulls her hash out of the fire, she winds up doing the same for him.

All told, it was just nice to see a female lead so proactive instead of just being passively reactive in one of these bloody thrillers -- she essentially plays the same character in Midnight as Tony Musante in Argento’s seminal The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which is why, with all apologies to Edwige Fenech, Navarro is now the new, reigning gialli queen in my cinematic universe. Kudos to Ercoli, too, for showing loyalty with his stock cast and comedy relief through all three films. Sadly, this would be it for Ercoli, who came into a sizeable inheritance, married Navarro, and retired from filmmaking altogether shortly after making Midnight.

Anyways, Arrow Films has done a remarkable job on this new boxset. The prints look fantastic, with both having a brand new 2K restoration, with a slight edge to High Heels because the colors appeared a tad -- stress on the ‘tad’, more vibrant to my eye. Both films also feature a dual language option, either English or Italian, with newly translated English subtitles for those Italian soundtracks. The sound is clear, with no discernible hiss or drop-outs, and do justice to those breezy soundtracks.

And sticking with Arrow Video’s usual modus operandi, these Ercoli discs are also chock full of bonus features. Each disc contains a commentary track by Tim Lucas, head guru of Video Watchdog, which are always friendly and informative as he shares a deluge of info on the film, cast and filmmakers that are probably worth the price of the set alone. Both discs also feature reversible sleeves with original poster art for those who care about that kind of thing. (I know I do.) And if you hurry, there’s a limited edition 60-page booklet containing essays on these films from authors Danny Shipka (Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France), Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and Leonard Jacobs. Both discs also include an optional introduction by screenwriter Gastaldi. But never fear, there are also a few exclusive features for each individual disc:

Death Walks on High Heels has several featurettes, including From Spain with Love, a brand new interview with Ercoli and Navarro at their home in Barcelona, Master of Giallo, where Gastaldi reflects on his career and how to write a successful gialli, and Death Walks to the Beat, an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani. Meanwhile, Death Walks at Midnight includes an alternative TV cut of the picture, a second and completely different chat with Gastaldi, and perhaps my personal favorite featurette, Desperately Seeking Susan, which is a video essay narrated by Michael Mackenzie as he explores the collaboration between director Ercoli and star Navarro/Scott, which echoes my own feelings on her performance and the pang felt over how they didn’t do any more films together.

And there ya go. I guess my only real complaint is that Forbidden Photos wasn’t included in this package, making the trilogy complete, but for those who are curious the film is readily available and reasonably priced on DVD from Blue Underground, which I also cannot recommend enough. As for Arrow Video’s boxset, if I could recommend it anymore I would but I don’t think that would be possible. And I applaud them for their restorative efforts (-- their Blood and Black Lace Bluray left me speechless on the quality upgrade over my old DVD), and for getting these and other gialli back into circulation as those otherwise wonderful NoShame, VCI, Shriekshow, and Anchor Bay DVDs of the same can now safely wither in those over-priced used bins. So go. And go Arrow. And watch these films. Now! 

Death Walks on High Heels (1971) Atlántida Films :: Cinecompany / P: Luciano Ercoli, Alberto Pugliese / D: Luciano Ercoli / W: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco / C: Fernando Arribas / E: Angelo Curi / M: Gianni Ferrio / S: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Carlo Gentili, George Rigaud

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) C.B. Films S.A. :: Cinecompany / P: Luciano Ercoli, Alberto Pugliese / D: Luciano Ercoli / W: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco / C: Fernando Arribas / E: Angelo Curi / M: Gianni Ferrio / S: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili
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