Saturday, October 29, 2016

Spirits of the Dead

You want some serious Euro filmic decadence from the birth of the sexual revolution? Step right this way to a period piece that adapts short stories you may have read in high school...


Spirits of the Dead adapts three tales from Edgar Allan Poe and was part of the trend for anthology films than ran from the mid-60s to mid-70s, which included such highlights as Torture Garden, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (which is actually a train) and Tales of Terror (which also took Poe as its an inspiration and had Vincent Price to boot). In Spirits of the Dead, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini each adapted a short story--the title is taken from a poem. It should surprise no one that that the last contribution is the best, but each of the others has something to recommend them as well.


Opening the film is "Metzengerstein," the offering from Roger Vadim which, like pretty much any Vadim film, is a showcase for the hot blonde he was banging at the time, in this case Jane Fonda.


As decadent aristocrat the Countess Frederica, Jane looks absolutely gorgeous in an array of costumes that combine thigh boots and bared navels with slashed sleeves and ruffled collars. (I swear that John Galliano must absolutely adore this film. Whether he knows it or not.) Not to mention the hair. The hair is to die for. RuPaul and Dolly Parton would tussle over that hair... courtesy of ace Eurostylist of the 60s Carita, BTW.




Of course, all this flash--Wine! Orgies! Daggers! Corsets! Baby leopards!--doesn't conceal that pretty much nothing happens in "Metzengerstein." We watch Fonda stomp around in her outfits like Beyonce until she runs across Baron Wilhelm..



Baron Wilhelm is played by Jane's brother Peter--in the story they're supposed to be cousins, but apparently that wasn't incestuous enough for the French. He barely speaks, which is supposed to be because he's even moodier than Jane is, but I'm pretty sure it's actually because his French sucks (remember that Peter spent his teen years getting high; Jane spent hers going to Vassar and working at Paris Review).

 The showgirl headdress existed even in Medieval times...


Anyway, Jane gets pissed, sets Peter's stables on fire, Peter dies, a big black horse shows up in her tapestry and in her stables, then more shit catches on fire, etc. etc. etc...


"William Wilson" is the entry by Louis Malle, a variation on the Doppleganger story--except in this version, it's a good double that keeps thwarting the evil original. Wilson is played by Alain Delon, who projects just the right level of icily dispassionate cruelty, qualities the real Delon, a notorious asshole, apparently possessed in spades.

 

We watch William Wilson torment both his teachers and classmates, even as a child--or, should we say, attempt to, because it seems that another, identical boy named William Wilson constantly shows up to put a stop to his efforts at sadism, whether its pulling a bullied classmate out of a barrel full of rats or calling a halt to an "autopsy" on a live girl.

 

Out of the three stories, Malle comes the closest to giving the people what they (allegedly) want--creepy rats, icky autopsies, bare boobs, titillating flogging scenes--though the idea that the supposedly monstrous "other" is actually a force for good throw it off-balance a bit.. Actually, Spirits of the Dead does not have that much horror in it--there's a sort of ghost/possession in the first story and the double in the second one but the third if just sort of hallucinatory,  which we will get to in a moment...


The theoretical climax of "William Wilson" comes with Brigitte Bardot in a black wig smoking a cigar--Brigitte is great at what she does, but she's one of the last people i'd ever cast as an ersatz Lola Montez. (Ava Gardner, on the other hand, was born for to play Lola and it's amazing no one ever had her do it--imagine how much better the Ophuls Lola Montez would be with her rather than that pretty waxwork, Martine Carol. But i digress..)




Anyway, Bardot throws shade on Delon and beats him at cards, then suddenly he starts winning and winds up, quite literally winning her. He whips Brunette Brigitte, then is about to have his buddies gang bang her, when the good William Wilson shows up and reveals that bad William Wilson fucking cheated. That Wilson bullies, tortures, rapes--but suffers no real comeuppance until he cheats his cronies at cards is still appropriate to today...

Our last and most impressive entry is Fellini's "Toby Dammit," ostensibly based on Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," but only in the most tenuous fashion.


From the opening airport pan--a mass of shifting color tints, distorted soundscapes, leering faces and cardboard cutouts (no, literally, cardboard cutouts)--we know we're in Fellini territory. If 8 1/2 is the tale of the director's meltdown and La Dolce Vita is the writer's, "Toby Dammit" is the actor. with the identity crisis turning out that much worse. (If "Metzengerstein" and "William Wilson" are the Poe surly teen goths read, "Toby Dammit" is the actual Poe reeling around Baltimore drunk, deranged and dying. Fonda and Delon play sadistic assholes, Stamp is a troubled artist.)


We get herds of nuns, flashbulb-ing paparazzi, traffic jams, all reeled out as character-packed mod-Bosch canvases under Inferno-red skies. Toby is in town to make a western retelling of the story of Christ, for which he will we receive a Ferrari, more specifically a golden Ferrari 330 LMB. (What would Jesus drive?)


Stamp staggers through a purgatorial television talk show, distracted by multiple cameras and multiple hosts,alternately morose and grandiose, playing it up to the hilt for a disapproving and fascinated audience.


The awards banquet is your standard Fellini party scene with Toby in full tailspin. He attains an odd moment of lucidity reciting a monologue from Macbeth onstage, giving a glimpse of the talent he's droned in drink and drugs (there's more than a dash of The Richard Burton Story here.)



 

Finally, Toby gets his sweet sportscar and we're off! He whizzes to the outskirts of the city to a small town. The joy of speed gives way to the realization that he's lost and cannot find his way back. (It kind of reminds me of them time i got lost in Detroit somewhere between Hamtramck and downtown, just turning endlessly along unlit, overgrown roads, hoping I didn't run out of gas before sundown. Then I found a little bulletproof-glassed minimart in the middle of nowhere and a bunch of really nice guys gave me directions back.)


 

Toby keeps driving in that beautiful Ferrari, a one-man car chase, speeding along until a succession of dead ends, turnarounds, roundabouts and plazas repeatedly bring him to a halt. The town has somehow folded in on him and, no matter where he turns, he can't seem to get out. And the cardboard cutouts are closing in again...

... and it falls down and goes boom...

Spirits of the Dead isn't quite a horror film, though it does have a few cringe-inducing moments and the Fellini installment is creepy in its own peculiar way. But for atmosphere and style, it's a movie that's hard to beat.



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Marilyn & Motorcycles



If I haven't been posting as often, it's because the day job and the freelance gigs have been keeping me awfully busy. The output includes a wrap-up of biker babe movies, from She-Devils on  Wheels to Darktown Strutters for the Vegas Seven. Over at Tribeca Shortlist, i did a piece on movies Marilyn Monroe almost made, including Guys and Dolls and Irma La Douce.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Jupiter Ascending

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a pre-teen girl who was just coming out of her Disney Princess phase was forced to watch Flash Gordon, Brazil, Dune, Predator and a dash of Scientology mythos and then regurgitate them all into one mega-budget mess o' sci-fi nonsense?


Yeah, i haven't either but, if such a thing were to happen, the result would be Jupiter Ascending. Yet another film that proves that you can have plenty of money, talent and creativity and still produce absolute shit. Apparently due to some kind of studio shuffle, the Wachowskis made Jupiter Ascending with a big budget and little oversight--something that will not happen again, not after this. Well, and Cloud Atlas. And Speed Racer.

She does this falling and screaming thing at least a dozen times....

Here we have the perennially serviceable Mila Kunis as Jupiter, a young Russian immigrant cleaning lady who is actually the Queen of the Universe. No, fucking really.

This film is art-directed to the point of paralysis, but they gave someone 
with gold-leaf bathroom walls the kind of cheap white plastic toilet seat you get for $15 at Lowe's.

So, we open with our heroine's Cinderella drudgery, breaking into a Hallmark Channel romance-style flashback of her parents, punctuated by what might be mobsters or aliens or government agents or rival astronomers killing dad. (This, like many things in the film, is never quite explained.) Back to the present, it seems Jupiter's brother has talked her into donating her eggs for cash and giving him most of the money, because apparently cleaning other people's piss and/or shit isn't submissive and degrading enough. She bops on down to the clinic, but while she is unconscious, spread-eagled and having her ladyparts  probed (because helpless and because female), suddenly the doctors turn into weird aliens and announce that they're going to kill her.



Fortunately, Channing Tatum shows up on rocket skates to rescue her--a phrase that appears in the Jupiter Ascending script at least a dozen times. Yeah, there's some bullshit about how she is the genetic duplicate of some previous Queen of the House of Abraxas and, thus, owner of the Earth, but that's not really what this movie is about. What this movie is really about is Jupiter gets kidnapped by bad aliens in flashy outfits/falls through some really great computer animation/is rescued by Dogboy.
 

Yeah.  Charming Potato is a good-guy super-soldier space mercenary who's also part dog or wolf or something. Wait a second... half-man, half-dog in space? I know this one!


Anyway, we are treated to the first of many chase scenes. Jupiter Ascending is just over 2 hours--45 minutes of expository dialogue, 45 minutes of space-chase-fight scenes, 10 minutes of admiring Jupiter's costume changes, 10 minutes of CGI landscape beauty shots, 5 minutes of closeups of cool shit and 5 minutes of character development and plot.


Shitty hometown you don't want to go to, lame relatives you never see...

Our chief villain of the House of Abrasax is played by Eddie Redmayne in Cleopatra/Captain Hook drag, delivering all of his dialogue in a whisper that's supposed to be menacing but sounds more like his tonsils are sore from gobbling crystal meth and cock for 48 straight hours. It's perhaps the greatest post-Academy Award comedown since Halle Berry in Catwoman.

...consider this penance for stealing Michael Keaton's Oscar, you twee bastard.

He sends assorted creepy aliens and fabulously attired mercenary squads after Jupiter, thus adding to the legion of intricately designed and utterly unwritten characters that pass through Jupiter Ascending. It's like the filmmakers spent two weeks creating individual hairdos and tattoos for each one, but didn't even bother to give any of them a name.



Wait, Sean Bean? You're here too? Dang.

So after Dogboy stands around shirtless in a field of wildflowers for a good ten minutes--and you thought i was exaggerating the pre-teen Disney princess angle--Jupiter gets hauled off to the first of a number of space palaces, gets a new outfit and listens to some exposition from her "sister"--or is it "daughter," i dunno. We're basically just here for the pretty dresses and to watch this chick Bathory-bathe in the life force of humans and come out young. And get an ass shot.



Dogboy shows up and rescues Jupiter, she asks for a change of costume. (This is literally the only initiative we will seen taken or order we will seen given by the alleged Queen of the Universe.) Then we go into the terrible, obvious Brazil ripoff where we spend 10 minutes watching Jupiter and Dogboy follow some Space Twink around to various space bureaucracies to do the paperwork to establish her Earth rights. The tone is completely different than the rest of the film and it's painfully unfunny. But the worst part is this...


That's right. Terry Gilliam cameo. Terry Gilliam has to beg to get 1/100th of the budget wasted on derivative shitshows like Jupiter Ascending and is usually refused even that. But here he is, contributing to the stealing of his own schtick....


But, wait! Kidnapped again! This time she is whisked off to meet Prince Charming, who lays some crap on her about how he's a good guy and she can help him blah blah blah... it hasn't taken long for the space lords to figure out that it's pretty easy to handle the Queen of the Universe: Give her a pretty new dress, use a bunch of big words, light some candles and she'll agree to whatever you say.



Don't get me wrong. I am a full believer in the power of a good frock. But this is ridiculous. So, Prince Charming--who is actually evil--wants to marry the Queen of the Universe and Dogboy must stop the wedding... after we've had a good, long look at the gown, hair and makeup. Just like a hundred fairytales including Flash Gordon. I mean, it is such a direct Flash Gordon jack that someone should sue...



Dogboy takes Jupiter back home, only to find that the Cock Whisperer has kidnapped her (stereotypical) family, so she is immediately carried off again with Dogboy again in hot pursuit on rocket skates. Blah blah, sign over the rights the the Universe or I kill your family blah blah....


 You must pay the rent! 
I can't pay the rent! 
You must pay the rent! 

Seriously, i just want him to tie her to some train tracks already....

Dogboy to the rescue!
(Again.)

At the end, Jupiter doesn't want to be Queen of the Universe. No, she just wants to go back to Earth and scrub toilets and live with a family who doesn't appreciate her. This sort of "the only true happiness a woman can know is by having her entire identity wrapped up in her family" bullshit barely got by in the fifties: Now it's just ridiculous. Not even the endings of Mahogany and Made in Paris involved this level of abandonment of achievement for a life of domesticity.


Even more ridiculous when you compare it with a movie like Bound, where the women flipped everyone's script and came out on top. I dunno what happened with the Warchowskis, but Larry and Andy gave us The Matrix's Trinity, who was fierce and invincible and saved Keanu's punk ass countless times, as well as the aforementioned killer team of Corky and Violet.  Lana and Lilly give us Jupiter, who basically just changes outfits and waits for Dogboy to turn up and help her out of whatever mess she has wandered blindly into.They have every right to their own vision of femininity, i just wished they'd kept it a little more kickass...