All posts by El Rob Hubbard

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

Diabel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow

PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?

diabel-3

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.

COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”

Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.

At that time (1971),  a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.

Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

CAPSULE: THE PROPHET (2014)

AKA Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet

DIRECTED BY: Roger Allers (supervising); Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, , , , , Michal Socha (segments).

FEATURING: Voices of , , , Alfred Molina, , , John Rhys-Davies, John Kassir

PLOT: Based on the book of poems of the same name by Kahlil Gibran. A foreign poet, Mustafa, has been held under house arrest for several years. With the arrival of a ship, he is set free to return to his home country. Escorted to the ship by a couple of soldiers, he converses with them and with the townspeople; but circumstances change along the way.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of the segments illustrating Mustafa’s sayings/writings are appropriately abstract, taken as a whole together with the framing story, The Prophet is extremely ambitious, but not weird.

COMMENTS: The Prophet has long been a passion project of Salma Hayek-Pinault; thankfully, she had enough experience and intelligence to realize that animation was the best medium to adapt Gibran’s book, a prose poem in long form that would be a challenge to fashion into a conventional narrative.

Enlisting Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, was a good decision, since both tales are essentially illustrated journeys of messianic figures. Allers takes the basic framing device of the title character heading to a ship that’s taking him home and expands upon it, adding new characters Kamila (Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and her daughter Almitra (Wallis), who has become a mute troublemaker since her father’s death. These two are the characters for the audience to identify and sympathize with. The film adds a political dimension—Mustafa has been under house arrest for several years, and the journey to the ship may not be quite as innocent as presented—and the ending is different than in the book, although it is spiritually consistent.

Another smart decision was the idea to have different animators bring to life the various sermons by Mustafa, eight of which have been chosen: “On Freedom” (Socha), “On Children” (Paley), “On Marriage” (Sfar), “On Work” (Gratz), “On Eating & Drinking” (Plympton), “On Love” (Moore), “On Good and Evil” (Harib) and “On Death” (the Brizzi’s). Along with giving each story its own personality, the method also retains the metaphorical qualities of the sermons—if it were done in live-action, most of the visualization would’ve probably been literalized and not worked as well.

It’s a refreshing change to have animation appropriate for both adults and children that doesn’t involve talking animals or pop culture one-liners, and is an adaptation of an acclaimed literary work, to boot. G-Kids acquired the movie for theatrical release in the U.S. and home video. The DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes about the movie, one with interviews of Hayek and Allers, the second concentrating more on the technical aspects (although none of the segment animators are featured). There’s also an animatic used in the making of the film.

PROPHETTHE-KAMILA

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Half-baked animated fantasy Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a kids film for anyone who mistakenly thinks that the one thing that would improve animated masterpiece Fantasia is an overwhelming number of pretentious aphorisms.”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LOST SOUL – THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ‘THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU’ (2014)

DIRECTOR: David Gregory

FEATURING: , Fairuza Balk, Edward R. Pressman, Robert Shaye, Tim Zimmermann, Rob Morrow, Marco Hofschneider, Graham Humphreys

PLOT: A documentary on the troubled production of 1996’s flop The Island of Dr. Moreau.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While there are more than a few weird stories featured in the film, a documentary about a film that ultimately did not get made is in itself not that weird anymore—there’s practically an entire genre now.

COMMENTS: The 90’s adaptation of H. G. Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has the reputation of being among one of ‘the worst films ever made’.  That is an overstatement; the film’s actually a pretty decent time-waster, on its own terms. However, it is not among the greatest films ever made, and certainly not among ‘s best work (though I’d watch it over Reindeer Games anytime). At times, Moreau is an entertaining, muddled batshit mess, though it wasn’t intended to be.

It was meant to be the major studio debut of Richard Stanley, who, after making Hardware and Dust Devil (two films that I believe should be List Candidates), was poised to make the ultimate version of Moreau. Instead, it became a nightmare of production which ended up with Stanley tossed off of the film and replaced with veteran director Frankenheimer—yet the nightmare continued.

For years, stories have bounced around what actually happened. Lost Soul attempts to finally set the record straight about Moreau, to give a glimpse at what Stanley originally envisioned and to present what actually happened, as well as can be established from all of the guilty parties who consented to be interviewed. It’s a fascinating “unmaking-of” documentary that’s also illuminates the age-old conflict of Art vs. Business.

While it is a good accounting of the production, it isn’t by any means the whole story: noticeably absent from the doc is any input from , or , and Stanley doesn’t quite completely come clean about his state of mind at the time… but what’s there is suitably fascinating and quite damning. Actor Rob Morrow’s account of his experience, which I believe is the first time that he’s spoken at length about the film in any setting, is one highlight.

Filmmaking has largely become demystified over the past 30 years, but after watching Lost Soul, you will wonder how anything even halfway decent ever makes it out of the Studio Process.

DISC INFO: Severin Films has handled the recent releases of Stanley’s films to home video in grand fashion (great transfers with excellent extras), so of course there’s no exception with Lost Soul. For the hardcore Stanley/H.G. Wells/Moreau fan, the 3-disc ‘House of Pain’ Edition is the one to go for. The documentary is on Blu-ray disc, along with outtakes from several of the interviews (for those who couldn’t get enough of the already dishy stuff used, check out what’s dished in what they DIDN’T use…); a gallery of concept art by artist Graham Humphries with commentary with Stanley; an audio interview with , who was intended to have a cameo in the film; an archival interview with John Frankenheimer; plus several smaller featurettes. The second disc— “The Wells Files”— is a DVD with the featurette “H.G. Wells On Film” with scholar Sylvia Hardy and another with Stanley talking about Wells’ work, and specifically on the themes in “Moreau” that attracted him. The most notable feature is a recently discovered German silent film, Insel Der Verschollenen (Island of the Lost) which appears to be the earliest film adaptation of Welles’ story (and which maintains the tradition of deviating wildly from its source material). There’s also an Easter Egg hidden on this disc… The third disc is a bonus CD-ROM, an audiobook recording of Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” read by Richard Stanley. If that’s too much immersion, then just go for either the 1 disc Blu-ray or DVD edition (buy), which only feature the movie & movie related extras, eschewing the bonus discs material on Wells.

Richard Stanley

The Island of Dr. Moreau script – Screenplay by Richard Stanley, Michael Herr and Walon Green

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “The creation of the H.G. Wells’ story’s third official screen incarnation was beset by disasters even more bizarre than the delirious mess of a feature finally released in 1996, with stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer reportedly rivaling even Mother Nature as destructive on-set forces… David Gregory’s pic can hardly help but fascinate with its mix of archival materials and surviving-collaborator testimonies.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: SOME CALL IT LOVING (1973)

AKA: Sleeping Beauty; Dream Castle

DIRECTOR: James B. Harris

FEATURING: , Tisa Farrow, Carol White, Richard Pryor, Veronica Anderson, Logan Ramsey, Pat Priest, Brandy Herrod

PLOT: Based on the John Collier short story “Sleeping Beauty.” A hedonistic millionaire, entranced by a carnival act involving a girl who has been asleep for years, purchases her and brings her home.

Still from Some Call It Loving (1973)WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Far stranger than the synopsis would suggest, Some Call it Loving is a surreal, dreamlike take on relationship dramas. A precursor to the modern erotic thriller, it would make for an interesting double feature paired with Boxing Helena, or even Singapore Sling.

COMMENTSThe entire genre of the “erotic thriller”—from such highlights as 9 1/2 Weeks, the steamy cable series “Red Shoe Diaries,” and Eyes Wide Shut all the way down to the low-level late night chum on Cinemax (or Skinemax, as it was nicknamed due to its reliance on such fare)—shares primary DNA with the not-as-well-known early precursor Some Call It Loving. Lead actor Zalman King would make it a cottage industry in the 80s and 90s, co-writing and producing 9 1/2 Weeks and directing Wild Orchid, Two Moon Junction and episodes of “Red Shoe Diaries” (the series he created), among others.

King’s character here, Robert, lives in a mansion with two women, Scarlett (White) and Angelica (Anderson). The three pass the time by indulging in role-playing “games” (seducing a widow, disciplining the maid, dancing nuns) that always lead to sexual situations. The only times Robert ventures into the “real world” is when he gigs as a session player with a jazz group at a bar and has conversations with his friend Jeff (Pryor), a musician who’s fallen into hardcore junkiedom.

During one of these excursions he goes to a carnival and discovers the “Sleeping Beauty,” Jennifer (Farrow), as a sideshow attraction, drugged to remain asleep. Patrons pay for one kiss to wake the Beauty—and more, it’s strongly implied. Robert decides to purchase her to take her back with him. Robert returns with Jennifer, who is accepted into the household; when she awakens, she’s also incorporated into the game-playing. But does this lead to a Happy Ending for all?

Although is provides the seed for later erotic thrillers, Loving can’t actually be classed as one. Instead, it’s a dark, fractured fairy tale in line with its source material (John Collier’s treatment of the “Sleeping Beauty” legend). In the story, the emphasis is on the man who purchases the Beauty. That holds true in Harris’ adaptation as well, but he goes further and deeper than Collier.

At the outset, Robert appears to be a “kept” man. Scarlett seems to be the wealthy benefactor, with Angelica being a recent addition to the family, and it appears that this setup has been in effect for some time. But while some may find this to be a fantasy come true, Robert is dissatisfied. His conversations with Jeff provide him with some distraction, but Jeff’s descent insures that he won’t be around for long.  Robert’s malaise is relieved by Jennifer’s arrival, but only for a short time. At first she enjoys the company and the game-playing, but it ends up in further dissatisfaction.PryorEtiquette Pictures, the uptown division sub-label of Vinegar Syndrome, made Loving their debut release in a Blu-Ray/DVD package in Summer 2015.  Done in a 2K restoration from the original negative, this is the best Loving has looked in any of its prior home video releases. Numerous extras are included, such as a commentary with writer/director Harris, a featurette on the making of the film, one on cinematographer Mario Tosi (Carrie, The Stunt Man), and outtakes featuring actress Millie Perkins, whose role was cut from the finished film.

Writer/director James B. Harris was ‘s producing partner for his early films The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita.

CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

AKA Santa Fe Satan

DIRECTOR: Patrick McGoohan

FEATURING: Richie Havens, Lance LeGault, , Tony Joe White, Season Hubley, Bonnie Bramlett, Delaney Bramlett

PLOT: An adaptation of “Othello,” set in the Santa Fe, NM area in the summer of 1967. Traveling preacher Othello (Richie Havens) comes across a remote commune in the desert and eventually settles there, becoming the defacto leader and falling in love with and marrying Desdemona. This does not sit well with Iago, who plans revenge on Othello, manipulating everyone around him, including his wife Emila.

Still from Catch My Soul (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Catch My Soul is definitely of an artifact of its time, and the merging of Shakespeare and gospel makes for a unique interpretation, but it’s a pretty straightforward presentation of the basic story.

COMMENTS: Catch My Soul was an intriguing moment in the careers of everyone involved. It was the only feature film directed by Patrick McGoohan, who’d proved himself earlier directing episodes of “Danger Man,” “Secret Agent” and “The Prisoner”; it featured the acting debuts of singers Richie Havens and Tony Joe White, as well as performances from cult favorites Susan Tyrell and Lance LeGault; and on top of all of that, the cameraman was Conrad Hall of “The Outer Limits,” In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke, among others. It was based on an acclaimed stage show and with that pedigree, it should have been a memorable addition to the genre of rock musicals. Instead, Catch My Soul barely opened at all—practically ignored by the public at large and garnering scathing reviews, the film disappeared from theaters only to reappear a year later under the title Santa Fe Satan, and was as successful under that title as it was under the original. The film then pretty much disappeared from view, never released on VHS and barely mentioned at all. McGoohan disowned Soul shortly before release and barely talked about it, except for one mention in a mid-90’s interview. For a long time the only available evidence of the film’s existence was the soundtrack LP, the most praised element of the film, which could be still be found in used vinyl bins even well into the 2000s. It was long thought to be a lost film, until the recent unearthing of a 35mm print in North Carolina and the subsequent discoveries of a 16mm print and the camera negative found in the bowels of 20th Century Fox studios.

Now that Soul has been rediscovered and can be seen with some 40 years of perspective, it seems that the initial reviews were too harsh and mean spirited. Far from being a hippie-themed train wreck, the film is an interesting curiosity showing how Shakespeare’s work is constantly adapted to reflect contemporary times. It’s especially fitting that McGoohan was the one to direct this, since he starred earlier as an Iago-inspired character in another musically-oriented Continue reading CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOST RIVER (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saiorse Ronan, Matt Smith, Ben Mendlesohn, , Reda Kateb,

PLOT: An urban fantasy/fairy tale set in an unspecified city in decline (which looks a lot like Detroit) where single mom Billy and her sons Frankie and Bones attempt to keep their home despite all obstacles and enemies: for Billy, a bank manager/underground club impresario, and for Bones, the neighborhood gang kingpin, Bully.

Lost River (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Gosling calls Lost River (originally titled How to Catch a Monster) a dark fairy tale, inspired by both the 80’s fantasy films he watched growing up and by a stay in Detroit while acting in The Ides of March. It’s a very unorthodox melding, like lo-fi magic realism set against a documentary background. Some might feel it exploitative, which could account for the polarized reaction the film received.

COMMENTS I guess it’s a gauge of where we’re at in film culture when something like Lost River can arise from sunken depths to befuddle everyone. People were expecting a disaster of epic proportion, judging from its reception at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and the outright hostile reviews during its very brief theatrical run/VOD in the U.S. From that reaction, one would think that Lost River would be better paired with other recent cult “darlings” like The Room or Birdemic.

lost-river-film-ryan-gosling-700x425Happily, Lost River is nowhere near those icons of ineptitude, which makes the reaction to it even more of a curiosity.  Critics seemed to take it personally that a Hollywood Star would actually choose to make his directorial debut an artistic endeavor rather than some flashy franchise production. It is evident that Gosling isn’t at all shy about his influences—he was paying close attention while he was working with and —but I would think that would be something to be encouraged by, rather than excoriated.

Apparently surrealism and dream imagery are only to be attempted when the director is a less well-known name. Either that, or most reviewers felt very uncomfortable with the approach in conjunction with the Detroit setting. There are several scenes with non-actors which briefly push the tone into docudrama, which is completely jarring with the “urban fairy tale” atmosphere Gosling is attempting to create.

lost river artGosling’s direction is very assured, aided by the lensing of Benoit Debie (Enter the Void) and the music of Johnny Jewel, which provide the proper atmosphere. Performances are pretty good all around: Hendricks, DeCaestecker and Ronan are fine, though it’s mainly the supporting characters that make an impression, such as Mendes, Mendlesohn and especially Matt Smith’s villainous turn, which is as far away from his Doctor Who as possible. One caveat: it seems a waste to get Barbara Steele and give her nothing to do. She’s more of a presence than a full character.

Whatever you might think of Lost River, I highly encourage you to search it out and make up your own mind.

Available on Blu-Ray and DVD with no additional features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Indulgent and movie-like, Lost River is Gosling’s weird, let’s-do-this-thing folly.”–Brad Wheeler, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: SPLENDOR SOLIS, HOME MOVIES 1998-2015 (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

SYNOPSIS: Compiled from footage filmed over a period of 17 years, Splendor Solis is a tone-poem celebration of cinema, creativity, play, collaboration, friendship and all of the splendors under the sun.Splendor Solis

COMMENTS:  The latest from The Underground Film Studio (who previously brought us Savage Witches), Splendor Solis is a 60 minute twin-screen presentation of odds and ends from the previous 17 years of Daniel Fawcett’s filmmaking career. While that may at first seem to be a pretty easy (and lazy) way to build a film, not to mention an invitation to boredom, Splendor Solis ends up being anything but tedious.

Combing through 17 years’ worth of “home movies”—video diaries, unfinished films, video experiments, filmed performances, behind-the-scenes footage and yes, real home movies—is a massive undertaking in and of itself. Attempting to make a coherent and interesting film out of all that material is an additional mountain to climb. Splendor Solis succeeds in overcoming the boredom trap in two ways. First, the editing by Fawcett and is crackerjack. Presenting the footage via twin screens helps immensely in using up footage and in juxtaposing segments. Second, the music and sound design play an integral part in keeping the energy level up.

The result is a playful spectacle for the eyes which also serves as an accelerated look at the growth of an artist.

Splendor Solis had its World Premiere at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival in September, 2015 and will be making the film festival circuit in 2016.

EDITED BY: Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais

MUSIC BY: Simon Keep, Jos Dow, Daniel Fawcett, Alex Lemming, Magnus Williams, Thomas Hartley

366 UNDERGROUND: NIGHT AND A SWITCHBLADE

 DIRECTED BY: Ben Finer

FEATURING: Lloyd Todd Eddings, Katya Quinn-Judge, Jason Bragg Stanley, Alexandra Miniard, Nikita Vishnevskiy, William Pike, Casey Robinson, Matthew A. Leabo, Anthony Napoletano, Johnathan Meola, Saori Tsukada, Aleksander Garin

PLOT:  The new kid in town, Sandie Po, is already a Rebel Without a Cause. He’s butted heads with the local gang of toughs, some of whom wear animal masks. He’s made a friend, gone to the local sock hop and met a girl, and stabbed a cop. On the lam, he heads for the woods, wherein very strange, cryptic, sexual events bewitch everyone who enters.

vlcsnap-2015-05-06-21h33m59s683COMMENTS Night and a Switchblade‘s log line describes it as “a bizarro-noir, teen rebel movie about deviant youth and the lurid mysteries haunting a nocturnal American landscape.” Add “highly influenced by ” to that, and it pretty much pegs the film.  Unfortunately, in this case imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

The film attempts to go for a 1950’s patina to depict small-town American life, mixed with dark contemporary elements (see Blue Velvet, “Twin Peaks”), but the characterizations aren’t up to the task. It doesn’t help that the dialog is pretty much variations of the f-word thrown in at random. It f—-n’ may have f—-n’ seemed a f—-n’ good f—-n’ idea at the f—-n’ time, but f–k; that f—–n’ s–t just gets f—-n’ tiresome when it’s f—-n’ used all the f—-n’ time, YOU GET IT YOU F–K??!! F–K!!

Unless you’re f—–n’ . Otherwise, just f—-n’ leave that f—-n’ s–t the f–k alone.

vlcsnap-2015-05-06-21h35m25s666Also, when the surreal weirdness starts to kick in, it seems to be just empty weirdness for weirdness’ sake, so insular and obtuse, it remains a mystery. I know this accusation has been thrown towards Lynch’s work; however, I’d argue that Lynch’s symbolism, bizarre as it can get, at least has some sort of meaning behind it. That’s why he can make your flesh crawl with Frank Booth’s gas huffing and Bob’s appearing anywhere. There’s always something recognizable in Lynch. Admittedly, most of the stuff in Switchblade is pretty cool looking, and you can appreciate the effort and craft that’s been put in it, but it didn’t move me. My first viewing of the film, I bailed out after an hour, and that was more than generous. I did go back to finish out the film, but I was still completely unmoved.

The movie is substantially better when everyone keeps their mouth shut and doesn’t say a word. There is some talent on display here. Technically, it’s a very accomplished film: Blake Williams’ cinematography, Scott Rad Brown’s art direction, the costume design by Bevan Dunbar and Karen Boyer, and the shoegaze music from Color War (who appear in the film as the sock hop band Violet and the Vettes).

For me, the Lynch-inspiration/imitation just killed what could have been a great film on its own terms – visually, it’s wonderful, but I found it lacking anything substantial behind its weirdness, and it probably should have been cut into several short films instead of a feature. If you’re still intrigued enough to look for it—and it is currently up for free at the official site, remember: enter at your own risk!

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LIST CANDIDATE: THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT (1971)

Trzecia Czesc Nocy

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, , Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Jerzy Stuhr

PLOT: Set in occupied Poland during WWII, during a stay in the country, Michal watches helplessly as German soldiers murder his wife, Helena and son, Lukasz. Returning to the city, he involves himself with the Underground; during a meeting that goes wrong, another man is mistaken for him and shot and he ends up taking care of the man’s wife, Marta , who is a perfect double for his dead Helena.vlcsnap-2012-08-12-23h12m48s126

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Its mix of historical recreation and surreal scenes was eye-opening for audiences at the time, and even more so for Western viewers who may not be aware of the background of the film’s setting. Even at this early stage, most of Zulawski’s tropes are present, and will only become more refined and extreme in the films to follow.

COMMENTS: When film enthusiasts are introduced to Andrzej Zulawski, the go-to film is usually (surprise, surprise) Possession. For good reason: it’s in English, so no subtitle-reading is involved; and, for quite a while, it was the only Zulawski film that audiences in the West could obtain relatively easily. But if you mean to seriously study Zulawski’s work , then, in my opinion, The Third Part of the Night is a far better entry point.

Zulawski scholar Daniel Bird points out that the two films share similarities: they’re both dramas that take place against chaotic and apocalyptic backgrounds; both feature actresses who play double roles; and both feature a degree of Surrealism – and stairways. One could argue that the two films can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

On its own terms, The Third Part of the Night is an eye-opening merging of the Polish wartime experience that could be found in the films of Zulawki’s mentor Andrzej Wajda (who is credited as “Film Supervisor”) with the Surrealism that was beginning to be a mainstay of Eastern European films. Co-written with his father, Miroslaw Zulawski (a diplomat and novelist), the core of the film draws on Miroslaw’s wartime experiences as a “louse feeder” at The Weigl Institute, a facility that manufactured typhus vaccine. To a Western audience, the scenes of lice feeding may seem to be part of the surreal landscape, but to audiences in Poland, those scenes are more like historical recreation, along with the scenes of people being herded and taken away or just shot point blank in the streets. The Surrealism is rooted in Michel’s grief and guilt in losing his family, and replacing them.

tumblr_le90nmRZAJ1qzcur6The Third Part of the Night does not have a current Region 1 DVD release; it is listed in the ‘Future Releases’ section of Mondo Vision’s website. As of this writing, the best release is a disc from Second Run DVD in 2007. It’s Region 0, but a PAL disc, so those with all-region players should have no problem – in addition to an excellent transfer, there is a 20 minute interview in English with Zulawski going into some depth on the film, and an informative 16 page booklet written by Daniel Bird.

The story of the Weigl Institute is fascinating in its own right and worth further examination. In 2014, W.W. Norton & Co. published The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, by Arthur Allen, which goes into the whole history and aftermath of the Institute. Both Zulawskis are referenced in the text, as is Third Part

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything stands on a knife-edge between absurdity and the abyss. Rarely has a filmmaker begin his career by so boldly charting out the territory he intends to explore.”–David Cairns, MUBI Notebook (DVD)