Tag Archives: Gangster

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: POINT BLANK (1967)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Angie Dickinson, , Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner, Carol O’Connor, Sharon Acker

PLOT: Walker is shot and left for dead by his partner during a heist; he survives, and returns to demand “the Organization” gives him back the $93,000 that was taken from him.

Still from Point Blank (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Point Blank is pretty strange for a gangster revenge movie, but although it experiments with impressionistic techniques, it’s not too much more daring or avant-garde than other big budget arthouse films of the period (say, Midnight Cowboy). Compare this to Branded to Kill, another 1967 release featuring a lone mobster facing off against a criminal organization, to see why Point Blank doesn’t quite muster the necessary weirdness to crack the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: With its fractured narrative and obscure feel, John Boorman’s second film, the revenge thriller Point Blank, was too ahead-of-its-time to be a hit even in freewheeling 1967. Although its critical reputation has grown enormously since its release, the movie has sadly been overlooked by the average cinephile even today. Point Blank is influenced by the French New Wave, not in terms of technique—everything looks slick and polished rather than rough and handmade—but by the spirit of reinventing genre pictures and investing them with existential ambiguity. Yet, it also remains true to Hollywood tough-guy antihero mythology, while amping up the sex and violence to then-shocking levels. It’s non-linear and confusingly told with flashbacks, memories and what could be dreams, but it’s really only disorienting in the six minute pre-credits opening where Lee Marvin’s betrayed and robbed Walker lies bleeding after being shot at point blank range. After that the movie quickly settles into a very clear and direct structure where Walker hunts down a mobster, asks for his money, kills him when he refuses, then sets his sights on the dead man’s direct superior, slaying his way up the ladder looking for someone with authority to cut him a $93,000 check.

Lee Marvin’s square-jawed squareness has never been put to cooler use than in Point Blank. Utilizing a vocabulary smaller than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, he’s relentless and unflappable, standing like a rock while Angie Dickinson unleashes a fury of blows against him, then wordlessly turning on the TV when she collapses into an exhausted heap. Marvin even makes a tangerine shirt with a brown tweed jacket look hip. For fun, chart the number of people Walker actually kills versus the ones whom he simply manipulates into doing themselves in. Yet, as cool and mechanical as he is, Walker works as a character because he’s obsessed—the irrational way he barges into his wife’s apartment and unloads his gun into an empty bed in blind hope that her lover would be lying there tells us all we need to know about the sanity of his mission.

There are plenty of subtle dreamlike suggestions that what appears to be happening may not really be so, from the unnaturally stylized color schemes (the gray-on-gray of the compromised marital bedroom) to a mysteriously disappearing corpse. The mysterious Yost, who shows up with clues when needed and who is willing to help Walker against “the Organization” for unspecified reasons, adds another layer of suspicion. The script is cagey about Walker’s ultimate fate, but in the story he functions as a revenant: a remorseless spirit that can’t be killed, returned to satisfy a debt. Walker is inhuman in his single-mindedness, but we root for him nonetheless. There is something quintessentially American in his struggle against a bureaucratic mafia for his slice of the pie—more as a point of personal honor than for the pie itself. Point Blank is packed with classic style and star power, and has the perfect ratio of arthouse cool to gritty action.

Point Blank and the 1999 Mel Gibson feature Payback were both based on Donald Westlake’s novel “The Hunter.” John Boorman recalls that he and Lee Marvin loved the character of Walker, but hated the original treatment, and had the screenplay extensively rewritten. Boorman was not a fan of Gibson’s version of the story. “The script that he shot very much resembled the script that Lee Marvin threw out the window,” he quipped on the DVD commentary.

Point Blank was released on Blu-ray in July 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lee Marvin makes a perfect, unfazed human center to John Boorman’s bizarre, psychedelic universe in Point Blank.”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by PinstripeHourglass, who noted, “It’s not surrealistic weird, but it’s weird. Subtly weird, but very weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marie-France Pisier, Alain Robbe-Grillet

PLOT: A director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself) pitches a complicated story about a cocaine smuggling caper to a producer during a train ride, and the audience watches the results play out, revisions and all.

Still from Trans-Europ-Express (1967)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The second film from novelist-turned-director Alain Robbe-Grillet is a pioneering work of cinematic meta-fiction that prefigures the work of (among others) by putting a fictional author inside of the movie, one who supposedly writes the script in real time as we watch. Sometimes the story backtracks on itself, erasing old plot points or creating alternative scenarios. To make things even stranger, the protagonist of the movie-inside-the-movie is obsessed with bondage, and begins a relationship with an elegant prostitute who may help him fulfill his most excessive fantasies.

COMMENTS: Sitting on the Trans-Europ-Express from Paris to Antwerp, a director tells his producer that they should set a movie on this train; they decide it should be about drug smuggling. A man, who we’ve previously seen buying a suitcase to smuggle cocaine, walks into their compartment. The producer and director are invisible to him; he only sees the script girl. When he leaves almost immediately, the director comments “is he crazy?” “Didn’t you recognize him?,” asks the producer. “It’s Trintignant. What about using him in your film?” They then do proceed to use Trintigant in their film treatment. The story they concoct on the fly sends him to an Antwerp where everyone is an operative working for the local cartel or a detective, and where he is sent on an increasingly Byzantine series of rendezvous to prove his worth and obscure his tracks. Along the way he begins a relationship with the prostitute Eva, with whom he indulges his strangling fetish. After a series of double crosses and betrayals which are nearly impossible to sort out, because the director keeps rewriting the script, it all ends in tragedy at “Eve’s Witchcraft Cabaret,” a bondage-themed club with a naked girl chained to a rotating stage.

Despite the dark themes, Trans-Europ-Express is actually a comedy, though in a high-minded, very French way—more “witty” than “funny.” The movie’s abstract, Cubist twists on gangster scenarios recall ‘s crazy yakuza film Branded to Kill, also from 1967. Although it deconstructs the conventions of a genre picture in similar fashion to ‘s 1960 Breathless, the light touch and playfulness keeps Express from feeling as ponderous and self-important as the works of some of Robbe-Grillet’s New Wave contemporaries. At the same time, the movie’s perverse sexuality, related to the subconscious desires of Surrealism, ventures further into the forbidden than his contemporaries dared. Express‘ scenes of sexual strangulation, implied rape and even nudity were considered pretty hot stuff at the time, although they will look tame through jaded modern eyes.

Robbe-Grillet began his career as an experimental novelist, helping to found the avant-garde “nouvelle roman” genre. He turned to cinema after co-writing the script forLast Year at Marienbad with . Trans-Europ-Express was his second film as director. The Kino sub-label Redemption began releasing Robbe-Grillet’s neglected films, some of which have never been on DVD before, in 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The result is both a pure example of narrative deconstruction – with some genuinely absurd moments – and a pretty weird experience for the viewer…”–Johnathan Dawson, Senses of Cinema

CAPSULE: BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT (1998)

Crna Macka, Beli Macor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florijan Ajdini, Srdan Todorovic, Bajram Severdzan, Branka Katic

PLOT: Dadan, a local gangster, promises to release Matko’s debts if he will marry his son to Dadan’s sister.

Still from Black Cat, White Cat (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great movie, but we have to make our way down a long list of more appropriate adjectives—eccentric, madcap, farcical, etc.—before we get to “weird” as a way to describe it.

COMMENTS: Black Cat, White Cat is almost Shakespearean in its comedic plot: you have two sets of young lovers and a horde of older, money-obsessed fools whose scheming complicates the youngsters’ chances for happiness. Set in a village on the banks of the muddy Danube, the main plot is set into motion by 17-year old Zare’s father, the irresponsible Matko, who hatches a harebrained scheme to try to steal several train cars loaded with gasoline—a caper which requires the assistance of not one, but two sets of gangsters. Things predictably go awry, leading Matko to promise Zare’s hand in marriage to coke-addled Dadan’s short and shrewish sister, Ladybird. But Zare is in love with a feisty barmaid, while Ladybird refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love; Dadan, however, insists that his family honor requires Ladybird’s marriage, and is intent on staging the nuptials at gunpoint, if need be. This leads to a festive but awkward gypsy wedding that is further complicated by a corpse on ice in the attic and a pending visit from a more powerful mobster. Quirky characters abound, from the crime boss with bad teeth and a love of Casablanca to Zare’s thoughtful grandfather, who figures that his own demise may save his grandson from his no-good father, but it’s Srdan Todorovic who dominates as Dadan. With an open-necked shirt revealing his gold chains, a pair of live-in groupies, and a crucifix filled with cocaine, Dadan seems to have stepped out of a Seventies disco movie: Serbian Night Fever. Amped up on nose candy, he constantly pumps his fists from nervous energy, sometimes to a thundering beat that echoes only inside his own coked-out skull. He’s also fond of firing automatic weapons into the air and juggling hand grenades for sport, so despite his ridiculous appearance, he’s not the kind of guy you want to trifle with. A bride disguised as a tree stump and a booby-trapped outhouse provide slapstick interludes. There are a few weird touches here, as well, such as dead people coming back to life, a thoughtful grandson who brings a seven piece band to visit his sick grandpa, and a pig who inexplicably eats a car. With a small town’s worth of Eastern European eccentrics, a knotty romantic plot and grotesque and vulgar comic details (like the woman who pulls nails from a board with her clenched buttocks), Black Cat, White Cat is an amphetamine rush that never lets up. Thick and spicy as goulash, it’s the kind of script Leonard Elmore might have written if he’s been born a Bosnian gypsy.

Stung by politically-motivated criticism of his previous movie, Underground (1995), Emir Kusturica had publicly announced his retirement from filmmaking. He changed his mind to start working on a documentary about gypsy music, a project he never completed but which sparked the idea for the story that became Black Cat, White Cat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mad scramble through the Felliniesque realm of Mr. Kusturica’s imagination, and it proves nothing if not this much: give this man the Danube, gypsy musicians and a camera and you’ve got a party.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dr D, who described it as a “joyously insane gangster-wedding-crime movie!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

147. KEYHOLE (2011)

“…a ghost sonata in which dream and waking life are seamlessly blended to isolate and expose universal feelings.”–description from the Keyhole press kit

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , , David Wontner, Brooke Palsson, Udo Kier

PLOT: A group of gangsters rendezvous at a large old house filled with ghosts, bringing a kidnapped man tied to a chair with them. They meet with their leader, Ulysses Pick, who arrives carrying an unconscious woman on his back. As the mobsters wait in the parlor, Ulysses travels through the house with the woman and the kidnapped man, trying to reach the upstairs chamber where his wife awaits him with her father and her lover.

Still from Keyhole (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  • Guy Maddin lists the Bowery Boys’ Spooks Run Wild, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space,” and Homer’s “The Odyssey” (or, as he once joked at a screening, Ulysses’ Wikipedia page) as among the influences on Keyhole.
  • This is the director’s first film shot on digital video. Because Maddin’s style is to evoke the look and feel of old movies, the use of actual film stock has been important to him in the past to achieve an authentic period look.
  • Maddin wrote the part of Ulysses Pick with Jason Patric in mind.
  • According to the director Ulysses’ son Manners is named after David Manners, a “bland” (Maddin’s word) Canadian lead in 1930s horror films (Manners played John Harker in Dracula, among other roles).
  • Maddin wanted to use music by Bernard Hermann for the score but could not afford the rights to license the music. Jason Staczek wrote an original soundtrack for the film instead.
  • Keyhole was one of two movies selected as among the best weird movies of all time in 366 Weird Movies 4th Reader’s Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately, the image you will not be able to get out of your mind is Louis Negin’s wrinkly nudity. Negin plays Calypso, the aged father of Ulysses’ wife Hyacinth, who is chained to his daughter’s bed—naked. His chain is long enough that he is able to walk around the house where, in invisible spirit form, he sometimes whips the assembled gangsters, including one memorable moment when he flogs a mugging mobster played by “Kids in the Hall” alum Kevin McDonald as the gunman is fornicating with the ghost of a maid while she scrubs the floor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: All of Guy Maddin’s movies are dreams, but Keyhole isn’t just a dream, it’s a dream of a ghost. An amnesiac ghost, with deep psychological issues, who finds that extracting strands of his wife’s hair from a keyhole unlocks buried memories of family tragedies. Hazy double images, avant garde editing, and unexpected color intrusions supply the visual weirdness Maddinites have come to expect and treasure, and the bizarre collision of gangsters and ghosts does the rest.


Original trailer for Keyhole

COMMENTS: Memory is sacred to Guy Maddin; his movies are always about remembering. Sometimes the connection to memory is explicit. Continue reading 147. KEYHOLE (2011)

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

101. SKIDOO (1968)

“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer

DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger

FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, , Alexandra Hay, , Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, , , , Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, , Harry Nilsson

PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon.  When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.

Still from Skidoo (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Otto Preminger had been nominated as Best Director for two Academy Awards (for Laura and The Cardinal).  Known for pushing the envelope on taboo topics, Preminger was instrumental in breaking the back of the Hollywood Production Code by releasing The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which dealt with the then-forbidden topic of heroin addiction, without MPAA approval.
  • Skidoo was a giant flop sandwiched between two other Preminger flops, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  Despite its notorious reputation, Skidoo was part of a series of failed films and was not solely responsible for Preminger’s fall from grace.
  • Two years after Skidoo, screenwriter Doran William Cannon penned the exceedingly weird Brewster McCloud (1970).
  • This was Groucho Marx’s final film.  He dropped LSD (with writer Paul Krassner) in preparation for the role.
  • Preminger also took LSD, supposedly under the guidance of none other than Timothy Leary (who promoted the film in the trailer).  Preminger had originally been slated to make an anti-acid movie, but had decided that he should experience the drug before condemning it.  After his trip he decided to make Skidoo instead.
  • Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero, who all have cameo bits in Skidoo, had also appeared together in the same movie just two years before: as the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker in Batman: The Movie (1966).  Director Otto Preminger had a rare acting role as Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.
  • After flopping in 1968, Skidoo became virtually a lost film—not because it was suppressed or the prints were unavailable, but because no one seemed interested in exhibiting it.  A Turner Classic Movies screening in 2008 was the first opportunity most people had to view the movie since its release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw.  His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.


Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski discussing the trailer for Skidoo (1968)

COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Continue reading 101. SKIDOO (1968)

LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Roberta Torre

FEATURING: Ciccio Guarino, Mimma De Rosalia

PLOT: The movie tells the story of the life and death of Palermo mafioso Tano Guarrasi—and

Still from To Die for Tano (1997)

of the newfound freedom of his four ugly sisters who stayed spinsters because no man was brave enough to marry them—in song and dance.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  It’s weird, but given its status as an almost completely unknown movie, it’s not quite outrageously outlandish enough to earn a spot on the List on the first ballot.  A musical production telling the life story of a contemptible macho bully in styles ranging from disco to “gangsta” rap would be strange enough, but director Roberta Torre adds in bizarre dream sequences involving dancing chickens and every 1970s LSD drug trip camera effect she can afford, and films the entire mess as if she’s the long-lost love child of Maya Deren and George Kuchar.  It’s rambunctious and the energy gets to you, but it’s held back by its extreme amateurism (bad singing and choreography can gets wearisome over an hour’s time), and also by the fact that no compelling story or characters ever emerge from the sketch-upon-sketch structure.  Still, it’s one of those movies you may want to track down just so you’ll have something to make your co-workers’ eyes bug out on Monday morning when you talk around the water cooler about what you watched over the weekend.  Recommended for those hunting the obscurest oddities, and anyone who reads this site regularly is likely to find it at least amusing.

COMMENTS:  There’s something gratifying about seeing Sicily’s murderous thugs depicted as a crew of mincing ninnies.  The fact that this gangster spoof is enacted by residents of the city that suffered during the mob’s gangland wars only adds to the elation; their open mockery of their criminal overlords feels brave and subversive, and transmutes the silliness into a strange sort of grandeur.  Though shot in 1997, Tano almost looks like a 1970s production, from the washed out color to the grotesque-looking amateur actors, cheap props and camera tricks, and general “pop avant-garde” feel of an Andy Warhol or John Waters production.  The story (based on real-life events) jumps about in time, usually for little obvious reason, and there are numerous digressions for flashbacks and the absurd musical numbers that are the film’s raison d’être.  The translator earns extra credit for rendering all the songs in rhyme, especially since that practice often results in odd-sounding couplets like “I’ll beat up guys Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)

70. PERFORMANCE (1970)

PHERBER: What do you think Turner feels like?
CHAS: I don’t know. He’s weird, and you’re weird. You’re kinky.
PHERBER: He’s a man, a male and female man!

–dialogue from Performance

DIRECTED BY: , Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton

PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies. He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope. Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.

BACKGROUND:

  • Donald Cammell, a former painter turned screenwriter, wrote the script and directed the actors. Nicolas Roeg, already a sought after cinematographer for his work on films such as The Masque of the Red Death and Fahrenheit 451, supervised the film’s visuals. It was the first directing credit for either.
  • Donald Cammell took his own life in 1996 with a bullet to the head.
  • Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the movie solely because rock star Mick Jagger was attached to the project.
  • The role of Chas was written with Marlon Brando in mind. Depending on whom you ask, Brando either declined the role, or the producers decided he could not play a convincing lower-class Brit. James Fox, a rising young actor known for his posh upper-class persona, studied actual London gangsters to get down the Cockney accent and criminal mannerisms.
  • Fox, in his acting prime at the time of Performance, suffered a nervous breakdown after filming (reportedly brought about by a the combination of his father’s death and smoking the powerful hallucinogen DMT with Jagger) and did not act again for 8 years after completing the movie.
  • Tuesday Weld and Marianne Faithfull were the original choices to play Pherber, but Pallenberg, a model and Rolling Stones groupie (then Keith Richards’ girlfriend), was brought in after Weld was injured and Faithfull became pregnant.
  • Nicolas Roeg recalls seeing members of the film development lab destroying “intimate” scenes of the film “with a fire axe,” apparently believing they had mistakenly been sent illegal hardcore pornography to develop.
  • Jack Nitzsche composed much of the score on the ninth Moog synthesizer ever built (the Moog probably belonged to Jagger: the Rolling Stones had beenone of the first rock groups to include a synthesizer on their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”).
  • The movie was completed in 1968, but shelved for two years after a disastrous test screening at which audiences yelled at the screen and walked out of the theater. A studio executive’s wife reportedly vomited from viewing the graphic violence, and audiences were offered their money back. The movie’s eventual release was delayed for two years while the film was re-edited; much of the violence was trimmed, and Mick Jagger’s first appearance was moved forward in the film to appease Warner Brother executives. Roeg has already left for Australia to make Walkabout and was not involved in the final cut.
  • In order to compress the beginning of the film, partly so that Jagger would appear onscreen earlier, editor Frank Mazzola created the fast crosscutting montage that begins the film. “I knew I’d have to slide things back and forth or extend something to make it hit on a note or a frame,” the editor recalls. “I could do three or four or five of those cuts and bang!, it was perfect, like a beat… You could do anything to that film and it would work, because of the way it was happening. It was poetry, it was organic…”
  • Among the cuts later demanded by the British censors was a scene of Fox being flogged, intercut with a scene of him making love to a woman digging her fingernails into his back.
  • Performance was savaged by critics on its initial release, but its reputation has improved over the years. In 2009 Mick Jagger’s Turner ranked number one in Film Comment’s poll of top film performances by a musician.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into an taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us. Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.


Original trailer for Performance (trailer contains brief nudity and sexuality)

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