Category Archives: Cult Movie

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall. While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius. With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but interestingly it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and a Golden Globe win) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film won a 2nd Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him. While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation. Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation; if pressed, this is my favorite Hurt performance. While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

Blu-ray reissue: The Quiet Earth ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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The Quiet Earth Film Movement Classics Blu-ray

In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).

Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie. Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” stage persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits to inhabit Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning our planet as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (kind of makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

SIFF 2016: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I once noted in a review that “immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside someone else’s nightmare”. While I stand by that appraisal, I now have an inkling of the method behind the madness after watching Yves Montmayeur’s enlightening portrait of the director, who opens up about his life and art. A few collaborators (Udo Kei, Isabella Rossellini), and like-minded directors (John Waters, the Quay brothers) weigh in as well.

Blu-ray reissue: Day of Anger ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Day of Anger – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Just when I thought I had seen all the noteworthy spaghetti westerns…this obscurity came a hootin’ and a hollerin’ into my saloon recently (even self-proclaimed cineastes like myself miss a few). I’m not sure what was distracting me when this film came out in 1967 (aside from being 11 years old) but it’s quite the buried treasure, from director Tonio Valerii. Genre icon Lee Van Cleef stars as a cold-blooded gunfighter (what else?) who becomes a mentor to a street cleaner (Giuliano Gemma) Then what happens is, well, the best I can do for you is: Charly meets Shane. This is one blown western, baby! But it’s much smarter than you expect it to be. If you dig Leone, you’ll love it. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray features restored prints of both the Italian and (shorter) International versions. Extras include a 2008 interview with Valerii, and new interviews with his biographer Roberto Curti, as well as Day of Anger screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi.

Frightfully amusing: 10 horror comedies for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2015)

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The nightly news is horrifying enough…so here’s ten funny ones. Alphabetically:

Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from director Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…that is, if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to properly enjoy this romp, you must first unlearn what you have learned. For example, JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…and he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He currently resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with our hero, Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell). The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its rather formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, Campbell’s portrayal of “Elvis” remains respectful; even poignant. Davis also nails that sweet spot; he embraces the inherent campiness of his “JFK”, yet he somehow retains the dignity of its namesake.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens, one of the creators behind The Avengers TV show. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) are called upon by a physician to investigate a mysterious malady befalling residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging. The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro (*sigh*). The film was released toward the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why at times, Clemens appears like he is doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One particularly memorable and hilarious sequence, an imaginatively choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment. Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Just wait until you meet Doris the Dominatrix.

Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality. Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited agenda here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau nearly steals the film with his droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine in their roles.

I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake. She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever. I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one). The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, perfectly synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double-entendres, all set to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy. After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery. The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd. Obscure, but worth a look.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 40 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff. Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings. And at the risk of losing my “street cred”, I admit that I have never attended one of the “audience participation” midnight showings. I now fully anticipate being zapped with squirt guns and pelted with handfuls of uncooked rice (ow!).

Young Frankenstein– Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side. Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring an unbilled cameo by Gene Hackman is a classic. This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

Beyond the uncanny valley of the dolls: The Quay Brothers on 35mm ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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In my 2010 review of the documentary, Marwencol, I opened with the following quote:

From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

 -John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

 I’ve often wondered if twins were the possible exception to Locke’s rule. I’m sure we’ve all known twins (you might be one, for all I know). Likewise, we’ve observed those quirks unique to twins (like finishing each other’s sentences). But what about their minds, their consciousness? That’s when it gets into a weird area; which may offer some explanation for the weird and unique micro-universe that identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have been able to create through their stop-motion animation short films.

Three of their films have been curated by director Christopher Nolan as part of a special touring package that includes the world premiere of Nolan’s own short, Quay. Unfortunately, a preview copy of Nolan’s film was not available for review, but I am familiar with the three Quay Brothers selections (In Absentia, The Comb, and Street of Crocodiles), which have now been bundled and re-titled as The Quay Brothers on 35mm.

It’s difficult to describe the Quay Brothers to the uninitiated. As I mentioned earlier, what they have created is literally their own micro-cosmos; their “sets” are meticulously detailed miniature constructs, and they use found objects, common household items (and occasional cameos from human actors) for perspective. This attention to micro detail gives them something in common with the subject of the documentary I referred to earlier, which profiles photo-artist Mark Hogancamp, who found a unique way to deal with the physical and mental trauma he suffered from a near-fatal beating. As I wrote:

Now, the Mark Hogancamp, that is to say, the corporeal being we perceive as “Mark Hogancamp” may exist and “live” in Kingston, N.Y., but as far as Mark himself is concerned, he actually lives in “Marwencol”. And Marwencol actually does “exist”. That being said, you’re not going to find Marwencol on Google Earth, because the entire town is located within the confines of Mark’s back yard. It’s a stunningly realistic 1/6 scale WW 2-era town, populated by G.I. Joes and Barbies, constructed over a period of years. This is not a hobby; it is on-going therapy (a luxury that he could not afford). Every doll has a back story; many are alter-egos of his friends and neighbors (including himself).

Is this a thing? Did the Quay Brothers experience a childhood trauma? I wonder if it’s therapy for them (once you’ve seen their work, you may beg them to get therapy). At any rate, do not expect traditional narrative. Their films can be unsettling…but not for the reasons you might assume. There’s no inherent violence, nor are they trying to “scare” you. Their films are more like pieces of dreams, or perhaps a screen capture of that elusive nanosecond of Jungian twilight that exists between nodding off and disconcertingly jerking awake a moment later. Catch them on the big screen if you can.

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming. And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a badass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy storyline. I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.

SIFF 2015: Liza, the Fox Fairy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?). Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet.

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 25, 2014)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 58 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces. The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters in this piece. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper). Rossellini is convincing enough as someone whose elevator doesn’t go to the top floor, but Hopper is 100% pure batshit crazy, squared as Frank Booth,  one of the all-time greatest screen heavies.

Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this one-of-a-kind, 1974 psychological thriller from the great Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg subtly builds an increasingly unsettling sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice. See it now!

In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he makes for a fascinating study. Darger was a nondescript recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings. The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously scribed in long hand over a period of decades (it was literally his life’s work). The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites (the “Vivian Girls”). Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a filthy old perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly mesmerizing it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to catch). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently getting lumped together with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet compelling.

Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha?!” is more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted and forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was allegedly inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren who pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends. Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great “lost” entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night. At least that’s his plan. “The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the (too) friendly town cop (Chips Rafferty) who subtly bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a “lost weekend” that lasts for five days. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from (the ubiquitous) Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.