Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bad Company

The good news is, this lady is going to be your uninvited houseguest:

The bad news is, she's bringing her gang of jewel thieves with her including this guy:

The guest of honor/boss of the gang will not be showing up until later, but don't worry, the guests will come up with interesting ways of entertaining themselves until his arrival.

The Killers are our Guests is one unique and satisfying mixed cocktail from the heyday of Italian cinema. It's one part heist film, two parts home invasion, and one part giallo with the requisite splash of J & B on the side. The hybrid plot is logically structured, well edited and makes complete sense in the end but is still unpredictable. The story, which moves quickly through a somewhat fouled-up heist, takes its time once the gang busts into a doctor's house to seek help for a wounded member. As the thieves get their compatriot patched up and await the arrival of their ringleader, we begin to learn a little bit about them and their unwilling hosts. For example, gun moll Margaret Lee is a take charge kind of gal with a penchant for the ladies. Scary goon Mario, played by Giuseppe Castellano, is a 'punch first and ask questions later' type, who coincidentally, also has a penchant for the ladies. Anthony Steffen, as Doctor Guido Malerva, is quite the hapless milquetoast, and sadly, does not have a way with the ladies (or does he?). There's also the good doctor's wife, Mara Malerva (Livia Cerini), who is a complete ball-buster and appears to be wearing some kind of molestation magnet under her clothing which keeps drawing unwanted (or very wanted) attention to her. Not in attendance, because he's working on solving the heist, is Commissioner Di Stefano played by Luigi Pistilli who in addition to being a world-class detective, rocks some impressive werewolf-like lamb-chops.

I had low expectations for this film because it's pedigree doesn't look very good. The director, Vincenzo Rigo, has only three films on his resume (one of which stars Harry Reems). One co-writer, Renato Romano, is a character actor whose only writing credit is this film. The other co-writer, Bruno Fontana, is responsible for stuff like Escape from Women's Prison and Emanuelle, Queen of the Desert. The main reason the film caught my attention was it starred Margaret Lee and Luigi Pistilli.

Upon viewing, I was so happy to see Lee play a character that wasn't just a pretty face. She is actually the star of the film, and her character is the driving force behind the plot. Dressed all in black, she looks super sexy, like an Emma Peel gone bad. As attractive as she is, she's still completely believable when she takes command or threatens to shoot someone. 

Giuseppe Castellano, who was born to play Thug #2, was excellent as a tough guy who is somehow both impatient and level-headed. Surprisingly, he provides a lot of comic relief without ever jeopardizing his tough guy persona. Anthony Steffen makes is usual bland, ineffectualness work for him as the hapless doctor who is forced to deal, not only with the criminals, but his castrating wife as well. Livia Cerini does an OK job as the shrew spouse, but I think this role really cried out for someone less mousy, like Rosalba Neri. Luigi Pistilli, cool as always, only appears early on and late in the film, but is pivotal and has a strong presence.

Vincenzo Rigo, who did a more than competent job as director, also served as his own cinematographer and editor. His editing was particularly impressive, especially when it came to speeding up or slowing down the pace where appropriate. At the end of the film, he punctuates a long, seemingly needless sequence, with the return of an all-but-forgotten character that really provides a great punchline.

The movie is not a masterpiece, but with a strong star turn by Lee, a solid giallo plot twist and clever reveal at the end, these are some guests you definitely want to invite over.

Score 7.5/10

Monday, February 21, 2011

Son of Derivative

"Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time"
-Led Zeppelin

One of my all all-time favorite giallo films is The Bloodstained Shadow. But it's not everybody's favorite. The big knock on the film is that it is derivative of Argento, Martino and Fulci gialli. It certainly has some of Argento's artistic references, Martino's straightforward storytelling and Fulci's over the top kills, but in the end, the nice hybrid mixing of these elements is what makes it a superior film. As any Tarantino fan can attest, if a director boosts from the best, he can wind up with a pretty good, if not too original, film. But if it is a well-made movie, and delivers its message in an entertaining way, than I think it can be considered a success regardless of how derivative it ultimately is. After all, artists have been inspired by (or stolen from) one another since the dawn of time.

Synopsis - A lonely, unstable, social misfit in the big city attempts to find meaning to his life by helping a victimized under-aged girl. 

No, it's not this guy:

It's this guy:

In the DVD commentary to God's Lonely Man, writer/director Frank von Zerneck Jr. cites as his cinematic influences, Hardcore, Cruising, The Exorcist, Thief and Christiane F - We Children from Bahnhof Zoo. However, he doesn't mention the elephant in the living room, Taxi Driver, until the closing credits, and then only to express a wish he had cast someone from it. God's Lonely Man is not only similar in plot to Taxi Driver, but Michael Wyle, who plays the lead character Ernest Rakman, absolutely channels De Niro's Travis Bickle character throughout the film with nervous ticks, sideways glances and the distinct impression of someone uncomfortable in his own skin. The similarity between the films and protagonists may be off-putting at first, but as the story unfolds their alikeness becomes easier to accept. One reason is von Zerneck's film is intentionally less stylized than Scorcese's with much more of a low key, low lit, suburban look and feel that makes it distinctive. Being shot in a Los Angeles neighborhood, often near dusk or dawn, helps by giving the film an oddly sterile, gray grittiness.

The film really finds its own voice when Ernest meets his version of Iris - Christiane, who is performed with incredible skill by Heather McComb. Rather than playing a waif-ish, wise-beyond-her-years victim, McComb plays Christiane as a giggly, sweet, typical teenage girl who is a little too matter-of-fact about her horrific life. The chemistry between the friendly, outgoing Christiane, and the uptight, near psychotic, Ernest is great and their relationship is quite believable and drives the movie for the last hour in a very interesting direction.

The acting overall is top-notch, especially by the two leads Wyle and McComb who do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and also by several actors who make brief but memorable appearances including Justine Bateman, Wallace Langham, Ginger Lynn Allen, Roxana Zal, Kieran Mulroney, Tom Towles and Paul Dooley. All the actors were quite believable but the latter three were incredibly chilling.

Despite being low-budget, the film was shot quite competently with no glaring errors and a natural lighting scheme that rarely looked artificially bright or too dark to see. The score by James Fearnley is somber, dark and unobtrusive. The main character's voice-over also adds to the atmosphere, but is used with restraint only three or four times throughout the movie.

Like most nihilistic films, God's Lonely Man is not easy to watch. On first seeing the film back in the late 90's I was reminded of Taxi Driver and Hardcore. Those are pretty good films to be reminded of, but aren't easy to watch either. The first time I saw I Stand Alone in 2002, I was reminded of this film. And I wondered if Noe was a von Zerneck fan. 

Score 8/10

Monday, February 14, 2011


what's your price for flight?"
-Night Ranger

The 1991 film Motorama isn't the strangest road trip movie I've ever seen, after all, there's no corpse tied to the roof of the protagonist's car as in both Invitation au voyage and Highway 61. It's not the glossiest film either, that honor would go to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's not as quirky as Goodbye Porkpie or Rikky and Pete. It's not as existential as Vanishing Point or Easy Rider. However, it does feature the only 10-year old boy driving a red convertible '68 Mustang across a mythical land whose states sound suspiciously like oil company names. And that distinction makes it fairly unique in the road trip genre.

The concept of an obnoxious, self-serving tyke as the anti-hero of the film is the brilliant, unique conceit that initially drew me in, and kept me watching late one night in the early '90's when I first channel-hopped onto Motorama. The kid may be a metaphor for the selfish, narcissistic inner child in all of us, but that's only the beginning of the script's cleverness. There's also the idea that almost none of the other characters recognize him as a child because they are too wrapped up in their own bent obsessions.

Joseph Minion who wrote a road trip movie of another sort in After Hours, does an excellent job of creating an alternate reality America with a truckload of symbolism about our car culture. From the gas station attendant he meets early in the movie named Phil, to the decrepit, graveyard-like oil fields he passes near the end, our boy Gus (Gas?), clearly lives in a strange auto-centric parallel universe. The title of the film itself comes from a game Gus immediately becomes obsessed with that involves collecting peel off cards at service stations which spell out Motorama.

Thematically, the film is like any other road trip movie, the character takes a journey representing his life and learns something about himself at the end. But it's the people he meets along the way that give the movie its subversive twist. Unlike most road trip movies where the lead character is helped along by kindly folks met on the journey, Gus is hampered, delayed and even waylaid by the surreal characters he meets during his odyssey. He'd actually prefer to just get to his destination (dream) without stopping, but he needs money and gas to continue his quest (obsession).

Half the enjoyment of the movie comes from spotting the recognizable character actors or pop culture icons that inhabit the film. It's not stunt casting, most of the actors do a fine job of playing the needy, obsessive and self-centered characters, all of which are chasing their own mildly warped dreams in this weird, but somehow familiar, universe. The standouts are John Diehl, as the gas station attendant Phil, who likes the local law enforcement officer played by Robert Picardo just a bit too much; Flea as an easily bribed, way to eager to please busboy, and of course the greedy Gus, who is obsessed with getting his golden ticket, is played very well by Jordon Christopher Michael. There are also a ton of HoF character actors that show up briefly and add to the strange atmosphere like Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Michael J Pollard.

The film looks really good thanks in large part to its glossy red Ford Mustang which is just as much a co-star as Kowalski's white Challenger is in Vanishing Point. There are some great horizon shots of the Utah landscape as well that really look good and help out symbolically. The Motorama signs along the highway look cooly retro and add to the odd feel of the movie.

With the characters and look of the film so interesting, the director, Barry Shils, did a restrained, competent job and avoided ramping up the quirkiness with unnecessary camera tricks. The film could have easily been ruined by bad directing or editing decisions, but the filmmaker was smart enough to get out of the way and let the movie speak for itself. The original soundtrack, by former Police guitarist Andy Summers, is similarly unobtrusive and only emphasizes the proceedings when appropriate. 

This movie is such an oddity, I don't know if anyone could love it on the first viewing. I was definitely intrigued the first time I watched it, but the off-beat tone and characters kind of threw me. However, each additional time I enter the world of Motorama, makes me appreciate it more. I can easily see it becoming a favorite despite the fact it has no flashy drag queens, tied down corpses or existential stoner stuff in it.

Score 8/10

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sahara vs Sahara

 In April 1995, the made-for-cable-TV remake of Sahara debuted, and I totally intended to skip it. This was an easy, no-brainer decision predicated solely on the fact that James Belushi was cast as Sergeant Joe Gunn, a part that Humphrey Bogart played in the 1943 classic. I thought it was movie sacrilege to cast Belushi in this role. It would be like watching a remake of Casablanca with Rob Schneider cast as Rick. However, due to my tech deficient girlfriend at the time, I wound up with the last hour and thirty minutes of this film on tape instead of an early season Cardinals/Cubs game. I fully intended to tape over the movie without watching, but in setting up the tape position, I started to watch it and just couldn't stop. 

Synopsis: A ragtag group of allied soldiers in the North African desert retreat as overwhelming enemy forces close in.

The original Sahara and the remake are virtually identical story-wise. Even much of the dialogue is the same or at least similar with only a couple of exceptions which include a really clunky and jingoistic sounding speech mercifully cut from the 1995 version. Both films have traditional war story themes of bonding and sacrifice with the characters getting to know each other and overcoming their disparate cultural differences to defeat the common foe.

What initially caught my attention about the Brian Trenchard-Smith remake of Sahara was how well shot and edited it is. The film has a nice look and brisk pace to it that is definitely a cut above most made-for-cable fare especially for its time. Alan Lake, who worked with Trenchard-Smith on Dead End Drive-In, BMX Bandits and Turkey Shoot does another fine job of editing here on the remake and helps the story move right along without ever bogging down in needless exposition or dialogue.

It does seem a little unfair to compare the original which was made over fifty years earlier in black and white, and clearly has physical aging issues, with the updated version which is very new and slick looking. Although the '43 film is on DVD, it was taken from a very mediocre print that appears somewhat dark. The remake was shot mostly during daytime and looks very good. On the older film, the battle scenes are often tough to see due to the murk. But even on a level playing field, I think the remake is a far better technically executed film in most respects.

But what about the acting? There's Bogart, and then there's Not Bogart, aka James Belushi. In the same year Belushi played the former Bogart role, Harrison Ford learned the hard way in the Sabrina remake that he was also Not Bogart. Trying to play a role formerly belonging to an icon is risky at best, career poison at worst. This is where the remake of Sahara should have failed, but Belushi was helped out considerably by a better than average ensemble cast who Trenchard-Smith wisely focused on. Three acting performances standout in the remake - Robert Wisdom as Tambul, Jerome Ehlers as Captain Halliday and especially Michael Massee as the Frenchman Leroux. At one point Massee gives a speech brimming with bitterness that is absolutely mesmerizing. Contrast this with a nearly identical, but almost jovial speech given by Louis Mercier as Leroux in the original and there's just no comparison, Massee's performance is far superior. Robert Wisdom's Tambul is equally fleshed out in the remake as are a lot of the other characters. That's not to say the '95 version is perfect as far as acting. Belushi's not bad, which is about as good as I could of hoped from him. He does tend to chew scenery where Bogart was much more reserved and introspective, but Belushi does keep the ham in him mostly in check. His tank crew-mate characters of Waco and Jimmy, played by Paul Empson and Mark Lee, were also outclassed by the original film's counterparts Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea. But the rest of the original's cast were fairly lackluster and forgettable.

Ordinarily, I don't like remakes, and remakes of classics are anathema to me. But there's no denying the 1995 version of Sahara is a technically  better executed film, particularly in direction, editing and supporting cast, than the 1943 version.

Score: Sahara (1943) 7.5/10    Sahara (1995) 8/10

Availability note: The 1943 version of Sahara is currently available on DVD and the 1995 version is downloadable from Amazon.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Smooth Kriminal

Somewhere between film-noir and giallo, the German krimi (crime) film can be found. Based primarily on the novels of Edgar Wallace, the genre became popularized with the Rialto Film company release of The Fellowship of the Frog in 1959. Over the next decade, and into the early 70's, Rialto would release another 31 krimi films. The films were police procedurals for the most part, set in London, often with a noir-like aesthetic of shadows and fog. What set them apart from noir was a distinct black and white morality code for the characters, and an off-beat quirky sense of humor. The early krimi's like The Fellowship of the Frog and The Yellow Snake had very pulp-mystery tones with the lead villains being over-the-top, almost comic book-like in nature. 

As the genre progressed through the sixties, the films became more lurid, a little bit sleazy and began being filmed in eye-popping color. It's easy to see the influence they would have on the giallo genre. In fact, some of the early gialli, like What Have You Done to Solange? and Seven Bloodstained Orchids were not only based on Wallace novels, but had krimi regulars like Joachim Fuchsberger and Uschi Glas as their stars. However, the more graphic, sleazy giallo and exploitation films of the 70's effectively ended the popularity of the krimi film. The krimi still present an interesting curiosity with a mixed bag of influences and tones.

Up until last year, I'd never heard of these type of films when I watched my first krimi - The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle. It had elements of horror, suspense and mystery combined with a spooky, somewhat gothic atmosphere and characters that were right out of pulp novels. 

Very intrigued, I dug deeper into the genre and to date have seen over a dozen of the krimi films. One thing I noticed was that the films tend to vary widely in tone as they combine many diverse elements, and an oddball sense of humor is often included into the mix. They often feature the same actors such as the aforementioned Fuchsberger and Glas along with Klaus Kinski, Eddi Arent and Siegfried Schürenberg among others. The best of the krimis were directed by Alfred Vohrer and sometimes featured the very cool original jazz music of Martin Böttcher.
One of my favorite krimi films thus far is The College Girl Murders. As with most krimis, this one is unapologetically outlandish. 

Synopsis - An unknown master criminal has a student murdered at an English girls' boarding school with a new type of poison gas emitted from a bible.

That's right, a bible. The film is filled with fun, ridiculous premises. The first involves creating the perfect alibi for a would-be assassin. It proceeds to get even crazier with a scarlet-robed monk who runs around and chokes people out with a white whip.

In the first fifteen minutes of the film alone, there are three murders, two double crosses and a prison break. Characters are introduced (and dispatched) so fast that a scorecard may be required to keep track of them all. Despite all the fast-paced lunacy, the mystery does make sense in the end, although the motive for the murders is not introduced until the third act and the culprit is pretty much out of left field. Like most subsequent gialli there's really no way to figure out who-done-it, but the fun of the movie is the crazy and stylish journey. The good news is, there are a lot of solid returning krimi features in this film including:

  • Joachim Fuchsberger, who looks like a tough, teutonic Tom Brokaw, plays the dashing Inspektor Higgins.
  • Siegfried Schürenberg as the slightly lecherous blowhard chief, Sir John.

  • Ilse Pagé who regularly played Sir John's ditzy and sexy secretary Miss Finlay.
  • Direction by Alfred Vohrer - the girls' school pool and bad guy's aqua-lair are particularly well-shot.

  • Music by Martin Böttcher
Unfortunately, two big krimi stalwarts, Klaus Kinski and Eddi Arent, did not appear in this film which is probably the only thing keeping it from being a HoF type movie for the genre. There are some decent krimi's that are played more seriously like The Mad Executioners, and some that are more for laughs like The Ringer, but The College Girl Murders seems to hit just the perfect mix.

Score 7.5/10