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Wednesday, Feb 21, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis delivers his slasher swansong.

The Gore-Gore Girls




When a young stripper is found horribly mutilated, a local yellow journalist hires the incredibly fey Fire Island resident in transit Abraham Gentry - a kind of ambiguously asexual private eye - to solve the case. He purses his lips and hits the clue trail. As Abey Baby travels from one seedy strip club to another (all owned by the human goiter Marzdone Mobilie) he meets several suspects in training, some irate ERA feminists, and several liquid-lunching businessmen. He also sees a lot libido-deflating hooters. Nancy Weston, ace space case reporter, tags along to prove the age-old adage wrong: not every member of the fourth estate is a college graduate who can hold his or her liquor.


Several more droopy drawered dancers are hacked into little smokies by the butchering bad guy, while ulcerous Gentry battles the incompetence of the local camera-shy police, and the incontinence of the “can’t take a hint” journalist. In a last gasp effort to lure the killer to the quinine, or as a flimsy excuse to mildly entertain the almost asleep viewing audience, Mobilie and Gentry have an amateur strip night competition. After momentarily sniffing the bar’s cork coasters, a now completely inebriated Nancy takes the stage to shake her shorthand scribbler. Naturally, the killer screams “8th Amendment” and exposes his or her self (not literally).


The Gore-Gore Girls has got to be the most eccentric, bizarre gore film Herschel Gordon Lewis ever conceived or created. Looking at the insane, inspired list of actors, characters, and idiosyncrasies used to pad the storyline with comic confections, one becomes airplane glue goofy with unintentional delight. Would you believe Henny Youngman as a one-liner dropping flesh peddler? A fussy Nero Wolfe wannabe who is an ascot short of being straight? A fruit mashing ex-marine named Grout who pulverizes produce as a peacekeeping pastime? A snorting bartender who’s every word is accented with a sniffle? Or a daffy cocktail waitress who keeps Eva Gabor in wig merchandizing heaven? Together, they combine to make The Gore-Gore Girls Lewis’ funniest film. It is also one of his most brutal. In the long line of mutilations and murders Lewis has lensed, these are the bloodiest, most violent and visceral slices of carnage ever depicted.


Sure, many of the elements look faked, but Lewis lingers over them lovingly and pushes the maiming to such new disturbing heights that they evolve, becoming eerie and disgusting. Eyes are gouged out of sockets and skewered with carving forks, and then for good measure, the empty head holes are probed and pierced repeatedly with the same device. Faces are boiled in hot oil until they melt, and brains are splattered on city streets. Like many a typical slasher film, the mystery is merely the skeleton upon which the oozing hunks of human flesh are fitted, accented by Lewis’ weird wackiness. In many ways, The Gore-Gore Girls is the precursor to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. There is the same use of irreverent humor, odd camera tricks, gruesome effects, and broad characterization to produce a hilarious, hallucinatory, and horrific cinematic experience.


It’s too bad that Lewis dropped out of filmmaking after Girls (unless you count the paltry porn of his 1972 movie Black Love). He then went on to become one of the most highly sought after direct-mail consultants and a respected teacher of advertising copywriting. Still, this movie shows he was headed for another career renaissance, after The Blood Trilogy‘s success and his varying forays into numerous genre types during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Gore-Gore Girls is an irreverent slap in the face of all the copycat filmmakers who thought they could out-massacre the master. Lewis proves once and for all that while some may have done it better, or cheaper, or more realistically, no one did it with more passion or perverse pleasure.


You can sense the smile on his broad face as a victim has her nipples clipped, only to have them produce regular and chocolate milk from the wounds. You can hear his devilish laughter as the killer salts and peppers a freshly pounded female rump…roast, filled to the fiendishness with fleshy goodness. Throw in a little nudity (this is a film about a killer who targets strippers, remember), some blatantly bad jokes, some marvelous under- and over-acting by the cast, and you have a truly original, disgusting diversion. Alongside Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, this is one of the best movies Lewis ever made. It’s a shame that, over the years, it’s been forgotten like a great deal of this madcap genius’ works.


 


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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007


In much the same way he mined hip-hop culture for his acclaimed debut Hustle & Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer turns his attention to the blues for his equally musical sophomore effort Black Snake Moan. A newly slimmed down Christina Ricci plays Rae, a young, white trash tramp whose horniness possesses her like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which leads her into the bedroom of any willing man in the county. After a particularly rough night, she is dumped on the side of a road and left for dead, only to be found and subsequently held captive by ex-bluesman and struggling Christian Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson).


Up until this point, Black Snake Moan presents a fantastic concept; a god-fearing man looking to reform someone of their wicked ways, and by force if necessary. Wrapped up in the trappings of blues mythology, it promises some intriguing developments. But Brewer’s script never finds the right tone. Both over-the-top and deadly serious, ironic and earnest, Jackson, Ricci and the rest of the talented cast give excellent performances despite writing and situations that at times are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Worse, Brewer seems to try and alleviate the problem with supporting characters and plotlines that enter and leave the picture on a whim. Rae’s relationship with her longtime boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), Lazarus’ fledgling romance with local pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Reverend R.L.’s (John Cothran Jr.) efforts to bring Lazarus back to the church are largely underdeveloped and leave more questions than answers.


If there is any bright spot in this otherwise pointless exercise in Southern exploitation melodrama, it is the music. Samuel L. Jackson’s singing, particularly his stunning version of the traditional blues cut “Stagolee”, is far more evocative here than the puerile “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” that became the center of Hustle & Flow. But like that film, Brewer addresses and even embraces African-American stereotypes but can’t transcend them. Black Snake Moan amounts to nothing more than another picture in which damaged white characters find healing in the ways of slightly off-the-radar African-Americans and their culture. That certainly isn’t to mention the film’s preoccupation with African-American male’s genitalia - a source of constant wonder for Rae.


I wish I could say Black Snake Moan was simply poorly made and inconsequential, but Brewer’s film goes a dangerous step further. Rather than turning stereotypes on their head, by the film’s truly cornball ending, he practically embraces them and tries to sell them as authentic drama. At least for myself, and the audience I was with, we weren’t buying it.



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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007

Do we really have to wait That long???


 


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007


Can you sense that Oscar is just around the corner. Last week, The Departed made its bow on home video. This week, another Academy effort and a far better film that should be up for Best Picture consideration, make their way onto the digital domain as well. But there is even more cinematic specialness to be had, including another amazing Criterion release, a wonderful anti-censorship documentary, and a substantial sampling of Christopher Guest’s own unique approach to wit. Add in a decent animated film and a strange bit of fear funny business and you have just a small example of the excellent fare waiting at your local B&M. But by far one singular selection for 20 February marks SE&L’s choice for movie of the year:


The Prestige


The undeniably best film of 2006 arrives on DVD with scarcely enough bonus features to make the shift to the digital medium worth the effort. Everyone knows by now that Christopher Nolan’s amazing motion picture puzzle box was beaten by The Illusionist in the public popularity sweepstakes (romance always seems to trump intelligence), but for sheer cinematic artistry, for the ability to take a complicated multi-layered narrative and make it sing with emotional and aesthetic resonance, this film is flawless. The movie may suffer from lofty ambitions, and more than one unexpected plot twist, but the truth is, no other motion picture in this otherwise interesting year found the proper balance of character and circumstance. With amazing performances and sheer directorial skill, Nolan has delivered a timeless masterpiece, destined to live far beyond this brief, befuddling moment in mainstream moviemaking.

Other Titles of Interest


49th Parallel: Criterion Collection


The brilliant British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pressured into service for their homeland once the UK fell into World War II. With this film about a Nazi U2 Boat, made in Canada, the duo introduced characters who argued for the United State’s involvement in the still mostly European conflict. Criterion now gives it the necessary preservationist’s polish.

Babel


What is it with the year’s cinematic best arriving on the digital format with nary a contextual feature to be found? Paramount is probably gambling on a Crash like win come Oscar time before fleshing out this feature (in either case, one should except a double dip sometime this summer). This incredibly dense effort definitely deserves better.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing


The amazing story of how one of country’s commercial darlings became political pariahs forms the center of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s brave backstage documentary. The “Red State” reaction to singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks seems ridiculous, especially in today’s President bashing atmosphere. But we soon learn that censorship and sexism played a bigger role in the controversy than an off the cuff remark.

Flushed Away


It was the great CGI experiment that ended up voiding an entire creative contract. Aardman Animation, famous for their work on Wallace and Gromit, teamed up with Dreamworks (Shrek) to bring their idiosyncratic style to the realm of 3D cartooning. The result was this uneven effort, a film that flopped so badly that the Americans showed the Brits the door only three films into their five picture deal.

For Your Consideration


Christopher Guest pushes the mock documentary comedy style aside for the time being to focus on a fictional look at awards season, and how small independent efforts can get caught up inside the massive media hype. In this case, a tiny production entitled Home for Purim generates a lot of year end buzz, bringing its journeyman cast face to face with celebrity for perhaps the first time. Naturally, unheard of hijinx ensue.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Night of the Living Dorks


Leave it to the Germans to combine the cornball ‘80s sex comedy with the benchmarks of your basic zombie horror film to create a clever, if occasionally uneven, terror treat. The story is your standard nerds vs. jocks smackdown, with the added element of some goofy Goth kids experimenting with voodoo on the side. A ritual goes wrong, and suddenly, the geeks are getting even with the bullies who made their life a living - make that now an ‘undead’ – Hell. With lots of silly CGI slapstick and some incredibly underdone sequences (a huge beer bash goes…nowhere), the movie does tend to lose its approach two thirds of the way through. Indeed, the DVD contains an alternate ending that’s just as ineffective as the actual one offered. If you don’t mind your macabre mixed with a little middling mirth, you’ll really dig this scary satire.

 


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Sunday, Feb 18, 2007


All right, all right…it is the worst crime in all of cinema. Worse than Alfred Hitchcock never handling directorial Oscar gold. More appalling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1 for 13 Academy batting average (he received one for 2001‘s special effects???). Over the course of his highly praised career, Martin Scorsese, a true American auteur, has never won the big prize. Granted, he’s still considered a filmmaking genius. But for many, that’s not good enough. Instead of letting him rest on his considerable laurels, fans and faux well wishers want him to walk down that red carpet and pick up the industry’s biggest reward. It won’t affect his status as a legitimate legend (just ask Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, or any other renowned director who had to wait around for “honorary” recognition). But for many, it would be vindication after decades of being purposefully passed over.


Some of his slights have been pretty heinous. For the record, Scorsese has been nominated six times for Best Director, all for films made after 1980, none for anything prior to Raging Bull. He also has two screenplay nods as well. Of the movies he’s been recognized for, two are hailed as modern masterworks – 1980’s Bull and 1990’s Goodfellas. How ironic is it then that both efforts lost to first time directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, respectively) both of who were superstar actors first, distinguished filmmakers a far distant second (quick, name another noteworthy film either has made since). One of the strongest arguments defenders make about Scorsese’s snubs is that, in a system which quickly rushes to celebrate the flavor of the moment, the Academy often fails to look at the bigger motion picture picture. And Marty is that man out of time.


No one would argue that Ordinary People (Redford’s still amazing movie) is better than Bull. It’s merely a matter of artistic degrees. Similarly, it’s a shame that the overblown reach of Costner’s pro-PC Western Dances With Wolves became the cause celeb of its otherwise mediocre movie season (let’s face it – Ghost, Awakenings and The Godfather Part III were Best Picture candidates that year as well). In both cases, Scorsese made the better film, the more timeless entertainment, the surest cinematic statement. But because of Hollywood happenstance, the power of the publicity machine, or the overall jealousy of an industry less enamored of his efforts than the critical community, Scorsese remains the Academy outsider, looking in. His latest nomination for the brilliant crime thriller The Departed promises to finally end his losing streak. But the fact remains that, in an amazingly creative career, it comes as far too little, way too late.


Indeed, there are at least five other films that Scorsese should have been acknowledged for, efforts that usually don’t get mentioned along with Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (remember – Oscar didn’t start to take notice until a decade after these definitive efforts). When you consider that two of his recent nods have been for less than successful works - no one would compare Gangs of New York or The Aviator to his finest – the indignity becomes even richer. One of America’s premiere talents has had to endure the nagging question of whether he will ever be the beneficiary of Academy recognition. Once you see the list of movies that haven’t made the cut, along with the few that did, you realize how rhetorical said query really is. Scorsese’s body of work is just phenomenal. His lack of AMPAS recognition is just ridiculous. Proof of point – the motion pictures listed below, beginning with:


1974 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Not Nominated)
After the aesthetic epiphany that was Mean Streets (remember, Scorsese was an unknown whose only major filmmaking fame was as one of Roger Corman’s b-movie journeymen) many weren’t prepared for this road movie cum character study. Substituting the stark Southwestern desert for the overcrowded streets of New York, Scorsese deconstructed feminism, showing how paternalism dominates both the personal (Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson) and professional (Vic Tayback) landscape. With Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the driver’s seat, and stellar supporting work from Diane Ladd, girl power was still prevalent. It’s interesting to note the absolute lack of directing tricks in this surprisingly immediate film. Utilizing handheld cameras and found locations, there is a decided documentary feel to this film that Scorsese would rarely revisit throughout the course of his career. It’s a sensational, slightly surreal cinema véritié approach that proves there is more to this man’s body of work than carefully choreographed compositions and meticulous tracking shots.


1983 – King of Comedy (Not Nominated)
With the monumental achievement of Raging Bull, the critical question became: what would Scorsese and his acknowledged acting collaborator Robert De Niro do for an encore. The answer, oddly enough, was one of the ‘80s bitterest satires. Predating the prevalence of fame whores by at least 15 years, this wholly New York look at celebrity and shallowness remains one of the filmmaker’s unappreciated classics. Like a brutal response to Network‘s previous clarion call, Scorsese took screenwriter Paul Zimmerman’s burlesque Travis Bickle, and with the help of an amazing performance from his partner, fashioned the oblivious Rupert Pupkin into the entertainment equivalent of Gordon Gecko. With its talk show as social signpost symbolism and unusual approach to romance, King was a delightful denunciation of every hack who ever believed him or herself capable of stardom. Featuring Jerry Lewis in one of his few dour, dramatic roles and a remarkable turn by stand-up comic Sandra Bernhard, the film remains a tremendously cynical cinematic statement.


1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ (Nominated, Lost to Barry Levinson for Rainman)
Talk about throwing a scandalized dog a bone. When it was discovered that Scorsese was bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel to the silver screen, the newly empowered Religious Right got their representational rocks ready for a good old-fashioned stoning. Fast forward almost 20 years, and a famous Hollywood superstar (pre-Anti Semitic rant) decides to do an equally contentious take on the Messiah, and he’s embraced as a motion picture prophet. Must have something to do with the public’s willingness to accept abject violence (Passion‘s snuff film scourging) vs. a question of theoretical enticement (Christ’s crucifixion based fantasy about a secular life with Mary Magdalene). Anyone interested in the psychological and dogmatic underpinning of faith deserve to see Scorsese’s overlooked epic. While Gibson may have received the fundamentalist stamp of approval with his picture, Scorsese delivered the real scholarly take, and was given a token nomination as a reward (the film’s only Oscar acknowledgment).


1995 – Casino (Not Nominated)
Poor Casino. When placed alongside Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it becomes the bastard stepchild of Scorsese’s mob movies, an also ran in a dynamic dominated by acknowledged artwork. But it takes real creative chutzpah to focus on the grime under the glitz of Las Vegas and come out with anything remotely original. Thanks to the unique storyline (following real life gambling boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, here renamed Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), stunning visual setting, and incredibly gifted cast (yes, EVEN Sharon Stone), Scorsese turned the crime drama on its ear. Instead of making the violence the most visceral part of his exposé (and there is some incredibly brutal material here), the accomplished auteur brought backstage bravado – and more than a little directorial pizzazz – to the everyday workings of a high rolling gambling establishment. Sure, the film loses its way toward the end, but in a year that saw Braveheart’s Gibson take the prize, this film deserved much, much better.


2005 – No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Out of Oscar Consideration)
Hopefully, the lunkhead over at PBS who kept this stellar documentary from getting a well deserved theatrical release is currently looking for a new place of employment. Of all the ‘60s icons, Dylan remains the most fascinating, and frustrating. At one time a true folk traditionalist, his transition into a potent political voice was an elusive aesthetic turn. The best thing Scorsese accomplishes with what is essentially a talking head retrospective is the complete contextualization of Dylan’s social and musical importance. He draws distinct parallels between the rising tide of unrest in the country and the simultaneous seismic shifts in the various entertainment mediums. He even stretches out beyond the scope of a standard biography to explore the importance of Dylan’s initial purist position, and why so many felt betrayed by his decision to “go electric” in 1965. And the worst part of all of it? It didn’t even win an Emmy. Scorsese lost the award to Baghdad ER.


All together, the man has made 21 major first run features. Of that number, 16 (give or take two or three) are considered by most film fans to be good or great. That’s quite a high percentage. It’s truly sad then that Oscar has failed to recognize his brilliance until now. But here’s guessing this is one filmmaker who would take his track record over a little gold statue any day. His lack of recognition from the Academy is dreadful. His work behind the camera remains definitive.


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