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Wednesday, May 9, 2007


It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.


What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.


Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.


But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?


Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.


Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.


Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?


James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.


The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.


Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.


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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


“It seems like a big budget remake or our film.”
—Eric Zala, “Belloq” and director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, commenting on what it’s like to watch the original Raiders of the Lost Ark today
I have been hearing about Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for years.  (Even name checking it in a totally unrelated review I wrote a few years ago.)  Its story is now legendary in fanboy circles: In 1982, three kids from rural Mississippi become obsessed with arguably the greatest action-adventure movie of their generation, and armed with the innocence of youth and a Betamax recorder, decide to create a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seven years later, they wrapped on the film, put it away, and moved on with their lives and apart from each other.  In 2003, on the support of such notables as director Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, the film “debuted” at the Alamo Draft House in San Antonio.  Now, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are making the rounds with their masterpiece, and a biopic is in the works to tell their story on the big screen. I had the good fortune to attend a screening and Q&A with two of the three makers of this testament to youth in a near-capacity theater on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the movie is exactly as advertised.  All horrible sound and bad picture, the entire first stanza is awash in a yellow-green tint, but by the time Strompolos’ Indy makes his daring escape from Zala’s Belloq and the Hovitos in the opening sequence, your eyes have grown accustomed to the harsh exposure and you are rooting not for the characters, but for the kids putting on this show.  You want them to succeed and you can’t wait to see how they will pull off each subsequent shot that you know is coming next. Very few changes were made to the source material and only one scene is completely omitted, but what liberties the creators have taken are as charming as they are resourceful, like the use of a small motorboat in place of the seaplane (although Jock’s pet snake Reggie in the front of the boat in Indy’s lap remains).  The later omission of the propeller death and the fight scene that precedes it is certainly forgivable and hardly missed in this final cut. The only other change of note is the replacement of the spider monkey with Strompolos’ dog Snickers, who steals every scene he’s in, which undermines the character’s villainy, because the audience is clearly rooting for the mutt.  From his “Sieg Heil!” salute to his ultimate death (both on screen by way of “bad dates” and in real life as noted in the end credits), the dog is a star. Apart from Snickers, one of the surprisingly biggest cheers came from the stop-motion animation of the maps tracking Indy’s flights from California to Nepal, and again from Nepal to Cairo.  The cheers were accompanied by visible disbelief, awe, and head-shaking during the fight and fire sequence in Marion’s bar.  This is also the scene that garners the most attention during Q&A sessions and interviews.  Strompolos’ mom worked at WLOX-TV, where the boys were editing their masterpiece, when footage of Zala on fire was spotted by a responsible adult.  As a direct result, year two of their production summarily halted. The showstopper is most definitely the truck stunt.  You know the scene - Indy is trying to commandeer the truck in which the Nazis have loaded the Ark of the Covenant.  After Indy disposes of most everyone in and on the truck, the driver then throws Indy through the windshield and onto the hood of the moving vehicle.  The cheers are genuine as Strompolos’ Indy descends the front of the truck, but the payoff is how, intentionally or not, the boys brilliantly hold the shot from inside the back of the truck on the ground rushing out from underneath for enough extra beats to really amp up the expectations of the audience before Strompolos shoots out from under the truck.  A perfect money shot, and worthy of the shouts of approval it garners. The credits recognize Mr. Zala for transportation and Ms. Cooper’s work as seamstress, an “in memory of” note for Snickers, and finish with a Jim Morrison quote (“This is the end, my only friend, the end.”).  When asked about the soundtrack that accompanies The Adaptation, the filmmakers cop to lifting John Williams’ original score throughout, and note that their credits actually run longer than the original’s (six minutes total), so they ended up looping themes from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade before circling back to finish up with the Raiders theme in a sort of Indy mega-mix. What’s truly amazing about the boys’ efforts is that these kids worked from memory the first two or three years; there were no home-viewing VHS copies to purchase, or the Internet to find a complete working script of the film.  Raiders was re-released in 1982, which helped, but primarily they relied on collected bits of Raiders info they could gather, including magazines, comic books, long-playing records, a crappy, clandestine audio recording made at the theater, and Zala’s hand-drawn storyboarding. The resourcefulness and originality (which might seem an odd word choice considering they copied a blockbuster frame-for-frame, but trust me, it applies here) of the production itself is a marvel.  And the spirit continues in these boys-turned-men today.  Zala and Strompolos revealed in the Cleveland Q&A session that all the locations used in their movie were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  They hope to work with the governor of Mississippi to have Paramount’s proposed biopic shot in their home state to help pump some much-needed economic life back into the devastated region. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, 23 year-old Kevin Smith’s Clerks launched his career by famously maxing out his credit cards to finance the movie for $27,000 in 1994.  Twelve years earlier, three 12 year-old boys began a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It would take them seven years to complete the film, and cost them roughly $5,000.  Granted, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are not as famous as Smith is, but they just might hit it big yet.


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Monday, May 7, 2007


There are a couple of noticeable trends this week, one of which is plainly obvious from the titles listed below. There are a lot of “and” pictures being released today, movies that attempt to use the bifurcating connective word as indicative of dichotomy, difference or dynamic. Unfortunately, they all don’t share a singular cinematic value. The other fad is more mercantile, and isn’t noticeable until you dig down deeper into the overall product list proper. For example, 8 May will see the release of a Dirty Dancing 20th Anniversary Special Edition, a Donnie Brasco Extended Version, and of all things, a director’s cut of Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do. Sure, this is all part of the notorious double dip, but the tactic here is also a little more subversive. By cleaning up the cutting room floor and affixing deleted content back into the print, the studio can claim it’s new and work their way into your wallet once again. So tread softly and choose wisely this tricky Tuesday – at least when considering anything other than our rock solid SE&L pick:


Deliver Us From Evil


It’s a shame that the situation with pedophilia and the priesthood has been reduced to a running gag amongst your bottom feeding stand-up comics. But the real crime remains in just how clandestine and conspiratorial the Church was in keeping these abominations from parishioners and potential underage targets. Case in point – Fr. Oliver O’Grady. At one time, he was a trusted and respected man of God. But deep down inside, he was a raging child rapist, a sick and twisted pervert who was a threat to all he came in contact with. Shockingly, he was protected, moved around from community to community to hide his horrible secret. As this scathing documentary indicates, organized religion thought it best to keep O’Grady safe, forgetting that the most important element here, the devastated victims, were the ones who really needed the help. Filmmaking doesn’t get any braver than this disturbing denouncement of everyone involved. Second only to An Inconvenient Truth in uncovering true fact-based horrors.

Other Titles of Interest


Breaking and Entering


It was supposed to be his return to certified Oscar fare after the commercial hit The Talented Mr. Ripley and the overblown dud Cold Mountain. But The English Patient‘s Anthony Minghella stumbled a bit with this class conscious offering about a London professional falling for an immigrant refugee. Based on his own screenplay, what could have been memorable ended up only middling.

Catch and Release


With what seems like unlimited commercial potential at her disposal, one has to wonder what made Jennifer Garner take on this quirky Indie romantic comedy. Must have been the chance to show her pure performance cred. First time filmmaker Susannah Grant (famed for writing Ever After and Erin Brockovich) even turned up the geek quotient by casting Kevin Smith as “the funny fat guy”. Audiences failed to respond.

David and Lisa


It has a premise that should only work in literary form (the film is based on a famous novel) – a young man afraid of being touched meets an equally unwell young woman who speaks in sing-song rhymes. Together, they try to forge a meaningful relationship. Thanks to the expressive performances by Kier Dullea and Janet Margolin, what could have been cloying has, instead, a fair amount of humanity. 

Music and Lyrics


Hugh Grant as a washed up ‘80s pop star? Drew Barrymore as a plucky lyricist who’s employed as his new writing partner? Era appropriate originals by Fountain of Wayne hit maker Adam Schlesinger? How could this miss? Apparently, writer/director Marc Two Weeks Notice Lawrence forgot to add anything fun…or memorable. Not even a Wham-esque Grant in full flashback mode was enough to save this stinker.

The Painted Veil


Representing the second period piece in a year for the otherwise thoroughly modern Edward Norton, this adaptation of the seminal W. Somerset Maugham book had a lot of healthy buzz come time for awards consideration. Then, for some inexplicable reason, it just vanished. The film has all the scope and splendor of a guaranteed critical hit, but somewhere between page and motion picture, it lost its way.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Revenge


You’ve got to admire the marketing campaign currently running for this 1990 Tony Scott title. In big bold letters over a newly enhanced image of star Kevin Costner’s unshaved face, a quote from Quentin Tarantino proclaiming this movie as Scott’s “masterpiece”. It’s all but unavoidable. Whether or not this will mean anything significant to the QT contingency remains to be seen, but anyone who’s actually watched this romantic thriller gets the gist of what the Indie bad boy is talking about. Jim Harrison’s potboiler tome about infidelity and intrigue in the Mexican wilderness feels like a thick slice of South of the Border Gothic, and Scott’s stylized approach to narrative gives everything a slick, glossy glow. Costner is very good, as are the late Anthony Quinn and a radiant Madeline Stowe. While it has guilty pleasure written all over it, there is some seriously satisfying high drama to be found amongst the camp.

 


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Sunday, May 6, 2007


It used to be a pure Memorial Day kind of thing. Teens, fresh out of classes and ready to spend, would line up all over this great land of ours, celebrating the memory of those who died to keep us free by going to see a major studio popcorn pic. Like Jerry Lewis’ arrival every Labor Day, or the traditional distended credit card bill come Christmas, the Summer Blockbuster season was anticipated and planned for like the exaggerated entertainment D-Day it is. Preview ads would start popping up around mid-Fall, while a teaser would almost always arrive come Super Bowl. Then, just when the marketers thought the masses were growing tired of the title, a full blown trailer would appear, usually formulated to give away as many of the well-kept plotpoints as possible. By the time the end of May rolled around, it felt like you had already seen the overexposed hit. All that was left was to wonder what Will Smith would deliver come 4 July.


Naturally, this commercial course of action needed an accomplice, and for the most part, the co-conspirator was the horribly lackluster spring movie season. For four months (and a few weeks), audiences were expected to attend – and enjoy – studio run-off, bad buzz catastrophes, poorly timed Oscar bait (and switch), and various incarnations of crap cinema. On rare occasions, a good film would actually sneak in, making itself an amiable nuisance for those waiting on the snow and sleet to melt before they’d make their way to the Multiplex again. But more times than not, Hollywood larded its annual landfill with brazen bottom line/feeder fodder. Oddly, all that changed a few years ago. Now, among the slop and stupidity, Tinsel Town occasionally tosses film fans a big fat helping of masterful motion picture.


To be fair, the beginning of 2007 was still pretty pathetic. Ghost Rider proved that Nicholas Cage and comic book super-heroism really don’t mesh, while Oscar winner Hillary Swank battled the Apocalypse, and inner city educational malaise – either one, a daunting proposition. We got a few more horror remakes (The HitcherThe Hills Have Eyes 2Epic Movie) and some less than appealing family fare, including Arthur and the Invisibles and The Last Mimzy. Amidst all the hokum and hackwork, sophomore slumps and high concept crud, a few films actually managed to distinguish themselves. In fact, some of the Spring’s best may end up holding on to that title come the end of December – they were just that strong. And of course, with every stroke of genius, there must come an equal and opposite atrocity – and this year, there were some doozies. In fact, SE&L‘s picks for the Best and Worst of Spring 2007 expertly illustrate the massive chasm between the great and the god-awful quite well.


The Best
5. Black Snake Moan


Trying to top his breakout film about the ‘hard’ life of a pimp (2005’s Hustle and Flow) writer/director Craig Brewer tapped into the forgotten world of Tobacco Road potboilers to tell the tale of a local skank (the fabulous Christina Ricci) saved by the blues-soaked soul of a proud older man (Samuel L. Jackson). The results reminded audiences of the days when Tennessee Williams inspired hundreds of Southern Gothic copycats combined with those sleazoid drive-in delights that promised promiscuousness, but only ended up delivering tons of tease. While some critics complained over Brewer’s reach for smut style over social substance (as in his previous hip hop culture creation), he continued to prove that his is a cinematic voice worth paying attention to.

4. Grindhouse


It’s a shame that audiences didn’t cotton to this clever take on motion picture history. It remains the artform’s dirty little secret that, post Hays and pre MPAA, the exploitation game rewrote the rules on cinematic subject matter – and by indirect design, created post-modern moviemaking. It’s not like this badass ride on the wild and wicked side didn’t have entertainment appeal. Co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez delivered the gory, gratuitous goods in big fat sticky globs of fun. It was another cabal, that rabid and ready to pounce group known as the media, that destroyed this dandy double feature’s chance of gaining major mass market momentum. Years from now, revisionist history will hail this thrill and chill throwback as a masterpiece. For now, it will remain 2007’s most unfairly categorized ‘flop’.

3. 300


Talk about your testosterone laced treats! Frank Miller delivers the epic goods via Zach Snyder’s amazing CG cinematic scope, resulting in one of the biggest, brashest spectacles of the last ten years. A near perfect amalgamation of form and function, this tale of the Spartan stance against Persian insurgency circa 480 BC argues for the aesthetic benefits of technology – not only in the creation of visual splendor, but also in the realization of fiscally restrictive ideas. If Gladiator took home a misguided Oscar back in 2000, this movie should rake in the awards. As much a phenomenon as a feat of pure imagination, it may not reinvent the language of film as we know it, but it sure does provide a pristine new translation.

2. Zodiac


Nothing short of stunning. Rarely, in any period piece, does a director get both the details and the drama correct. One usually overpowers the other, leading to a substantial case of motion picture disconnect. But in taking on the still unsolved case of the ‘70s serial killer of the title, director David Fincher amplified the art of era recreation. Not only did he capture Me Decade San Francisco perfectly, he got the defeated, post-peace generation vibe down pat. Thanks to brilliant acting from Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a narrative device that splits the story into three separate, equally compelling acts, we end up with is a dense deconstruction of the pre-CSI crime game, and a look at how obsession leads to loss – both familial and professional.

1. Hot Fuzz


The comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg is clearly comprised of drop dead brilliance. After the magnificent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (much more than a zombie lampoon, really), they turned their attentions toward the overwrought action blockbusters of the last three decades and came up with Spring 2007’s best film. With the equally astounding Nick Frost along for the ride, this satiric shoot-em up is so engaging, so completely and wholly entertaining, that it reminds you of how exciting a trip to the Cineplex can be. And buried inside the manic montages, the false endings, and the typical stunt sequence clichés, is a clever take on the British way of…being. Fuzz is so good, it makes the wait for whatever Wright, Pegg and Frost do next seem excruciating.

The Worst
5. Wild Hogs


Paunchy old men play biker dudes. Nothing particularly novel occurs. And in the meantime, both John Travolta and William H. Macy destroy whatever remaining star turn screen cred they had built up over the years (Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence were already treading water).  While crowds lined up to give this mediocre middle-aged comedy some unbelievable box office heft, here’s hoping cooler heads prevail come mandatory sequel time.

4. Norbit


Remember the look on Eddie Murphy’s face when the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was announced – and his name was NOT read? That’s the same reaction audiences had to this bumbling, borderline racist affair. There’s no problem trying to recapture the comic flavor and fun of the Nutty Professor films, but does it have to be done at the expense of raging stereotypes and dimensionless characterization? Apparently so.

3. Hannibal Rising


In which Thomas Harris pisses away any remaining semblance of a serious literary career. Apparently, everyone’s favorite cannibal gained his taste for flesh after seeing his sister devoured by Nazis. As if Germany didn’t have enough to be sorry for already. Now they have to take the blame for destroying this once viable horror franchise. Either them or the failed filmmaking.


2. Code Name: The Cleaner


Cedric the Entertainer doesn’t need to fire his agent – he needs to SHOOT him. Looking over the last five films he’s made (from Man of the House to that horrid remake of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners), the stench of sloppy scripting and equally atrocious approach seems to follow him everywhere. This incredibly funny man deserves better.

1.  Are We Done Yet?


Yes, Ice Cube, your career as a serious actor is pretty much finished. The irony over how one of the ‘80s most defiant rappers turned into a kid vid scapegoat is incredibly rich, but if he continues to milk these lame retreads of the same slapstick silliness, he’s bound to hit a worn out his welcome wall. This Mr. Blanding‘s bastardization may actually be it.

 


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Saturday, May 5, 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: David F. Friedman and Peter Perry explore Satan, Sin and S-E-X!

It’s clear that, in the eyes of many mainstream film fans, exploitation is an idea spawned of the Devil. By taking on taboos and fleshing out fetishes, it was and remains a genre that stated its sinful purpose time and time again. Among the frequent challenges the grindhouse producer faced were government censorship, regional arrest, and a universal reputation as a smut peddler or purveyor of pornography – and each and every dispute decried the immoral nature of their efforts. So discussing these films in terms of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been around since the first roadshow pictures pushed the limits of common decency by showing live birth footage and/or images of sexually transmitted diseases.


So naturally the writers and directors of these frequently explicit epics thought it wise to make fun of their own supposed lack of ethics. And they did so by literally giving the Devil his due. All throughout the history of the exploitation film, Satan and his transgression-laden underworld have been the setting for scenes, subplots, and sometimes, entire storylines. In fact, demons and the supernatural have a way of turning standard sleaze into a kind of pulchritudinous Pilgrim’s Progress. Though concepts like neverending nookie and an infinite amount of skin usually substituted for the customary Hades happenings of damnation and eternal torment, the core element of virtue vs. vice was always front and center. Besides, it made the movies seem like veiled morality plays.


For their sole May DVD release, Something Weird Video is revisiting the days when Legion left the Inferno for a little raincoat crowd limelight. The two films offered - The Joys of Jezebel/My Tale Is Hot – are nothing more than loose, lame comedies covered over with sloppy softcore (in the case of Jezebel) and endless minutes of mundane T&A (as in Tale). Both are hilariously bad, and represent a kind of cautionary example about using stunts to sell your smut. Each movie here could have easily existed without the hack histrionics of its Belial channeling thespians – but then that would kind of ruin the point, wouldn’t it. Accented by a crazy collection of added content (including some sensational trailers, a Harlem era feature about salvation, a weirdo jazzbo cartoon mocking the Church, and a Candy Barr peep reel) and what we end up with is something that will titillate as well as test your tolerances for all things tacky and threadbare. 


The Joys of Jezebel (1970)

The famed Biblical biz-nitch, noted for her wanton, wicked ways, has just found herself as number one with a bullet on Satan’s Top Ten Sex Partner list, and the mangoat isn’t taking “No” for an answer. Desperate to avoid the Devil’s touch, she enters into a pact with Ol’ Scratch. In exchange for the ability to right some wrongs back on Earth, Jez will trick her virginal buddy Rachel into swapping souls with her. This will give Beelzebub a chance at the untouched flesh he’s been perpetually pining for. Once the switch is made, our harlot heroine gets to work. First up on her list – preventing her gal pal from marrying the overweight wart Jeremiah. She does this by suggesting that Rachel is more slut than saint. Then it’s time to get back at Joshua, the man who sent her to Hell in the first place. She pretends to be a man, and then seduces him, causing a nice same sex scandal. All the while, Moloch is hunting around Hades for his ultrapure poon. After all, if he can’t partake of The Joys of Jezebel, he’ll have to get his demonic jollies from someone.


At this point in their respective careers, Producer David F. Friedman and director Bethel Buckalew were growing tired of the same old skin flick. They had worked their way through a rather ribald version of a classic Shakespeare play (The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet) and taken on famous femmes like Fanny Hill and Cleopatra. With each entry, the explicitness was accented, pushing the pair ever closer to actual X rated material. For this clothesline creation, the duo came up with a simple story. They would use the character of Jezebel (whose name is notorious for suggesting sleaze and sin), place her in situations where she can use her physical skills to payback some bad karmic bills, and then let her copulate her way to victory. With the fiery redhead Christine Murray as the title tart, and Dixie Donovan as the well endowed Rachel, we end up with a pair of potential powerhouses. But Friedman and Buckalew don’t stop there. They overload the film with naked babes, stopping the narrative now and then to offer up overlong sequences of fake fornication. It’s the movie’s main flaw. One scene in particular – a visit to the oddly named Pit of Nymphs - seems to literally go on forever.


Anyone who’s seen this pair’s previous efforts will instantly recognize the production scheme at play. Friedman and Buckalew preferred bright primary colors - an almost cartoon aesthetic - when it comes to art design and lighting. There is a heavy emphasis on reds and blues, and a clever use of gels and shadows to avoid the action sliding into hardcore. Most of the humor is Jokes for the John level lewdness, the kind of so-called ‘sophisticated wit’ that really felt seedy even back in the ‘60s. Perhaps the most amazing element of this entire presentation is how good it looks some 37 years later. Something Weird strives to provide the best transfers of their titles as possible, and with access to original elements (thanks to Friedman), this movie looks great. You know you’re in pristine picture territory when an actress’s embarrassing facial hair is easily distinguishable. It’s just a shame that The Joys of Jezebel isn’t better. It has all the slap and tickle one could ever want, but it also avoids much of the camp and kitsch that makes the exploitation genre so enjoyable.


My Tale is Hot (1964)

You think you’ve got it bad, average married American male? Imagine what it would be like to be Lucifer, and have your Hellspawn housefrau berating you every day over the lackluster job you do in bringing home the brimstone. Sick of the nagging and desperate to earn back his good bad name, he takes on the topside challenge of turning ‘the world’s most faithful husband’, Ben-Hur Ova, into an adulterer. He plans on doing this by providing the goofy goody two shoes with as many chances to cheat as possible. Once on Earth, he offers Ben some gratuity in the garden, a little booty in the local bar, a sampling of honey in a nearby hotel, and even a sequence of Candy Barr doing her pasties and panties burlesque routine. But nothing can persuade our honorable he-man – and why should it? After all, he’s a Saudi Arabian sheik, and has a harem loaded with 364 girls. With a different doll a day, who needs additional amorousness? You can just hear the Devil muttering to himself, “And I thought My Tale Is Hot.”


If you ever needed proof that the grindhouse and the goofball just don’t get along, here is the perfect piece of cinematic evidence. Like watching one of those late ‘50s/early ‘60s cocktail napkins come to life – you know the ones, the flimsy squares of absorbent paper that house arcane innuendo laced gags about sailors, doctors and three martini businessmen – this excruciatingly repetitive yarn about a virtuous Arab and the Fallen Angel who tries to tempt him is really rather stupid. Part of the problem is the fact that some of the film is missing – like each and every punchline. It often appears as if some comedy hating editor stepped in with a pair of pinking sheers and purposefully trimmed out each and every joke from the film. The character of Ben-Hur Ova will start a quip, and before you know it, Satan is responding to something we didn’t get a chance to hear. Equally, the Devil will try to make a funny, and in the blink of the eye, Ben has already rejected his suggestion and moved on. This creates a very disturbing sense of disassociation. You want to enjoy the vaudeville level of laughs, but the movie just won’t let you.


And when paired with the much more daring Jezebel, the men’s magazine dynamic of the nudity of Tale gets lost in the sexual shuffle. Since the movie was made in 1964, years before the ‘crotch shot’ barrier was broken, we are dealing with a nudist colony conceit when it comes to posing. The women are forced to maintain unusual positions, props like towels, beach balls, and various throws and shawls everpresent to keep the pubis in check. In addition, there is no attempt at giving the gals character or personality. They are merely eye candy of the most casual yet carnal kind. As stated before, one could enjoy this movie a lot more if Something Weird had found a decent print. The version here is faded, scratchy, and clearly edited with a collection of prehistoric sledgehammers. The company has frequently said that while they strive for technical perfection, they feel such transfers give their artifacts the appropriate “authenticity”. Apparently, that’s a new definition for “almost unwatchable”. Somewhere, in its original form, My Tale is Hot was probably a hoot. Here, it’s a collection of cutting room floor flaws accented by bare boobs.


Flip Wilson, the wildly successful ‘60s/‘70s comedian, had a catchphrase that he used whenever he played the drag queen character Geraldine, a massively popular pitch that explained his/her frequently outrageous behavior – “the Devil made me do it!” The same could be said for the movies featured here. For many, it would require a mandate from Hades to get past some of the production/performance/personal pitfalls these efforts provide. Others will simply laugh out loud and enjoy the eros. The Joys of Jezebel/ My Tale is Hot may represent two divergent sides of the overall grindhouse grouping, but they’re more promise than payoff. Kind of like every deal with the cloven hoofed one, right?


 


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