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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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Friday, May 4, 2007


It’s the night of the big interstellar star show, and poor Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) has to work. Holed up at the local movie house (where she’s an usher), she calls her sister to let her know she’ll be home a little later than usual. Sam (Kelli Maroney) is equally upset. She is being forced to spend the evening kowtowing to her stepmother’s mindless friends. As the big event finally arrives—Earth is passing through the tail of a massive, mysterious comet—something strange happens. Everyone on the planet just disappears—everyone except Regina and Sam, apparently.


At first, they figure they’re alone. Then Regina runs into an angry zombie with murder on his mind. Eventually the sisters make their way to a local radio station, where they confront Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who’s also running from the fiends. Together they decide to look for others. Unfortunately, there are more than monsters posing a potential threat. A group of scientists is seeking human subjects for evil experiments, and Regina, Sam, and Hector will make terrific blood banks. Seems that after this Night of the Comet, no one is safe—not even the ones who managed to survive.


Night of the Comet is such an amiable ‘80s artifact that you can almost visualize Cindy Lauper making out with Duran Duran while Naked Eyes sings “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” Playing on several still-fresh genre types from the time period—the zombie movie, the post-apocalyptic survival epic, the quirky teen coming-of-age title—writer/director Thom Eberhardt (kind of a forgotten filmmaker, even with credits like Without a Clue and Captain Ron to his name) decided to approach each and every element in his motion picture mash-up with a fair amount of ironic humor and a sense of sly subversion.


Sure, there are members of the living dead present, but they are articulate, mobile, and very, very pissed. Yes, the planet will be instantly de-populated when it passes through the tale of an obscure comet. But this is L.A., baby, a locale with endless shopping and lots of creature comforts. And, granted, our heroines seem like a couple of kids just looking to get laid and have a little fun. Yet in Regina and Sam, Eberhardt finds character first, classification second. They may look like runners-up in the ersatz valley girl competition of 1984, but they really stand out as complex, confused personalities.


Better still, Night of the Comet knows what to do with each and every one of these cinematic scenarios. The first 30 minutes of the movie are masterful, setting us up for the pseudo-horror humor to come. Eberhardt establishes Regina’s stubbornness, her desire to determine her own life. Similarly, Sam seems ditzy and devil may care, but once her stepmother literally slaps her down, we witness a limited lifetime of disappointment in her fiery eyes. Both Catherine Mary Stewart (Reg) and Kelli Maroney (Sam) are sensational, walking a fine line between being too smart and resorting to adolescent irrationality. Their scenes together have a nice comic crackle and, when we witness the implied end of their time together, it’s a stunning, shocking moment.


Eberhardt makes an intriguing choice here—he keeps Sam dressed in her pep club cheerleader-like outfit throughout the entire first half of the film, suggesting her archetype on the surface while disavowing its reality within. Reg, all big hair, sharp shoulders, and even larger attitude, is more enigmatic. We never get a hard bead on what she’s supposed to represent but, in Eberhardt’s mind, she’s a standard action hero given a girly makeover. While the rest of the cast sits around staring, Reg is the first one in, dealing with issues and applying her Army brat training with gusto.


From a plot perspective, Night of the Comet is really divided up into three separate acts. The first, prior to the precarious cosmic event, has the feel of a John Hughes comedy gone gallows. There are bitter feelings all throughout the subtext of these scenes and we really get to know our leads very well. Part two presents us with our metropolitan Mad Max meat. We’re introduced to the zombies, the well-meaning trucker (Eating Raoul‘s Robert Beltran) who wants to help the girls, and the City Limits-like band of fey gang members who threaten our ladies’ trip to the local mall. This is the action portion of the film, Eberhardt’s attempt to set up all the possible situations that can occur come Act III.


With the arrival of this final section, Night of the Comet unfortunately goes a tad catawampus. There’s an attempt to mix in some science-gone-sinister overtones while fooling us into feeling our heroines are in actual danger. It’s perhaps the only weak element in an otherwise strong genre effort. Perhaps due to budget limitations or a lack of imagination, we don’t get the fierce fireworks we’ve come to expect from this final confrontation. Instead, it’s a couple of quips, a run through a hallway or two, and a minor car explosion.


Still, Night of the Comet deserves its current status as a forgotten cult classic. In an era when terror was decidedly slice and dice, when sci-fi smelled like Ewoks, and the end of the world was draped in as many mind-blowing car chases as possible, Thomas Eberhardt and his incredibly talented company (including interesting turns by Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis as maniacal medicos) wanted to shake things up. Indeed, when the first draft of your script is entitled Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies, you’re not trying to make a totally serious speculative scarefest.


Though it may not be the most influential film or the best example of how the cultural conceits of the ‘80s seeped into every aspect of the pop landscape (including film), Night of the Comet manages to make its many diverse and delightful points in increasingly inventive and entertaining ways. Go in expecting too much and you’ll be pretty disappointed. If you enter remembering the time and the place evoked and recognizing the skill in selling all the varying ideas, you’ll really enjoy the ride. Night of the Comet is the kind of movie that recalls the wide-eyed optimism of the initial phases of the Greed Decade. It’s a surefire schlock sensation.


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Thursday, May 3, 2007


This is the sound of one hand clapping, or a tree falling face first in the woods and no one around to pick up its plop. Let’s be honest – it’s all about the arachnid this weekend as Spider-Man 3 opens to less than enthusiastic reviews. Of course this means the movie will make $469 ka-trillion before all is said and done. But what it also means is that very few film fans will be sitting around at home waiting to see what HBO or Showtime has to offer. So it’s fairly brave of the major cable outlets to present such positive fare. Maybe they believe in the need for counter-programming, or perhaps they’re gambling on word of mouth being as caustic as the critics’ opinions. Whatever the case, the Saturday night selections are all pretty good (one Friend based offering excluded), including SE&L‘s selection for 5 May:


Premiere Pick
Monster House


Starz strikes paydirt for the second week in a row, offering up what was easily 2006’s best CGI flick. Reminiscent of the classic adventure tales from decades past, Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis gave director Gil Kenan free reign to reinvent the 3D animation genre, and his efforts are outstanding. Concentrating on character first, spectacle second, the first time feature filmmaker delivers a wonderfully moody and mysterious tale, a motion picture overloaded with creative concepts and inventive ideas. Sadly, it wasn’t the massive box office hit the studios look for, and lost the Academy Award to the lesser, if still lovely Happy Feet. If you’re not racing to your local B&M to pick up a copy of this classic after partaking of this weekend’s pay channel premiere, there is something definitely wrong with you. Animation doesn’t get much better than this. (5 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Break-Up


We here at SE&L have a strict anti-Jennifer Aniston policy, so it really pains us to mention this mediocre comedy from last year. Apparently, no one sent director Peyton Reed (Down With Love) the popcorn movie manifesto. He tried to turn an awkward A-list vehicle into The War of the Roses in a condo. Audiences didn’t care for either idea.  (5 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

X-Men: The Last Stand


Brett Ratner has nothing to be ashamed of. His installment of the famous comic book franchise was imminently watchable. If anything, he proved once and for all that Bryan Singer is one of the most overrated auteurs in all of cinema. What has he really done to warrant such praise? The geek fiefdoms opinion aside, Ratner’s adaptation of the material results in a solid action flick. (5 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Bad News Bears (2005)


Parlaying some of his success after School of Rock into a regular mainstream gig, Indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) decided to destroy the memory of this ‘70s sports satire. In its original form, the Walter Matthau version was a slam on sports obsessed adults living their lives through their kids. This new version is all PC potty jokes. (5 May, ShowCase, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
My Left Foot


Daniel Day Lewis was a hardworking British actor when he agreed to take on the role of Irish author Christy Brown, a choice which would win him worldwide acclaim (and a well deserved Oscar). But imagine the shock of filmgoers, used to seeing Lewis as prim and proper in your typical Merchant Ivory drama, suddenly shifting into a handicapped scribe stricken with cerebral palsy. In a brave performance that avoided pathos and schmaltz, the star discovered the inner dignity of the man, and never let that feeling go. Director Jim Sheridan surrounded his lead with amazing supporting talent, including Brenda Fricker, Fiona Shaw, and Cyril Cusack. But it’s young Hugh O’Connor that steals the show as an adolescent Christy. Lewis has often said it was the lad’s interpretation of the character that inspired his work. The results speak for themselves. (8 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Boom!


TiVo Alert! TiVo Alert! Fire up those DVRs and get ready to have your minds blown by this notorious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Featuring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and more misguided counterculture conceits than any one film can fathom. The result is something so bad it’s ridiculous. Right up there with Jackie Gleason’s Skidoo for best camp cult crap. (6 May, Sundance, 5:45AM EST)

The Ground Truth


The debate over the War in Iraq always seems to be missing a certain voice – that of the troops who’ve already served. In this stunning documentary, they finally get a chance to have their say – and what they expose will haunt your dreams for days to come. While most came back in one piece, almost all have had their psyche scarred forever. (7 May, Sundance, 11PM EST)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch


John Cameron Mitchell is a genius at capturing both the glamour and the horror of kitsch, and his brilliant rock and roll musical is his perfect presentation of same. As the title character, the filmmaker will have you laughing, clapping and cringing – all at the same time. While some may balk at the transgender elements, the amazing score filled with memorable songs will more than cover such discomfort. (9 May, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Hard Day’s Night


The impact of the Beatles on popular culture can never be diminished. While the ‘90s saw several scholarly attempts to downplay their importance - some even going so far as to suggest that they were nothing more than the ‘60s version of a boy band (yeah…RIGHT!) - they remain a formative fixture in music. If you want proof of their importance, look no further than this amazing motion picture by former UK commercial director Richard Lester. Capturing the youth craze known as Beatlemania at the very height of its hysteria, this movie more than anything else cemented the band’s myth as amiable ambassadors of the emerging counterculture. With songs so timeless they sound fresh and inventive 40 plus years later, and attitudes that exude charm and charisma, it’s no wonder the Fab Four remain the gold standard in sonic significance. (8 May, Flix, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Born Losers


The TCM Underground strikes exploitation gold this week as Tom Laughlin introduces the world to his emotionally wounded Vietnam Vet Billy Jack as part of this standard revenge flick. Featuring a femme fatale who defines ‘asking for it’ and a lot of proselytizing about how good kids can go bad, this is one baffling biker epic. And of course, our viewing would not be complete without a little Laughlin butt-kicking. (4 May, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)

The Christine Jorgensen Story


While it can’t compare to Let Me Die a Woman, this supposedly serious take on the world’s first publicized sex-change candidate is sufficiently surreal. Granted, Woman director Doris Wishman gave audiences actual surgical footage to seer into their brains, while this 1970 sudser is happy just to suggest and imply. John Hansen is especially good in the title role. The rest is freakish fun. (8 May, Drive-In Classics/Canada, 10:45PM EST)

The Postman


Talk about your revisionist history. Audiences and critics couldn’t ladle enough hate onto Kevin Costner’s failed follow-up to his Oscar winning turn behind the lens, Dances with Wolves. This post-Apocalyptic Western about rebuilding the US mail service as a means of jumpstarting civilization was long, boring and overrun with artistic arrogance. Now, some find it to be a forgotten masterpiece. Yikes! (10 May, TNT 1AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.


As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.


While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.


Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.


Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.


But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.


There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.


It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.


The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.


As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.


This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.


Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.


It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.


The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.


By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.


There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.


It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.


In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.


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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.

Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in


, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.


Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few.  By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor.  He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.


Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.


Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.


Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all.  It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers.  He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.


Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.


Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”).  His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him.  The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.


Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour.  His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).


Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.



Raj Kapoor, ‘50s



Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s



Dev Anand, ‘50s



Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s


Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000



Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005


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