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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Director: Russ Meyer
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is simply beyond comparison. Part satire, part melodrama, part suspense film, part musical set in the decadent world of late '60s rock 'n' roll, it was the product of the wildly demented imaginations of 51-year-old skin flick master Russ Meyer and 27-year-old newspaper writer Roger Ebert, who were miraculously given a million bucks and carte blanche from 20th Century Fox to deliver a sequel to Fox's own, wildly successful Valley of the Dolls, and turned it into something completely different.
Featuring numerous Meyer regulars (Erica Gavin, Charles Napier, Harrison Page, Haji, among others), three drop-dead gorgeous leads (Playmates Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers, model Marcia McBroom), and a host of unknowns, its story of the rise and fall of rock group the Carrie Nations would seem clichéd in less uninhibited hands, but Meyer and Ebert absolutely run wild with the premise, throwing every idea at the wall. And incredibly, it all sticks. Great music. Steamy love scenes. Soap opera schlock. Screwball comedy. A ludicrous plot twist. A twisted, Hitchcockian climax shamelessly and savagely inspired by the Tate-LaBianca murders, which happened mere months earlier. Incredible montages and jump-cuts that helped define Meyer's hyperkinetic style. And beautifully photographed women, by a man who knew how to do so better than anyone.
Best of all, though, is Ebert's script. Unabashedly over the top, and containing a bastardized version of hippie-speak that was uncool even then, Ebert and Meyer convinced the entire cast to deliver the lines with straight faces, and the results are joyously tacky and instantly memorable, from Kelly's seduction of shady lawyer Porter Hall ("Hang cool, teddybear"), to Ashley St. Ives' blunt come-ons ("Come into my den, said the spider, etcetera"), to Petronella's justification of her infidelity toward Emerson Thorne ("You said you were going to study!"). It's John La Zar's portrayal of the Phil Spector-like Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell, however, that steals the show. Of all the actors, La Zar knew exactly what Ebert and Meyer were going for, and he delivers his character's flamboyant, Shakespearean monologues with relish, highlighted by what is, in this writer's opinion, the greatest line in the history of the cinema:
"Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance."
Having first read about the film in Danny Peary’s terrific book Cult Movies back in high school, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was my own introduction to the wild, inconsistent, weird oeuvre of one Russell Albion Meyer, but for all his best moments as an indie film legend, from his mid-’60s monochrome period (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Lorna, Motorpsycho) to his more cartoonish 1970s fare (1975’s irrepressible Supervixens), it’s his first big budget motion picture that has aged the best. Nearly a decade in the making, its 2006 release on DVD was a godsend for not just yours truly, but BVD fans worldwide, and with each repeated viewing, its raucous lust for life never wanes. It's my happening, and yeah, it definitely freaks me out. Adrien Begrand
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Director: Roman Polanski
Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could -- and should -- be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).
That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.
Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.
Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us about something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross -- and expect the same answer:
“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”
There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him -- and the country -- it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we. Sean Murphy
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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Director: Joseph Sargent
Long before the horrors of September 11th were visited upon downtown New York, a different terror seized the city. One afternoon in 1973, a group of armed men hijacked the number six train in Manhattan, igniting a municipal crisis captured beautifully in the pulp classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
Led by a mysterious Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), the color-coded band of terrorists -- Mr. White, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown -- takes control of the train and demands a million dollars’ ransom. If the city fails to oblige within an hour’s time, they warn, one hostage will be killed each minute thereafter until the money is paid.
Meanwhile, New York City transit cop Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) hustles to buy more time from the hijackers while he struggles to foil their plans. With police flooding the subway tunnels, and the nervous hijackers becoming increasingly violent, tensions reach a fever pitch. Not only must Garber negotiate with Mr. Blue, but he must battle against the corruption and incompetence of city authorities in his nail-baiting race against time.
What results is an indispensible disc in my personal movie collection, and one that would make its way with me to my desert island exile. To be sure, Pelham does not enjoy a spot in the pantheon of great movies. Still, it offers an arresting portrait of a New York now largely lost -- the New York of my childhood -- while preserving the city’s timeless essence in a cinemagraphic tour of Gotham’s urban landscape. From crowded subway cars to the blaring sirens of police cruisers racing through gridlocked traffic to haunting shots of the recently erected Twin Towers, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three finds New York as it was and sometimes still is: a wonderful amalgam of bustle, dirt, tension, and beauty.
Indeed, despite the film’s standout performances by Shaw and Matthau, New York City itself steals the show. Director Joseph Sargent captures downtown Manhattan in all its filth and grime, majesty and spirit. Unlike most films depicting life in the Big Apple, Pelham strips the sheen from its shots without reducing Gotham’s seedier elements to mere fetish. And by digging down into the subterranean hollows of New York’s sprawling subway system, Pelham offers audiences a rare glimpse into the arteries through which the city’s lifeblood flows.
Despite providing the inspiration for action thrillers such as Speed and the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Pelham remains largely forgotten and ignored; there are no extras on the DVD edition. The re-mastered cut of Pelham is left to stand alone as a film encompassing those qualities of home that would be most sorely missed on a lonely desert island—qualities which would be rabidly and repeatedly indulged in throughout the years. Michael Busch
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Director: David Lynch
It's a tough call -- coming up with one DVD to take with you for a lifetime of isolation (or in avoidance of a major natural disaster). After all, you have to consider several factors: watchability, re-watchability, artistic merits, entertainment value, visual appeal, aesthetic compatibility, and mental challenge. Oh, and it should be prepared to do this until you, and your available technology, are ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.
So in making this demanding selection, I decided to go with an all-encompassing genre-bending design. My indispensible DVD should have facets of all the films I love -- science fiction, horror, comedy, drama, romance, musicals, experimental, and mainstream (am I forgetting one?). That's why David Lynch's debut feature, Eraserhead, becomes part of my cinematic survival kit. It's a freaked-out fantasy lashed with moments of madness, the macabre, and misery, an allegory of parenthood poisoned by the sticky realities of birth and the nauseating burden of children.
Of course, Lynch would deny such a description. He's rather tight lipped about the 'interpretation' of his movies, which means Eraserhead also allows for that most comforting and consuming of isolation repasts -- free association. While you're enjoying the marvelous monochrome cinematography, so sharp it practically cuts you, there are images and ideas floating around to tweak even the most inert imagination. It's like Pynchon for the eyes, or Trout Mask Replica rendered in celluloid.
For those unfamiliar with this notorious Midnight Movie, Eraserhead centers on Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). They dwell in a town filled with abandoned factories and discharged toxins, a brooding metropolis of steam and sludge. He embodies all male insecurities, expressing like toothpaste from the top of his high tower hair. Mary X is his prefect match, the gal no guy wants to take home to mother.
After she gives in to his "sick" urge, she gives birth to a deformed, ragingly ill child who monopolizes all his parents' time. Soon overwhelmed, Mary leaves Henry to care for the infant alone. He watches as the child slowly degenerates into an endlessly demanding ball of infection. Eventually, Henry is so burdened by guilt that he's lost in an unstuck universe, between the living and the dead.
Pretty grim stuff, especially for a proposed eternity of isolation, huh? Well, that's the joy inherent in Lynch's biological lament. It is one of the few films that manages, even after decades in the artform's arena, to still make you feel. Sure, the sensations can be as unsettling as queasiness, depression, and anxiety, but there is also hope…and humor…and heart in Eraserhead's dementia. In fact, the ending stands as something so mesmerizing it still sends shivers down my spine.
For all its unfathomable weirdness and upfront ambiguity, Eraserhead remains a masterpiece of atmosphere and vision. It offers up so much without giving away any of its insular secrets. During the emotional upheaval that would result from an extended stint with limited media stimulation, David Lynch will keep those synapses razor sharp. The result of such prolonged exposure may be something akin to evolution, come to think of it. Bill Gibron
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Director: John Carpenter
It is quite unfair that John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is often considered as a simple remake of the classic Howard Hawks production The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Indeed, Carpenter’s masterwork actually is a more faithful adaptation of the seminal science fiction novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., which inspired both films. Then again, Hawks’ production did not enjoy the advanced technology used to create the scenes envisioned by Campbell that ultimately made Carpenter’s version so unforgettable.
In a nutshell, John Carpenter’s The Thing presents the members of an Antarctic research station battling a relentless alien threat that is able to absorb and imitate any living creature, and transforms human flesh into gruesome creatures. For the characters in this film, the destruction of the monster is just as important as being able to figure out which members of the team are infected with the extraterrestrial menace. Carpenter successfully created a complex web of paranoia where trust is completely nonexistent, and offered a unique study of the conflicting relationships generated among the group of men.
In order to enhance the atmosphere of fear and mistrust of The Thing, Carpenter and Director of Photography Dean Cundey used very simple camera setups and elegant composition that exploited the entire extension of the Panavision widescreen frame. For instance, in a scene that takes place in the infirmary, two characters menacingly surround our hero, MacReady (Kurt Russell), who is positioned at the center of the frame while the outermost left hand side of the frame shows the hand of a character hiding a scalpel. This image dramatically intensifies the feelings of paranoia, distrust, and claustrophobia that are crucial to the success of this film.
The grotesque transformations of the human body showcased in The Thing make explicit, in true Cronenbergian fashion, the fragility of the flesh, while the idea of a highly contagious terror functions as a metaphor for AIDS. The monsters featured in this film are some of the most frightening creatures in cinema history. Furthermore, the gruesome and extremely realistic special effects created by Rob Bottin continue to be unmatched, even in today's era of seemingly unbound digital artistry.
Unfortunately, at the time of its original release, The Thing's critical and box office reception was very poor. However, in subsequent years The Thing has managed to find a second life in video, where it has not only been rediscovered by audiences in general, but it has also become a prime film for academic discussion. In this regard, the special edition DVD of The Thing offers a fascinating chronicle and analysis of the making of this classic of horror cinema. First of all, we have Carpenter and Russell providing one of the most hilarious audio commentaries in the history of the medium. And we also get a detailed documentary on the making of this film with interviews of Bottin and other members of the cast and crew. This DVD certainly supports the current critical reassessment of The Thing, and it stands as a solid proof for considering John Carpenter as a visionary director working ahead of his own time. Marco Lanzagorta