Monday, May 28, 2007

Lord John Mabury Gets Freaky

I had a discount pass at the Roxie that expired on Thursday. It was a "use it or lose it" proposition so I trudged over to the Mission District to see Going Under.

Here is a tip. Many independent films do not get reviewed by the local newspaper or major media outlets. Variety is a good source of hard-to-find movie reviews. I looked up their Going Under review.

But in the end there's just not enough tension, emotional juice or narrative revelation in this portrait of two souls who flirt with borderline dangerous entanglement, yet are ultimately too intellectually removed to risk losing their heads. Despite the pushing-the-envelope theme, the pic has dull spots.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement but I had to see a film at the Roxie before Thursday. The Roxie has two screens. My alternative was The Pervert's Guide to Cinema by Slavoj Zizek. This film was my preferred choice but I missed the last showing.

The two leads in Going Under are German actress Geno Lechner and Roger Rees. Rees is best known for his portrayal of Lord John Mabury from The West Wing. Mabury provides comic relief as the lecherous and insulting British Ambassador to the Bartlett administration. Rees also played Robin Colcord on Cheers about 15 years ago. Based on those roles, I thought Rees was a comic from the Monty Python branch of English comics. As it turns out, Rees was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

Cheers & The West Wing gave no indication of the lead role in Going Under. Rees plays a counselor or psychiatrist that uses the service of a dominatrix (Lechner). When Suzanne (Lechner) announces she is getting out of the business, Peter (Rees) desires a social relationship with her. The rest of the film is a series of loosely connected vignettes. Suzanne is a lesbian that is stringing along her Japanese lover. She also has a dysfunctional and strained relationship with her mother. Peter has an open marriage (he tells his wife about Suzanne). He also tries out replacements for Suzanne's professional services. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of their interactions, Suzanne and Peter keep meeting for coffee, meals, and drinks. Suzanne keeps pulling away from Peter and Peter keeps pursuing her.

I found the whole film quite boring (although I was able to stay awake). There are at least three scene of hard-core S&M. Apparently, Peter is getting a penis piercing and knows where public S&M clubs. As the review mentions, Rees is in tremendous physical condition and is not shy. Sidebar - full, frontal, male nudity seems to be a trend in independent films lately.

Specifically, I never believed Peter's descent into obsession with Suzanne. Actually, his mild-mannered persona seems out of character with his submissive/masochist sex life. Aren't the mild ones supposed to fantasize about being dominant? Suzanne never engenders a feeling stronger than slight resentment. She seems confused about her sexuality. Her lies eventually drive away her lesbian girlfriend. It's never made clear why she is on the outs with her mother.

The ending leaves the impression that Peter is still fixated Suzanne a year after their "break-up." By that point, I was anxious for the film to be finished so I was grateful the credits started rolling.

My plan is to see a film this evening that I'm more excited about - Waitress. There is a lot of backstory to the film. The director, writer, and co-star of the film, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered in November. She was killed by a construction worker after arguing about the noise from a nearby construction site.

There is a connection between Waitress and Going Under. Shelly was associated with the director Hal Hartley. She starred in his 1989 film The Unbelievable Truth. Hartley's wife is Miho Nikaido who played Suzanne's lesbian lover in Going Under.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Taking Inventory as of May 5 & More

I started a new job in March and it's been more hectic than I imagined. I haven't had time to see many movies much less blog about them.

Since the last post, I've only seen seven films.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1967)
Grindhouse; directed by Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino; (2007)
Sacco & Vanzetti; documentary; (2006)

Dead Channels Sleazy Sundays:
The Crimson Cult with Boris Karloff & Christopher Lee; (1968)
Maniac; (1934)
Preacherman; (1971)
The Black Gestapo; (1975)

Dead Channels is a film festival that hasn't launched yet. Their inaugural festival is August 9 to 16. It put on a program at the Victoria Theater - triple features on four consecutive Sundays in April. From what I can tell, Dead Channels is a joint effort by Bruce Fletcher (formerly of IndieFest) and Cosmic Hex.

The April program was a Grindhouse homage featuring mainly exploitation films from the 1970's - schlock & maw as I sometimes refer to the films. I was too young to actually go to a grindhouse and see films like these but I had something better. We had cable TV when I was a teenager & I was an avid fan of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. For those who may not remember or know, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was originally a horror movie hostess on a cable TV channel in Los Angeles. Movie Macabre showed classic Grindhouse-style films - Count Yorga, Vampire, Blacula, a lot of stuff with William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Collins, and English Gothic films. During the commercial breaks, she would do skits or lay on a chaise longue in that familiar black dress and tell corny, double entendres. The Sleazy Sunday films could very well have been shown on Movie Macabre.

Of the four I saw, the best was The Black Gestapo featuring Mac (Charles Robinson) from the 1980's television show Night Court. The plot is secondary in a film like The Black Gestapo. There a few moments that stand out in a film like this. First, the "bad" guys are supposed to be Italian Mafia but to me they look like California blond models. For some reason, every blond guy with a mustache from the 70's looks like a porn star to me. The main enforcer of the gang was a tall blond guy and two extremely violent acts in the film made me laugh. He rapes a black woman in the front seat of his car - the front seat was bench-style. While he is raping the woman in the middle seat, his henchman is sitting in the passenger looking on. That doesn't sound funny but there was something surreal about it and the look on the henchman's face is priceless - this detached, slightly interested gaze while he is sitting 6 inches from a woman getting raped. The rapist gets his comeuppance later when he takes a bath. There is something feminine about a bath and if I recall correctly this was a bubble bath. I laughed out loud at that as well. The big, tall, rapist taking a bubble bath. In retaliation, the Black Gestapo castrate the man in his bathtub. Grisly indeed but if you can't laugh at a rapist getting castrated, your sense of humor is warped. Come to think of it, the rapist uttered the best line of the film. The Black Gestapo is getting uppity so the Mafia sends out its enforcers to mete out discipline. The rapist goes to a hooker's apartment to find out where her pimp is. She is laying naked in bed and they pull off the sheets. After staring at her, he says "Nice bush." That line by itself was worth the price of admission but at the end of the film while reading the credits, I noticed that role was credited as "White Whore."

One more note - the Balboa had a Boris Karloff retrospective in 2006. The Crimson Cult is not one of his best. However, there is a film from this period that I have wanted to see for some time. It showed at the Balboa & I was unable to attend that day. It's called The Wurdalak (1963) - released in the US as Black Sabbath. Mario Bava directed it or part of it. Like Grindhouse, it is multiple (three) films in one.

That leads me to Grindhouse. I've been a fan of Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs. I'm a huge fan of Pulp Fiction & Kill Bill. I'm also a big fan of Rodriguez's Desperado. To a lesser degree, I enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Mexico, From Dusk to Dawn, and Sin City. The debate is which film in Grindhouse is better - Tarantino's Death Proof or Rodriguez's Planet Terror. For my money, it was Death Proof. Rodriguez certainly has a flare for horror films & Rose McGowan's peg leg is iconic but I enjoyed Death Proof immensely. I will say that Planet Terror by Rodriguez gets great performances out of McGowan & Freddy Rodriguez and has the requisite splatters and sound effects (my favorite was when Marley Shelton broke her wrist while trying to open her car door). The whole cast chews up the scenery with gusto but ultimately, this was Rodriguez channeling George Romero but I was never a zombie movie fan.

Tarantino does something extraordinary. He creates this dynamic between two sets of three women and makes them sexy & feminine but layers on a masculine appeal that I'm not sure is realistic but I can only hope that it is. Death Proof is two films within one film and the heart of each segment is the extended dialogue scenes between the women. I was riveted by the scenes in the car and bar during the first vignette featuring Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier. It was like a "chick flick" on crack - raunchy and hilarious. Add in Rose McGowan in blonde wig or dye job, Kurt Russell, and a letter perfect Texas Chilli Parlor - instant classic.
Tarantino tops himself by basically recreating and exceeding the same female dynamics in the second half of the film with Zoƫ Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, and in a smaller role Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Tarantino continually references pop culture touchstones of which he himself has now become. The dialogue scenes in the car evoke Pulp Fiction. The scene in the diner is recreating Reservoir Dogs. He throws in a reference to Vanishing Point (which Dead Channels screened a preview).

Tarantino has always had an ear for dialogue. I can spout lines from all of his films. This film is no different. My favorite was when the women in the second segment were driving in a car and talking about their love lives. Dawson mentions that she is not sleeping with her boyfriend because once she sleeps with him, he will objectify her. However, her boyfriend has cheated on her by sleeping with "Darryl Hannah's body double." Two of the women express disbelief at her twisted logic which has resulted in him having sex with someone else. Tracie Thomas utters a line in retort that is one for the ages - "Nigger! You got to break off a piece and give him some!"

Another classic scene is Kurt Russell doing a John Wayne impersonation. He says "I really have a book [he pulls out a small notebook and pen] and keep track of everyone I meet. I'm going put you under 'Chickenshit'."

The other aspect that Tarantino has made his signature (especially since Kill Bill) is stunts. He eschews CGI and animatronics. In fact, I can't recall any wire work from Kill Bill. Zoe Bell was in a great documentary called Double Dare. I saw it a few years ago at the Roxie. In that film, Bell landed the job as Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill. In Double Dare and Death Proof, Bell shows a natural amiability on the screen. The fact that she does her own stunts adds greatly to the film. A friend thought the sequence was too long but I found the chase scene where Bell was draped on the hood of the car while Stuntman Mike terrorizes them to be exhilarating and one of the best stunts I can recall on film.

I was looking forward to Sacco and Vanzetti and was disappointed. The film features the voices of John Turturro & Tony Shalhoub reading the letters of the eponymous subjects. The topic is perhaps the Trial of the Century but some ham-handed reference to the present day situation at Guantanamo Bay and the glossing over of certain facts, left me luke warm about the film. Over the closing credits, Arlo Guthrie sings Red Wine - one of his father's ballad on the subject - that was treat.

I did not get a chance to attend any SF International Film Festival screenings. IndieFest's Hole in the Head festival is starting in June and the SF Silent Film Festival is in July. I hope to make some of those screenings. In addition, I've been trying to get to the Mechanics' Institute Library for their CinemaLit Film Series on Friday nights. Another organization that screens old films (noir only) is the Danger and Despair Knitting Circle. They are hosting a Charles McGraw marathon in June. McGraw had a distinctive, raspy voice & was a staple in film noir in the 40's and 50'. Perhaps he is best known as Marcellus, Kirk Douglas' gladiator trainer in Spartacus.