Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

I've got to say, I was really looking forward to this one. With Twilight girlifying vampires and the internet ruining zombies for everybody, werewolves have yet to be fucked over by popular culture (Teen Wolf Too aside). The trailer made it look great, a modern twist on the classic Universal movie with a gothic atmosphere and an awesome cast, but I became more wary as details of the troubled production began to leak out. The director Mark Romenek left due to "creative differences", the movie went through a substantial re-write. Joe Johnston, a director with a history of solid but unmemorable blockbusters such as Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III and Jumanji, was brought in to clean up the mess. Danny Elfman was kicked off the project and replaced with Paul Haslinger, then brought back in again to work in his original score (I don't know why since Elfman has been coasting on his reputation for years now). The release date was pushed back again and again.

With all these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, it's not surprising that the film turns out to be a bit of a dog's breakfast. The constant re-working is evident right from the beginning, as it burns through about twenty minutes worth of backstory in a couple of minutes. Our protagonist, American ex-patriot and famous stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), doesn't get much of an introduction at all, his prescence is explained only through a short montage and some voiceover narration. Talbot has been called back to his home estate in Blackmoor after his brother turns up the latest victim in a spate of grisly killings. He is re-united with his weirdo estranged father John (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother's widow, whose name I have already forgotten (Emily Blunt). While investigating his brother's death at a gypsy camp he is attacked by a werewolf and cursed himself.

Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) is sent in from Scotland Yard to investigate the killings, and while Talbot is busy tearing bloody chunks out the villagers it seems the producers were hard at work tearing chunks out of the script. They must have been scared about audiences getting bored, because the movie lurches from one action sequence to the next with barely any time to get to know the characters or establish an atmosphere. Talbot's slow tranformation into a beast, the focus of the original film, is glossed over with a montage and a couple of cheap jump scares (I knew they were desperate when they pulled the elusive double jump scare). None of the performances are interesting or believable and Talbot and The Woman fall in love seemingly out of convenience. There is also a pretty stupid twist about halfway through that doesn't do anything except allow the producers to check the "wolf-on-wolf fight scene" box on their checklist.

The movie isn't completely devoid of merit, the cinematography is fantastic for starters, and sometimes a much better movie shines through. My favourite scene was when Talbot is accused of the murders and shipped off to an insane asylum in London. Once again my love of spooky, old-timey asylums is indulged as Dr. Hoenneger (Anthony Sher) tries to cure his "delusions" by repeatedly dunking him in icewater. Then he tries to prove Talbot's psychosis is unfounded by strapping him to a chair in a packed observation room on the night of the full moon. You can imagine how well that goes, and soon Talbot is going on an American Werewolf in London style rampage through Victorian London. Apparently they couldn't decide whether he would move on four legs or two until very late in the production, so in the end he does a little bit of both.

Del Toro was an interesting choice for the main character as he is practically a werewolf already. Give him some fangs and put a dab of shoe polish on the end of his nose and you're pretty much there. Rick Baker did the makeup effects, and although he could probably do these kind of effects in his sleep by now he does a great job. They went with CG effects for the transformation scenes, which is a little disappointing (American Werewolf in London is still the best transformation scene of all time) and although I heard a few complaints about dodgy computer effects I must have low standards because I think they were great. It looked really painful, with lots of cracking bones. Also, the movie is a lot more gory than I was expecting. There are disembowellings, decapations, limb amputations and spraying blood galore. More Hammer than Universal, really.

Maybe I'm being a bit too hard on this film. I appreciated the gothic production design and the fact that they played things straight and didn't pull some goofy bullshit like The Mummy. There's good old-fashioned cinematography where they actually point the camera at the thing you want to see without shaking it around or cutting away. The gore was good too. I suppose after just watching Shutter Island (which I'm liking more and more every time I think about it) I was hoping for something a little more slow-burn and atmospheric. Still, it could have been a lot worse (eg Van Helsing). Hell, I've heard that this version was too slow for some people, so I should probably count my blessings. I'll probably watch it again on DVD, since I'm hoping a director's cut will alleviate some of the problems.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Marine 2 (2009)

The Marine films are united by their love of muscular
men leaping away from explosions in slow motion

Just when I thought I was done with WWE Films, they pull me back in, and with a DTV sequel to 2006's The Marine no less. It's a sequel in name only, linked only by the protagonist's occupation (Marine), the kidnapped-wife plot, the copious amount of fiery explosions and an acting-deficient wrestler in the lead role. Apparently John Cena is too big of a star for DTV now, so he's been swapped out for some wrestler I've never heard of, Ted DiBiase Jr. Apparently a different wrestler-I've-never-heard-of, Randy Orton, was supposed to play the lead role but stepped out at the last minute due to an injury. Like Cena, DiBiase has a similar combination of boyish looks, beefy physique and no-nonsense haircut. What happened to all the wrestlers with greasy mullets and a face like a sack of ham hocks?

After a disastrous reonnaissance mission in Bangkok, Marine sniper Joe Linwood (DiBiase Jr) travels to an island resort with his wife Robin (Lara Cox). Robin works for the owner of the resort, an asshole millionnaire named Darren Conner (Robert Coleby). Conner has also written a highly successful get-rich-quick book titled Why Shouldn't You Have It All? and it must be pretty good because even in the middle of a swinging cocktail party there's a lady curled up on a couch reading it. People are always namedropping it, even hard-bitten mercenaries are leafing through a copy. It's more popular than the The Davinci Code. Joe and Robin also meet a former-Army-Ranger-turned-scuba-operator named Church (Michael Rooker), who takes them to a secluded beach with a hidden cave that leads directly back to the resort. Gee, I wonder if that's going to come in handy later?

Sure enough, a gang of masked terrorists storm the resort during the middle of a fireworks display, taking everybody hostage (including Robin) and demanding "tribute" (ie ransom) as repayment for years of Western exploitation. Apparently this is inspired by a real-life hostage situation that occurred at a resort in the Phillipines, but I'm not sure if they were single-handedly taken down by a WWE wrestler, which is what happens here. Die Hard may be over twenty years old, but The Marine 2 proves to us that Die Hard rip-offs are the true John McClane's of action cinema.

This is one of those movies that takes place in a fictional country, despite the opening scene in Bangkok, the Thai actors, the Muay Thai fighters etc. This is not Thailand, got it? I can see why they do it but it's really kind of insulting, suggesting that these tiny countries in South America/Eastern Europe/South East Asia are all so interchangable that you could slip in a fake one without anyone noticing. Anyway, this fake country has a pretty interesting ethnic makeup, because the terrorist leader, Damo, is played by a Maori (Temeura Morrison) and his brother Shoal is played by a Thai (Sahajak Boonthanakit). Although a great actor, Morrison is not at all convincing as an Asian, so I don't really buy that he and Shoal are supposed to be brothers, unless it's meant in the sense that all men are brothers, which is doubtful.

The rest of the movie follows the Die Hard playbook to the letter. They send in a gang of mercenaries who get completely wiped out. Joe goes in solo and starts taking out the terrorists one by one. Shoal does the bit where he gets frustrated and starts tearing shit up, letting Joe's wife know that her husband is the one running loose and fucking up their operation. There's also the slimy government bureaucrat who betrays them and the guy on the outside who has retired from being a hero but steps up at the end to save the day. Unlike Die Hard, however, the act of terrorism is not the cover for a heist. It's just plain old terrorism.

So like the first film it's fairly predictable, but the tone is completely different. Although I loved the utterly tasteless opening scene, I wasn't a big fan of the goofy, tongue-in-cheek approach of The Marine. I prefer my action movie stupidity straight up, not watered down with self-conscious winks to the audience. Unfortunately the sequel goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It's way too dour and serious, without any hilarious stupidity or even any decent one-liners. At least the wussy PG-13 rating of the first film has been ditched in favour of a squib-friendly R, allowing a couple of grisly moments such as where Joe dislocates his wrist to escape a set of handcuffs or tortures a terrorist with a steam press.

This one is directed by Roel Reiné, the Dutch DTV veteran who brought us Seagal's better-than-average Pistol Whipped. The cinematography is very impressive for DTV, lots of wide shots, saturated colours and beautiful helicopter shots of Phuket. The action has it's moments too, the centrepiece being a great fight where Joe takes on a couple of Muay Thai fighters. It's done in several long takes as a steadicam rotates around them. Impressive stuff. There's also an amusingly ridiculous part where Joe knocks out the supports from a seaside shack without even breaking stride, ramming them with his meaty forearm so it collapses onto the pursuing bad guy. That made me laugh. Mostly though, it's just a lot of gunfire and explosions.

This is better-than-average DTV, although I'm still trying to decide whether this is one of those rare DTV sequels that surpasses it's theatrical predecessor. I think it really comes down to what you thought of the goofy humour of the first film. If you didn't like it I think you'll like this one better. If you did like it you might as well skip it and spend the 90 minutes picking bugs out of your hair or doing whatever else it is that tasteless simpletons enjoy doing.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Look, I like DiCaprio. I think it's nice that Martin Scorcese took a chance on a guy who was still known as "that kid from Titanic" and single-handedly revived his career. Seriously though, someone needs to talk to Scorcese about his Leo addiction. At first it was great, there was a sudden rush of creativity and Scorcese started producing some of his finest work in years. Soon, however, it became apparent that his craft was taking a back seat to his next DiCaprio fix. DiCaprio as Frank Sinatra? Where will it end, Marty? Here he again makes the mistake of casting DiCaprio as a tough-talking cop, and although it's nice that he gives Leo a chance to dust off his The Departed accent, I still can't shake the feeling that he's a little kid playing dress-ups.

Anyway, here he's playing a U.S. Marshall named Teddy Daniels. Set in 1954 Massachussets, he and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate a patient's disappearance from Ashcliffe mental institution, situated on the remote and inhospitable Shutter Island. The staff and patients fail to co-operate with his investigation, and it soon becomes clear that the chief psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hiding something big. It turns out that Teddy has his own personal reasons for coming to the island, and soon he begins to wonder if the case that brought him there isn't part of a larger conspiracy. The weather worsens, trapping Teddy and his partner on the island but also providing him with the cover he needs to explore forbidden areas of the facility and discover the secret of Shutter Island.

I can't say too much more without spoiling things. Teddy starts to doubt his sanity as he experiences visions of his dead wife and his horrific experiences at the Dachau concentration camp in WW2. There is also a suggestion that the House Un-American Activities Commission is funding radical experimental brain surgery on patients. Standard stuff for this kind of B-thriller. It's like Total Recall with fedoras and cigarettes. Towards the end it gets a little bogged down in flashbacks and exposition that is mostly redundant because you know the film is building up to a big twist at the end. Although this kind of twist ending can really fuck over a movie I think Scorcese mostly sticks the landing. Good job.

I think DiCaprio's performance gets a little cheesy at times, but I really loved Mark Ruffalo as his partner. I think it's a performance that would really benefit from a repeat viewing in the context of the ending. There is an amazing supporting cast here too, including Max Von Sydow, Jackie Earl Haley and Patricia Clarkson. Ted Levine has a truly bizarre cameo appearance as the chief warden of the facility. Apropros of nothing, he asks Teddy that if he were to attack him and chew out his eyeball, would Teddy be able to stop him before he goes blind? You know, typical chit-chat. He also insists that "If I were the only thing standing between you and a meal, you'd crack my skull with a rock and eat the meaty parts off my bones." I thought this was a pretty funny line because if he were fighting him for a meal, wouldn't he just eat the meal?

I guess the real star of the movie is the island itself. Is there anything scarier than an old-timey insane asylum? No. No there isn't. The facility itself is spooky but more than a little ridiculous; although there appears to be hundreds of staff and orderlies there's only 66 inmates. A couple dozen of the inmates, the worst of the worst, are housed in a separate building, a Civil-War-era fort, sealed in a dungeon with rusty gates and wet stone walls. It's not particularly secure though. Apparently when the power goes out all of the electronic locks open, all the criminally insane patients are set loose and all the staff have to chase them down with butterfly nets. I found myself thinking of Arkham Asylum several times during this movie, and not just because I think about Batman ten to twenty times every day.

This setting is beautifully photographed and Scorcese uses it to create an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere. This is the kind of movie that could been packed full of cheap jump-scares, but instead Scorcese uses them sparingly (so when they work they really work) and pulls more subtle tricks to mess with your mind. For instance, I noticed that sometimes the editing was off, lots of skipped frames and poor continuity. Not distractingly so, just enough to keep you on edge. I thought some of Teddy's visions got a little broad and cheesy, but they were also full of cleverly creepy touches, like the smoke on his cigarettes moving in reverse. Something has to be said about the music, though. Mostly it's quite subtle but sometimes it's way too overbearing. The opening of the film was a particuarly egregious example; just when you think it couldn't get any more bombastic and ridiculous another few instruments would kick in.

With Scorcese's best films you walk out of the theatre feeling like you've been kicked in the nuts, but that doesn't really happen here. Maybe the foot just grazes the nuts a little bit, but you won't be stumbling out of the theatre metaphorically pissing blood. Still, I think he's earned the right to make a film that's just an excellent B-picture instead of a testicle-pulverising tour-de-force. What he does manage to do is turn a by-the-numbers B-thriller into something a lot classier than you'd expect.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Twilight (2008)

"Bella, how many times to I have to walk right up to you
and tell you to stay away from me before you'll listen?"

I was shocked at how bad Twilight was. It was poorly written and it's characters were vile, but for me it's biggest crime was that it was so boring. I don't think I've ever read a book that's so determined to avoid exploring any of the concepts it raises. It dodges interesting ideas and plot hooks like Neo dodges bullets. I don't need a book to have lots of sex and violence or even a complex plot (although they could have only helped) but at least give me some conflict or tension. There were parts in the book where I could tell that something dramatic was supposed to be happening, but it was written with all the urgency and emotion of two people deciding where to eat for dinner.

So why watch the movie if I hated the novel so much? Well, mostly I was curious to see how it was possible to extract a 122 minute (!) movie out of a 500 page novel where barely anything happens except the same half a dozen thoughts bouncing around inside the protagonist's empty head. To it's credit the movie resorts to voiceover narration far less often than I was expecting, but the flipside of that is that there is a ridiculous amount of instense staring. Several of the actors could have been replaced by bobbleheads without losing anything in the process. In many cases it would have been an improvement.

I don't have a lot to say about Kristen Stewart as Bella. How can you fault an actor for a dull performance when they are playing a character with no personality whatsoever? Like in the book everybody seems to love her and grovel for her approval for no discernable reason. Even Edward's incestuous-but-not-really family welcome Bella with open arms. It's pretty strange because it seems like the story would work a lot better if she was more of an outcast and a loner. As it stands she just seems maddeningly passive and enormously self-absorbed. I guess it captures that part of the teenage experience pretty well, but it doesn't make for thrilling cinema.

Secondly there's Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen. I haven't seen this guy in anything else but he doesn't seem like much of an actor here. When he meets Bella for the first time he's supposed to be cold and distant due to his uncontrollable thirst for her blood. This seems like it should work but wow, this guy overacts something fierce. When she first walks into the classroom he spasms and grimaces like he just shit his pants, then for the rest of the class he scowls and twitches like a heroin junkie. He should be cool like Jimmy Dean, but instead he looks like a fucking nutcase. This is some comedy gold, right here. The rest of the time he's just boring, but occassionally he'll seem utterly creepy and psychotic and thus faithful to the source material.

At over two hours (including at least half an hour of Edward scowling in slow motion), the film seems ridiculously overlong. In the book the plot doesn't really pick up until the last hundred or so pages, so here they've inserted a few short scenes to show the main antagonists attacking people, drinking blood (off-screen) and generally making me wish the movie was about them instead. A game of super-powered baseball is what passes for the main action sequence in this movie. I kind of liked it, reminded me of Shaolin Soccer. After the final confrontation the bad guy is dealt with off-screen, and not in a cool way like in Let The Right One In, Bella just passes out and misses the whole thing. Way to go, dipshit.

The main problem with Twilight is that for all his brooding and scowling and "stay away from me baby, I'm bad for you", you never really buy Edward as dangerous. There's a hilarious part where he scowls at some would-be rapists and they leap back in fear. They don't even CG his face to make him look like a monster, he just looks kind of angry and they react like he's the scariest motherfucker on the planet. It's almost pathetic how shocked Edward is at Bella's nonplussed reaction to his vampire sparkliness. Without any menace to Edward there is a complete lack of conflict in their relationship. Bella's desire to become a vampire should seem tragic, but why wouldn't she want that? Being a vampire seems totally awesome.

If you were to replicate the experience of reading Stephanie Meyer's prose on the big screen you would need to hire Uwe Boll to direct, but I think they closed that German tax loop that let him write off his film losses so they hired Catherine Hardwicke instead. I can't really fault her for the job she does here. She was saddled with an impossible task from the very beginning, stuck between terrible source material and a screaming fanbase who would have lynched her if every plot hole and laugh-out-stupidity wasn't replicated on screen in souless, exacting detail. She hasn't quite made a silk purse from a sow's ear, but she's made a sow's ear from a sow's ear, and that's pretty much all you could ask from her.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Touch of Evil (1958)

"This just in... Tokyo is under attack by a
40 foot Orson Welles. Hide your frozen peas!"

From reading my blog it might appear that all I watch are obscure exploitation films, but that's not the case. Believe it or not, I also like to watch adult films for grownups, entertainment that can be legitimately called "film" and watched and enjoyed by people with fully developed brains. One kind of film I particularly enjoy is the 1940s/50s crime melodrama that would later be dubbed "film noir", and this film is recognised as the last classic of that genre. It's directed by and starring Orson Welles, most remembered for a little film you might have heard of, widely recognised as the finest film ever made, Transformers: The Movie. Plus some other stuff, like Citizen Kane. I don't know if I'm putting forward an unpopular opinion here, but this Orson Welles guy? He makes pretty a good film. Trust me, he's going to be big.

You can't say anything about Touch of Evil without mentioning the justifiably famous three-and-a-half minute tracking shot that opens the film. I'm a sucker for a good tracking shot, and this is one of the best ever. It starts with a closeup of a man putting a time bomb in a car, and then follows the car as it drives towards the US/Mexican border, the camera soaring high over the Mexican border town where much of the film is set. Then it zooms in close to introduce our protagonist, Mexican DEA agent Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh), finally cutting away as the bomb goes off and the car explodes into flames. This is some incredible shit, and it blows my mind to think it was made in 1958, well before the Steadicam was invented.

Of course Welles' great camerwork doesn't stop there. As usual he uses a wide-angle lens, and not just because it was the only way to fit the fat bastard into the frame. This is, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully photographed black-and-white films of all time. The lighting is fantastic (an essential component of film noir) and the cinematography is years ahead of it's time. In an age where most filmmakers were content to just point-and-shoot, Welles keeps the camera constantly moving, using fast-paced (for the time) editing and thoughtful camera angles that are loaded with symbolism. In the aftermath of the car-bomb there is a shot where Vargas is framed by a billboard that reads "WELCOME STRANGER!" The movie is full of this shit.

You might be saying to yourself"Orson Welles is good behind a camera? Tell me something I don't know, asshole? What about the story?" Well, to be honest this is one of those films where the plot is secondary to the atmosphere and direction. Legend has it that with this film Welles asked for the worst script his producer could find to prove that he could make a great film out of a lousy story. I don't know if it's that bad, but like many of the great film noirs it is meandering and convoluted. Apparently Welles wanted to frustrate the audience with a labyrinthine plot a la The Big Sleep, but I think he fucked up because I didn't have too much trouble following what was going on.

After the great opening scene, Vargas realises that the car-bomb could spark an international incident, so he decides to help the local police investigate the crime. The investigation is led by the well-respected Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), but soon Vargas realises that Quinlan's legendary police intuition is actually just years of planting evidence on the most likely suspect. Complicating matters is the local crime boss "Uncle" Joe Grandi, who sends out his thugs to harrass Vargas' wife in the hopes that he will quit hassling his brother in Mexico City. As Vargas tries to expose Quinlan's dirty methods, Quinlan forms an uneasy truce with Grandi and formulates a plan that will discredit Vargas and destroy his career.

At first it's hard to get around Charlton Heston playing Vargas, one of the all-time greatest racial miscasts since John Wayne played Genghis Khan or Jar Jar Binks played a Jamaican. In fact, when Quinlan first meets him he remarks "He doesn't look Mexican." Yeah, no shit, he looks like the victim of an unfortunate tanning bed accident. On the plus side he isn't in crazy scenery-chewing mode here, as entertaining as that can be; this is one of Heston's most restrained and probably best performances. Besides, it's not like he's the only whitey playing a Mexican. You've also got Marlene Dietrich playing a Mexican gypsy and Russian-born Akim Tamiroff as "Uncle" Joe Grandi. Every nationality under the sun, except an actual Mexican.

Of course, the real star of the show is Welles himself as the repugnant Captain Quinlan. Welles donned padding and makeup to make himself look even fatter, but he was well on the way to make such embellishment obsolete. He waddles around, unkempt and unshaven, and at one point Dietrich, playing his ex-lover, wisely tells him "You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars." Welles gives Quinlan a human fragility and motivation, so his downfall seems like an inevitable tragedy rather than just desserts. Like Dietrich says "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"(she hogs all the good lines in the film).

Quinlan may be a bastard, but Vargas is pretty much the worst husband ever. He abandons his wife, on their wedding night no less, so he can investigate a crime completely unrelated to him. Then, after Vargas almost gets acid thrown in his face, he sends her off alone to stay at a creepy hotel even though he knows Vargas has been hassling and following her. Oh yeah, and the hotel just so happens to be owned by the Grandi family. Between this and Psycho, Leigh has got some really bad luck choosing hotels. Grandi sends his thugs out to her room (including a couple of evil lesbians) who imply they are going to gang-rape her, then they knock her out with sodium pentathal and make it appear like she's taken part in a wild, drug-fueled orgy. This is all part of an elaborate plan to discredit her husband. I don't know why they didn't just shoot her up full of drugs and gang rape her for real. Pretty nice of them, actually.

Naturally these two flawed characters face off at the end of the film after a masterfully edited chase sequence, and the film ends with a sad compromise. Like in the best film noir, Touch of Evil doesn't truck in absolutes but in shades of grey. Unfortunately the public were losing their tastes for this kind of film. Before it was released it was famously re-cut by the skittish producers at Universal and released as the B-film of a double feature. It was poorly recieved by audiences and critics but went on to universal acclaim, except for Ingmar Bergman but fuck that guy. In the end this film was recognised as a classic, and you couldn't ask for a better film to cap off the genre.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

Emanuelle doing what she does best.

It's time to dive back into the sordid world of Italian cannibal films, this time a Joe D'Amato-helmed helping of sleaze with the gorgeous Laura Gemser playing the world's pre-eminent Emmanuelle knock-off; note the single 'm' in the name, a dead giveaway. I think I've talked about the Emmanuelle films already, but briefly they were a series of French erotic films that spawned an army of knock-offs, the most popular being D'Amato's Black Emanuelle series starring Laura Gemser. Since then pretty much every film starring Laura Gemser has been retitled and touted as a Black Emanuelle film, but smut obsessives should note that this film is a completely official entry in the series, making it a legitimate part of Emanuelle continuity.

By this stage in the series Emanuelle had fucked her way through Africa (Black Emanuelle), New York (Black Emanuelle 2), Bangkok (Emanuelle in Bangkok) and everywhere else (Emanuelle Around the World) so unless they were planning to go into space (the Emmanuelle space race was eventually won with the 1994 made-for-cable series Emmanuelle in Space) they were running out of locations to shoot their softcore porn. Therefore D'Amato had the bright idea of combining Emanuelle's usual brand of titillation with the jungle cannibal genre. I don't know why he thought it was a good idea, but D'Amato experimented a lot with combinations of gore and porn. Guy was kind of messed up.

Like most cannibal films, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals begins in New York. Emanuelle is, as usual, an undercover reporter, this time getting the big scoop on a sadistic lesbian nurse working at a crooked mental institution. She poses as a patient and wanders around snapping photos with a camera concealed inside a baby doll. Just as you think it's going to turn into a women-in-prison film, the evil nurse rushes out of a patient's room with a bite-sized chunk missing from her boobs. Apparently she'd been molesting patients, and as Emanuelle remarks to editor later, "It seems she was asking for it. Her homosexual tendencies were well known." Pretty judgemental for someone whose main investigative technique involves sneaking into the titty-chomping patient's room at night and masturbating her into compliance. Emanuelle uses her hidden camera to snap a few photos of the woman's junk while she's there, because she's classy like that.

When she's back at the office she discovers that the photos also show a tribal tattoo "above her pubic region" (they say this about five times), the symbol of a supposedly extinct cannibal tribe, so she heads to the Museum of Natural History to meet with a cannibal expert named Professor Lestor (Gabriele Tinti) and hopefully arrange an expedition to the Amazon. Over dinner he promises to take her back to his place to show her a complete documentation on cannibalism, adding that he has "some very interesting films on the subject". Sure, buddy, I've heard that one before. Sure enough, after romancing her with some home movies of genital mutilation and ritual cannibalism the two of them hop into bed together.

Emanuelle isn't the type to get tied down to some tweedy academic, even if he is played by Gemser's real-life husband. As she herself says "I am a free woman and I will act as such", which basically means that she will fuck anything, anytime, anywhere. She also has a boyfriend apparently, but I guess he's not that important to her since he only appears in one scene. She tells him about her dangerous Amazonian expedition and he reacts as if she were going to a three-day conference in the next town over. She says goodbye by boning him in broad daylight under a filthy boardwalk but almost immediately afterwards she's sitting in a taxi daydreaming about screwing the Professor in a hotel room. I guess it's a fine line between a liberated woman and nymphomaniac.

After arriving in the Amazon they meet up with the Professor's local contact, a fat guy who provides them with some native guides and a nun named Sister Angela who will lead them to a remote jungle mission. Apparently the priest who runs the mission will have the lowdown on any local cannibal tribes. Also coming along is the fat guy's beautiful daughter Isabella. It's her job to scream, get caught in traps and generally act like a complete ninny. Her saving grace is that she finds an excuse to strip off every ten minutes, most notably in a scene where Emanuelle and Isabella bathe eachother in the river and are rudely interrupted by a monkey that smokes all their Marlboros.

As they head downriver Emanuelle sees some stock footage of some crocodiles and exclaims "Look alligators!" I guess she's a reporter, not a zoologist, but her lack of jungle experience leads to her getting all tangled up in a ten foot python. Luckily she's rescued by a hunter, Donald Mackenzie (Donald O'Brien, Zombie Holocaust) and boy does he like hunting. As he says to Emanuelle, "Hunting. Hunting is my life. I've sacrificed a lot for my cravings... for hunting." Donald is so obsessed with the hunt that he neglects his hot wife Maggie (Nieves Navarro), who is forced to finger herself while watching one of their servants, Salvadore (Percy Hogan), polish his rifle. In fact she's so smitten with him that she leads him into the jungle to give his rifle a spit-polishing of her own. When Donald confronts her she angrily calls him "an imponent", but later he gets into a fistfight with the Professor for fondling Isabella's ass while she is sleeping, since apparently everyone in the jungle sleeps without any pants on.

Despite Donald's hunting skills he fails to notice a group of cannibals approaching their camp with their Evil Dead Cannibal Vision, and the natives steal their boats and eviscerate one of their servants. They are forced to gather up their supplies and march on, contending with the usual jungle dangers including quicksand, poisonous snakes and bamboo traps. After Sister Margaret gets captured, nipple-sliced and disembowelled, Donald and Maggie separate from the group and reveal their true motives; they are looking for a crashed plane containing several bags of uncut diamonds. This has no bearing on anything else in the film, but the diamonds distract them long enough for the cannibals to spear Donald and kidnap Maggie.

Eventually the group find their way to the cannibals' camp, where the entire village is circling around Maggie, who is trapped in a bamboo cage in the middle of a clearing. After snapping a few photos Emanuelle remarks "There! That cage! Maggie!", demonstrating the observational skills that made her one of New York's top investigative journalists. As far as I can tell, their rescue mission involves sending three people into a village full of armed cannibals, so it goes tits up almost immediately. Salvadore is killed, Donald and Isabella are captured and Emanuelle and the Professor are forced to look on from a distance as Maggie is disembowelled, Donald is somehow bisected by a piece of rope and Isabella is drugged and gangraped in preparation for a sacrifice to the River Goddess.

Although they just sit there and look on impassively for a while, eventually Emanuelle formulates a plan to rescue Isabella. Like every other plan she has ever had, it involves stripping bare-ass naked. Painting herself up with the tribe's symbol, she manages to pass herself off as a River Goddess long enough to snatch Isabella and swim back to the boat. I can't really fault the natives for mistaking a naked, glistening Laura Gemser to be the result of divine intervention. As the trio paddle away, Emanuelle has a big old sob about how everyone has died in her pursuit of the big scoop. Maybe the next time you'll have a plan beyond wandering aimlessly around the cannibal-infested jungle like a bunch of boobs.

I know it's nothing knew for a D'Amato film to be poorly made, but this is a pretty slipshod effort. This film doesn't even attempt to make sense, continuity is all over the place and it switches between day and night several times in the same scene. Dubbing is awful even by the standards of Italian schlock, full of awkward pauses like "We know that you are quite... an authority on the subject... and that you carried out... some expeditions among the most ferocious tribes... of the Amazon." Emanuelle's editor changes accents and even voice actors several times within the same scene. It's not D'Amato's most incompetent film by any means, but that's faint praise.

I guess this film works okay as a delivery vehicle for softcore smut, but as a cannibal film it's a failure. The gore (by Italian special effects maestro Fabrizio DeAngelis) is confined to the final twenty minutes of the film and until you get to that you'll have to suffer through half a dozen softcore sex scenes, all scored by a piece of disco cheese that croons "I'm your queen, you're my king" over and over until you wish you were dead. On the plus side, no animals were harmed in this film, unless the cigarette-smoking chimp contracted lung cancer. It's not a great cannibal film but to be fair it came out pretty early in the cycle. If nothing else D'Amato must be acknowledged for being on the cutting edge of grubby Italian sleaze.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

SS Girls (1976)

Too subtle. More swastikas.

Nazisploitation is a sub-genre that polarises even the most ardent lovers of sleaze. I must admit, although a steady diet of exploitation films has left me an empty shell of a man, this is one form of 'sploitation that still leaves me feeling a little icky inside. Born out of the women-in-prison genre, it sprung up in the wake of two highly-influential films. Firstly there's Tinto Brass' 1974 masterpiece of arthouse sleaze Salon Kitty, which is beautifully shot and surprisingly lighthearted, if a little overlong. Secondly there's 1975's infamous Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, a nasty piece of work that is exploitation filmmaking at it's most sleazy and shameless. Most Nazisploitation films took their cues from one of these films, although most were closer to the quality of the latter.

Bruno Mattei has always been willing to latch on to any popular sub-genre and punch out a couple of shameless rip-offs, so it's not surprising that he managed to crank out two Nazisploitation films, one from each end of the spectrum. SS Girls (or Private House of the SS as it's called on this print of the film) is definitely the most lighthearted of the two, and one of the most shameless rip-offs of Salon Kitty in a genre of film composed almost entirely of Salon Kitty rip-offs. Most of the famous scenes from that film are recreated here, so if you ever doubted the artistic merit of Brass' opus, pop this in and you can see the Salon Kitty that could have been if Tinto Brass had a $500 budget and a mild head injury.

In the waning days of WW2, Hans Schellenberg (Gabriele Carrara) is a top Nazi official tasked with rooting out traitors within his ranks. To that end, he meets with Madame Eva (Macha Magall), hires a team of ten prostitutes and, with the help of his sexy assistant Frau Inge (Marina Daurina), trains them to become "perfect sex machines", so that they can seduce Nazi officers and trick them into revealing their true feelings about the Führer. He also trains them in armed combat, so it's a solid and tactically sound plan that couldn't possibly go wrong.

What follows is a ridiculous training montage where the girls dress up in togas and perform aerobics, stick-fighting, fencing and marksmanship. There is also the sexual component of their training, which is overseen by the white-labcoated Dr. Jurgen, played by Mattei regular Luciano Pigozzi. He insists that he will act as their father during their operation, albeit a father who forces them to have sex with a succession of grotesque freaks, including a fat hairy man, a deformed hunchback and even a German Shepherd. Don't worry, it's just implied; the dog is simply lying on top of the girl while she sensually rubs it's head, but they both look like they are enjoying it anyway.

After their training is completed a handful of suspected traitors are invited to the mansion for some R&R. Once suitably soused and sexually satisfied, the Generals start mouthing off to the girls about how good ol' Adolf is completely unhinged. The next morning Schellenberg surprises them with a political trial, condemning them to death while dressed as the Nazi Pope. This eccentric scene is made moreso by Gabriele Carrara's performance, which is completely off the chain. I guess because he doesn't look threatening at all (he looks kind of like Crispin Glover with an even dorkier hair cut), he overacts to a terrifying degree, mugging and shouting and turning every scene into delicious high camp. Highly enjoyable. It's like Nicolas Cage times ten.

The Führer is pleased with Schellenberg's progress and sends some more treasonous Nazi officers his way: General Oscar and his two bodyguards, Wang and Kominski. Nobody should be looking for historical authenticity in films like this, but these guys are particularly ridiculous. Oscar is murderous psychopath who wears a blacked-out monocle over his sightless eye, while Wang is an Asian (?!) Nazi officer who carries nunchucks and a samurai sword and wears a headband with a swastika drawn on it in felt-tip pen. After the usual debauchery, including whipping, orgies and cocktails made from cognac and human blood (freshly squeezed from a prostitute, so there's probably some bonus syphilis in there too), the three of them are chased into the gardens and shot by Schellenberg's diminutive balding enforcer.

Schellenberg celebrates his success by watching Inge and Eva make out in front of some huge swastikas, which is admittedly pretty awesome, and gets himself so excited that he starts ranting crazily and declares himself the next Führer. I think we've all been there, saying something we regret in the heat of the moment, but unfortunately Inge uses his treasonous outburst later to try and blackmail him into sleeping with her. You might wonder what the hell is wrong with Schellenberg that he'd need to be blackmailed into sleeping with a super hot Nazi dominatrix. Well, apparently she's got some minor scarring on her cheek and that's enough for Schellenberg to hysterically scream "You're a beast! I loathe you!" and spit in her face. Ouch.

By the end of the film the Russian tanks are rolling into Berlin (or rather "tank", Mattei could only afford one) and news of Hilter's death is broastcast over the radio. Those left at the mansion decide to partake a drunken orgy followed by mass suicide, but not before wrapping up a subplot about a handsome SS officer that I had long since forgotten and/or stopped caring about. The parties so far have all been marked by the international sign of debauchery: pulling corks out of liquor bottles with your teeth (done at least four times by my count), so when the officer does so while surveying the aftermath of their suicidal orgy it has a sadly ironic ring to it.

Unlike other Nazisploitation films, which tastelessly dwell on scenes of torture and misery, SS Girls seems quite fun in comparison. Fun for a film about Nazis, rape and mass suicide anyway. It's still incredibly tasteless, make no mistake, but there are many colourful scenes of naked, drunken revelry and, thanks largely to Mattei's incompetent direction, would-be-disturbing scenes of torture and sexual abuse are rendered giggle-inducing. In conclusion, an entertaining piece of sleazy Euro-trash cheese.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Snapshot (1979)

Best coat or bestest coat?

Okay, I guess the hot streak couldn't last forever. For a while there it seemed like every Australian genre film I picked up was solid gold, or at least gold plated. All the pieces were there for this one too: Produced by Anthony Ginane; written by Chris and Everett De Roche; and directed by Simon Wincer (who also made the interesting but flawed Harlequin) but somehow it didn't work for me. Like most of the other films from this team, it was made with international markets in mind, and to capitalise on the recent success of Halloween it was renamed The Day After Halloween in the US. What the hell guys, this film is nothing like Halloween. They don't even celebrate Halloween in Australia.

The movie starts promisingly enough. Emergency vehicles gather outside an office building as firemen attempt to put out a blaze in a small room that, like my bedroom, is plastered with topless photos of Sigrid Thornton. As they spray a smouldering, blackened lump with a fire extinguisher it becomes clear that it's actually the charred remains of a human corpse. Who is it and what exactly happened here? It's a pretty great hook, but we're going to have to go back in time a few months to find out the answer.

Caught between her domineering mother and creepy ex-boyfriend, a naive young hairdresser named Angela (a 19-year-old Sigrid Thornton) is convinced by her best friend Madeline (Chantal Contouri , Thirst) to take a modeling job from an eccentric ad photographer named Linsey (Hugh Keays-Byrne, The Man From Hong Kong). During a beach shoot for a cologne ad, she is asked to splash about in the water with her tits out during a freezing Melbourne winter. She objects at first, but when Linsey assures her that her face will not be visible she complies. This scene is scored by a catchy but terrible song by Australian pop act Sherbert, which sadly intones "Angela, you've gone too far this time". Oh man, I love it when movies have theme songs with absurdly literal lyrics.

Unsurprisingly, the photos are published in a glossy magazine with her face (and breasts) clearly visible. You know why print media is dying out? Because they no longer advertise products with two-page spreads of topless women. She is kicked out of home and forced to move in with Linsey and all his bohemian artist friends. Unfortunately her modeling career does not turn out to be as lucrative as she'd hoped, especially since her mother steals all her money, and to make things worse her creepy, mopey ex-boyfriend is stalking her in his Mr Whippy van. Eventually things get out of hand; he appears to sneaking into her room to tear up her dresses and plant a hog's head in her bed. For some reason Angela doesn't call the police and her best friend Madeline is far more interested in hanging out at a nightclub with a painfully bad cabaret performer.

Come to think of it, Madeline is the worst friend in the world. She does try to build Angela's confidence and get her away from her awful mother, which is good, but she she also gets her fired from her hairdressing job by calling her boss a "faggot" and ruins her chances with a mustachioed turtleneck at the disco by jealously crushing his balls. When Madeline's sleazy husband gets Angela drunk and shoots topless photos of her under the guise of a movie deal, Madeline laughs it off the next day, saying he does that with all her friends. Wow, thanks for the concern, asshole. Eventually Madeline tries to make a pass at her, surprising no one, but Angela rebuffs her, cruelly denying us a Chantal Contouri/Sigrid Thornton sex scene.

Eventually the film reaches the fiery finale referred to in the opening scene, but the film fails to build up suspense and the big reveal is something of a let-down. I did like it when the bad guy was stumbling around on fire though, that was pretty sweet. I don't think they do that enough in films these days. The movie concludes with another twist (which includes the use of a Mr Whippy van as a deadly weapon) but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

There was a part in this film where the photographer was sitting on the couch with his friends and watching Patrick. It was a cute touch but kind of a mistake because it reminded me how much better that film was in comparison. Unforunately this film isn't written well enough to take seriously as a thriller and it isn't lurid or trashy enough to get by on pure entertainment value. For a thriller the thrills were pretty scant. It's more of a borer, actually. There were some good performances buried in here: Sigrid Thornton is great as always, Robert Bruning is good as Madeline's sleazy husband Elmer and I liked Hugh Keays-Byrne as the death-obsessed photographer. Unfortunately these, and even a rare supporting role from Sigrid Thornton's breasts, fail to save what is ultimately a mediocre thriller.