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Svarta palmkronor (1968)
Failure still worth watching, from an unjustly forgotten director
I am a Lars-Magnus Lindgren fan: his DEAR JOHN and also THE SADIST are two terrific films. He ambitiously mounted this adaptation of Peder Sjogren's novel and the result is unsatisfying but fascinating nonetheless. It evidently hurt his career, since he only made one more movie (THE LION AND THE VIRGIN) which has sunk without a trace.
Lindgren's DEAR JOHN was a truly trend-setting film when first released in the U.S.: the epitome of "cross-over" adult cinema before the term had been invented, winning stand-in-line couples audiences when released here on the art house circuit in 1966, two years after its initial Swedish release. Scores of sexy foreign imports followed contributing to the popularity of softcore porn in the Sixties and Seventies.
BLACK PALM TREES, its name suggestive of one of the novel's themes, was I title had heard of, but never got to see until the Sandrews DVD became available 40 years after its debut; the slangy British subtitles are very poor, but allow one to follow the plot.
The story is told as a fable (initially with helpful narration which later lays out) and reminded me of the approach often favored by Orfson Welles, particularly in his films of THE IMMORTAL STORY (also from a Scandinavian author) and LADY FROM SHANGHAI. But Lindgren's filming style is radically different from Welles, lacking the showy visuals and using strange editing which often seems intentionally crude, as if to give the film a documentary feel.
Shooting on location in Brazil emphasizes folkloric elements, and even allows Lindgren to cling to his softcore sex roots, by featuring full-frontal nudity (in subplots concerning lively Brazilian girls on the beach or in a brothel).
Deceptively simple plot has elements of Eugene O'Neill, focusing on a trio of drunken Swedish sailors who hang out at the local Scandinavian Sailors Home in the village of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. Their pipe dreams consist of turning over a new leaf and getting sober (which seems an impossibility), and traveling to Rio to collect the youngest guy Colett's $3,000 in salvage money held by the local consul.
Bibi Andersson is featured as a Finnish girl searching for Colett, who saved her life. With Lindgren's confusing editing deliberately obfuscating the early action, we learn that she had a tryst with another sailor resulting in a baby, and the main action picks up two years later.
As with many novels turned into movies, there occurs a succession of scenes which are wholly unpredictable, though cumulatively contributing to the story's resolution. A holier-than-thou local priest (Toralv Maurstad) is the nominal bad guy, giving our ne'er-do-well heroes a hard time and standing for a harsh society that curbs the free human spirit.
I didn't know Anthony Quinn was originally proposed to star, but a supporting role as a crook married to the brothel madam is played by Jose Lewgoy in exactly the manner of Quinn in his larger-than-life assignments (like Zorba in particular). Tragedy ultimately befalls the protagonists, especially Colett who foresees his own doom, as the authorities plan to send in a "black ship" to round up all the local bums and deport them.
Max Von Sydow, sporting a "lobster" style sunburn throughout, is cast in a change-of-pace role as a well-meaning but clueless guy who wants to do right but feels constantly guilty for the consequences of his drunken behavior (even when it isn't really his fault). Revelation that he is the father of Bibi's child is poorly handled.
Bibi is lovely as always but is stuck with a poorly developed character. The great Thommy Berggren is almost unrecognizable as Colett, sort of a touring company Billy Budd by way of Terence Stamp. That reminds me that perhaps Peter Ustinov (a la Welles) could have been a better choice for the director's chair here.
Finale way too neatly tries to tie up plot motifs, especially involving a sympathetic young girl who often is involved in the action. Absurdist humor reaches its peak when her blind black musician dad drowns after the otherwise sympathetic local police chief pushes him into the bay, thinking his blindness is just a panhandling scam.
Besides being essential viewing for a Lindgren follower, film exemplifies a useful truism: the leading Ingmar Bergman players went on to make many minor classics (unfortunately now obscure but well worth hunting down) shortly after becoming international stars. For example see: BLOW HOT, BLOW COLD starring Bibi opposite Gunnar Bjornstrand; Bibi in LE VIOL; Ingrid Thulin in LA GUERRE EST FINIE; Gunnel Lindblom in RAPTURE; Harriet Andersson in PEOPLE MEET AND SWEET MUSIC FILLS THE HEART, and of course Max in the unjustly maligned NIGHT VISITOR (also featuring Liv Ullmann and Per Oscarsson!), THE KREMLIN LETTER and STEPPENWOLF among so many others.
The Flirt (1988)
Joe Sarno's cucumber
I made this discovery of yet another latter-day Joe Sarno hardcore video while watching a Lynn LeMay 3-fer from Alpha Blue Archives, where it was innocently credited to fictional director "Len Wolters". In less than a minute it became obvious that this was the work of the late master, though unfortunately one of his XXX junkers.
Siobhan Hunter (only reason to watch this filler) stars as a mad scientist named Madge, who has cultivated an experimental strain of cucumber which gives off vapors (no special effects) that act as an instant aphrodisiac to turn women on. Of course she falls happy victim to her own creation. Level of humor/cuteness is that the cucumber is nourished with semen, gladly provided (off-camera thankfully) by Madge's assistant Gornick (Damian Cashmere).
Given Sarno's trademark use of food (generally salami) as dildo I foolishly thought we would have a cucumber insertion scene but the fans are spared. The little cucumber just sits quietly in its container.
Rapid-fire dialog delivery is well-handled by Stephanie Rage as Audrey Sweet, an enemy of Madge's from college days, as well as Christie Robins as another school chum named Astrid Bergman evidently as a salute to the Swedish maestro. The extremely cheap sets and girl/girl relationships are pure Sarno, as are the brief walking around sidewalk scenes that share an identical location with Sarno's SEX STARVED.
Porn footage is utterly boring, featuring the oversize vibrator Sarno insists on including long after it was old-hat in XXX features. One surprise is that even though the video is marketed nowadays under Lynn LeMay's name, she merely enters the show late, mumbles her character's name and confuses her co-star Randy Paul by immediately improvising patter in the "it sure is hot in here!" mode, strips and gets down with him without fitting anywhere into the "plot". As in SEX STARVED, where star Porsche Lynn fumbles her lines but the camera keeps running (no retakes, please!), Sarno apparently took zero interest while directing these VHS quickies which collectively tarnish his overall career.
Subpar for Bronson but surprise co-star
Reissued for Bronson fans in 2009 by Johnny Legend on a DVD compilation called The Breakout Years, this forgotten bit of TV trivia is poorly produced but has a campy connection for modern audiences.
Bronson is teamed with none other than the legendary TV producer (of the future) Aaron Spelling, who looks exactly the same only so young here he resembles Huntz Hall in his Bowery Boys days. He & Bronson (as Ollie) are convicts on the run doing basically OF MICE AND MEN riffs, with Bronson oddly in the George role (with dim-witted Spelling's character repeatedly calling out "Ollie" at him).
The alternate title listed on the DVD for this episode is The Case of the Desperate Men, and it is identified under this lame series retitle of "Federal Men". The stilted production values sink it, and Bronson has little chance to emote, but watching Spelling kowtow to him is fairly priceless. Maybe Legend should send a copy to Tori.
Porn from the bottom of the barrel
Designed to cash in on the success of Kim Kardashian's notorious sex tape, this wannabe porn diva exercise is among the worst examples of latter-day junk masquerading as entertainment. It is worth discussing from an historical point-of-view.
Content of the hour-long video is strictly ersatz: imitating the Kim/Ray J opus, which is even shown occasionally on a video screen prompting protests from star Myla. Running time is padded by basically stringing together two long takes/sessions in which she is dressed differently, humped by the anonymous guy with a big, generally limp, dick. His seeming inability to produce the requisite money shots is also evident.
This is not erotic in the slightest, and the poor visual quality appears to be on purpose. I would surmise (without evidence) that distributor Vivid wanted a followup to the Kim hit, for which a sequel was out of the question now that she has bootstrapped her way from porn to an entertainment empire that should soon make her a billionaire. So rival (though hardly in Kim's league) Myla was enlisted, cashing in on the vague connection of a shared boyfriend, for whom her anonymous sex partner here is a stand-in. Instead of creating a professional porn video (as was done for other celebs such as ex-wrestler Chynna) this is forcibly amateurish to fool the fans into thinking it's "real" - about as real as what passes for so much TV in recent years.
As a porn fan what struck me immediately is how untalented both Kim and Myla are when taking the role of sex performers. They both display similarly unprofessional blow-job technique, lacking any of the teasing abilities that have made porn stars' work erotic, dating back over 40 years to the likes of Candy Samples. It's not stimulating at all. When it comes to actual intercourse, neither femme is interesting and they are poorly photographed - in Myla's case a softcore presentation would likely have been better.
With my mind wandering freely given the lack of interesting content here, I realized that both Kim and Myla come from a long line of beauties that exemplify a very particular female archetype. In softcore porn, Isabel Sarli from Brazil reigned supreme during the 1960s, even scoring a memorable U.S. success with the art house hit FUEGO. The dark, voluptuous brunette type from Europe as classically represented in mainstream cinema by Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale had several soft porn counterparts, notably Edwige Fenech and reached a peak in the 1980s with Donatella Damiani, briefly visible in Fellini's CITY OF WOMEN and star of the classic (yet to receive wide U.S. release unfortunately) IL PECCATO DI LOLA.
Around 1991 this Ideal Woman became personified in hardcore porn by the memorable Viviana and more significantly the British porn star Sarah Young, my all-time favorite actress in adult cinema. Young's voluptuous figure is the template for both Kim and Myla, and though it is her ample (and admittedly artificially enhanced) bust that stands out, fans can see her remarkable posterior on display in one of her videos starring opposite Mike Horner, wherein she gets down on the floor to service him under the table in a fancy restaurant.
Young's classic (they hold up today as extremely erotic over 20 years later) scenes with Sean Michaels and a neophyte Jake Steed are near-perfect examples of mixed-combo action, and the direct predecessors of these two Vivid "amateur porn" videos showcasing Kim and Myla opposite Black studs. In the case of Myla's effort, it is interesting how the subtle reversal of sex-object occurs: Myla is clearly the traditional "sex object", yet this incompetent male opposite her never shows his face, making him the actual object, essentially a disembodied cock.
I have always regarded porn as part of a continuum including mainstream entertainment, and these videos show how Gresham's Law (bad drives the good out of the marketplace, as in the appearance of debased currencies in circulation) is at work. Video replaced filmed porn beginning circa 1983, and soon after amateur productions largely edged out the previous professional output of the Golden Age. Similarly, reality TV stars like Kim (hardly Myla as yet) are threatening to replace actors and actresses, just as video has almost completely replaced 16 and 35mm film for TV series production.
The Undergraduate (1971)
I've seen it all before, literally
Newly re-released on DVD by Alpha Blue Archives as part of its laudable tribute to Ed Wood, this obscure porn film turns out to be a direct followup to THE POSTGRADUATE COURSE IN SEXUAL LOVE, a title I enjoyed in a Video-X-Pix DVD. ABA apparently also released THE POSTGRADUATE years back on VHS in a softcore edition.
Though marketed on the basis of Ed Wood's impressive posthumous following (and cult draw literally surpassing all the struggling directors chronicled in Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn's seminal tome KINGS OF THE BS), it is not clear what contribution he made. THE UNDERGRADUATE plays almost identically to its 1970 POSTGRADUATE forebear, whose credited producer "John Flanders" (a likely pseudonym) gets an additional screen credit as director this second time around.
Porn veteran John Dullaghan returns in an identical role as the professor lecturing his class on sex education, and we get to see the young class members acting out sexual activities (including how to put on a rubber) just as before. Besides the prof's spiel, there is plenty of silly voice-over narration telling us about the protagonists.
For good measure (and the usual padding), the prof also shows them a stag film featuring Eve Orlon and a busty actress who I could not immediately identify, but possibly was Nora Wieternik -quite active in hardcore productions at this time.
Of the two, I would recommend THE POSTGRADUATE. If Wood was indeed involved it turns out to be a "who cares?" situation, given the utterly generic aspects of this white-coater exercise.
The Blue Hour (1971)
Rarity but not so hot
THE BLUE HOUR (which also sports the pretentious French translation title "L'heure bleue") is an apparently unreleased (or at best marginally booked) soft porn opus rescued from the junk heap of film history in a well-preserved print for video collectors. I love seeing obscure or nearly lost films, but this one is of only minor interest.
It suffers from many deadly flaws, notably a shredded editing style reminiscent of pretentious early '70s efforts like Henry Jaglom's directorial debut A SAFE PLACE. So many montages and pointless jump-cuts are employed that it seems as if we are watching an attempt at salvaging an unfinished film.
Indeed, THE BLUE HOUR boasts some curious credits: a screenwriter (Hittleman) laying claim to "original production" and a presenter and co-director (Nicholas) getting "additional sequences". It's hard to tell what was added later, though an irrelevant and lengthy nightclub belly dancing sequence starring one of my favorite pin-ups of the period (Diane Webber of MERMAIDS OF TIBURON fame) seems tacked on.
As porn, admittedly of the softcore persuasion, the film fails utterly and is so tame in its nude scenes that it was probably filmed 2 or 3 years earlier than its 1971 copyright suggests. Untalented but buxom leading lady Anne Chapman starred in Russ Meyer's excellent FINDERS KEEPERS, LOVERS WEEPERS released in 1968, which is probably the time frame of this project's principal photography.
Convoluted storyline (not helped at all by the pointless flashbacks structure) has Chapman unconvincingly portraying Tania, a beautiful Greek girl who is frequently abused by both would-be rapists (including her uncle back on a Greek island) and what appears to be cult star Mary Beth Hughes as a stereotypical Hollywood exploiter of young girls. Corny plot used in hundreds of sexploitation exercises has her falling into bad company in L.A., forced to be groped by sleazeballs in a strictly '60s job of photo model (guys using Brownie cameras as an excuse to get private time with a disrobing girl).
Film opens with over 6 minutes of credits, which are repeated exactly for 2 minutes of more padding at film's end but fail to identify any of the actors with the characters portrayed. Present-day story has Tania romping in the surf with her handsome hubby (softcore regular Ed Blessington), who is an architect with laudable city planning objectives. An interesting scene of him expounding on ecological matters to an enthusiastic investor is the screenplay's highlight -quickly abandoned in favor of melodrama.
When Tania isn't being assaulted (in flashbacks) by evil men she is alternately seducing them - the usual misogynistic gimmick of many a porn script. She imagines that she has killed several of these would-be aggressors and those nightmarish memories keep surfacing much to Blessington's dismay.
Silliest plot line has her falling in love with a handsome young Greek priest who's styled a la Michael Gothard's "hippie exorcist" of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (only coincidentally, not a ripoff). In this subplot he rejects (or at least tries to reject) Tania's advances rather than the other way around.
Oddest touch has Chapman playing many scenes as if she were a mute - probably a directorial decision to minimize the damage of her poor line readings.
Bottom line is that the film doesn't deliver the goods in the sex department, especially since hardcore porn features were already knocking 'em dead at the box office by the time it was ready for release in 1971. This might have been a barely watchable co-feature for adult drive-ins, but only barely.
Vinegar Syndrome is the new-kid-on-the-block DVD and Blu-Ray purveyor of porn responsible for unearthing THE BLUE HOUR. Its honchos earn my respect for emphasizing quality prints and transfers (even for drek like the worst of Herschell Gordon Lewis's output in a recent 3-fer).
God's Pocket (2014)
Actor turned director John Slattery brings his trademark black humor and cynicism from his MAD MEN role (and effective helming of occasional episodes) to the big screen with the successfully offbeat GOD'S POCKET, a faithful adaptation of Pete Dexter's 1983 novel about the Lower Depths of a Philly neighborhood. Clearly not for all tastes, the film appealed to my love of against the grain, anti-trendy cinema (more about that later).
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman clearly admired this material too, taking on a producer credit, as did the film's cinematographer. His role is reminiscent of his work in Sidney Lumet's final movie BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, portraying a ne'er-do-well criminal trying to survive in a hostile environment. It's not a showy role, and Hoffman consistently underplays while Slattery gives many supporting players the flashy, show-stopping scenes.
Slattery shows great confidence in never explicitly referring to the film's time frame ('80s) -there are no superimposed Time Cards, no narration, just the period clothing, cars and old rotary telephones to indicate we're watching a period piece. Hoffman is cast as an outsider in the Philadelphia slum cynically known as God's Pocket, married to the glamorous Christina Hendricks (a Slattery good luck charm from his lengthy stint opposite her on MAD MEN), living with her nutty and self- destructive son (flamboyant and talented young actor Caleb Landry Jones).
Hoffman's partner in crime is skillfully etched by John Turturro, who like Hoffman is a gambling addict. They are more in danger from The Mob than the police due to their inevitable debts arising from playing the ponies, and Turturro's pipe dreams of owning a race horse some day.
The ensuing comedy of errors gives Slattery the opportunity to distract and surprise the viewer with unexpected turns of events and shocks which I won't spoil here. Character actress Joyce Van Patten, whom I have admired since first being impressed by her '60s TV appearances and choice role over 40 years back in the forgotten 20th Century Fox youth picture MAKING IT, highlights the movie's most memorable scene as Turturro's sister running a flower shop and dealing with a couple of armed and dangerous Mob goons.
Themes of the story, personal to author Dexter and drawn from his stint as a reporter in Philly, are brought out by the nearly washed-up columnist effortlessly played by Richard Jenkins. His adulterous romance with Hendricks' character is unbelievable, but Hendricks (still awaiting the breakthrough movie role she deserves a la Sophia Loren's career-making opportunity in TWO WOMEN) does lend her ambiguity and nuance known to her legion of fans from MAD MEN's Joan to almost make it work.
Dealing with the venal undertaker Eddie Marsan (a standout here on loan from Mike Leigh's stock company), Hoffman descends into strange and uncomfortable black comedy dealing with the "body removal" antics involving his stepson, treated by Slattery using a flashback structure that may or may not have been the best choice for storytelling. Various violent outbursts lead to a coda which almost parodies happy endings.
Besides the Hitchcockian morbid black humor involving the stepson's corpse, the climactic moment of mob violence (not Mob but lowercase mob) in which the insular denizens of God's Pocket unite against outsiders recalls the Master of Suspense's power to deliver the coup de grace, notably in LIFEBOAT.
Critics generally dismissing GOD'S POCKET are clearly entitled to their opinions, but miss the point. Like the great B movies of the '40s and '50s (including films noirs), many of which have lived on to entertain future generations of movie buffs who have little time or patience for the big-budget blockbusters (and Oscar-bait) of that era, Slattery has crafted a character-driven, idiosyncratic entertainment that is out of step with current trends.
It is easy to criticize and lampoon the mainstream sellouts of the Michael Bay persuasion, but as a long-time film fanatic and former professional critic I am more militantly opposed to the recent wave of all-flash/no-substance "visionaries" (I truly hate that trailer cliché) dominant today. Bloated junk like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET = big box office and mindless raves/Oscar noms, but is embarrassing and nearly unwatchable. How can a film historian like Scorsese ignore the famous warnings of Frank Capra's autobiography (where he explained why he retired from directing after suffering at the hands of overly powerful actors in charge like Glenn Ford and Frank Sinatra) and end up grinding out padded and tiresome Leonardo DiCaprio vehicles? Could it be the almighty dollar, or does the maestro merely fancy himself as an American Visconti?
At any rate, I hope Slattery does not go this route (Scorsese's decline from gritty, effective early films to elephantine latter-day projects repeats the great Otto Preminger's similar career missteps), and instead maintains his personal approach. The man's talented and perfectly capable of making an Eastwood-esque transition from actor to successful director.
Mr. Angel (1966)
For structuralists only
Never-released films like "Mr. Angel" are curious beasties, since many years later it is a challenge to try and figure out what went wrong - why they didn't pass minimal muster in an industry where so much trash DOES see the light of day. I lost patience, however, leaving the heavy lifting of making some sense of "Mr. Angel" to some other structurally- minded film critic.
It's basically a would-be action film shot in Florida (Bahamas is also listed) with a handsome hero and heroine killing time in a non-story. What passes for plot and a couple of plot twists is execrable, and I find it hard to imagine sitting in a theater nearly 50 years ago for its entire duration. Presumably potential buyers and distributors back in the '60s auditioning this indie production stopped watching after a couple of reels.
Structurally, "Mr. Angel" is more aptly described as mere footage rather than a feature film. Many scenes, especially in the first half, are so aimless, padded and failing to move the narrative forward that I felt like I was watching assembled rushes, not an edited final product. The heroine ambles around killing time and threatening (alas, unrealized) to show the fans some actual skin, but this is strictly G-rated (before the ratings were instituted).
Both she and our untalented title hero are blond, Aryan types, giving the overall effort almost a heimat-feel: it's strictly about the scenery. Ultimately it fails even on the level of a travelogue.
Inventive segment with nod to Irwin Allen
For such a new series, this offbeat episode was a surprise -reminding me at times of the late-in-the-day rethinking/revivifying gimmicks dating back to Irwin Allen's VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. I enjoyed the twists and trendy out-of-sequence ("3 hours before...") structure anyway.
Loyal fans will recall how VTTBOTS went into a strange and nearly campy mode several years into its run by having the crew go crazy each week, stepping out of character and becoming villains for an hour. Here we had Scott Speedman & company doing the same thing, under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, which kept me guessing. The only truly predictable twist is when he got very romantic with his wife back home (who wasn't there) - we knew it was in reality the French girl getting the fantasized attention, all the better to build up steam for future liaisons.
The show's mix of action, tense confrontations and timely political intrigue is a winning combination. My only question is why it hasn't stuck to a more orderly, linear plot development, building brick by brick on its novel nuclear gamesmanship premise. The writers seem a bit desperate to plunge off the deep end, perhaps hoping for a LOST style cementing of die-hard fans. Too many cockamamie twists and departures from the central conflicts is a pitfall to be avoided -I remember how the short-lived (and never resolved) series VANISHED fell victim to this syndrome not too many seasons ago.
Sympathetic & informative view of the original Angry Young Man
As a fan, I was thrilled with Tony Palmer's sensitive portrait of playwright John Osborne, made a decade after his death. It puts into perspective his achievements and personality, after evidently many years in which the man, like so many other precocious artists (Orson Welles perhaps the archetype), was written off by the establishment.
Since Palmer is best known for his Ken Russell-ian appreciations of classical composers, he not surprisingly includes moving pastoral scenes set at Osborne's country estate, accompanied by appropriate score, but the guts of this documentary consists of interviews with his collaborators, friends and admirers. Many of them have passed on (notably Tony Richardson), but older interviews provide a who's who of theater talent.
The most emotional moments are provided by Helen Osborne, his widow, who touchingly wraps up the show, and the late Natasha Richardson with her warm & funny reminiscences of Osborne's days hanging out with her dad. Other wives, the incomparable actress Mary Ure as well as Jill Bennett, are shown in clips acting opposite (respectively) Richard Burton in Richardson's film version of Osborne's greatest work LOOK BACK IN ANGER and latter opposite Osborne on stage.
The sister of another wife Penelope Gilliatt, is perhaps the most outspoken interviewee, recounting John's tempestuous relationship with Penelope.
My favorite contributor is Nicol Williamson, giving great insight into Osborne's work and temperament, and featured in explosive performance in a tape of the play (rather than the movie) of INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE (I was privileged to see him revive it at the Roundabout Theatre in Manhattan in the '80s).
An interesting roster of fellow playwrights, including Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Charles Wood and Peter Nichols pay tribute to Osborne's trail-blazing efforts.
Perhaps Olivier's classic performance as Archie Rice in Osborne's THE ENTERTAINER (put into context with the character's real-life role model, Max Miller) is the most vivid demonstration of the writer's success. His clips, from a tape of the original play rather than Richardson's film, demonstrate John's rage channeled into an overwhelmingly entertaining and poignant format, contrasting with the bitterness and bile of his other works, among which 1972's A SENSE OF DETACHMENT still seems fresh and ready to outrage 30 years on.