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La marge (1976)
Walerian Borowczyk's Most Underrated Film
Borowczyk remains one of the least appreciated filmmakers of his era, inarguably an auteur, but one so erratic and unusual that he remains cherished only by a handful of critics for his early surrealist work and by cult movie devotees for his later, sexually-explicit films. While from the mid-seventies onward his films would range from the good (Behind Convent Walls, The Story of Sin) to the not-so-good (The Art of Love, Immoral Tales, etc), his film-making legacy rests with the bizarre La Bete, which unfortunately belongs to the latter category. However it is his early films (both animated and live action) that are undoubtedly Borowczyk's key works Blanche, for instance, is one of the finest films ever made, while Goto the Island of Love is almost as good and in many ways these films set up the themes that would be prevalent throughout much of his subsequent work, most importantly that sex is constantly linked with guilt, persecution and death.
This is perhaps why La Marge is so unjustly obscure. The casting of Kristel (not to mention the film's alternate title Emmanuelle '77) suggests the film was tailored to appeal to the softcore market, yet the emphatically gloomy atmosphere and subject matter, which includes death, adultery and suicide, is significantly at odds with this. Compared to the other Borowczyk films of this period, with perhaps the exception of The Story of Sin, La Marge is surprisingly restrained. The film works because of its minimalism and ambiguity the dialogue is sparse, presumably because of the actors' inability to speak French, and their character motivation is vague to say the least. It is never made clear why Sigimond is driven to cheat on his seemingly perfect wife, though it is perhaps no coincidence that Diana more than slightly resembles her. Borowczyk as usual fills the movie with visual motifs, using reflective surfaces to signify the duality of Sigimond's life, and lingering, unerotic shots of female genitalia to convey what is at the core of his actions and desires, and what is, in essence, being a Borowczyk film, Sigimond's prison.
The film is beautifully photographed, full of the director's obtuse trademark framing, and, something rather unusual for Borowczyk, features a remarkable period soundtrack, from the first Kristel/Dallesandro sex scene played out to 10CC's I'm Not in Love to the stunning blowjob sequence set to Pink Floyd, and an incredible climax that employs Elton John's Funeral For a Friend. While La Marge is distinctively a Borowczyk film in many respects, it also possesses a sombreness and maturity that was rare for the director, for despite the occasional surreal moment (a dwarf watching television, a hotel maid examining her breasts in the mirror, a deranged old woman watching sex through a keyhole), it is primarily a straightforward examination of two doomed characters unable to escape the prisons of their existence. Fans of the director's early work may find the film overly conventional, while devotees of his later period may be disappointed by how restrained it is, yet La Marge is an unfairly neglected film, one of the director's most enduring and haunting works.
A mediocre testament to one of the century's finest songwriters
The most unusual entry in the AFT series was no doubt one of the least successful. Though it attempted to make the source material more cinematic through the use of flashy visuals and edits (think a somnambulistic Ken Russell circa Tommy and Listzomania), this only helped to date a production that, considering the music at its centre, had no right to be dated. Jacques Brel was a brilliant French songwriter and while his music found its way into the English and American pop charts thanks to various bastardizations (stand up Rod McKuen and Terry Jacks), his acerbic lyrical style and gallows humour were always lost in the translation. The intention of the off-Broadway musical was to no doubt make amends for this and to introduce an English-speaking audience to some of the finest songs ever written, yet the power of the songs, no matter how great they are, are reliant on the three performers, who, at least in this incarnation, are simply not up to scratch. While Elly Stone's shrill voice does not help matters, the worst culprit is Mort Shuman.
Shuman, a legendary Brill Building songwriter, was responsible for the English translation of Brel's songs and many will know that these translations were scattered across Scott Walker's astonishing first four solo albums of the late sixties. And herein lays Shuman's greatest misstep, as he, coincidentally or not, takes on the task of covering the same songs as Walker. Yet not only does Shuman lack Walker's powerful voice, he also manages to deliver the tunes in a misguided and frequently irritating fashion. Compare his pitiful rendition of Mathilde to the version on Walker's debut, and one will see how crucial the delivery of Brel's songs are to their power, Walker brilliantly straddles an intense line between ecstasy and despair, as compared to Shuman, who lifelessly pouts his way through the song.
Only Joe Masiell's voice seems suited to the material and though many of his scenes are highlights, the undoubted triumph is Brel's haunted, French rendition of If You Go Away, where in a single, deeply moving take, the great man himself, approaching his death in 1978, tears a hole in the film that it has no chance of recovering from. If there is a single reason to view the film, it is for this, otherwise one is recommended to save your cash and purchase Brel's own recordings or the compilation Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel.
The Winner (1996)
A failure, but it's Alex Cox, so an interesting failure
Alex Cox will always be remembered for the astonishing one-two punch of 'Repo Man' and 'Sid and Nancy', yet his finest achievement was the daring, career-destroying 'Walker'. As if being exiled from the studio system wasn't enough, Cox then made the diabolically awful 'Straight To Hell' to seemingly bury any credibility he may have had left. 'The Winner' represents yet another oddity from Cox's years in the indie wilderness, but perhaps has the highest curio factor due to its eyebrow-raising ensemble cast. Yet what makes 'The Winner', ultimately, a loser, is in all fairness not attributed to Cox but rather its unimpressive, derivative, post-Tarantino screenplay (allegedly adapted from a play, presumably off-off-off-off Broadway). Cox and the cast struggle with its uneven tone and, despite Frank Whaley scoring in a hilariously slimy role, the unfunny nature of the script is barely able to justify the film's incessant stylistic zaniness. While it does work in small doses (an effective opening and a memorably odd ending), it simply isn't enjoyable enough to even warrant minor cult status. That said, it is at least a slight cut above the other interminable 'Pulp Fiction' clones that plagued the mid-to-late nineties. But what sort of endorsement is that?
Unusual and somewhat disturbing, like Haneke directing 'The Blue Lagoon'. Just not that good.
'Maladolescenza' has the air of a dark fairy tale, with its child protagonists, forest setting, and the discovery of a castle's ruins. Yet at its core, the film is essentially an unusual psychosexual study of adolescents. Opening with a dream sequence employing the not-so-subtle metaphor of Fabrizio wrestling with his menacing hound, the film details his psychological persecution of Laura, the girl who has pledged her love to him, and his eventual romance with the equally malicious Sylvia. The film's psychological complexities do give the film merit, yet there's no doubting how unnecessarily exploitive the film is in its depiction of nudity and sex. The film's look relies more on its gorgeous locations rather than particular cinematographic skill, and there's no doubting the film's greatest asset is the creepy, children's choir-augmented soundtrack. With its odd dreamlike quality, the film is at best interesting, yet pales beside Louis Malle's surreal and brilliant 'Black Moon' from the same era. Certainly deserving of the art versus pornography debate, for unlike many banned films, Pasolini's 'Salo' or Larry Clark's 'Ken Park' for instance, the film is rather unremarkable from an artistic perspective. Cinema seems to be gradually losing its ability to shock, so perhaps 'Maladolescenza' should be admired for retaining that power thirty years after its release. However shock value is the one reason alone the film is memorable.
The film does have its defenders. Yet so does Nazism.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
A horror film about lawyers - not as scary as it sounds...
Let's face it, is there a worse horror sub-genre than the "exorcism" film? With the exception of the film that spawned it, 'The Exorcist', and maybe 'Ganja and Hess' and Blatty's underrated 'Exorcist III', these films have primarily been derivative trash along the lines of 'Beyond the Door'. Now then, 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' provides us with an even less appealing sub-genre - the "courtroom horror film". Its title even clues you in that it is essentially 'The Exorcist' (young girl possessed by demon) meets 'Audrey Rose' (which has the lugubrious honor, in its final third, of being the first courtroom horror film). Nevertheless it is better than it should be, thanks to the casting of Laura Linney (wearing lots of make-up), Campbell Scott and Tom Wilkinson. Yet despite an eerie opening, it never really becomes its own film, too hung up on presenting a two-sided argument than creating atmosphere or chills, while the possession and exorcism scenes unfortunately recall Friedkin's classic, but without that film's technical brilliance. Perhaps an ambiguous character study, along the lines of Tourneur's 'Cat People', of Emily Rose descending into psychosis/possession would have been better advised than focusing on the aftermath of her death. Nevertheless the film should be given credit for attempting to make an intelligent horror film for grown ups, it's simply a shame it isn't a more effective one.
The Wicker Man (2006)
The slow, painful demise of the horror film
There is a glimmer of hope at the beginning of 'The Wicker Man'. Aaron Eckhart appears fleetingly, and one is reminded that Neil LaBute was the brilliant playwright-turned-filmmaker that made two of the best films of the nineties with 'In the Company of Men' and 'Your Friends and Neighbours', before churning out the enjoyable yet comparatively undistinguished 'Nurse Betty' and 'Possession'. All these films starred Eckhart in memorable roles, but here, as he exits the first frame of 'The Wicker Man', so does one's hope that this will be as dark and disturbing as LaBute's other self-penned material, albeit in a different genre. A playwright (Anthony Schaffer) after all had adapted Robin Hardy's novel in the earlier film, and the results were, along with 'Witchfinder General' and 'Don't Look Now', one of the most memorable British horror films of its era. The new version suffers from both LaBute's inability to direct horror, with nothing resembling atmosphere or scares, and the surprisingly dull screenplay, which could have been churned out by any Hollywood hack. Sure, he gives us a matriarchal society this time around, a concept that allows him to waste an outstanding female cast (Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn and Frances Conroy among them), but Cage's character is so irritating and the townsfolk so bereft of menace, that most viewers will simply persevere to see how the ending is staged. And, needless to say, there is nothing in the climax to rival the impact and tragedy of the original. Not as ill-conceived as the rumored remake of 'Don't Look Now' (which, one hopes, will never come to fruition), 'The Wicker Man' will nevertheless join 'The Fog', 'When A Stranger Calls', 'Black Christmas' and countless other pointless and insipid remakes of classic horror films that should never have seen the light of day. If Rod Zombie desecrates 'Halloween', it could be the death knell for the genre.
Wolf Creek (2005)
"Wolf Creek" seemed at first that it was too good to be true. Hailed by critics as the best Australian film in years and, even more significantly, a modern horror classic, even before it has been released in the USA or even its homeland. Yet all the hype turned out to justified, "Wolf Creek" is a truly disturbing experience, and not only one of the best films of the year but also the finest Australian film since "The Boys". Greg Mclean has clearly carefully studied two films, "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", and taken all the elements that made those unnerving classics and utilized them to perfection. Not since "Hanging Rock" and "Walkabout" has the Australian landscape been used to such a chilling effect (and much of the credit must go to the simply stunning cinematography). The film is packed with nods to both "Picnic" and "Texas Chainsaw", yet it transcends being a homage, "Wolf Creek" is indeed its own beast. All the performers are superb, particularly Morassi and Magrath and, of course, John Jarrat's amazing turn as Mick, a character that would give the hillbillies in "Deliverance" nightmares. If it wasn't for the morose fact that the ending was such an incredible let down, then "Wolf Creek" would stand as a true modern classic. As it is, it is still stands heads and tails above any horror film you're likely to see this year. Or most years for that matter.
Underrated, but still not one of Friedkin's best...
To say Friedkin's career has had its ups and downs is an understatement, his eighties filmography inarguably has enough bombs to sink a oil tanker. Yet eschewing their performances at the box office, many of his films yearn to be rediscovered, from "Cruising" to "Deal of the Century" to "Rampage". Let's not kid ourselves, "Jade" is not a great film, and this is the fault of one man and one man alone - Joe Esterhas. If trash had a messiah, it would be him. For a fleeting moment in the nineties, Esterhas was paid by the bucketload to write formulaic movies for guys, and the erotic thriller has him to thank for its continuing lugubrious existence. "Jade" is interesting however, it is an erotic thriller without the erotic part. While Paul Verhoeven filled "Basic Instinct" chock full of the sleaze he had become renowned for, Friedkin's films are notable for primarily dealing with male characters, and are subsequently about as erotic as as a bowl of cereal. "Jade" is not about sex; it is about sexual jealousy. The talent of Linda Fiorentino cannot be underestimated here, giving depth to a part that amounts to no more than a typical male fantasy - part good girl, part whore - that's right, it's "Crimes of Passion" without Anthony Perkins and his bag of dildos. The leads are well cast and all give adequate performances, and Friedkin throws in all his usual directorial touches (subliminal images and, you guessed it, yet another bloody car chase). "Jade" is an enjoyable film, with delightfully silly twists and over-the-top violence (come on, you know you want to see Angie Everhart get run over again), and is given some class from it's cast and director, but, in the end, proves itself to be a guilty pleasure that makes one feel more guilt than pleasure.
Not as bad as its reputation suggests, but with that cast and director...
"Crackers" falls into that category of films that have failed quite inexplicably - helmed by a great director, starring a cast of assured veterans (Sutherland, Warden) and talented newcomers (Penn, Baranksi) and written by the screenwriter of one of the best films of the eighties ("Cutter's Way"). Then why is it that no one talks about the film anymore? Firstly, the film has been made far more successfully on two other occasions in the guise of "Big Deal on Madonna Street" and then recently "Welcome To Collinwood". Secondly, Malle must have been going through an eighties dance music phase when he made the film because it is effectively ruined by an utterly dated and abysmal soundtrack - with a proper film score it would have been a far better film. Lastly, Sutherland gives what is probably his most broad and embarrassingly unfunny performance in the lead, subsequently hindering any sympathy for his character. There are other qualms (what exactly is the purpose of Baranski's character, lets throw in a slut for some wacky comedy?) but it is nevertheless still quite watchable. Shawn, who would collaborate with Malle on the acclaimed films "My Dinner With Andre" and "Vanya on 42nd Street", is very funny as the forever-eating Turtle and Penn is amusing in a dumb hood role he would practically resume for "We're No Angels", another film with a great director, writer and cast that would be a critical and commercial failure. No film made by Malle could be truly bad, and this isn't, but it is neither as quirky or funny as it wants to be.
They're all gonna laugh at you!
The original "Carrie" will forever remain one of the greatest horror films of all time, possessing two phenomenal performances and a talented director at the apex of his career, combining the stylistic flourishes of Hitchcock and Argento with amazing results. Yet expanding on the original might not sound like such a bad idea, particularly taking into account that the sequence, present in the novel, where Carrie destroys the whole town could not be filmed by De Palma for budgetary reasons. But it also begs the question, as did the made for TV remake of "The Shining", if it ain't broke why fix it?
The director clearly wanted to make the film stylistically the antithesis of the original, shooting it on digital video to give it a realistic, but nevertheless low-budget, feel. This doesn't work, for despite the odd inspired visual touch that transcends the format, it simply looks ugly here. The cast do provide some justification for its remake, notably the superb performance from Bettis who, as anyone who saw the underrated "May" will attest to, was a perfect choice for the role. With her unusual looks and twitchy, nervy mannerisms, Bettis makes the film worth seeing. As does Clarkson, filling in a big pair of shoes from the monolithic characterization by Laurie in the original, but instead infuses the character with a more subdued nature, giving her a humanity that was never glimpsed previously. Elsewhere however, the cast let the film down, most disappointing of which being Isabelle, who was so impressive in "Ginger Snaps", giving a one-dimensional performance as one of Carrie's foes. What destroys the film however is the screenplay. Too faithful to the original film in its first half then too jarringly different in the last reel (I won't spoil it but the ending is a travesty), the script's biggest crime is its interrogation framework, so cliched a filmic device that as soon as David Keith appears on screen all credibility flies out the window. "Carrie" is not a terrible remake, but it isn't a particularly good one either, so unless you're a Bettis fan just rent the original again or even the sequel, which isn't looking all that bad right about now.