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Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi (1945)
Was that it?
Very well done, but "The Men Who Step On The Tiger's Tale" feels like the first act of a larger film, not a complete film in itself.
It follows a party of samurai escorting a fugitive prince through enemy territory, accompanied by a clueless servant (echoing Kurosawa's later masterpiece, "The Hidden Fortress"). They come to a border crossing, are interrogated by the magistrate, convince him that they are actually a party of monks, & are allowed to proceed. Shortly after, a group of soldiers catch up to them & offer them a drink & apologies from the magistrate. They drink, get quite drunk, then the next thing we see is the servant waking up, deserted by both groups.
I had to check my copy of the film, log on here to check the running time & read several reviews to make sure that there wasn't some kind of mistake. No mistake, that's all there is. Were the samurai taken into custody while they were drunk? Were they spirits? Was the servant hallucinating or dreaming? I'm sure there's a reason for the film ending so abruptly, but it was ultimately a very unsatisfying experience. At the point it ended, I was ready for another encounter with danger, then perhaps another, followed by the party's escape, or capture & subsequent death. But no, it's the end.
Recommended for Kurosawa fans & those interested in Kabuki theatre only.
The Fountain of Youth (1958)
Orson Welles Presents
This minor, virtually unseen entry in Orson Welles' filmography really deserves more exposure. It's a sly little morality play very reminiscent of an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", but done with far more flair & skill.
Mixing a standard 1950's style of TV play with still imagery, blending voice-over with the spoken dialogue & Welles himself addressing the audience, 'The Fountain Of Youth' is years ahead of its time.
The tale itself is the sort of clever short story with a dark twist ending that might have been written by Roald Dahl & published by Playboy, then adapted for TV. It involves a jilted lover taking his revenge on a beautiful couple with a promise of eternal youth that tears them apart.
While it's often interesting to look at early television productions with an objective eye, very few remain anything but vaguely amusing & ultimately dated curiosities. Welles' lyrical, fluid style of direction & editing elevates what might easily have been a clever, but unremarkable, 1950's TV play to something that remains impressive & watchable nearly half a century later.
Fun for fans, others beware
OK, here's what happens in the first few minutes:
Adolf "Schwartz", a wrinkled, perverted old resident of the American Midwest, still wearing his trademark moustache & cowlick, is pleasured in the dungeon of his Germanic castle by his servants, finally submitting to sodomy from his favourite, 'The Pilgrim', who steals all the money out of his wallet. Adolf then takes a nice, relaxing bath, reads the paper, & gets eaten alive by a piranha called The Nimrod.
Summarising the story would be an idiotic exercise - it involves a young couple, Paul & Sweet Li'l Alice (Paul is the previously mentioned Pilgrim, & Sweet Li'l Alice is a nymphomaniac, surprise surprise), a stranger in town called Margo (also, presumably, a nymphomaniac), a corrupt cop called Homer (I guess you could call him a nymphomaniac, except he's a guy), & loads of drooling, sex-starved hillbillies. Get the picture?
Plus, the plot (ho, ho, ho) is helped along by the Greek chorus of a romping, naked wood-nymph who keeps reminding the audience of the ongoing investigation into Adolf Schwartz's murder. Apparently this film is a murder mystery.
What separates Russ Meyer's films from normal smut or porn is the sheer deranged energy that fuels them, a warped sense of humour & a genuine cinematic skill. 'Up' is no exception, but unfortunately, it's one of his later films, which tend to display a much nastier, truly misogynistic bent, & contains two of the most offensive scenes I've seen in a Meyer film.
The first involves Margo being beaten almost to death & then raped while unconscious. An extremely violent, graphic & gratuitous scene which seems totally at odds with the comic atmosphere that the film is really trying to achieve.
The second is even worse in its own way - Margo is gang-raped in a bar, with Russ Meyer himself in the crowd, egging it all on. What makes this scene particularly nasty is that it's shot in a strangely comic fashion. Not aiming for high laughs, but making it out to be somehow absurd, as opposed to horrifying. Things go really crazy when the giant lumberjack raping Margo grabs Sweet Li'l Alice & tries to rape them both at the same time. Doesn't make much sense on any level, but little does in this film.
Meanwhile, the murder investigation continues, & the resolution involves the offspring of Adolf Hitler & Eva Braun...
Meyer fans will find a few laughs in 'Up!', as he seems to be going for insanity over titillation, but anyone else will be baffled, offended, or both.
Don Quijote de Orson Welles (1992)
(This review is based on the English language version)
Orson Welles' legendary unfinished epic was just that - unfinished. It should have been left as such, not thrown together in this clumsy, boring compilation of whatever material was available.
While I'm sure it was done with the best of intentions, the filmmakers have not only failed to do justice to Welles' vision, they've also managed to discredit it by inflicting this version upon audiences.
The first thing that strikes the viewer is the amateurish quality of the audio. Not only are the newly dubbed voices rather poor performances, they're also inconsistent - Welles' original recordings (using his own voice, as he often did) have been retained in a handful of scenes, & they don't match at all. There hasn't been the slightest attempt at consistency. Add to that an extremely empty sound mix which has only a bare minimum of sound effects & atmos - a long sequence during a huge festival (including the running of the bulls) sounds like it was recorded in a deserted suburban street with about three people making the sound of a crowd that's meant to be in the thousands.
However, the real problem is the unavoidable fact that 'Don Quixote' was incomplete, & it's glaringly obvious from watching this. The film consists of a handful of scenes strung together & dragged out to ridiculous lengths just to make up the running time. Case in point - the sequence where Sancho searches for Don Quixote in the city goes on forever. It's just Sancho approaching people in the crowd, asking them the same questions over & over again - there is no way that Welles could ever have intended using every single take in its entirety, but that's what appears here. It lasts over twelve minutes, when, in fact, it would most likely have lasted about two minutes absolute maximum in a proper finished version of the film.
While the start of the film is relatively complete & rather well done, the rest has massive holes which simply can't be filled with endless overlay of Spanish countryside & still more shots of Don Quixote & Sancho going back & forth. There's also no ending. No resolution, no conclusion, no punchline, no point.
Although there is material in private collections that was unavailable to the filmmakers, that couldn't possibly account for what would be required to make this into a complete, coherent work. Welles simply didn't complete shooting, largely due to the fact that his lead actor died before they could finish.
However, putting aside the fact that it wasn't complete, & never could be, one would think that just seeing a collection of footage from this masterpiece that might have been would be enough. Unfortunately, by putting it all together in such a slipshod manner, one is left with a very negative impression of the film overall. In particular, what was clearly a terrific performance from Akim Tamiroff as Sancho is utterly ruined with the new voice & with long, drawn out scenes that eventually cause him to be simply irritating.
Orson Welles' vision for this film was something far more ambitious & complex than a simple retelling of the story of Don Quixote, but that's what has been attempted here, & as such, the point is lost. The only person who could have assembled all the material into anything worthwhile would have been Welles himself, & he didn't.
The footage could have been put to far better use in a documentary chronicling the whole saga of Welles trying to make the film. Welles himself even came up with the perfect title for such a doco: "When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?"
Dance of the Vampires (1967)
Well-made, but silly & dated
Although Polanski's first studio film has a great deal in it deserving of praise & attention, as a comedy it simply hasn't managed to survive the test of time.
Like most films with double-barreled titles (Dr Strangelove being an exception), the humour in 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' is just too dated & broad to be funny. Slapstick, sped-up motion, characters pulling stupid faces, plus a fair bit of British-style slap & tickle nonsense & innuendo that would be more at home in a Carry-On movie. Lines like "Do you mind if I have a quick one?" & so on.
It's a shame, because the direction & production design are outstanding. In attempting to recreate the atmosphere of typical Hammer vampire movies for the purpose of sending them up, 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' actually does the genre proud. The sets & costumes are first-rate, & it's all shot perfectly for that Gothic, unreal feeling one has in all the best old studio-based horror films. Ironically enough, it has quite a few moments of genuine horror - the vampires actually are pretty threatening, & Polanski isn't squeamish about showing blood all over a freshly-fed face, rather than just a couple of tiny drops on the fangs.
Had Polanski & Brach simply limited the humour to a few scenes for comic relief, instead of trying to make it drive the film completely, they could have made an exceptional classic-style vampire film. Instead, all we're left with now is a spoof that just isn't as funny or relevant as it once was.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Shattered dreams & a broken heart
Mulholland Drive began life as a pilot for a TV series that was not picked up - David Lynch, genius that he is, simply took what was there, shot extra scenes & rearranged it all into what may well be his finest work yet.
It has all the best elements from his previous work - the slick, syrup-coated darkness of Blue Velvet & Wild At Heart, the experimentation with parallel/alternate narratives that he displayed with such brilliance in Lost Highway (and, it can be argued, in Fire Walk With Me), along with the true artist's appreciation for beauty in all aspects of the human condition.
The first half of the film seduces the viewer completely with the idyllic story of an innocent, talented young actress-to-be named Betty who befriends a beautiful amnesiac stranger, & while investigating the mystery of who she is, falls in love with her.
The second half is the sickening jolt back to reality, when it becomes apparent that what has come before is nothing more than the dream of a young actress who has not only failed in her dreams of stardom, but has had her heart utterly broken by her venomous lover who is not content to simply leave, but torture & humiliate her even further to the point of madness.
Sounds relatively straightforward, but this is a David Lynch film, & as such, takes a number of bizarre, yet rewarding, detours along the way to paint a picture of a town with sunshine & lollipops on top, & poison underneath. Almost everything can be explained in terms of dreams, unfulfilled desires & wish fulfillment - almost. There's a fair few loose ends that I suspect were part of the TV pilot & thrown in for good measure, but rather than feeling like loose ends, they just add to the overall mood of corruption & impending doom.
Naomi Watts conveys the innocent wonder of Betty perfectly, then handles the alternate role of the bitter, jilted lover with equal perfection. Laura Elena Harring supports her by bringing a dark, ethereal quality to her role, both as the amnesiac & as the sadistic ex-lover. Although there's always the usual sleazy mention of their "hot lesbian scene" together when anyone talks about this film, Lynch handles the scene with such care & tastefulness that it's far better described as a love scene than a sex scene.
The supporting cast is first rate, with Justin Theroux as a slimy director, composer Angelo Badalamenti making a truly bizarre appearance as a mob boss whose espresso must be perfect, & in one of the most unexpected cameos ever, Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, THAT guy) as a pool cleaner.
Words can't do justice to this film. It's seductive & beautiful, slick & cool, sexy & violent, but the lingering feeling one is left with after it's all over is that of a deep, haunting sadness for what might have been for the hopes & dreams of a young girl who was going to be a star.
Sleazy & offensive in every way, but I can't help but like this film
Russ Meyer - genius, pervert, visionary, sleazeball, lunatic, exploiter of carnal desires, grass-roots statesman, slick entrepreneur or all of the above?
Of all of his films I've seen, this has to be the one I'd class as THE definitive Russ Meyer movie. Not his most outrageous, not his most well-made, not his most offensive, but this one has just about everything in it that sums up the entire body of work of the film-making giant that was Russ Meyer.
There's a storyline that holds all of Russ's obsessions together, sort of. A very happily married couple in Canada, Tom & Vixen, run a type of getaway lodge. Tom's a pilot & is away a lot of the time, leaving Vixen very lonely & itching for just about anything that will get her motors running. When Tom's back, she still needs non-stop lovin' 24 hours a day, even though she loves him, & he's the one who can do more for her than anyone else in the world. She's just way too much for one man.
Vixen's first victims are an uptight young couple - bored husband & sexy, frustrated wife. She nails both of them, & they leave happier in their marriage than ever. Er, moral of the story? Then she's off to find new prey. Hanging around the lodge are two bikers - her younger brother, Judd, & his Negro friend Niles, a draft-dodging fugitive from the US . Vixen's only dialogue with them is sleazy, teasing come-on lines to her brother, & racist abuse to Niles. Eventually, she seduces her brother, but completely freaks out when he brings Niles in for seconds. Incest, fine, but inter-racial relations? That's where Vixen draws the line.
Needless to say, this is not your average tit-flick.
Meanwhile, dear old pilot Tom has found an expensive charter, a ridiculously stereotyped Irishman called O'Bannion, complete with green suit, peaked cap & a full red beard. He's supposed to go to San Francisco, but instead convinces Niles to help him hijack the plane & head to Cuba. Vixen manages to come out of this twisted tale somewhat redeemed & ready for more action than ever.
Utterly wrong on so many levels, but there's a weird charm about this film that's hard to resist. The characters are so hard to sympathise with in any way, you don't bother judging them & just enjoy watching their idiotic exploits with a type of voyeuristic, morbid fascination.
For anyone yet to experience the cinema of Russ Meyer, this is the perfect film to start with. If you don't like it, don't go any further. If you do, though, then you've taken your first step into a larger world.
The Two Jakes (1990)
Incoherent & disappointing
The Two Jakes is probably the most perfect example of why no one should ever make a sequel to a masterpiece 16 years later (Godfather III, anyone?). It's very easy to say that it suffers unfairly in comparison to the masterpiece that was Chinatown, & that one should take it on its own terms. Fair enough, but to anyone who hasn't seen Chinatown, the plot of The Two Jakes is completely & utterly incomprehensible, as opposed to extremely confusing to those who have. The film can only be understood as an addition to the story that began in Chinatown, & as such, can't avoid savage comparisons when placed alongside such a vastly superior film.
It picks up the story of Jake Gittes ten years or so after the events of Chinatown. He finds himself embroiled in another seemingly straightforward infidelity case gone wrong, which leads to corruption & treachery in the highest corridors of power, this time over oil, rather than water. The twist, such as it is, involves Katherine Mulwray, the incestuous offspring of Evelyn Mulwray & her father, the vile Noah Cross, the heroine & villain from Chinatown.
Sounds good, but this interesting idea is buried within a labyrinthine mess of a plot that jumps all over the place, with real estate scams, terminal diseases, petty hoodlums, earthquakes, gay bars, & most irritating of all, Jake's over-demanding fiancé.
What buries the film is the fact that it doesn't ever really know what sort of film it actually wants to be. Chinatown was a twisted detective story that got darker & darker every minute, & left the viewer in a world where evil triumphed, nothing was certain, & no one could be trusted. The Two Jakes, however, is constantly veering between Jake's depressing musings over the past, screwball sex comedy with Madeleine Stowe's loopy widow, vague hints at conspiracy theories over who really runs Los Angeles, & a general air of cuteness around the character of Jake Gittes. Rather than being regarded by his peers as the disruptive & sleazy bedroom peeper that he is, he tends to be popular among just about everyone, cop & criminal alike. You can just hear them saying, "Oh, that Jake, he's such a character, tsk, tsk..."
There's no terrifying villain to even approach the demon that John Huston created with Noah Cross - no real villain at all, come to think of it. Harvey Keitel's Jake Berman is the architect behind the whole scam, but ends up as some sort of hero/victim who was acting with good intentions all along (despite shooting a man in cold blood), Mickey Nice (Ruben Blades) is more like a cartoon character waving weapons around & never using them, & Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth) is never exactly made out to be doing anything REALLY immoral or illegal, despite being the man who seems to be in charge of absolutely everything (i.e. the successor to Noah Cross).
The great twist regarding the identity of Katherine Mulwray is the final nail in the coffin. Given Jake's obsession over the past, & over her in particular, it's not convincing at all that he wouldn't have recognised her immediately, even though he meets her 'alter-ego' several times before finally realising her true identity in one of the most poorly executed revelation scenes I've ever seen. You're left thinking, "Um, so who's she really meant to be? Oh, that's right, Katherine Mulwray - but wouldn't he have known anyway, er, are you sure she's Katherine Mulwray, he didn't actually say, maybe she's someone else..."
For the psychotic Chinatown fan (& yes, I do count myself as one), there's plenty of cameos & references - Joe Mantell as Jake's offsider Walsh, Perry Lopez as a handicapped Lou Escobar, James Hong as Kahn, Evelyn Mulwray's butler, the snotty clerk in the hall of records makes an appearance, the same orange groves are used as a location (complete with the exact same 'No Trespassing' sign - it just happens to be lying around), old photos & newsclippings are used ad nauseam, despite the fact that they're stills from Chinatown that couldn't possibly have been taken as photos, & even Faye Dunaway pops up, in a brief voice-over.
Plenty of things to remind the fans what it's a sequel to, & there are some wonderfully haunting echoes of the past that constantly torments Jake Gittes, but ultimately, The Two Jakes is just a big, disappointing mess. Loads of talent, no direction.
Chinatown's writer & creator, Robert Towne, had originally envisioned a trilogy of J.J. Gittes films chronicling the history of Los Angeles, one set in the 1930's about water, one in the 1940's about oil, & another in the 1950's about the freeway system (apparently to be called 'Cloverleaf', after a type of freeway exit configuration). He, along with Robert Evans & Jack Nicholson, set up a company in the 1980's called TEN (Towne, Evans, Nicholson) to continue the endeavour, & Towne was slated to direct The Two Jakes, but he walked away long before the production actually started. The one reason that's most often cited was his objection to the original casting of producer Robert Evans as Jake Berman. Roman Polanski wasn't available to direct for obvious reasons.
So, much like Jake Gittes' own thoughts, The Two Jakes is largely a collection of "what if?"s. Had Towne still been on board, & had Polanski been available to direct, who knows what might have been?
Soleil rouge (1971)
Pretty silly, but worth a look for fans
Toshiro Mifune & Charles Bronson in an early 70's Western with Alain Delon as the bad guy & Ursula Andress playing an opportunistic whore?
Sounds irresistible, but it's all a bit of a mess, which is often what happens when there's too much of a good thing. Plenty of talent & personality in the acting department, but too little attention paid to the story itself.
Bronson plays a train robber forced by the Japanese ambassador to help find a priceless sword stolen by Bronson's double-crossing partner Gauche, played by Delon. Accompanying Bronson is Mifune playing, surprise surprise, a powerful samurai.
Mifune, as always, is riveting, & Delon seems to be enjoying himself as the devilish Gauche. Bronson's a bit on the lazy side, but it's fun to watch the sparring between him & Mifune. Ursula Andress' role seems pretty pointless, but she was never hired for her acting abilities anyway.
The film breezes cheerfully along, but the big showdown ends up being confusing & dull, with a tribe of vicious Comanches thrown in at the last minute, as if to provide some excuse not to have Mifune cut Delon's head off straight away. The climax, as such, only comes after being dragged out for too long, & so, falls flat. The subplot involving Cristina (Andress), Gauche's old flame, makes things even messier, & her character's motives are never all that clear.
Still, it's well worth a look if you're a fan of any of the principal actors, or Westerns in general. Just don't expect a masterpiece.
Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Pointless & lame
It would be nice to be able to say that this film suffers in comparison to Terry Gilliam's brilliant adaptation of 'Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas', but it wouldn't be accurate. 'Where The Buffalo Roam' just isn't any good. It's not funny enough to be a comedy, it doesn't seem to have any point to make & so doesn't work as satire, & it completely fails to convey the insane, savage & hilarious spirit of Hunter S Thompson's writing.
Bill Murray, while doing a pretty good impersonation of Thompson's voice & more pronounced mannerisms, really just acts like Bill Murray with a cigarette holder sticking out of his mouth for the whole film. The angry, driven, borderline psychotic journalist is nowhere to be found in this film, just a kind of goofy idiot that makes you wonder why anyone would bother to make a movie about him, or why anyone would read any of his writing.
Peter Boyle as attorney 'Carl Lazlo', a character better known as Dr Gonzo in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, or as Oscar Zeta Acosta in real life, is completely & utterly miscast. The real-life attorney was a fighter for human rights in the Chicano community who hung out on the fringes of the law, the fictionalised Dr Gonzo of Thompson's writing was a far more dangerous, drug-crazed, perverted degenerate. 'Lazlo' is neither, just a dull, pathetic fool who thinks shouting his head off in court might achieve something, runs off to hang out with arms dealers, then turns up again with some idea about starting his own country in the desert.
There is no plot to speak of, just a loose collection of scenes that happen to include these two characters in some way, none of which go anywhere at all. Thompson watching Lazlo in court, Lazlo turning up again at the Super Bowl & dragging Thompson off to his ranch, & finally Thompson covering the 1972 presidential campaign & Lazlo popping up again with a dumb idea. Then the movie ends. No mention of the real-life events which would actually have made a good story - Nixon's victory, followed by Watergate, or Oscar Acosta's mysterious disappearance - just the end of the film. It's not even an anti-climax, which is often how Hunter S Thompson ends his stories, to give them a realistic, bittersweet edge, it's just the end. Nothing of any real interest has happened & the film's over.
I can't really recommend this film to anyone. If you're not a Thompson fan, there's no reason to see it, & if you are, you'll just be disappointed.