Archive for December, 2009

Cover for Volume Two of Robin Bougie's "Cinema Sewer" from FAB Press

Okay, in fairness this book came out in August, but I just got around to finally finishing it and can safely say that Volume Two of Robin Bougie’s “Cinema Sewer,” billed (quite correctly, as it turns out) as “The Adults Only Guide To History’s Sickest and Sexiest Movies,”  from FAB Press, is even better than the first and is the must-have movie book of 2009.

As with the first volume, this is a collection of stuff largely reprinted from Mr. Bougie’s magazine of the same name (this new collection highlighting work from more recent issues within the past couple of years), with some important new material included for good measure, and is the same great combination of semi-pro film history criticism and underground cartooning that made the previous book such a goddamn joy to read.

Topics and films covered this time around include ultra-sleazy 70s porn staple “A Climax of Blue Power,”  second-rate biker flick “Chrome and Hot Leather,” John Carpenter’s all-time horror classic “The Thing,” the deservedly notorious “Emanuelle in America,” a history of  the rather more unbelievable episodes of TV’s “Diff’rent Strokes,” including the two-part story “The Bicycle Man” featuring Gordon Jump as a pedophile after Arnold and Dudley, a look at one-of-a-kind cable access show “Industrial Television,” a detailed examination of the history of MST3K favorite “Manos : The Hands of Fate,” a solid overview of the career of the one and only John Holmes and a great review of  the criminally underappreciated Wonderland Murders-centered flick “Wonderland” starring Val Kilmer as Johnny Wadd himself, and waaaaayyy too much more to mention.

Whether your interests lie in classic grindhouse and exploitation B-movie fare,  overlooked Hollywood gems, great horror, old-school, shot-on-film-like-it-should-be pornography, 1980s teen sex flicks, extreme modern porn, underground alternative cinema, weird TV, or any combination thereof, you’ll find hours of reading that’s right up your alley in this splendidly sordid collection.

Get it — now! That’s an order!

Not that I’ve got the right to order you around or anything.

"Christmas Evil" Movie Poster

This time of year the question is often asked, “What is the best Christmas movie ever made?” The usual contenders always seem to emerge, of course — “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” , yadda yadda etc. etc. Horror fans may suggest either “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But no less an authority than John Waters has gleefully declared writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 0verlooked 1980 B-movie masterpiece “Christmas Evil” (a.k.a. “You Better Watch Out,” actually Jackson’s original — and preferred — title) to be the absolute best of the bunch, and I’m with him on that all the way. Not so much a straightforward horror film as a black, tragicomic morality tale, this bizarre little flick hits all the right notes and is so self-assured in its absolutely singular bizarreness that you can’t help but sit back in awe as  the bleakly absurd spectacle of it all plays out before your eyes.

If you'd seen this with your own two eyes when you were a kid, wouldn't you be scarred for life, too? Especially if the woman in question was your mother?

When little Harry Stradling was a kid, he was the sort of tyke who just couldn’t wait for Christmas. He’d stay up all night, pacing back and forth in his room, hoping to hear Santa landing on the rooftop and sliding down the chimney. Unfortunately, he learned that old Kris Kringle wasn’t real the hard way — one Christmas Eve he thought he heard something downstairs, went to investigate hoping to catch Old St. Nick in the act, and found his dad, dressed in a Santa suit, going down on his mom. He’s never been the same since.

Fast forward about 30 or 40 years and our guy Harry (played by distinguished Broadway actor Brandon Maggart, who never had much of a career in film, apparently wants nothing to do with this one anymore, and is now best known for being the father of Fiona Apple) is  a rather disturbed and introverted sort, the kind of troubled soul his New York City neighbors should probably keep an eye on — except he’s already keeping an eye on them. Or, more specifically, on their children. He’s making a list and checking it twice, cataloging who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And this Christmas, he’s finally going to do something about it.

Harry's got it all in his book, right down to the neighbor kids' hygiene habits

Harry works at a toy factory, you see, where he’s recently been promoted from the line up to some low-level management position or other. He misses being down on the factory floor “close to the toys,” as he says, and he’s unimpressed with the executive “suits” he now has to kiss up to. Amidst talk of  post-Christmas plant downsizing (quite prescient in 1980) and a nebulous new management directive  forcing the workers to give to charity while ownership does nothing of the sort (again, a disgustingly common enough practice these days but rather novel for its time) at the company holiday party, Harry starts to hatch his master plan in his mind. Harry’s trauma-inducing bout with accidental voyeurism has caused him to grow into something of a Christmas purist, if you will, and he’s out to save all that is right and true with the holiday season and to — umm — excise all that isn’t. In short order he procures a van, a bunch of toys, a Santa costume, and some weapons, and he decides to bring back the less-than-jolly St. Nick legends of old to life — the ones where he’s both jolly and vindictive, handing out toys only to those who deserve them, and vengeance to those who don’t.

Harry's getting an idea ---

Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and having blown off his brother’s family for the second holiday in a row (he took a pass on spending Thanksgiving with him, his wife, and their kids, as well), he instead springs into action in his custom (hand)-painted Christmaswagon. Kids at an orphanage get a whole load of goodies. The friendly folks at a large family holiday get-together get a visit where he displays his friendly side (as do they to him). But a yuppie scumbag emerging from a midnight mass service at a church in ritzy part of town gets skewered through the eyeball after declaring that Santa better give him something good because he has “superlative taste” (can’t say I blame Harry for that one), and the guy who suckered Harry into picking up his shift at the factory earlier that night so he could go out drinking with his buddies on Christmas Eve meets his red-suited, white-bearded maker, as well.

Santa Harry

Soon, Harry’s a hunted man, as townsfolk who think he’s acting a little bit weird around their kids take up torches and pitchforks and chase him through the New York/New Jersey streets like a modern-day version of the mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. But little do they know Harry has a surefire method of escape that delivers one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome endings in movie history. For some reason it’s hotly debated conclusion that some people just can’t get their heads around, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it absolutely astonishingly perverse it its obvious, albeit surreal, simplicity, it’s literally the only way this story could, or for that matter should, finish up.

DVD Cover for "Christmas Evil" from Synapse Films

Available for years only as a bare-bones release from Troma, in 2006 the good folks at Synapse Films finally issued a bona fide and thoroughly comprehensive “special edition” release of full director’s cut of this twisted gem. Not only does it feature a sparkling new widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film with remastered 2.0 stereo sound that’s an absolutely joy to watch and listen to, but there are two commentaries, one featuring director Lewis Jackson where he gives an awesomely involving account of just how low-budget exploitation films such as this came to fruition in the late 70s/early 80s and all the various pitfalls along the way as it moved from script to screen, but there’s a second commentary track featuring Jackson joined by the film’s most famous fan, the legendary John Waters himself! Needless to say, it’s a riot from start to finish. Also included are a selection of stinging lobby comment cards from a test screening of the film, deleted scenes, screen test outtakes, and a comic-style “essay” on the film from “Motion Picture Purgatory” author/illustrator Rick Trembles. Great stuff all around.

What can I say? Everything about “Christmas Evil” works, from the red-and-green-heavy color schemee utilized throughout to Maggart’s amazing, and strangely involving, performance in the lead, to the laugh-out-loud grotesquery, to the police lineup of drunken guys in Santa suits, to the often-quite-incisive sociall commentary,  to the already-mentioned supremely awesome ending. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind piece of moviemaking. And while Lewis Jackson, sadly, has never made another film, truth be told he doesn’t need to. This stands as a singular work of genuinely madcap, unhinged genius that will never be duplicated and, frankly, in the annals of Chritmas moviemaking, never surpassed.

Free Advetising For "Watchmen : The Ultimate Cut" On DVD And Blu-Ray. Warner Brothers Can Thank Me Later.

I’ve already reviewed Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen, ” specifically the director’s cut, in my typically way-too-verbose style at , so I’ll refrain from going into heavy depth about it here again to save both your sanity and mine. Suffice to say, I was all over this new 5-disc DVD (your host hasn’t made the Blu-Ray leap yet) box set the day it came out, and while I find it a mixed package and even something of a missed opportunity, I’m generally pretty pleased with it.

First off, the “book-style” packaging is great, and it looks sharp on your shelf. Does that matter? Ultimately, no, but whatever. It’s a cool-looking product. It also can be had for a pretty reasonable price. I got it off Amazon brand new for $26.99. So that’s another plus. But what of the content of this impressive-looking, reasonably-priced box? If you’ve already got the director’s cut on DVD, is it worth a “double-dip,” as the industry lingo goes?

Well, that depends on how big a “Watchmen” fan you are. The only major difference here is that you get about 15 more minutes of film, with the animated (and very cool) “Tales of the Black Freighter” material added in, as well as some establishing footage around each animated sequence involving the newsvendor and the kid reading the comic. If you’re a hardcore “Watchmen” fan you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and if you’re clueless as to what it is my blathering here is exactly in reference to, then honestly you don’t need this “Ultimate Cut” box set at all.

There’s been some criticism that the “Black Freighter” stuff kind of slows down the pace of the film and doesn’t mesh in too terribly well, but I don’t buy that. It seems like a perfectly worth addition to me. The flick honestly never lags, even at the just-over-three-and-a-half-hour running time of the “ultimate cut.”  Plus, you get two full feature-length commentaries, one from directory Snyder and the other from Dave Gibbons, co-creator and illustrator of the original comic (as usual, Alan Moore is nowhere to be found, having washed his hands of all Hollywood adaptations of his work). Snyder’s commentary is highly informative, moves along at a good clip, and is a pleasure to listen to. Gibbons is a little more subdued and his commentary lags in spots as it’s clear he’s just sort of watching it and taking it all in. It’s still a worthwhile enough way to spend over three and a half hours of your time, but it’s definitely the less essential of the two commentaries to check out, and probably only of interest to serious devotees and/or completists.

And speaking of serious devotees and/or completists, that’s kind of where this set falls short. The second disc is a nice selection of extras totaling over two hours, but there are some things missing. We get the same behind-the-scenes featurettes “ported over” from the previous director’s cut release, plus a nice lengthy new one, and the faux-documentary “Under the Hood” that was originally issued as part of the “Tales of the Black Freighter” single-disc release, but we don’t get the full “Black Freighter” story by itself without interruption that we got with that earlier stand-alone disc. This isn’t the end of the world as “Black Freighter” works best when cut into small segments and watching the whole thing in one go makes a person realize that it is, in actuality, a rather flimsy little story. It has much more impact in “pseudo-serialized,” if you will, format. But the full, uninterrupted version is about a minute or so longer than the segmented version that’s in  the “ultimate cut”  of the film. Again, probably only if interest to the anal retentive completist (who? me?), but still worth a mention.

Another item die-hard will probably regret Warner Brothers not including is the interactive video commentary from Snyder that’s on the Blu-Ray version of the director’s cut. I haven’t seen this myself yet, but i hear it’s pretty awesome and he goes into great depth while delivering essentially an annotated visual guide to the film. Warners could quite easily have found a way to include this material in stand-alone fashion on both the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the “ultimate cut,” but have chosen, for whatever reason, not to do so. Something tells me that a “Super-Duper, Seriously Ultimate Cut,” or a “Complete Watchmen,” might be in the works for next Christmas.

The third disc is yet another digital copy  of the theatrical cut, which was already included with the Director’s Cut, and is totally superfluous. Why they bothered with it I have no idea.

Finally, the fourth and fifth discs comprise the “Watchmen Complete Motion Comic,” a pretty cool little semi-animated, full-length “video book” of all twelve issues of the comic itself. I rather like it, but again, it was issued as a stand-alone release some time ago, and here they haven’t even repackaged it to fit in with the overall visual look of the box or anything, it’s the same release as before in the same packaging. Nice to have if you don’t already, but absolutely redundant if you do, and good luck getting more than a couple bucks for your now-unnecessary stand-alone “Motion Comic” release on eBay.

So there you have it, the “Watchmen Ultimate Cut” box set in a nutshell. A little bit of extremely worthwhile new material, plenty of stuff that’s already been released previously, and some stuff they just plain missed out on ilcuding, probably quite intentionally. I don’t think this will be the final “Watchmen” DVD/Blu-Ray release, as it’s in no way absolutely comprehensive, so look for a set containing the Ultimate Cut, the director’s cut, another frigging digital copy disc of the theatrical cut, and all the bonus material that’s out there at some point in the future. Like I said, next Christmas is probably a pretty safe bet.

You do get more than enough bang for your buck, though, provided you’re a die-hard completist and want to see as close an adapatation of the comic itself as is probably humanly possible. In short, it’s a must-have for hardcore “Watchmen” devotees, but anyone and everyone else can safely take a pass.

"Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans" Movie Poster

I know what you’re thinking. You’re outraged. Disgusted. Maybe even mortified if you’re especially sensitive, at the very least perplexed if you’re not. What kind of a human being would incorporate a play on words about the tragic flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the title of his post? I mean, that’s just beyond tasteless, right?

Yes, it is. And yes, you should be royally pissed at me right now. That’s intentional. You see, I want you to stop reading this review. I want you to shut your computer off. Hell, if you’re not winning the lottery or getting it on with the woman (or man, as the case may be) of your dreams right now, I think you need to stop what you’re doing. You need to stop what you’re doing, get in your car, on the train, on the bus, on your feet, whatever — and get down to the theater and see “Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans.” It’s just that good. Whatever else you’ve got going on can wait. In fact, I’ll even helpfully stop the review right here so you can get back to it after you return.

Long pause.

Followed by another long pause.

And another.

Then a final, really long one.

Okay, back? Good, welcome back.  Great stuff, wasn’t it? Now let’s continue, shall we?

No, Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes have not just read the script for "Ghost Rider 2," despite appearances

I’m a lot like you, dear reader. When I first heard that independent film legend Werner Herzog was working on a “reimagining” of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” my first reaction was “why?” I mean, it’s not like it’s a movie that necessarily has “remake” or “sequel” written all over it. Like most of Ferrara’s stuff, it’s a pretty singular work that doesn’t exactly scream out for a fresh set of eyes to reinterpret it. And Harvey Keitel’s performance — I mean, shit, how are you gonna top that? Hell, how are you gonna even come close to equaling it? Why try? What’s the point?

Well, there wouldn’t be any point. And Herzog knows that. And to his credit, he doesn’t even try to go that route. This new “Bad Lieutenant” only tangentially relates to the first in that it explores the same theme of a monumentally crooked and sleazy cop trying to crack a big case in the midst of a tremendous, and entirely self-inflicted, downward spiral in his life.  Apart from that, the two have nothing to do with each other. Gone are the obsessive visual and thematic references to Catholic iconography and catechism. The setting has been transposed from New York to a just post-Katrina New Orleans (well, technically the first scene takes place as the flood waters are rising, then we jump ahead six months,  into the city’s  “rebuilding” — and Dear Lord do I use that term loosely — period). Hell, even the main character has a different name, different set of life circumstances, different everything. In truth, the only reason I think Herzog stuck with the title is because otherwise audiences would have come out of the theater saying “you know, that one kinda reminded me of  ‘Bad Lieutenant'” — so by invoking the original so plainly he’s able to, at the very least ironically if not downright perversely, have this film taken as a more stand-alone work than if he had just called it something. File that under “go figure.” (And file this under “go figure,” as well — and probably of interest to absolute obsessives (who? me?) only (and it shouldn’t even be to us) — the title of this film in all the posters and other advertising is listed as “Bad Lieuteanant : Port of Call New Orleans,” while the opening credits read “The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call : New Orleans.”)

The next thin your reviewer found a bit suspect in the pre-production stages, after wondering just why Herzog was even making this thing at all, was the casting of Nicolas Cage in the lead. Cage is a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? I mean, here’s a guy capable of delivering mind-blowingly good, once-in-a-generation performances in films like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Lord of War” and “The Weatherman,” yet also of absolutely mailing it in, so to speak, in drivel like “Next” or the atrocious remake of “The Wicker Man.” In between the two poles we have his numerous stints as, either literally or essentially, a second-rate Elvis impersonator.

Needless to say, the end result on display here proves my worried were entirely groundless, as the best always are. Cage is in absolute top form here, giving arguably the very best performance of his entire career. He’s wiry, main, and absolutely seething with, to quote my own headline, visceral intensity. He doesn’t sweat whether or not he’s sometimes so frightfully over the top that his performance reaches caricature-like levels — hell no, instead of tiptoeing up to that metaphorical line in the sand, he rubs and smears it out with his shoe and stomps all over the spot where it used to be just for good measure. He’s absolutely fucking gone as  drugged-up, degenerate gambler (and, oh yes, cop) Terence McDonagh, and he doesn’t look back. Keep up with him if you can.

And herein lies another crucial difference between the two “Bad Lieutenant”s. In Ferrara’s version, Keitel is just completely foul. He’s not what you’d call charismatic or engaging in the least (not that I’m saying this is a bad thing, it’s exactly the type of performance that was absolutely required in the “first” film). He’s already lost. The central thematic question in the “original”, therefore, is whether or not a guy who’s absolutely beyond all hope of redemption can still find it, if not earn it, by bringing to justice the scumbags who brutally gang-rape a nun. And frankly, whether or not he even should since she’s already forgiven them herself. It’s taking place on an entirely different psychological playing field than Herzog’s film, because in this there is still some, God help me for thinking this but it’s true, likable insanity in Cage’s character. He’s got dangerous, maybe even death wish-style reckless charisma oozing out of him on a goddamn cellular level. In that respect, one could argue that this new “Bad Lieutenant” is somewhat more accessible than Ferrara’s version, because McDonagh still has enough (barely) on the ball to pull himself out of his living nightmare if he really wants to. But damn, with lines like ” I thought it was coke but it turned out to be heroin and I gotta be at work in an hour,” and “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” you gotta wonder if he isn’t enjoying his ride to hell waaaayyyy too fucking much to stop the ride.

And that’s the brilliance (and I loathe the unearned overuse of that word way more than you can possibly imagine) of Cage’s performance here in a nutshell : he’s a coiled snake that you know will strike at any moment, and you can’t decide whether you’re dreading that or looking forward to it. Then you realize you’re doing both.

"Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!"

The nominal plot of the film itself concerns Cage’s investigation of a brutal execution-style murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, but as with Ferrara’s earlier effort, Herzog here concentrates far more on the backdrop this story plays out in front of (or, more accurately given the focus here, behind) — that of McDonagh’s exhilarating and dreadful descent into madness. Our guy Terry does everything a bad cop oughtta do : shakes down suspects for cash and drugs, gets in gambling debt up his eyeballs, rips shit off from the police property room, smokes crack, snorts coke, drinks booze, skips out of town, runs a thoroughly crooked investigation, helps the bad guys, screws around on his girlfriend (who’s a hooker herself, played by Cindy Craw—err, Eva Mendes), and worse. And while he doesn’t consistently engage in the type of outright abusively soulless depravity that Keitel did in the “original,” he pulls off one stunt so hopelessly fucked-up-beyond-all-reason that even old Harvey would probably blush.

The decision to set the story in the ravaged post-Katrina Big Easy really pays dividends, as well. Not only is it thematically appropriate on a pretentious “film scholar” asshole level (rising metaphorical flood threatens to swallow main character ), but the overall atmosphere of a decimated Third World-style “law enforcement” operation (although from what I understand the New Orleans cops weren’t exactly famous for honesty and integrity pre-flood, either) gives ample narrative “breathing space”  (did I just badmouth pretentious “film scholar” assholes a minute ago? I should have read ahead to the point where I sounded just like one — except I hadn’t written it yet. But I digress — as regular readers of this blog, if any such creatures exist,  know I so often do) to the idea of a situation where a guy like McDonagh could actually get away with some of this shit. On a purely aesthetic level, I’ve gotta congratulate Herzog, as well, for his decision to shoot this movie on an apparently cheaper grade of film stock than normal. It gives the whole flick an added level of immediacy and realism that a slicker overall appearance just couldn’t maintain. It’s a grimy story about a grimy guy shot in a way that looks grimy. Well played, Werner.

The rest of the cast holds up pretty well, too. While I’m sure nobody was dying to see a reunion of the principal players in “Ghost Rider,” Mendes does a nice turn as McDonagh’s high-priced hooker/junkie girlfriend, Frankie, Cage’s fellow Elvis-worshiper Val Kilmer is solid as his almost-as-crooked-as-he-is onetime parner, now subordinate, Stevie, the always-underappreciated Vondie Curtis-Hall turns in a seasoned pro’s performance as McDonagh’s commanding officer, rapper Xzibit is seriously bad-ass awesome as crime boss “Big Fate,” the (again always) underappreciated Brad Dourif turns in another dead-on perfect (because he always is) portrayal, in this case as McDonagh’s understandably impatient small-time bookie Ned, solid vet Tom Bower puts in  a solid vet turn as Terance’s ex-cop, ex-alcoholic father, Pat, and the (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) always underapp—forget it, I won’t even go there, I’ll just say Jennifer Coolidge has deserved a best supporting actress Oscar a couple of times now (and no, I’m not talking about her turn as Stifler’s Mom, although she sure is a million miles away from MILF territory in this movie — truth be told, I was thinking specifically of her roles in the various Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble/improv comedies, particularly “Best In Show”) and she’s an absolute scene-stealer here as Pat’s still-alcoholic second wife, Genevieve.

The two best Elvises (or is that Elvii?) since The King himself? Kilmer and Cage in "Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans"

So what we’ve got here, folks, is essentially the ultimate “bad cop” movie, and quite likely the best film of the year, period. It’s certainly going to take one hell of an effort to top it. Even Herzog’s usual, and frankly in other films sometimes jarring, asides into purely interpretative realms of surrealism (just what are the giant iguanas about? Each viewer will probably have a different explanation) work here since by the time he goes there, he’s already established such a forceful groove (do those two words seem incompatible together? I assure you they’re not) that you’re just willing to go with his frantically rushing flow.

And that’s it. I’m all out of praise to lavish on this movie. It grabs you from the word go and never lets up. It’s absolutely exhiliratingly debauched and I loved the hell out of it. All I can do at this point is tell you one more time  to rush right out and see it. But there’s no need for that because you already have. Right?