Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Passings: Gary Graver, Cinematographer and Director

One of the most important cinematic auteurs of the last 50 years passes away, and I'm woefully underequipped to expound. Go figure.

Director Robert Altman's influence looms large over modern cinema, so much so that eloquent testimonials to the man's work can be found all over the Blogosphere (here are two of my favorites). But my Altman experience extends to just four complete viewings: The Player (so universally loved and pungently witty it'd be redundant for me to cluck on about it), Popeye (still one of the oddest comic-to-film adaptations ever made, with Altman's very free-form style constantly fighting with a very structured cartoon universe), MASH (overrated, but not without its moments), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (an erratic but interestingly off-kilter western that had me scratching my head as a kid). This means I haven't seen Nashville or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, widely reputed to be two of the finest films of the seventies (make that ever). They're on my Netflix cue, though, so don't lob too many eggs my way.

Altman took his journey to the Big Backlot in the Sky on November 20, but just four days earlier a much more obscure forty-year veteran of the film industry--Gary Graver--also passed away. I suppose it says something about me (God knows what) that Graver's body of work lives much nearer to my heart than Altman's.

Born in 1938 in Portland, Oregon, Gary Graver moved to California at age twenty to pursue an acting career. Despite studying with acknowledged masters like Jeff Corey and Lee J. Cobb, Graver dropped his thespian aspirations and segued into behind-the-scenes work in the early sixties. He honed his technical cinema chops with a two-year stint in the US Navy Combat Camera Group and began his career as a cinematographer in earnest after finishing his tour of duty.

In the late sixties Graver mustered up the chutzpah to approach Orson Welles for a gig. Welles, surprisingly, accepted him, and the two men enjoyed a decade-and-a-half as collaborators on several documentaries (and, most famously, Welles' 1973 feature F for Fake) before Welles' passing in 1985.

But it wasn't Graver's work with one of the world's greatest cinematic artists that made his name a fixture with me. Nor was it Graver's three decades of pseudonymous work as an adult-movie director (though a cursory scan of the man's IMDB directorial dossier reveals inspired titles like Cape Rear and One Million Heels BC). No, for me, Graver will always be the guy who lensed Al Adamson's most entertaining movies.

The wonderfully ramshackle genre efforts of Al Adamson easily merit a blog of their own. The micro-budget helmsman directed several exploitation, action, and horror flicks throughout the 1960's and '70's, and he and his promotional wizard producer Sam Sherman frequently re-titled these epics multiple times to squeeze every last dime out of them on the flourishing drive-in circuit. Mainstream critics sneezed at the director's work (if they acknowledged it at all) back then, but Adamson's cheap productions made a tidy profit and (most importantly) entertained the hell out of moviegoers--myself most emphatically included.

Graver shot almost all of Adamson's movies, and I caught up with one of the few I hadn't seen over Thanksgiving weekend. 1977's Death Dimension stars Jim Kelly (Bruce Lee's afro-ed and ass-kicking bud in Enter the Dragon) as a superfly secret agent who works to thwart Harold 'Oddjob' (yes, that Oddjob) Sakata's sale of a deadly 'Freeze Bomb' on the international black market. It's a fun-filled attempt at James Bond thrills on a K-Mart budget, and Graver's recent passing brought his specific contributions into sharp focus for me as I watched. The framing and composition of some of the action scenes--in particular, an imaginative shootout between a single-engine plane and a mountain cable car--nearly knocked my socks off, especially given the pennies that Adamson and Graver likely worked with.

After the movie ended I started musing about some of my favorite moments in Al Adamson's filmography--a spooky acid freakout from 1971's Dracula vs. Frankenstein; the disorienting vampire close-ups in Horror of the Blood Monsters; and the sweltering pursuit scene at the end of Satan's Sadists, among others. I'd been watching Adamson's movies since the age of eight, and for the first time I realized how deeply my enjoyment of them was rooted in Graver's lenswork--equal parts classroom-hygeine-movie-verite and rock-'em-sock-'em frenetic. Thank you kindly, Mr. Graver.

Conventional wisdom would shy away from labelling Gary Graver an artiste, but he did memorable work--on a (literal) dime, in some of the cheapest, most widely-ridiculed movies in cinema history. That's a triumph over adversity; a legacy worthy (in these eyes, at least) of celebration. And though their careers couldn't have been more divergent, I can only imagine the great showbiz war stories he and Altman are sharing now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Chronicles of Riddick, just 'cos I got nothin' else.

I was just looking over the list of a dozen unfinished entries on the Dish to see if any of 'em were close enough to snuff to merit posting (the answer, as you might imagine from this entry, is no).

As I undertook this ritual The Chronicles of Riddick, director David Twohy's prequel to his enjoyable B flick Pitch Black, played on basic cable. It's pretty telling that almost all of Riddick unspooled before I took much notice.

Contrary to its unceremonious descent into the waters of financial failure upon its initial release, it's really not terrible. Despite making more lousy career choices in the last five years than any twelve actors make in their lives, I still appreciate Vin Diesel's minimalist charisma, and flashes of blunt wit occasionally flicker through the grandeur, action, and special effects. But it's a pretty glaring misfire nonetheless, because its two principal architects completely disregard their strengths.

Twohy (who frequently writes as well as directs his films) is at his best taking the simple, compact pleasures of classic old-school Hollywood genre formulas and goosing them with sharp, self-aware (but not self-conscious) writing. With Riddick, he tries to craft an honest-to-God sprawling epic, and it's just not his bag. Twohy's unpretentious-but-direct screenwriting style gets lost here amidst a lot of opulence and special effects slam-bang.

One of the best things about Pitch Black was Vin Diesel, whose little-seen but magnetic thug Riddick had me so tranfixed on first view several years ago that I was uttering his name in the same breath as Lee Marvin's. Here, there's too much of him: making him the center of this large and pretty routine space opera utterly demystifies the character. Twohy should have hewn closer to Pitch Black's rabbit-punch simplicity. I'd have loved seeing Riddick inhabiting a seedy future-noir world a la Blade Runner, not bounding around in endless overstuffed sci-fi action scenes surrounded by armored warriors who look like they wandered out of David Lynch's Dune. Sometimes, less really is more.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Horrorfest: Old-Fashioned Fun and Frolic

Horrorfest--Eight Films to Die For hit multiplexes last weekend, and if you're among the throngs who regularly peruse this Blog (I have officially decided that six or more people qualifies as a throng), my attendance of said Fest should surprise you naught.

Limits in funds and time prohibited a Full Monty of all eight movies offered, but I did manage to do a Horrorfest Triple Bill last Saturday night. Two enthusiastic co-conspirators joined me, and damned if a good time wasn't had by all.

It's hard not to root for the success of Horrorfest's distribution company, After Dark Films, on principle alone. This independent company's roadshow-style marketing strategy hearkens back to a time before corporate megaliths and big studios exacted their death-grips on multiplexes, when true indies could still sneak entertaining B flicks of all stripes into theaters all over the country.

Seeing movies in a theater or (gasp) drive-in in the seventies and early eighties was often the movie equivalent of Russian Roulette: It made walking into a theater a gamble and an adventure. After Dark brought back that feeling for a weekend, and I hope that youngsters take to this type of moviegoing experience as much as this old geezer did. But enough blathering reminiscince. Were the movies worth the effort? Hell, yeah. For different reasons.

I wouldn't call any of the movies we saw a classic, but The Abandoned (the first feature of our Triple Terror Bill) came surprisingly close. Directed by Nacho Cerda (helmsman of a couple of acclaimed/notorious short films), it follows forty-something American Marie (Anastasia Hille) as she journeys back to her birth land of Russia to tend to some inherited property--and learn more about her childhood in the process. Soon she's marooned at an old house on her land, meets her long-lost Russian brother Nicolai (Karel Roden), and gets hurled into a nightmare universe that's equal parts Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project, and The Evil Dead.

After a tense, rapid-fire pre-credits scene, The Abandoned builds its suspense with deliberate purpose, exploring the large dilapidated house of Marie's birth at the same, almost-languid pace that she does. The tempo almost feels a bit too leisurely at first, but it's a good strategy in the long run, allowing Marie's disorientation and gradually mounting fear to seep into the viewer pretty effectively. By the time she and Nicolai start seeing creepily-familiar walking corpses treading the hallways of this old house, the hooks are in.

This is also one movie that greatly benefits from viewing on a big screen. Cerda shot on location in Bulgaria, and in addition to being (I'm sure) an economic locale, the country's austere yet alien beauty--and the deserted building in which most of the movie takes place--surround and envelop the viewer as The Abandoned progresses. It's incredibly refreshing to see a normal looking middle-aged woman at the center of this vortex, too (Hille, vulnerable but never annoyingly so, displays some of the rough-around-the-edges charm of Christine Lahti).

Cerda twists The Abandoned's final few moments like pretzel dough, with different realities folding, one on top of the other, in an attempt to keep the ending surprising. The approach (mostly) works. I liked this little chiller a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, eschews subtlety for the kind of entertainingly dumb thrills worthy of a vintage drive-in schlocker. Penny (Rachel Miner), a college freshman, goes on a drive up the mountains with her psychotherapist (Mimi Rogers)to face up to her fear of automobiles (her parents, it seems, died next to her in the family car after a nasty auto crash). Mimi ends up hitting a hitchhiker, who turns out to be one bad homicidal cannibal hombre.

The writing, put bluntly, stinks, with characters doing Dumb Movie Character Things with mind-numbing frequency. Bob Suh, one of my Partners in Triple Feature Crime, noted that not one, not two, but three different characters trip over a rock at various times during the movie's run time (it's always while Cannibal Killer Guy's pursuing them, too). And you know you're not dealing with Paddy Chayefsky when you find yourself chanting, "It's not funny anymore," only to have a character utter those exact same cliche words exactly twenty seconds later. Rogers' shrink character, meanwhile, could be an incisive commentary on the stereotypical ineffectual touchy-feely new age healer, but I somehow doubt it.

Despite (or maybe because of) all of this, Penny Dreadful makes for a very entertaining timekiller. Even at its dopiest, it never bores, and the setup director Richard Brandes employs to notch up the suspense (Penny basically ends up imprisoned in a car for most of the movie's running time) is as effective as it is far-fetched. Miner does a solid job in the lead, somehow managing to not be annoying despite doing many Dumb Movie Character Things. And it's genetically impossible for me to harbor too much ill will towards any movie which features veteran Hills Have Eyes scary guy Michael Berryman as a gas station attendant.

Somehow the fates placed the weirdest movie as the last on our little triple feature. And that movie, The Gravedancers, earns the hoary old email euphemism "WTF?" more richly than anything I've seen in a long time.

Three twenty-something former college chums (one of whom is played by Dominic Purcell of Prison Break fame) dance on some graves after the funeral of their fourth fallen buddy. The three desecrated burial sites, it seems, house the corpses of three different psychotic killers, who will haunt each of the survivors until the next full moon. The curse can only be broken when each of the luckless post-grads dies, and each spectre is determined to bring down their respective hauntee in some imaginatively gruesome way.

The Gravedancers starts out as an underwhelming, exposition-laden little wet fart of a ghost story, then radically shifts gears about a third of the way through, when paranormal investigator Vincent Cochet (Tcheky Karyo) steps in and the ghosts start to get extra-cranky. The dialogue goes from clunkily expositional to over-the-top snarky, and then director Mike Mendez suddenly has the closest thing to a cinematic panic attack that I've seen in a modern horror movie, spastically pulling anything--EVERYTHING--he can out of his ass to keep the audience jumping.

All of the principals end up entrenched in Cochet's research center, the outside fence wraps itself around the building (sealing everybody in), and then the ghosts begin burning, ax-hacking, levitating, and otherwise pummelling their victims. Things get as out-of-control as a sugar-stoked kid riding his Schwinn down Mount Everest, with the survivors eventually piling into a Hummer and tearing through six layers of a building with a giant cackling ghost head in hot pursuit. So, yes, somehow the movie morphs into (as my third Triple Feature Co-hort Bob Bohan eloquently stated) Poltergeist as produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Bob, Bob and I are still trying to figure out what Mendez and company were up to here. Was all of this anarchy intentional? Did everyone just get bored with the flaccid script midway through? Or was the whole French Ghost Connection in a Humvee climax just spastic desperation? I left The Gravedancers slack-jawed, scratching my head, utterly dazed, yet somehow entertained. Any movie that elicits that kind of reaction outta me has done something special--even if it's own makers don't appear to know what the hell that was any more than I do.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Blog about Borat: Bet you Won't See Many of Those

I saw Borat this weekend, and since everyone and their sister's best friend's tennis coach is already pontificating to the high heavens about it, I'll try to keep it brief.

Yes, Sasha Baron Cohen's naively-twisted Kazakh brainchild offends with sawed-off-shotgun blasts of scatology and gleeful racism that assault everybody and anybody. And contrary to the deification it's been given by the nation's critics, it's not perfect: Sometimes it leaps off the chasm of Offensively Funny and splatters at ground zero of Just Plain Offensive.

But it's a sharper critique on this country's foibles than damn near anything mainstream Hollywood's excreted since a certain fire-and-brimstone Texan galloped into office. And most importantly, Borat is the funniest movie I've seen in God knows how long.

Those of you who've likewise seen it need only ponder upon these five words to break into stitches uncontrollably: The Mortgage Broker's Convention Scene (I'm gonna lose it again just thinking about it myself).

As for those of you who haven't yet seen Borat: remove your Political Correctness goggles and get ready to laugh your ever-lovin' ass off.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sex and Fury: It's Art! It's Trash! It's Both!

Eleven minutes into Sex and Fury (originally released in 1973, now out on Panik House DVD) there's a scene which represents an amazing--perhaps even definitive--cinematic crystalization of sex and violence. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but trust me: it's a mind-blower.

The most astonishing thing about this moment isn't the high quotient of violence, nor is it the wall-to-wall nudity on display (how are those for hints?). No, the most shocking aspect of this scene is that it's shot, edited, and acted with the unbridled artistry of a Kurosawa flick. Were a typical US director prompted to bring this moment to cinematic life, he'd jam his tongue so far into his cheek that it'd rip out the other end.

And that's what makes Sex and Fury so utterly fascinating: it juxtaposes base exploitive elements with the kind of craftsmanship customarily reserved for something a lot more respectable (this sub-genre, the Pinky Violence film, became a fixture in Japan). Simply put, few moviemakers in America have ever put this kind of care and artistry into this kind of movie.

Set in early twentieth-century Japan, it opens with the brutal murder of a police officer by assassins covering the ass of a crooked local politician. The slaughter is witnessed by the cop's little girl Ocho, who grows up to become a gambler, pickpocket, and swordswoman with the proverbial heart of gold.

Segue to 1905. Ocho (Reiko Ike)--now grown--makes a comfortable living on the streets, when two key events radically shake her world. First, a dying man asks her to rescue his young sister Yuki from a life of prostitution by buying back Yuki's freedom. Then Ocho gets a line on--and plans revenge against--her father's killers.

From here, Sex and Fury branches off on some pretty complex tangents for an exploitation movie. Another lady gambler, a European named Christina (Christina Lindberg), engages in a card game with Ocho (the stakes: Yuki's freedom). Lindberg turns out to be a foreign agent working to thwart a group of anarchist dissidents, but this elegant European spy falls in love with Shunosuke, leader of those political upstarts. Ocho's quest for revenge, meanwhile, takes her deep into the brothel that's enslaved (and deflowered)Yuki.

Director Norifumi Suzuki treats this entire saga with craftsmanship and verve, injecting hefty doses of socio-political commentary and high melodrama into the proceedings. Lindberg's fellow American diplomat is a classic ugly Westerner who cares more about the physical charms of his countrywoman than his duties, and Suzuki imbues the romance between Shunosuke and Christina with the epic feel of a gothic romance. The movie also looks stunning, its exquisitely-composed symbolism-laden frames awash in color and surprisingly opulent sets and costumes.

But don't get scared (or lulled) into thinking that this is the cinematic equivalent of a Bronte novel, or an anarchist polemic. Thoughtful and carefully-crafted as it is, Sex and Fury still possesses the grimy, pulpy soul of an exploitation movie. Stabbings, swordfights, gunplay, nudity, sex, rape, and torture cover the film like blood spatters on an elegant ball gown, and Suzuki rockets the action along with bullet-train velocity and precision (his fight scenes easily stand toe-to-sandalled toe with anything out of a Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub feature). There's something to offend everyone, but Sex and Fury is so arrestingly shot and realized that it frequently transcends its tawdry subject matter.
Two incredibly charismatic leads stand front and center in Suzuki's frantic parade of mayhem. Lindberg was a quintessential doe-eyed seventies brunette who made her name in several trashy Euro flicks of the seventies, most notably the notorious B actioner, Thriller: They Call Her One Eye (Lindberg's character in the latter was just one more influential jumping-off point for Quentin Tarantino). She's an arresting vision here, her milky skin and sad brown eyes contrasting strikingly with the green evening gown draped over her in her big entrance. My heart, however, belongs to Reiko Ike, a riveting presence who handles action, drama, and overt sexuality with equal aplomb. Kimono hanging off her tattooed shoulder and a lazer-beam stare shooting from her eyes as her sword makes cold cuts of an army of thugs, she's probably the closest thing Japanese exploitation cinema ever had to Pam Grier.

Like Grier, Ike dropped off the face of the earth after her seventies heyday, but unlike America's greatest movie heroine the Japanese action starlet never experienced a comeback. Genre Cinema guru Chris D. (in some excellent, informative DVD commentary) indicates that Ike harbored a lot of embarassment over participating in this and several other sex-and-action extravaganzas, and her exodus from film in the late seventies was likely intentional. Sex and Fury provides ample proof that the loss was undoubtedly ours.