Saturday, August 18, 2012

To Burn the Sun

Today at Spectacle, the head honcho of Screen Slate presented a marathon of action films directed by Indonesia's Arizal. Who? Well, apaprently he's a very prolific director who made all sorts of films, and through the 80's did a bunch of these cheesy exploitation pictures. All tropes and excess strung around threadbare plots, plus a decidedly eastern take on western conventions. I caught the first one, which started at 12:45, and I was the only one who showed up. It was also the only one of the six films that was not dubbed in English. No subs either, but none necessary. This one is heavy on the hand to hand combat and has more melodrama. Apparently the others are all explosions, car chases, fighting, shooting and other such havoc. As To Burn the Sun opens, Barry Prima, yeah, the cat from the Warrior movies
 is in a funky Indonesian disco with a live band playing this song wrapped around a brain numbing guitar riff. The bandleader had big collars and so forth. Barry spies his fiance, played by his real life partner Eva Arnaz. He tries to talk to her, but she blows him off and is escorted out by some older dude. Barry follows them outside and a bunch of hoods attack him but he kicks their ass karate / silat style. Anyway, he tracks her down and it turns out (via copious flashbacks) that bandits raided her village, killed her family, raped her and forced her into prostitution, all essayed in lurid and exaggerated fashion. The crazy mustaches and afros of the incessantly leering baddies are exemplary of this, as is the moment when the women forced into the sex trade share a bed only to awake to the sight of another female captive who has hanged herself. Were talking pantomime style here. Barry orchestrates a semi-elaborate escape plan using cars ad decoys, then her grandfather trains her in silat and it's time for revenge and returibution. During the training and subsequent fight scenes, there is this weird country song that plays incongruously, which actually makes the proceedings all the more awesome (see the clip of Eva fighting below). In one set piece the bandits circle her in two jeeps while she cradles a toddler until she manages to dodge both cars forcing one to run into a brick wall. Mind you, the wall isn't part of a building, it's just a random partition near a hut. The whole movie is gloriously inane and insane. Eva was truly star material, what with her high cheek bones, raven hair, and groovy moves.

The above clip is prime Prima from the typically ridiculous The Devil's Sword. Below is Eva kicking ass in To Burn... (don't recall the bionic noises in the version I saw). I don't think they could show nudity in Indonesian films, but they did manage to expose her underwear a lot in this scene.

Reel Injun

In the documentary  Reel Injun, filmmaker Neil Diamond (really!) tells how, growing up in the Cree village of Waskaganish, Quebec, he and the other native kids would play cowboys and Indians after seeing the westerns that were shown (in the basement of a church) there. And everybody wanted to be a cowboy (since the Indians always lose).  Reel Injun explores the portrayal of the American Indian in Hollywood films. Diamond journeys from the arctic north in Canada and goes across the U.S. interviewing various natives and visiting crucial locations, from Monument Valley to Wounded Knee. In one section there's a photo montage where they show all these non-natives that played Indians, including Chuck Connors, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds.

The still of Reynolds is of course from Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti western Navajo Joe, in which the titular native character is an underdog hero. Reynolds is in fact part Cherokee interestingly enough. Regardless, the absurdity of the stereotypes revealed throughout the film is amusing, enlightening, and of course infuriating. According to Hollywood, all American Indians were of the plains variety, all with the same sort of feathers, headbands, teepees, horses, etc. But Reel Injun gives us a glimpse at the true diversity of native peoples. At the start Diamond talks about how horses and so forth were not a part of Cree culture there, way up north. The journey mode of the film is engaging, and the film is cleverly  edited into various, often sardonically titled sections such as 'noble,' 'savage' and so on. I think they might even have a clip from Blazing Saddles in there. They talk about Iron Eyes Cody, who it turns out was Italian American, but wholeheartedly embraced native people and their culture, married a native woman and raised his children with native pride. Sacheen Littlefeather, the native activist (and one time model, very lovely woman) who accepted Marlon Brando's Oscar for The Godfather because he boycotted the awards for Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, is an interview highlight. There are also lots of clips of more positive films, like one of my favorites, Little Big Man (read the source novel too). And of course indie films by and about natives, Smoke Signals and Pow Wow Highway. I still haven't seen Exiles, though I've heard only good things, but it's not covered here. They do have an amazing clip of filming The Fast Runner, in which a naked man runs across snow and ice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sound of Fury

Surfing for obscure, interesting-looking noir on Netflix streaming I came across this picture THE SOUND OF FURY, also billed as TRY AND GET ME (cool pulp title). It took me right in from the beginning with a fire and brimstone street preacher, shot in a way that felt authentic. Granted, authenticism may in fact be an artistic choice, but an oft-compelling one.

It starts off with that noir paradigm of a working class everyman who, desperate for money to survive (in this case an unemployed man with a wife, son, and child on the way) ends up getting involved with a criminal. What starts off as petty larceny leads to kidnapping, murder, and then the story takes a real turn. An angry, misguided mob becomes an indictment of human foibles, raising moral, societal and existential questions beyond simply these two individuals' misdeeds.

Points of interest:
  • Based on a novel, The Condemned, by Jo Pagano, who also wrote the screenplay. 
  • The novel, film, and Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) were all inspired by the same true story. Scary stuff when you see the film's finale and what leads up to it.
  • Director Cy Enfield proved not only a master craftsman, but stirred things up; this picture was seen as anti-american, and his slight involvement with communism led him to leave the states for England, where he made some pictures including another noir called Hell Drivers. The anti-American thing is like Howard Hawks making Rio Bravo as a reaction to High Noon. Real interesting guy this Enfield, from Yale scholar, to avant garde theater director, to workingman/auteur with something to say in his pictures.
What struck me:
  • Certainly the aforementioned preacher opening grabs you, and the jarring camera angles, swift editing, all the techniques a director has to keep your attention, and the metaphorical power imbued within.
  • The neo-realist, documentary-like approach. It's gritty and you identify a real world here. The story starts as the everyman hitches a ride with a truck driver at a truck stop in the dark of night and the tone is set. The atmosphere is surprisingly intoxicating, not in a fantastic manner, but because the time and locations feel so real that all the emotions, from hope to desperation, are made even more palpable; from truck stop to diner, bowling alley, gas station, highway shacks and pre-fab homes, this is a disarmingly sinister kind of Americana.
  • Frank Lovejoy as the main character, the everyman who wants to do good by his family, but ends up wrong, real wrong. His roundish, sad sack, good Joe face suits the role to a tee, and he plays it to a perfect picth, if not sometimes bordering slightly on the maudlin, but just barely. It's forgivable because of the pathos he brings to the picture. His soul is a redeemable one because he has a conscious.
  • Lloyd Bridges was really good at playing bad guys and here he's spot on as a psychopath. Yes, in perfect juxtaposition to Lovejoy's character, his evil criminal has no emotions; he is motivated purely by id. He takes what he wants whether by charm, trickery, or force. I suppose his turn could be called scenery chewing to a certain degree, but this sort of character calls for that. You should also check out another inspired bad guy performance by Bridges in Richard Fleischer's Trapped (1949). This is all way before... 

  • The film is decidedly noir, especially for the first half, often evidenced by the use of shadows. Lots of darkness, from the nighttime truck drives, and small time heists. Check out the convicts in cells towards the end of the picture for some nice shadowplay. This is nicely contrasted by the everyday working class struggle, portrayed in the California daytime and its working class families.
  • The moral and existential commentary in the third act, when the whole town, up in arms about these men's crime, rally in an all out assault against them. A tip of the hat to Enfield for conducting the finale to a well balance dramatic crescendo. Skillful in the way of Dassin's ending to Brute Force.
Suggested film pairing: Maybe on the bottom bill with Thieve's Highway or as a warm up to or cool down from After Dark My Sweet.

Suggested drinks: Basic American beers, and eventually some boiler makers where you pour the bourbon (Jim Beam should be appropriate) right into the beer, as Bridges does to Lovejoy. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Frisco Jenny

Saw William Wellman's Frisco Jenny at MOMA today. 1932, old school Hollywood storytelling. In 70 some odd minutes you've got disaster (the 1906 SF earthquake), pre-code tawdriness (the titular character becomes the city's top madame and a bastion of vice), guns, murder, hijacking, courtroom drama and it all adds up to one highly charged, but surpisingly restrained (well, sort of) melodrama. I think the MOMA description mentioned the impressive camera movement in the film's opening. The story starts at a San Francisco dancehall with a long tracking shot, well predating steadicam. The scenes of the earthquake, interior sets crashing down around Jenny, were quite thrilling. With all the action crammed into the film, it's like a series of set-pieces, each one perfectly contained and effective, albeit with some of the melodramatics a little dated, yet charming in a  nostalgic manner.