Exhumed Films Ex-Fest 2015

PoorPrettyEddie

Exhumed Films put on a great show once again. This celebration of exploitation excess had a fairly consistent lineup with some great highlights and only one real stinker. Definitely a fun and memorable day in the theater!

I am still amazed that I have been able to see movies like this on 35mm. Here’s hoping that Exhumed Films continues to do what they do best for a long time to come!

Assault on Precinct 13 – John Carpenter, USA, 1976

Early on John Carpenter had a handle on some of the essentials of film-making: maintaining pace, effective use of music, creating cool characters with minimal setup, and knowing the right moment to shock the audience. This story of a remote police station under siege by gang members out for revenge uses all those techniques to full effect.

The crowd especially liked Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), the fan-favorite criminal whose character and back-story are written just enough for viewers to really root for him. It’s just one example of Carpenter’s “less is more” writing style that really makes this film shine. The music score is still stuck in my head and has been since the screening.

Ninja Busters - Paul Kyriazi, USA, 1984

This film was never released in theaters, TV, video or DVD. Exhumed Films might hold the only print that exists. Lucky for us they decided to screen it. Ninja Busters is a goofy martial arts comedy. The tale of two loveable losers (Sid Campbell and Eric Lee) who join a martial arts school to meet women. The meeting women part doesn’t really work, but learning martial arts does. Pretty soon our heroes are skilled enough that they can deal with an army of ninjas and mobsters that they run afoul of.

This film is a perfect mix of its parts: Sub-par martial arts, stupid comedy, and an aura of so-bad-it’s-good. It makes for an entertaining, if not ground-breaking, film. A film I wish I could own so I could watch it at home with some friends.

Cockfighter – Monte Hellman, USA, 1974

I’m a huge fan of Charles Willeford’s novels and was glad to see that what makes them work comes across in his screenplay as well. Warren Oates plays a silent cockfighter trying to come back from a huge loss and win the Cockfighter of the Year award. It sounds goofy in premise, but it’s a serious character study that is steeped in a very realistic portrayal of a world I never knew existed.

Yes, there are actual cockfights in this film. And they were very hard to watch. But the film is a product of its time when these things were legal, and it adds to the authenticity of the film. Monty Hellman does a good job maintaining that. The characters feel real, and the scenes and story are odd, and alien but very intriguing. The ending reminds me of P.T. Anderson, in a good way.

Flesh Gordon – Michael Benveniste, Howard Ziehm, USA, 1974

I was surprised to find out this was made before the beloved 1980 version. It’s a goofy, softcore spoof of the original Flash Gordon comics. Instead of Flash, it’s Flesh. Emperor Ming is now Emperor Wang. Dr. Zarkoff is instead Dr. Flexi Jerkoff. You get the idea. It’s low-budget and doesn’t have much else to offer besides goofy titillation, with one notable exception.

The special effects! It employed some really good Harryhausen-like animation. Apparently Rick Baker worked on this film before moving on to bigger and better things.

Street Law - Enzo G. Castellari, Italy, 1976

Italian crime drama from Enzo G. Castellari, master of… making lots of genre films? This one does have a great opening. Slow motion shots of street crimes in progress set to some blaring rock music. And it does have Franco Nero. It also has a solid revenge concept going for it to. That makes it a cut above the rest. A mild-mannered business man is mugged during a bank robbery. The police won’t help, so he sets out to take matters into his own hands.

Fun, with some good action and car chases, but you won’t find anything new here besides maybe those cool opening shots.

Poor Pretty Eddie – Richard Robinson, David Worth, USA, 1975

What a weird film. The print we saw was titled Black Vengeance, and when the story began to become clear I thought I knew where it was going. I was wrong. And that was the joy of the film. Just watching as the story progressed from familiar territory to a very… different place.

We start off watching the story of a famous Jazz singer (Leslie Uggams) breaking down in the middle of nowhere on vacation, and stopping at a very out-of-the-way and slightly creepy hotel/restaurant/garage owned by an ex-burlesque dancer alcoholic played by Shelly Winters. There are some creepy individuals working for her, some of which become obsessed with the new stranded woman. It becomes clear that something bad is going to happen to her, and my assumption was the film would be about her getting revenge for whatever that was.

Well, let’s just say things play out slightly differently. It’s not what you would expect, especially the sheriff played by Slim Pickens. What a wonderfully weird film!

Forced Entry – Jim Sotos, USA, 1975

The worst film of Ex-fest in my opinion. It’s a generic story of a serial killer who picks up and murders young girls because of his sexual inadequacy. It’s a bit directionless, very slow, and not sleazy enough to make up for any of those inadequacies. The best part is a very young Nancy Allen showing up in a short-lived role as an unfortunate hitchhiker.

Fleshpot on 42nd Street – Andy Milligan, USA, 1973

This is a fictional account of the lives of prostitutes on NYC’s famous 42nd street in the early 70’s. What I did like about the film was the view it gives the audience into that time and place. The execution, acting and story were poor, but at least it felt like everyone involved was actually a part of that world.

Love him or hate him, Milligan has made a lot of movies and has earned himself a small place in the history of genre film. And this is a good example of what his strengths and weaknesses are.

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Wild Tales

WildTalesDamián Szifrón, Argentina, 2014, 122 min.

This anthology film is an oddity among anthology films because it isn’t horror, and even more importantly, all the episodes are written and directed by the same filmmaker: Damián Szifrón.

This last is important, because while most anthology films are wildly hit and miss, having one voice behind this one provides a style, tone and theme that remain consistent throughout.  That gives it a through-line that makes the whole piece very satisfying.

It helps that the six stories themselves are all interesting and well-written scenarios. They lean towards the dramatic but are all filled with humor. I won’t ruin any of the surprises by giving away too much of what they are about.

Maybe just a sampling that doesn’t even come close to hinting at the surprises to come: A rich family reacts to a son committing a hit and run accident. Two people on an airplane find out they have something in common. A road rage incident gets a bit out of control. A waitress finds that one of her customers played an important part in a terrible event of her past.

The theme of revenge plays a part in all of them. That, coupled with the big and bold direction from Szifrón, connect these shorts and keep the film engaging and fun to watch.

The opening short in particular is a highlight, kicking the whole thing off and setting the stage for what’s to come. And the last short ends on a high note as well. A wedding in turmoil after the wife discovers something bad about her husband. That short is filled with delirious and stylish scenes of music and light that bring the energy of the film up and up and up until the funny and poignant ending.

Overall, the acting and production is top-notch. Its a rare treat to see six short films in a row that are this high in quality and consistent in vision. And to have them feel like they belong together! What joy it was to find that through its form, function and theme, Wild Tales, in a good wayfully lives up its name.

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Postman Blues

PostmanBluesSABU, Japan, 1997, 110 min.

The movie starts with a montage that shows that the director knows what he is doing. The monotony of the titular postman sorting mail at the post office is intercut with that same postman out on delivery, dealing with the daily annoyances while riding through the city on his all-too-small bike. It’s a charged and quirky little scene that increases intensity until the splash-screen of the title.

This opening is very indicative of SABU’s style, which is on display for the entire film. The story is a mixture of heart and humor, punctuated by violence and full of an understanding of how people turn their feelings into actions.

The postman (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) is at the end of his rope. Sick of his job and a life lacking in possibilities. He fatefully delivers mail to an old high school friend, Noguchi (Keisuke Horibe) who happens to be a member of the Yakuza and also happens to have just cut off his pinky, which he promptly loses.

After that fateful encounter, the postman returns home to re-examine his life, which causes him to reach out to a girl he only knows through a letter he stumbled upon. Sayoko (Kyôko Tôyama) turns out to be the love of his life, and also happens to be dying of cancer. Their love is told in a great montage. No words, just a simple outing in the city that ends in a beautiful waterfront scene.

The postman also meets Hitman Joe (Ren Ôsugi) at Sayoko’s hospital, an aging assassin whom he quickly befriends. Hitman Joe is waiting to hear about his audition to be the King of Killers, the title given to the best hitman around.

But that friendship, as well as the one with Noguchi, compound the other problem the postman has. One which he isn’t even aware of: the police offers who happen to think he is a drug runner, a terrorist, a criminal mastermind, or maybe even a serial killer. Their interest in him escalates through coincidence, happenstance and hilarious assumptions. This case of mistaken identity drives the film closer to its climax.

The last act of the film is a chase scene where all the main characters, and some fun new additions, are destined to converge. It’s reminiscent of SABU’s first feature, Dangan Runner, which consists essentially of layered chase scenes where even the chasers are finding themselves being chased. But in the case of Postman Blues, the action set-piece, which could have just been fun, is made truly touching by the circumstances around it.

It’s the sincerity that makes it work. Tsutsumi’s postman is an earnest and honest fellow. His love for Sayoko is real. His friendship with Hitman Joe and Noguchi are real. And when his desire and happiness to be with Sayoko make him pedal his bike impossibly fast, it just puts a smile on your face.

When the end credits splash across the screen, you may feel cheated, but SABU isn’t done with you yet. It’s a bold move to continue the film from there, but what transpires afterwards is a wonderful denouement that really elevates this film from a quirky romantic action comedic into something really inspired.

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Sorcerer

SorcererWilliam Friedkin, 1977, USA, 121 min.

William Friedkin’s remake of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is more accurately described as another version of the original source novel. The similarities to the first film seem to be in concept only. But what a concept!

A group of desperate men are hired for the dangerous (suicidal) job of driving trucks of dynamite over harsh terrain. In this version, the dynamite is needed to put out an oil fire. The rig is where most of these men work: an already dangerous job in a dirt-poor town on the edge of a jungle.

Each man has their own reasons for being in that town, but they are now all desperate to leave. And the money at the end of this suicide mission can get them their tickets.

How they got to that position is the subject of the first part of the film. Each character is introduced in scenes that show what happened that made them leave their home. One was a murderer, another a terrorist from Isreal. There’s also a French embezzler, and a low-life robber from New Jersey played by Roy Scheider.

We see why they are in South America, and then we see why they have to leave. Life in this town is terrible. Everyone is poor and dirty. The streets are made of mud, the houses made of broken wood and sheet metal. Everyone seems sweaty and miserable.

That is one of the great things about this film. It’s so real. This town seem like it exists and its inhabitants actually live there. The oil rig looks real, and the accident and explosions have a real visceral impact. The movie has an almost documentary feel. The soundtrack by Tangerine Dream isn’t used too often, but when it is the music is very effective.

The actual driving sequences are filled with tension from the moment they start until the film’s finale. The realism was incredible. It looked like they really drove these giant rickety trucks through the jungle, over mountains and bridges and through mud and rivers. It reminded me a lot of Werner Herzog.

The rope-bridge sequence is stellar. Just look at that image above! The film goes all-out in those moments, and the tension is real. It’s a powerhouse sequence that shows off Friedkin’s chops. It’s real, guerrilla film-making at its best.

Movies like this don’t get made very often. The cast and crew were invested in this film. It must have been hell to get footage like this. But that’s what this story needed. It needed realism: Dirt, sweat, blood and the passion to make something special. And that’s what we got.

 

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My Favorite Films of 2014

The phrase “Best Films” doesn’t mean much coming from anyone. We all have our opinions and tastes and that’s what makes each critic unique. So below you will find my favorite films of 2014. The Top 10 to be exact.

There were a few other films that didn’t make my list but deserve your attention for various reasons. Tusk for it’s perfect tone, The One I Love for its slow reveal of a bizarre story, and two really cool martial arts films: Die Fighting, and The Raid 2.

I thought each one of the ten below were great films. I hope that, if you haven’t yet, you check some of them out. And please let me know what I missed. There is nothing better than watching a great film that you haven’t seen before.

10) Obvious ChildGillian Robespierre, USA, 84 min.ObviousChild

‘A wonderful and funny take on the one-night stand pregnancy story. Written and directed with a smart and sweet style, its full of truthful moments. The whole thing is anchored by a great performance by Jenny Slate, who manages to be very funny and very real at the same time.

9) Snowpiercer – Joon-ho Bong, South Korea, 126 min.Snowpiercer

Bong has made a habit out of making films that defy genre conventions. His latest continues that trend in telling the action-packed, funny and strange story of a train circumnavigating a frozen Earth in the apocalyptic future. It’s full of social commentary, unforgettable characters and scenes, and many twists and turns. If I had to describe it, which I can’t, I would say it’s like the video game Bioshock on a train.

8) Locke – Steven Knight, UK, 85 min.Locke

A man taking phone calls in a car for eighty minutes. That’s it. But the film is written like a thriller, and as it went on I was compelled by the story and the character that was developing. Tom Hardy fully realizes the potential for the smart dialog and turns the character into a real person. A real person that had real feelings and motivations and had me caring about what happened to him.

7) InterstellarChristopher Nolan, USA, 169 min.Intersellar

I didn’t care about the science behind this. It’s a big film that makes you think about big questions. It’s bold and messy but full of great ideas and lots and lots of scale.

6) Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer, UK, 108 min.UnderTheSkin

Glazer is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and this film deserves it’s comparisons to Kubrick. Scarlett Johansson is the perfect choice for this otherworldly tale of an alien seducing and killing men in the Scottish countryside. The style is experimental, yet refined, and contains incredible images that I will never forget.

5) Gone Girl – David Fincher, USA, 149 min.GoneGirl

The idea behind this film is great, but for it to work the director has to pull off a very tricky balancing act. Fincher is definitely the one for the job. His direction is so precise that the idea of Ben Affleck killing his wife or him just being an ignorant jerk are both equally compelling. It’s a complex task but the film works like a well-oiled machine.

4) Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, UK, 100 min.GrandBudapestHotel

This film felt like Wes Anderson took all the of the good things he learned from his previous films and combined them into one beautiful and charming movie. The production design is superb as always, and the nostalgic framing and effects work so well for the story being told. It also helps that the film is full of amazing characters and performances from an ungodly amount of incredible actors.

3) Two Days, One Night – Dardenne Brothers, Belgium, 95 min.TwoDaysOneNight

The Dardenne Brothers have a great style. They do not tell you what is going on in the film. The characters talk like they are real people and don’t explain plot points to an audience. While you watch you slowly learn what is going on and who the characters are. To make things even more real they film with a naturalistic style. Natural light, no music. Just great performances by all around, especially Marion Cotillard, who plays a factory worker who has to convince her fellow employees to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job.

2) Big Hero 6 - Don Hall and Chris Williams, USA, 102 min.BigHero6

I think this is a perfect film. The directors, writers and animators know what makes movies great. Beautiful animation, a touching story, imaginative characters, and a unique setting: San Fransokyo, a Japanese American hybrid futuristic city. And what a sense of adventure! What struck me the most was how they understood the concept of a team. These genius lab students turned super-heroes have unique skills and each one gets a chance to shine throughout the film. Throw in the super-likeable Baymax and his fist-bumps, and you really have a winner of a movie.

1) Whiplash – Damien Chazelle, USA, 107 min.Whiplash

A film about the price of excellence. Miles Teller plays a young jazz musician trying to be the best at his craft. Not just good, but the best. And J.K. Simmons, in the most unforgettable performance of the year, is just the man to get him there. He’s the mythologically legendary conductor who runs an ensemble with the best musicians in the school. Watching him drive Miles Teller to musical heights and personal lows is thrilling.

The editing and music are amazing and tie together perfectly. And it all builds through some powerful turn of events and into a dynamite ending. Chazelle directed the hell out of that ending. After the film was over, I just had to lean back and take a deep breath because I was spent. Now that is the sign of a good film.

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