Manuel on the Island of Wonders

manoel03Raoul Ruiz, Portugal, 1984, 152 min.

NOTE: This review was written 11 years ago (please forgive the amateur trappings), but the film still sticks with me this day.

This Portuguese mini-series is extremely rare. There was a translated version shown on Australian TV only once. If you can, try to find a copy of this broadcast. It’s worth it.

This three episode series comprises the adventures of a young boy. They each play out like a fairy tale. The mood is very light and dreamy. The stories are great and very unique. The first two episodes are fairly straight forward, but the third is quite hard to understand. It doesn’t really matter though, because the mood and the visuals are what makes the them so good.

Its hard to describe… the series is not action oriented, but it is fast paced. It left me with the feeling that, even though I had just watched it, I had heard these stories as a child and were remembering them years later. This is definitely worthwhile. If you ever get a chance to see Manuel on the Island of Wonders, do it. It’s a shame to let this series fade into oblivion.

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Dope

dopeRick Famuyiwa, USA, 2015, 103 min.

Dope is a packed film. So much happens that the film seems to switch scripts or even genres every few minutes. But it works because of the unique energy pulsing through it from beginning to end. In it’s music, it’s characters, and its performances, Dope separates itself from the rest of the pack and delivers something fresh.

The star of the film is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a nerdy highschooler in the present day projects of LA. He does well at school, wants to get into Harvard, is obsessed with 9’0s hip-hop music and fashion, and is in a band with his two best friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori).

We see Malcolm navigating the thin line of his day to day: avoiding getting his sneakers stolen, trying to find the safest way home through the streets after school, trying to avoid the local drug-dealers, trying to catch the eye of a certain girl he is smitten with, and balancing all that with the pressures of applying to college.

The opening scenes establishing this world, the characters, and the tone are great. Then the first part of the plot kicks in when Malcolm gets a hold of a bag of drugs, through no fault of his own. Everyone wants it, and Malcolm and his friends try to somehow get cleanly out of this sticky situation.

The plots takes many twists and turns from there, veering off into comedy, action, and drama. There is computer hacking, drug binges, sexual escapades, musical numbers, coming of age, car chases and shootouts. All of which are awkwardly transitioned in and out of but somehow seem to work.

It’s a mess of a movie, but what it has going for it makes everything come together. That energy, that music, and especially those characters. The direction is solid and full of spirit. Famuyiwa knows how to use music, guide performances, and even more important, project a unique vision up on the screen. He even pulled off some Spike Lee touches without it seeming like a ripoff: the surreal scene on the bus, and the epic breaking of the fourth all speech are classic Spike.

But even with that, Dope is a unique film full of great scenes, great music, and ever batter characters. It’s exciting, it’s different, and I left the theater full of admiration and with a smile on my face.

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The Terminator

TerminatorJames Cameron, USA, 1984, 107 min.

There are some things that make a film stand the test of time. A good concept, memorable scenes, a sure-hand in the director’s chair, and a solid script. Not to mention everything else that goes into making a good film (acting, music, production, etc.)

The Terminator has all of the above, with the addition of being James Cameron’s first real directorial effort. It’s a debut that heralds the arrival of one of our best action directors and a film that shows Cameron knew the important things about movies right out of the gate.

I won’t reiterate the story. We all know the cool pulpy sci-fi concept of the relentless robot sent back in time to kill the mother of John Connor (the man destined to win a war against the robots in the future), and the human sent back in time to protect her. Put into the right hands, it turns into a great story with atmosphere, action and quiet moments of drama.

I do want to talk about how well-structured the film is. That is something Cameron does so well. A clear set-up that hooks from the beginning, and set-peice upon set-peice building up the climax. Events lead into each other in a believable way so we are never led astray and are always engaged. The guy really knows what makes movies exciting, and he’s shown it time and time again.

And I haven’t even talked about one of the films greatest strengths: the casting of real-life cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is perfectly suited for the role of a menacing and unstoppable killing machine.

I gush, but the film isn’t perfect. The latex face Schwarzenegger wears at some points is distracting. The heroes think they have won, only to be mistaken, just one too many times. And I could do without Sarah Conner’s final one-liner. But those are quibbles in an otherwise solid, memorable and exciting film.

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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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