Short Cut to Hell (1957)

Short Cut To Hell James Cagney‘s one and only directorial effort has little to offer that could not already be found A Gun For HireBoth films pull their ideas from the same Graham Greene novel. While neither picture disappoints, Short Cut to Hell simply cannot compare to A Gun for Hire. Why Cagney would try to make his directorial debut re-doing a film that already succeeded in spades is quite confusing. I guess all the grumbling we hear today about remakes of films is nothing new. Time usually has a way of making us forget these these second efforts of cinema, especially when the originals are seen as classics of a genre. Still, remakes might offer something fresh. For me, Short Cut To Heloffers up the line, “That’s a lot of lettuce to spend on peppermint patties.” It’s the sort of line you can pull off in a noir film; completely contrived yet wonderful to the ear. The fast, tough, and sharp dialog of noir films is pure fantasy when done right and hokum when done wrong. Cagney, being an actor, exceeds in handling the performances and dialog, but the visuals are rarely memorable, though never below par. Overall,  A Shortcut to Hell is a decent noir and far more entertaining than pretty much anything I’ll find on TV or at the theaters. Noir is certainly my go to comfort cinema.

Youngblood (1978)

YoungbloodOne might suspect that from its tagline – “If you live through the gang wars, the pushers, the back-alley deathtraps… YOU GONNA BE A STAR!’ – that Youngblood would be an uplifting story about someone finding salvation through basketball. However, the film is bleak and discouraging, in a rather honest way. Still, it is worth watching this movie for its minor victories. The look of the film is gritty realism and the fight scenes are extremely visceral. The scenes on the basketball courts are well shot and edited.  Strongest of all are a funky soundtrack by War and solid performances by Bryan O’Dell (What’s Happening?) and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Welcome Back Kotter). Combined these can’t save the film from the loose ends that leave Youngblood‘s narrative dangling. Youngblood ends with one of those classic 70’s freeze-frames almost as if the production ran out of funds before the story could be completed.

Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator is from a time when effects were practical and films were far more fun. It’s exciting to think of effects wizards working with latex and fake blood not CGI wizards hunched over keyboards. The mental image of the former is a kin to a mad scientist in his workshop. The latter has all the visual energy and wonder of an account pouring over a ledger.  It’s also a lot more fun to imagine the crew and actors on the set watching body parts exploded than imagining them re-acting to events that will be added in post-production. Personally, I think the act of making a film like Re-Animator be just as fun as watching it. You can watch it here or on Netflix and tell me, am I wrong?

Also, I think the font in the credits of Re-Animator is the same as Law & Order, no?

Exhibit A

re-animator

Exhibit B

law_and_order

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982)

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a punk rock fantasy that would have us believe an arena of already brain-washed punks (or skunks as they call themselves, here) would sincerely listen to Ray Winstone lecture them about how they’ve been marketed to by a fraudulent female punk band that is more fashion than fury. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a satire, but it fails to mock the simple notion that no rocker pushing 30 is going to be able to talk any sense into a crowd of consumerist teen rebels. That’s just farce.

This movie was fun as a kid, but it’s more funny than fun once you are over 30 and no longer trustworthy. I think I’ll stick with Out of the Blue

Detour (1945)

DetourArgue all you want, but Detour is horribly flawed. Roger Ebert uses an analysis by Andrew Britton to question if lead actor Tom Neal can be a trustworthy narrator. It’s interesting to consider that the dialog he speaks directly to the audience is not a woeful plea for sympathy, but a lie he’s trying to sell to the audience and maybe himself. Regards of what it is, I find it horribly agitating and disruptive. A direct address to the audience is just not something used to seeing in cinema and because its really on his voice that addresses the audience it feels like an after thought. Because the entire film is full of faults this choice does not feel like like a sure-footed decision by a daring director, but a corrective decision. Most of the decisions made in Detour are due to economy more than experimentation. Which is not to say Edgar G. Ulmer is not a good director. That   Detour is entertaining as it is stands as proof that he is good and very inventive. Still, it feels that to appreciate this film you also have to appreciate the circumstances under which it was made, the creative problem solving that brought it together, and the analysis that often sounds like excuses or apologies.

Battle Royale (2000)

Battle RoyaleI have not watched Battle Royale in over a decade.  Here are 5 Random thoughts I have after revisiting the film.

1) The Battle Royale or BR-Act was created after a massive student walk-out. Never is it really stated why there was such a massive walk-out. We are told that it had to do with a decline in the Japanese youth’s respect towards authority, but everything we are told about the decline of Japanese civilization comes from the perspective of those holding power.

2) Few of the students in the class chosen for the Battle Royale complain about school or the abusive powers of authority. Many recoil in shock when they find out that they have to kill one another or when they watch a classmate get killed, but few ever complain about the conditions of school or society that caused them to rebel, walk-out, protest, or whatever they did to help degrade society. It leaves me wondering if I am missing something. Was Japanese society at the turn of the last century already witnesses an unraveling of its social fabric by the youth of the country? Was there simply something in the air that signaled a drop in respect for tradition and authority was imminent? And what was causing the youth to act out? Were they pushing back against a schooling system that was pushing them too hard or were they falling under the influence of Western civilization? Most most intriguing is how Battle Royale simply asks audiences to accept the deplorable behavior of Japanese youth with little evidence. Compare this with Punishment Park, a film that used the war protests and actions of groups like the Weathermen as a basis for its vision of a brutal future.

3) Is Battle Royale more a send-up of teen melodramas than a dystopian nightmare? Most of the students concerned about expressing their lustful feelings for each other before they die. The vomiting forth of pent-up emotions and suppressed lust comes erupts awkwardly, like a John Hughes film. Petty differences are put aside by some, while others relish the opportunity to use the BR-Act as a chance to strike back at their tormentors.  Battle Royal also follows the teenager slasher trend of making slutty girls pay for their past transgressions while virginal school girls survive…or at least one does.

The Third Man? A Carol Reed reference by way of NBA JAMS?

A Carol Reed reference by way of NBA JAM?

4) Knowing nothing of real hacker culture I could be way off the mark when I speculate that hacking software does not always involve cartoons characters slam dunking basketballs. Again, I plead ignorance.

5) What’s the logic of throwing ringers into the mix? The two transfer students are far superior at the Battle Royale and their inclusion helps raise the death toll quickly, but are they necessary? The rules of the game already ensure that the regular students have to kill each other if one of them hopes to survive. So, you don’t need merciless hunters to bring about a winner. Plus, if Takeshi Kitano‘s character is rooting for one of the girls two win, the inclusion of theses ringers does more to damage her chances of surviving. Since they are more like hardened killers than bad students forced to kill one another. Of course, I’m arguing about a scripted story with a predetermined outcome. But, I’m also saying that if the day ever comes that Battle Royale becomes necessary and real I’d forgo the idea of throwing in ringers as transfer students.

Black Shampoo (1976)

Mr. Jonathan is hairdresser / Lothario who does far more than a woman’s hair. When he’s not satisfying his sexually starved clientele he’s a mean fighting machine looking to win back the receptionist who has been stolen away from him.

Made one year after Shampoo starring Warren BeattyBlack Shampoo is one of the oddest twists blaxploitation has ever taken.  With its odd mix of styles the film sexploitation, blaxploitation, even gayploitation (if that is even a genre) this film mixes action, comedy and romance in a way that only director Greydon Clark and writer Alvin L. Fast are capable of doing.

Black Shampoo often screeches to a halter for the sake of showing some serious skin. Clark knows that sex sells and many of his exploitation films try to take this philosophy to the bank, but often in such head scratching ways that his films become either brilliant forays into the unexpected or bungled messes. It really depends on how you look at it and how much you demand a film stick to convention. Personally, I’ll take unexpected, even wonderfully crazy, if I’m looking to be entertained. Show me something I could not think up on my own. A black hairdresser kicking ass with chainsaw and partying at a gay rodeo…where else am I going to see that?