Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Interiors

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

As if to avoid distracting mumbles of “Oh, guess where he got that!” in the middle of his unashamedly imitative first non-comedy, Woody Allen gets his most Bergmanesque shot out of the way right up front. It’s a soft, dreamy, quiet interior of a woman running her hand inquiringly across a windowpane; and it establishes straightaway the film’s inside/outside polarity, with the woman seemingly trying to comprehend the shell that separates one existence from another. The glass of the window, like the wall of the eye, or the lens of the camera, is the transparent, impenetrable, inexorable demarcation between the in-here and the out-there. Nothing new; but from here Allen goes on to build a distinctly American Bergman film, accessible, even downright obvious in contrast with the Swedish master’s arcane musings.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror

Kapò and The Sadist With Red Teeth – Two Kinds of Horror and the DVDs of the Week

Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House)

In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?

Kapo

Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg, her performance dubbed into Italian) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Industry, Interviews

“I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my movies very seriously” – Lloyd Kaufman Interviewed

The world knows Lloyd Kaufman (or rather, the part of the world that has heard of Lloyd Kaufman knows him) as the face of Troma Films and the director of the notoriously outrageous zero-budget cult-classic The Toxic Avenger and sequels. Fewer people know that he’s directed dozens of films (including the 2006 return to form Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, now also on–yes, it’s true–Blu-ray), produced scores more and made appearances in over a hundred genuinely independently-produced movies (partly out of solidarity with directors working outside the system, partly to promote the Troma brand). And some may even know that he’s the author of numerous books, most recently the guerrilla how-to guide Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, and a producer of documentaries and box sets devoted to practical tips on low-budget filmmaking.

Lloyd kaufman
Lloyd Kaufman

What is less well known is his commitment to independent filmmaking. Not the kind of multi-million dollar films with major stars and studio backing that Hollywood brands as “Independent,” but independently financed and produced films made and seen outside the studio system. He’s the president of The Independent Film and Television Alliance, the trade association for the independent movie industry, and has been actively engaged in the fight to preserve net neutrality. And he created the TromaDance Film Festival, unique in the spectrum of American film festivals in that it does not charge filmmakers a fee to submit their films nor does it charge admission to the shows.

I interviewed Lloyd Kaufman in June 2009, when he was in Seattle for a horror convention. Troma’s tireless publicist arranged an opportunity for me to interview him between appearances and we spent over an hour in his hotel lobby talking about everything from the democratization filmmaking to corporate stranglehold on the distribution and exhibition of movies in the U.S. (from theaters to TV) to the origins of Troma.

As the 11th Annual TromaDance Film Festival prepares to unspool on April 16, 2010, in its new home at Asbury Park, New Jersey, we present this lively interview with the outspoken and passionate Lloyd Kaufman. And be prepared: Kaufman is not shy about letting his passions through in very colorful language. Take it as you will, as warning or enticement.

You have a very interesting set of credits. You worked on Rocky and you were production manager on My Dinner With Andre.

Yes, I was indeed. Those movies, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, those were my film school.

How did you move from working on those industry productions to creating the outsider studio Troma?

I was making my own movies constantly, I was always making my own damn movies and I was interested in long form, so at the one time we were trying to figure out… I did Sugar Cookies in 1970, I didn’t direct it, I made the mistake of just raising money and writing and producing, and then the distribution didn’t work out too well. And then we made a movie in Israel that’s probably the worst movie in history, called Big Gus, What’s the Fuss (1971), it’s the only movie I’m embarrassed to show and we got screwed on that one, and then Michael Herz and I decided that we had better learn distribution, and that’s when we started Troma in 1974 to both produce and distribute ourselves. Of course in those days there was just theatrical.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Days of Heaven

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaven that this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memory—which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven; rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic composition—a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The End / Hooper

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

From the tone of the “Emergence of Burt Reynolds” ballyhoo that heralded its arrival, I expected The End to be the bigger hit of the past summer’s two Reynolds films. But despite his competent bid for respect as a serious directorial talent in The End, Reynolds—on either side of the camera—is more engaging in the midst of the humble good-timeyness of Hooper. Hal Needham directed the latter, a stuntman’s paean to stuntmen; but one glance at the credit and cast lists for the two films makes a case for regarding both as the product of the Burt Reynolds stock company that has been slowly a-building through White Lightning, Gator and Smokey and the Bandit. These folks enjoy one another so darn much it’s pretty hard for us not to enjoy them, too.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Lord of the Rings (Part One)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Looking at the photograph of Saul Zaentz and Ralph Bakshi in the October issue of Millimeter, I am struck by how much these men, after more than two years’ involvement with The Lord of the Rings, look like two hobbits themselves. It works: Bakshi’s Frodo to Zaentz’s Bilbo … but this Ring they’ve got hold of may prove just as ambiguous in its anticipated effects as the one in this two-hour first-of-two animated films, or the one in Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy series. Although Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has a presold audience, it is an audience that will be hard to please. One thing that is almost sure to disappoint both the skeptic and the rabid fan of the film is the indefinite feeling that accompanies the end of this first part, and the knowledge that one must wait another year or two to make up one’s mind fully. Unlike Lester’s The Three Musketeers, Bakshi’s Part One is not of a piece, but ends on a deliberately to-be-continued note which makes one wish he had opted for either a four-hour feature with intermission or a two-night, two-feature extravaganza all at once, if only to achieve the kind of unity that both cinema and myth demand.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

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Posted in: Actors, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews, Television

The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Film Reviews

Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

The history of these films and the filmmaking culture behind it is entertaining enough, but behind the great tales of Dennis Hopper on an alcohol and drug-fueled tear during Mad Dog Morgan (1976)and Barry Humphries proclaiming the projectile vomit gags of the early seventies Barry McKenzie films as “one of the great moments of Australian cinema” is a portrait of filmmaking on the professional frontier. These filmmaker didn’t just push the envelope of censorship, they created their own genre industry, which resulted in an anything goes attitude when it came to creating thrills.

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