Wednesday, February 10, 2016

#2,004. Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Directed By: Larry Cohen

Starring: David Carradine, Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark

Tag line: "You'll just have time to scream... before it tears you apart!"

Trivia: David Carradine agreed to play Shepard even though he didn't receive a script to read prior to his first day of working on the film

Take an old-style giant monster movie and mix in a generous helping of exploitation goodness and you have Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, a 1982 horror / mystery about an ancient flying reptile feeding on the citizens of New York City. Yet as imposing a figure as the title creature is, it’s upstaged at every turn by actor Michael Moriarty, playing one the most charismatic slimeballs ever to grace the big screen.

The New York City police have been working overtime to solve a series of bizarre murders. One victim, a window washer, had his head lopped off while he was working… hundreds of feet in the air! Even more gruesome was the discovery of a body that had been skinned from head to toe. Initially, the detectives assigned to these killings. Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree), believe the two cases are unrelated. That changes, however, after Shepard pays a visit to the National History Museum, where he learns a little something about ancient Aztec rituals. From what he can gather, a religious cult is using human sacrifices to resurrect the winged serpent God Quetzalcoatl. What Shepard and his fellow officers don’t realize, though, is that the sacrifices are actually working.

But one man knows the truth: petty thief (and wannabe musician) Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty). After taking part in a jewel heist, a nervous Quinn decided to hide out on the top floor of the Chrysler building, where, along with some skeletal remains, he found an enormous nest with a giant-sized egg in the middle of it. .A day or so later, Quinn is picked up by the cops for his role in the heist, and overhears Shepard talking to Powell and Lt. Murray (James Dixon) about the possible existence of a dragon-like creature, which may be responsible for some of the unexplained deaths. Realizing he’s the only person who knows the whereabouts of the monster’s lair, Quinn tries to strike a deal with the cops, promising to lead them to the nest in exchange for immunity and $1 million in cash. Shepard and his superiors, as well as Quinn’s long-suffering girlfriend Joan (Candy Clark), try to get the small-time crook to spill the beans, yet he refuses to budge, and with the lives of millions of people hanging in the balance, the police may have no choice but to give Quinn exactly what he wants.

Considering it’s a low-budget ‘80s film, the special effects in Q: The Winged Serpent aren’t half bad (the shots of the monster flying through the air were accomplished via stop-motion animation). On top of that, the movie features plenty of gore (in the opening sequence, we see what happens to the window washer, and it ain’t pretty) and even a little gratuitous nudity (thanks to a topless sunbather, played by Bobbi Burns, who ends up as a snack for Quetzalcoatl). Yet what you’ll remember most about Q: The Winged Serpent is Michael Moriarty’s electrifying performance. Whether having lunch with his cohorts or auditioning for a job as a piano player, his Quinn is always the most interesting character on-screen. Even in the later scenes, when he’s trying to blackmail the police, he has charisma to spare, and while it’s obvious from the get-go Quinn is a nefarious dude, you can’t help but like the guy.

Toss in David Carradine (not at his best, but good enough) and Shaft himself, Mr. Richard Roundtree; as well as an exciting confrontation that takes place high above the city (a la King Kong), and you have what amounts to one hell of an entertaining creature feature.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#2,003. Ms. 45 (1981)

Directed By: Abel Ferrara

Starring: Zoë Tamerlis, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto

Tag line: "It will never happen again!"

Trivia: First shown at the Cannes and Milano Film Festivals before its official 1981 release

Like I Spit on Your Grave and They Call Her One Eye, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 fits neatly into the rape / revenge subgenre, yet stands above the rest in the way it delves into its lead character’s psyche, showing us not only the events that drive her to kill, but also the fractures in her mind that push her further down the rabbit hole than most.

Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) is a pretty young mute employed as a seamstress in Manhattan’s garment district. While walking home from work one evening, she’s dragged into an alleyway by a masked assailant (played by director Ferrara) and raped. But her nightmare doesn’t end there, because when she gets home, she finds a thief (Peter Yellen) has broken into her apartment, and when he sees her torn blouse, he decides to have his way with her as well. This time, however, Thana fights back, and hits her attacker over the head with a clothes iron, killing him outright. Afraid that someone will discover what she’s done, she picks up the thief’s .45 caliber pistol, drags his body into her bathtub, and cuts him into pieces, storing the parts in her refrigerator and disposing of them little by little each day (dropping them in trashcans, leaving them in abandoned alleys, etc).

Though she tries to get on with her life, Thana cannot shake the trauma of what’s happened. Her co-workers, including her overly-amorous boss Albert (Albert Sinkys); and her neighbor Mrs. Nasone (Editta Sherman), notice that Thana has not been herself lately, yet none of them realize how angry she truly is, and before long, Thana is patrolling the city, using her newly-acquired .45 to take out every thug and low-life she comes across. But her hatred of men soon extends beyond the criminal element, and eventually, the confused young woman exacts her revenge on the innocent as well as the guilty.

As shocking as it is disturbing, Ms. 45 features a sterling performance by Zoë Tamerlis, who perfectly conveys first the innocence (a mute living in New York, we’re led to believe that Thana was an introvert prior to the attacks, and rarely left her apartment), then the passion that drives her character to kill (later in the movie, she puts on make-up and strolls the streets at night, drawing the attention of the city’s seedier elements, then making them pay with their lives). In addition, we witness her descent into near-madness (there are a few frightening scenes where Thana is convinced her initial attacker is in her apartment, waiting to rape her again), and while our sympathies remain with her throughout the film (at one point, she shoots a pimp who is beating up a prostitute), we recognize that Thana has been damaged beyond repair, and as her actions become bolder, it’s evident she’s on a downward spiral, and most likely will never recover.

As with Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, Ms. 45 was shot in New York, often in some of the city’s dingier sections, bringing a heightened sense of reality to what is already a bleak motion picture. This, along with Tamerlis’s top-notch performance, makes Ms. 45 an admittedly dark, yet ultimately engrossing revenge / thriller.

Monday, February 8, 2016

#2,002. Mark Twain's America (1998)

Directed By: Stephen Low

Starring: Anne Bancroft, Dennis O'Connor, Kim Parr

Tag line: "In his own era. In his own places. In his own words"

Trivia: This movie was shot in 40 days, over a 3-month period

"First you get the facts. Then you can distort them any way you please"
      - Mart Twain
While most IMAX movies try to impress us with their visuals (Chronos, Cosmic Voyage) or take us on grand adventures (Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, Journey Into Amazing Caves), 1998’s Mark Twain’s America instead combines elements of a biopic with American history, introducing us to a writer / humorist and the era in which he lived.

Starting with his days as a boy in Hannibal, Missouri, when he marveled at the riverboats that made their way down the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s America chronicles some of the major events in Twain’s life, such as his (brief) stint in the Confederate Army during the Civil War; his journey westward, where, after failing to make his fortune as a silver miner, he became a reporter in Virginia City, Nevada, and his inspirations for penning some of his beloved classics like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County). In addition, Mark Twain’s America delves into the writer’s personal life: his marriage to Olivia Langdon and his eventual move to Hartford, Connecticut, where he built a spacious house for his young family (which included three daughters: Susy, Clara, and Jean).

Narrated by Anne Bancroft and with Denis O’Connor doing his best Twain impression, Mark Twain’s America also features samples of its subject’s patented witticisms (“Some observers hold that there’s no difference between man and the Jackass. But this surely wrongs the Jackass”), and reveals how several modern-day historians are keeping this time period alive, including a man who built his own riverboat (which he sails on the Mississippi) and a troop of Civil War reenactors. Utilizing a fair number of period photographs as well as modern footage of those places he once called home (like the house in Connecticut), Mark Twain’s America effectively merges the past and the present to make history come alive.

That said, the film is far from a comprehensive account of Twain’s life, glossing over key events (his journeys abroad and, more surprisingly, the writing of some of his most popular stories, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and avoiding others altogether (the sudden death of his 19-month-old son Langdon and the thousands of dollars he lost investing in such scientific “breakthroughs” as the Paige typesetting machine). Though a breezy and often entertaining big-screen motion picture (which was originally presented in 3-D), Mark Twain’s America won’t be much help if you’re writing a school paper on the celebrated author.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

#2,001. Tigrero: A Film that was Never Made (1994)

Directed By: Mika Kaurismäki

Starring: Samuel Fuller, Jim Jarmusch

Trivia 1: "This entire film was shot on-location in Brazil"

Trivia 2: It was Samuel Fuller's wife, Christa Lang Fuller, who came up with the idea for this film

Along with being an exemplary screenwriter and director, Samuel Fuller was also an amazing storyteller. With his raspy voice and straightforward delivery, he could spin a yarn better than most filmmakers of his generation, and his version of what occurred when he and Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck met with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, to review the script for 1953’s Pickup on South Street, remains one of my all-time favorite Hollywood anecdotes (you can hear it yourself on the Criterion DVD release of that great film). His 2004 autobiography, A Third Face, contains many similarly intriguing stories, and while I was reading it a few years ago, I tried to imagine that Fuller himself was narrating it (which made an already fascinating book even more entertaining).

Tigrero (subtitled A Film that was Never Made) follows the legendary filmmaker as he and fellow director Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) travel to Brazil, specifically the small village of Santa Isabel Do Morro (situated along the Araguaia River), which Fuller, while scouting locations for a motion picture, had visited 40 years earlier. Armed with only a 16mm camera, Fuller got to know the native Karajás quite well during that initial trip, and as a result, they granted him unrestricted access to their village, and even let him film some of their ancient rituals. Ultimately, the picture was scrapped by Fox president Darryl Zanuck, but the footage Fuller shot still survives. Joined by Jarmusch, Fuller revisits this remote locale, and recalls fondly the unproduced movie that brought him there in first place.

Though primarily a documentary, 1994’s Tigrero (written and directed by Mika Kaurismäki) does feature some scripted scenes (including the opening sequence, when Fuller and Jarmusch are discussing their upcoming trip). Once they reach Santa Isabel Do Morro, however, Tigrero is in full documentary mode, with Fuller commenting on how the village and its people have changed over the years (much of the foliage that surrounded the area has been cut down, and the Karajás now enjoy such modern luxuries as TV and telephones). Then, in what is easily the best scene in Tigrero, Fuller shows the Karajá the decades-old footage he shot when he was last there, during which a few of them recognize friends and relatives that have long since passed away.

Most of Tigrero, though, consists of Fuller recounting his initial visit to the area, and offering a few details about the motion picture he was planning to make there (titled Tigrero, it was an action / adventure that was going to star John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power. Unfortunately, the insurance company, nervous about the location Fuller had selected, demanded $16 million in advance, causing a frustrated Zanuck to shut it down). In addition, Fuller interviews the Karajá, asking what they thought of the footage he had just shown them (one woman spotted her late husband in a scene, and reflects on the good times they had together). Interestingly enough, some of these images would appear in Fuller’s own 1963 movie Shock Corridor.

Tackling topics like culture, progress, and the art of filmmaking, Tigrero is a thought-provoking documentary starring one of the most charismatic storytellers of the 20th century.