Thursday, September 30, 2010

R.I.P.: Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

When I heard the first reports that Tony Curtis had passed away Wednesday evening at age 85, I found myself flashing back 25 years, to a memorable encounter in a lavishly appointed hotel suite during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

It my one and only meeting with the Hollywood icon who was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, who first attracted attention as an impossibly handsome ‘50s movie heartthrob before establishing himself as an impressively versatile actor in edgy dramas (The Defiant Ones, Sweet Smell of Success, The Boston Strangler) and crowd-pleasing comedies (Some Like It Hot, Operation Petticoat, The Great Race). He was not quite yet 60, but already had endured some dispiriting career downturns, and seemed optimistic that the film he was promoting at Cannes – Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, which, ironically, proved to be the last significant movie credit on his resume – would help launch his next comeback.

Fade in: Curtis, at his most charming and ingratiating, is in the middle of his second apology in five minutes: ''Look,'' he says, wiping a sandwich crumb from his mouth, ''you're sure you don't mind my having lunch while we talk . . .?'' Then, suddenly, the smile drops from his face, vanishing like the image on a TV screen after someone hits the off switch. He's not mad, mind you, or even upset. But he's stern. And adamant.

As soon as he sees an associate edging toward the door to the hotel hallway, the interview comes to a dead halt. ''I don't want to talk with this gentleman alone,'' Curtis barks, his bluntness tempered by just a smidgen of anxiety. ''If you have to go, tell the publicist to come back then. I want a witness on every one of these interviews.''

He returns his gaze to me and, no doubt noticing my startlement, adopts a slightly softer, ''Nothing personal, you understand'' tone: ''It's just that, you see, this is where you get that little savvy, or little knowledge of this business of interviews and living together and being together. I'll do an interview, and then the next day I wake up and I find the most horrendous piece of writing I've ever read in my life about myself. Obviously, it's just done for effect, or for The National Enquirer. And I won't have that anymore.

''I mean, they call me a drunk, they call me a panderer. I've even had interviewers say I made passes at them while we were talking.''

Well, I suggest, perhaps those people were indulging in wishful thinking?

Curtis smiles and relaxes. A little. ''Perhaps,'' he agrees. ''But it winds up in the newspaper and there's nothing I can do about it.''

So we talked. Most of the time, there was someone -- a traveling companion or a publicist - in the room to serve as Curtis' witness. Eventually, however, we were left alone, if only so Curtis' lady friend, en route from elsewhere, could be greeted in the lobby by a familiar face. By then, fortunately, Curtis didn’t seem to mind. He warmed quickly to the idea of talking about his life, freely and candidly, mindful of the tape recorder but not at all intimidated by it.

Curtis had been to the Cannes Film Festival ''about a dozen times'' before, but this year was different. This year, he knew he was appearing in the wake of newspaper accounts and gossip column items about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He also knew, however, that he was represented at the 1985 festival by Insignificance, Nicolas Roeg's audacious fantasia about fame, role-playing and thermonuclear war. (''It's one of the best movies I've ever made,'' Curtis told me, and I readily agreed.) In the film, Curtis played a sexually repressed U.S. senator who may or may not be Joseph McCarthy, and who interacts with characters who strongly suggest Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil). It was the sort of performance that often attracts attention, revives careers and ignites Oscar hopes. More important, it was the sort of work that usually leads to even more work.

Unfortunately, while Curtis did indeed continue to work, on stage and screen and in television, for decades afterwards…

OK, let’s be fair: Co-starring in films like The Mummy Lives and Lobster Men from Mars might have helped pay the bills, and provided some after-dinner anecdotes. And maybe it was fun learning how to tap dance to play a supporting role in a touring company production of Sugar – the musical version of Some Like It Hot – that kicked off in Houston back in 2002. And there’s no denying that Curtis enjoyed an enviable degree of success during the final decades of his life by re-inventing himself as a novelist, memoirist and artist. But despite the high hopes he had for Insignificance…. Well, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Back to 1985:

Q. How would you describe your career right now? Do you think you’re hot again?

A. Well, someone once said, “Nobody loves me but the public.” I loved it, 'cause it kinda made sense, you know? And that's the purpose of it. I've made over 130 movies in my lifetime. You know? And I keep making them. Sometimes I want to work more, sometimes less. But it's got nothing to do with when you're hot or you're not hot. Nobody's ever that hot.

You're always on the periphery of this profession. You're never in the vortex of that world -- you're always whirling around in it. One picture away from utter disaster or a little more success. Utter, utter failure or a rousing success. People say, “When you're hot, you're hot.” Well, that hot, you're not. That hot, you can never get.

There's never the ultimate success. Getting an Academy Award is not the ultimate of anything. You know? Because it's a limited audience, it's an audience that gives you awards for your behavior more than your performance, usually. You don't know if the people that are voting on them have seen the pictures or not.

[Curtis, it should be noted, earned only one Oscar nomination throughout his entire career. In 1958, he competed in the Best Actor category, for The Defiant Ones – but lost to David Niven, who won for Separate Tables.]

Q. What about the work itself? Is acting still as much fun for you? Does it give you as much satisfaction as it always has?

A. Oh, I love the work. But I don’t love the environment [in Hollywood]. The environment can be drug-infested, alcoholically inclined. It can be disastrous, envious, angry -- all of these qualities. I used to be a druggie, and I used to be an alcoholic, so I know what I'm talking about…. I was using cocaine. All the prescription drugs. And a lot of whiskey.

Q. And now?

A. I feel wonderful. I've been in a recovery stage now for the last 100, 200 days. Recovering from my alcoholism and my drug addiction. And I learned a lot of important things about myself. It's a disease, you know. A disease, not a matter of the mind, about being weak-willed or lacking guts. It's a disease, a physical disease. Learning that about it, you know, I was able to re-evaluate my thinking. It's a matter of re-thinking yourself -- to recognize that your life is unmanageable and you're powerless over the addiction. And you have to let a higher power, another spirit, take charge. And not try to control and manipulate. And not deny, not say to yourself, "Well I can quit any time I want to, only I don't want to." To accept those realities about yourself is the secret of the freedom you're going to see.”

Q. Are you feeling better about yourself these days?

A. Well, I don't know about “feeling better.” I'm alive. I'm able to talk with you. I'm able to maintain myself. Before, when I was drugging and drinking, I didn't see anybody. You know?

Q. Well, do you feel like you're now capable of giving better performances than you did when you were drinking and drugging?

A. No, I couldn't give better performances. I always give a good performance. I don't let anything stand in the way of my performances. That's my profession. That's my job. I have no excuse not to give a good performance. You don't see a title card at the bottom of the movie that says, ''Tony didn't feel well today, so the scenes you're gonna see are not as good as any other day.''

Q. But didn't your drinking and drugging lead to your being dropped from Neil Simon's play, I Ought to Be in Pictures, during the pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles back in 1979?

A. No. The problem with the play was that I wasn't given enough time to prepare for it. And they switched directors, and I was working with a man that I disliked, Herb Ross, who is a very destructive person. And he created in me a tremendous amount of stress and tension that provoked me to use more than I'd been using. My disease was always there. And he took advantage. I will never forgive him for that. I felt that he was just cruel and uncaring. And that goes for Neil Simon as well. I think they're both fucking scumbags.

Without even telling me, they started rehearsing an understudy somewhere else. While I was working onstage with the cast. And they were rewriting and re-rehearsing scenes, so that people would come on stage and play these scenes with me, with different lines and different innuendoes. And there I was. I was supposed to stand on stage and read the old lines as they were in the original, which was a very bad play to begin with. I mean all of a sudden, it was like I'd say to you, ''How are you feeling today?'' And your answer to me would be, ''I'm feeling fine, pass the ketchup.'' Instead, you say to me, ''You know it's going to rain tomorrow.'' Well, it had no bearing on anything I said. And I began then to notice that something fishy was going on.

The prop man told me that I wasn't gonna be in the play in New York. Yeah, these are the gentlemen of the theater. Mr. Simon, Mr. Ross. These are the aristocrats of our supposed profession. A guy like Herbert Ross, who was like a martinet on the set, pushing everybody around. A very disagreeable gentleman. And that goes for Neil Simon.

Q. The play itself . . .

A. It was junk, it was junk. And, listen, I gave some really interesting performances in it. That wasted, I wasn't. Let's understand that right from the beginning: That wasted I wasn't. You know?

Q. But the play dealt with a father-daughter relationship. Did you draw on your own relationship with your actress daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, while preparing for the role?

A. Not at all. I mean, no relationship between them at all.

Q. Well, how does it feel to see Jamie Lee in so many movies these days? Do you feel a little like you're part of a dynasty, a tradition?

A. No, I don't think of that at all. To me, it's my daughter making a living -- just like my son would make a living, just like I'm making a living. I had nothing to do with her career.

Q. But do you feel a bit like the baton has been passed . . .?

A. No, no, no. The baton, I mean my profession, I pass to the new actors that are coming along. Not to a member of your family. 'Cause if that were the case, all actors who have no children would be miserably unhappy. You know, "I'll never get anybody to pass my baton to. Here, take my baton, somebody, please." Jamie Lee Curtis deserves all the credit for herself. She did it on her own. With nobody to help her. She was involved in the profession and saw it and knew it. The gift is there, and how many people have the gift? I can't say I gave her a gift. All she got from me was life. And a point of view, perhaps.

I love the idea that my daughter is a successful actress. But I'd be equally as proud if she were a successful doctor or a lawyer. To think that she doesn't have to get in the meat market, or be used as a woman to make a living. I mean, the world is based on that, you know. But she's independently sufficient. I'm very proud of her. But I'm proud of her as a person. You should hear us when we both talk. I mean, we talk like two bricklayers, you know? We're both members of the same profession. The fact that we're father and daughter, I forget it right away. And so does she.

Q. Any chance you'll ever make a movie together?

A. I don't know. (Laughing) I mean, it would be hard for us to play lovers in a movie.

Q. That would raise a few eyebrows.

A. Well, if that is all it raised, it wouldn't be bad.

Q. Finally, have you ever thought about directing a movie?

A. I've thought about making a movie, but not just directing. Directing a movie is a menial task, particularly when the producer's wife can tell her husband that she doesn't like the cleavage on one of the girls in the movie -- and then, the next thing you know, that scene has been cut. Very few directors have complete control. So I'd like to make a movie where I'd do everything: write it, direct it, produce it, even play a part in it. And one day, maybe, I'll make one of those.

But, you know, that's not such a big deal. Making movies is not so important. Nothing's a big deal, really. Living is living. You know?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Arthur Penn -- and Bonnie and Clyde

Since I choose to celebrate lives rather than mourn deaths, I respond to the sad news of filmmaker Arthur Penn's passing Tuesday night at age 88 with thoughts of the movie that ensured his immortality: Bonnie and Clyde, a 1967 masterwork with the still-undiminished ability -- as I can tell every semester that I screen it for my students at University of Houston and Houston Community College -- to impress and enthrall.

Of course, some 43 years after the fact, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to fully appreciate the impact this classic had on moviegoers at the time of its original theatrical release. Indeed, even if you are old enough to have bought a first-run admission ticket to Penn’s violent folk ballad back in the day, more than four decades’ worth of subsequent cinematic slaughter very likely has immunized you against the shock value of this film’s groundbreaking bloody mayhem.

To be sure, Bonnie and Clyde still can make you flinch, particularly when Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow shoots a bank employee in the face during the panicky chaos of a high-speed getaway. (Clyde's horror is palpable: This is the first time he's ever had to actually kill anyone.) And the extended slo-mo carnage of the famously bloody finale, which has Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and her partner riddled with dozens of bullets in a police ambush, is all the more devastating because of the empathy we inevitably feel for these Depression Era desperadoes.

But violence is no longer the most provocative element of Bonnie and Clyde. Rather, it is the period drama’s audacious commingling of style and substance that continues to amaze and unsettle viewers.

When it first hit theaters in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was condemned by some outraged reviewers as a grotesquely comical treatment of dead-serious subject matter. (A Newsweek critic originally roasted the movie in a brief, brutally dismissive review -- only to later announce an unprecedented change of heart in a cover-story rave.) Worse, according to the most disapproving pundits, the filmmakers appeared to glorify the murderous antics of their title characters. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther went so far as to condemn Bonnie and Clyde as “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous deprecations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

But Bonnie and Clyde was never that simple, and seems even more complex today. There's a long tradition of Hollywood dramas about lovers on the run who turn to crime -- and, in the process, turn each other on – only to wind up being force-fed their just desserts. But director Penn and screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newton were among the first post-modernist filmmakers to view such outlaws as neither cunningly sinister nor tragically misguided, but rather as absurdly self-deluded.

The Bonnie and Clyde of Penn’s film are not quite evil, and not entirely dim-witted. They turn to crime primarily because there's nothing else to do to dispel the soul-dimming boredom of  workaday life in Depression Era Texas. (Also, it's a good way for Clyde to compensate for his impotence.) Once they decide to become criminals -- impulsively, as they do everything else -- they want to be superstars in their field. Early on, when Clyde meets a farmer whose home has been foreclosed by a bank, he introduces Bonnie and himself with a bold claim: “We rob banks.” In point of fact, neither has done anything quite so serious up to that point. But after Clyde boasts so heartily in front of Bonnie, it's only a matter of time before he must make good on his promise.

Bonnie and Clyde is a comedy of sorts, but the humor is midnight dark and the punchlines are real killers. Joined by Clyde's bumptious brother (Gene Hackman) and whiny sister-in-law (Estelle Parson), and a dim-bulb driver (Michael J. Pollard) who inadvertently causes the movie's first serious bloodshed, Bonnie and Clyde conduct a crime spree throughout the Southwest, always mindful of their own newspaper coverage and sometimes willing to supply what might be described as publicity stills. Long after they get in way over their heads, they don't recognize that they're drowning.

Bonnie has a glimmer or two of what's in store for them -- note the tragic ending for her self-aggrandizing poem -- but Clyde remains ludicrously unaware and unapologetic. Near the end, when Bonnie wistfully asks what he'd do if, by magic, they could somehow start over, Clyde blithely responds that he would take pains to never rob a bank in a state they would call home. (Among the movie's more pungent ironies: Despite the frequency of their robberies and the scale of their notoriety, Bonnie, Clyde and the rest of the gang don't ever really appear to be making crime pay very well. In fact, Penn subtly suggests that, never mind the legend, they're not very good at what they do.)

Penn firmly places his characters in the context of their time, and gives a strong sense of the fear, loathing and star-worship they inspired among their contemporaries. (For many folks who was evicted, diminished or otherwise brutalized by banks during the Depression Era, bank robbers often were viewed as avenging folk heroes.) And yet Bonnie and Clyde remains remarkably timeless in its double-edged view of ordinary folks who achieve extraordinary notoriety -- who romanticize themselves as outlaws, even revolutionaries, but remain as banal and smaller-than-life as a members of a stereotypical dysfunctional family. Unlike most subsequent movies that have used it as a template, this 1967 masterwork never makes the fatal mistake of reducing everything to cartoonish excess or ironic posturing. Bonnie and Clyde may be foolhardy killers, but they also are recognizably human. We are not asked to excuse or forgive them. But we cannot help caring as they suffer, bleed and die without fully comprehending who they are and what they've done.

At the time of his death, Arthur Penn had lived long enough to see Bonnie and Clyde endure as an inspiration for three generations of filmmakers. He graciously agreed, on the occasion of its DVD reissue three years ago, to briefly chat about it with me. Some highlights of our conversation:

Q. Many folks forget that Warners more or less dumped Bonnie and Clyde during its initial release, and that it didn’t really begin to draw crowds until was re-released several weeks later. But that was back in 1967 – before cable, before home video – when a movie might be given time to find an audience during a theatrical run. Would it be impossible today to repeat that phenomenon?

A. It would be very, very unlikely today. I wouldn’t say impossible. But it would require the luck of the gods. Which we had with us, I guess.

Q. Bonnie and Clyde often is cited as one of the movies that ushered in the “New Hollywood” era. Back when you were making it, were you aware that the times, they were a-changing?

A. I wouldn’t say we were quite that aware. We became aware in the course of the year. But not while we were actually making it. Although it was a little strange, because we were dealing with Warner Bros. But Jack Warner was in New York, selling the studio. That was rather unusual.

Q. Were you worried that you might be making a movie that would never be released?

A. A little bit, yes. It felt that way until Jack came back. And then the man in charge of things at the studio, Walter MacEwen, thought we should show Jack the movie. So we did. And he hated it.

Q. Uh-oh.

A. Yep. And that in part is what accounted for the very bad initial distribution.

Q. When did the tide begin to shift in your favor?

A. I think the turning point was Warren Beatty. Warren really re-launched the film virtually on his own. And what it did was, it just caught the wave of sort of anti-establishment young people who saw the film -- and responded furiously to the critic of the New York Times.

Q. That would have been Bosley Crowther, who practically made it his mission in life to attack the movie.

A. He really did. He panned it, and then panned it again, and panned it again. And every time he did that, the letters poured into the Times. And so, consequently, we were receiving an extraordinary amount of publicity for nothing.

Q. Aside from Crowther’s crusade, did anything about the initial response to your film really shock you?

A. I was amazed by the claims of “excess violence” when here we were in the midst of the Vietnam War. You could turn on the news and see kids in body bags being loaded into helicopters, having been shot up. So I don’t know how you come to a movie like this – which is really a romantic movie – and decide that its principal character is violent, and that the violence in it is so-called “excessive.” I thought that was nonsense.

Q. As I say, Bonnie and Clyde is considered one of the movies that kicked off an extraordinary period of innovation and experimentation in American cinema. At the time, did you feel as a filmmaker that anything was possible?

A. No, I wouldn’t say so. It was still a struggle to get Little Big Man (1970) made. Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was easy. But Night Moves (1975) was not easy. You know, Warners really didn’t like the script for that one – although they liked the idea of Gene Hackman. And I think they liked the idea of me at that point. Because they’d made a lot of money by that point out of Bonnie and Clyde.

Q. Your last theatrical feature was Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989) – the only out-and-out comedy on your resume.

A. Oh, yes. That was a kick. That was fun. You know, in this country, we tend to think of our film directors as rather serious figures if they’re at all conspicuous. One of the things I admire about European filmmakers is, they play frivolous games with films every once in a while. And it doesn’t bring the world down on their heads. For some reason, some people seemed resentful that I did Penn and Teller. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

Q. But you haven’t directed another theatrical film since then. Did you fall out of love with filmmaking?

A. No. [Laughs] I think I fell out of love with the physical capability that films really take. And I don’t know that I have it anymore. You know, they’re tough. They’re really tough. And I make them the hard way, I guess. I never sit down.

Q. You mentioned some of your other films – including two of my favorites, Night Moves and Alice’s Restaurant. And yet, you’re still best known for one movie, one masterwork. Is there any sort of downside to being so strongly identified with – and by – Bonnie and Clyde?

A. I would say so. Because other films I’ve made – and I think you share this view – are also pretty good. But Bonnie and Clyde was an absolute phenomenon. It was more of a sociological phenomenon than it was an aesthetic one. I mean, the times were so consonant with the theme of that film that it was just picked up, and it ran – despite everything that Warners could do to kill it.

Q. OK, if I were going to show a film at a tribute to you – but it couldn’t be Bonnie and Clyde -– what would you want it to be?

A. I think Little Big Man. It was a hard film to make. It was not responded to well by the studios when I shopped it around -– it took me six years to get it made -– so there’s a lot of passion in that one.

Q. Well, maybe that’s the key to the enduring popularity of Bonnie and Clyde – it, too, obviously was made with a lot of passion.

A. Yes, I think so.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fantastic Fest: The main event

While most folks aound these parts obsess over Sunday’s Texans-Cowboys football matchup, my weekend plans call for a road trip to Austin and a total immersion in Fantastic Fest, the bountifully stocked cinematic smorgasbord that immodestly but accurately bills itself as “the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world.”

The 2010 edition of what Variety has dubbed “the geek Telluride” actually kicked off Thursday night with red carpet premieres (complete with stars and filmmaker in attendance) of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, the Americanized remake of Tomas Alfredsen’s Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In, and Rodrigo Cort├ęs’ Buried, an acclaimed claustrophobic thriller starring Ryan Reynolds as a kidnapped businessman who’s been, well, buried alive. And Friday night’s main attraction is the regional premiere of Stone, with director John Curran and star Edward Norton on hand at downtown Austin’s Paramount Theatre to introduce their twisty neo-noir drama about a hardened convict (Norton), his sexy girlfriend (Milla Jovovich) – and a cynical prison counselor (Robert De Niro) they may or may not manage to manipulate.

But even though I won’t be able to make the scene until Saturday, I know there’s still plenty more promising stuff on tap. I’m especially eager to see Heartless, Philip Ridley’s dark fantasy (shown above) about a disfigured photographer (Jim Sturgess of 21 and Across the Universe) with a personal grudge against demons who haunt the streets of his bleak neighborhood; The Dead, an enthusiastically hyped, British-produced zombie thriller from sibling filmmakers Howard and Jonathan Ford that, evidently, has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic James Joyce novella of the same title; and – yes, I’m not ashamed to admit it! – Hatchet 2, writer-director Adam Green’s eagerly awaited sequel to his gleefully retro 2007 slasher horror flick about a deformed bogeyman who haunts the swamps near my hometown of New Orleans.

As it turns out, however, the hottest ticket at Fantastic Fest 2010 may be an off-screen attraction. And no, I’m not talking about the festival-sponsored gatherings at various firing ranges where festivalgoers can shoot everything from pistols to shotguns to AK-47’s. (Though I have to admit – all of that sounds pretty dang fantastic to me.)

Late Sunday at the South Austin Boxing Gym – so late, in fact, that it’ll really be Monday when things get started – Alamo Daft House founder and Fantastic Fest director Tim League will join actress Michelle Rodriguez in a “Fantastic Debate” over the issue of whether Avatar (in which Rodriguez was prominently featured) should have won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. Rodriguez, not surprisingly, will take the positive position. League, who appears to have developed a death wish of some sort, will take the negative position.

During the first part of the program, they will engage in a relatively calm and reasoned exchange of ideas. And then they’ll step into the ring, and slug it out.

It should be noted that Rodriguez – who made her movie breakthrough back in 2000 as the star of Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight – is a professionally trained boxer. It should also be noted that League is not.

When I caught up with League a couple days ago, he was on his way to the South Austin Boxing Gym for his last training session. He didn’t sound much like a man who expected to score a stunning upset. He did sound like he expected to be, ahem, stunned.

“I have already watched Girlfight,” League said, “and I am genuinely terrified, since I’m going to be insulting her movie in the debate.” He cautioned that members of the ringside audience – particularly those in the journalism profession – might want to keep their own critical comments to themselves: “I've also been watching You Tube clips where she has shown that she can fly off the handle and get pissed with reporters who insult her.”

Which reminds me: Have I ever mentioned how much I liked Girlfight? And how much I really, really liked Avatar?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best of fest: Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation -- my favorite of all the movies I saw this year at the Toronto Film Festival -- is the work of a very promising filmmaker (writer-director Mike Goldbach). But Kat Dennings' strikingly self-assured lead performance is the work of an actress who’s already begun to fulfill her promise. You can read my Variety review of this exceptional indie here. And you can savor one of the most affecting tunes selected for the movie's soundtrack -- Emily Haines’ achingly wistful cover of Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly" -- in this video clip.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fantastic Fest preview: Machete Maidens Unleashed!

From Mark Hartley, the Melbourne maverick who unleashed Not Quite Hollywood, the explosive expose of B-movies from Down Under, we now have Machete Maidens Unleashed! – the inside story of babes behind bars, blaxploitation bloodletting, kung-fu ass-kicking, and mutant monsters making mayhem in the wild, wild East. Hartley, an Aussie doumentarian with an avid appreciation for disreputable genre movies, will again please connoisseurs of sleazy cinema with his latest effort, a richly bemused and slickly produced overview of lurid schlock inexpensively shot in The Philippines between the 1960s and ‘80s.

As the title indicates, Machete Maidens -- which has its world premiere last week at the Toronto Film Festival, and screens this week at Fantastic Fest in Austin -- devotes a huge amount of running time to those memorbaly lurid '70s action-adventures (many of them produced by schlockmeister Roger Corman) involving scantily clad (or entirely unclothed) women in prison. A few vets of these robustly campy exploitation flicks insist  Black Mama, White Mama (co-written by, no kidding, a young Jonathan Demme), The Big Bird Cage and similar fare had at least a smidgen of socially redeeming merit, in that they empowered women as action heroes, and often involved revolutionary movements against oppressive dictatorships. (Ironically, the pronounced left-wing lean of these B-movies never was acknowledged, much less censored, by Philippine government officials -- even after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in The Philippines in 1972.) But filmmaker John Landis, who serves as a hectoring commentator throughout the documentary, sarcastically rejects such readings. When apologists read deeper meaning into the likes of  The Hot Box and Caged Heat, Landis cracks, “I say, ‘What are they smoking?’” And director Joe Dante, who got his start making trailers for Corman movies of this era, breezily dismisses them as formulaic guilty pleasures, impure and simple. His mock sales pitch: “If you like the title Women in Cages, you’re going to like this movie. Because what’s it got? Women in cages!”

You can read my full Varierty review of Machete Maidens Unleashed! here. If you dare.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Monday, September 06, 2010

Blogus Interruptus

After taking a few days off to party-hearty in New Orleans for my birthday -- and to see my beloved New Orleans Saints romp and stomp all over my other favorite football team -- I got caught up in preparing my fall semester classes, getting ready for the upcoming Toronto Film Festival and, yes, writing a few items (like this and that) for Culture Map Houston. And to top it all off: I launched another blog for my Social Issues in Journalism class at University of Houston. Which is to say that, alas, I have neglected this blog for much too long. I have been remiss but, trust me, during the next few days, I will make amends.