Thursday, June 2, 2022

Film Review: The Wanderers (1979)

Released in 1979, The Wanderers has always flown under the radar. When it came out it represented one of the last gasps of the mini-craze for looking back at the Eisenhower/Kennedy era through jukebox-tinted glasses that began with American Graffiti in 1973. This nostalgic sub-genre, which was, as far as I know, a peculiarly American obsession, bathed the fairly recent past in a rosy glow of bulbous cars, greased-back hair, torpedo bras, and lots and lots of doo wop music. TV's Happy Days was the most egregious example of the genre, with The Wanderers being the best. 

Philip Kaufman was the co-writer and director, and his body of work, which includes The Right Stuff, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was adept at showing men living the macho dream. The Wanderers of the title are a gang of Italian-American teenagers growing up in NYC in 1963, led by Richie, played by Ken Wahl. The Wanderers' world centres around their high school and neighborhood, which Kaufman fills with a constellation of rival gangs including the Baldies (all hairless, of course), the Wongs (Asian, all with the last name Wong) and the all-Black Del Bombers. There's really no male under the age of 20 who isn't in a colorfully-named, ethnically-defined gang. The boys spend their time taunting or fighting rivals, busting each others balls, drinking, and, of course, lusting after women. The plot is anecdotal, the only through line being Richie's relationships with two women, one his long-time girlfriend, the other from the wrong side of the tracks, in this case meaning a Greenwich Village proto-hippie played by Karen Allen. Secondary plot threads follow Joey, Perry and Turkey, fellow Wanderers who, by necessity, see the gang as a surrogate family. 

What sets The Wanderers apart is how Kaufman subverts the macho posturing and bravado that the gangs are all about. The Wanderers see themselves as fiercely independent knights of the mean streets, they even take their name from the song by Dion that's an anthem about freedom and independence, but the reality is that they're being exploited, deceived, abused, or controlled by their elders. By the end of the film the Baldies have been tricked into joining the Marines, Joey and Perry flee to California to escape turbulent homes, and Richie is forced into marriage after getting his girlfriend pregnant, which also means he'll have to work for his mobster father-in-law. Even the football game which forms the finale of the film, a sporting challenge between the Wanderers and the Del Bombers, takes place thanks to the patronage of Black and Italian gangsters who see it as a chance for gambling action. 

And this brings us to the most audacious and brilliant element in the film: the Ducky Boys. Yes, there's another gang in the story, but this one is presented as quasi-supernatural or mythic. They favour chinos, never speak, and hang around some outer darkness beyond the Wanderers' turf, a place that's always bathed in mist and steam. There's something vampiric about them, and all the other gangs are terrified of the Ducky Boys. They appear at the football game in their hundreds in the same way the crows assembled in Hitchcock's The Birds. The Ducky Boys attack the Wanderers and Del Bombers but are beaten back thanks to all the local gangs uniting against them. The Ducky Boys are more symbol than gang, but of what? A manifestation of the fear and ignorance the local boys have of the larger, more complex world outside their neighborhood? Or perhaps they represent the WASPy elites who control that larger world. Either way, the film's enthusiastic left turn into spooky surrealism is a masterstroke, visually and symbolically.

The only real flaw in the film is Karen Allen's character, Nina. Like the Ducky Boys, she's more symbol than living, breathing person. She's that sliding doors moment in Richie's life when he's offered an alternative to a circumscribed life with his gang and girlfriend. Her "meet cute" with Richie is awkward, and her immediate interest in him serves the plot, but not reality. Even worse, at the end of the film Richie catches a glimpse of Nina and follows her to a club in Greenwich Village where...wait for it...Bob Dylan is singing "The Times They Are A'Changin'." The scene is so on the nose it leaves a bruise. Aside from that, and some secondary characters who chew the scenery, The Wanderers stands as the best film of its genre because it imaginatively and critically dissects, rather than embalms, an era that gets more love than it should.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Film Review: Rat Fink (1965)

The title of this film does it no favours. The first thing some people will think of are the customized hot rods that go by that name. Everyone else will probably go...huh? It's also known by the title My Soul Runs Naked, which sounds like a volume of Beat poetry, but at least it's more apropos to the plot of the film. What we actually have here is a noir study of a pop star's rise and fall, done with b-movie brutality and urgency. 

The rat fink in question is Lonnie Price, a handsome, but psychopathic, young drifter who becomes an overnight sensation as a singer. We meet him as he hops off a freight train in Los Angeles and escapes from some railway cops, but loses the guitar he was carrying. He finds shelter with a lonely older woman, sleeps with her, and then takes off the next morning after emptying her purse. Lonnie wanders around and comes across a concert venue where a hot new star named Tommy Loomis is playing. Lonnie watches Tommy perform and is instantly jealous and envious at the sight of female fans swooning over him. Later that night, Tommy leaves the concert and suffers a fiery "accident" engineered by Lonnie. A few days later, Lonnie shows up at Tommy's manager's office and wows him with an audition. In no time flat Lonnie is living the decadent pop star lifestyle of the early '60s: whiskey! surfer dude entourage! Thunderbird convertible! His descent is just as swift, marked by boozing, statutory rape, rape, a murder, and ending with a fatal collision. 

The writer/director is James Landis, who also did The Sadist (my review here) two years before, a brilliant micro-budget thriller that's as cold-blooded as they come. Landis brings the same bleakness and nastiness to Rat Fink.  Lonnie is a psychopath before he becomes a star, due to, the film argues, a stern and unloving father who has no regard for his son even after he becomes a success. This dose of pop psychology isn't used to soften our view of Lonnie. He's a thorough bastard, and the film is unflinching (for its time) when it comes to handling scenes of sexual abuse and abortion. If the film has a point of view, it's that stardom doesn't turn people into monsters, stardom attracts monsters. Like many b-movies Rat Fink has a plot that's a bit too jerky, acting that's this close to being professional, and some regrettable dialogue, but it's dark, vicious tone is shockingly at odds with the way pop stars were presented at the time. It wasn't until That'll Be the Day and it's sequel Stardust came along in 1973/74 that there was a similarly grim take on pop stars. Another exceptional element in Rat Fink is the cinematography, courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond who also shot The Sadist. B-movies aren't supposed to look this good, and the film owes much of its success to his artistry.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Film Review: Summerfield (1977)

According what little I could find out about this film on the internet, Summerfield was, it's claimed, one of the first of the Australian New Wave films; in fact, it was supposed to be directed by Peter Weir but he opted for The Last Wave, his follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock. It's easy to see why this project would have been a good match for his talents. Like Wave and Rock, Summerfield leans heavily into the eeriness of Australia's landscape and suggests more than it shows.

The central character is Simon, a teacher who's come to the small town of Bannings Beach to replace a teacher who's mysteriously disappeared. His introduction to the tiny school is a shocker as he interrupts some children engaged in a mock hanging. He then meets a young girl, Sally, who takes an instant interest in him. Simon boards at a guest house where the other residents run the gamut from standoffish to odd to the traditional lascivious landlady. He's given the former teacher's room and finds it still contains his belongings and what might be some clues to his disappearance. While out driving, Simon hits Sally after she darts in front of his car. She isn't badly hurt, and this is how he makes the acquaintance her mother Jenny, and Jenny's brother David. They live on the island of Summerfield, which can only be reached by a causeway which they keep gated and locked. Simon begins visiting Summerfield to tutor Sally while she recovers from a broken leg, and soon takes a romantic interest in Jenny, who seems to be torn over whether to return his affection. Simon begins to suspect that his predecessor's disappearance is linked to Summerfield. 

It's tempting to spoil the ending, which involves several fatalities and a big reveal, but as dramatic as it sounds it's something of a letdown. Summerfield is excellent in many ways: the acting is solid, the dialogue lean and effective, and it's nicely shot. The problem is that it starts out promising one thing (two, really) and then deflates into what could be called a gothic domestic drama. The chilling scene of the mock hanging, combined with the surly and sullen locals, seems to promise a quasi-supernatural story about evil children and/or a town with a terrible secret. Summerfield Island even feels like a reference to Summerisle of The Wicker Man. That narrative, however, soon disappears and is replaced with a possible murder mystery as Simon goes sleuthing in a sort of half-hearted way. The mystery eventually resolves into a shaggy dog story, and what we're left with is a romance that turns tragic.

Despite a finale that's relatively easy to predict, Summerfield is very watchable and a reminder that a small country, population-wise, could punch above its artistic weight with the right governmental funding support. By contrast, at that same time the Canadian government was trying to ignite the local film industry with tax breaks, but poor supervision of what was being funded turned the industry into Hollywood's B-movie branch plant, churning out forgettable films that offered fading American actors and Canadian stars filling quota requirements a quick and rich payday. The career of David Cronenberg is the only notable result to come from era. So, despite its flaws, Summerfield is still better than 90% of what Canada would produce through the tax shelter years.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Film Review: Il Demonio (1963)

In terms of critical comment and background information, the online footprint of this film is very meager, and what little there is misidentifies it, IMHO, as a horror film. Despite the title and some of the plot elements, this is primarily a neo-realist film of psychological horror that's underpinned by a forensic look at the religious/folk superstitions and poverty of deepest, darkest southern Italy. In other words, it has more in common with The Bicycle Thieves than The Exorcist. And on another level the film looks at the fate of women who are outsiders within their communities, a common theme in Italian cinema of that era.

The central character is Purificata (Purif, for short), a startlingly beautiful peasant girl. In the opening scene she's making a love potion with her own blood and a lock of her hair. It's clear she's disturbed, and in the next sequence she stalks a man, Antonio, across the barren landscape of the Basilicata region as he goes to visit his future wife and mother-in-law. After this visit Purif waylays him and tricks him into drinking her potion. At this point we've guessed, rather than been told, that Purif and Antonio were once lovers, but he's rejected her in favour of the dowry and respectability of his dowdy bride-to-be. Antonio literally tosses Purif aside after she reveals that he's drunk her potion. From that point on Purif descends further into madness, resorting to folk curses against Antonio and continuing to follow him. She begins to have visions and hear voices, and soon the villagers think she's a witch or possessed by a demon. A priest attempts an exorcism, made riveting because of the understated way it's presented, and, as a bonus, it also introduces a very specific horror movie trope which lasts to this day. As Purif becomes more of an outcast, it opens her up to outright abuse; she's raped by a shepherd and the local shaman/folk healer, and is chased out of the area by a mob. She finds shelter in a nunnery, but by that point she's past helping and soon returns to her village to meet her inevitable and tragic fate.

Il Demonio smartly contrasts the beliefs of the villagers and peasants with the "madness" of Purif. As unbalanced as she is, the beliefs and actions of the locals, as shown in their religious ceremonies and folk customs, are equally insane to an outside eye. The main difference between the two, it could be argued, is that one madness is communal while the other is singular. And there's the rub: Purif suffers because her personal madness isn't in sync with the general madness. The title of the film seems to refer to Purif, but it can just as well be applied to those around her. 

Purif is presented as an outsider from the beginning by virtue of her looks and because, we can infer, of her relative sexual freedom. This makes her both an object of fear and desire to men. The first scene in the film shows Purif playing with a pair of scissors before she cuts her hair to make the love potion that she believes will put Antonio under her control. The allusion to the idea of the castrating female who dominates men couldn't be more obvious. Men are, of course, willing to use her body when the opportunity arises in secret, but are also eager to form up into a mob to chase her away. This hypocrisy is highlighted at the very end of the film when Antonio has sex with Purif shortly after leading a symbolic witch-burning procession through town. Antonio's, and by extension the town's, terror of Purif's independence and flaunting of traditions comes to an end when he knifes her to death after one final use of her body. 

Daliah Lavi plays Purif, and if she's remembered at all it's as eye candy in a few spy movies of the 60s. That's a shame, because this is an amazing, brutal, full-bodied performance that should have led her to much better parts. The film's success is largely thanks to her. There are only a handful of professional actors in the film, the rest of the cast being made up of locals, most of whom look as weathered as their land and are all at least a foot shorter than the pros. The other star is the cinematography. The Basilicata region is almost lunar in its starkness, and some of the shots of it are absolutely breathtaking. One of the locations used was Mantera, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2019 the European Capital of Culture, but in '63 it was still mired in medieval poverty. It says something about the quality of this film that it makes better visual use of Mantera than No Time to Die did more than fifty years later. The director/writer was Brunello Rondi, who didn't have a glorious career as a director but did co-write the scripts for some of Federico Fellini's most famous films.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Displaced Women: Three films by Antonio Pietrangeli

 

Add Antonio Pietrangeli's name to the long list of Italian directors of the 1950s and 60s who should be a lot more famous. In a career cut short by his accidental death in 1969, he made only ten films, three of which could be considered classics of Italian cinema. Like so many of his peers, Pietrangeli was fascinated with the swift and shocking changes taking place in Italy during this era. The economy was red hot and creating a vibrant consumer culture, the influence of the Church was on the wane, and women were no longer tied inextricably to hearth, home or, most strikingly, to one man. 

Pietrangeli's focus was on the changing role of women in this new Italy, caught between traditional Italian sexism and the more liberal attitudes that were sweeping the western world. In three of his best films, the female characters (women were almost always the protagonists in his films) find themselves adrift in a changed Italy, uninterested in traditional roles, but at the same time unable to find a secure foothold in a society with one foot in the traditional past and one in the liberal present.

In Adua and her Friends (1960), four prostitutes are left with an uncertain future after a new national law bans brothels. Adua (Simone Signoret), and three of her former co-workers open a restaurant in a rundown house in the country. Their plan is to serve food downstairs and turn tricks upstairs (this was actually what some prostitutes turned to). Instead of the restaurant serving as cover for their sex work, it immediately becomes a success on its own and the women don't have to work upstairs. Their respite from serving men in bed is only temporary. Two of them are betrayed or abandoned by their new boyfriends because of their former careers, and their landlord extorts them once he realizes how successful they are. They film ends with Adua now a lowly street prostitute being rejected by clients because she's too old. 

The Girl from Parma (1963) is about Dora, an orphaned young woman who's been raised by an elderly

female relative. Although she maintains a prim facade in her small hometown, Dora wants to see the wider world, especially the men in it. She has a brief affair with a seminarian and then leaves for the bright lights of Parma to live with her aunt. She soon becomes the object of desire for a succession of men, none of whom she really has any deep affection for. Dora finally ends up in Rome with Nino, a feckless and luckless commercial photographer who has big ideas but small skills. In many ways he's Dora's male equivalent, and she's the only guy she really seems to like. She finally agrees to marry a straitlaced policeman who's both frightened by and drawn to her easygoing sexuality, but dumps him with carefree abandon. She looks up Nino again, but he's surrendered to middle-class respectability by partnering with a woman who owns a small cafeteria. Dora leaves Nino with a look of contempt, sits down at an outdoor cafe, and with a smile on her face looks forward to her next adventure. Roll credits.

Two years later, Pietrangeli made I Knew Her Well (1965), which stands as a darker take on the themes in The Girl from Parma, which is mostly a comedy. Once again, his subject is a rootless young woman who's fled a dull life in the sticks. The woman is Adriana and she dreams of a career as an actress. In today's terms she'd probably be trying to become an Instagram or YouTube personality. She has no real talent, just a burning desire to not be a nobody. A brief glimpse of her childhood home, a shack in the middle of a dusty plain, tells us why she's set out on her chosen path. Adriana bounces around the lower depths of Rome's entertainment industry, getting small acting jobs, but making most of her money as an escort. Unlike Adriana, she isn't content to go with the flow, and when she recognizes that the future holds nothing better for her, she kills herself.

In all three of these films the female protagonists are adrift in a rapidly evolving society that seemingly offers new opportunities for women, but is still riddled with patriarchal and sexist attitudes. In Adua, as soon as the women are making real money from labour that's traditionally been done for free in the home, men move in to exploit them. They can sell their bodies, but not their cooking. In the other two films, the protagonists are only valued as eye candy and sex objects. In Girl Dora adapts to this situation and rides the wave, as it were. She has no goal in life, and seems to find her aimlessness pleasurable. Adriana, on the other hand, has her spirit eroded away by the many reverses she suffers, all of them coming from a male-dominated industry that treats her as a product.

In Pietrangeli's films, women are the main victims and beneficiaries of Italy's new economic and social order. They're given a taste of new freedoms, but almost all of these opportunities are booby-trapped by men. And the women don't quite know how to navigate this new terrain. It's interesting that the women in Adua, all of whom have lived outside the mainstream their entire adult lives, are fully realized characters. Dora and Adriana's inner lives are largely mysteries to us, which seems like a reflection of the mystery they have to face in finding a place for themselves in Italy. The male characters are unsympathetic to a man. The best of them can be charming, but inevitably they turn out to be craven, weak, hypocrites, or fools. The worst are exploiters and predators. 

Inasmuch as any male director or screenwriter of that time and place could be described as a feminist, Pietrangeli qualifies as one. Three of his other films, It Happened in Rome, The Magnificent Cuckold, and The Visit all feature women enjoying or experiencing new freedoms. Rome is a frothy rom-com about three female tourists visiting a picture postcard Italy, Cuckold is a farce about an unfaithful husband who ends up being betrayed through his own jealousy, and Visit is a partly comic study of a courting couple who can't quite figure out the rules of romance in the new Italy. All of these films feature good to great cinematography and production design, and, given their era, they seem far, far ahead of their time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Film Review: Last Night in Soho (2021)

 

Sad to say, but it appears that Edgar Wright, director/writer of Last Night in Soho, is following Quentin Tarantino's career arc. Both started fast but are fading in the stretch, undone by a tedious and self-indulgent obsession with glorifying B-movie tropes and crafting calorie-free cinematic set-pieces. Wright's last film, Baby Driver, was built around the idea of, hey, wouldn't it be cool if car chases were synchronized to pop songs? Music videos, in other words. Attached to this unoriginal idea were a boatload of heist movie cliches, a much-hyped, but unimaginative, continuous take, and a romantic relationship that was only plausible if you accepted the idea that the female half of the romance was dumber than a bag of hammers.

Soho is even poorer, and with even less attention paid to the plot. Twentysomething Eloise comes to London to attend fashion school, and to be scorned and humiliated by a small group of fellow female students who seem to have been drafted in from a TV series about an especially bitchy American high school. Eloise has a West Country accent that Thomas Hardy would find too much, and is such a country mouse it's a surprise that she doesn't live behind a skirting board. She can't take the hazing at the school residence so she moves into the top room of a tall, gloomy house in Soho. Faster than you can say "Swinging Sixties," Eloise is suffering from hallucinations/visions/dreams/hauntings (you choose, clearly Wright can't make up his mind) every time she falls asleep. During these night terrors Eloise journeys back to 60s Soho and follows, literally, an aspiring singer named Sandie who wants to be the next Cilla Black, which isn't overly ambitious; it's rather like an American singer wanting to be the next Connie Stevens. Sandie soon falls into the clutches of a promoter/pimp well-played by Matt Smith, who soon has her turning tricks rather than singing. And it all ends in murder most bloody!

The plot, like Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown efforts. is a spindly coatrack on which to hang big, busy set-pieces. The camera swirls endlessly around lavishly-realized Soho nightclubs, CGI puts Eloise in the middle of the action like a wide-eyed ghost, and the period clothing and detail is so shiny and bright it feels like it's just arrived from a mid-century modern future. The film is really nothing more than these incessant flashbacks, each of which reveals a morsel of plot leading to a final twist that's a Grand Guignol of nonsense. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, and it's a role that only asks her to scream, run, scream again, do some more running, and then look doe-eyed and put-upon. Her screaming and running are adequate. Sixties icons Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham make cameo appearances and cash a paycheque. And poor Michael Ajao is stuck with playing John, Eloise's erstwhile boyfriend, a character so underwritten he might as well be a cardboard cutout with attached speech bubbles.

Wright's best films, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, were parodies of well-worn genre pictures, but they gave him a solid structure to follow. As weak as Baby Driver was, it at least had a conventionally twisty heist plot to surround the vanity car chases. Soho is badly in need of a genre to give Wright navigation points. It's an awkward mix of the supernatural, psychological horror, and giallo, but none of it is convincing, and, bizarrely, the film's finale could have been lifted from a romance on the Hallmark Channel. At least Wright hasn't stooped as low as Tarantino and given himself a role. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Film Review: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

The giallo genre is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when I thought I'd seen all the famous ones, and a lot of the obscure ones, along comes The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Corruption of Chris Miller. The former is a sort of mash-up of Roman Holiday and a Hitchcock thriller, and the latter is a riff on Polanski's Repulsion. And both bear one of the hallmarks of gialli; they're heavily influenced by more famous films and directors. To be even more specific, the entire giallo genre probably doesn't exist if Psycho and Diabolique hadn't come before. In the 1960s and early 70s, Italy was the counterfeit designer label purveyor of the film world, churning out ersatz westerns, spy films, and toga (called peplum in Italy) epics, all of them low budget versions of costlier, starrier, made in Hollywood (mostly) films. But here's what's so remarkable and enjoyable about these Italian B-movies, especially the gialli: cinematically speaking, they were frequently better than their major league progenitors. For proof, look no further than Vittorio Storaro, the 3-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, who also shot two notable gialli, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Fifth Cord. 

The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Corruption of Chris Miller are both good examples of gialli that look better than they have to. Girl is directed by Mario Bava, who is usually credited with kick-starting the genre with this film and Blood and Black Lace (1964). Bava did amazing things visually on low budgets, and this is a fine example. Shooting in black and white, he uses Roman locations like the Spanish Steps to striking effect, and one sequence set in an empty apartment lit by bright, bare lightbulbs is stunning. Corruption is in colour and pays close attention to wardrobe and interior design. It was shot by Juan Gelpi who gives the film a glossy look that might be a homage to the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which fits, roughly, the subject of the film. Gelpi also did fine work on They Came to Rob Las Vegas, a heist film shot in Nevada, California and Spain. The director of Corruption was Juan Antonio Bardem, who, it turns out, was Javier Bardem's uncle.                                                                                                                      

As good as both films look, they suffer from faults common to gialli. The plots are twisted and ambitious, but ultimately don't hang together. Girl starts with a bang with the eponymous heroine, an American tourist, encountering a drug smuggler on her flight to Rome, followed in very short order by witnessing her aunt's death, meeting a hunky doctor, becoming the victim of a mugging, and then witnessing a murder that may have happened ten years previously. It doesn't really add up in the end, but it's fun to go along for the ride and the tone is more whimsical than murderous. Corruption revolves around a rich woman, Ruth, who lives in a big house with her step-daughter. The man of the house ran out on them some years ago, and now his abandoned wife has some vague plan to corrupt his daughter, Chris, in revenge. This side of story is rather confused, especially since Ruth seems to have the hots for Chris. A handsome drifter turns up and Ruth hires him to be a handyman, and he takes an interest in both women. Chris, however, is terrified of sex. People start getting murdered in the area, suspicion falls on Barney the drifter, and the film ends with the most spectacular knife attack scene since Psycho. And, like many gialli, the acting is a mix of dodgy and competent. 

So why did Italian B-movies look so much better than their American equivalents? The answer, I'd theorize, comes from the two countries contrasting experiences with television production. In Italy, television only began in 1954 and there was only one channel, RAI, the state broadcaster. A second channel was added in the 60s. Variety shows dominated the limited programming time available, and this meant that TV was not a deep or varied source of talent for film production. In the U.S., TV employed a relative army behind the camera, and these people, with their training in the style and look of TV, were the ones who often made the B-movies. Italian films, then, were largely made by people who drew their influences and experience from films, not the TV industry. The Italian film industry remained vibrant and prolific until more TV channels were allowed on-air in the late 70s and 80s, after which the domestic box office for Italian films cratered. Like I said, it's a theory.