Monday, December 28, 2015

The Line, The Cross & The Curve (1993)

With a debut single like “Wuthering Heights”, albums like The Dreaming and conceptual suits like “The Ninth Wave”, Kate Bush is anything but predictable with seemingly everything she’s involved with coming out of left field. As evidenced by her music, Bush is clearly a film fanatic and has an obvious appreciation for cinema of a slightly sinister nature having expressed admiration for Hitchcock in interviews as well as writing songs like “The Wedding List” based on Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968), “Get Out of My House” inspired by The Shining (1980) and of course the sampling of the “Its in the trees! Its coming!” line from Curse of the Demon (1957) on the title track for the Hounds of Love album. There has always been a visual side to Bush’s music and with The Sensual World album Bush took to directing her own videos. For her 1993 album The Red Shoes, Bush again chose to do things a bit differently. Rather than simply film videos for the singles, Bush instead chose to write, direct and star in a film around the songs loosely inspired by the 1948 Michael Powell film which gave The Red Shoes album its name. In classic Bush fashion, the resulting film, The Line, The Cross & The Curve is as bizarre as it is original and left many, even some of Bush’s most loyal supporters scratching their heads.

Following a rehearsal, a dancer (Bush) is startled when out of nowhere a mysterious woman (Miranda Richardson) appears before her from behind her mirror. The woman frantically begs the dancer to help her return home, which she agrees do to by simply drawing a line, a cross and a curve on three sheets of paper. As a gift, the women gives the dancer her pair of red dancing shoes, however once she puts them on she realizes she’s been tricked as the shoes are cursed and she is unable to stop dancing. A strange guide appears beckoning her and the dancer is sucked into a fantasy world behind the mirror, forced to find the woman and free herself from the cursed red shoes.

Hardly surprising considering its creator, The Line, The Cross & The Curve is a quintessential Bush creation being wonderfully weird and defying both convention and any attempt to pigeonhole it. Despite being constructed around six music videos, the film is much more than simply a collection of video clips and at the same time the last thing the film plays out like is a standard musical. Whatever it is, it works. One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because the transitions from the music videos and the narrative interruptions in-between are smoothly executed and move the story along quite nicely no matter how illogical it may seem. Its the videos though which are the main attraction. As a director, Bush clearly has an excellent eye and there is certainly isn’t a lack of innovative ideas with each of the videos having their own distinct visual personality (and musical as well with The Red Shoes being one of Bush’s most eclectic albums) with opener “Rubberband Girl” showcasing Bush’s innovative dancing, “The Red Shoes” recalling the phantasmagoric flamboyance of Ken Russell whereas it would appear David Lynch was a source of inspiration for Bush during the opening moments of “Lily”. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the euphoric, almost ceremonial fruit squishing set to the tropical tune of “Eat the Music”. Even a relativity simple video like “And So Is Love” feels like a scene out of a gothic horror film thanks to Bush’s stylish lighting choices.

In August of 2014 when Bush made her return to the live stage with her series of “Before the Dawn” concerts in London there seemed to be a newfound interest in all things Kate Bush with multiple albums even re-entering the British charts. Despite this, The Line, The Cross & The Curve got little to no mention at all and that was probably to Bush’s liking. While there are numerous Bush fans who’ve found the film hard to take too, Bush herself is perhaps its harshest critic, claiming in interviews that she feels she let her crew and Miranda Richardson down and is really only happy with very little of the film. She also blatantly referred to it as a “load of bullocks”. In fact Bush also expressed disappointment in the production of The Red Shoes album even re-recording seven tracks for her 2011 album The Director’s Cut. The film has yet to be released on DVD and unless Bush has a change of opinion it will probably stay that way for a while which is too bad as its really a testament to Bush‘s creativity. Fans of Bush who’ve yet to see it should track it down just because but fans of strange cinema that might not be familiar with Bush should also seek out The Line, The Cross & The Curve and in the process be introduced to a brilliant artist.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bordel SS (1978)

AKA Bordello a Parigi (Bordello in Paris)

Unlike fellow Euro cult contemporaries Jess Franco and Jean Rollin who turned to adult features for financial purposes (or had their films meddled with by producers and distributors who later added hardcore inserts) and usually worked under pseudonyms, José Bénazéraf had no issues whatsoever taking the hardcore route, proudly signing his name on all his adult films earning himself the moniker “the Goddard of porn”. Although Bénazéraf didn’t make the full jump into the adult film market until the mid-70’s, the seeds for his transition were planted long before with his films drawing the ire of the French censors with their melding of sex, violence and radical politics which eventually led to Bénazéraf’s Joë Caligula (1966) being outright banned the night before its intended premier, a stunt which cost Bénazéraf one million of his own Francs. Bénazéraf was once quoted as saying “In bourgeois society, eroticism is a form of anarchy” and like many others of the era considered making adult films a form of social rebellion but he also believed that it could be done artistically, although he would eventually begin shooting on video with increasingly low budgets. Out of all of Bénazéraf’s hardcore films, Bordel SS is perhaps the most interesting as it see’s Bénazéraf trying his hand at the nazisploitation subgenre and the resulting film turned out to be one of the most ambitious entries said subgenre has to offer.

During the Nazi occupation of France, one particular Paris brothel becomes a popular hangout for a Nazi unit stationed nearby. Captain Willhem, a decorated and highly respected Nazi commander soon becomes a regular, although complications being to arise when Willhem finds himself falling for Amelia, one of the prostitutes, whom unbeknownst to Willhem knows more than she should regarding the war as she’s providing information to the resistance movement, putting herself and the rest of the prostitutes in grave danger.

Bordel SS is certainly an oddity in that despite being not just a nazisploitation film but a hardcore film belonging to a subgenre notorious for its rampant sleaziness, those looking for a barrage of bad taste will quickly become bored with the film. Bordel SS is first and foremost a story driven film, however there is one thing that holds in back in the eyes of many and that being the editing in the Italian version of the film, which is the most widely available, is rather choppy and as a result the narrative probably doesn’t make much sense. The fact that the film is non-linier also adds to the confusion however with subsequent viewings more loose ends are tied up and the film feels more complete. Clearly the story came first for Bénazéraf as the actual hardcore scenes feel almost like an afterthought although Bénazéraf’s occasional use of mirrors does add some visual flair. What’s also refreshing is that the prostitutes aren’t simply fodder for the sex scenes, they’re all fairly rounded characters each with their own distinct personality and the way Bénazéraf has Willhem’s “relationship” with Amelia play out is quite interesting. That’s not to say that Bénazéraf completely forgets about the mandatory nazisploitation sleaze as its well represented here in the form of the bizarre sadomasochistic lesbian fantasies (which eventually become reality) of an imposing female Nazi officer and torture via electrocution. The film also benefits from high production values featuring authentic looking costumes and even some WWII era vehicles.

Bordel SS is also notable for featuring a still dark haired Brigitte Lahaie in an early role. Although her part is technically a supporting role, it didn’t stop distributors Punch Video from making her the main attraction on the VHS box when the film hit video. When it came to working with Bénazéraf, Lahaie had mixed feeling stating in the episode of the 1999 Eurotika! documentary series centered around Bénazéraf “Bénazéraf is a crazy man you know. Sometimes it was wonderful and sometimes is was very bad… he don’t like people, he don’t like actresses and don’t like actors. It was difficult to work with him”. Bordel SS also has the distinction, perhaps due to its nazisploitation credentials, of being one of the easier Bénazéraf films to track down in an English friendly version. The film does have an official DVD release in France from a company called LCJ who also released Bénazéraf’s Joë Caligula, Frustration (1971), The French Love (1973), Le bordel 1900 (1973), Anthologie des scènes interdites (1975), Brantôme 81 (1981) and Les contes galants de la Fontaine (1981) although unfortunately none of the discs are subtitled. In pure Bénazéraf fashion, Bordel SS is a film that’s liable to frustrate many, however Bénazéraf’s ambitions with the film make it unique in the field of nazisploitation and the type of political (s)exploitation film that only Bénazéraf would be audacious enough to make.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Doriana Gray (1976)

AKA Die Marquise von Sade (The 1000 Shades of Doriana Gray), Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray (The Portrait of Doriana Gray), Dirty Dracula and Ejaculations 

Given the oftentimes highly sexual nature of his films, Jess Franco was, and still is labeled a pornographer by detractors. While this is hardly surprising with low hanging fruit being the easiest to pick, what’s ironic is that the films which lead most people who don’t understand Franco’s work to refer to it as porn are hardly pornographic. Of course that’s not to say that Franco didn’t directed his share of hardcore adult features which indeed he did, mainly in the 80’s and for commercial purposes. Franco himself was the first to admit that he had little interest in shooting hardcore films and the work bored him. Its well known that Franco’s films often suffered at the hands of producers and distributors and many of his films exist in several versions due to the common practice of a hardcore version of a film to be released featuring pornographic inserts in order to sell the film in different markets. Some of the most famous examples being Female Vampire (1973), The Other Side of the Mirror (1973), Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and The Hot Nights of Linda (1975). What makes Doriana Gray unique is that not only is the hardcore version is the most widely seen and accepted and perhaps the right version to watch, the film also stands as one of Franco’s most genuinely haunting featuring what is quite possibly Lina Romay’s finest performance.

A journalist from a woman’s magazine (Monica Swinn) arrives at the estate of secluded millionaire Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) believing that Doriana’s story would interest her readers. Perpetually lonely, Doriana possesses eternal beauty at the cost of draining the life of her lovers. Doriana is also incapable of feeling sexual pleasure, the results of complications that arose after being separated at birth from a twin sister (also Romay) whom Doriana keeps locked away in an asylum, driven mad by lust from feeling all of the pleasure Doriana cannot. While recounting her tale to the journalist, Doriana comes to the realization that her starvation for physical satisfaction and her sisters nymphomania are drawing the sisters, and their eventual fates closer.

Franco was certainty no stranger when it came to drawing parallels between sex and death, perhaps most famously with Female Vampire, a film which Doriana Gray shares several similarities with, and would continue to do so for the rest of his career although in many ways Doriana Gray could be considered the final word on the subject as far as Franco is concerned as never before had he approached the topic in such a direct manner. Just like in Female Vampire, Franco recycles the idea of the morose woman longing for impossible companionship sucking the life force (albeit regretfully) from her lovers through sex, yet here Franco takes the idea much further with the addition of a twin sister making the film much more tragic and perverse. From a technical and narrative standpoint the film is quite minimal, driven by a seedy mood of uneasiness that is persistent throughout which contrasts nicely with the beauty of Doriana’s estate and the surrounding locations as well as the hypnotizing exotic, eastern flavored score. Franco operated the film himself making it much more personal, idolizing Lina like never before who delivers a truly astonishing performance, particularly in the role of the twin sister who’s outbursts of raw sexual mania are legitimately frightening. Despite featuring hardcore scenes, the film could hardly be considered “erotic” taking into considering the material and the air of melancholy the surrounds the film and Franco makes no attempt to eroticize the sex scenes either never forgetting the doom that follows Doriana everywhere.

Ascot Elite released the film as part of their Jess Franco Golden Goya Collection under the Die Marquise von Sade title which included the softcore edit of the film as a bonus and its ironic that the soft version suffers from the same problems that most hardcore edits of Franco’s films suffer from. The biggest issue being the jumpy editing making it glaringly obvious that something had been edited out but what’s also obvious is that there is footage which was clearly shot after the original film had been finished and added in at a later date. Interesting thing regarding the timing of the release of Doriana Gray, its was released the same year as In the Realm of the Senses (1976), of the most important “mainstream” films to feature hardcore scenes. Given that films featuring unsimulated sex have essentially become somewhat respectable, it’d be interesting to see how the film would fare if it were released today compared to a Catherine Breillat film or say Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014). Doriana Gray holds an interesting spot within Franco’s filmography because of it being of the very few, possibly the only one of his films where the hardcore scenes actually work but the main selling point of the film is Lina’s jaw-dropping performance elevating Doriana Gray to an entirely new level. An adult horror masterpiece and one of Franco’s and Lina’s finest hours.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Helter Skelter (2000)

Its often been said that a true film adaptation of one of the Marquis de Sade’s writings would be virtually impossible for a variety of reasons so there’s always bound to be debates among de Sade aficionados as it relates to filmed versions of de Sade’s work and just how much of the original text is represented on screen. Beginning with Justine (1968) and going all the way to his digital era with Flores de perversion (2005), an entire book could be written on the influence de Sade had on Jess Franco. Franco probably understood de Sade better than any filmmaker to approach his writings. Even when Franco greatly deviated from the source material the spirit of de Sade’s original story always remained as evidenced by his many adaptations of Philosophy in the Bedroom like Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969), Plaisir à trois (1973) and Sinfonía erótica (1980) as well as a film like Eugenie de Sade (1970), Franco’s unique take on Eugenie de Franval. Even films Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984), which weren’t intended as de Sade adaptations are nonetheless distinctly Sadean in nature. Despite its title, Helter Skelter might not have anything to do with Charles Manson, however it has everything to do with the spirit of de Sade with Franco channeling the divine Marquis for one of his most experimental pieces.

“Plotless” is a word often attributed to Franco’s films however in the case of Helter Skelter the term is applicable. There literally is no plot. While not based on any specific de Sade text, the film instead consists of random scenarios inspired by de Sade’s writings. Aside from a very brief instance late in the film, there is no dialogue, however several voice-over narrations reading de Sade quotes are heard throughout the film. One quote in particular,“I abhor nature” makes multiple appearances, with the first quote heard in the film being “…I abhor Nature and I detest her because I know her well. Aware of her frightful secrets, I have fallen back upon myself and I have felt… I have experienced a kind of pleasure in coping her foul deeds.” as spoken by Almani the chemist in de Sade’s Justine. Another Almani quote is heard later in the film “ …disgust with life becomes so strong in the soul that there is not a single man who would want to live again, even if such an offer were made on the day of his death.”,which in the book is actually said right before the first quote. Clearly the first quote has significance. If Franco intended the film to be about anything, it would appear that the films vignettes all depict individuals attempting to corrupt Nature, a quintessential Sadean theme with Nature dictating the libertines principles so is there any act more rebellious or libertine than attempting to offend that which governs?

Setting aside the de Sade influence for a moment, the film could also be read as Franco simply filming his own fantasies and as an actual viewing experience the film can be quite hypnotic, taking place in its own perverse netherworld consisting of sadomasochism, revenge and murder. The film takes a turn for the surreal right away during the first segment, a lesbian liaison between Lina Romay and frequent Franco actress during the One Shot Productions era, Mavi Tienda, thanks to Franco’s bizarre little touches such as Tienda wearing a bright pink fright wig, seen often in Franco’s films of this era and the puzzling use of a green glass head as a prop. The same random and bizarre mood is a constant throughout the entire film, aided greatly by the laid back jazz score along with the lethargic blues guitar cues lifted from the Vampire Blues (1999) soundtrack. Franco also does something interesting in that he utilizes spliced-in footage from other films made around the same time, the biggest chunks taken from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell (1999) but there are bits and pieces from Vampire Blues sprinkled in as well. Despite the footage being recycled, it never really comes across as pastiche, particularly the lengthy whipping scene from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell as it perfectly fits in with the films de Sade theme and the brief bits from the virtual reality segments taken from the same film and re-used here also take on a different context, that being one of Sadean excess.  

It would appear that Franco had intended Helter Skelter to be the first part in a series of sorts as the opening credits read “Helter Skelter Part One: Pleasure and Pain”. The “Pleasure and Pain” subtitle could also be somewhat of a clue as to what Franco might have been going for thematically. Another interesting thing is that in North America the film has only been made available on DVD as a bonus feature or as part of a double feature set, debuting on disc as a bonus on the original DVD release of Franco’s Broken Dolls (1999) although the more economic choice would be the “Cravings of the Depraved” set along with Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell. Helter Skelter may be of limited appeal being one of Franco’s digital efforts however de Sade enthusiasts should find the film of interest. The final de Sade quote heard in the film, the last parts of which are read by Franco himself, “Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.” couldn’t have wrapped the film up more perfectly as not only does it sum up de Sade, but portions of it also pertain to Franco’s approach to filmmaking.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999)

An endless source of fascination concerning the labyrinth filmograpgy of Jess Franco is the “mapping out”, for lack of a better term, of Franco’s cinematic universe. Franco’s body of work is a maze of reoccurring motifs and its always interesting noticing little references in his films made to his other films and piecing together the puzzle of how one film relates to another. Common character names are another reoccurrence in Franco’s films with names like Dr. Orloff, Morpho and Lorna just to name a few constantly making appearances. As Franco’s career progressed, the more self-reflexive his work became, with his later digital features for One Shot Productions like Vampire Blues (1999) and Snakewoman (2005) being loaded with nods to his past films. While working for producer Harry Alan Towers, Franco directed two films in the Fu Manchu series based on the writings of Sax Rohmer starting Christopher Lee, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) and portions of the Fu Manchu universe would pop up again over the years, even in Franco’s final film Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2013). While not an “official” Fu Manchu film, 1999’s Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell certainly finds Franco channeling Rohmer’s super villain with Franco himself playing the lead role as the titular Dr. Wong in one of his most unique and ambitious films from the One Shot Productions era.

Dr. James Wong (Franco), a once powerful alchemist who terrorized the occidental population of the orient is now a shell of his former self after having been defeated by the wizard Cagliostro (Howard Vernon in archival footage from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973)). About to commit hari-kari, Wong’s daughter Tsai Ming (Lina Romay) proposes a plan to restore Wong to his former glory by using virtual reality to kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman and demand a ransom. Wong agrees and the scheme is put into motion, although detectives Nelly Smith (Romay in her “Candice Coaster” alter-ego) and her partner Doc Petry are put on the case. Aided by Nelly’s visions of Cagliostro from beyond the grave, Nelly and Doc set out to defeat Dr. Wong for good.

Even though at this point calling a Franco film strange and claiming that it defies genre pigeonholing is beyond redundant, the fact remains that Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell is a bizarre, genre hopping curiosity. Usually the concept of virtual reality is put to use in science fiction scenarios but here Franco puts it use in an odd horror, fantasy and crime film hybrid with a bit of comedy thrown in as well. As for the Fu Manchu connections, the biggest one would obviously be the character of Dr. Wong but also the detectives Nelly Smith and Doc Petry who are clearly recalling Fu Manchu’s pursuers Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie. Franco as Wong gleefully hams it up in the role adding greatly to the films comedic tendencies as does Romay when her bubbly alter-ego “Candy Coaster” takes over for the role of Nelly Smith. Visually, the film is one of Franco’s most interesting as it sees Franco taking his digital experimentation to the next level by altering the image so much that at times the film appears to be animated. Going even further, there are instances where dialogue is replaced by text bubbles turning the film into a literal comic book movie. This is put to great use during the virtual reality sequences which are given an extra boost by the stunning presence of Analía Ivars as Loba, Tsai Ming’s henchwoman in one of her most striking roles, easily on par with her role in Vampire Blues and at times even rivaling it.

Interesting thing regarding the film, despite getting a solo Spanish DVD release, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell has never gotten its own DVD release in North America. The film first hit disc as a bonus feature on Sub Rosa Studio's release of Franco’s Snakewoman, easily the best of Franco’s One Shot Films. The disc is now out of print and for the longest time commanded some outrageous prices even for used copies although as of late copies have been popping up for more reasonable prices. Of course, being a One Shot film means that the film was re-released by Sub Rosa on a set entitled “Cravings of the Depraved” as a double feature with Franco’s experimental Marquis de Sade inspired piece Helter Skelter (2000), a film which despite its title has absolutely nothing to do with Charles Manson. The decision to pair the two films for the set was apt as Helter Skelter features spliced in footage from the former film, namely an extended sequence of Analía Ivars whipping co-star Rachel Sheppard as well as snippets from the virtual reality scenes re-edited in various ways so the two make for an interesting double feature. As for Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell on its own, like all of Franco’s later films its incredibly divisive but its unique visual design and genre blending make it worth the time of those willing to take a chance on it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Body Chemistry (1990)

Although it became fully defined in the 80’s and its origins can be traced back to decades before, if there’s one genre that could be considered synonymous with the 90’s it’s the erotic thriller. On the Hollywood side of things, Michael Douglas was the king and Sharon Stone the queen of the genre and even a screenwriter like Joe Eszterhas became a household name thanks to his scripts for films like Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993) and William Friedkin’s criminally underrated Jade (1995). Then there were the numerous direct to video/late night cable (“Skinemax”) B-films usually starring the likes of Shannon Tweed, Shannon Whirry and Maria Ford. It was virtually impossible in the 90’s to be channel surfing late at night and not encounter such films or be browsing through a video store and not come across numerous films of the like with enticing cover art to go along with the provocative titles. It was however, an 80’s film that is usually credited with for starting the erotic thriller craze. Despite essentially being a Reagan-era version of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971), Fatal Attraction (1987) nonetheless captured the cultural zeitgeist and as a result many producers saw dollar signs. One such producer was Roger Corman who’s Concorde-New Horizons unleashed Body Chemistry, a film that was not only at the forefront of the 90’s erotic thriller boom but also one of the best and a film that would become a calling card film of sorts for its director, the undervalued Kristine Peterson.

Sex researcher Tom Redding (Marc Singer) is tasked with acquiring a lucrative contract for his lab from Dr. Claire Archer (Lisa Pescia), a fellow scientist with big money connections. While researching sexual response, Tom and Dr. Archer embark on a passionate affair with Archer taking Tom to his sexual limits, although soon Tom, a happily married father begins to have regrets and ends the affair. Dr. Archer and her overactive libido however arn't exactly ready to stop, and Tom soon finds himself in a dangerous situation, relentlessly pursued by a sex maniac determined to have him no matter what.

Body Chemistry isn’t a film that’s going to be recognized for having the most original screenplay as the storyline is admittedly very similar to Fatal Attraction which is clearly why Corman green-lit the film in the first place, however with Peterson at the helm the film becomes much more than just a mere cash-in. An apt analogy would be that Body Chemistry is to Fatal Attraction what Night Train Murders (1975) is to Last House on the Left (1972). Similar set-up’s, different agendas. Ultimately, Fatal Attraction was a piece of Hollywood fluff who’s psychological interests were fairly surface level whereas in Body Chemistry psychosexuality comes to the forefront resulting in a much darker film. Peterson is clearly fascinated by the idea of sexual power dynamics and control, taking the film down some obsessive and fetishistic roads involving S&M and sex tapes and Peterson slyly avoids any hypocritical moralizing by never picking sides. Another thing that sets the film apart from Fatal Attraction is the motivations of the antagonist. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s character Alex mentally unravels as a result of unrequited love. Lisa Pescia’s Dr. Archer however is simply a raging nymphomaniac who’s motivations for the majority of the film are purely sexual. This makes her not only a more interesting character but more dangerous as its clear she’s getting off in more ways than one in her tormenting of Tom. Pescia smolders in the role radiating sexuality and mystery and also the danger that comes with those qualities. The perfect femme-fatale.

Interestingly, despite belonging to a genre known for going direct to video, Body Chemistry did get a theatrical run and was actually Corman’s highest grossing domestic theatrical release for Concord and went on to spawn not one but three sequels, although unfortunately Peterson didn’t return to direct any of them and all three went direct to video. Pescia however did return for Body Chemistry 2: Voice of a Stranger (1992) which was directed by Adam Simon who would go on to direct the fascinating IFC documentary The American Nightmare (2000). Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994) and Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure (1995) were both directed by exploitation legend Jim Wynorski and starred 90’s erotica regulars Shari Shattuck and Shannon Tweed respectively. The sequels are entertaining for what they are however had Peterson stuck around the series really did have the potential to be something special. Much like her debut feature, the psychological slasher Deadly Dreams (1988), Body Chemistry is an example of Peterson elevating the material beyond what is normally expected from the genre while at the same time fully embracing the genre, delivering all the sleazy thrills any successful erotic thriller must contain along with some perverse humor. Body Chemistry is a stylish, sexy and perfectly cast erotic potboiler with an excellent psycho in Claire Archer and a film that would cement the obsessions that would define Peterson’s best work.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Dirty Shame (2004)

In December of 2014, Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote a fascinating piece entitled “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” going into great detail about how the changes in the film industry zeitgeist over the years has resulted in many directors whose films usually fall in-between what is considered “low budget” by Hollywood standards and the mega-budgeted blockbusters which dominate the current cinematic landscape have gotten lost in the shuffle. The article quotes several filmmakers and one of the directors profiled was John Waters. Its hard to believe, and more than a bit depressing that its been 11 years since Waters has directed a film. Waters has hardly been reclusive though, embarking on spoken word performance tours, publishing the books Role Models and Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America which detailed Waters’ cross-country hitch-hiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco, and more recently conducting fascinating live on stage interviews with the likes of David Cronenberg and Isabelle Huppert. Waters’ last film to date, 2004’s A Dirty Shame could very well be seen as a “back to his roots” film so to speak. Certainly Waters’ most gleefully vulgar film since the 70’s, A Dirty Shame is also one of his most brilliant, filled with Waters’ typical spot-on social satire as well as featuring some of the filthiest, fall on the floor hilarious comedic bits in Waters’ entire oeuvre.

The Harford Row area of Baltimore is comprised of two distinct groups, “neuters” who are disgusted by anything remotely sexual and on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, sex addicts. Repulsed by her husbands advances and keeping her abnormally large breasted exhibitionist daughter who goes by the name “Ursula Udders” locked in her room, Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is perhaps the most defiant neuter until an accidental blow to the head results in a concussion and Sylvia, like all other concussion sufferers on Harford Row, is now a sex addict. Under the guidance of Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), the leader of the sex addicts, Sylvia learns that she is the 12th apostle, destined to think of a never before heard of sex act, although Sylvia’s mother becomes determined to save her daughter from a world of perversion which leads to complete mayhem with the sex addicts determined to take over Harford Row.

Just as Serial Mom (1994) was released in the early days of Court TV where constant trial coverage in real time was a relatively new thing and the line between criminal and celebrity became even more blurry, A Dirty Shame is yet again another instance of Waters’ perfect timing when it comes to satire. Looking back at the American political climate of 2004 when the film was released during the Bush administration with issues such as gay marriage being of the most contentious issues of the day, A Dirty Shame couldn’t have been more on the money. Waters’ masterfully lampoons the tendency of society as a whole to view and judge individuals based solely on their sexuality and also gives the views of both the extreme right and left regarding sex a proper skewering. To the right, those with more liberal views towards sex are nothing more than oversexed perverts out to corrupt society while the left considers those on the more conservative side of the sociopolitical arena repressive religious zealots out to condemn sexual freedom. As exaggerated as the film is, Waters’ observation isn’t at all inaccurate. Water’s brilliantly avoids any instances of pretentiousness in his commentary given the over the top nature of the films humor which, as always with Waters is absurd, risqué and hysterical, made even funnier by some of the ridiculous fetishes on display, the soundtrack comprised of dirty gimmick songs and the gusto performances of Ullman, Knoxville and an especially hilarious appearance by longtime Dreamlander Patty Hearst.

Perhaps the perfect timing of A Dirty Shame ended up working against it. For starters it was given the NC-17 rating by MPAA which is of course often referred to as a kiss of death by many filmmakers as it severely limits a films audience which results in fewer ticket sales in the few theatres it might actually stand a chance playing in. There’s also the issue of advertisements with some television stations refusing to air TV spots for NC-17 rated films and also the fact that certain retail stores won’t stock NC-17 films which forced Waters to cut the film and release two different versions on DVD with the cut version being hilariously labeled the “neuter version”. In Kirby Dick’s fascinating documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) which exposes the inner workings of the MPAA, Waters is interviewed describing his issues with the super secretive organization regarding A Dirty Shame. When Waters asked for specifics regarding what the ratings board took issue with, their response was at some point during the film they simply stopped taking notes. Apparently a lot of the jokes went over the heads of most critics too as the film earned Waters some of his harshest reviews. Topical when it was first released, A Dirty Shame is still plenty potent, and proof that Waters' voice is sorely missed and one contemporary cinema still needs to hear.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sweet Whip (2013)

AKA Sweet Obsession

Takashi Ishii’s adaptation of Oniroku Dan’s S&M novel Flower and Snake (2004) marked a kind of turning point in the Japanese maverick auteur’s cinematic career. While sadomasochism was clearly a topic that has always interested Ishii, with Flower and Snake S&M came to the forefront and for the majority of Ishii’s output ever since S&M has became a favored topic with each film becoming more obsessive and fetishistic and all the more fascinating as a result. This has naturally polarized audiences with many dismissing his recent output as overlong and indulgent. Ishii followed up Flower and Snake with a sequel which further explored the psychology behind sadomasochistic fantasies as well as the role S&M played in marriage. While Ishii’s next film, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007) wasn’t specifically about S&M, the masochism of its main protagonist was ever apparent and was a major piece of the films psychological puzzle. In A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010), Ishii’s sequel to his A Night in Nude (1993), in what has gone on to become the films most notorious scene and a deal breaker for many viewers, a character repeatedly whips herself for an extended length of time. Much like Flower and Snake, for 2013’s Sweet Whip Ishii again turned to a book for source material and completely made it his own resulting in one of his most potent and potentially alienating sadomasochistic masterpieces yet.  

Naoko (Yuki Mamiya), a 17 year old high school student is kidnapped by her neighbor who has harbored a long obsession with her. For one month, Naoko is repeatedly raped and tortured before managing to kill her captor and escape. 14 years later, 31 year old Naoko (Mitsu Dan) is now a successful doctor specializing in fertility however she also has a hidden side, working nights as a professional slave in an S&M club under the name Serika. With the impending death of her terminally ill mother, Naoko’s painful memories of her ordeal as a teenager begin haunting her worse than ever and dangerously bleed into the fantasy scenarios at the S&M club.

Kei Ohishi's book which the film is based on.
Unquestionably Ishii’s darkest film to date, Sweet Whip (Amai Muchi, 甘い鞭) could be seen as the culmination of everything Ishii has explored in his output for the past decade. While the exploration of a damaged female psyche is something Ishii has returned to several times going all the way back to the Angel Guts series, never before has he taken it this far and in such bleak directions. What’s really astonishing is that despite how dark a film this is, and it really cannot be overstated just how grim it gets, Ishii has always taken the side of his female protagonists and Sweet Whip is no different ultimately making Ishii’s portrait of Naoko sensitive and sympathetic, yet Ishii’s handling of such material is still bound to infuriate a plethora of viewers. Ishii structures the film in an interesting way by having Naoko’s abuse as a teen detailed via flashbacks, constantly going back and forth between the past and present as well as utilizing voice over narration throughout the entire film. The more the film moves forward, the more Naoko’s narration reveals about her current mindset and the build-up to the films climax is nothing short of masterful with the flashbacks to Naoko’s final moments of captivity before her escape corresponding with the older Naoko at the S&M club. The violently surreal finale, where Ishii presents Naoko’s distorted viewpoint, along with the fragile beauty of Mitsu Dan and brilliant use of Brahms strike an emotional chord rivaled only by The Brutal Hopelessness of Love.

Its crucial to point out that never once does Ishii eroticize Naoko’s past torments, setting those scenes in a repulsive looking basement room and presenting her captor as the most pathetic creature imaginable. Its during the stylish scenes taking place at the S&M club where the older Naoko is willingly tied up and whipped does the film cross over into the erotic territory visually while the psychology behind those scenes and Naoko’s motivations are sure to draw the ire of overly sensitive knee-jerk reactionaries. What’s also worth noting is leading actress Mitsu Dan is currently one of the biggest celebrity sex symbols, or “idols” in Japan. It should be safe to assume that the number of western actresses with the same amount of fame as Dan that would be willing to take a role like this could be counted on one hand. Dan follows in the footsteps of Aya Sugimoto and Mai Kitajima, turning in a psychical performance that puts most other so called “brave” performances to shame. The same could be said for Yuki Mamiya, Dan’s 17 year old counterpart in the film and another “idol” who goes through hell for the film. The fact that there are mavericks like Ishii still making audacious and uncompromising films like Sweet Whip and performers like Dan taking on roles like this is a good enough reason not to completely give up on modern cinema.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007)

When done right, the “film within a film” device can lead to a number of innovative possibilities. Not simply as a way of telling multiple stories, but it also gives performers the chance to really stretch their acting muscles by tackling more than one personality. Its no surprise that some of the finest examples of film within a film have came from the master transgressors. With Trans-Europ-Express (1967), Alain Robbe-Grillet presented a compelling and kinky story as it was being made up on the spot while the director, writer and producer travel on the titular railway. Andrzej Zulawski’s La femme publique (1984) explored the chaos that can ensue on a film set, the lead actress becoming “possessed”, so to speak, by the director, and the confusion between actress and character. This idea was taken to its most (il)logical extreme by David Lynch in Inland Empire (2006) where lead actress Laura Dern’s world becomes a surreal nightmare after having the personality of the character she’s playing become dominant. Fresh off his groundbreaking adaptation of Flower and Snake (2004) and its 2005 sequel, Takashi Ishii, a master transgressor if there ever was one, tried his hand at the film within a film game with The Brutal Hopelessness of Love, a staggeringly brilliant psychological puzzle film that not only stands as one of Ishii’s greatest films, but one of the best films from the past decade.      

Nami Tsuchiya (Mai Kitajima), a famous actress is being interviewed by journalist Katsuragi (Naoto Takenaka) on the set of her new film. In the film, Nami plays an actress named Kyoko who’s husband is having an affair with a younger actress. The films storyline mirrors Nami’s real life marriage as her husband has been having a well publicized affair with another actress and it just so happens that Nami’s actual husband is playing her fictional husband in the film and his real mistress is playing the mistress role. The more Nami goes into detail about the film, the more names and events become muddled as the lines between reality and film gradually become more obscured.  

Although it shares similarities with the previously mentioned films, by no means is The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (Hito ga hito o ai suru koto no dôshiyô mo nasa, 人が人を愛することのどうしようもなさ) a rehash. This is quintessential Ishii, a bizarre, erotic, fetishistic, at times blackly humorous, ultimately tragic character study of Ishii’s most fascinating variation on the Nami character yet. One of the most clever uses of film within a film, by having the film revolve around an interview it allows Ishii to constantly return to Nami recounting the details of her new film, yet the more the film moves forward it also raises the question of who exactly is Nami speaking for? Herself, the fictional Kyoko or perhaps the character Kyoko is playing? Never becoming too convoluted, the way Ishii ties it all together in the end is again, clever but the emotional impact hits harder here than in any of Ishii’s previous films thanks to the presence and performance of Mai Kitajima. While not as psychically demanding a role as Aya Sugimoto’s in the Flower and Snake films, Kitajimi nonetheless hurls herself in the role(s) with abandon, really going the extra mile. Instantly likable and unbelievably beautiful, Kitajima exudes Nami’s eroticism but also the air of sadness that surrounds her, making the films final reveal all the more potent. As is expected the film is also visually astounding featuring some of Ishii’s most extravagant neon lighting to date giving the film a feeling of surreality which perfectly compliments the films multiple personality narrative.

In February of 2014 there was somewhat of an instance of life imitating art in terms of personal marital issues becoming public when in an attention seeking attempt, Mai Kitajima’s ex-husband, actor and former J-Pop idol Mikio Osawa held a press conference claiming that a DNA test proved that he wasn’t the biological father of the former couples son. The insinuation obviously being that Kitajima had an affair during their engagement. Needless to say the tabloids ran with it and Kitajima’s name was dragged through the mud pretty badly. The couple officially divorced in 2005, two years before this film was made and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if taking on a role like this was cathartic in a way for Kitajima. It certainly feels that way watching her performance. This film also marked Naoto Takenaka’s eighth appearance in an Ishii film out of a total of eleven so far. Takenaka has been with Ishii from the beginning staring in Ishii’s debut Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988) and has been a go-to actor for Ishii ever sense with some of his most memorable Ishii roles being in A Night In Nude (1993), Gonin (1995) and Freeze Me (2000). Phenomenal actor, but this film is all Kitajima. Its her go for broke performance that carries the film and combined with Ishii’s masterful visuals make The Brutal Hopelessness of Love a certifiable masterpiece.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Flower and Snake II (2005)

The history of the Flower and Snake films can be a bit convoluted when it comes to films considered “official” adaptations or films which were simply loosely inspired by Oniroku Dan’s original S&M novel. By far the most well known and critically regarded film based on Dan’s book is the 1974 Nikkatsu version starting Naomi Tani, however the 60’s saw its fair share of “Flower and Snake” films, some of which even had  Tani and Dan’s involvement like Flower and Snake Continued: Red Torture (1968) and Flower and Snake: Rearing the Flesh (1968). Of course the 1974 film also inspired a series of follow-up’s such as Sketch of Hell (1985), White Uniform Rope Slave (1986) and Final Rope Torture (1987). Not that Takashi Ishii could ever be accused of following tradition, but it only made sense that he follow his 2004 interpretation of the novel with a sequel. Ishii’s take on the material shattered several of Japan’s taboo’s when it comes to film censorship and having a lead actress like Aya Sugimoto in such a role caused a bit of a stir but the films notoriety wasn’t for naught as its blew all other vitiations on the story out of the water. Flower and Snake II saw Ishii once again craft a film more than worthy of standing alongside the first as well as go above and beyond the expectations of its genre.

Following the death of Oikawa, a famous painter, Takayoshi Toyama, a renowned art critic and confidant of Oikawa receives a CD featuring several S&M based paintings by Oikawa never before seen by the public. Thinking the paintings would go for good prices on the black market, Toyama sends his much younger wife Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto) to Paris to commission Ryoosuke Ikegami, a young painter whom Toyama once sponsored to recreate the paintings. Ikegami agrees on the condition that Shizuko be his model. Reluctant at first, Shizuko agrees and becomes not only Ikegami’s muse but his lover as well, revealing a hidden side of herself as she becomes more acquainted with the underground world of sadomasochism.  

Flower and Snake II (Hana to hebi 2, 花と蛇2 パリ/静子) does what any proper sequel should do which is retain the spirit of the original film (even carrying over the names Toyama and Shizuko) while bringing something new to the table. While a fairly good psychological portion of the first film dealt with hidden sadomasochistic desires and the bonds of marriage, here that seems to be Ishii’s main concern as its those ideas which come to the forefront with some voyeurism thrown into the mix as well. Its a well detailed story and although some of the intricacies of the plot may take more than one viewing to fully reveal themselves, Ishii takes the film full circle with a clever and fairly twisted romantic twist. Stylistically the film differs from the first in that it feels much more rougher, featuring lots of hand held camera work, at times feeling almost Lars von Trier-esque as opposed to the refined composition of the first film. That’s not to say the film is lacking in the visual department. On the contrary, Ishii creates several (appropriately) painterly sequences, the centerpiece of the film being a jaw dropping auction scene where Sugimoto reenacts the S&M scenarios in the paintings and a fantasy sequence early in the film recalls the sadistic phantasmagoria of the first film. Sugimoto once again goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of physical performance, throwing herself into the role with abandon proving just how admirable and dedicated a performer she is.

Naturally there was to be another sequel five years later with Flower and Snake 3 (2010) which was in turn followed by Flower and Snake: Zero (2014). Before those films however there was incredibly although not unsurprisingly an anime version entitled Flower and Snake: The Animation (2006). Unfortunately neither of the two live action films were directed by Ishii nor did any feature Sugimoto. This film also marked their last collaboration which is a shame as they made for the perfect director/muse pairing with Sugimoto willing to follow Ishii down any fetishistic rabbit role. Its funny to think that when Ishii’s first film was made Oniroku Dan was unsure about Sugimoto playing the lead due to the films content which amazingly proved to be too strong even for Dan! Sugimoto has gone on recording saying she chased the role and as long as Ishii was the director she would do anything for it. The results in both films speak for themselves. Sugimoto has had quite the interesting career from being a model, J-Pop singer, actress, and writer. Hopefully another film with Ishii will happen at some point down the road. While Flower and Snake II is a good enough film to stand on its own, when paired with Ishii’s first film, both stand as examples of what’s possible with material that has been filmed several times before with the right artist behind it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Flower and Snake (2004)

One of the most famous, if not the most famous S&M novel in Japan, Oniroku Dan’s Flower and Snake established Dan as Japan’s number one writer of S&M based fiction and is easily ranked alongside the likes of other S&M classics such as Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Anne Desclos’ (Pauline Réage) Story of O, and Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s (Jean de Berg) The Image. There have been numerous films either based on Dan’s book or inspired by it going back to the 60’s but perhaps the most famous film version of the book was made by the Nikkatsu corporation in 1974 staring the queen of pink herself Naomi Tani. This film has widely been credited with saving Nikkatsu from bankruptcy and as a result of its success led to an entire series of sadomasochistic pink films and although Dan objected to the changes made to his story, so much so that he refused to be involved in the making of Wife to be Sacrificed (1974), he would later give Nikkatsu the rights to other stories of his. Other Flower and Snake films would follow and the novel would eventually be re-worked again in 2004 with Takashi Ishii, a true master, at the helm. Flower and Snake was somewhat of a new beginning for Ishii and would not only become a career defining film but it also broke new ground in the field of S&M films.

After having some shady past business dealings uncovered, successful business man Takayoshi Toyama finds himself in serious debt to the yakuza. Toyama is given two options, either pay the money or offer his wife Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto) a popular tango danger whom the yakuza boss is quite fond of as a form of payment. Upon discovering that the boss in question is in his 90’s, Toyama figures there’s little risk and agrees for Shizuko to be “borrowed”, however he quickly regrets his decision when Shizuko is kidnapped and finds herself the main attraction in the “coliseum”, a secret club operated by the yakuza where the rich and powerful indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies.

Reaching levels of artistry both visually and thematically that other films of this sort wouldn’t even attempt to reach with a lesser talent behind the camera, Flower and Snake (Hana to hebi, 花と蛇) easily transcends the usual “exploitation” and “pink film” genre tags that are normally attached to it, although Ishii clearly never forgets what type of genre he’s working in. Whereas past films saw Ishii dealing with the damaged psychology of his female protagonists, Flower and Snake differs in that the character of Shizuko’s mental state isn’t damaged, yet there is clearly a side of her that’s yet to come to the forefront and Ishii uses sadomasochism to explore that side of Shizuko as well as examine the state of Shizuko and Toyama’s marriage. Visually the film sees Ishii as a manga artist turned phantasmagoric painter with the elaborate S&M set pieces of the coliseum crossing over into surreal territory with the centerpiece being an astonishing montage of Sugimoto dressed in traditional geisha garb in a series of rope bondage scenarios culminating in a jaw dropping crucifixion. The element of fantasy plays a major role in the film which goes back to the psychology of Shizuko and the more the film goes on the more Ishii obscures what may or may not be reality or fantasy. Obviously Sugimoto delivers one of the most psychically demanding performances in all of film and deserves nothing but the highest amount of respect for all she goes through. Her level of commitment is astonishing and admirable.

Flower and Snake is an important film in that at the time of its release it really tested the limits of what was acceptable without having to be censored in terms of full frontal nudity which is normally blurred or pixilated but with this film all was on display. While pink films in general are normally incredibly explicit in their content, this film also seemed to take it just a bit further, a fact made even more surprising by the film being released by a major studio and playing in mainstream cinemas. The celebrity status of Aya Sugimoto also played a big part in the films notoriety. On a humorous front, even Oniroku Dan was shocked by what he saw in the film! During a question and answer session before a screening of film Dan recalled when he first visited the set and was surprised that the first thing he saw was Sugimoto tied to a post, and that after the press conference he would leave before the film started which resulted in quite a bit of laughter from both Ishii and Sugimoto. Out of all the adaptations of Dan’s novel, Ishii’s film stands out for a variety of reasons, whether it be Ishii’s brilliant direction or Sugimoto’s fearless performance. It might be as niche as niche can be, but for those that belong to that niche, Flower and Snake is a masterpiece.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Freeze Me (2000)

AKA Freezer

By their very design rape/revenge films are bound to be divisive no matter the original intention of the filmmaker. Its always fascinating and at times maddening to hear debates on the artistic merits, or lack thereof according to the subgenre’s detractors of films like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) just to name three of the most famous examples. More often than not the arguments for and against these type of films return to the same talking points. Defenders of the subgenre say the films are empowering to victimized women and hail the directors as feminist friendly while the opposition claims the films are misogynistic and the (primarily) male directors depiction of rape glamorizes the act. In many ways Takashi Ishii is the perfect director for the subgenre. Rape has always been a prominent theme in Ishii’s work going all the way back to his Angel Guts manga series and the films made from said manga and a good many of Ishii’s films inspire the exact same debates as rape/revenge films with many praising Ishii as a feminist filmmaker and others dismissing his work as merely sexist exploitation. Freeze Me, Ishii’s first “semi-traditional” rape/revenge film proved not only to be just as polarizing but also easily one of Ishii’s best films and one of the most confrontational films the rape/revenge subgenre has to offer.

Five years before moving to Tokyo to start a new life, young Chihiro was gang raped by a group of childhood friends who also videotape the incident. Fast forward five years and Chihiro is accosted by one of her former assailants in her apartment building. It turns out one member of the group that raped Chihiro has just gotten released from prison and as a celebration the rest of the gang has tracked Chihiro down and made plans to meet up and relive the assault. Pushed too far, Chihiro eventually snaps and begins to murder her attackers as they arrive, in the process discovering just how handy industrial sized freezers can be.

For a rape/revenge film, Freeze Me (Furîzu mî, フリーズ・ミー) is slyly unconventional in that despite following the familiar trajectory of the subgenre, that being victimized woman has enough and exacts righteous revenge on her wrong doers, with this being an Ishii film its agenda is far greater. At its core, Freeze Me is a vicious attack on the social stigma faced by victims of rape and abuse, also touching upon the typical societal view of women and while Ishii’s main target is Japanese society, the theme is universal. Its fairly obvious that Chihiro’s main concern is victim blaming and the damage that can be done to her reputation because of it and because of this some of the directions the film takes will no doubt frustrate many, particularly Chihiro’s motivations behind her actions. Chihiro is a fascinatingly contradictory character in that in the more emboldened she becomes in her self-defense the more her mental state deteriorates and the keeping of the bodies of her rapists in freezers goes against her trying to escape her past. Its these contradictions that really make the point Ishii is trying to make about victim shaming heard all the more louder and clearer and psychologically places the film at the same level as Ms. 45. Ishii balances the gritty story with instances of high style, wisely waiting until the films closing moments to really let loose with the chromatic neon visuals, the effects of which are brilliant and makes the ending of the film all the more powerful.

Again, reaction to Freeze Me was and still is divided every which way with some reviews being insightful and thought provoking to others being mind-numbingly moronic. Among the more interesting is film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse’s take on the film in her excellent House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films where Janisse cites frustration at Chihiro’s thought process and specifically mentions the freezing of the bodies. In a phenomenal piece for Senses of Cinema, James R. Alexander contextualizes the film along with a detailed history of the rape/revenge film along with a thorough exploration of the depiction of rape in Japanese exploitation (“pink”) films. Of course there are also the reviews which on one hand should be called out for their idiocy but on the other really don’t deserve the attention. A constant source of amazement however is seeing how many reviewers throw out the word “misogyny” without having the slightest clue as to what the dictionary definition of the word is. Interpretation of a film is one thing and with films like these there’s always going to be differences of opinion but blatant ignorance is another thing entirely. Freeze Me is not a misogynistic film. Although difficult, challenging and unflinching it also happens to be one of the most intelligent rape/revenge films making it an essential film from the subgenre and an essential Ishii title.    

Monday, July 13, 2015

Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988)

AKA Red Dizziness

With Jess Franco gone its safe to assume that Takashi Ishii is the most “free” filmmaker still working today. With the possible exception of Lars von Trier, its hard to think of another director making films with the type of complete artistic freedom that Ishii has, particularly for the past ten years. Of course this type of freedom can sometimes come at the expense of an audience and Ishii’s more recent output has divided viewers with many dismissing it as being over indulgent, obsessive and fetishistic yet its exactly those things that make Ishii one of the most exciting and consistently audacious filmmakers with films like Flower and Snake (2004), its 2005 sequel, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007) and Sweet Whip (2013) just to name a few. Had Ishii never directed a film his reputation would still be firmly in place as the man behind the Angel Guts manga series which would be turned into one of the most well known and financially lucrative Japanese exploitation, or “pink film” (“Pinku eiga”) series with most films featuring the “Angel Guts” moniker being made for the legendary Nikkatsu studio. Ishii wrote the films from stories based on his manga and eventually made his directorial debut with the fifth film in the series, Red Vertigo, easily the best in the series and a knockout debut which would only be a sign of things to come.

While working the night shift, nurse Nami is assaulted by two patients who attempt to rape her. In a state of shock, she rushes home only to find her photographer boyfriend cheating on her with one of his models. Even more distressed than before, Nami takes off on her bike but is struck accidentally by Muraki, a disgraced former stock broker with several people after him for stealing a large amount of cliental money from his firm. Nami comes too, only to find Muraki molesting her. After explaining his situation to Nami, and eventually hers to him, the two bond over their shared desperation and a bizarre romance begins to form between the two.

What’s bound to surprise many about Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Memai, 天使のはらわた 赤い眩暈) is Ishii’s approach and handling of the material. While the films instances of sexual violence are undeniably harsh as is the case with most pink films, those looking for a total sleaze fest will be sorely disappointed. Although the mere suggestion is enough to disgust most, the fact is that Red Vertigo is ultimately a love story about the preverbal “lost souls” beaten down by life who seem to find some solace in each others misery. What’s interesting is that Ishii’s doesn’t seem so much interested in answering the question of why Nami would want to begin a relationship with Muraki but rather exploring the slow development of the relationship which raises several possibilities as to what Nami’s reasoning is. Muraki’s mentality is equally ambiguous in the sense that its unclear if his constant apologies to Nami for his actions are legitimate but its also apparent that he’s in desperate need of a companion. What’s really incredible are the moments of sensitivity Ishii peppers amongst all the ugliness and despite how hard to take the directions taken by the narrative might be, there’s no question that Ishii is on Nami’s side. With this being his first film, Ishii lets known what will become his visual calling cards right off the bat with brilliant neon lighting, surrounding his characters with constant rainfall and a dose of surreality by way of a random dream sequence early on.

Its been mentioned many times before but Ishii’s original intensions when he began writing and drawing the Angel Guts series bears repeating. Numerous viewers have written the series off as being nothing more than sexist rape fantasies which is clearly painting with a broad brush. Ishii intended the series as a tribute to victimized women with the “Guts” in the series namesake referring to courage. According to Ishii, prior to his manga women were depicted as nothing but sex objects with no characterization. Ishii’s creation of Nami (the name of the female protagonists in all the comics and films) was in direct opposition to that in an attempt to write and draw a female character rooted in reality. A lot of the negative criticism directed towards the series, and Ishii’s films in general for that matter has primarily come from western critics while in Japan Ishii is celebrated by some as a feminist director which speaks to the differences in eastern and western views in regards to topics like the depictions of sexism and rape in the media. Red Vertigo was one hell of a way to make an entrance as a director, essentially establishing every narrative and visual motif Ishii would continue exploring and continues to explore to this day. Unquestionably one of the most important pink films from possibly the most important pink series and the debut of a true maverick.  

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Isle (2000)

The late ‘90’s/early 2000’s saw a worldwide surge of trangressive and boundary pushing cinema not seen since the ’70’s. American filmmakers like Larry Clark were causing a stir at festivals worldwide with films like Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2002), the later even found itself banned outright in Australia. France of course had the so called “new French extremity” movement with films like Baise-moi (2000) and filmmakers like Catherine Breillat beautifully blurring the lines between art and pornography, a tradition also practiced by Denmark’s Lars von Trier. Perhaps at the forefront of the new millenniums newfound interest in “extreme” cinema was Asia. Japan would be an obvious point of reference with directors like Takashi Miike taking on screen violence to the next level in a film like Ichi the Killer (2001) as well as shattering every social taboo imaginable with Visitor Q (2001) along with Takashi Ishii testing the limits of Japanese censorship with Flower and Snake (2004). Not wanting to be left out, South Korea also had it band of cinematic trouble makers, the leader of which is unquestionably Kim Ki-duk. Kim had three films under his belt before helming 2000’s The Isle, a film which earned a reputation fairly quickly due to reports of some festival audiences either fainting or vomiting. Understandable, but just like Miike, Kim offers so much more than just shallow shocks and The Isle proves just that.  

On the run after shooting his lover after finding her with another man, Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim) arrives at a remote fishing retreat of sorts to hide out. The island is run by the mute Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) who makes her living selling supplies and occasionally herself to the fishermen who rent the floating cabins on the isle. Hee-Jin takes a liking to Hyun-Shik and the two bond out of their lineless and desperation which slowly develops into a mutually masochistic romance.  

Although Kim would keep expanding upon his fascination with the extreme behavior the ideas of love and relationships can lead to with films like Bad Guy (2001), Time (2006) and Moebius (2013), The Isle (Seom, ) is perhaps the ultimate Kim film in that Kim finds a perfect balance between the quiet meditation his films are known for and shrieking grotesqueness. This is a film of incredibly lyrical beauty by way of Kim’s eye for amazing scenery and the brilliant cinematography that comes with it as well as the films haunting score. The moments of tenderness between Hyun-Shik and Hee-Jin are legitimately touching and never once cross over into mawkish territory thanks to the go for broke performance of Jung Suh and Yoosuk Kim and its precisely that which make the films instances of brutality all the more jarring. When the “real world” interferes with the self-contained isolated universe Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik have created for themselves, the only reaction they know is violence, either self-inflicted or to each other (and often involving the use of fish hooks). Dialogue is used only when absolutely necessary and the silence makes the development of the films central relationship all the more fascinating, particularly when various side elements Kim has added throughout the film eventually connect with the main love story. While Kim takes the film into surreal territory for the closing moments leaving things on an ambiguous note, what is clear is that for better or worse, Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik are indeed perfect for each other.

Although Kim’s films have usually faired better internationally than in his home country, some even winning major festival awards, The Isle did run into some issues particularly in England where the BBFC delayed its release on account of the films instances of animal violence, mainly against fish. On that front Kim took the Ruggero Deodato defense saying "We cooked all the fish we used in the film and ate them, expressing our appreciation.” Unsurprisingly some also took issue with the films violence sometimes crossing over into sexual territory, but it would be another one of Kim’s films, Bad Guy that really infuriated critics and not just feminists who dismissed the film and Kim as misogynist. Kim is still causing trouble today with his 2013 film Moebius causing perhaps his most major controversy yet in South Korea, so much so that the film was essentially banned until Kim was forced to make 21 cuts in order to secure domestic distribution. With the state of cinema as it is today, it’s a blessing that there are filmmakers like Kim still making films that not simply irritate the hyper moralists but are also daring and challenging in their originality. The Isle makes for a perfect introduction to Kim’s world. In pure Kim fashion its a film that is both contemplative and at times confrontational and still has the power to stun 15 after its initial release.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Gozu (2003)

AKA Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu (極道恐怖大劇場 牛頭, Yakuza Horror Theatre: Gozu)

Along with being exhaustingly prolific, one of the things that makes Takashi Miike such an exciting discovery for film fans is his versatility and the unpredictability that comes with it. Despite helming several films a year and covering every genre imaginable, Miike still manages to leave a signature, oftentimes insane stamp on every single film no matter how different it is to the one that came before it. To give a good example of this, 2001 alone saw the release of films like Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris. Quite the range. There’s also not many directors who would even think of approaching yakuza crime films like Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), The City of Lost Souls (2000) or the Dead or Alive trilogy (1999-2002) the way Miike does. This diversity is ever present in Miike’s horror films be it Audition (1999), The Happiness of the Katakuris (that is if the film is even classifiable at all in terms of genre), One Missed Call (2003), Imprint (2006) and most recently Over Your Dead Body (2014). Then there’s Gozu. Made the same year as One Missed Call which again is a perfect example of just how varied Miike is while working in the same genre, Gozu is one of Miike’s most abstract films along with being one of his best and like most everything in Miike’s oeuvre, mind-bogglingly original.

Low ranking yakuza Minami is given the job of killing Ozaki, one of his superiors in fear of Ozaki’s mental instability being detrimental for business. Minami isn’t exactly up to the task though as Ozaki is very much a mentor to Minami and the two share a deep bond. A mishap on the road however leads to Ozaki being inadvertently mortally wounded, although after Minami makes a pit stop to clear his thoughts Ozaki’s body mysteriously disappears from Minami’s car. Completely baffled, Minami sets out on the increasingly surreal journey to find Ozaki encountering one strange character and situation after another while also uncovering some truths about himself along the way.

Given the material, its inevitable that Gozu (literally “Cow head”) would be compared to the works of the David’s Lynch and Cronenberg and Miike himself acknowledges those comparisons. There are indeed moments where Gozu resembles films like Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) however ultimately the brand of surrealism on display in Gozu is quintessentially Miike. Here Miike takes the slow burn approach ala Audition and fuses it with yakuza elements along with the absurdity of The Happiness of the Katakuris sans the musical numbers. Some of the situations Minami finds himself in are so over the top in their bizarreness that the film crosses over into comedic territory while still being unsettling due to their sheer oddness. And odd is it ever. Men with half the pigment in their face missing, a deranged brother and lactating sister inn keeping team, the titular cow headed demon, these are the types that inhabit the world of Gozu, not to mention a climatic scene which will give even the most jaded viewers something they’ve never seen before. Like Lynch, Miike often gets accused of weirdness for weirdness sake by those who can’t see past the abstractions and there’s much more to Gozu than a bunch of random strangeness, although it is the bewildering nature of the film that makes Minami’s search for Ozaki all the more engaging and the flashbacks of Minami and Ozaki also make the film a non too subtle exploration of Minami coming to grips with his own sexuality.

Originally Gozu was never intended to play in theatres as it was designed a “V-Cinema” direct to video/DVD project in Japan. Thankfully that didn’t happen as although the film did end up going direct to video in Japan, the film ended up playing at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes and it wound up playing other festivals as well such as the Toronto International Film Festival and South By Southwest. The film actually did have a theatrical run in the US as well. Perhaps nowadays direct to video films aren’t looked down upon as much as they may have been in the past with the numerous changes in the film industry but in Japan V-Cinema hasn’t really had the stigma attached to it as it has in other countries, although Miike claims (perhaps jokingly) in an interview on Cinema Epoch’s 2-disc special edition DVD of Gozu that his video productions are usually seen only by young kids in the Japanese countryside. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Gozu otherwise they’re be a good chance of it never leaving Japan. As is the case with the majority of Miike’s genre efforts, Gozu may only appeal to a select audience and it may even be a bit much to take for some Miike fans which is saying something but it’s a testament to one of the most consistently interesting and creative cinematic minds still working today.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Imprint (2006)

When attempting to discuss a film with a large reputation there’s always the conundrum of not regurgitating what’s already been said numerous times before ad nauseam. This is especially true of films who’s reputation resulted out of a controversy. Controversial films and films that have been dubbed “shocking” or disturbing” are interesting in that there’s always the chance of a film relying on nothing but shock value and as a result are rather hollow. Then there are the films which push boundaries, break social taboos and are truly transgressive that clearly have something to say with an intelligence behind them. Films like Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) immediately spring to mind. At this point the fate of Takashi Miike’s Imprint is near legendary. Originally intended to be the season one finale of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series, the film was immediately banned from broadcast in the US. Due to the banning, Imprint became instantly notorious with many impatiently for the DVD release and wondering just how graphic the film really was and if it would live up to the hype. Miike proved once again to be one of the most fascinating and radical contemporary filmmakers with Imprint, one of the most unflinching and original horror films in recent memory, and a film which is so much more than simply shock value for shock value’s sake.

In 19th centaury Japan, Christopher (Billy Drago) an American journalist returns in search of his lost love, a prostitute named Komomo whom he once promised to take back to America with him one day. Upon arriving on a strange island, Christopher sees no sign of Komomo but is offered a variety of prostitutes to spend the night with. He chooses a nameless, disfigured woman (Yûki Kudô) who claims to have known Komomo. Christopher demands to know the truth about what happened to his love, although when the woman begins relating the fate of Komomo along with her own personal history, perhaps Christopher begins to regret ever coming back in the first place.

At heart, Imprint is a morose fable based on the idea of the extremities that love can lead some too, even willingly go insane, clearly a favorite theme of Miike’s. Miike does something interesting by telling the story in a sort of episodic nature where truth and lies become entwined and amazingly the film covers quite a bit of emotional ground despite its brief 63 minute running time so the effect is definitely akin to being hit by a bus once its over. That feeling is also aided immensely by Miike’s matter of fact presentation of what has made the film so notorious in the form of torture, aborted fetuses and a climatic reveal that even by Miike standards is completely mental and comes out of left field. Imprint is also a curious film in that despite taking place in the 19th centaury Miike’s astounding visual design incorporates influences from a variety of eras making it seems as if the film is existing outside of time. Also the fact that aside from the American Drago and Kudô who speaks perfect English, the rest of the Japanese cast are speaking phonetic English which oftentimes sounds incredibly “off” yet adds to the already odd tone of the film and the idea of the film taking place in some surreal netherworld. It also has to be pointed out that Drago turns overacting into an art but considering that most everything in this world Miike creates is exaggerated to a certin degree Drago’s histrionics make perfect sense.

Setting aside for a second the fact that Showtime is a premium pay cable channel that is supposed to air films completely uncut and uncensored, one of the most surprising things about their banning of Imprint is that they were apparently so surprised by its graphic content. By the time it was supposed to air Miike already had a sizable reputation for not just pushing the envelope but setting fire to it with films like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001) just to name two already under his belt so it seems hard to believe that someone over at Showtime wouldn’t be aware of the type of filmmaker Miike was. Believe it or not Miike wasn’t the only filmmaker who had censorship imposed on their work with Dario Argento being forced to make cuts to his first Masters of Horror episode Jenifer (2005). Imprint did however air overseas uncut with no issues. The banning of Imprint will ultimately be the first thing most will think about whenever the film is mentioned which is fair as it stands as an example of absurd censorship although its unfortunate that most reviews of the film chose to focus solely on its more sensational content making the film seem shallow which it most certainly is not. Far from just an empty collection of shock scenes, Imprint is a legitimate modern masterpiece from a true maverick.