Roger Corman’s best film: THE INTRUDER. Happy 90th birthday mister Corman.

The Intruder

Roger Corman, the famous American independent low-budget filmmaker, producer and distributor, turns 90 today.
He’s single handedly responsible for lauching the careers of directors, writers and actors such as Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), Peter Bogdanovich (Targets), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Joe Dante (Piranha), James Cameron (Piranha part two: The Spawning, still the best movie ever about flying piranha’s), Jack Nicholson (a.o. The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind), Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat, Crazy Mama), John Sayles (scripted a.o. The Lady in Red, Battle Beyond the Stars) to name but a few.
On the one hand he produced and distributed exploitation and sexploitation movies and on the other hand he introduced the films of Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman to an American audience.
Of the 50 plus movies he’s directed himself, The Intruder (1962) is the best of them all and is somewhat of a stand alone in the man’s oeuvre. It’s a serious film dealing with the first introduction of racial integration in schools set a fictitious southern town called Caxton. In 1954 the US Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
The film was based on the novel of the same name by Charles Beaumont who adapted it into a screenplay himself, he also has a small part in the film. He’d also written the script for Corman’s The Premature Burial (1962) and went on to write the adaptation of Corman’s version of E.A. Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and died prematurely in 1967 at the age of 38.
The film follows the attempts of Adam Cramer (excellently portrayed by William Shatner, indeed the future Captain Kirk of the Star Trek Enterprise, in what must be his first lead role in a motion picture) to incite the white townspeople to racial violence against the black population. He basically wants to make the segregated American white schools white again.

The film was shot -not without risk- on location in o.a. southeast Missouri using the local population as extra’s which lends an incredible sense of realism to the film. The film received a limited released and was the first movie Corman had ever been involved in that lost money. Later the same year a big studio picture To Kill a Mockingbird which also touched upon similar civil rights issues -be it less direct than The Intruder- was released to great succes. The reputation of The Intruder has been growing in recent years and has led to several re-issues and DVD releases which has now, over 40 years later, resulted in the film turning in a profit.

Corman stated: “I really believed in it and was disappointed in its commercial reception. But it changed the way I made films. I felt the reason it had failed commercially was that it was too much of a message from me and not entertaining enough. From then on, I made films primarily for the audience’s entertainment. Any personal statement or scene that was important to me would be a beneath-the-surface subtext.”

Even at the age of 90 Corman is still producing movies at a steady rate, his most recent production Death Race 2050, a sequel to Corman’s producuction of Paul Bartel’s cult classic Death Race 2000 (1975), is currently in post production. I’m sure it’ll be entertaining and will undoubtedly have a subtextual social commentary.

Jan Bollen

BONE TOMAHAWK: S. Craig Zahler manifests his destiny as a director.

Bone Tomahawk

Two bandits are going about their business of killing and robbing some travelers a bit too close to a sacred burial ground belonging to an extremely aggressive group of Native Americans with, let’s say, cannibalistic tendencies. The surviving outlaw flees to a small town called Bright Hope. The local sheriff (Kurt Russell) shoots the bandit in the leg -which appears to be his regular MO- and has the local doctor Samatha (a role for Lili Simmons of Banshee fame) fetched to attend to his wound. She’s married to Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who’s injured, recovering from a broken leg. In the morning the sheriff is notified that a black stable boy has been found dead, severely mutilated. When they check the jail they find an arrow, Samatha, the bandit and a young deputy are missing from the jail.
A four man posse -consisting of Sheriff Hunt, his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) with potential signs of early alzheimer’s, Brooder (Matthew Fox) a notorious ‘indian killer’ and womanizer (who at one stage had an eye on the town’s doctor) with some vanity issues and the injured husband Arthur- is formed to get them back out of the hands of the tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers or troglodytes, a word which is the basis for one of the countless comedic scenes in the film. The cannibals bare somewhat of a resemblance to the Predator creature in the 1986 Schwarzenegger vehicule (and many of its sequels).

This typical and fairly simple premise and character set-up could have resulted in a straightforward, lean and mean western. Writer director (and musician) S. Craig Zahler had other plans, he’s opted for a slow paced rhythm, with a lot of riding and campfire scenes leaving plenty of opportunity for character moments and loads of comic relief, many scenes playing out in long takes with little camera movement. The character of Chicory played by Richard Jenkins is clearly an homage to similar comic relief roles by character actors such as Will Rogers in many a John Ford film or of Walter Brennan in countless Howard Hawks films. Where the humor in the films of Ford and Hawks now often feels dated as it’s too much ‘broad comedy’ (at least for my taste) the dialogues by Zahler constantly strike the right chords even though a lot of the time it has an oldfashioned feel to it. Not that the other actors are less than great but Jenkins really has the star part and steals many a scene.

Zahler’s reputation and script was able to attract a lot of star quality for his low-budget debut, all willing to work for scale. The film was shot on a shoestring budget of 1,8 million dollars on pre-existing sets on the Paramount Ranch for 21 days. After the shoot Kurt Russell almost went straight to The Hateful Eight set, he clearly kept the same hairstyle and beard.
The film also has a lot of interesting actors (rnaging from cult actors to former glories) in minor parts . There’s Zahn McClarnon (of Fargo Season 2 fame, reteaming with Patrick Wilson) -who in an original take on the typical Native American scout role- informs the posse where they can find the tribe but wisely declines to go along.
David Arquette (deputy Dewey in the Scream films) and Sid Haig (o.a. Jack Hill regular including the Pam Grier vehicules o.a. Coffy, Foxy Brown, played a cameo as the judge in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and more recently Rob Zombie’s House of  1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) as the bandits.
Woody Allen and Coen brothers fans may well recognise Fred Melamed as the saloon owner Clarence (Sy Abelman in A Serious Man, and one of the abductors/writers in Hail, Caesar!).
Michael Paré as as Mr. Wallington in the saloon scene who almost became an A-lister in the mid eighties via Eddie and the Cruisers, and Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, and has since 2000 acted in almost every Uwe Boll film. And Sean Young (Blade Runner, No Way Out) as the mayor’s wife.

For some Zahler may at times be lingering too much. But then we would have missed such wonderful scenes such as the one with the (tiny) mayor who for whatever reasons is being completely ignored by Sheriff Hunt or the one showing the nightly encounter and treatment of a couple of Mexicans (“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny.”)  For others the extremely horrific outbursts of violence in the final act might be too much to take. This blending of western, horror and comedy that lasts for almost 2 hours and fifteen minutes some may find to be a bit indulgent, I liked it a lot and it was one of the many highlights at this years Offscreen festival.

If you have a dark sense of humor you’ll definitely have to check out the below clip: Cabin Fever and Bone Tomahawk: Windpipes and black humor.

Jan Bollen

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s EVOLUTION. Mixing Bresson with Argento.

evolution

Set in a seaside village of a remote volcanic-like island the film shows a small community that seems to consist entirely of adult women each taking care of one young boy. The young women gradually appear to be more guards than guardians and more caretakers than caring. The children are given medicine to drink to so-called to strenghten themselves eventhough they are not ill. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic focusses on one of these boys called Nicolas who discoveres the body of a young boy on an otherwise idyllic looking bottom of the ocean. The adults do not appear too alarmed, his mother (?) dives down at the same spot only to find the bright red starfish the boy said marked the dead body and do not seem to hold any further credibility to his story.

Made up more out of cryptic elements and taking a purely visual approach to storytelling (rather than a more classic form of dramatisation) the film immerges you in a moody and atmospeheric cinematic trip mixing the beautiful with the horrific. Small details have a maximum effect such as the bleached eyebrows of the mothers and the lightgray outfit they share make them look extremely similar and thus interchangeable  The approach chosen leaves a lot of room for interpretation that some may find exilharating and others frustrating.

The film forms a perfect companion piece to Hadzihalilovic’s debut Innocence (2004). She likes to start her films under water, in Evolution the water appears to be a symbol of the origin of life. Both films focus their attention on the world as experienced by children, girls in the case of Innocence and boys in Evolution and seem to share a similar dreamlike
logic. Both films are mainly set at night, have an eerie feeling to them and have children ‘disappearing’ and adopt a style that combines arthouse and genre films. Showing as much respect for the cinema of Robert Bresson as for that of Dario Argento.
Both films were shot by Belgian DoP’s. Benoît Debie who shot all films of her partner Gaspard Noé and worked with Fabrice Du Welz a.o. Calvaire (2004) and Vinyan (2008) has been replaced by Manuel Dacosse who seems to be his favorite replacement since Debie’s career has gone more international (a.o. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Wim Wenders Everything Will Be Fine and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River) as he helmed Du Welz Alléluia, and Hélène Cattet’s and Bruno Forzani’s Amer and L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps and now also Evolution.
Evolution is a more accomplished film and no longer has the imperfections Innocence had. In her debut film you could sometimes feel the child actors had no clue what they were upto due to which certain scenes played out far too long. It nevertheless remained a powerful film. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 11 years for a next film by Hadzihalilovic.

Jan Bollen

ANOMALISA: complex, one of a kind stop-motion animation with strings only puppet master Charlie Kaufman can pull.

Anomalisa_poster
Based on his “sound play”, Anomalisa marks the long anticipated return in the director’s chair for Charlie Kaufman since his brilliant debut Synecdoche, New York (2008). He’s mostly known as the screenplay writer for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and to a lesser extent Human Nature (2001) and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002).

This stop-motion animation film he co-directed with Duke Johnson follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a succesful writer of a book on customer service, who’s on his way to a convention on this subject held in Cincinatti. After checking in the Fregoli hotel he decides to call a former girlfriend Bella Amarosi (what’s in a name) he unexpectedly left over ten years ago. They meet but the encounter does not turn out a succes.

In the meantime we’ve noticed every character in the film -regardless if they are a man a woman or a child- as seen by Michael has a remarkably similar face and voice (that of Tom Noonan). In his view everybody looks the same and has the same uninteresting things to say, he’s therefore only interested in being left in peace and tries to avoid social contact to the an absolute minimum.
The name of the hotel seems to suggest he may be suffering from of the so-called Fregoli delusion, or the delusion of doubles, which is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person. It’s named so after the turn of the century Italian quick-change stage actor Leopoldo Fregoli.
This seems to change suddenly when he encounters Lisa who does look different and does have a voice of her own (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh). They have sex (an incredibly sweet scene) and the illusion holds up at least till the morning after breakfast conversation.

The writing and plot is rich, layered and if you’re willing to dig deeper you’ll notice it’s dark and perverse as well. There’s a lot of irony linked to the customer service expertise knowledge of the main character. When he’s confronted with professional customer ‘speeches’ from e.g the taxi driver who drives him (who can’t stop giving free advice on Sin Sin or Cin Cin city Cincinatti) to the hotel and the phone conversation he has with the room service order taker who he feels is taken too much time and he’d like to cut of as soon as possible are probably applying his book on customer service to perfection. “You can feel the smile even if you don’t see it” Michael would state during his convention address).

A lot is being introduced extremely sublty and might not be picked up at all and may require multiple viewings. The ‘toy store’ confusion which is planted during the cab scene in the beginning and is built upon during the entire piece is being paid off during the conclusion of the film. This kind of complexity and indepth psyschological portrayal is not something you’d expect in a stop-motion animation film. It’s a truly original film that pulls no punches and doesn’t care about showing characters that have serious flaws or might lack sympathy, somewhat symbolised by the fact that the makers chose not to erase or digitally hide the inperfections in the dolls faces that are needed for facial movement. Needless to say: required viewing for mature audiences and undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

Jan Bollen

BELGICA: Welcome to your favourite place of depravity.

affiches_BELGICA_FIN

Two brothers turn a small pub into the place to be in the nightlife of Ghent. With more enthusiasm than know-how they incorporate an adjacent empty building and transform it into a nightclub. The bigger they get the more professional and responsible they should become but this doesn’t correspond with the ‘original concept’ of a cosy, easy-going place where everybody is welcome and anything goes. But whereas the older brother Frank (Tom Vermeir) sees their joint venture as an escape from responisbility (from his family life) the younger brother (Stef Aerts) is yearning for a family of his own. Tensions start to build up and painful choices need to be made.

Director Felix van Groeningen (De Helaasheid der Dingen a.k.a. The Misfortunates, The Broken Circle Breakdown) loosely based his film on the real-life bar ‘The Charlatan’ -previously owned by his father and later taken over by two brothers- and the events he’s witnessed and stories he heard. At first glance the script is more character than plot-driven but it is richer and more subtle than you might think.

The film is also very music driven, Soulwax (David and Stephen Dewaele at one stage known as The Fucking Dewaele Brothers) -who also collaborated with van Groeningen on his debut Steve + Sky– have created 16 original bands to play their music life in the film which proved to be an excellent choice. If you are somewhat familiar with the Belgian (and Ghent) music scene you’ll be able to spot a lot of familiar faces playing in these bands, the ‘ladies’ from Kenji Minogue, Kamagurka’s children Boris en Sarah Yu Zeebroek (from Hong Kong Dong), Roland, Steven Janssens, and Lander Gyselinck and Bent Van Looy on the drums.
The pub/parties scenes therefore look, feel and almost smell (luckily odorama never caught on) incredibly realistic. Kudos to editor Nico leunen, Ruben Impens for his brilliant lightning and photography and art director Kurt Rigolle, no mean achievement. The only thing remotely similar are the party scenes towards the end of Tom Barman’s Any Way the Wind Blows.

The film has some great performances by more established actors such as Stef Aerts en Charlotte Vandermeersch and some new (to film at least) interesting faces like Tom Vermeir and Hélèné De Vos. In smaller parts you may notice van Groeningen regulars Titus De Voogtd (the lead in Steve + Sky) and Johan Heldenbergh who means to van Groeningen what Olivier Gourmet means for the Dardenne brothers, unmissable.
Netflix has secured the exclusive worldwide VOD distribution rights -except for some major European countries where the film will be shown theatrically- and the film will be seen on their platform in many countries.

Jan Bollen

WAKE IN FRIGHT: Lost in the outback, Scorsese approved.

WAKE-IN-FRIGHT

Wake in Fright starts with an image of the Australian outback (Outback happens to be the international title of the film), the camera circles a full 360° and the only thing we see is a railway, a tiny hotel/bar and another tiny building which turns out to be the local school. Inside the school we see a teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) and a handful of kids, no actual teaching is occuring. Everybody is counting down the last moments before the Christmas holiday is about to begin.
Grant plans to visit his girlfriend in Sydney over the holidays. To get there he first needs to stay overnight at a mining town called Bundanyabba or just the Yabba as it’s lovingly called by the locals. The plan is to take a plane the next morning. However the miners are all to happy to buy and share a beer with the newcomer, one after the other, refusing is not an option. A local sherif (played by popular Australian actor Chips Rafferty who died shortly after completing the film) takes him to a place where he can get the best steak in town, just for 1 dollar. in the back of the restaurant there’s a gambling den where a game called Two-Up (a traditional Australian game where 2 coins are trown in the air by a ‘spinner’ and the players gamble on whether the coins will fall with both heads up or both tails up) is played. Grant is looking down at the local mining population and their drinking and gambling rituals, a culture routed and founded by boredom.
Grant is not only stuck in the town (somewhat similar to the bourgeoisie in a Buñuel film), he’s also stuck professionally. A thousand dollar deposit keeps him trapped in his teaching job. The Two-Up game might give an easy way out, or not.

It is an intense and brilliantly crafted and acted film (Donald Pleasence as ‘the doc’ deserves a special mentioning), depicting one man’s drink-induced descent into a hellish nightmare culminating in a violent and controversial kangeroo hunting scene. Contrary to the CGI effects Greg Mclean’s used in the more recent Wolf Creek 2 (2013) director Ted Kotcheff’s (First Blood, 1982) Wake in Fright uses real footage of actual Kangeroo’s being gunned down. The filmcrew followed hunters during their hunting party and only filmed what would have happened anyway. As you can read during the end credits this was done with the approval of Australian animal rights groups as they wanted to denounce the activities of the real hunting which at one stage even threatened to make kangeroos extinct.

This film was part of the offical selection of the Cannes film festival of 1971 where it represented Australia. In that period Australian films were still directed by foreign director’s, famous examples are Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), and Nicholas Roeg’s masterpiece Walkabout (1971), paving the way for local director’s like Peter Weir (o.a. Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975) and George Miller (the Mad Max films). It’s incredible that this film was director by a Canadian as the movie feels extremely authentic

One of the films greatest champions is Martin Scorsese -being an unkown at the time-who saw the film in Cannes at it’s initial showing. In 2009 -now a celebrated director- when Scorsese was guest curator for the Cannes Classic section he selected the then recently restored version of the film that left a lasting impression on him and had this to say about the film:  Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I’m excited that Wake in Frighthas been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.”

I’ve prepared to below clip comparing a scene from Wake in Fright with some shots from Scorsese’s Casino (1995). You can judge for yourself if Scorsese was inpired by Kotcheff.

Jan Bollen

HAIL, CAESAR! Would that it were so simple.

Hail Caesar

The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men, True Grit), a head of physical production of a major Hollywood studio in the early fifties called Capitol Pictures. It happens to have the same name as the studio that hired Barton Fink in the Coens 1991 Palme d’or winner where as you may remember ‘the writer is king’. This character is based on a real-life fixer/enforcer that had to keep everyone in line at MGM and was portrayed by Bob Hoskins in the film Hollywoodland (2006) that deals with the suicide (or murder) of his wife’s lover and apparently was a much tougher persona than the way he’s being depicted in Hail, Caesar!.

In those days the fim studios were movie factories with the biggest stars all under contract. Mannix has to deal with the day to day problems of the multiple shoots that are in production. There’s an Esther Williams Busby Burkely-like ‘aqua musical’ with a pregnant star (Scarlet Johansson, The Man Who Wasn’t There) that has difficulties getting in and out of a one piece mermaid swimsuit. A Roy Rogers type western with a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, who also resembles Audie Murphy somewhat) A musical starring sailors (Anchors Aweigh, On the Town) with Channing Tatum in a Gene Kelly kind of mode. And last but not least a ‘prestigious’ biblical film called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ (a nod to the Fred Niblo 1925 silent version of Ben Hur) with a drunk lead actor who tends to show up late (George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading). This time though he happens to be kidnapped of the set by a group of communist writers called ‘The Future’ who are looking for some ransom money.

Mannix needs to keep this and more from reaching the tabloids, especially with the gossip columnist Tackery twin sisters (a double role for Tilda Swinton, Burn After Reading) on his tail, clearly referring to Hedda hopper (played herself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and Louella Parsons. In the meantime he’s having a ‘crisis of faith’ and starts questioning his professional choices.

The Coens in their typical anarchist fashion are tackling some ‘serious’ topics without giving them the so-called ‘proper respect’ but in the meantime are still delving deeper than directors that do take themselves too seriously. They are just not taking anything too seriously, just wish this approach was wider spread. This film in particualr may be more of an acquired taste. It does help if you know the films and ‘historical events’ which are being lovingly mocked. There are so many inside jokes and references that probably much might get lost if you don’t.
E.g. the scene where Christopher Lambert (playing a European director) and Josh Brolin are discussing the problems with his ex DeeAnne, the Scarlet Johansson character, plays fine on it self, but if you know that both Lambert and Brolin in real-life are ex husbands of actress Diane Lane there’s just that bit extra to say the least. And the film has plenty of such moments.

The film -as is the case with all the Coen brothers films- is technically brilliant with many longtime collaborators (dop Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, sound genious Skip Leavsy, to name but a few) doing their usual great work. The Coens writing, casting (Fellini and Leone would be jealous with the character faces they were able to gather for this production), editing, …, well what can you say.
Among the many highlights: Mannix trying to get the blessing from the religious leaders on the depiction of Christ in the script and the resulting discussion between a priest, a rabbi, a Presbyterian and Orthodox minister.
The musical numbers (the Coens have done musical numbers before in their films such as the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. The KKK gathering in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is defenitely their most irreverent musical number to date), the scene in the editing room with Frances McDormand. The “Would that it were so simple” scene where Ralph Fiennes plays a George Cukor inspired refined ‘women’s director’ should have gone on for ever.

Audiences may be dissappointed that some of their favorite actors are getting fewer screentime than the billing would suggest. It was definitely a marketing campaign mistake to give Jonah Hill such a top billing for what’s basically a blink and you’ll miss him cameo appearence (even more disgraceful than the Meryl Streep Suffragette one).

Jan Bollen