Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!


Pedro Almodóvar, 1990
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril, Loles León, Francisco Rabal

The most quickly descriptive thing I can say about Atame! is that it is delightfully offensive. A young, energetic Banderas plays Ricky, a troubled young man recently released from a psychiatric hospital. He stalks and kidnaps Marina, an ex-junkie porn star turned actress who he has decided to love, cherish, and marry. His plan is that by kidnapping Marina, she will have time to get to know the real him and also fall in love. Marina is naturally horrified and tries to escape, but Ricky is determined that she will come to love him in time.

At its essence, Atame! (meaning "tie me up") is a romantic comedy and, as much as it chagrins me to admit it, one that I was tricked into thoroughly enjoying. It's partly so entertaining because it openly mocks the narrative structure of most romantic films and the often flagrant misogyny found in that genre. The two main characters are attractive, but are deeply emotionally damaged and not overly intelligent. Marina has spent most of her life as a promiscuous heroin addict who made a career in porn and is finally turning to legitimate film, though of course it is a horror production. Ricky grew up in a psychiatric hospital where he survived by pimping himself out to the older female staff members. These two emerge from their supposedly tormented pasts to pursue a normalized heterosexual model of adult life, though Almodóvar pokes a great deal of fun at the ridiculous nature of heterosexual courtship and love.

Though this is one of his less colorful, more subdued works, it still comes highly recommended. Atame! is Almodóvar's eighth film and was critically and financially successful if controversial. The original NC-17 rating doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though there are some sexy moments and a scene of Loles León sitting down on a toilet seat and peeing. There is nary a hardcore scene to be found.

The references to Stockholm syndrome and John Fowler's novel The Collector are slightly uncomfortable. Not only does Marina convince herself that she loves Ricky, but she also convinces her more suspicious sister, who knows about the kidnapping. In a certain sense the basic plot also reminds me of Shaw's Pygmalion and, as I mentioned, the romantic comedies of the '50s and early '60s. Though Ricky is not trying to mold Marina into a particular role, he is trying to show her the wisdom of adopting a conventional heterosexual romantic role of her own choosing... sort of.

Atame! is usually described as a dark comedy, which I don't think is entirely accurate. There are some dark moments where we don't know how far Ricky is going to take things, but the threat of violence dissolves into sexual tension and humor. Like romantic comedies from the '50s and '60s that I can't help but feel that Almodóvar is mocking, the romantic/erotic elements are blended with moments of oddball comedy. These bits of humor occur particularly on the film set Marina wrapped up before her kidnapping, which is a horror film about a well-muscled, masked half-man, half-undead monster who is in love with Marina's character and, after murdering several other characters, wants to take her with him to the underworld. There are numerous references to horror films throughout, including a nice scene where Marina watches Night of the Living Dead while placidly tied up, waiting for Ricky's return.

There's a lovely soundtrack by Ennio Morricone which is more reminiscent of a horror film than a romantic comedy. Apparently Almodóvar only used about half the score and also mixed in some ironic Spanish pop music. There's a nice DVD from Anchor Bay that has a good print and optional subtitles, though sadly no extras. Definitely track it down, particularly if you are a fan of unconventional romantic comedies or of Almodóvar's work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CRUISING


William Friedkin, 1980
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox

I'm going to throw caution to the wind and immediately admit that I think Cruising is William Friedkin's best film, hands down. Sure, The Exorcist is iconic. Both films sort of ride on a gimmick -- satanic possession in The Exorcist and the gay S&M scene in Cruising -- but I still think Cruising is a more evolved, complex film. Also, where The Exorcist has become a household name, Cruising is still generally ignored and reviled.

Al Pacino, in a bold, if confusing move, plays Steve Burns, a lower-level police officer who goes undercover in the underground gay S&M scene to help catch a serial killer who is preying upon men of his physical type. The killer takes men home, ties them up, stabs them to death, and leaves their body parts in the Hudson. There are few clues and the police department is reluctant to get too involved.

Steve begins to immerse himself in the S&M world, first exploring clubs in the meatpacking district and soon making friends with a gay neighbor who is having boyfriend troubles. Steve himself begins having troubles with his girlfriend and looses interest in their sex life. He brings a suspect to the police for questioning and is repulsed when they beat up and humiliate the man, who is actually innocent. Soon he is alerted to another possible suspect, a music student Steve has been tailing.

Based on the novel, Cruising, by New York Times writer Gerald Walker, Friedkin's film was hated by critics, misunderstood by audiences, and equally loathed by anti-gay protesters and gay rights supporters alike. Critical support has increased over the years, but the film still remains controversial. There seem to be three main issues: the constant, in-your-face gay sexuality, the portrayal of gay sexuality as inherently violent, and the ambiguous ending/plot holes.

This film is unapologetically full of sex. It is about sex, sex, and more sex and, in particular, leathersex. The title, Cruising, could imply a police officer on the beat or a person strolling the streets looking for illicit sex. There is a lot of crossover between police uniforms and S&M costumes, as well as between the physical actions of police interrogation and Steve negotiating sex encounters with strangers. I think every scene, in some way, oozes with a sort of filthy sexuality that is indicative of late '70s/early '80s New York cinema. Let's face it, this is a sleazy serial killer film riding right on the coattails of Maniac, which was released the same year. Speaking of, Manaic's star Joe Spinell has a cameo in Cruising as an abusive patrolmen who forces gay club patrons to give he and his partner blow jobs in their patrol car.

Having grown up reading about the gay leather scene of the '70s (don't ask my why), I was excited to finally see this film film. There are plenty of explicit scenes and it was originally given an X-rating. Friedkin reportedly had to trim about 40 minutes of footage off of the original print before its theatrical release. As for whether or not the film is homophobic, I cannot fairly say. I think it is surprisingly non-judgmental on the surface level, but is obviously problematic at addressing Pacino's latent homosexuality in connection with violence and a possible mental breakdown that occurs toward the end of the film. I saw this less as a comment on his homosexual desire and more as an exploration of an obviously naive character suddenly immersed in a world full of sexuality and violence, where the line between the two is permanently blurred. With that said, it is also a product of its time and should be seen as such.

While it is not really a realistic portrayal of the leather scene, Cruising is a wet dream for anyone who loves giallo films and is interested in underground sex culture. If you're used to watching giallo films or even some slasher flicks, the ambiguities and plot holes are going to be a lot less distracting. One of the things I like so much about this film is the lack of easy answers or solid conclusion. The final scene is also genuinely creepy.

The acting is mostly solid, particularly from the supporting cast. Paul Sorvino is great, as always, and there is a nice cameo from James Remar. The obnoxious Karen Allen barely has a line of dialogue -- Cruising is unmistakably a man's film -- and I think the only two female roles are Allen as Pacino's suffering girlfriend and a waitress who has a bit scene spilling coffee. As for Pacino's performance, I know it is highly criticized, but I like him as an actor and think he chose an interesting angle for the performance, regardless of whether it was intentional. Steve is innocent, confused, simply going with the flow. He flounders about (literally, his dancing is painful to watch), which made sense to me, but will likely be irritating for some viewers. Originally Friedkin considered giving the part to Richard Gere. Shudder.

On a side note, The Germs wrote and recorded a handful of songs for the film, though only "Lion's Share" was included. The rest of the soundtrack, which I recommend, was written by Jack Nitzsche, who also composed Nicholas Roeg's Performance, Friedkin's The Exorcist, and Adrian Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks, among many others.

I highly recommend Cruising, though it will only appeal to a certain type of viewer. That is to say, perverts with good taste in movies. Warner, in a surprising move, released a deluxe edition DVD that includes commentary from Friedkin and two documentaries, one about the making of the film and the other about its controversial reception. As far as I know, no director's cut exists and the studio reputedly lost the cut 40 minutes. But that's what Ken Russell thought about The Devils and look how that turned out? Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

CRAWLSPACE


David Schmoeller, 1986
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Barbara Whinnery, Carole Francis

David Schmoeller’s neglected gem Crawlspace has been rescued from obscurity by Shout Factory subset Scream Factory alongside a release of another ‘80s cult classic, The Beast Within (1982). Released on a newly restored Blu-ray disc this month, Crawlspace is one of the late, great Klaus Kinski’s final cult films and surely one of his weirdest, which, if you’re familiar with the actor’s work, is really saying something. 

Lori (Talia Balsam) is the newest tenant at Karl Gunther’s (Klaus Kinski) neat, orderly apartment building. While Karl and the other tenants - all women - seem friendly, Karl is the son of a Nazi doctor and gleefully continues his father’s sadistic profession. He performs cruel experiments in the attic and throughout the apartment building, where he spies on and murders his tenants. He also sets up a series of devious violent booby traps in the building. 

One by one, Karl begins to dispose of the women in the apartment building and slowly works his way toward Lori. A Nazi hunter (Kenneth Robert Shippy) tracks him down, but is quickly dispatched by a particularly gruesome booby trap. While attempting to flee and hide throughout the building, Lori makes some horrifying discoveries. Will she survive the CRAWLSPACE?

A film that unabashedly makes as little sense as possible, Crawlspace is chock full of sleaze, violence, mean-spiritedness, and a commandingly creepy Klaus Kinski. He seems to have totally embraced his role as an ex-Nazi doctor pervert turned murderer, though Karl is really only the son of a Nazi, wished he was born in more horrible times. Allegedly writer and director David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) had a very difficult time with Kinski on set and the actor frequent went as far as to tell Schmoeller that only Kinski was capable of directing himself. 

Kinski may have been a pain in the ass, but his performance here is truly incredible, certainly at the top of any B-movie insanity list. He plays Russian Roulette with himself, weeps openly, dons a Nazi uniform and smears lipstick across his face, keeps a tongueless woman in a cage, and so much more that I don’t want to spoil. With any actor other than Kinski, this would have been a slightly weird and probably very boring slasher film, as the general plot construct is set up around a madman killing middle aged women in a nonsensically booby-trapped apartment building.

The women of the film don’t fare so well, particularly because they’re mostly played by a cast of inexperienced, middle aged women, none of whom are particularly attractive. The exception is Tane McClure (Heavy Petting Detective) who walks around scantily clad and bafflingly engages in a rape fantasy with her boyfriend early in the film. Most of the other actresses are better known for their television rather than film careers, such as star Talia Balsam (Mad Men) and Barbara Whinnery (St. Elsewhere). 

Directed David Schmoeller also made one of my favorite weird, neglected films from the ‘70s, Tourist Trap (1979), and he does a similar job here despite his complaints that Kinski nearly ruined the production. Surprisingly, the interesting cinematography is from Sergio Salvati, known for his work with Lucio Fulci on The Beyond (1981) and Zombie (1979). Brian De Palma’s regular collaborator Pino Donaggio created the fitting, if very ‘80s score. 

Crawlspace is undeniably entertaining, but may be too exploitative for casual horror fans. It’s willingness to throw logic to the wind and embrace a sort of mind-blowing, sheer balls-to-the-wall insanity is difficult to describe without giving too much away. There is some sex and nudity, but absolutely nothing about this film is erotic. As with Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982), the sex is mean-spirited, confusing, or simply gratuitous. The violence is largely off screen, with much of the nastiness implied, yet hard to ignore. A minor, final note is that there is no true crawlspace in the film, just a terrifying attic and some very large air vents. 

Scream Factory’s new HD transfer, presented in 1080p with the original aspect ration of 1.85:1, looks fantastic and is an improvement over the old MGM DVD. Though the film itself is somewhat dark, the colors and contrast both look great here and there is no obvious print damage. There is a DTS Master Audio 2.0 mono mix that sounds sharp and clear. There is no noticeable damage or distortion. Both dialogue and the score are well mixed, though there are no subtitles included. 

With a notable like Kinski starring in the film, of course there were going to be some interesting extras. First and foremost is the entertaining commentary track from David Schmoeller, who explains how difficult Kinski was on set and the overall stressful nature of the production. Please Kill Mr. Kinski, a short documentary from 1999, further explores this in an interview with Schmoeller. Tales from the Crawlspace with John Vulich is a new featurette where special effects wizard John Vulich (The X-Files, Day of the Dead) discusses his relationship with Kinski and the effects he created for the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and TV spots.

Scream Factory’s Crawlspace Blu-ray is definitely an improvement over the out of print MGM double feature (with The Attic) and I hope this release will attract a little more attention for such a neglected film. Chances are few people reading this review will be as over the moon about the film as I am, but all ‘80s horror and/or exploitation fans, as well as Klaus Kinski devotees owe it to themselves to see it at least once. 

THE SKIN I LIVE IN


Pedro Almodovar, 2011
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet

There are a lot of things I love about the few Almodovar's films I've seen, but something in particular that he does with character keeps me coming back for more. He has a way of keeping his protagonists untouchable, unknowable, always out of reach. While this might be irritating for more conventional audiences, it is probably my favorite thing about Almodovar as a director. He reminds us not only that characters in film and fiction are never meant to be real people, but also that other people can never be completely known to us and we will only ever see them from certain angles and vantage points.

While I unquestionably loved La piel que habito, it is a troubled, elusive film that is akin to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Medical experimentation, sexual horror, and a profound sense of identity confusion and displacement connect it with these earlier films, but it manages to stand on its own as an unsettling tale of mystery, trauma, and revenge.

Based loosely on Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale, The Skin I Live In follows Robert (Banderas), a surgeon who has been doing some unconventional and possibly immoral experiments on synthetic skin. He also keeps a girl in his home who wears a body suit, is not allowed to leave her room, and is always monitored by camera. It becomes clear that Robert has been doing these experiments because he lost his beloved, if unfaithful wife to a fiery car accident and though she survived, she eventually killed herself when she saw the extensive burn damage to her body. The girl, Vera, bears a strange resemblance to his dead wife. There is also the matter of his daughter, who killed herself after a traumatic assault. But who is Vera? How did she get in the room?

Told in a series of chronological leaps backwards and forwards, The Skin I Live In is essentially a blend of horror and melodrama. It visits Almodovar's trademark themes of trauma, memory, sexuality, and identity, as well as revolving around the two mainstays of body horror: sexual trauma and medical experimentation. Like Dead RingersThe Skin I Live In is made up of characters struggling with anxiety and loneliness, characters trapped in their own bodies and trying, but miserably failing, to make the best of it. The plot is completely implausible, but if you treat it like a horror/sci-fi film, the more impossible elements melt away in Almodovar's constantly whirling, changing cinematic creation.

There are plenty of reasons I would highly recommend this film, but first and foremost is Almodovar's visual style. Full of bold colors, striking set pieces, and references to many famous paintings, the set is dripping with important symbolic details that it will probably take a few viewings to catch all of. There is also the importance of masks, costumes, and uniforms. Most of the clothes were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and they all play critical importance to the various characters' shifting identities, the way that costume shapes personality.

Horror fans will not only enjoy the suggestive, but disgusting body horror elements, but also the clear Gothic inspiration. There is an obvious but elegant nod to Victor Frankenstein with Banderas's Robert and it is great to see him return to form. His chilling, but somewhat sympathetic character is reminiscent of some of Hitchcock's handsome, charming if utterly cold and determined villains.

There is a twist that is revealed towards the end of the film, but you're just going to have to see it to find out what it is. The Skin I Live In is out on a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Sony.