Friday, August 29, 2008

Roberta Collins: The Loss of a True American Original


Arbogast on Film as well as Jack Hill's MySpace site are both reporting the untimely death of Roberta Collins, one of the shining lights of 1970's American cinema. I absolutely adored Roberta's work and had held out hope that I might one day get to meet her as she was the last of a group of my favorite seventies Drive-In Queens (a special set that included Candice Rialson, Claudia Jennings and Rainbeaux Smith) still with us.
I've not seen this report anywhere else except the above two sites, and I am sure more information is to come. I will be posting a full tribute to Roberta and some of my favorite performances of hers this next week. My best to her friends and family...honestly it has been a pretty terrible couple of weeks for me and this news just caps it.

Finally...The Shuttered Room to hit DVD


I am thrilled to see that David Greene's haunting 1967 film The Shuttered Room starring Carol Lynley, Oliver Reed and Gig Young is going to be hitting DVD as a Best Buy Exclusive on October 7th. Outside of Richard Loncraine's Full Circle and Stuart Rosenberg's The April Fools, this is probably the film I have wanted most on a quality DVD and I can't wait to finally see it Widescreen.

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To celebrate its release here are some promo photos from it and, for those interested, my looks at the film can be found here and here.


My Blueberry Nights

Recently down in Memphis I stopped in at the fabulous Arcade Restaurant, an always tantalizing spot known as the oldest still operating restaurant in the city. Many films have shot scenes there, including Jim Jarmusch's stunning Mystery Train and the equally enthralling 21 Grams. The particular booth we sat at on this visit had a pic of Rachel Weisz hanging above it, and I was reminded I had yet to sit down and watch My Blueberry Nights from acclaimed director Wong Kar-Wai that had been shot partially at the Arcade.
I rectified that a couple of nights ago with a viewing of the American DVD of the much maligned film that was indeed shot in Memphis, as well as New York and out West. I mention that it was the American DVD because I am aware that the film went under some heavy cutting from the version that first premiered at Cannes. Whether the additional footage would help or hurt the film I can’t say, and the DVD unfortunately doesn’t offer any of the missing footage as a supplement.
My time with My Blueberry Nights was odd to say the least. First of all the film is really stunning looking…I would actually go so far as to say that it is among the most visually striking productions of the decade. It is also clearly a Wong Kar-Wai movie, as his shooting and editing style is so identifiable, even to someone like me who has unfortunately only seen a couple of films.
As I said my time with the film was strange though, as I can’t remember a production in recent memory that beguiled me so much while watching it but then slipped away from me so quickly. The film is very much like a particularly good piece of Blueberry Pie, but unfortunately a good piece of pie needs some sort of compliment and My Blueberry Nights finally doesn’t offer one. There is something positively vacant about this stunning looking film from one of the key auteurs in modern cinema.
Many people have pointed to star Norah Jones as the heart of the film’s problem, due to her inexperience as an actor. I actually didn’t have any problems with Jones, who I found perfectly suitable as the film’s mysterious and deliberately undefined main character. Does her inexperience come across? Absolutely, but it’s easy to see why Wai built his film around her…or more specifically her face, which is one of the most charismatic and memorable of the decade.
Nor did I have any problem with the rest of the film's impressive cast, which includes a slew of Oscar winners and nominees including Rachel Weisz and David Stathairn in the Memphis section, Natalie Portman in the Western part and a scraggly looking Jude Law in the New York scenes. I found Weisz and Stathairn particularly good in the film, and one particular moment between Rachel and Norah outside of the Arcade restaurant at night being quite devastating.
The real problem with the film lies in its script by Wai (his first English language attempt) and novelist Lawrence Block. The script never rises above feeling like a trio of short stories cobbled together in an attempt to make a whole and the film can’t really recover from it, no matter how delightful looking it is. I was actually reminded as I was watching it of any number of flawed Wim Wenders productions from the past decade in just how simultaneously rewarding and frustrating it is….and of course the fact that this is very much a Wenders type road movie.
A couple of days after seeing My Blueberry Nights I must admit that my initial feelings of grudging admiration have diminished. There is something finally just unsatisfying about it…pity as it is such a gorgeous work made my an obvious master.

Despite my misgivings about the film, I don’t think it’s the disaster so many critics made it out to be. It has moments of undeniable power and I will revisit it again in the future. There is one sequence in particular involving Law and a surprisingly solid and sublime Chan Marshall (from Cat Power) that almost made me forgive the film all of its failings. It’s a raw moment that exposes the hurt of failed relationships and lost dreams in a truly powerful way. I wish the rest of the film could have possessed the kind of emotion Wai found with with Law and Marshall in this moment…as it is though My Blueberry Nights is just a bit too slight. For another recent look at the film, check out J.D.'s fair and well written look at Radiator Heaven, where he has some different problems than with the film than I did, but he felt the strong Wenders vibe as well.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience Launches

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I'm very pleased to announce that my Jean Rollin project, Fascination, has begun. I have just posted my look at his first short, 1958's Les Amours Jaunes and invite everyone interested over to check it out. I appreciate all the emails I have gotten over the past few weeks in regards to the blog and I hope it proves an enjoyable one.

Also, I am looking to build a link list of friends and fans at Fascination, so if you have a site that you would like linked there just drop me an email or leave your address in the comments section.

I have just started a second undergraduate degree program (History) so posting might be a little slow going but I promise to get through Rollin's entire career. Thanks again to everyone for the support over there and of course here at Moon in the Gutter.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Mod Squad Episode #11 (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet”)

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Scripted with a real zing by first time Mod Squad writer Jerome Ross and shot with finesse by “When Smitty Comes Marching Home” director George McCowan, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet” is a splendid addition to Season One of 1968’s most progressive series.

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Centering on a serial killer targeting young and blond actresses in Hollywood, Episode 11 of The Mod Squad premiered just a week before Christmas in 68 and it stands as one of the best episodes of the year for the young show. Co-starring future Knots Landing star Joan Van Ark, Richard Evans and character actor William Smithers, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet” is an inventive ride that stands as probably one of the first hour long dramas focusing on a clear ritualistic serial killer in television history, a fact that alone makes it one of the most important hours in The Mod Squad’s history.

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Watching “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet” today makes one wish that McCowan would have helmed even more episodes of the series, as his direction has a very cinematic quality about it and is more than a step above the average work other television directors were doing at the time. With a terrific sense of pacing and a real flair for intense action sequences, McCowan would continue to prove a real force throughout the seventies on such iconic shows as Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. His best television work remains arguably on The Mod Squad though and his power behind the camera is well on display in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet”.

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One of the most refreshing things about the episode is its willingness to poke fun at actors, the movie and the television business in general. From a sleazy talk show host to pretentious actors in class, Ross’ script has a real knowing and sharp satirical quality about it. Far from being just an hour about a crazed murderer on the loose, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet” focuses on both the ridiculous and sublime forces that go into making a television program in 1968 and its still as refreshing as ever.

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Van Ark is fine as the young protégé with the delightful name April Showers (a tag that I’m surprised some enterprising adult star hasn’t snagged) as is the always-reliable Smithers. Keep an eye out for prolific veteran actress Virgina Gregg as well as a few other familiar faces along the way.

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The hour belongs though to Peggy Lipton, who she really shines in the episode and gives one of her best performances of Season One. Projecting a simultaneous toughness with a sharp and rather heartbreaking vulnerable streak, Lipton is simply superb in the episode and it is surprising it took the Emmys until Season Two to grant her fine work as Julie a nomination.

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“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet” almost has a Giallo quality about it with the fetishistic type murders, groovy fashions and red herrings. It’s a tight, nicely played out mystery that’s a real treat for fans of The Mod Squad as well as fans of sixties television in general.

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More info, as well as some audio clips from the particularly groovy score, can be found here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Images From My All Time Favorite Films: Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979)

Recently I was honored to be named as one of the influences on a new series at Ed Howard's fantastic Only The Cinema blog. Introducing the series, Ed pointed out that he doesn't spend a lot of time necessarily writing about his favorite films, and I was reminded me that I often overlook many of my personal top picks here as well.
The reason for these exclusions is simple for me, as I would much rather write about a more obscure work that hasn't been written on endlessly rather than something like The Godfather that has already been covered in every possible way. I've battled a bit with myself here before on this because this does cause me to leave out many of my favorite filmmakers and films simply because I don't feel like I have a lot to bring to the table in regards to them.
To rectify this a bit I thought of this new series that will operate like my Images from the Greatest Films of the Decade where each week or so I will pick a classic work that happens to be among my favorite films and present ten screenshots from it. I'm actually pretty excited about it because it will give me the opportunity to salute classic, and usually much discussed, films without rehashing thoughts that have been said a million times over by much better writers than myself.
This of course doesn't mean that my selections don't deserve more writing on them...not at just means that I don't feel I am the person to do it. For whatever reason, I only feel like my writing is at all successful when I am able to write on something a little left of center which is of course a failing on my part, but one that I can admit.
I hope the series proves enjoyable and that some of Moon in the Gutter's readers might share some of my favorites as well. These won't be in any kind of order, and they will just reflect my moods each week. Here's my first pick from someone who will always be one of my favorite filmmakers:

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Faraway, So Close!

The final post in my look at Faraway, So Close! at Nostalgia Kinky.

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Wim Wenders’ follow-up feature to his legendary Wings of Desire is simultaneously one of his most flawed productions and most resonate. Gone is the moody perfection that inhabited so much of his early career, and in its place in Faraway, So Close! is a sprawling over-ambitiousness that is as beautiful as it is frustrating and as poignant as it is flawed.

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Of the three films Nastassja Kinski made with Wim Wenders, Faraway, So Close! is the weakest and yet there is something profound and right about it. Faraway, So Close! is a overtly spiritual work that has moments that rank along with the best of Wenders, but it’s hard to deny that the film falters in ways that Wenders work hadn’t before it. It’s a film that finds the great German director transitioning from one of the shining lights of the art house world into one of the most fractured.

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Wings of Desire was a phenomenal success for Wenders and is arguably the pinnacle of his career. A near unanimous critical smash that is often featured along with Scorsese’s Raging Bull as the best film of the eighties, Wings of Desire was one of the oddest choices for a film to make a sequel to so Faraway, So Close! automatically had a lot going against it.

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One of the most anticipated films at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and one of the most controversial, Wenders Faraway, So Close! split audience and critical reaction more than any of his films prior had. Even the admires (and there is a lot to admire abut the film) were more muted than usual and its critics were much more vicious.

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The film, written by Wenders with Richard Reitinger and Ulrich Zieger, like Wings of Desire centers on a group of Angels in Berlin looking over the people in the city. Also, like Wings of Desire, it features cameos from real life figures including everyone from Lou Reed to Peter Falk to most astonishingly Mikhail Gorbachev.

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The positives from Wender’s sprawling film are easy to note. A incredibly beautiful looking mostly black and white production shot by legendary DP Jurgen Jurges, Faraway, So Close! is at the very least one of the most striking looking films from the early nineties. The acclaimed soundtrack, featuring a beautiful score by Laurent Petitgand and songs by the likes of Reed, U2 and Simon Bonney has also held up very well. This is also clearly one of the most personal projects Wenders ever mounted and its clear-headed spirituality is downright touching. There’s nothing ironic about Wender’s work here and its good-heartedness and good-will make it one of the most spiritually resonate works in all of modern cinema.

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Unfortunately the negatives are just as easy to spot. Overlong and sloppy, the film never finds a consistent tone and for the first time in his career Wenders seems downright confused by the film he is making. Part political commentary about the reunification of Germany that had happened after Wings of Desire and part Spiritual confirmation, Faraway, So Close! marks a surprisingly unbalanced period for Wenders, one that unfortunately he has still not fully recovered from.

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Despite the films many faults, its virtues finally outweigh them. The cast is extraordinary with special mention going to German actors Otto Sander and Bruno Ganz. The American actors in the film, including Falk and Willem Dafoe, are also quite splendid in their smaller roles. If the film does finally feel a bit bloated due to the cameos, Lou Reed does reverberate nicely specifically in a chill inducing moment when he plays his “Berlin” in his hotel room.

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Nastassja is really fine in her role as the good hearted angel Raphaela and it remains one of her most resoundingly tender roles. There is something special in the collaboration between Kinski and Wenders and that comes out here, even though one wishes more time would have been spent on her character rather than the irritatingly silly action subplots that film becomes occupied with in its last forth.

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Faraway, So Close! surprisingly won the Grand Prize at the 93 Cannes festival but the disappointment many people felt with it was palatable, and by the time it reached Britain and the States the sharp backlash was in full force. The soundtrack ended up being a much bigger success than the film did, and after a brief theatrical run it was relegated to a poor full frame VHS that destroyed the film’s stately compositions. Most English speaking countries would have to wait nearly ten years to see a decent copy of the film but thankfully the Widescreen DVD of it is quite nice, and it even contains a commentary by Wenders where he manages to highlight the films many virtues and faults.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Truck Turner (1974)

...Dedicated to the late great Isaac Hayes, who would be celebrating his birthday today...

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I have what is probably a fairly annoying habit, when I watch a film that I am excited about, of announcing that ‘this is pretty much the greatest film ever made.’ My girlfriend is typically the one subjected to these grand claims that I make every month or so on films ranging from vintage Italian Horror to modern American comedies as the genre really doesn’t matter. It’s just my way of celebrating a film that really sums up everything I love about cinema.

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Most recently I made the statement during our memorial for Isaac Hayes when Kelley and I watched Truck Turner, her first viewing and my sixth or seventh. As the end credits rolled and my joy spilled over I began the proclamation which Kelley finished for me because we both knew in that moment it was true…Truck Turner is pretty much the greatest movie ever made, or at the very least it contains all the elements that go into what makes me fall in love with the movies over and over again.

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Truck Turner has it all...action, laughs, violence, a lovable cat, hookers, pimps, cool side-kicks, Yaphat Kotto and one of the most bad-ass and coolest title characters in screen history. Truck Turner might not be the most important blaxploitation film of the seventies but it’s the most perfect one.
An American International Production co-scripted by the men responsible for such varying scripts as Enter The Dragon (1973) and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Truck Turner benefits the most from the energetic and inventive direction of 25 year old filmmaker Jonathan Kaplan, a director probably best known for his 1988 film The Accused but who did his best work here in the early seventies in the exploitation genre.

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The son of soap opera star Frances Heflin and composer Sol Kaplan, Jonathan Kaplan was born in France in November of 1947. After bouncing around quite a bit during his childhood, Kaplan naturally fell into the world of cinema just past his twentieth birthday when he began various jobs under AIP’s tutelage. Like many figures connected with the company in the sixties and seventies, he worked on a variety of jobs ranging from editing to acting to scriptwriting. He got his first directing assignment in 1972 with the memorable Night Call Nurses, a film which featured a stronger than usual script courtesy of George Armitage.

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Proving himself as more than capable in the director’s chair, Kaplan became an AIP favorite and he quickly delivered the delightful sexploitation romp The Student Teachers and the exciting Jim Brown vehicle The Slams back to back in 1973. Both films would show Kaplan as a director of great promise who had obviously cut his teeth watching and soaking up as many new wave European films from the sixties as he could. He was a smart director and he brought that intelligence to all of these early productions, no matter the subject matter or limited budget.

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Isaac Hayes was on a major and influential role at the same time in the early seventies. The top selling performer at the legendary Stax Studios and the first African American to win an Academy Award for composing, for Gordon Park’s Shaft, Hayes had quickly become one of the most respected and wealthiest musicians in the world so the leap to the big screen was only natural.

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While Truck Turner is often remembered as the debut performance by Hayes, it was actually preceded by the Italian co-production Three Tough Guys in the spring of 1974, a lesser film made memorable by the pairing of Hayes with Fred Williamson and Lino Ventura. Truck Turner is the classic though and it should have made Hayes one of the great leading men of the seventies although it would prove to be nearly his swan song as it remains one of his only starring roles in a career made up of memorable supporting turns.

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Truck Turner is one of the ultimate AIP movies from the seventies. Mixing humor with slices of rather shocking violence with a little sex and social commentary thrown in for good measure, Kaplan’s film can make a legitimate claim to being one of the ultimate examples of the blaxploitation genre at its storming and provocative best.

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Mack “Truck” Turner is a no-nonsense former football star turned bail bondsman on assignment with his partner to find a pimp named Gator. When Gator is killed, things really heat up for Truck when his world is turned upside down when Gator’s vengeful woman and and-coming pimp on the move named Blue go to war.

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Kaplan’s film is a real joy to behold. From the hilarious opening scenes where we see Truck’s domestic life as he tries to care for his girlfriend’s (whose in the slammer for a month for shoplifting) cat to the chilling final scenes featuring one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema history, Truck Turner is one hell of a wild ride and I’m hard pressed to name a more purely entertaining film from the seventies.

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Truck Turner is also a film that could have only been made in the seventies under the kind of company like AIP. Watch the amazing opening credits sequence set to Hayes astonishing score (which I have always thought was the equal to Shaft) made up of stolen shots of urban squalor in Los Angeles, that have the feel of more of a vintage hard hitting socially aware documentary rather than a commercial exploitation film, and look at the more tender moments between Hayes and lovely Annazette Chase that feel closer to the European Art films that Kaplan no doubt sucked up in the sixties. Truck Turner is, simply put, unlike any other blaxploitation film from the seventies and yet it belongs proudly in the category.

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Technically, despite being shot on a low budget, the film is superb. Kaplan’s expert framing and ingenious visual storytelling ability is matched by the editing of future Close Encounters of the Third Kind cutter Michael Kahn and Oscar nominated veteran cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler provides the film's memorably gritty look.

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In front of the camera joining the iconic Hayes is an impressive cast of character actors and cult figures including Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, Scatman Crothers, Dick Miller and Charles Cyphers. The real star of the show though outside of Hayes is the incredible Kotto, fresh from his role in the James Bond pic Live and let Die (1973), who gives one of the most intense and powerful performances of his career as the vicious and ambitious pimp Harvard Blue.
Hayes is extraordinary in the title role and watching the film today serves as a potent reminder to his talents in front of the camera. His soundtrack is just as good and the album it spawned remains one of the most memorable funk albums of the seventies...if you haven't played it in awhile be sure to give it a fresh spin.
Kaplan's terrific film played in some areas as Black Bullet and it did fairly well on the drive in circuit throughout 1974, although it failed to catch the public's attention like Shaft and Super-Fly had in the couple of years before. The film's soundtrack did better and sold fairly well although again not as much as Hayes previous releases had.
Isaac Hayes would appear in just one more film in the seventies, 1975's It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and his next major role wouldn't come until his iconic turn as The Duke in John Carpenter's legendary Escape From New York in 1981.

The undervalued Kaplan would make four more films in the seventies, including White Line Fever in 1975, and would find success in the eighties with the terrific Heart Like a Wheel (1983) and of course The Accused which garnered Jodie Foster her first Oscar. He currently works almost exclusively in TV, with the underrated Claire Danes-Kate Beckinsale prison drama Brokedown Palace being his last feature.
Today Truck Turner is widely regarded as one of the best examples of the blaxploitation genre. It has been praised by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who would use bits of its score in Kill Bill (2003) and Turner's bail-bondsman character no doubt at least partially inspired the unforgettable Max Cherry in Jackie Brown (1997).
The film is currently available on a nice widescreen DVD from MGM with only a trailer as the extra and it makes the ideal film (along with Wattstax) to watch if your looking to have a tribute to Isaac Hayes, or just to remember a period in American cinema when a film this fresh and alive could be made.