Tuesday, 30 June 2015

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Spike Lee Remakes Glen & Randa

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Dir. Spike Lee
Scr. Lee & Bill Gunn
Starring: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Elvis Nolasco, Rami Malek

Review By Greg Klymkiw

If Spike Lee went knocking on Studio doors (maybe even a few smaller companies and/or, God Forbid, a European country or three), I can't for a second believe he'd NOT be financed for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Here's the pitch:

- A contemporary remake of cult horror classic Ganja & Hess.

- A passionate supernatural love-story between two insanely attractive people who are afflicted with a blood-sucking form of vampirism rooted in an ancient African ritual sacrifice blade.

Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a suave, sexy anthropologist and multi-millionaire African art collector living on a sprawling, gorgeous estate in Martha's Vineyard. Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), a colleague from the museum Hess presides over, pops over for a visit, but after some erudite conversation he reveals how mentally unstable he is and stabs Hess with the ages-old sacrificial blade. Hess fights back and kills Hightower, then disposes of the body in his basement freezer. Rich people do things like this.

When Hightower's gorgeous wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) comes a calling in search of her husband, she and Hess hit it off and soon the smouldering turns to a drillin' and a soderin' in the master boudoir. Mmmm, they make some sweet, crazy lovin' and it's not long before they seal their union with marriage.

What Hess doesn't tell Ganja is that he's now a blood-sucking vampire, thanks to being stabbed with the grim Ashanti Blade by her estranged, dead and frozen hubbles. When she discovers the body, she goes a tad bunyip, but Hess calms her down with his mellifluously sexy voice and suggests she join him for eternal life as a vampire. That this offer provides as eternal prongin' with the schwanzen de Hessen, Ganja is prime. Lots more fornicatin', blood suckin' and killin' follows.

Eventually Hess seeks redemption for his actions, in spite of how much fun they've been. Ganja understands, but wants the party to continue. A mutually satisfactory agreement is arrived at.

- That's the long and the short of this pitch, baby. Sex, vampires, lotsa blood, more sex, more killing, more blood and to top this ice cream sundae off with a nice, juicy cherry, there's gonna be some mighty fine lezbo action - all of this shot with Spike's visual aplomb and dappled with cool, young, up-and-coming musical artists for a song score, plus the styling of a Bruce Hornsby jazz score throughout.

So seriously, who wouldn't be financing this movie? Spike could have pieced the dough together tout suite, but no, he made a big deal about not even bothering to try and instead, turned to crowd funding via Kickstarter. Hell, he could have saved up his per diems from his gun-for-hire gig on the dreadful Hollywood remake of Old Boy, but instead, he went cap in hand to his movie-loving fans and raised $1.4 million (USD) in exchange for "perks", but giving him complete ownership of the film and not having to divvy up any shares of the sales, nor, for that matter needing to recoup the cash used to make the film. (One hopes his cap in hand is a "Forty Acres and a Mule" ball cap.)

I wouldn't hold this against Lee if I didn't doubt his belief in not being able to finance the picture through the usual channels. Most of all, I'd especially not hold it against him if his remake of Bill Gunn's classic Ganja & Hess was actually worthy of fan support. Lee's film is slick, to be sure, and his cast is first rate, but given that the movie is an almost blow-by-blow remake with only the most cursory updating (so much so he had to give Gunn a co-writing credit), it's a shame Lee's picture has no discernible tone, none of the mordant wit of the original, none of the genuine creepy-crawly and most of all, bereft of Gunn's strong political, social and historical context. I'm sure Spike thinks his picture is not sans the items that made the original so great, but here's an eye-opener for you, Spike: it is.

His movie isn't bad, but it's no work of art and certainly no classic. That's what Bill Gunn achieved over forty years ago. What you owe yourself, however, is to buy both Ganja & Hess and Lee's soulless remake. Watch them both (Gunn's first, and Lee's second). It'll make for an engaging evening of movie-viewing, though the bottom half of the double bill will definitely be Spike Lee's version.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **½ Two-and-a-half-stars

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is available on a gorgeous Anchor Bay/Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada Blu-Ray transfer, sans any extras which might have offered some illumination.

Monday, 29 June 2015

CHAMPS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compelling Boxing Doc takes fresh perspective

Champs (2014)
Dir. Bert Marcus
Starring: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins,
Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent

Review By Greg Klymkiw

This compelling documentary about three world championship boxers is comprised of the usual mix of archival footage, "guest" celebrity commentators (like Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent) and some decent re-enactments, but the real cinematic pile-driver is found in the superb interviews with boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins.

When the camera eye of director Bert Marcus gives over to the faces and voices of these punch-ugly old guys and just lets them tell their stories, Champs is not only magical, but one of the most insightful approaches to capturing the lives, both successes and failures, of the world's greatest living boxers.

Surprisingly, the least of this film's concerns is the boxing, it's everything that took these men from the bottom to the top (and sometimes back down again). And don't worry, there's plenty of pugilistic action, but the movie's raison d'être is the humanity of these men and how their lives have been a constant struggle to find it in themselves.

Focusing upon the notion of boxers as modern-day gladiators, each of these men came from abject poverty, neglect, abuse and childhoods devoted to crime. Their only defence on the mean streets was being able to use their fists. Two of the subjects (Tyson and Holyfield) found their way to local boxing clubs to find a way out, while one of them (Hopkins) makes his mark in prison before his release into the free world to ply his trade.

Most poignantly, Tyson and Holyfield recount pulling all manner of heists for whatever money the local thug bosses would toss their way, but at least they could scramble enough together for basic needs like food and clothing. Hopkins laments how prisons have become privatized to the hilt and how programs like the amateur prison boxing leagues are being decimated.

As several of the commentators in the film state more than once, you don't see "rich kids" lining up to be boxers, it's a "poor man's sport" aimed at fans willing to pay top-dollar to see human beings pulverize each other like slabs of meat being tenderized. Those men who beat themselves senseless for the edification of well-heeled audiences can often earn money that barely takes them above the poverty line.

One of the more sickening revelations is the lack of standardized safety rules, most of which are legislated at state-wide or even civic levels. Boxing is such big business, that many unscrupulous politicians lower the standards to whatever will ensure the greatest profits (for everyone but the boxers). This extends to healthcare also. In order to maintain proper medical maintenance, one needs to be a genuine champion and even then, money mysteriously disappears into the black holes of "expenses".

Though Champs could have done without the celebrity commentators and a bit less of the dramatic re-enactments, the picture is slickly made and, for the most part, careens along at a snappy pace. The real stars, though, are the trio of boxers and one only wishes the whole film could have gone against tradition and kept most of the proceedings to "talking heads".

Far too many critics and even financiers (broadcasters, distributors, commissioning editors, etc.) use the knee-jerk "talking heads" fall-back perspective. However, if the subjects are genuinely great (as they are here) and when the skill of the interviewer (director Marcus) yields so much rich material, "talking heads" become highly cinematic.


Champs is available on DVD via Anchor Bay/Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

THE COLOR OF TIME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 12 NYU students & Franco do C.K. Williams

The Color of Time (2012)
Prd. James Franco
Dir. Edna Luise Biesold, Sarah-Violet Bliss, Gabrielle Demeestere, Alexis Gambis, Shruti Ganguly, Brooke Goldfinch, Shripriya Mahesh, Pamela Romanowsky, Bruce Thierry Cheung, Tine Thomasen, Virginia Urreiztieta, Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain,
Henry Hopper, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The late poet C.K. Williams was one of the most celebrated writers in American literature, winning many major prizes including the Pulitzer Prize. James Franco was one of his huge admirers and selected a group of twelve film students at NYU to collaborate on a feature film based on Williams's writings. As a producer, he offered considerable mentorship and encouragement as well as putting together a first-rate cast and key-creative team.

The result is The Color of Time, a sweet bit of impressionistic film poetry which uses Williams's words to recreate moments from his life - the highs, the lows, the loves, the loves lost and always both the land and architecture rooted to the oddly pleasant, though occasionally languid qualities of the film.

Four actors - primarily Franco - play Williams at various stages from childhood to old age and, Williams himself makes appearances reading from his poetry. Perhaps the most full-bodied and beautiful work in the whole cast comes from Mila Kunis as Williams's wife. She's radiant, warm and always a pleasure to luxuriate it.

Both cinematography and art direction are superb. Along with Franco as a producer, the film has a remarkable stylistic consistency throughout, especially given the fact that the film has primarily been wrought by twelve writer-director students. Curiously, the film seems to take less inspiration from the famed American poet, making his words quite literal and liberally borrowing from late career Terence Malick. Is the movie a tad pretentious? Yeah, but charmingly so.

I can't say I wholly approve, though, since Malick's last two films were insufferable to me, but at the same time, these young filmmakers rather deftly steal the best of Malick for this odd, but pleasing experimental drama. The movie has a perfect pace and running time and, dare I say it, actually manages to be a lot more entertaining than either the The Tree of Life and To The Wonder. (And yes, the NYU kids manage to get just the right amount of twirly-bird, grainy, sun-flare shots of Mom Jessica Chastain whipping C.K in childhood round and round.)

One thing I can say in the film's favour is that my 13-year-old daughter has watched the film repeatedly. My first viewing was with her and she was absolutely mesmerized. She talked about the movie with me at length for days after that first screening. Her response to the film especially delighted me.

I doubt I'll ever forget her saying: "James Franco is so cool. He makes hilarious comedies, all those weird movies about crazy Americans [his William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy film adaptations], that amazing movie based on Cruising [Interior. Leather Bar., his bizarre re-imagining of Friedkin's controversial thriller] and now this movie that reminds me of those long boring movies you took me to see [The Tree of Life and To The Wonder], but this one's way better."

Darling Daughter, I will not disagree.


The Color of Time is on DVD via Anchor Bay/Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

DESPICABLE ME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Oh Christ! There's a prequel? Really? Ugh!

Look, if it's okay with you, since all these movies are the same, I won't bother reviewing MINIONS, just as I didn't bother reviewing DESPICABLE ME 2. The first film, DESPICABLE ME, is the only one I've seen, so let's talk about why it's mind-numbingly mediocre. It'll be for the same reasons the new pictures are also mind-numbingly mediocre. I don't even need to see them to know that. Because, I, uh, like, uh, saw the first one, eh. It's all anyone really needs in these dark days of dead-head movies for dead-head audiences.

Despicable Me (2010)
dir. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There was a sequel two summers ago, a prequel this summer and yet another sequel two summers from now, but you know what? I'm good. The first film in this franchise (a word I hate) was more than enough for this fella. They can doll these things up all they like, but most contemporary animated films are pretty much interchangeable and in spite of inexplicably over-the-top critical orgasms and astounding boxoffice, most of them, like 2010's Despicable Me fall squarely into the been-there-done-that category.

I can understand why most critics raved about the movie. Most of them aren't what I'd bother to call critics anyway; they're hacks (at worst) and/or glorified studio flacks (at best). What I don't get is the ridiculous number of family audiences filling the theatres for mediocre crap like this. Are these families so desperate for entertainment they can see as families, that they'll succumb to any moderately clever ad campaign to fork over their dough for a familiar, over-hyped picture?

Or are they merely that dull, unimaginative and stupid? I'll keep the correct answer to myself. You can do your own math. (As for the aforementioned shills, it's beyond simple math, it's just one big fat zero to the power of infinity.)

As for the very first Despicable Me, it was really little more than a pallid reversal on Brad Bird's (terrific) The Incredibles. Here, the focus is upon a network of super-villains as opposed to the latter's world of superheroes. One of the big differences between the two, though, is that The Incredibles was made by a director who not only has a great sense of humour and storytelling chops, but a real appreciation for epic sweep and a true geek's affinity for the kind of derring-do that his fellow "losers" in the audience are also imbued with. Bird's film displayed originality, genuine wit and thoroughly pulse-pounding action - action that's rooted in the dramatic beats, but also expertly designed in terms of overall geography and pace.

Despicable Me, on the other hand, is full of stale gags and a ho-hum plot. Most of all, the action sequences are frenetic, chaotic and have absolutely no sense of geography and/or dramatic resonance.

The same can be said for Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, because I don't have to. I've seen this one, eh.

The plot of Despicable Me, such as it is, deals with Gru (Steve Carrell), the world's Super-Villain #2 and his desire to unseat the young Super-Villain #1, an upstart by the name of Vector (Jason Segal). With the help of three cute-as-a-button orphans, Gru undertakes to become the most evil, heinous villain in the world. This dastardly curmudgeon is, however, transformed into a much kinder individual thanks to the charms of the orphans and his growing (ugh!) love for them.

And then there are the minions. The less said about them, the better.

So! Sound vaguely familiar? I thought as much. It's a variation on virtually every contemporary animated movie, including Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, and have no intention of ever seeing. Nor will I bother seeing Despicable Me 3 in 2017. I don't have to. I've already seen them - way back in 2010. It's called Despicable Me.

With that first film, I found the whole affair so familiar that I genuinely can't remember much more about it than the dull plot recounted above. None of the jokes resonated with me at all; they were strictly dullsville. The opening sight gag involving the theft of the pyramids in Egypt seemed decent enough, but big deal. It was screened in its entirety for months as a trailer, just as every joke in any of the "franchise" have been.

Even though Despicable Me and its ilk are family pictures, would it have been so hard to shoehorn some delightfully, nastily, almost malevolent dark humour instead of the safe corn-pone TV-style knee-slappers? It is, after all, a cartoon and that's the sort of humour both adults and kids love (a la the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons from Warners). In the film's favour, we weren't inundated with endlessly annoying contemporary pop-culture references that are supposed to be funny and which, of course, are going to date all the pathetic animated films that do. (Shrek, anyone? I thought not.)

The look of Despicable Me is not without a few shreds of merit, but many of the gadgets and characters - while serviceable for the film's running time - don't last in the memory banks. The vocal performances - while competent - are bereft of the sort of Cliff Edwards brilliance from classic Disney that knocks you on your butt and stays with you forever.

The frenetic pace of Despicable Me and its ilk actually have the effect of bogging the pictures down. The Incredibles, on the other hand, was about thirty minutes longer than this 2010 "original", yet zipped by so effortlessly, that one didn't want it to end. Despicable Me, on the other hand, inspired little more than endless glances at my iPhone.

Other than being insufferably inoffensive and watchable for its 95-minute running time, those are about the only things in its favour. The same can be said for Despicable Me 2 and Minions, neither of which I've seen, and have no intention of ever seeing, because I've seen Despicable Me. You get the drift.

And now, there's a goddamn prequel!!! After a sequel and before another fucking sequel!

I'm still wondering: Where in the name of Christ were all the movie-going morons (and moron film critics) earlier this summer for Brad Bird's gorgeous Tomorrowland? Waiting to see Minions, no doubt.

Besides, there are always solid movies on the big screen that families would be doing themselves and their kids a favour to see instead of crap like the Despicable Me franchise.

I remember the year I took my (then) 9-year-old daughter to see Despicable Me. Yeah, she watched it, but around the same time that year, she also saw the highly imaginative Vincenzo Natali sci-fi horror picture Splice and made me take her to see it several times on a big screen. It thrilled her, entertained her, stayed with her and most importantly, stimulated the sort of mind-expanding discourse that more kids would benefit from.

So why drag kids to the usual derivative fare? This summer we've seen the aforementioned Tomorrowland tank and even Mad Max: Fury Road might have done better business if parents had some guts and took their precious little buggers to see that one. I don't want to believe that these parents and their progeny are as equally unimaginative as the most unimaginative "family" movies, but as one animated picture after another with a similar pedigree continues to rake in big dollars, I can only assume the worst.

So feel free to use this review of a 5-year-old film to suffice for Minions and pretty much any other stupid contemporary animated film. They're all the same. I suppose if you and your spawn continue to suffer through them, then you are too.

The same, that is.

Despicable Me was released 5 years ago. Its prequel Minions is in wide release. I haven't seen it, nor will I, because I know it will be identical to this one.

Friday, 26 June 2015

THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Unfairly Maligned Peckinpah Part 1

The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Burt Lancaster, Dennis Hopper,
Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Cassie Yates, Craig T. Nelson. Chris Sarandon

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I think the critics who trashed Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend when it first came out in 1983 were completely out to lunch about one key detail. Even though both Peckinpah and screenwriter Alan Sharp were dissatisfied with the script (based on Robert Ludlum's novel), the common critical complaint was the unintelligibility factor. My response on that front is: HOGWASH! Is the film a mass of confusion and mystery? It sure is, but none of this is detrimental to one's overall enjoyment of the film since it's the very inscrutability of the strange riddles haunting all its characters which keeps us guessing and which, is ultimately so simple, that we want to kick ourselves in the head for not getting "it".

I will admit that my first helping of the film theatrically was fraught with some disappointment at its lack of over-the-top bloodletting, but recent screenings (the DVD edition from ten-years ago and the new Blu-Ray release, both via Anchor Bay) restored my faith in Peckinpah's direction and his take on the material.

And back in the day, what in the Hell was I thinking about? The movie is incredibly violent (much of it submerged in the weird social dynamics of the "friends" who are getting together for weekend frolics) and eventually, all out nail baiting suspense and action during the final third of the picture.

In addition to all of that, there's a substantial creep factor to the whole affair which makes you feel like a vigorous scrub with a fresh, brand new loofah pad to exfoliate yourself of all the vile filth necrotizing upon your flesh.

John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) is a superstar TV journalist whose penetrating interviews are both feared and lauded by politicians and bureaucrats alike. His connections at all levels of government are deep seeded. His best friends from college include a number of successful power brokers all thriving in disparate, but successful fields and each year they have a weekend get-together spurred on by Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), a TV-news producer and John's closest friend.

This year's "Osterman" weekend is going to be a bit different for all concerned. John has been recruited by Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt), a mysterious CIA field operative. It seems Osterman and John's other pals, plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper), his snarky, coke-snorting wife Virginia (Helen Shaver), sleazily brilliant stock trader Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and sexy, loopy wifey Betty (Cassie Yates) are all making scads of extra dough as Soviet spies. Fassett wants to surveil the entire weekend and use John to expose his friends, but to also broker a deal to "turn" them into double agents.

John agrees to this entire mad scheme because he's a genuine patriot, but most of all, he's promised a one-on-one no-holds-barred interview with Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster), a kind of CIA equivalent to the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover.

The weekend, however, goes horribly awry - mostly because John is out of his depth. Coupled with a domestic dispute with his wife Ali (Meg Foster), his overt nervousness and the fact that he and his family are going into this after a harrowing kidnap attempt upon them by Soviet agents. Tanner is convinced all his friends know what he's up to and they in turn are besieged with their own domestic entanglements as well as fearing their old pal is using the weekend to nail them.

Peckinpah beautifully handles the sordid, nasty veneer of bourgeois excess which slowly descends into the kind of bitter acrimonious game-playing which would feel more at home in George and Martha's demented domestic set-up in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". And let's not forget that everything, every nook and cranny of John's home is outfitted with hidden surveillance cameras as our fey, chain-smoking Fassett voyeuristically observes several banks of monitors, like some mad Peeping Tom.

Tensions amongst the friends mount to extreme proportions and one can feel the potential for an explosion of violence. And when it comes, it's one shocker after another, all filtered through Peckinpah's astonishing feel for the mad ballet of carnage when men and women transform into seething, stalking beasts of prey.

Survival instinct is one thing and Peckinpah amps it up to total Red Alert, but amidst it all is a completely unhinged psychopath who will stop at nothing to extract life from anyone and everyone at all costs.

This is dazzling stuff. Of course, it could have even been far more vile and demented, but once again, poor Peckinpah was assailed by producers who refused to acquiesce to his complete vision, one which took voyeurism and vengeance to borderline extremes of surrealism. In spite of this, what's left is plenty effective.

My most recent screening of the picture on Blu-Ray was like a veil had been joyously lifted from the images and dramatic action. Upon first seeing The Osterman Weekend in 1983, the CIA surveillance methods in the movie seemed like science fiction, but nowadays, what's all on display is, quite miraculously, a chilling mirror image of both the contemporary mainstream media manipulation we're assailed with and the 1984-like invasion of our privacy. I can't help but think that Peckinpah was all-too aware that his film would be released on the eve of the actual year of Our Lord, 1984. The Orwellian undercurrent is perfectly in synch with the film's narrative, Peckinpah's taut, imaginative mise-en-scene and a kind of newfound power the film has attained in light of all that currently plagues us.

The Osterman Weekend was clearly ahead of its time.

As such, "Bloody" Sam got the last laugh on all of us.


The Osterman Weekend is available on Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and Anchor Bay/Starz (in the USA). It ports over two key extras from the original DVD release from 10 years ago, a commentary track from by film historians/critics (and Peckinpah aficionados) Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Nick Redman. Best of all is the 80-minute making-of documentary Alpha to Omega. Sadly missing from this release is Peckinpah's cut of the film. Granted, it was a crude telecine transfer of the 35mm work print, but it provided considerable insight into Peckinpah's unexpurgated hopes for the film.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

EDEN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Tedious look at life of Paris D.J. still oddly compelling.

Eden (2014)
Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve
Scr. Mia Hansen-Løve, Sven Hansen-Løve
Starring: Felix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani,
Vincent Macaigne, Roman Kolinka, Hugo Conzelmann, Vincent Lacoste, Arnaud Azoulay, Arsinee Khanjian

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Whilst watching all 131 minutes of Eden, at least forty-one of them unnecessary, I kept asking myself if a rambling dramatic immersion into twenty years in the life and career of a D.J. was something I really needed to see. After it was over and done with, I had to grudgingly conclude that yes, it was.

In spite of its longueurs, the picture has so many evocative sequences which capture an indelible sense of time and place and yes, introduced me to a world I'd otherwise have had absolutely no interest in knowing anything about. Yeah, okay. I was glad I stuck with it. It's not a bad picture and I suspect that those who actually care anything about house music might even love it.

In a nutshell, it's the Inside Llewyn Davis of the dance club scene. Though that's a perfectly appropriate encapsulation of Eden, I hope nobody thinks I'm suggesting it's even a public hair as great as the Coen Brothers masterpiece. It's not. It barely registers half of a crab louse in those particular sweepstakes.

What we have is the not-so-inspiring story of Paul (Felix de Givry), a promising young literature student who should really be listening to Arsinee Khanjian who plays his continually disappointed and disapproving Mom. She keeps encouraging the lad to finish his thesis, especially since his academic advisor is so high on him. Alas, Paul is far too high on electronic music as well as the drugs and sex that go along with it, that he pretty much wastes two decades of his life instead of getting an early jump on his writing career. (Though at least he does garner enough life experience to actually write about something, no matter how empty it is.)

Ah, such is the folly of youth. Paul does, however, have one hell of a good time. He has several main squeezes (Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, Golshifteh Farahani) amongst the bountiful pickings of babes in the dance club scene and he certainly creates some cool sounds in the Parisian garage tradition along the way, including a très cool tour of America.

Paul also has the fellowship of his best friends and collaborators: brooding visual artist Cyril (Roman Kolinka), the good-natured D.J. partner Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), the often hilarious Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne), a baby boomer club impresario who also has an obsessive penchant for Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls and, of course, Paul's friendly contemporaries in the scene, Thomas and Guy-Man (Vincent Lacoste, Arnaud Azoulay). The latter duo go on to stage their own music as Daft Punk, the brilliant pair of real-life music-makers who find the kind of world-wide fame which Paul gets brief tastes of, but never truly attains. The Daft Punk characters are also used to great effect in the film's one and only running gag (and a pretty funny one at that).

Eden often has a pleasing spirit of free-wheeling, not unlike some of director Hansen-Løve's French New Wave predecessors, but for every glorious dash through the streets of Paris and New York, every tumble in the sack with a bevy of babes, every snort of coke, as well as a myriad of party/club scenes, there are an equal number of them which feel like over-indulgent wheel-spinning. Clearly some of the elements of realism can be attributed to the screenplay co-written by the director's brother Sven Hansen-Løve, a former two-decades-long D.J. in real life.

Alas, so much of the film straggles about in a kind of self-importance within a musical, social and cultural scene that's notable only because it did (and continues to) inspire a generation of young people within a relatively slight blip on the overall radar of music history. The entire scene finally feels utterly inconsequential and the film makes virtually nothing of the political and historical backdrops which surely had some effect upon driving people into this world of thump-thumping partying.

Maybe ignoring the turbulence of the outside world is the point, but if so, it says a lot about the young people immersed in it and/or the missed opportunities for the film to have genuinely earned its 131-minute running time by scratching below the surface of its pseudo-neo-realist tendencies.

Personally, I've never been able to comprehend the "joys" of any club, bar, party, restaurant or celebratory event which played music so loud that one was forced to shout sweet nothings into people's ears. Some might argue it's all about the "physical" connection, but most of the denizens/fans of this crap are so hopped up on drugs, the only connections they're really making, are with dealers to buy more drugs.

Before you assume I'm some old grump, I can assure you my wayward youth was spent in many a punk, hard rock, heavy metal and jazz club, but between live sets, taped music was dialled down so one could actually converse with one's fellow party-hearty partners in crime. To me, house is like elevator music, only it splits your eardrums.

By the end of Eden and certainly in retrospect, all I kept/keep thinking about are the seemingly endless scenes in the movie of Paul's Mother forking over money into his empty, outstretched palms because he's unable to earn a proper living in his chosen art.

The real moral of the story is thus: Kids, listen to your Mothers, for Christ's Sake!

They're usually right.


Eden begins its theatrical release in Canada at the TIFF Bell LightBox via FilmsWeLike and will widen out across the rest of the country in specialty venues.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

LA DOLCE VITA, THE CONFORMIST, UMBERTO D. - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw - The TIFF Cinematheque presents the "Summer in Italy" series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. These 3 titles are also available on sumptuous Criterion & Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray/DVD Editions.

It's that time of the year again. The Toronto International Film Festival's Cinematheque at the TIFF Bell LightBox in Toronto presents a whole whack o' classics with a pasta theme, programmed by the illustrious James Quandt with the popular "Summer in Italy" series running June 27 to September 5, 2015 and a great new series entitled: "More Than Life Itself: Rediscovering the Films of Vittorio de Sica" running June 26 to September 6, 2015. Here are 3 important titles in both series that are happening in August. MARK YOUR CALENDARS!!! Those who don't live in Toronto and/or can't get to Toronto and/or are agoraphobic can choose the sumptuous Blu-Ray/DVD editions from the Criterion Collection and Kino-Lorber. Buy your advance tickets to these great TIFF Bell Lightbox presentations (they sell out, don'cha know) by clicking HERE.

Saturday Aug. 1, 2015 @ 5:30pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox and/or Criterion Blu-Ray

La Dolce Vita (1960)
dir. Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Yvonne Furneaux, Anouk Aimee,
Anita Ekberg, Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Nico, Alain Dijon, Lex Barker

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It has been said that in death we all end up alone. If we are alone in life, bereft of love, is existence itself then, not a living death? For me, this is the central theme of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s great classic of cinema – a film that never ceases to thrill, tantalize and finally, force its audience to look deep into a mirror and search for answers to questions about themselves. This is what makes for great movies that live beyond the ephemeral qualities far too many filmmakers and audiences prefer to settle for - especially in the current Dark Ages of cinema we find ourselves in. It’s the reason why the picture continues to live forever. What makes La Dolce Vita especially great is that Fellini – as he was so often able to achieve – got to have his cake and eat it too. He created art that entertained AND challenged audiences the world over.

Most of all, though, La Dolce Vita is cool – cooler than cool, to be frank.


Thursday Aug. 7, 2015 @ 9:00pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
and/or Kino-Lorber/RaroVideo Blu-Ray

The Conformist (1970)
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda

Review By Greg Klymkiw

You're never going to see a more gorgeous movie about fascism than Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist.

He was only in his late 20s when he made this 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel and the picture still crackles with urgency, dread and horror. It's furthermore infused with a winning combination of political/historical smarts, deeply considered intellectual rigour and an eye for heart-aching, stunning and dazzling visual artistry.

Working with ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), there isn't a single composition, lighting scheme or camera move in the entire photoplay that's anything less than gorgeous. The sheer physical beauty in interior decor, architecture and the natural world is an effective and complex juxtaposition within the story of a man driven by pure ambition.


Sunday Aug. 16, 2015 @ 6:00pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
and/or on The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Umberto D. (1952)
dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Flike

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The old man Umberto (Carlo Battisti) must bid goodbye to the only thing he genuinely loves in the whole wide world, a tiny dog called Flike. He's so poor he must check himself into a hospital to treat a simple case of Tonsillitis. This allows him to get free meals for a few days so he can save enough money to avoid eviction. De Sica takes us on the road of this one man's life - a life that could belong to any one of us. This man's journey is harrowing, to be sure, but we're all the better for taking it with him.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

PARKS AND RECREATION: Ruinous Optimism - Tea Time w/ Thomas Zachary Toles

Click Above To Get More Info on Thomas
The Ruinous Optimism
of Parks and Recreation

By Thomas Zachary Toles

More TV Trash Talking from
The Film Corner's
Tea Time Columnist

The series finale of Parks and Recreation was as saccharine and excessive as a Sweetums Child Size soda. With astonishing conviction, the episode whipped up embarrassingly perfect futures for each of its recurring characters. Tiny fleeting conflicts were drizzled onto certain epilogues as if a couple squirts of lemon could deepen the flavor of 512 ounces of refined sugar.

When did the once tasteful show let itself go?

It did not start in Season 7. Parks and Recreation has, for years, been such a staunch defender of the goodness of its characters that it refused to let anything truly bad happen to them. This was no doubt an attempt by the show runners to distance the series from their previous hit, The Office. Indeed, early in the run of Parks and Rec, it was oft-described as an Office knock-off.

Hoping to escape this identity crisis, creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur sought an alternate characterization for the show’s central character, Leslie Knope. Between Seasons 1 and 2, Knope transformed from bumbling manager type with delusions of grandeur to one of the most stubbornly ambitious, generous, and hard working characters on television. The joke was no longer on Leslie, but on the whiny, ungrateful people of Pawnee for whom she so tirelessly advocated.

This new approach borrowed significantly from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s film centres on the personal sacrifices George Bailey must make for the sake of his average little town. Despite the film’s euphoric ending, these sacrifices weigh heavily on George, pushing him to the brink of suicide. He severely compromises his own needs for the sake of others—the perfect metaphor for devoted public service.

In its first few seasons, Parks and Rec followed Capra’s example by ingeniously making comedy out of Leslie’s wildly under-appreciated labor. Historically, comedy thrives on that particular Chaplinesque brand of optimistic hopelessness and all sitcoms especially benefit from such cyclical premises. For a time, Pawnee’s stubborn mediocrity landed its Parks department reliably back where they started, reaching like George Bailey for detectable impact from the drab valleys of Indiana.

Parks and Rec bravely imbued modest goals in potentially soul-draining circumstances with real value. Not everyone had Leslie’s ambition, of course. Ron’s primary commitment was always to avoid any government action; Tom’s commitment was to himself; April’s to macabre cynicism. There was more to these people than those simple descriptions, and fortunately they were allowed to develop over time under Leslie’s arm-twisting, inexhaustible guidance. Yet all the show’s main characters were most interestingly defined by their confinement in the feeble Parks department, a station that seemed to suit none of them perfectly, including Leslie. The possibility of doing meaningful work in such imperfect conditions was the faint ray of sunshine Leslie tenaciously sought after.

Unfortunately, as time went on, Parks and Rec allowed the clouds of stifled ambition to float away to Eagleton and beyond. Its writers became so attached to Leslie’s tireless optimism that they refused to place any immovable obstacles in the way of its characters’ desires. The exception that proves the rule is the Parks department’s incessant bullying of Jerry, which is too endless and frivolous to sustain any bite.

Eventually, Leslie could do anything, putting inhuman amounts of work into even the least significant projects. With seemingly unlimited resources and energy, compromise was less and less a part of her life. The same came to be true of the rest of the cast, who grew increasingly successful separate from the Parks department and ever more enamored with each other.

Parks and Rec remained only superficially about the importance of teamwork in adversity, overlooking all the underlying struggles that might make such collaboration inspiring. Without real conflict, like so many sitcoms before it, its characters were allowed to transform into Platonic ideals of themselves, losing their human complexity:

Ron should say something manly here.

April should be cynical to hide her sweetness.

Andy shouldn't get it.

As early as Season 4, an uncomfortable shift can be felt in the ethos of Parks and Rec. Convincingly awkward comic figures like Mark Brendanawicz and Dave Sanderson were replaced by absurd caricatures like Chris Traeger and Craig Middlebrooks. Caricatures were always a colourful part of the show’s background (Jean Ralphio often soars during his infrequent appearances) but had no place in its main cast, further undermining whatever shreds of emotional stakes remained. Ethan Alter noted the somewhat surprising absence of former principle Mark from the finale but the city planner’s credible disenchantment simply would not have made sense in the exaggerated world of the series’ later seasons.

By the finale, the caricaturization reached its apotheosis. As Parks and Rec had already abandoned pain and complexity for broad humour and shallow positivity (becoming as vacuous as the hollow self-help literature affectionately mocked in this final episode), it seemed a fait accompli for every major character to find seamless happiness in both their work and personal lives.

Tom’s improbably bestselling book literally boiled each figure down to three generic traits; meagre summaries as empty and hackneyed as the type of book Tom is peddling.
“April: Individualistic, intense, intimidating."

"Ron: Self-reliant, uncompromising, inner-directed."

"Leslie: Leader, tireless, optimistic.”
Optimism—and comedy—separate from struggle, compromise, and disappointment, does not have much impact. By the end of the series, Leslie’s overbearing idealism was the sole lens through which we were forced to view Pawnee, and governmental work more generally.

A once wonderful, weird, feminist delight deteriorated into a gang of cartoon characters embarking on a happiness scavenger hunt. In the series finale, we were assaulted by a future of boundless false satisfaction.

By that point, to put it in the show’s terms:

Parks and Recreation was beating a dead mini-horse.

Monday, 22 June 2015

BARQUERO - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Lee Van Cleef & Warren Oates MAN 2 MAN!!!

Barquero (1970)
Dir. Gordon Douglas
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Warren Oates, Forrest Tucker, Mariette Hartley

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Who is Gordon Douglas? Good question. Well, he's nobody's idea of an auteur, but the man directed 70+ feature films in a career that began in the Dirty 30s, grinding out comedies for Hal Roach, then as a studio contract director for the likes of RKO, Columbia and Warner Brothers until his retirement in the late 70s.

Did he make any stinkers? Plenty!

He also directed some of the best genre pictures with good, solid, two-fisted panache including San Quentin starring Lawrence Tierney, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney, the sizzling McCarthy era I Was a Communist for the FBI, the truly great 50s science fiction big bug (Gigantic Ants, no less) classic Them, The Fiend Who Walked The West, the utterly insane western remake of the noir classic Kiss of Death, the supremely entertaining Elvis Presley Vs. the Mob musical Follow That Dream, the nutty Rat Pack comedy Robin and the Seven Hoods and one of the dirtiest, grittiest, nastiest crime pictures of the 60s, The Detective starring Frank Sinatra, the terrific Jim Brown Blaxsploitation picture Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (with Ed McMahon - YES! Ed McMahon as a villainous mob boss) and lest we forget, one of the funniest (and most offensive) Bob Hope comedies Call Me Bwana (wherein Bob goes on an African Safari to retrieve a valuable talisman from a "backwards" tribe in the jungle, but not before playing a round of gold with the great Arnold Palmer).

And then there's Douglas's greatest triumph, the all but forgotten western Barquero, a film which did double duty in the homage department, conjuring the disparate styles of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and those of Sergio Leone.

And what a rip-snorting western this is!

The always brilliant Warren Oates chews the scenery magnificently as a psychotic bandit who leads the wholesale slaughter of a western town to steal as many guns, ammo and bank money as humanly possible. His plan is to hijack a barge and destroy it after crossing a mighty river in order to thwart the posse hot on his ass.

Unfortunately, he doesn't reckon on having to square off against the tough-as-nails ferry owner, the mysterious, laconic gunfighter played by none other than Lee Van Cleef ("the Bad" of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Van Cleef partners with the kill-happy mountain man played by Forrest Tucker (in a hugely entertaining burly bear of a performance) and the two of then single-hsndedly wipe out Oates's entire mini-army of thugs.

The action and gunplay is first-rate and the movie even manages to settle into some casual character development on both sides of the fence due to a decent screenplay by George Schenck and William Marks.

The stunningly gorgeous Mariette Hartley made her motion picture debut in Sam Peckinpah's Ride The High Country in which, as a child-bride-to-be is married to a grizzled cowpoke inbred who plans to share her on their wedding night with his even more repulsive inbred brothers and pappy. Here, some seven years later, she's forced to spend a night of unbridled passion with the manly Van Cleef after she begs him to save her husband's life. "I'll do anything," she weeps. And anything is what she does.

Tucker delivers the performance of his career as a recluse who can only really hack the company of one man, Lee Van Cleef naturally. He always seems to show up when Van Cleef needs him most. Thank God, too (for Van Cleef and us) since he's an expert at quiet, vicious kills. A special bonus is that he's a supremely friendly fellow and bestows considerable kindness upon his victims before torturing and/or dispatching them.

And Warren Oates! What can be said about one of America's greatest actors that hasn't already been said? Oates is completely, utterly and deliciously over-the-top as the psychotic villain who refuses to acquiesce to the mighty river blocking his way to freedom. At one point, his character, increasingly under the influence of mood-altering weed, crazily looks at the deep, roiling currents, pulls his six-shooters and begins madly emptying the chambers into the river. Bravo, Warren! He might be completely overblown here, but there isn't a moment we don't believe him.

A western classic? Yes and no. Its homages seem studio-influenced, but the fact remains that director Gordon Douglas pulls them off with considerable skill and the movie is never less than engaging. It may not be a bonafide classic, but Good God Damn, it comes mighty close and it's certainly one supremely decent ass-kicker of a western.


Barquero is available on a Kino-Lorber BluRay.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

THE ONION FIELD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 70s Cop Classic Now on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray

The Onion Field (1979)
Dir. Harold Becker
Starring: James Woods, Franklyn Seales, John Savage, Ronny Cox,
Ted Danson, Christopher Lloyd, David Huffman, Priscilla Pointer, Dianne Hull

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Given recent media exposure to the wholesale murder of unarmed American citizens by trigger-happy policemen, it seems appropriate to take a fresh look at the flip side in Harold Becker's 1979 film adaptation of The Onion Field, a harrowing 1973 true crime book by Joseph Wambaugh, the famed cop-turned-bestselling-novelist who created an important body of work devoted to the danger and drudgery of being a cop.

Though many are under the assumption that Wambaugh's books were little more than literary canonizations of policemen, the fact of the matter is that he tried to create balanced, sympathetic portraits of all his characters and most of all he was never shy about etching warts-and-all portraits of his lawmen. This book was no different, save for one detail. The Onion Field was not fiction and Wambaugh was actually familiar with the police officers he decided to write about. He'd laid eyes upon one of them on numerous occasions before and after the incidents depicted in his eventual book, but most importantly, he experienced first-hand how the said events were implemented into police policy and training.

The movie is now 35+ years old. At that point, it was depicting events that had occurred 15 years prior to its release. Seeing the picture now astonishingly places all police brutality in America over the past half century or so in a fresh context, since the events depicted in both the book and film inspired so many law enforcement agencies' hardline philosophies with respect to police work.

Rooted in the actions of the real-life cops in this story were the following strict policies:

1. Never give up your gun. Only cowards give up their guns.

2. Defend your life and the lives of all officers everywhere by always shooting under threat.

To witness an often first-rate dramatization of what led to the aforementioned inflexibilities, which began (not surprisingly) with the LAPD is a testament to Wambaugh's unyielding faith in the material. Unsatisfied with the severely flawed film adaptation of his first book The New Centurions, he was driven to self-finance this story that was near and dear to his heart. For the most part, his gamble and efforts paid off.

During a seemingly routine spot-check in 1963, LAPD plainclothes officers Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) were kidnapped by Greg Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Franklyn Seales), two armed sociopaths on their way to a liquor store robbery. The officers were driven to an isolated farm near Bakersfield where one cop was shot repeatedly, execution-style, while the other managed to scramble away and tear madly across several miles of an onion field with the criminals in pursuit.

The officer survived and the petty hoodlums (turned cold-blooded cop killers) were captured. However, as the powerful tagline from the film's ads announced, what happened afterwards "was the real crime". The film painstakingly takes us through the initial investigation, the first trial (which results in a guilty verdict and death sentence) and then, like some labyrinthian Kafka-like nightmare, endless appeals and new trials continue - for years. In many instances, the courtroom turns topsy-turvy and endless retrials and mistrials are declared.

The surviving cop, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, is forced to repeat the same horrific testimony to the point in which he loses count of how many times he's had to do so. Grotesquely, the court allows the jury not one, but several recreations of the killing at the exact time and in the precise spot in which the event took place, with, of course, the traumatized officer in tow. Add to this all the nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis, an overwhelming sense of guilt (placed on him by his LAPD superiors) that he was responsible for his partner's death and even being scapegoated by the LAPD to repeat said events at morning roll calls and training session with rookies. He's told this will help other officers to avoid mistakes that could lead to similar events in their own careers.

The cop's grief, deep shame and guilt mount steadily and overwhelmingly - so much so that he turns to alcohol, becomes a kleptomaniac and even physically abuses his own newborn baby before seriously contemplating suicide (and one night, caught by his eldest child as he places a gun in his mouth). Not only does he become a walking textbook case in which policies are changed, but the department offers no psychiatric assistance. Adding insult to injury, he's eventually caught redhanded while shoplifting and forced to resign, leaving him jobless and bereft of any benefits like medical insurance. His wife is forced to take work while he becomes a stay-at-home Dad with plenty of time on his hands to recount the tragic and terrifying events of that one night.

Yes, these actions perpetrated by the system not only bordered on criminality, but it's a perfect example of how institutions like the police department punished their own men instead of supporting them after traumatic incidents like this and how the wheels of justice often became an endless joke which had little to do with real justice, but rather, endless bureaucratic wheel spinning under the guise of providing the best defence for the perpetrators of crime.

Seeing this play out is both gruelling and haunting.

The Onion Field is, for the most part, an extremely fine film, but it's also saddled with a few glaring flaws, many of which are clearly the result of its producer (Wambaugh) having, perhaps, too much power and losing a clear sense of perspective in the pursuit of reality. There is, for example, a dreadful musical score which creeps in with jangling mediocrity during many of the "domestic" sequences and yet, is spare and effective during so much of the rest of the movie. How this inconsistency was allowed by Wambaugh is still a head-scratcher. Though the vast majority of the performances are flawless, there are a handful of smaller roles acted so badly that they stick out like sore thumbs. Harold (Sea of Love) Becker's direction wildly, unpredictably bounces between effective, subtle and chilling whilst alternately slipping into by the numbers TV-style camera jockeying.

One finally forgives these creative inconsistencies and instead admires what's great about the film: a genuine attempt to capture the complexities of the criminals and what led them to lives of criminality, the almost docudrama attention to the details of the initial interrogations, the strange machinations of the trials, the horrific day-to-day lifestyle on death row (including a horrendous suicide attempt by a man slated for a trip to the gas chamber), the unrelenting seediness of the motels, streets and cheap rooming houses the two main sociopaths lived in and most successfully, the film's successful rendering of a sense of family amongst the criminal class - one that's alternately false and deeply felt as real.

The leading performances are, without question, first-rate, but it's James Woods who steals the show with his crazy, scary performance as the most psychopathic of the duo. He chills to the bone in ways he's been able to mimic over the years, but here with a sense of razor sharp reality that has you on the edge of your seat.

There are moments in the film that are so moving that they're not only unforgettable, but are examples of the kind of filmmaking which is now so rare in American film, but was virtually de rigueur during the 70s - little details like when one of the cops, his hands up, slowly touches his partner's fingers when he realizes he's going to die, hoping to have one last touch of life before it all ends, or when one of the cops appears to be crying and his partner points out that it's a physical reaction to the fields of onions and later on, as the surviving cop brutally punches his baby in the back to make it stop crying and then, almost immediately fills up with horror and self-loathing over what he's done. The movie is full of moments like this which force you to catch your breath - again and again - as these heart-wrenching moments of sadness and brutality repeatedly knock the wind out of you.

Two especially powerful moments on opposite ends of the emotional and legal spectrum haunted me long after I first saw the movie first-run and knocked me flat when seeing it again on Blu-Ray are as follows:

1. When the most "sane" of the two criminals is asked if he feels guilty, he responds: "I think that is something that rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. I honestly don't believe there is such a thing... such a feeling. Guilty? That's just something the Man says in court when your luck runs out."

2. When the District Attorney, after endless trials and appeals decides to leave the law profession altogether upon realizing that the cop who died is long forgotten and that the one who survived is a mere ghost and that all that really remains with any meaning at all is the legal process. He states, with no irony at all that if it was in his power, he'd let the criminals go free. "…I'd just drop all the charges. Let 'em walk. If only I could send some lawyers and judges to the gas chamber."

The Onion Field, maybe now more than ever, is one of the most moving and truthful indictments of the American justice system ever put on film. It's neither dated, nor irrelevant to America today. It allows us to weep for the men on the beat as much as those behind bars and most of all, for the mess this incident inspired which transformed law enforcers into cold-hearted killers.


The Onion Field is currently available on a new Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber with an excellent selection of extras including a fine commentary track by director Harold Becker.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

SUGAR HILL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Blaxploitation Like You've Never Seen Before!

Sugar Hill (1974)
Dir. Paul Maslansky
Scr. Tim Hill
Cin. Robert C. Jessup
Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Zara Culley, Don Pedro Colley,
Charles F. Robinson, Richard Lawson, Larry Don Johnson, Betty Ann Rees

Review By Greg Klymkiw

This fella's seen more than his fair share of Blaxploitation in his life, perhaps too much. Nah, what am I saying? One can never get too much super soul action from the 70s. I've gotta tell you though, nothing rocked my world quite like Paul Maslansky's Sugar Hill from 1974. I thought I'd seen every cinematic African-American permutation of genre pictures, but this one's a true original; a bloody vigilante movie with zombies, raised from their graves by the power of voodoo.

It doesn't get sweeter than that. Well, actually it does when the lady needing vengeance is the sweeter-than-sweet Marki Bey in the title role of Sugar Hill. And man, Sugar is sweet, luscious and totally badass!

The movie opens over a stunning opening title credit sequence with a sumptuous voodoo ritual replete with snakes, chickens and furious dancing and conjuring. All of this is set to the unforgettable Dino Fekaris/Nick Zesses song "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" as sung ever-so smoothly by The Moderns. It then comes as a special treat when we discover why this all feels like a super-soul-styled musical number; it's none other than a very cool nightclub act in Houston's "Club Haiti".

Its proprietor, Sugar's loving fiancé, is threatened by some mean-ass gangsters representing local mob boss Morgan (Robert Quarry of Count Yorga fame). The scum bucket wants to buy this super successful dining, dancing and drinking emporium for a mere song. He refuses, of course and is summarily beaten to death.

Sugar goes ballistic! Travelling deep into the bush, she looks up her old pal, voodoo woman Mama Maitresse (Zara Culley, Mother Olivia Jefferson from, you guessed it, The Jeffersons). The good Mama introduces her to the mighty devil man himself, the ultra-stylish, mega-flamboyant Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) who agrees to take Sugar's soul (when the time comes naturally, of course) in exchange for his services to raise the living dead to do her bidding.

The good Baron and his zombies are especially looking forward to whuppin' some Whitey and Oreo Cookie ass since they're long-dead slaves from the deep pre-Civil War South and they live as the living dead to get some payback too. Sugar and the Baron work as a team to rustle up each and every one of Morgan's henchman and we're the beneficiaries of some magnificent vengeance involving a variety of death instruments: machetes, snakes, spears - all manner of gruesome butchery.

Tim Hill's lively screenplay injects a fair bit of juicy satirical elements as the film goes about its supremely entertaining business. It gives the wonderful actor Don Pedro Colley quite a few hilarious bits where he dupes Whitey with any number of Sambo routines that give Steppin Fetchit a run for his money. One of Colley's best scenes has the Baron happily singing "De Camptown Races" replete with "Doo-Dahs" as he chauffeurs an unwitting gangster to his horrific demise.

And what a demise it is. Sugar wryly quips, "I hope they don't mind white trash," as the gangster is dumped alive into a pit full of starving pigs.

Oink. Oink.

The movie is spiritedly directed by Paul Maslansky making his feature length debut. Good thing it's so spirited, too. Sugar Hill was the only movie Maslansky ever directed. He did, however, have a hugely successful career as the producer of such acclaimed cult genre films as Castle of the Living Dead, Raw Meat, Race With the Devil, Damnation Alley and many others before settling in to produce every single Police Academy movie ever made (including its upcoming reboot). There are a few rough around the edges moments in Sugar Hill (which Maslansky immodestly notes in the ample supplements on the Blu-Ray), but he was wise (using his producer noggin) to surround himself with a great creative team including the wonderful underrated cinematographer Robert C. Jessup.

Okay, this is no masterpiece, but it sure is fun seeing Whitey get His. And even though the main creative team are anything but African-American, they go out of their way to deliver entertainment which more than appealed to its target audience. Then again, even Whitey is going to have fun with this. I sure did - especially when Robert Quarry's blonde whore tells Sugar not to get "uppity" with her and our heroine quips back with:

"Uppity? My dear, talking to you means I look nowhere but down!"

Yup, this is some mighty Hot Voodoo!

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** (Film) & **** (Blu-Ray)

Sugar Hill is available on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber. It's a gorgeously produced package with a ton of fantastic extra features including a wonderful Maslansky commentary, generous interviews with the actors and a great transfer from nice source material which allows for all that glorious 70s grain and punchy colours courtesy of cinematographer Jessup.

While you order your own copy of Sugar Hill by clicking HERE (Canada), HERE (USA) and HERE (UK), why not check out the opening scene of Sugar Hill below, complete with "Supernatural Voodoo Woman".

Friday, 19 June 2015

MARK OF THE DEVIL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Arrow Video Restores Deliciously Vile 70s Witchfinding Torture Shocker to its Original Glory on a sumptuous Blu-Ray equivalent to Criterion Collection standards

Mark of the Devil (1970)
Dir. Michael Armstrong
Starring: Udo Kier, Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder,
Olivera Katarina aka Olivera Vuco, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Translated from Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält into the Queen's English from German, the exquisitely Teutonic appellation of this classic 1970 shocker is Witches Tortured Until They Bleed.

Our ultra-Catholic friends in Italy affixed an equally tantalizing monicker: La Tortura Delle Vergini, or, in lingua inglese, The Torture of Virgins.

We, of course, know and love the picture as the far more genteel Mark of the Devil, but ultimately, whichever way one comes to appreciate this infamously vile shot-in-Bavaria German-UK co-production, it's guaranteed to bring joy to all eyes bearing witness to it. Well, "all" eyes with a clear path to that tainted chunk o' brain matter which can truly appreciate this sickeningly effective answer to Michael Reeves' 1968 cult masterpiece Witchfinder General -- those lucky souls will be the true beneficiaries of the delights found within the fully restored Arrow Video edition of it.

Though it might not have the borderline art-house credibility of Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil is, in its own right, a fine addition to all the magnificently entertaining Euro-Trash witch torture exploitation items from the 60s and 70s. Not only is the torture of the highest standards, but the movie is damn compelling from a story standpoint.

Count Christian von Meruh (a character with a name like this could only be played by Udo Kier), a handsome young apprentice witch finder, accompanies his learned experienced mentor, the dastardly Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) to clean up the corruption in a small town, not so much to stop torture and executions, but to make sure the proper guilty parties are rooted out. The Count falls for the comely barmaid Vanessa (played by the famous Serbian acting and singing sensation known alternately as Olivera Katarina and Olivera Vuco).

Unfortunately, the vicious local witchfinder, the Albino (the brilliant Reggie Nalder whose grotesque appearance was a result of massive burns to his face), has designs upon her (as he does with most women in the town) and when she refuses to put out, she's accused of witchcraft (as are most of the gals who don't put out). A family of innocent travelling puppeteers are also singled out as witches, especially the gorgeous blonde daughter (Gaby Fuchs, German star of numerous horror and sex films).

A whole whack of sickening tortures and executions are carried out until the handsome Count realizes the insidiously corrupt nature of the whole affair and leads a revolt against the witchfinders.

Due to considerable friction twixt director Michael Armstrong and producer Adrian Hoven (who also acts in the film), a considerable portion of the movie includes added sequences directed by the latter. In spite of this, the film has a relatively smooth mise-en-scene and ultimately works as a genuinely fine addition to this sub-genre of 70s exploitation. The performances, especially by Kier, Lom and Nalder are top of the line and the movie, even in its longer unexpurgated form, moves along at a speedy clip.

Though ultimately an exploitation film meant to capitalize on the success of the aforementioned Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil holds its own very nicely and due to its superb locations and attention to certain historical details, it feels as disgustingly representative of this horrendous period of history as one could/would want.

Have I mentioned yet that the movie opens with nuns being raped? I thought not.

Look, there's just no getting around how foul this picture is, but aficionados of vile Euro-Trash will find themselves in a constant state of orgasm.

One cannot deny such pleasures to anyone.

Can one?

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ (film) & ***** (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Mark of the Devil is available on a sumptuous Arrow Video Blu-Ray. In addition to the restoration of the full version and superb transfer from existing elements, the added treat are the bountiful extras. Arrow continues to be the gold standard for genre films in the home entertainment market and this particular package is on par with any fully loaded Criterion Collection release. Extras include a wonderful commentary track with Michael Armstrong, expertly moderated by Calum Waddell. Exclusive to this package is Mark of the Times a one-hour documentary on the British new wave of genre directors during the 60s and 70s. Hallmark of the Devil is an amazing little 12-minute doc about Hallmark Releasing (of Hallmark greeting cards fame) and their vile brilliant marketing campaign which ensured a huge return when the film played theatrically in the USA. There are a whack of great interviews with composer Michael Holm, actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and even an audio only chat with Herbert Lom. A very entertaining short entitled Mark of the Devil: Now and Then takes us on a then-and-now tour of the film's locations. Additionally, one will find the usual bevy of outtakes, picture galleries, trailers and Arrow's impeccably high standards in package design and supplements with reversible sleeve and a lovely booklet featuring wonderful articles including David Del Valle's interview with the immortal Reggie Nalder.

This one is a keeper, folks