Archive for January, 2017

Cult Obscurities on Amazon Prime (UK)

amazonprimeIf you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you are automatically able to stream thousands of films through Amazon Prime Video. A number of apps are available on mobile devices, game consoles and set-top boxes – or you can directly stream from Amazon’s website. What is common to all these options is a menu system which offers a series of recommendations based on your watch history and other categories such as genre. When searching, titles are listed based on a default “recommended” category, which tends to favour popular films – you will see fairly mainstream fare.

However, browsing using the website and using other options such as the ability to order by “latest arrivals” – or just scrolling through the thousands of results leads to some treats hidden away from the casual viewer. Those interested in more obscure, cult, exploitation and world cinema would be recommended to spend some time in the lower reaches of the menus – there are some surprising, strange and delightful rewards in store. Here are a few of my discoveries.

[Note: this is the UK store – other stores may differ and the US store, for example, has many more titles. Also, titles come and go as and when streaming rights expire or are renewed.]

dead-man-1995A number of titles from art-house darling Jim Jarmusch are available, including Dead Man, Down by Law, Stranger than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive and Mystery Train.

There are a large number of Spaghetti Westerns, including titles from respected directors such as Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone and Duccio Tessari, starring the likes of Giuliano Gemma, Klaus Kinski and Anthony Steffen. A whole host of Django and Ringo sequels!

Cult horrors including Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Don Dohler’s Nightbeast and a whole host of films from Troma.

killer9seatsHorror and exploitation from around the world: Mystics in Bali (Indonesia), The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Italian giallo), Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (Japan), Bedevilled (South Korea), El Camino de los Espantos (Mexico) and World of Crooked Mirrors (Russia).

Also heavily represented is the Italian cop movie genre of the 1970s, known as Poliziotteschi, with a number of classic titles featuring Maurizio Merli, John Saxon and Henry Silva, from directors Umberto Lenzi and Fernando di Leo. Accompanying these is the feature documentary Eurocrime! which does a great job of explaining the genre and interviewing surviving participants. Highly recommended.

blue-paradise-posterAnd there’s more: lots of obscure martial arts films, weird curios such as the Italian Blue Lagoon/cannibal film mashup Blue Paradise, Errol Morris’ documentary Tabloid, Hong Kong action and horror such as City on Fire, Black Magic and Hex, not to mention the astounding Mighty Peking Man.

Though some of these films may be available on youtube a large number appear to have been properly mastered – with some even in HD. I suspect that a number of these have been licensed from companies which have bought packages for future release on DVD and bluray (indeed a number of the HK horrors have recently been released by 88Films here in the UK), but a large amount of the above are not currently available on any home format in the UK.

samuraicopFor some reason, Amazon Video have acquired a package of streaming rights which include the complete American films of Iranian film-maker Amir Shervan. A director in his home country since the late 60s, Shervan moved to the US after the revolution of 1979 and latterly became a director of low-budget action films. These have developed a sizeable cult following due to recent DVD releases, and their further dissemination in HD on streaming platforms will surely only increase their notoriety.

Shervan’s films are appalling. His direction is slapdash and his editing incompetent. Even the bare minimum requirements of a feature film such as scene continuity and synchronous dialogue and sound effects are casually dispensed with. The dialogue is terrible and borderline offensive when it handles race or gender. They’re also a lot of fun to certain kinds of modern audiences, as examples of a kind of kitsch and campy 80s aesthetic. Even though they do share certain similarities with late 80s action movies, the films they more closely resemble are the modern works which seek to emulate the look and feel of “bad” 80s action cinema – Kung Fury (2015) and the films made the “Astron-6” collective, such as Manborg and Father’s Day (both 2011).

Given that such retro-cinema efforts are designed to parody a genre, rather than individual films for the most part, it’s curious that one film-maker so embodied the tropes and foibles which became the hooks on which future homages were hung. If we’re looking for reasons beyond the limitations of budget (for example, Shervan doesn’t shoot at night – no lighting; doesn’t record sync sound – no equipment), we may be tempted to assign credit for these qualities to cultural differences. As a middle-eastern emigree with apparently limited English, Shervan may have had difficulty working with cast and crew, but also in understanding the demands of contemporary US action cinema. Shervan’s films are extremely reductive – they feature a dumb lunk battling racial stereotypes, killing them all and remaining bafflingly attractive to a collection of blonde, Playboy-esque female characters. While Shervan can’t afford stunts or spfx his films are extremely violent and his cop heroes display a casual disregard of life and law which would have made Dirty Harry gag.

In Electric Boogaloo (2014), Mark Hartley’s excellent documentary on the rise and demise of the Cannon film group, the point is made on several occasions that the Israeli duo of Golan and Globus continually misjudged the audience. Despite initially thriving in a market set afloat by demand in the early days of home video, these Hollywood outsiders misread the appeal, approach and market for genre cinema – leading to expensive decisions such as paying Stallone $13m to appear in a film about arm-wrestling. There’s something implicitly racist in these kinds of accusations – that foreigners are incapable of understanding the cultural works and practises of indigent film-makers. However, perhaps it’s instead the case – as Clive James has claimed – that foreigners can better read foreign cultures. The likes of Cannon and Shervan just took at face-value the ridiculous excesses of US action cinema. Their crime was to replicate it without any of the hypocritical neutering of the hard ages of racism, sexism and jingoism demanded by Hollywood, the MPAA and, ultimately, audiences. Shervan’s further crime was that he, unlike Golan and Globus, couldn’t afford explosions.

pensionepauraThe second and final theatrical feature from Barilli, this is often referred to as a “giallo”, alongside his first effort, Il Profumo della Signora in Nero (1974). Despite containing a scene which features a figure in disguise killing one of the characters, it is, however, more of a thriller and a character study, as well as a handsomely-staged period piece. It also shares much with Barilli’s first feature (also, arguably, not a traditional giallo) in focusing on a psychologically-damaged female character, battling an obsession with a departed parent, and an ominous cabal which is slowly closing in on her.

Set in a lakeside Italian hotel towards the end of WWII, the film follows Rosa (Leonora Fani) who daydreams about the return of her idealised father, who has joined the partizans in the battle against the Nazis. In the meantime, she works alongside her mother to meet the largely unreasonable demands of a small group of hotel guests, including a man creepily obsessed with his dead family, a mature woman and her younger lover (the splendid Luc Merenda) and various spivs, collaborators and their molls. Also hidden away in the attic is a man on the run from unspecified forces (Francisco Rabal), who is having an affair with Rosa’s mother, much to her disgust.

Rosa is harassed by the guests on a seemingly daily basis – particularly by Merenda’s sleazy gigolo character. Her only respite, beyond dreams of her father, is the occasional trips to town where she meets with a young boy with whom she is starting a tentative relationship.

Following Il Profumo… Barilli shows great skill in exploiting location and the faded glamour of the lakeside hotel is exploited for maximum effect. The horror of the cumulative privations endured by even the comfortably-off during wartime are skillfully portrayed. The hotel is hit by power cuts which prompt a number of nighttime scenes shot by candlelight which give a great sense of the threat under which Rosa moves through its corridors.

The cast are uniformly excellent – Barilli extracts powerful performances from veterans Merenda and Rabal – but it is the central performance from Fani around which everything else turns. Concerns may be raised about the way in which Barilli (and Italian thrillers from the period in general) seem to delight in subjecting woman to an escalating series of trials and humiliations, but taken at face-value in this instance, the events befalling Rosa can be seen as just part of the dreadful collateral damage of war. Unfortunately, Fani did not seem to profit to any great extent from her excellent performance here and a few years later was – like many of the surviving actors of Italy’s last great period of film production – appearing low-rent gialli such as Giallo a Venezia (1979).

Though the plot does share many similarities with Il Profuma…, Rosa is spared the fate Mimsy Farmer endures in that film. Though her father does not return a proxy figure does make a late entrance to effect some vengeance for the indignities she has been subjected to, but in a pleasing coda she rejects the request to leave the hotel – opting to remain and await the never-returning father figure. It could be argued that she remains wedded to the patriarchal ideal, but it is made clear that she is beholden only to promise she made to her father – a promise that survives his death and is only more important to her, surrounded as she is by so many who are willing to immediately abandon all principle and humanity in the face of tyranny and war.

p9505920_p_v8_aaThis late-period de Palma film is something of an anomaly in that it is a remake of a successful foreign language film released only a couple of years earlier. This would place it within the small sub-genre of such efforts from the period, where a recurring crisis of lack of imagination seemed to result in a casting of the net to foreign shores in search of stories to recast in the Hollywood mould. From the slew of remakes of Japanese and European horror (Ju-on, Ringu, Martyrs, etc.) to curious efforts such as Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), the period from the turn of the century until the recent mini-renaissance of Hollywood was peppered with remakes of foreign films in a variety of genres.

De Palma, of course, is no stranger to the lure of commerce. Starting out as a quirky independent voice before graduating to the status of something of a Hollywood auteur – albeit one constantly under attack for a supposed slavish devotion to the cinematic tricks of major figures such as Hitchcock and Antonioni – the director suffered an eventual slide into sometimes bland, occasionally disastrous, major picture assignments. At the time of this film’s production he was stung by the negative reaction to his recent staging of the Black Dahlia murder and the rather more positive – albeit politically controversial – response to his digital war polemic, Redacted (2007).

It’s interesting to consider whether his decision to venture into the euro-remake was influenced in any way by David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – an effort by a  similarly auteur-ist filmmaker, which had received positive critical and audience response. Crime d’Amour (2010) may have seemed the perfect property to allow de Palma to ride the coattails of a recent trend while accommodating just enough of his trademark concerns for it to bear the stamp of his authorship.

I have to point out that I haven’t seen Crime d’Amour, so will have to take Passion on its own merits and as nothing other than a Brian de Palma film, which it certainly is. In fact, and this is something which I’m sure is familiar to many observers of his work, the indelible stamp of the de Palma hand is – as in so many of his minor works – its greatest virtue and its greatest fault.

First of all, some of the details of the production have an impact on the overall experience. This is a European co-production, shot in Germany, with a smattering of European actors supporting a (at the time) emerging Hollywood talent in Rachel McAdams. The production has a cold, clinical look which is familiar from the tropes of the then-emerging field of “skandi-noir”, reinforced by the presence of Noomi Rapace. A number of the minor European players appear to have been dubbed, or at least somewhat carelessly looped, given some of the dialogue an airless, unreal feel. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially anything associated with the office machinations of the advertising agency, seems divorced from anything any actual office workers may have experienced. The film strains against the mundanity inherent in daily concerns and strives instead for high-melodrama, something which is underscored by a typically melodious and mischievous score from de Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio.

These scenes and others constantly reminded me of the late-period, rather down-at-heel work of de Palma’s fellow-traveller in the world of the violent, misogynist-tinged, thriller genre, Dario Argento. De Palma’s discomfort and impatience with the details of office politics are similar to Argento’s handling of police procedural scenes in films such as The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009). The mangling of accepted norms and patterns of storytelling through the quirks and obsessions of these auteur figures are similarly mirrored in stark, medium-budget limitations of the kind of fluid, mobile and sometimes flat-out overwrought camera techniques which are signatures of both.

Peculiar to de Palma and here in spades is the director’s mischievousness (as opposed to Argento, a filmmaker who – when forced to watch his own films – admits to doing so through his fingers). At points where the film quotes his own work (which often quotes others’ work of course) or gleefully departs from reality, such as the extended dream sequence which ends the film, I could almost feel de Palma in the room with me – watching for a reaction, waiting for the moments of recognition that I was being pranked. Similarities to Dressed to Kill (1980) abound – psychiatry, showers, lifts, costumes, etc. – to the extent that the shell of the plot becomes more of a anecdote which allows de Palma to free-associate through his usual concerns, or at least those of previous high-points in his career.

As a fan of the early work, you would find it hard not to be amused. As a general viewer, you would probably just be frustrated, as would appear to have been the case, given the lacklustre box-office returns. It would have been interesting to hear the response from de Palma’s investors and producers. It would be another long wait for a new film – we wait to see what this year’s Lights Out brings – more of the same smart-alec self-referentiality, or a return to form?