There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.
I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.
I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.
Hi everybody! This isn’t my usual spot, but Mr. Sweeney’s out this week for very forgivable reasons. It’s not my story to tell, but let’s just say there’s about to be a slight uptick in the world’s population, and leave it at that. Since he didn’t want all y’all Morlockians to have to endure the indignities of a missing post, or a rerun, I’m filling in for the day.
And with the recent release of The Nice Guys, I’m in a bit of a Shane Black reverie. It cast my mind back to the 1997 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight and a certain scene that, to my mind, encapsulates everything you need to know about contemporary commercial Hollywood cinema. If you had a space alien, or some Rip Van Winkle type, who wondered “what’s the deal with movies these days?,” you could just fire up the DVD player, scan forward to this scene, and let ‘er rip:
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 26, 2016
Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 5, 2016
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 1, 2015
As with their blockbuster brethren, direct-to-video action movies thrive on previously existing brands. These cheaply made concoctions can’t afford to license comic books, so they market personas instead, whether it’s Van Damme, Lundgren, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. While their careers as major stars were brief, fight fans flock to the familiar, so these nostalgia acts are essential to secure production funds, even if they only appear in a scene or two. This doesn’t account for the burgeoning cult surrounding actor-director duo Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Adkins is the rare performer who has made himself a bankable star inside of the DTV universe, despite having only landed bit parts in major films outside of it (The Expendables 2, the upcoming Doctor Strange). He is unknown among the general public, but Adkins and Florentine’s defiantly old-fashioned attitude regarding the shooting and blocking of fight scenes have made them cult heroes among the small but vocal DTV action film fanbase. Close Range is their eighth film together, and it is distilled down to the basics. A revenge drama set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it pits Adkins against a drug cartel, whom he dispatches in a series of increasingly bloody showdowns. The action takes place mainly along one rural dusty road where Adkins goes one-on-one with an SUV and one-on-dozens during an extended siege. Available on VOD and iTunes December 4th, with a limited theatrical run December 11th, Close Range is a satisfying back-to-basics brawler.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.
The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent. Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.
Of course, the bias is absurd. Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely. If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking. So why the fear of silents? Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein. Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.
A couple of weeks ago I posted an article looking back at the 1980s apocalyptic-screwball singularity that was Miracle Mile. One of the comments posted to that thread exhorted TCM to stop showing imports—as non sequitur a remark as you could hope for. I wanted to respond with a list of the kinds of imported films I refuse to live without (Godzilla, Jackie Chan, Hammer Horror, Claude Chabrol, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang’s silent films, Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films, Alfred Hitchcock’s English films, Powell & Pressburger, J-Horror, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone…) or to try to argue what Hollywood would have lost—or never had in the first place—without the influx of foreign-born talent and the need to compete against foreign-made films.
But then I decided it would be more fun to be obstinate. Why not single out an import that hasn’t had the time to become recognized as a classic, and will have few—if any—defenders? An import that has barely been released in the US at all, and which sets itself conspicuously to be compared to a beloved classic?
So, this week, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 5, 2015
The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars. Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA (click for showtimes near you), it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 24, 2015
William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.
Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 17, 2015
Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.
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