Up in Smoke (1978)

Directors: Lou Adler & Tommy Chong

Now, it’s in the nature of lists like the ones I’m working my way through to be contentious. Even with something the size of the 1001 Movies list, there’s going to be room for argument, and I know I’ve questioned why more than a few titles to appear on that list over the years have done so. And that’s fine; that sort of thing is unavoidable, and no one’s going to agree on everything on a list like that. I may not care for Fellini overmuch, for example, but I understand I’m kind of in a critical minority there (hence why so many of his films are on the list). But there’s always been one film on the list, right from the very first edition, that, even without having seen it, made me ask “what the fuck is that doing there?”, and I suspect I was in the majority rather than the minority with it. I’d almost say its inclusion was basically an act of trolling, but it’s still on the list all these years later, so someone must want it there… Well, having seen Up in Smoke at last, it still just feels like I’ve been trolled by the book. Mr Honeywell concisely describes it as “specifically made for an audience so baked that it can barely remember its own name”, which I think neatly captures the almost unutterable stupidity at work. I mean, I know Cheech & Chong were a popular comedy act so a C&C film would’ve made financial sense (as it did; 15th highest US box office drawer of 1978 raking in over $40m). I’m just goddamned if I can understand why. Were people really that drug-fucked in 1978? Would I have liked this if I could have been in that state myself? I will confess that I did think the van made out of marijuana has some conceptual genius behind it, but I can’t believe they settled for calling it “fibreweed” rather than “fibregrass”. Honestly, FUCKING STONERS can’t even get a simple pot joke right, apparently…

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Well, here’s a change of pace, courtesy of SBS (whose October horror films have spilled over into a season of vampire films this month)… given they showed the TV series recently, I suppose it makes sense for them to go back to the source. This really is a particular kind of “none more mid-90s” film, isn’t it? Robert Rodriguez directing, Quentin Tarantino writing, George Clooney starring (ooooh he was young then), plus Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis in supporting roles and a shitload of violence and movie references… and, well, Tarantino trying to act. He’s probably not actually that bad—the character of Richie doesn’t exactly call for subtlety or nuance—but the people at the Razzies and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards begged to differ, both nominating him for worst supporting actor that year. But he is, obviously, outshone by Clooney (whose magnetism is much more immediately striking) and Keitel (who’s really good as the preacher who’s lost his faith), not to mention Tom Savini’s jaw-dropping crotch piece. I’m presuming this was one of the first films of this kind to be kind of reliant on CGI for certain things, and to be honest I was a bit surprised by the amount of it (I keep forgetting CGI had already been around for quite a while since then; ILM had been doing it since the 80s), though I’m guessing there was still a fair bit of traditional animatronics and so forth… One thing is hard to deny, though: FDTD is a massive cheesefest of a particularly unabashed kind. Shit exploding, vampires on fire, miscellaneous severed body parts, all round carnage, no finer feelings or higher thoughts or greater ambition to be anything other than what it is in evidence, it’s kind of what I was hoping for. If it does anything wrong, it’s probably that it lets the setup—i.e.  the Gecko brothers’ adventures before arriving at the Titty Twister—go on for too long before its gloriously abrupt transition from a hostage thriller into balls-out vampire action, and could’ve done with being trimmed accordingly. On the whole, though, it basically delivers on its ludicrous B-grade promise; no high art, but that’s not always a bad thing…

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Yeah, I kind of get what Ebert meant when he described this as an “anti-romance”. Red is about as heavy-handed as Blue and White, possibly even more so when it comes to the colour work; each film is full of things that are the colour in each title—blue pool lighting, big fields of snow, etc—and Red seems to be even more overtly full of “red business” than the other two films are of their respective colours. That said, I also felt Red possesses a degree of emotional warmth and resonance neither of the other two films particularly radiated, so that, whatever its issues, this is the one film in the trilogy I actually probably could watch again one day without undue distress. If Blue was about a woman on her own and White about a man on his own, both forcibly separated from their other halves, Red is about a man and a woman on their own but coming together. She’s a student and model who discovers him after she accidentally runs down his runaway dog; he’s a retired judge who spends his time spying on the telephone calls of the people who live near him (including hers). Not the most promising ground from which to grow a friendship, but that’s what happens, sure enough, as the two of them come to more of an understanding about each other; she brings him out of his shell of loneliness and bitterness and gradually comes to learn why he retreated into it in the first place. All played in lovely fashion by Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I wish the other two films could’ve been more like this. The storm ending is a bit more melodramatic than anything in the trilogy and kind of out of place, and Red still suffers the problem the other two films do of having stories that could each have been told in about an hour without losing much, but I still got more from this than I did either of the other two films, and given my experiences of those I frankly wasn’t expecting that.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Never did work out why this was never in the 1001 Movies book with the other two. Ebert characterised Blue, White and Red as anti-tragedy, anti-comedy and anti-romance. I can kind of see what he meant about the anti-tragedy and I’ll be able to judge the anti-romance when I see that one, but what about the anti-comedy? What is an anti-comedy? A comedy that’s not funny? That sort of thing doesn’t take an arthouse master… Anyway, our “hero”, Karol, is a somewhat more immediately appealing figure than Julie in Blue; his wife, Dominique, has dumped his sorry Polish arse in a fairly bitter divorce, and, left homeless, he encounters another Polish man who contrives to get him back to Poland, where, over time, he re-establishes himself and, having done so, sets about taking his revenge on Julie by faking his death and framing her for his murder. OH MY ACHING SIDES! Yes, this is comedy in only a fairly nominal sense as most people would probably understand it; I think the only actual laugh-out-loud moment I had with it was the scene where the airport baggage handlers nick the suitcase he’s been concealed in and find him inside. And even that was more of a mild chuckle than a proper LOL. (Do you have any idea how much I hate myself for typing those three letters in a non-ironic manner like I just did?) I’ve seen the word “droll” used to describe White, and it’s probably the best descriptor of its rather particular humour, more funny peculiar (as the scene just described may indicate) than funny ha-ha, and possessing a distinct undercurrent of unpleasant sourness. I liked it better than Blue, which is not to say that I actually particularly liked it per se; it’s not as dull as Blue, but I did still find it about as cold and not much more engaging.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

I’ve always been a bit of a “Three Colours” sceptic, despite only having seen this, the first part of it. Just something about the idea of it, I don’t know… cos Kieslowski evidently knew he would retire after making it (as he did, though I don’t think his death just a couple of years later was expected in quite the same way), and so it was obviously designed as a summation and Defining Artistic Statement (capitals used advisedly). Therefore it had to be Big, and Serious, and stuff like that. A rather deliberate and self-conscious monument. And, frankly, I wasn’t convinced, especially after I actually saw Blue; I missed it at the cinema and saw it later on video, but I obviously knew at the time, even when it was brand new, that it came bearing a vast reputation as this sort of epic pinnacle of early-to-mid-90s European Art Cinema. It was French and it was a Trilogy and you had to love it if you were a Serious Film Lover. And I didn’t. It actually rather bored me, and I never did bother with the other two films, although I’m remedying that now. In between times, I did also see L’enfer, directed by Danis Tanovic but written by Kieslowski (who seems to have left behind a number of scripts for other people to film once he’d retired), and I kind of hated that; it gave me the impression of Kieslowski having decided there was a certain formula to European Art Cinema, that there were certain things it should be about and do. This formula evidently included a certain quantity of ponderous self-serious wank, a good deal of which found its way into L’enfer and made me reluctant to explore Kieslowski further.

Still, you know me and my unfortunate tendency to think “I really need to give so-and-so a second chance in case I misjudged them when I was younger”, which is partly what’s driving me now to give the rest of the Three Colours trilogy a chance at last. Which, obviously, meant revisiting Blue first. And, well, it still bored me to tears all these years later. There’s one IMDB review that acknowledges the lead character, Julie, is pretty impenetrable, trying to cut herself off from everything in her grief, and so comes across as hard to like or connect with, but the film’s rather remote approach is actually more respectful of the audience because it’s not trying to manipulate us. I can kind of see what they mean but I don’t buy it; I think that in trying to depict what that IMDB reviewer calls “emotional frigidity”, the film itself just becomes emotionally frigid, and I don’t think there was ever a point at which I actually did give a damn about Julie’s grief. I don’t know, to be honest, if I was even supposed to; I don’t think I ever felt Kieslowski giving me much to work with. And I found the music hideously overbearing, which is a fairly major problem in a film that is, in some part, about that very music. Not an auspicious start to the trilogy for me at least; I’m sure I’ve seen it said somewhere that Blue is actually the comparatively weak link and the other two are better, and, well, I dearly hope that’s the case…

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Director: Werner Herzog

In which Herzog slings his hook with the Hitler Channel… sorry, the History Channel for a unique trip into the past. I use the word “unique” advisedly, of course; Herzog’s film will quite likely be the only one ever made about the Chauvet Cave. Normally Herzog’s cinema revolves around “extreme” people and situations, and this is true of both his fiction and documentary films (although obviously it’s a bit foolhardy to speak of these as entirely separate things); in this case, though, he’s putting himself into a bit of an extreme situation, at least in terms of the restrictions placed on him as he goes through the cave… access to the cave is limited to shooting from a narrow walkway with a crew of no more than four people including himself, filming with very small non-professional gear, using only certain lights that don’t radiate heat, and all the while dressed in very particular clothing. And shooting in 3D, which posed challenges of its own (alas, that effect was entirely lost on TV, but at least SBS showed it in high-def tonight). And there’s less than a week to shoot the film and only a few hours each day in which to do so. Because not only is the environment extremely fragile, it’s also kind of toxic thanks to the carbon dioxide levels down there. Chauvet, of course, is home to the oldest rock art in Europe, if not the world, and this stuff really is quite amazing; as Herzog notes, this isn’t “primitive”, it’s quite refined and impressive. The film behaves somewhat like a conventional doco on this sort of subject, trying to locate the cave within the context of other Stone Age cultures in Europe and that sort of thing, but it still has its recognisably “Herzog” moments: the archaeologist playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a tens-of-thousands years-old ivory flute, the perfume-maker trying to literally sniff out hidden caverns, and the “postscript” with the nuclear power plant and the crocodiles. This is great stuff that feeds into my own particular fascination with what our descendants (if we manage to leave any) centuries or millennia from now will make of whatever artifacts we leave behind us now; looking at this film and how we try to understand the people of Chauvet Cave and what they were doing in there back in 30,000 BCE makes me wonder how future humans will understand us. Though, obviously, our digital technology means they’ll probably have even less to work with…

Army of Darkness (1992)

Director: Sam Raimi

Well, I said I’d need to see this after Evil Dead II, and, thanks to SBS (who aired the film last night; I recorded it for later viewing) I now have done so… more precisely, I appear to have seen the director’s cut. The film’s IMDB entry lists a bewildering array of alternate versions and one day I dare say I’ll be able to read it without getting a headache from trying, but I’m gathering what I just saw was Raimi’s preferred edit. ANYWAY, Ash is more sorely beset in this film than ever before, facing various threats posed by disgruntled medieval warriors, his own demonic double, the titular army, slightly ropey process photography and post-production tampering by Universal (who’d stumped up half the budget). At least this time the film looks like it’s had some money thrown at it, even if in the end it still wasn’t enough for all Raimi’s ambitions, the eventual appearance of the army of deadites makes for a remarkable spectacle… Again, he gets great mileage out of Bruce Campbell (whose Ash has a distinct tinge of madness to him in this film; I imagine that if I’d been through the shit he has by this time I’d be a little crazed too), what a terrific, game performer he is and what gurning he can do. And if I still doubt the precise tone of The Evil Dead, this one is pretty unambiguously skewed towards humour; there’s something… I don’t know, kind of juvenile (for want of a better word) about the forces of evil in the series, and Raimi really ramps that aspect up to the level of cartoon here. It’s all quite fun, obviously never takes itself remotely seriously, and yet something about it seemed slightly lacking and I can’t work out what or why. Maybe that “visceral” element the first film has. Maybe the compactness the first two films have. This one does seem to flop about a bit more at times. It’s good, but I’m not hugely blown away by it.

Piranha (1978)

Director: Joe Dante

Ah, now this is how you do a B movie: rubber puppets on sticks. And it comes complete with an endorsement from none other than Steven Spielberg, who called it the best of the films that knocked off his own megahit Jaws, which endorsement convinced Universal to call off their planned lawsuit against producer Roger Corman for releasing his film uncomfortably close to their own sequel. There were, of course, a number of Jaws knockoffs in the late 70s, indeed nature running amok seems to have been a popular trend generally in that decade, a goodly number of which crop up on the Drive-In Delirium list… in this case, though, nature’s been given a helping hand from US military science. These particular piranhas have been genetically altered to survive in cold salt water as well as their usual tropical fresh stuff, for the purposes of introducing them into North Vietnam’s water supply and fucking them up; unfortunately the war ended but one scientist saw no reason why that should stop him continuing the research… and even more unfortunately the fish are inadvertently released into the wild, so hilarity ensues… Piranha‘s critique of the Vietnam War and the US military is, obviously, not the most subtle offered by a 70s horror film, but I don’t suppose anyone was watching it for that back in 1978, they would’ve been there to see carnivorous fish chomping down on people, and Joe Dante gives us reasonably plentiful amounts of that. But he also laces the thrills with a certain degree of sometimes wicked humour; cf. the scene where our heroes (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies, both of whom are terrific) are trying to get past an army guard, he tells her to try and distract him with her feminine charms and she responds “but what if he’s gay?”… and Dante also has the good sense to let his amazing locations do most of the work for him; the pursuit down the river to the summer camp and ultimately the lake is as impressive as hell to look at. I will confess to not having seen most of the other Jaws knockoffs Spielberg referenced, but I’m willing to accept his judgement that this was the best of them…

Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker

This was probably one of the last films (if not the very last) that I saw for the first time on VHS. By that time I’d actually entered the digital age (so we’re probably talking mid-late 2003), and at that time a number of the old Anchor Bay horror DVDs were showing up in Sydney shops, including my local suburban HMV, as region-free imports, including this one. Which I was interested in but didn’t really want to buy without knowing what I was in for—at this very early stage in my DVD buying I was still a bit loath to buy things sight unseen—and so ventured to the local video shop to rent their somewhat elderly tape of it. I was sufficiently impressed to then buy the DVD, and I will say the Cenobites are still a pretty striking concept; as monsters go, they must’ve seemed something, if not entirely new, certainly markedly different from the raft of slashers the decade had been overflowing with. And it gave the world a new horror icon in Pinhead, of course, even though he’s not called that here (and apparently even while making the second film they thought Julia would actually be the recurring character through the series until they realised how popular Pinhead was). But rewatching tonight reminded me of something notable, i.e. the Cenobites don’t actually do much until reasonably late in the game… they obviously don’t even realise Frank’s escaped them until Kirsty inadvertently summons them, and they do kind of bugger all to help her for the most part when he’s trying to kill her; otherwise they’re really just a very background presence. Talking of presence, is it just me or is Andrew Robinson’s presence an odd one? You know, Scorpio from Dirty Harry as this nice suburban husband and father? Watching the film tonight, I felt there was something… off about him even before the last act when we realise he’s not exactly Larry any more… I don’t know what I make of the film now, but it seemed less satisfying tonight for some reason. The geographical vagueness of it—where exactly is it set?—irritated me more than ever before, and the rat killing business just seemed hugely unnecessary (like the people killings didn’t?). Still, I’ll give it points for bravery in trying to present a somewhat singular vision even if it did exceed the available resources at times; shame that vision didn’t survive much further into the series…

Frankenstein—1970 (1958)

Director: Howard W. Koch

So the other day I watched Hammer’s last Frankenstein film. As such, by way of contrast, here’s Boris Karloff’s last Frankenstein film… Hilariously, the producer of the film changed the title from Frankenstein 1960 because they thought audiences would find the idea that an independent scientist could access an atomic power source for his own use by 1960 risible and that 1970 would seem much more feasible for that sort of thing; one can only assume the audience was meant to find the idea of Frankenstein using that power source to create a monster the very stuff of gritty, realistic drama. Anyway, for the first time here we have Karloff as Frankenstein rather than (or, technically, as well as) the monster; he’s the last of his line, and he needs the aforementioned atomic thing to continue his work, and to get it he’s rather reluctantly allowing a TV crew to make a film about his ancestor Richard (?) von Frankenstein, the original creator of the monster. It’s vexing, but the money is useful, and the crew might be good for spare parts too… Wm. Everson reckons there were basically three kinds of Karloff film, ones he took seriously, ones he didn’t take seriously but put in an effort anyway, and ones he essentially just turned up to collect a pay cheque; he specifically cites this film as an example of the last case, but I think that’s a bit unfair… I presume he was about as unhappy at having to make this film as his character was, but I think he does at least make an effort (what a great voice he had, and how well he uses it here), which is far more than can be said for any of the other performers. What it does have apart from Karloff (and a small change mandated by the Production Code people, who objected to the sound of Frankenstein’s body-disposal machine and ordered the effect to be replaced with the sound of a flushing toilet) is pretty good Cinemascope visuals and sets, some of which were borrowed from another film, with the producer also borrowing the cameraman from that film on the grounds that he’d know how to shoot it properly. Ploddingly ponderous and ho-hum otherwise; amazing to think that director Koch—who also made the last Andy Hardy film the same year as this—would go on in the next few decades to be a producer on things like The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple, not to mention several Academy Awards nights…

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