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Roger Corman (#110 of 14)

SXSW 2014: Wild Canaries and That Guy Dick Miller

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SXSW 2014: <em>Wild Canaries</em> and <em>That Guy Dick Miller</em>
SXSW 2014: <em>Wild Canaries</em> and <em>That Guy Dick Miller</em>

Dashiell Hammett meets Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries, the story of a Brooklyn couple’s already troubled relationship thrown for a loop after they engage in some slapstick-y DIY detective work. Upon discovering the body of an elderly woman who lives in the apartment below her, disaffected homebody Barri (Sophia Takal) becomes obsessed with the idea that the woman was killed. Her fiancé, Noah (Levine), finds the idea preposterous yet is unable to placate her delusions, and soon Barri is donning a fisherman’s hat and aviator glasses in order to sniff out the criminal and the motivation for the murder, going so far to involve her roommate and friends in her sleuthing.

Summer of ‘88: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood

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Summer of ‘88: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood
Summer of ‘88: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood

For a franchise as relentlessly overextended as the Friday the 13th series, it was perhaps inevitable that the installment preceding this one, Tom McLoughlin’s Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), would, in the interest of freshness, fully embrace self-parody, McLoughlin peppering his film with all sorts of self-aware jokes (“I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly,” says one character) and generally achieving a comparably lighthearted tone that took the series as far as one could imagine from its origins as a creepy low-budget shocker in Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 original. Thankfully, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood reverts back, at least in part, to the graver stalk-and-slash atmosphere of earlier entries. Despite its title, though, there’s little “new blood” to be found in John Carl Buechler’s installment—unless, of course, you consider, say, moments like the one in which Jason Voorhees kills a woman in a sleeping bag by smashing it/her on a tree to be the ne plus ultra of creativity.

Let me backtrack a bit here, though, because, despite its generally low reputation, the Friday the 13th films aren’t entirely mindless affairs. Yes, they’re generally vacuums of humanity, mostly content to treat its characters as cannon fodder for a series of increasingly baroque punishments, often after the characters have had sex. But if we take the films on those terms, there are moments throughout the series that achieve the kind of thematic heft that serious critics regularly attribute to, say, John Carpenter’s Halloween. Think back, for instance, on that apocalyptic dream Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) recalls involving blood-red rain at one point in Friday the 13th (heavy rain falls immediately afterward), a bit of foreshadowing that suggests an attention to ominous detail that later entries would dispense with altogether. Or recall Ginny’s (Amy Steel) clever ruse in Friday the 13th Part 2 in which she pretends to be Jason’s mother in an attempt to try to outsmart Jason, in a moment that’s the closest the series has ever gotten to psychological drama. But the most interesting entry in that regard is Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (ha ha), in which Jason’s reign of bloody terror is subtly and slyly made a projection of Tommy Jarvis’s (Corey Feldman) adolescent curiosity about a world beyond his insular horror-movie obsessions.

Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein
Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein is one of the great filmmakers cinephiles discover after deciding there are no more worlds left to conquer—and the effect is blinding and humbling. Like many such revelations, his work throws the map of cinema into disarray, knocking over the mile markers and headstones set up long ago by the official canon: surrealists over here, expressionism over there, social realism way over there. He was a little bit of each—none exclusively—and more. He associated with the surrealists, but the oneiric qualities of The Fall of the House of Usher (adapted by Luis Buñuel, who also served as assistant director on the film), like much of his work, are found in some unquantifiable space between special effects and elementary moods. Work that seemed to foretell the neorealist, social-realist, or magical-realist subdivisions just as often turned into daydreams, or intricate music boxes that deflated the heaviness of their own narrative concerns. A common sight—or sensation—in an Epstein film is the vast, oscillating sea, indifferent, unimpressed, a law unto itself, governing the internal physics of a given work, as well as the hearts of men and women.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

A pair of TV-produced half-hour shorts from 1967, Pavoncello and The Song of the Triumphant Love, often shown in black and white but originally shot in color (and present in this form at the BAMcinématek), represent the first independent directing work of Andrzej Zulawski’s career after serving as Andrzej Wajda’s assistant on Samson, The Ashes, and the omnibus Love at Twenty’s segment. Eerie, unabashedly romantic, ripe with masterful camera movements that still make film students take notes to this day, these two miniatures remain surprisingly fresh. Both are adapted from great writers’ minor short stories (by Stefan Żeromski and Ivan Turgenev, respectively), and both focus on disruptive love, while prominently featuring trance-like states of being. Last but not least, each film seems obsessed with fragility of sexless marriages crumbling under siege from illicit passion. In that respect, The Song of Triumphant Love particularly plays like an uncannily precocious version of Zulawski’s Possession, even while sporting the added flavor of being something akin to a Roger Corman AIP Edgar Allen Poe quickie, only shot on the other side of the iron curtain.

New York Film Festival 2011: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>

For a film that reveres the down-and-dirty independent filmmaking ethos that legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman exemplified, it’s ironic that the talking-heads interviews in Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel feel so self-conscious. Where did Stapleton get his ideas about framing shots, The King’s Speech? Interview subjects—including Corman himself—are often pushed to the sides of cinematographer Patrick Simpson’s frames, with lots of negative space to look at; it’s as purposeless and distracting as all those stupidly arty shots cinematographer Danny Cohen pulled off in last year’s very un-Corman-like Oscar-winner (unless Simpson really, genuinely thought he was doing something original and, well, “rebellious”). And what’s up with Stapleton’s decision to go to the French electronic-pop duo Air, of all people, for the film’s odd score?

But I would imagine no one goes to a documentary like Corman’s World expecting cinematic interest. We go expecting, if not necessarily insights into the man himself or his work, at least a good overview of his life and legacy. For the most part, that’s basically what we get here. From his younger days starting out as a script reader at 20th Century Fox, to his frustration at getting no credit for his successful script revisions for 1950’s The Gunfighter, which him to leave Fox to produce and direct films for American International Pictures, to his eventual founding of New World Pictures and its eventual flameout as Jaws and Star Wars changed Hollywood forever, Corman’s World briskly—as briskly as Corman made movies—hits the highlights of his career.

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Twixt, The Cat Vanishes, & Love and Bruises

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Twixt</em>, <em>The Cat Vanishes</em>, & <em>Love and Bruises</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Twixt</em>, <em>The Cat Vanishes</em>, & <em>Love and Bruises</em>

With the quasi-comic horror trifle Twixt, Francis Ford Coppola joins the long list of narrative-conjurers to (mis)appropriate Edgar Allan Poe as a sober maestro of spook. A pallid, somber fictionalization of the author, played by Ben Chaplin, becomes Virgil to the Dante of Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer, looking likeably portly), a bargain-basement witch novelist who gets fittingly embroiled in a small-town murder mystery. Poe counsels Baltimore in the crisp, ghostly digital dream world he plummets into whenever slumbering or getting knocked out, reciting passages from “The Philosophy of Composition” with a syrupy colonial accent, and seeming perpetually ready to stare down an owl. We read this off-kilter avuncular-ness, which is so at odds with Poe’s legacy (would the man who wrote “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” be so devoid of humor?) as a nod to Coppola’s own mentor, Roger Corman. And extrapolating on Corman’s own fondness for Poe’s thin macabre, we might understand Twixt as an awkward paean to hackwork, from “The Raven” to Spy Kids 3-D Game Over. (The film’s own 3D segment, to which we’re alerted by a monstrous pair of CGI glasses that non-diagetically enter the frame, is an easily collapsible parody).