Cinematic Oddity of the Week: The Story of Mankind (1957)

Directed By: Irwin Allen
Starring: Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, Vincent Price

 

Tag line: “The Story of Men and Their Women From the Beginning of Creation!”
Trivia: The Marx Brothers never appear together in this film

 

 
 
 

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Vincent Price as The Devil. Peter Lorre as Roman Emperor, Nero. Dennis Hopper as Napoleon Bonaparte. And, if that’s not enough to spark your interest, how about an appearance by all three Marx Brothers? With so many stars taking part in The Story of Mankind, I couldn’t possibly pass this movie by!

After receiving word that an earthling has developed the “Super H-Bomb”, a heavenly tribunal is convened to determine the fate of all mankind. Should humans be permitted to destroy themselves with such advanced weaponry, or should the heavens intercede, saving earth from total destruction? Speaking on behalf of us all is The Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Colman), who believes strongly in the virtues of humanity, while The Devil himself (Vincent Price), aka “Mr. Scratch”, argues man is a violent being, and has therefore earned its own extinction. Together, the two take a trip through earth’s long history, using examples ranging from Ancient Egypt to World War II to make their respective cases.

Any hopes that The Story of Mankind might reveal something substantial about the human condition are all but shattered in the film’s opening scene, where two stars, affixed in the heavens, are talking to one another. One star tells the other he’s heard mankind has developed the Super H-Bomb. “Impossible”, the second star replies, “You must be mistaken. Why, they’re not ready, or wise enough to handle it yet”. Yeah, I know…as subtle as an ax to the forehead, right? The film isn’t even historically accurate (Cleopatra didn’t poison her “innocent little brother” to gain the throne. The truth was much more complex, and her “little brother” was far from innocent). So, realizing early on The Story of Mankind fails as both a morality tale and a history lesson, I decided to instead focus on the performances delivered by its gargantuan cast. This is, after all, why I wanted to see it in the first place.

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Cinematic Oddity of the Week: The Baby (1973)

Directed By: Ted Post
Starring: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill

 

Tag line: “Horror is his formula!”
Trivia:The producer’s son played the part of the baby

 

 
 
 

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A word of warning: The Baby is one weird ass motion picture!

Released in 1973, The Baby tells the story of the Wadsworth family. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), whose husband walked out on her years earlier, has been raising her three children, two adult daughters named Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor), and one baby (David Mooney), all by herself. What makes this particular household so unusual is that “Baby” is 21 years old! Mrs. Wadsworth claims Baby, who still wears diapers and sleeps in a crib, is mentally backwards, but the family’s new social worker, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), is convinced he could lead a perfectly normal life if his mother and sisters would allow him to do so. Hoping to prove criminal negligence, Ann becomes a regular fixture at the Wadsworth home, and spends a great deal of time trying to teach Baby to walk and talk. But as Ann will learn, Mrs. Wadsworth is a very protective mother, and will go to extreme lengths to defend her family, and its secrets.

Now, I did read up on The Baby before sitting down to watch it, and frankly, it all seemed very bizarre. So, if just reading about the movie left me scratching my head, imagine my shock the moment I saw Baby for the first time. No amount of description could have prepared me for the sight of a grown man in a diaper, who spends most of his day in an over-sized playpen. Baby, played as well as can be expected by David Mooney, was a sight to behold, but like Ann, I got the sense there was more to this story than the family was letting on. Sure enough, when Ann experiences a breakthrough of sorts with Baby, getting him to stand for a short time on his own, Mrs. Wadsworth is none too pleased, staring at a terrified Baby and quietly damning him for showing signs of progress. We then cut immediately to Baby’s room, where Alba is shocking him with a cattle prod, repeating over and over “Baby doesn’t walk, Baby doesn’t talk”. Mrs. Wadsworth does eventually put a stop to the torture…then turns to Germaine and tells her to lock Baby in the closet!

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Cinematic Oddity of the Week: Sexy Battle Girls (1986)

Directed By: Mototsugu Watanabe
Starring: Saeko Fuji, Kyôko Hashimoto, Yukijirô Hotaru

 

Trivia: This film was banned in Germany

 

 
 
 

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Produced primarily over a 20-year period, from the mid 1960’s to the 80’s, Japanese Pink films were a genre unto themselves. Soft-core, yet undoubtedly erotic, these movies placed nudity and sex center-stage, often shrouded within bizarre, violent stories. I myself have very little experience with Pink films, but after watching 1986’s Sexy Battle Girls, I plan to change all that.

Young Mirai (Kyoko Hashimoto) has just transferred to a private all-girl’s school, one that instructs its students in much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.  Under the watchful eye of the headmaster (Yukijiro Hutaru), the girls in this school are being “sold” to local politicians, who use them to act out their most depraved sexual fantasies. More than a perverted criminal, the Headmaster is also the very man who tore Mirai’s family apart.  To gain her revenge, Mirai will unleash her “special power” and teach the headmaster a lesson he won’t soon forget.

There’s action aplenty jammed into Sexy Battle Girls‘ one-hour running time, but more to the point, there are no less than seven sex scenes, some of which evolve beyond simple soft core into more graphic, not to mention violent, displays of affection.

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Cinematic Oddity of the Week: Street Trash (1987)


Directed By: J. Michael Muro
Starring: Mike Lackey, Bill Chepil, Vic Noto

 

Tag line: “Things in New York are about to go down the toilet…”
Trivia:  Bryan Singer worked as a production assistant on this film

 

 
 
 

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The opening sequence of Street Trash is really quite impressive. In it, we follow a hobo named Freddy (Mike Lackey), who’s on the run from a number of people out to hurt him (including a guy from whom he just stole a bottle of booze). The camera tracks along as Freddy runs through the streets of New York, dodging danger at every turn until finally eluding capture by jumping into the back of a garbage truck. The director employs a number of exciting shots to keep up with Freddy on his survival run, and it’s a wonderful introduction to the world of this film. But be warned: Street Trash is not a movie you’ll remember for it’s innovative camera tricks or snappy direction. Simply put, no amount of creativity will be able to draw your attention away from a street person melting into a pile of bubbling goo.

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42nd Street Forever: Volume 1

42nd Street Forever 1 DVD CaseHello everyone. It’s been a while.

Since I last posted on Row Three, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the wild, crazy world of what’s commonly known as “Grindhouse”, or exploitation, cinema (both terms seem a bit overused nowadays, don’t they?). To this end, I purchased a series of DVDs, released by Synapse Films, titled 42nd Street Forever, which are essentially a collection of trailers from the Grindhouse era (starting in the late 60’s on through to the mid 80’s). It’s a terrific series of DVDs, and I really have a lot of fun watching them. So, as a way of kinda slipping back into things here on Row Three, I thought I’d devote some time to covering each volume of the 42nd Street Forever collection.

Volume 1 contains over 2 hours of trailers, covering a wide range of genres and sub-genres. Needless to say, many of these trailers stretch the boundaries of good taste to their absolute limit (there’s plenty of nudity, graphic violence, and a whole lot of what we’d today term “political incorrectness” packed into these trailers). But let’s be honest: that’s what makes them so much fun!

Now, instead of me just droning on about the various trailers in each series, I thought I’d take full advantage of all the internet has to offer by presenting a few of them, just to give you an idea of what you’d be in for if you chose to check Volume 1 out.

That said, I guess I better start off with the following:

Warning: the trailers presented in this post are of an adult nature, and contain violence, nudity, and sexual situations. By clicking READ MORE below, you are confirming that you are of a proper age to view this material, and are not easily offended by blah blah blah blah blah).

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started:

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Home Video Spotlight: Chungking Express (1994) – Blu-Ray

Like many people who count themselves a fan of movies, I have an extensive DVD collection, one that has been building for damn near eight years now. However, until recently, I admit that I’ve spent very little time exploring everything my collection had to offer me. Sure, I would watch the films; fact is, I’ve seen some of them as many as 15-20 times. But with the majority of my collection, this was as far as my curiosity would take me, leaving countless hours of commentary tracks and special features out in the cold. Over the past few months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to change this trend, taking the time to investigate everything that my various home video releases had to offer me. It has been, to say the least, an interesting experiment, and one that I am anxious to share with you over the coming months. To start this series off, I chose to sit down with a true classic, not to mention a release that itself has completely justified my decision to invest in a Blu-Ray player.

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is a movie I fell in love with on the very first viewing, a film with a pulsating cinematic style that boasts, at its heart, four very vibrant characters. The truth is there’s a lot to admire about Chungking Express, yet what I personally found most fascinating was how the film took two similar stories (the love lives, or lack thereof, of two Hong Kong policemen) and told each in a completely unique manner, going so far as to delve into different genres from one story to the next. The first part of the film, which stars Brigitte Lin and Takashi Kaneshiro, boasts some exciting action sequences, and is very fast-paced. The second (longer) segment stars Tony Leung and Faye Wong, and is much more light-hearted, more comedic in tone. Yet what’s truly incredible is how both parts of Chungking Express make for such an entertaining whole, each styled in a way that there’s no mistaking these two distinctive segments belong to the same film. It is a wonderful marriage of genres, creating a work that is among the most unique I’ve ever seen.

I was thrilled when I learned that Criterion was going to release a version of this film, and even more so when the Blu-Ray was announced. If ever a movie deserved that “Criterion Treatment”, it’s this one, and while there aren’t nearly as many supplemental features included with Chungking Express as there have been with past Criterion releases, I can state without hesitation that what this version lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

To start with, the High-Definition transfer, which was supervised by Wong Kar-Wai himself, looks tremendous. There were times when I was taken aback at how crisp the film looked. Next, there’s an audio commentary recorded by Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns. Admittedly, there have been times when the audio commentaries on past Criterion releases left me a bit cold, mostly because I felt the commentaries themselves were a bit cold, perhaps a bit too scholarly for their own good, and, though informative, seemed more like film class lectures than true analyses. Fortunately, Mr. Rayns avoids such pitfalls and comes across very naturally, relying both on his knowledge of Asian cinema and his familiarity with Wong Kar-Wai’s career to create a very informative, not to mention revealing, commentary track. Also included on this release is an episode from the BBC series Moving Pictures, which contains interviews with both Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (a doc that also features the director taking us on a tour of the film’s various locations). Finally, there’s the U.S. theatrical trailer, thrown in for good measure.

Another feature of Criterions past has been the inclusion of an essay booklet, and Chungking Express is no exception. Here, we’re treated to an essay by critic Amy Taubin, who (like others before her) believes Wong Kar-Wai owes a lot to the works of Jean-Luc Godard, drawing comparisons between Chungking Express and Godard’s 1966 film, Masculin Feminin. Again, this assertion is nothing new, yet Taubin still succeeds in composing a very interesting essay.

I’m of the opinion that Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is one of the finest films ever created, and kudos to the folks at Criterion for giving us fans that version of the film we’ve been waiting a long time to see.

Timecrimes and Special now available on DVD

While the spotlight may have been stolen by Tuesday’s DVD premiere of Oscar darling Slumdog Millionaire, two other films also debuted on home video that day, both of which are worth noting, and certainly worth checking out.

Timecrimes is an intense, fascinating thriller from director Nacho Vigalando that tells the story of a man named Hector who takes an unexpected leap backwards in time. Karra Elejalde is effective as Hector, gathering up our sympathies for his plight even when his character has crossed the line of acceptable behavior, but what I found most appealing about Timecrimes was its pacing. The film is in no hurry to get from point A to point B; it reveals itself slowly, layer by layer, taking the viewer down one path, then another, then another, and each more intriguing than the last. Aside from effectively building tension, this pacing also helps us to keep up with what’s going on, which in turn magnifies the numerous surprises lurking around each and every corner. Timecrimes is shocking, exciting, and entirely satisfying.

In Special (a film both Andrew and Kurt have also offered their opinions on), Michael Rapaport stars as Les, a man who signs on as a test subject for a new medication and, as a result, starts to believe he’s developed super powers. At times, Special is a very funny film, especially early on when Les is demonstrating his ‘powers’ to those around him. But Special is more than just a comedy; it’s the portrait of a man whose lifetime of disappointment has suddenly been filled with hope and purpose, a storyline that supplies the film with a very real dramatic layer. Rapaport, whom I had only seen in supporting roles prior to Special, is superb, and the combined direction of Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore is near flawless. Made on a budget of just around a million dollars, Special may have the look and feel of a small film, but it delivers in a big, big way.

Both Timecrimes and Special are available for purchase at Amazon, and were released by Magnolia Home Entertainment.

A Martin Scorsese Marathon

Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese

For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.

And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.

Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.

As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.

For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
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Classic Movie Quiz III

Presenting round three of the classic movie quiz. See how many of these ten you can get. As with the previous quizzes, I’ve tried to make a few of them tough to figure out.

Best of luck.

1). “We have now what we have always needed, real partnership with the government.”

2). “I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

3). “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for’ I agree with the second part.”

4). “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

5). “There was a demon that lived in the air.”

6). “Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee of Thy great goodness to restrain this immoderate weather with which we have had to contend.”

7). “Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is?”

8). “Twelve days of Christmas! One day of Christmas is loathsome enough!”

9). “Everything’s getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse wars… and worse weather. I’m glad I will soon be dead.”

10). “We want to hurt no-one. We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money.”

Classic Movie Quote Quiz, Round 2

It’s time for round two of the classic movie quote quiz. How many of these ten you can get? As with last time, I have a few in here that I think are pretty difficult. Let’s see if you can prove me wrong.

Good luck.

1). “You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.”

2). “I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help believing.”

3). “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

4). “We’ve met before, but something tells me you’re going to remember me this time.”

5). “Our source was the New York Times.”

6). “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

7). “He was my idol. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know his name.”

8). “You boys ain’t a mild case of the measles – you’re the plague.”

9). “Hey, I don’t need this… I don’t need this working-class-hero crap.”

10). “All the confusion of my life… has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I’d like to be.”

Spotlight on: Ray Winstone

Having recently seen The Proposition for the first time, I was impressed enough with Ray Winstone’s performance to delve a little deeper into his work. As it turns out, he’s had a very interesting, not to mention impressive, career thus far. I’m not sure exactly how regular a posting this Spotlight On series will become, but I can say that, if it does blossom into a regular offering, it will owe its inspiration to Ray Winstone.

Having achieved a respectable level of fame in the new millennium, the truth of the matter is that Ray Winstone has been around for a while. His breakthrough performance came in Alan Clarke’s Scum, an overlooked gem that started life as a 1977 BBC television drama before being given a theatrical release in 1979. Winstone played Carlin, a young hoodlum locked away in a juvenile detention center, and was excellent in what would prove to be a very demanding role. He was also one of the best things about 1981’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, playing the lead singer of a British punk rock group touring America.

Having done mostly television throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, Winstone returned to feature films in 1997 with Nil by Mouth, the directorial debut of friend and fellow actor, Gary Oldman. Two years later, he was again cast in a film by an actor-turned-director, this time Tim Roth. The title of that movie was The War Zone, and Winstone turned in a stellar performance as a father who’s sexually abusing his teenage daughter.

Ray Winstone has kept himself busy over the last 11 years, appearing in 29 feature films (while also managing to mix in a few television stints along the way). He’s appeared in everything from Big-budget Hollywood productions (he was solid as Jack Nicholson’s second-in-command in Scorsese’s The Departed) to lesser-known independent features (Face was a sturdy, if somewhat forgettable crime drama). His best performance to date, however, can be found in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, where Winstone plays Gal Dove, a retired thief whose utopian life in the south of Spain is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a venomous old associate.

As busy as Ray Winstone’s been over the last decade or so, it doesn’t appear to be tiring him out; he has seven films slated for release in 2009 and 2010.

To catch a glimpse of Ray Winstone at his absolute best, watch the video clips hidden under the “more” link below. If you like the clips, then I strongly recommend checking out the films (links to the DVDs on Amazon can be followed by clicking on the title above each clip)

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