It isn't the wind making that howling noise.
Above you see two colorful Japanese posters for The Howling, Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf thriller starring Dee Stone, Patrick Macnee, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers hero Kevin McCarthy. As werewolf movies go, The Howling was a bit of a gamechanger simply because the principle werewolf was more terrifying than any that had been put on screen to that point. It looks more than anything like a ten-foot tall Wile E. Coyote, with a long crooked snout, and devilish ears that stick out from its head like horns. Covered with wiry hair and perched upon long canine legs like a walking dog, the brute physicality of this beast is cringe inducing. On the other hand, the ancillary werewolves might make you laugh. The filmmakers obviously wanted to genderize the creatures, which led to the idea of making the female wolves somehow cute. Instead they end up looking like Ewoks. The giallo-styled soundtrack might also be jarring for modern audiences. We love it, though it's right in your face like doggie breath.
But the film is definitely worth watching these thirty-six years later. The plot involves a television reporter whose investigation into serial killings in New York City result in her—seemingly in random fashion—spending time in a rural retreat to recover from emotional trauma. There she realizes a coven of werewolves rule the woods. Dante went for a slow build-up to the big reveal, and when that first encounter came it forever recalibrated the werewolf genre. Today some of the balloon effects may look quaint, but objectively they're more visceral than anything computer graphics have managed thus far. Other effects, including a brief animation, aren't as convincing, but no movie is perfect. The Howling is a landmark, and our only regret is we were never able to see it in a cinema (though that may change if ever our local horror festival screens it). The film premiered in the U.S. in March 1981, and first howled across Japan today the same year.
In retrospect, maybe this solo hiking trip wasn't the best idea. Oh well, I'll be fine. But next year: Burning Man.
Hmm. So she disappeared down there in that bizarre nimbus of light? I think it's about time for my donut break.
Okay, okay! Let me just find the leash and we'll go. Geez—sometimes I can't tell who's the owner and who's the pet.
Arooooooo! Bacon! Bacon! Bacon! Baaaaacooooon!
So, you loaded this with the silver bullets, right? Right? Baby, did you hear me?
Well, the thing is, werewolfing helps me relax. Fronting my speedmetal band is really stressful.
I think the night went bad after the third Jäger shot. Could be worse, though. Garth got a tribal tattoo on his calf. Man, these beasts are seriously horr— Whoa. Single white werewolf at twelve o'clock. Bitch got some fucked up teeth but I can work with that.
Cohjizukin creates a modern piece of poster art for two classic films.
You know how we always say we're going to get back to something? Some artist, some subject, some mid-century murder spree? And then we never do? Kind of like when you were eight and your parents kept promising to let you buy a grizzly bear but always put you off until finally telling you they weren't going to buy you one and never planned to? Well, we don't want to be like your lying ass parents, so we've decided we need to be better about actually geting back to stuff we said we'd get back to. Consider it a twelve-step program of sorts, which we already started by keeping that five-year old promise about the naked diaries.
So here's someone else we promised to revisit—Japanese illustrator Cohjizukin, whose poster for an Ed Wood triple bill we shared back in October. He painted the above poster for Federico Fellini's I vitelloni, known in some circles as The Young and the Passionate, and Giulietta degli spiriti, aka Juliet of the Spirits. We knew nothing about Cohjizukin last year, but we've learned a few things. He's actually award winning artist Koju Suzuki, who was born in 1948, has had innumerable exhibitions, live painting events, published many books, and seemingly even has delved into music, releasing four albums in the 1990s.
He also likes creepy eyes. Everybody in this poster looks like they're trying to drain your vital essence. We checked to see if either of these movies involved essence-draining, but they're both comedy/dramas. Not sure Fellini would have approved of psycho faces on a poster for his films, but the art is amazing. Cohjizukin created it for a double-bill sometime during the 1990s, probably for some film festival or other. You can learn more about him by visiting the (also a bit scary) website maintained at this link, but it's text heavy and without Japanese probably useless to you. We'll dig up more pieces from him later. That's a promise we'll keep.
The riddle is this: why didn't Lesley-Anne Down wear that outfit?
We'll admit we watched Lesley-Anne Down's 1981 thriller Sphinx just to see if she ever got into the gauzy number she's wearing in the promo photo above. We thought it unlikely, and we were right. She mostly wore what you see below—no spike heels with asp straps, sorry. But it wasn't the worst expenditure of time, finding this out. Sphinx feels like a television movie by today's standards, but the location shooting is excellent, and some interesting performers pop up—among them Sir John Gielgud and John Rhys-Davies, the latter of whom you may remember as Sallah from another Egyptian themed movie—Raiders of the Lost Ark, which hit cinemas four months after Sphinx. Like Raiders, in Sphinx you get an antiquarian on the trail of a lost tomb while baffled by arcane clues and beset by duplicitous locals. We don't think a single Egyptian had a noteworthy role here, but at least a few of the cultural details are accurate (though perhaps not the most flattering ones). Are we recommending this one? Not without Down wearing that outfit we aren't, but the movie isn't as bad as many would have you believe. It premiered today in 1981, and the awesome poster was painted by Bob Peak.
Even she doesn't know it yet, but she's a danger junkie.
The Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco closes tonight. We couldn't be there, living as we do across the ocean, but like last year we screened some of the films at home and that has been a treat. We said at the end of last year's group of write-ups that we probably wouldn't do it again, and that turned out to be a lie. Next year we definitely won't do it. It's fun, but makes the website almost like actual work, which isn't what this is about at all. It isn't you, Noir City, it's us.
Tonight's final entries on the festival slate are Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which we've discussed below, and the film for which see two promo posters above—Victoria. The hook here is the movie is shot by director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen in one take—not many takes digitally spliced, but a single analog take about two hours and fifteen minutes long, beginning in the wee Berlin hours and extending into dawn. Schipper has said in interviews that he had three chances to get it right, and the finished film the is the result of the third effort.
It tells the story of Spanish millennial Victoria (Laia Costa), whose lonely existence is changed when she meets local boy Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his three friends during a night at a disco. Sonne seems like a nice enough guy, and Victoria leaves with him and his buds for a sojourn along streets and a rooftop that ends with the two agreeing to meet again. It's at that point one of the friends get sick from all the booze he's ingested, and Sonne desperately asks Victoria to drive the remaining trio somewhere. Why? Because wherever they're going there are supposed to four of them and three will not do. Uh oh. Where are the boys going? To commit an armed robbery.
Victoria doesn't know this at first. It becomes clear soon enough, but only after she's in too deep and stuck as a getaway driver. Of course, the audience knows she's in trouble long before that. If there's a flaw with the movie it's merely that Victoria doesn't seem lonely, reckless, or clueless enough to get herself into this mess. But maybe that's a function of the movie's nature. We can't know her in two hours, filmed in real
time,with no structural concessions for subplots, flashbacks, or any of the standard expository digressions. We have to take her at face value, and accept her as revealed to us. If you do, then the blossoming of her inner danger junkie is logical and seamless. Victoria is really an astounding achievement, and not just because of the single take. Schipper is almost twenty years older than the cast he directs, but he's made a generational landmark of a film.
Nobody can hurt you quite like your own family.
Noir City ticketholders are in for a nasty treat with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Made in 2007, well reviewed but under appreciated, it doesn't tick the film noir box but it's a top level thriller, gripping from explosive beginning to crushing end, with timelines restarting to drip feed plot twists to the viewer. And “drip feed” is apropos as a descriptive, because it's like water torture watching the lives of the family at the center of this film come apart.
It all starts when Philip Seymour Hoffman—in desperate need of cash—convinces his little brother Ethan Hawke—also in need of money—to knock off a jewelry store. Neither are criminals, but the potential robbery is too easy to resist. The store, you see, belongs to their hardworking parents. It's literally a mom and pop operation, located in a quiet suburb, insufficiently guarded because there's never been an instant of trouble in all the years the place has been in business.
Hawke is good as a man who is never remotely in control of his circumstances, and Hoffman is brilliant, but Albert Finney drives the movie with righteous anger and unbearable heartbreak. Critics'fave Michael Shannon has a crucial role, Oscar winner Marisa Tomei is perfect as a woman in the middle of a mess she can only barely discern, and fourteen-time nominee Sidney Lumet directs with austere precision.
We originally saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead years ago and always planned to rewatch it, but kept shying away from doing so because we knew it would be difficult to sit through again. Yeah. It's like that. Hard to watch—even with Marisa Tomei in it—when you know what's coming. But since you have no idea how it unfolds you'll get through it fine. We highly recommend that you queue this one up.
You mess with the bull you get the horns.
Expert safecracker Gal Dove, played by Ray Winstone, has retired to sunny Spain, but criminal associates back in England want him for a job. Arriving in the Costa del Sol to make the pitch for them is the persuasive—and psychotic—Ben Kingsley, who terrorizes Gal and his close circle in an effort to bully him into partnering up. The movie mainly focuses on the battle of wills between a man trying to move on with his life and a monster that won't take no for an answer. For a long while it looks as though there won't be a heist at all, but the film circles around to that eventually, showing the event in montage form. And though this robbery is unique in execution it's ancillary plotwise, because Sexy Beast is less a heist film than a psychological drama about how difficult it is for a talented crook to get out the rackets, and how his former self and past sins are never deeply buried. Made in 2001 and directed by a man who clearly knows his film noir in Jonathan Glazer, this is both the most straightforward film showing at Noir City, and also the one—with its dialogue driven pacing and shorts bursts of violence—we can most easily imagine as a 1940s production. Dark, quirky, visually dazzling, and fun.
Japan welcomes a quintet of Bardot's best romantic comedies.
This beautiful and unusually designed poster was made for a 2008 Brigitte Bardot film retrospective in Japan. The event focused on her romantic movies and the slate consisted of Et Dieu... créa la femme, aka ...And God Created Woman, En effeuillant la marguerite, aka Plucking the Daisy, Une Parisienne, Les bijoutiers du claire de lune, aka The Night Heaven Fell, and Doctor at Sea. This is a frame-worthy piece of modern graphic design. Note how all the lines of text are set at slight angles, just a little something to dazzle the eye. Top work.
Bulletproof black man flips the script in Harlem.
So, we watched the entirety of the new Netflix series Luke Cage. Our love of blaxploitation films made it mandatory. Of course, Luke Cage isn't blaxploitation—it's serious black-oriented drama. But anyway we queued it up. For those who don't know, the series is based on a Marvel Comics character who was a bulletproof, super strong black man who lived in Harlem. The show does away with the comic book Cage's bright yellow costume, but leaves the Harlem setting, political machinations, and dealings of crime kingpins that intertwine as normal people try to get on with their lives.
Most members of the sizable cast are black except for several supporting roles, and the occasional one-off—i.e., a technician here, an office worker there. The series is basically an exact negative of about 10,000 television shows over the years that cast blacks in supporting roles. A vocal percentage of the public is not dealing well with it. Some call the show racist. It made us think of the famous unattributed quote: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” These racially sensitive critics watched How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, True Detective and scores of other lily white television shows in droves, but the existence of a single show like Luke Cage is threatening.
But let's put all that aside for the moment. Is the show any good? There are some of the same failings as other action-oriented series, but on the whole it's entertaining. Just be forewarned—it's akin to The Wire more than any superhero extravaganza. The characters are deeply explored. Serious comic book action fans will be disappointed. And second, the complete immersion into an African American culture will be unfamiliarto many viewers. In the end, you simply have to have an interest in the premise and the characters to enjoy the show. For us, the immersion into a nearly 100% black Harlem is one of the show's strengths. For others, not seeing characters that remind them of themselves will be alienating. And that's absolutely acceptable in terms of deciding how to spend one's hard earned free time selecting television shows. Such people should say they aren't interested in the premise. They shouldn't make phony claims that the show is racist.
We think American broadcast media need more shows that reflect reality. Here's the reality—the U.S. is both diverse and extraordinarily segregated. 75% of white Americans have zero black friends, while around 60% of blacks have zero white friends. 100% white environments and white points of view have been shown on television for decades. Luke Cage airs a black point of view, with complex relationships, romantic entanglements, ambitions, dreams, and dealings with harsh realities. There should be room for that, particularly considering television history. On a completely different note, we really are looking forward, twenty or thirty years from now, to a scholarly examination of all these damned superhero shows and movies. There's a real pathology here.
Geishas go wild in Noboro Iguchi's scattershot sci-fi epic.
Above, two posters for Robo-geisha, or Robogeisha, as it was titled in the west. Only for the adventurous, this is low budget action gore, or maybe subversive shock sci-fi, or possibly transgressive black comedy. In any case, it's about a pair of orphaned sisters who compete as assassins after receiving cybernetic implants, are separated and exploited by a powerful corporation, and eventually are thrown together in a final duel. You get sword fights, machine guns, sparks and bloodspray and explosions, a walking castle, copious miniature/computer/stop action efx, and lots of shakycam—aka the budget filmmaker's crutch. If the whole bizarre counterculture spectacle is preposterous, well, you've been warned. Viewers generally react one of three ways—some like it; some want to like it because it will make them cool; and some dislike what they see as a sophomoric mess. We won't say which we were, but we'll note that even with the numerous references to films ranging from Godzilla to Ichi the Killer, Robo-geisha isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The smartest aspect of it is that director Noboru Iguchi and cohorts managed to create their own cinematic genre. That, no matter how you feel about the actual movie, is pure genius. Robo-geisha premiered in Japan today in 2009.
Scientist creates test tube baby that grows into Barbara Carrera. We'll have two, please.
These two pretty posters were made to promote the sci-fi movie Embryo. It hit cinemas stateside in 1976 but didn't reach Japan until today in 1977. What you get here is a research biologist, played by Rock Hudson, who in classic mad scientist style learns he can accelerate gestation and decides to experiment on humans. He acquires an early stage fetus and dumps it in his magic tank. In hours it's born, in days it's a child, and in short order it's Barbara Carrera. So he's the smartest scientist who's ever lived. At least until one figures out how to create a test tube Elke Sommer. Carrera is super beautiful and super smart, but has one big problem. Can you guess what it is? We'll give you a hint—if you think too long she might be dead before you answer. The threat of early death will throw anyone for a loop so we'll forgive poor Barbara her transgressions. She dances naked—and that's worth all the forgiveness in the world.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1914—RMS Empress Sinks
Canadian Pacific Steamships' 570 foot ocean liner Empress of Ireland is struck amidships by a Norwegian coal freighter and sinks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 1,024 lives. Submerged in 130 feet of water, the ship is so easily accessible to treasure hunters who removed valuables and bodies from the wreck that the Canadian government finally passes a law in 1998 restricting access.
1937—Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, who is known today mainly for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and was supposed to appease Adolf Hitler's imperial ambitions, becomes prime minister of Great Britain. At the time Chamberlain is the second oldest man, at age sixty-eight, to ascend to the office. Three years later he would give way to Winston Churchill.
1930—Chrysler Building Opens
In New York City, after a mere eighteen months of construction, the Chrysler Building opens to the public. At 1,046 feet, 319 meters, it is the tallest building in the world at the time, but more significantly, William Van Alen's design is a landmark in art deco that is celebrated to this day as an example of skyscraper architecture at its most elegant.
1969—Jeffrey Hunter Dies
American actor Jeffrey Hunter dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a skull fracture, a mishap precipitated by his suffering a stroke seconds earlier. Hunter played many roles, including Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, but is perhaps best known for portraying Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".
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