Claude Chabrol: The Eye of Evil

Among the French New Wave directors, Claude Chabrol was the most prolific filmmaker after Jean-Luc Godard but his work was always divided between personal projects and commercial vehicles which he felt obligated to make so he could finance the former. Unfortunately, most of his “for hire” projects like Code Name: Tiger (1964) and Who’s Got the Black Box? (1967) were not successful with the public and ended up adversely affecting his reputation among film critics after his acclaimed film debut, Le Beau Serge (1958). Although he enjoyed a major comeback in the late sixties-early seventies with such well-received efforts as Les Biches (1969), La Femme Infidele (1969) and Le Boucher (1970), the films he made between 1959 and 1967 were mostly regarded as minor or flawed works by French critics, which hurt their distribution chances outside of France. One title that fell through the cracks and is now being reassessed as one of his most important early works is The Third Lover (1962), which was released on Blu-Ray in late February of 2020.   Continue reading

Mambo Madness

From the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, if there was a dance craze or a musical trend, producer Sam Katzman was there to exploit it in low-budget B-features targeted for teenagers in saturation bookings at drive-ins and movie houses. Many of these were directed by Fred F. Sears and the plotlines were minimalistic and interchangeable from film to film but the musical acts featured were usually first rate and today serve as wonderful time capsules of their era. Rock Around the Clock (1955), showcasing rock ‘n roll pioneer Bill Haley and His Comets, was Katzman’s first major hit in this new “youth market” genre and he followed it up with Cha-Cha-Cha Boom! (1956) in order to capitalize on the current popularity of the Cuban and Latin music sweeping the nation.   Continue reading

Swimming with Polar Bears

A stunning sequence from the 2019 documentary, Picture of His Life about underwater photographer Amos Nachoum.

Swimming with dolphins is a lifetime dream for some people and they can realize it at several destinations around the world for a price like Orlando, Cancun and the Bahamas. But who in their right mind would want to swim with polar bears? Wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum does. His obsession with this quest and the realization of it is the central focus of Picture of His Life (2019), a documentary by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir.  Continue reading

Before Bogart Became Bogie

For that small number of gifted actors who become screen legends, the path to stardom is rarely predictable. Sometimes it’s a case of pure luck. Other times it’s achieved after years of honing their craft and screen persona through hard earned experience. I can’t think of a better example of the latter than Humphrey Bogart who made twelve films (two of them short subjects, 1928’s The Dancing Town and 1930’s Broadway’s Like That) before his breakout supporting role as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). The irony is that despite playing that same character on Broadway where he won unanimous critical acclaim, Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role. If it hadn’t been for the film’s star, Leslie Howard, who played opposite Bogart on Broadway and demanded that he be cast in the film or he would quit, Bogart might not be as famous today.  Continue reading

To Look or Not to Look

Have you ever had to look away from the screen while watching a movie because you couldn’t bear to see what happened next? Do you have a threshold tolerance level of what you will watch before you become outraged or repulsed and walk out of a film? There have certainly been controversial movies over the years – both art and exploitation features – that have tested the limits of what viewers will watch. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (19776), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) are just a few of the more famous offenders that have provoked heated debates over censorship and creative expression. We now have a new test case – The Painted Bird (2019), Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s big-screen adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s dark masterpiece from 1965.   Continue reading

Vagabond Screwballs

Slither (1973) is a film of firsts in many ways. It marked the directorial debut of Howard Zieff, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after comedy directors in Hollywood during the ’70s (Hearts of the West [1975], House Calls [1978], Private Benjamin [1980]). It featured the first screenplay by W. D. Richter who would later pen the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1979 remake of Dracula, and Brubaker [1980] as well as direct the cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984]. And it was James Caan’s first starring role after his critically acclaimed success in The Godfather [1972] and the beginning of his reign as a Hollywood leading man after struggling to break through in smaller scale movies like Rabbit, Run [1970] and T.R. Baskin [1971].   Continue reading

Pandemonium in the Dark

In Japanese cinema, the samurai film can be many things. It can be a ghost story (Ugetsu, 1953), a rousing adventure (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), a tragic romance (Gate of Hell, 1953), a sweeping historical epic (Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955), a Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood, 1957) or even a revenge saga (Chushingura, 1962). The latter is my favorite sub-genre in the category and the best samurai revenge films are usually driven by the avenger’s sense of honor being defamed and/or moral outrage at personal injustice. This is certainly the motivation behind the heroine of Lady Snowblood (1973), played by Meiko Kaji, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is also the central premise of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (aka Seppuku, 1962), which is more doom-laden and brooding than the kinetic action of the Lady Snowblood films but nevertheless explodes in a bloody, sword-wielding finale. But if you want to go deeper, darker and crueler, it is hard to top Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons (aka Shura aka Pandemonium, 1971) for pure malice.   Continue reading