“I love people reading things with hearts!”
This kung-fu comedy by Corey Yuen and Jeff Lau (Fong Sai Yuk) proves that Hong Kong cinema continued to churn out wonderfully sleazy, cross-generic, gender-bending epics, even in the shadow of China and its own much-heralded burnout. Black Rose 2 bends so far it practically breaks; even the credit sequence isn’t immune, as the superpowerful Black Rose (Nancy Sit), in private-eye drag, screams the names of cast and crew from the screen. Popular HK disc jockey Jan Lamb plays Ah Mo, an endearingly dimwitted delivery boy whose “boss-lady” is — what else? — a muscular transvestite. The aging, reclusive Black Rose kidnaps Ah Mo hoping he will fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Ah Mo is infatuated with Tong (Desiree Lam), who’s being held hostage by the ultra-mannish Suen (Sandra Ng), female leader of a vicious gang of lipsticked slacker-boys. Black Rose II mocks just about every Hong Kong genre, and even strays into James Bond territory with weapons like “Wonderful Killing Electric Pen,” collapsing staircases, and characters who peel off their own faces to show a new identity. Sentimental moments are delicately set up only to be skewered — when Lui (Lam Sheung Yee), one of Black Rose’s love-slaves, blows on her tea to cool it, he sprays half the pot in her face. Expect the usual fractured subtitles: “I love people reading things with hearts!”
The full title of this epic is The Blind Swordsman and the Chess Expert (Zatoichi Jigokutabi), to distinguish it from the other 26-odd entries in the popular series, which ran from 1962 to 1972. The swordsman in question is Ichi, aka Zatoichi, a good-natured itinerant masseur whose blindness is balanced by a preternaturally developed “mind’s eye,” hearing worthy of Roderick Usher, and a way with a cane sword that makes him a formidable foe. While most martial arts films are built around elaborate fight tableaux, in the Zatoichi series the violence, diverting enough in itself, is secondary and always in the service of the story. (That’s not to say there aren’t violent moments: a close-up of Ichi shooting a bee into an adversary’s eye will make some viewers jump.) This entry, set in the early 1800s, is typical of the series, with the inventive Ichi constantly on the defensive against disgruntled gamblers he’s fleeced, a masterless samurai he befriends who may be a murderer, and of course the potential distractions of romance. Director Kenji Misumi casually sketches daily life in late feudal Japan in the meticulously detailed gambling and chess scenes and telling minor moments such as when a little girl dutifully cobbles together Ichi’s broken wooden sandal. But the film really belongs to Shintaro Katsu, who produced this and the Baby Cart series and stars as Ichi. He’s been compared to the Clint Eastwood character in the spaghetti westerns, but he’s much more expansive and endearing. Katsu’s portrayal had such impact that it became an archetype, inspiring not only a blind swordswoman and “deaf-mute heroine” (both played by the glorious Helen Ma) but also a cartoon “blind swordspig” from anime master Stan Sakai.
One of the many pleasures of Hong Kong’s golden-age commercial cinema is the space it provided for the aggressive female hero — a character that soon spread to Western shores courtesy of Roger Corman, Dimension Films, and other exploitationers. The Deaf-Mute Heroine is a fine example of the female swordplay genre, with Helen Ma, a beautiful actress reminiscent of Michelle Khan, vividly incarnating the strong, literally silent action hero as a woman. Ma retrieves a bag of stolen pearls and becomes the target of a pirate gang, led by another woman, Miss Liu, who specializes in deadly accurate flying daggers. Ma’s salvation, since she can’t hear who’s approaching from behind, is a pair of silver arm shields that reflect the assailant. Poisoned by Miss Liu’s dagger, her arm shields stolen, she is rescued and nursed back to health by an innocent dye-maker, for whom she almost abandons martial arts. The pre-credit sequence sets the tone: against a blazing yellow background devoid of props, Ma is at the center of a stylized frieze, attackers and attacked moving in subtle rhythm against a purely percussive beat. The set-pieces feature the usual army of killers against the solo Ma, and a vast array of armaments from swords to bamboo poles. But the resourceful Ma also uses common household objects; in a brilliant inversion of woman’s domestic role, she instantly fashions a bolt of cloth into a deadly weapon. In an enthrallingly brutal sequence, she spears one of her enemies and holds him aloft as his blood rains down on her.
American-Vietnamese relations have been chilly at best, lethal at worst, but A Dream of Hanoi shows other possibilities for cross-cultural engagement besides war. Written, produced, and directed by Tom Weidlinger, this provocative doc follows a Fall 2000 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has a kind of Shakespearean sense of drama and humor of its own. The idea was to create a bilingual, bicultural version of the play, using both Vietnamese and American actors and crew, and making concessions to Vietnamese dramatic traditions without compromising the original.
Colorful opening images of Hanoi’s vibrant street life and members of the two companies exchanging pleasantries hint at a smooth transition across literary and cultural lines, but problems soon emerge that become resentments and then ruptures that threaten to capsize the production, with a lot of misery and anger generated on both sides during the process. Vietnamese director Doãn Hoàng Giang shocks the Americans by insisting on adding an entourage for Puck consisting of “six masked drummer boy fairies.” The Vietnamese shrug at the anal-retentive, inflexible western mind: “Americans want a script even for a soccer match!” Actor Kristen Brown’s interpretation of Helena as a foot-stomping harpy is viewed by Dô Ky (Demetrius) as a disturbing breach of his country’s mores. Even the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information, which had sponsored and encouraged the project supposedly to teach the Vietnamese how to make money from art, abruptly boots the group out of its venue and forbids them from even selling tickets.
Yet A Dream of Hanoi is far from a gloomfest, largely because of its engaging cast and its discovery of commonality in chaos, balancing the contentious meetings, troubled rehearsals, subtle colonialist prejudices, and tearful harangues with shared laughter at a joke well played or a common bond over the unexpected hatred of the costumes by all the players. Director Weidlinger deftly interweaves highlights of the production, in rehearsal and live performance, so there’s an enchanting performance-in-miniature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the documentary. And, as in the play, this film’s “characters” awake from their dream with everything right again.
Writer Greg Sarris is the product of colliding cultures: Jewish, Filipino, and Miwok Indian. Raised in both white and Indian families, he used his own experiences as the basis for this surprisingly well-done, occasionally brilliant HBO mini-series about the lives of three Native American families struggling to find their place in society — in this case, a once-prosperous suburban neighborhood (shot around Santa Rosa) that’s now a multiethnic mix of the working poor, street gangs, and a few middle-class hangers-on. The plot is far too complex to recount here, but corrosive family relationships, social issues (the destruction of a local native graveyard by developers), and the persistent, almost supernatural presence of native culture in the psychic lives of these characters drive the film’s ever-changing plot. The molten core of Grand Avenue is the wrenching emotional warfare between powerful but bitter single mother Mollie (Sheila Tousey) and her two daughters, tartish Justine (Deeny Dakota) and maternal Alice (Dianne Debassige). Through swift pacing and a steady hand with the actors, director Dan Sackeim manages to both retain the story’s melodramatic power and avoid the slide into bathos that the material implies. It’s probably unfair to single out anyone in this exceptional cast, but mention must be made of Tantoo Cardinal’s superb incarnation of a female shaman who provides literal threads of hope when she teaches Alice how to weave baskets and thereby tap her own hidden powers.
In his film Ed Wood, Tim Burton showed us the notorious cross-dressing grade-Z director as a cute ‘n charismatic zany, a mildly self-deluded, overgrown boy whose passion for filmmaking galvanized everyone around him, from screaming queens to clueless Christians. Brett Thompson’s take on Wood has the advantage of documentary, balancing Burton’s affectionate sketch with a more cynical and realistic view of the man Bela Lugosi, Jr. reviles as “a loser and a user.” Thompson scored interviews with most of Wood’s collaborators, from stock players like Vampira (Maila Nurmi) and “Kelton the Cop” (Paul Marco), to ex-wives and girlfriends, to duped investors like the minister who financed Bride of the Monster on Wood’s promise he would make a string of religious epics (the mind boggles). Thompson moves far beyond the standard Wood clip show of hubcap flying saucers, ridiculous acting, and startling continuity gaps for an unsparing portrait of the director’s failed marriages and friendships, and his slow slide into alcoholism, poverty, and a death that few noticed.
Bruce La Bruce’s home movie (one hesitates to call it a film) is based on that old saw, “When inspiration fails, bring on the stump-fucking!” Yes, Hustler White‘s central image is a one-legged queen who thoughtfully removes his prosthesis and shoves his stump up the ass of a drooling fetishist. Of course, there is a plot of sorts. La Bruce plays “Jurgen Anger” (as in Kenneth — get it?), a German tourist doing research on the rent-boy scene in West Hollywood. Along the way we meet an assortment of trashy stereotypes intended to showcase the director’s hipness — a group of hunky black nationalists who redress the sins of Whitey by undressing and gang-raping a white male prostitute; a tubby undertaker (performance artist Ron Athey) who dolls himself up in slutty fright wig and bustier and murders his tricks. The film presents itself as a skewering of the peculiar malaise of Los Angeles, complete with homages to Hollywood epics like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But it’s so inept on every level that even scenes that have an inherent, almost foolproof interest fail to come to life. What should be a pithy insider view of a gay porno shoot disintegrates because the director’s unable to squeeze anything like performances out of his characters, and his insights, stripped of their “underground” veneer, are ultimately about as avant-garde as the Reader’s Digest.
It’s surprising, given America’s eternal love affair with imprisoning large segments of its citizenry, that there aren’t more movies set in prison. Maybe filmmakers are put off by the genre’s inherent limitations: cramped cell settings and the preordained ending (an inmate fried, gassed, or hung) force the director to invent fresh strategies for minimizing audience claustrophobia. Tim Metcalfe’s Killer, based on the real-life friendship between a 1920s serial killer, Carl Panzram (James Woods), and a quiet, sympathetic guard, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), isn’t up to the challenge. Woods appears to have moved permanently beyond directorial control; this is typical of too many of his characterizations where he mugs, grimaces, and glares his way through a part. The script tells us these very different men have a common basis of humanity, but the chemistry just isn’t there. And Woods’ killer is such a total unreconstructed asshole that what’s supposed to be an indictment of state-sanctioned murder becomes an unwitting endorsement.
Albany, California artist Gerald Gaxiola, aka “the Maestro,” is a fascinating anomaly — a painter, sculptor, performance artist, singer, and self-styled “cowboy” in elaborate jeweled chaps and fringe who refuses to commercialize his style or even sell his work. Les Blank’s affectionate documentary The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists shows the range of Gaxiola’s whimsical, conceptually rich work — much of it inspired by the western mythology of his youth. The cattle drives he watched in old Roy Rogers movies are reborn as the “Great Cadillac Drive to Reno” with hundreds of multicolored ceramic Caddys. Best of all are his hilarious “shoot-outs” with the work of Andy Warhol and Christo; he blasts the latter’s installation of giant yellow umbrellas with a pellet gun filled with red paint. The Maestro, who comes off as charming and intelligent and no naif, is an unstoppable force — expect the marquee of any theater clever enough to book this doc to be obscured by one of his giant blue cowboys, and an elaborate stage created for his western swing musical trio inside.
Pop culture’s given us glory trains, cocaine trains, trains to nowhere, and hellbound trains, but Argentinian director Gustavo Mosquera manages to wrap them all into one in this masterful mind-fuck. While some of the dialogue sounds like an auditor’s report on an urban light rail — “Lights detect nonexistent trains … there are unplanned changes of rail … and a whole train is missing!” — Moebius is the cinematic equivalent of an M. C. Escher drawing with its startling central image of a Buenos Aires subway train careening through hyperspace, heard but not seen, on an infinite-loop track. What sounds like a double-domed essay on topographic theory makes for a surprisingly gripping story, as mathematician Daniel Pratt (Goillermo Angelelli) is hired by a frantic transportation director to figure out where the hell Train 86 went. Mosquera’s style is coolly analytical until he shows us exactly what this train is up to (in a breathless homage to the last 20 minutes of 2001). And the image of a ghost train and its ghostly inhabitants as doubles for Argentina’s thousands of “disappeared” adds welcome political resonance.
As envisioned by DeFoe, Moll Flanders was a thief, a felon, and a whore who rose to prominence through a combination of native sass and savvy and certain physical charms that she exploited to the max. Writer-director Pen Densham radically alters this durable female rogue to reduce poor Moll (played by a humorless Robin Wright) from a lively, vain, self-possessed modern woman (modern for 1722, when the novel was published) to an incompetent, pompously noble prole whose sufferings recall Victorian penny dreadfuls. She only resorts to stealing to feed her starving child, and only becomes a whore because it’s forced on her. Densham strips the story of its fascinating extremities — like Moll marrying her own brother — and concentrates instead on her vast reserves of self-pity and self-hate (she describes herself as “a bitch and a trollope!”). Morgan Freeman as a liberal fantasy of an absurdly powerful black man in racist London, and Stockard Channing as a smirking, shrieking madam who abuses the masochistic Moll, do little to breathe life into this plush but cynical exercise in revisionist corporate filmmaking.
It’s hard to get as worked up about What Really Happened to the tedious Romanovs as this shortish (77-minute) documentary wants us to, but don’t fault director Victoria Lewis for trying. She marshalls an army of emotion-laden effects, everything from archival footage of the Romanov children playing outside their palace, to lamentations over the Tsarina’s “bitter disappointment” at failing to produce a male heir for Russia, to a real-life skull morphing into the sweet, smiling face of one of the Romanov girls. A series of experts sift through newly found diaries, DNA, and forensic evidence to determine if a group of bones found in a remote Siberian town are in fact the remains of this royal family. Intriguing subplots look at Rasputin (with alarming autopsy shots of the battered face of this seemingly unkillable man) and “Anna Anderson,” the most successful of the many women who pretended to be Anastasia. The film’s black-and-white re-enactments are brilliantly evocative, but images of starving peasants contrasted with the Romanov family amassing “wealth without limits” make it difficult to “feel their pain.”
Born with cystic fibrosis, Bob Flanagan managed to survive far beyond his prognosis, finally succumbing at the age of 42 in 1996. Flanagan was in and out of hospitals all his life, but it was ritualized, slash-and-burn s&m that allowed him to hang on and to some extent enjoy a pain-filled life. Kirby Dick’s documentary is likely to be the only one on this subject, judging from the stampede out of the theatre by horrified Sundance audiences. The director shows us every bloody detail of Flanagan’s daily life, from nails through his penis to a slave contract where dominatrix Sheree Rose takes over his life. But in some ways the wheezing Flanagan is a classic “pushy bottom” who bickers with his mistress as often as he submits, and there’s some feeling that this “supermasochist,” whose need for attention and publicity was insatiable, used Rose for his own purposes. Gallows humor abounds — particularly in Flanagan’s brilliant installation of a coffin containing a TV set “playing” his bewildered face — but this “supermasochist’s” extreme self-absorption begins to wear on the viewer as much as his razored, whipped, and bound flesh.
Martin Duberman gives it a C, and he should know — he wrote the book it was based on. Stonewall was surprisingly long in coming and fraught with difficulties, from bitch-fights among the sources (“I was there — she wasn’t!”), to the present owner’s refusal to allow filming at the original bar, to the death of director Nigel Finch before the final cut. These problems must have been too much for Finch and producer Christine Vauchon; they’ve turned what is widely considered the defining moment in gay liberation — a bar riot by some pushed-to-the-limit New York queens the night after Judy Garland’s funeral — into a woefully pedestrian drag epic, with side stabs at inner-city corruption and the bildungsroman. Midwestern hick Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) incarnates the latter; he’s a new-generation faggot who refuses to accept the regular police beatings and extortion that were part of gay life circa 1969. He splits his time between his new drag friends, chiefly the world-weary La Miranda (Guillermo Diaz), and a group of tight-assed middle-class “homophiles” who whine for social tolerance. The filmmakers intermittently capture the spirit of the time in subplots of drag “induction” ceremonies and failed protest marches, but the only really fresh touch is the use of songs by the trashy leather-‘n-stilettos girl group the Shangri-Las as a kind of Greek chorus. The key event — the actual riot — is underplayed to the point of invisibility. Inexplicably, it’s shot like a slow-mo dream, as if the ghosts of the homophiles, not the suddenly radicalized drag queens, were guiding the camera.
With the success of Boogie Nights and its various hell-spawn, the ’70s in all its strangeness became ripe for resurrection. Todd Haynes obligingly provided the first, and possibly last, cinematic word on one of the era’s briefest but most influential music/fashion styles, glam-rock. All the elements are here in meticulous, glitter-soaked detail — music by the likes of T-Rex and Roxy Music, a mysterious Bowie-esque rocker (think Ziggy Stardust), amusingly kitschy tableaux, overwrought musical numbers, sleek jumpsuits and skyscraper platforms, and of course clouds of coke. Inexplicably, Haynes, a strong visualist whose grasp of narrative is always tenuous, overlays a Citizen Kane parody on the whole affair, a strategy that sucks at the film’s chaotic energy. The music is the draw here, and thankfully it dominates; the gaudy pouting boys (and a few girls) in their feathers and rouge aren’t much more than ciphers, slaves to the suffocating decor. Even the fetching (and often naked) Ewan McGregor, who tries his best as a punk trapped in the glam netherworld, can’t compete with the glorious soundtrack.
Like film noir, neorealism continued to thrive long after its “golden age,” as Mario Monicelli’s blistering drama shows. The great Alberto Sordi is Giovanni Vivaldi, a good government clerk whose desire to place his son in a ministry job, by legal or other means, forces him into endless degradations. He toadies to his dandruff-drenched boss and, against the wishes of his traditional Catholic wife (played by a restrained Shelley Winters), joins the freemasons, only — in typical neo-realist style — to see his son accidentally murdered by bank robbers and his wife paralyzed by a stroke. What begins as a witty satire of upward mobility and self-delusion suddenly becomes a brutal social critique, as Vivaldi degenerates rapidly from blustery bureaucrat to murderous vigilante. A brilliantly unsettling scene that typifies this film’s ruthless worldview occurs in a warehouse for stacked-up coffins awaiting burial. Due to “a build-up of gases,” coffins randomly explode, sending the already unhinged relatives of the dead screaming through the aisles. Anyone lucky enough to see this film — unreleased on VHS or DVD in the States — may do the same.
If the sight of a pre-South Park Isaac Hayes in a chain-mail vest singing “God Is on Our Side” isn’t enticement enough, how about a middle-aged Rufus Thomas in pink knickers and white vinyl boots presiding over 100,000 fans doing the funky chicken? Not to suggest that this legendary documentary is a mere period fashion show; far from it. Wattstax — a two-hour distillation of a six-hour outdoor concert that ended the 1972 Watts Summer festival — is more ambitious than most such films in backgrounding much of the music to comic cut-ins by Richard Pryor, footage from the ’65 Watts riots, images of clapboard churches and abandoned storefronts, and energetic rap sessions among neighbors, friends, and activists. The film is more successful as sociology than as a musical record; fans who prefer their funk straight up, without context, will find the frequent cutaways jarring. Still, there are superb musical moments scattered throughout from a roster of early ’70s Stax/Volt recording artists: Mavis Staples’ commanding contralto on “Respect Yourself”; the Bar-Kays’ earnest rendition of “Son of Shaft”; Albert King’s sweet-sad “I’ll Sing the Blues for You.” Best of all, perhaps, is Little Milton’s “Walking the Back Street and Crying,” staged by director Mel Stuart with Milton singing alone on a grim industrial street in the fading Los Angeles day next to a barrel in which trash is burning, a subtle and moving reminder of the Watts riots and their failure to bring real change.