Robert Parrish’s “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun”

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Robert Parrish started his career editing the films of John Ford, and being forced to study attentively the master’s material must have made quite an impact on the way he would shape his own, because not only he learned the importance of Ford’s focus on conceptual and emotional undercurrents which both substantiated and could counterpoint the “big theme”, he abolished the requisite for anything big on the B-grade genre films he was assigned to make. In the last three days I watched a noir (Cry Danger), a western (The Wonderful Country) and this sci-fi, my first contact with Parrish’s cinema, and all three are beyond striking and necessary entries in their respective genres. Not once did I feel the director running away from the specificity of their narrative principles, scenic clichés, character types and recurring themes that outline their kind of pictures. Not seeking subversion by any means, what makes them extraordinary is the straight look at the small issues, on what is at hand, the most obvious elements which often get ignored because otherwise they are given, not explored and left behind to keep grasp on sharp storytelling, our eyes are directed to fundamentals and their own signification, tensions and ironies instead of signifiers of the journey the characters partake to a greater understanding of their wondrous and seemingly immense surroundings, that after increased experience, leave them almost without room for action. That is Parrish’s peculiar voice, even more extreme in the case of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, coming out a year after 2001 – A Space Odyssey, confronting Stanley Kubrick’s approach as if it was a denial of all the implications of its odyssey from dawn to rebirth of man. Here is an abyss, endless reflections, a journey condemned to eternally defy itself. Its plot is perfect Twilight Zone material, its production is another example of high concept sci-fi indulging in spectacular visual effects, but fortunately, even sharing an obsession with procedural detail (whole political bodies can be understood, or rather felt, without a hint of the big picture), Parrish is the anti-Kubrick, with interests far away from a philosophical treatise or anything important, much closer to a minimalistic riff on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, using its fantastical setting to clear our sight to the most basic things, it is the work of a closet sentimentalist fascinated with the dramatic potencies of anything put in front of the camera, already one of the great discoveries of 2016.

Christofer Pallú

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Al Adamson’s “The Naughty Stewardesses”

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I was not exactly expecting proto-Showgirls from an Al Adamson/Samuel Sherman production entitled The Naughty Stewardesses containing confessional monologues such as “See? Life to me is one big orgasm, getting stronger and stronger, I guess that’s why I eat so many men”. Only in intent, not result, of course. There isn’t a hint of Verhoeven’s elegance on display, or even decent craftsmanship, for the most part. This is Al Adamson, after all, and I would not dare call it a good film, but it transpires a general sense of discomfort with its own shaping that makes it somewhat fascinating.

It is self-conscious to a degree, but it comes mostly from the fact that writer, cameraman (Gary Graver, who worked as a DP for Orson Welles before becoming Robert McCallum, experienced director of pornography), editor and specially actors, most of the times, appear to be working on a movie completely different from the one Adamson set out to make. It is his shamelessness and incompetence in setting up a scene with any logical development that turns its most ridiculous moments, like the meeting between the protagonist and her old friend/lover, into something of value, in this case a set-piece about the other stewardess’ routine, simply because he can’t edit a gratuitous tracking shot into the more relevant action, therefore creating, accidentally (I guess), something completely disparate from their life as it was presented since the opening sequence, putting right upfront Adamson’s issues with what he should be fetishising, also giving some kind of justification to a character that, according to the script, doesn’t have any life outside of what that monologue told us.

Adamson was, like many prolific exploitation directors, just another raging conservative whose work was mostly a reflection of his nightmares of societal decay, although he never attempted to hide it behind the sleaziness, behind what made them money, and consequently, The Naughty Stewardesses, almost in its entirety, constantly lacks balance between what is demanded by this sort of market and the movie he would like to be shooting, which makes the result incredibly bizarre, with incomprehensible discourses and tonal shifts, since it is deadly serious about the generational conflict at the center of the story, or what resembles one. With that in mind, there is no other way that discomfort with changes and excesses of the era would come as sincerely as it does, because no great acting is capable of conveying Connie Hoffman’s utmost awkwardness on the screen, the feeble postures, frailing speeches and hesitant movements. Chaotic performances have always been the fundamental core amid the absurdity of Adamson’s pictures, the visceral truth he could not find anywhere else. When the camera isolates Hoffman in the frame, after being ordered to strip down, when neither character nor actress seem to understand the purpose of the dialogue and her reaction, it is when we can look beyond intriguing accidents.

Christofer Pallú

John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh”


I greatly admire Frankenheimer, a director often regarded by many critics and cinephiles as a stubborn craftsman with a few rather remarkable achievements (“The Manchurian Candidate” being the standard example), but whose body of work as a whole lacks the kind of stylistic consistency and personal commitment most often to be found in an authentic master or auteur. No other single Frankenheimer film I’ve seen would serve better to debunk such claims as this nearly forgotten masterpiece called The Iceman Cometh, which ranks very high in my account of the director’s filmography.

A recent experience of rewatching this cinematic rendition of Egene O’Neill’s play was for me so strong and memorable that I cannot help but write down some brief thoughts on it. This is basically a filmed play of overheard conversations (its model being clearly, I think, Wyler’s The Little Foxes); it’s just extraordinary how every single line of O’Neill’s text, even the most subjective sorrowful monologues, is strongly intertwined with their particular listeners: Frankenheimer’s framing and mise en scène take a lot of freedom with the source material precisely in obliging us to listen to characters through their peers, relying on the great skill for creating compositional tension that’s a signature of his visual style.

Frankenheimer’s greatest films are stories revolving around radical personal destitution in which the characters are reduced to the bare essential of their mere reactive existence with no more purpose than engaging in extreme dangerous activities; it’s not by accident that he is one of the first great (and unfortunatly often forgotten) modern action directors with a particular interest in a very archetypical form of action hero: the “emptied” anonymous outcast who reactes energically to extremely dangerous situations (The Train is quite a landmark in that respect). Even psychological “individuation” is in itself a form of imprisonment (Seconds, his most accomplished masterpiece, is all about that). I think Robert Ryan’s Larry Slade is just the ultimate incarnation of this type of existential outcast Frankenheimer was so fond of: in this case, a tired old ex-anarchist whose very disilusion might be paradoxically the utmost pipe dream of a ‘foolosopher’ ghastly scapegoated in the end, but not at all redeemed. I cannot help but ask “What’s left of this man?” when the camera closes to his face in the last shot of the film. I get no answer but the very last image of Robert Ryan ever captured in a movie before his own death.

Fernando Costa

Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath’s “The Pact 2”

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Certain acclaimed horror films from recent years (and most of the others, less fortunate ones who go with the tide), supposedly character-driven, turn every ellipsis into a jump to the next plot-point, annoying scream or old and tired scary effect, while suppressing anything that could happen to people who, you know, do not live inside a movie, according to the necessities of the writer. This is the exact opposite.

Not that it manages to avoid old and tired scary effects, and if we are looking only at the screenplay, this is just another example of the genre with a thin narrative and little character development (whatever that means), but what makes all the difference though, is that filmmakers Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, like anyone who actually cares about genre films, remember they are never about the story, about the design on the page, the important (schematic) actions, but the gaps between them. If most directors today rush through the character moments to get to the scares as a way to compensate for their bloated narratives, The Pact 2 goes the opposite direction and rushes through the scares themselves, and although some of these scenes are quite good, they are not the most important aspect here.

It got my attention because it’s rare today to watch a movie of its kind interested in finding tension in the way two bodies relate spatially, in brief words that say little by themselves but are handled with impressive control of tone and tempo (with one exception, the performances are very good), even more apparent because a lot of the dialogue comes from the necessity of explaining the limited plot while the directors refuse to focus on the facts, the informations we are given are more subjective, also predominant are calm situations, silence, slow movements, long shots with resolute photography that turns shadows, colors and highlighted details into narration, instead of the ridiculous current mania of overtly post-processed images decorating flat compositions, which are happy showing only the most basic elements with deformed saturation and contrast, combined with nonsensical fast cutting, unbearable noise in the soundtracks and presenting characters in a way that makes you celebrate their deaths.

I must say I did not expect much and was very surprised, specially because I have not seen the original and watched it at random, knowing nothing about it, and just confirmed that the formula to find good horror is to look only at stuff that got bad reviews and ended up with a cheap video release, at best, the most beautiful ones I have seen in a long time (Jean Rollin’s Le Masque de la Méduse, Tobe Hooper’s Djinn) didn’t even get a distribution.

Christofer Pallú

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy”

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About 10 minutes into this thing I was hoping that with a premise already established the director would quit the bad and unconscious musical montage he was doing since the opening credits and start giving us a film, but no, it does not get better. What Jesus Franco would resolve in one shot, Peter Strickland breaks into ten, and manages to take any meaning away. There are no scenes, there are exhibitions of decór, numerous gratuitous details, in tracking shots (because why not?), and actors being framed as inanimately as any object (see the brilliant analogy?), and look, there’s Monica Swinn playing Lorna.

This is so fetishistic in its homage to an unprestigious type of cinema that makes Django Unchained-level Tarantino look better than a clueless fanboy, and it is worse that nothing distinguishes The Duke of Burgundy from the kind of student film I have to endure frequently, from the same apparent intention of filling every senseless image with artistry and professionalism, which means just using every tool you have at your disposal, regardless of purpose. So, if rack focus was a Franco trademark, a resource to overcome his lack of control in editing, putting all the necessary stuff into a minimum amount of shots and moving between these elements only through pans and zooms (because there was no dolly around to shoot insignificant bullshit), Strickland saw it and must have thought “well, that is a cool technique, but it’s a little rough, artless, let’s do it with some cool lighting, heavy color grading, in more decorated spaces and slow everything down, it must achieve a better effect”, and there you have it, what was once a perverted representation becomes cinematically cute.

Franco could not be clearer: “El cine, o es de género, o es una mierda.” And The Duke of Burgundy won’t be put alongside 70s pornography in video stores, that’s for sure.

Christofer Pallú

Corey Yuen’s “My Father is a Hero”

Those 2 or 3 seconds Corey Yuen gives to the kid falling down while Jet Li stands frozen, staring in the direction of the villain he just shot, perfectly expose the concise artistry of his filmmaking, the whole final standoff could be put side by side with Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns and not be harmed in the comparison, even with all the balletic, melodramatic and bizarrely humorous fighting Yuen is known for (in the most well balanced form I’ve seen), there are no distractions from the narrative and character-oriented nature of his shots, and there is no need to interrupt tension and direct action with something else to adress the underlying emotions at play (he does cut to flashbacks a couple of times, but they are tastefully done, not just crutches), it flows with beauty in every movement, but always leaves space to manifest a darker edge.

Christofer Pallú

John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”

Its worst part is the very beginning: text and sound dictate the overall atmosphere and present the big social issue, and the first image is a direct response, “STOP”, damn, this could be a ridiculously simplistic thesis film, but that expectation fortunately does not materialize. The following sequence sets up the neighborhood almost as a separate universe, a jump back in time to a rundown city from an old western where progress became impossible and only outlaws could inhabit, full of signs with promises for the future covered with gunshots.

Far from Spike Lee’s showmanship in service of the cause, Boyz n the Hood is credible because nothing seems too manipulated and coming from a desire to shock, it’s such a detailed and grounded portrait of various aspects of the troubled community and the kids’ relationships that is hard to doubt it comes from real experience, and Singleton’s professed love for westerns is transparent in every shot, his sight is very calm for a place dominated by hostility and fear, which is exactly what makes it scary, the ordinariness of violence and lack of sensationalism in presenting all situations that lead to tragedy, that consistency of tension in every corner and every second of the movie he certainly inherited from the masters of the genre, there are only small outbursts of emotion and aggressive action, and they are always comprehensible.

Also, the occasional drifts into message dialogues never seem forced, but contextually coherent with the characters that deliver them, it’s difficult to think of heroes and villains, everyone is just trying to survive, there is no moralizing from an extraneous element that comes up only to tell us what we are seeing is or isn’t right (I am looking at 12 Years a Slave and its kind). At the end, the cruel theater spawned from memory fades away with a friend, but the image of the neighborhood stays unchanged, it finds unusual balance between the personal and the political and becomes one of the saddest coming-of-age pictures.

Christofer Pallú