Archive for the ‘Apes’ Category

 

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

 

As soon as it hit theaters, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was met with a surprising and vehement pushback. It’s surprising because a new Martin Scorsese film is generally met with critical reverence, but prominent outlets such as the New Yorker, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post all took a dump on this one. And if that sounds like a lot, you ought to see the amount of online thinkpieces scolding the movie’s supposed endorsement of greed, misogyny, and misanthropy. While I love to see people talking passionately about a Martin Scorsese movie in 2013 (and now 2014), I think the people who have been decrying THE WOLF OF WALL STREET for supposedly glorifying its subject need to sit down, take a breath, relax, and then take a second look at it. Does this film, at a breezy three hours, make the story of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort entertaining? Yeah, at three hours it had probably better. Does it condone his amoral behavior, his criminal actions, his borderline sociopathic worldview? Not for a second.

 

LEO DOLLARS

 

The real Jordan Belfort is in this movie, for the record. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a version of him throughout the film, but in the very last scene, there’s a cameo by the actual guy. He appears briefly at the top of the movie’s final scene, as the one introducing DiCaprio-as-Belfort at a speaking engagement, and I’d like to tell you something about my viewing experience here: I hated that guy on sight. His smirking face, his gratingly irritating voice; it makes my hand curl into a fist just thinking about it. I didn’t even know that role was performed by Jordan Belfort until the end credits rolled. His appearance almost took me out of the movie, and not because I knew who he was. My thoughts went something like, “Jesus Christ, that’s the most obnoxious extra ever.”

 

PIXAR'S WALLEYE

 

So Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t playing Jordan Belfort, not exactly. DiCaprio’s performance is charming and entertaining, and it needs to be, or the movie couldn’t hold its audience for a fraction of its running time. A movie can satisfy the needs of its audience while also delivering a message. DiCaprio’s performance is a vessel which delivers the moral mission of the movie. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET doesn’t glorify Jordan Belfort; it uses him. He’s displayed as a parable. People are angry to think Jordan Belfort got paid for the rights to his life story. I get that. But consider the case of Henry Hill, the man who provided the source material for GOODFELLAS. Sure, he was played by the handsome and charming Ray Liotta, and yes, he probably got paid. Does anybody watch GOODFELLAS wishing they were Henry Hill? In real life, after he came out of hiding, he had debilitating substance abuse problems and basically became a member of Howard Stern’s Wack Pack, and not even one who’s beloved, like Beetlejuice or Eric The Actor.

 

MARTY PITCHES IN

 

When contemplating the moral message of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, we are helped greatly by considering the track record of the man who made it. This isn’t the guy’s controversial debut film. Haven’t we been through this cultural conversation before, multiple times, only to finally come to a reasonable consensus? Martin Scorsese is rightly and highly ranked among the most well-regarded of living film directors. Scorsese is a movie-mad Catholic, one of the most thoughtful artists ever to probe the matter of man’s violent nature. He uses film both as the medium of communication and as the metaphorical fuel stoking the fire. This is the man who made THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, about the thoughts of Jesus while hanging upon the cross. Therefore, I do believe Scorsese is someone who is concerned with spirituality and ethics. This is the man who made KUNDUN, a movie which treats the Dalai Lama with reverence. I do not believe Martin Scorsese endorses dwarf-tossing.

 

KAMIKAZE!

 

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET makes people uneasy because it is so thoroughly entertaining. That’s good. That’s a testament to the movie’s effectiveness. After four decades of making and perfecting excellent movies, Scorsese knows how to work an audience like few others. This film spends the majority of its running time showing how Belfort left Wall Street (making the title a bit inaccurate, ironically) because he wanted to start a criminal enterprise even more profitable than the everyday swindling. It shows how selfish and shallow he was, how he hurt people without a second thought during his monomaniacal pursuit of women, drugs, and especially money. It shows how he won over his trophy wife and lost her (Australian actress Margot Robbie, a stunner who does a pitch-perfect New York accent and should have been in the running for all the awards). This guy hits a beautiful woman, one of the worst things a man can do in a movie. The movie doesn’t condemn him, seems impartial in point of fact. Shouldn’t it condemn him? Shouldn’t someone condemn him?

 

AMERICAN DOUCHEBAG

 

Consider how much time is spent showing Belfort’s punishment. It isn’t much. Belfort’s downfall takes up comparatively little screentime, his time in prison confined to one short scene, and even that takes place on an open-air tennis court. This movie shows us everything this bastard did, in gory detail, and then it doesn’t give us the sight of the punishment he deserves. That’s why so many people are troubled by this movie. Jordan Belfort got away with it. He did all those things, and he basically got away with it.

 

la_ca_1222_wolf_of_wall_street

 

And he’s just one guy.

 

Implicit in the film is that Jordan Belfort is not the only one who was doing what he was doing, that there are plenty who are still doing it. If that bothers us, it should. One reason we love movies is because they are tidier than real life. The good guys win and the bad guys get it in the end. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET gives us all that pleasure and then denies us the pleasure of seeing Jordan Belfort get his come-uppance. It works us up and then it gives us blue balls. That’s what we, as America, deserve. We let these guys get away with it, every day. Our national economy has been raided time and again by predators easily as bad as Jordan Belfort, and they are rewarded, not imprisoned. That’s not politics. That’s a measurable truth. But it’s an unpopular truth, and so it needs to be snuck into people’s minds inside of a yummy dessert. So very far from being an immoral film, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is in fact the most daringly moral film of the year.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on Daily Grindhouse.

Journey to the West (2013)

 

JOURNEY TO THE WEST is now available to download on iTunes and to watch on demand. If you have access to New York City, it’s playing at Cinema Village. This is the brief rave I wrote about the movie when I put it in my top ten of 2013. It’s not much but I hope it makes clear how emphatically I recommend it.

 

Journey to the West

 

Journey to the West

 

The way I feel about Stephen Chow’s movies is the way you probably feel about Pixar’s movies. KUNG FU HUSTLE alone is literally perfection. JOURNEY TO THE WEST may not be his single best film, but it’s a, incredibly strong addition to a beautiful filmography.

 

BIG TROUBLE

 

Fleet, funny, broadly universal, and unexpectedly moving, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is the story of a young demon hunter named Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) who takes on a wild menagerie of monsters and villains, looking to get them to change their evil ways rather than simply killing them. He’s both aided and bedeviled along the way by a pretty demon hunter known as Miss Duan (Shu Qi) and her gang of killers (including the insanely cute Chrissie Chau), all of whom would prefer the more extreme option. For stone killers, they’re as adorable as it gets.

 

SMILES

 

The relationship between Tang Sanzang and Miss Duan is the through-line of the movie, which otherwise progresses from demon battle to demon battle. The characters voyage through a variety of exciting environments; some inviting, like the open-air river battle against a gigantic fish demon, and others far less inviting, like the hellish domain of the nightmarish pig demon.

 

BIG FISH

 

Most prominently featured is the Monkey King (Huang Bo), the most duplicitous of the creatures but also the most likable and enjoyable. He’s the reason for the movie’s dance sequence, is all I’m saying.

 

DANCE FEVER

 

 

Like all of Stephen Chow’s best-known movies, JOURNEY TO THE WEST reaches heights of joy few movies can match, but it also comes packaged with moments of heartbreak. It’s an epic adventure stuffed with comedy and romance that ends up having agreeably spiritual resonance, based as it is on a classical work of literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty. But then again it also has a giant gorilla. This really does have everything you need from a movie.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

Xi you xiang mo pian

 

Ever look back at old haircuts from the 1980s and wonder how anybody could have left the barbershop with a straight face?  That’s the way I look at LINK, and the idea that it was ever sold as a horror film.  LINK is a fun movie to watch, but not on its own terms.  It’s a movie that asks an audience to be afraid of chimpanzees.  That’s a lot to ask of an audience.  In real life, chimpanzees are like bears:  They’re terrifyingly dangerous, but they look cute, hence all the “accidents” you occasionally read about in the news.  But in movies, chimpanzees have historically been treated as friends, sidekicks, or punchlines.  You’d be better served making a horror movie about Chewbacca or C3PO.  (I have a feeling these words will come back to haunt me one day soon.)

Let’s begin our visit with Link at the plot-recap gazebo:  The movie opens on a rooftop, where something inhuman and murderous, something we don’t see, is hiding out in the shadows, pigeon bones strewn around nearby.  Right after that mood-setting opening title sequence, we move directly into the main premise, which is this: 

The eternally-lovely Elisabeth Shue, fresh off THE KARATE KID, plays an American college student living abroad in England (where the movie was made), who is hired by an eccentric professor (SUPERMAN 2’s Terence Stamp, who is also eternally-lovely) to help his lab for the summer.  The lab is located a small summer home, which is situated on a cliff high above the coast, with a seaside view, and it’s there that the professor studies the behavioral patterns of a group of super-smart chimpanzees.  The smartest of the bunch is a fellow named Link, who wears butler clothes and roams about the house freely.

There’s something I haven’t told you. 

LINK is about chimpanzees, this much is true.  But the title character is actually played by an orangutan.  His naturally orange fur has been dyed black, or, as it turned out, a sickly shade of brown.  I get it, it’s a safety issue, chimpanzees are dickheads, one of ’em bit off poor Jennifer Connelly’s finger during the making of PHENOMENA (true story), but still:  We’ve all seen PLANET OF THE APES.  We know the difference.  Don’t give us Dr. Zauis and then tell us he’s the lady one who kept calling Charlton Heston “Bright Eyes.”  It’s insulting to everyone involved.

Meanwhile, back in the movie, Professor Stamp has abruptly disappeared halfway through the story.  Elisabeth Shue gets increasingly suspicious and tries to find out where he went, while trying to run his lab in his absence.  Link and the others may or may not be able to help or hinder her efforts.

That’s it.  That’s the story.  In as many words, I’m telling you that Link is a movie where, for a significant amount of its running time, the only living beings onscreen are Elisabeth Shue and a small group of super-smart chimpanzees (orangutans).  If you’re even remotely like me, there can’t be any more encouraging cinematic prospect on paper.  In 2012, Elisabeth Shue is still incredibly cute (and definitely deserves to be a much bigger star), but Link has her at 23.   And I can’t pretend to get all sophisticated about it – for me, that’s kinda enough.  Show me apes in suits and a pretty girl and I will have to strain to complain. 

LINK was directed by Richard Franklin, who was a protégée of Alfred Hitchcock, to the point that Franklin directed PSYCHO 2.  (The Squeakquel!)  It was written by Everett De Roche, who also wrote 1981’s ROAD GAMES for Franklin.  These are not untalented men, not by a long shot, but this is not their best work.   LINK has a bizarre, unnatural rhythm that seems to be primarily due to some ill-considered pacing, but it could also have a lot to do with the fact that it’s a would-be suspenseful movie that relies heavily on animal actors.  That means that a human character will speak a line of dialogue, and then have to wait for the trained orang’s reaction.  That all happens in real time on film.

LINK also has a weirdly jaunty score, for a movie that intends to make chimpanzees (orangutans) in dinner jackets appear ominous.  The orchestral music undercuts most of the movie’s attempts at suspense.  I was surprised to see that the legendary Jerry Goldsmith supplied the music – you’d think that the guy who scored ALIEN, THE OMEN, POLTERGEIST, and even GREMLINS could have come up with some spookier tunage, but then again it must have been a tough assignment from the outset.

Lest I start sounding too critical, there are other things you need to know.  There is a scene where a perverted chimp (orangutan) stares at Elisabeth Shue as she prepares to take a bath.  There is a climactic exploding cigar scene.  I’m pretty sure that there are a couple scenes where little people in ape costumes double for the ape actors.  These are all moments that make me glad that I witnessed this movie.

A year later, Hollywood provided an answer to LINK with PROJECT X, where the chimpanzees were heroes, instead of creeps.  According to Wikipedia, however, PROJECT X was besieged by claims of animal cruelty.  LINK wasn’t, so that’s another chalk mark in its favor.  It’s got a growing cult following too, although there’s no re-release or remake in the works, as far as I can tell.  That might be for the best, really.  Like I said at the outset, for a horror movie it’s one bad haircut.  Then again, the hi-top fade is returning, and the mullet never left, so never say never.

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

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On the poster above, Quentin Tarantino describes MILANO CALIBRO 9 as “Il piu grande noir italiano de tutti i tempi”, which translates roughly to “This movie is fucking incredible.”  He also probably threw the N-word in there somewhere, but we try not to do that here.

The point is that Fernando DiLeo’s 1972 crime thriller MILANO CALIBRO 9, also known sometimes more simply as CALIBER 9, is a really, really cool crime flick, in a down-and-dirty and completely under-recognized way.  It’s about a career tough-guy who gets out of prison and is pressured by his old gang into revealing the location of money he may or may not know about.  The mob doesn’t believe him, the cops don’t believe him, even his fine-ass girlfriend (German actress Barbara Bouchet) doesn’t believe him.  Things get ugly.  That’s more than you need to know or care about the plot — not that the story isn’t worthwhile, but this movie has plenty else to recommend it besides its scriptwriting, I think.  The camerawork by Di Leo’s regular DP Franco Villa is aggressive, visceral, even a little sloppy, which makes the whole enterprise have the feel of a punch to the face in a dive bar.  The orchestral score Luis Enríquez Bacalov and the band Osanna is, most notably in the main theme, reminiscent of Morricone but with a bizarrely-awesome prog-rock twist.

It’s somewhere between documentary-style cinema-art and a brash, boistrous knuckle-dragging guy’s guy’s movie.  Just check out the opening sequence, which starts on a blatant phallic symbol and progresses into a flurry of slugfests, dynamite. and the least relaxing shave ever:

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You may notice from that sequence that, no offense, but most of the guys in this movie look a lot like like apes.  It has a lot to do with Di Leo’s apparent ambition with the picture, to portray crime as it probably should be portrayed — violent and animalistic and not as appealing as most movies paint it.

The lead actor, Gastone Moschin, who plays the excellently-named Ugo Piazza, is like a cross between Steve McQueen and Bruce Willis, but with a brow that weighs a ton.  Outside of a role in THE GODFATHER PART 2, he hasn’t been in many movies you’d have heard of, but he’s a very striking-looking dude.  Most movies wouldn’t think past casting a guy with this kind of looks (handsome but brutish) as a henchman, but it’s totally refreshing and probably necessary to have him as a protagonist.  Pretty-boys have little place in badass crime films — you want a guy who looks like he can scrap.

Mario Adorf plays the gregarious but vicious and explosive Rocco Musco as a kind of proto-Billy Batts.  Adorf was apparently Peckinpah’s first choice to play Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH, which tells you all you need to know about what this dude brings to the table.  Rocco is loud and obnoxious but oddly charismatic and you sure won’t forget his face.  Or his mustache.

Lionel Stander plays the ominous, malevolent crime boss.  Stander was an American actor with a long television career, but he played his share of roles in Italian cinema — notably in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Lionel Stander, like Ernest Borgnine or Willem Dafoe, is the kind of actor who is impossible to imagine was ever a baby.

The cops in this crime flick, the detectives on Ugo’s case, are given almost equal screen time to the cons, although they hardly get to leave the station.  They’re still compelling, played as they are by a couple of terrific journeymen actors who are well-remembered by fans of Italian cinema from the era.  Luigi Pistilli is probably best known as Tuco’s brother the priest in THE GOOD, THE BAD &THE UGLY, but he also played against Lee Van Cleef in DEATH RIDES A HORSE, had a key role in the unforgettable spaghetti THE GREAT SILENCE, and also starred in the great Enzo Castellari’s EAGLES OVER LONDON.  Meanwhile, Frank Wolff was an American who worked with Corman and Hellman before moving to Italy.  Like Pistilli, he worked with Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Sergio Corbucci (THE GREAT SILENCE), in the latter movie providing some much-needed sardonic comic relief as he does also in CALIBER 9.

It’s a great cast, and a rambunctious, energetic movie overall.  The ending in particular strikes like a loud howl and a gut-shot.  Quite honestly my comfort zone is Italian westerns and not Italian crime films (outside of VIOLENT CITY, STREET LAW, and REVOLVER, all fantastic), but this one, widely-regarded as a high-water mark of the genre, has compelled me to get my homework done.

MILANO CALIBRO 9 has been screening all month at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.

@jonnyabomb

Project Nim is a documentary about a chimpanzee transported from the wild and used in a project by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace who wanted to study what would happen if an ape was raised in close proximity to humans.  In true human fashion, Terrace and his assistants quickly discover they’ve taken on too much, and Nim is passed from foster home to foster home throughout his development, until later in life he wound up at an animal sanctuary where he spent the rest of his years.  There are plenty of entertainingly eccentric and downright bizarre elements to the story, such as the now-grown children of Nim’s first adoptive human mother complaining about being treated as second-favorite, or the tossed-off detail of how that first mother chose to nurture Nim (you’ll know my reaction as soon as you hear it).  But primarily, Nim’s is a sad story, to me at least.  It’s a Promethean myth in miniature, only far more frustrating because it really happened.

James Marsh, the director, also made Man On Wire, the 2008 documentary about the brazen Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.  Here is my brief capsule review of Man On Wire (also from 2008):

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If there truly is life on other planets, I hope that France is not the first country to make contact.  The French are just not like the rest of the people of earth.  Only a man born and raised in France could ever say something like this, talking about a life-threatening stunt:  “If I die.. what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”

And only a Frenchwoman could state about that speaker, admiringly:  “Every day is like a work of art for him.”

That kind of thinking is what is so fascinating and so maddening about the French.  Man On Wire is a documentary about the group of young people who snuck into the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974 so that one of them could walk a tightrope between them.  A truly thrilling, truly pointless act.  The movie bounces between modern-day interviews, archived footage, and re-enactments, staging the preparation of the stunt like a crime movie (which technically, it is), and leaving the ultimate historical context in the background, without exactly ignoring it.

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So as you can see, James Marsh is something of an expert in vividly detailing the bold follies and arguable successes of iconoclastic endeavors enacted in the 1970s.  Both Philippe Petit, the daredevil, and Herbert Terrace, the scientist, had unique and frankly crazy notions, enlisted collaborators, and undertook their respective projects.  The significant difference is, only one of them pulled it off.

What follows is my stream-of-consciousness as I first watched Project Nim.  It’s all fun and games until someone… well, you’ll see.

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9:26 PM – Watching Project Nim. This is some crazy shit. This lady is breastfeeding the chimpanzee already and it’s only ten minutes into the movie.

9:31 PM – The chimp is smoking pot and drinking beers. There’s weird sex talk also. Matt Broderick had Project X?  This is shaping up to be PROJECT XXX.

9:32 PM – So far, the moral seems to be that chimps are smart like humans, but should not be raised by swingers. Good advice all around.

9:40 PM – The following is a list of some of the words the scientists taught young Nim to use.

One word is not like the others.

9:46 PM – Chimp is a cat person.

Note: This is not Nim but I was determined to find a picture of a chimp holding a kitten.

9:49 PM – These lab people are hooking up with each other all over the place. I’m starting to think that the 1970s porno-professor guy is not the best role model for Nim.

9:54 PM – Nim is currently dry-humping a kitten.  Guess I was right about the influence, unfortunately.

10:02 PM – If this were a feature, the porno-professor guy would be played by Hector Elizondo.

Sadly, that means Garry Marshall would be the one directing.

10:05 PM – If Caesar and Koba were ever to see this movie, they’d be PISSED. #riseoftheplanetoftheapes

10:20 PM – Chimp is smoking pot again.

PINE-APE-LE EXPRESS. #wrongmovie

10:48 PM – Done. That story took some real dark turns. And you all should definitely see it. #projectnim

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What I was getting at, by the end of the string there, is the sense this movie leaves you with, that sinking suspicion that Nim is no better off for having been raised and “educated” by humans than he would have been had he been left to grow up in the wilderness with his birth movie.

In fact, the movie would seem to be ammunition for a considerable argument that Nim’s exposure to humanity, our emotional, impetuous inconsistencies and our heartless, bullheaded bureaucracies, was singularly destructive to his life and his happiness.  Every last bit of heartache we see in the course of this film may or may not have been circumvented by simply leaving well enough alone in the first reel.

So as good as this movie is, and as simultaneously calmly objective and subtly persuasive as it is, don’t expect anybody to learn anything.  Man has been meddling with nature since we first started poking saber-toothed tigers with sticks.  It’ll be that way until the dinosaurs come back and the last man on earth is working on taming hyper-evolved velociraptors.

Sorry, were you expecting less cynicism about our stupid self-centered pink species?  Maybe if you’d caught me earlier in the month, before I stumbled across news stories like this one, or maybe this one, or maybe the thousands of similar ones from the past week alone.  But no, this is man we’re talking about.  We’re the ones who pull the wings off butterflies and then act befuddled that they don’t fly or look as pretty as they used to.  Project Nim can be seen as a cautionary tale, but since it can only fall across the eyes of the most casually recidivist species that has ever existed on Planet Earth, it’s unlikely that the caution can be heeded.

In the meantime, I can be found on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

I probably should be doing about 50 other things at this very moment, but I saw this great top-50 list today and was inspired it to immediately answer it.  I made my list very, very quickly, so in plenty of ways it’s the most honest form a list like this could ever arrive in.  While the numbering is fairly arbitrary (until the top five, where shit gets definite) and while the contents could easily change as soon as five minutes from now, this is still a fairly good representation of what a top fifty movies list from me should look like.  Anyway, let’s hit it.  Links where they fit.  I eagerly await any and all comments you might make!

50. Watermelon Man (1970).

49. Fletch (1985).

48. The Great Silence (1968).

47. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

46. The Hit (1984).

45. Knightriders (1981).

44. The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

43. Of Unknown Origin (1983).

42. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).

41. Prime Cut (1972).

40. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

39. Coffy (1973).

38. Trainspotting (1996).

37. In Bruges (2008).

36. Quick Change (1990).

35. Collateral (2004).

34. Out Of Sight (1998).

33. Halloween (1978).

32. Magnolia (1999).

31. Raising Arizona (1987).

30. Escape From New York (1981).

29. Shogun Assassin (1980).

28. Goodfellas (1990).

27. Purple Rain (1984).

26. True Grit (2010).

25. The Unholy Three (1925).

24. My Darling Clementine (1946).

23. The Insider (1999).

22. Alligator (1980).

21. Animal House (1978).

20. High Plains Drifter (1973).

19. Freaks (1932).

18. Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

17. An American Werewolf In London (1981).

 

16. Predator (1987).

 

15. Jaws (1975).

14. Shaft (1971).

13. Evil Dead 2 (1987).

 

12. The Wild Bunch (1969).

11. Manhunter (1986).

10. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).

9. Heat (1995).

8. King Kong (1933).

7. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

6. Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

5. Unforgiven (1992).

4. Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

3. Ghostbusters (1984).

2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).

 

1. The Good The Bad & The Ugly (1966).

@jonnyabomb