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Tarantino, Rolling Thunder, Chungking Express & The Cocteau Twins

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Chungking Express

By Hong Kong standards of the time, Chungking Express was well represented at film festivals across the globe. In 1994 it travelled to Berlin, Toronto, New York, Chicago and London. That November it was invited to Stockholm, where it was joined by Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Derek Jarman’s swansong Blue and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which won the festival’s Bronze Horse Award.

Chungking Express did though blag a FIPRESCI prize, while Faye Wong picked up the Best Actress Award, the corresponding award going to John Travolta.

Quentin Tarantino made a personal appearance at the festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. This strikes me as at least a little strange as he’d only made two feature films at the time – albeit they were two exceptionally good ones.

The festival circuit was heaven to Tarantino, scooting around the planet, meeting fellow film fanatics and cramming in as many movies as he could see. The one he adored most in Stockholm was Chungking Express. Well, it wasn’t going to be Blue, was it?

Around this time he was toying with a plan to distribute some movies along with producing partner Lawrence Bender. The films the pair had in mind to release were to range from hard to find exploitation classics to newer, hip and underseen movies that could benefit from the Tarantino Seal of Approval. An imprint was set up in conjunction with – cough, cough – Miramax, named Rolling Thunder (after the 1977 cult favourite) and the first release was Chungking Express.

Here, QT motormouths his thoughts on the film, gives us some background detail on Kar-wai, and draws some parallels between Kar-wai and the French New Wave, which many reviewers of the time were also doing. Tony Rayns, for example, compared Chungking to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and as Quentin points out that’s where the name of his production company came from.

Feel free to play the Tarantino drinking game – every time he says ‘alright’ knock back a shot. Alright?

Set in the hyperactive, neon drenched cityscape that is Hong Kong, Chungking Express is both written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. It consists of two complementary stories, both concerning cops recently involved in break-ups.

The first is a sweet and sour tale that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Qiwu (Cop 223), who has been dumped by his girlfriend May on April Fool’s Day. ‘So I took it as a joke. I’m willing to humour her for a month.’

Qiwu is very briefly drawn into the world of an enigmatic woman played by Brigitte Lin, who is never seen without cheap sunglasses and a blonde wig. The cop is too caught up in his own problems to ever suspect that May could be the type of woman who could kidnap a child, and be majorly involved in a drug smuggling ring. In fact, he’s more interested in pineapple rings and has become obsessed with buying a tin of them every day that will expire on the 1st of May. At which point he believes he can move on and maybe find someone new.

The second, and longer, story stars Tony Leung as Cop 663, a regular at the same snack bar that his fellow officer frequents.

He had imagined that he and his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) would stay together for the long haul but instead they have recently changed course. Luckily, you might assume, he immediately catches the eye of new assistant Faye, a girl with a boyish pixie cut – that reminded some of Jean Seberg’s hairstyle in Breathless – and a dream to travel to California, which is why we repeatedly hear The Mama and Papas’ Californian Dreamin’ throughout this segment. The lovelorn policeman fails to pick up Faye’s interest in him, though.

This is quirky stuff, not a million miles away from some of the indies being made in America at the time and Faye Wong gives a startling performance. She also plays an important role in the soundtrack, singing a cover of The Cranberries’ worldwide hit Dreams, renamed here as Dream Person.

VARIOUS

Like QT, The Cocteau Twins were big Chungking Express fans and Faye Wong was a big fan of the Cocteaus, repeatedly mentioning in interviews that they were an influence on her sound along with a number of other Western acts like Bjork and Tori Amos, in addition to more local performers like Taiwanese folk singer Teresa Teng.

Originally from Bejing, Wong had moved to Kong Kong and began a singing career in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1991 she spent six months in New York, and when she returned to Hong Kong her music would become more eclectic. By the time of hooking up with the Cocteaus, she was a major star in Asia.

This meeting of East and West could have benefits for both, potentially helping the Cocteaus make inroads into the lucrative East Asia market, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, while it would also lend some extra credibility to Wong, and further mark her out from her more mainstream Cantopop rivals, Wong being highly critical of the commercial Hong Kong pop scene of the mid-1990s.

A snippet of her version of Bluebeard was also included in the Chungking soundtrack, where it was renamed Random Thoughts ( Wu Si Lyun Seong), and this became the title of her album of 1994, which also contained a further Cocteaus cover in Know Oneself and Each Other (Zi Gei Zi Bei).

Here’s Random Thoughts, which you could argue adds the square root of hee-haw to the song, but certainly demonstrates that Wong possesses an exceptionally enchanting voice.

On the Hong Kong edition of the eighth and final studio album of the Cocteaus, Milk and Kisses, the band included two versions of Serpentskin, one sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and one where Fraser duets with Wong.

Wong later recorded an acoustic version of Rilkean Heart (Reminiscence) for her 1997 eponymous album, and Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde wrote a new song Yu Le Chang (Amusement Park), especially for her.

‘[We] thought it might be a fun thing to do, as her voice seemed to be in a similar range and style to Elizabeth’s,’ Simon Raymonde explained in The Quietus, discussing their work together. ‘I think it was an interesting collaboration and while it probably didn’t work out as we might have imagined, I think musically and sonically it all worked out fine.’

Here’s that aforementioned duet, Serpentskin.

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David Holzman’s Diary (American Indie #2)

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This week’s post is a guest contribution from Alison Lea and she’s chosen to cover one of those films that it’s probably best to know nothing about before seeing. She’s asked me to point out that she’ll be giving some thoughts on what happens during the film, before going on to add some background. Much of this will include spoilers. Be warned.

David_Holzman's_Diary

The film opens in New York slap-bang in the middle of the summer of love but David Holzman shows little interest in the flower power movement. Instead, he’s more concerned with having just lost his job and then received a draft card. Vietnam awaits. Bummer.

This guy is obviously a cinephile. Quad posters of Suspicion and Touch of Evil hang on his walls, he quotes Godard and Trauffaut and compares a neighbour to a character in a Visconti film. You can easily imagine him spending much of his spare time watching filmmakers who rejected the traditional orthodoxy of the Hollywood studio system like Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith in small galleries and lofts on the Lower East Side.

Holzman hits on the idea of – you’ve guessed it – creating a diary, but not the kind that Samuel Pepys become famous for. His will be a cinematic journal, shot on his beloved 16mm Éclair camera – he even shows us some relevant pages from the user’s manual – with sound recorded on a Nagra tape recorder via a Lavalier mic. In doing so, he hopes to make sense of his life. ‘Film is truth at 24 frames per second’ after all, as a ‘noted French wit’ once observed.

He drives around his Upper West Side neighbourhood with Booker T and Green Onions blasting out of a tinny transistor along with news reports. There’s a riot going on in nearly Newark, and the Vietnam War is escalating. He ums and ahs as he tells us about his life. Or more accurately, what he wants us to know about his life.

Not everybody is convinced that his visual diary is a good idea. His friend Pepe stands in front of a sloppily painted pop art mural and insists that David’s life will makes a bad movie. He points out that Penny ‘looks like a very bad actress,’ before explaining a truth that everyone should know: ‘You don’t understand the basic principle. As soon as you start filming something, whatever happens in front of the camera is not reality any more. It becomes something else. It becomes a movie.’

Does David heed this advice?

Not a chance.

David Holzmans Diary still

He chats with a sex-crazed transsexual looking for action, includes a long handheld shot of old folks sitting on a park bench in Manhattan’s Verdi Square and records a frame of every show and advert he sees one night, including Batman and Star Trek, both then in their infancy. Covertly he turns his camera on a female neighbour who lives across the street from him.

Further creepy voyeuristic tendencies are revealed when he points his camera on the subway at a young woman. When she gets off the carriage, he does too. And he continues to film as he stalks her on the streets. She hurriedly tries to get away from him but eventually she stops and yells ‘Beat it!’ right in his face.

Not surprisingly, his relationship with Penny deteriorates. Because she is a model, he assumes that she has no right to say no to being filmed by him. She’s annoyed by him incessantly pointing his camera in her direction and tells him so. Later she has a snooze while naked in his apartment, and surreptitiously, he begins shooting her again – the sequence brings to mind Warhol’s Sleep but thankfully is around four hours and twenty minutes shorter. She wakes and reacts angrily.

End of David and Penny. And who can blame her?

David had hoped his project would bring his life into focus but before a week is out he is more confused than ever. Alone and alienated, he is finally reduced to angrily quizzing his camera as if it was human. ‘What do you want with me?’

David_Holzman's_Diary_L.M._Kit_Carson

The author Scott MacDonald has screened David Holzman’s Diary in recent years to film students without any introduction and most apparently assume that Holzman is a real person.

He’s not. As the end credits roll, we see that somebody called L.M. Kit Carson has played the role. And we’re then informed that this fictional tale has been directed. By Jim McBride.

McBride is an fascinating figure of the time. He was a contemporary of Scorsese and De Palma and pally with both. He would go see De Palma’s early experimental shorts like Woton’s Wake from 1962 at NYC’s Cinema 16 (Mission Impossible, it ain’t, incidentally). He studied film at NYU, where he was in the same class as Martin Scorsese. Later, when Scorsese was editing Who’s That Knocking At My Door, McBride was spending hour upon hour in an editing suite next door to him, working on David Holzman’s Diary. Michael Wadleigh helped out on cinematography duties on both films.

L.M. Kit Carson puts in a completely believable performance here as the insecure, self-absorbed and ultimately pathetic young man and the diary certainly feels authentic. When Holzman is drunk and gabbering on about at Penny (Eileen Dietz) it’s easy to believe that he’s just drank a six-pack of Bud. When he buys a new fish-eye lens, his enthusiasm shines through as he demonstrates how it makes his world look.

I would have thought Carson might have gone on to a very solid acting career, maybe like a young actor who appeared in some Brian De Palma low budget films of the time like Greetings called Robert De Niro, or Harvey Keital, who had been given a lead role in Who’s That Knocking in 1967.

Instead he’ll likely be best remembered for his screenplays. He shared a writing credit with McBride on the director’s 1983 loose remake of Godard’s Breathless and also co-wrote Paris, Texas with Sam Shepard, before gaining a solo credit on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I think he’s better with a writing partner, judging by that script.

McBride himself went on to direct a good few more films. Unlike Scorsese and De Palma, he never achieved any massive box-office successes but along with Breathless, he also impressed with 1986’s The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, and his Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire from 1989. His groundbreaking and still influential debut, made on a budget of around only $2,500, might just be his finest moment, though.

Years later, he did attempt to get a sequel off the ground – The Return of David Holzman being his favoured title – but, sadly, this was not to be.

Today, fake and real-or-not-umentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish are more common than ever. The term ‘catfish’ even entered the lexicon of pop culture speak after that documentary made a splash in 2010 and helped draw attention to the fact that there are now thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, dating sites, forums and elsewhere online pretending, sometimes convincingly, to be someone or something they’re not. It’s even the name too of an MTV ‘Reality TV’ show but we all know how real those are, don’t we?

McBride’s debunking of the supposed truthfulness of cinéma vérité is currently available to see on YouTube, along with many hoax videos, possible hoax videos and vloggers whose self-representations really shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value.

Interestingly, as I performed some research on the director, I came across someone who in the comments box of a post about him, asked if anybody knew how McBride could be contacted. And McBride himself replied, freely making his email address available for the interested party, or anybody else reading his comment, to get in touch.

Or was this the ‘real’ Jim McBride?

La Pointe Courte & Faces Places (New Waves #7)

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La Pointe Courte & Faces Places

La Pointe Courte (1954)
Faces Places (2017)

Agnès Varda died last weekend, aged ninety. Unlike many artists she managed to keep her creativity levels at a very high standard right till the end.

Last year saw the release in Britain of her documentary Faces Places, which Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called ‘the year’s best, most beguiling documentary,’ before mentioning the phrase ‘sheer perfection’ to describe it.

He wasn’t its only fan. It was screened out of competition at Cannes, where it won the L’Œil d’or award, and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why so many film fans enjoyed Faces Places. Varda is so damn likeable, it’s impossible not to enjoy seeing her scoot across rural France in a van – doubling as a photo booth – with her companion for the tour, JR, a thirty-three-year-old photographer who co-directs the documentary along with her and is never seen without his sunglasses on.

Yes, the format could be compared to the sort of TV show where a celeb or celebs embark on a road trip but here wherever Agnès and JR head to, they end up memorializing some of the most interesting folk (and animals) they meet. JR specialises in making massive format photographic prints, which he (along with his team) plaster up on the walls, water towers, trains and other surfaces of the villages they visit. Even a huge tower of shipping containers is utilized at one point.

Agnes Varda & mural

Varda was a key figure in French New Wave cinema although she wasn’t French (being born and brought up in Belgium) and had started her long career in filmmaking before the term New Wave had been popularised, so you could easily argue that she is a precursor to that cinematic movement.

Like a number of visually interesting directors – Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick and Lynne Ramsay spring to mind – she started off as a photographer. A spell studying at the highly regarded Ecole de Vaugirard led to her to finding a job at the Théâtre national populaire, where she met many actors including Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret.

She set up a tiny independent production company Cine-Tamaris, a co-operative with the lead actors & crew members in order to make her debut film La Pointe Courte. No one was paid during filming and the budget was tiny.

Filmed in Sète on the southern coast of France, where Varda lived during her adolescence, this is a study of a married couple – played by Monfort and Noiret – in crisis, wondering if they should stay together.

La Pointe Courte

It’s also a portrait of the fishing village where Noiret’s unnamed character was born and raised, which, as the film opens is about to see the arrival of government inspectors, visiting to see if villagers are fishing with the legally approved permits and also possibly harvesting potentially poisonous shellfish.

Shot in a gorgeously luminous black and white, Varda documents the lives of the locals vividly as they eat, fish, argue, gossip, take down sheets from a clothes line in a billowing wind, and even take part in a local sporting tradition known as joutes – a kind of water jousting event that still takes place in the area and is something of a tourist attraction.

Critics adored La Pointe Courte but sadly it was denied the opportunity to ever become any kind of commercial success at the time.

La Pointe Courte - Agnes Varda

The Centre National de la Cinématographie, a government agency whose remit included the promotion of cinema in France, deemed it as ‘amateur’, as Varda had shot it without their authorization. This meant that it was not allowed to be shown in any commercial cinemas. A real shame, although it was screened at Cannes and later enjoyed a two week run in Paris at the Art et essai Studio Parnasse in 1956.

Varda didn’t make another feature length film until Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1961 by which point the New Wave was very much up-and-running with Le Beau Serge, The 400 Blows, and Breathless, having all been keenly discussed hits and international successes.

For someone who had only seen a very limited number of films by the time she turned twenty-five, it’s extraordinary that over sixty years after her debut, Varda was still involved in filmmaking.

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In Faces Places – or Visages Villages, to give it its French title – Agnès is obviously very old. She knows she’s very old. She struggles to get around as she once did and her eyesight is beginning to fail her.

She compares JR’s penchant for never being seen without shades with that of her old pal Jean Luc-Godard, who decades before shared the same habit, and she wants to see JR’s eyes properly while she can. This leads to a melancholic moment that is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable.

Equally sad is her trip to visit Godard. Once close comrades in the heyday of the New Wave, Varda is keen to meet him once more as it’s been years since they met. On the day, Godard refuses to open his door and a disconsolate Varda later closed the door on their friendship and wasn’t sure if Godard had even bothered to watch the film.

Luckily, the bulk of Faces Places is much more enjoyable for the director with plenty of offbeat humor and unexpected moments of joy.

The Agnès/JR double act has been described as a clash of generations and several critics called the pair an ‘odd couple’. Maybe what is really odd though, is the idea that the old and young can’t bond the way these two did. I’m sure Faces Places must have been a life affirming experience for both. And for the villagers who took part in it and the viewers who have watched it too

Agnès Varda 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019.

To see the trailer for La Pointe Courte, click here. To see the trailer for Faces Places, here’s your link.

New York, New York (Soundtrack Sundays)

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New York New York

New York, New York is a big song. A Manhattan skyline big song. Everybody from eight to eighty knows it. No, scrap that cliche. Plenty of people over eighty know it too. And maybe quite a few under eight too.

It’s the ultimate song for drunks at the end of a party. What a singalong. Belting out those lyrics about waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep and how if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and pretending to be Francis Albert.

As Sinatra signature tunes go, this is right up there. Only My Way can rival it. It has become the unofficial anthem of the great city and New York’s very own Martin Scorsese even named one of his early movies after it.

No, scrap that too. When Martin Scorsese hit on the idea to make a spec script by a screenwriting newcomer Earl Mac Rauch into a dazzling, hyper-stylised tribute to the big band era and to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the song didn’t yet exist.

New York New York Happy Endings

To me, it sounds as if it was maybe composed when my grandfather was still a young man, or when my dad was a teenager in the 1950s, but it was written when I was fifteen, a time when The Sex Pistols were tabloid sensations, when David Bowie changed direction radically with Low, and John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever.

I could get into some old tittle-tattle about Scorsese and Liza Minelli but won’t. He cast the star as his female lead, an up and coming singer Francine Evans, and brought in two songwriters Kander and Ebb, who’d become strongly associated with her through musicals like Cabaret, to supply some tunes.

Their original theme for the film impressed the director and singer but co-star Robert De Niro, who was to play saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, was much less happy about it. He requested that they try writing another theme which I’m guessing must have rattled the award-winning team, who were happy with their effort.

Still, they agreed to give it another go, in order to please an actor who was learning to play saxophone at this point, albeit only so he could better mimic a sax player as his own parts were to be dubbed in the movie by George Auld. Auld who also played bandleader Frankie Harte claimed that when he first met De Niro, the actor ‘Didn’t know a tuba from a taxicab.’

So what did this guy know about a successful theme tune?

This time Kander and Ebb came up with something that he did approve of, as did Scorsese and Minelli too, and this showstopper – which in the film, Jimmy composes – became the highlight of New York, New York (which I could never remotely love the way I loved Mean Streets or Taxi Driver).

Released as a single by Minelli during the long hot summer of ’77, this is Theme From New York, New York:

Was it a hit?

Like the film,* it failed to live up to expectations. It’s easy to imagine that from the moment people hear that killer opening vamp, they would fall in love with the track, but Minnelli’s original only managed to reach #104 in America.

Liza Minelli - New York, New York.jpg

‘Really?’ you might say. ‘But I bet the track must have went on to win Best Song at the Oscars and took off from there?’

Nope. In fact, it didn’t even earn a nomination from the Academy.

When it was first suggested that Frank Sinatra cover the song, he was initially wary. Ol’ Blue Eyes liked Liza’s version and treated her almost like family, due to his old friendship with Liza’s mother Judy Garland. By the autumn of 1978, though, he was persuaded to sing it live at a charity event at Waldorf-Astoria.

In 1980, he released the song as a single.

That must have been a huge hit then, you might think.

Nope, not really. In America it peaked at #32, while in Britain it made it no higher than #59.

Strange.

Both Frank and Liza continued to perform the song live and it continued to grow in popularity. A little research tells me that on these shores, Sinatra’s version was re-released early in 1986, and did finally go on to become a very sizeable success, joining the likes of The Damned, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Simple Minds in the official UK singles chart, where it eventually peaked at #4, although I have absolutely no recollection of this.

Here are Frank and Liza live at Madison Square Gardens with a very showbizzy take on the song that doesn’t really work for me. Sorry but there’s no real chemistry between the voices and Frank, it would have to be admitted, is clearly past his prime. See if you agree:

* George Lucas – whose wife Marcia worked as an editor on the film – believed that New York, New York could have added another ten million to its box-office takings if Scorsese had chosen to close the film with a happy ending. Scorsese decided to ignore the suggestion but stuck with what he saw as the truth of the relationship.

 

A Suzy Kendall Double Bill: Torso & Spasmo

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Suzy Kendall Double Bill

It’s Giallo time again. So pour yourself a J&B with ice and enjoy.

First up is Torso, also occasionally known as The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, or just plain Carnal Violence.

This is my favourite film by Sergio Martino, a director who worked in many fields, from sex comedies to spaghetti westerns, Euro crime to the cannibal genre and even a not terribly good creature-feature Island of the Fishmen.

Martino, though, is today best remembered for his 1970s gialli output such as The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key, and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. Yes, like many other Italian directors in this field he did favour baroque titles.

Martino’s older brother Luciano had produced Mario Bava’s The Whip and The Body, and this film proved inspirational to Sergio, as did Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The former starred John Richardson, the latter provided a prominent part for Suzy Kendall.

Both these English actors star in Torso, Richardson as Franz, an urbane art history professor in a Perugia university; one of his students being Jane, an American exchange student, played by Kendall.

Suzy Kendall - Torso

The one time wife of Dudley Moore, Kendall is an actress whose early career saw her appear in a number of successes, most notably To Sir With Love and Up the Junction.

By the 1970s, she was also much sought after by big budget British TV series such as The Persuaders, where she was guaranteed to inject some instant glamour. Around this time she also established herself as a big name in the world of giallo after appearing in the aforementioned Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

After Torso’s opening credits sequence, which resembles something from a dodgy softcore movie of the era, we cut to a university hall, where Franz is giving a lecture to a large number of students on the subject of Pietro Perugino, an Italian Renaissance painter who he doesn’t rate very highly.

Afterwards, Jane, accompanied by her friends, chooses to discuss the artist further with him, arguing the case for Perugino. It’s easy to imagine a mutual attraction between the pair, even though Franz refuses to back down on his opinion.

Soon the murders begin. A balaclava wearing psycho brutally kills one of the females seen in the opening credits, after spying on her and her boyfriend canoodling in a car. He kills him too, but off-screen.

The murder of her friend, affects Jane’s pal Carol (Conchita Airoldi) badly. She troops off to what looks like a deserted warehouse with two motorbike riding students, where a gathering of hippy types smoke dope, relax, dance and play music.

Carol puffs on a joint and lets the two boys fondle her until one goes too far. She storms off, followed by them. This scene, as they chase her through a swampy forest, is particularly effective and the score works well, hinting at prog and helping to induce a real sense of dread. And the dread only increases when she glimpses a man through the mist.

Torso Psycho Killer

This won’t be the last murder in Torso, and most of the victims will be in Jane’s circle of friends.

The suspects are many and varied. Chief among them is intense student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco), who has been obsessed by Daniela (Tina Aumont) for years. He’s shown being abusive to a local prostitute, throttling her throat for some moments before managing to calm down.

Then there’s the chisel-chinned man in a smart suit, spotted earlier by Carol buying a black and red neckerchief – which becomes a major clue in the manhunt. He later boards the same train as Jane and co., and chooses to sit in the same carriage as them.

Gianni Tomasso is an incredibly creepy looking man and has a sleazy manner to match. He runs a little clothes stall in a piazza in the centre of the city, near to the university and obviously knows more than he lets on to the police when questioned.

As the carnage continues, Dani’s wealthy Uncle Nino arranges for his daughter and her friends (including Jane) to leave their homes in Perugia and stay temporarily at a cliffside villa in the country, where they’ll be safe.

Torso - Students

Is this a good idea? I think you can guess. And could Nino be involved in the slayings? After all, who doesn’t know how this kind of thing works?

Much as Torso is highly enjoyable, it must have been an even more remarkable watch in 1973. As many commentators have mentioned before, Torso is like a slasher before that cinematic term had even been coined.

The movie’s first half does start off in classic giallo fashion but as it progresses you can tick off a number of tropes and trappings of the slasher.

There’s the masked killer on the loose, the group of attractive young females, an isolated location, and the final girl – the sole survivor, resilient and resourceful and who just happens to be the most moral and pure member of the group.

Torso - Suzy Kendall

I’m not much of a fan of slashers but I’m a big fan of Torso, although I only saw it for the first time years after the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th had already begun spawning sequels.

Expect gratuitous gore, a shoal of red herrings, and a final third that is packed with suspense and features a fantastic performance from Kendall.

Spasmo

Spasmo is another giallo from a master of Italian genre cinema, Umberto Lenzi. This is a strange one and comes over like a particularly disturbing dream, especially with the running motif of female mannequins dressed only in lingerie, that are either mutilated or hanging on nooses.

The two leads here are Robert Hoffmann, an Austrian actor best known for TV’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and a badly dubbed Suzy Kendall, who plays Barbara. I do tend to love Italian genre cinema but just occasionally sloppy post-synching can annoy, and I committed the cardinal sin here of choosing the English language version. My wrists have been slapped.

Christian Bauman (Hoffmann) is a Bee Gee lookalike with a small medallion, who shows his girlfriend Xenia a patch of land where he and his older brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) once discovered a dead dog that had been strangled when they were kids. And don’t ask how two young boys managed to identify that cause of death. maybe they carried out a psot-mortem.

Xenia spots what she looks like a female corpse on a stretch of nearby sand and she and Chrstian run over to investigate. This is Barbara, who of course isn’t dead, and is surprised that anybody could have made the assumption, even though she admits to fainting from sunstroke.

‘What you need is a double Scotch,’ Christian advises her. ‘That’ll pick you up.’

As he and Xenia go to his car to locate the whisky, Barbara mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a clue as to her identity, a flask bearing the name Tucania on it.

Christian and Xenia soon track down a yacht of that name harboured locally, and join a party on-board the vessel that is populated by Euro jet-set types and owned by Barbara’s possessive friend Alex, who is in love with her.

By nightfall, though, Xenia has been forgotten and Barbara won over by his chat-up lines like him calling her a ‘sweet, sweet whore.’ They head to the motel where Barbara’s staying, although she demands that Christian shaves his beard off before they get down to action. She has a razor in her room that is ‘big, sharp and sexy.’

Spasmo Suzy Kendall

While he’s removing his facial hair – with an electric shaver rather than any razor – a gun-toting intruder who looks like Dario Argento attacks him. Christian fights him off and grabs the gun. Then shoots him dead.

‘What’re you doing?’ Barbara asks a dazed Christian, as he walks into the living room. ‘Destroying my bathroom?’

He explains what happened. She suggests running away. He agrees. Luckily, she knows a property owned by a Brazilian artist friend currently in Rio. Here they can hide and plan their next move.

They break into the seaside home and soon discover that a couple are already renting it out, an older man Malcolm and a much younger female Clorinda, a redhead with the most piercing blue eyes imaginable, who Christian appears to vaguely recognise. I think I would personally remember that face forever more.

He confesses to Malcolm that he has murdered a man but Malcolm fails to believe him. This is like a decidedly disturbing dream and it is only going to get even stranger.

Spasmo Mannequin

Spasmo is a decent watch but nowhere near as effective as Torso. The dialogue is often abysmal and the plot too labyrinthine to easily follow, with a number of coincidences that are difficult to believe.

A revelation near the very end is clever enough and does make some sense of the batshit craziness that we have been watching but this comes just too late to entirely rescue the movie.

On the plus side, the mannequin motif is creepy and memorable, Ennio Morricone does provide a sometimes soothing, sometimes disorienting score, while in one great action sequence, Christian displays some driving skills that I don’t remember Jackie Stewart ever demonstrating back in the ’70s. And finally, Suzy Kendall is again in good form. A true giallo icon.

Suzy, incidentally, has now retired from acting but was persuaded to help out on 2012’s giallo influenced Berberian Sound Studio – another film with a disturbing and dreamy quality – where she is credited as ‘Special Guest Screamer’.

To see the trailer for Torso, click here.

To see the trailer for Spasmo, click here.

Mean Streets (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Mean Streets.jpg

If asked, I’ll say that The Ronettes’ Be My Baby is very likely the greatest pop song ever recorded. Not only that, its use on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is one of the finest uses of any track in the history of cinema.

I’m guessing you’ve already seen the film. Harvey Keitel as Charlie wakes up. He’s alone in a spartan looking room where a crucifix hangs on the wall. Outside a siren blares and an interior siren seems to blare in his head.

Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

Anxious, he rises, examines his face in a mirror and then goes back to bed. Scorsese gives us three rapid jump-cuts of Charlie’s face and as his head crashes back down on his pillow, Hal Blaine’s celebrated drum beat kicks in – three thuds of a deep bass drum, then another single hit on the snare, bolstered by some handclaps. Enter the startling vibrato of Ronnie Spector, cooing the opening lines: ‘The night we met, I knew I needed you so / And if I had the chance, I’d never let you go.’

As she sings, we see some handheld and grainy 8mm home movie footage of what we can only guess were happier times. A dapper Charlie at a baptism, hanging around with some buddies, and smiling while talking to a priest. All still soundtracked by The Ronettes.

Even in an age of Shirelles, Supremes and Shangi Las, Be My Baby stands out as something very special.

In his biography Good Vibrations, Beach Boy Mike Love wrote of the effect Be My Baby had on bandleader Brian Wilson: ‘When we’d go to Brian’s house, he would play that song over and over again, comparing it to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’

‘I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did,’ the man who wrote the music for California Girls, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and Caroline, No later admitted to the New York Times. ‘I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.’

He is likely right. There isn’t a single click of the castanets too few or too many. The record is perfection. I’d go as far to say that if you’re just embarking on a relationship and wondering whether to take things further, ask the person what they think about Be My Baby. If they don’t absolutely love it, forget them, make your excuses and say goodbye.

That’s the only relationship advice I’ll ever give on here.

Here’s some footage of The Ronettes, shot in 1964, in (very appropriately) Little Italy in NYC, the setting of Mean Streets – okay, much of the film was shot in L.A. doubling for the neighbourhood where the young Scorsese grew up.

On discovering that Hal Blaine had died last Monday, I immediately thought of Be My Baby and that iconic and much copied drumbeat, even though it’s estimated that over the course of his magnificent career he played on over 35,000 recordings, 40 of which made it to number one in America.

A version of Hal made an appearance in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – a far better film incidentally than Bohemian Rhapsody – where, during a break from recording, he tells the young Brian Wilson: ‘You name them, we’ve played with them. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Phil Spector, Sam Cooke. Everyone. And we all studied at goddam conservatories for Christ’s sake but you, you gotta know… you’re touched, kid. You’ve blown our minds.’

‘More than Phil Spector?’ Wilson asks sheepishly.

‘Phil Spector has got nothing on you,’ Blaine replies, smiling.

Brian’s ecstatic. Instantly buoyed for when he returns to work on the session.

Here’s some more Hal, although that’s not him on drums on this clip, but rather Dennis Wilson, who looks like he hasn’t fully recovered from too much partying the nightbefore. But it is Hal hitting those drumsticks. From Pet Sounds, this is God Only Knows:

On hearing of his death, Brian Wilson observed: ‘Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success – he was the greatest drummer ever.’

Ronnie Spector, who once said that she felt like she’d gone to heaven when she first heard Blaine’s drumbeat on Be My Baby, also paid tribute to the man, thanking him on her Facebook page for ‘the magic he put on all our Ronettes recordings… and so many others throughout his incredible career ‘.

Hal Blaine (born Harold Simon Belsky): 5 February 1929 – 11 March 2019.

Kes

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Kes

This week, I’m working on a couple of reviews for elsewhere, so decided here to recycle a review from a few years ago for Louder Than War to mark Eureka’s blu-ray release of a favourite film of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jarvis Cocker, the iconic and much loved British drama Kes.

I’m guessing that most of you have already seen the film, so I’ll allow myself a spoiler later in this review.

Based on Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel For A Knave and mainly utilising non-professional actors, Kes was shot on location in Barnsley bookshops, bookies, chippies and the school where Hines was once a teacher and the young lead was then a pupil. It’s a bleak story with a particularly gut-wrenching finale, and the dialogue consists almost entirely of broad Yorkshire accents that people from outside the North of England might struggle at times to understand.

Put this way, it’s maybe not too surprising that Kes initially struggled to find distribution in an era where the duopoly of the Rank Organisation and ABC largely controlled the cinema distribution circuit around the country. The former turned it down flat out while the latter saw fit only to give it a run out in selected Yorkshire cinemas.

These screenings proved highly successful but it would still be a full two years after the film had wrapped before audiences nationwide were given the chance to see this captivating slice of working class life by multi-award winning director Ken Loach, or Kenneth Loach as he is credited here.

Two brothers share a single bed with a solitary pillow in a room that I doubt was going to be a contender for Good Housekeeping’s Seal of Approval any time soon. Billy Casper (David Bradley) is fifteen and on the brink of leaving school, although he looks much younger, a ‘weedy little twat’ according to half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher), who likes to remind Billy that he’ll soon be following him down the local pit at the end of the current school term, a scenario that Billy dreads and one he denies will ever happen.

Billy Casper and Jud in Kes

Billy though will have limited options in life. He can hardly read or write and is inarticulate. He’s no budding George Best either and lacks any exceptional artistic skill like Billy Elliot that could potentially lead him straight outta Barnsley to fame and fortune.

In his baggy two sizes too big shirt (presumably handed down from Jud) and shabby trousers held up by a snake belt, he continually looks a sorry figure. If he does manage to avoid the mines, he looks destined for a life of unemployment or maybe a low paid job as a factory wage slave.

Billy daydreams. Billy lies. Billy gets bullied by Jud, by vindictive teachers and by his fellow pupils – although he is capable of bullying too. As he waits outside the headmaster’s office, he helps ‘persuade’ a younger boy to hide his ciggies for him before he is inevitably searched along with some other members of the ‘smokers’ union’.

He steals chocolate; he steals milk and most significantly, he steals a female fledgling kestrel – a horrible theft really, snatching the startled creature from its natural environment, a nest atop an old manor house in ruins, in front of another bird nesting there.

Casper, though, does this with good intentions and quickly dedicates himself fully to feeding and training the kestrel, which he names Kes.

Luckily for us, Loach is clearly no believer in that old maxim – never work with animals and children.

Billy Casper and Kes

In contrast to Billy, Jud (Freddie Fletcher) is the ‘cock of the estate’, an arrogant loudmouth, drinker, gambler and womaniser. He’s likely trying his best not to let the bastards grind him down but this almost perpetually angry young man, you sense, will ultimately be fighting a losing battle. His resentment at the world appears perilously close to snapping at the slightest provocation – and Billy will provide him with plenty of ammunition later when he fails to use Jud’s money to place a bet that would have won him enough money to take a week off work.

Several scenes in Kes will linger long in the memory: the fantasy cup tie between Spurs and Manchester United orchestrated by Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden is comically absurd; the caning scene makes me flinch every time I see it – Loach had guaranteed the boys that he would call ‘cut’ just before the cane whipped the palms of their hands but didn’t and the tears of the youngest boy were real.

The boys were furious. Ironically for a notable socialist, his duplicity had caused the young actors to go on strike – point-blank refusing to shoot the scene again. Producer Tony Garnett salvaged the situation, promising the boys ten shillings (50p) extra each time they were belted. David Bradley & co ended the day £3.50 better off.

Billy Casper belted in Kes

Then there’s the emotionally gruelling final sequence where Billy desperately searches for Kes, his hopes sliding inexorably into his worst nightmare with Jud gaining the cruellest of revenges.

The best thing about Kes though is the extraordinary performance of David Bradley, a teenager with no acting experience bar some Christmas pantos. Remarkably he is in almost every frame of the film, bar an extended scene where his feckless mother and Jud separately visit a dingy boozer with some dodgy live entertainment, an overlong scene that is pretty much irrelevant too, one of the few complaints I would make about the film.

Watching Bradley as Billy outlining to his classmates his recently learned expertise about falconry reminded me that his naturalistic turn here really is one of the great British performances on the big screen, up there with the likes of Malcolm McDowell in If… and A Clockwork Orange and David Thewlis in Naked.

Loach has had artistic successes since Kes such as Sweet Sixteen and most recently I, Daniel Blake – and failures too like Looking for Eric and Ae Fond Kiss – but it is Kes that will surely always remain his most fondly remembered cinematic excursion. Powerful and poetic, humane and haunting, this is one of the high-points in British social-realist cinema and one that still resonates with viewers half a century after it was released.

Trivia: Composer John Cameron provides Kes with an effective folk inflected score, a plaintive piece with a lovely pastoral feel. After Kes, he helped form the band C.C.S, who provided the theme music for Top of the Pops with their cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. He also arranged the Hot Chocolate hit You Sexy Thing.

For more on this release: https://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/kes

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