Category Archives: Movies

Notes from the Screening Room – The Tune, The Big Bird Cage, Maniac, Death Race 2000, Fernando Di Leo, Busting

A few months back I dug through Bill Plympton’s Dog Days DVD, an excellent collection of his recent short films and commissioned work that also features an inspiring half-hour interview that delves into the depths of Plympton’s total independence and DIY work ethic. I’ve been obsessively catching up with more of his work since then, which led me to watching his first feature The Tune last night. Released in 1992, The Tune trumps every major indie film of the 90s boom by being not only self-financed but self-almost-everythinged, the first animated feature to be drawn by one person, reportedly featuring 30,000 cells. Some sequences were produced as standalone shorts beforehand and mixed into the movie, which sometimes gives it the feeling of being more of an animation anthology with a through-line than a proper full-length, but even that was an unprecedented landmark that set a bar that other auteurs can only dream of touching and that Plympton has raised himself over the years; his latest, Idiots and Angels, is a more cohesive (though still batty) narrative that called for a richer and more fluid 30,000 pencil drawings. The Tune is fascinating to watch as a herculean achievement, but it’s also just a funny little cult oddity with a lot of things you won’t see anywhere else, though it does bring Tex Avery, David Lynch, and Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop to mind. It sounds like a lot of people get a little restless among the occasionally sleepy genre riffs that make up the soundtrack and more or less form every scene, but for me, one vessel is as good as another when the animation is this far off the grid.

I’ve also been furiously polishing things off my Netflix Instant Queue since they can’t stop losing titles. Their latest purge seemed to get rid of a lot of their sleaze, exploitation, and Roger Corman stuff (looks like maybe they lost their account with Blue Underground?), so I tried to take in as much as I could before the expiration dates. Two unexpected favorites were The Big Bird Cage and Maniac. Bird Cage makes the best possible use of Pam Grier and Sid Haig as dubious revolutionaries crashing a Phillipine bamboo prison for women. The great location and loose, comic energy make it feel more like a badly behaved jungle adventure than the raunchy soap opera you might expect from a girls-behind-bars film. Maniac is such an unbelievably grimy and blood-soaked thriller that it nearly transforms into an X-rated arcade game, but it’s a more complex and well-considered film than it seems to be, and Joe Spinell (who also co-wrote) makes for a fascinating example of the sad, deranged slasher type (as opposed to the more collected Jack the Ripper model). His muttered monologues throughout the film are truly insane, plus they’re contradictory and disjointed enough that it doesn’t feel out of character when he spends half an hour of the runtime successfully carving out a new identity as a sensitive artist; he’s so convincing as a delusional maniac that you can’t tell when the character is lying to himself or others. It is more VHS tape than movie, but it does legitimately do a good job of subverting its own cliches, and in that sense reminded me of the underrated Christmas Evil. I think it’s a particularly weird choice for a remake (they just filmed one with Elijah Wood and the director of the pretty-awful P2) since there’s barely any plot (and what’s there is literally just Psycho amped way the hell up) and it’s propelled almost completely by its dedication to nastiness and a quietly bananas lead performance. I also caught up with Death Race 2000, something I should have watched years ago. It has a spectacular, sometimes almost Clockwork Orange-worthy visual style and great sense of humor, though the dystopian plot is a little half-hearted at times compared to the grittier Rollerball which it raced against to theaters, though most people seem to prefer Death Race for whatever reason. Finally, I checked in with a couple of the Fernando Di Leo crime films which started getting a lot of attention when a box set was released in America last year. His films are praised for presenting a harder, more pessimistic picture of organized crime than the one painted by the slick, honorable anti-heroes in glossier mob films, as well as for just generally being wild rides. I watched The Italian Connection and Caliber 9 and didn’t find anything that clashed with that assessment, though I will say both films took a little warming up to. They are relatively sloppy, not so much in terms of cheapness but in their broad humor and clunky exposition. Still, both films eventually drew me in to the plight of their deeply unfortunate heroes, partially through well-timed, jarring action setpieces and partially through steady, confident performances that read better the longer they stay on the screen. In Italian Connection, it’s Mario Adorf, a man with a meat-packed mug on his shoulders that could crack Bruce Campbell’s or Jay Leno’s in half, as a golden-hearted pimp who unwittingly becomes a pawn in a violent pissing contest between players higher up the ladder. Adorf also lends his intoxicating chops to Caliber 9 as a thug with shifting allegiances, but now the tragically shafted gangster is played (with dangerously lumbering calm) by Godfather Part II‘s Gastone Moschin, who could probably use a grateful phone call from Jason Statham if he hasn’t already gotten one. I also watched Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, co-written by Di Leo but directed by Ruggero Deodato of Cannibal Holocaust infamy. It’s mostly in the same vein, though it does get an energy boost from its great premise of a top-secret two-man police force placed above the law and given full creative license in bad guy destruction. It takes a little more glee in its wanton violence than Di Leo’s own films, so it’s maybe a little more colorful if a little less heartfelt.

Moving beyond films watched out of desperation for missing my chance at having instant access to them, but sticking with police, I checked out the largely forgotten police dramedy Busting from Peter Hyams, starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake. Critics haven’t been very kind to it over the years, and its legacy seems to mostly be forming, along with Freebie and the Bean,¬†a sort of ground zero for buddy cop cliches, from their playful, pseudo-romantic relationship to the cigar-chomping chief who condemns but secretly understands. I loved it thoroughly and don’t understand anyone who doesn’t. It is cripplingly cynical about the justice system and puts it characters through hell, but always with the right amount of dark humor and shrugged-off attitude to keep it snappy. Gould and Blake (who calls other characters “Spanky” on multiple occasions) are terrific; they turn wasted busywork shifts staking out public restrooms into loaded examinations of black-and-white morality, all without Gould having to put down his copy of Ant-Man (There’s also an extended threatening metaphor and eventual payoff based on Captain Marvel, so it’s practically an honorary superhero movie). I spit on its 5.8 on IMDB, and I’m keeping in mind that it would make a good double feature with the similarly pessimistic¬†Hickey & Boggs.

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