(Paramount, 1968) D: Mario Bava, w/ John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell. Rating: NNN
This is a great movie if you can get past the surface flaws. Ignore the occasional unconvincing effect and light dusting of camp and you'll find a cheerfully amoral and highly kinetic celebration of creative criminality and perverse sexuality. It fully deserves its reputation as the best comic-into-film adaptation before Tim Burton's Batman. Personally, I'd put the bar higher: best till Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.
It's also the most unusual. Diabolik's the hero, but unlike most comic book heroes, he isn't a good guy. He's a super-thief and no Robin Hood, out for the money, the fun and the love of his gorgeous accomplice. He's a radical figure, the first pure super-villain to be narratively positioned as the hero.
Comics artist Stephen Bissette (Swamp Thing) does a great job of laying out Diabolik's history and the comics-to-film aesthetic. Scholar Tim Lucas does a good effects-oriented commentary; most of these work superbly. But Lucas slides over director Mario Bava's other films. It's a pity, because Bava made original, terrific low-budget shockers that influenced directors as diverse as Federico Fellini and Burton.
A master cinematographer and glass painter, Bava launched the European horror boom with 1960's Black Sunday, a Hammer Films imitation that far outshone its source in the eroticization of death.
With 1964's Blood And Black Lace, he invented the filmed giallo, that peculiarly Italian genre that applies a horror movie sensibility to mystery movie content.
His 1965 Planet Of The Vampires is one of the two prime sources for Alien, and in 1966's Kill, Baby, Kill, he created the little-girl-as-death image that Fellini ripped off wholesale for the 1968 Spirits Of The Dead. In the 1971 Twitch Of The Death Nerve, Bava launched the body-count movie and directly inspired the Friday The 13th series.
In these films and more, despite nonsensical stories, wooden acting and no budgets, Bava consistently pulled off marvels of atmosphere, composition, movement and terror. Check him out.
EXTRAS Law and Lucas commentary, comics-to-film doc, Beastie Boys video, trailers. Wide-screen. English subtitles.
A Dirty Shame
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: John Waters, w/ Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville. Rating: NNN
Content is everything with John Waters, and essentially it hasn't changed since 1972's Pink Flamingos. It's always comedy, it always pits the sexual outsider against the established forces of repression, and the outsider always wins. His point-and-shoot technique hasn't evolved noticeably either. And so what if it makes him a lesser artist? The gags are funny, the satire is pointed, and the forces of repression can always use a good pie in the eye.
The gloriously silly premise of A Dirty Shame pits crazed sex addicts on the holy quest for a new sex act against self-proclaimed neuters in a rundown Baltimore neighbourhood. Tracy Ullman leads the charge for the moist side, and she's the perfect unselfconscious picture of raging heat, asking a couple of fresh car-crash victims if they want to "get lucky tonight."
Waters loads the film with dozens of obscure perversions and happy perverts, some delicious, like the woman into sploshing, some disturbing, like Mr. Pay Day and his "upper deckers."
In his commentary and the insightful making-of doc, Waters explains them all with a light-hearted delight that gives the lie to the persistent notion that he wants to shock for shock's sake. It seems more the opposite, that he wants to inoculate, to shock us into an unshockability and acceptance that will lead us to sexual utopia. A good idea, really.
EXTRAS Waters commentary, crew commentary, making-of doc. Wide-screen. English 5.1. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Disney, 2005) created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, w/ Michael Madsen, Chris Bauer. Rating: NNN
Tilt is a tv show about poker players trying to take each other down, at the table and away from it, and everybody's weapon of choice is applied psychology. Even the violence is cruelly calculated. Coupled with snappy, realistic dialogue and acting, this makes for good drama despite a slightly contrived story and the built-in difficulties of making poker playing interesting to non-poker-playing viewers like me.
Creators Koppelman and Levien are long-time poker fanatics. They understand the glitzy/sleazy Las Vegas milieu and its inhabitants. But they limit the realism to the acting and dialogue and use the visuals - lots of shakycam, swish pans, colour distortion and fast cutting - to give an impressionistic feel of the place and its pressures.
Sharp acting and dialogue and tight story lines abound, partly thanks to lauded crime novelist Lawrence Block, who worked as executive story editor and wrote episodes 4 and 5. Even the small roles get good moments. Michael Madsen shines as a crooked poker star targeted by his boss, the gaming commission and a trio of young hustlers. He's the only character who seems to thrive on the grinding pressure, which makes him an appealing monster in spite of himself.
Madsen isn't playing for audience sympathy, though his young opponents are. But they're all so vicious and amoral that sympathy is out of the question. That flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It's the stories themselves that hook us, and, maybe, our own distaste - we want to see everybody come out a loser.
The show goes out of its way to make the games clear and dramatic for non-players, but it also takes pains over card-playing realism for the booming army of poker fans. They hired NOW's senior film writer, John Harkness, a veteran tournament player, as on-set consultant and occasional bit player.
EXTRAS Episode 1 creators' commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, alternate finale. Wide-screen. English 5.1. English subtitles.
(Paramount, 1972) D: Michael Ritchie, w/ Gene Hackman, Lee Marvin. Rating: NNN
The Chicago mob sends Nick Devlin, a strangely mild-mannered Lee Marvin, down to Kansas to collect a big debt from white slaver Mary Ann - Gene Hackman in the genial thug mode he perfected in Unforgiven.
A bloodbath ensues, but not before Devlin has rescued Poppy - an incredibly beautiful and touching Sissy Spacek in her first speaking role - from Mary Ann's white slave operation. And not before we get a good look at Mary Ann as solid chamber of commerce citizen, honoured in the community and reflecting its heartland values, which centre on a devouring avarice that readily embraces cannibalism.
We could be looking at urban vs. rural paranoia here. Or Democrat vs. Republican. Or a hippyesque critique of Amerika. (The liberation of the orphans is a big clue.) But, since Devlin's an enigma (he's not very devilish), we're never sure what writer Robert Dillon has in mind.
Not that it ultimately matters. Director Michael Ritchie (Semi-Tough, The Bad News Bears) carries the film on style. It's full of long wordless passages of pure visual storytelling that carry their own peculiar tension. The location shooting produces an almost documentary feel, and the grace notes in the content, like the brass band on the freeway, push toward surrealism. It gives a nice bite both to the thriller and the satire under it.
EXTRAS Wide-screen. English, French. English subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, June 21
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) High-end actioner with Bruce Willis as a non-violent man. Yeah, right.
Heaven Can Wait
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1943) Classic comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch.
The Nomi Song
(Palm, 2004) Portrait of classically trained outer-space-minded 70s new wave singer Klaus Nomi.
Bewitched: The Complete First Season
(Sony, 1964) Classic 60s sitcom out just in time for the big-screen remake.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb