August’s releases run the gamut from horror, urban thrillers, social justice and tender drama. While themes of modernity, paranoia and urban life prominently feature in this month’s lineup, headed by the likes of Kiss Me Deadly, The Incident, and Do The Right Thing, so too does nature and its relationship to human society – such as in Australian classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and in Ash Mayfair’s astonishing feature debut, The Third Wife.
Flight of the Navigator and Robert Zemeckis’ early comedy Used Cars kept things light, while StudioCanal’s release of the Hammer film, Lust for a Vampire, reminds us of the carnal pleasures to be had from genre cinema.
Kiss Me Deadly – 5 August (Criterion)
Kiss Me Deadly finally gets the richly-deserved Criterion treatment. Originally released in 1955, Robert Aldrich’s hardboiled thriller came towards the end of Hollywood’s classic noir cycle, perfectly summarising the genre’s thematic and aesthetic concerns. It is also one of the most extreme films noir; the hardboiled detectives of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep seem like positively soft touches against Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), the Hays Production Code visibly creaking at the seams as the aptly-named Hammer violently smashes his way through his investigation.
The shady organisation at the centre of the mystery is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s adaptation of The 39 Steps, while simultaneously looking forward to the criminal conspiracy of Marathon Man. But this is no galloping adventure across the Scottish Highlands, and even Dustin Hoffman didn’t have to face off against a nuclear bomb in his tussle against diamond-hunting nazis. Cold-war paranoia is infused through the film’s starkly-lit stairwells and echoing streets, while cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s twisted angles and distorted shadows conjure a menacing world teetering on the brink of implosion.
Used Cars 12 August (Eureka)
Robert Zemeckis is probably best known as a Spielberg-lite – a fairly unchallenging, family-friendly director who nevertheless scored big with hits like the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump, a filmmaker who played with history and American cultural nostalgia, and whose later career has been typified by slightly creepy motion-capture CGI films. Nevertheless, there’s always been darkness – some might even say cynicism – in his depiction of Americana; a sort of conservative bitterness at soulless modernity.
Unlike his better-known work, that darkness is untempered in his second feature, a mean comedy about that paragon of underhanded, ingenious capitalism: used car dealerships. A callow Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as the film’s ambitious antihero. We find ourselves rooting for his despicable, though ingenious, sales practices only because his rival – Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden) – is even more of a scoundrel that he.
Russell’s salesman Rudy is trying to break into politics the old-fashioned way: through bribery. His boss, Luke (Roy’s brother, also played by Warden) agrees to help him stump up the cash, only to be bumped off by Roy so that he can get his grubby hands on Luke’s dealership. Thus inspires a series of increasingly deranged, unethical and inventive methods of undercutting each other’s business, involving hiding Luke’s body, hiring strippers to bring in the punters, and finally, a Cannonball Run-style chase across the highway to substantiate a false marketing claim. Much fun is to be had watching Warden play both brothers, while Russell’s trademark rascally charm is on full display. The film’s admiration of naked ambition and capitalism as a grift is pretty unpleasant under scrutiny, but its energy and gonzo sense of humour is very amusing.
Lust For A Vampire – 12 August (StudioCanal)
Hot on the heels of Arrow’s recent duo of Amicus releases, StudioCanal brings Jimmy Sangster’s explicit 1971 Hammer horror to Blu-ray for the first time. The second part of the Karnstein Trilogy, Lust For a Vampire represents a shift for the studio into even racier, more exploitative fare than their glossier Dracula and Frankenstein series, capitalising on the recent changes to the British ‘X’ certificate.
A very loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, Lust For A Vampire is little more than an exercise in Gothic-style eroticism. Blood, breasts and sapphic love abound at the rural Austrian finishing school where anti-hero Giles (Ralph Bates) finds himself, conniving a job at the school in order to get closer to the nubile, lightly-clad beauties who constitute the students and teaching faculty. Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard, taking over from Ingrid Pitt in the previous film) catches his eye, yet in the shadow of the dread Castle Karnstein, Mircalla’s lust goes well beyond the carnal. There is little of the class or ambition leftover from Hammer’s earlier gothic pictures, the implicit and imagined giving way to explicit titilation. Nevertheless, much of the studio’s old Gothic magic is still evident in the creaky sets and gloomy cod-European countryside, while Stensgaard’s magnetism and dangerous allure breathe uncanny life into a role that otherwise requires little else than to look good in a corset.
The Incident – 12 August (Eureka)
Making his feature film debut, Martin Sheen charms and harrows in equal measure in Larry Peerce’s raw examination of urban atomisation and social breadown. Opening on two nihilistic hoodlums Artie and Joe (Sheen and Tony Musante, prefiguring Malcolm McDowell’s Clockwork Orange droogs) as they engage in a night of anti-social revels, The Incident follows six couples as they board the late-night metro train home. As each pair boards the train car, we learn about their lives and their place in the city; the old married couple resentful towards their children after a lifetime of drudgery; the washed-up alcoholic and the (coded) gay man who find themselves in the same bar; the pushy, young gallant and his harrassed, manipulated girlfriend.
Enter Artie and Joe, agents of chaos. The Incident brilliantly captures that awful feeling of being trapped on a train with a band of drunken brigands: the grind of enduring their boorish antics and the dread that they will target you next. But over the course of the film’s 100 minutes, the pleasure in relating to the scenario gives way to the grim realisation that the train ride from Hell isn’t ending any time soon. Worse, it will reveal the cowardice and self interest of each of its passengers. Harder to endure than the hoodlums’ hooliganism is the profound frustration at witnessing the other passengers failure to act. It’s clear that by moving together, the twelve adults could easily overpower the young men, yet each is too fearful to help the other. In this, the city itself becomes an atomising force, delineating, breaking apart, and isolating its inhabitants even while it knots them together in its geometric sprawl. The urban train is the site where the city’s disparate elements are forced to confront themselves and their practised blindness to each other.
The Third Wife – 19 August (Eureka)
In Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s first feature, 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) has been married by arrangement to a wealthy older suitor, already wed to two, older women. Following a painful, highly-ritualised wedding night, May must navigate her place as the third wife, ostensibly subordinate to first and second wives Ha (Tran Nu Yen Khe) and Xuan (Mai Thu Huong), yet possessing the potential power and status of bearing Hung’s next son. As the patriarch, Hung (Le Vu Long) is the most powerful person of the quartet, yet is almost entirely absent from both four-way relationship and the film. In this sense, The Third Wife plays out like as an all-female community in microcosm, the women’s support and care for each other drawn against the strictures of duty and hierarchy.
This tension, and May’s rising desire for Xuan is captured through both Chananun Chotrungroj’s luscious cinematography and Julie Béziau’s quietly rhythmic editing, the combination of which is somehow both rich and ascetic. Juxtaposed natural imagery illuminates key moments of the film; bloodied sheets from May’s first night with Hung are followed by the viscous birthing of a calf; the tears of another young bride become raindrops on leaves; desire, nature and ritual are bound up together.
Despite picking up several awards on its festival tour last year, and receiving a UK theatrical release back in May, the British press has largely ignored The Third Wife. To call this a shame is a serious understatement: this poetic, elemental film is one of the year’s best releases, made all the more jaw-dropping that it was a debut effort.
Klute – 19 August (Criterion)
The Criterion Collection continues its theme of urban paranoia this month with Alan Pakula’s 1971 detective thriller, Klute, the first film in Pakula’s loose Paranoia Trilogy. When his friend, Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) disappears, private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) launches an investigation which leads him to high-class call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), to whom Tom has apparently been sending obscene letters.
Released just one year before Watergate, Klute is rooted in the surveillance-paranoia of the Nixon era. The first image in the film is of a tape recorder suggesting that not only is the following dinner party being recorded, but that the film itself is a voyeuristic endeavour. As Klute and Bree are tied up in increasingly-knotty leads, they each becomes voyeur subjects and the objects of surveillance. This is never more perfectly expressed in the scene in which Klute watches Bree seduce a client, while he himself is monitored by an unknown third party. Each player commodifies another in a cycle of surveillance and objectification.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – 19 August (Eureka)
Not only is Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith one of the great Australian films, but it also is at the centre of the boom within genre exploitation cinema, undoubtedly influencing the revisionist Westerns of the 1970s and beyond, and the new post-colonialist Westerns such as Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Sew The Winter To My Skin.
Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally, itself based on the real-life exploits of Jimmy Governor, Schepisi’s film tells the story of Jimmie (Tommy Lewis), born to an aboriginal mother and white father, whose attempts to assimilate into colonialist society is met with racism, exploitation and abuse. As perpetrator-victim, Jimmie is deeply sympathetic despite committing horrific crimes during his stint as a police officer who “knows his place”, while his seemingly inexhaustible optimism is hopelessly tragic.
The turning point comes after he witnesses the death of a man in the custody of his drunken superior officer, leaving policing behind to work as a farmhand, soon after marrying a white woman. Jimmie’s cynicism against his employers grows just as surely as their discrimination, culminating in a night of horrible violence after they refuse to pay him. He and his half-brother, Mort (Freddy Reynolds), go on the run into the bush while their uncle faces the so-called justice of the colonial court. As Jimmie and Mort evade capture, they leave a trail of carnage comparable to contemporary screen outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde or Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, made all the more potent for its warning of the brutal consequences of injustice. It’s this sequence that caught the ire of the British censors on release, during the video nasty hysteria of the early 1980s. Today their reaction reveals more about enduring colonial racism than any fanciful public harm that Jimmie Blacksmith might once have posed.
Flight of the Navigator – 26 August (Second Sight)
Randal Kleiser’s beloved 1986 adventure arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight. The director of now largely-forgotten VHS shelf fillers such as White Fang and Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, -not to mention iconic favourite Grease – Kleiser never achieved the pop-cultural cache of contemporaries like Robert Zemeckis or Joe Johnston. Nevertheless, Flight of the Navigator is not only among the director’s best work but also fully deserving of the fondness in which it is held by a generation raised on video rentals.
The premise – David (Joey Cramer) in sent eight years into the future after his first encounter with the ship (voiced by Paul Reubens), reappearing to his family long after they thought him dead – gives the story its necessary emotional edge. Meanwhile, the goofy Reubens keeps the enterprise tipped towards the light end of the scale. There’s a comforting quaintness to the simplicity of the story; Flight of the Navigator could easily have worked as a TV episode, yet the film’s deft storytelling and a lightness of heart easily justify its tight ninety-minute running time, while the early CGI holds up surprisingly well. Like Kleiser’s best work, it’s all fairly unchallenging stuff, yet it is effortlessly charming.
Do The Right Thing – 26 August (Criterion)
Spike Lee’s epoch-defining study of community and racial tension in Brooklyn finds its way on to the Criterion Collection with an edition brimming with extras. In the thirty years since its release, Do The Right Thing has lost none of its humour, pathos, or relevance. Indeed, with the spectre of police-sanctioned brutality against black people and the rise of white supremacy in the US, Lee’s film is as vital as ever.
The film’s visual language – its vibrant colours, exaggerated angles, and use of wide lenses – practically invented the look of black American cinema in the 90s, while its extensive use of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power is a constant reminder of the film’s political underpinnings. Do the Right Thing’s visuals and its unforgettable, larger than life characters signal the film as a comedy, but its story is undoubtedly a tragedy, replete with a Greek chorus in Samuel L. Jackson’s radio DJ.
At the top of his game, Lee never falls into the trap of easy answers to the problem of race. The late sequence in which the Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) speaks of his pride and love for the community he has served for years with his pizza business, moments before his place erupts in violence, encapsulates the simmering, complex tensions that define race and community relations in America.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell