Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Come Swiftly to Your Love: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt" Translated by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock

This very thin book of poetry shows us that even 3,000 years ago, men and women were going through the exact same issues when it came to love.

Ezra Pound gets the opening verses, a piece called "Conversations in Courtship." I don't know how much liberty was taken with the placement of this conversation, but it is comical that after a few obsessive statements about a man's love for a woman, the woman barely gets to respond before we have to hear from her disapproving mother- "the mere thought of him is revolting". The couple watch each other from far off, afraid to expose their infatuation to the public. This is a nice set of lyrics that captures perfectly the internal turmoil love can bring. Some of the situations are odd- the girl being possibly passed around by the boy's friends, and the praying to multiple gods and goddesses, but Pound's voice comes through.

"Love Lyrics" opens with a little more sensuality, also showing the extremes a man and a woman would go through to be with their soulmate. "More Love Lyrics" is more of the same, comparing being in love to being drunk without wine. "Pleasant Songs of the Sweetheart Who Meets You in the Fields" is a sad story of a young woman so in love, her field work suffers. She finally becomes the mistress of her man's house, first among his women, before he meets someone else. "Pleasant Songs" offers some nice fragments, while "Garden Songs" follows the courtship from the point of view of an actual garden, it seems. The problem is in the conjugation of some of the verbs, common with most of these poems. The ironically titled "Sweet Phrases" shows the downside of love. Drunkenness, infidelity, and seduction are touched upon in this angry set. "Haste" is simply two lovers trying to meet as soon as possible.

Only the opening conversation is credited to Pound, so I must assume the other verses were done by Stock. The accompanying artwork, by Tom di Grazia, is very good, and the introduction explains that while many of the poems are only found in fragments, they are presented here as complete.

"Come Swiftly to Your Love: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt" is a nice, short set that can easily be read in a few minutes. It shows the reader that anything they may be going through with their respective partner are issues that have been around for millennia. Ezra Pound and Noel Stock capture that very nicely. Recommended to poetry lovers, and lovers in general. (* * * *) out of five stars.

This Tale is Pun-ishing: "My Tale is Hot" (1964)

This "nudie cutie" from the mid '60's is a painful film.

Lucifer (Max Gardens, billed as Manny Goodtimes) is bored in Hell and decides to try and entice the world's most faithful husband with a series of beautiful topless women. Little Jack Little, looking like a cross between Buddy Hackett and Eddie Munster, is the husband, Ben-Hur Ova (get it? GET IT?). What follows over the next long sixty minutes is a series of awful, sleazy puns and jokes that makes "Two and a Half Men" look like Noel Coward, and tons of badly edited striptease routines.

The film may have been shot in a day, with the sometimes haggard-looking women added later. Candy Barr shows up only in a piece of one-reel, having nothing to do with the credited cast. And, oh, those credits. The performers and some of the crew are given stupid pun-laden names (the director is Seymour Tokus...ha...). The film tries to be topical, mentioning "The Beverly Hillbillies," Walt Disney, and Playboy magazine, but some of the jokes are so old, and so bad, I honestly didn't "get" them. Gardens' clever asides to the camera also suck.

But we are here for the women! This was shot before genitalia could be shown onscreen, so we get topless women awkwardly showing off their backsides to the camera. The ladies must have been driven in from the afternoon show at the local burlesque club, none make an impression. Poor audiences back in the day had to endure a lot of stupid jokes and humor just to see a little skin, my heart goes out to them.

"My Tale is Hot" is pretty horrible, The same director would score better with "The Joys of Jezebel" a few years later. Both films are available together (a bored Lucifer being the connection) on video from Something Weird. (*) out of five stars.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Holy Bible According to David F. Friedman: "The Joys of Jezebel" (1970)

The drive-in/grindhouse crowds of 1970 certainly got an eyeful in this silly story from the demented David F. Friedman.

The film takes a few liberties with some Biblical characters. Sisters Ruth (Lois Ursone, using the name Angela Graves) and Rachel (the incredibly gorgeous Dixie Donovan) are lamenting on their fates. Ruth is married to Joshua (John Rocco), and virgin Rachel has been promised to Jeremiah (Jay Edwards). Rachel does not love Jeremiah, but an arrangement has been made between the two men concerning armies and such. Both women don't want to end up like Jezebel (Luanne Roberts, using the name Christine Murray), who was "thrown to the dogs" for making trouble just last week. Jezebel is languishing in Hell, bored out of her skull. Lucifer (Christopher Stone) makes her an offer. She can return to Earth, use Rachel's body, and exact her revenge on whoever wronged her. In the meantime, Rachel takes Jezebel's body in Hell, and as Lucifer searches for her, he runs into other residents of the underworld, including Goliath (Jess White), Solomon (Woody Lee), and a very hot Eve (Sherise Roland).

Doing some reading afterward, there is some question as to who really wrote and directed this film. The late David F. Friedman co-produced it, probably helped write it, but the director is credited as the improbable A.P. Stootsberry, so I am going with the information on IMDB.

The Something Weird DVD version of the film looks fantastic for such a silly effort. This is not heavy stuff, the plot is secondary to seeing lots of beautiful women with unexplained tan lines get naked, and often, The sets are a dizzying array of plywood, feathers, psychedelica, and a spinning table. The performers deliver their dumb dialogue knowing they aren't appearing in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." For fun, try and count the number of puns involving the word "hell".

Whoever the director is, they make some interesting choices here and there. The comedy is awful, but we get nice surreal camera angles, including a memorable point of view shot that had me sit up and take notice. Trapped on a handful of sets means you need to work that camera, so if you can get over the stomach churning zooms and movements, it's actually not badly shot.

The cast, all veterans of Friedman's drive-in drivel, go through the paces. A special mention about Dixie Donovan. She plays her role as a Jayne Mansfield-dumb blonde, and I am curious as to whether this was an act or not. She is so stilted in her performance, and all of her lines are delivered in monotone, but I could watch her all day long...a real stunner of a woman.

The rest of the film is lightweight and stupid. The screenplay is painful to follow, with softcore sex scenes going on too long but luckily distracting the viewer from the story. The entire film is shot on interior locations, with the amount of nudity involved, an outdoor shoot might have been shut down immediately.

I don't know why, aside from Donovan, I would recommend "The Joys of Jezebel," but I am. I like my exploitation colorful, full of beautiful women making out and dry humping middle-aged men...wait a minute...I could star in a remake! Someone get Charlize Theron on the phone, her second Oscar awaits! (* * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Wanted to Go Down for a Nap: "Go Down, Death!" (1944)

Made specifically for segregated African-Americans in the 1940's, this heavy-handed Christian story is admirable for entertaining a repressed segment of the population, but to be blunt- it's pretty awful.

For a fifty-four minute film, this is padded all to hell (so to speak). Young preacher Jasper (Samuel H. James) is ready to take on the owner of the local nightclub, Big Jim Bottoms (director Spencer Williams). Big Jim comes up with a plan to frame the preacher with some photographs showing him cavorting with three women and DRINKING! The convoluted plan works, and Jim shows off his pics to his adoptive mother Caroline, who also happens to be the aunt to Bettie Jean, Jasper's girlfriend. Caroline does some mighty fine praying, as the ghost of her dead husband helps her retrieve the photographs. The Lord does work in mysterious ways, as a major character dies, and Big Jim gets his Big Comeuppance.

From a technical point of view, this film is terrible. A "Harlemwood" production set in Savannah, Georgia, it looks like it was edited in a blender. The dialogue rarely syncs up, stock footage is used constantly, and except for Williams and the beautiful actress who plays Bettie Jean, the cast is at a loss. Caroline and Bettie Jean's roles are not credited in the film, there is just a list of the performers at the beginning and end of the footage. The screenplay was based on a story that was based on a poem, and something must have been lost in the adaptation. There is barely enough here to assemble a half hour short to be shown in church basements, much less almost an hour.

Sure, you can show sympathy for the film makers, and the audience, and point out its importance in African-American film history, or you can sit down and try to watch the thing. I watched the thing. "Go Down, Death!" doesn't go down easily. (*) out of five stars.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oh, Hell, the Box is Back: "Hellraiser: Revelations" (2011)

When your option on continuing a once mildly successful horror film franchise is running out, do you let the series die a quiet death, since you haven't contributed anything to it in five years, or do you come up with a quickie entry that might make a buck or two on the video and streaming market? If you are Dimension, you crank out the garbage that is this film.

Nico (Jay Gillepsie, who looks a lot like a young Val Kilmer) and Steven (Nick Eversman, who does not look like Val Kilmer) are two buddies who escape their privileged lives to Tijuana with a video camera along to record their adventures. The film begins jumping back and forth in time as we find out the boys end up missing and presumed dead, but their luggage made it back along with the video camera (which wasn't kept by any authorities as evidence, despite footage of a possible murder) and a strange puzzle box. Nico's parents (Sebastien Roberts and Sanny Van Heteren) come over to dine with Steven's parents (Steven Brand and Devon Sorvari), and Steven's sister, and Nico's girlfriend, Emma (Tracey Fairaway). Got all that? In my notes, I had to construct a crude pedigree chart to keep the characters straight, especially since the parents all acted the same.

Dinner is tense since the parents ignore what happened to their sons until finally the ice is broken on the exact same night that Steven comes back home, bloodied and in a state of shock. The group is trapped in the isolated mansion, their cars mysteriously disappear and there is no phone service, and the viewer is treated to double doses of mayhem and murder as the story switches back and forth between what happened to Nico and Steven in Mexico, and what happens to their families now.

In this era of reboots and reimaginings, I wish someone would get Clive Barker on the phone, pony up some dough, and let him have his creation back. It has been over a quarter of a century since the original "Hellraiser", and despite a couple of better than average direct to video sequels, the overall series turned into a convoluted mess where some screenplays were injected with Pinhead and his Cenobites just to put them into a film and make it part of the "Hellraiser" canon. Even Doug Bradley, who portrayed Pinhead in the preceding eight films, didn't see fit to return here...which isn't saying much, I guess, considering he did appear in the worst of the series before this film, as well as the best.

The film is dark and ugly. The screenwriter goes overboard (this is from the Dimension EXTREME label), and we get lots of gore, shootings, incest, murdered prostitutes, a baby killed offscreen, tequila shots, and bad story structure. The film runs only 75 minutes, with five minutes of that being opening and closing credits, yet the DVD's bonus is almost ten minutes of deleted scenes, which I couldn't bring myself to watch.

Victor Garcia's direction is alright, after a stomach churning opening involving the two friends filming themselves on the trip. I didn't get sick from any gore, just the jolting camera movements that had me wishing I bought Dramamine the last time I was outside. The majority of the action takes place around Steven's parents' house, with a dirty disgusting set standing in for Tijuana, which seems to be oddly populated by Asian hookers.

The performances here are all pretty bad, but I am blaming the script. What used to sound so scary coming out of the mouth of Douglas Bradley sounds ridiculous coming out of Stephan Smith Collins'. There is a voice credit for Pinhead, and it sounds like Bradley a little, but Collins is stuck in this iconic role with nothing to do. The story pops in a vagrant character (Daniel Buran) who happens to have the puzzle box that unleashes the demons, drops the vagrant character, then brings him back...and literally drops him again. No explanation of Pinhead and the Cenobites is ever offered, and while having some mystery in a film is nice, even hardcore viewers like me have forgotten their origins. Simple questions like how long were the boys missing, and who actually controls the puzzle box and the summoning of the demons are left unanswered.

This makes nine films in the franchise now, and I have reviewed them all (aside from some short fan films out there). "Hellraiser: Revelations," the Roman numeral sequel numbering was dropped way back at Part III, is probably the worst of the series...NOW can we let this character rest in peace until our big budget reboot? Has anyone called Rob Zombie yet? (*) out of five stars.

Monday, March 11, 2013

And We're Walking, and We're Walking...and We're Still Walking?: "The Broken Tower" (2012)

In all honesty, I thought of writing a biopic based on poet Hart Crane's tumultuous life first.

Crane was born to a well-to-do businessman and his wife in 1899, and his parents would later divorce. He grew up in the Roaring Twenties, and would supplement his small writing income by doing copywriting in the burgeoning advertising field (a job he hated). He was gay, or at least bisexual, drank too much, and jumped from a ship and drowned in the Gulf of Mexico when he was only 32. I started collecting books by and about Crane, including the source material for this film, and even wrote his suicide into screenplay format, but then abandoned it to work on an original story that had been bothering me for years now.

I didn't know James Franco even made this film until I recognized the title from the book I never read (and later gave away). Franco seems obsessed with poets, between this film, "Howl," and a planned biopic of Charles Bukowski, and he also seems obsessed with poets I am obsessed with. I had high hopes sitting down to this, and after viewing the documentary "Hart Crane: An Exegesis," I was ready to let Franco show me Hart Crane as he saw him.

Franco wrote, directs, and stars in the film, apparently a film to fulfill a university thesis. Crane's poetry can be complex and difficult, I don't pretend to understand a lot of what I have read by him, but Franco makes the mistake of writing and directing an equally difficult film. In the film's case, I "got" what Franco was trying to do, I am saying it was the wrong approach to Crane's life. Franco casts his younger brother Dave as a younger Hart (or Harold, as he was born) and their mother as Hart's mother. Michael Shannon is Emile, the love of Hart's life and subject of some of his poetry. The problem here is that Shannon's scenes number about four, as do his lines of dialogue, and the viewer doesn't discover his name until the end credits. Crane's parents also get shorted, for being such big influences in his life. Crane's relationship with Malcolm Cowley's ex-wife (Stacey Miller) is also touched upon but not explored.

So in this this one hundred and ten minute film, what do we get? Franco does do a brave thing, exhibiting an eleven minute poetry reading just before the midpoint of the film. The black and white photography, with the exception of a color sequence in a cathedral, is nice. The muted sad jazz of the time provides an excellent soundtrack to Crane's moods, even in the lighter moments when he is with friends and drunk. It is hard to make a compelling film about something like sitting at a desk and typing, but Franco does try. The film is chaptered by title cards enumerating Crane's life "voyages", and this does help follow what was going on in his life to a certain extent.

However, Franco as Crane walks. A lot. Too much. There is so much footage of Franco walking around, I began to make morbid jokes about Crane's leg strength when he took his final plunge into the big drink. This padding technique boldly went beyond experimental or difficult and into tedium. Franco plays Crane as a spoiled genius, but he throws one too many fits and I didn't like Crane as Franco saw him. Franco looks nothing like Crane, either, and a scene where Crane performs oral sex on a lover seems out of place and exploitative, it's obvious Franco wanted to do something shocking to get the film talked about.

I was relieved when it was over, and disappointed that Franco couldn't get his admiration for the writer on film without alienating the same audience that finds Crane's writing unfathomable. Next time, I hope Franco's desire to make an arty film about an artist is tempered by a desire to make that artist accessible to the viewer. Not knowing anything about Crane, and watching this film, would make me dislike Crane even more. "The Broken Tower" turns into a broken film. (* *) out of five stars.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hart Beat: "Hart Crane: An Exegesis" (2012)

In order to educate film goers on the poet Hart Crane, and hype his biopic "The Broken Tower", writer/director/actor James Franco sits down via Skype with three university instructors and talks shop. Only English nerds need apply.

Hart Crane was a poet who came of age during the Roaring Twenties, writing dense, often difficult verse before committing suicide at the age of 32 by jumping into the Gulf of Mexico. He was an open homosexual with an alcohol problem, and is now more appreciated than when he was alive. Franco became fascinated with Crane's writing in college ("The Broken Tower" is a graduate thesis film), and while he looks nothing like Crane, he took on the poet's story.

Franco, who balances his roles in mainstream fare in order to pursue pet projects like this, picks the brains of the three professors (Alan Williamson, Paul Mariani, and Langdon Hammer) about Crane's motivations behind the major events in his life, and eventual death. Influences on Crane, like T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, are touched upon, and the interviews are edited together along with footage from Franco's film.

The casual viewer may still wonder what all the fuss is about with Crane. Even I, a former English major, finds his verse to be dense and often difficult. Franco and the professors try to shed light on their subject, you can see a genuine affection for the writer in all of their questions and answers, but they often bring up even more questions than they can answer. After a while, even the praise of Franco and his film gets to be a bit much, but this short (48 minutes) piece of video is a welcome departure from the usual "behind the scenes" fluff pieces that are standard on video releases these days.

"Hart Crane: An Exegesis" is probably only of interest to Franco's classmates, snobbish film types, poetry fans, and Hart Crane fanatics. I find myself in a couple of those categories, and recommend this documentary. Let it be noted that I did watch this before viewing the feature "The Broken Tower," so I can see if this helped in my understanding of Franco's film... (* * * *) out of five stars.