Friday, July 29, 2016

Pit Stop, Open Windows, plus Colossal (2016)

Two very different, and in their own ways delightful, Blu's consumed this week: Arrow Video's Pit Stop - a somewhat lesser-known Jack Hill film from 1967 - and Nacho Vigalondo's 2014 film Open Windows, which I've seen mostly get negative reviews - provoking me to take the opposite stance, though my enjoyment of it may have something to do with having found a Blu of it at Dollarama for $3, something that almost always improves a film for me.

First, Pit Stop. I don't know my Jack Hill like some folks do. His uncredited contributions to 1960's Roger Corman films aside, I've only seen Spider Baby, Coffy, and Foxy Brown, and loved all three, though Coffy is, as I recall, far stronger a film, a politically-pointed Pam Grier blaxploitation/ sexploitation vehicle. I must here confess that I became aware of Ms. Grier via Quentin Tarantino, so - impressed by her charisma and authority, and taking her seriously as an actress, as she deserves to be taken - I wasn't actually expecting her, when I first watched either of those earlier films, to undress. Both Coffy and Foxy Brown get a bit lecherous in their groping gaze, however; she's got a fullsome top half and it dominates the screen at times. It was a bit disappointing to see that she ever had to "go" there - kinda like it might feel to someone who knows Uma Thurman from her recent work to go back to Dangerous Liaisons, where she also has a nude scene, as gratuitous and exploitative as Grier's - but I must admit that I'm not entirely ungrateful for having seen her undressed, and both films make an ass-kicking heroine of her, potent and surprising, even with her breasts prominently displayed.

Anyhow, setting aside Pam Grier's breasts for the time being, Pit Stop - entirely nudeless, though there is some light titillation in it - is one of a sampling of Blu-Ray/DVD combos coming out from Arrow in Canada, region 1 friendly and relatively affordable, and is the first Arrow I've actually seen (there's also the American Horror Project, Mark of the Devil, Society, and The Mutilator on the shelf at the Robson HMV, and one or two others; there's even a spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef, Day of Anger, that I've thus far missed and am most looking forward to).

Turns out the rep of Arrow is well-deserved, if my one experience of them is anything to go by, because there's lots to love about Pit Stop, simple as it is. The story is admittedly somewhat formulaic: a young, ambitious racer (Brian Donlevy) enters the world of figure-eight stock car racing, just this side of a smash-up derby, with cars colliding into each other routinely at the intersection of the eight. He challenges an extroverted champ (a young Sid Haig), incurs his animosity, and then (of course) ultimately befriends him. Some of the things that ring strongest about the film remind you of other films: Donlevy's dismissive attitude towards love, as standing in his way towards success, seems ported over from Robert Rossen's 1961 film The Hustler, but what a great film to steal from. So too is Nick Ray's The Lusty Men - a film about competitive rodeo riding that has female characters quite a bit more world-weary and mature than the gotta-be-boys male leads who care only about their chosen sport. The women in Pit Stop include a young Ellen Burstyn, from before she took that name, and Spider Baby's Beverly Washburn - who also appeared in the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years" and has a long career elsewise, still ongoing. Their characters both understand and feel deeply the cost of their men's obsessions. They're somewhat marginalized in the story - just like women tend to be in real life - but somehow manage to provide the film a moral compass to which the men of the movie pay no heed; it's an interesting trick, to have us follow the men down the wrong road, while our hearts stay with the women they've walked away from...

Based on this, no matter how much female nudity you find in Hill's filmography - I expect there's plenty in The Big Bird Cage, too - it's hard not to wonder if maybe there really is an argument for identifying Hill as some sort of feminist (I haven't seen Switchblade Sisters, also his film, so I can't speak to that, though it seems like it might be germaine). Regardless, Pit Stop is a treat to watch, mostly because of the gripping, gritty locations - including scrapyards and a real-life figure eight track, with races filmed with a documentary sensibility. It's shot in black and white - which Sid Haig explains in a featurette was due to budgetary limitations; black and white was all they could manage and stay under budget, given what they could afford to do with lighting of the track, where they mostly were doing night shoots. But this is just perfect; black and white looks great for a film like this, highlights the compositions nicely. About my only budget-related quibble is that these were the days of rear-projecting driving scenes, so the close ups of the drivers are obviously not being done - a dune buggy sequence notwithstanding - with the drivers actually in moving cars. If that mild bit of hokeyness doesn't unsettle you - if you're comfortable with the look and feel of a low budget movie from the time - there's a lot of charm on hand here, and a lot more craft than one might normally expect from a car racing movie.

And Sid Haig! My God, what a treasure Sid Haig is. I've seen him as a bearded heavy in a few 70's blaxploitation films, I've seen his films with Rob Zombie and his recent, amply uglified, Slim-Pickens-like bit part in Bone Tomahawk, but  I've never quite seen him like this before: it's a real treat seeing him grinning and leaping around as Hawk Sidney, an expressive, irrepressible show-off and braggart with a nasty temper. He has no facial hair, looks a bit like a young Edward James Olmos; it's nice to see him in a role that calls for grinning and shouting and boasting, and not just glowering and griping. I bought the Blu in part based on Sid Haig's prominent role alone; though he is not the main character, he gets plenty of screen time, and fans of Haig's will not be disappointed.

Remarkably different - but perfectly timed, for Vancouverites, coming after the Vancity Theatre's superb Brian De Palma retrospective - is Open Windows. It's a gamey film - not in the sense that it tastes like wild meat, but in the sense that it plays with as many formal gimmicks as it can bring to bear, making De Palma's split screens seem positively tame. There are often four or five different laptop windows open on the film's screen at one time, with the entire narrative unfolding through Skype-style chat windows, surveillance cameras, dashboard cameras, and so forth; I don't believe there are any shots in the film that are not mediated through the eye of a camera within the narrative, making it an odd film for Elijah Wood to pop up in, no pun intended, after having made the Maniac remake (which is also very aware of the eye it is seen through). There's also a lot of the "who-is-the-author" game playing that will please fans of Hitchcock and give film studies students and professors plenty to write papers on, even if mainstream audiences are mostly put off by how self-conscious and demanding the movie is.

The setup is like this, though there's stuff that cannot be told: an internet geek - Elijah Wood - who runs a fan site dedicated to a particular actress - is told he will win a dinner with her. He has checked into the hotel where she's staying, believing that it is part of his prize; suddenly, as he sits down to his laptop, a pop up window appears with a call from an anonymous man, obviously lying about his identity, who quickly manipulates his way into controlling the geek's evening. The anonymous man - who quickly proves dangerous and untrustworthy - is on some level a cipher for the filmmaker, manipulating the audience; this cements our identification with Wood, who is the manipulator's victim as much as we are the filmmaker's. Whether any of this amounts to anything - or if it is a tale that really needs to be told, after Rear Window and Peeping Tom and a host of other game-playing self-reflexive films before it - is anyone's guess, but people who enjoy trying to sort out how a film is working and what it means will probably be more engaged than people just hoping for a well-told story (ie., I liked it better than Erika did). Also thrown into the mix are a master hacker, who may or may not be a) Elijah Wood b) the manipulator; or c) the manipulator's first victim. There's also a France-based (but not metric-system using: oops) hacker group trying to get in touch with their hero, who get enlisted by an increasingly desperate Wood to help, and a few peripheral characters - men in the woman's life, police, etc. It's all entertainingly done, and the Vancity Theatre's Tom Charity - who was recently talking on Facebook about De Palma's use of split screen, and how odd it is that so few other filmmakers have really taken advantage of the technique - should probably see it. I'm not actually sure about anyone else, but it's better made, more interesting, and more formally accomplished than it is being given credit for being, so if you find it at Dollarama too...

One thing they do that I've seen before is the gimmick of having a website that will kill people the more people log in. I think I've seen that a few times now; the first time, I think, was Gregory Hoblit's 2008 thriller Untraceable, though doubtlessly it pops up in a Saw film and maybe even in that Indonesian-Japanese co-production Killers that I liked so much a few months ago. Vigalondo obviously knows it's been done before, because he only briefly employs the idea. Vigalondo is best known for the Spanish film Timecrimes, unseen by me, and the short film "Parallel Monsters," which was probably the best segment of V/H/S: Viral, the disappointing third installment in the V/H/S franchise. Like fellow Spaniards Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows and some pretty good Liam Neeson thrillers - see last month for more - and Jaume Balagueró i Bernat (REC franchise and the creepy, great Spanish thriller Sleep Tight), Vigalondo has made a promising crossover into American genre cinema. He has a new film coming up, Colossal, filmed in Vancouver; it was, I gather from IMDB, hit by a lawsuit during pre-production, claiming it had similarities to Godzilla; God knows why, based on the posters below, but I'm all for it, because I'd love to see Vancouver eaten by a giant monster.

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