January 31–February 7, 2002
(Sat., Feb. 2, 8 p.m., $6, The Print Center, 1614 Latimer St., 215-735-60 90, www.voicenet.com/~jschwart)
Like an onscreen version of Ed Wood, Maria Montez has become one of those rare figures celebrated for her lack of talent. Acclaimed by avant-garde filmmaker Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures ) as "The World’s Worst Actress," Montez starred in a series of lavishly absurd Technicolor fantasies that made her one of the most popular box-office stars of the ’40s. Pairing Montez with frequent co-stars Jon Hall and Sabu — and featuring an appearance by Shemp Howard as Sinbad — Arabian Nights (which, incidentally, was nominated for four Academy Awards) features Montez as Sherazade in a story that bears only the slightest resemblance to the classic fairy tales. That didn’t stop Montez from dressing in a series of costumes so lavish that she’s reported to have reacted to the movie thusly: "When I look at myself, I am so beautiful, I scream with joy!" Luckily enough, the screening coincides with the return of free Victory beer to the Print Center screenings. By all accounts, you’re gonna need it.
(Sat., Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 3, 6 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 6, 9:15 p.m.; Thu., Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 10, 6 p.m., Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 215-569-9700, www.princemusictheater.org)
Originally saddled with the far hokier (and, unfortunately, accurate) title New York Beat, Downtown 81 is a would-be document of an era that probably seemed dated even at the moment it came out. Time has increased the value of the performances captured here by such bands as DNA, James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the Plastics and Tuxedomoon. Unluckily, they’re spaced out by a ridiculous and massively hackneyed "plot" involving the 19-year-old Jean Michel Basquiat, who spends most of the movie walking around the city looking for a girl, trying to sell a painting and generally wandering into a succession of only-in-New York scenarios. Glenn O’Brien’s narration is the worst kind of pseudo-poetic gibberish, mostly half-assed profundities about how, you know, crazy New York is and stuff. (No, dude, seriously?) Even chopped down to 70-odd minutes for its re-release, Downtown 81 still makes you lunge for the fast-forward button.
The Stunt Man/The Sinister Saga of Making the Stunt Man
($19.98 each DVD; $34.98 2-disc edition)
An unlikely triple-Oscar nominee in 1981, Richard Rush’s aggressively quirky, existentialist action comedy has more or less faded into the mists in the past two decades. Best known for lowball fare like Freebie and the Bean and Getting Straight, Rush took an aggressive leftward leap with this surreal yarn about a man on the run from the law who finds work as a movie stuntman and then begins to lose his grip on the distinction between reality and moviemaking. Considering that Steve Railsback incarnated both Charles Manson and Ed Gein, it’s saying something that his performance in The Stunt Man may be his most off-kilter. Scenery-chewing doesn’t cover it — it’s like he wants to swallow the cameras and lighting equipment as well. As megalomaniacal director Eli Cross (named, Rush reveals, for an early pseudonym of his), Peter O’Toole gives a marvelously textured comic performance that ranks at the top of his oeuvre. Descending from the sky like a literal deus ex machina, Cross is a vain, tempermental deity whose favor is gained as quickly as it is lost. "If God could do the tricks that we can do," Cross exclaims, "he’d be a happy man!" Rush’s sense of humor tends toward the antic, not to say juvenile, which leads to a few aggressively annoying sequences, and Barbara Hershey’s role as the beauteous starlet (who, of course, falls for our blue-collar hero) is no better than functional. But the trap doors in Rush’s house of games are endlessly entertaining — just when you think you’ve got a scene down, the camera pulls back to reveal the artifice behind the emotion.
The Sinister Saga…, directed by Rush himself, is a recent look back at the film’s difficult birth and colorful production and release. Though, of course, it’s only for fans of the movie, Saga is a detailed and humorous account of the dozens of battles small and large associated with the film’s history. It might seem odd that Rush — who has directed only one other movie, the dreadful Color of Night (1994), in the intervening 20 years — has been rehashing the same Pyrrhic victory for so long, but as he says, "Some people keep on looking for their next project. I’ve found mine. It’s The Stunt Man."
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season
A mixed blessing, this. Unlike the shit quality of Comcast’s UPN signal, the magic of DVD allows you to see all of the mud and grain in the series’ first season, when the show was still shot in 16mm. And among this collection’s 12 episodes are three of series’ absolute worst: "Teacher’s Pet" (Xander is attacked by a giant praying mantis posing as a seductive substitute teacher); "The Pack" (Xander is bewitched by a magic hyena); and "I Robot… You Jane" (the obligatory 1997 Internet episode, where Willow meets the spirit of an ancient demon in an online chat room, only to have him take form as a clunky-looking robot and try to kill her). But misfires aside, it’s amazing how many of these earliest episodes get the formula just right, from "Witch" (would-be cheerleaders menaced by an ambitious mistress of the dark arts) to "The Puppet Show" (nervous students prepare for talent show while being stalked by a vivisection-minded demon). Creator Joss Whedon’s reluctant audio commentary on the show’s two-part opener (he remarks that potential listeners "have way too much time on your hands") reveals early network battles (like their desire to spruce up Willow’s wardrobe) and happy accidents (Sarah Michelle Gellar originally read for the role of the snotty Cordelia, until execs suggested having her try the lead on for size), not to mention a few funny tidbits (i.e., the fact that the show could only afford to build one section of Sunnydale High’s halls, thus necessitating some rather clever attempts to hide the fact that they were always in the same place). Of course, the really exciting thing about having Buffy’s first season on DVD (more than a year after its European release) is that the second and third seasons are that much closer to release. (Season two will be out in May, in fact.) Considering that it usually takes the flip of a coin to resolve which of the two is the series’ greatest, it’s a tantalizing prospect. Think of this as the warmup act.
René Clément’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is far less faithful than Anthony Minghella’s screen version of a few years back (for one, the Cate Blanchett character never appears at all), but it arguably gets more directly to the heart of Highsmith’s twisted psychology. A lesbian crime novelist who frequently returned to the subject of intense, quasi- (and not so quasi-) sexual friendships between men, Highsmith sometimes gave her female characters as much short shrift as the men in her stories. As the third corner of Purple Noon’s homoerotic triangle, Marie Laforêt is so colorless and piggishly plain you have to suspect that Clément never intended her to be any real competition for the movie’s swooningly beautiful male stars, Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. Henri Decaë’s cinematography (reproduced well on the new DVD) makes the Mediterranean skies an incandescent blue, pristine and savage at the same time. Purple Noon suffers from a degree of psychological opacity; Clément clearly wanted Delon’s Ripley to be acting out of instinct, but his reasons for murdering his best friend and stealing his life are so obscure that the plot sometimes seems to be moving ahead merely out of obligation. But the cornered ferocity in Delon’s performance answers every question on an emotional, if not a logical, level. Clément luxuriates in the air of debauchery and madness like a sunbather lounging in a tropical wild, basking as long as he can without getting burned.
John Frankenheimer’s 1966 thriller is an unholy amalgam of Bergman and Samuel Fuller that gets off a few startling moments before descending into gibberish. John Randolph stars as a dissatisfied middle-aged banker who, without entirely agreeing to the prospect first, is given an entirely new life, complete with a physical transformation into a confused-looking Rock Hudson. Seduced by a hedonistic fellow-"reborn" (Salome Jens) and given a new identity as a successful painter, the newly christened Antiochus Wilson still finds himself looking to escape, which drives the movie to its predictably paranoid conclusion. Without the tension of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds dissolves into a pretentious mess, with performances cranked to the limit and veteran cameraman James Wong Howe slapping on the fisheyes. As a stylistic exercise, Seconds has some merit, but if it seemed innovative at the time, it certainly hasn’t dated well. (One interesting note: Frankenheimer’s commentary reveals that a number of the principal actors were former blacklistees, which lends added resonance to the movie’s themes.)