Sunday, May 8, 2011

(Most of) the EX-FEST 2011

EX-FEST 2011 represented a bunch of exploitation movies and trailers screened for a massive (sold-out) audience in Philadelphia at the International House.  It was quite a show, and while I didn't get to see all of the films (a technicality that I'll get to later in this blogpost), it represented a fantastic array of what's available in the exploitation movie world of old.

By old I should say that the films were not only of a certain time and place - those being the late 1960s and 1970's - but of the film prints themselves.  Exhumed Films (bless their black-movie hearts) screened the films the way they were meant to be seen, on a big goddamn screen in their original 35mm prints... that is to also say that they were not restored in any way.  This had its definite charms and some drawbacks, which I'll also get to in a moment.

As an exploitation fest it gave what I wanted and then some with one big surprise (which is #3 on this list), and one quasi-disappointment, though only in a slight way, which is at #6 on this list and is barely even a review.  Also as an aside, the venue was really a top-notch kind of place, with good seats, fine projection (albeit it at one point fizzled out I blame more the bad quality of the prints than anything wrong with the projector or the projectionist), and it being adjacent to an indoor cafe AND with the guys running the show being super cool about bringing in food, it was a kind of mini-party.  In fact it was like going to one of those all-day/night rock concerts, like Bonnaroo only without so many bands that you forget or skip out most of them only to come back to the main acts.

They also screened a MASSIVE amount of spectacular theatrical trailers in-between the films, which I'll conclude with at the end of this piece.

The features broke down into categories of Euro-Western, Italian Crime, Travolta-sploitation (yeah, #3), blacksloitation (with the addendum of Filipino!), Kung-fu, and sexploitation.


 What the poster for this movie says, about it being super-violent, is true, though not quite as consistently as something like a Sergio Corubicci or even Sergio Leone spaghetti western.  Going in I had no idea how violent it might be - and it does get gory whenever (and I mean in any major instance of) a character being killed or stabbed or shot or whatever.

It's in short about a chain-gang of prisoners in late 19th century snowy-mountain wilderness being stranded with their sergeant who is charged to take them back to a Fort to await trials and executions and so forth, with only two  big catches: 1) the chain that is attached to them all is made of gold(!) (an aspect of the movie that feels inexplicable except to make the stakes higher for the prisoners to want to get out of their chains and away from the sergeant); 2) the sergeant played by Claudio Undari (also known as Robert Hundar) has a vendetta against one of the prisoners being that one of them (though he's not sure which) killed his wife many years ago.

There is a lot of walking through snowy woods and lots of backstabbing and big-prisoner talk, and halfway through the movie something happens with the Sergeant that I was certainly not expecting that threw me for a loop.  But aside from that it is a fairly standard Western of this late 60's/early 70's variety (though technically *not* Italian it still has that feel minus Morricone standard-issue music), and the performances are typical gritty lean-and-mean tough guy stuff, the things of a true B-western movie.

I didn't really know anyone here, though one prisoner might be a dead ringer for Gian Maria Volonte, and another side character who is gold-hungry and shows up mostly at the start and near the end of the story might be a dead ringer for a Charles Dickens caricature.  So most of the movie had to play on the director's strength at making us kind of care what happens to one of the prisoners and the Sgt's fragile daughter who is along for the ride and how twisted the other prisoners can get with their greed and desperation.

It's a good if nothing special Western- maybe too good in a way for this ex-Fest being that its main 'exploitive' points are really based around a lot of the excessive violence, which is what marks it as memorable though also, arguably, more gruesome than it needs to be.  I can go for excessive bloodletting, but the shots of the stab-wounds and body parts seemed like an afterthought, as though the producer shot some of those shots after the director left and decided to insert them in later.  

But the characters are interesting enough in that rough B-movie vein where everyone is identifiable pretty much right away and a lot of tension is around 'will he or won't he fire that gun... or worse'.  Decent direction, if a little slow, it's something I wouldn't mind seeing on a Euro-Western box-set.


Now here was a genuine surprise: a movie that has as generic a convention as can be in a crime movie - the guy in crime wants to retire, the "organization" doesn't want that, so they rig his car to be bombed (or, in short, to be killed), but they kill his wife and son, and so instead of retiring he goes on to REVENGA!  Yes, it is, but the direction from Duccio Tessari is one thing, and Alain Delon as the star is something else.  It really is what bumps up the movie from being good trash to very good not-quite trash.

He is such a cool, sad but heart-rending presence on screen, and he commands it like a super-tough even as he has the kind of looks like an aged James Dean if he'd lived past 21.  He is a genuine star/actor of his time, and here he gets to... well, he's certainly not better than he was in the Melville crime films, but he is having a lot of fun in a role that is really tragic in dimensions (sure, still a stone-cold killer, but there's something else to him since he's not a total loner like in those classic films).  Just watch how he acts when he sees his family get in the car and when the car explodes.  His face is classic.  He's out for payback, and he'll KILL THE BAD GUYS.  A LOT!

This has genuine action and thrills, and some real doses of humor (at one point a gangster is talking to one of his dames and she complains about his life in 'the gutter', to which he says "I like the gutter, it's where I found you!" which got a huge laugh and applause from the audience, devils they are).  It's a crowd-pleaser that actually has a very downbeat ending for a movie that seems to have the typical beats down with some 70's twists to be sure.  Not every performance works and a couple of non-Delon scenes drag with the 'oh, maybe we shouldnta killed his family and stuff', but so much of it works that it's surprising.  It's very much fitting for the Ex-Fest - full of violence and guilty pleasure lines and moments, and in the rough 35mm print it felt like it was being screened for the first time since 1973 and was just happy to still be around - and yet it's a good movie on its own, the best legitimate "film" that played that day.


No, you do not need to adjust your internet TV set.

This was such a shock that it took the audience a full five minutes to realize that this was really just a goofy PG rated comedy where the most scandalous thing that happens is a goofy fight on a disco floor and (gasp) the main character wants a kiss with the girl!

But what the fuck is this, you may be asking yourself?  Why does this exist?  Two words: John Travolta.  More specifically, three words, Saturday Night Fever.  Travolta exploded onto the film-world scene with this disco blockbuster, and he was very hot to a lot of people, not least of which women and dance hounds... oh, and the exploitation film world.  In fact, I might look to this being a movie that epitomizes the word 'exploit' in exploitation as the whole reason this exists is to capitalize on the immediate success of something that is already there just aching (or not) for the squeezing of the almighty Big Money draw, regardless of actual talent.  Justin Bieber, could you get the treatment next ?

While you were learning to SPELL YOU NAME I was trained to strut!
Perhaps the surprising part for me was that when I was told at the start of the festival it would be 'Travolta-sploitation' I thought it would be one of those super-obscure Travolta movies he made early in his career, or during, y'know, the late 80's.  But instead this is a Spanish flick about a short-order hotel cook named Johnny (Giusepe Spieza) who looks an awful lot like that guy on the movie posters... could it be?  No, no way!  His friends - who often just sit around dancing around a lot (only here, unlike in Fame, it's funny by how self-aware it is), and trying to get Johnny out of the shy-awkwardness he is in so he can talk to the hot blonde girl who dances at the local disco.  So what to do?  Well, how about shaving off the mustache, taking off the glasses, a haircut, and that big white suit Gene Siskel owned, and viola!

It's quite simple: this is a one-joke movie really. This doesn't mean director Neri Parenti doesn't try to make a couple of other jokes throughout the film, mostly involving misdirection and the kind of broad comedy style that would make the Beatles wince with their brand of fandom-sploitation (mostly with a hotel clerk who goes ape over thinking he's going insane seeing the Travolta, in the flesh!)  It's a silly movie that is predicated around the guy looking exactly like the star... which he does, about I'd say 90% of the time.  Certain times he does look like an imitator, but other times - such as when he dances miraculously upon wanting to impress the girl (before this he's just the klutz of the title) - he really makes the performance all its own.  It pays off mostly through the goofiness being amplified so high.  It's like an All That Nickelodeon skit stretched to the limit.

Oh, and by the way, don't bother looking for it in the US on DVD.  This was a super-special-rare screening presented by one of the programmers, a Harry Guerra (bless him) who found many of the prints screened at the festival, the kind of film print he saw at a friends house and said 'huh, what is THIS?' and took it for his own.  Indeed it is so rare a film that it took me a full hour to find out what the movie was actually titled since its title at the Ex-Fest - The Face with Two Left Feet (one of the best movie titles ever) - was nowhere to be found ANYWHERE on the internet.  It was only after some digging that I got to the 'other' title as it was released in Spain, which was The Lonely Destiny of John Travolto.  Finds like this are little treasures, even if they are trashy pieces of star-sploitation that hit their expiration date by the time Urban Cowboy graced the cineplexes of the era.  It's the kind of thing I love to talk about, even if I can only in my right mind recommend it to a select few bad-movie snobs.


And now for the blacksploitation... by way of the Philippines!  Yes, when all ideas are starting to run dry in the blacksploitation pool, go to Asian guerilla war (and keep in mind despite the vertiable pool of talent as soon as the Jack Hills and Pam Griers hit the scene the Dolamites and Abar the First Black Supermen followed soon after).

This is pretty simple shit, a knock-off of Che long before Soderbergh got around to it where a black would-be con goes to the Philippines as a way of not going to jail and becomes embroiled in a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the military attaché in the country.  Maybe a not-so subtle attack on the Marcos government of the period (and when the Beatles hate your ass you know you suck) who oppressed their people to no end.  Or just another quick way for Corman to make some bucks at New World Pictures (the movie comes out later this year on SHOUT! DVD by the way).

At first I actually wasn't digging it too much.  It seemed kind of generic even for a blacksploitation flick, and the lead actor is so awful, James Iglehardt, when he's not flexing his muscles and yelling into a megaphone for the rebels to fire their arms (or rather "EVERYTHING YOU GOT!").  And the betrayal angle in the story that develops later on is so predictable.  So what else is there?  Guilty pleasure trash stuff, which, after the movie ended, worked for me better.

There is a fine number of nubile naked women, including sexy Carol Speed as a Foxy Huntress who joins up with the gang of rebels after she loses her gig as a showgirl.  And the violence is fast and sharp with plenty of explosions and massive gunfire.  The kicker being a weapon that Savage devises: his big-ass rifle can fire with the proper plug at the start a bottle full of gasoline set on fire.  While it's no flamethrower, it's cooler.

There's also a very random cutaway to the white military general in charge at the Philippines station to playing racquetball and flirting with his naked floozie on the side of the pool, even if it is him it still makes no sense to cut away to him for two scenes while so much violence and military mayhem goes on.   But the director keeps plenty of soul music going on during these military engagements (what, no Marvin Gaye?) and the star, while a block of granite, can keep things moving along pretty briskly.

The ending leaves things as a slight cliffhanger and yet it's hard to begrudge since the climax of the film, a big-time march against the Big Department of Defense base, is really well executed as far as balls-to-the-wall action goes.   Maybe its just its genericness after a while (with exception of the end) how some of the battle and dialog stuff goes that didn't impress me as much as the other movies.  That and, well, a really bad print that showed one of the sides of film screening I have accepted is flawed: after a certain point of decades, a film print will just deteriorate into sepia-ville (red/brownish tint).

But, if you got a hankering for a big black dude coming to the rescue of little Asian folks in camoflauge and lots of arsenal (and boobage), then you're in for a decent time.


Redneck Miller is perhaps after the John Travolta spoof(?) the most obscure of the lot of movies that screened, albeit one that naturally Quentin Tarantino featured at one of his own B-movie festivals years gone by, and it's arguably the most entertaining.  What most impressed me was the most-done-with-a-little.  It's a very basic story of a hick DJ who loves his pick-up truck, motorcycle, playing some groovy country tunes and his lady and gets into a tizzy with a local black entrepeneur (I'd call him a pimp but I'm still not sure he was one) as he thinks he stole his motorcycle for his own when it's really someone else that did it.  In other words, it's basically like a hicksploitation premake of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.  It's all about the bike, baby.  I mean, it did tie the room together, so to speak.

It mostly has to do with what three-time director John Clayton does with a pretty slight script: cast it with some really engaging personalities, fill it up with sleaze and wonderfully over the top acting from everyone involved (most of which is the guy who plays the Big-Pimp man in town has a woman, Pearl, that DJ beds at one point mostly cause, you know, she's there by the side of the road and needs a big strong man to change the tire and give up some of sex), and some cheesy fights.  All that's missing is a banjo playing tunes off of Deliverance and it'd be gold.  Not much keeps it from really being boring ever, which is to its advantage since it's such a movie that needs to keep the pace going on strong.  It's divided then in half: DJ messing with the black businessman, and then DJ trying to find out from his even more of an asshole-dickish friend Ray the actual stolen motorcycle.

There's sex and intrigue, fooling around and lots of cans of beer, bad country songs and a guy being called John Wayne like it's a "bad" thing (oh all that stuff women say "You coulda been killed!" is just pussy talk, ya hear pussy!), and its dumber than a box of bricks.  But it probably knows how dumb it is, and it has fun all the way, even with some adorable emasculation halfway through where the Pimp-Man basically shows how he's just insecure about his woman Pearl sleeping around with the white guy.  Ah, all's fair in the country backwoods where a man can say to a woman after egging on a guy to rape his woman so he's not killed by a gun: "You can take a lot of loving, I can only get killed one time."  A hilarious, obscure gem.

But then came the #6 film...

... and it was then my wife and I decided to leave.  For a few reasons, some I still feel sorry for but still feel legitimate:

The festival up until this point had screened films that are legitimate hard-to-find obscure exploitation movies, regardless of quality of the actual movies themselves.  But Five Fingers of Death is one I had seen a little too recently (though I can say without any reservation it was one of the best kung-fu movies of the period, a kick-ass competition and payback flick about the killing of a pupil's master and Chao Chi-Hao's coming-of-age as a mega-star, conventional stuff but done so well with believable acting and terrible dubbing that goes along with fucking incredible fights) and is a very popular movie, the one that actually was the first kung-fu hit in America even before Enter the Dragon, and can be found basically anywhere for two cents on DVD from Dragon Dynasty DVD company under another title.  A part of me was disappointed that it wasn't something that was super hard-to-find.  A minor gripe but one I couldn't shake off despite best intentions.

I might have still been okay with seeing it again, but it was, all due respect to the programmers, at the start not a very good print, even relative to Savage!, totally red-colored as if it the print had deteriorated over the course of almost 40 years on the shelf until it was brought forth for just this night (albeit, and I must admit in the interest of full disclosure, since I didn't stay for the whole film I can't confirm or deny if that changed so I apologize if I was wrong on that).  Basically, a movie I'd seen too recently to want to watch again and didn't care to want to see right away again that was too popular and not the best print- probably not the best idea and petty, but at the same time it's a long commute back to NYC.

On top of this I had a prior engagement for early in the morning the next day and couldn't stick around to catch the final movie after this - a Sexploitation flick I only found out the title of just as I'm writing this was called (The Other) Cinderella (and does sound amazing).  I do feel bad about skipping out on both films, but I'll be sure to return to 'Five Fingers' someday and check out Cinderella another.

But that final gripe aside, dogDAMN what a show.  While 1/8th of the show was lackluster and 1/8th I can't comment on, the other 3/4 (give or take a percentile) was such a smashing success for the Exhumed Films people.  They brought some good awareness for relative newbies to exploitation cinema, and crowdpleasers and the unexpected for the well-initiated.  It was a well-put together show by people who love movies, and there was good food, reasonable respect (not too many people yelling at the screen, just the occasional talking-to-one-another chit-chat about the movie, minor though), and, oh yeah...

LOTS and LOTS of AWESOME trailers, which...

I'll get to in the next blog post.  Stay tuned.

Ok, you get one for now:

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