Friday, March 29, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: DogMan

I'll get this out of the way first: DogMan has a large cast of dogs, but none die in the film. There is some implied violence against dogs, but this takes place mainly off-screen.

With that out the way, I have to say, this is the most insane tribute to dogs ever put on screen. At times, I was absolutely howling with incredulous laughter, at others I was completely confused, and by the end, I'll admit, I shed a tear.

In cinema's craziest hero (or villain??) origin story, Caleb Landry Jones stars as Douglas, survivor of an abusive childhood where he was kept in a cage with dogs his religious father bred for dog fighting. This childhood appears to take place in the 1940's, for reasons not fully explained, since the majority of the movie takes place in modern times. Years in that cage left Douglas partially paralyzed, and really, really good with dogs. Like, really good. And he uses that skill for both good (protecting a family from a local gang) and evil (let's just say his dogs make good cat thieves).

Luc Besson does not make subtle movies, and he has, once again, gone completely gonzo here. I feel like it's best to go into this knowing very little, so I will simply add that DogMan also includes perhaps the best drag rendition of an Edith Piaf song every performed, if there were any justice in this world, Caleb Landry Jones would be getting an Oscar nomination come 2025, and leave it at that.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, Riddle of Fire, Late Night with the Devil

It's odd to think that there is not a time in my life when I was not aware of Carol Doda, even if it was just knowing there was a giant sign of a lady with blinking boobs to be seen any time the family ventured to North Beach. But that was just part of the joy of growing up in San Francisco in the 1970's and 1980's. 

The new documentary Carol Doda Topless at the Condor aims to expand that awareness past the City limits and decades past by centering Doda as a cultural revolutionary, even if she didn't necessarily see herself that way. Co-directors Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker utilize previously recorded interviews with Doda herself (she died in 2015), along with commentary from fellow North Beach performers, and a few cultural academics, and pair it up with an impressive amount of archival footage and photos to help flesh out a portrait of Doda, who was notoriously cagey about her personal life. 

It's definitely entertaining seeing Doda's trajectory from cocktail waitress, to go-go dancing cocktail waitress, to featured dancer, to the country's first topless dancer (kind of), to topless and bottomless dancer, the uproar all of that caused, and her ultimate status as a San Francisco icon (the city's other "twin peaks"). But I actually found some of the stories shared by her fellow entertainers even more enjoyable. (I can't believe I was too young to check out the stripper with the pet monkey!) 

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor is less about Doda and more about the cultural shift she helped spearhead, intentionally or not. And while it left me wishing I could know a little more about the woman herself (the interviews they do include show she was a really witty woman), as a portrait of San Francisco in the late late 1960's and early 1970's, it's tops.

The 1970's were also brought to mind while watching the indie gem Riddle of Fire, even though the film is contemporary. Shot on 16mm, in gloriously yellowish tones, the movie looks and feels like a b-movie of that era, perhaps something that may have played as the second film in a double feature with a live action Disney movie in 1977.

When I tell you it is an epic fairytale about three kids on a quest to find a blueberry pie for their ailing mother, it probably sounds pretty saccharine, even though that is in fact the bare bones plot. But these adolescent kids also ride dirt bikes, carry paint ball guns, swear occasionally, and are in search of this pie because it's the only way their mom will give them the password to the TV so they can play the new video game console they stole. Along their quest they also run afoul of a gang of poachers, lead by a possible witch, who puts their lives in danger.

Not so saccharine!

I was enchanted by this oddball film, and director Weston Razooli's commitment to its unique tone. The rural Wyoming setting is photographed beautifully, and the soundtrack brought to mind scores by Tangerine Dream and Goblin (along with an actual needle drop from the film Cannibal Holocaust). Letting three actors under the age of 14 carry a movie is always a risky move, especially for a first time filmmaker, but I was really impressed by the performances Razooli got from Phoebe Ferro, Skyler Peters, and Charlie Stover. Sure, at two hours long, Riddle of Fire could have used a bit of trimming, but I was also a little sad to see the adventure of Alice, Jodie, and Hazel come to an end.

The 1970's strike again with the horror movie, Late Night with the Devil,  about a talk show that had one really, really horrifying Halloween special back in 1977. 

The film is presented as a mockumentary about a fateful episode of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, a late night talk show constantly competing against the success of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After tragedy befalls host Jack Delroy (played to perfection by David Dastmalchian), he attempts a comeback with a Halloween episode featuring a medium, the author of a book about a demon possession, and the possibly possessed girl, and a former magician-turned-skeptic who's there to debunk it all.

The parts of the film that are the "actual" episode of the show are absolutely terrific, with the production design, late night style jokes, and performances completely nailing the tone. Which is why it's so disappointing that the movie doesn't stick with that, instead inserting "behind the scenes" footage supposedly shot during the show's commercial breaks. This footage makes absolutely no sense on a practical level (why was it shot? Why does it involve multiple cameras? Why do none of the performers ever acknowledge it's happening?) and also completely disrupts the realistic feeling of the TV show. 

The whole "mockumentary" set-up is also pretty much dropped for an ending that goes off the rails, but, ironically, could have worked perfectly had they stuck to the premise. Still, enough of the movie succeeds that I can forgive it its trespasses, even while hoping for an alternative cut that just features that Night Owls with Jack Delroy Halloween episode of 1977.