A leader keeps people subjugated by fear and emotion, pursuing a religion-based agenda while letting the top official in charge of justice pervert the law to his own ends. Fahrenheit 9/11? Nay, Cobra Woman! This delicious nugget from 1944 kicks off the Not on Video series at the Dryden.
Maria Montez plays the evil high priestess who rules Cobra Island, much to the despair of the helpless Queen, whose more levelheaded ways have been set aside with disdain. So that would make the queen... democracy? Paper-based voting systems? But no, let us set this analogy aside, for the film hardly needs it. And it doesn't need status as "so-bad-it's-good-camp" either --- you will miss a lot if you come to sneer.
Don't get me wrong: There's a lot to laugh at, but the film offers its own warm humor as fun and ridiculous as any of its gaffes. Even the utterly artificial quality of the matte paintings filling in for the background transcend ineptness to arrive at something more like marvelous, lending the film the feel of an illustrated storybook come to life. In fact, visually, the film is a knockout.
Even if this were on video, it could not hope to match the brilliant intensity of the print the Dryden will be screening. (If it ever does find its way to video, it would make for an excellent drinking game. Down a shot every time the Cobra Law regarding strangers is invoked.) The Technicolor is so vivid and sharp it could bite you, and it's put to plenty good use.
There are some truly dazzling costumes for such a low-budget pic (and some truly silly ones). The High Priestess is introduced in a getup that would be more at home on Park Avenue than a South Seas island, and the tableau of her holding court with her color-coded maidens in a Broadway musical-like sacrificial dungeon is the most ravishing image I have seen on film in a long time.
The whole scenario of Cobra Island is like something extracted from the poisoned mind of a Disneyland Imagineer (including some interesting racial divisions in the casting). A good bit of the movie pokes along in the somewhat rote way of an old, forgotten Disney program, but then it will explode with delicious style --- usually when Montez shows up. I've resisted mentioning the movie's highlights for fear of spoiling them, but nothing could prepare you for the dance she performs in the dungeon.
Director Robert Siodmak would go on to direct more reputable fare like The Dark Mirror, in which he set Olivia de Havilland opposite herself as good and evil twins. That film took determined, earnest pains to exploit the cinematic and psychological possibilities of the feat. Cobra Woman also features a good twin played by Montez, but about as much time is spent on that as is spent on a chimpanzee threading a needle elsewhere in the movie. Which, for a charming compendium of slightly deranged exotica, is really all you need. Cobra Woman screens at the Dryden Theatre on Tuesday, July 6.
A less watchable cult film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), was nonetheless a groundbreaking piece of independent blaxploitation whose reputation has endured. The filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, wrote a book afterwards about the struggle of making it, and his son Mario has now made a film based on that, called Baadasssss!, in which heplays his own father.
Melvin's callous tenacity is well put across, and he presents a compelling character at the helm of an eventful odyssey. But where the meager budget of the first film launched a raw, junky salvo at The Man, the meager budget of this one launches something that often comes across --- in look, content, and style --- like a better-than-average TV movie. Broad, playful strokes sometimes veer into thin caricature, and devices meant to get us inside Melvin's head are usually reminiscent of a TV movie that is less than average, not more.
It's never less than entertaining, though, and as it settles down and gets serious, it manages to shake off most of its R-rated-sitcom vibes. The parallels between Sweetback and Melvin's struggles are never stressed too heavily, but it's impossible not to root for him the same way audiences rooted for Sweetback --- even if he is a jerk. Baadasssss! opens Friday, July 2, at the Little Theatre.
--- Andy Davis
Despite having spent the better part of the last decade immersed in the art and commerce of independent film, I'd never seen a movie by Canada's Guy Maddin before watching The Saddest Music in the World, though he has well over 20 of them under his belt. I've even been to the Toronto International Film Festival a handful of times and haven't crossed paths with any of his movies --- no mean feat considering how Canada-centric the festival is. Truthfully, I'd never even heard of the man until last year. I probably should let someone else do this review and just go lick frosting off my fingers while I rock back and forth in the corner and wait for some hack to greenlight Die Hard 4.
Winnipeg, 1933: "The World Capital of Sorrow in the Great Depression," as proclaimed by the Times of London. This dubious distinction inspires beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) to hold a contest in search of the world's saddest music. Entering the competition are former Broadway big shot Chester (Mark McKinney, The Kids in the Hall's Chicken Lady) and his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros, best known for being on the receiving end of the line "Zed's dead, baby" in Pulp Fiction), representing the US; Chester's father, representing Canada and once his rival for the romantic attention of Lady P-H; and Chester's brother, representing Serbia and haunted by memories of his late son and estranged wife. Needless to say, old wounds are opened, secrets come to the fore, and the winning countries celebrate by zipping down a slide into a vat of ale.
Saddest Music looks like a silent movie, or a dream with exceptional production design, as velvety black-and-white gives way to occasional scenes of color. The actors deliver their lines in what can only be described as that forced '30s kind of way which would be considered bad acting in any other film but works in a movie rife with vaudevillian slapstick, bizarre melodrama, and overblown musical numbers. Maddin and co-writer George Toles adapted their screenplay from an original script by Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the decidedly different The Remains of the Day.
Actually, I might be the perfect person to do this review. Saddest Music will be the inaugural experience with this cult filmmaker for most moviegoers. I've read that this is the most accessible of Maddin's films. So while it may not be representative of his oeuvre, it's certainly an entertaining place to start. Saddest Musicopens Friday, July 2, at the Little Theatre.
--- Dayna Papaleo