Armchair Cinephile 

 
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JUVENILIA, ET CETERA

When the tight, tense Joel Schumacher-directed Phone Booth (Fox) was released in theaters a few months back, certain reviewers made a big deal of the fact that its screenplay was written by a guy named Larry Cohen. A nation of filmgoers collectively wondered, "Larry who?"

Cohen is a screenwriter and director whose work rarely hits multiplexes with Phone Booth-style fanfare. More often, his scripts bear titles like Maniac Cop 2 and go more or less straight to video. Thanks to the archivists at Blue Underground, viewers who detected something slightly askew in Phone Booth can now see the kind of exploitation flicks this wacko makes when he's the one running the show.

Wacko how? Try the surreal social commentary of 1972's Bone, where a black brute (Yaphet Kotto, enjoying a chance to play with racist expectations) takes a pampered white couple hostage and winds up having the wife hit on him. Or God Told Me To, in which an epidemic of seemingly random slayings are inspired by a hermaphrodite (who may be an alien, a freaky deity, or a hallucination) with a vagina-like orifice in his side. If that sexual imagery isn't extreme enough, there's Q: The Winged Serpent, basically a giant phallus with wings that lives in the tower of the Chrysler Building and comes out to feed on New Yorkers. This is bizarre grind-house fare, full of bad acting and outrageous flourishes, but unlike some generic exploitation cinema, it's undeniably the work of a single personality - albeit one I might not invite to dinner.

Phone Booth (Fox)

Bone, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent (Blue Underground)

X 2000: The Collected Shorts of François Ozon (KimStim)

See the Sea (Zeitgeist)

The Bostonians, The Europeans (Criterion/Merchant Ivory)

Narc (Paramount)

Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane (Lions Gate)
François Ozon, on the other hand, would likely be an oh-so-sophisticated dinner guest. The director of the ballyhooed Swimming Pool (and 2001's more effective Under the Sand) is less inclined to invent flying dragons that represent sex than to put intimacy on screen in no uncertain terms. He is unusually fond of short films (he made around a dozen before his first feature), four of which are found on X 2000: The Collected Shorts of François Ozon (KimStim). Although misleadingly named, the disc does present a good picture of the artist as a horny young man; all four films are about coupling. Never X-rated but far more up-front than most American movies, they wrap a wide variety of amorous experience into just over an hour, from a quartet of youngsters playing Truth or Dare to a March-September hookup that never gets off the ground. Riding the fence between short- and feature-length cinema, Ozon's See the Sea (Zeitgeist) was also released not long ago.

Those who prefer their sexual desire laced up in corsets or expressed in discreet hand-delivered letters will a) be looking forward to the new Merchant Ivory film Le Divorce, and b) be startled to learn that Le Divorce actually depicts couples in bed together. Oh, for the innocent liaisons of days gone by! Fear not, for the Criterion Collection has joined with Merchant Ivory for a series of releases that starts this month with The Bostonians and The Europeans, two adaptations of Henry James novels. Although I'm still not sure why this esteemed production company isn't called Merchant Ivory Jhabvala, acknowledging the decades-old contribution of their screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, release of some of their pre-fame films is certainly good news.

Finally, the release of Narc (Paramount) is a boon for anyone who would like a dose of '70s cop drama this week, but preferred The French Connection to S.W.A.T. The gritty, adrenalized story of good and bad police detectives is so assured and effective that it landed writer/director Joe Carnahan a job directing the next installment of Mission: Impossible. Although this was Carnahan's first film to get a wide release, it wasn't his directing debut: His Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane (Lions Gate) came out back in 1998.

Blood, Guts was a do-it-yourself shoestring production and looks it; the picture is sometimes ridiculously grainy, the sets look like abandoned buildings, and the actors' lips don't always match the dialogue coming out of them (for non-geeks, that's because the "looping," in which actors record the dialogue after the fact because the original sound tapes weren't good enough, was hurried). What's more, it's blatantly derivative of Quentin Tarantino: It's full of random violence, has a silly sense of cool, the director plays the film's most talkative character, and for Pete's sake, it devotes an entire scene to a speculative discussion about Johnny Cash. But despite these and other flaws, the movie has a kind of dorky charisma about it, an energy that sets it apart from most of the late-'90s Tarantino ripoffs. It's nowhere near as accomplished as Narc, but in hindsight, it seems obvious that the guy who made this shoot-'em-up probably had bigger things in his future. •


More by John DeFore

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