Monday, May 18, 2015

"Across 110th St." by J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson's astounding score to Barry Shear's epic blaxploitation (ish) thriller "Across 110th Street" has to be in the conversation of the great soundtracks of all time. Taken as just a record alone, it's excellent, but the smart, spare, mostly percussive tracks that underscore the great chase scenes are completely perfect - the musicianship is superb, the musical concepts are tight and the overall tone matches the scenes perfectly. It certainly doesn't hurt that much of the soundtrack features vocals by one of the great all time soul singers, Bobby Womack, who also wrote the songs that weren't strictly part of the score, which was performed by J.J. Johnson and His Orchestra. It gets no better than this.

It's interesting to note that the song "Across 110th Street" used in the film is not the same version you've probably heard before; it's tougher, faster and more raw than the more polished single. The sweet, sad love song "If You Don't Want My Love" had also been a single for Womack, and was re-recorded here in again a much more raw, sparsely instrumented style. The Latin flavored, almost disco-ish "Quicksand" plays as background music in a Harlem bar, and the tough blues song "Do It Right" blasts in suddenly and jarringly, underscoring a scene in a dry cleaner where hoods try to coerce information out of a man by putting his head in a hot press.

This film isn't often talked about as one of the great 70's films; a lot of times it's not even one of the first films that comes to mind when discussing great blaxploitation films, but it ought to be. One could argue that the production value is too high to put in firmly in the category of true blaxploitation, and that's true: ten blaxploitation films could probably have been made for what "110th Street" cost. It moves very quickly, and even though there's a few unintentionally funny moments, (mostly due to Anthony Quinn's character's hilariously short temper: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT TALKING?!?!?" punch, kick etc), overall it's pretty legit dialogue-wise. See this film immediately if you haven't and you like blaxploitation or mafia movies, or even just great music.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Case of the Bloody Iris" by Bruno Nicolai

Bruno Nicolai's score to Giuliano Carnimeo's 1972 giallo thriller "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is as fun as the film itself. It begins with a theme that contains all the hallmarks of the Italian film scores of the day: heavy, groovy bass and drums, overlaid with a melody played by a harpsichord, with some high strings joining in as things progress.  There's plenty of the classic elements of horror scores as well: dissonant high pitched strings with piano playing tense low notes, and in one of the more original moments, atonal mandolin music. Nicolai is a master composer and film scorer but nothing here is particularly groundbreaking. I like the toughness to the sound of this score. A lot of film scoring of the giallo era has that toughness because of the technology in 1972, just before recording techniques employed a more sanitized approach.

The film stars the knockout Edwige Fenech as an oft-naked young woman who moves into an apartment with another oft-naked young woman immediately after the former occupant (also an oft-naked young woman) is brutally murdered. Don't expect anything to start to make more sense from there on in; the plot is thin, and the solution to the mystery is thoroughly unsatisfying, but none of that matters because we're not watching it for the plot, we're watching it for boobs and gore (in this case thankfully more of the former). "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is completely overdubbed, and like most of the other giallo horror films of the day, that only adds to the unintentional humor; the dialogue is hilarious: "she's black, but not too black"; "we're all human and every man wants a black girl". It also contains probably the best reaction/non-reaction from a character that's being clung to by a girl who's just been stabbed and is covered in blood.

I'd love to see a sub-titled version of some of these movies, even though I wonder whether it would be worth it. It could be that the performances come off a lot more powerfully and that adds to the impact of the film. Or it could be that it's better over-dubbed because that makes it all the more bad-good.

This is a solid giallo film but I would recommend the somewhat similar "Baba Yaga" over this one.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Baba Yaga" By Piero Umillani

Piero Umillani's diverse score to Corrado Farina's giallo horror film "Baba Yaga" sounds like at times like a soundtrack to a great American blaxploitation film, and at others some classic 70's horror films like "the Omen" or "Carrie".

This era of giallo filmmaking features a glut of Italian composers who are naturally gifted at making scores that mix up genres; they're very diverse but the skillfulness in the execution is always impressive. Not only does Umillani jump all over the map stylistically here, but he puts a lot of fresh touches on his music, so that nothing sounds by-the-numbers: the sexy opening titles feature a organ quartet laying down a tough, funky groove. A gritty blues rock song seamlessly transitions into jazz fusion. A celesta chimes a pretty melody, the harmony is provided by a clavinet that sounds like a classical guitar; this theme is later reprised with a mellotron flute in place of the celesta. A lounge jazz piano is accompanied by a cathedral organ. In one scene, an almost Mancini-esque vibraphone adds to the mystery.

This film appears to have been filmed with the actors speaking their native languages and then was overdubbed depending on the country of release; for example Carroll Baker speaks English and many of her co-stars speak Italian and are overdubbed for the English version. As a result, the dialogue can be truly bizarre and almost non-sensical, often resulting in the unintentional hilarity that makes these films so fun to watch. It could be that some of the metaphors get lost in translation from Italian to English. But let me be clear, this is an amazing film from beginning to end.

There are also plenty of tits.

And there's a virtual shitload of amazing cinematic ideas. The filmmaking seems more influenced by French new wave than more typical Italian giallo; there's loads of great images and the quick cutting you'd expect from Goddard (who is discussed at a party of intellectuals at the start of the film. "Goddard is Goddard". So true. It would be really weird if Goddard was Jean Stapleton). It's colorful and vibrant: occasionally reinforcing its vibrance is still black and white photography intercut with live action, the same motif is then used with close-ups of the pages of a graphic novel in place of the photos.

I can't recall having seen another film which features such well shot sex in one scene, and Jesus getting punched in the face in another. In fact I don't think I've ever seen a film with only the latter. If anyone can think of any great Jesus-getting-punched-in-the-face scenes from other films, let me know. The music is great, the film is great, see it immediately or risk living a life of regret.