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Review: The Terminal Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

What a fancy exploitation flick this is! The Terminal Man‘s dressed to the nines with gleaming color, elaborate art direction, smooth camerawork (lotsa tracking shots and long-focus). All this, and—wait for it—”ideas” too! Oh, yeah. THRILLER STUDIES MIND CONTROL goes the headline over Michael Walsh’s long, respectful review in the Vancouver Province. (Walsh: “Since men first began clubbing one another over the head, violence has been a serious social problem….”) George Segal’s brain has been damaged in a car accident, see, and now he’s subject to fits, a dangerous man. They gonna plant these bad bundles of computer-controlled electrodes in his haid; maybe the computer’ll abort the fits. The Psychosurgery Question. In the back of the lecture hall, a very old doctor rises to his feet. Why, he’s … Mr. Humanism personified! Denounces the proposed procedure, the intervention, in a furious quavery voice; draws political parallels. Heavy stuff. But They (with the patient’s consent) go ahead. “Medical totalitarianism” (Walsh). Result: “a tale of psycho-horror.” Because something, of course, goes wrong, terribly wrong.

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The Hong Kong Gesture

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

A procession of horses and men winds through the gate and into the large courtyard of the Four Seasons brothel. They come to a halt; dozens of big wooden crates are simultaneously lowered to the ground. We watch a man break one open. Contents: one (1) cringing maiden. The new shipment has arrived.

Among those uncrated is the courtesan of the title, Ai Nu. But this one don’t cringe, boys. Out she steps, mad as hell, and it takes the best efforts of several of the pack train’s ruffianly marauders to restrain her.

Along comes the unruffleable madame of the establishment. Total cool; total authority, That’s wasted on Ai Nu, who attacks her like a wildcat. The battle is joined.

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Lunch at Bad Aussee

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Normand F. Lareau, a longtime friend of Movietone News, is a resident of New York City, a confirmed addict of the cinema (especially the films of François Truffaut), a vendor of movie stills, a filmmaker, and a kindhearted connoisseur of cats and people. He is currently engaged in a yearlong bike trek around Europe. —Ed.

A friend in New York gave me the name of a dialogue coach working for an Italian film company and said, “Look her up. She’s fun; she’ll show you a good time.” It seemed that the company was doing location work in Bad Aussee, Austria, and if I hurried I could maybe watch them filming. As it happened, the day I arrived in tiny Bad Aussee the crew had been up until 3 a.m. in hellish weather shooting the climactic rain-and-fire sequence of the film; it couldn’t be done “day for night” and everyone had to be there whether or not they were needed.

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Review: Jackal of Nahueltoro

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

“Do you know the Infant Jesus?” a voice barks. José des Carmen Valenzuela Torres, 6, huddles farther into his dirty rags. The Corporal, who has just hauled this homeless kid off the road, looks on. Wham! A big bale slams full force into little José’s right cheek. From child vagrant to child laborer, in one cut. Fait accompli. The economy is typical of Littin’s 1969 film, made in Chile, at its disturbing best. And its best coincides—unfortunately, I think—with the most debased and dehumanized phase of the hapless José’s short, unhappy life. A caption declares that Jackal is a film about “the childhood, regeneration, and death” of José Torres. What, between “childhood” and “regeneration,” no “maturity,” nothing at all?

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Out of the Past: Le Samourai

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Jeff Costello, a professional to his white-gloved fingertips, makes his trenchcoated way through a Parisian nightclub and downstairs to the office of the club’s proprietor, where—fulfilling with his usual cold efficiency the terms of a contract—he shoots the man dead. But just as Costello comes out of the office, another consummate professional, the club’s stylish black pianist Valérie, emerges from another door and sees him. She takes a good, long, quizzical look at his face. Most of the narrative twists that follow in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (seen seven years after release in a Vancouver skid road theater, dubbed and retitled The Godson!), depend upon this short scene and its surprising sequel, when Valérie deliberately fails to identify Costello in a police lineup. Melville makes the puzzle of Valérie’s motivation as teasing to us as it soon becomes to Costello himself. Admirers of this director, however, will not be surprised to learn that the extraordinary impact of the film is minimally dependent upon mere plot.

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Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

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Weddings, Etc., in Blood: ‘The Ceremony’

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Maybe, against all available evidence, there really does exist a viable culture of young film heads here in Vancouver. But I doubt it. Subtract El Topo, Siddhartha, Zachariah, the Brothers Marx—big draws like that—and what’ve you got left? An empty auditorium, that’s what. When University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 schedules a Bogie series, it sells out, sure; what else is new? But suggest, as I did a couple of years ago to Cinema 16’s student coordinator, that future series include work by Oshima and you learn that Boy, recently screened, was not well liked, was in fact disliked: for its (sic!) “sentimentality.”

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Review: Erotic Dreams

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

It’s one hell of a note. Here’s this interesting-looking movie playing at, of all places, the Eve, a centrally located Vancouver softcore house: Erotic Dreams—originally (reliable sources) Wet Dreams. The long, narrow ad in The Province has caught my eye: “1st Erotic International Film Directors’ Festival.” A titillating uncertainty already, you see, as to whether it’s the “international film directors” who’re erotic or the Festival itself. Well, there they are, ten of ’em, international as hell, and among their names I find “Nicholas Ray (U.S.A.) … Dusan Makavejev (Yugoslavia) … Heathcote William (Great Britain).” Is this for real? Could “Heathcote William,” for example, actually be the Heathcote Williams, a major British playwright (AC/DC, The Local Stigmatic)? Or do we have here one of these tiresome Madison Avenue dodges in which a “Richard Nixon” is quoted hailing the virtues of a new brand of biodegradable prophylactic but proves (ha ha!) to be only a humble cabdriver from the Bronx? This “Dusan Makavejev,” so-called, am I to visualize some beetle-browed Balkan guy located via the Hollywood phone directory, then, or is it possible that he is the real article? Enough of speculation. I adjust my raincoat, I pay my (!) three dollars, and I enter the steamy precincts of the Eve.

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Review: The Seduction of Mimi

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The print of The Seduction of Mimi currently being shown in Seattle has had about 30 minutes out from it. According to a friend who saw it whole two years ago at the San Francisco Film Festival, the abridgements improve the film. I find myself wondering whether they don’t partially account for its present weaknesses, which appear mainly in its overall construction. It seemed to me, as I watched the picture, that Wertmüller habitually projected her audience’s indulgence, that she counted on our goodwill to model sinew, muscle and flesh over the bare bones that join the various parts of her otherwise well-developed corpus together. It looks as if she were trying to make a complex and ambitious film using the erosion of political and social consciousness as a serious web on whioh to weave her comic woof. But since I haven’t seen the film as she intended it to be seen, I can only speculate that the occasional failures of cohesion are less her fault than that of the New Line Cinema people who subsequently hacked out that missing half-hour.

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Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, Las Hurdes, Los olvidados

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.

Un Chien andalou

One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.

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Buñuel scenes

By Carlos Fuentes, selected and translated by Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

In Mexico

…Buñuel is of medium height, round-shouldered, powerful (an amateur boxer, military service in Spain; he also enjoys disguising himself as Guardia Civil, but with Garcia Lorca he used to disguise himself as a nun, both of them shaved very close, very powdered, and mount the Madrid trams at their busiest hours, jostling coquettishly with the male passengers, flirting with grimaces, winking at them, collective panic). Winking? Buñuel? No. A gaze unfathomable, fixed, infinitely remote, transformed only by the big infant’s grin and robust guffaw of a perpetually youthful man. He knows how to laugh until the tears come. An ingenuous-appearing humor, a series of practical jokes and remembered gags, put into action or previsualized. Spain, Mexico, and surrealism, a triple-whammy black humor.

I completely lack a conceptual memory. For me, only visual memory exists. For Simon of the Desert I settled myself into the National Library of Paris for several months, I read everything that had been written on the life of the medieval anchorites, including Latin folios. I looked into what the stylites ate, prayed, wore, everything. Useless. Culture contributed nothing. The movie is a series of visual and verbal gags.

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Review: Tendresse Ordinaire

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Awful long on the ordinaire, this movie of Leduc’s, and kinda short on the tendresse; still, I liked it a lot. Once the wife, Esther (Esther Auger), and her cheerful friend Bernadette (Luce Guilbeault) get their cake into the oven, that is, and we switch, finally, to husband Jocelyn (Jocelyn Berube), who’s on a train heading for a four-month job in Quebec’s deep north. The movie opens with some ten minutes (more? less? my memory isn’t reliable here, it seemed like an eternity to me) of the left-behind wife and her pal moving about a small kitchen and preparing that cake. Talk’s pretty well limited to “pass me the sugar please”; and although a few details (the women appreciatively sniffing a vial of vanilla, a closeup of sifting flour) are pleasant enough, this opening scene is really one long drag. Now it happens I like to cook myself, and I don’t necessarily demand that movie cooking be jazzed up with flashy editing and photography, nor brightened by a running commentary of gags and hijinks à la Galloping Gourmet either. But—oh, my, those of us who saw Makavejev’s Switchboard Operator, will we ever forget those eggs, that cream, those luscious, lustrous tonalities of black and white? What happened here, I suspect, is that Leduc simply told the two women to go ahead and bake a cake, and “improvise” their dialogue as they went along. The taxing real-time result yields virtually nothing in the way of character insight yet fails to hold the eye. Ten (?) full minutes of purposeful kitchen activity, and it all comes out squirmworthiest temps mort. Oh, not as mort, maybe, as those long takes of the back of bored, lonely Esther’s head at the end of the movie—not that mort—but mort enough, I think, to turn off all but the most determined viewers.

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Review: Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The best fight sequences in Chang Cheng Ho’s otherwise unremarkable Five Fingers of Death (1971) pit various trim, clean-featured young Chinese boxers against the most outlandishly lethal trio of killers I’ve ever hated myself for loving to watch. Lanky, slack-limbed, sullen and arrogant-looking youths they are, with mops of very long, disheveled hair and an insouciant manner out of which flowers without warning that bafflingly beautiful series of swift karate movements for which they have been hired—out of Japan—by a deep-dyed Chinese bad guy named Meng. Invincible Boxer was the movie’s original title. But these three imported killing machines are the ones who appear invincible, not the bland Chinese hero of the title. Still, a Chinese audience knows the foreigners mustn’t really be invincible; and of course all three eventually do hit the dust and the audience goes home satisfied.

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Review: Love and Anarchy

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

In Love and Anarchy, Lina Wertmüller incorporates many things Fellinian—Rotunno’s gorgeous camerawork, Rota’s characteristic harmonies, thematic tidbits such as grotesques-made-lovable, prostitutes making music and selling their wares, and even an aging female character who pitiably begs her audience to respect her past stardom as an “artiste” (remember Mademoiselle Fifi in the harem sequence of 8 1/2)—but the director’s purpose could hardly differ more from Fellini’s; one has only to watch Amarcord and then Love and Anarchy to understand how many worlds apart two narrative voices with similar stylistic articulations can be.

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Review: Réjeanne Padovani

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Vivid reds dominate this Quebec-made study of corruption, from its cruising opening night shot of a sleek black car, taillights aglow, arriving at contractor Vincent Padovani’s chic Montreal home, to the grayish morning-after tableau, wide-angle, in which bored dignitaries wait in the rain, under black umbrellas, for their infantile mayor to cut a long red ribbon spanning the expanse of Padovani’s brand-new slate-grey superhighway. The police-sergeant/chauffeur who jumps out of the sleek black car and scurries around to open the passenger door for his boss (a minister of transportation) wears French cuffs and a hood-y maroon shirt. The minister is ushered into Padovani’s tasteful diningroom where a small, genteel dinner party is underway to celebrate the completion of the highway, with its lucrative, business-as-usual “spreading of contracts.” Outside, the red-shirted cop leans on the limo, lights a cigarette, and prepares to wait it out. After a few moments, he too is ushered into the house, by Padovani’s righthand man Dominique—but his place is belowstairs. Here he meets a couple of other garishly attired policemen, attendant on other Padovani cronies, and an impassively babyfaced gunman apparently attached to the household, and two drinks-serving young women engaged for the evening to seryice one of the upstairs party guests: the mayor. The basement quarters where these flunkies congregate and await various summonses from upstairs are irregularly lit with patches of Mean Streets neon poolhall red. This opening sequence is absorbing, and the counterpoint between below- and abovestairs generates some suspense. But subsequent spurts of away-from-the-dinner-party action—an intimidating visit to a rival gangster’s lair, a vicious attack on militant students planning a protest demonstration against the highway, the roughing-up of two inquiring reporters—somehow fail to satisfy.

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