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by Ken Eisler

Review: Macunaíma

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

The allegedly quintessential Brazilian film begins solemnly, from the absence of color. The screen is black. No sound, no music, nothing. Finally, in white letters, something to lip-read: a preamble heavy and hackneyed as the baritone of the late, great Lowell Thomas…. In the depths of the Brazilian jungle, bla bla bla … all is utter silence, bla bla bla … except … An ungodly shriek rends the air and the audience’s eardrums. Sudden extreme closeup of ancient hag—ugh, what a mug on this old party! Medium shot: the crone (wait, maybe it’s a man, outlandish drag)—she—he—bends clumsily. W-a-a-a-a-w! Grande Otelo (an adult actor), fullgrown and black as the ace of spades, thuds bawling onto the turf; and Macunaíma, with a cry of comical outrage, is born.

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Review: Group Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Group Marriage serves up the Stephanie Rothman exploitation-flick mixture pretty much as before: half commitment, half indifference. But whereas I enjoyed her Student Nurses, this one left me cold. It’s partly the actors, I think. The student nurses and their beaux, however shallowly characterized, looked like fairly lively, attractive people. But who could identify with Group Marriage‘s crew of plastic Angelenos? The three men of the film’s group marriage are a jock lifeguard, a piggish young male chauvinist who markets glibly “sick” bumper stickers, and a spineless social worker who mouths jargon and wilts under the situation-comedy glare of his blowhard supervisor. The three women are not exactly charismatic, either, though one of them is endowed with a token knack for fixing car motors and another is represented, unconvincingly, as a lawyer. Rothman introduces us to the third in a blind-date–type scene that might have been directed by some arch-M.C.P.—Dean Martin, say. The bumper sticker entrepreneur has been led to expect a “dog”; when she walks in and he lays eyes on her breasts, he instantly goes ape. Bo-o-o-ing! She remains throughout the movie merely a pair of big tits. For all Rothman’s nods in the direction of women’s liberation, no attempt is made (if you want to get heavy about all this) to raise her consciousness, nor that of the pig kid; yet both are viewed as interesting, OK people.

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Review: Little Cigars

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Far be it from American-International to leave off supplying product, however hackneyed, until the last gasp is wrung from audience and genre alike; so in Little Cigars we have still another of those unstable meldings of comedy and crime, with a bit of violence thrown in. This low-budget late entry has a couple of extra things going for it, though. Curiosity value, above all. The titular Little Cigars, it turns out, are a troupe of midgets. In both senses of the word, they perform the genre’s customary capers. And a good thing, too. It would be hard to find in what goes on around these “little people” onscreen anything you might call a performance, exactly—least of all from full-size thesp and leading lady Angel Tompkins, though she does try her goodnatured best and has ample natural endowments for her stock floozy role as Cleo.

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Review: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

“Hey look, it floats!” cries Duddy Kravitz, from the bathtub. Duddy’s fellow Jew and fellow admirer of the bathtub buoyancy phenomenon, the diffident Leopold Bloom, luxuriated in a fantasy of himself lying, at the end of the day, “laved in a womb of warmth,” gazing at his limp member—a “languid floating flower.” Duddy, antihero of the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s almost-$1-million gamble, the poor urban Jew as 19-year-old Pischer, simply grins at his girl and points at his Putz. Yet float he does, Canada’s crass Duddy, no less than classic Bloom; and although he’d probably be the last one in the world to appreciate it, arch-individualist that he is, what gets this screen incarnation of Mordecai Richler’s supercharged, driven young Montreal “comer” aloft immediately and keeps it there is … teamwork. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a movie full of brilliant things—sharp dialogue, “star” and ”cameo” performances, fluent camerawork, period accuracy—that don’t call attention to themselves. Credit for this, surely, goes to director Ted Kotcheff. With his editor, he establishes from the start exactly that brisk, behavioral rhythm best suited to Duddy’s galvanic personality and to the story of the Kravitz apprenticeship in ruthlessness. The crux of Richard Dreyfuss’s great title performance is the quick take. Kotcheff makes the camera very fast on the uptake, too; it’s as simple as that. The result: we get caught up, willynilly, in Duddy’s own metabolism. The instant Duddy picks up on something—a facial expression, a gesture, some remark that cuts both ways—we get a quick look at Dreyfuss’s face; we catch his hair-trigger response; and Kotcheff cuts away. More often than not, that ends the scene. Goddam! I caught him, he cheats at gin rummy, my dad—the shyster! Cut away. Oh, I get it: he’s pimping! A burst of delighted laughter; cut away. Ha! what he’s doing over there, he’s masturbating, the phony, that Irwin! These quick takes and cutaways express Duddy’s quicksilver native intelligence, and more: his appetite for life, and his capacity to be surprised—to learn.

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Review: L’Invitation

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

A despicable type, this M. Alfred Lamel, un vrai p’tit prick. Lamel (Jean Champion) is assistant manager of the small office whose members are invited to a housewarming party by one of their coworkers. A prissily mustachioed, self-important, touchy, puritanical little man, he’s also efficiently sealed off from any threat of real human contact. What finally surprised me about Claude Goretta’s L’Invitation—and a few more surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt this rather slow-moving Franco-Swiss movie at all—was that Lamel, le salaud, came closer to engaging my interest, my sympathy, even, than any of the other carefully assorted characters “unmasked” during the escalating anarchy of the party. Since even Lamel is something of a stick figure, I’m a bit puzzled by the critics’ fondness for the adjective “Renoiresque” in describing Goretta’s rather too neat little film. In Lamel’s character, as in none of the others, I found a trace of that Renoiresque freshness and unpredictability otherwise drained off almost entirely by Goretta into the admittedly fetching star turn delivered by François Simon (Michel’s richly talented son) as a mysteriously smiling, omniscient barman hired specially for the occasion.

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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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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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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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