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by Ken Eisler

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: 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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Review: Shaolin Martial Arts

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Is the making of many potboilers a prime way to fashion an auteur? If so, a veritable Pantheon of those critics’ darlings must have matriculated by now at the humming factories of Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. Plenty of scope over there for that magical tension between a director’s “personality” and the miserable formulaic projects he keeps getting saddled with by his producers. I sample the product occasionally at Vancouver’s two chief outlets for Chinese movies, but my experience so far is that any new movie directed by, say, Lo Wei (and nine out of ten new Chinese movies do seem to have been directed by Lo Wei) resembles the last movie directed by Lo Wei only insofar as both are unimaginative and totally predictable hack jobs. English critic Tony Rayns, who has made “the labyrinth of Hong Kong cinema” his special province, performs prodigies of genre analysis, structuralism, semantic reading upon these movies; if only seeing them proved half as much fun as reading about them! Still, I’m grateful that Rayns steered me to Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (MTN 35), which combined genre conventions and sheer outrageousness in surprising ways. And having recently caught two-thirds of Chang Cheh’s epic martial-arts trilogy (Men from the Monastery / Heroes Two / Shao Lin Martial Arts), I can now share some of Rayns’s enthusiasm for this director.

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Review: The National Health

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

by Ken Eisler

The National Health, adapted by Peter Nichols from his own stage play, remains pure farce, but the form has undergone a marvelous cinematic sea-change. The characters, governed as before by Humours and idées fixes, enter, exit; doors slam on them—the doors, in this case, of death. The antics of these six quirky patients and their harried medical caretakers on the decaying Sir Stafford Cripps Ward, seen, let’s say, from the first balcony, must have struck audiences as grimly hilarious, though just a touch cold and detached, perhaps. But watching these hapless six on the big screen up there is another matter. You just try to distance yourself from them now.

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Doppler Effect at the Dunbar

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

by Ken Eisler

In the city of Vancouver, a foreign-film addict enjoys two major connections, the Pacific Cinémathèque (downtown) and the University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 series (on campus). Both sources dry up during the summer, but fortunately in mid-July along comes Don Barnes’ annual International Film Festival to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

The festival was held this year at the Dunbar Theatre with two-a-night features ranging from amusing pap like Berri’s Le Sex Shop to “political” cinema from Italy such as Lulu the Tool and Love and Anarchy. Political themes were more heavily represented than usual this summer, in fact, with Hearts and Minds treating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and two French-Canadian features set in the troubled province of Quebec.

I didn’t see Bingo, a fiction film about a group of young terrorists, but Michel Brault’s sober, powerful Les Ordres is one of three festival films I wouldn’t mind looking at again if they return for a regular run during the year.

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A Dalmatian Called Nixon

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The Doberman Gang was playing all over Mexico City when I was there last June—including the front-page headlines. Passing up Byron Chudnow’s three-year-old dog biscuit (retitled El Gran Asalto de los Doberman) was easy, but I did find myself drawn guiltily, morning after morning, into the details of a real-life Doberman gang whose hefty dark chieftain went by the name of “La Jitomata” (“The Tomato”).

Her gang, according to the papers, had racked up more than two years of robberies, assaults, stabbings and homicides using a Doberman called “Samson,” a Dalmatian called “Nixon,” two bulldogs (“La Troya,” “El Goliat”), and assorted other attack dogs to terrorize victims. The gang’s depredations ranged from the capital to Puebla and Acapulco. Now the police, with much selfcongratulation, had rounded up the malefactors; and each day’s newspaper brought new revelations regarding the size of the gang and the Dickensian nature of its internal affairs. “Le Jitomara,” it seemed, was given to recruiting extremely young boys, orphans, seducing them, legally adopting them, and sending them out into a life of crime. Hence, I suppose, the gang’s own sobriquet: “La Banda del Pañal” (“The Diaper Gang”).

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Hell Italian Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Deus ex machina, in the form of a lawyer with clout, at long last yanks a broken Alberto Sordi up and out of the hellish Italian prison system. Then we get the usual disclaimer: “Any resemblance, etc., etc…. ” But this grueling 90-minute total immersion in the system’s casual dehumanization rings entirely too true to be so easily dismissed.

Which is not, however, to dismiss Loy’s movie as mere agit-prop; far from it. Detained Pending Trial is a complex, fully fledged work of art.

I saw it in a jampacked 24-cent, triple-feature Mexican moviehouse. The audience began by laughing raucously and appreciatively at every new discomfiture suffered by the Sordi character. Well, why not? Here’s this comfortably upper-middle-class dude, after all, a professional, a land-surveyor: and he’s a bit of a, well, let’s face it, a … tool. We meet him in Sweden, on a terrace, all dressed up and handing drinks around to these middle-aged stuffed-shirt clients. He smiles, grins, bows—the works. A real toady. Sort of well-liked by the workers on his crew, mind you; but there’s a trace of contempt blended with their affection.

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Review: ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Brian Clemens did some of the funniest, spiffiest episodes of the delightful British TV series The Avengers. In this first feature film, an intermittently serious, Hammer-produced exploration of horror flick conventions, he tracks and pans through the woods, around carefully lit and furnished interiors, like an old pro. Mise-wise, it’s all really more than satisfactory; but whaddaya do when it’s sendup time and you look around and you got no ineffable Lady Peel (Diana Rigg), no stylish John Steed (Patrick MacNee)—just this chesty, übermenschy blond leading man (Horst Janson) and this chesty brunette love interest (Caroline Munro), neither of them exactly lighter-than-air in the comedy department? Well, you win a few and you lose a few, is what you do. You put your Aryan master swordsman on top of a hill and have him attacked by a small mob of angry, lumpen townspeople; have him kill everybody in no time flat, doing lots of fancy foot- and swordwork; have him grin and flash gay Douglas Fairbanks looks at Miss Munro, stationed at the bottom of the hill, laughing maniacally, during the carnage. Throw her a wink. It’s a lead balloon. But then, eclectic British technician that you are, you decide to stage another action scene, in the middle of a horror movie, as an irreverent homage not to the horror genre itself, but to Westerns. And for some reason, it works.

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Review: ‘Blanche’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I think I would find Borowczyk’s feature films insupportable if they weren’t so much fun. Come to think of it, I did find Goto, île d’amour insupportable: I walked out on it. Having recently seen and greatly enjoyed Blanche (1971), it seems to me in retrospect that all I really needed to enjoy Goto equally well was a cocked eyebrow and a few grains of salt. This guy used to make cartoons after all, right? OK, he made Animated Films Shot Through With Lacerating Black Humor. Yeah, like: cartoons.

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Review: La Via Revee

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

by Ken Eisler

Isabelle drives unhurriedly through the morning streets of Montreal in her little red Volkswagen. Along the way we glimpse women looking out of windows, kids playing—vivid ephemeral street scenes. This engrossing flow of images is interrupted only once: to accommodate an insert of some people punching in at a time clock. Now Isabelle arrives at her place of work and punches in too … a bit late. She’s in a place where people make movies. Another flowing sequence shows employees at work here: a woman bent over a table, laboriously crayonning in the empty space of an animation cell; a paunchy English-speaking executive being petulant and overbearing with a director. Isabelle heads straight for the ladies’ john. With a friendly quick smile, she joins another woman in front of the big mirror and they stand side by side busying themselves with their appearance. The woman’s face appears set, deadpan, studiedly oblivious. Oh, Christ, you think. Alienation City. But it’s the other woman, surprisingly, who at long last breaks the silence, with a “hen-talk” ·remark that is addressed, however, not directly to Isabelle but at her image in the mirror, and that also bears more than a trace of hostility. “You don’t need that paint,” she rasps. Isabelle replies in feminine kind, but without the hostility. “I love your necklace,” she exclaims, leaning over; and at this a broad smile breaks through the other woman’s mask. “I made it myself,” she says proudly, turning directly to Isabelle. The two exit together, talking, and walk down the corridor.

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Slap Shots (1977)

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I felt a little off-balance throughout film year 1977, and it took me most of that time to figure out why. Even eccentric filmwatchers fall into patterns of expectation, and my Platonic Ideal of eccentricity was taking a beating. Too many of the big, heavily financed productions the freewheeling freelance looks forward to trashing turned out to be not bad films at all. By reverse token, the year was virtually devoid of sleepers—the unexpected, born-to-be-lost-in-the-shuffle beauties like Gumshoe, Bad Company, Charley Varrick and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia the enterprising commentator looks forward to saving for posterity and, in the meantime, directing a few adventurous viewers toward. Just why there were no sleepers is hard to say. Maybe there is so much written on film nowadays that every film’s fair chance at the limelight is conceded in advance. Add to this that the Jet City has acquired an industry rep for scaring up an audience for movies that die on the vine elsewhere. Then too, in recent years we have been dubiously blessed with at least one exhibitor willing to cry sleeper every other week, so that the term has tended to be devalued hereabouts—especially when many of the so-called sleepers have proved resolutely undistinguished.

It just may be that the biggest and, in its rather trivial way, happiest surprise of the year was a George Roy Hill movie that most reviewers suddenly felt compelled to attack for having the flaws all the director’s more popular works have manifested in abundance; I went into that in my quickie of Slap Shot in MTN 54, and I continue to recall this rowdy, raunchy, sharply acted sports comedy with pleasure. And while I was liking a movie by a director I normally find exasperating in the extreme, I was let down—anywhere from mildly to precipitously—by such customarily reliable types as Sam Peckinpah (Cross of Iron), Don Siegel (Telefon), Michael Ritchie (Semi-Tough), Dick Richard (March or Die), and Robert Aldrich (The Choirboys—though not so much Twilight’s Last Gleaming). Fred Zinnemann compelled respect and gratitude for his impeccable craftsmanship, if not necessarily artistry, in Julia. Herbert Ross astonished by coming on like, of all things, a personal director in The Turning Point and, to a lesser extent, The Goodbye Girl. Robert Benton fell a little short of the promise of Bad Company with The Late Show, but that film was one of the early pleasures of the year all the same.

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1976, Which Will Be Charitably Forgotten by the Year 2000

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

1976 is a year I’m very pleased to see the back of. Several especially nice things happened to me during the past twelvemonth, but an oversupply of cloaca also insisted on hitting the fan with dispiriting frequency, and a good deal of it was cinematic cloaca. Any year in which the man who just made Nashville turns around and makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, and people who really ought to know better hail Lina Wertmuller as a distaff version of the Second Coming and Network as a serious film of intellectual and aesthetic importance, and the public is asked to pay good money to watch Midway, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Scorchy, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, Swashbuckler, Vigilante Force and A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand–style can’t be anything but the harbinger of a new Dark Age.

It didn’t help that some normally reliable film artists seemed ‘way off the beam. That The Magic Flute, Bergman’s not-very-adventurous filming of a Mozart performance, or Face to Face, a closet drama of a rather insipid creature who was welcome to stay in her closet (Liv Ullmann’s heroic performance notwithstanding), failed to move me much wasn’t particularly disheartening or even unexpected. (I wish he’d make a spy movie.) Neither, given the international coproduction problems and the preponderance of treacle in the basic makeup of The Blue Bird, was there great surprise in George Cukor’s inability (decision?) to just let the thing lie there and moult.

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Review: Between Friends

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

by Ken Eisler

One thing about Canadian director Don Shebib, he gives an actor room to stretch out. Too much room, some viewers feel. Shebib is obviously willing to risk viewers’ impatience with yet another long take, à la Cassavetes, of his anti-heroic “boys” horsing around, yet another closeup of some guy struggling to put his inchoate feelings into words. When these indulgences fail, you get one of those arid well-whadda-you-wanna-do-tonight-Marty? patches. But when they work, you may get a passage as moving as Joey’s (Paul Bradley’s) heartfelt, tipsily self-revealing speech at his own wedding in Goin’ down the Road.

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Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

by Ken Eisler

It just so happens that I was one of that lonely number who actually liked Mel Stuart’s One Is a Lonely Number some five years back. Couple of Sundays ago I caught up with Stuart’s children’s-pic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, made at about the same time, and I like this one even better. It was fun, too, being part of an audience this time (at a children’s matinee) which patently appreciated the strengths of Stuart’s style. Both One and Wonka are characterized by a peculiar blend of sentiment and acerbity. At times, the sentiment in One tipped over into sentimentality. It was the acerbity, according to report, that got out of hand in Stuart’s contemporaneous feature, I Love My … Wife, a vehicle for the too-busy Elliott Gould of that time. Willie Wonka, a few cloying patches apart, strikes an admirable balance, it seems to me. It’s Gene Wilder, at the top of his form, who makes this uneasy amalgam work, but Stuart must surely deserve some of the credit for setting off and perhaps controlling this actor’s talents. He got an exceptionally good performance from Trish van Devere in One,plus a hilarious character bit from Janet Leigh. Wilder, cast as chocolate factory owner Willie Wonka in this one, doesn’t appear until the movie is at least half over, but his star turn more than repays the long wait.

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Review: Matatabi

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

by Ken Eisler

I felt a funny kind of letdown when The Wanderers ended, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the ending. After a fight, the film’s young protagonist Genta slips and tumbles down a long steep bank: a fall that begins comically but becomes by turns frightening because of an accelerating sense of the loss of control, and then, like Marie Dubois’ long snowy death fall in Shoot the Piano Player, strangely lyrical. Finally, with a thud, Genta’s head hits a rock: freezeframe, full stop. Up above, Genta’s pal Mokutaro slows down, turns around, and walks back along the road to the spot where he took off running, one arm bloodily slashed, the snarling, shouting, sword-wielding Genta in hot pursuit. Mokutaro looks around for his friend; calls his name repeatedly; shrugs. “Well,” he says aloud, “he must be taking a shit somewhere,” and the camera starts backing away from him, last of the three hapless young wanderers, alone in a wide screen landscape.

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