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Review: Dites-lui que je l’aime (This Sweet Sickness)

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

MTN 55’s Tracking Shot noted: “Is that the best way? Novelist Patricia Highsmith saw her Strangers on a Train become a film classic under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, but she rejected Hitch’s offer to direct her This Sweet Sickness. Claude Miller inherits the job.” Aha, but wait. There is a Hitch connection, for this novel was turned into an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Compressed into 45 minutes or so and renamed Annabel, it was, as I recall, adapted by Robert Bloch, had Dean Stockwell in the lead and was directed by Paul Henreid. As scripted by Bloch, it was a brisk tale of sexual obsession neatly rounded off by gore and girl-menacing, and it couldn’t be more different from this largely quiet and restrained French version. Where Stockwell’s central character was straightforwardly a nutter about whose eventual apprehension one could feel relief uncomplicated by much affection, the central figure in this movie, played most powerfully and sympathetically (for most of the way) by Gerard Depardieu is an unhappy fellow desperate for perfect love in a prosaic world, and his descent into madness is thus more chilling.

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Review: Friday the 13th / Prom Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

You don’t review movies like these, you step on them. One could probably trace the existence of several dozen Halloween ripoffs jockeying for a starting spot sometime during the 1980 drive-in season—some of them aiming not only to be take-the-money-and-run successes at the box office, but also to announce the availability of one more sharply talented John Carpenter type on the Hollywood scene. There is the rub, of course: we don’t need John Carpenter types when we have John Carpenter. And these are Carpenter types in emulation only: when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, do-you-know-what-a-camera-is-for?, do-you-stand-deliciously-in-awe-of-images-in-motion? level where the auteur of Halloween has proved himself, most of these yoyos show their true colors the instant we have something to look at onscreen. To say that Friday the 13th and Prom Night bear structural or technical similarities to Halloween is like saying Hitchcock and William Castle both made movies about homicidal maniacs (Psycho vs. Homicidal). Cunningham, Lynch, & respective companies seem oblivious to the notion that a film should generate a rich interior logic of its own and sustain it. The subjective camera identified with the killer in Halloween—subjective in its moment-to-moment sense of form and framespace as well as in those instances when we are (maybe) looking through the eyes of an assassin—is corrupted in these films into a blunt instrument that works only if the audience is willing to let it, indeed, to do all the work themselves: there’s a killer loose, you know, so let’s all guess whom, when, and how he’s going to strike; we guarantee a minimum of one gory demise every ten minutes once the real action gets underway.

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Review: En Och En (One and One)

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

How, one wonders, did the three directors of this odd seriocomic romance-tragedy divide up the responsibilities? Did Josephson direct Thulin’s solo scenes and Thulin Josephson’s, with Nykvist handling all the scenes they’re in together (the majority)? Or was it a case of everyone mucking in, the two stars handling the histrionics and the cameraman running the technicalities? Whatever the truth, it’s a film without an auteur, though there’s lots of “authorship” on display; and it spoils the movie. Parts of it are terribly moving, and most of it is true enough to the awkward corners of most of our lives to make the film’s quality of unease all-pervading. But, damnably, it fails narrowly just where it’s absolutely vital that it should succeed – with the result that the ending, which should be heartbreaking, gives one a sense, admittedly a guilty sense, of relief.

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Review: Best Boy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

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Review: L’Amour viole

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Seattle exhibitor that gave a one-week run to Yannick Bellon’s film about a rape victim and the emotional and sociopolitical aftermath of the crime advertised the picture under its French title, L’Amour violé, admirably seeking to avoid the sensationalistic come-on of the U.S. distributor’s banner translation, Rape of Love. As it happened, local reviewers right down the line restored the U.S. title in their articles and indeed in their headlines, and went on to bracket any discussion of the film’s merits within their own various editorials on rape as a social issue. Myself, I felt little inclination to go see some female director’s tract movie on the rape question, and almost let the film get away from me. Almost but, happily, not quite. For L’Amour violé provided to be no tract, feminist or otherwise; even better, it turned out to be a damn good film in the ways that count with every movie, whether freighted with social import or not. And I found that the exhibitor (Seven Gables Theatres) was not only discreet but also precise in hewing to L’Amour violé as the title: “rape of love” ever so slightly distorts the emphasis of “love raped” and steers us away from the delicacy of Bellon’s subject and concerns.

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Review: Used Cars

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Is there a cure for Southern California? Oh, I don’t mean the smog, the materialism, “the City of the One-Night Stands,” any of that stuff—don’t bother me none. What’s getting to bother me in a big way is the barrenness of cinematic output from those children of Sunny Cal who seem to be running hog wild on the movie scene these days. We could argue about when it started. I couldn’t get too bent out of shape if somebody wanted to insist that Big Wednesday was A Bad Sign a couple of summers ago, even if I found that particular exercise in oafish metaphysics rather endearing; it surely did tend to crawl up its own nether orifice, striking monumental poses (and that’s a difficult position to strike monumental poses in) over a landscape of aspiration and endeavor so specialized as to have nothing but abstract meaning for any non-Californians—and maybe just nonsurfers—in the audience. And now Milius, for whose directorial career I continue to have high hopes, appears to prefer the role of ursine Godfather to all the up-and-coming—or at least oncoming—cinéastes south and Right of Zoetrope. First he exec-produced 1941 for Spielberg, and contributed to its story base along with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose I Wanna Hold Your Hand Spielberg himself had exec-produced. Now he and Spielberg have exec-produced Zemeckis–Gale’s Used Cars, which by its very title sounds like a godawfully appropriate sequel to last Christmastime’s multimillion-dollar wrecking-derby-masquerading-as-a-hohoho-comedy. And in some important and increasingly distressing ways, it is.

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Rescue Dawn: The Challenge of the Extraordinary

When I first saw Rescue Dawn—in fact, when I saw the preview trailer—I said to myself, Aha! After a whole generation, here’s another green film from Werner Herzog.

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle
Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle

Herzog has made a lot of remarkable films. But so long is the reach of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and so profound their visual stamp, that it is impossible not to see Rescue Dawn as their cousin—perhaps even their completion. Here again is the green of the jungle, both inviting and forbidding, both enchanting and deadly. Here again is the stubborn determination of a half-mad man not to be beaten by nature at its rawest and most implacable. Here again is civilization and its power politics ebbing away to insignificance in the face of a single man’s grandiose vision and relentless will to win.

Werner Herzog has always been interested in men like this. It’s shallow to say that he has outgrown or otherwise abandoned the vision of his celebrated earlier films (particularly the Kinski films), with their obsessive dwelling—literal or metaphoric—on German culture, German politics, German guilt. Whether it’s Don Lope de Aguirre or Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald or Timothy Treadwell or Dieter Dengler, and whether the film is fiction, documentary, or adaptation, Herzog remains committed to an exploration of the powerful, charismatic personality, and its tug of war with the world.

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Fitzcarraldo: The Idea Was a Bold One

[Originally published in The Informer, January 1983]

“The project fell through, but the idea was a bold one.” The story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s life—perhaps his epitaph—is writ large very near the beginning of Fitzcarraldo, by his own loving Molly. Fitzcarraldo is in a recursive nightmare: To bring opera to Iquitos, he must have money; to get money, he must produce rubber; to produce rubber, he must have land; to do that, he must borrow money, buy a ship, and show some evidence of successful exploitation in a few months’ time; and to do that, it turns out, he has to haul a ship over a mountain. The danger of this kind of recursion, of course, is that the means continually threaten to become the end; and that is finally exactly what happens. Fitzcarraldo never loses sight of his goal, never loses his enthusiasm for the project; but he ends up settling for a one-night stand rather than a functioning opera house.

Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again
Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again

Through it all, Fitzcarraldo keeps his humor; and Klaus Kinski’s performance, though not his best, is easily his most likeable. For all his lowering Teutonicism, he manages an impish Irishman’s twinkling grin that is utterly winning. One has to tell him—as does another character in the film—”You’re a strange bird, but I must say I like you.” That’s Don Aquilino, a rich exploiter of the jungle, bored with his money, like the others, but unwilling to use it to back Fitzcarraldo’s venture—like, one imagines, so many potential backers for the films of one Werner Herzog.

It’s tired by now to point out the Herzog-Fitzcarraldo analogy, but it’s foolish to ignore it. “Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald is moving against the Amazon!” Keep Reading

Stroszek

Even when he made Stroszek (1978), Herzog’s work had reflected parallel interests in documentary and narrative fiction forms. The sublime Fata Morgana (1971) (despite Herzog’s preposterous claim that it is a sci-fi film about an intergalactic war) and the wonderfully perverse Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), almost as much as the explicitly documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and several documentary shorts, clearly came from the documentary tradition. Even ostensibly fiction films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had a kind of documentary feel (the wondrous shots of the natural world in Aguirre, the only-half-mocking “case history” conclusion of Kaspar).

Bruno S
Bruno S

Stroszek marked a decisive, if temporary, move toward the narrative mainstream, a road movie no less (years later, in Rescue Dawn [2006], when Herzog had been largely focusing on documentaries, he returned to genre film-making, with a POW escape movie, producing decidedly conventional results). German ex-con Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S, the schizophrenic who had played Kaspar Hauser) joins with two friends and goes to Wisconsin to pursue the American dream. The group gradually disintegrates, Bruno’s piece of the American dream, his mobile home, is repossessed and he takes to the road.

Herzog uses the basic outline, of people on a common quest that goes sour, to explore, as ever, mankind confronting a universe that is indifferent or actively hostile to human aspirations. From its opening shot, of prison bars, to the final image of the cosmic stupidity of a dancing chicken, tightly framed by a window and bathed in the same orange light used in the early prison sequence, a sense of futility pervades the film.

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Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

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Land of Silence and Darkness: What it Means to be Human

Land of Silence and Darkness(1971) was Herzog’s first feature-length documentary (his previous feature, Fata Morgana [1971] begs to be classed as a metaphysical documentary, but by Herzog’s daffy description, is sci-fi). The subject matter, the struggle for human communication, is such a natural for Herzog that in some ways the film is quintessential early Herzog. It follows Fini Straubinger, a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany, through a life of constant activity, entertaining and visiting people without sight or hearing. But the narrator tells us that after she first lost her sight and hearing in a fall down stairs, she was bed-ridden for seventeen years. The tremendous drive and will that enabled her, finally, to rise from her bed is now channeled into the almost obsessive drive to communicate that is the implicit subject of the film, or at least its central mystery and driving force.

Land of Silence and Darkness
Land of Silence and Darkness

Herzog seems determined to share her point of view: the film’s opening shot, a distorted black and white image of clouds above a road anticipates her later account of a dream describing her memories from when she could see and hear. But the film’s ability to share her point of view is limited by a perverse tension inherent in trying to use film—a medium that communicates solely through the senses of sound and sight—to examine people who can neither see nor hear.

Lacking words, Fini communicates with others and perceives the external world through touch. The film describes a touch alphabet, in which different types of touches express verbal symbols. But the most telling communication in the film comes from touches that create a sensory sharing more immediate and less ordered than language.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small: Persistence and Futility

A singularly evocative setting for the action
A singularly evocative setting for the action

Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) stands out as one of his most singular films. It has virtually no story-line (“dwarfs raise hell” probably exhausts the subject) and its harsh tone seems to confront its audience, aggressively demanding some kind of response. Even the title seems a kind of challenge: why the word “even,” which seems to imply that somehow dwarfs would be the last, rather than the first people one would think of as having “started small?” And yet, despite its obscure “meaning,” Even Dwarfs Started Small is a perfectly appropriate title.

Herzog makes much of his instinctual approach to film-making and, indeed, his films often seem to have emerged almost directly from his unconscious. Of the camel that presides over the climax of Dwarfs Herzog has said, “I only know the camel has to be there.” And he added: “I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.” Whether or not one takes these pronouncements at face value, Dwarfs‘s images, inexplicable as they may be, provide a singularly evocative setting for the action.

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy
Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

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St. Nick in Seattle

David Patrick Lowery’s new film—and first feature—St. Nick was showcased at the shorts film festival Rawstock 5 at the end of July. Having liked all of Lowery’s earlier work that I had seen, I didn’t want to miss it, or the rare chance to meet the film maker in person.

St. Nick
St. Nick

My anticipation was not misplaced. St. Nick is a constant adventure in light, shape, texture, and color. There’s narrative, too, to be sure. But it emerges only after the film and its central mystery have hooked you through images and episodes that tickle your sense of wonder and tease your curiosity.

How did these two kids get to where they are? How far are they from home? Why are they on their own? Lowery lets these questions hang in the back of his film. His interest lies not in their back story or motivation but in their resourcefulness, their sense of adventure, the enthusiasm with which they embrace the world. In a word, their kid-ness.

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