"Microreviews" - Alphabetical by Film Title
AMERICAN DREAM (Barbara Kopple, US, 1992). Seamless, brilliantly composed docu about a meatpackers’ strike of a Hormel plant in Austin, a small Minnesota town, in 1985. Hormel, despite a $29M profit in 1984, proposes to reduce wages by 20%, benefits by 30%, in the next labor contract. (This is the strike that engaged Paul Wellstone's attention at the dawn of his political career.) Local union leaders and the rank and file want to fight this. They can get some financial backing but not front line leadership or advocacy from the international union officials in Washington, who are convinced the local cannot win. So the locals hire a maverick organizer/agitator from NYC to lead their charge. His methods are to embarrass companies into caving to labor demands. Hormel won’t cave, local union leaders prove hopelessly naïve, their Washington superiors prove to be prophets, and the guy from NYC makes a bundle as consultant. Meanwhile 80% of the strikers lose their jobs for good and others go back to the plant for less. This depiction is a heartbreaking microcosm of the demise of labor and the retrogressive, greed-fueled corporate policies encouraged by the Reagan government that widened the income gap between the rich and everyone else in the 1980s, setting the stage for the long economic boom in the 90s. Kopple’s film, which earned her a second docu Oscar (after Harlan County USA) is a lesson in the art of docu making. She and Michael Moore strive to expose the same themes of corporate corruption. But this film should be seen alongside Moore’s Roger and Me to contrast her artistry with Moore’s messy egotism, something that obtrudes into everything he does. It’s hard to be an astute filmmaker and a standup comedian at the same time. Grade: A
BANDIT QUEEN (Shekhar Kapur, UK/India, 1994). Adventures of a real life female bandit gang leader in northern India, based on a biography of her life by the screenwriter. Phoolan Devi (an impressively fierce portrayal by Seema Biswas) was sold into marriage at 11, brutalized by her husband and many others, eventually clawed her way to a position of successful gang leader, was then arrested in 1983 and spent 11 years in jail. It’s quite a ride. (In Hindi) Grade: A-
BARRY LYNDON (Stanley Kubrick, US, 1975). Incredibly beautiful and engaging film based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackarey about a late 18th century low born Irish rogue, an opportunistic adventurer, who marries a wealthy English widow and manages to destroy the whole arrangement despite his love of her. Three hours long, the film is never tiresome, with each adventure or moment of crisis piled seamlessly on the one preceding. The film was shot entirely in natural light, including interior scenes lit only by in candlelight, for which Kubrick had special camera lens crafted by Carl Zeisz. With Ryan O'Neal and Marisa Berenson. Period filmmaking at its best. (last seen in 2000) Grade: A
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1967). Arab Muslim terrorists escalate bombing and shooting incidents throughout the city. A new military leader is brought in from the homeland to take charge of the situation. He gathers his staff, all in Army camouflage fatigues, to plan counterinsurgency measures. Door to door fighting ensues. Mass roundups and jailings occur. Torture becomes widespread in efforts to gain intelligence about the small-cell organization of the terrorists, whose goal is to undermine support back home for the occupying forces. So, obviously we have here the current picture of things in Baghdad or Fallujah, circa spring, 2004, right? Wrong, this is Algiers in the late 1950s. Do things ever change? Does civilization ever learn from past errors? Robert McNamara, in the Fog of War interviews, seems to think it possible. Hmmmm. Not on the evidence here.
In 1965, the new independent nation of Algeria, which finally had wrested freedom from its French colonizers in 1962, sought to have a film made to commemorate and document the insurrections that in time led to independence. They wanted integrity and high production values. They already had a book upon which to base a screenplay, a first hand account by Saadi Yacef, one of the rebel leaders. After shopping around Europe, they picked Pontecorvo and his Italian filmmaking team, and this much acclaimed docudrama was the result. The film brilliantly conveys a sense of documentary realism to the action. The acting of the principals – FLN rebel leaders and their nemesis, the French colonel brought in to destroy them – is first rate. Yacef was both a producer and actor in the film, portraying rebel leader El-hadi Jaffar, a character based on Yacef’s role. Brahim Haggiag strikes an unforgettable pose as Ali la Pointe, another rebel leader. Jean Martin is chillingly confident and matter of fact in describing the only means he feels will succeed, i.e., use torture of lower echelons to identify rebel leaders, then eliminate them. Considered by some as an early, if not the first, filmed primer on urban guerrilla warfare, Battle of Algiers was even handed in graphically showing the violent acts perpetrated by both sides in the struggle. (The Pentagon screened this film for employees in August, 2003, to stimulate thinking about combating urban terrorism in Iraq.) A new 35mm print features new subtitles that convey the French and Arabic dialogue accurately for the very first time. (This version seen in 2004). Grade: A-
BEFORE THE RAIN (Milcho Manchevski, UK/France/Macedonia, 1994). A circular narrative joins 3 stories of love and violence, set in war-torn Macedonia in the first film made there since Macedonia declared itself a separate republic. One of the first, and best, dramatizations of upheaval in the former Yugoslavia. (In Macedonian, Albanian and English) Grade: B+
BIG NIGHT (Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, US, 1995). Set in urban 1950s New Jersey, two Italian brothers (Tucci – who plays Segundo - and Tony Shalhoub – who is Primo) run a restaurant that has fallen on hard times. Primo is old world perfectionism. Segundo wants to update the menu and atmosphere to bring in more customers. They fight. They try to borrow money. They fail. And so, on the brink of closure, they decide to create the all time best ever feast for their friends and long time customers, nominally to honor musician Louis Prima. If this goes very, very well, maybe they can turn the place around and avoid bankruptcy . This is good fun. And a fine food flick. Grade: B+
BIRD (Clint Eastwood, US, 1988). With equal measures of devotion and realism, Clint Eastwood produced this biopic of the sad, chaotic, voracious life of Charlie “Bird” Parker, the best alto saxophone player and one of most brilliant improvisers in jazz history. The film opens with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prophetic, self justifying line, penned shortly before he died, “There are no second acts in American lives.” What nonsense. America, of all places, was built on the premise of opportunity for reinvention. Many Americans have second acts and more if they live long enough (Jimmy Carter springs to mind, and how about Eastwood himself?). But it’s surely true that there isn’t time for a second act if you die young. And there’s nothing like severe alcoholism to beckon death. Fitzgerald was dead by 44, and Charlie Parker by 34, both from the consequences of alcohol dependence. Bird’s story is one of towering appetites, not only for booze and music, but also for food, and women, and heroin, to which he was addicted for his entire adult life. Crippled by his excesses, and resulting depression, cirrhosis, bleeding peptic ulcers and a bad heart, Parker’s extraordinary talent - like Fitzgerald’s - soared like a meteor through the skies, visible to all, only to fade and die, far too soon. When he was 16, Eastwood, who is also a musician, composer (he just wrote the score for Mystic River) and jazz aficionado, saw Bird perform in Oakland, in 1946, at his best. Nine years later, by the time Eastwood was getting his first bit parts in the movies, Bird was dead.
This is a complex and difficult film to watch. Many scenes are underlit, and there are frequent time shifts – backward and forward – that often feel poorly edited. These elements impart a darkly chaotic, disorienting tone to the film. Maybe this was the intent: chaos and darkness helped shape the ethos of many modern jazz musicians’ lives, especially Parker’s. But in watching this movie, one also becomes too preoccupied at times by simple confusion about the flow of events. It's also hard to keep track of the identities of some of the secondary characters, a problem common to many biopics - I think of Pollock and Frida most recently. Reading a Parker bio sketch before viewing this film would have been a big help. I also must confess that I experience a certain unavoidable sense of tedium watching films about junkies. “Junkie narratives” are sufficiently stereotypical that to some degree I've come to dread watching them unfold. Sometimes it’s because junkies, like clams, lay around so much and accomplish so little of value (Trainspotting, High Art, and Requiem for a Dream come to mind). That wasn’t true of Bird, but like most addicts he does lay waste to life, creating oceans of pain for himself and others in the process. And you know from the getgo that all his junkie stuff will be coming at you. The film is also very long (160 minutes), too long to be supported by the narrative itself. But there is another, more valid reason for its length, and that’s the music. Eastwood made two critical decisions that assure lasting stature for this production as a film about jazz. First, he cast an actor to play Parker (Forest Whitaker) who knew how to play alto saxophone (there’s nothing worse than nonmusician actors faking instrument playing; it’s virtually never done even passably well). Whitaker had played sax as a kid (and was later a scholarship student in classical voice - he's a tenor - at USC). Second, Eastwood not only dubbed original jazz recordings by Bird on the soundtrack as Whitaker played, but also – and this is really the key element – he let these recorded numbers play through to the end, rather than cutting them short when scenes change. In one wonderful segment a number by Bird’s quintet plays on to its conclusion across several brief scenes that leave the musicians behind. Shortening the film significantly would have required either deleting several jazz numbers entirely or cutting most of them short. I think Eastwood made the right choice not to do these things. So did the Academy, which rewarded him with an Oscar for best soundtrack.
Forest Whitaker was a rising young talent when Eastwood gave him this chance to carry a film for the first time. He was arguably too young, at 26, when he was supposed to be 34 looking like 65 in scenes at the end of his life. But a lot of the film consists of flashbacks to an earlier time, the peak of Bird’s career. Whitaker maintains a melancholy sweetness that apparently mirrors Bird’s true temperament. His greatest love, Chan Richardson (she became Chan Parker after they got together, though they never married), said Bird was the strongest man she ever knew, and Whitaker conveys this too, as much through his football player’s body as otherwise. He also very ably enacts states of intoxication, withdrawal and sickness, Parker’s most steady companions. This was an ambitious undertaking for Whitaker and Eastwood, and a successful one (Whitaker won Best Actor honors at Cannes). A pleasant surprise is the acting of Diane Venora as Chan. She is so multifaceted: by turns arresting and tender, tough and longsuffering. She cherishes Bird’s talent and is far more protective of it than Parker himself ever was. Why hasn’t Venora starred in films more often? The real Chan Parker was an intriguing person. Daughter of a New York City nightclub owner and a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, she became a dancer herself, and later a pianist and songwriter, was attracted to the demimonde of jazz musicians, had two children with Bird, one of whom died young, married and divorced another jazz musician after Bird’s death, and spent much of her later life in France, where she died in 1999. She was an important collaborator in making this film. Despite fine acting by the two principals and several others, this isn’t a top notch film: it’s too long, too choppy, sometimes too confusing. But in other ways, especially for music lovers, this film succeeds where others about musicians often fail: in both sound and visuals it gets the music right. Grade: B (A for jazz lovers)
BLACK RAIN (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1988) The toll taken on one family by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Filmed in black and white, it is appropriately somber, slow moving, a remarkable conveyance of the enduring wreckage wrought by nuclear war. (In Japanese) (seen in 1998) Grade: A
BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR (Jean-Jacques Annaud, FR, 1976) Hilarious anti-war comedy set in a French controlled area in Africa. Upon hearing that WW I has begun, a French soldier decides to lead an attack on a neighboring German fort. This is about as good as comic films get. (In French) (seen in 1998) Grade A
THE BLUE KITE (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China, 1994) Fifteen years of political and cultural upheaval in China(the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath) are shown through the story of a boy and his family. (In Mandarin) Grade: A
BURNT BY THE SUN (Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia, 1994) Heartbreaking saga of a family, whose leader, Serguei, a revolutionary hero, has been enjoying a bucolic retirement (played by Mikhalkov). The film spans a single day, in 1935, beginning with an extended family gathering and joyous celebration on a summer afternoon, and ending with betrayal and the seizure of Serguei by secret police who will, we know, take him off to certain death in one of Stalin’s purges. The juxtaposition of summer pleasure and certain doom is paralleled by the contrast between the bright hopes of the revolution and the harsh reality of Stalin’s tyranny. (In Russian) Grade: A-
CHILDREN OF NATURE (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland, 1991). Fridriksson must be the heart and soul of Icelandic film: he directed the well done Cold Fever and Angels of the Universe and acted in the recent droll farce, 101 Reykjavik. This is his best work that I've seen: a story of the triumph of an aged couple who are determined to live out their last days on their own terms, not according to the dictates and strictures imposed by others. There is little dialogue. Visuals are employed with masterful narrative skill to move the story along, and the accompanying musical score has an astonishingly sacred quality. Fridriksson cannot resist adding an unnecessary touch of magical realism near the end (something he also indulged just a bit in Angels), but it cannot spoil this unforgettable film. (In Icelandic) Grade: A
CLOCKERS (Spike Lee, US, 1995). Cocaine distribution at the street level is illustrated in the story of young Strike Dunham (Mekhi Phifer in his feature debut), an ulcer plagued, morally challenged loser who directs a group of clockers – end of the food chain drug dealers who supply drugs on call round the clock, in a story set in Brooklyn. Strike is handled by mid-level drug distributor Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who orders Strike to “cap” (kill) a former clocker who had cheated Rodney, in order to earn a promotion, to rise above the clockers. The man is killed and everybody thinks Strike did the job, even homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel). This despite the fact that Strike’s older brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington) - a virtuous, hardworking married man with two kids and no record – turns himself in claiming he did the crime. Whoever is the guilty party is never entirely settled, but that isn’t important. Nor is realism in production design (the park around the housing projects where the clockers operate is full of lovely plantings and free of any debris). Spike Lee isn’t all that interested in story or montage as such. These aspects are subordinated to another, deeper objective: the exploration of character and integrity in the racial divide of urban America. As in his earlier film, Do the Right Thing (a phrase mentioned in this film), he wants us to see how whites and blacks treat each other, and how blacks treat each other as well. Hope, respect, self discipline and the struggle for a better life - and their opposites, hopelessness, disrespect, violence and the reach for a fast buck – these are the staples of the better Spike Lee films. Victor and a community cop, Andre (Keith David), are African Americans who are struggling against great and obvious odds to pull themselves and their loved ones up. Rocco Klein is a rough but fair cop whose desire to do proper justice is virtually incomprehensible to Strike, the troubled protagonist who is torn between doing the right thing and the wrong. A fine morality tale, based on Richard Price’s novel, with splendid turns by all the principals and supporting cast, which also includes John Turturro, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Tom Byrd and Michael Imperioli. (seen in 2004) Grade: B+
THE CLOCKMAKER (Bertrand Tavernier, France, 1973). Tavernier's directorial debut film about a respectable man (Philippe Noiret) who is confronted with the news that his 18 year old son has committed a murder. He embarks on a painful quest of soul searching and conversations with old friends and the sympathetic police inspector on the case (Jean Rochefort). Out of his reflections about the estrangement that had developed between his son and himself comes a decision about a difficult moral choice: whether or not to honor his son's adamant wish not to fight the charges by introducing evidence that could acquit him but that also - perhaps to the son's way of thinking (we are in fact never privy to his thinking) - might in the process compromise the justice of his act or dishonor his lover. (In French) (Seen in 1999) Grade: A
COMING HOME (Hal Ashby, US, 1978). Vietnam war battles fought on the home front are explored in a realistic, intimate manner in this fine film, which holds up very well a quarter century after it was made. Jane Fonda is Sally, prim, middle class wife of Bob Hyde, a Marine captain (Bruce Dern) who is ordered into combat in VN. Sally volunteers at the local VA hospital, where she meets Luke Martin (Jon Voight), former football star at Sally's high school, who, as a non-com officer in the Marines in VN, was left paraplegic by a shrapnel wound. Luke is embittered, volatile, reclusive, never wanting to leave the hospital. Gradually he and Sally fall in love. Bob returns home after an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot injury and discovers Sally's affair. Already way out of sorts after his duty tour was cut short without his achieving heroism, Bob angrily confronts the couple. There is also a compelling side story about Sally's friendship with another young woman (Penelope Milford) whose brother (Robert Carridine) is also a patient at the hospital, a psychiatric war casualty. Voight, Fonda, Dern and Milford are excellent. (Most recent viewing: 2002) Grade: A
THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1974). Coppola’s extraordinary film about eavesdropping and the people who spy on others for a living is deceptively simple in structure, yet in fact it works with great precision on three different levels: simultaneously it’s a suspense thriller, a psychological character study, and a mirror of the paranoia that dominated American society at the time the film was made. Gene Hackman gives a masterful performance as Harry Caul, reputed to be the best freelance surveillance expert in the country. Harry is a private man, as scrupulously guarded in preventing others – even his girlfriend - from knowing anything about him as he is ingenious in devising methods to learn all he wants to know about the people he is assigned to spy on. Paradoxically, Harry is also an intensely religious man, a devout Roman Catholic who deplores profane use of Jesus’s name and agonizes over the fact that one of his previous surveillance jobs in New York directly led to the murders of a family. Now living in San Francisco, on a new assignment, he becomes concerned that the result of his surveillance this time may once again be the murder of unsuspecting people, a couple apparently in love. He’s been hired by the woman’s husband, a powerful, secretive figure (an uncredited cameo by Robert Duvall). A uniformly high level of suspense is sustained throughout, mainly thanks to Hackman’s tightly wound demeanor, aided in a fine secondary performance by a menacing if youthful Harrison Ford, as the client’s gofer. The film begins with a scene, behind the opening credits, showing aerial views of Union Square, in which a mime moves teasingly among pedestrians; Harry and the couple he’s stalking are also walking here. The final scene shows Harry playing his saxophone in a torn up apartment. These beginning and ending scenes are unforgettable. The film debuted at the time of Watergate and Nixon's tapes. With the resurgence since 9/11 of threats to civil liberties inherent in the USA Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the newer technologies for surreptitious surveillance, this film regains a poignant relevance to present conditions in American society. If you haven’t seen this film in 25 years, or have never seen it, do so now! (Seen in 2004) Grade: A-
DARK EYES (Nikita Mikhalkov, Italy/USSR, 1987). Marcello Mastroianni in top form as a romantic soul in search of his greatest love. Based on Chekov stories and made in Italy by the great Russian director. Many feel it is MM’s best ever performance. (In Italian) (seen in 1998) Grade: A
DEAD AGAIN (Kenneth Branagh, UK, 1991). First rate thriller. Branagh is an LA detective who’s trying to establish the identity of a mute woman (Emma Thompson). He finds himself trapped in a nightmarish cycle of murder that started years earlier. Branagh and Thompson each inhabit dual roles – set respectively in the 1940s and 1990s. With Andy Garcia as a love rival and Derek Jacobi as an old antiques dealer who may hold the essential clues to solving the mystery. Clever, humorous, bold, absorbing. (Last seen 1997) Grade: A-
DEVI (THE GODDESS) (Satyajit Ray, India, 1960). A man becomes convinced that his daughter-in-law is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. (In Bengali) Grade: A
DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee, US, 1989). Arguably Lee’s best fictional work (his later biopic Malcolm X might be his masterpiece, though I'd still vote for Right Thing), this brilliantly crafted film captures the tensions along a couple of block section of a nearly all black community in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district in the late 1980s. Roger Ebert noted that “…the central fact of this film…is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” Perhaps most revealing are the fault lines we can see within the black community itself: older vs. younger; militant vs. tolerant; middle class work ethic vs. a layabout mentality. Then there are the interfaces with non-blacks: the barely tolerated Korean couple who run a grocery and, at the center of the drama, an Italian pizza maker, Sal (Danny Aiello), and his two sons. Sal has run his shop on this block for 25 years and enjoys not only black business but a strong measure of goodwill as well. Sal takes no guff from anybody, but he’s also benevolent in his rough way, quick to give a dollar for beer money to Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the alcoholic elder statesman on the block, who sweeps Sal’s sidewalk, or another dollar to Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who suffers from cerebral palsy and sells photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X together, before their split over the question of black violence. Sal’s sons reflect different takes on the white-black divide: Pino (John Turturro) is anti-black and wants Sal to get out, to sell the pizzeria. Vito (Richard Edson) is like his dad and feels ties to this community. For example, Vito likes Mookie (Lee), who works at the pizzeria and is a sort of go-between, an ambassador between blacks and whites. He’s also a link between the live-and-let-live world of the older black majority and the more militant younger men, and also between the blacks and the Hispanics, including his foul mouthed girlfriend (and mother of his son) Tina (Rosie Perez, making her film debut here). Hiphop radio dj Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson in one of three Lee film roles that helped establish his career) also strives to straddle the Hispanic-black divide. Things go awry when Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a young malcontent, criticizes Sal for having only pictures of whites on the wall (Italians specifically). He mobilizes another surly type, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and the two confront Sal, demanding that black photos be put up. This confrontation triggers the sad ending of the film, a major riot in which Raheem is killed by police and Sal’s pizzeria is trashed and torched. The film’s final frames are back-to-back quotes from MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, espousing their diametrically opposing views on the use of violence in the African-American quest for equality.
Among other things, this film is gorgeously photographed: there are wonderful uses of vivid color and numerous richly imagined scenes. It moves along well. The characters are without exception interesting. The implicit criticisms seem even handed, if harsh. With Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, a grumpy Brechtian moral judge of everybody else’s conduct on the block, serenely ensconced on ethical high ground, observing the street action from a perch at her windowsill. She's especially tough on Da Mayor, her agemate, accusing him of dereliction of leadership in favor of alcohol. Mother Sister’s terrible, keening emotional breakdown at the end, as she stands in the street gazing at the fire raging in Sal's place, makes her the real barometer of this tragedy. To witness her loss of composure is a shocking moment. This film holds up very well 15 years after it was made. (Seen most recently in August, 2004) Grade: A-
ENTER THE DRAGON (Robert Clouse, US/Hong Kong, 1973; restored first cut 1998). Bruce Lee was and still is, 25 years after his untimely death, the most accomplished and charismatic star of the oriental martial arts film genre. And this was his last and greatest film, one in which he articulated the philosophical views underlying his athleticism (some of this footage had been deleted from the version originally distributed in the US but it is all put back into the restored cut). Lee choreographed all the fight sequences in this film. The most breathtaking is his final duel with the evil Han (the actor Shih Kien, I think), in a room walled with 4,000 mirrors. Lee is spellbinding: his fierceness in a fight alternates with a quiet, taut watchfulness, like a coiled snake, and with an impish sexy innocence in the presence of women. Many of the players speak English, so that the dreadful vocal dubbing that infects most films of this genre is kept to a minimum. The film is burdened by H-wood excesses like a needlessly lavish musical score by Lalo Schifrin and huge scenes full of extras, but with plenty of suspense and Lee almost always on screen, who cares? The best film of its kind, probably, until the recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Seen in 2001) Grade: A-
FLESH AND BONE (Steve Kloves, US, 1993). Superb acting by all four principals and a stellar screenplay grace this tale of payback for evil in a tough, taut film set in the dusty hardscrabble Texas flatlands. Dennis Quaid plays a man weighed down with a burden of despair he has carried all his adult life, a joyless loner making his rounds, servicing vending machines in a score of small, forlorn towns. Along the way he meets a reckless woman (Meg Ryan) who is down on her marital luck. They also encounter a tough young psychopathic woman who steals from everyone, even the dead (Gwyneth Paltrow in her first substantial screen role). She turns out to be partnered with Quaid’s estranged father, an aging, nomadic thief and worse (James Caan). We learn in the very first scenes of the film the basis of Quaid’s later despondency. But the story unfolds some 30 years later in a series of unexpected turns. The dialogue is always crisp, fresh, real, devoid of clichés. The film is blunt and unsentimental. These are entirely believable people living out a terrible, oddly twisted, fateful drama of justice, redemption and the limitations of these forces. The obviously talented Mr. Kloves has written and directed only one other film, The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1989, which I also loved. And he is the screenwriter for the first two Harry Potter films. (seen in 2002) Grade: A-
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (Fred Zinnemann, US, 1953). Set in Hawaii in 1941, in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, this adaptation of James Jones’s novel concerns Army life at Schofield Barracks, and features Burt Lancaster as the sergeant who runs the company, Montgomery Clift as a principled maverick who just transferred in, Frank Sinatra as a fun loving but fiery trouble seeker, and Ernest Borgnine as a malevolent sergeant who rules the stockade. Romantically, Lancaster is paired with his commanding officer’s wife, Deborah Kerr, while Clift gets Donna Reed, a hostess at a “club” that purports to be more like the USO. There’s a lot of corny stuff here, especially in the romantic relationships. Lancaster and Kerr’s first date, which produced the iconic image of them embracing in the surf, is full of melodrama so turgid you could cut it with a knife. Clift seems physically too slight to be the crushing boxer he’s reputed to be. He looks better suited to be the crushing bugler he is also reputed to be. Sinatra, as everyone said at the time, gives a an unexpectedly good turn here. Kerr and Reed were unfortunately stuck in two dimensional roles in this guyflick. Lancaster shines as an entirely believable, multifaceted noncom. The best scene in this film is not a kiss in the surf, but a hilarious moment late in the film when Lancaster and Clift, both three sheets to the wind, sit in the middle of a jeep road at night simply enjoying each other’s company. The black and white photography is right for the job. Given the time in history when this mainstream Hollywood film was made, its critical gaze at American military life is remarkably tough.(Seen again in 2004). Grade: B+
THE FRONT (Martin Ritt, US, 1976) Woody Allen’s character acts as a front for blacklisted screenwriters, including one played by the incomparable Zero Mostel, in this poignant story of an especially ugly time in America, when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee held evil sway over the world of entertainment, among others. (seen in 1998) Grade: A
FUNNY BONES (Peter Chelsom, UK, 1995) Oliver Platt and Lee Evans are opposites in this extraordinary exploration of the nature of comedy...a deadly serious and outrageously funny film, with wonderful turns by Leslie Caron, Jerry Lewis and an army of very engaging vaudeville and circus style entertainers. Grade: A
GIMME SHELTER (David & Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, US, 1970). Amazing documentary of the 1969 US tour of the Rolling Stones that culminated in the tragic concert at the Altamont Speedway, in California's East Bay region. The Hells Angels, as everyone knows, took control of that event, for better and, mainly, for worse. The result was 4 dead (and, incidentally, 4 births). Musically the group was at its absolute peak, having recently released perhaps the best rock album of all time, Beggars Banquet, and the film features performances of several of that album's hits (“Honky Tonk Woman,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil”) as well as hits like “Satisfaction,” ”Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar” and “Under My Thumb.” The ugly violent vibes at Altamont, and much of the mayhem, are chillingly captured in footage near the end of the film, and one is left spent from witnessing all the wild energy gone wrong. (last seen in 2000) Grade: A-
GUANTANAMERA (Juan Carlos Tabio & Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Cuba, 1995). The beguiling Cuban actor Jorge Perugorria (the gay anti-Castro character in Alea and Tabio’s earlier film, Strawberry and Chocolate) stars here as Mariano, a truck driver in Alea’s last film. A famous singer dies while on a trip back to her hometown, far across Cuba from her current home and social network in Havana. Her niece must arrange for the body to be brought back. But this means passing through many jurisdictions, each with its own regulations about such matters. To complicate matters, Mariano, a former student of the niece’s, intersects again with her and tries to seduce her. The film is a wonderful putdown of Cuban bureaucracy, but also a marvelous gaze into the daily lives of ordinary people all across that nation. (In Spanish) Grade: B+
THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND (Patrice Leconte, France, 1992). The Hairdresser's Husband (Patrice Leconte, France, 1992). Funny, languid love story in which a boy's infatuation with a sensuous hairdresser leads him years later to the love of his life. Jean Rochefort's dancing creates romantic comedy at its very best. (In French) (Last seen in 1999) Grade: A-
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Richard Lester, UK, 1964). This film has not lost one iota of its original charm. It's great to revisit the wondrous tight harmonies of which these singers were capable. The incredible scene in the field and central cement square where the boys run and jump and frolic while one of their songs covers the soundtrack is such a classic! Wilfrid Brambell as Paul's grandfather - "a clean old man" - they call him, is marvelous. (last seen in 2000). Grade: A-
HARLAN COUNTY USA (Barbara Kopple, US, 1976). Brilliant documentary account of a coal miners’ strike in eastern Kentucky in 1973-74. Kopple set a new standard for documenting social crises in a series of intimate observations of the struggles of the miners and their families. The perils of mining, the horrid conditions of daily life for miners and their families (cold water shacks, outdoor toilets), the drama of the long (14 month) strike itself, the dangers on the picket line – all are graphically but simply presented, without polemics or manipulation, although decidedly from the miners’ point of view. The militant role of the miners’ wives is especially absorbing and well documented. Looming in the background are the vivid recollections of older families about the violence surrounding miners’ efforts to gain improved conditions earlier, in the 1930s, a time referred to again and again simply as “Bloody Harlan.” The 1973 battle is one the miners eventually won. But only two years later, we are told at the end, in a new national contract between the UMWA and the coal companies, miners lost the right to strike against individual mining companies, in return for better wages and benefits, a serious erosion of workers’ most important weapon for improving working conditions and benefits. When Kopple revisited striking union workers at a meat packing plant just over a decade later, in 1985, she showed, in American Dream, how that union lost a long and bitter battle…a clear indication of how far union strength had eroded over those years. (seen in 2003) Grade: A
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (Kakushi Toride No San Akunin) (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1958). The master breaks away here from his established dramatic style to create a marvelous comedy. The setting is feudal Japan, in the late 16th Century or somewhat later, after the introduction of small gunnery, an anarchic time when warlords constantly battled one another for possession of territory and wealth. Foot soldiers carry rifles, fighting alongside Samurai warriors who employ traditional lances and swords. This story is told from the perspective of two spineless, greedy, bickering peasants, escaped prisoners of war, who are heading home, penniless, half naked, dreading the shame that awaits them for returning in such a sorry state. They learn of a hidden treasure of gold belonging to a vanquished ruling house, and their bumbling efforts to acquire these riches bring them together with a princess in hiding and her defeated general and protector, a Samurai played by Toshiro Mifune. The adventures of this group form the story. The two peasants, Tahei and Matakishi, played with comic brilliance by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, carry the narrative. Think of them as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Felix and Oscar, or as the Star Wars droids, C3PO and R2D2 (George Lucas says that Kurosawa’s odd couple were the inspiration for his robots). Mifune is given free rein to strut, stare and shout here. He fights in just one memorable sequence, an excitingly choreographed duel using lances. Some consider this one of Kurosawa’s lesser films, but others think it is one of his three most influential, ranking just behind Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, both made earlier in the 50s. Grade: B+
HIGH HOPES (Mike Leigh, UK, 1989). Among British filmmakers, writer/director Mike Leigh is known best for two things: he creates intimate human dramas within the context of prevailing sociopolitical influences, permitting him to take a critical swipe at those larger forces which seem to make the lives of his characters more difficult; he also invites his actors to collaborate with him in creating the shooting script for his films, a process which can take several months. Sometimes this works wonderfully, as in High Hopes, one of his best films. The time is the late 1980s in London. Margaret Thatcher has handed Labor another pasting, and, in her third term as Prime Minister, is moving Hell bent for leather, as usual, to reshape the social order in Britain away from the welfare state and toward a conservative, free market system like that sought in the U.S. by her arch buddy, Ronald Reagan. In both nations, it is the era of wealth acquisition, profiteering, and a ratcheting down of supports for the working class and others who live even closer to the margins of society. In High Hopes, Thatcher’s ideas play out in the avarice and self centeredness of the close relatives and neighbors of an aging, demented and thoroughly disgruntled old woman. No one wants to step forward to help the old woman, who plainly needs assistance. The acting is first rate all around in this bitterly funny satire. Leigh accomplishes his goal, suggesting, I think, that, on a microscopic scale, the woman’s plight is like that of the disadvantaged classes in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (or Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s America). The needy are obvious among us, but those with the means to help are too busy indulging themselves to respond or even care. (Seen again November, 2004) Grade: A-
HOOP DREAMS (Steve James, US, 1994). Acclaimed documentary tracing the high school careers of two inner city Chicago youths, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who have shown sufficient talent as basketball players by the end of the 8th grade that they are heavily scouted and recruited by high schools in the area that have the premier basketball programs. We get to know thse boys and their families, enough so that we come to care about them, we want them to succeed. In a way, they each do, but there are many twists along the way, and their successes do not necessarily take the form we expected. The film is three hours long but is so packed with suspense about what lies around the corner for each young man that it never drags. Editing is superb and music is used brilliantly. A stunning and insightful gaze into the world of aspiring young ghetto athletes, with lessons for anybody about ambition, heart, discipline, forbearance and acceptance. (Add: for an update on the lives of William and Arthur and their families, visit a Washington Post article written July 4, 2004, on the net at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27976-2004Jul4.html.) Grade: A-
IRON MONKEY (Yuen Wo Ping, Hong Kong, 1993). A way better than average Hong Kong martial arts flick produced and co-written by the master, Tsui Hark. (In Cantonese with English subtitles, a major improvement over the usual corny dubbing done in films of this genre) Grade: B
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Frank Oz, US, 1986). Check this, Earth Firsters. Here's one of the seminal films that has inspired eco-terrorism. It’s a cult classic screwball musical comedy about a man who discovers a supernatural plant that demands fresh human blood meals to fulfill its destiny to take over the earth. Based on two earlier works: Roger Corman’s 1960 horror flick, and an off-broadway musical adaptation created in 1982 by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, whose book and music are used for this film. The cast is a delightful ensemble of stars from the old SNL gang (Steve Martin, Bill Murray) and SCTV (Rick Moranis, John Candy), together with the dazzling Ellen Greene, a singing comedienne who reprises her dizzy blonde role as Audrey from the 1982 musical stage production. Featured also are Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell as a song & dance chorus that keeps reappearing, and Levi Stubbs, of the Four Tops, who provides the bass-o voice for Audrey II, the plant from Hell that just grows and grows, as long as you can find sadistic biker dentists (like Martin’s character) and other expendable people to feed it. Murray is perfect as a masochistic dental patient. Downside: the film moves unevenly. Musical numbers, as well as Murray, Martin and Candy’s shticks, are all delightful. But much of the straight dialogue between songs is dull, and Vincent Gardenia, as the florist shop owner, Mr. Mushnik, is plain irritating. (seen in 2004) Grade: B+
LONE STAR (John Sayles, US, 1995). This is a splendid film. Using an unsolved murder that took place 40 years ago as a foundation, Sayles creates a robust, complex and incisive portrayal of life in a Texas border town, amid palpable racial and ethnic tensions, civil greed and corruption, family ghosts and skeletons, love's curious workings in people's lives, the condoning of sadism in a still violent west, and more. The film is chock full of interesting characters, relationships and activities, but the people and subplots - as well as the complex sociology of the place (the town of Frontera, in Rio County) - are presented bit by bit in a simple, clear, almost leisurely manner. There is no sense in this rich film of being rushed, snowed with information, or carried along on a superficial wave of characters and events. This film is thoughtful, not frenetic.
Sayles, who wrote and edited in addition to directing, manages to keep most of the pieces working together with grace and subtlety in this cavalcade-of-life film, where Robert Altman, among others, has had difficulty. Even at his best, in Nashville, Altman seems less interested in depth of character or the history of a place, than in guiding a tour through stereotypic situations and characters in the pageant of contemporary popular culture, substituting a fast paced, kaleidoscope of actions and events for richness and nuance. Sayles wants to look more deeply below the surface, usually not a wise idea for a film director to follow, for it leads most often down the path of preachy offerings from a Pandora's Box of facile psychological and social presumptions about why people behave as they do, something Altman has always avoided doing, thank Heavens. But here we have a pleasant surprise: Sayles indeed does look within his characters and their predicaments, but he does so with a gentle touch, typically relying much more on simple facts of relationships, not fancy ideas, on the intertwined histories of the people of Frontera, not the history of civilization, to explain the circumstances. And by grounding, as he does, each relationship in its own particular facts, Sayles shows us how racial prejudices affect people while he avoids merely displaying these prejudices as abstract ethnic and racial cliches and stereotypes.
To aid his storytelling, Sayles uses flashbacks to perfection; each is a brief bit revealing a few important facts, and each is made seamlessly. Stuart Dryburgh's photography is intimate, lingering on characters, but he is not intrusive. The high quality and understated intensity of acting is extraordinarily even across virtually all the players. One feels one is eavesdropping on real conversations, not being entertained. And there is ample opportunity for even minor characters to be rendered in a manner that sparks curiosity. Among a long list of good players are Chris Cooper, (as the brooding hero Sheriff Sam Deeds), Clifton James (as Mayor Hollis), Joe Morton (as Colonel Del Payne) and Ron Canada (as his father Otis), love interest Elizabeth Pena (as Pilar Cruz), and Kris Kristofferson (as the wonderfully mean, corrupt lawman, Charlie Wade). This is a long film, but you won't feel that, not with all the deliciously tumultuous life being lived by this group. Grade: A-
THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) (Leos Carax, France, 1991) An extraordinary, spellbinding story of two homeless young people, Alex (Denis Levant) and Michele (Juliette Binoche), who meet on a Paris street in 1989 and begin to share themselves and, at night, a stone bench and blanket on a bridge that is closed for repairs. Alex is a down-and-out, self destructive drug addict and street performer with no future. Michelle is a painter who is going blind and is deeply despairing, but she comes from vastly different, well off circumstances. Still he fascinates and energizes her with his courage and libidinal interest. For his part, Alex becomes completely infatuated with Michelle. He senses her dissatisfaction living with him on the street, the only place he feels secure, but it is all he can offer. One thing leads to another and they inevitably part; she goes off to vision-saving surgery and resumes a comfortable life, while he goes off to prison. What makes this film stunningly memorable are the many wonderfully imagined, wildly improbable, magical scenes, visual elaborations that seem so perfectly Parisian and at the same time just right for the story. As in the films of David Lynch, the flow of the story will come to a point, and at that moment expand or digress into some provocative, totally absorbing, wildly lyrical scene that probes, more intensely portrays, or otherwise embellishes or enhances that point, and then the story moves forward again, with things either back as they were, or jumped along to some new level. The difference from Lynch is that Carax doesn't rely on the grotesque or sinister for his stunners. The French bicentennial fireworks display is one example here - one of the most psychedelic moments on film. The couple's first meeting, when Alex is run over on the street, and his subsequent phantasmagoric experience at the emergency station. Alex breathing fire in his street performance. The priapic silhouetted chase scene of Alex and Michele at the beach; old Han's deliberate walk down a set of steps to his demise on the dock; the final scenes in the River Seine. And throughout, one gets a vivid sense of the curious and complex amalgam of hostility, rough edged humor, extreme selfishness, suffering, tenderness, danger, aimlessness and despair that typify so many real skid road people. Yet at heart Carax seems to be a romantic, and this may be the single false note, the one unbelievable conceit in this otherwise majestic film. He wants a happy ending, no matter how much at odds with the circumstances it may seem. Happy ending or no, this is a towering work of visual artistry. And who's to say, as the couple move triumphantly together on their journey down the river, away from us, whether this scene is yet another passing image on the way to…(In French) (seen in 2000). Grade: A
MABOROSI (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 1995). A young woman marries; the couple have a child; her husband dies and her life becomes troubled. She remarries later. A simple tale, it is rendered here in an incredibly beautiful, meditative manner through the use of long takes employing a stationary camera, often positioned at the level of someone kneeling. Kore-eda is a young director very much devoted to employing the techniques of the great Yasujiro Ozu, and it is Ozu's photographic approach that gives this film its grace. (In Japanese) Grade: A-
MAN OF ARAN (Robert J. Flaherty, US, 1934). Amazing footage by the former explorer and maker of Nanook of the North, about the life of people on the chain of three barren rocky islands off the northwest coast of Ireland, called the Aran Islands. Flaherty apparently used amateur actors recruited from among the locals. The film centers on a family of three. The father is, like all island men, a fisherman, and we see the catch that he and others make of a huge basking shark, indigenous in these waters. We also see the entire family take part in the agonizing process of creating soil for raising potatoes, a mix of tiny amounts of true soil excavated from crevices among rocks and large amounts of seaweed, mixed and laid down in strips on a crushed rock foundation. The rap on Flaherty has always been his wide license in questionably authentic dramatizations of isolated peoples, pop anthropology mixing historic fact with Flaherty’s imaginings. Still, there is much here that is vividly real and instructive. (Seen in 2001) Grade: A-
MAYA LIN – A STRONG CLEAR VISION (Freida Lee Mock, US, 1994). Feature length documentary of the career, character, and background of architect and sculptor Maya Lin. The film traces in detail the drama surrounding her winning submission for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, and the controversy that followed its selection. Also covers other projects of hers: the civil rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the fountain commemorating women at Yale; the ceiling for the renovated Penn Station building, and a private house in Massachusetts. Her strength of character and deep empathy for the experience of war survivors and families of the dead, at the age of 20, are astonishing. Her approach: to thoroughly research the subject for a memorial and then write out a narrative statement setting forth her conception of what the memorial should be and do, before seeing the site or beginning a design suggests the benefit of gifts from both her parents, who immigrated from China in the 1940s. Her mother was an English professor and her father an artist. The filmmaker chose, unfortunately, not to give us a good, full look at any of her works, keeping the focus always on the artist and her creative process. This film received the Oscar for best feature length documentary in 1994. Grade: B+
MEDIUM COOL (Haskell Wexler, US, 1969). This film, a directing debut by cinematographer Wexler, holds up surprisingly well after nearly 30 years. Partly that’s because it works on three levels, one dated, the others not at all. It is a mockdoc account of the frenzied and violent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and all we know about the lurid events of that time are rolled out here. But there is also a story of individuals living in Chicago who are touched by or respond to the events. And, at a third level, the film is concerned with the ethical issues of photojournalism. Wexler poses the question: is it permissible to merely photograph events and people and move on, or, when confronted by a subject in crisis or danger, does the photographer have a duty to intervene? He isn’t preachy about this. But he keeps bringing it up through the conduct of his characters. Good stuff. (Last seen in 1996) Grade: A-
MEPHISTO (Istvan Szabo, Hungary, 1981) - Klaus Maria Brandauer plays an overly ambitious German actor who sides with the Nazis to further his career. First of a trilogy in which Szabo and Brandauer collaborated to demonstrate the terrible costs of survival and success during repressive periods in German history. (Last seen in 1996) (In German) Grade: A
A MIDWINTER’S TALE (Kenneth Branagh, UK, 1995). Story within a story. Branagh brings together a group of largely unknown performers to stage an alternative production of Hamlet in a small English church. The other story orbits around a down and out actor (Michael Maloney). The diverse cast, many of them amateurs of limited talent and discipline, cannot get along and only bring things together respectably at showtime. Maloney’s character is quite enraged about having to play with these quacks. There’s a lot that is amusing in this quirky film, in which Branagh seems to be coasting, having fun himself after several years of intense work and many successes. Grade: A-
MISHIMA: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, US/Japan, 1985). A stunning, unusual film in several respects. Based on the life, work and dramatic death by seppaku (harikari) of the post- WWII Japanese novelist and playwright, Yukio Mishima. On August 25, 1970, Mishima marched, in full uniform, with four members of his private, reactionary paramilitary group, the Secret Shield, into the headquarters of the East garrison of the Japanese Army. There they held the commanding general at sword point, while Mishima demanded to speak to the assembled garrison about the need for the Army to lead the way to root out capitalism and return Japan to the rule of the Emperor and the values of the Samurai way of life. As he gave his address, was hooted at by the soldiers (who apparently didn't know their leader was in peril), and thereafter he killed himself in the general's office, apparently per plan.
Mishima was a preeminent Japanese author from the late 40s until his death, having written 25 novels, a similar number of plays, over 200 short stories and some poetry. The film is an extraordinary composition with four parts spanned by three dimensions. In each part the documentary-style story of the day of Mishima's death gradually unfolds, in color. Also in each segment, there are black & white flashbacks filling in highlights of Mishima's life, narrated, in English, by Roy Scheider (the other two dimensions are entirely in Japanese with English subtitles). The third dimension, represented in the first three parts and also in color, is a series of dramatic enactments from three of Mishima's novels, presenting themes that reflect the author's values and concerns. The intensity of the stories is matched by the extraordinary artistry of the sets (Eiko Ishioka), music (Philip Glass) and photography (John Bailey). All three won awards at Cannes for their work. Ken Ogata is superb as Mishima, and a host of other Japanese actors are also wonderful. An ambitious, very unusually structured film: bold, original, a tour de force for Schrader and his collaborators. (Seen in 2000) Grade: A
MONTEREY POP (D.A. Pennebaker, US, 1968). Landmark documentary on the Monterey Music Festival in June, 1967. It was the first major rock concert film. An incredibly rich program featured leading talents of the era, including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane,Jimi Hendrix, Mama & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon, Country Joe MacDonald and Otis Redding, among others. Wonderful crowd shots. The artists, songs and filming of them are highly variable in appeal today. Highly disposable (for me) are numbers by Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela, Eric Burdon and The Who. Highlights: all three Mamas & Papas numbers, Joplin singing Willie Mae Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” the photography of Grace Slick singing “Today” in backlit silhouetted profile, Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Hendrix’s “Wild Thing,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” and the closer: Ravi Shankar and his group playing for nearly 20 minutes, with exquisite close-ups of him and his tabla player in action. Wow, the memories of an era that this film evokes! (Most recent viewing: 2001) Grade: A-
MOSCOW DOES NOT BELIEVE IN TEARS (Vladimir Menshov, USSR, 1980) Three women pursue different paths to make a life for themselves in 1958 Moscow. We get to know them then, along with their hopes and dreams. Later we meet them again, 20 years later, and learn what the realities of urban life in the USSR have wrought with their plans. A stupendous set of character studies, all three roles well acted. (Seen in 1996) (In Russian) Grade: A MY NAME IS IVAN (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1963) Tarkovsky’s first feature film, about a young boy who serves as a spy behind German lines in WWII. Lyrical, poetic, filled with wonderfully wrought images. (Seen in 1996) (In Russian) Grade: A
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (Stephen Frears, UK, 1985) Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young Pakistani living with his alcoholic, former leftist journalist father in south London (Roshan Seth), is given a laundrette to run by his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), who has become well off through underworld dealings. Omar is torn between allegiance to his family and friends, on the one hand, and the promise of a better life as a rich, assimilated Brit, on the other, and is lured in this direction by the homoerotic charms of Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), a working class white thug who also wants to better himself. A combination of gritty ethnic/racial drama and dark comedy, this work cinched Frears' filmmaking reputation. Written by Hanif Kureishi. (Last seen in 1999) Grade: A
MY TWENTIETH CENTURY (Hungary, Ildiko Enyedi, 1988). This wild film substitutes a collage of hopscotch scenes for a narrative line and embraces a never ending string of philosophical notions. The result is, as one critic so well describes the film, a “heady mix of encyclopedic wit and magical surrealism…fascinating if something of a muddle.” Polish actress Dorotha Segda fills both roles as twin women who test love, feminism and much else in this crazy, dreamy film. I loved it. Others might not. (Seen in 1996) (In Hungarian) Grade: A-
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton, US, 1955). Classic encounter between good and evil. Evil is personified by "The Reverend" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a psychopathic, predatory, impotent, knife wielding serial killer of women and a fake preacher. Good comes in the form of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an older woman with a sing song voice whose aging sweet little girl persona belies grit, courage, and a keen determination to protect her charges: she collects unwanted children. Powell, sharing a prison cell with Ben Harper (a youthful Peter Graves), a murderer condemned to die, learns that Harper stashed money from a bank robbery at his house. Pretending to be the former prison chaplain, Powell seeks out Harper's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters, one of filmdom's most redoubtable female victims), marries her, kills her, and then terrorizes her two children, who, he is convinced, know where the money is. The kids run away but Powell pursues them, in a long, magical chase that seems, as Roger Ebert suggests, more dreamlike than real, leading eventually to a showdown with the good Mrs. Cooper, who has taken the two children under her wing. There surely is some corn in this movie, especially surrounding Mrs. Cooper and the forces of nature that seem to protect the fleeing children. But on the whole this film is powerful stuff. What mainly makes it so is Mitchum's barely suppressed, almost psychotic homicidal fervor toward women and his chilling callousness toward children, as well as the surreal sets and the astonishing, deeply foreboding B&W photography, by Stanley Cortez (who filmed Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons). Ebert quotes Cortez as once remarking that he was "always chosen to shoot weird things." This was Laughton's only directing venture but a highly inventive one. Laughton made huge changes in James Agee's original screenplay, most for the better, according to Laughton's widow, Elsa Lanchester. Ironically, Mitchum worked very effectively with the child actors, for whom Laughton had no patience. The critics panned the film, which discouraged Laughton from any further directing efforts. Too bad. (most recent viewing: 2002) Grade: A-
NINA SIMONE: LOVE SORCERESS (Rene Letzgus, France, 1976). Film of a quirky concert performance given by this towering talent at the Montreux Jazz Festival, on July 3, 1976. Simone had just come from living for two years in Liberia, having left the U.S. in 1974, never to reside permanently there again. In this performance she is more than a bit high on some drug (she acknowledges this, late in the concert) and devilishly playful. Several times she puts on silent mock-serious pouts, only to break into a radiant grin after the longest time. Often you can’t be sure when she’s serious or putting you on. But the force of her energy and her feel of the music are always unmistakably clear. Sorceress is an apt term for this astonishing and capricious woman. And the love songs she sings are her most compelling. She spares her voice here – she’s soft and even indistinct at times in delivering some lyrics, partly a problem of lousy miking on stage at the piano. But her phrasing – both in her vocals and in her spectacular piano playing – is mesmerizing, I want to say heaven sent. This short film (75 minutes) was shot live during her Montreux set, and had limited distribution in 1976. It was re-released on VHS/DVD in 1998 and is being screened these days at a number of film festivals to commemorate Simone, who died in April, 2003, at 70, after a long illness. Born Eunice Waymon to a large family in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933, Simone was a prodigious piano player by age 4. Her family was poor but found community support later for her to study music at Julliard. In New York, she took the stage name Nina (small one) Simone (after Signoret, the French actress, a favorite of hers). Her breakout piece was a recording of “I Loves You Porgy,” in the late 1950s. She was renown for her interpretations of soul, blues, protest songs, but above all jazz ballads. She composed over 500 songs, and created the arrangements of others' work that carried her special imprint. Her singing style, with her deep, rich cello like voice, and her spare, deliberate, space defining piano accompaniments, always marked her performances as unique. That all comes through well enough in the film. She lived in Switzerland, The Netherlands, but mainly in France in the latter years of her life, and died there. She requested that her ashes be scattered in various African nations. (Seen at "Reel Music," NWFC series, Jan. 2004) Grades: A- for rare look at Simone's absolutely unique performing style while she was still in her prime; C- for technical film values.
NINOTCHKA (Ernst Lubisch, US, 1939). Lots of fun here. Set in Paris in the late 1930s, this romantic comedy pairs Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. Many 30s comedies are dated and frankly a bore seen today. Not this one. The film opens as three very funny Russian guys doing modified vaudeville schtick (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) arrive in town on a mission from Moscow to peddle some crown jewels confiscated by the Soviets during the Revolution. When the deal goes bad, Moscow sends Garbo, a tough, humorless apparatchik, to set things straight. Douglas is a penniless French count who sponges off immigrant Russian ex-royals. He also is responsible for ruining the deal, though Garbo doesn’t know it when they meet. They fall in love despite the personal and political gulf between them, though it takes a whole lot of conniving before they finally come together in the end. (Seen in 2002) Grade: B+
PARIS, TEXAS (Wim Wenders, US/Germany, 1985). An incredible study of the loneliness and disaffection that seem to befall so many ordinary men in America. Harry Dean Stanton offers his finest performance here as a man who’s life seemed to fall apart, setting him adrift for years, until he returns in search of his estranged wife and son, to somehow make things up to them. He is virtually mute at first, a stunning take on the interpersonal disconnect and alexithymia we find so often among our men. Perhaps it takes an outsider, in this case the German director Wenders, to capture this alienation. But then Sam Shepard, a keen observer of America from within, wrote the screenplay. Ry Cooder created a moody, enchanting soundtrack for this film, featuring Stanton singing Mexican ballads. (Last seen in 1996) Grade: A
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, Australia, 1975) Intensely suspenseful story of the vanishing of 3 schoolgirls and one of their teachers high in a massive rock formation. Filled with hints of the supernatural and the erotic. One if left wondering if Zeus himself perhaps spirited these women off for sport. Pan pipe music helps maintain an edge to the proceedings. (Last seen in 1997) Grade: A
POSITIVELY TRUE ADVENTURES OF THE ALLEGED TEXAS CHEERLEADER-MURDERING MOM (Michael Ritchie, US, 1993). Holly Hunter is the stage door mom from Hell (well, Texas, same thing) who puts out a contract on a girl whose talent threatens Hunter's daughter's own chances to become the top cheerleader around. Grade: B
A PURE FORMALITY (Giuseppe Tornatore, France/Italy,1994) A Pure Formality is a triple treat. There are two strong performances, by GerardDepardieu and Roman Polanski. There isan engrossing story of a well off man (Depardieu) whose character foibles leadto his destruction. And, most importantly, there is a riveting encounter between this man and the police inspector (Polanski) who detains him, in a setting that is...what? A dream? A place that is dark and damp where the clocks don't work. The Jungian psychotherapist, Thomas Moore, would say it is a setting for the soul. It is through the extraordinary battle of wits between these two men that the protagonist comes to understand the riddle of his misdirected life.(In French) Grade: A-
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (John Huston, US, 1967). Dark study of convoluted sexual yearnings and barely controlled madness among a group of military personnel and their wives at a training base in the South, based on a novel by Carson McCullers. Marlon Brando displays a staggering range of moods and stances in a virtuoso performance as the central character; Elizabeth Taylor, as his wife, gives her standard performance as sexual provocateur. Top pros Brian Keith and Julie Harris play fine supporting roles, and Robert Forster makes his screen debut as a young soldier who attracts unexpected sexual attentions. The other intriguing character here is Zorro David as a sensual Philippino houseman. (Most recent viewing: 2002) Grade: A-
ROAD SCHOLAR (Roger Weisberg, US, 1992). A little gem when you need some comic relief. NPR's resident Transylvanian wit, Andrei Codrescu, is at his sardonic, understated, sluggish elfin, newsbyte quipping best here in a road film about America. For the project, Codrescu finally learns to drive - in 1992, 26 years after coming to America - and takes off from New York to San Francisco in a cherry-red 1968 Cadillac convertible. An article in the NY Daily News compared Codrescu's journey to Roger Moore's in Roger and Me. I can see some basis for this. Both men are chubby natural deadpan comedians and they are also men who are genuinely interested in the human condition. Moore is a master of performance art in journalism, arranging for an investigative moment by engaging the key characters in provocative encounters with camaras at the ready, hoping catch the big players off guard. It's a game he loves. Codrescu is different. He's not out to ensnare anybody. He is more the interviewer seen in travelogues than the investigative journalist here. He's a good sport, letting New Age health counselors have at him, for instance. Codrescu interviews Haitian crack cocaine users in Manhattan, a couple running a convenience store in a barren landscape of central Detroit, a longstanding commune guided by strict principles of "Christian communism" in the heartland, New Age crystals healers in Santa Fe. It's all pretty superficial stuff. But funny. His message is about diversity and the wish for freedom that moves immigrants to want to come here. Moore's message is about how corporations can irresponsibly destroy the lives of workers and whole communities. These guys between them cover the contradictory yin/yang landscape of America. Codrescu's trip takes 6 weeks, and mainly hits cities along Interstates, unlike Steinbeck's backroad adventures in "Travels with Charley." Surprisingly, the film does not visit New Orleans, where Codrescu had settled by the time this film was made, nor is the south covered at all, and very little about rural or small town life. Codrescu is a kindly man, neither a zealot nor an easy con. He jokes instead of preaching. He seems to love everyone yet retain a healthy skepticism about some of the main things these people do and talk about. And through it all his one liners are so devastatingly funny. Grade: A-
STOP MAKING SENSE (Jonathan Demme, US, 1984). One of the finest rock concert films ever made, mainly because of the incredible energy, showmanship and talent of the band, The Talking Heads, led by David Byrne. Shot over 3 nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, during consecutive performances by the band, in December, 1983. Features one of my all time favorite rock numbers, Byrne's "Just Like it Ever Was." Byrne apparently saw the film again recently and felt that the effort here was good enough to justify a re-release. Yessss! (Last seen in 1999) Grade: A
STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (Tomas Gutierrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabio, Cuba, 1993) A sly political farce that is so thinly-veiled as Anti-Castro that one wonders how Alea survived to make any more films (he was in fact dying of cancer and needed help from Tabio to complete this film and Guantanamero, released the next year, and Alea died shortly thereafter). This is an allegory of sorts. Diego (the incomparable Jorge Perugorria) is a libidinous, seductive, hedonistic, intelligent and altogether charming gay fellow who is utterly disdainful of Castro’s state. He befriends David, a very serious, totally straight younger university student who is a true believer in the Communist dream but who is also miserable. He provides all the setup lines for Diego’s humorous criticisms of the regime. Diego successfully seduces David – not sexually but politically. A fine film! (In Spanish) Grade: A-
STRICTLY BALLROOM (Baz Luhrmann, Australia, 1992). Luhrmann’s directorial debut here was sensational. He skewers the world of competitive ballroom dancing with its politics, rigid rules, and over the hill dancers with inflated egos, while at the same time honoring the romance and beauty of dancing. A young man, Scott Hastings (ballet dancer Paul Mercurio) has an opportunity to become a champion, but stubbornly insists on dancing his own unconventional steps, a violation of competition rules. He loses his skilled partner in the process but then falls in love with Francesca, a beginner, from a local Spanish family. When his ambitious mother and competition bigwigs find another top partner for him, he renounces this arrangement, choosing to dance in his own way with the woman he loves instead. With the incomparable Barry Otto as Scott’s father, and a wonderful group of Spanish actors as Francesca’s family and friends. Grade: B+
STROSZEK (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1977). The film concerns the strange road trip of three Berlin misfits - an alcoholic man, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), who has spent much of his life in institutions, a prostitute, Eva (Eva Mattes), and a gnomish old man, Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). When a nephew in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, invites old Scheitz to come to America, Eva earns enough money hustling to pay the way for herself and Bruno to come along. It looks for awhile as if their fortunes may improve, but their good life on credit comes to a rapid end when the bank forecloses, Eva runs off with two truck drivers, and the two men try to avenge themselves by pulling a hilarious armed robbery that backfires. The film has its amusements, such as the robbery and a concession featuring performances by a dancing chicken, piano playing hen, and a rabbit who drives a toy fire truck, but its bleak reflections on life's difficulties for the disenfranchised are sobering and rendered with great irony. Stroszek is an innocent, a man who by his own admission has lived too long shut away from the world to know how to fend for himself. A homely, unkempt fellow who is an easy target for bullies, he nonetheless has wonderful gifts to give: he is kind, generous and loyal to his friends, fondly cares for his pet Macaw, and has a fine musical sensibility, playing piano, accordion and glockenspeil. The contrast between the fate meted out to him in Germany vs. Wisconsin is instructive. As Stroszek says, in Germany nasty treatment is obvious, unveiled, raw. But in Wisconsin people smile and pretend kindness while they do you in, as epitomized by an obsequious bank representative whose pronouncements on repossession are delivered with unctuous indirection. Features music by Chet Atkins and a credit to Errol Morris, for the dancing chicken perhaps? (In German and English) (seen in 2000) Grade: A-
SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (Jonathan Demme, US, 1987). Spalding Gray had a minor acting role in The Killing Fields, which took him to southeast Asia, where he had a lot of time to think and play around. As he has done for years, he uses his experience and reflections to weave a monologue that he then burnishes through 100s of stage performances. The result is then filmed. This is not his first such outing, but it was the first one filmed, and is arguably better than those which have followed (Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy). He’s a fine story teller here. His later work tends to suffer from excessive indulgence of his neuroticism. (Last seen in 1996) Grade: A
TAP (Nick Castle, US, 1989, 11 min.). Possibly the finest feature on tap dancing around, set within the vague confines of a fictional story in which a burglar, Max Washington (Gregory Hines), must choose between the old heist gang and his true passions. The gang promises some fast bucks and the avoidance of a possible whack by crazed gang member Nicky (Joe Morton). If Max goes straight, he gets back with his former girlfriend Amy (Suzzanne Douglass), wins the approval of all the good people in his life, and can look forward to making chicken feed dancing again in an era when rock and schmaltzy reviews like Riverdance are everything and nobody under 50 appreciates the artistry of an old style hoofer. Naturally Max chooses the life of love, dance and poverty. But will he survive to enjoy it, that’s the dramatic question.
All of this, you understand, is of subordinate importance to the tap dancing, which is first rate. Besides Hines, still in his prime though a bit chunky at 43, we’ve got a bevy of former star hoofers, the best surviving talent from another age, a regular Buena Vista Social Club of dance, led by Sammy Davis, Jr. in his last film appearance (he plays a man dying of cancer, a role coinciding with his own decline from the throat cancer that killed him the following year, way too soon, at age 65). Others include Bunny Briggs (66 years old), Jimmy Slyde (67), Harold Nicholas (68), Howard “Sandman” Sims and Steve Condos (both 71) and James “Buster” Brown, the dean of this group at 76. At the other end of the lifespan we have 15 year old Savion Glover - as Amy’s son Louis - who shows decent enough screen presence and performs a slick tap number here that prefigures his rapid rise to dominance of the form. It’s a fine feast if you like this old timey dancing style. Grade: B+ (05/23/05)
THE THIRD MAN (Carol Reed, UK, 1949). A noir classic, international style, this suspense thriller is set in post-WW II Vienna. Holly Martens (Joseph Cotton), western novel writer and lush, is invited to come to work in Vienna by old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime has just died. A gaggle of nefarious characters keep an eye on Martens, who keeps an eye on Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime's former girlfriend. Watching them all is Callaway (Trevor Howard, looking more wondrously chisel faced than ever), a British sector military police officer. Magnificently filmed in B&W, the film captures the feeling of the devastated city in the throes of postwar scarcity and intrigue. (Last seen in 1999) Grade: A
TIME OF THE GYPSIES (Le Temps des Gitans) (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1989). This film depicts the coming of age of a boy, Perhan (Davor Dujnovic), growing up in a mud soaked, impoverished gypsy shantytown on the hilly outskirts of Sarajevo. Perhan is a good boy, devoted to his grandmother and crippled kid sister, Danira. His parents are dead or gone. His slimy ne’er do well uncle also inhabits the one room house the four share. Grandma is a folk healer with strong powers. Perhan has inherited a small streak of the supernatural - he charms turkeys and has the telekinetic ability to move objects at a distance, talents Grandma dismisses as of no practical value. Her comment both epitomizes Perhan’s quandary – how to make a living so he can marry his beloved Azra, a quest that shapes the narrative arc of the film – and foreshadows his eventual demise. Perhan throws in with a criminal godfather, Ahmed, after this fellow promises to have Danira’s gimpy leg fixed in gratitude for Grandma having saved his son’s life. They take off for the hospital in another town, but along the way Danira is dispatched elsewhere, unbeknownst to Perhan, while he succumbs to the temptation to make big money that Ahmed offers if Perhan will only work for him in Milan. In Milan it turns out that Ahmed and his brothers run a host of lowlife criminal activities - child selling, prostitution, begging - and Perhan is more or less imprisoned by the gang. But after a falling out with his brothers, the mercurial Ahmed promotes Perhan, even sends him back to Bosnia to recruit more white slaves and a new wife. Perhan discovers there that Ahmed has lied to him about Danira and other matters; he also finds his dear Azra with more than a touch of pregnancy and won’t accept her word that the child is his. Everyone, especially Grandma, can see that Perhan has been corrupted by Ahmed, and things end tragically for nearly everyone. This film is instructive about tribal life in general, at least in southern Bosnia, and its criminal demimonde in particular. It’s tragic tone, with almost no comic relief, contrasts with Kusturica’s later films, Underground and Black Cat, White Cat, which both ironically feature over-the-top black humor juxtaposed with nasty business. This was Kusturica’s 4th feature film and the second to be recognized at Cannes, where he received the 1989 best director award for Gypsies. (When Father was Away on Business, his third film, which I have not seen, had won the Palme d’Or in 1985, and Underground would later win in 1995.) Though his most famous films (Cat and Underground) also feature romani people, Kusturica himself is a Bosnian Muslim who was raised in Sarajevo. Some of the film was shot there, not long before the Bosnian war. Dujnovic is very good in the central role here (he was also a secondary character in Underground). He committed suicide in Slovenia in 1999 at the age of 29. (In Romany) Grade: B+
THE TRAIN (John Frankenheimer, US, 1964). WWII thriller about the heroics of railroad workers in France in their resistance efforts during the Nazi occupation. A German colonel (Paul Scofield), stationed in Paris, who has a taste for art, commandeers a train to ship back to Germany a treasure of confiscated Impressionist and other paintings. Locals who want to stop this theft appeal to the senior French trainyard boss (Burt Lancaster, in one of his finest performances) to take steps to prevent the train from leaving France. With many moments of high tension, the film unfolds as a series of complicated operations to save the paintings, not only from theft to Germany, but from Allied bombing and other hazards as well. With Jeanne Moreau and some other fine suppoerting players. (Seen in 2001). Grade: A-
THE TROUBLE WE’VE SEEN (Marcel Ophuls, France, 1995). Ophuls came to Portland to screen a long (3 1/2 hour), rambling rough cut of his most recent documentary about the experience of journalists in Bosnia during the 1993-95 war. The material is absorbing and has the makings of a fine film. But there is much more work to be done, and Ophuls is the first to admit it. (In French) Grade: B+
VANYA ON 42ND STREET (Louis Malle, US, 1994). Another splendid collaboration among Malle, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, after My Dinner with Andre. Stunning adaptation of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya,” , this work was prepared for the stage in 1989, written by David Mamet and directed by Gregory. He met with the acting ensemble periodically for 4 years before Malle filmed this performance before a live, select audience. Shawn stars as a superb Vanya. He and several others give dazzling performances, including Julianne Moore, Madhur Jaffrey and Gregory, as himself. Grade: A
WEDDING IN GALILEE (Michel Khleifi, Israel/Belgium/ France, 1987). Absorbing story surrounding a wedding planned by Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory. The subplot is a conflict ensuing when the bride’s family ask the Israeli authorities to suspend a curfew to permit the lengthy wedding festivities to take place in a traditional manner. What is more intriguing are the festivities themselves, everyone’s conduct, in particular the efforts required to publicly document consummation in the honeymoon bed.. (In Arabic and Hebrew) (Seen in 1997) Grade: A
WEST SIDE STORY (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, US, 1961). One of my two favorite musicals (the other is Cabaret), this is the first time I’ve seen it on the big screen since its opening run 42 years ago, in 1961, the year I graduated from Medical School. WSS came before any of my kids, before Kennedy went to Dallas, before Vietnam, the Chicago riots of 1968, Rowe v. Wade, Watergate, Reaganomics, before crack cocaine, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, Iraq Wars I and II, the Internet, Monica Lewinsky, “W.” Wow. The print shown at Hollywood Theater this week is an antique in its own right. It is in dreadful condition – a gazillion scratches, enough to unleash every one of Paul Sher’s inner demons – but probably cheap to rent and thus affordable to the HT.
What can you say about this film that hasn’t already been said better? From today’s vantage, the film plays about 86% sublime and the rest, about 14%, ridiculous. Never in a feature film has there been a more glorious a convergence of music, song, dance, cinematography and story line. In all these respects the film is as magical today as it was 42 years ago. But then there’s the rest. The corny, unsophisticated, unhip, unbelievable manner in which everybody talks and acts much of the time when they’re not singing and dancing. You want to bury your head in embarrassment watching these urban gang kids behaving like dorks from…really from nowhere in contemporary America. There is an innocence of style, if not of substance, that left us long ago. Kids don’t act like kids anymore.
The only characters whose lines and actions might hold up unaltered today are Doc (Ned Glass), the sad, worn down, but still soulful proprietor of the drugstore where the Jets gang hang out; the nasty, bigoted police Lt. Schrank (Simon Oakland); Ice (Tucker Smith), the rangy and sinister number two Jet; and Anita (Rita Moreno), Maria’s friend and Berdardo’s girl. Bernardo (George Chakiris), leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, isn’t too bad either, except that Chakiris’s makeup is as thick as his body is wide. But principal roles of Tony (Richard Beymer), Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Maria (Natalie Wood), and most of the gang members, are just too cute for words, too sweet, too lacking an edge, in their casual conversational scenes. Should this work be remade today? Could it be? Innocent young love still blooms in the barrios of New York City. It always will. If you don’t think so, check out the new film, Raising Victor Vargas. But if the 14% here that’s so ridiculous were remedied, what would be the cost to the sublime 86%. You can’t update without replacing the Polish and Italian kids with blacks. So how do Bernstein and Sondheim meet Rap? Maybe it is better to consider WSS as unalterable, a stylized modernist period piece of exceptional grace and beauty. (Seen again in 2003) Grade: A-
Add on WSS: It’s sad to see that nothing was done to credit the vocalists: Marni Nixon for Miss Wood (Nixon also sang Audrey Hepburn’s role in the 1964 musical, My Fair Lady), Jimmy Bryant for Beymer, and Betty Wand, who provided “enhanced” vocals for Rita Moreno’s singing.
WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (Lasse Hallstrom, US, 1993) Johnny Depp is the oldest child of a poor, fatherless rural Iowa family, who consoles his super-obese mother and protects his brain damaged brother (an amazing turn by a young Leonardo DeCaprio), and has little life of his own. Grade: B+
WHEN NIGHT IS FALLING (Patricia Rozema, Canada, 1995). Camille (Pascale Bussieres), a professor of mythology in Toronto, is torn between her love of a man, a theologian, and her attraction to a daring woman trapeze artist. Bussieres has an unforgettable face that commands the screen whenever she is present. There are frank love scenes between the women. Grade: B+
WHERE IS MY FRIEND’S HOUSE? (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1987) A young boy mistakenly takes home his friend’s school workbook. He knows the friend faces expulsion if he doesn’t comelete his homework that night. So the first boy sets about walking to another village to return the workbook. He has many adventures as he becomes lost. Out of the details of what critic Stanley Kauffmann calls the “dailiness of life” Kiarostami fashions a suspenseful tale that fascinates, touching the child within us at moments of uncertainty early in our lives. (In Farsi) (Seen in 1995) Grade: B+
WILD AT HEART (David Lynch, US, 1990). Bad witch, good witch, and the yellow brick road are evoked to let us know that this is a magical fable, and it is, a fairy tale love story of two low lifes in post-Modern America. Nicholas Cage is Sailor, who is in love with Lulu (Laura Dern), whom Sailor calls Peanut. After serving time for killing a man who attacked him (we get to witness this event), Sailor reunites with Lulu, but he fears that there's a contract out on his life, because he knows who killed Lulu's father (we also get to witness his fiery death, repeatedly). So they go on the lam, heading southwest toward Texas. Diane Ladd, who is Ms. Dern's real mother, plays Lulu's mother to perfection as a rageful, drunken, two-timing floosey. Willem Dafoe is outrageously good as a greasy, ugly villain, energized by evil. (Why didn't he put just a bit of this energy into his deadened role as Caravaggio in The English Patient ?) Some fine character actors are wasted in bit parts, like Harry Dean Stanton and Pruitt Taylor Vince. And Issabella Rossellini wafts through the film in her stock enigmatic Lynch role. But it is the relationship between Sailor and Lulu that makes this film, and it is riveting and lively. The lovemaking scenes between Cage and Dern, and their raunchy pillow talk, make this one of the sexiest American movies ever. (Some of the love scenes are filmed bright and unfocused, giving them a "steamy" look.) Dern is especially convincing in everything she does here. Lynch has her speak the lines that define this film, and that seem to define his film vision more generally: that people are "...wild at heart and weird on top." I think he means the American people in particular. Wim Wenders's film, Paris, Texas, showed rural lower class love gone sour. Wild at Heart shows how such love gets up to speed in the first place when people are young and full of hope. (What are the chances that this romance can last? 1 in 500?) Received best film honors at Cannes. Grade: A
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1964). Surreal existential film in which a man visiting a remote place, an outsider, becomes trapped in the house of a lonely woman, a house surrounded by tall sand dunes making escape impossible without assistance from high ground. And the villagers are in no mood to be helpful. The film can be viewed as a metaphor for existence (like Sartre’s No Exit) or, more humorously, as a meditation on the conjugal state. It is a most unusual and unforgettable film, partly because of the bleak, black and white visuals, and partly because the entrapment of this man is so well conveyed. (Seen in 1997) (In Japanese) Grade: A