On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
Important in the evolution (or devolution) of Sylvester Stallone is Nighthawks. From ‘81, it falls in that post-Rocky burst when Sly was still considered a legitimate actor. Though Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T or Rocky II didn’t threaten Hoffman or De Niro’s place as America’s top actor-laureates, Sly hadn’t yet become the steroidy, sequely crap machine he would come to be known as (of course with some quality films like Rocky III, First Blood to come and later Cop Land, but with mostly junk between). Today Nighthawks feels like a gritty '70s cop film. (It was originally developed to be French Connection 3.) It’s taut, strong but not overly muscular, and moves at a fast pace that you don’t notice till it’s over. Frankly, one of the most interesting aspects here is that Stallone in Serpico mode (bearded with longish hair) often wears glasses (big, clear disco-era glasses), which is something rarely seen in an action hero and symbolizes how the film was a leftover from the more character-driven film days (the glorious '70s) before guys like Schwarzenegger (and Sly) made them into total cartoons. Sly’s cop even pines for his ex-wife (played by TV’s Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner). The guy is vulnerable, not always successful and flawed. Nighthawks represents the end of an era, not just for Stallone but for the realistic action hero.
Actor Rutger Hauer made a name for himself on the international circuit from his work with director Paul Verhoeven in Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Spetters. Nighthawks would be his first American film, though not his first English language one. (Earlier he had appeared in the British flick The Wilby Conspiracy.) Word from the set is that he and Stallone clashed. (More reason to love him!) Here the Dutchman plays a Euro terrorist known as Wulfgar who, after wearing out his welcome abroad, heads for the States. Meanwhile, New York street detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to audiences outside of black '70s cinema, where he was already a superstar leading man) are being transferred from their play-by-their-own-rules undercover decoy work to a terrorist unit, which is already on the lookout for Wulfgar. Knowing he’s a sucker for foxy dancing queens, in a subtly intense scene, the eagle-eyed Deke manages to spot Wulfgar through the crowd at a discotheque, despite him getting face-changing plastic surgery, which leads to an exciting Friedkin-esque foot chase through lower Manhattan. Wulfgar manages to finally escape with a nasty knife slash to Fox’s face, making things personal now for Deke. And the cock-blocking Deke pulled makes things equally personal for Wulfgar. The one-upmanship eventually leads to an exciting highjacking showdown on the Roosevelt Island Tram and a crazy cross-dressing twist ending.Continue Reading
Daisies begins and ends with stock footage of war and industry. Between these two bookends two charmingly bratty young women (both named Marie) decide that because the world is bad that they will be too. They spend a lot of their time engaged in elaborate pranks often involving getting free meals from old men and creative slapstick destruction involving fire, scissors and lots of food.
The cinematography of Jaroslav Kucera is amazingly beautiful and innovative. His jarring use of colors, beautiful compositions and dreamy visual effects contribute to a carnivalesque mood that is both heavily psychedelic very New Wave. The distorted, strange sounds, the amazing sets and the wonderful costumes all reinforce Chytilová's wonderful vision.Continue Reading
The Films of Michael Haneke (Boxset)
Michael Haneke is one of the most innovative and exciting filmmakers currently working. His films can be extremely shocking and, at times, graphically violent. But unlike most thriller directors, Haneke chooses to downplay his violence. Haneke prefers a cold austerity to the melodramatic hysterics that characterize modern thrillers. His characters are cold and unfeeling, resulting in an atmosphere of psychological turmoil, emotional paralysis, and impending doom. His paradoxical approach to violence instills an unnerving tension within any well-balanced viewer, and this tension quickly turns into utter terror. Haneke thwarts his viewers of their moment of cathartic release: that tantalizing moment in which viewer and filmmaker can share a moralizing sigh of relief and say, “Ah, wasn’t that horrible?” No one is bailed out of a Haneke film; instead, the viewer must deal with and eventually accept the bleak situation that confronts him.
Haneke’s unapologetic approach to cinema expects more from its audience than your normal pure entertainment thriller or horror film. When watching Haneke’s films, despite the discomfort we feel, we must never alienate ourselves from the violent acts depicted on screen (and in the specific case of Funny Games, we are even encouraged to play along). His films always provoke social thought and personal introspection. Ultimately, Haneke wants his viewers to ask more questions, and to view this tiny world and all its complexities with a more critical eye. Oh, and yes, they are quite riveting to watch as well…Continue Reading
The Conformist (Il Conformista)
I've never read the novel "The Conformist" by Alberto Moravia, but I can bet that Bernardo Bertolucci's film Il Conformista is a faithful adaptation of the story. The film explores a truly profound relationship between the individual and societal ideals, dealing with Fascist Italy in both an intellectual and artistic sense.
I'd have to say, the best way to watch this film is with your own company or maybe another if you are ready to embark on a heavy, heavy journey. The film is a mind trip - allowing the viewer to question the individual's values, society, civil responsibility, and dependence.Yet it doesn't stop itself there - the photography by Vittorio Storaro is breathtaking and true to its story. The style is so noteworthy that the film is praised in Visions of Light, a documentary honoring cinematographers as artists, and for good reason. Each moment is dedicated to the sorrow of an Italian under governmental pressures.The rich colors, camera angles, and camera movement accentuate Italian expressionism in every sense.Continue Reading
Tout Va Bien
French founders of the politically active filmmaking Dziga Vertov Group, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin, made Tout Va Bien in1972, their 2nd to last collaboration together.
This film certainly falls far from the category of escapism. You, the viewer, are going to have to examine not only the constructs of filmmaking itself, but also the economy of contemporary society and the political ideologies behind it. Sound like a handful? You can be assured that every movement within the frame, every insert, every cut, is deliberate and Brechtian in every formal quality. The staging shows people moving from one room to another through a cross-section of the building, emphasizing the strike at a sausage factory that is observed by an American reporter (Jane Fonda) and her husband, a has-been, French New Wave film director (Yves Montand).Continue Reading
Cleo From 5 to 7
What defines the feminine experience? What does it mean to live, breathe, and die as a woman? Agnes Varda questions mortality through the eyes of a beautiful young woman on the edge of success in 1960's Paris. Cleo has been to the doctor and is waiting for the diagnosis, though she's convinced it's cancer. We follow her in real time for two hours and stand as witness to the fullness and frivolousness of a life coming to terms with itself.
Death and despair compel the coquettish Cleo into existential searching meeting with friends, lovers and strangers and we see her precise steps into and out of an other's preconceived perception. Coy lover, whimpering child, precocious beauty, passionate collaborator, old friend and lovely stranger: Cleo is all of these but then so much more as you realize she is fast forwarding the journey to find herself the anchor that she desperately needs to face her death and to fight for life.Continue Reading
Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Dense tropical jungle, violent river rapids, hostile natives, hundreds of screaming monkeys, and one man's decent into megalomania and madness. Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is one of Herzog's most hallucinatory and disturbing films. Filmed in the remote Peruvian rainforest Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog's first collaboration with the notoriously volatile actor Klaus Kinski.
With Kinski, Herzog created his greatest and most anarchic rebel of them all. Aguirre is a Spanish Conquistador who travels down the Amazon River in search of the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Over the course of the film, Aguirre assumes command of the expedition by murdering and manipulating his fellow conquistadors. As they drift further and further down the river, Aguirre descends further into madness eventually becoming obsessed with power and claiming himself the 'Wrath of God'. It's Aguirre's descent into madness and megalomania that propels his obsessions with power and domination to reaching god-like illusion.Continue Reading
Signs of Life
Signs of Life is Werner Herzog’s first feature, and it is also my personal favorite out of all his films. In Signs of Life Herzog introduces many of the themes and techniques he would elaborate upon with each successive film. His cast of rebellious misfit characters, the remote exotic locations, and his hauntingly poetic images are all introduced and fully utilized in this film.
Signs of Life is the story of a soldier who is wounded during a war and reassigned to a remote Greek island with his wife and two fellow soldiers. Their task is to guard a useless munitions dump in a ruined fortress located next to the harbor in a small village. In an attempt to escape his feelings of entrapment, Stroszek goes out on a patrol of the bordering hills where he is gripped by madness at the site of something he sees over the horizon. This encounter drives Stroszek to madness propelling him to lock himself away in the fortress and declare war on both man and nature.Continue Reading
Even Dwarfs Started Small
There are some films that are so disturbing and bizarre that you can’t rationally explain them, you just have to experience it for yourself. Even Dwarfs Started Small is precisely one of those films. But seeing I love this film so much I’m going to try to describe it to the best of my ability.
Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog’s second feature film, is about a group of dwarfs confined to an isolated institution of sorts. At the film’s start, the dwarfs find themselves left unattended at the institution they are confined to. The dwarfs feel unhappy and trapped in their surroundings and decide to rebel against their authorities. Over the course of the film, the dwarfs destroy anything they can get their hands on at the institution. The rebellion escalates to absurd and disturbing levels as the film approaches its bizarre and hysterical conclusion.Continue Reading