One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposÃ©s of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.
This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, SalÃ², Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.Continue Reading
Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Buckwheat from Our Gang wash the back of his holiness the Pope with a scrub brush in a stand-alone bathtub in the middle of the woods? Has the idea of witnessing Moe, Curly and Larry shoot a flock of diseased goats ever cross your mind? Or perhaps, getting a bird’s eye view of several nuns free falling through the atmosphere during an impromptu skydiving trip? If so, Mister Lonely is the film for you.
Mister Lonely is the story of a shy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) living and dancing his way through the streets of Paris. While performing at a retirement home, Michael comes into contact with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have lunch at which point Marilyn invites Michael to accompany her to a commune inhabited by celebrity impersonators located in the Highlands of Scotland. At first, Michael is apprehensive. But the beautiful and very uncanny Monroe impersonator convinces him to join her. Michael gathers his things in a scene, which in my opinion, is the embodiment of the entire film. Never has a moment in a film where a character interacts with furniture ever make me feel the way in which this particular (and peculiar) scene did.Continue Reading
Charlie Wilson’s War
A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.
Glengarry Glen Ross
David Mamet’s pitch dark morality play about capitalism as a nihilistic force for poisoning the human spirit was turned into a film in 1992 with an all star cast featuring Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin. All of them play miserable salesmen both complicit and bitterly at odds with having their sense of identity wrapped up in their weekly sales figures. The actors work the odd time signatures of Mamet’s trademark dialogue and the lines are delivered with a seething intensity that leaves you a little shaken.
Catch Me if You Can
Catch Me if You Can is the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio) who, by the tender age of seventeen, cut over $2.5 million dollars worth of fraudulent checks and was one of the FBI’s most wanted. Frank travels the globe, taking on such identities as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and an attorney. Always on his tail is fraud expert Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) from the Bureau.
Although a story of a con man on the run from the law, the way this story is told, it comes across more like a fairy tale about the impetuousness of youth. Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in maintaining this tone throughout, telling a “crime story” that is amazingly playful. John Williams’ hip retro score and the great momentum of Michael Kahn’s editing add to this happy-go-lucky sort of attitude. The vibrant color palette, fantastic sixties costume and production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, all contribute to make up this wonderful “true story of a real fake.”Continue Reading
From the surreal opening frames of “Max” (Jeff Bridges) wandering vacantly through a cornfield, that gives way to an inferno filled with plane wreckage, you know you’re in for a unique cinematic experience. The actor aptly described the film’s opening as if director “Peter (Weir) laced the popcorn with acid.”
Fearless is a tale of a San Francisco architect (Bridges) who is one of the only survivors of a downed flight headed for Houston. He loses his best friend and business partner and comes out of the flames feeling invincible. He is deemed the “good Samaritan” by the media, after helping lead people to safety. But he returns home to find himself emotionally isolated from his family. The only comfort he can find coming from helping a suicidal woman (Perez), after her baby perished in the wreck.Continue Reading
A vast industrial landscape, two towering smoke stacks, a rundown factory building, and a coal-covered ground as far as the eye can see. Somewhere in the distance a small white dot slowly moves over the black and gray landscape. This tiny dot is our main character, Wanda (Barbara Loden), attempting to find her way through the barren wasteland that has become her life.
Wanda is a meditative American Road Movie about a poor housewife who begins to feel lost and empty with the state of her life. After being accused by her husband of abandoning him and their children at a divorce hearing, Wanda aimlessly begins to drift from her home and take to the road. Unsure of her purpose and direction, Wanda finds herself clinging to another lost soul she meets on her journey, the short tempered small-time crook Norman (Michael Higgins). Wanda and Norman drift through highways and towns, committing petty crimes and robberies that eventually lead to tragic ends.Continue Reading
Family films are precious commodities. Slapstick plus smart humor have been winning combinations for many years now while the sentimental tearjerkers have taken a back seat. Lately, however there have been a few jewels emerging that are not only appropriate for young audiences but will entrance their parents as well. August Rush is a lovely music filled Orphan Annie/Oliver tale with sincere performances, intelligent, economical writing, a wonderful score and charming cinematography.
Two young and talented strangers meet and fall in love under a full moon in New York but are separated by fate and an overly controlling father the very next day. We learn that the young lady, an accomplished cellist named Lyla Novecek has become pregnant and that her star crossed lover, Louis Connelly, waits every night under the Washington Arch. After Lyla has an accident around her due date her father takes the opportunity to take the healthy newborn boy and put him up for adoption while telling Lyla that he didn't survive. Twelve years later we see the young and vibrant rock musician, Louis, has become a suit wearing businessman still stifling under a broken heart and broken dreams while Lyla is quietly teaching music without playing it herself.Continue Reading
A Room With a View
There has never been a more perfect film than Merchant Ivory's lush and lavish, A Room with a View. Visually it offers more than a simple view; instead there is a grandiose explosion of natural and cultural beauty traveling from the historical vistas of Florence to the opulence of the English countryside. Adapted with wit and wisdom from E.M. Forster's novel of the same name, A Room with a View explores the mingling of Britain's emerging middle class with the slowly dying aristocracy during the picturesque Edwardian Age. Similar in theme, adaptation and age to the tragically redeeming Howard's End, View tenders a gentler more fairy tale touch.
Filled with immortal performances by actors who would soon dominate the cast of truly great films for the next twenty years and counting, we are treated to study after study of the pomposity and passion in human nature. Romance, humor and a sensitivity to our frailties permeate every frame. Whether it is a bloody crime of passion between unknown but unforgettable Italians in the square, the giggling girlish adventures of two aged maidens in a foreign city, a kiss among poppies (that might just be the best kiss in cinematic history) or the heartbreaking politeness of a rejected suitor in a drawing room each moment is filled with timeless, laughable, lovable humanity.Continue Reading