William Richert’s first feature was every young filmmaker’s dream. He was to direct Winter Kills, a big budget thriller based on a novel from best-selling author Richard Condon, starring Hollywood stars Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Eli Wallach, and Anthony Perkins as well as international luminaries Toshiro Mifune and Tomas Milian. He assembled a crew of professionals including Vilmos Szigmond, the cinematographer of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Robert Boyle, the production designer on three Hitchcock films. And he started dating the film’s female lead, model Belinda Bauer. On its release Winter Kills received rave reviews from The New York Times and The New Yorker, yet after a week it was pulled from theaters. What sinister force didn’t want the public to see it?
In the film Bridges plays the only scion of a wealthy and well-connected family with an enduring involvement in politics. 19 years ago his brother was the President of the United States, until he was shot by an unknown sniper. Now, the location of the murder weapon is uncovered and Bridges must use the money and power that he has distanced himself from. Huston plays his eccentric, megalomaniac father and Perkins is the enigmatic “man behind the curtain” who might be the only one who knows the truth. The pace of Winter Kills is unrelenting, yielding more secrets and false leads with every twist, then swiftly doubling back and denying them. In its desire to reconcile the characters’ contradictory testimonies, the film quickly becomes a black comedy satirizing the ineffectual inquiry into the JFK assassination and its consequent conspiracy theories, but the rising body count and spasms of sudden violence keep Winter Kills a riveting thriller as well.Continue Reading
La Commune (Paris, 1871)
If there’s one thing the French government doesn’t want people to know about, it’s that for two months Paris was a Socialist state ruled independently from the rest of France. Napoleon III’s catastrophic decision in 1870 to declare war on Prussia for amorphous reasons of power and prestige precipitated France’s ruinous capitulation to the Prussian army, ultimately concluding in a Prussian assault on the capitol. During the siege, working class Parisians suffered the most, falling into destitution as prices of essential goods rose, and becoming increasingly resentful of the seemingly immune bourgeoisie. The government moved to Versailles during the war and, after Napoleon III died in battle, set up a new conservative Republic there. At the end of the siege, the army tried to re-appropriate cannons originally left behind to protect the city from the invading Prussians, which Versailles now worried would fall into the control of anarchist elements of the restless populace. However, Parisians protested the removal of the cannons because they had been paid for with public funds, and the listless soldiers, identifying more with the howling mob than with their well-bred officers, fraternized with the crowd and refused to take the cannon. Revolutionary spirit inflamed the city and La Commune was born. Without outside assistance, regular Parisians set up elections, formed a government with executive and legislative branches, and outfitted a defensive army. The citizens of the Commune created worker owned co-operatives, passed a law separating church and state, and abolished religious schools in favor of secular state education. In two months it was gone.
Director Peter Watkins takes five hours and forty-five minutes to narrate not only the rise and fall of the Commune, but also the inspiration and contradiction at the core of all its ideological rhetoric. Shot on black and white 16mm film in a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris, Watkins recruited non-professional actors to play characters that they could politically sympathize with and then asked them to research the period in detail. He also shot the scenes in chronological order for the benefit of the actors, an almost complete rarity in filmmaking. As a result, the line is blurred between fiction and documentary, and historical re-enactment is enriched by real people devoting themselves to the period doppelgängers they have created. The film is meticulously careful to be historically accurate, portraying without hesitation the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the Commune, as well as their fair-minded and progressive principles. There is, however, one intentional anachronism: television. Commune TV is the television of “la peuple” and Versailles TV is the propagandist station of the establishment. The government station with its preening, self-serious anchors and cliché theme music intros is far and away the highlight of the film.Continue Reading
After the current vogue for having famous people play eminent people has lost its cachet among Oscar voters, what roles will we remember the nominees for? From 1929 to1942, six of the thirteen Academy Awards for Best Actor were awarded to actors playing real historical personages, from Henry VIII to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” songwriter George M. Cohan. Occasionally flaring up once every decade, the trend of remunerating actors for successful impersonations had almost gone into remission until recently. In 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006 the statue was awarded for the most uncanny imitation of a deceased celebrity. In the Best Actress category the statistics are even more consistent; during the 2000s only two of the past awards have gone to actresses playing fictional characters. This year celebrated stage actor Frank Langella is nominated for portraying Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon. Considering Howard is the first filmmaker to perfect a “direct-by-numbers” technique, the likelihood of the red-headed former star of Happy Days walking away with a little gold man looks likely.
Before Langella was Tricky Dick, he sailed the West Indies as the ruthless pirate Dawg Brown in the 1995 action swashbuckler Cutthroat Island. Dawg’s corsair father leaves Dawg and his brothers a massive hidden treasure as their patrimony, but divides the map to the loot amongst his sons to insure the fair division of the horde. But avaricious Dawg seeks to deprive his brothers of their inheritance and he urges his brother Harry to hand over his map or walk the plank. Harry dies, but not before passing on his map (hidden in a brainy location) to his voluptuous daughter Morgan Adams (Geena Davis). Morgan takes her father’s place as captain of his galleon, although most of the crew is skeptical of her competence. To gain their trust she promises them an equal share of the treasure. Unfortunately, Morgan’s section of the map is in Latin, forcing her to go ashore in Jamaica where she is a wanted woman. On land she finds a dashing con artist (Matthew Modine) who can read the map, but might also steal her heart. Together they try to escape the forces of Dawg and the larcenous Royal Navy conspiring against them to steal their treasure.Continue Reading
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
We’ll never know for sure, but audiences may have fared better last year if Harrison Ford had directed the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Why not have let Mark Hammil try his hand at helming The Phantom Menace? Most fourth installments have little cinematic merit and do dismally at the box-office (Alien Resurrection, Batman and Robin, if you needed more examples.) So, if you’re a studio executive and you’ve still got three kids from two different marriages to put through college, what can you possibly do to make your third sequel work? Have a completely inexperienced lead actor from the franchise direct it, which is what happened when Leonard Nimoy assumed directorial duties for the second time on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, his first proverbial rodeo being Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. And here’s why Leonard could do what Steven, George, Jean-Pierre, and Joel could not: actors who are committed to the franchise have spent years reading scripts by other writers thinking, “If I was writing this, this would be so much better.” They’ve got a cache of ideas to benefit the series, rather than an interloping director approaching the project as an opportunity to put his mark on the franchise. The Voyage Home was the second highest grossing film of the series and a popular film with fans of the TV show and Star Trek neophytes alike.
The film documents a particularly bad day in the history of the Federation. Not only is the entire crew of the Enterprise on trial for disobeying orders and various assorted hijinks (plot remnants from the second and third films), the survival of Earth is threatened by a highly destructive alien probe that only speaks one language: humpback whale. Unfortunately, Earth’s largest mammals became extinct at the end of the 21st century. It looks like the probe’s unintentional annihilation of the planet is imminent, that is until Spock gets a wacky idea to time travel back in time to the 1980s and abduct some Earth whales to bring back to the future so they can tell the probe what it can do with itself, in whale song. The highly likeable middle section of the film takes place in modern day San Francisco and employs the person-from-the-future-out-of-water scenario to great comedic effect. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s talent for pitch-perfect timing and deadpan delivery is a welcome relief from the depressing eeriness of The Search for Spock. Dr. “Bones” McCoy is back to his sassy self after having spent the entirety of the previous film going crazy sharing his brain with Spock’s immortal soul and the writers allow themselves some political commentary by introducing some Cold War humor via Commander Pavel Chekov’s character. The ensemble’s ease with the material and their characters was undoubtedly facilitated by being directed by one of their own, and the atmosphere of relaxed bonhomie is reminiscent of the quality that made the Rat Pack so popular, but without the misogyny and the alcoholism. If you like laughs, good times, or both, Star Trek IV is a journey to the outer reaches of fun at warp speed.Continue Reading
A few years ago a film premiered at Sundance starring several major blockbuster stars, shot by a couple of music video directors, and produced by a small, but successful Hollywood production company. Because of an aggressive marketing campaign and a highly publicized distribution deal, the film won several Academy Awards and made more than $100 million. Regardless of its high star wattage, its directors’ wealth of commercial experience, and Hollywood development credentials, it was still termed an “independent film.” 11 years previous, for 1/50th of its modern counterpart’s budget, Party Girl was made in New York by a first time filmmaker, starring an actress who, except for a notable supporting turn in a Richard Linklater comedy, had had only small character parts in independent films. Party Girl was accepted into Sundance that year and garnered only a limited theatrical run. But over the years through word of mouth, it has become a beloved cult hit, quoted ad nauseam by its devotees, whose ranks multiply yearly.
The plot seems at first utterly conventional, straying between nominally feminist chick flick to slacker comedy. Downtown It girl Mary (Parker Posey) is unemployed, on the verge of eviction, and “fabulous,” which in movie parlance means she wears quirky outfits and uses her acerbic wit against her friends. When she gets arrested for turning her apartment into a makeshift nightclub, Mary is bailed out by her godmother, Judy, a librarian. In order to pay Judy back and to prove herself to as capable and trustworthy, Mary becomes a clerk at Judy’s library. Gaining her good opinion is complicated by Judy’s constant panting that she can’t trust Mary because she reminds her so much of her mother, an irrational grousing that is the movie’s only major flaw. Mary’s mother may have been quite the party-goer, but many young women are, and one can’t hold young people accountable for doing the same things that their parents did when they were the same age. I would be extremely frustrated if my grandparents always said, “Gillian, you’re such a bleeding heart liberal, just like your mother was when she was your age. I won’t be surprised if you end up getting divorced, too.”Continue Reading
What will the Europe of the future look like? In the opinion of the great Dane Lars von Trier Europe will be polluted, plagued, and riddled with an existential numbness preventing connection of any kind between its inhabitants. Life for Europeans will vacillate between madness and extremism and boredom and anonymity. Von Trier’s prognostications are manifested in his Europa trilogy: The Element of Crime (1984) set in the future, Epidemic (1987) set in the present, and Europa (1991) set in the fall of 1945 after the German surrender to the Allied forces. In Europa, von Trier extrapolates his fears for the future of Europe from its past, finding parallels in the alienation and chaos of post-war Germany replicated in the angst of modern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western Europe was facing the same problem of the Allies after WWII: now that you’ve won, how do you turn the enemy you vilified into a trustworthy ally?
Von Trier describes the theme of the Europa trilogy as “the story of an idealist who tries to save people, but it all goes wrong.” Element of Crime features a cop intent on proving the viability of the controversial, psychologically debilitating crime-solving techniques of his mentor; in Epidemic a director (played by von Trier) wants to bring to life the story of a doctor (also played by von Trier) intent on stopping a deadly plague who ultimately turns out to be the carrier of the disease. Europa is less conceptual and is in fact the most conventional of any of von Trier’s films. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American of German descent who travels to Germany just after the war’s end with the vague goal of showing kindness to humanity. Kessler soon gets a job as a sleeping car conductor with the help of his fellow conductor uncle, so apparently showing kindness includes taking a job that could have been filled by a starving German. Kessler is soon invited to dinner at the house of Herr Hartman, the former Nazi collaborator who owns the Zentropa rail company where Kessler is employed. Kessler soon falls for Hartmann’s daughter, Katie (Barbara Sukowa), a sexpot who isn’t hesitant to admit that she was also once a collaborator. Kessler’s desire to save Katie from her past pulls him into a milieu of intrigue and betrayal that pose the ultimate challenge to Kessler’s altruistic weltanschaung. In plot, Europa is a Nazi spy thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Hitchcock’s Notorious, but because of a strong technical choice, von Trier gives it a new, singularly postmodern collage aesthetic.Continue Reading
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 exposes 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, Salo, 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
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.Continue Reading
There are some who would say that Bloodsport was the film Ingmar Bergman intended to make when he directed Wild Strawberries. And to be perfectly serious Bloodsport is the better film.
When Frank Dux’s childhood friend and the son of his martial arts mentor is killed in a Kumite, a bloody underground mixed martial arts championship, Dux (Jean-Claude van Damme) goes AWOL from his army post to travel to Hong Kong to compete in the next Kumite and avenge his fallen friend’s honor. Hot on his trail, two military agents (one played by Forest Whitaker) follow him to protect the army’s investment in Dux’s amazing martial arts talents. With the help of a wrestler with a huge forehead (Donald Gibb from Revenge of the Nerds) also competing in the tournament and a plucky and attractive female journalist, Dux enters the brutal Kumite and displays his excellent fighting skills. But can he beat the man-killing, pec-flexing Chong Li or will he end up like his boyhood buddy?Continue Reading