There are multiple attitudes through which one can examine the film Radio On. It’s another example of the phenomenon of a film critic becoming a director. Christopher Petit was the editor for the film section of Time Out London from 1973 to 1978, and though he never achieved the notoriety of the Nouvelle Vague directors who once wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, his film career has turned out far better then Roger Ebert (who penned the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or Susan Sontag (who lost some of her critical credibility for the ill received Duet for Cannibals). Radio On is also a unique British-German coproduction, written and directed by an Englishman, but produced and shot by two Germans, Wim Wenders and Wenders’ ubiquitous cameraman Martin SchÃ¤ffer. The art direction of the film is best compared to David Bowie’s album cover for Low, no coincidence considering Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden” is the song that starts the film. Actually, Radio On might one day be added to the list of films that will be better remembered for their soundtrack’s significance than the film’s cinematic merit. The film makes prominent use of hipster favorites like Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, and Devo, and includes a cameo from Sting in one of his first roles. Now Sting is not a hipster favorite, and probably never will be after boasting of his tantric exploits to multiple media outlets while promoting his adult contemporary hit “Desert Rose” in a slick Jaguar commercial. That doesn’t mean that we should forget Sting is a gifted actor, his performance in Brimstone & Treacle being a particular favorite.
It’s perfunctory to synopsize the plot in any film review, but here it seems somewhat irrelevant. A factory DJ drives to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, but the plot is only a pretext for long periods of listening to the radio broadcasting the hip music and chaotic news reports of Northern Ireland bloodshed and conservative outrage that prevailed in Thatcherite England, as well as to look out the window at the excellently photographed landscapes. Once the DJ arrives in Bristol he becomes distracted by a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) looking for her five-year-old daughter, Alice. This is a clumsy attempt by Wenders to expand the narrative of one of his own characters from his 1974 film Alice in the Cities, where Kreuzer plays a woman who abandons her daughter nine-year-old daughter of the same name. Wenders tries to create an impromptu prequel and belatedly illuminate the viewers of his previous film that Alice’s mother had once traveled to England to search for the child she would subsequently abandon. Considering Radio On is so sensitive to the politics and music of the decade it occupies, it was unwise of Wenders to ignore the glaring asynchronicity of Alice being five in 1980 and nine in 1974.Continue Reading
Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).Continue Reading
Alejandro Jodorowsky. The name is familiar among cult fanatics, and to some, is one that requires forgiving. Film critics over the years have regarded him as a has-been for the most part, looking only to his most popular works, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as his redeeming accomplishments. His filmography, while considerably short, is oddly consistent in a strange way. Fando and Lis is fairly well liked, and for a surrealist working very little well-past middle age, having at least a few adored films is something to be proud of. Besides Tusk and Rainbow Thief (both regarded as disasters), Santa Sangre remained his most inaccessible film; I'm sure diehard fans remember their efforts to hunt down bootlegs and imports of these works. For the first time in a very long time, Santa Sangre has been given a formal U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray, though it was a bit of a letdown to hear that the rumor of a Criterion release was untrue.
The movie has an enthralling background and was made almost two decades after Holy Mountain. It is thought to be his one and only horror film and was produced by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento. I should add, with no disrespect to Argento fans, that the imagery and use of color in this film far surpasses any Italian horror film to date. The going rumor is that Jodorowsky was inspired to direct the film after meeting a serial killer in real life. So, mixing that with the lack of limitations from an uptight producer, Jodorowsky created a movie that was truly more unique than his others, which also stars his sons and shares similarities with what are thought to be his best works.Continue Reading
Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.Continue Reading
Sid and Nancy
Like most bios of contemporary controversial figures, Sid and Nancy has its naysayers. Some music historians and punk aficionados have claimed that the film misrepresents some of its real life characters and their time line. Those complaints may be true. But no one has a qualm with the two stunning lead performances by Chloe Webb as the beyond annoying groupie, Nancy, and Gary Oldman as the drugged out Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious (actually just window dressing for the group, he had the look, but never played on the records). The two make for an insane couple; it's a deranged Romeo & Juliet, two lost souls in a sea of heroin and self-destruction. This is a love story, with some dark humor mixed in, like a gutter version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
Coming off his cult hit Repo Man director Alex Cox beautifully captures the ugliness of the late '70s/early '80s punk and drug culture in London and New York. The film opens with Sid being arrested for murdering Nancy at The Chelsea Hotel (in real life many believed that he was genuinely innocent, done in by lazy New York cops who didn't want to search out the real killer). The film goes back and traces the two meeting as the Sex Pistols were taking off in London, the cover boys for the fledgling punk music scene. Nancy was an American, a stripper and a hooker who chased rock stars and drugs. After being rejected by the other Pistols, she found a willing victim in the rather naive and dim Sid. In the film she gets him hooked on the needle and becomes the voice in his head (a kinda less charming and less intelligent Yoko Ono).Continue Reading
Sins of the Fleshapoids
For those of you who do not know of Mike and George Kuchar, I highly recommend the documentary It Came From Kuchar which gives a thrilling account of their lives as underground filmmakers and artists. For those of you who know about them and are unable to find their work, I suggest looking at the releasing company Other Cinema, and the DVD compilations, Experiments in Terror. The documentary highlights their works, but three films stand out: The Devil's Cleavage, Born of the Wind, and Sins of the Fleshapoids. I was beyond thrilled to discover that some of their films were available for purchase, even if it's a just a few. The Other Cinema release of Fleshapoids also includes The Craven Sluck, and The Secret of Wendel Samson. Shot with consumer grade film with a cast of the director's friends, Fleshapoids is an experience in underground cinema that is not to be missed.
The Kuchars were at the tender age of 23 when they made this film, with Mike behind the camera and George in a starring role. The music assemblage and narration is done by Bob Cowan, and George Kuchar co-wrote the script. It takes place a million years in the future, where humans have enslaved androids with shells of human flesh, using them to do menial tasks and obey their every command. The earth suffered a nuclear war, turning rivers to poison and causing the near-death of all living things. The quest for scientific and mechanical knowledge brought about great turmoil, and now humans only indulge in the fulfillment of the senses. Picture hippies who wear mardi gras beads and fake furs. Their lairs are filled with leopard print, jewels, and bountiful displays of food. They call on the fleshapoids for massages and the ability to have everything done for them.Continue Reading
Zack Carlson, co-author of the new book Destroy All Movies, opened a screening of this movie the other night with a little note on what the film meant to punk exposure in cinema. He made a good point when talking about the fact that "punks" were often presented in films only as a cue to something negative, or were placed in an environment in order to tell the audience that the story was now unfolding in a bad part of town. American movies before, and during, the '80s have always done this sort of thing, be it with bikers, blacks, or just about any group most audiences were unfamiliar with. Eventually, these groups were shown respect and understanding in cinema, and Suburbia marks a big part of that transformation for those in the punk scene, and really, for homeless teenagers and runaways.
Shortly after Spheeris directed Decline of Western Civilization, she decided to make this movie, which follows the everyday happenings of a group of punk runaways. Perhaps the most impressive part about the movie is the tension built between the kids and the people who live in the suburbs; there is something tasteful about presenting a presumed safe place, like a suburb, as a rotting warzone. Aside from its bittersweet and often hilarious story, Suburbia also has performances placed into the plot from The Vandals, D.I., and T.S.O.L.Continue Reading
The Brown Bunny
It could be a hearty bias that this is currently one of my favorite feature-length independent films. With that said, I understand that it is arguably very exclusive in terms of its audience. The Brown Bunny, written and directed by Vincent Gallo, might lend itself to being watched a few times before going down smoothly.
This film is the haunting story of Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo)—a professional motorcycle racer caught in his own literal nightmare. A repetitive adventure from New Hampshire to California coming across women that he attempts to let into his life with haste in order to mend his loneliness. But as he soon discovers, the ghost and memory of his only true love Daisy (Chloë Sevigny) is not only irreplaceable, but at the peak of his heart's desire and torment. Though Bud tries daily to fill the void of her existence, the film concludes with us being able to view the tragic end of their love and leaves a bold statement you won’t soon forget. A statement, etched in pulchritude, of a nature that only the human race suffers and yet is one of the eerie qualities that still manages to make it wonderful and unique.Continue Reading
The Delirious Fictions of William Klein - Eclipse from Criterion
One word.... FINALLY! Here's to hopes that Klein's name will extend out of the art house arena (and out of the jungle of highly sought out rare/bootleg versions of his films) ... thanks to Criterion's Eclipse imprint we can finally view three of the most aesthetically unique films of the 60s and 70s. An ex New Yorker that set up in Paris in the 40s, photographer William Klein embodied the bold and iconic early 20th century art styles, a visionary that sought to change how artists made art and how audiences viewed it. Edgy political and social commentary, haute-monde fashion experiments, a brilliant eye for composition and insightful narratives (and films that attracted the like of Serge Gainsbourg as one of his gonzo character creations!)...This is the psychedelic world of William Klein!...Continue Reading
The evolution of the road-rebel is brought to the screen in this directorial debut from Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, The Hurt Locker). Technically, this is the film that also introduces Willem Dafoe and has him as the star amongst an unusual '80s cast. I say unusual because you have a blend of actors who've made a decent name for themselves by '82 and ones who definitely show promise in the film, and yet this was their only role. Some were from Georgia, where the film is set, so I guess it makes sense that, for the film's simplicity, actors who normally would have been extras were used for key roles. What satisfied me the most about this film was (a) being aware that a woman directed/wrote it, and (b) it has a slow plot that forces you to stop looking for action and absorb all the messages and scarce dialogue within it.
Willem Dafoe plays Vance—a young biker with dirty fingernails and sensational tomcat essence who is adored by several passing ladies. We see him solo at first, marveling at the blacktop and defined only by it and his Harley. He and his buddies are on their way to Daytona and have stopped in a small Georgian town to repair one of their member's bikes. Without the harsh juxtaposition between this group and the locals, I don't think the film's message would be as clear. Both the townspeople and the bikers have a uniform—one pastels and the other leather. Seeing the differences between the two made me expect a war - which eventually does come in the film's climax, but not as I expected it. Many people found the film quite boring, but I'm sure they missed the subtleties that really make it a wonderful debut. For instance, Vance's status as the ringleader is evident in his manner and dress. He doesn’t exactly respect the locals, nor does he expect it from them. On the shoulder of his leather jacket are silver stars, like a general. The men he rides with are not exactly his friends, but rather people he met while in prison. The only thing they share is the love of a beautiful automobile. Without their quest to cause havoc on the way to the largest roadster gathering, all sense of brotherhood would be lost.Continue Reading