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Lektionen in Finsternis (1992)
Must be seen to be believed
Herzog has been making brilliant films since the late '60s, and frankly it's a bit of a pain in the arse keeping up with such a prolific director.
However, if you are a fan of his features and staggering documentary work, "Lessons of/in Darkness" demands your immediate attention.
The film is essentially a birds-eye view (often quite literally) of the plague of oil-choked death, fire, chaos and destruction that resulted from the brief but grotesquely internecine technological blitzkrieg of the Gulf War. Herzog, of course, takes particular interest in the seeming madness of the crews of mercernary American firefighters that are putting out the oil well fires across the deserts.
Various points on the conflict and its aftermath inevitably bubble to the surface, but arise without overt proselytizing. The images do the majority of the talking.
And they are eye-popping. Startling, frightening visuals that stand out even in the Herzog canon -- great vistas of blackness and glowing terror that would make any sci-fi director soylent green with envy. They are accompanied by little else: brief interstitials, an almost nonexistent, terribly serious Herzog narrative and a ghostly and elegiac score.
The short interviews with individuals who suffered are heartbreaking, perhaps all the more so due to their brevity.
Hateful, bitter, smarmy and mirthless exploration of human weakness and stupidity - pointless and depressing
Todd Solondz is a man with an axe to grind.
A very big axe.
Like his two previous features, "Storytelling" is a tale of suburban dysfunction. The movie is populated by unloveable losers and those that exploit them; the inhabitants are either the freakish and ignorant or the depraved and sadistic.
Unfortunately his latest film is billed as a comedy, but even an uncomfortable chuckle seems inappropriate in the depressing wake of this vituperative two-part 'expose' on the nature of truth.
And while that lofty theme is only intermittently and haphazardly explored, Solondz is unquestionably successful in what one imagines was a primary objective -- to shock the audience with an unabashed combination of sexual taboo and craven human instincts.
He's enlisted their services before to much better effect.
"Happiness," a painfully funny and scary film, offered a twisted sliver of hope that the family at its center would endure after it weathered a series of bizarre interpersonal storms and scandals. Conversely, "Storytelling" is little more than a loosely collected series of flimsy vignettes concerning a remarkably vain, cruel and flawed group of people that cannot possibly survive.
Or two such groups. Solondz reportedly took inspiration for his "uneven diptych" from the highly regarded films "Carnal Knowledge" and "Full Metal Jacket," ignoring the fact Kubrick's film didn't just haphazardly explore hypothetically related themes in two entirely unrelated narratives, but developed a series of characters and had them weather the stresses of battle later in the film.
In "Storytelling," the parts feel like rough drafts of two different, though no less repugnant movies, and at times it is painfully obvious that Solondz just didn't have enough material or inspiration to make one good movie. Unfortunately, the ugly subject matter is mirrored by the film's uninteresting camera work, about as solid and distinguished as a South American soap opera.
The performances -- from a cast of principals who have nearly all appeared in brilliant comedies -- range from overbearing to underwhelming, not surprising considering the bewildering and sometimes pointless lines they have been given to speak.
A dream sequence involving the burning and crucifixion of the mother and father and an appearance on Conan O'Brien is futile and embarrassing, and Solondz's examination of racial and sexual attitudes is almost as foolish as the offensive 1986 stinker "Soul Man."
Solondz spares no expense in relating his bleak belief that life trapped between the malls is a living hell for anyone with any sort of sensitivity. Only those who view life through the prism of soft-drink commercials (jocks, cheerleaders) and traditional values (soccer moms, dads at the barbecue grill, guidance counselors, hardworking housekeepers) stand any chance of happiness, but only because they are basically morons.
But Solondz's maverick status is sealed by what has become his unsettling calling-card: Even the have-nots -- the disabled, the poor, the shmoes, "queers" and failures -- are also despicable. In his films the outsiders don't deserve your pity. They are as self-serving and stupid as everyone else, and even murderous.
Solondz fleshes out the misanthropic round-up by making the few characters with real intelligence in the film -- a precocious younger brother, a Pulitzer Prize winning professor -- predators that use their wiles predominantly to humiliate and defile the weakest people around them.
Not surprisingly, there is a palpable sadness throughout the film, which is perhaps the most obvious emotion one would feel in the face of such freakish malevolence. And despite the unrelenting onslaught of depressing episodes, Solondz bilious wit is not entirely suppressed.
He is a preternaturally equal equal-opportunity offender. One of the films few pale joys is that the characters occasionally voice what amount to fierce critiques of the film's excesses virtually in real time.
And there are occasional moments when the satire is not entirely heavy-handed; American Beauty, a deserving target, has its most mawkish and sententious moment cleverly lampooned, and its title is bastardized for the "American Scooby" documentary that is the centerpiece of the second half. (In an extended, oblique pun, "American Movie"'s Mike Schank appears as the "Scooby" cameraman.)
Oddly, there is little that distinguishes the preachy humanism of the Oscar winning film from Solondz's strident, smarmy brand of outing social hypocrisy.
And whatever treatise on fact and fiction was intended, ostensibly how an artist's evocation of truth can become more powerful than the truth itself, is ultimately obscured by a very angry young man's swipe at all of God's creatures.
Solondz's nihilism and hatred may be explained by what he has suffered at the hands of the world around him. His films undoubtedly bear the stamp of pain experienced first hand. It's just that the average 16 year high-school art class junkie with a Pettibone fixation might be able to show you the same thing that "Storytelling" does with a few crude drawings. Life sucks.
Hakuchu no buraikan (1961)
Stylish, violent, first effort..
Fukasaku's first film. A minor but not insignificant work, strongly influenced by 40s American noir and gangster films.
The story, set in Japan, centers around a group of miscreants and career criminals, among them a spy, prostitute, and three Americans: a GI, a racketeer, and his wife. They are blackmailed into robbing a U.S. Army payroll by a ruthless Yakuza boss. The boss himself is a victim of double-dealing and treachery; virtually everyone involved has a hidden agenda.
The story is fairly compelling, exploring the vast intersection of racism, opportunism and sexual frustration that grew in what essentially amounted to U.S. occupation in the post-war period.
The film is well paced, shot in a crisp, alluring black and white with attention to period detail. The film is not unlike THE KILLING, from director Stanley Kubrick.
But unlike Kubrick's masterful tale of a heist, that despite meticulous planning, unravels through human folly, HIGH NOON FOR GANGSTERS has acting that is often downright miserable.
And the fault may lie with the ambition of the script. Japanese and American actors speak both English and Japanese (the film has Japanese subtitles as well) and while the Asian actors handle both languages with aplomb, the Americans can barely act in their own language.
Perhaps Fukasuku had an imprecise grasp of the English language at the time, or simply didn't envision the film playing to American audiences. Which is unfortunate, as the film's moral center is the complex character of Tom -- a violent, sexually voracious black GI who finds inner peace with a "half-breed" prostitute -- portrayed by an actor who lacks the resources to even play a part with no lines.
The resolution is violent and explosive, but mostly numbing. If Tom had been a little more believeable, the film would have had a sense of tension and pathos that would have elevated it (and the ending) to a much greater status; but Fukasaku's prodigious output that followed more than offered him the chance to improve upon his first effort.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Dated, tedious and mostly amateurish slasher flick with interesting touch or two..
How this one became a cult classic I'll never know. After years of hearing the hype, I was a little shocked when I saw it.
But not in the least bit scared. We'll cut Craven some slack as the movie was clearly done on the cheap, with minimal resources. Say, for example, decent actors.
The "bad-guys," supposed to be vicious predators and psychopaths escaped from jail, are about as scary as one of the novelty gangs in THE WARRIORS.
Which might be forgivable if they could act half as well as anyone in that lousy movie! The rest of THE LAST HOUSE cast are wooden and awkward.
While the idea of the film is unsettling in the abstract, the execution is dreadful. The script is unconvincing and more than a little silly.
There are awful gaps in logic in the story. The events could, in theory, take place -- there are none of the supernatural hijinks that are so commonplace in other horror films --yet this one still requires almost total suspension of disbelief!
The only thing that saves LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT from being a complete washout are a few deft touches; unsettling electronic music overtures and a handful of arty, evocative camera shots that settle over the inevitable carnage.
Otherwise this is an average cheap-o slasher flick. Save your time and money unless you are a devotee of the "genre."
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Surprisingly bold studio choice, surprisingly tame cult film
It's tough when a film is constantly compared with another. Often, the reference will serve as a valuable tool for fans, helpful in making choices at the local video store. In other cases, viewers expectations of what a film should and could be are unfairly tarnished by the type of coupling that most of us engage in when describing movies (and other forms of entertainment).
Unfortunately, NIGHTMARE ALLEY suffers dearly as a result of the constant comparisons to the 30s horror classic FREAKS.
Although both NIGHTMARE ALLEY and Tod Browning's FREAKS are set in the sad, desperate and often creepy demi-monde of the traveling carnival, NIGHTMARE has very little of the vicious emotional impact of its "sister" film.
The first half hour is absolutely fantastic, a tantalizingly real set-up of the carnies and their milieu. From there, the story is just a hair above average -- and certainly a little protracted; To their credit, Colleen Gray and Tyrone Power are nearly perfect, and the rest of the cast close to that quality.
But the film loses some of its teeth along the way. After it leaves the carnival setting, it settles into a fairly rote noir-esque story of betrayal, and it manages to retain precious little of the verisimilitude that made FREAKS a heartbreakingly realistic portrayal of perhaps the most disenfranchised creatures of our world.
The finale is somewhat gripping, but telegraphed to a point that will leave you wishing this one was 20 minutes shorter.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is nonetheless a worthwhile film (if you can find it), but it fares a whole lot better when it is not held up against the yardstick of FREAKS.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Great train adventure marred by Clive Brook
Really smashing far eastern train romance-adventure whose romantic half is clobbered and left for dead by the awful, tedious, entirely sour character portrayed by Clive Brook.
Sadly, the entire story hinges upon the tumultuous affair between he and Dietrich's "Shanghai Lily." The artifice of their relationship sinks what should have been a classic film, as it is impossible to believe that the high living 'coaster' Shanghai Lily would ever love the pompous stuffed shirt Captain Donald Harvey. (Even if she was once a more proper lady named Madeline!)
And it's a shame, because the movie is loaded with great photography, wonderfully detailed shots of the train chugging through "China," an excellent (if entirely stereotyped) cast, and a crisp story and direction.
Dietrich and Anna May Wong (as Hui Fei) steal one wonderful shot after another, Dietrich with her fetching, clipped English wafting through billowing cigarette smoke and the plumage of her ornate hats; Wong with her cool humored temperament and truly striking exotic beauty.
The dialogue is a occasionally dated (and be forewarned, as racist/sexist as you might expect for the period) but in the hands of Dietrich and Anna May Wong, it's difficult to find much fault with the somewhat trite lines they speak.
So mind your way through the dense fields of hokum, and see the film for the ravishing Dietrich and Wong..and oh, yes..the rest of the scenery!
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
First rate film noir; make that a superb movie.
Elegance and class are not always the first words that come to mind when folks (at least folks who might do such a thing) sit around and talk about film noir.
Yet some of the best films of the genre, "Out of the Past," "The Killers," "In A Lonely Place," "Night and the City," manage a level of sleek sophistication that elevates them beyond a moody catch phrase and its connotations of foreboding shadows, fedoras, and femme-fatales.
"Where the Sidewalk Ends," a fairly difficult to find film -- the only copy in perhaps the best stocked video store in Manhattan was a rough bootleg from the AMC cable channel -- belongs in a category with these classics.
From the moment the black cloud of opening credits pass, a curtain is drawing around rogue loner detective Marc Dixon's crumbling world, and as the moments pass, it inches ever closer, threatening suffocation.
Sure, he's that familiar "cop with a dark past", but Dana Andrews gives Dixon a bleak stare and troubled intensity that makes you as uncomfortable as he seems. And yeah, he's been smacking around suspects for too long, and the newly promoted chief (Karl Malden, in a typically robust and commanding outing) is warning him "for the last time."
Yet Dixon hates these thugs too much to stop now. And boy didn't they had have it coming?
"Hoods, dusters, mugs, gutter nickel-rats" he spits when that tough nut of a boss demotes him and rolls out all of the complaints the bureau has been receiving about Dixon's right hook. The advice is for him to cool off for his own good. But instead he takes matters into his own hands.
And what a world of trouble he finds when he relies on his instincts, and falls back on a nature that may or may not have been passed down from a generation before.
Right away he's in deep with the cops, the syndicate, his own partner. Dixon's questionable involvement in a murder "investigation" threatens his job, makes him wonder whether he is simply as base as those he has sworn to bring in. Like Bogart in "Lonely Place," can he "escape what he is?"
When he has nowhere else to turn, he discovers that he has virtually doomed his unexpected relationship with a seraphic beauty (the marvelous Gene Tierney) who seems as if she can turn his barren bachelor's existence into something worth coming home to.
The pacing of this superb film is taut and gripping. The group of writers that contributed to the production polished the script to a high gloss -- the dialogue is snappy without disintegrating into dated parody fodder, passionate without becoming melodramatic or sappy.
And all of this top-notch direction and acting isn't too slick or buffed to loosen the film's emotional hold. Gene Tierney's angelic, soft-focus beauty is used to great effect. She shows herself to be an actress of considerable range, and her gentle, kind nature is as boundless here as is her psychosis in "Leave Her to Heaven." The scenes between Tierney and Andrews's Dixon grow more intense and touching the closer he seems to self-destruction.
Near the end of his rope, cut, bruised, and exhausted Dixon summarizes his lot: "Innocent people can get into terrible jams, too,.." he says. "One false move and you're in over your head."
Perhaps what makes this film so totally compelling is the sense that things could go wildly wrong for almost anyone -- especially for someone who is trying so hard to do right -- with one slight shift in the wind, one wrong decision or punch, or, most frighteningly, due to factors you have no control over. Noir has always reflected the darkest fears, brought them to the surface. "Where the Sidewalk Ends" does so in a realistic fashion.
(One nit-pick of an aside: This otherwise sterling film has a glaringly poor dub of a blonde model that wouldn't seem out of place on Mystery Science Theater. How very odd.)
But Noir fans -- heck, ANY movie fans -- who haven't seen this one are in for a terrific treat.
The Big Combo (1955)
Sleazy gangster-noir tale of obsession and revenge..
Now that DVD is fast becoming the medium of choice for many film enthusiasts, some lesser known, lower budget titles are finding their way to wider audiences.
Joseph Lewis's "The Big Combo" has made this trip to digital, and thankfully none of the film's captivating sleaze has been stripped away in the transfer.
What appears to be a fairly stock story of straight-arrow police detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) obsessed with capturing a foreboding gangland chieftain, Mr. Brown, "Combo" is an unusually hardboiled, over the top tale of revenge and murder that will please and perhaps even surprise noir and crime-drama fans.
Over the course of the protracted investigation, Diamond, who has nearly lost his badge because of his stubborn determination, has fallen for the boss's dame -- a society girl gone so wrong she figures suicide is the only way out. But Mr. Brown (Richard Conte, excellent as the 'last-name only' control freak) is as omnipotent and omniscient as a head pit boss in Vegas, taunting and manipulating every one around him with an unsettling equanimity.
He tells Diamond, who is virtually powerless to do anything but temporarily hold the murderous Brown and his men on trivial charges, that "the busboys in his hotel" make more money than he does. Even Brown's right hand man, the hearing impaired McClure (Brian Donlevy)is mercilessly ridiculed for his second tier status.
And Brown is obsessed with his prowess with women as Diamond is with capturing him and wooing his moll. The film is filled with risque sexual allusions as wild as anything from director Sam Fuller.
In one scene, Brown manuevers around his girl, stopping briefly at her lips, but then dropping out of frame, seemingly down past her waist. And Diamond cavorts with a "burlesque" dancer (with a heart of gold, natch) who appears in a skimpy outfit that is titillating even by today's television standards.
But the most ribald bits to make it past the censors involve Brown's bickering henchmen, Fante and Mingo. Fante, played by the aquiline Lee Van Cleef, appears to be a typical hood, but midway through the film the lights come up in a bedroom where the two men have been sleeping in remarkably close quarters.
Later, sequestered in a mob-hideout, the two engage in thinly-veiled homoerotic banter that will leave you howling.
As will some of the other scenes -- torture by drum solo, a Casablanca inspired finale. Throughout the picture Brown and Diamond dance around one another sans gene, to the sound of gunshots and acid-tongued banter.
"The Big Combo" is taut, gutter entertainment, delivered in precise black and white. Even if you do watch it on DVD.
The Getaway (1972)
Clumsy action film that picks up steam despite itself
This film pales in comparison with director Sam Peckinpah's other work from this period.
While "The Wild Bunch," "Straw Dogs" and, to a degree, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" are completely captivating works, blending top-notch acting, direction, and storytelling,"The Getaway" is a feeble sibling with only bits of Peckinpah's usual brilliance.
The plot, which centers around the (mis)adventures a husband and wife heist team on the lam, is likely deftly served by cult crime writer Jim Thompson, it only chugs along clumsily for the first hour on celluloid. There are occasional interesting touches and a good supporting cast, but little in the way of real inspiration.
Surprisingly, there are extended sequences when the film distinctly mirrors the faceless cop dramas that were playing on television at the time the film was released.
Much of the blame can be put on the self-styled "Bogey and Bacall" of the 70s, stars MacGraw and McQueen. While the two attractive leads lend the film an air of a modern day "Bonnie and Clyde," and were box-office draws, they nearly sink the film entirely.
It has been written that McQueen decided to edit this film on his own (!), but as he was one of the better actors of the decade, his ill-advised hubris is unmatched by the near worthlessness of MacGraw's performance.
MacGraw can't even seem to draw upon her life romance with her co-star to kindle any on screen chemistry, and McQueen seems stiff and uncomfortable in his romantic scenes with his wife.
Yet as one somewhat anonymous chase leads to another, the subplot involving a thug, Sally Struthers's dimwitted blonde and her pathetic veterinarian husband takes continually stranger turns, things heat up amidst a hail of bullets, garbage, and sheer momentum. (Peckinpah could obviously handle these types of chores with his eyes closed.)
Despite its many faults, "The Getaway" manages to come to a fairly satisfying conclusion.
Worth a look on cable, and certainly interesting to fans of the stars (if there any MacGraw fans out there) and the director.
Per qualche dollaro in più (1965)
Cartoon-like epic western with something for everyone
In this sequel, a tale of two bounty hunters who reluctantly join forces to try and bring down the most vicious criminal on the frontier, the production values far outstrip those of "A Fistful of Dollars", yet the story doesn't rise to the level of the original.
But "For a Few Dollars More" -- which would become the second part of a Sergio Leone's so-called "Man With No Name" trilogy -- is not to be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in offbeat Westerns.
The obvious difference in the quality of the script is surely due to the fact that Leone was working without Kurosawa's mastery as a guide. ("Fistful," along with several other films in recent memory, is derived from the Japanese director's 'lone samurai' tale, "Yojimbo.")
But if Leone cannot compete with Kurosawa's storytelling genius (who himself had help from Ryuzo Kikushima and Dashiel Hammett) he was carving out his own unique niche in cinematic history.
Here, the basic, irresistible elements of the "Spaghetti Western" -- Ennio Morricone's spare, knowing and highly dramatic score, Clint Eastwood's inscrutable half-eyed glare, the nearly comic circus-show gunplay -- familiar as a worn-in pair of boots to the great majority of American Sunday afternoon TV viewers, are solidified and put on full display.
And they are unquestionably entertaining.
By now parodied, emulated, and simply ripped off for decades, Leone, at the time, had managed to breathe new life (and death) into a genre that was fading at the hands of cinematic oversaturation -- just how many times could the same tale be told? -- and the advent of half-hour Western "teleplays".
Eastwood's performance is essentially perfect, his presence as distinct as the noon sun over the desert sky, and Lee Van Cleef is a worthy foil. Gian Maria Volonté, the Italian actor who appears as the main (but different) villain in "Fistful," is a greasy, psychotic sadist who the scenery chewing maniacs in modern films seem to owe a debt to. The rest of the characters are drawn with similar wide strokes. (While Eastwood's "heroes" are often called amoral -- an assertion that doesn't really hold up under close scrutiny -- the supporting players are either pointing a gun at you, or with you. Look for Klaus Kinski as the "hunchback.")
The dialogue, although it appears to have been filmed in English, is poorly re-dubbed, but nonetheless witty and terse, punctuated by some stunning heat-baked photography. (If after you learn that these films were not shot in the States it becomes impossible for you to see anything but the parched sands of Spain, surely you will agree that the territory lends a powerfully sinister feel to the film. Leone's greatest strength may have been that he seemed to set his Westerns on a slightly different planet than our own.)
The film's main flaw -- and I can already hear the noir enthusiasts moaning -- is that there are a few too many twists and turns down the dusty trails, and slightly weary viewers may lose the satisfaction when the inevitable "moment of reckoning" arrives at the end of the film.
Overall, this is a very good film -- fans of more modern films might liken the differences between "Fistful" and "A Few Dollars More" to those between Robert Rodriguez's low-budget debut "El Mariachi," and his Hollywood remake, "Desperado." Both are worthy films, but the grit of the original is more satisfying.
It is important to note that Leone hit both marks -- realism and big-budget spectacle -- with the incredible "Once Upon A Time In The West."
Il conformista (1970)
Unique, visually stunning and surreal mix of history and suspense
Bertolucci's "Conformist" must not be missed if it shows up at your local art/independent movie theater.
Indispensable for its photography and visual style alone -- credit legendary DP Vittorio Storaro, best known for his work on The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now -- the film delivers with a ferocious punch on a remarkable number of levels.
Dense and often difficult, yet leavened with unexpectedly beautiful and humorous touches, "The Conformist" functions primarily as an indictment of Fascism and its adherents. But deeper threads run deeply through the picture; it is an examination of one man's attitudes towards the value of patriotism, love, family, marriage, sex and death, and, as has perhaps been overstated (by both the critics and perhaps the film-maker) it also explores the ramifications of homosexual repression.
Bertolucci expertly manages to weave these themes into a hypnotic, occasionally surreal experience that has served as an inspiration for countless directors.
Performances are brilliant throughout. Dominique Sanda is one of the most engaging and sensual women to ever grace the screen.
See this film, and you will simply wish to see it again.
I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1975)
Sad, often moving portrait of a fading genius.
This rarely seen documentary of legendary filmmaker Nicholas Ray, the mastermind behind seminal American films such as "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Johnny Guitar," centers around the director's work as a film professor in an upstate New York college.
Ray, rumpled, pale and sickly, but rarely seen here without a cigarette (or a fascinating anecdote) dangling from his lips, guides a group of students through what is perhaps best described as a "collective directing process."
Veteran actor Howard DaSilva narrates, reading analysis over clips of some of the most intense scenes of Ray's films, highlighting the fairly unique humanist nature of the director's oeuvre.
While at the time this documentary was made, Ray's collaborative work as a professor may have been laudable, and in keeping with the free-thinking, idealistic ethos of the early 70s (and, as we are told, something he may have been driven to by his disillusionment with the Hollywood system) but now the "process" shown here is as dated as a rusty VW Microbus, almost shockingly so, and certainly a little sad.
Ray is barely eking out (what we are told will be) a feature film with kids, who are handling all phases of the production. Shooting in the mud, darkness, and cold, with a shoestring budget, the sight of hippie "creative partners" fumbling with a line of trite dialogue, or arguing vehemently with Ray -- interspersed with clips of his work with some of the greatest stars (James Dean, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart) in some of the most affecting films of the generation -- is jarring.
Director Francois Truffaut and actor John Houseman (as well as the clips) come to the rescue at intervals; they offer eloquent descriptions of Ray's powerful gifts, and, which despite the decidedly downward cast of his situation at the time of the documentary, are ultimately echoed by Ray's insight to his students and the crew that is following him.
While "I'm A Stranger Here Myself" (perhaps thankfully) almost completely avoids any close discussion of the problems that Ray faced neared the end of his life, whatever lack of concrete analysis exists is virtually obviated by the the intensity of Ray's physical and mental condition. All we really need to know comes through with almost the same pathos of Ray's earlier cinematic works. Nicholas Ray is suffering, dying perhaps, but isn't giving up.
While it can be argued that a man of his talents is deserving of a brighter cinematic eulogy, "Stranger," if you can find it, is not to be missed by fans of his work.