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MASH (1970)
Satire from a Master-List of Taboo Subjects
21 August 2014
OK, I think more historical context is needed before watching this film than any other classic I know of. It is as if Altman was acting as a version of Beale from 1976's superior satire "Network" - mad as hell about society of the time (1970) and even the conventions of movies themselves, and not going to take it anymore. Like almost all reviewers here, I agree that the film is only accidentally funny. But then again, so was "Network." Humor implies a bit of levity, and this is instead a purely angry film - it is like an attack, more so than almost any other American film I have seen except for maybe "Happiness" or "Born on the Fourth of July."

First, there's the famous overlapping dialogue, then the other American sacred-cow subjects he massacres - war, authority figures, love, monogamy, religion, homosexuality, sanctity of medicine and its practitioners, communitarianism, shared goals, women's lib, sports, and politics. Finally, Altman throws out the very idea of sustained linear plotting with an established group of characters - allowing the camera to follow characters who appear, play little role in the plot line, and then mysteriously disappear. That is the defining feature of life and war, and it is something which was surprisingly absent from all films of that era.

One also gets the sense that Altman was like a newly-emancipated repressed teen after having had to abide by the strict conventions of television and the studio system on all of his previous work. If one is looking for a similar, but funnier, satire of American culture of the time, watch Norman Lear's "Cold Turkey." That film has aged much better than MASH, but MASH was by far the more influential.
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Well-Wrought Soap Opera
5 June 2014
This movie has been seriously underrated by almost everyone except Roger Ebert in his initial review. Surprisingly, it has never received any kind of DVD release. This is one of those movies, released every now and again, that are not only about another era, but actually resemble a film of that era. Audiences never know what to do with them, and consequently they are quickly dismissed or forgotten. Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor," Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and many of Cimino's films fit this description, to some extent. In this case, the movie resembles a WWII-era melodrama or even a 1950s Douglas Sirk or George Stevens-style soap opera - including emotional soliliquies, naivete, and occasional overacting.

Accept it for what it is, and you will find an exceptionally well-made, dramatically fluid film about revenge and old-style Latino family loyalty. The 1940s costumes, sets, and photography are excellent, as are Hutton, Hurt, and Leo's performances. In particular, Hutton displays the kind of 1940s pre-war innocence that's perfect for the role. In an era of cynicism, irony, and post-modernist history, such a movie has even less of a chance of finding an audience than when released, but I recommend it for fans of serious filmmaking.
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Future Shock (1972)
Or: What if the 1970s Lasted Another Several Decades?
19 May 2014
This is some funny stuff. Orson Welles hams it up narrating this anti-progress scare documentary. There are all sorts of bizarre extrapolations of future technological and sociological trends from what people were thinking about at the time (1972), from mass polyamory and perpetual youth vagabonds to genetically-engineered flower children. If only he knew how much less fun the future would be...

What is most entertaining and unintentionally hilarious is the fact that though it purports to predict the future, its production values and techniques are as rooted in the early '70s as you can get - with everything from bad lighting, creepy Moog synthesizer music, and plastic robot costumes, to cheap special effects courtesy of the McGraw-Hill educational filmstrip conglomerate of the time. That period was itself such an abberration that it was probably the worst possible period to use for meaningful predictions. Now, if Welles had said in his narration, "One day, you will be able to watch this film on a small personal computer along with any other film you choose," I might have had some respect.
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Historically Important Documentary
14 January 2014
Yes, it is one obscure documentary among many on the holocaust, yet it still serves an important and often-neglected aspect of the holocaust - the U.S. response to it. More specifically, this fully black-and-white documentary (unique, especially since it predates the same photographic style of "Schindler's List" by 10 years) offers something of a counter-factual approach by asking "Could the U.S. have done more to save the Jews?" Following this film and other works of scholarship in the past 30 years, the well-accepted answer by historians is a resounding "Yes." However, at the time (1982) the answer was probably still a bit muddled, with many from the WWII era still alive, focused instead on the fight against Soviet communism, and not enthusiastic in re-opening painful mistakes from the past.

Indeed, the film covers some very eye-opening topics probably not even known by those familiar with the topic, such as: the failed attempt to re-settle Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic, and the laissez-faire attitude of the Israeli Zionist movement at the time to the plight of European refugees. Director Jarvik obtains interviews from a wide-variety of important historical figures, including even aging former officials from the Roosevelt administration. Yet, he shows proper restraint in directly implicating FDR as negligent (as many others have done in recent years), understanding that the political climate of the times would not allow a more forceful response. The first-person interviews from people like this make the film worthy viewing by themselves.
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Cold Turkey (1971)
Simultaneously A Perfect Time-Capsule of Its Era and Ahead of Its Time
20 July 2013
Occasionally, one comes across a movie that just has a unique "feel" to it that's different from almost anything else, so that one knows the movie almost immediately after turning it on. "Apocalypse Now," "Blue Velvet," and "Django Unchained" are three movies I can think of offhand which fit this description. Comedies like this are rare to find, but "Cold Turkey" definitely qualifies. Helmed by a true pioneer of culturally hyper-conscious storytelling, Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times), this is a movie with a threadbare plot and setting which nonetheless manages to satirically portray America as it was in the post-WWII era and still is to some extent.

Sure, comparisons to Mel Brooks comedies of the era are inevitable, but unlike Brooks, this movie manages to get under one's skin in an uncomfortable but funny way. Lear clearly understands what makes Americans tick - their follies, fantasies, indulgences, and pettiness, and he isn't afraid to go for the jugular with his jokes. I'm sure this is the reason this movie was shelved by producers for two years and never got a proper theatrical, VHS or even DVD release. After all, this movie basically prophesies the end of the tobacco industry, which would be forced years later to pay millions for TV commercials telling kids not to smoke and touting its community service record.

What's also so strange is that though this movie has a wide-array of famous comedians and satirists of the era, its barbed sensibilities are totally at home in today's "Daily Show" world. In fact, I would guess that Seth MacFarlane has probably been inspired by this movie, as its plot line and style are very close to "Family Guy" in its utter contempt for American lifestyles. He even makes fun of the film's composer, Randy Newman, in an early episode of that show. All-in-all, a must-see for fans of true American satire. Twain would approve.
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Survivor (1987)
How to make a movie with zero budget, an old rusty factory, abandoned ship, and desert for filming locations, as well as an attractive actress willing to show some skin
7 June 2013
Even among forgotten movies, this movie is probably forgotten. It's so obscure that there isn't even a Motion Picture Association of America logo or seal at the end of the final credits, and even Grade-Z Golan-Globus Cannon movies got those. I'm insanely curious about the background of how this movie got made, and my guess is that some low-rent producer came up with the idea based on whatever old sets and plane tickets he could muster together.

That said, this movie has the kind of scruffy charm you could only get from a 1980s post-apocalyptic straight-to-video film. The banal offbeat locations give this movie its boost. Makes sense, though: if the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, who wouldn't want to live in an underground factory in the middle of a desert with a pool inside? And if you have an attractive actress, why not use her in the most awkwardly-long '80s-style softcore sex scene ever filmed? Why this scene was placed into a violent post-apocalyptic science fiction movie is beyond me, but then again I'd love to find out what was going on behind the scenes.

Movies like this defy any conventional star rating. Who was the intended audience for a movie like this? How did Richard Moll("Bull") from TV's "Night Court" get cast as the villain? Why was this the director's first and only film? What is he doing now? Just like the unexplained weirdness of the entire movie, such questions only heighten the mystery. Perhaps if the world is ever destroyed by nuclear war, survivors will find old VHS copies of movies like this and wonder what the heck society was thinking.
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Themes Belonging in Literature, Not A Film
28 March 2013
I really did want to appreciate this movie for tackling a series of monumental subjects - corporate dehumanization, guilt by association (especially concerning the Holocaust), Orwellian destruction of meaningful language, and the fallibility of psychoanalysis. However, watching this made me realize why the similarly dense subject material from novelists like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon rarely make it to the big screen is that they are much too diffuse, internal, and cerebral to even attempt in the plot-action-event world of film. I love film, and I love ideas, but all good film (even the most arty and pretentious) is about action first and ideas second. This film starts with the ideas and never lets the characters out from under them. A movie should never be about words, just as a novel should never have directions for camera angles.

I can't make a conclusive evaluation of whether I loved it or hated it, so I give it a 5 out of 10. It fails in doing the impossible, so I have to give it some credit. This movie is a prime example of why some novels should never be made into films.
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Wise Blood (1979)
Should Have Been Much Better, Considering the Production Values
25 January 2013
Everything about this movie was supposed to be perfect, from the great American source novel of Flannery O'Connor, to the spot-on casting of Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, and Harry Dean Stanton, to the direction of the legendary John Huston. So what went wrong? Answer: the very conception of how to tell this story. This was undoubtedly meant to be a vivid, colorful, literary, even surrealistic story of a man's personal obsession with and against the great excesses of Southern revivalist Christianity. A movie like this should have been made by someone with the visual flair of Tim Burton or the Coen Bros. Instead, it reminded me of an early Richard Linklater movie like "Slacker," following a meandering path of disconnected vignettes with Southern weirdos spouting their own idiosyncratic dialogue into thin air. Now, much of this dialogue is utterly hilarious and beautifully written (and supposedly verbatim from O'Connor's novel), but great dialogue alone does not a great film make.

A film like this could only have been made in the 1970s, an era when filmmakers could helm projects which tackled very taboo subject matter (in this case the mother of all of them - religion). It's a shame it could never be made by a major studio in today's politically-correct climate, because if done right it would make an amazing literary period-piece. Who is this main character Hazel Moates really? We get to seem him do a series of some of the most insane things in modern cinema (off-screen), yet we never get a real character exposition. If someone is going to make a serious multi-layered satire of religion, they had better be prepared to go places visually and aesthetically for the viewer, and this movie does not. In addition, when is this movie supposed to take place (the cars are all contemporary 1970s, yet O'Connor's era of itinerant revivalist preachers wearing suits and hats ended in the 1950s)? Finally, Alex North's twangy hillbilly score is probably the most aesthetically incorrect soundtrack ever, next to the kazoo-and-banjo score from "Last House on the Left."
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Eolomea (1972)
Why Deny It? It is Incredibly Stupid.
28 September 2012
Communist East Germany. Great Filmmaking. Stellar technology and science fiction. Do these things seem to fit together in any conceivable way? No, they do not.

Why the DVD production company has the nerve to even compare "Eolomea" with the likes of Tarkovsky's "Solaris" or "2001" is beyond me. At best, this "lost classic" is more like an Austin Powers / Benny Hill rendition of a serious space epic, with a Burt Bacharach soundtrack and plenty of lava lamp space imagery. Movies like this were what "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in the 1990s was made for.

Others here have attempted to explain the storyline , which is so convoluted and fragmented throughout that there is not a shred of suspense or even empathy for the characters. Strangely enough, I still think this movie does have one important historical value: like a representation of Communism itself, it shows what at the time must have been wild scientific/philosophical idealism in its home country, but in hindsight is just robots made of ugly hunks of metal junk and astronauts with holes in their socks.
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The Sicilian (1987)
What "Heaven's Gate" Should Have Been
3 August 2012
I've seen about four of director Michael Cimino's films, and every time I see one I feel like I am watching an attempt to create the equivalent of opera within the film medium. All of Cimino's films are filled with things one would often expect to find in the opera: emotional soliloquies, multi-layered mob conflicts, varied ethno-religious pageants filling the screen, extended love scenes, contrasting symbolisms between murky and bright color schemes, and plenty of furious soul-searching by its male characters following unexpected death and despair. Plus, like opera, his films are LONG.

The problem is that the old Italian conventions of the opera are not what most American audiences and even critics want to see. That is my theory for why his films have never gained the kind of respect he would probably get if he were a purely European director. My guess is that one day they will - alongside someone like Sergio Leone, whose work is quite similar.

A film treatment of a melodramatic novel by Mario Puzo about a Robin Hood-type (emphasis on the "hood") outlaw stealing from the Sicilian gentry to give to the peasants in Fascist 1930s Italy is really the best possible setting I've seen for a Cimino film. His style of multi-layered art filmmaking was just not compatible for the American West of the 1880s in "Heaven's Gate." Here, he is using an incredibly literate screenplay (supposedly most of which was written by the literary legend Gore Vidal, the rest by author Steve Shagan), filled with endlessly quotable spiritual/political/philosophical dialogue and musings. Aiding this is the Nino Rota-esqe score by Cimino's usual musical composer David Mansfield.

Subtle character development has never been the strong suite of Cimino; he explores bigger things in his films like mood, place, and theme. And in this respect, he really does deserve credit for putting the audience in the middle of 1930s Italy, with its cauldron of conflicts between indentured peasants, land-owning gentry, shifty politicians, and the self-righteous dons and pontiffs who control things behind the scenes. This would be an excellent movie to watch alongside "The Godfather III," also based upon the work of Puzo, to spot common themes. While nowhere near as groundbreaking or spectacular as The Godfather films, this movie does deserve its place as a companion piece in Puzo's screen adaptations. It's not a fast-paced Scorcese mafia film; it requires patience.
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The Veteran (2006 TV Movie)
Good, Cynical Little Low-Budget Movie
27 March 2012
The Vietnam War, for some reason, seems to be the favorite subject of veteran Canadian director Sidney J. Furie, who has made at least 5 movies covering various themes of the war over the years. He does deserve credit for making probably the very first serious Vietnam War film (The Boys in Company C) in 1978, and the first movie portraying the service of women in the war (Purple Hearts). Though this movie may not stack up with the operatic likes of "Platoon" and "The Deer Hunter", I actually found myself drawn into this one, right through the twist ending.

Now, I'm not a fan of the recent trend in M. Night Shyamalan-style twist endings in one big-budget Hollywood flick after another; if a storyline is compelling enough by itself, it shouldn't require a cop-out ending which makes everything before it null and void. However, with the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth accusations of Presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, as well as the Presidential campaign of John McCain and the myriad accusations leveled against Obama and Bill Clinton for their past, I did think this ending was kind of interesting and topical. Like the ending of "The Boys in Company C," it encapsulates much of the mixed-up political feelings Americans have about that war and politics in general.

The acting here by Bobby Hosea and Michael Ironside is amazingly good. If you watch this without the expectations of a big-budget Hollywood epic, you are much more likely to enjoy it.
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All of the Excesses of the Late '60s / Early '70s in One Movie!
29 October 2011
WOW, is all I can say after watching this - amazingly in both a good and bad way. Expecting a simple clichéd biker movie, instead I discovered a movie that somehow manages to encapsulate every major theme from early '70s filmmaking, from the counter-cultural bikers of "Easy Rider" to Southern California commune hippiedom, blaxploitation, and even the ultra-violent vigilante-ism of Sam Peckinpah ("Straw Dogs"), "Death Wish," "Last House on the Left," "Switchblade Sisters," and "Billy Jack." So much crammed into one movie, Quentin Tarantino must have seen this at some point and been at least somewhat inspired in his own style of multi-themed filmmaking.

By no means a great film, and really not a good one either, I still found myself glued to this amazing cultural artifact. I'm really surprised that this movie has basically been forgotten, having never been released on DVD; amateur B-movie connoisseurs and midnight movie-houses would eat this one up if they got their hands on it. The director, Douglas Schwartz (this was his first feature film) would soon go on to make the excellent forgotten film "Your Three Minutes Are Up" starring Beau Bridges, and "Baywatch" many years later. The tone of these two movies ("Your Three Minutes..." was a light comedy with serious undertones) could not be more different, yet in both of them Schwartz displays a near-brilliant ability to evoke the socio-cultural milieu of Southern California in the early-'70s (even early Baywatch episodes carry some of this skill in his feel for settings.) If you are in the least bit turned off by violence, I recommend not watching this, as there is blood, mutilation, rape, and plenty of general nastiness. On the other hand, if you can laugh along with the irony of "serious-themed" pictures like this one and "Billy Jack" (released the same year) portraying "pacifism through the barrel of a gun," then you should have yourself some trashy drive-in good times.
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Utu (1984)
Not a Great Film, But a Good, Entertaining One
13 October 2011
Leonard Maltin, practically the only film critic who has written a review of this film, states that it is "downbeat, dull, and full of stereotypical characters - without the compensating power of Australia's not dissimilar 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.'" It's a shame that the movie has only this professional opinion from Maltin and no others, even though Maltin is a critic with whom I usually agree. Being one of the few people who has probably seen both films, I have to disagree with Maltin's assessment. While "Chant..." was a very serious meditation on the nature and effects of racism, this film was intended as a lighter, more entertaining Western-type movie filled with sudden dark humor - the kind of macho, action-filled movie that director Walter Hill in the U.S. used to make years ago. I don't think it aspires to be the masterpiece that "Chant..." was, but that does not diminish its qualities.

Really, for a simple Western revenge movie, there are several interesting themes here. The first is the difficulty of maintaining a conflict between two peoples living in such close proximity. The British settlers, and even members of the British army, seem to be social neighbors with the Maori natives - trading, speaking each other's languages, and even joining each other's armies. Not only does this make pure hatred nearly impossible, but makes it difficult to accurately assess the motives of the people around you. There is something universal in this theme - this may be one of the reasons the U.S. had such difficulty in the Vietnam War, in that it was both relying-upon and fighting a local people.

The second, more obvious theme, is the self-perpetuating effects of revenge, which never seem to dissipate. Every character here seems to have their own personal obsession with some kind of individual revenge. Ironically, the one character who seems the most internally-conflicted and the one with the most to hate - a socialized Maori who has learned English and French and even joined the Queen's army, witnessing atrocities on both side - is the only one who can carry out "without prejudice" a formal military execution.

I somewhat understand why Maltin disliked this movie. A possible flaw is that there is almost no expository on how the character Te Wheke metamorphosizes from a loyal British Army lance corporal to a heavily tattooed, brutal Maori warmonger who will kill anyone who gets in his way. But on the other hand, this movie is not a character-study of Te Wheke, it is more of an essay on the futility of pure revenge, or "Utu." Really, the best reason to see the movie is its technical qualities. Director Murphy has a real kinetic feel for visuals - like Scorsese, keeping his camera constantly moving among the chaos of 19th century guerilla warfare. The acting is generally good, and the feel for the New Zealand wilderness is excellent. Yes, this movie could have been better, and probably should have been better given the greater seriousness which this subject matter deserved. However, it's worth a rental if you can find it. And if you're not a New Zealander, I recommend watching it twice; it is very fast-paced on the first viewing and difficult to decipher - it gets better the second time.
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One Night Stand (1978 TV Movie)
Almost Indescribable Late-1970s Oddity
5 September 2011
Having no idea what to expect from this long forgotten, out-of-print Canadian TV movie from the late '70s, I gave it a try and was gradually pulled into its weirdness (much like the protagonist played by Jaffe, I suppose). As a non-Canadian who was never even alive during the late-'70s Pre-AIDS urban disco scene (either Canadian or the American one portrayed in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar"), the whole sleazy atmosphere was extremely off-putting to me, but that made it even more unnerving.

A lonely urban professional woman picks up a street musician at a singles bar for a one-night-fling, only to be gradually drawn into his strange fast-talking style and behavior once he's at her apartment. Originally based upon a stage-play (which was no-doubt highly topical at the time), the film does get a bit too stagey for my taste with essentially two characters on a closed set for the majority of the film (and several monologues). But once I got past that, I was impressed by how different this movie was from what I would expect from a similar American film, which would probably have more gratuitous violence and nudity and less real character development.

With all the cheesy '70s disco, clothing, and hairstyles, the theme of the movie is still fairly relevant and can speak to the loneliness, fears, and anxieties of any young person living alone in a city filled with apartments full of strangers. From that angle, this movie is very scary and claustrophobic and gave me some real shocks when I watched it alone late at night. I recommend it for anyone who likes horror with some real substance but can handle a slow build.
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Absolutely the Worst TV Show I've Ever Seen
25 August 2011
I've waited several years to finally see the rock bottom of network television, and it is this show (I only needed to see about a half hour of it and I knew). Not only does this show (badly) copy the styles and story lines of about a hundred other shows going back 20+ years, in addition to the latest casual sex RomCom movie craze, but it is actually offensive.

First of all, it's supposed to be a comedy but has no laugh track (evidently even the studio audience found it dreadful). Second, it is about a bunch of attractive but idiotic twenty-somethings, each encompassing a different ethno-socio-gender stereotype. Third, it makes a mockery of my city, Chicago, by making the whole place look like a self-satisfied rich-kid paradise. Finally, and most importantly, the story lines are almost deliberately unfunny and mean-spirited: a white preppy tries to show pity on his slightly overweight (he says "ugly") co-worker by actually talking to her (gasp!), an uber-wealthy preppy gets mugged and de-clothed on the EL train, and a female doctor (who just happens to look like a Victoria's Secret model) lets men jump through her window at night to have sex with her (I'm not making this up) but complains she can't find a caring, loving relationship. Dying with laughter yet? It's worse than Neil LaBute-lite.

In a time when 20% of the country is out of work, most recent college grads can barely get a job (much less the fancy clothes and digs of this show), and people are actually starving, is it really the time to be putting onto rotation a mean-spirited show about selfish preppies like this, NBC?
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Burke & Wills (1985)
Fascinating Australian History Lesson
28 July 2011
What an odd, yet incredibly moving film - a "forgotten epic." As an American not knowing one thing about Australian history - especially Burke and Wills (Australia's counterparts to the explorers Lewis and Clark in American history), I was expecting an adulatory foreign period piece. Instead, this is an insightful, dark, and often terrifying adventure story about the triumphs and travails of the first two European white men to completely cross the Australian continent in the 1860s. Performances here are first-rate - especially that of Jack Thompson - as are the cinematography and unusual cross-time editing. Also interesting to me are some of the parallels between the tenuous relationships of whites and natives in both Australia and the U.S. at the time. Though this movie may never find an audience in the U.S. (it is very rare and has never been released on DVD), it deserves to be re-discovered.
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Memorial Day (1983 TV Movie)
A Real Gem
23 April 2011
It's so ironic that a movie whose theme about the stubbornness to forget has itself been forgotten (judging by the complete lack of reviews here and elsewhere). Randomly finding this on an old VHS rental tape, I discovered one of the best post-Vietnam War movies I've ever seen (also, one of the best movies portraying America's short-sightedness about war in general). Mike Farrell, in what may be his best performance, plays a prosperous lawyer who has deliberately repressed his memories of the Vietnam War, only to have them painfully re-emerge when one of his long-forgotten comrades from the war commits suicide.

This TV movie came right at the tail end of the Rennaisance era of made-for-television films, when that medium sensitively and intelligently handled difficult, often taboo, subject matter that feature films and television series would not touch. Its director, Joseph Sargent, was by this time (1983) one of the great pioneers of high quality television drama. Comparing this movie to other more popular theatrical movies about Vietnam (Platoon, The Deer Hunter, First Blood, etc.), it's amazing that such a low-key movie with virtually no violence, flashback re-enactments, or visual flamboyance could still be so affecting after almost 30 years. In fact, if someone asked me what movie to show to someone who knew nothing about the Vietnam War but wanted to become initially acquainted with the subject, I would recommend this one unhesitatingly.
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Native Son (1951)
Better Than I Expected
5 February 2010
As an admirer of Wright's written work - especially "Native Son" - I had incredibly low expectations for several reasons: there was next to no budget, the cast and crew (including the starring role) were all amateurs, the director was not American and had never made an American film before this, the film had to be shot in Argentina, and "Native Son" is such a dense, complex, psychological piece of work to begin with.

But, if you look at this as a simple B-movie melodrama with a racial subtext that was badly missing from almost all of the films of its day, it isn't bad. In film, you don't get motivation, you get action, and the novel "Native Son" was all about hidden motivations and desires. Maybe it was a bad idea to even attempt to make Wright's novel into a film, but one must give him and the filmmakers credit for trying. In the era just before the McCarthy hearings and the blacklist, a feature film released to the public that was even half as potent as Wright's novel would have been commendable.

An idea actually occurred to me while watching this: someone should make a feature film about the making of "Native Son." From what I've read, the production faced many obstacles and setbacks, both physical and ideological, and I think the story behind this would be fascinating - especially the difficulty of an author playing his own creation while trying to maintain his artistic integrity. Of course, Wright's life was fascinating in and of itself. Spike Lee, are you listening?
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A Crude, Unscary Horror Film - I Felt Icky While Watching It
23 June 2006
This movie pushes an obvious agenda, and fails. It is supposed to be some kind of commentary on the conflict between traditional supernatural beliefs of immigrants and the cold superficial rationalism of urban secular America, and the gap between the upper and lower classes. But I didn't feel while watching it that the director had any real concern for these worthy subjects - he just wanted to scare the audience with cheap shocks and distasteful taboos, and those don't create a better horror movie than the usual run-of-the-mill slasher/exploitation. The reason why the horror movies of Cronenberg, Polanski, and Craven work so well is that their very-real sociological subtext is buried just under the surface - the director is one step ahead of the audience, and the audience feels disturbed and helpless but can't fathom why. Their movies don't feel the need to rub the audience's nose in it in every scene like this one does. In fact, it seems as if this movie is working from some master-list of taboo subjects to cover - so it can proudly put check marks next to incest, mental illness, drug abuse, classism, divorce, suicide, Latino stereotypes, child nudity, possibly homosexuality, and dog food consumption. Very much a product of its time - the early '70s, when better movies pushed the social boundaries to enhance rather than replace a strong storyline like this one does.

The movie also just doesn't make sense. The sound is lousy, and the editing is simply bizarre - sometimes cross-cutting head shots of Shirley MacLaine with completely different facial expressions. There are unimportant scenes and subplots that don't belong in the movie, and many others that belong in it but inextricably aren't there (such as the entire backstory about Perry King's character - he seems to walk into the movie already half-crazy). Is there supposed to be an unexpressed incestuous relationship between Shirley MacLaine's character and her brother? Who cares? Are all the Puerto Ricans in NYC part of a creepy religious cult? Looks like it. With some of the most lazy direction I've ever seen in a big budget film, I really wonder whether the director wasn't on drugs or something. The one worthy scene in the movie is a "traditional" Puerto Rican exorcism with drums and dancing which forms a very different counterpoint to the Max Von Sydow scenes in "The Exorcist."
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Goldstein (1964)
Maybe I Interpreted It Wrong, But....
18 March 2006
It seems to me this movie, for all its show-offy experimentalism, is really an allegory about the creative/artistic process. A prophetic Elijah-like old man emerges from Lake Michigan, igniting the obsession of a sculptor of progressive artwork who is down on his luck to try and find him. Ditching his pregnant girlfriend after an illegal abortion, he enlists the help of his jive-talking pickpocket friend to look for the old man through various parts of Chicago.

The old man probably has the least amount of screen time of any character, and yet remains a rebellious, mischievous muse that the sculptor desperately searches for. Like the prototypical artist, the sculptor heedlessly disregards his financial security (giving away his valuable artwork to his friend) and his relationships in his quest for the inspiration of something new and original.

The on-location cinema-verite filming of unusual locations of Chicago circa-1965 is stunning, especially when few films from the period showcase that city (director Kaufman in his director's commentary states that Chicago was virtually off the map for filming movies at the time). The visual and aural non-sequiturs are decent, but it's the improvisational energy provided by the director and his cast which make the movie worth watching. Ben Carruthers, as the pickpocket, is especially engaging virtually every time he's on screen - it's surprising that he never became a bigger star than he eventually did. Like many debut films, the movie leaves a lot to be desired that better connections and budgets could have provided, but it also shows the intelligent creativity of Philip Kaufman which would be on display in his many later films.
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A Hallucinogenic Cross-Cultural Journey
25 February 2006
There are a precious few directors who are willing to jump heedlessly off into the abyss of their own imagination for the sake of artistic expression. Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of them. The Francis Ford Coppola who made "Apocalypse Now" is another. Kidlat Tahimik, director of "The Perfumed Nightmare" is one more. What is most remarkable is that he produced a film using scant resources but containing imagery to which most big-budget Hollywood visuals can barely compare.

Filled with dreams, tangents, flashbacks, breathtaking religious imagery, Tahimik's ironic Mark Twain-esque voice-overs, and bizarre visual ideations using mixed film-stocks and color schemes, the storyline follows a young primitive Filipino village jeep-driver and his journey from progressive worshiper of all things Western to dispirited critic of the West after travelling to Europe. I mention Jodorowsky here because his films are the only ones I can compare this one to: both are like pure symbolic representations of the unconscious mind.

Unfortunately, now for the bad news: the film is an unfocused anti-globalization tract. Actually, maybe it's just an anti-technological tract, I'm not sure. What I do know is that the movie does a brilliant job of portraying life - its sights, music, sounds, and small rituals - in a quiet Philippines village. This first act alone would make one of the greatest short films ever made. But as the second half rolls around and Tahimik moves to France, becoming appalled by Western technological prowess (a set of very large garbage incinerators being erected particularly irks him), the simplistic message of the movie began to irritate me. Are we as the audience supposed to view Tahimik's village as an unsullied Garden of Eden and the modern west as the First Circle of Hell? Because that is what he seems to be saying. Not only is Tahimik (correctly) against the Western colonial expansionism which made his country the property of both France and then the U.S., but he also dislikes the progressive technology of the West. Why?

What is most ironic is that Tahimik himself (his real name is Eric De Guia) had an advanced degree from the Wharton School of Business and worked as a research consultant to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - an organization committed to spreading Western technology to lesser-developed countries - in Paris for 4 years before making this movie. This makes me think that the movie is less a prophetic statement about the dangers of all forms of colonialism than a personal statement against the West made by a particularly disgruntled individual. The movie is all sound and fury, in the end signifying nothing. Why is globalization a target of derision the world over? It is such a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that protesters are forced to make small, insignificant gestures against it (smashing the windows of a McDonalds) in order to make any kind of statement against it. It is similar to railing against the underground geological forces causing earthquakes - what is the point?

Great film-making skill is rare, and it is on display here in great splendor (Oliver Stone must have been inspired in his use of mixed-film stocks for "JFK" after watching this film), but it is only effective when its message is sound. If one discounted the hollowness of the message, this would be an unheralded masterpiece of independent world cinema, but one cannot separate the message from the messenger.
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The Greatest "Outer Limits" Episode That Never Was
4 December 2005
Even though I'm a fan of obscure movies, it's amazing to me that I even heard of this movie, much less find a copy, but I consider it worth the effort. The stark minimalism technique makes this like a slightly extended episode of an anthology series like "The Twilight Zone" (and the running time is still quite short at 75 minutes). The one word I think that best describes this movie is "competent." In other words, the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing; they had to, I suppose, working with what seems an almost non-existent budget. They knew how to elicit an emotional reaction of claustrophobia from the audience - something few filmmakers can do exceptionally well in the sci-fi genre - Ridley Scott's "Alien" is one other film that comes to mind. Every bizarre angular shot composition, every set piece, every facial close-up, every soundtrack cue, is blended seamlessly to make the viewer sweat.

For science fiction, this movie is very unique - even for a typically-cerebral British sci-fi production. There are no slimy aliens to look at, no space craft, and no robots. Instead, like the storyline itself, all the suspense comes from the viewer's own imagination. If you can find it, I highly recommend seeing this at night. The only other movie I can think of which demonstrates such continuous suspense with scant resources is Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 film noir "Detour." I almost think they should show this as a primer to film students on how to make a film successfully with little or no money.
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Eyes of Fire (1983)
Well, It's Certainly Unique - I'll Give It That Much
9 October 2005
Frankly, I was expecting a much more engrossing film from the almost unanimously positive word-of-mouth I had read about this on the internet. For a truly original idea - an exploration of dark early American frontier mythology - this movie failed due to one overriding problem: a lack of story focus. It is a shame, because director Avery Crounse, whose work I was unfamiliar with before seeing this, displays a visual talent on par with such macabre masters as Roman Polansky and Alejandro Jodorowsky. This movie contains one striking, horrifying image after another. Unfortunately, these images don't add up to a strong film because most of them make no sense in connection to the storyline. The basic barebones that I picked up on the plot is that a preacher, aided by the mysterious witch-like powers of his teenage daughter, steals from a local town and heads off on the river with his mistress and some others to the "promised land" where he can form a new Christian society. However, once they arrive in an abandoned Indian encampment in the deserted woods, they fall prey to some forest witches or ghosts.

It is at this point that the story completely confused me. There never is a good explanation for all of the bizarre supernatural events in the woods, and especially the connection they have with the preacher's daughter, who seems to only speak in some archaic tongue. The supernatural imagery is riveting, but it was not enough to keep me interested. Because I really could not care less about any of these numbskull Puritans, watching the movie became an additional chore. I'll be honest: I hated reading "The Scarlet Letter" in high school, and watching this movie, with its laughable Puritanical superstitions, reminded me of slogging through that book. I would watch this again if I thought I could gain from a repeat viewing, but unfortunately I strongly doubt that I would.
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Pickpocket (1959)
I Love Bresson Films, But This One Is His Most Overrated
30 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Having seen the unanimous regard for this film as brilliant, in addition to critic Roger Ebert's putting it on his list of the greatest films ever made, I was expecting another masterpiece in the vein of Bresson's "A Man Escaped" and "Au Hasard Balthazar." I watched this film twice, and unfortunately I came away each time entertained but perplexed. Bresson's technique in film is similar to that of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver in writing - a pure minimalism with everyday life stripped away to its essentials but great passion submerged underneath. Characters in a Bresson film are emotionless, perpetually casting their gaze downward as if hiding their true feelings from the camera. Unfortunately, I don't believe this technique was the proper one for a cinematic interpretation of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment." Dostoyevsky's novel was long, dense, and filled with long meditations on the human soul. By contrast, this film is short (75 minutes), clipped, and has minimal philosophical exploration. There are some short dialogue scenes portraying the title character Michel's Nietzschian belief in the ubermench who can be permitted to live outside conventional morality in order to further society creatively. However, we never get any sense that he is an intellectual, that he reads heavily, or even that he has one original thought. All we have is a sullen young man who refuses to take a job and gives into his compulsions to steal.

There are some very good things about this film: Bresson's choreography of the pickpockets is like pure ballet. His casting of characters is perfect - the faces of each seem to convey things with little work from the actors themselves. However, there are several problems. The technique that the police use to finally capture Michel is way too far-fetched. Also, I couldn't help but get the impression that large, important passages were removed in the editing room. Michel's one final display of emotional catharsis with Jane at the end had the potential to pack a great wallop, but with hardly any backstory or interaction between the two previously, it seems to come out of nowhere. Just as some short stories are meant to be novels, this is a long, probing psychological story reduced to something of a short film. After all, could you imagine "Crime and Punishment" as a short story?

I have been able to understand even the more controversial entries on Ebert's Great Films list, like Errol Morris' 1978 pet cemetery documentary "Gates of Heaven" or "Saturday Night Fever," but this is the one film I think Ebert made a mistake on. Who knows, maybe he saw a longer, more complete version of the movie?
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The Oasis (1984)
"Those Ants Got More Of A Chance of Surviving Out Here Than We Do"
27 September 2005
Here is a one-of-a-kind low-budget film so raw, of such perverse imagination, that it could only have been made far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Portraying the aftermath of a small private plane crash in the Mexican desert and the desperate attempts at survival by the surviving crew, the film spares the audience no details in their quest - and I mean NO DETAILS. This movie is grimy, violent, utterly disturbing, and throws every taboo right in your face - there is no getting around that. For anyone who has seen "Alive", the only real Hollywood version of similar subject matter, "The Oasis" makes that movie look like Disney soap-operatic nonsense.

The film opens on a chilling montage worthy of Kubrick, completely without dialogue, showing the previous lives of the various passengers cut between shots of the carnage in the aftermath of the crash. There are no special effects showing the actual crash, but this lack of extraneous detail is crucial to the film's total leanness. There are other similarly beautiful visual passages throughout the film, and very little actual dialogue. Director Greene's visual sense seems remarkably honed for his first and only feature film. And his final long tracking shot is brilliant in its simultaneous portrayal of adjulation and despair. The very title of the film is distressing, as its nonsensical nature becomes apparent once you have seen the film.

This movie is a total lost gem; it is too bad that it has probably disappeared by now from studio film libraries and will be completely forgotten in several years. I highly recommend tracking down and holding onto one of the few videotape copies still floating around. It is easily one of the most disheartening movies you will ever see, but then again, great works of tragedy are always disheartening. You will probably either love it or hate it, but you will definitely not forget having seen it.
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