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Anchor Bay Entertainment

  • The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For decades, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky existed in a legal gulag; beset by all sorts of ownership issues, his most famous films were unavailable for general viewing after their initial theatrical releases. Jodorowsky himself eschewed filmmaker for long stretches instead focusing on his own spiritual studies and works in various media, i.e. comic books. However, after decades of setbacks and sidelining issues, three of Jodorowsky’s most well-known films are now available on DVD. Along with these three controversial gems, The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set also includes the director’s first film La Cravate as well as the soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain among a slew of other special features. After you work through all the material in this set, you’ll either love Jodorowsky or hate him but you’ll never forget the sea of fevered visions he brings before your eyes.

    The set’s first feature, Fando Y Lis, is appropriately Jodorowsky’s feature debut. The film chronicles the journey of young couple Fando and Lis as they travel across a barren wasteland in pursuit of the city of Tar, a mecca in which spiritual enlightenment and peace abound. Both wielding their own individual disabilities, i.e. Fando’s impotence and Lis’s paraplegic legs, the couple encounter a bevy of freakish characters and situations whilst attempting to traverse a rocky plain that would be at home in a Samuel Beckett production. Their journey brings them into contact not only with outlandish freaks but also their own memories and pasts. Adapted from the Fernando Arrabal play, which Jodorowsky himself had staged in Paris, Fando Y Lis is valuable in regards to pointing out themes and imagery that would become tropes in Jodorowsky’s later works. A preoccupation for both religious iconography and violence first pokes its head in the film, barely hinting at the blood lust to come. More importantly, Fando Y Lis explores an overarching interest in spiritual enlightenment which would be come one of the central, if not absolute core, of Jodorowsky’s filmic and personal pursuits.

    When you think of midnight movies, one of the first titles that comes to mind is El Topo. Depending on who you ask, it is either genius or trash; whichever side you fall on it is hard to imagine a film more striking upon first view than El Topo. Further delving into the pursuit of personal spirituality, El Topo is like a Sergio Leone Western laced with acid. The story involves the leather-clad gunfighter guru El Topo (The Mole, played by Jodorowsky himself) as he attempts to reach ever heightening levels of spiritual awareness. We first meet the character as he comes across an empty town accompanied by his naked son (played by the director’s own son). Discovering the slaughter of the town’s residents by a band of sadistic, sexually crazed desperados, El Topo springs into action to avenge the deaths. But not before Jodorowsky treats the viewer to acts of sacrilegious depravity involving homosexual rape, sadomasochistic torture, and gangland executions and that’s just with the monks at a local monastery where the gang holds up.

    Split essentially into two acts, the first plays like a normal Western in that the main character in on the hunt for four other master gunfighters. Each imbued with his or her own specific talents and mysticism, El Topo is forced to match his wit and skill against each opponent. Along the way, he is accompanied by two lovingly erotic companions, a woman rescued from the earlier gang’s clutches as well as another mysterious woman gunfighter, silent yet skilled. As the duels commence, Topo seemingly gains strength in his victories yet grows increasingly prideful. And as the saying goes, pride comes before the fall. After a stunning betrayal, Topo is seemingly left for dead.

    Years pass until he unexpectedly awakens within the bowels of a hidden cave dwelling. Inhabited by an assortment of physical freaks, El Topo is reborn as a monk sporting a shaved head and newfound humility. Trapped within the mountain and essentially left to die, the cave dwellers look upon Topo as a savior to finally bring them into the light. Reinvigorated by new purpose, El Topo ventures forth from the caves and into the surrounding town with a female dwarf companion. Expecting to find a home for law-abiding God-fearing folk, what the duo stumbles upon is a township awash in cultish, religious fanaticism and playful slaughter. The town’s introduction includes a hunt for non-believes which leads to both execution by firing squad as well as dragged around the dirt streets like tin cans strung from a honeymoon car.

    Events only escalate leading to the film’s horrific climax which is an absurd mix of horrific genocide and divine vengeance. People die, blood flows, but ironically inner peace is achieved. To describe it any further would blunt the shock that first-time viewers are subjected to. El Topo is a freakish mix of avant-garde, art cinema and cheap, grindhouse Western. Aiming to provoke as visceral a response as possible, Jodorowsky employs buckets of blood and reams of bullet fire not unlike fellow contemporary Sam Peckinpah. However, whereas Peckinpah’s use of violence ironically points to the tragically realistic horrors of violence, Jodorowsky’s seems instead more interested in merely shocking the viewer with as much blood and guts as he can get away with.

    While the visceral effect is certainly effective, it does leave one questioning if you’re simply watching violence for merely violence’s sake which in general is as boring a tactic as you can get in film, just check out the average action flick for proof. Yet El Topo’s cultural influence cannot be understated whether it be as the launching ground for the whole midnight movie movement that swelled in the 70’s or how it captured the quasi-mystical zeitgeist of the era. Many people love the film, others detest it; after watching it for yourself, it’s easy to understand both perspectives.

    The third feature, The Holy Mountain, is either Jodorowsky’s crowning artistic achievement or an obtuse, turgid mess of visual provocation and quasi-New Age spiritualism going off the rails. The plot, which the film loosely adheres to, concerns a quest for spiritual enlightenment undertaken by a group of assorted characters. Each one hails from a disparate walk of life and is meant to represent a planet of the solar system. They are trained and led by a mysterious Alchemist (played by none other than Jodorowsky of course) who occupies an enormous spire that houses his various alchemical devices and collaborators.

    Their collective goal is to shed their past lives in order to spiritually cleanse themselves for a great battle. Upon a distant, holy mountain reside the very gods who control the universe. By undertaking this physical and spiritual journey, The Alchemist and his disciples plan on displacing these gods and becoming rulers of the universe themselves. If there is one thing you can say about Jodorowsky among others, his films certainly do not pretend to be modest. In one particularly overblown sequence, a thief who has come to kill the Alchemist is instead foiled by the master and subjected to one of his experiments. Through a series of odd chemical reactions and incantations, the man literally watches a pile of his own excrement transformed into ingots of gold. I kid you not. Jodorowsky does use the scene to comment on the idea of personal transformation and potential, however despite the scene’s metaphor it’s hard to put past the actual imagery itself.

    Besides that number, Jodorowsky takes his penchant for sacrilegious pageantry to the extreme with skinned sheep crucified and paraded as totems, Christ on the Crucifix plastic molds, and other such mockery. You could argue that Jodorowsky’s intentions are akin to Bunuel’s in that they both openly mock Christian iconography and values. However, Bunuel’s provocations always held more incisive criticism of Christian dogma as well as a commanding knowledge of the religion itself. Jodorowsky’s, on the other hand, appear again like his violence to simply be in service of basic moral provocation which does work but not nearly as well as it could if it was focused by intellectual rigor.

    What the director does get right and is interesting in portraying is these notions of spiritual journeys and transcendence which fall into various degrees of Zen spirituality accompanied by the occultist passion for the Tarot. A renowed Tarot expert himself, Jodorowsky spends a great deal of time on this ground; whether or not you are interested in such material is up to you yet at least in this avenue he does appear to actually have things to say. When viewing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film, the viewer is left to choose whether or not he or she has just viewed works of cinematic genius or obtuse drivel. Both opinions are valid and there certainly is abundant support for each one.

    However, to peg the man as merely genius or charlatan is missing the point. Yet these films are shockingly violent and exploitive but they also strive to employ cinema as a medium for spiritual expression and education. Jodorowsky shows us the dark side of humanity because he realizes that in order to truly face and appreciate the light, we have to muck about in the dark, repugnant side of life. And visually, there are few filmmakers today who would have the sheer guts, much less ability, to get away with the antics that his movies employ. Blood, gore, sex, nudity, these are all but colors in his palette and those are but the basics.

    As his works progressed, especially when you get to The Holy Mountain, the imagination involved progressed through leaps and bounds to bring ever stranger, fevered visions to the screen. Whether or not they succeed is up to you but the point is, Jodorowsky had the guts to take such chances and whether or not the film succeed or fail artistically, they are still spectacles that deserve to be seen and after so many years in the legal wilderness have a chance to. Genius, hack, provocateur, shaman, Alejandro Jodorowsky is all of these things and more and his films are finally available to the mass public to watch what until now had only been whispered about.

    For more information on this title, go to www.anchorbayentertainment.com.
    The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky


Arts Alliance America

  • Alice Neel

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Alice Neel was one of the most penetrating portrait painters of the late twentieth century; her portraits not only of celebrities but everyday people possess a piercing quality as though Neel was able to see through a subject’s outward surface and somehow work her way into the person’s soul, rendering them illuminated yet starkly naked. And yet, Alice Neel was also a mother and unfortunately the tension that existed between those two facets of her life led to consistent emotional strain not only on herself but the children she left behind. Much of the documentary Alice Neel, released by Arthouse Films and Arts Alliance America, touches on this explicit tension between the artist and parent as Neel struggled much of her life to gain recognition for her work while trying to raise her children as best as she could to not always the best result.

    Directed by her grandson Andrew, the film feels less of a standard biography and more of an exorcism in a way, as the younger Neel confronts both his father, uncle, and other family members as they grapple with their now-famous mother and the consequences her life had on their own existences. Andrew does as much as he can to illuminate Neel’s biography without resorting to the standard myth-making that much of her life was subjected to, instead delving in deep to share with the viewer her early life and painting training, her marriage to a notable Cuban artist which resulted in a daughter that the couple soon lost to disease followed by yet another who was taken from Neel by her husband back to Cuba after their union dissolved.

    Alice though continued to push forward though, acutely aware of the limitations placed upon women yet determined to break through them at all costs. In time she would be involved in a number of different relationships with men, which led to the birth of her two sons Richard and Hartley. Andrew’s father, Hartley comes off very much like one of Alice’s paintings, often unwilling to open up yet his face and demeanor betray the memories and conflict that life with Alice brought at times. The younger Neel’s camera penetrates Hartley as deeply as Alice’s brushstrokes cut through the psyches of her subjects. Her other son Richard however openly vocalizes his resentment towards Neel’s bohemian lifestyle and the consequences it had on both himself and Hartley as they lacked a normal, stable home life.

    While Hartley became a physicist, Richard became a die-hard conservative, turning his back completely on his mother’s way of life yet still unable to completely repudiate her. As difficult as life was for her boys because of her manner, Alice still managed to hold onto their love both in life and death. However, all this talk of family should not distract from the quality of Alice’s paintings themselves, with commentary from both critics and famed artists like Chuck Close, Marlene Dumas, and Alex Katz the viewer gains an informed perspective of why Alice’s paintings speak so deeply to those who gaze upon them.

    The tragedy of course was that for so many decades she was virtually ignored by the mainstream art world, gaining recognition finally as the feminist movement took root and Neel being recognized as a pioneering feminist icon due to both her talent and persistence in the face of constant rejection and struggle. And while late in her life, Alice Neel finally enjoyed a modicum of success that she had strived decades towards, it does not appear to have softened the hard feelings some in her family still have towards her. In the end though, Andrew Neel’s documentary is as riveting as one of his grandmother’s portraits, complex and rich with conflicting emotions yet digging deep at the truth no matter the costs. A tale of affirmation and caution that does not attempt to confirm a myth but be honest, plain and simple.

    For more information on this title, go to www.artsallianceamerica.com and www.arthousefilms.com.
    Alice Neel
  • Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Jack Smith, some will lead you to believe, is essentially the wellspring of modern, performance art and underground film. That is basically director Mary Jordan’s position in her fascinating documentary, Jack Smith and The Destruction of Atlantis now available on DVD courtesy of Arts Alliance America and Arthouse Films. And after watching it, her position can certainly be respected with art and film luminaries like John Waters, Tony Conrad, Ken Jacobs, Matthew Barney, and others attesting to Smith’s creatively valued, if commercially abused oeuvre.

    Smith himself grew up an ignored, emotionally abused, Midwestern boy dreaming of a better life throughout his youth. Disdainful of his mother even after her death, Smith’s relationship with his family is expanded upon little beyond his leaving them for New York in the film but one can certainly understand why from the hints provided. It wasn’t until he reached New York that Jack really was able to spread his wings. A master of thrift, he was able to take the city’s detritus, both inanimate and human, and fashion it into his own Technicolor fantasia inspired by the Hollywood films he watched as a kid.

    We can also credit Smith truthfully as the inventor of the “superstar” – refashioning regular people, more often than not social miscreants, into larger than life personalities with flashy names and appearances. One impressive gift that the film provides the viewer is an array of Smith’s early color photography, dazzling to look at even now, Smith showed the vibrancy of this medium’s potential at a time when black and white was still considered artistically dominant. They are infused with the same Technicolor sheen that his films would later come to imbue after this phase in his career had run its course. The film segues into its own next section with Smith’s filmmaking endeavors, namely his banned classic Flaming Creatures.

    Cited by John Waters as a major influence on his own career, Flaming Creatures is an infamous mélange of sexual and aesthetic power – a transgressive orgy showcasing naked actors and superstars including transsexual Maria Montez (christened as such by Smith from lowly Mario Montez, becoming a star in his own right) with its images of writhing naked bodies and seemingly lewd deeds. The film was more often than not shut down by the authorities with no less than New American Cinema maestro Jonas Mekas taking up the film’s cause in defense. However, appearances are deceiving as Smith rails against Mekas in voice over, accusing him of profiteering from the film through the controversy and withholding money earned from its exhibition from its creator.

    This sets up the essential tension within the film’s storyline that would repeat itself again and again in Smith’s life, him trailblazing new artistic concepts and means of expression which others would then latch onto and profit from while he remained essentially penniless. Mekas made a decent amount of money off of Flaming Creatures without Smith receiving hardly anything from it. So while Jack Smith remained creatively rich throughout his life, financially he was forced to live on the kindness of others. Eventually though, he was able to secure a small apartment of his own which he fashioned into his own secret fantasy world, decorating it in lavish colors and props.

    More importantly though, Smith, angered by his lack of compensation, adhered to an anarchist philosophy which emphasized pure freedom, without economics or the villainy that comes with it. He was in all aspects a self-made man, rising from humble beginnings to fashion himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. In time, Andy Warhol would meet Smith who, in no time, appeared in Warhol’s early films as the painter basically co-opted Smith’s vision and film aesthetic in order to proceed to the next stage in his own career as a filmmaker and maker of “superstars” himself. The similarities are insultingly obvious and while Warhol has garnered the lion’s share of accolades for these innovations, Smith continued to languish in obscurity.

    Eventually, Jack Smith would move onto theater, staging personal performances at a loft he stayed at which influenced the then-burgeoning Off Broadway crowd again to no major acclaim. In time though, Smith grew increasing bitter and sabotaged most of his long-lasting relationships with friends in New York, alienating all those around him while suffering from a strange, new disease that was purging the gay community in the early Eighties. While his story is cautionary in many ways, it is time for Smith’s creative legacy to finally shine and the man to receive his due. This film goes a very long way in restoring that reputation. Clips of films that have never been seen before are utilized and for the first time, a mass audience can witness the full breadth of his achievements. Still a legend in the underground, Jack Smith finally has a chance to break through above ground and this film no doubt will play a large role in that.

    For more information on this title, go to www.artsallianceamerica.com and www.arthousefilmsonline.com.
    Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis
  • Obscene

    Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, all authors who have become legends and shaped postwar literature around the world. All were introduced, along with a plethora of others, under the auspices of influential book publisher Grove Press and its associated literary magazine The Evergreen Review. Ran by editor Barney Rosset, Grove Press is the reason that you have the freedom to read classics like Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and a host of other novels that upon their initial publishing were seized by police and labeled as 'obscene'. 

    While not as flashy as the hippies, Grove Press and Rosset both served important roles in the cultural revolutions of the Sixties, all recounted in Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's documentary Obscene, released courtesy of Virgil Filma and Entertainment in association with Arthouse Films. Utilizing an incredible amount of footage from Rosset itself as well as interview with friends, admirers, and praises from people like Gore Vidal, John Waters, and others, Obscene dives into the life and work of a man whose contributions to society, culture, and publishing have proven invaluable due to his belief in expressing one’s self fully and honestly.

    Born and raised in Chicago, Rosset came from a privileged background, attended the famous Francis Parker School (where he became best friends with future cinematographer Haskell Wexler), and went on to college. It's fitting that he attended such a well-known, progressive school because early on, Rosset was a man who believed in leftist politics in their purest, non-threatening form, a preoccupation with justice, freedom, and equality that would drive all of his endeavours and make enemies as well.

    During World War II, Rosset's father was able to get Barney into the Army Signal Corps where, after his superiors realized he had virtually no experience as a cameraman, stationed him in China until the war's end. A plethora of home movies accompany this early journey from childhood to the war, virtually all of it from Rosset's own collection. Upon returning to the States, Rosset pulled up his stakes though and moved to New York where his marriage to Abstract Expressionist painted Joan Mitchell, would lead to his acquisition of a small printing press that was going out of business essentially. Rosset though had found himself though with an unwitting opportunity though to provide real change as New York was quickly transforming into the world's cultural center. Being in contact with the New York School of painters like Mitchell, Pollock, and De Kooning would be reward enough but he had also read about a new, strange play that premiered in Paris to both acclaim and controversy.

    The play was Waiting for Godot and its author Samuel Beckett, a titan of 20th century theater. Rosset recalls matter-of-factly his relationship with Beckett, both professional and personal, in interviews which provides a welcome glimpse into a man whose stoic visage could be a bit off-putting. Grove Press would become Beckett's American publisher and as is noted in the film, the initially odd decision to represent him (as felt by some) proved correct when the playwright was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Grove had the fortune of being in the right place, at the right time, with just the right sort of people running it. It became an outlet for new, confrontational writers to express themselves and engage with the changing culture.

    Matching its rebel writers, Rosset himself was a bit of a maverick with interview subjects discussing his Irish penchant for drinking and carousing only to show up the next morning on time to work. The real battles though came when he chose to publish Lady Chatterly's Lover, a known book that had already been banned and censured by the authorities. But Barney took the chance and fought the court cases in each city to get it onto book shelves. This was not only a struggle to sell merchandise but to open up freedom of speech for the country. Lady Chatterly led then to Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer, written by Burroughs and Miller respectively and neither of those would be easy tussles. Naked Lunch proved to be rather difficult since the many court cases against it ate up much of the company's income, but these cases had to be won because there was an entire warehouse of copies just waiting to hit bookshelves. If they could win then those books could then fly off the shelves, which is exactly what ultimately happened.

    During this period of unrest, Rosset also put out The Evergreen Review; a literary journal whose first issue featured writings by Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Edward Albee's (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) first play The Zoo Story. Its exploration of Beat writings and later countercultural leanings found favor among the hippies and left-wingers while representing the same thirst for freedom that Rosset himself has always lived by. Barney though still indulged his passion for film though during this time as both producer and distributor. After making a twenty-minute short written by Beckett and starring Buster Keaton, Rosset stayed in the film game and bought the distribution rights for Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow).

    Nearing ninety, the film shows him as busy as ever and outliving contemporaries who marvel at his vitality. While the film has its flaws, notably the Goldstein interview up front which is entertaining but provides a jolting juxtaposition against the background material afterwards, it is important to put the man and his work in context for a society today that frankly has seen many of the gains he helped achieve disappear.

    For more information on this title, go to www.virgilfilmsent.com and www.arthousefilmsonline.com.
    Obscene
  • The Cool School

    Review By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Los Angeles, a city seen as a spiritual and coastal opposite to America’s if not the world’s cultural capital New York. The commonly held perception basically boils down to Los Angeles having the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and warm, sunny beaches while New York has the integrity of Broadway, Off Broadway, and Greenwich Village, a concrete jungle in which the world’s artists converge to dazzle with ever-evolving breakthroughs in art and culture. A bit of a divide to be sure but different strokes for different folks. As such, East Coast aesthetes often look down upon West Coast contributions and many West Coast residents are saddled with a silly inferiority complex that if it ain’t from New York it’s not worth looking at.

    However, the late 50’s and early 60’s heralded a group of artists who broke down these perceptions and inaugurated their own LA-brand of art referred to simply as “the Cool School”. Documentarian Morgan Neville attempts to tap into this particular zeitgeist with his breezy and fun film The Cool School, courtesy of Arts Alliance America and Arthouse Films. Like Greenwich Village, which acted as the de facto capitol and focal point of New York art culture, Los Angeles’s own art revolution (at least in the context of this film) resided in the revered Ferus Gallery. Comprising of two separate galleries, the first being an informal, barebones meeting place for locals which was eventually tossed for a more standard, glossy space on La Cienga (‘the swamp’) Boulevard, Ferus was a nexus point for a group of local artists whose names and work would come to define a unique flavor of Pop Art and design including Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Wallace Berman, and perhaps most revered of all, sculptor Ed Kienholz.

    Together these men would utilize painting, sculpture, ceramics, etc. to evoke the smooth feel and energy of their home town, effortlessly breathing in balmy Pacific coast cool into a Pop Art scene conceived by the likes of Johns, Lichtenstein, Warhol, etc. In fact, the film posits that Andy Warhol’s first major gallery exhibition was held in Ferus itself with his now famous or infamous depending on opinion Soup Can paintings. At the heart of Ferus though lie the tensions between two very different men who for a time collaborated well together. Walter Hopps was a salt of the earth kind of guy who as a teen had met the famed conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. Essentially a populist and arts aficionado, Hopps created Ferus originally to showcase this group of male artists (male being an ever important qualifier, the film does little to showcase female artists making it a rather narrow boys club) whom he believed in even if conventional wisdom said nothing good ever comes out of LA.

    Hopps believed in giving and taking chances which led him to find his initial core of artists in the first place and providing them a space to exhibit in without ridicule or competition. And yet, another player came into the mix in the form of one Irving Blum; a curator with a penchant for Cary Grant impersonation (somewhat forced but fun to watch), Blum represented the rather standard, business-like approach of what the New York scene was evolving into, more selective, less inclusive of others and thinking more economically rather than purely aesthetically like Hopps. The tension that developed between these two men is perfect, old-school drama which would eventually lead to betrayal.

    One aspect of Neville’s film that is hard to avoid is its rather narrow celebration of a big boy’s club, not unlike the Abstract Expressionist scene with types like Pollock and De Kooning moving about trying to out-macho the next guy. The focus on the group’s inner turmoil and rivalries does make for good drama sure but one has to step back and wonder if the filmmakers decision to highlight this at the expense of fully investigating LA’s burgeoning cultural scene with these guys at its center. Only rather glancing looks are made at the rich, imaginative, hot rod, custom car movement that undoubtedly shaped LA cool and outright ignores other aspects such as the city’s solid jazz scene, surf scene, theater, etc. all of which cross-pollinated with each other in evoking the classic gloss and smooth feel of Los Angeles ‘cool’ culture.

    While Ferus was no doubt important in staking a large cultural claim, much to the chagrin of many East Coast types (represented in the film by legendary gallery owner Ivan Karp with his hilariously condescending attitudes towards both the city and artists), to say that this group alone is responsible for the full emergence of Los Angeles’ own unique culture is a bit short-sighted. Yet despite this glaring flaw of omission, Neville and company do take ample time to showcase the artwork itself which works by being reflective of the environment it was born out of.

    In addition to interviews with surviving artists and principals involved in the Ferus scene including Blum and Hopps before his untimely death, long-time actors and artists themselves Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper provide commentary on the Ferus Gallery scene which Blue Velvet fans will appreciate since they get to see Ben and Frank discuss the merits of Kienholz and Hopps. A documentary with Hopper alone talking about Los Angeles and its cultural scene would fascinating to watch and likely far more encompassing than much of Neville’s effort despite the flashy visual style meant to evoke the scene’s visual leitmotifs.

    In the end, the greatest accomplishment the Ferus Gallery and its stable of artists achieved was helping define Los Angeles as its own cultural entity, with no need to copy New York concerns but be both apart of and reflective of the unique place it holds in America. Coming in at 86 minutes, The Cool School should be seen as a great starting point for viewers to being their own investigation into LA’s long and oft-neglected cultural history as there is so much more to discover.

    For more information on this title, go to www.artsallianceamerica.com and www.arthousefilmsonline.com.
    The Cool School


Barrel Entertainment

  • The Bukowski Tapes

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Between 1980 and 1986, famed director Barbet Schroeder worked hard on gathering the financing for his project, Barfly, which eventually would be made in 1987. The film starred Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, the famed alter-ego of American writer and poet, Charles Bukowski. While that film is indeed entertaining and Rourke’s performance of a fictionalized Bukowski interesting, Schroeder had already filmed what in retrospect will be seen as the most important work regarding Bukowski, not only by Schroeder but by any and all directors henceforth. That film is simply known as The Bukowski Tapes.

    While Schroeder was raising the budget for Barfly over those many years, he and Bukowski would meet often, as Bukowski wrote the film’s screenplay. During their nights of drinking and working, Bukowski would regale Schroeder with stories and monologues of his own life and views. As a way to preserve these interesting moments of insight and more than likely to stay productive, Schroeder got together a crew and using the latest video equipment of the time videotaped his sessions with Bukowski. What follows are four hours of these short monologues, each one unconnected from the other but taken as a whole, shining a light on a man who has been shrouded in working-class myth both before and after his death.

    The subjects cover a broad spectrum. In one piece, entitled “The Torture Chamber”, Bukowski takes Schroeder and his crew to his childhood home and describes the beatings he took as a child from his father, talking about the leather strap used on him and how he took his licks. One can glean from the detail that he uses to describe his punishment and the tone of his character, that the memories of all those times in the torture chamber were always fresh in his mind. Another episode shows the crew touring the decrepit, rundown area of East Hollywood with Bukowski reveling in every moment of it, discussing the liquor stores and hotels he’d frequent along with the trouble they entailed.

    One gets the sense of a man returning home, to times gone by but still alive in his head and heart. Bukowski speaks of the downtrodden and ignored because that’s what he is in his heart and he makes sure that you know it as well. In another piece, entitled “The Argument” Bukowski shows how ugly and brutal he can be as a simple argument between himself and his then-girlfriend escalates into abrupt violence. Throughout the episode, Bukowski is uncaring of the video camera recording every move he makes and word he utters as he lays into this woman. While most other people would hide such brutality, whether they are being filmed or not, it is Bukowski’s honesty that allows him to be a complete bastard onscreen. The viewer is left with both revulsion at his actions and respect that he showed his ugliness out in the open rather than waiting to hear the word cut.

    As each vignette begins and ends, one feels the sense of a jigsaw puzzle slowly coming together. Bukowski has always been known for his drinking and the film does not shy away from that obvious facet of his personality. Note the way he drinks a beer and that alone can give a clue into his being. Rather than gently sipping, Bukowski attacks the beer bottle with relish with head thrown back high in the air and the bottle perfectly vertical above him. He attacks the spirits with an intensity and focus that most other people could not contemplate. While others simply enjoy the taste and sensation, Bukowski attacks his alcohol as one may drink their first glass of water after wandering in a desert. For him, the alcohol acts as a friend and enemy; while it may break him down physically, emotionally it allows him to cope with the world around him. Dealing with the traumas of his childhood and the silliness and cruelty of the real world, alcohol becomes Bukowski’s faithful mistress. She has always been there for him and is the only one in the end he really can trust.

    As he illuminates on his life, influences, writing, etc., very soon the viewer becomes less interested in what Bukowski is actually saying and is more enthralled with the man’s presence itself. Echoing the superstition of a photograph stealing one’s soul, that is what this collection of vignettes begins to feel like. Bukowski’s matter-of-fact attitude, his calm tone and demeanor, his broken gentleness reaches out to the viewer and ensnares. By the end, this collection achieves most effectively what no standard fiction film or documentary can, a genuine and uncompromising look into a man’s soul.

    While other films in recent times have been released either about Bukowski directly or indirectly through his fictional work, they all inevitably have to be compared to this, because while all those others are in the end well-produced copies, they can’t compete with the real thing staring you in the face, looking you in the eye, and not backing down for an instant. In the end, that is what Schroeder’s film leaves you with, a man simply staring you down right between the eyes and saying this is who I am, good, bad, and awful and I don’t give a damn whether you like it or not. That was Bukowski and no other film could ever capture that better.

    For more information on this title, go to www.barrel-entertainment.com
    The Bukowski Tapes


BCI Eclipse

  • 638 Ways To Kill Castro

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Since the late 1950’s, the United States of America has suffered from an irritable thorn in its paw that has been practically impossible to dislodge. With the overthrow of Batista’s regime in Cuba in the late 50’s, Cuban leader Fidel Castro shot to international fame and glory. The U.S. public was captivated by this particularly charismatic man, full of swagger and energy. However when Castro revealed his true colors as an ardent Communist and took over American businesses based in Cuba as part of his strategy for a Communist regime, the U.S. government decided it would not stand for such an outrage. Thus began a decades-long obsession with eliminating the Cuban leader that is well-documented in Dolan Cannell’s documentary 638 Ways To Kill Castro, released by BCI Eclipse.

    As the outlandish title suggests, there have been hundreds of unsuccessful attempts on Castro’s life dating from his rise to power to the present day. In a scene befitting any black comedy, former Cuban Intelligence leader Fabian Escalante and an assistant of his literally pour over pages of documents detailing the various plots, trying to maintain an accurate count akin to a pair of macabre accountants. By their best estimate, a little over six hundred attempts were made on Castro’s life, all of them unsuccessful of course. Cannell then introduces the viewer to a number of would-be assassins who recount how at the critical moment, ‘the Beard’ as he was referred to by the CIA got away. The variety of Cuban hatched plots range from a rifleman holding the perfect shot losing his nerve to a plan to fire a bazooka at Castro while he stood in front of the Presidential Palace being scrapped because of the weapon’s cumbersome size, which would have tipped off the authorities when positioned outside the window to acquire the shot.

    However, the CIA also played its hand in attempting to take out the Beard by coming up with schemes as elaborate as poisoned and explosive cigars, LSD attacks in order to make him appear insane, and most overtly, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. As former U.S. officials in the film state, the problem the U.S. government had in trying to kill Castro was finding a way to achieve their objective while hiding its role in such business, for killing a foreign leader is not only morally unethical but illegal as well. It is interesting to note though how many individual plots were approved under each administration since Eisenhower, as the film illustrates quite succinctly. In general, Republican presidents have tended to try harder to wipe out the Beard than Democrats but each have ended up with the same result.

    While at first the film tends to point out the rather absurd comedy of all these bungled attempts to kill one man, it takes a decidedly darker tone when examining the role of U.S. sponsored Cuban expatriates whose activities qualify purely and simply as terrorism. As was previously mentioned, the U.S. government could not directly act against Castro’s regime so they trained many in the Cuban exile community located in Miami to do their dirty work. After a certain point with so many failed plots behind them, some of these military trained dissidents decided to alleviate their frustration by targeting the Cuban public itself.

    One incident that decisively drives this point home was a bombing in the mid 70’s of a Cuban passenger plane containing innocent, Cuban civilians traveling abroad. The film then examines two men who are each suspected of being the mastermind, each one trained by the CIA and living comfortably in the U.S. Touted as freedom fighters by not only their fellow dissidents but by U.S. officials themselves, these men speak with impunity in regards to killing Castro and doing whatever is necessary to achieve that aim. If innocents die then so be it as they feel they are engaged in their own personal war against the Beard himself.

    Time and again, 638 Ways To Kill Castro illustrates not only the hellish and absurd frustration felt by those against the leader, but the man’s own innate charisma. Interviewees note that one of the most irritating aspects of this situation is that no matter how many attempts are made on him, Castro is able to turn it around in his favor and use these attacks to only bolster his support by the Cuban people and put down both the U.S. government and the Cuban exiles. His very presence and persistence is a thumbing of the nose to the United States and that perhaps is the deepest motivation that drives the government still to kill this man. Yet in essentially supporting terrorists to achieve this aim, the film makes a pointed criticism against U.S. foreign policy and the tragic costs that its hypocrisy extols from innocent victims. At turns undeniably funny and thought-provoking, 638 Ways To Kill Castro is an intriguing and always entertaining documentary thriller.

    For more information on this title, go to www.bcieclipse.com.
    638 Ways To Kill Castro


Benten Films

  • The Free Will

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In popular culture and a certain degree of film criticism, German cinema was seen to have reached a creative zenith in the late 1960’s and throughout the ’70s, with the emergence of filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, etc. After Fassbinder’s death in 1982, a certain wind fell out of the sails for many and while Wenders, Herzog, and others continued to work up to this very day it was easy to pontificate, correctly or not, that the New German Cinema they spawned had effectively ended. Recent years have shown though that not only is the German film industry healthy but regaining international attention through high-profile examples like Downfall and The Lives of Others. Yet another intriguing example is director Matthias Glasner’s award-winning The Free Will, recipient of the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear.

    Released by critic-run label Benten Films, The Free Will is a brave film that plunges the viewer into the heart and soul of a love story predestined to fail. We first meet Theo (Jurgen Vogel) as a chubby, young man as he stalks and eventually assaults a young women on a remote ocean shore; with virtually no dialogue, this sequences is second perhaps only to Irreversible’s infamous rape scene in terms of depicting a sexual assault in cool, detached detail allowing the genuine horror and violation of Theo’s deeds to register within the viewer. Cut to nine years later, a much thinner Theo is released from the psychiatric hospital he has been confined to and sent to a halfway house to begin his reassimilation into proper society. Gaining employment at a paper mill, Theo meets the mill owner’s daughter Nettie (Sabine Timoteo) and they improbably forge a connection with each other despite their emotional inner turmoils.

    As Sydney Pollack once noted in an interview, in a love story the main dramatic elements you have are when two people are either falling into love or falling out of it. And despite the brief moments of pleasure and contentment they share with each other, Theo and Nettie’s relationship is threatened by their very own natures. One can only sit back and watch how the chips will fall, almost certain that a happy ending is impossible though certainly not undeserved. The key to The Free Will’s undeniable dramatic weight lies wholly within Vogel’s and Timoteo’s honest performances. As Theo, Vogel (who also acted as the film’s co-writer) lives every day in terror as he tries controlling his ironclad disgust towards women and the raging carnal desires that he is all too aware can lead him back to violence.

    Theo is a man who is forced to live in inhibition; whether he focuses on his work, martial arts training, or incessant physical exercise, Theo tries his hardest to release the energy within him in a positive manner and yet one can help but think not will he strike again but when will he do so. Counterbalancing him though is Timoteo’s Nettie as a young woman who no doubt has been betrayed by men all her life, either through her father’s passive aggressive needling or past lovers doing her wrong. Nettie is a young woman trying to strike out on her own yet as afraid of the world as Theo is, sharing a mutual disgust for the opposite sex as well as sex itself perhaps. The irony is that their emotional damage is what bonds them together so tightly in the beginning, as kindred spirits kicked around and finally feeling understood if not necessarily safe.

    Glasner for his part shoots the film in a detached, documentary-like fashion often eschewing close-ups in order to provide as wide a frame as possible for his characters to occupy as a way to remind the viewer of not only the character’s actions but how they interact with the society around them. The effect is strangely claustrophobic as one can abstractly feel the isolation Theo and Nettie feel as each knows they are unable to connect with anything going on around them. Theo is constantly tempted by the oversexualized imagery and attitudes of the world around him and Nettie is unable to let down her guard towards anyone meaning to shower her with affection out of fear for abuse.

    One particularly brutal scene that should be noted occurs when Nettie seeks out one of Theo’s past victims to shocking result. Whether she is seeking to find forgiveness for her boyfriend from this woman or simply understand him better by examining his past is left ambiguous by Glasner and Timoteo. Yet the meeting results in a scene that is both harrowing and cathartic for both characters involved while being as shocking as anything Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier has ever put up on screen. Divulging more details will spoil it but when you see it, you will understand.

    Despite its near three-hour length and sometimes plodding plot, The Free Will is an emotionally draining yet ultimately satisfying viewing experience. If one were to look for influence from Germany’s film past as it bears upon this film, the undeniable answer is Fassbinder himself. Only someone like good old Rainer could take two people whom not only social convention but you yourself may find repugnant upon introduction and make you not only understand but fall in love with them as their humanity is celebrated unadorned. A powerful piece of work that is honest and uncompromising, serious film fans should take a look at The Free Will, like it or not you will at the very least appreciate it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.bentenfilms.com.
    The Free Will


Blue Underground

  • Made in Britain

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Alan Clarke established himself as one of the more potent and incisive filmmakers of modern British cinema before his untimely death. With a career steeped in the BBC tradition of teleplays, Clarke’s most important work laid in the slice of life portraits that doubled as sharp critiques of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and the damage that her policies wreaked on the country’s psyche. With films like Scum, Clarke tapped into the social apathy and anger that the county had descended into. Another fine addition to Clarke’s cinema of social protest was his 1982 classic, Made in Britain.

    The title is rather fitting as it focuses on the fierce, nihilistic anger that Thatcher’s government had instilled into its very own youth. Tim Roth, in his feature film debut, plays Trevor, a fierce skinhead railing against the system and all forms of established authority. We first meet Trevor after he is once again caught and prosecuted by local law enforcement after smashing a Pakistani man’s window. Due to his prior offenses, Trevor is sent to a government detention center where he is to be held under observation. If he passes, he will be let free, if he fails then he faces stiffer penalties. Immediately upon his arrival at the facility, Trevor butts heads with the administrative staff. Unable to keep his emotions under control, the young man lashes out at everyone and everything in his path.

    On one excursion into town, he vandalizes the local job center after mocking the staff. Eventually, Trevor is confined to quarters and his potential future of permanent imprisonment is laid out before his eyes. Upon learning this knowledge, he merely smiles back acceptingly before railing against the very people keeping him locked up and the corrupt, inefficient system that allowed people like him to be what they are. As time moves on, Trevor spirals down even further into the system itself; his options become increasingly limited and his fate sealed yet he barrels forward unflinchingly.

    The entire piece rests upon Roth’s performance as Trevor, without it the film would fall apart like a house of cards. What Roth brings to the table is his snarling intensity, like a coiled viper he has the ability to snap at anyone or thing and then quickly compose himself into a visage of civility and charm which proves him to be a problematic character to deal with. It is because of this very same charm and obvious intelligence that makes it difficult to root against him yet when he lashes out with his racist tirades and verbal bile one can easily understand the authorities’ wishes to lock him up and throw away the key.

    That we learn relatively little about Trevor’s life and family allows Clarke to use him as an allegorical symbol of what the then-current government’s repressive, chaotic presence had unleashed. Representative of a youth without a chance for fair education, employment, or social empowerment, the only course left to these lost souls was raging against their own culture and people. Clarke and Roth tap into this desperate malaise perfectly and due to the performance’s power and emotional honesty, the film has neither aged nor lost any of its vitriol. Yet another example of Clarke’s brilliance and a film definitely worth seeing if you have the stomach to handle it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.blue-underground.com.
    Made in Britain
  • Scum: Limited Edition

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Filmmaker Alan Clarke undoubtedly is one of the most important directors of late 20th century British cinema. His work, both for television and theatrical release, acutely documents the societal malaise England experienced in the closing decades of the previous century. With a strong grounding in the BBC television drama tradition, Clarke tackled subjects as varied as hooliganism, the sectarian violence in Ireland, and the borstal system which was covered in his film, Scum. Released by Blue Underground, the Scum Limited Edition set, includes both the original banned BBC television version and the theatrical remake produced three years later. Compared to other films like Midnight Express, Scum is an indictment of the borstal system and the physical as well as psychological brutality endured by those trapped within it.

    The film stars a young Ray Winstone as Carlin, a young street tough already hardened by the system when he is transferred to a new borstal, the British equivalent of a juvenile hall. Upon his arrival, he is beaten by the facility’s staff and left victim to the ruling inmate gang who have been alerted to his arrival. While adjusting to his surroundings, Carlin meets an assortment of characters, each sharing in the collective plight of their imprisonment. One young man, Archer, attempts to exacerbate the prison officials through his unusual requests, all justified by the system’s bylaws but which cause no end to his captor’s troubles. Archer comes to represent the psychological brutalization of the prisoners as he is an intelligent, young man who is denied the opportunity to express himself in any other way than acting out as he does. Smarter than those holding him captive, Archer attempts to survive and keep his wits about him while knowing he is one of the few people in this institution with any wits to begin with.

    Despite his initial troubles, Carlin quickly climbs the ranks within the system by asserting himself over his fellow thugs. In a quick coup, he assumes control of the prisoners’ hierarchy and sets about his own agenda, organizing cons, taking out the competition, etc. His journey to the top essentially succeeds because he embraces the brutality and violence around him and knows how to turn it against those in his way. His skill and natural leadership even brings him respect from the borstal’s masters themselves, they realize that with Carlin’s influence on the other inmates it is better to have him with them than against him.

    On the flip side of the coin, there is inmate Davis; a young man who arrived the same day as Carlin himself to this particular borstal. Davis however is Carlin’s antithesis, rather than understanding and using the evil of the system against those around him, Davis attempts to hold onto his innocence and humanity. However, the price he pays is constant harassment and abuse by everyone around him, in ways that neither he nor the audience itself could imagine nor wish on anyone else. With the accumulation of slights against him, it is Davis, not Carlin, who provides the final denouement. It is through Davis that humanity is restored in one brief, fleeting moment among the other inmates, even among Carlin himself who puts aside his own agenda and rails against a system that all too easily breaks men down and robs them of their souls.

    The film itself has an interesting history; first produced as a teleplay for the BBC it was immediately rejected by the government censors and never allowed to air on television. The hard-hitting violence and acidic indictments proved to strong to bear and as a result, it was decided in the supposed best-interests of the public to not broadcast the film. However, despite this decision, Clarke and his producer took a decidedly different track to bring their collective vision of what was actually going on to the masses. After a number of years, the BBC’s control of the film’s rights expired and control reverted back to the writer. Clarke then decided to remake the film as a theatrical release this time, thereby bypassing any possible BBC roadblocks. Bringing back essentially the same cast in their original parts, they remade the film beat for beat, with some additional scenes added in. The film became a success and people were justifiably outraged both at the film and more importantly at the system it depicted so honestly.

    Included in this set are both versions of the film for one to compare. Despite the more blatant and uncompromising acts the theatrical release depicts, it is the BBC version that is actually harder to watch, due to the fact that the grainy 16mm look it employs creates a faux cinema verite atmosphere that tricks one into thinking they are watching an actual documentary and not a fictionalized account. The theatrical version loses this to some degree with its more polished and formal production design. Either way, neither version loses its inherent sting and the performances, which included professionals like Winstone and Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia) and many nonprofessional actors, are pitch perfect. Every inmate has the look of lived-in despair, knowing they are trapped and unable to break away in any way, shape or form. They only have their petty rules and basic leisure to keep them sane and alive.

    Looking back on it, other British filmmakers like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh could have attempted to work with such subject matter, yet it was only someone like Alan Clarke who could evoke the pure, uncompromising desperation of these young men so well and frame it in such a way to be both heart-breaking and beautiful. Clarke was director to many fine British actors of a generation including Winstone, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, etc. All have spoken of this man’s enduring influence on their lives and work. For those unfamiliar with Clarke, Scum is perhaps the best way to introduce yourself to him. You simply have to be willing to dive in and endure the pain.

    For more information on this title, go to www.blue-underground.com.
    Scum: Limited Edition
  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad 

    What Wes Craven and George Romero are to American horror films, Dario Argento is to Italian horror cinema. Simply put, he is the cinematic father of the giallo genre. For nearly forty years now, Argento has been shocking the horror community with his unique and disturbing thrillers. Dubbed by some as the Italian equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock, Argento shares Hitch’s tendencies towards precise visual presentation and a predilection for exploring the dark side of human psychology. His directorial chamber of horrors was unleashed with the unassumingly titled The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which thanks to a new two-disc edition from Blue Underground, is available for all to see and fear.

    The story begins in Rome where an American writer on leave named Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is living with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). While preparing to return home after his extended hiatus, Sam passes by a local art gallery one fateful night and bears witness to a horrible assault inside the facility. A young woman is being attacked by a mysterious man hidden by the shadows. While attempting to gain entry inside to help, Sam is trapped by the double set of security doors and bears witness to the woman’s stabbing. Despite this attack the victim Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) survives and Sam is taken in for questioning. Briefed by the lead inspector, Sam learns that the man whom he barely witnessed is most likely the same serial killer who is responsible for a rash of grisly murders throughout the city. Unwilling to let his only living witness go, the inspector refuses to allow Sam’s exit from Italy.

    Now stuck in Rome yet moved to help find the killer, Sam decides to launch his own investigation on the side. He quickly begins making more substantial progress in his findings than the police themselves. However, Sam’s plans are quickly discovered and as both his own life and that of his loved ones is endangered, the murders themselves continue unabated. As the truth becomes clearer, Sam is shock and horrified by what he learns yet must act quickly before more innocent victims are cut to pieces. What allows The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to hold up as well as it has is not the actual violence itself, for which there is a fair amount but the psychological underpinnings within the story. Central to the plot is Sam’s witnessing the attack itself and the constantly shifting details he recalls from memory. In this capacity, one does not feel as though Sam is recalling events but rather creating them as so often happens with memory itself. This trope of fractured and invented memory easily predates its later usage in such films as Memento.

    Besides that, Argento handles the murders themselves with a clean, precise style that elevates them to near macabre beauty. Like Hitchcock, Argento uses precise film cuts and inserts so that while one never witnesses the entire act in one shot, the accumulation of details communicates the action quite clearly, from the downward slash of a knife to the jagged flash of red as blood splatters across the frame. In terms of performance, the actors play into their parts well, essentially acting out standard roles within a thriller with little to distinguish them outside of their place within the story. Yet once again like Hitchcock, Argento’s film works because the cumulative effect is ultimately greater than the value of its individual parts. Aided by shadowy, evocative photography by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and an effectively sinister score by composer Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a dazzling, satisfyingly gothic thriller by one of Italy’s most valued directors.

    For more information on this title, go to www.blue-underground.com.
    The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
  • The Firm

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As both his career and life were reaching their unexpected, tragic ends, Alan Clarke had reached a creative apex in the 1980’s. The decade had started strong with films such as Made in Britain and Scum which were (and remain) acidic portraits of youth abused by complacent and brutal government policies and the social environments they resultantly spewed forth. Near the end of the 80’s, Clarke continued his streak with both The Firm and his unquestioned masterpiece Elephant, both of which are featured on the Blue Underground DVD release which has carved out a valued niche through making available a number of Clarke’s key works to the American public. This dual release is no exception to that rule.

    The Firm takes place firmly in late 80’s British society, the economy is on the upswing and there is little of the mass social strife of earlier years portrayed on screen. However, the intense ferocity so succinctly illustrated in Clarke’s earlier works reflective of that era imposes itself mercilessly in the form of English hooliganism. These particularly loyal and nasty soccer fans is Clarke’s focus in this particular film and how it acts as an attempt to reassert traditional masculinity in a society that attempt to control if not repress entirely such urges. Described by some as a sort of cinematic brother to A Clockwork Orange, the film certainly shares that film’s portrait of new tribalism and the cruelties that may be inflicted by such individuals.

    Leading the charge is Gary Oldman as Bex Bissell, a successful, middle-class real estate agent with a wife and young son. On the surface, Bex appears to have it all together both financially and personally yet on the side, he is the unquestioned leader of a tough hooligan gang. Fanatical about their soccer as well as the competition amongst local soccer clubs, Bex leads his boys as a sort of Svengali, demanding their respect and unquestioned loyalty. Besides themselves, a number of rival gangs are in constant warfare, whether it be through vandalism of various degrees or out and out physical rumbles, these men eat, drink, and sleep their soccer and club pride and do whatever they can to destroy the competition. Eventually, they learn that England is poised for World Cup success and all the gangs, including Bex’s club, enter into a series of skirmishes in order to wipe each other out so that the last club standing will have the honor to represent England in the tournament and face off against rival hooligans from other countries.

    The battles are bloody and intense and as the pressure mounts on him, Bex’s life begins to spiral downwards as everything in his legitimate life is sacrificed in order to satiate his primal desires manifested through his club. Oldman is electric as Bex, bringing his signature intensity to the role of a man increasing losing his grip on reality while still bringing to light a warmth and sensitivity in particular with his interactions with his young son, which shows him as a man able to lead a conventional, compassionate life if only he could let go of his violent obsession.

    In addition to The Firm, Clarke’s final masterpiece Elephant is included on the disc as well and its presence alone is honestly enough to go out and buy this disc. Credited as the inspiration for Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name (and one of that director’s most compelling works), Elephant is an allegorical investigation into the brutal sectarian violence that ran rampant in Northern Ireland during the 80’s. The film itself is set up as a series of scenes depicting the murders on eighteen individuals committed by sectarian assassins. Neither narration nor conventional plot is imposed on the film’s structure, all we witness are the near silent build ups, the acts committed, and finally the bodies left lifeless. Each scene begins the same way with the viewer following the individual killers as they stalk their prey. We are placed squarely in the point of view of these people, thus implicating us in their mission. Once the murder itself is committed the perspective shifts and we then view the action from a neutral position, allowing us to take in the scene and its dramatic implications.

    As each murder is committed, the constant rhythm of the action lulls the viewer into a sense of mundane complacency. This unthinkable consequence occurs as we become used to what is essentially going to happen and simply go through the motions of observation thus being tricked into witnessing brutal murder as an everyday act. To further heighten the authenticity and edge of the killings, Clarke employs neither music score nor tricky cuts. People are simply gunned down where they stand and the killer walks away. In a way, this is Clarke’s way of criticizing the emotional distancing caused by music and tricks and reminding us that in real life people are snuffed out to a soundtrack. Brilliant in stating its points through sheer cinema, Elephant is a brilliant achievement in both form and content. Taken together both these films act as a one-two combination to the guts of unsuspecting viewers, hopefully leaving them a little shook up and creating a moment to think.

    For more information on this release, go to www.blue-underground.com
    The Firm


Checkerboard Film Foundation

  • Squatting the Palace

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Evoking the intimacy of a home video, Squatting the Palace is valuable in intimately documenting the creative process of one of modern art’s more intriguing practitioners, Kiki Smith. The film is a creative collaboration between the filmmakers Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz along with the Checkerboard Film Foundation. Checkerboard’s purpose is to create and present films that document the exploits of important American artists for both educational institutions and archives primarily. However, as evidenced by the Smith film, this is a company that anyone interested in pursuing the arts should take a serious look at.

    The film itself follows Smith and her assistants as she prepares an exhibition of original work from initial concept to final exhibit. Ultimately, the sketches and pieces that she works on in her townhouse becomes the final show, Homespun Tales: Stories of Domestic Occupation. This particular show was apart of the 2005 Venice Biennale and was well-received by the exhibition’s visitors. The true value of this film lies in recording the process of creation in its most mundane detail.

    Watching Smith work on sketches or molding clay into sculptures is both fun to watch in terms of seeing actual creation yet it shows the process as being intimate and not exactly awe inspiring. What we see is Smith’s attention to detail as she works her given materials into the forms that she responds to. In turn, various people comment on the skill and detail of her work and how that sets her apart from contemporaries. The first section of the film concentrates as both Smith herself and her assistants go from sketches and rough ideas to getting their hands on clay, wood, etc. and beginning to shape the pieces that will become the final exhibit. Along the way, Kiki talks about her own upbringing and parents’ influence on how she lives her life and how she approaches her work.

    The next section of the film concludes with the majority of pieces ready and going to Venice itself to check out the exhibit space and prepare it for the show. There are some great sequences of Smith’s assistants scurrying about the city, collecting and moving materials from place to place in Venice which at times takes on an almost slapstick comedy feel. While preparing the space there, Smith discusses her growing with to do exhibits in established spaces dissimilar from standard museums. Interestingly, she talks about how boring it is to show one’s work in a neutral, empty space as modern museums offer and how it is more engaging to have work displayed in spaces with existing décor, which inevitably results in a dialectic tension which highlights both the work and space more effectively. She hints at her interest in focusing future work in such site-specific avenues as it opens up more creative opportunities for the artist to work with.

    Ultimately, the space comes together and the exhibition is launched. The viewer is then treated to the finished pieces displayed in their proper context. What one has been watching in pieces over the course of the film is finally viewed as intended and all doubts as to Smith’s talent and importance are laid to rest. The film allows the viewer to view with baby steps the gradual creation of this work so that when the final exhibit is displayed, the full impact is allowed to register and one is taken aback by the full power of the finished work in context and more fully appreciates Smith’s vision in being able to conceptualize such an exhibit and then quietly go about in its execution. That becomes the final testament to Smith in this film, one that is worth viewing for anyone interested in not only Kiki Smith’s art but Kiki Smith itself and the process of artistic creation itself.

    For more information on this title and other Checkerboard films, go to www.checkerboardfilms.org.
    Squatting the Palace


Cinema Epoch

  • Ten Nights of Dreams

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In recent years, Japanese genre cinema has penetrated American culture steadily through the popularity of such “J-horror” remakes The Ring and The Grudge. Admittedly, that fad has come and gone at this point, however that is not to say that the original films themselves, nor their atmospheric look are inferior (that honor belongs squarely to the remakes). And yet, that wave gave US audiences an idea though of how visually rich modern Japanese film is as well as the kinds of stories that pop up there.

    Another fantastic example of this surreal, visual movement lies in the omnibus film Ten Nights of Dreams, released courtesy of Cinema Epoch. Comprised of ten separate short films, Ten Nights provides a wide range of visual candy to gobble up as well as a variety of Japanese filmmakers, both current and legends, that most gaijins probably would never have heard of before. Amongst the luminaries involved are the late legend Kon Ichikawa, mentioned often in the same circles with Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu, and Takashi Shimizu, J-horror master and the brains behind The Grudge. The film’s overall structure is provided by revered Japanese author Natsume Soseki’s short-story collection of the same name.

    Soseki himself plays a reoccurring figure throughout the tales as he struggles to commit to paper dreams and nightmares he supposedly has slept through. These range from ghost stories to fantasy to wacked-out hybrids in the vein of Takashi Miike’s work. In turn, eleven different directors (nine individuals and one directorial duo) each take a tale and materialize it before our eyes. Again, Soseki himself provides a welcome through-line between the stories which otherwise would risk seeming too disjointed to cohesively work together.

    In this sense, Ten Dreams reminds me of Michelangelo Antonioni’s late film Beyond the Clouds. Based on his own book, Beyond the Clouds recounts a film director who mulls over different film ideas in his head, all of which play out as fragmented shorts. Both films share the trait of illuminating a creator’s inner thoughts and imagination through fiction. Soseki’s stories are loaded with metaphors for family, individuality, struggle, etc. By turns terrifying and entrancing, the overall impact of the stories is one of deep wonder and introspection.

    In terms of filmmaking itself, all of the directors step up to the plate of translating surreal source material into visually arresting material. Not all shorts come out equally as can be expected but there are standouts, particularly the Ichikawa silent, black and white take on Zen ‘no-mind’ and Shimizu’s horror story of Soseki facing the death of his own son under dark circumstances, infusing dream and reality together in an ambiguous mix. At film’s end though, the cumulative effect again is arresting. A fine example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

    For more information on this title, go to www.cinemaepoch.com.
    Ten Nights of Dreams
  • The Love Girls

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The age of the grindhouse film and sexploitation film are sadly behind us now for the most part. It’s a shame because while the bulk of these films have never gained too much critical regard, they are still fun to watch and enjoy on their own terms. In recent times, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Joe Carnahan among others have paid homage to this vein of cinema. While that is certainly encouraging, nothing beats checking out the real deal though and courtesy of Cinema Epoch, one such example now lies waiting to be snapped up by curious viewers to do with as they please. The film is called The Love Girls, and by God don’t let yourself fall too deeply under their seductive sways and voluptuous dispositions.

    The film stars Forman Shane as Jerry, a typical college guy who spends more time looking at the ladies than at his books. He is involved in a relationship with a foxy, blonde coed named Sheila (Diane Michaels) whom he desires but is entirely uninterested in sex. In order to satisfy his kicks, Jerry falls into a deep spiral of voyeurism. Whether it is skulking about in adult bookstores to watch peep show loops or driving down to Tijuana to check out a live strip tease/lesbian sex show, Jerry does it. We’re left unsure how much he’s actually enjoying himself but what does that really matter. Soon though, Jerry begins to suffer from strange hallucinations as the visions of women he fantasizes about merges with his everyday reality.

    Unable to tell real from unreal, Jerry starts cracking up and if left unchecked, faces real danger on his life. Well that’s the plot basically, but in an old-school sexploitation movie like this, plot is about as substantial as it is in modern-day pornography. It provides a nice setup but not too necessary afterwards. Jerry’s voyeuristic abandon allows the filmmaker and viewers to gaze upon mounds of ‘60s naked flesh from women in Gidget haircuts and Bettie Page lingerie. To feel ashamed about watching so many naked girls on screen is beside the point, it would be like watching The Passion of The Christ while having a problem with blood and violence. The fun in watching this film is that it is titillating in a fashion that by today’s standards downright innocent strangely enough.

    Scenes of lesbianism and sadomasochism, though while not probably practiced on a daily basis by most regular folks, are treated here with exotic danger and lust as though the curtain has been pulled back to reveal that which must not be named let alone seen. In fact, little of real substance is seen but rather insinuated although the sorority initiation/S&M domination ceremony is perhaps the most genuinely dangerous and surreal sequence by far. And Jerry’s voyeuristic compulsion can be linked to other such examples by far more prestigious films and filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and most David Lynch movies.

    But most of that is besides the point, The Love Girls is a fun time capsule to watch and imagine the context it was produced in. Who were the sorts of people that watched these films? Where were they screened? What about the people who made them, both in front of and behind the camera? And if you don’t like that, you have plenty of beautiful, buxom women unafraid of showing skin and who could resemble your mother or grandmother in old photos. At a brisk sixty-one minutes, you have nothing to lose and only a fun, silly, good time to be had if you’re in the right mood to accept it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.cinemaepoch.com.
    The Love Girls
  • The Underneath

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A seemingly, placid lake provides a perfect metaphor for the psychological sublimations in The Underneath, released on DVD courtesy of Cinema Epoch. Co-written and directed by Polish filmmaker Marek Gajczak, The Underneath has shades of early Roman Polanski sexual tension, ala Knife in the Water, coupled with a clean, crisp look that befits modern Eastern European filmmaking.

    The story unfolds innocently enough at a remote lake in the Polish wilderness Piotr, a depressive writer who has been invited to a weekend at the lake by his wife Iza’s ex-boyfriend Michal to go over some advertising pitches. What should have played out as a mildly irritating weekend with Michal is turned upside down for Piotr when he meets Ania, Michal’s latest girlfriend. Young, full of energy, and lacking restraint, Ania is a sensuous vixen imbued with an inner light of innocence. Piotr immediately takes notice and begins watching her with an equal mix of intrigue and guilt-filled lust.

    Observing her swim naked in the lake, ogling over her taut body, these pastimes only cause Piotr to obsess over her to the detriment of his relationships with Iza and Michal. As their weekend continues unfolding, Piotr confronts his obsession with Ania while practically ignoring his marriage’s disintegration. As mentioned earlier, the lake becomes the film’s overarching visual metaphor in regards to Piotr’s inner landscape. On its surface, it is placid and non-threatening like Piotr’s overall passive aggressive demeanor. Yet beneath it lies dark currents which swell, often with naked bodies in it, again not far off from our man’s obsessive psyche as he constantly places Ania in his mind, building her up as some sort of feminine ideal above reproach. Languid underwater sequences and slow motion shots have the look and feel of a Victoria’s Secret ad but in this instance are well-suited to the subject matter.

    The story turns dark when Piotr finally acts out his sexual tension on her in a horrifying sequence that is both shocking and surprisingly expected. The subplot involving Michal and Iza’s continuing relationship (at least hinted at) provides further layering to the story and justification for Piotr’s new interest. In that respect, the triangle between Piotr, Isa, and Michal alone would make a worthy thriller but with Ania thrown into the mix, the power plays are only heightened. In the end though, lives are changed at least for the moment with one man finally confronting his own dark nature. An interesting, sensual drama that’s definitely worth taking a look at.

    For more information on this title, go to www.cinemaepoch.com.
    The Underneath
  • Young Yakuza

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    An Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, Young Yakuza is an intriguing look into the world of Japanese organized crime that manages to hold your attention when not showing any crime at all. An agreement between the film’s director Jean-Pierre Limosin and the yakuza gang’s leader before shooting explicitly forbade any illegal activity from being recorded. The question then begged is, what else is there to show in yakuza life? The answer is well-provided as Limosin uses a young Japanese kid named Naoki, as the means through which to crack the yakuza shell.

    At the film’s beginning, a meeting occurs between Naoki’s mother and a local yakuza concerning the boy’s future. Refusing to show their faces on camera, they discuss his delinquent habits and overall lack of ambition. The yakuza suggests that to make ends meet, he introduce Naoki to his boss to apprentice under them. Perhaps a life of crime is just what Naoki needs to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Sure enough we meet the kid in question; with a face full of acne and a scruffy beard, Naoki has the demeanor of almost any teenage slacker not interested in too much. He is introduced to the gang’s leader, Kumagai, and offered the chance to live and apprentice under the yakuzas for a one-year period. If he completes his time there and shows promise, he will then be accepted into their ranks.

    However, instead of learning how to run numbers or doing target practice, Naoki is taught the proper procedure to serve the boss’s tea to him (cup placement, when to bow, etc.) as well as the daily duties required to maintain the organization’s headquarters. Essentially a house servant, our lead is made to wear coveralls and learn the organization’s rules while cooking dinner. At first it makes for rather banal viewing material and yet that’s what’s fresh about what Limosin is able to show us. We see that despite whatever underhanded plots may occur off-screen, day to day life in the gang is routine followed by even more banal routine.

    We’re denied the glitz and glamour seen in the movies in large part due to the aforementioned agreement but even more so due to police efforts to remove yakuza influence from local businesses. Kumagai informs us of the police’s cooperation with local businesses, which in turn refuses to even allow yakuzas on their premises let alone be hustled by them. Driven away like lepers, Kumagai adjusts his world view and operational practices in order to survive in this new culture that seeks to squeeze people like him out of existence for good. Time passes and Naoki continues his apprenticeship, until one day, he mysteriously disappears. No one in the organization, let alone the director knows where the hell he has gone.

    This would provide an obvious dilemma for most documentary filmmakers in that the film’s opening hook has left and taken with him the overall narrative structure that had evolved up to that point. Refusing to quit though, Limosin presses ahead and instead places all his focus on Kumagai himself, the real star. Eschewing old-school, hardass tactics, Kumagai rules with a moderate, CEO-like hand; he allows recruits the option to quit their apprenticeship without harm if they wish and is more interested in adapting his clan to the changing times than remaining staunchly traditional and thus irrelevant.

    He uniquely understands the grave risk his kind faces as the youth today, as he says, no longer see the allure of their ways and law enforcement further tightens the screws. After Naoki’s departure, more young yakuza are arrested and Kumagai’s own position is threatened. But the world-weary leader remains defiant, strutting down the street at night with his entourage, he discusses the old days when yakuza ruled the streets at night without trouble. The scene plays as if instead we are watching cowboys stare down the end of the Old West in some Sam Peckinpah western. This juxtaposition of Kumagai’s pride versus the reality he and his clan face provides the perfect closing note for this fascinating and unexpected look into the Japanese underworld.

    For more information on this title, go to www.cinemaepoch.com.
    Young Yakuza


City Lights Home Entertainment

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released in conjunction with City Lights Home Entertainment and Amazon.com, Hector Babenco’s Academy Award-winning film Kiss of the Spider Woman finally comes to DVD. Hailed as an independent classic that was responsible for actor William Hurt’s Oscar for Best Actor, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a powerful rumination on the dual forces of imagination and political terror. Based on Manuel Puig’s acclaimed novel, the film is also a landmark for its financial and critical popularity while dealing with explicit homosexual imagery and issues that predate later landmarks like Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain.

    Unfolding within an unnamed South American country (meant to evoke dictatorial regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, take your pick), the viewer is trapped within a concrete and steel prison cell with Valentin (Raul Julia) and Molina (William Hurt). A political prisoner being held captive and tortured to extract vital information, Valentin is a confrontational survivor always suspicious of his surroundings, especially Molina. When we first meet both men, Molina is regaling Valentin with the story of one of his favorite films, a Nazi propagandist melodrama starring one of his favorite actresses (played by Sonia Braga). The film within a film concerns the sordid affair between a French chanteuse and a Gestapo officer who falls in love with her and seeks to crush a French Resistance cell.

    Valentin quickly notices and criticizes Molina for his political naiveté to which Molina can only respond with needing his imagination in order to survive in such dire circumstances. Over time though, both men begin to shed their protective walls and open up to one another. Molina recounts his life on the outside, wanting to be with other men, and constantly seeking love from others outside of his mother. Valentin, in turn, shares his own past and reasons for being imprisoned, which was caused as much by a fear of love as political determination. However, appearances are not all as they seem and one begins to question Molina’s interest in his cellmate as signs point towards possible collaboration with the authorities.

    Valentin, meanwhile, begins to honestly examine the depth of his political activism and personal desires. The lives of these two men intertwine in unexpected ways as both understand and appreciate the value of fantasy in keeping one’s self alive in confinement. When critics and fans discuss Kiss of the Spider Woman, it almost always beings with Hurt’s Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Molina. Indeed, Hurt’s tall patrician frame and blonde hair are made to serve a fairly delicate interpretation of a man who should have been born as a woman. Despite his sometimes elaborate costuming and effeminate manner, to perceive Molina as some sort of drag queen is to misread his intention. Molina, in today’s society and technology, would more than likely be a transsexual; allowed to finally be able to physically express the emotional being that lies inside the wrong body. Hurt’s performance does at times feel a bit too exotic than it should be but his craftsmanship and respect for the character allows him to express Molina’s humanity, flaws and all, without resorting to kitsch or passing judgment.

    However, to only focus on Hurt takes far too much attention away from Raul Julia’s underappreciated work as Valentin. Succumbing to cancer far too early in life, Julia in this role has to pull off a carefully steady modulation in tone as a man who hides behind a militant pride and spirit, refusing to let the torture by his captors break him, to allowing deeper reservoirs of understanding and even regret puncture the shield he so bravely maintains to survive. Julia essentially has to build an emotional house at the very beginning and spend the remainder dismantling it brick by brick. It is a somewhat subtle performance without the benefit of exoticism or flash but which is essential to play off of Molina’s own flamboyant posturing. Thankfully, the scenes of torture are only hinted at but Julia still communicates the physical and psychological abuse Valentin endures and leaves the details themselves to the audience’s own imagination.

    Sonia Braga, in her English-speaking debut, pulls off a triptych of characters (the French chanteuse, Valentin’s bourgeois girlfriend, and the titular Spider Woman herself) that exist mostly in fantasy but provide both men reprieve from their daily humiliations. In essence, she is a phantom in these men’s lives, more imagination than reality but like Fellini’s own films (Spider Woman itself has a rather 8 ½ ending) that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the film is ultimately dominated by the performance of two veteran theater actors playing roles that have come to dominate all work they’ve done since then. The intimacy between them is undeniable and like Brokeback Mountain, the gay subtext is pushed aside in favor of two human beings able to connect with each other on the deepest possible level, despite sex and politics.

    For more information on this title, go to www.citylightsmedia.com and www.kissofthespiderwoman.com.
    Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • The Ten

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Writer/director David Wain is one of the more unappreciated comedic talents in American film today and without good reason. As one of the writers and performers on MTV’s cult sketch comedy show The State, Wain first came to prominence among Gen X’ers with his intelligent yet irreverent brand of humor. Since then, he has been apart of the stand-up comedy group Stella (featuring fellow State alums Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black) and directed his own take-off on the summer camp movie with Wet Hot American Summer.

    For his follow-up, Wain decided to climb up the thematic ladder by tackling the Ten Commandments in The Ten, released courtesy of City Lights Home Entertainment. Thankfully, Wain uses the pious subject matter simply as a starting point for a number of interwoven sketches that are hilarious, intelligent, and at times tasteless but still enjoyable to view. The film’s structure is quite simple to follow which is freeing for Wain and cast to have some manic fun.

    Everyman Jeff Reigert (Paul Rudd) whom the viewer meets standing in a non-descript, empty room with the exception of two giant replicas of the famous Ten Commandments tablets. Jeff’s primary purpose is to act as the film’s MC, introducing each story via its corresponding commandment. All in all, he’s a pretty amiable guy who probably shouldn’t have gotten the gig however given his own personal swamp of a marriage and infidelity on the side. Whether he’s emotionally badgered by his frustrated wife Gretchen (Famke Janssen) or quietly disgusted by his undeniably hot but infantile Liz (Jessica Alba), Jeff’s own moral compass is a bit off but he’s still undeniably a good guy who still manages to get his job done.

    With ten commandments to play with, Wain scores a pretty good average laughs-wise. Particular clever tales include that of Stephen Montgomery, a young man (played by Adam Brody) who due to a freak skydiving accident is buried in the ground with only his head and partial torso exposed much to his fiance’s (played by Winona Ryder) dismay. However, fortune shines its light on this tragedy and soon Montgomery becomes a media star attracting enough attention to become worthy of idol worship. However, like a typical E True Hollywood Story episode, Stephen’s success only leads to heartbreak and disappointment after the initial shine wears thin. A fine skewering of media overexposure and celebrity worship, this first tale demonstrates Wain’s overall strategy of using the commandments as mere starting points to simply make the viewer laugh his or her ass off.

    Unfortunately, some tales such as those involving coveting neighbors and cartoon rhinos (you’ll understand once you see it) don’t work quite as well. In regards to the commandment against killing, all I can say is murder should probably never be treated as a goof, if you see the film you’ll understand. However, the two best segments involve prison rape and sex with a wooden dummy which Wain is still able to justify with a commandment each. To illustrate the concept of adultery, Wain follows the budding penitentiary romance between an irresponsible surgeon (played by co-director and writer Ken Marino) and a new transfer (The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry). Marino’s character is consistently mouth and ass raped by his middle-aged thug of a cellmate however he knows that the feeling just isn’t there anymore. Couple that with Marino’s attraction to Corddry’s sensitive prison mate and you have a post-Brokeback love story that is on one level absurd and hilarious while on another oddly moving.

    And of course, there’s Winona Ryder and the wooden dummy; her character, originally Stephen Montgomery’s fiancé, finds herself strongly attracted to a ventriloquist dummy which she oddly believes is a real person. After stealing said dummy (no need to point out the irony here given Ryder’s recent past), the duo engage in activities worthy of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s work. Disgustingly funny yet emotionally engaging, a segment which is supposed to signify thou shalt not steal instead morphs into a parable about finding new love and emotional redemption. In the end, all of these tales overlap creating a weird, alternate universe worthy of the State itself. Most importantly, Wain and his inspired band of pranksters use pious religion to fire off his patented mix of stupid genius to provide laughter for all.

    For more information, go to www.citylightsmedia.com.
    The Ten
  • The Year My Parents Went On Vacation

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A political history wrapped up in a nostalgic childhood story, that’s a fair description for Brazilian filmmaker Cao Hamburger’s touching film The Year My Parents Went On Vacation, released on DVD courtesy of City Lights Home Entertainment. Selected as Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Awards, Vacation is a poignant evocation of a unique time in Brazil’s history loaded with incredibly possibility as well as blind oppression. Seen through the eyes of 10 year-old Mauro, Vacation takes places in the pivotal year of 1970.

    At this time, the country was under control by an oppressive military regime determined to stamp out opposition by any means necessary while its national soccer team was preparing to play for its third World Cup. With a team that boasted the incomparable Pele, Brazilians placed much of their hope in securing a third title and Mauro is no exception. The plot begins unfolding as Mauro and his parents pick up and leave their home in the countryside due to their communist affiliations. Knowing what will happen to them if arrested, Mauro’s parents decide to go into hiding but know they cannot take the boy with them for fear of his life.

    The only option left available is sending the boy to stay with his paternal grandfather in Sao Paulo. Instructing Mauro to say they are ‘on vacation’, they leave the boy to his own devices believing his grandfather will care for him. However, tragedy unexpectedly strikes and Mauro is left in the care of his grandfather’s neighbor Shlomo, a Hasidic Jew with little patience for the boy at first. Not knowing where the boy’s parents are but suspecting their reasons for leaving him there, the local Jewish community takes Mauro under their wing to watch over until someone comes to get him. As he waits for the World Cup competition to begin, Mauro befriends the local children including an enterprising young girl named Hannah, who brings Mauro out of his shell and integrates him with her friends and shows him to be a regular kid in these circumstances.

    Meanwhile, as the games begin and Brazil edges closer to the championship, Shlomo and a university student acquainted with the parents try to find Mauro’s parents without upsetting the very authorities hunting them as well. On a basic conceptual level, Vacation resembles the Claude Berri film The Two of Us as an evocation of childhood lived under dangerous circumstances yet without sacrificing one’s innocence. As Mauro, young actor Michel Joelsas is a real discovery as an adorable boy with genuine, unforced acting skill and an ability to evoke pathos that makes one fall in love with him and yet feel sad at his predicament. Visually, the 1970’s look is perfectly captured as is the particular tonal ambiguity of political repression coexisting with the cultural exuberance created by Pele and company’s amazing game play.

    And there is always a delicate balance held by the filmmakers to make the audience aware of the government’s oppressive means while still hiding them from Mauro himself until they are finally imposed upon him and those he loves. The dark side of Brazil at this time is dealt with obliquely with Mauro’s loneliness and longing for his parents providing most of the emotional left to the plot’s subtext. From a country and film culture that is better known right now for gunslingers and drug dealers staked out in the favelas, The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is a welcome addition and change of direction in examining other aspects of the country’s history while still reiterating to viewers everywhere the universal emotions and desires we all share.

    For more information on this title, go to www.citylightsmedia.com.
    The Year My Parents Went On Vacation


Criterion Collection

  • 4 by Agnes Varda box set

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Constantly mixing both documentary and fictional narrative, Agnes Varda’s position as a daring filmmaker is examined and appreciated in the new box set 4 by Agnes Varda per the Criterion Collection. Featuring a selection of films from Varda’s early career as well as one of her late masterpieces, the set effectively showcases a number of highlights in her filmography and provides a cross-section for both old and new fans to watch.

    The set’s first film is appropriately enough Varda’s own debut, La Pointe Courte, which began the experimental blending of documentary and fiction that became a staple of her overall approach to filmmaking. The film takes place in a small French fishing village on the Mediterranean, in and of itself a main character as Varda shoots it with various long takes making sure to devour as much detail and grit as possible. Split essentially into two alternating tracks, the first track involves the dissolving marriage of a young couple (played by Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who visit the village as it is the man’s childhood home.

    As they travel along its various points of interest, they delve into hidden disappointments and question their commitment to one another. Complicated and literate, their interactions speak to the perpetual work and compromise that every romantic relationship endures. The second track involves delving into the lives of the various real fishermen in the village as they struggle against competing market forces and exploitation. This second track looks and feels very rooted in the Italian neorealism of Visconti, evoking films like La Terra Trema in both subject matter and tone while still injecting a whimsical touch in spots. All in all, the film is a solid debut artistically that would lay the groundwork for Varda to further experiment in both subject and structure.

    After La Pointe Courte comes Cleo from 5 to 7, Varda’s classic New Wave experiment in real time. The film famously follows the events in pop singer Cleo’s (Corinne Marchand) life within a two hour period as she waits on important medical test results. Varda follows Cleo around as she shifts from a young woman cloistered within fear and celebrity to an individual able to embrace life by accepting the possibility of death that may await her in the aforementioned test results. Adopting a cinema verite-like style that is still infused with various voiceovers and artful shots, Varda continues reshaping documentary’s fly on the wall form with more dramatic, aesthetic techniques.

    Le Bonheur is Varda’s first color feature and it shows in the bold palette she sprays across the screen. A deceptive satire on the conflict between personal happiness and the emotional damage its achievement can create, the film has a tone that feels more allegorical than realistic, dealing with ideal characters making human mistakes that destroy lives. The film follows the affair that a husband Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot) commits against his good-natured wife Therese (Claire Droulot) with a female postal worker. What gives the film a different tone than most other adultery stories is that Francois acts out not out of boredom or malice but simply wish-fulfillment. He loves his wife dearly but wants to be as happy as possible and feels that sleeping with this other woman will only further improve his self-esteem. The consequences of this action are dire but the film is wrapped up in a near-New Age rhetoric of constantly striving for improved self-esteem and fulfillment. It is as sharp thematically as it is beautiful aesthetically.

    The final film is Vagabond, Varda’s ‘80’s masterpiece starring French actress Sandrine Bonnaire in a career-defining role as Mona, a young drifter found frozen to death in a ditch one morning. The film is structured in a Citizen Kane-like series of flashbacks in which individuals who came into contact with her describe their experiences and impressions of her. While we are never able to fully understand her, Mona embodies a sense of powerful, practically self-destructive personal freedom that is both inspiring and disturbing. Sprinkled throughout the various films are special features that include interviews with cast, crew, and most importantly Varda herself who spends much time discussing and reminiscing over these films and what they mean to her. For anyone who has never heard of Agnes Varda, this set is a great crash course that’s definitely worth seeking out.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    4 by Agnes Varda box set
  • 49th Parallel

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced by the famed British team of director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, 49th Parallel stands as one of their earliest efforts as well as a rollicking war-time adventure across Canada enlivened by eclectic performances and topical urgency. A mixture of action and unexpected comedy, 49th Parallel crackles with intelligence and intensity as the viewer follows the progress of abandoned Nazi sailors traversing through Canada in order to reach the United States, at that time still neutral in the war effort. Thanks to this new release by the Criterion Collection, viewers are in for a genuine treat.

    The film begins during World War II prior to the United States’ entry, off the Canadian east coast a German U-Boat arrives in order to disrupt naval traffic and supply runs to Europe. After some initially successful raids, the submarine surfaces off the coast and a small group, led by German lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), travels ashore to seize much-needed supplies. While Hirth and his party are on shore, their ship is ambushed in a surprise attack and sunk thus stranding the Nazis on shore with few options available. Determined to survive, Hirth and his men begin their journey across the Canadian countryside in an effort to elude capture from the authorities and escape to the US-Canadian border, aware that if they cross the border they will be eligible for asylum.

    With the narrative ball set in motion, the film now frees itself up to introduce the viewer to the myriad of characters the wayward Nazis meet along the way. One of the first and definitely most memorable is that of Johnnie, the French-Canadian fur trapper played by none other than a young Laurence Olivier. Olivier’s performance is by turns brilliant and silly, often both simultaneously. Speaking with a thick, forced accent and filled with a certain lust for life, Johnnie is among the first Canadians Hirth encounters and is defiant in his stance against these desperately cruel men. Providing comic relief with his time on-screen, Johnnie also reveals the flip side of the film’s coin tonally with his unexpected departure.

    The film continues along this path as the diminishing group moves from settlement to settlement, encountering people along the way who not only seek to bring these invaders to justice but force them to question their own loyalties to their cause. This is no more evident than when they reach a religious settlement led by an idealistic but world-weary man named Peter (Anton Walbrook). Inspired by their simple, egalitarian way of life, one of Hirth’s men, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) finds himself drawn closer to these people both philosophically and practically until he ultimately decides to join them. The consequences of his actions are sobering as one recognizes their inevitability.

    One by one, Hirth’s men drop like flies during their journey whether by capture or death. Defying common sense, Hirth remains intransigent in his beliefs and purpose, exalting the ideals of Nazism while sacrificing those around him to achieve his goal. In this manner, Hirth becomes a telling symbol of the dangers of blind fanaticism. As the journey draws closer to its inevitable conclusion, Hirth and his remaining men face two eccentric characters as any that have been committed to film. The first, Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) is an effete, British writer on expedition in the Canadian wilderness when Hirth comes across him. Dapper, intellectual, and seeming effeminate, Scott comes across as the personification of English decadence in these men’s eyes, spouting off about literature and art as he proudly displays his Picasso and Matisse paintings within his lavishly decorated teepee. Sensing what they believe to be this man’s innate weakness, Hirth and his associate get the drop on Scott however, in a perfect allegorical reference to the resilience Great Britain showed during the war, it is indeed Scott who proves himself to be the stronger man and reduces Hirth’s company further.

    By the end, standing as the lone survivor on the verge of victory, Hirth faces his ideological mirror in the form of Andy Brock (Raymond Massey). Both hiding on a train bound for the border, Brock comes upon Hirth as a fellow traveler unaware of his identity. Expounding on his pending military service in the Canadian army and his seeming lack of desire to participate, Hirth once again senses an easy mark in a man he regards as lazy and foolish; an intellectual and idealistic rube. Yet once again, Hirth forgets to take into account man’s resilience and is left to pay for his calcified beliefs and short-sightedness. In this manner, the film works as an effective propaganda piece in terms of highlighting the determination and victory one is capable of when willing to defend his or her personal freedom against fascistic control.

    In the end though, whether appreciated as allegorical propaganda or tense thriller, 49th Parallel genuinely shines with its eclectic cast of characters, intelligent script, and poignant scenes of loss constantly reminding one of the price individuals are willing to pay in order to defend their freedom. Worth viewing on any of these levels and another welcome Powell and Pressburger title on their roster, the Criterion Collection has done it again as usual.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    49th Parallel
  • A Nos Amours

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released in 1983, Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours packs as raw an emotional punch as anything produced by John Cassavetes and his company in their prime, attacking the viewer with more brutal honesty and explosiveness than many modern filmmakers shy away from in their own work. Pialat himself has been referred to as the French answer to John Cassavetes by virtue of his raw filmmaking technique and tendency to explore inner emotions at the expense of standard plot. When watching Pialat, the sequencing of events is less important or interesting than the emotional journeys that the characters travail. His work is uncomfortable in that by seeking to closely mirror as possible the unpredictability of life and people, one cannot help thinking of similar moments in their own lives.

    A Nos Amours is important for, at the very least, marking the on-screen debut of legendary French actress Sandrine Bonnaire. Bonnaire plays Suzanne, a fifteen year old daughter of a furrier, played with smoldering intensity and charm by Pialat himself. Besides her father, Suzanne lives with her mother, a well-meaning but emotionally unavailable woman, and her oafish, older brother. When we first meet Suzanne, she is at summer camp with friends and after brushing off her loving yet timid boyfriend and ends up in a sexual encounter with an American tourist. From that point onward, the film follows Suzanne as she embarks on a journey of sexual conquests with a series of Parisian men. Bonnaire plays Suzanne as a mixture of nymph and adult; emotionally child-like in the beginning, Suzanne possesses a fully developed body which attracts men to her sexually. She may not be fully aware at first of the emotional consequences of her actions yet she is more than aware of how to draw these men to her presence.

    By engaging in these various affairs, Suzanne attempts to distance herself from her family and assert her own personal control while trying to draw the affection and love from her partners that she wishes she had from her family. On a basic level, she attempts to have her cake and eat it too. At one point, the father leaves the family and as a result, everyone tailspins emotionally which often results to heated spats with each other that uncomfortably and realistically lead to violence. Suzanne is often the receiving end of attacks from her brother, who in his strong maternal pull to his mother, beats her in order to break up the less physical but more emotionally powerful violence and instability created by Suzanne’s mother. Chillingly, the mother lashes out at Suzanne as a target, often betraying her inner regrets about motherhood and the opportunities missed by starting a family while trying to keep her family together and off the streets.

    Pialat himself as the father displays many of the same regrets as the mother in regards to the consequences of having a family and opportunities seemingly lost. Yet, he projects a warm presence and caring towards his children, communicating that while his own inner regret and doubt may be strong, he cannot avoid the emotional warmth that his family can provide him. This is especially evident in the relationship between himself and Suzanne; the pair is often at odds with one another, mostly regarding her moves to distance herself and establish her independence, yet still come together and care for one another in that special kind of bond between man and woman that only truly is held between a father and daughter.

    As the film progresses, Suzanne moves from one man to another, and as she matures and indeed establish her own sense of independent existence, she becomes inexorably drawn further back to her family. As hinted at earlier, the film does not concern itself much with a tightly drawn plot. Instead, the few startling plot twists, i.e. the father’s abandonment, the family’s response, and his eventual, shocking return only create the settings for the more important emotional responses and explosions to occur.

    The film’s startling climax comes near the end of the film. At a family dinner, Suzanne and her family are altogether celebrating. At this point, she has married and her brother has launched a successful art career and married himself. While they banter back and forth and Suzanne accepts advances from a male family friend, their father returns unexpectedly. The story behind this particular scene, as imparted on one of the film’s extras documentaries, was that Pialat had not informed any of the other actors that his character would be returning in this scene.

    As a result, the shock and discomfort registered on the family’s faces is genuine and is worth the rest of film just to watch. Each person is quiet and unsure of how to respond, in turn, Pialat takes command of the scene and each person is allowed to vent their own real frustrations and vitriol at not only the character but the man himself as Pialat was known as a brutish and mean taskmaster to his actors. Therefore, this blending of genuine emotion within a fictional context represents the height of what Pialat’s filmmaking approach could yield. One cannot help of thinking of similar awkward moments with their own family because the scene’s emotions are so honest and real that it is impossible not to recognize their inherent truth.

    By film’s end, Suzanne and her father reach full circle. They spend some brief moments together as she is leaving to go on a trip with yet another new beau. After all their time apart and all of Suzanne’s sexual conquests meant to push off from her father, it becomes clear that all of her so-called attempts to seek love from others have only been veiled attempts to seek the love of her own father. With all of her other men, Suzanne confused performing sex with love. She desires to be loved but does not accept it as truly from anyone else but her father, without even being fully aware of it. In the end, she continues her journey moving from man to man in her quest to be loved without realizing that she has had what she seeks all along; tragically being unable to see it and leaving the viewer pondering whether she ever will.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    A Nos Amours
  • Ace in the Hole

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    After Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s career was riding high. Carrying both a critical and commercial success in his back pocket, Wilder was able to use Sunset Boulevard as leverage against Paramount in order to mount what he must surely have known would be a hard sell. A story about ambition, success, pride, and ultimately death, both physical and spiritual is not the sort of thing that studio executives normally like to throw their money on. However, Wilder got his wish and made his film which he ironically titled Ace In The Hole. Featuring some of his best writing as well as Kirk Douglas’ best work, the film was an instant flop. Cinema however is filled with classics that first began as failures and if you need proof, go watch Citizen Kane. And yet again, Criterion’s put its stamp of approval on a cult classic making it available for the masses to both view and finally appreciate. Never available for home video release, Ace In The Hole finally gets its fair shot.

    The plot begins unfolding within a small newsroom located in the media wasteland of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A washed-up newspaper reporter named Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) waltzes into the office and makes the editor an offer he simply can’t refuse. Proclaiming himself as a top-notch reporter, Tatum regales the editor with tales of his work in New York, Detroit, Chicago, etc. and how all this talent and skill can be all his for a small salary and work. Virtually thrown out from every other market for his unscrupulous methods, Tatum sees Albuquerque as a momentary gig until he can redeem himself before the big boys. His opportunity finally comes after stumbling upon a career-rejuvenating break; whilst traveling with cub photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur), Chuck comes upon a small trading post/restaurant in the foothills of a local mountain.

    Sensing trouble, he moves in to investigate and discovers that the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has been trapped by a cave-in within the mountain while searching for ancient Indian pottery to sell. Scurrying through the precarious passageways, Tatum comes upon Leo and not only calms the man down but realizes the potential the situation is ripe with. Understanding the sensational nature of the situation, Tatum decides to scrap his original assignment and instead focus on covering this explosive human interest story. Immediately he sets up shop in Leo’s trading post, having duped the victim’s family into a false sense of security with his initial kindness to their boy.

    However, Leo’s hardened wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) quickly catches onto Chuck’s ruse whilst Chuck himself realizes that the young Mrs. Minosa was on the verge of leaving her well-meaning but naïve husband to return to her former fast-paced, East Coast life. Both with hidden agendas, Lorraine and Chuck are cut from the same cloth and yet realize that they have everything to gain by working together. By providing him with the grieving wife, Tatum’s story gains further polish and weight whilst the spectacle that is sure to ensue can only bolster the struggling trading post’s business for Lorraine.

    If there is one theme that bubbles throughout the film is the power of choices, nearly everyone is forced to make a choice, more often than not with dubious moral ramification, and Wilder’s adept at not only highlighting the allure of the deal but the unexpected consequences that may result. As the story begins to gain momentum, the show begins as curious on-lookers and hungry news outlets rush to the desolated mountain and nearby post to keep track of the unfolding drama. Tents are pitched, products sold, songs written and performed, a miniature city springs up and Tatum’s drive to whip this up as much as possible is the driving force. He further consolidates his hold on the situation by both striking up a backroom arrangement with the local sheriff, positive press and spin for his upcoming reelection campaign in exchange for Tatum’s exclusive access to Leo personally. This way, all information filters through the high priest himself. And in Tatum’s most pragmatic yet cruel stroke, he single-handedly chooses to keep Leo buried in his rocky cell for the simple purpose of plumbing the story’s full potential.

    Rather than waiting for a few hours, Leo is consigned to imprisonment for days. As the media frenzy continues to build with Tatum finally receiving the prized call from New York itself he’s dreamed of, events take a turn for the worse and both Tatum and the viewer watches everything that has been falsely built crumble just as quickly and tragically. The story reaches its inevitable denouement as all good tragedy does, yet what is fascinating is not what happens (as the outcome is practically guaranteed) but just how everything comes apart. Like a classic Greek tragic hero, Tatum’s pride and ambition are both his strength and ultimate weakness. Upon release, Ace In The Hole was a financial disaster yet it gained a cult reputation that became hard to ignore. As Spike Lee says in the video afterword, the film is cynical for 2007 so just imagine how horrifying it must have been for moviegoers living in the warm bosom of 1950’s America.

    Yet as time has moved forward and the mass media has grown both in size and scope, the film can be recontextualized as a chilling and accurate depiction of media exploitation as well as a capitalist critique. Sidney Lumet’s Network is often cited as the prime example of media’s exploitative agenda and the harm it can inflict as a result. While an interesting film, Network’s satiric edge does not compare to the hardhitting, head-on intensity that Ace In The Hole is built on, Network is black comedy while Ace In The Hole is simply black. Perhaps another nail in the film’s coffin is its depiction of a completely amoral main character. Douglas as Tatum gives perhaps his greatest performance (or at least tied with his overlooked classic Lonely Are The Brave), allowing his natural ferocity and intelligence to shine through while embracing the moral ambiguities that make the character fascinating.

    What disturbs is Tatum’s ability to be completely likable one minute and a complete monster the next. As good as Douglas is though, the film would not work nearly as well without Jan Sterling’s turn as Lorraine. She’s a world-weary tough cookie that falls in love with Tatum, not because he’s a good man but because he’s a dangerous man. However, don’t think for one second that she’s weaker than Tatum; she simply knows where and when to make her moves. So with a storyline that’s shocking anchored by morally ambiguous leads, Ace In The Hole was destined to fail upon its release, it was simply too sharp and far ahead of its time. Time has caught up though and now the film can finally be appreciated for what it is and more importantly, what it has to say.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Ace in the Hole
  • Antonio Gaudi

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Following on the heels of its Teshigahara/Kobo Abe box set, the Criterion Collection now has released Antonio Gaudi, Teshigahara’s tribute to the eclectic Catalan architect. Produced in 1984, Teshigahara’s film is less conventional documentary and more appreciation from one artist to another. The languid camerawork floats over Gaudi’s uniquely organic buildings and works, as though Teshigahara were studying them intensely, appreciating every curve and nook. Much of Gaudi’s work appears entirely alien to a Western sensibility used to more traditional architecture or even Bauhaus fare. Gaudi’s expression through form is so overwrought with detail yet conforms to a uniform concept so that while so much is going on visually it all makes sense if viewed from the right perspective.

    Teshigahara himself must have felt some innate kinship or understanding of Gaudi’s process as sculptor through architecture as his own father was a lauded sculptor in Japan who founded his own influential school. Indeed one of the film’s various special features is a documentary on the director’s father, Sofu Teshigahra. In addition, there is another hour-long documentary that takes the traditional road in chronicling Gaudi’s life and work. Yet after watching that doc, only does Teshigahara’s take on the material reveal his unique eye and appreciation of Gaudi. For while the other materials attempt to explain the man through conventional facts, Teshigahara knows that the real Antonio Gaudi, the man’s soul lies within the buildings he conceived of, within the way he exploded traditional ideas of form and material.

    In this respect, both director and architect have much in common as Teshigahara’s own directorial efforts demonstrate a willingness to push the boundaries of conventional film form and content especially with his Kobo Abe collaborations. Interestingly enough, one of the film’s unexpected joys is observing the juxtaposition of Gaudi’s massive works against the rather normal, sedate lives of Barcelona’s residents whom are seen often walking past and around his buildings without even shooting off a parting glance. For them, it is as familiar and generic as the Empire State Building must be to a New Yorker who has lived around it long enough.

    As trite as it sounds, Gaudi’s work genuinely has to be seen in order to be understood and Teshigahara hammers that point home if nothing else in his tribute to the man. Intellectualizing Gaudi’s influences and discussing his home life will of course bring a degree of understanding to the work but really sitting down and looking at it, observing it, and grappling with your feelings towards it is a far more interesting and satisfying approach to learning about Antonio Gaudi than just studying the facts. Teshigahara most likely understood this and it is that attention to observing Gaudi’s buildings and grappling with them yourself without guidance that makes this film a unique and enjoyable visual experience.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Antonio Gaudi
  • Army of Shadows

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced near the end of his career while in the midst of committing such classics as Le Samourai and Le Cerce Rouge to film, French director Jean-Pierre Melville created his most personal work with Army of Shadows. For one reason or another, the film went unreleased theatrically for nearly forty years until it was rediscovered and finally screened for in the United StatesU.S. audiences in 2006. Immediately hailed as one of the year’s best films by a slew of established critics from J. Hoberman to Amy Taubin, David Ansen, etc., the film gained a nearly unthinkable critical response and was an arthouse hit with audiences.

    Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel chronicling the exploits of a French Resistance cell operating in the midst of World War II, Army of Shadows also draws upon Melville’s own experiences as a Resistance member, making the film’s world and feel all the more believable which only lends to deepening its essentially tragic nature. Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, Army of Shadows joins the ranks of other previously-released Melville titles while providing fans unable to attend its initial screenings an opportunity to finally see what all the fuss was about.

    For his opening shot, Melville chooses an image that is both stately and terrifying in order to help establish the film’s mood. A static image of the Arc de Triomphe comes across the screen, bold and imposing in the background, pedestrian activity is non-existent. This peace is abruptly interrupted however by a small line of figures marching into frame and turning to march directly before the camera. As the figures grow larger, so does the sound of their footsteps and drums until we realize who these men are. Coming before the viewer is a column of Nazi soldiers proudly parading before the Arc, which grows smaller as the focus shifts from background to foreground with these men barreling forward until just before running down the camera itself. The image is chilling in the way that it both establishes and illustrates the Nazis’ still-unchallenged military might as well as their unwavering confidence in themselves, the same sort of confidence that leads to the barbarism achingly hinted at as events begin to unfold.

    The story itself begins with the internment of one Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a seemingly mild-mannered engineer into a French camp where political dissidents and other undesirable are being held. Despite his placid veneer, Gerbier is actually the leader of a small French Resistance cell contributing to the war effort. After some time within the camp and observing the varied masses being held against their will, Gerbier takes advantage of the opportunity to escape and the story pushes forward. Melville’s focus then shifts onto the cell itself and its various members from the resourceful and cunning Mathilde (Simone Signoret) to assassin Le Bison (Christian Barbier) to brash ex-pilot Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) among others. Melville’s focus stays primarily on the entire cell, with most members having equal time while still maintaining Gerbier as the voice of reason, his Ishmael if you will.

    As we watch events transpire, be they secret missions to London, the messy execution of a double agent, attempted rescue operations to free imprisoned comrades, etc. Melville never ignores the human element. In all truth, the film’s power derives less from the various missions the cell undertakes and more from examining the effects that both the war itself and their secret lives have on the characters’ own senses of morality and being. A true army of shadows in the sense that no one is ever allowed a moment in the sun, to feel and act free and honest even in isolation as they are all too aware of the horrors inflicted on those caught for such indiscretions.

    In one particularly poignant scene, Gerbier and his superior are visiting London as part of a secret ceremony involving de Gaulle when Gerbier decides to go walking one night. As another bombing run on London commences, he ducks into a cellar bar for British military personnel. Mostly young men and women, they dance the night away as the bombs pound the city seeming without a care in the world. They are able to let their hair down and enjoy their moment of fun while staring into the face of death. Gerbier looks upon the crows almost longingly as he secretly wishes for such peace of mind for himself.

    Over the film’s course, Melville masterfully suggests violence where none is clearly shown, especially when it comes to torture. Like Tarantino, Melville is expert in cutting together the right images to imply violence without having to show it. For example, he will focus on a prisoner handcuffed to a chair, helpless and unable to defend him or herself from attack. Melville will then cut away to another scene to lay out more exposition before coming back to the prisoner again. However this time, he closes in on the wounds and physical damage inflicted in between; by doing so he plays the same trick that Tarantino uses in forcing the viewer to image the violent act rather than merely seeing it, knowing full well that people are often capable of imaging far worse abuse than that actually projected across the screen.

    As one member after another is steadily picked off by the enemy and fate, their collective anguish only deepens as fear of capture steadily robs them of their humanity. There is a haunted air that hangs over Gerbier and his people as they endure the Pyrrhic nature of their struggle. Even if they do survive and win the war against the Germans, one suspects that normal life will never return to their grasp. How could it when you spend every waking moment both plotting to stay alive while fearing the consequences of what will happen if you are caught?

    With betrayal as a constant companion, each person is left with genuinely no one to trust, forced into solitary existences out of pure pragmatic necessity. Human connection is sacrificed for a greater good but even so is the price truly worth it? When the film finally reaches its tragic coda, one is left with both a sense of sadness and sardonic relief. Like many of Melville’s characters, Gerbier and those around him abide by their own personal moral code which they maintain to the very end. An engrossing and powerful film to experience, Army of Shadows easily holds its own against Melville’s best and surpasses much of what passes for serious, dramatic cinema today.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Army of Shadows
  • Before The Rain

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    While many remember the expansive economic boom of the Nineties as well as the social changes brought by the Clinton era (for good or ill depending on your view), it is easy to forget about the soul-shattering conflict that erupted in the Balkans in the early half of that decade. With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia after decades of Communist rule, ethnic tensions that had been simmering for centuries finally boiled over as the country split apart and differing factions from Serbs to Croats to Muslims began slaughtering each other at a horrific rate.

    Produced around the same time and while not explicitly discussing the conflict itself, Milcho Manchevski’s Before The Rain is a fascinating, timeless examination of the futility of ethnic conflict that exists within this still mysterious region of Europe. Filmed in the independent Republic of Macedonia, Before The Rain is a series of interrelated tales stretching from Macedonia to London that wraps around in an elliptical fashion similar to Pulp Fiction. Events are often foreshadowed and repeated so as to remind the viewer of the consequences of others’ actions within the overall structure.

    The first tale follows a young Christian Orthodox monk who shelters a young Muslim girl within the monastery as a band of armed, outraged Macedonians from the local village hunt her down for revenge. Holding a vow of silence, the monk observes with increasing fear as the mob searches the monastery for the girl, threatening not only his life but that of his fellow brothers. He soon learns that not only should he be fearful of the Macedonians but of the girl’s own Muslim family who does not take kindly to intimidation from their Christian neighbors. The second tale involves a British photo agency exec (played by the late Katrin Cartlidge) and her star photographer Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija), a native Macedonian returning from assignment in Bosnia. Traumatized by his last assignment, Aleksandar decides to return to his homeland after years living in exile leaving his boss alone and pregnant despite their obvious love for one another.

    The tensions though that simmer in the monk’s story though find their way to this second tale as the agent and her boyfriend tragically learn up close and personally that the blood lust that has seemingly gripped the Balkans finds its way to London in a restaurant sequence that is terrifying in its disregard for human life and blind rage. The final tale deals with Aleksandar himself as he returns home and notices the increased strife occurring between his villagers and the Muslim herders that live alongside them. For years both groups have lived in peace and yet now, for whatever reason, old scores are preparing to settle themselves without regards to who gets in the way.

    It is up to this photographer, who has lives his life without choosing sides, to finally pick the side of human decency in trying to save a life despite putting his own at risk. Beautifully shot and composed, the film highlights the old world, bucolic nature of the region which only highlights the senselessness of blood that is shed. Many times people are killed out of a blind rage that immediately leads to regret by the shooter himself. However, the film’s symbolic and rather ambiguous ending shows that even in the darkest of times hope is still possible and that even bloodshed can be washed away by the rain.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Before The Rain
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A crowing achievement in the career of perhaps Germany’s most respected and controversial film artist of the late twentieth century, these words can reasonably sum up the importance of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. After a massive restoration effort led by the Fassbinder Foundation in Germany as well as its highly publicized screenings at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, Berlin Alexanderplatz finally makes its American DVD debut courtesy of the Criterion Collection. After releasing versions of Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as well as his BRD Trilogy, Criterion scored a significant coup in finally making available to audiences this mammoth work.

    The film is in a respect a creative summation of Fassbinder. Frequently citing the Alfred Doblin novel as a significant inspiration on his own life, it seems fitting that the New German Cinema’s most prolific filmmaker assumes the challenge of putting to film a novel that is to German literature what Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake is to English literature. A mammoth novel in conception and execution, Berlin Alexanderplatz recounts the tale of Franz Biberkopf, a fragile soul who is released into the modern bustle of Weimar-era Berlin. Imprisoned for murdering his wife, Franz lived the intervening years within the ironic safety of prison life only to be assaulted by the barrage of modern society’s increased pace and disregard for humanity. The novel, as well as the film, follows Franz’s journey to adjust and survive in this emotionally alien world.

    He is aided in his journey by a succession of women, both friends and lovers who mark the different episodes of his life. In order to round out such a considerably-sized cast, Fassbinder makes use of practically his entire stock company which helped him commit over forty films to celluloid in a fourteen year period. From international stars like Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa (Maria Braun and Lola respectively, two of Fassbinder’s most famous female creations) to male stalwarts Gottfried John and Volker Spengler (the duo which comprise the two core characters in the transsexual tragedy In a Year of Thirteen Moons) to Brigitte Mira (star of Fassbinder’s international breakthrough Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), Berlin Alexanderplatz provided a sort of reunion for all these actors to once again come together and provide the performance clay through which their obsessive director could mould them to fit into his overall vision.

    Among the list of familiars though, Gunter Lamprecht stands out singularly as the emotionally childlike titan Franz Biberkopf himself. A man broad in body and presence, Lamprecht possesses the necessary physical command that Biberkopf requires that comes into sharp conflict with his underdeveloped emotions. Consistently tricked and put upon by others, Franz is a man who is clearly unable to carve out a place in this increasing fast-paced world filled with a myriad of moral ambiguities. He wants to be in love and create a happy life for himself yet the sounds and demands of society seek to batter him down spiritually which often leads to moments of frightening rage and violence. Like a child acting out of frustration, Franz lashes out against those who try to both help and hurt him only increasing the moral chasm he cannot escape.

    Yet there are those who wish to keep him safe, namely among them his former girlfriend Eva (Hanna Schygulla) who keeps a close eye on her friend abstractly understanding the strain he deals with. Schygulla turns in a tender, nuanced performance as she is unable to hide from her feelings towards Franz yet is forced to contend with his conflicted nature and expresses a gentle, motherly concern for the giant. Another standout performer is Gottfried John as the sinister Reinhold Hoffmann, a sleek, sinister criminal who takes advantage of Franz’s innate decency yet is rife with emotional layers and conflicts expertly teased out by John.

    Complementing the source material’s thematic heft and the actors’ commanding performances, Berlin Alexanderplatz is also visually splendid and intoxicating through Fassbinder’s acute direction. Fassbinder along with cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger move effortlessly about the vivid period locations and production design to convey the elegance and decadence of Weimar Republic Germany while the sometimes alluring and dreamlike lighting schemes invoke a surrealistic yet melodramatic atmosphere which could link itself to Douglas Sirk’s own strange, tawdry melodramas from which Fassbinder found considerable inspiration. Starting off as a rather static visual storyteller, Fassbinder comes into his own with Berlin Alexanderplatz’s epic sweep and sustained dramatic tension which is not easy to pull off within a fifteen hour plus running time.

    During the film’s theatrical re-release at the Berlin Film Festival, the entire project was shown in one sitting which caused understandable physical strain yet must invoke the same sort of odd glee which meets viewings of Andy Warhol’s early, silent films or Bela Tarr’s notoriously long works; the glee of truly feeling the passing of time in these characters’ lives and in doing so developing an intimate connection with them through not only dramatic but temporal means. As the film winds down towards its bizarre, dreamlike denouement, one feels not only the sweep of Biberkopf’s life but that of old Berlin itself as having lived through the experience of watching it mirrors Biberkopf’s journey of enduring it.

    Among the set’s various special features are various documentaries discussing the film’s restoration, cast and crew interviews, etc. However, of particular interest is the inclusion of Phil Jutzi’s 1931 screen adaptation as well. Clocking in at ninety minutes, this particular version is a bit easier to sit through length-wise but that does not diminish its importance as providing a stylistic counterpoint to Fassbinder’s laboriously faithful adaptation. In fact, some may prefer the trimmed down version dramatically; there would be nothing wrong with that, as it would further help illustrate Fassbinder’s uniquely singular approach to crafting films that still hold an emotional resonance that rings true today. For decades this miniseries has laid in wait to be resurrected and in finally reemerging, Berlin Alexanderplatz stands as a pulsing reminder of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s personal, often confrontational vision and relevance to modern international cinema.

    For further information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Berlin Alexanderplatz
  • Bicycle Thieves

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Cited as one of cinema’s greatest films by critics worldwide, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves has assured its own place in cinema history as secure as that of Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind. An Academy Award-winning film, Bicycle Thieves is one of the first major statements (along with Rossellini’s Open City) of neorealism, a film movement that literally changed the course of international filmmaking for the twentieth century’s second half. While previously released on DVD, this new reissue by the Criterion Collection is given the usual sumptuous treatment with a new digital transfer and a collection of documentary supplements further contextualizing the film’s position in film history.

    Eschewing overly ornate narrative structure, the film follows the simple yet desperate struggles of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his family in postwar Rome. Out of work and money, Antonio finds himself with a lucky break at the film’s onset; considered for a government job hanging movie posters around town, he stands to earn a handsome salary for himself if only he has access to a bicycle to use. Depressed at having pawned his bike earlier for some extra money, Antonio is despondent until his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns their best sheets for enough money to buy back Antonio’s bicycle.

    The plan works and the viewer is left to observe individuals selling off literal pieces of their lives to a non-descript government depot as they part with valuables to earn enough money to barely scrape by. Seeking to capitalize on his luck, Antonio rejoices with his family and sets about his new job. However, fate cruelly steps in to plays its very own hand as a random thief absconds with Antonio’s bike while working. Crushed by the removal of his only umbilical cord to a better life, Antonio sets off on his own personal journey to find both his bike and the thief, aided by his young, angelic son Bruno (Enzo Staiola).

    The narrative thrust ultimately lies in Antonio’s increasing frantic search for his bicycle which takes him and his son to all corners of Rome, both those bombed out and poor as well as those restored and inhabited by the new middle-class. The film’s power lies in the evocative, documentary-like portrait of Rome and its varied social classes that arose after the war. One of the first films that emphasized on-location shooting rather than standard studio locations, Bicycle Thieves really opens one’s eyes with its lucid depictions of urban squalor and detailing the harsh, brutal environments its characters exist within. Yet even more telling than the film’s look is the intensity of the performances offered. Lacking classical training, De Sica’s actors are able to access emotional truths with an sublime ease and fluidity trained professionals often fail to portray. Saying more with the expressions of loss and flashes of hope that flash across their faces, Antonio and his family idealize one of neorealism’s tenets of emotional honesty versus the staid, theatrical style favored by actors of time’s past.

    By the end, Antonio betrays both himself and his family; the viewer is left crushed by his actions yet respects him as he chooses to endure and move forward into a future undoubtedly marked by failure and pain. The game is fixed and no one knows it better than Antonio but conversely to not play would be to not live, so the film’s lesson ultimately is one of dignity through struggle. As the years pass by and times change and become increasingly complex, one can take some modicum of comfort in knowing that if one holds on long enough good things may finally come to pass. De Sica’s characters ultimately clutch onto this fact which makes them all the more human and believable. Justifiably praised over the decades, this new Criterion issue can only add to the film’s mystique and spread its message and ideas to new generations of film goers yet to come.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Bicycle Thieves
  • Blast of Silence

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As perhaps one of the last, if not truly last, film noirs, Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence is a fantastic mix of late 40’s B movie punch and a more, independent, naturalistic flair that would come to define a certain type of New York film as epitomized by John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke. Blast of Silence becomes therefore a type of bridge between the old-school studio-supported schlock and the initial stirrings of modern American independent film. Coming in at a brisk seventy-seven minutes, Blast of Silence is as they say all killer and no filler. The story opens with a train coming down a dark tunnel with a point of light at the very end. A voiceover by un-credited narrator (and character actor) Lionel Stander roughly regales us with the life and birth of one Frankie Bono, a kid from a rough background filled with rage who found a profession to channel it through.

    As we learn of Frankie’s childhood, the train moves ever closer to the point of light, essentially a metaphorical birth canal from which Frankie will spew forth fully formed for us to observe. Called in over Christmas weekend to do a job, we learn that Frankie’s given profession is that of hitman. He’s a respected professional brought in to take out a local hood who has upset the wrong people. All throughout the proceedings, Stander’s voice chimes in; constantly speaking in the second person, his voice lets us in on Frankie’s thoughts while spouting a rough-hewn, existential outlook on life. We are never quite sure what the voice actually represents. Is it Frankie’s conscience speaking aloud? Some guardian angel of hard knocks meant to look out for him? While the nature of his origin is left ambiguous, Stander’s narrator lends a broken poetry to the proceedings that matches the tough yet beautiful surroundings that Frankie finds himself moving within to do his work.

    After dealing with a number of shady characters to assist in setting up the job, Frankie (played by Baron himself) accidentally comes into contact with an old childhood crush of his. For the first time in his life, the anger and disillusionment that led Frankie to his current work is assuaged and maybe he can actually make a change in his world. However, we have to remember that this is film noir and Frankie’s girl becomes the worst sort of femme fatale; a woman offering hope to a man who lives in a world where none exists. It is only when his actions and fate intervene against him that the brief glimpse of hope before his eyes only becomes poison that will lead to his inevitable downfall.

    Within Frankie’s existential crisis of conscience, Baron presents us with a New York that exists in back alleys and dingy apartments offering glimpses of unadorned beauty, i.e. a beautiful tracking shot sequence with Bono walking the streets at night with Christmas lights shining brightly yet he is locked into perpetual shadow, walking the streets amongst the happy and normal like a ghost of shadow and rage. It is poetic and understated at the same time. When Frankie’s actions finally catch up to him, the end is inevitable and we sense it well before it actually goes down.

    Yet Blast of Silence works like the best noir in that the pleasure comes not from what will happen but how it happens; in that sense it unfolds like Greek tragedy where man is unable to escape the fate set for him by the gods. Perhaps it is those very gods that Stander speaks for, knowing the inevitability of things yet unable to intercede on Frankie’s behalf. A nasty, little gem that breathes with a life and energy that still pulsates today, Blast of Silence is a great find for movie buffs and scholars interested in following the progression of American cinema from the studios to the independents.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Blast of Silence
  • Border Radio

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released in 1987, Border Radio is both an entertaining indie film and cinematic time capsule. Released in an era when Jim Jarmusch came to prominence with Strangers in Paradise and Spike Lee erupted on the scene with She’s Gotta Have It, Border Radio harkens back to the initial rumblings of today’s independent film scene. Co-directed by Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Things Behind the Sun, Sugar Town, etc.) and fellow film school classmates Kurt Voss and Dean Kent; the film captures the punk rock spirit this movement first possessed. The film also connects with the vibrant 80’s LA underground rock scene as embodied by actors and real life musicians Chris D (The Flesh Eaters) and John Doe (singer-songwriter of the seminal LA punk band X). As a result, Border Radio stands as a beacon to the low-cost, DIY spirit that infused both punk rock and independent film as it existed in that formative time.

    Plot-wise, the film is fairly loose; Chris D plays Jeff, an underground singer-songwriter who along with his bandmate Dean (played by Doe) and hanger-on Chris (played by Chris Spencer), rob a local rock club of both money and drugs. In order to avoid retribution from the club owner and his henchmen, Jeff escapes across the border to Mexico where he hides out to let the heat die down. Left in the lurch is Jeff’s wife Luanna and their young daughter Devon (played respectively by Anders’ real life sister and daughter, Luanna and Devon Anders). In order to keep things together, Luanna, a local rock journalist, is left to play detective in order to figure out exactly what happened to send Jeff away. The hope being that she will find a way to bring her man back from across the border and fix whatever problems he may have incurred in doing so.

    Meanwhile, while Luanna is in LA trying to figure everything out, Jeff uses his time in Mexico to reflect on where his life has been. Dissatisfied with his recent work, Jeff takes his time to essentially rediscover both himself and his creative muse as he embarks on his own private, existential journey. Also thrown into the mix are the bonehead machinations of Chris himself, who comes closest to being the villain in a film characterized by loose structure and character work, with many real life musicians blending their real lives with their character’s lives at times from the feel of it. Subtly insinuating himself into Jeff and Luanna’s life, Chris knowingly sets much of the film’s negative actions in motion in his attempt to move from idolizing Jeff to becoming Jeff by literally taking over his family and his life. Stopping him in his tracks and keeping the crazies at bay is Luanna though, played with guts and savvy by Luanna Anders.

    As both Jeff and Luanna’s quests continue and eventually cross over the film’s course, one cannot help but be charmed by the film’s lo-fi production design and black & white cinematography. Shot on grainy 16mm, the film has a rough but evocative look with beautiful shadows and rough grains rounding out the movie’s overall look. The film looks as though it was shot by some film students on no money, simply trying to make the best film possible with the little resources they had which essentially is what happened. Like Strangers in Paradise, Border Radio works well and is inspirational in that despite the relatively no budget look, the story and character work is exceptional and holds your attention despite the obvious technical constraints. In this fashion, the film really does exemplify the punk rock spirit of the times in demonstrating that if one has a good story, solid actors, and a little bit of ingenuity then you don’t need millions of dollars and craft services to make a great film.

    That mix of do well optimism and penny pinching craftiness would serve as example to other filmmakers just getting out of film school and lead to the American indie film explosion of the late 1980’s and early 90’s. However, without the guiding example of films like Border Radio such work would not have occurred because work like Border Radio simply had to exist in order to show the rest that you can make a little movie on your own terms, with no money, and still make interesting and provocative cinema. It is in this context this film and its filmmakers made the greatest contribution to film as a whole, without selling short a great little existential black comedy with great music and performances to boot.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Border Radio
  • Bottle Rocket

    By Todd Konrad

    Alongside the plethora of indie films and filmmakers that exploded in the Nineties, Wes Anderson made his mark confidently with his 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, available in a new two-disc Criterion release. Featuring the now ubiquitous Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke), as well as James Caan in a now-oddly forgotten role for many, the film established Anderson’s quirky, American surrealist tone that he has maintained in the nearly fifteen years since his debut. Unlike other first features, which can often be little more than low-budget exercises than fully-formed narratives, Bottle Rocket is a welcome balance of vision and story as the odd, laconic framing and pace matches the slightly dim nature of the protagonists as well as the loose plot itself.

    The story involves three best friends in the heart of Texas, Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignam (Owen Wilson) and Bob (Robert Musgrave). As we first meet them, Dignam is staging an escape for Anthony at the psychiatric hospital he has been staying at, even though it is Anthony’s last day and he is checking out. Together, the trio follows Dignam’s asinine long-term plan to become robbers and pull jobs for his employer, master thief Mr. Henry (James Caan). To get some practice in, the boys stage a beautifully inept robbery of a local bookstore, taking next to nothing in loot. The planning versus execution is great to behold and certainly believable. I mean how exactly do you pull off a heist when you’ve never done it before and really have no clue in doing so. At that point, the guys have to go “on the lam” and skip town to hold up in a small motel in the middle of nowhere.

    It is there where Anthony meets Inez (Lumi Cavazos), a motel housekeeper whom he falls hard for despite her resistance. As he works his charm though, lifting him out of his ennui, Inez reciprocates and before you know it, the pair are in love. Leave it to Dignam though to inadvertently fix that. As time drags on and no progress is made, the trio breaks apart only for it to reassemble when called upon by Dignam and Mr. Henry to do one major score. Dignam though reverts to his childlike carelessness and excitement, which is also symbolically reflected in his 75-year plan notebook, drawn up in a spiral notebook and planned out with the meticulousness of an eighth-grader. That Anthony appears too world weary before his time only amplifies Dignam’s childishness, which leads to greater and greater trouble as the plot further unfolds.

    However, Owen’s brio and innate charm shines through and as much as you want to smack in the head to put some sense into him, he still wins you over annoyingly enough. Like De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Owen’s Dignam is a man who gets into so much trouble by simply being himself. While Johnny Boy’s fate is sealed before our eyes, one can certainly sense that Dignam, sooner or later, could easily meet the same end. Then there is the romance between Anthony and Inez, played with charming awkwardness as he attempts pursuing her despite their obvious differences in background and class. That they are able to bridge them and find love may seem like Hollywood wishful thinking but the chemistry between both actors rises above pat cliché and you are left hoping they will make it through all the drama and come out ok.

    Again, how scores of people ignore James Caan’s contribution as Mr. Henry is beyond me at times. It is one of his best performances in that he contributes gravitas to a sly comedy and does so in a calm, laconic fashion. His handling of Bob’s abusive, larger brother is perfectly modulated. Mr. Henry is a man not to be trifled with despite his easy manner and Caan seemingly channels Frank from Thief in his dress down. When the major twist comes though and we discover the grand design behind all of Mr. Henry’s planning, the turn is worthy of any other Nineties shock ending from The Usual Suspects to The Sixth Sense. Moreover, both Wilsons are great to watch onscreen in their first major outing as one can sense the innocence and ease with which they had to work with before Hollywood came calling. Anderson, for his part, would continue to work and progress after Bottle Rocket yet none of his later work exhibits the same ease that this debut still exudes. That is not to say he has become a bad director but certainly has lost something with experience.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Bottle Rocket
  • Brand Upon The Brain!

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A master of cinematic synthesis, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin can now consider himself a Criterion filmmaker with its new release of Brand Upon The Brain on DVD. After traveling across the country in a number of special screenings featuring live musical accompaniment, live foley crew, and guest narrators (running the gambit from Maddin himself to Isabella Rossellini to Crispin Glover among others), the film is yet another link in Maddin’s chain of films which combine classic, silent era movie techniques with a modern sensibility and choice of dramatic content. Thus merging the two together into a true synthesis of old meets new as he has done with films like The Saddest Music in The World, The Heart of the World, Archangel, etc.

    The tale begins when an adult Guy Maddin is summoned by his ailing mother to return to the lighthouse that stood as his familial home. Recognizing the end is near, she requests that her son return to his childhood home and repaint it before her passing so that she may once again gaze upon its glory. While embarking on this makeover project, Maddin’s mind drifts back to memories of childhood, specifically regarding an adventure including mad scientist experiments, sexual discovery, and strange scars on the back of children’s heads.

    When he was a young lad, the cinematic Maddin lived on the island with both his over bearing Mother (Gretchen Krich), older sister Sis (Maya Lawson), and their eccentric, inventor Father (Todd Jefferson Moore), who spent his time holed up in his laboratory night and day, working on secret experiments as well as creating odd inventions. Doubling also as an orphanage, the lighthouse and adjacent property also acted as home to a number of young orphans who were carefully watched by Guy’s mother within her ominous watchtower enclave, scanning across the horizon like Big Sister.

    As Guy and Sis pine away their time on the island, bristling under the strict rules of their mother, a new child arrives on the island focused on stirring the proverbial pot. Half of the famous sibling sleuths, The Lightbulb Kids, young Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) comes to the island in order to investigate the cause of strange head wounds inflicted upon orphans who lived under the Maddins’ care. Akin to a twenties’ version of Nancy Drew, Wendy is young, energetic, and refuses to rest until the case is solved. However, complications soon arise when she is introduced to the Maddin siblings. Immediately infatuated, Guy pines over Wendy as she becomes his first crush.

    However, knowing that Mother keeps an eye on everyone staying on the island, Wendy plots to keep Mother off balance as much as possible. Seeking to continue her investigation and diffuse Mother’s suspicions, Wendy disguises herself as her twin brother Chance. Saddened by what he believes is Wendy’s departure, Guy becomes sad and longs for his first crush to return while Sis, on the other hand, becomes enamored of Chance herself. The feeling is reciprocated and as Chance, Wendy begins romantically courting the young Maddin girl who is on the verge of becoming a young woman. As the investigation continues, further family secrets are revealed and the layers of repression are stripped away to lay bare the dark history of the Maddin family itself.

    As with much of Maddin’s other work, Brand Upon The Brain! is composed of classic techniques reappropriated from the silent film era. Never one to discard old cinematic traditions for what’s hot at the moment, Maddin essentially has crafted a silent movie for the new millennium. There is no spoken dialogue included with the exception of Isabella Rossellini acting as narrator, all pertinent dialogue between characters is handled via dialogue cards which are flashed across the screen. The vintage black and while look and feel tricks one into thinking that the film could have been produced in the 1920’s. Yet Maddin is able to infuse a modern sensibility into the project via his editing methods, quickly cutting sequences and imagery together in a near MTV-like manner, surreal imagery and dream like passages flash before one’s eyes in a collage of pure cinema.

    The method is akin to his strategy used for the acclaimed short The Heart of the World. So while the film looks antique, its pacing and subject matter certainly places it within a modern context. Indeed it is the film’s content that becomes the greatest shock of all, as the family is revealed to be rife with sexual repression and control which leads to unexpected consequences, especially the pliable sexuality exhibited by Sis and Wendy Hale as they engage in a nascent lesbian relationship. Raising her children with no firm awareness or concrete knowledge of sexuality, Mother essentially allows such open sexual thoughts to manifest themselves within her children, which ultimately leads to their own experimentation.

    However, there also remains the matter of the mysterious head wounds themselves and how they are linked to Father’s own machinations involving Mother’s own life force. In the end though, Maddin uses these melodramatic tricks as a jumping off point into a study of teenage sexuality and parental oppression which one suspects is closer to his own life than he may openly let on to. As Maddin informs the viewer on the DVD’s documentary 97 Percent True, much of the conflict between the mother and daughter characters mirrors similar strife in his own life as well as other examples he openly points out.

    Perhaps this is as close as Maddin can come in crafting a genuinely autobiographical film, and if indeed it is, it certainly is no different than the factual flights of fancy that other such filmmakers like Fellini and Bergman crafted, using their own personal histories and realities to create worlds that exhibit greater resonance within a fictional context than if they were simply presented as basic fact while still offering illumination for their audiences. Further refining his iconoclastic style, Guy Maddin once again brings to the screen a film that will both delight his ardent supporters and prove that cinema indeed hasn’t fallen to serve only webslingers or yellow buses.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Brand Upon The Brain!
  • Breathless

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Almost fifty years after production, Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking feature debut Breathless is being released by the Criterion Collection in a new, two-disc special edition. Chalk full of special features including new documentaries and interviews placing the film within the greater cultural context, Criterion adds yet another Godard film to its ever-expanding list. Based on a treatment by former friend and filmmaker Francois Truffaut, the plot itself follows two tragic lovers on the run from the police and fate.

    Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a car thief and hood, oozing confidence and sex appeal like a French James Dean. He is in love with Patricia (Jean Seberg), a sly, sexy ingénue selling newspapers along the street. When Michel accidentally kills a cop, he goes on the lam with Patricia in tow; struggling to stay free the pair ultimately are enable to escape the cold hand of fate.

    When studying film history, certain films mark turning points along the evolution of this still relatively young art form. Movies like The Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, 8 ½, etc. all act as markers along an ever-evolving path and one of those films undeniably is Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature Breathless. Along with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Breathless was the opening salvo in what arguably became the driving force in world cinema post WWII, the French New Wave. Godard, who along with Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, etc. all got their starts in film not as directors but as critics interestingly enough.

    Writers for the practically canonized Cahiers du Cinema, Godard along with his contemporaries were among the first serious film scholars, examining movies not only in regards to plot but genre, underlying themes, filmmaker obsessions, etc. So this critical background ended up figuring very strongly in their own movies as it opened up their eyes to the notion of making movies to not simply tell stories but to examine the medium’s nature itself. No one arguably has done more to push cinema’s aesthetic boundaries more than Godard and Breathless was the first real indications of what he could do with a camera. Much has been said about Godard’s liberation of the jump cut by its frequent usage within Breathless, a spit in the face of traditional film editing whose goal was simply seamlessness. The audience was to be led through the story without questioning or even noticing how the images themselves were spliced together in order to communicate information.

    From the start, Godard does away with that; images and sounds are juxtaposed against each other, signaling future events, flashing backward and forward in time. Rather than proceeding along a smooth path, the visuals pulse jaggedly with a jazz, improvisational ferocity. Godard also takes an obvious cue from Rossellini and the neo-realists in his adept usage of hand held cameras and on-location shooting. Striving for a more authentic portrait of life in film, Godard eschews the standard studio lots and moves his camera along the real life streets of Paris, capturing the city’s distinctive energy and flavor as it existed in the late 1950’s as he follows Michel and Patricia’s exploits along the gritty, Parisian streets.

    However, more importantly is Godard’s interest in quoting cinema in order to comment on it. Belmondo’s Michel is a self-conscious imitator of Humphrey Bogart, pursing his lips and operating with a cool swagger that would be familiar to Bogey. The rather straightforward crime story also echoes American gangster films, especially those produced by Monogram Pictures which Godard dedicates the film to in the very beginning. While Godard was not the first to start this practice, taking obvious cues from fellow French director and Godard hero Jean-Pierre Melville who also has a role in Breathless, he certainly was one of the first to further define this particular filmmaking philosophy.

    By self-consciously adapting other films to suit his own plot and stylistic interests, Godard essentially anticipated the postmodern pastiches of popular genres that future filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino would further develop and refine. Godard though would quickly move past even genre-centric experiments and delve deeper into his own universe of exploration which sought to break down the antiquated mechanics of conventional narrative cinema and push the envelope so that filmmakers still not born can follow the path that he still doggedly pursues.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Breathless
  • Brute Force

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Among the variety of genres that the movies have offered us, one of the more stark yet popular choices has been the prison film. A number of classic films have been spawned from this genre including Midnight Express, The Shawshank Redepmtion, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, etc. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection, yet another forgotten classic has become available for new viewers to watch and appreciate in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force. Starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn , Brute Force is a hard-hitting indictment of the prison system as well as the greater social conditions perpetuated in modern society.

    Brute Force is set within the concrete nightmare of Westgate Prison. The film’s tension lies within the contentious struggle between Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), world-weary inmate struggling to survive and Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), the sadistic captain of the guard who rules the prison with an iron fist. First introduced during a thunderous rainstorm, we first meet Collins as he is escorted back to general population after an extended stay in solitary confinement. He learns that one of his cell mates and friends recently died as a result of working in the unfinished drainpipe, ordered there by Munsey himself. This sequence is also our first glimpse of Munsey himself; flanked by a baton-carrying guard Cronyn imbues the captain with an effete, cultured swagger. Carrying no weapons himself, he holds his head proudly in the knowledge that he has no need to do so. His tactics and intimidating manner are all the weapons he needs and no prisoner is allowed to forget that.

    Upon returning to his cell, Collins decides that enough is enough and vows to finally escape from Westgate. To aid in his plot, he calls upon his fellow cellmates Soldier (Howard Duff), Lister (Whit Bissell), Stack (Jeff Corey), Spencer (John Hoyt), Calypso (Sir Lancelot), and their newest friend Kid Coy (John Overton). Dassin portrays the camaraderie between these men in a manner unusual of standard prison fare. In the bulk of most prison movies, the main characters act essentially as lone wolf figures, men who do have friends but only out of necessity and rarely out of deeper loyalty. Yet Collins and his cellmates are portrayed as a solid, cohesive time thus simplifying the battle lines from every man for himself to a simpler dynamic of us and them. Aiding them in their cause is the prison’s drunken doctor, Dr. Walters (Art Smith) who sympathizes with the men in recognizing the absurd abuse they are forced to endure. Apart of the system but all too willing to point out its faults, Walters is the film’s moral center.

    The plot picks up steam when Collins discovers a way to escape via the very same drain pipe used as a virtual death sentence by Munsey. Aided by other fellow inmates, including the prison’s de facto inmate leader Gallagher (Charles Bickford) Collins casts his die and decides to move forward with their plan. Along the way, the viewer gains an insight into the lives each prisoner left behind via a series of flashbacks showing each man with the woman he loves. By and large, these flashbacks are maudlin and not terribly insightful yet they succeed in both further securing our faith in these men as being good as well as providing visual breaks from the generic prison environment.

    As heroic and photogenic as Lancaster is, the film’s true star lies with Cronyn. For film fans only aware of him as Jessica Tandy’s late husband and his lovable roles in movies like Cocoon and *batteries not included, Hume Cronyn’s portrait of the pseudo-fascist Munsey is a square punch to the jaw. Slight in frame, Cronyn still invests his villain with an absolute sense of intimidation. Munsey aspires to be the Nietzschean superman, affirmed in his belief that only the strong are worthy to survive. His disregarding affect is a mark of supreme self-confidence and righteousness. In perhaps the most chilling scene, Munsey personally tortures a prisoner in order to gain information on Collins’ plan. With Wagner bellowing throughout the room and displaying his taut physique while beating his victim to a pulp, Munsey subconsciously symbolizes pure fascism.

    The allusions to Nazism are rampant and it is not much of a stretch to imagine Munsey as a concentration camp commandant, fully willing to exploit and torture those under his care while possessing the pure self-righteousness in order to do so. In a real allegorical way, the film transcends the prison genre altogether and becomes a statement of pure class struggle. In this light, the equations of prisoner equaling proletariat and guards equaling pure capitalism are clearly visible. Benefiting from their exploitation and control, it is in the guards’ and prison’s best interests to keep their wards broken. Yet the film becomes a Marxist critique as Dassin clearly sides with his proles as they attempt overthrowing this brutally unequal system and herald genuine freedom and equality. An tense, insightful rediscovery, Brute Force is a definite must see for fans of both prison films and social justice.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Brute Force
  • Classe Tous Risques

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Framed like a classic film noir but playing instead like a terse rumination on the past and regret, Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques is a typically lyrical and engaging French film noir. Released by the Criterion Collection in a new edition, Classe is essentially chronicles the last days of an aging, tired French gangster on the run named Abel Davos (Lino Ventura). Convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, Davos as we first meet him has lived abroad in Italy for years now with his wife and two children. However, the life of a criminal fat cat has dried up to virtual pennilessness after going through the fruits of his illegal labor.

    With virtually no other choice, Davos and family make the perilous trek back to Paris from Italy in hopes of receiving aid from his former gang members, all of whom owe Davos for various favors he has provided them before. Much of the film’s first half follows this journey itself as Abel is forced to quietly escape Italian territory without being caught by local police. Chases through border checkpoints, changing vehicles, and gun play figure into the proceedings throughout the running time and provide action and genuine suspense as one is left guessing whether or not Abel and his partner will be caught or killed. Just as the family returns to French shores, tragedy strikes and Davos is left stranded in Nice with his two sons, saddened and alone.

    His former colleagues, almost all successful now in other ventures either set up or protected by Abel’s aid, learn of their former boss’ return and are more upset than pleased. Understanding that they live in a new world now since his departure, these men half-heartedly decide to help their old friend more out of obligation or at least the appearance of it than genuine interest. They dispatch a young tough named Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to find Abel and bring him back to Paris. Eric does just that, sneaking the gangster home in his very own ambulance while also striking up a nascent relationship with an attractive stage actress along the way.

    In an odd way, much of the film has the feel of a road movie as much of the initial plot and action has simply to do with sneaking this man back into Paris while authorities restart the hunt for him. What should be a happy homecoming for Abel though quickly turns sour as he realizes his former friends are not only unwilling to help him but more than likely are somewhat ready to turn him so as to not ruin their new lives. With the aid of the only man he can trust, Eric, Abel decides to launch one final plan to avenge himself for the slights brought upon him.

    In terms of being a film noir, Sautet’s film lacks the manic energy of a Sam Fuller piece or the weighty moralism of a Fritz Lang. But it does share a sort of kinship with Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster pictures in emphasizing the notion of honor among thieves; Abel is a man that while a criminal and responsible for horrible actions still tries to live within an essential decency. He cares for his family and only does what he feels is necessary for both his and their survival. It is only when the law comes bearing down upon him and deceit is the only gift from his old friends that he must take action. Belmondo, for his part, comes off as what we’d imagine a young Abel to be, young, certainly street-wise yet sensitive and possessing a good heart. He is someone who may be capable of bad acts but isn’t a bad man. The final act of the film is reenergized by Abel’s revenge scheme after a rather long interlude of introspection and ends with a satisfactory bang before the muted finale.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Classe Tous Risques
  • Cria Cuervos

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    With Cria Cuervos, the Criterion Collection adds famed Spanish director Carlos Saura to their stable of already exemplary filmmakers in a new DVD release. A filmmaker akin to Picasso in terms of the various periods that his work evolved through over a fifty-year career still going strong, Saura developed his particular allegorical style for years under the suppressive Franco regime in Spain. With Cria devised and produced as Franco himself was dying, the film acts as a bridge not only in the country’s history but in the director’s body of work as well. After Cria, Saura began to forgo his earlier style for other aesthetic challenges, i.e. his trio of flamenco dance films with famed dancer Antonio Gades. While the merits of his later work has often been questioned, near universal acclaim stands for Cria Cuervos and after watching the film it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine why.

    The story begins with a sudden death, one that would gain greater significance after Franco’s own demise. A wealthy Spanish general has a sudden heart attack as he is fooling around with a friend’s wife. His young daughter Ana (Ana Torrent) is awake and witnesses the entire ordeal. She walks to her father’s bedside and stares upon the corpse blankly after just returning from the kitchen where she ran into her loving mother (Geraldine Chaplin). Soon afterwards, Ana and her two sisters are taken under their care of their maternal aunt Paulina as well as their earthy housekeeper Rosa, who acts as the girls’ second mother and friend. We soon learn that Ana’s own mother had died years before; this leaves one with the curious dilemma of who exactly she was speaking with in the very beginning.

    As the plot develops, Saura insinuates that the woman Ana speaks with is not the mother herself but her memory of her brought into material form. It is with this strategy that Saura blends rather than completely breaks the barriers between reality and fantasy. Essentially a memory, Ana’s mother brings comfort and security to the young girl as she places her faith in her happy past rather than the grim present. However, as the plot moves forward in a rather picaresque manner, Ana begins coming to grips with the ever-changing world around her as she instinctively begins sensing the old rules becoming null and void. As she matures and quietly rebels against the values Franco’s regime stressed, the young girl places herself along a path that leads her adulthood, which Saura also invites into the tale via Ana’s adult form (again played by Chaplin) on screen, commenting on the very events we are witnessing and how they informed the life she grew into as a result.

    It is agreed by many critics and cinephiles that Spanish auteur Carlos Saura reached his creative peak with Cria Cuervos. Produced while Spanish dictator General Franco was literally dying, the film is an allegorical bridge between the stilted, decayed past and the fresh optimism that bloomed after Franco’s demise. Starring his then-lover and frequent collaborator Geraldine Chaplin, Cria demonstrated Saura’s ability to veil acute political critique within essentially a children’s story. A key element in the film’s casting lies in the utilization of then child-actress Ana Torrent; her presence links Cria to Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (another Criterion release), an earlier Spanish that dwells on the onset of Franco’s regime and the emotional stasis that followed in which Torrent played the lead as well in her on-screen debut. Thus, through the young girl’s presence, both films can be viewed as bookends to a period of Spanish history rife with emotional and political oppression that sapped the life forces of all ensnared within its reign. Whereas Beehive is very much a film about life decelerating and being sapped of its energy, Cria’s mise-en-scene is valuable in terms of underlining the cracks that were forming as Franco’s regime began losing sway.

    The film’s setting, the dilapidated manor that Ana and her family occupy, acts as a perfect visual correlative for the atmosphere that Franco’s ascent fostered. Buried behind a wall of thick, slightly unkempt foliage that hides an even thicker, more foreboding concrete wall, the home itself is a massive estate, looming over its inhabitants with its sheer size, old-fashioned dark wooden interiors, and musty feel. The plethora of shadows that flood nearly every room only enhances the feeling of ghosts trapped within its walls, a perfect environment for Ana’s phantom mother to occupy as a memory shackled to the despair of the past, unable to break free.

    However, the upside lies within Ana herself as she represents the young generation that finally has an opportunity to break from the stilted silence that their parents and grandparents were forced to endure and finally experience real freedom of expression. Visually, Saura expresses this in the vibrant, urban landscape that has taken root outside the estate’s walls. Sunny and kinetic, the outside world reflects the hustle and bustle of a society that’s heating up socially; bright billboards are plastered on the very walls advertising not only new products but a new life through their bold colors and design.

    The old world of Franco’s imposed social values, perfectly represented by Ana’s military father, is washed away in a sea of enthusiasm and fresh air, both literal and figurative. This break from accepted norms imposed by the regime is further highlighted by the actions and emotions of Ana’s mother and aunt, two women who quickly learned to fall in line with what was accepted from them socially at the expense of their own desires and thoughts, be they personal happiness or falling in love. What still works well visually and holds up is Saura’s ability to blend real-life scenarios and environments with fantastical imagery, namely in Ana’s relationship with the phantom mother.

    Always wearing the same dress, Chaplin always glides into the frame as though to give the impression that she has been conjured by some mysterious power. Saura’s technique of gliding the camera along so that Chaplin materializes into the frame also better blends the character’s ethereal nature into a firmly, realistic setting, albeit somewhat stylized for metaphorical effect. This strategy works even more effectively when the adult Ana, played by Chaplin as well, appears in frame as she seems to be commenting on her past from the future as a young, independent woman providing direction to the various episodes that we witness her younger version progressing through. Thus the strategy seems near Bunuelian as the layers of recalled memory build up within the visual framework, further focusing on the importance of both remembering the past as well as attempting to break free of it in order to move into the future which is ultimately the core of this unique and artful film.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Cria Cuervos
  • Days of Heaven

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Over a career of only four feature films, filmmaker/philosopher Terence Malick has inspired a rabid following amongst both film fans and critics alike. After the success of his debut examination of 1950’s young love steeped in murder, Badlands, Malick changed direction and went further into the past with his second film, Days of Heaven. Re-released by the Criterion Collection, this new edition features a new digital image transfer which finally does justice to cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ award-winning cinematography. In addition, new interviews with cast and crew including lead actor Richard Gere provide further examination into the project’s roots and production thus shedding light on this mysterious follow-up.

    The story is set in the early 1900’s, sometime between the First and Second World Wars. At a Chicago steel mill, shoveling coal into a gigantic furnace, we meet Bill (Richard Gere), a young migrant worker who gets into a heated debate with his foreman. Both the reasons behind and the words exchanged during the confrontation are never reveled as the high pitched grinding noises of industrialization drown out all other sounds. All we can see are words exchanged, tempers flared, and Bill accidentally killing the foreman. Seeking escape, Bill packs up his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) and together the trio makes their way into the Texas panhandle looking for work.

    Posing as brother and sister, Bill and Abby set themselves up on a wheat farmer’s property during the harvest season. The farmer (hauntingly played by Sam Shepard) slowly develops an attraction towards Abby that Bill, ever the opportunist, decides is the ticket to all of their happiness. Jealousy, lust, rages, and near Biblical destruction follows with everyone’s lives changed forever. While Badlands hinted at his interest in the natural world, Days of Heaven gave Malick free reign in examining the idea of nature out of balance with humanity. There is a near Beckett-esque sense of wasteland when observing the small band of characters eking out their existence and machinations within the vast, open wheat fields of the farmer’s land.

    While the scenery is beautiful and lovingly photographed, it also pointedly communicates the isolation these characters exist within and underscores their irrelevance within the greater natural world and universe, if one were to further extrapolate the idea. Like David Lean before him, the director waits for the perfect images to commit to film; whether it be stalks of wheat swaggering in the wind, a lone bird flying in the distance, locusts intently devouring a wheat seed, Malick uses these images both to translate a mood and provide iconic imagery, for he knows that when a movie is finished playing, people remember images better than dialogue or plots.

    The disjointed imagery also feeds into both the film’s and Malick’s own preference of fragmented time. The distinction between real life, dreams, and memory constantly blurs, especially through the prism of Linda’s own voiceovers which provide a running commentary throughout the proceedings. Malick has always been known as a director who has shown more interest in the visual and thematic aspects of his work than strict performances; stories abound of the difficulties Gere and his fellow castmates faced due to Malick’s lack of specific direction. However, both Gere’s and more importantly Shepard’s performances work well within the elaborate framework the director provides.

    As the farmer, Shepard most closely merges into Malick’s allegorical, dreamlike world. Without a name or background, the farmer is less of a concrete character and more of a phantom; his purpose is not to be but to represent. He represents the old-fashioned values and perspective of the nineteenth century coming face to face with the social disconnection developing in the twentieth century. He is a man of the land and is unwise in the sorts of slick trickery that Bill and Abby represent. As a result, when he finally learns of their betrayal of him, divine retribution is all that is left for him to resort to in his antiquated mode of being. Visually luscious and rife with material for intellectual gnawing, Days of Heaven helped cement Malick’s position within the film world and is lucky enough to benefit from Criterion’s usual meticulous restoration.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Days of Heaven
  • Death of A Cyclist

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A film that stands as a testament to its time and the bravery involved in simply producing it, Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist enters the Criterion Collection’s catalog as yet another document of a nation’s cinema attempting to examine the society that it exists within. After gaining critical attention and an award at Cannes, Death of a Cyclist was viewed by many as a key stroke in the establishment of a national Spanish cinema in the wake of Franco’s oppressive regime. The importance of this cannot be overstated, especially since the man considered by many them as perhaps Spain’s greatest director, Luis Bunuel, had been forced into exile from his homeland to live and work in both America before finally settling in Mexico for the middle phase of his long career. Bardem’s film was unique in being unafraid to comment on Spain’s then-recent history and adopt stylistic techniques associated with Italian neorealism in an attempt to craft a more authentic national cinema.

    The storyline itself falls into a rather melodramatic atmosphere at the outset. Over a long, wide shot, we view a lone cyclist winding down the road as a car comes upon him in the opposite direction. As the cyclist fades out of sight, a quick cut moves to the aftermath. The car has obviously crashed into the man and severely injured him. However, rather than helping him or notifying the authorities, the occupants coldly decide to drive off before being seen by anyone. Both occupants, Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria Jose (Lucia Bose) have reason to slip away unnoticed. Conducting an illicit affair, both Juan and Maria Jose are suspicious of anyone learning of their true feelings out of fear for reprisals from her aristocratic husband and his well-connected friends. Juan himself leads an unimpressive, protected life as a lowly assistant professor at the local university. Employed mainly through his connection with his sister’s husband, a powerful benefactor for the school, Juan realizes that his life is essentially lived out of his control. He has earned nothing, is aware and bitter over it, and yet does not possess the fortitude to adjust his situation.

    Maria Jose, on the other hand, lives to protect the wealth and status her loving, rich husband provides for her. Growing up as a seemingly poor peasant girl, she has grown all too quickly accustomed to the life of a protected bourgeoisie in Franco’s Spain. One can only imagine the elevated self-image, albeit falsely obtained, from rising to such heights from a humble beginning. Yet as much as she loves her husband by what he represents, her heart genuinely belongs to her childhood sweetheart Juan. After fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Juan returned home to find his girl married off while contending with the psychic damage the conflict obviously reeked upon him. So then results in their current predicament before the accident, two people in love with each other yet afraid to change their lives for the better.

    Soon enough though, the pair descends down a spiral of further paranoia and guilt as first a lowly art critic named Rafa begins insinuating he saw the pair together driving down the infamous road. Seizing upon the opportunity to last out at the upper crust that considers him a pet, Rafa tortures the pair particularly Maria Jose with his insinuations. Besides that, a careless act by Juan sets in motion events involving a female student of his that puts his own career in jeopardy but unexpectedly provides the forward momentum he needs. As suspicions grow, both Juan and Maria Jose find their relationship stretched to the breaking point as they contend with the moral implications of their inaction which unsurprisingly leads to a tragic end.

    While the film’s obvious on-location shooting style owes much to Italian neorealists like Rossellini and De Sica (not to mention Visconti as Bardem investigates the class implications involving the victim’s family, a poor woman and son living in the dregs who are essentially ignored by the authorities in their pursuit of justice), Bardem unfortunately allows enough of the film to descend into a mediocre melodrama when both leads are together professing their love for each other. While we do not doubt their feelings, the performances tend to be overwrought and test one’s patience to the extreme. It is only the political element, whether it be Juan’s reflections on fighting in the war and the toll it took on him, Rafa’s politically-motivated game of blackmail, or Bardem’s Antonioni-esque critique of bourgeois complacency and indulgence, that provides Death of A Cyclist with the subtextual punch that allows it to still have relevance to today’s world. However, despite those tonal issues, Bardem’s work is still worth taking a serious look at and as usual Criterion’s packaging includes special features, one of which is a doc on the director himself that only adds context to the main attraction. Another addition to Criterion’s Spanish ranks that deserves a look.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Death of A Cyclist
  • Drunken Angel

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Diving into Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa’s postwar career before hitting the big time with Rashomon, Criterion Collection brings to the forefront one of his early works with Drunken Angel. Featuring early performances from Kurosawa stalwarts Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, Drunken Angel is a morality tale wrapped up in film noir. The story itself is a battle of wills between two characters struggling to survive in the battered down landscape of postwar Tokyo. A dominant player in the thriving black market and local street tough, Matsunaga (Mifune) lives his life hard and fast. With access to the finest booze and women his profession provides, Matsunaga throws his weight around with the best of them as he snarls and broods.

    With slicked-back hair and sharp suits, Mifune plays the gangster with his characteristic ferocity. Yet Matsunaga hides a secret from all those around him except for one. Dr. Sanada (Shimura) is a drunken doctor who operates in a small clinic trapped within the ghetto squalor of Tokyo; battered by life and disillusioned by both his own seeming ineffectiveness and the economic success of old classmates, Sanada attempts to do what little good he can when he first meets Matsunaga. After a brief treatment for a gunshot wound, Sanada takes a closer examination of his patient and discovers a greater illness; Matsunaga learns that he is stricken with tuberculosis. Shocked and angered by this prognosis, Matsunaga rages at the drunken physician.

    However, this act only attempts to mask the deep-seated fear of death that plagues this young man. While life as a gangster had enough obstacles to overcome, the virtual death sentence proves too much to bear for the young man. Seeing a chance to help a fundamentally good soul trapped in circumstances out of his control, Sanada attempts to treat Matsunaga despite the young man’s fervent attempts at maintaining his masculine power by engaging in the same hard-living habits that only accelerate his deterioration. Before our very eyes, Mifune crafts a performance which theatrically illustrates the physical and spiritual deterioration of this man trying to cling to life.

    Growing physically gaunt with deep shadows beneath his eyes, Matsunaga struggles to maintain a sense of purpose and honor in the face of his gradual demise. His last chance at redemption comes when he takes it upon himself to defend Sanada’s nurse Miyo from her ex, a sadistic gangster named Okada who seeks to retake control of Tokyo’s underworld after his prison release. Drunken Angel is a Japanese film wholly steeped in the film idioms of Hollywood; the wet backstreets and alleys recall American film noir while Matsunaga’s devil-may-care attitude would easily find a home in Warner Bros gangster films of the thirties.

    Yet while the film is fully versed with Hollywood stylings, Kurosawa employs it instead as a portrait of postwar Japan attempting to survive and rebuild. After such a material and spiritual defeat, his characters reflect the atmosphere of adaptation and survival that Japanese society was forced to endure during the occupation years. As such, the film is an intriguing snapshot into a morally ambiguous world that has a close cousin in the postwar Vienna of The Third Man. Both places existed within a universe where right and wrong, good and evil, became supplanted with pure survival and the slimmest of hopes. As both an early example of Kurosawa’s oeuvre and a look into postwar Japanese society, Drunken Angel is an intriguing exercise worthy of one’s attention.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Drunken Angel
  • Fires on the Plain

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As long as cinema has existed, so has the anti-war film. Whether it be All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, etc., the movies have been as effective a platform for artists to rail against the brutality and degradation of war as any other, perhaps even more so due to cinema’s ability to cause near complete identification with the men and women stuck in trenches and being blown apart. Directed by one of Japan’s most versatile directors, Kon Ichikawa and based on the best-selling novel, Fires on the Plain shocked audiences when it was released in 1959 and has since cemented its place as one of the most powerful and spiritually honest portraits of war ever committed to celluloid.

    The film opens near the end of World War II, on a remote Philipine island. While the specific historical context is only alluded to, the island is occupied by Japanese soldiers who are struggling to withstand the onslaught of incoming American forces and native guerrillas. The story opens in a ramshackle Japanese encampment, manned by starving, exhausted troops. The film’s protagonist, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), is being briefed as to his company’s current situation after returning from a makeshift hospital due to a tuberculosis infection. Told that supplies have essentially run out and that defeat is inevitable, Tamura is essentially cast off to the surrounding jungle due to his ill physical health. Meanwhile, his commander and company are left practically defenseless and open to attack at anytime by enemy fire.

    Ordered to return to the hospital, Tamura begins to take in the devastation around him as random artillery fire peppers the landscape from the unseen enemy. Upon his return to the hospital, he meets two fellow soldiers, each staying outside the hospital seeking treatment and shelter; Nagamatsu, a young streetwise tough (Mickey Curtis) and Yasuda, an injured soldier cum profiteer, selling tobacco for food. After they are attacked and the hospital is razed to the ground, all three men scatter and the story comes back to Tamura attempting to survive in this environment as bodies begin strewing themselves across the plains and those left alive begin to resemble the walking dead. Already in a horrible predicament, Tamura’s hopes become increasingly dashed by cruel fate.

    Tamura observes as his fellow Japanese are increasingly slaughtered and the survivors resorting to increasing drastic means. Eventually, the final moral barrier of cannibalism is crossed and Tamura struggles to maintain his dignity and not give into this final debasement. In terms of critiquing warfare, Ichikawa precisely illustrates moments of terror that bring home the fear of Tamura’s people as they face certain, anguished death. In one particularly simple yet effective scene, a company of soldiers are marching through the jungle’s thick mud as they attempt to reach a proposed rescue pickup point.

    As we observe these bone-thin and sickly men march, we hear plane engines roaring overhead. The company drops to the ground and immediately afterwards, a trail of gunfire hits the ground. Afterwards, the men slowly rise like zombies but a few are left on the ground, dead. The company continues onward, stepping over their comrades and the plane flies off never once in frame, never seeing the people it just snuffed out. Moments like these, of indiscriminant, absurd killing, litter the piece and perfectly illustrates the casual disregard for life that war naturally engenders. It also acts as critique against those performing the attack, all too often the greatest amount of casualties are caused by soldiers unseen and unknown, literally out of sight out of mind in the most horrible way.

    This is similarly reflected in another heartbreaking sequence when the remaining soldiers, exhausted and ill, attempt to cross a marsh at night in order to reach a road that leads to the rendezvous point. However, their dreams of rescue are shattered when they are ambushed by waiting tanks who let loose cannon fire upon men bogged down in mud, blasting them apart indiscriminately while facing zero threat themselves. In one more insult to injury, Tamura prepares to surrender to a pair of American soldiers and a Filipino guerrilla hoping that this may lead to some sort of salvation. However, before he makes his move another Japanese survivor runs out before him to meet the Americans and surrender as well. Instead of being openly welcomed however, the man is gunned down mercilessly by the guerrilla before the Americans can stop her. With this final hope of survival dashed, Tamura finally resigns himself to the fate that no one is leaving that island alive.

    In his attempt to portray the terror of war as completely as possible, Ichikawa transcends the normal approach of focusing only on the carnage and examines the spiritual brutalization people endure. Tamura’s physical wasting away mirrors the moral descent his fellow soldiers allow themselves to embrace in order to survive. No other war film has made death look more appealing than survival in this aspect, soldiers resort to theft, murder, and finally cannibalism in order to simply stay alive. While constantly alluded to throughout the story, it is not until we reach near the end that we finally see Tamura’s friends engaging in this final desecration. What makes it all the more troubling is that after witnessing all these man have had to endure and reflecting upon our own knowledge of cannibalism being used to save lives, the viewer is left to both watch in horror and perhaps recognition that perhaps if he or she were in the same predicament, they might cross that line as well. In light of these options, the viewer can fully empathize with Tamura’s seeming decision to choose death over such a fate. At the very least, death would allow him to remain human.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Fires on the Plain
  • For All Mankind

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Forty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Criterion has rereleased one of the most visually arresting films on this subject matter for DVD and Blu-Ray, Al Reinert’s For All Mankind. The title itself is fitting in a variety of ways, most obviously from Neil Armstrong’s iconic quote first and foremost. However, the sense of it being a record for generations to come also imposes a degree of gravity on the project, given proper context by the men who went to the moon themselves. It is their stories, accompanying the beautiful, surreal footage that provides the human element and overall context for the Apollo program’s achievement.

    While footage is often mixed and matched out of chronology, it is somewhat irrelevant to fuss over this because the goal likely was not to nitpick over sequencing but to visually showcase the program as a whole and not worry over one expedition or the next. It was the succession of missions, and what was learned on each one, which ultimately led to Apollo 11’s success and the film underscores that fact. In addition, the Brian Eno commissioned soundtrack is, forgive the cliché, a thing of beauty. It is haunting and ambient, perfectly reflecting the calm, otherworldly effect of the moon visually on one’s psyche. In the end, For All Mankind takes eighty mintues to sum up one of humanity’s greatest technical achievements, enough said.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    For All Mankind
  • Green for Danger

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The British film industry has often been known for its literate and entertaining genre mishmashes over the decades, think of the brilliantly hilarious yet black comedy of Ealing Studios which churned out such classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets as well as The Ladykillers before the Coen Brothers laid their hands upon it. What makes these films work however is the attention to detail and story, striving to imbue the most absurd situation, be it light or dark, with a steadfast streak of reality.

    Produced after the end of World War II, British writer-director Sidney Gilliat dazzled post war British audiences with his delightful murder-mystery, Green for Danger. Based upon a popular novel at the time, Gilliat brought his considerable talents to bear when adapting and directing this nasty little gem. Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, wider audiences now have a chance to view a pitch-perfect murder mystery and black comedy by a man whose talents were often employed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself.

    The film itself is set in England enduring a wave of Nazi rocket attacks at a one time manor turned makeshift hospital. The plot unfolds as a local British postman is injured during a rocket blast and is quickly rushed to the hospital. The audience is introduced to the myriad of doctors and nurses working and living together in a hysteric, sexually charged environment, reminding one of Gray’s Anatomy sixty-years too soon.

    While being prepared for surgery, the postman dies mysterious on the operating table before the procedure even begins. Naturally, an inquiry is ordered and as events rapidly unfold, a murder is committed on the premises. At this point, an eccentric Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Cockrill (in a delightfully charming and odd performance by Alastair Sim) arrives on the scene and intends on getting to the bottom of things, despite his own eccentricities and tendency to make a bad situation even worse.

    Tonally, Green for Danger is a veritable stew. At the onset, the grim, realistic detail of life during war belies a classic home front picture yet once the viewer is introduced to the cast of possible suspects from smoothly seductive Dr. Eden (Leo Genn) to enigmatic Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) to the gamut of nurses from the desirable Nurse Linley (Sally Gray) to the troubled Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John), the film takes a sharp, melodramatic turn focusing less on the war effort and more on the pained love triangles and obsessions among these various individuals. And yet again, once the postman dies and one of the nurses is brutally murdered, the film shifts once again from romantic melodrama to classic murder mystery.

    It is only with the introduction of Cockrill that the final ingredient of black comedy is added by way of his sardonic verbal wit and how his voice-over narration and on-screen action often ironically contradict one another. With this heady brew of emotions and styles running on all cylinders, it would be easy for a director to lose track of the intended tone and end up with a mess. Yet Gilliat keeps firm control of the picture, subtly using his realistic technique to underscore dramatic shifts within scenes from light to dark. Resultingly, one ends up with terse action sequences mated with screwball comedy fights and moments of sublime humor as when Cockrill reads a detective novel, believing he’s figured out who the killer is, only to turn to the last page and discover his error.

    Alongside Gilliat’s technical confidence in his ability to shift tone, he employs an equally talented cast who is able to move with the stylistic punches and still bring in focused performances. Among the best is Sim’s turn as Cockrill, in a role that could easily have fallen to Alec Guinness during his heralded Ealing Studios days, Sim is completely enveloped in his role as an intelligent but slightly incompetent police inspector. Overly confident, Cockrill nonetheless comes across as a man with more attitude than brains at times. Yet he is canny enough to sniff out who the real murderer is and gets his man, despite the consequences of his pursuit. Sim is at turns hilarious, poignant, and downright eccentric, making him both believable and utterly absurd. As I said, only someone like Alec Guinness could do a better job at taking apart the classic detective image than Sim does in this role.

    By the end, Gilliat leaves the audience with a thrilling adventure running not only the gambit in terms of plot but emotions as well. Between comedy and tragedy, Green for Danger will delight fans of murder mystery, romantic melodrama, and black comedy with its potent blend of genre, action, humor, and genuine human struggle. A delightful British film worth being rediscovered and few others do that sort of thing as well as the Criterion Collection.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Green for Danger
  • Grey Gardens: Special Edition box set

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Recently revived as first an Off-Broadway and now Broadway musical, with talks of a fictional film version in the works, Grey Gardens has been the recipient of an unexpected but certainly welcome renaissance. Produced in 1976 by cinema verite documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Salesman), Grey Gardens has been a cult classic for the past thirty years now and with good reason.

    Documenting the lives of the infamous but unforgettable Edith and Little Edie Beale as well as their dilapidated mansion, Grey Gardens itself, the Maysles illuminated audiences not only of the eccentricity of these two women but shed light on their humanity and freedom. Re-released in a new box set with the 2006 follow up film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, this film stands poised to reach an ever-widening audience who no doubt will likely forget characters as lively as the Beales.

    As Grey Gardens begins, the viewer learns of the pair’s initial claim to fame. Both Edith and her daughter Edie are cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, from the Bouvier side of her family. In a montage of newspaper articles at the film’s opening, the Beale’s East Hampton estate, Grey Gardens, is on the verge of being condemned as a result of severe neglect leading to an inhospitable living environment. However, before the two women are kicked off their property, their famous cousin Jackie herself comes to the rescue and personally cleans up the manor along with the help of others of course. After this ad-hoc renovation, the health inspectors get off the Beale’s backs and the final articles announce that the Maysles Brothers are preparing to film a documentary on this eccentric pair.

    From this point, the viewer is first introduced to Edie Beale. At the time of filming, Edie is in her mid 50’s, although in excellent shape overall, and regales the filmmakers over her outfit choice and the reasoning behind it. One of the film’s most impressionable aspects is Edie’s fashion sense which has been constant inspiration for various designers in the years since release. Always wearing a fashionable head wrap (be it silk scarf or bathroom hand towel), for reasons which are never explained, Edie struts around the estate with her own eccentric style, a pure fashionista uninterested in current styles and made up in her signature look of head wraps, ad hoc skirts, stockings, unique color choices, etc.

    Besides her obvious interest in fashion, Edie is also enraptured with astrology constantly referring to her astrology book and determining which zodiac signs are most compatible with her as she looks for a husband. Marriage and relationships figure a large part of Edie’s screen time as she reminisces over men she was with and those whom she wished to marry. There is a constant struggle within Edie between staying within the safe yet cloistered confines of the estate and breaking away to establish her own independent life, free of the constraints of her mother and lineage.

    On the flip side, there is Edith Beale the family matriarch. A once professional singer, Edith is a woman who held fast to her home and family after being left by her husband decades before. In her late seventies when filmed, Edith at this point is unable to move around much yet she is defiant in her attitudes and personality. She expresses no regret at never having remarried after being left and takes pride in holding her family and estate together for decades all by herself. Edith lives her life proudly despite the obviously eccentric environment and apologies for nothing in her life. She has her fondness for her cats, more so than Edie, and constantly sings with her daughter showing the still powerful hold that music has over their lives. It is no doubt this facet that allowed the musical’s creators to take a stab at adapting such odd characters to the stage.

    Much of the film is based around the recollections of these two women as they talk about their individual lives, choices made, regrets they carry, etc. The Beales seemingly live in a world where the past and present have no definite borders, which may have allowed them to live in such squalor as they were able to think back on the estate’s past grandeur rather than focus on the ruin it fell into. The estate itself becomes the third and most telling character in the film; a once stately manor home reduced to peeling paint and decay. A hole in one of the walls caused by a raccoon marks the passing of time over the film’s course as the hole becomes larger and larger as events progress. The gardens themselves are overgrown and have gone wild, symbolically in line with the attitudes of their owners who themselves have eschewed societal acceptance in favor of their own personal freedom despite the obvious costs.

    As the first film ends, the viewer is left with an indelible portrait of these women that is simply unforgettable. It causes one to imagine what else could happen to these eccentric yet defiant personalities. Luckily, Albert Maysles went back to the footage he and his brother shot during their exploits with Edith and Edie and culled together enough unseen material to create the follow up, The Beales of Grey Gardens. Much less a sequel than an unread chapter, this film elaborates more on the relationship that developed between the two women and the filmmakers themselves.

    While the brothers were referred to in the first film, they have virtually no onscreen time and chose to keep their focus more on the women themselves as subjects. This new film illustrates the interplay between both parties much more clearly and delves deeper into the infatuation that Edie herself had with both brothers. Other than that, the film features more spontaneous musical numbers from both Edie and Edith and shows them in contact with their other friends, including Jerry, the innocent yet simple minded handyman from the first film who occupies his own unique cult status as well.

    In the end, both films taken together provide valuable insight into two women who occupy a unique but unwavering foothold in the American pop culture psyche. Despite the near grotesqueries that first draw you to them, the Beales transcend surface judgments and strike at deeper notions of both freedom and regret. Not fully living in reality as it existed but as they fashioned for themselves provided them the perseverance to not only survive but thrive in their own world. Edith and Edie did not interact with the rest of society because they felt no need to do so. They lived on their own terms until the end and did so with courage, certainly touching a chord in audiences who viewed them as heroes for this very fact. It is this central point that certainly has driven the continued interest in the Beales and shall fuel it for decades yet to come.

    For more information on these titles, go to www.criterion.com.
    Grey Gardens: Special Edition box set
  • House of Games

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Marking his debut as director after successful stints as playwright and screenwriter, David Mamet first committed his own unique authorial voice to film in 1987’s House of Games. Starring frequent collaborators Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse, the film is an elaborate character study of people involved in the confidence game. Built upon attitude and deceit, Mamet’s characters engage themselves in a series of increasingly complex games be they financially, confidence, psychological, or sexual. No one is who they appear to be or more pointedly, they are exactly as they appear to be and then reveal who else they happen to be beneath that. Released in a new edition by the Criterion Collection featuring new interviews, commentary tracks, and featurettes covering the production, House of Games easily fits into Mamet’s overall oeuvre of work and is easily his best film to date.

    The game is set into motion when professional therapist and best-selling author Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) talks down one of her patients from committing suicide in front of her. The young man apparently has fallen into a seemingly insurmountable gambling debt and in an attempt to help him as well as satisfy her own personal curiosity ventures to the gambling den where her patient’s bookie frequents, the House of Games. Upon arrival she meets Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna), a smooth cardshark with confidence and street-wise attitude. He comes across Ford as he is in the middle of a particularly contentious poker game in the back room and enlists the doctor’s help in trying to beat a particularly lucky opponent. The game spirals quickly out of control or does it?

    Very soon, Dr. Ford becomes entranced in the world of confidence scams that Mike and his fellow grifters belong to and asks to observe this world and learn the tools of the trade. At first hesitant, Mike takes her under his wing and she soon begins to learn the con man’s philosophy and participates in one particularly elaborate con to fleece an unsuspecting mark out of considerable money. However, events quickly spiral towards disaster and Ford’s initial exuberance quickly sours into fear. The real game though only reveals itself gradually in a series of fantastic twists and turns which end up leaving the viewer both puzzled and enraged, akin to being taken by one of these very con men. All that can be said here is that deception is this film’s key and Mamet plays it out in a series of delicious permutations.

    When a new spectator comes across David Mamet’s work, one of the first things that is unmistakable is the writer’s particular use of language. Mamet’s plays, ranging from Sexual Perversity in Chicago to Glengarry Glen Ross, first alerted the world to his particularly musical yet terse turns of phrase; Mamet conversations are often athletic feats of macho strutting, weakness is abhorred and only the manliest will succeed. In House of Games, Mamet translates to film the hyper-masculine, deception-laden world view that the best of his collective work is brewed from. Strangely enough, the character holding the film’s moral center is not Crouse’s confused yet resilient Dr. Ford but Mantegna’s Mike Mancuso.

    In a world of liars and cheats, he is a perfect contradiction, the honest liar. Mike is an individual who, like Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminal anti-heroes, lives by his own personal code and is honest in how he conducts himself within that code. He states right up front to both Ford and the audience to “don’t trust nobody” and that includes himself. While his obvious professional success alerts one to his moral ease at stealing from people both financially and psychologically, he never pretends to be anything but what he is. Therefore, his honesty and deceptions become one and the same. Already a long-time Mamet collaborator, Mantegna really sinks his teeth into the role which he accepted after his award-winning turn as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross. Both Roma and Mike are brothers from different mothers, liars who are in it not as much for the money but for the challenge.

    Ford however fails as a person due to her hypocrisy, which is her deepest flaw and one that proves ripe for picking. Feeling like a professional fraud as she comes to doubt that her psychological treatments enable real change in her patients, she sees the world of confidence scams as represented by Mike as a world of kinship. Valuing her obvious intelligence and confidence, she attempts to learn and play along with the real flim-flam men; feeling that she can obviously succeed in these lies as easily as she has done with her own patients.

    However, Ford’s arrogance is matched only by her own hypocrisy. Beneath a veneer of professionalism and social respectability, she is as low-down and conniving as the men she works with except she refuses to admit to it. Mamet exploits this flaw perfectly and displays it in one of the film’s most satisfying and discomforting twists. One feels for Margaret when her world is suddenly revealed before all, the embarrassment and shame becomes physically palpable.

    Flanking both Crouse and Mantegna though are a number of other Mamet stalwarts like Mike Nussbaum, William H. Macy (in an all too brief but pitch-perfect appearance), JT Walsh, etc. One should also note Ricky Jay’s wonderful performance as one of the con men; a man famed for his knowledge of card tricks and short cons, he lends an authenticity to this particular subculture of hustling that only rubs off on his fellow actors and steps up their games.

    You can almost tell who’s worked with the director before due to their ease with his language. Mamet, like Harold Pinter, writes notoriously difficult language for actors to get a handle on; the particular rhythms and tone that his speech demands is so stylized that if a performer is unable to lock into it, the performance sounds as phony and forced as bad Shakespeare. Some handle it better than others; while Mantegna sinks his teeth into the words and role, Crouse delivers a somewhat stilted and uncomfortable reading as she at times seems unable to fall in line with the dialogue.

    From a visual perspective, Mamet found a fantastic collaborator in DP Juan Ruiz Anchia. Despite working on a small budget, Anchia’s wonderfully colorful yet focused lighting scheme lends a visual beauty to the film that is not ostentatious yet exudes a tough beauty that visually gels with the ugly/beautiful world these characters exist within. The long tracking shot which follows Ford’s entry into the House of Games is methodical and above all, cool. The small pool of light showed upon the pool tables only enhances their greenness and the dingy design is softened by the harsh neon bulbs that saturate the bar.

    Even more sublimely perfect is the back poker room itself, a lone green-felt covered table covered only with a few stacks of poker chips and cards, one single bulb hanging above it casting light out in an upended cone, the back walls covered in various degrees of shadow with the players sitting just outside the light’s focus, moving in and out as they play their hands while their cigar smoke acts as a wonderful, softening filter for the lone harsh bulb. The real visual texture that House of Games exudes really is a product of Anchia’s precision, as opposed to Mamet’s rather spartan, visual sense which he attributes to an affinity with Eisenstein, sometimes to a fault.

    In the end though, Mamet’s debut still stands as one of his best, if not best, film so far because of the precise balance that all elements, i.e. script, dialogue, performance, production design, are held within. Essentially interested in the interaction of his characters, Mamet is able to keep the audience’s attention on his characters and through his precise scripting takes the viewer on the journey as he sees fit; he moves you from A to B to C exactly as he thinks you should be moved and with the confidence of not deviating from his plan one bit. While not as flashy a debut as say Citizen Kane or Reservoir Dogs, House of Games is in some ways more satisfying as it dispenses with attention-grabbing flash that so quickly ages and instead crafts a mature, careful yet confident morality tale that will hold up to some degree into the future because it deals with real human beings and the foibles that we carry with us.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    House of Games
  • If…

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    British director Lindsay Anderson’s If… occupies its own unique niche for many valid reasons. Whether it be the film’s confrontational and anarchic vision, its employ of various stylistic devices, mix of color and black and white photography, or at the very least, Malcolm McDowell’s on-screen debut. However, perhaps the greatest virtue the film still holds is its fighting spirit, an energy born out of its turbulent time that still holds up to this day. Now available to wide audiences due to its DVD release by the Criterion Collection, big shock there, If… still holds up in many ways despite its inception forty years ago.

    The story itself is an allegory for British society as it existed in the late 1960’s. In fact, to understand and appreciate the film one must accept its allegorical nature and forsake all attempts to understand it on a naturalistic level. The film’s setting skewers a cornerstone of British society and power, the public school system. Despite its proletarian title, the British public schools are actually a group of institutions that cater to only the upper crust of society; halls of education and tradition meant to mold character and ostensibly act as caretakers of British class power and privilege. Taking an inspiration cue from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, the action occurs at a British public school known as College House.

    Divided into book-like chapters, embracing a Brechtian distancing method that Anderson’s contemporaries notably Jean-Luc Godard were experimenting with, the first chapter introduces the viewer to both the school as well as its inhabitants. The hierarchical order moves from the school’s administration at the very top to The Whips, a group of seniors charged essentially with maintaining order and discipline amongst their fellow seniors and all underclassmen beneath them. Led by the snobbish blue blood Dennison (Hugh Thomas), the Whips gladly enforce the school’s rules and traditions while using their positions of power for their own personal gain and sport, often resorting to brutal punishments meant to both keep their underlings in line while bringing them sadistic enjoyment.

    Standing in opposition to both the Whips and the Establishment in general is the film’s hero, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, who would reprise his role as Travis in Anderson’s later films O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). A fellow senior and free thinker, we first meet Mick while he is on the precipice of manhood. Reaching a point of disgust and desiring to make his own way in the world, Mick returns to the school for fall semester sporting a new mustache, clearly a symbol of his striving towards adult expression. Travis is a keen, intelligent young man with an active imagination as he dreams of personal freedom and expression within the confining social walls of College House.

    The plot unfolds in a picaresque manner as each chapter follows Mick and his fellow classmates as they attempt to buck both the system and the school’s draconian methods for maintaining order. What first begins as simple noncompliance progressively escalates into absurd, violent rebellion perhaps mirroring the social strife of the 1960’s itself which began with peaceful demonstration and ended with riots and violence. Stylistically, the film owes much to Luis Bunuel’s particular brand of surrealism as fantasy and reality are layered upon one another with no obvious demarcation line to aid viewers.

    In one sequence, Mick and a roommate steal a motorcycle from a local shop and ride off into the countryside. They stop at a small café where they encounter an unnamed girl (Christine Noonan); Mick taunts the girl until both are at each other’s throats in a stylized, violent mating dance which literally ends with the pair naked on the floor in a quick cut. Obviously not true reality, the scene still comments on the virile and often violent energy that comes with such youthful desire and courtship. From that point forward, the girl often reappears yet one is left unsure whether she is genuine or some figment of Mick’s overactive imagination. Anderson himself constantly throws in stylistic tricks in order to maintain a Brechtian distance for the audience to consider the ideas the film proposes than becoming too caught up in the story itself.

    Another famous example lies within the frequent shifts from color photography to black and white, both handled beautifully by cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Shuffling between the two photographic schemes, the viewer is subconsciously left on their toes as each shift is accompanied by a separate mood and atmosphere so visual complacency is avoided. Finally, perhaps the most satiric and in today’s light most disturbing moment of If… lies within the final rebellion itself. Pushed to the edge and armed with military weaponry, Mick Travis and his band of mavericks launch an all-out assault against the school’s administrators on the grounds themselves. Wielding a machine gun and staring defiantly into the camera, Mick Travis is transfigured into an icon of youthful defiance unwilling to be broken and molded by the very class structure he was born into.

    Absurdist in nature, this sequence though has taken on a significantly more tragic undercurrent in light of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. It is likely that if the film were to be remade today, that sequence would be the first one cut. In the end, If… still holds up as both a historical document and a call to arms for any young person who chafes under the yoke of authority and wishes to determine his or her own destiny. It charts that very real and significant moment in every person’s life when he or she makes the transition from childhood to adulthood and begins to exert the personal responsibility and freedom that growing up finally brings to kids who up till that point essentially have their lives run for them. Insouciant, violent, and visually daring, If… was a rallying call in 1969 and still has the thematic power and energy to inspire each successive generation with ideas and emotions that are genuinely timeless.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    If...
  • Ivan’s Childhood

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    An addition that has been years in the waiting, Criterion finally adds Andrei Tarkovsky’s feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, to its growing collection. Joining other Tarkovsky titles Solaris and Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood allows viewers a chance to see Tarkovsky’s first explorations into both themes and stylistic conceits that his later work would only dig into with more exacting attention. Containing the seeming prerequisite critical analysis documentary as well as interviews with the film’s star and cinematographer, the special features are somewhat light yet effective in providing further illumination into the film itself as well as its genesis. With fans waiting for years for its proper Criterion release, they now have it and can decide for themselves whether or not it was worth the wait.

    The plot unfolds curiously enough with a literal flight of fantasy, young Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev) ascends into the sky floating above the trees near a small lake. Laughing and happy, he is soon called back by his adoring mother when suddenly shots ring out and both he and the viewer are plunged back towards reality. We soon shift gears to the Russian front during World War II; with winter upon them, a company of Russian troops are preparing for an offensive to push back the Germans while stationed across a river in the wilderness. First appearing before us jubilant and playful, we next see Ivan as he is covered in mud swimming through a cold marsh in order to reach safety. Upon arrival, he is met by the company’s commanding officer Galtsev who quickly learns of the boy’s military value after a brusque introduction. Recruited as a scout, Ivan travels across enemy lines reporting on enemy troop positions and movements.

    Arriving at Galtsev’s quarters tired and weak, he is nonetheless defiant in tone as he is spoken down to; it is only when Galtsev confirms with the local commander Ivan’s position that he understands the boy’s attitude. Soon enough, Ivan’s handlers and surrogate family, Captain Kholin and Corporal Katasonych arrive to look in on their comrade in arms. For his own safety, Ivan is ordered to be sent back to the rear to attend military school only to run away in order to continue the fight. As one character states, all that the boy dreams of is vengeance. The film’s plot switches from life and strategy on the front to Ivan’s own feverish dreams and memories. He often recalls childhood reveries, alone with his mother playing in the sunshine and enjoying nature around him only to have some cruel interruption snap him back to reality. As the story continues and his nerves become increasingly frayed, he begins hearing voices, the cries of Russians innocently slaughtered and the German officers responsible for their cruel demise.

    Increasingly isolated, Ivan is once again recruited for a dangerous reconnaissance mission across the river in order to retrieve information vital to the Russians’ offensive strategy. With his childhood innocence robbed, Ivan’s only mission is to destroy those who took away his life and spirit. In terms of theme and genre, Ivan’s Childhood clearly belongs to the Soviet propagandist war film. With its emphasis on patriotism and sacrificing one’s self for the greater good, it can clearly be seen as an extension of classic propagandist cinema with Ivan as its glorious, shining hero. Yet within its rather established and codified genre, the film also possesses a myriad of stylistic flourishes that underscore Tarkovsky’s obvious technical prowess as well as touching on themes and imagery, i.e. the sublime beauty of nature, a quasi-mystical focus at times, etc. that would gain greater prominence in Tarkovsky’s later works.

    Filmed in impeccably rendered black and white photography by Vadim Yusov, the film utilizes an array of shadows and near-theatrical lighting schemes to underscore the morally shadowed world that the characters find themselves traversing through in order to survive the war experience. On top of that, there are plenty of tracking shots, crane shots, and other camera moves to spare. While not showing off in an obvious manner, Tarkovsky certainly favors more complex visual movement in Ivan’s Childhood rather than a simpler, less busy style to convey his story.

    However, with all the stylistic flash the film is still anchored by Burlyaev’s performance. As Ivan, he is able to play both the pure essence of childhood innocence while simultaneously conveying the spiritual trampling that war creates. On the front, he is cool, calculating and business-like when it comes to his work. Within his eyes, one can see the despair and weariness that losing his family and watching those around him die has filled his soul. Like a grizzled veteran stuck on the front, his childhood only exists as distant memories and feverish imaginings of what his life should have been like as opposed to what fate coldly foisted upon his narrow shoulders. As the film concludes and we learn of Ivan’s fate, one can view it with both a mix of sadness and relief as the boy is finally allowed to enjoy the life he should have been allowed to have.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Ivan's Childhood
  • Knife in the Water

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Made in 1962, Knife in the Water emerged as Roman Polanski’s debut feature film. Polanski, who had preceded this debut with a string of highly skilled and interesting short films, came out with both arms swinging. In many ways, the film works as a perfect introduction to the themes that have permeated throughout his entire oeuvre. Few filmmakers have made debut films as impressive and interesting to watch as Polanski did with this work.

    The film’s premise is deceptively simple. A successful, Polish couple is driving to the lake country where they are going to go sailing for the weekend. Along the way, they nearly kill a young man who is hitchhiking. Eventually, the couple agrees to have the young man tag along with them for the weekend. With that simple, expository action a war is about to begin. As soon as the trio cast off, tensions emerge. Initially, the boy and man lock horns. The man sees the boy as being immature and weak, without character. The boy, in turn, does all he can to prove himself to be the man’s equal, all the while further emasculating himself and strengthening the man’s ego. Be it from steering the boat to pulling it through a marsh, every simple act is seen as a challenge. Youth versus experience, strength versus weakness.

    The other major battle that commences aboard the small sailboat is for the affections of the man’s wife. The wife is first presented as a quiet, demure, slightly homely woman; someone who faithfully and quietly abides by her husband. As the film progresses however, Polanski allows her to more and more shed that persona and display her innate sexuality. From being a slightly homely woman in glasses to a bikini-clad unknowing vixen, the wife responds to the masculine tensions on board by being subtly aroused by them. In turn, the men ratchet up their sub textual struggle. Now the prize isn’t dominance over each other but dominance over the woman.

    Eventually, the situation climaxes with a physical struggle between the man and boy which results ultimately in betrayal by the wife of one with the other. As the film comes to a conclusion, the man and wife are left at a literal and metaphorical crossroads. Over the course of one day, they have shattered their own supposed morality and decency and allowed their feral and cruel inner natures and desires to surface. The question that remains is where to go from here.

    By utilizing a classical Greek structure, Polanski creates a film in which, like a Pinter play, all the action is sub textual. On the surface, we see three people sniping at each other and sailing. However, by illustrating the subtle yet real power games that all three use against one another, Polanski shows our inner, animalistic desires and instincts fighting to break through our supposed evolved morality. As many of his other films would later illustrate, the world does not make sense nor is nice about it. The world simply exists and one must do everything possible to survive or be destroyed.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Knife in the Water
  • La Haine

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As the face of Europe has dramatically changed over the past few decades due to expansive immigration, many countries have been forced to deal with the social and cultural ramifications of this particular issue. Societies that have existed for centuries under cohesive cultural and ethnic structures have struggled with integrating new peoples and influences upon their dominant culture. Few other European nations have been dealt with this particular problem more than France. For years, immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East for example have established permanent presences within this emblematic Western European nation.

    Yet while many of these immigrants’ children are born and raised as French citizens, they still face bigotry and marginalization from a dominant system that may recognize their nationality on paper but does little to reinforce these supposed rights. Resultantly, tensions have brewed and clashes have erupted between these lost children and the authorities driven by fear and hatred. Capturing the mood of this present tension in an explosive and adroit manner is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, now available on DVD via the Criterion Collection.

    The film chronicles a day in the life of three immigrant children, Vinz (Vincent Cassel) a Jew, Hubert (Hubert Kounde) an African, and Said (Said Taghmaoui) and Arab. All three men spend their lives wasting time within the oppressive, concrete banlieue district that they live in. The banlieue system is akin to what in America would be referred to as low-income affordable housing projects; they are overcrowded structures populated by people low on the economic scale and lacking resources and opportunities to better themselves. At the film’s onset, a series of riots erupt through the banlieues located on Paris’ outskirts, due to the unnecessary beating of a young North African resident by police. Incensed by this action, riots erupt and during one skirmish a police officer loses his gun amidst the chaos.

    The day after the latest riot, Vinz, Said, and Hubert meet up to do their usual thing, going about the area aimlessly while chatting with friends and amusing themselves while allowing the viewer a full-look into the environment in which they live and the difficult social conditions that are constantly perpetuated. Another near skirmish erupts atop an apartment building where the trio and a number of the other young residents are relaxing and barbecuing. A contingent of policemen discovers them and orders the group to disperse. While all-out violence is avoided, the fires are stoked and tensions rise between the residents and authorities which immediately translates itself through the trio itself.

    At one point though, Vinz reveals to Said and Hubert that indeed he retrieved the missing cop’s gun. When he flashes it before the others, the film takes on an entirely new dimension as these three young men, who have been born into and know only powerlessness get a taste of what real power is with this weapon. With the pistol in toll, Vinz contents himself in bragging about his willingness to use the weapon against the very police who beat on his friends. From that point forward, events continue to spiral downwards in the banlieue until the trio is forced to flee to Paris. Acting as fish out of water, these men come to grips with how marginalized they are to the dominant society by the abuse they endure by local cops in a particularly brutal torture scene and their lack of understanding the customs of the dominant culture. Eventually, their journey brings them to ever greater levels of violence until the shattering climax which provides no turning back for any of them.

    In examining the racial and cultural strife that exists within France’s social structure, Kassovitz’s film was an eerie forecaster of similar race riots which erupted in the banlieues in 2005. This only reaffirms the film’s power and honesty with a system predicated on dishonesty and mistrust. Included in the special features is an informative documentary further detailing the origins and troubles inherent in the banlieue system which is as interesting to view as the feature itself. A modern masterpiece, brimming with style and substance in equal measure, anyone interested in seeing the true face of France needs to watch La Haine.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    La Haine
  • La Jetee / Sans Soleil: Two Films by Chris Marker

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Amongst the pantheon of idolized French directors, Chris Marker holds his position as perhaps cinema’s first genuine time traveler. Kidding aside, many have joked over the years that Marker is some sort of alien or time traveler, and in a way his films have that feel. They seem to possess a timeless quality whilst also feeling like they’ve been sent to us from the future. Hyperbole aside, this cutting-edge yet timeless quality is a cornerstone of Marker’s unique cinematic perspective and is what allows his films to both retain an essential freshness that many others films only hope to hold onto as time moves forward. Presented on DVD as a dual set from the Criterion Collection, Marker’s two most famous films, La Jetee and Sans Soleil are now available for viewers, both veterans of his work and the uninitiated to finally get their hands on and see for themselves two films that demand one’s intelligence in addition to attention.

    The set’s first film, La Jetee, holds a firm place in the realm of science fiction film as one of the most philosophical and unique works in the field. The story begins in Paris as a young boy stands on a pier and in the distance watches a man die before his very eyes. Haunted by this image, the boy will unfortunately grow up in a world foreshadowed by this unexpected tragedy. When nuclear war finally sweeps across the globe, laying waste to civilization and humanity, a group of survivors take refuge in underground catacombs beneath Paris. Amongst the survivors is the boy, now a full adult who is drafted into an experiment conducted by a cabal of secretive scientists. Their purpose is to perfect time travel, in order to not warn inhabitants of the past but merely to procure supplies in order to survive in their present. With a slew of test subjects driven mad by their experiments, the scientists come upon the man as their only hope for success as his fervent imagination and childhood memories allow him to endure the strenuous process of time travel.

    Whilst in the past, the man encounters a young woman who seems striking familiar to him. Shuttled back and forth from his nightmarish, post-apocalyptic time to the peaceful, idyllic past, the man eventually falls in love with the woman and decides to stay in this time. However, his actions only precipitate his ultimate destiny which ironically brings his life full circle in an unexpected manner. If the plot sounds familiar, it probably is since Marker’s film was the basis for Terry Gilliam’s time-travel hit 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. While not a complete rip-off, Gilliam more than liberally borrows from Marker while never quite getting at the thematic complexity that the original’s comparatively miniscule length (27 minutes) not only hints at but directly challenges the viewer with.

    Ideas of memory, time, and identity are all explored in the film, which in turn have been themes that Marker’s entire oeuvre have mined and contemplated for decades. It is also ironic that a film about time travel, the epitome of motion, is conveyed by nothing more than a succession of still images. By presenting each scene as a single photograph, Marker further plays upon the notion of memory almost invoking a snapshot-like schema which would not be out of place in one’s own wandering thought processes. As his only fiction film and a genre one at that, Marker amply rises to the challenge and lays down a short film weightier than many other ‘serious’ works produced, either today or in the past.

    The second title, Sans Soleil, is Marker’s best-known documentary film. Although documentary is a bit misleading, it is a suitable starting point as the film at times resembles a National Geographic special in terms of its scope and visual subject matter. An off-screen narrator reads a series of letters composed by a constantly traveling cameraman named Sandor Krasna; in turn the film’s images correspond to the musings and observations Krasna makes in regards to his travels and other mundane topics. Of frequent interest to him are Japan and the West African colonies of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, which form the film’s duel visual strands, with images and people from each place bouncing back and forth before the viewer’s attention.

    The obvious socioeconomic differences strike out as one observes the urbane bustle of modern Tokyo juxtaposed against the complete squalor and famine that besets the colonies themselves, as wide a difference between First World and Third World as can be imagined. Yet as in La Jetee, Sans Soleil is not about dissecting poverty; it is yet a further investigation into memory and symbolism. Specifically, it examines notions of how symbols, be they cultural or mass-media, shapes both individuals’ and societies’ collective memory thus talking about such symbols create memory itself rather than act as markers to simply recall memories. Images such as kitschy porcelain cats to elaborate dance rituals all play a role in defining one’s perception which inexorably links itself to memory creation. Marker’s style itself somewhat reflects this by employing a myriad of disparate associations which collide into one another yet work cohesively within the overall structural schema.

    With Krasna’s letters guiding the flow, one almost gets a sense of peeking within the man’s own mind and memory as images come together and create new associations and ideas. The film fascinates because it evokes a constant sense of imaginative creation, of one thought leading to another quickly and without any rigid sense of logical order, moving instead with a quicksilver intensity that imagination is built on. With these two films presented together, the uninitiated have an opportunity to watch fascinating experiments in cinematic thought.

    While working within a traditional fictional narrative, despite its bizarre setup, La Jetee feels more like a philosophical dialogue presenting and investigating abstract philosophical ideas within the easy-to-understand structure of a story. Sans Soleil, on the other side, is less a documentary than essay, akin to Godard’s own essayist style without the rigid didacticism that infiltrates his work. In the end, both La Jetee and Sans Soleil perfectly complement one another thematically and stylistically in terms of presenting the viewer with unexpected visual style and execution that perfectly dovetail with the thematic underpinnings that lie within each film.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    La Jetee / Sans Soleil: Two Films by Chris Marker
  • Les Enfants Terribles

    Continuing to bring filmmakers Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau’s films to the masses, Criterion has upped the ante with its new release of Les Enfants Terribles. Adapted from Cocteau’s own novel, the film features beautiful black and white cinematography from legend Henri Decae as well as costumes from fashion icon Christian Dior. As usual, this release comes with the prerequisite special features that help illuminate the film’s background and more specifically, the artistic debate as to the film’s authorship. Either way, the proof is in the pudding and the film is yet another example of Criterion’s focus on releasing world cinema classics which Les Enfants Terribles certainly qualifies as in many critics and viewers eyes.

    Cocteau’s tale revolves around a pair of French twins named Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane) and Paul (Edouard Dermithe). At the very beginning, Paul is injured in a snowball fight by a fellow student named Dargelos (Renee Cosima) and is forced to leave school because of his condition. However, the specter of Dargelos will only come to haunt him as time moves on. Without a father and left with a terminally ill mother, the twins spend the majority of their time alone with each other, locked in their stuff, cluttered bedroom where they spend their time playing mind games with each other. Emotionally devoid and brutish, the pair cling to one another obsessively while avoiding the outside world with the exception of their mutual friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard), whom they often treat as a mere plaything, another addition to their collection of detritus and knick knacks.

    After the death of their mother, Elisabeth and Paul are cared for by their family’s maid for a time while continuing to live in their own self-contained world. Eventually though, Elisabeth decides to work and befriends a young model named Agathe who bears a striking resemblance to Paul’s own Dargelos. The trio becomes a quartet and after inheriting a substantial fortune, Elisabeth invites the others to live with her. However, complications begin to arise when Paul begins to give in to his temptation towards Agathe. A closet homosexual who never came to grips with Dargelos’ exit from his life, Paul at first resents and despises the young girl only to admit to both himself and Elisabeth his hidden love. Taken aback by her brother’s admission and the threat posed to their world, Elisabeth sets into motion events that can only lead to heartbreak and tragedy.

    Adapted from Cocteau’s novel, the film feels very much apart of the artist’s aesthetic sensibility, with characters tending towards the melodramatic while containing dream sequences that recall both The Blood of a Poet and Cocteau’s masterpiece, Orpheus. The claustrophobic relationship between the two siblings, which grows exponentially presages later depictions, i.e. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. What’s interesting about Paul and Elisabeth is that while they choose to isolate themselves from society, they are more than able to cope with its conventions at least superficially. This is perfectly demonstrated when the pair are taken on vacation by Gerard’s father; they are able to pass as normal people aboard the train and within the hotel while reverting back to their childish hardheadedness in private. Thus their isolation is a choice rather than a mere result of their obviously sheltered childhood, which makes it all the more interesting as they choose to be social radicals rather than simple victims.

    The film’s special features tend to focus on the debate as to whose film Les Enfants Terribles truly is. It is a debate that has raged since the film’s release, is it Cocteau’s or Melville’s? While credited as official director, Melville is often cast aside by many of the experts in favor of Cocteau in terms of content, visual style, etc. And yes it is true that the film does look and feel more in line with Cocteau’s flashy style than Melville’s more precise direction, it is fair to suggest that the realistic performances evoked probably have more to do with Melville rather than Cocteau. Reason being, Cocteau’s own dramatic leanings towards the mythical and melodramatic often left on the screen performances devoid of solid, dramatic weight.

    On the other hand, Melville’s actors are always grounded in reality, poetic at times of course, but you always believe Melville’s characters, which is harder to say for Cocteau’s at times. Personally, I am not here to end the debate for it is probably folly to do so and in the end meaningless. Either way, the collaboration that existed between Cocteau and Melville blended together perfectly enough to create an interesting, lyrical drama that still holds weight through its visual beauty and intriguing performances. A genuine meeting of the minds that holds its own place within movie history, no matter who’s finally credited as the master.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Les Enfants Terribles
  • Mafioso

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Before The Godfather and films like it, the Sicilian mafia was an entity covered relatively little in general cinema. Coming out of the post-neorealist 60’s, Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso plays today like an odd but amusing mix of Meet the Parents and The Godfather. At its core, the movie is a story of clashes whether they are cultural, familial, etc. As completely different social strata are butted up against each other, one gets a sense, albeit dramatically heightened, of the fractured social network of competing traditions and sensibilities that compose modern-day Italy at least within that time frame. Attempting to hold both the story and his own world together is Nino (Alberto Sordi), a natural-born Sicilian who after leaving his village in years’ past, rose through the ranks to become a top-level foreman at a Milanese car factory.

    Nino, as played by Sordi, is an anal somewhat blustery man who attempts to modernize himself within the progressive north while still remembering and holding onto his southern traditions. After years away from home, he decides to take a trip back to Sicily and brings along his modern, properly educated wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and two daughters to educate them to his childhood. Upon their arrival, the differences could not be more apparent. Leaving behind a modern Milan of new cars, big city development and industrialization, Sicily is a collection of stone villages trapped within blistering heat in the middle of nowhere. Half of the people are unemployed while the other half plies their skills with the local mafia chieftains.

    Nino however couldn’t be more pleased as he reconnects with his elderly parents, uncles, aunts, and mustached sister. Old memories and childhood pleasures bubble up within him, however Marta does not take to her new surroundings at all and his family notices all too quickly. Whether smoking at a family dinner or refusing to eat the profuse portions, Marta instantly sets herself apart from the family and they are suspicious and perturbed by what they perceive as northern arrogance.

    While Nino must constantly play peacemaker and try to assuage both his wife and family to accept one another, other plans are afoot that Nino unassumingly blunders his way into regretfully. Within Nino’s tiny village, a local Mafia boss named Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio) is insulted by a rival American boss after receiving a gift on said man’s behalf by none other than Nino himself. Understanding that this insult must be avenged, Don Vincenzo soon begins plotting to have Nino, a former soldier of his, perform a certain dirty task for him. Compelled by respect for this man as well as quietly coerced into action, Nino is employed by this boss only to learn of his true purpose when it is too late after a harrowing yet funny sequence of events.

    By returning home, Nino comes to terms with the shadiness of his past deeds while being dealt a moral dilemma that he must overcome if he is to both secure his own life and that of his family. Holding the film’s center is Sordi’s performance which is both comical and poignant at turns, his Nino is a man stuck between two worlds; he often defends his wife’s modern ways including her independent streak to the derision of friends and family while probably realizing that such changes are inevitable and positive socially. His fear of tensions exploding often leads him to commit and say things without thinking which allows Don Vincenzo and his people to so easily paint him into a corner that only they can release him from, after doing them a small favor of course.

    The real-life Sicilian locations add an air of authenticity and specificity to the mix, highlighting the unbroken traditions that allow such an atmosphere of vengeance and pettiness to exist unchallenged. Yet Lattuada’s writing is sly and comic, as in Nino’s mustached sister and her quest for love; we sympathize with his characters while they all too often commit mistake after mistake without thinking and must find a way out. A fine comic addition to Criterion’s catalog that further illustrates Italy’s postwar contributions to world cinema.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Mafioso
  • Mala Noche

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    After releasing his 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho, the Criterion Collection digs further back into director Gus Van Sant’s filmmaker past with his stunning directorial debut Mala Noche. Produced in 1985 with a shoestring budget and crew, Mala Noche is as impressive a debut as one could ever hope for and also shows a visual aesthetic that was already well-defined and would continue to progress and sharpen with his later work. Adapted from a novel by Portland poet Walt Curtis, Mala Noche delves into the world of street life and young male hustling that would reach a highpoint in My Own Private Idaho itself. What’s more, this new Criterion edition features not only a new interview with Van Sant discussing the film but also a documentary by iconoclastic cartoonist George Plympton about Curtis himself, the true heart and sole of the film itself.

    Mala Noche places the viewer firmly in the perspective of Walt (Tim Streeter), a romantic loser living it up within Portland, Oregon’s skid row. While he does have a steady job as a store clerk that allows him to have a decent apartment and car, Walt really embraces life when slumming in the gutters and cheap motels where all the poor and disenfranchised struggle to stay alive. And then one day, the wind blows in a batch of new, young boys that Walt focuses his attention on.

    A group of Mexican migrant workers make their way up to Portland, led by the young, charismatic Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). As Walt lays his eyes upon Johnny for the first time, he makes his intentions clear he wants nothing more than to sleep with him, to feel his body and experience him completely. Sensing opportunity, Walt becomes friendly with Johnny and his compatriots offering hospitality where he can while making his intentions perfectly felt if not stated. The film unfolds in a rather picaresque manner, observing Walt’s relationship with the migrants and Johnny over time; people come and go, romantic relationships develop and then are aborted, a constant game of cat and mouse plays itself out in the damp, sublime landscape of skid row.

    When you watch Mala Noche now, it almost seems like a Rosetta’s Stone for Van Sant the artist. The lyrical imagery, dreamlike rhythms, ambiguous masculine leads, abused youth, etc. all pop up within the film’s running time and provide clues to what would later emerge in such gems as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. The argument could be made that after his mainstream successes with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Van Sant decided to move forward by embracing his past rather than shunning it. All of later works since that time have reexamined the rhythms and textures of that first sublime feature. Gus Van Sant has always had to deal with the label of being a ‘gay filmmaker’ for better and for worse; his early work is often cited as a forerunner to the New Queer Cinema movement that burst open in the early 90’s marking the arrival of Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, etc.

    Yet what makes Van Sant’s work interesting is that in the films that do feature homosexual characters like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, the characters’ homosexuality is not overanalyzed but simply acknowledged. Walt is a gay man, he makes it abundantly clear in Mala Noche’s opening narration as he regales the viewer with his carnal desire for Johnny without any sense of guilt or self-consciousness. He doesn’t have to think about being gay, he simply as just as most heterosexual people do not have to consciously consider their preference, they simply are it.

    In this regard, Van Sant transcends much of the identity politics that bogged down much of the New Queer Cinema’s time and content. Whereas many of those films followed characters who were coming out and forced to ponder their sexuality and what it meant both to themselves and society, Van Sant’s people simply were it and moved on to deeper issues. Mala Noche is a misleading film to watch, upon first viewing one tends to focus pretty solely on Walt’s practically all-encompassing fixation on Johnny, putting the viewer into that mind frame with Van Sant’s crafty depictions of carnal lust through physicality. Yet upon further viewing, the psychological underpinnings of this desire become more evident and point out ideas of inequity and domination that grow increasingly disturbing upon contemplation.

    For Walt, Johnny is a perfect physical realization of the Other, a being who is unlike himself in every way imaginable, ethnically, physically, spiritually. Johnny’s very allure is rooted in his complete alien ness which Walt practically preys upon and Cooeyate is perfect in portraying Johnny’s playful aloofness, constantly teasing but never giving it up much like Luis Bunuel’s own obscure object of desire. However, Walt recognizes that some of these differences place him within a position of power that he is then able to abuse at his whim. First, he uses Johnny’s ethnicity against him by consciously preying on a young man who is shunned by the community at large partially by his inability to speak English. Walt seizes upon that with his own Spanish-speaking skills, thus fashioning himself into a lone voice in the woods that Johnny and his friends can communicate with; forging an immediate interpersonal bond that hardly anyone else can compete with.

    Second, Walt holds Johnny’s poverty over him; he constantly offers and provides home-cooked meals, rides in his car, sleeping over at his apartment, amenities that are constantly offered in subtle trade for either the boy’s or his friends’ sexual companionship. Walt is a slick if somewhat affectionate hustler and Streeter plays it up in a performance that should have made him a star. While this undercurrent of white, patriarchal exploitation is certainly intriguing once picked up on, Van Sant also displays the flip side of it.

    Ironically, Johnny, his friend (and Walt’s sometime lover) Pepper, and the others understand from day one what Walt’s intentions really are and use him for everything he is worth. Being constantly exploited, they understand the game and can play it better than Walt can as they tease and torment him with any chance they get to do so. Rather than being some wide-eyed innocent kid, Johnny is a sly realist; he’ll never give himself up to Walt but it doesn’t hurt to pretend leaving that door open, as long as the possibility is kept stoked, Johnny knows that he can work this ‘puto’ for everything he’s worth.

    In the end, all that remains is desire and the plots to achieve consummation. Everyone works their angles to get what they want, all aware of the game and every other player’s position within it. The best they can hope for is some small modicum of happiness in a world that shuns them and forces them to scrape for everything they have. With Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant planted his feet firmly in the independent film landscape and has built off of that initial artistic if not commercial success. In the majority of his works, elements of Mala Noche seep through unconsciously helping to enrich and embolden the director continue taking aesthetic risks akin to those that he tried and succeeded with in this fascinating yet poignant film. Not just a great ‘gay’ movie but a great movie period.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Mala Noche
  • Martha Graham: Dance on Film

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Surprising patrons yet again with a bold and unexpected choice, the Criterion Collection releases their new two-disc set Martha Graham: Dance on Film to the masses. Providing a glimpse into the world of one of modern dance’s pioneers and masters Martha Graham, the set includes a short documentary on her company and techniques followed by two of her classic dance works. Providing a cinematic foil for Graham’s dance symphonies is producer Nathan Kroll who produced all three shorts, thereby providing a stylistic continuity that makes one feel that he or she is watching one seamless documentary/investigation into both the world of Martha Graham and modern dance as a whole.

    Divided into three short films, the first selection entitled A Dancer’s World is an effective prelude to the fully realized pieces to follow. Essentially a manifesto into her philosophy about dance, A Dancer’s World moves effortlessly along two parallel tracks. On the one hand, Graham herself directs her thoughts and opinions on dance and her methods to the viewer him or herself. Face and body taut, she physically exudes the power and control that is given greater illustration by her company itself. In between monologues, the film shifts to the company itself as various members engage in artistic exercises in form and movement to provide a visual counterpoint to Graham’s ideas.

    Each performer parades before the camera in marvelous displays of physical grace and control. What separated Graham’s work from other classical ballet forms is its lack of fragility and insistence on strength. Her dancers are clearly rooted in form and balance and while they do leap off the ground, you sense that their place is strictly beholden to terra firma. Her dancers remind one of the differences between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, power and earthiness versus finesse and daintiness.

    After this initial setup that provides a base for the viewer to at least grasp the underpinnings of Graham’s technique, what follows are two fully realized, classic ballets executed by the company with the help of some noteworthy collaborators. First on the agenda is Appalachian Spring. Providing the musical score to this particular piece is none other than noted American composer Aaron Copland. It is fitting that his music provides the sonic floor with which the dancers stride across with Graham at the helm. The piece evokes the spirit and possibility of the American frontier and the hopelessly optimistic pioneers who strove forward to strike their claims in this vast, new territory. Cast as Wife opposite her masculine, nubile Husband, Graham leads her company into a symphony of energy and exuberance. Movements are grand and outward, perfectly matching the down home operatic grandeur of Copland’s music.

    Appalachian Spring evokes energy, the spirit to move forward. Providing a perfect visual counterbalance to both the dance and music is sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s pitch-perfect set design. Utilizing basic elements like a small wooden fence, an outline of a cabin wall, the frame of a home or church, Noguchi uses these minimal pieces in abstracted form to evoke the prairie and the isolated, wide open plain that is dotted by homesteaders like those portrayed by the company itself. It is perfect set design in that the most basic elements are perfectly designed and placed to achieve perfect balance and to inspire the imagination to flesh out the places the pieces hint at.

    The third film, Night Journey is a step in yet another direction as Graham and her company tackles the classic Greek myth of Oedipus Rex. Set against the tragedy of their incestuous revelation, the ballet follows the reminiscence of Queen Jocasta as she recalls the events that led her to the unwitting bedding of her son Oedipus and the revelation of their deeds by the seer Tiresias. Accompanied by a classic Greek chorus, Jocasta and Oedipus engage in feints and movements that portray honest, frank sexuality and desire towards one another.

    Their movements are physical abstractions which embody eroticism in its truest form. Yet alongside the erotic there are also darker undertones of sadness and violence, as evidence by the piece’s beginning with Jocasta holding before her the rope that she will use to hang herself. Yet it also comes to symbolize the umbilical cord that binds her to Oedipus, with a symbol of bringing life into the world she intends to remove herself from existence. Strung together along with a bevy of special features including numerous interviews and documentaries, this release is a perfect introduction to the unique, influential world of Martha Graham and no doubt will become a valued commodity amongst the dance community as well as the film community in general.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Martha Graham: Dance on Film
  • Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Paul Schrader has always led an interesting career, with the constant being the tension of choosing either writing or directing to be his primary mode of filmic expression. As a screenwriter, his credits are numerous and would easily put many to shame especially his work with Martin Scorsese. If it weren’t for Schrader and Scorsese, both critics and fans wouldn’t have films like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver to drool over. Theirs has always been one of the great and fruitful writer/director collaborations in modern American film. However, there also lies the itch to direct within Schrader which he has scratched to various degrees of success over the decades. Perhaps his biggest and most famous success was American Gigolo, which catapulted Richard Gere into superstardom and is as sleek as they come.

    Various other projects ensued such as Hardcore, a remake of Cat People, Affliction, and Auto Focus, all of them to varying degrees of success both commercially and critically. It would be easy to chalk Schrader up to be a better writer than a director; one could find evidence to support such a claim. However, to simply make the point and chalk his directing career to misplaced ambition would miss the point entirely for when Schrader finds just the right subject matter for his decidedly cerebral approach to film, the results are compelling to watch and ponder over. Perhaps no other film in his directorial body of work exemplifies this than Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

    Eschewing the traditional route of film biographies, Schrader decided to portray the life, work, and ultimately death of Japanese author and icon Yukio Mishima in a manner such as to fuse the real and the imaginary together into one meta-universe as it were. On November 25th, 1970, Yukio Mishima and four cadets from his own private army barricaded themselves within the office of a Japanese garrison general and attempted to incite the soldiers stationed at said garrison to rise up in revolt and overthrow the corruptive pro-American, pro-capitalist government that they felt was corrupting the Japanese soul. Soon afterwards, Mishima committed ritual suicide (seppuku) and was beheaded by his lieutenant, thus bringing his life to a spectacular and bizarre end. What Schrader attempts to do in his approach is to fuse the man’s life and work together in such a way that by the time we reach the penultimate act in Mishima’s life, we come to a sort of understanding of why he had to die this way. So rather than attempting to celebrate a life, Schrader seeks to make us understand a man’s death.

    Divided into four distinct sections, beginning with Mishima’s last day to bookend the proceedings, each phase attempts to reconcile the man’s past, his thematic preoccupations, and journey to the death that lay before him. The first chapter, simply marked as Beauty, recounts Mishima’s childhood and early stirrings of sexuality and homosexual leaning; as a visual correlative to this period of blooming, one of Mishima’s novels The Temple of The Golden Pavilion is evoked with its tale of a young, stuttering student mesmerized by the physical beauty of the pavilion only to have it betray and corrupt him. The first section ends with Mishima beginning to understand the importance physical beauty would have on his life.

    The second chapter, titled Art, picks up Mishima’s life as he embarks on his literary career, garnering numerous literature awards and becoming a bona fide celebrity and cultural icon in his homeland. However, in the midst of all this outward success, Mishima’s obsessions with his body only intensified as he took up bodybuilding in an effort to reach a zenith of physical, aesthetic purity only to be worried about the effects of time and physical decay that would rob him eventually. It is at this point where he begins to truly appreciate not only his body but himself as a self-made work of art and strives to achieve perfection in uniting his art and life together into one form. To complement this time in his life, Schrader dramatizes the novel Kyoko’s House in which a young Tokyo teen enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with an older woman reflects Mishima’s own obsession with physicality and desire especially as the book character also develops an interest in bodybuilding.

    Chapter three, entitled Action, shows an older Mishima as he forms his private army and begins turning away from the literary work he built his reputation on. No longer satisfied with communicating merely with words but wanting to unite his art with a higher sense of purpose, Mishima finally begins moving towards a course that will allow him to fully exemplify the unity of life, beauty, and action that he desperately desires. In terms of fiction, Mishima’s novel Runaway Horses with its tale of a dedicated cadre of military students attempting to enact a coup de tat mirrors the author’s own plans. Finally, chapter four unites all these separate strands of Mishima’s philosophy into the single defining act of his life and art.

    As played by Ken Ogata, Mishima carries out his plot with courage and single-minded, nearly psychotic determination. Both he and the viewer have awaited this act of public death and neither will be denied by either history or Schrader himself. With an accomplished team of collaborators including cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka, and famed composer Philip Glass bringing their talents to bear, Schrader executes a visually intricate piece of work grounded by one of Glass’s most popular film scores.

    Ishioka, who made Mishima her first job as a production designer, comes to the forefront design-wise in creating the various looks for the novels quoted in the film itself. Each one with its own specific set of colors and design schemes, they evoke a highly artificial, theatrical world which one could imagine Mishima himself creating in his own mind and adjusting all the time as he allowed his fiction to reflect the various aspects of his life. Be it the almost tropical allure of the Golden Pavilion, the lurid, campy look of Kyoko’s House or the dark, austere feel of Runaway Horses, each world abides by this hyper-theatrical sense of design and control which perfectly counters Bailey’s work in the childhood and adult sections.

    Using a black and white feel to evoke classic Japanese film, Mishima’s childhood comes across looks-wise as some forgotten Ozu film as this thread follows him from childhood to the eve of his last day. Meanwhile, the final day itself is shot in full color with a semi-documentary feel to it. All the while, all three strands weave in and out of each other with surprising dexterity. If one were to find a recent example to Schrader’s approach to his subject, the best would be Todd Haynes’ own Bob Dylan biography, I’m Not There.

    Both projects are concerned with explaining the lives of their subjects through their respective art, however whereas Haynes’ film speaks to the chameleon-like nature of both Dylan himself and his various persona, Schrader uses his film to hammer home Mishima’s single-minded pursuit of uniting his real life and his imaginary life together into a single whole that achieved perfection and immortality through death. While a more conventional biopic could certainly and hopefully will be made on Mishima’s life, Schrader’s attempt here does succeed on a poetic level and is certainly a highlight of not only his directing career but would certainly be one of anybody’s career.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
  • Miss Julie

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Alf Sjoberg’s Miss Julie should convince film fans that Swedish cinema does not begin and end with Ingmar Bergman. If cinema history were truly fair and equal, Sjoberg’s contributions to film would be held in somewhat equal acclaim within Swedish cinema as both filmmakers were contemporaries and directed respected works within their careers. However, as Bergman gained the lion’s share of critical and popular attention, Sjoberg’s films have been appreciated on a lesser level. Criterion’s new release of Miss Julie though helps redress this problem.

    Based on August Strindberg’s caustic play, the story unfolds over a long weekend in the Swedish countryside on a palatial estate. The estate’s owner, a wealthy patriarch, has left his home in the hands of his servants who are celebrating their brief holiday; that is everyone except the butler Jean (Ulf Palme) who is conflicted with his feelings for the owner’s daughter Miss Julie (Anita Bjork). Demanding and fiery, Julie takes pleasure in testing the nerves and limits of all those beneath her, especially men. She takes added delight in playing her games with Jean, seeing fit to consistently demean this servant through such acts as forcing him to shine her boots. Yet she is also playful with him to a degree, teasing him with her femininity before snapping back her icy touch at him.

    Much of the film’s first half concerns the subtle yet compelling battle waged between these two resolute individuals. An obvious attraction is easy to see yet both Julie and Jean instinctively know that to open up signals defeat. It is not until a violent transgression occurs that the balance is shifted and their respective walls come down. At this point, Sjoberg takes us into the past, illustrating the events and people who came to shape both Julie and Jean’s disparate outlooks on life. Raised a servant’s son and scorned by those above him, Jean is subjected to cruel humiliations early on in life which has the dual effects of both fostering contempt for the ruling class he lives under but also shapes him into an obedient subject, unable to break away from the very class structure he disdains completely. And with Julie, her life is genuinely shaped by the sins of the father and mother; in her case, an emotionally weak father and psychologically unbalanced mother’s own war of attrition shaped and trained the young girl to distrust all men. Strindberg points out with painful clarity the ways in which children become the weapons through which their parents can strike hardest and deepest at each other.

    As the weekend comes to a close, an inevitable sense of tragedy unfolds as possibilities for change are shattered and life is left only more unbearable for all those involved. The chief innovation that Sjoberg brings to his Miss Julie is the seamless way in which he presents both main characters’ past and present in a unified whole; as Julie begins to reminisce over her own childhood, the camera pans away and we are taken into the past only to be brought back into the uncomfortable present in one continuous motion, which speaks to the ever-present nature of memory in our lives as we live out in real time. This seamlessness injects a dreamy surrealism into an otherwise, caustic realism as well as foreshadows Bergman’s own use of this approach in films like Wild Strawberries.

    However, the film’s dramatic core is sustained by Bjork and Palme’s performances as the main characters. Powerfully open emotionally, Bjork is expert at imposing the character’s will believably in the first half as well as transitioning into the shattered psyche that exposes her vulnerability and leads her to the tale’s tragic denouement. In terms of special features, Criterion has included the obligatory video essays and interviews along with a wonderful 2000 documentary produced by Swedish television examining the play’s history in light of its one hundred year anniversary. An interesting cinematic adaptation of a classic play worth checking out.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Miss Julie
  • Mon Oncle Antoine

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Consistently hailed by many as the greatest Canadian film ever made, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine now has a chance to try and convince new viewers of that same claim with its new DVD release courtesy of Criterion Collection. Directed by noted French-Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra, Mon Oncle Antoine is perhaps one of the most perfectly balanced films ever put on celluloid. Its mix of pathos, nostalgia, tinged with dread provides a subtle mélange of emotional tones that always play off of each other in a supportive rather than disruptive fashion.

    The time and setting for this particular tale is Quebec in the 1940’s; with winter snow and cold already set in, the local general store keeper and undertaker Antoine is preparing for the increased business now that Christmas is only days away. With his wife, chief store clerk Fernand (played by Jutra himself), teenage shop girl Carmen, and his nephew Benoit, Antoine works to get all the inventory and decorations in order for the upcoming sales boom. Told chiefly from Benoit’s point of view, the film has the tone of a childhood memoir sans the dripping schmaltz that often stands in for nostalgia. For in many holiday films, the overall tone and life lessons are positive and uplifting; Benoit’s Christmas this particular year is anything but uplifting.

    From the very beginning as he assists his uncle at a funeral, the boy begins a journey towards confronting, if not completely understanding, the adult concerns of life namely death, sex, betrayal, and human frailty. The viewer also experiences this journey courtesy of Benoit’s point of view, which Jutra frames much of the story within. From Benoit’s innocent face and big eyes, we observe as he does how adults let one another down, how they hurt each other as well as allow themselves to be hurt. There is also the playful, almost Felliniesque sexual awakening the boy goes through as well, which preserves the often confusing yet nonetheless exciting swirl of emotions that comes at that point in time from seeing a woman naked for the first time to increasingly forward physical encounters between himself and Carmen.

    As each indiscretion mounts though, Benoit’s initially cheerful gaze steels itself into a hardened carapace that undoubtedly will follow him throughout his adult life. Despite this rather somber tone, the film does though also enliven the viewer with its wistful nostalgia for a simpler time and age, watching children play and throw snowballs in the street, horse-drawn carriages driving through the snow, Jutra captures an innocence about this time that has the tinge of childhood memory but never goes overboard. There is very much a sense of Renoir balance in allowing all the characters to exist and act as individuals, often defying expectations, without the story placing judgment on them one way or another.

    In addition, Jutra weaves in the tale of an asbestos coal miner who rails against the system and those he works for in his frustrations as a French-speaking Canadian treated constantly as a second-class citizen, mirroring tensions that existed at the time. At first both his tale and Benoit’s appear on parallel courses, however by the film’s end their lives intersect in a fashion more tragic than either would have supposed. In addition to the film itself, Criterion also includes a number of supplementary documentaries on the film and Jutra himself as well as an early experimental short of his made in 1957 co-directed with Norman McLaren. To go into all the intricacies of Mon Oncle Antoine would take far more time and words than what is presented here for sure, however for fans of foreign cinema as well as holiday films, then this is definitely a film worth checking out by reputation alone.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Mon Oncle Antoine
  • Monsters and Madmen box set

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For the baby boomer generation, going to the local movie theater and attending a double bill was simple a way of life when growing up. Films were presented as packages with your more prestigious A picture (the one with the famous movie stars, fantastic production value, etc) and then you had your B picture, often with lower budgets, less recognizable actors, and usually more lurid or fantastical subject matter. While most B pictures ostensibly were fillers to make the experience more enjoyable, some filmmakers and producers were able to use the rather limited format to crank out some decent and subtly thought-provoking films. Two such producers were Alex and Richard Gordon, a pair of producing brothers who consistently cranked out B picture delights during the 1950’s and 1960’s. To spotlight both the work and nostalgia associated with that time, The Criterion Collection has put together a wonderfully fun and campy box set, Monsters and Madmen. Featuring two double bills of both horror and sci-fi flicks, this box set clearly evokes the atmosphere and youthful fun of these silly yet provocative pictures.

    The set kicks off with a pair of blood-curdling horror films, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood. Both films feature horror icon Boris Karloff in a pair of his most affective and sympathetic portraits, second perhaps only to his star turn in James Whale’s Frankenstein. In The Haunted Strangler Karloff plays James Rankin. An 18th century English crime writer investigating a murder case that was supposedly solved twenty years earlier and resulted in the supposed killer’s hanging. However, Rankin believes that the man was unjustly accused and tried so with the help of his assistant and police superintendent associate, he sets out to reinvestigate the case himself in hopes of proving the killer’s innocence. Events take an unexpected turn however and the murders abruptly begin again however. As Rankin investigates these new murders as well as the original case, he slowly comes to terms with his own hidden secrets which have more to do with this case than he originally suspects.

    The second Karloff film, Corridors of Blood, again features Karloff in the lead role as Dr. Thomas Bolton, a well-respected surgeon operating in a time before general anesthesia was developed. As a result, many of his operations lead solely to quick amputations for his patients as there is no other way to treat their symptoms effectively. Abhorred by the brutality and lasting damage this method causes, Bolton conducts his own chemical experiments to devise a means of anesthesia. However, this leads him inadvertently into his own personal hell of chemical dependency as his success leads to physical addiction. Becoming essentially a drug addict, Bolton enters into a pact with a local innkeeper and his murderous assistant, played by a young Christopher Lee, to supply them with death certificates for murdered victims in exchange for the material he needs to sustain his addiction.

    The second double feature is a pair of kitschy yet thoughtful sci-fi treats that perfectly reflect the futuristic technological optimism of the times while hinting at the dark side. The first film, First Man Into Space, concerns a pair of U.S. Navy serving brothers, Charles and Dan Prescott. Both men are involved in a government sponsored rocket development program; Dan is the young, maverick pilot chosen to test pilot each successively new design and Charles is his superior officer. Fueled by a hunger for adventure and fame, Dan pushes the limits in each successive test flight, climbing higher and higher against the wishes of those below. Like Icarus, he eventually reaches his goal yet pays a terrible price as his ship is bombarded with space dust that adheres to his body and transforms him into a blood-craving beast. It is up to Charles and his people to try and save Dan before it is too late. The film is ultimately a cautionary tale regarding the consequences of unheeded technological advancement.

    The final film is the wonderfully cheesy The Atomic Submarine. The film concerns the secret mission of nuclear submarine The Tiger Claw to seek out and destroy the cause of a series of attacks on other subs at the North Pole. One of the film’s more enjoyable aspects is the model work employed, with both The Tiger Claw and the flying saucer that is eventually discovered behind the attacks. Seeking to be state of the art, it is obvious to one watching today the incredibly slight size of the models used; resembling bath toys more than fearsome vessels. Yet this creates an odd dissonance in scale as the interiors of these vessels are portrayed as deep and cavernous, so this set of extremes gives one pause to consider. On top of that, the film is subject to an absurd narrator who speaks in forced, upbeat tones, both annoying and amusing in equal terms. By film’s end, the absurd plot and foes are defeated yet the performances are still treated with a sense of integrity that makes this film difficult to write off outright. The movie is silly but then again, it’s not the sort of entertainment that is supposed to change the world in the first place.

    In the end, one is left amused and satisfied akin to finishing a hearty meal. While these films may not be showstoppers on their own, their presentation conveys not only their original purpose as mere filler entertainment but they possess subtext that allows them to still have legs all these decades later. While First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine are great sci-fi action films with an underlying current of technological suspicion, the more valuable pair in this set are the Karloff films. In both features, Karloff is sublime in his psychologically nuanced performances of these two tortured men. By this time an old man, Karloff conveys the fraility of his being and brings to the screen the sensitive anguish he masterfully projected in Frankenstein. If one needs any reason to pick up this set, the inclusion of the Karloff pictures is reason enough if all you know of his work is Frankenstein only. However, above all else, Monsters and Madmen highlights both the talents and tastes of the Gordon brothers, whom without their vision and moxy, none of this work would have been committed to celluloid.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Monsters and Madmen box set
  • Mouchette

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A filmmaker of great critical esteem, Robert Bresson’s oeuvre has become an essential chapter in French filmmaking from the past fifty years. Joining current releases such as Pickpocket, Diary of A Country Priest, etc. the Criterion Collection adds Mouchette to its list of Bresson titles. Considered one of the filmmaker’s masterpieces, Mouchette is an affecting portrait of human despair powered by one of the greatest child performances in cinema history. An essential piece of Bresson’s overall work, Mouchette shines through in waves of both despair and defiance.

    Based upon a George Bernanos novel, (an author whose work Bresson frequently adapted to the screen), the film itself centers around Mouchette herself (played by Nadine Nortier) and her impoverished, broken family. Living on the outskirts of a remote French village, Mouchette is a teenage girl who lives with a terminally ill mother, a baby brother whom she is enlisted to care for, and an alcoholic father and older brother. Faced with the constant absence of her father and older brother, the girl is torn between caring for her household, working to earn extra money, and attending school in the local village.

    An outsider to both her classmates and the villagers, Mouchette lives in defiance of those around her. A telling example of such behavior is her insistence every day after school to hide in the bushes and throw dirt at her prissy, female classmates as they chatter and spray each other with perfume, pretending to be grown up. Mouchette pierces the balloon of their fantasies daily as she does not have to pretend to act grownup. While her classmates have the luxury to be children who dream of adulthood, she is a child who has been forced to become an adult against her wishes.

    While the thrust of the film centers on the girl and her family, a number of other characters also occupy narrative time, which eventually crosses with Mouchette herself. The film’s subplot involves a love triangle between Louisa, a young bar maid, Arsene, an impoverished poacher, and Mathieu, the local game warden. Mathieu, who’s in love with Louisa is upset at her infatuation with Arsene, whom he feels is beneath both himself and Louisa. As these characters play out their obsessions and jealousy, Arsene and Mathieu eventually cross paths violently, with Mouchette herself in the area. As a result of the fight, Arsene escapes and crosses paths with Mouchette. From there, the film moves into an extended sequence between the two characters which ends shockingly and provides the narrative momentum to the film’s final defiant dénouement.

    Despite the twisted plot threads that play out over the film’s course, one is in constant awareness of Mouchette herself. Nortier provides one of the most sublime yet incisive child portraits ever caught on film. She avoids any sense of sentimentality or coyness in her work. Mouchette is a child who is a mix of poverty, despair, anger, love, and above all defiance. She has little dialogue in the film overall, preferring to occupy the screen with her furtive glances and trance like stare. To be stared down by Mouchette is to feel the weight of the world on this girl’s shoulders completely, yet she never begs nor accepts sympathy from anyone. She openly displays her disdain towards those villagers who are hypocritical in their surface kindness to her yet disregard her as trash unconsciously.

    In terms of film style, Bresson uses a mix of naturalism and expressionism in conveying the story visually. Overall, he employs a documentary look in the village itself to give illustrate the day in the life activities of many characters, characters who despite their seeming self-importance are locked into lives with no advancement whatsoever. However, he employs highly stylized, almost noirish lighting in the extended night sequence between Mouchette and Arsene as they attempt to escape a rainstorm and travel in both moonlight and to various cabins which are ominously lit, foreshadowing the tragic events to come.

    In the end though, Bresson’s style serves his story and his story is anchored by Mouchette herself who, by the film’s startling conclusion, has endured a full life and despite the hardships she endures, one never witnesses a crack in her exterior. She upholds the willful youthful defiance that only youth can afford to the very end and even after the credits roll, it is difficult to forget such a powerful and honest character.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Mouchette
  • Night on Earth

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Along with their release of Stranger Than Paradise, the Criterion Collection now adds Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth to the mix. Finally out on DVD, Night on Earth is classic Jarmusch territory, a group of disparate people are all connected by some fateful fluke and the viewer is allowed to sit back and watch these people fumble and push towards brief flickers of enlightenment in a world of existential dislocation and emotional defensiveness. Carried out by an international cast including Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Roberto Bengini, Beatrice Dalle, etc., the film effortlessly moves from one episode to the next, each one acutely constructed and executed all the while carried along by singer/songwriter Tom Waits’ lo-fi musical musings..

    Five cities, five taxis, and plenty of lyrical examinations to go around. In a nutshell, that’s how Night on Earth works. Once again utilizing the portmanteau structure that he’s fond of, Jarmusch attempts to examine themes of synchronicity and common experience as he records a series of fateful taxi rides occurring around the world simultaneously. Steeped in visual repetition, each episode unfolds in the same way. A series of clocks on a non-descript wall each give the local time of a given city, the camera pans in to that clock which then dissolves into a globe which travels along to the given city. Cut to that particular city in the dead of night, street lights on, deserted streets, local stops and shops are driven past. An overall atmosphere is established via these traveling shots which fixes the viewer into this new yet oddly familiar environment.

    In L.A., the cab drives past fast food stands and car lots whereas in Rome, narrow streets and empty plazas litter the landscape ultimately leading to Helsinki, a city smothered in thick snow and cold light, the final dead end in which to end the tale. However, each episode does strike upon its own individual themes while still connecting to the others via overarching ideas. For example, the LA episode that kicks things off is clearly concerned with the notion of fame.

    Gena Rowlands' character Victoria is a casting agent who clearly exemplifies the whole Hollywood, fame-hungry, ladder-climbing desire for success. For her the next score comes with the next actor she can get into a big time role, not only kicking starting their careers but further cementing her own position in the hierarchy. Jarmusch then juxtaposes that mentality against Winona Ryder’s Corky, a young tomboy who lacks all sense of female refinement yet is confident and comfortably with her position in life.

    When offered the world, she turns it down not out of spite but simply because she’s uninterested. She refuses to play the game because it has nothing to do with her own goals in life. This could easily stand as a metaphor for Jarmusch’s own reluctance to deal with the massive Hollywood system because he knows that the films that Hollywood makes and that he makes are two entirely different entities, so there is little point in trying to intersect what will always be parallel roads.

    And from there each episode has its own unstated theme, i.e. New York deals with the theme of immigration, cultures clashing and coming together in unexpected ways, underscored by a great trio comprised of Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Paris deals with stereotypes, with Beatrice Dalle and Isaach De Bankole’s characters facing the preconceptions of the other and tearing them to bits. Rome is all about sex, very Felliniesque in terms of content with a surprising good and effective performance from Roberto Benigni. And finally you have Helsinki, the end of the line framed with a story as steeped in despair and sorrow as one can possibly imagine and then more.

    However, the episodes are linked by the overall disconnection felt by characters attempting to live out their lives in a modern urban center trying to overcome their emotional walls and the displacement imposed upon them by modern society’s demands. Yet in the dead of night, away from society’s prying eyes and ears, all the characters are able to let down their defenses and open up to each other. At night time slows down, the daily hustle and bustle evaporates and our defenses slacken allowing our unimpeded thoughts a chance to breathe. The conversations in each episode in turn have that relaxed, wistful quality that late night talks often take on in real life. There’s no need to worry so you can take your time in letting your words out, pondering your internal ideas and dispensing them with ease.

    In turn, one can finally say what he or she actually means rather than what is supposed to be said. In keeping the pace slow, Jarmusch allows his characters the time to get their thoughts out at their own pace, in turn they reveal more to each other than they most certainly would if driving around the city in the middle of a busy afternoon. Thus they reveal truths about themselves and each other that take on weighted significance. At the end of each ride, change occurs and lives alter if only for the few remaining hours of darkness (freedom) that remain. That each result manifests itself in a different city, in different cabs around the world simultaneously shows, in Jarmusch’s view, that despite our obvious and subtle differences we all focus our energies on simply trying to get through life as best we can despite the troubles and barriers that constantly stand in our collective path.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Night on Earth
  • Overlord

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The history of cinema is littered with films that for one reason or another are never given a fair shake at reaching the masses. Countless tales of films shelved or unfinished attest to this unfortunate but real fact of life. However, some movies are lucky enough to dodge such unfortunate circumstances and finally receive their due. After languishing in a distribution no man’s land for thirty years, Stuart Cooper’s dreamlike masterpiece Overlord finally caught the brass ring with both a much overdue U.S. theatrical release and now a characteristically top-notch DVD release by the Criterion Collection. Unduly neglected for far too long, Overlord now has the opportunity to shine and no doubt will do so.

    The film’s plot follows the journey of a young, naïve Englishman named Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) whom we first meet while shipping off to Army basic training. The year is 1944 and the Allies are on the verge of their much-anticipated invasion, codenamed “Overlord”. What Tom does not realize is that he is to be apart of the first wave deployed during Operation Overlord. After leaving his family, Tom leaves for training and is immediately folded into the military system and culture.

    Upon arrival, Tom begins learning the tactics necessary to take the beach at Normandy. While the training sequences are imbued with a necessary sense of purpose, the soldiers involved are less gung-ho about going to war rather than hesitant about what they perceive to be their unfortunate fates. They learn that they are being specifically trained to join the invasion however, as one of Tom’s friends simply points out, their purpose is to be nothing more than cannon fodder.

    The film continues chronicling Tom’s training however, a surreal tangent begins invading the film’s structure. From the beginning, Tom begins having premonitions about his own death. Resultantly, he proceeds from a man wide-eyed and optimistic, to a gentle but weary soul simply waiting out time for the inevitable. As the invasion date grows closer, Tom’s visions grow stronger. From watching himself being gunned down on the beach to his body being prepared by a young girl he falls in love with, Tom’s dream life begins interweaving with reality in an ever stronger fashion until his fate is finally realized. While the film’s dramatic essence lies in Tom’s journey, Overlord is most well-known for its integration of genuine wartime footage along with the staged dramatic sequences.

    Produced in cooperation with the British War Museum, Overlord incorporates scenes of training, travel, and everyday GI life seamless with Tom’s story. This is achieved in large part to cinematographer John Alcott’s flawless black and white cinematography; a frequent collaborator of Stanley Kubrick, Alcott is able to match the vintage look and feel of vintage British newsreels and army photography through his use of lighting and lenses to make the seams practically invisible.

    The film then becomes essentially a fictional documentary, by employing genuine WWII footage to serve the fictional plotline. Yet, the heightened emotion that drama inherently creates only brings closer attention to the genuine newsreels and allows the viewer to view the faces and events in a more empathetic manner than simply observing a cold, lifeless documentary. Tom comes to essentially symbolize the plight of every baby faced grunt given a gun and thrown onto a battlefield in order to serve their purpose as cannon fodder.

    As Tom accepts his fate, he touches the emotional and spiritual disconnect felt by many soldiers which is caused by understanding that his life is essentially meaningless in this struggle. This point is driven home all too effectively by juxtaposing a letter to his parents stating such thoughts with footage of factories churning out weapons, bombers flying high over potential targets, etc. Tom can accept his fate because he understands that he is only apart of the machine; hooked into the social machine by his training, he learns to become apart of the greater war mechanism in accepting his death and knowing that as senseless as it seems, it serves a larger purpose.

    Yet while critiquing the dehumanization brought about by war, Overlord also possesses a gentle, wistful spirit which casts the film in an overall, nostalgic tone. So while we are shown the horrors of WWII, we are still left with a sense of nostalgia akin to your grandfather sitting you on his knee and telling you about the war. This blend is at first disconcerting, yet it comes to set Overlord apart from the garden variety war film and taps into a spiritual undercurrent which endows the film with an ageless, dreamlike quality that inspired those who first saw it thirty years ago now and certainly will be picked up by new viewers today. A sublime meditation on war and spirit, Overlord easily earns its title of rediscovered masterpiece and has to be seen in order to be believed and appreciated.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Overlord
  • Pandora’s Box

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Recently re-released theatrically in limited runs, G.W. Pabst’s silent masterpiece Pandora’s Box comes to DVD finally via a new special Criterion Collection edition. The film is perhaps most famous not for its director but for its star and Pabst muse, Louise Brooks. Cool and brazen in her sensuality, Brooks’ performance was far ahead of its time. The combination of wily intelligence and sexual confidence would play to audiences perhaps more effectively today than those who first watched her in this classic performance. Embodying the sometimes unintentionally destructive power of sexuality, Brooks takes center stage in this masterful silent tour de force.

    In the film Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman living in 1920’s Germany. At the film’s onset, Lulu is involved in an affair with a prominent newspaper editor, Dr. Schon. Schon himself is promised to wed a prominent and well-connected socialite however. Lulu also happens to be friends with Schon’s loving son, Alwa; a young composer and writer working on his own theatrical revue. As a way to appease Lulu, Schon allows Alwa to give Lulu a starring role in his show with his father’s backing. This decision leads to one of the film’s show stopping sequences where Lulu is preparing to go on backstage.

    Amidst Lulu’s own preparations, various staff members and performers dodge past each other in near screwball fashion while the show’s star spots Schon and his fiancé backstage observing the scene. Jealous and upset of the fiancé’s presence, Lulu refuses to go on. In this one show stopping sequence, Pabst adeptly handles a multitude of various characters engaged in both dramatic and comedic circumstances with dazzling staging and dynamic, fluid camerawork that would make the likes of Altman and DePalma proud.

    Eventually Lulu and Schon marry, however circumstances quickly lead to tragedy with Lulu ending up accused of murder. After escaping from the authorities, she, Alwa, and their small circle of friends set off across Europe attempting to elude capture. Inevitably though, Lulu brings about the downfall of all those who are enveloped within her presence. With Alwa, she leads him from a life of happiness and relative innocence to one of despair and moral ruin, resulting from giving into his long-hidden love for this woman. The others debase themselves morally and in the end, no one is safe. The irony of Lulu’s effect on others is that she is seemingly unaware of the damage she brings to other people’s lives. Brooks portrays her as a woman who exudes her strong sexuality openly yet unconsciously.

    While she is intelligent and uses her feminine wiles at times to her advantage, i.e. her trial, Lulu projects her full energy and lust practically without any knowledge of it. So while she lures men and women into her web of desire, it is done not out of malice but out of genuine love and care for them. Like the myth that the film derives its title from, Lulu accidentally destroys the world, her own world that is with the emotional power and desire she conjures up from within others. Emotionally complex, the film’s subject matter is as modern now as it was nearly a hundred years ago and the skill of its artists has stood the test of time thus far and will continue to do so as the decades continue to march forward. For anyone interested in cinema history, particularly that of silent film, Pandora’s Box should be required viewing and now one finally has the opportunity to do so.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Pandora's Box
  • Patriotism

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Known in the West perhaps more for his infamous public suicide in 1970 than the myriad of novels, plays, and poetry he composed in his lifetime, Japanese author Yukio Mishima was also able to add film director to his resume with his 1966 short film Patriotism. Adapted from one of his own short stories, Patriotism contains thematic obsessions of the author/director namely sex, death, and honor. Utilizing the highly stylized conventions of Noh theatre in terms of production design, Patriotism feels very much like a filmed play yet contains cinematic flourishes that only film can bring about.

    The plot itself is pared down to essentials; a young Army lieutenant is caught in the crosshairs of suppressing a revolt led by his friend and colleague. Unwilling to kill his friend yet unable to bring dishonor to both himself and the emperor, the lieutenant (played by Mishima himself) commits to the only choice he feels is left to him, ritual suicide (seppuku). However, he will not be alone in this endeavor; the lieutenant’s wife Reiko also decides to join her husband in death as their love is bonded such that moving into the after life together is the only way to preserve it and pleasure each other.

    With the plot details themselves laid out by a constantly unfolding scroll of text, merely designed to place the viewer within context and explain motivation and decision, Mishima instead uses the film to convey a series of stylized tableau which take on the air of social ritual rather than conventional drama. For example, after making their decision, both the lieutenant and Reiko share one last night of lovemaking; fully nude, both characters bodies’ entwined together sensually, Mishima’s camera moves in and focuses upon the caresses upon skin, the naked flesh appearing in all its suppleness. Rather than merely staging a conventional sex scene, this naked performance art as it were allows both viewer and filmmaker to engage and observe the physical beauty and seduction of the human body itself, allowing one last moment of pleasure before the inevitable pain of death.

    And of course, as much of his fiction portrays, Mishima brings the viewer into the ritual of seppuku itself. Careful to observe the rules, the lieutenant slowly and keenly executes every preparation both of the blade and himself. Looking back in hindsight, it is practically impossible to watch this final death blow without flashing back on the man’s real demise and the notion that perhaps all of his works, both written and filmed, were rehearsals for that fateful day in 1970. However, stylized the film’s setting and camera work is, nothing prepares the viewer for the degree of carnage to follow in the actual death itself. To describe it would cheapen it but let me only say that a sharpened blade pulled across the abdomen and the contents inside spilling out would make Eli Roth or Wes Craven proud and would probably shock them a bit too.

    In the end, the action is carried out and honor is maintained albeit at a steep, bloody price. A fine exercise in and of itself, Patriotism is both a blessing and curse in that thanks to efforts by companies like Criterion it may finally be seen and appreciated nearly forty years after completion. Yet one can’t help but wonder at a potentially fervent filmmaker being lost to his own obsessions with life and death. At the very least, we can appreciate the work he at least did accomplish and honor that alongside the written body he left in his wake.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Patriotism
  • Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist box set

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Few single performers have set precedents as looming as Paul Robeson has in terms of culture and inspiration. Robeson was an actor, singer, political activist, etc., on top of all that he was a black man struggling to move forward in a world that was all too ready to brush him aside. Robeson made one of his greatest and long-lasting marks in the medium of film; becoming a top-billed actor while Jim Crow was alive and well he became a beacon of inspiration to the downtrodden and through his sheet skill and imposing power, made society sit up and notice, demonstrating that not all black performers were willing to play either outright slaves or household servants. For a long time, Robeson’s films have been difficult to locate and appreciate. It is for that sole reason alone that the new Robeson box set released by Criterion is a real discovery, it allows one not only a collection of movies to watch but to peer into the life of a genuine if tragic American hero.

    The collection itself is divided into four sections, each one emphasizing a side of the man himself. The first disc, entitled Icon, contains one of Robeson’s first sound features playing the title character in The Emperor Jones. One of Eugene O’Neill’s early efforts, the film is an interesting commentary on the corrupting effects of capitalism and the self-hate that it can induce in someone against his or her own people. Robeson plays Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who is seduced by the fast life and big money, constantly climbing up the ladder until fate brings him to a Caribbean island which he usurps under his control, leading to his eventual downfall. Problematic due to its insulting language, Robeson still imbues Jones with a dangerous physicality and power that would become one of his on-screen signatures. The second film included is a documentary by Saul J. Turrell entitled Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. This film is a fascinating and insightful look into Robeson’s stormy life and career as he went from beloved entertainer to social pariah and the insidious forces that led to that predicament.

    The second disc, entitled Pioneer, illustrates Robeson’s first attempt to strike out beyond his native land and culture in order to find greater opportunities to stretch himself artistically. The first film, Sanders of the River, features Robeson as Mosambo, an African chieftain who becomes friends and allies with a British diplomat in charge of the region he lives in. However, the film’s greater value derives from its support for the British Empire’s imperialist ideals and insensitivity towards native Africans which led to Robeson eschewing such offensive, one-dimensional roles in favor of more complex, humane portraits. His wish came true with the companion film, Jericho, in which Robeson plays a black WWI soldier who escapes from certain imprisonment and rebuilds himself into a respected, African leader. It is one of the highlights of the set and Robeson’s career as he is never forced to sacrifice his respect for the comfort of others, be they fellow characters or the audience itself.

    The third disc, entitled Outsider, features Robeson in starring roles within projects decidedly independent both in terms of style and production. The first, Body and Soul, is one of Robeson’s first major performances, playing the dual role of a shady conman posing as a preacher and as an honest inventor, directed by legendary African-American director Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux’s indictment of the possibility of moral corruption within the church is just as timely and poignant now than ever. Robeson’s performance as the sinister preacher is dangerous as he exudes both sly intellect and suggestive virility in a film that was part of the now largely forgotten but influential early black independent cinema that existed in America. The second film included is Borderline, directed by British film critic Kenneth Macpherson and stars both Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Robeson. The film is a bold stylistic venture in terms of both effective editing and solid performances by the Robesons themselves. Definitely not mainstream Hollywood fare, these films demonstrate Robeson’s willingness to try new avenues outside of the commercial and artistic norm.

    The final disc, Citizen of the World, features Robeson as he moved towards the end of his film career. Both features openly illustrate social concerns that Robeson himself shared towards the working class, not only of America but the world in general. His efforts would soon land him in trouble with the US government, being labeled a Communist and effectively imprisoning the man for ten long years. The first film, The Proud Valley, showcases Robeson as David Goliath, a black sailor stranded in Wales who joins up with the local coal miners in a quaint Welsh valley, facing hardship as the miners attempt to organize against the mine owners for more control. The film plays as a socialist version of How Green Was My Valley, voicing the concerns of the working man both economically and socially. Robeson stands alongside his Welsh brethren who disregard his skin color and esteem him as merely a man facing down the same oppressive forces as themselves. This theme of interracial cooperation towards a greater good would find greater expression in decades to come but Robeson was there first to show the way.

    The final film in the set, Native Land, fully showcases Robeson’s voice itself as he narrates a unique documentary, comprising of both dramatic reenactments and vintage footage, of civil liberty violations before the sweeping changes of the 1960’s came about. Essentially a left wing call to arms against injustice and inequity, it is the sort of film that would later be used against Robeson by those wishing to label him a Communist. Yet its themes and message of guarding against the erosion of one’s rights is as timely as ever.

    In the end, this box set allows one to directly peer into the life of this man. By covering films spanning his entire career, one observes him from a bright, strong young man full of energy to an older, more sublime but powerful figure; a man who while not classically trained in any art form possessed so much innate talent and intensity that his will would not be denied. Released at a time when African American artists are finally receiving the accolades in film that should have been bestowed on many others years before, it is appropriate that this set has come out and that people have a chance to learn about and hopefully find respect in the man whom knocked down more doors than can be appreciated in the name of pure and simple equality.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist box set
  • Pierrot Le Fou

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Pairing two of his most iconic leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo and then-wife Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard committed to film what he himself dubbed “the last romantic couple” in Pierrot Le Fou. Not surprisingly, the film has been released on DVD via Criterion with the customary range of special features and essays. Produced in 1965, Pierrot Le Fou can be considered the end of a particular era in Godard’s body of work. Beginning with Breathless in ’59, the director was deeply invested in both investigating and exploding film genre conventions not unlike his fellow auteurs Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and others who comprised the French New Wave. That first period of Godardian film was essential in both making audiences aware of film’s artificiality while allowing the director to experiment as much as possible with conventional plot and character.

    Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a bored Frenchman stuck in a dissatisfying marriage and career; trashy crime novels are the man’s only retreat, somewhat consciously echoing the Bogart-like tone and feel of Breathless itself. Preparing to attend yet another insipid dinner party with his wife, Ferdinand unexpectedly reconnects with a former flame named Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina). Still hung up over the man she affectionately calls “Pierrot” despite his insistence to correct her every single time, Marianne and Ferdinand rekindle their affair on a whim and after getting mired in murder and underworld play, set out on the road as they seek to escape their past lives and move forward into an increasingly unpredictable future, both materially and emotionally.

    Looking back on it now, Pierrot Le Fou may not contain the same daring provocations as it did upon its initial release or perhaps more pointedly those provocations no longer hold sufficient weight. Certainly for Jean-Luc Godard, the film stands as a sort of pivot point from the initial genre-reexaminations that previous films like Breathless represented and diving into his more incisive, radical period which would lead to Weekend, Masculin-Feminin, Tout va Bien, etc. While you have the playful, Brechtian manipulations like the extreme shifts in color during the dinner party sequence, consciously mimicking a bold, comic-book style that hearkens back to the early genre pieces, Godard begins introducing darker shadings of violence and extremism in the form of Marianne’s gun-running brother. It is hardly a stretch to connect those smugglers to the cannibal terrorists that arise from Weekend.

    As the film’s initially solid plot breaks down into a series of picaresque sequences, more enamored with exploring cinematic form and intellectual concerns rather than story and character, the film does begin to suffer slightly however the dual performances of Belmondo and Karina remain forceful and dynamic. Karina’s Marianne is perhaps Godard’s most penetrating female character, a fascinating marriage between deeply churning desire and passion coupled with a cool determination that allows her to love her man in one room while keeping a dead body (identity unknown) in the next room without batting an eye. Karina herself reminisces over this role and her work with Godard in one of the film’s expected special features and it’s good to see her reflect in hindsight over what she and her then husband achieved. By and large, Pierrot Le Fou is a great addition to Criterion’s Godard catalog and allows interested movie fans and scholars an opportunity to further assess his overall body of work and importance to cinema by providing another link in the chain that began with Breathless and extends to the present day without any signs of slowing down.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Pierrot Le Fou
  • Robinson Crusoe On Mars

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A long-cherished gem of the classic sci-fi age and rendered in glorious Technicolor, director Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe On Mars is a fun fantasy flick that is grounded in scientific realities that at the time were viewed as wishful speculation. Rereleased by the Criterion Collection in a new special edition, the film takes its place among the collection’s more offbeat but oddly appropriate offerings. Moreover, it displays an interest in fact-based portrayal that prefigures works like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Red Planet that cushion their narrative underpinnings with serious scientific thought and research.

    This film’s particular Crusoe lies in the form of one Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) who along with astronaut co-pilot Dan McReady (Adam West sans Batman mask) and their companion Mona the monkey are en route to the planet Mars. However, after a mishap in orbit, the ship crash lands upon the barren Martian surface. Left to fend for himself with Mona, Draper digs in and tirelessly works to solve the problems of his formidable environment in order to ensure survival. Such tricks as removing oxygen from rock and discovering liquid water beneath the planet’s surface keep him alive long enough to survey the planet’s alien secrets. However, signs begin to point towards another occupant dwelling upon this planet. An occupant who may or may not be human.

    The key component that makes this film still engender interest and energy, ironically enough, is its ‘realism’. Produced before NASA’s Mariner probe descended upon the Martian surface and gave humanity its first close up glimpse of our neighbor, the story does get right a fair amount of the planet’s look and feel while making imaginative leaps that would be proven in time with further exploration. In a way, Robinson Crusoe On Mars could be considered a cousin to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that they both treated their subject matter, science fiction, with a respect and attention to realistic detail and research that was more often than not denied this genre.

    Rather than roaming the surface of the planet with a ray gun ready to shoot down little green men, Draper roams the surface with a video camera recording his exploits as any real astronaut undoubtedly would do. So the film veers into the realm of so-called ‘hard science-fiction’ which places a premium on scientific plausibility rather than melodramatic space opera fare. While the Friday character employed does stretch the limits of plausibility, it is still refreshing to see that rather than these two characters square off as enemies they instead learn to work and live together in order to benefit their mutual survival. Meanwhile, there are constant allusions to the possibilities of liquid water and life on Mars which are questions that still remain in the forefront of Martian exploration and research today. When all is said and done, Robinson Crusoe On Mars remains as visually opulent and smart piece of speculative fiction while never losing its mandate to keep the audience entertained.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Robinson Crusoe On Mars
  • Sansho the Bailiff

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Considered one of the greatest Japanese film directors amongst film critics and lovers, Kenji Mizoguchi’s popular reputation stood in decline for decades until retrospectives and new DVD releases finally made his work available to the greater public. A member of a sort of holy trinity of Japanese film along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Mizoguchi may be further connected with them in that another of his film masterpieces has been released by the Criterion Collection. Along with their previous release of Ugetsu, Criterion further stokes the flames of Mizoguchi interest with their new release of Sansho the Bailiff. A heart-wrenching yet ultimately uplifting tale of perseverance through struggle, the film is not only a fine addition to the collection but a genuinely amazing discovery primed for both enthusiastic fans and curious neophytes to be hooked into.

    The tale begins with the forced exile of an idealistic governor in feudal Japan. Displaying genuine compassion for those under his care, he openly challenged the ruling government in response to an order that would further stricken his people with hunger and poverty. As punishment, he is forced into exile along with his family which consists of his wife Takami (Kinuyo Tanaka), his son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayaki), and his daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa). Following her husband’s wishes, Takami leaves with her children to stay with family while he proceeds on his own journey alone. In time, Takami decides to travel to her husband’s new home in exile with the children in order to reunite them after much time has passed. While traveling through unfamiliar country, Takami and the children are forsaken lodging due to frequent bandit attacks until they are taken in by a seemingly kind priestess who puts them up for the night.

    Promised safe passage by boat to her husband, Takami is tricked by the priestess and she is wrenched away from Zushio and Anju in a horrific scene able to upset any parent. Seperated from one another, mother and children are taken along separate yet parallel paths into slavery. Zushio and Anju are sold to a local bailiff, who in Japanese feudal society acted as a sort of regent, the eponymous Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) himself. Running his household with an iron fist and well-connected, Sansho is a merciless, cruel man who thinks nothing of those beneath him, only what service they may bring as well as his own plots. Insubordination is rewarded with torture and once a slave has outlived his or her usefulness, they are simply cast out to die.

    The only individual within this household who shows genuine compassion is Sansho’s son Taro (Akitake Kono) who learns of Zushio and Anju’s noble heritage and, knowing of the danger they could face if revealed, instructs them to take on new names and wait until they are older to escape when they are strong enough to do so. Ten long years pass when the story picks up again and by this time Zushio and Anju are adults still pining for their mother and lost family. They learn of their mother’s possible location and occupation which only fuels their desire to finally leave this wretched existence behind them. As the time finally arrives to escape, the siblings make their break for it and Zushio is able to escape in order to hopefully free his sister and reunite his family after ten long years of enslavement.

    An unexpected opportunity falls into Zushio’s lap and the film’s focus shifts squarely onto the young man himself and how he uses this windfall as a means for personal and spiritual redemption for wrongs committed by himself and to bring justice to those who destroyed his family. The dramatic turnaround that the film takes is one that would easily fit into a Hollywood feel-good movie except Mizoguchi expresses it such that it is genuinely earned which makes it all the more exhilarating for the viewer to watch. In the process, he learns of his mother’s fate which leads to a dramatic moment pregnant with enough emotion that it nearly brings one to tears.

    Through a combination of formal technique and wonderful actors stepping up to the plate and delivering dramatically, Mizoguchi captures how truly indomitable human beings can be when facing hardship. The performances by Tanaka, Hanayaki, and Kagawa are heart-wrenching as they vividly portray the longing and anguish these people face by being cutoff from one another for so long. Beyond that, Mizoguchi proves himself a master of film composition in his choice of shots and coverage. Rarely using close-ups unless for precise effect, he prefers to use carefully composed frames that not only immerse the viewer in the character’s lives but within the social and physical environment itself so that one can almost feel and smell the mud and trees.

    He also inserts some breathtaking shots such as the tragic suicide of one character by drowning which jolts the viewer because the act is filmed with tenderness and genuine beauty as the individual slowly walks into the water until only the ripples cascade out in perfect movement. All the while though, Mizoguchi’s technique is always in service to both the story and his characters instead of towards empty virtuosity. So while one may be in awe of the film’s form it never takes away from its content but only reinforces it. By highlighting sacrifice and struggle against a patriarchal, brutal society, especially via his female characters, Sansho the Bailiff easily earns its place among Mizoguchi’s masterpieces. It is heartening to see this film finally released on DVD as both its own reputation is sure to rise as well as further restoring the good name of Kenji Mizoguchi himself and the body of work still waiting to be rediscovered.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Sansho the Bailiff
  • Sawdust and Tinsel

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    On July 30th, 2007, world cinema lost both one of its most lauded and criticized filmmakers in Ingmar Bergman. Critically beloved for decades for acknowledged classics like The Seventh Seal and Persona, Bergman was elevated to a living god by cineastes for both good and bad. While much has been made of his middle and late career which includes the aforementioned titles as well as Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, The Passion of Anna, Scenes from A Marriage, etc., not nearly as much popular attention is doled out to his early career. It is as though he sprout forth fully formed with The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night and never looked back. However, Bergman’s early career is now beginning to receive the renewed attention that has been due for a while. Adding to that effort is Criterion’s new release of Sawdust and Tinsel.

    Produced in 1953, Sawdust and Tinsel shows a director on the verge of breaking through artistically to higher levels of thematic and visual complexity. With a solid slate of films produced by this time already, Bergman’s investigation into the battle of the sexes presages themes that he would further mine in later works as Smiles of a Summer Night. Yet without the groundwork laid in Sawdust and Tinsel such later projects may not have been possible. The plot revolves around a ramshackle circus troupe touring the Swedish countryside constantly looking for new towns to work in. As both owner and ringmaster, Albert (Ake Gronberg) is a beast of a man both physically and emotionally. Built like a bull, his slovenly appearance and faux bourgeois manners mirror the rickety operation he runs.

    Yet like in the fairytale, this beast has his own beauty in the form of Anne (Harriet Andersson). A nubile circus performer practically half her lover’s age, Anne’s lithe physicality and sensuousness stands in stark contrast to Albert’s rotund blustering. They are perfect opposites in every manner, physical, emotional, etc. The pairing is so obviously wrong that on some perverse level it works perfectly. Soon enough, they come upon a new village to perform in. After setting up shop with the assistance of a local theater troupe, Albert leaves Anne to her own devices while he travels to visit his ex-wife and two sons whom he hasn’t seen in years. Feeling pangs of jealousy and abandonment, Anne mixes herself up into a brief yet humiliating affair with Jens, an actor in the company. Lecherous and demanding, Jens preys upon Anne’s jealousy and coyness as he bullies her into a session of psychological and physical rape.

    Meanwhile, Albert expresses his own sense of longing and frustration to his ex-wife, in the hopes that he can restart his life with her at his side. However, he learns all too painfully that all choices have consequences and very often those consequences simply can’t be waved away. Upon returning to the circus, Albert learns of Anne’s treachery which only leads to further heartbreak and angst. If one were to find a key theme to fasten Sawdust and Tinsel’s ideas upon, that theme would be humiliation. The notion of both public and private humiliation alongside its consequences is the film’s overriding thematic concern and Bergman dives headfirst into it, trying to mine the repercussions as deeply as he was capable of at the time.

    One of the film’s most notable sequences is the retelling of a story involving circus clown Frost and his middle-aged wife Alma. On a bright, sunny day, Alma was approached by a company of soldiers executing maneuvers at a local seaside area that the circus was also performing in. Drunk by their attention towards her, Alma lures many of the young men to bathe in the ocean with her naked. Frost learns of his wife’s public indiscretion and immediately arrives at the scene with the circus in tow. Embarrassed and saddened, Frost runs out into the water and recovers his naked wife back to shore. The entire scene though provides ample fodder for the unexpected crowd which openly points and mocks the couple as they are made to endure shame heaped upon them by said crowd.

    The entire sequence is shot and lit in a rather surrealistic manner, anticipating the dream sequences of Wild Strawberries while also portraying a rather grotesque atmosphere that would find easy acceptance in Fellini’s films. The layers of betrayal, desire, and humiliation are palpable and foreshadow the same variety of events and emotions that plague Albert and Anne later on. Sawdust and Tinsel is yet another entry in Criterion’s Bergman catalog and a welcome addition as well. The film works both as a stylistic marker in the director’s long career but more importantly as a visually interesting and dramatically solid picture on its own. Hopefully, more of these early Bergman titles will continue to find release thus fully fleshing out a career that was canonized practically upon birth.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Sawdust and Tinsel
  • Simon of the Desert

    By Todd Konrad

    While Luis Bunuel may have thanked God for being an atheist, we too should thank the Almighty for allowing such an irreverent and precise artist grace us with his work. Coming in at a paltry forty-five minutes, Simon of the Desert is one of Bunuel’s shortest films but it distills much of the man’s distrust for organized religion and skewers it with accuracy. Outside of perhaps Monty Python’s Life of Brian, few other films or filmmakers attack the often absurd and easily manipulative nature of organized religion and its followers. Brought to DVD for the first time via Criterion, Simon of the Desert is a great introduction to the heretical Bunuel if you’re unfamiliar with him in all his glory.

    The story concerns Simon, a devout Christian ascetic whose self-proclaimed mission is to live atop a giant, stone pillar in order to prove his devotion to God. His stringent refusal for anything but the barest of necessities and refusal to come down for any reason is worshipped by some and mocked by others as are his frequent ‘miracles’. However, one who does take Simon’s gesture seriously is the Devil who appears before him in the loving figure of Bunuel’s own Viridiana, Silvia Pinal. The transition from good to evil for Pinal is achieved easily enough with her sultry looks and blonde hair. She appears to Simon in a variety of forms, each one more scandalous and absurd from the next. From the seemingly innocent young water bearer to a delicious school girl bursting out of her clothes in stockings (Bunuel being the fetishist he is), from a Christ-like shepherd in full beard bearing a lamb to finally a modern, sophisticated woman who whooshes Simon away to a location I will not disclose here. The push and pull between Simon’s obstinacy and the Devil’s manic pursuit is comical yet both understand the need for God’s approval, which, in and of itself, is made absurd since no one should have to go to such extreme lengths to prove themselves.

    At which point, you begin to sympathize with Simon and practically root for him to come down off that pillar. He’s done his time and if he hasn’t received a satisfactory answer from God by this point than there isn’t much reason in seeking it further. In this manner, Bunuel comes close to Bergman’s questioning of faith and one’s reliance upon it for meaning but whereas Ingmar would douse the viewer with buckets of cold gloom and dread, Bunuel instead uses comedy and satire to its deadliest effect. One should not have to define one’s self of good or purpose in relation to God, only live his or her life rather than pretending to do so for a greater purpose. That would be one interpretation of this brilliant Bunuel gem, I invite you to see it for yourself to see what you come up with as well.

    To learn more about this title or purchase it, go to www.criterion.com.
    Simon of the Desert
  • Stranger Than Paradise

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In a brand new special edition, the Criterion Collection adds Jim Jarmusch’s landmark film Stranger Than Paradise to its library. Alongside Down By Law, Jarmusch’s 1984 masterwork is given the full Criterion treatment with the usual extras as well as the unexpected inclusion of Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch’s first feature that has been hard to track down until now. Along with Night on Earth, Criterion’s hit the cineaste community with an onslaught of new Jarmusch releases. However, it’s hard to argue with their choices and hopefully some more Jarmuschs will be coming down the line in the future.

    The story follows the exploits of three young, hip characters. First you have Willie (John Lurie), a Hungarian émigré who has settled in downtown New York. Living in a shabby apartment, spending his time betting at the track and hustling where he can, Willie lives on his own terms and has carved out his own little niche in the world. He receives word that his younger cousin Eva (Esther Balint) is arriving straight from Budapest and needs a place to stay in the city until she can leave for Cleveland to stay with their aunt. Willie reluctantly agrees but lays down the rules immediately so the girl doesn’t disrupt his daily routine.

    Along with his friend Eddie (Richard Edson), Willie bets at the track and spends his days doing little else. However, soon both cousins begin to warm up to each other and as soon as things really turn out nicely she leaves for Cleveland. Time passes and on a whim, Willie decides to travel to Cleveland to see how Eva’s doing and takes Eddie along with him. The pair hook back up with Eva in Cleveland and decide to head to Florida to enjoy the nicer weather. Further events unfold with an unsettling finale leaving everyone’s fate in question. To say anything more would give the impression that the film has more action than that.

    It’s fair to argue that Stranger Than Paradise was to the 1980’s what Clerks was to the 1990’s. Namely that each inspired legions of filmmakers who realized that you didn’t have to have reams of money (although it always helps) or the biggest action-packed script in the land in order to craft an interesting film. Both films were shot in 16mm black and white, both films focused on the drab, uninspiring minutia of ordinary life, and most importantly both films became financially successful in their own rights. However, one facet of difference lies in the level of visual sophistication.

    While Clerks featured witty dialogue and absurd scenarios, it is about as visually flat as you can get and Kevin Smith himself has knowingly acknowledged this. Stranger Than Paradise however is a sublime exercise in black and white photography, DIY style. Lit by Tom DiCillo, the film juxtaposes the drab, shabby apartments and barren wastelands of Cleveland and Miami respectively with DiCillo’s carefully considered lighting, evoking numerous shades of gray reflecting the bleak, urban existence the main characters find themselves waiting around in.

    With Stranger That Paradise, Jarmusch also began to seriously utilize the portmanteau structure that shows up in his more successive later films, i.e. Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc. Breaking up the story into really a succession of related episodes, Jarmusch is able to execute tighter focus on the individual segments, sharpening their content and structure as though he were assembling a short story collection rather than a single novel. Even with Jarmusch’s attention to refining the details of each scene within the thematic mise en scene, the film would fall flat on its face without the solid performances from Lurie, Edson, and Balint.

    John Lurie has a face that is both ugly and poetic, he really does not need to speak because the angular contours of his face and street-wise demeanor communicate more effectively Willie’s position in life than any words he could spout out. Of course when he does speak with that cool, jaded tone of his, the words are turned from simple dialogue to jazzy attitude. Backing him up as loyal friend is Edson’s work as Eddie. Richard Edson is one of those actors who has been in more films than you can count yet you will never learn his name. He’s worked with the likes of Jarmusch, Spike Lee, etc. As reliable a character actor as they come, it’s not hard to imagine that if he landed one or two solid roles in some big budget extravaganzas he’d become the next Steve Buscemi. As Eddie, he’s a street guy with a soft heart, unafraid to show his feelings yet still defer to Willie as his Don Quixote while he dutifully remains Sancho Panza.

    Finally you have Balint, a member of the performance art group Squat Theatre, Balint is easily believable as the Hungarian émigré brought up on American culture without anticipating the soul-crushing boredom that modern American existence often entails. Conveying both youthful curiosity and later cynical disappointment as to what America’s offered her thus far, Balint is both believable and hilarious in her own unique, understated manner. Her introduction as she walks across the street in New York on her way to Willie’s is classic Jarmusch.

    Fresh off the boat, Eva walks down a deserted New York street, eerie in its emptiness, surrounded by old tenements that have seen the likes of her come and go for decades. In her hands is a pair of bags with all of her worldly possessions plopped inside. As she’s walking along, she stops and pulls out a tape recorder and presses play. Screaming Jay Hawkins’ version of “I Put A Spell on You” comes on and she begins walking again. Framed within an elegant tracking shot that balances her foreground movement with the desolate, decrepit background, the song is both ironic and foreboding. You’re not sure what’s going to happen but you’re hooked into what’s going to happen next.

    This shot reflects the majority of Jarmusch’s shot choices, preferring long takes to capture the action, his camera remains unobtrusive yet slyly evocative. Their isn’t any quick cutting or flashy montages, the takes are long and slow to perfectly match the boredom these characters try to handle within their daily lives. Very often nothing happens but that’s the point, as if Jarmusch is positing to the audience, “well how action-packed is your daily routine?” For viewers accustomed to the razzle-dazzle of modern Hollywood films, the pacing is deathly and monotonous but once you lock into the director’s mindset and plan everything makes sense.

    The film is slow in the same sense that early Warhol films are slow; they are exploiting cinema’s unique temporal advantage to allow events to unfold in literal, real time as they do in everyday reality, thus heightening the innate reality of the scenes themselves. It is also important to note that included in this new Criterion release is Jarmusch’s debut feature Permanent Vacation. Little seen and much admired, the film is a fantastic document recording the look and feel of Manhattan in the late 1970’s. Also shot by Tom DiCillo, the film’s grainy look tricks one into thinking that you’re watching some forgotten documentary rather than a fictional narrative.

    It also clearly positions Jarmusch as a singularly New York filmmaker in the same way that Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese are New York to their bones, whether they work in Hollywood or not. As with practically all Criterion releases, the transfer’s solid and the extras are informative. Of course it wouldn’t have hurt to have the director himself provide a commentary track but it’s not worth looking a gift horse in the mouth. Ultimately, the film still stands as both a document to the 80’s fledgling independent scene that would explode a decade later as well as a timeless portrait of urban isolation and the existential boredom that comprises ninety-nine percent of what we call life.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Stranger Than Paradise
  • Sweet Movie

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Sweet Movie, Dusan Makavejev’s follow up to his classic WR: Mysteries of the Organism is to put it mildly challenging to the eyes and mind. For anyone who has a weak stomach or strong morals, Makavejev’s work can prove to either be enlightening or detestable depending on how far one allows him or herself to submit to the director’s control and take the ride. Further pushing the envelope of sexual exploration juxtaposed with weightier themes of personal freedom and the darker consequences that this power is capable of producing, Sweet Movie is both a unrelenting comedic satire and intellectual think piece. Now available on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection, viewers now have the opportunity to view a film that pushes the envelope further than most ‘edgy’ cinema does today.

    Lacking a cookie cutter, Hollywood plot to guide the viewer, the film is divided into roughly two parallel subplots. The first one follows the journey of a character known as Miss World 1984 (Carol Laure), a young Canadian virgin who at the film’s beginning is selected as winner of a worldwide pageant organized by the Chastity Belt Foundation. The pageant’s purpose is to select the purest, loveliest virgin on Earth; the ultimate prize is that said winner has the opportunity to marry one of the richest men on Earth, the appropriately named Mr. Dollars (John Vernon). The pageant occupies the film’s opening sequence and sets the tone for the bizarre imagery yet to come.

    Young, nubile women are placed upon an examination table before a live audience while a gynecologist examines their ‘virtue’. The plastic tone and absurd rules would easily fit in today’s reality tv universe if one could get away with it. Finally chosen, Miss World 1984 is whisked away by her multi-billionaire husband who regales her with his collection of riches and flaunts his money and power before her. Ostensibly the stereotype of rich, stupid capitalists, Mr. Dollars pontificates about how he intends to purchase and renovate Niagara Falls, adding stereo and laser systems to make it better than it obviously is now.

    In one fell swoop, Makavejev effectively skewers Capitalism by highlighting the man’s intellectual void as well as his smug superiority, both supported by the central idea of the Golden Rule; he who has the gold rules. After an unfortunate honeymoon consummation, Miss World 1984 is cast off from her newfound riches and embarks on a journey of self-discovery which leads her to meet increasingly bizarre individuals and engage in situations which strip away her initial innocence and vulnerability and break her down emotionally and spiritually.

    The film’s other plotline involves the sexually and politically liberated relationship between a sexual revolutionary and sea captain named Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal) and a sailor from the Potemkin (Pierre Clementi), an obvious reference to the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Aboard her idiosyncratic barge with a likeness of Karl Marx as the masthead, the two lovers engage in both sensual explorations and political discourse, blurring the lines between the two which was a theme inherent in Makavejev’s work at the time. From making love in a giant crib full of sugar to seductively stripping before young boys, Planeta pushes the bounds of sexual expression in an attempt to liberate society from its strict mores concerning the subject.

    However, events begin to turn darker as Makavejev’s focus shifts from highlighting the joyousness of such expression to the more sinister consequences that may occur. To help illustrate his point, he interjects footage of a Russian mass burial ground shot by the Nazis during World War II in which Polish army corpses are excavated en masse. Executed by the Russians themselves, the desiccated bodies represented Polish military officers. Unchecked by morality, Russian forces mowed these men down indiscriminately and ironically, it took the Nazis to dig up the bodies in order to prove that they were not the only bad guys out on the landscape. As each storyline grows increasing absurd, individual actions become ever more decadent and dangerous as though to make the point that too much freedom can easily lead to destruction, both personal and social.

    One of the film’s highlights and no doubt a source of controversy involves a visit by Miss World 1984 to a commune in which the members engage in a scatological food orgy where vomit and food become intermixed, displays of extreme infantilism, etc. Strangely enough, the commune itself was a real location in Vienna and the extras used in these scenes were real participants who engaged in such actions in their ‘normal’ lives. This section brings to a head the film’s preoccupation with bodily functions and senses, sort of highlighting the idea that one’s body should be under one’s own control and not regulated by the state.

    In a sense, these individuals enjoy complete personal freedom to act exactly as they wish and display no social bounds yet their actions push the limits and are genuinely reprehensible at times. So while WR revels in the revolutionary possibilities inherent in sexual freedom as a gateway to total free social expression, Sweet Movie provides the counterbalance; the idea that complete and total freedom may lead not to perpetual happiness but to genuine despair and violence without some sense of balance.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Sweet Movie
  • Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes By William Greaves

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Coming out of the 1960’s creative fervor, William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One carved out its own cinematic precedent in terms of content and form. Greaves himself proved to be the only filmmaker possible to match the film’s unique yet puzzling blend of documentary and fiction filmmaking by creating the follow up piece, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 ½ thirty five years later. Both films are included in the Criterion Collection release Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes By William Greaves. Both films are likely to be gems in any serious film fan’s collection.

    Take One begins with a series of actors performing scenes from a fictitious breakup scenario that the director, Greaves, is filming. The characters, Freddie and Alice, enact their argument and recriminations ad nauseum as Greaves films the scene in a myriad of fashions in an attempt to enliven the rather stilted dialogue. While Greaves films his actors, another film crew is on hand filming Greaves and the first crew working on the breakup scenario, observing the staging, rehearsals, camerawork, etc. being conducted by the first team as it were. In a way, they function in the same capacity as modern documentary crews doing a making-of documentary for a large Hollywood production.

    However, Greaves complicates this process even further by employing a third film crew to film not only the first crew but the second crew as well. As a result, the entire production process, in its myriad layers is being recorded under Greaves auspices simultaneously. Although the separate crews are recording everything around them, no one seems to be aware or fully understand the purpose of the film that they are supposedly shooting all this footage for.

    The question of what the film actually is becomes one of Take One’s central themes. This question is directly tackled in what has to be one of cinema’s most unique mutinies. As the film crews grow ever more anxious and exasperated by this seemingly chaotic and pointless exercise, a number of key crew members get their hands on some cameras and recording equipment and record their own secret meeting about the project’s progress, supposedly without Greaves’ knowledge or consent. They openly question their director’s intentions, methods, competency, as well as what the hell they are doing there. According to the DVD’s supplements, when Greaves himself came across this footage while editing he was delighted of its presence as he was unsure, up to that point, whether all the other footage he had shot would cut together into an interesting work. This mutiny sequence apparently saved the film in his view. By the end of Take One, Greaves moves onto yet a new pair of actors to play Freddie and Alice and one of the more interesting and perplexing experiments captured on film is in the can.

    At this point, after thirty years pass since Take One’s production and release, Take 2 ½ slowly begins to take shape. In the years after Take One’s release and rise in cult status, actor/director Steve Buscemi became an ardent fan after seeing the film at a Sundance retrospective screening back in the early 90’s. Some time later, he contacted William Greaves himself and the two eventually began to collaborate on a sequel to Take One. After a few years of struggling for financing, Greaves enlists the aid of Steven Soderbergh and the funding for Take 2 ½ is raised thereafter.

    Take 2 ½ picks up where Take One ends quite literally thirty five years later with the same pair of actors playing Alice and Freddie once again. This time around though, the film deals more with the issue of time as the viewer observes the passage of time in the lives and faces of people whom when seen previously were young and in the prime of their lives. So while still exploring threads begun in the first piece, the second film distinguishes itself in this new dimension as its own entity.

    In the end, both films are perhaps the most perfect examples of self-reflexivity in cinema. Everything is recorded and projected for the viewer to see so one not only enjoys the fictional aspect played out by the actors but also engages in the near reality TV like candor of the film crews themselves. By showing us essentially the entire filmmaking process in these two strange hybrids, Greaves not only records the technical processes but the social systems that arise and evolve in these situations as well as the interplay amongst them. These two gems are perfect not only for use in cinema classes but in sociology classes as well.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes By William Greaves
  • That Obscure Object of Desire

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The final film by Spanish director Luis Bunuel, That Obscure Object of Desire stands as fitting a final cinematic statement as can possibly be imagined. The film, made in 1977, starts Fernando Rey, Bunuel’s alter-ego in his later films, and interestingly two actresses playing the same part. Both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina play dual sides of the same role. By revisiting many of the themes that persisted his entire body of work, Bunuel crafted a sublime statement both on societal hypocrisy and sexual tension.

    The film begins with Mathieu (Fernando Rey), preparing to board a train traveling to Seville. Before he boards, he unceremoniously pours a bucket of water on a young woman at the station. Once aboard the train, Mathieu begins to recite the tale of how he came to pour the water of this woman to the assortment of passengers in his car. He tells the tale of how he meets Conchita, his victim at the station. Originally hired as a housekeeper for his estate, Mathieu is immediately taken by her and sets a new goal to accomplish for himself. Smitten with her looks and energy, Mathieu does all he can to make her his own. He gives her and her mother money and presents to take care of them. He attempts to woo and please her so that she will allow him to possess her sexually.

    Conchita though is no fool; she is both amused and infatuated with Mathieu but takes delight in frustrating every attempt of his to have her. It is this switch of personality which is most effectively conveyed by the use of the dual actresses. Bouquet portrays Conchita’s elegant, sophisticated side; she is a lady above all, full of poise and emotional control. The only overt delight she shows is in denying Mathieu access to herself, most notably through the use of an absurdly, complicated corset which she wears to keep Mathieu from seeing her naked. On the other hand, Molina showcases the character’s sheer sensuality and animalistic sexuality. At one point, Mathieu finds her doing private, topless dance shows in a club and the viewer easily understands and identifies with Mathieu’s unending desire to have her sexually after watching her sensual movements on stage.

    Permeating beneath the film’s surface as Conchita repeatedly thwarts Mathieu’s efforts is a growing urge of violence festering within Mathieu; the more he is denied, the more he begins to loathe her secretly. This comes to a head when in a house that he purchased solely for her, Conchita locks Mathieu outside and forces him to watch her make love to another man. To be affronted in such a manner sends Mathieu over the edge emotionally. As she comes to apologize to him later, saying it wasn’t real and that she didn’t give herself to the other man, Mathieu unleashes his frustration and proceeds to beat her senselessly. By the end, her face is covered in blood with an ambiguous look, possibly betraying a sense of enjoyment. It is at this point that Mathieu leaves for the station and we return to the beginning of the tale, to watch how the story ultimately resolves itself.

    For a man known to feature the effects of sexual hang-ups and societal hypocrisy, Bunuel sums up his work concisely in the conduct between these two characters. Mathieu is a man who attempts to portray a calm, civil veneer but is driven by his most basic, animal instincts for pleasure and everything in his power to satisfy himself. Conchita, on the other hand, reads this ever so clearly and is willing to give herself to Mathieu. But, like the characters in Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, she will only give herself to Mathieu if he merely asks for it. She attempts to use her sexuality to break down his hypocritical social conditioning.

    Mathieu does what he can to take her for himself, buying gifts, etc. All he has to do is ask for permission, but for a man like himself, he is simply incapable of releasing that much control and power over to a woman. In the end, Bunuel masterfully sews up his own concerns about these issues through these perpetually interesting and ambiguous characters; characters who reveal more each time they are viewed and leave the audience with more to consider each time the film is viewed.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    That Obscure Object of Desire
  • The Burmese Harp

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In addition to its new release of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, the Criterion Collection is also releasing an additional master work out of the director’s oeuvre, The Burmese Harp. Together both films can be thought of as companion pieces as they both cover the same time and subject matter, namely Japanese soldiers attempting to survive the end of World War II and the horrors of war itself. However, The Burmese Harp broaches its subject with a decidedly different overall tone than its companion and more than holds its weight as an appropriate title for Criterion selection.

    The story, adapted from a well-known Japanese novel, begins near the war’s end in Burma. One company led by a particular Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) finds a particularly helpful way to pass the time and deal with the bitter reality of their situation; they organize themselves into a cohesive choir, constantly singing songs of home accompanied by one Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) on a homemade harp, fashioned after the local variety used by Burmese natives.

    In addition to providing ample accompaniment to his company’s choral practices, Mizushima is also a valued scout for his company. Because of his looks, he is able to easily disguise himself as Burmese and scout ahead for potential traps. Whether the situation is safe or dangerous, he has an appropriate signal song for each. We witness this skill early on when he checks out a jungle path that the men are preparing to follow. Dressed in local garb and carrying his instrument, Mizushima is accosted by local thieves and robbed. So while the result of his sojourn is less than victorious, it proves his ability to blend in for if he was spotted as Japanese death would have been certain.

    After this incident however and relatively early in the film, Inouye’s company is surrounded by Allied ground forces and what follows is perhaps one of the most moving sequences in all of war cinema. The company, after being accepted into a local village and fed, realizes that they are surrounded after the natives leave and they notice movement in the surrounding bush. In order to keep their knowledge hidden, they begin to laugh and sing while preparing for battle.

    While retrieving their accosted ammunition, the company sings a Japanese standard. Once back inside and prepared to attack, they are surprised by the very troops surrounding them singing back in return the very same song, in English not Japanese. Apparently, the Japanese standard is a version of a well-know English folk song that these men return to their counterparts. In this moment of mutual recognition and unwillingness to shed blood, Inouye’s men surrender, driven by the need to go home and see their families rather than die needlessly for so-called honor.

    After the surrender, Inouye’s company is taken into custody and they learn the war is over. However, Mizushima is recruited by Allied command to talk down a recalcitrant Japanese commander holed up on a local mountain refusing to surrender. The young private thus travels to this holdout and pleads the commander and his men to surrender and avoid bloodshed over a war that no longer exists. However, in a critique of military foolishness, the holdouts decide that surrender is dishonorable and choose to fight to the death. Attempting to leave after this failure, Mizushima and the others are shelled by the Allied artillery below. Mizushima is injured and unable to return to his company and no survivors are left up on the mountain.

    From this point forward, the film splits into two parallel tracks. On the one hand, Inouye and his comrades live under military imprisonment while trying to investigate Mizushima’s disappearance. Unsure whether he perished in the attack or not, they proceed with several investigations and plots to discover the truth, especially when a local monk who looks surprisingly like their lost friend mysteriously appears in the town where they are being held captive. On the second track, we learn that the mysterious monk is indeed Mizushima posing as a Buddhist monk in order to elude capture long enough to reunite with the others. After being discovered and cared for by an old monk, Mizushima steals the man’s robe and sets off south towards the military camp the others are being held at.

    Along the way however, he discovers the detritus of the now-ceased conflict, the bodies of his fellow Japanese strewn across the landscape without burial or respect. In gazing upon his fallen people, Mizushima begins to consider his own actions and perhaps crimes committed and enter into a spiritual dilemma. While he longs to see his friends and return home, he is increasingly burdened by the lack of respect shown to the fallen. In order to cleanse his own soul and conscience, Mizushima slowly embraces the teachings of the same people he is impersonating in order to survive and decides to care for the remains of those deceased and ensure their proper interment. Eventually, both parallel stories reach their inevitable convergence and no one is left the same.

    With its overall positive and uplifting approach to coping with the destruction left by war, The Burmese Harp is a significant counterbalance to the nihilistic pessimism embedded within Fires on the Plain. Whereas the latter suggests that death is the only way to escape such pain, The Burmese Harp provides a more uplifting message that while yes war is awful as are its results, it is possible to clean up the mess and attempt to move on. Key to this thesis is the usage of music, the universal art form that brings all people together despite language or culture. Music is used to build bridges between former enemies as well as a way to move from the despair and anxiety of conflict to the optimism and comfort created by peace. As was mentioned before, both films make fine additions to the Criterion Collection catalog and between the two, The Burmese Harp is definitely the one to watch if you want something close to a happy ending.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Burmese Harp
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of Luis Bunuel’s late masterpieces, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, stands as one of the most interesting and provocative films in his canon. The film can be seen as the mirror image of his sixties’ masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, which chronicled the gradual degradation and depravity of a group of bourgeoisie friends who are inexplicably incapable of leaving a dinner party at one’s home. As the situation degenerates, the guests themselves break down their prejudices and mores until finally emerging stripped of their social pretentiousness. Discreet Charm works in a somewhat similar manner but in reverse.

    The film chronicles a group of successful, bourgeoisie citizens who are unable to get together and have a shared meal. With such a simple premise, Bunuel extends the meal disruptions to truly surreal proportions. Beginning with a late dinner interrupted by a funeral wake in the restaurant, the interruptions become more and more absurd until extending into the unconscious. One of the film’s most interesting sequences is the succession of meals that are interrupted, in which we find that the meals themselves are within the individuals’ dreams. One dream unfolding within another unfolding within another, each one seemingly more bizarre than the next.

    Like Exterminating Angel, Bunuel shows his characters to be essentially nasty, narcissistic creatures that live within a rigid world of social mores and conceitedness. Among them are murderers, drug dealers, sex addicts, etc. but all are more than capable of exhibiting a front of moral superiority. As apart of Bunuel’s life-long mission to puncture such attitudes, he uses the comic interruptions as a metaphor to illustrate these people’s inability to genuinely connect with one another as a result of maintaining their ridiculous social and moral facades. This is perfectly symbolized by the characters walk down a long, lonesome road, with no one or place in sight. Cut off from reality by their own failure and unwillingness to recognize it, these are people who are lost among everyone around them. Bunuel uses an essentially comic and absurd premise to succinctly illustrate the modern alienation that forced morality and elitism forces us to enter into.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
  • The Double Life of Veronique

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released in 1991, The Double Life of Veronique became the major breakout hit in Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s career. Up to that point, Kieslowski had worked both in documentary film and completed his epic ten-part meditation on the Ten Commandments, The Decalogue. While those works brought him critical attention, it was Veronique that finally broke him through on the international scene. Examining the mysterious yet emotionally strong bond between two identical strangers, Veronique communicates a tale of spirituality led by perhaps one of the most sublimely effective performances in film by lead actress Irene Jacob.

    The film begins in Poland following the exploits of a young Polish soprano named Weronika, played by Jacob. Weronika is a spirited young woman, carrying on a flirtatious affair with a blind man named Antek, living with her father, and singing in the church choir. She speaks with her father about this instinctive feeling she has of not being alone in the world. Unable to adequately put words to it, she hints at her own logically unfounded but emotionally confident idea that there is someone else out there in the world connected to her. After hearing news of her aunt’s sickness, Weronika leaves for Krakow to spend time with her.

    During her stay, she unexpectedly ends up auditioning and winning a place in the city’s choir. Elated by her success, she still cannot fight the suspicion that there is someone else out there in the world connected to her in some unseen, unexplainable fashion. She finds her answer soon enough when she spots a woman on a tourist trip in Krakow, escaping a police riot in a city square. The woman is her exact double in every shape and form; they do not meet eyes but a sense of both surprise and calm emotes from Weronika. After all this time, her searching and suspicions have come to an end. While she may have no idea who this person is, the more important point is that she exists in the world and that indeed Weronika truly is not alone. After this revelation, tragedy strikes and Weronika is no more.

    It is at this point that the film shifts its focus to Veronique, also played by French actress Irene Jacob. Veronique unsurprisingly shares some similarities with Weronika; they are both involved with music, in this case Veronique is a French music teacher living in Paris. Veronique also has a close relationship with her father, whom she helps with the maintenance of their country estate after the loss of her mother. However, while Weronika was plagued with the sense that someone else was out there in the world connected to her, Veronique feels the opposite of the coin, instinctively knowing that she has become alone in the world now but cannot explain why.

    Over the course of her story, she begins to receive strange packages from an anonymous admirer. Perhaps thinking that this may somehow answer her questions about her unexplainable emotional condition, she begins to investigate the situation, being given clues by the phantom admirer until eventually discovering his identity, the purpose behind the gifts which ultimately leads to her own discovery of her emotional and spiritual twin and the consequences of that knowledge.

    Holding the film firmly in place with her presence, Irene Jacob gives one of the standout performances of her entire career. In this film, she is undeniably Kieslowski’s muse in this piece and it is hard to think of other actresses who could have matched the work she does in this film other than someone like Juliette Binoche, with whom Kieslowski would also work with effectively in his Three Colors Trilogy. She is in nearly every scene of the film and operates with sparse amounts of dialogue. The majority of her work, which gives it all the more power, is simply her emotive face and body.

    The film photographs not so much a classic acting performance but one of glances and movements. Glances and movements which, while oblique, ultimately communicate the wordless almost indescribable emotional connection she feels pulled by more effective. It is the difference between simply talking about a thought and expressing a thought, with the expression ultimately being what one is always attempting to do. In order to capture that nonverbal communication as completely as possible, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak films Jacob in such a way as to hearken back to the days of old Hollywood. Bathed in sepia, with lush yellows, browns, etc. around her Jacob projects an otherworldly luminescence that works perfectly as a physical manifestation of the spiritual world that she is unknowingly engaging herself in.

    Kieslowski paces the film in a slow, elliptical manner; taking his time and never rushing matters. His pacing along with the expressive, otherworldly cinematography creates a dream state for the characters to exist in. One feels that these two particular characters have been disengaged from the concrete, normal world and exist on a seemingly higher spiritual plane that coexists with the regular world, striving for connection to each other in order to complete themselves ultimately. Kieslowski gives the sense of lives fading in and out of each other, touching each other in unexpected ways as though both were sprouted from the same ethereal source and are seeking to reconnect with each other in order to become whole again. In the end, despite Kieslowski’s setup and execution, the film belongs rightly to Jacob. She brings to us two different woman and performances that in the end, merge together to become truly one role and ultimately one soul.

    For more information on this film, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Double Life of Veronique
  • The Fire Within

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Taking a decidedly darker turn from previous films like The Lovers, Louis Malle stretched himself thematically when he tackled the 1963 release The Fire Within, available here in the US on DVD now courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Essentially one man’s meditation on life before committing suicide, the film was and is a penetrating study of one man’s ennui. The plot itself involves twenty-four hours in the life of Parisian writer Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet), a down-on-his luck man whom when we first meet him is staying in a sanitarium for alcohol addiction. Abandoned by his wife in New York, seemingly broke and without prospects Alain has come to the conclusion that he is no longer able to burden the emotional strains placed upon his existence.

    So through a rather picaresque series of encounters with old friends, he attempts to find some sort of connection through these people, a connection that perhaps may sway him from his course. In terms of visual style, Malle frames this tale of disintegration in a rather austere, formal style eschewing much of the energy and sensuality of earlier works like The Lovers. While there are a number of smooth, effective traveling shots on the Parisian streets, much of the film’s remaining visuals are executed in a rather cool, Bressonian style. Relatively little music is included in the piece with the exception of an Erik Satie piano piece that perfectly captures the melancholic desperation Alain feels he is unable to recover from.

    Centering the film though is Ronet’s powerful performance as Alain; a noted French actor who never quire reached the heights of a Belmondo or Delon, Ronet perfectly captures Alain’s sense of stilted adolescence and emotional disconnection from the world around him. Alain’s greatest tragedy in life it would seem is being born and raised a romantic, unable to grasp the responsibilities and compromise that adult life necessitates in order to cope with it in any degree. As Alain watches his fortunes seemingly dwindle, his alcoholism consume his health, his wife leaving him, he clings ever closer to those youthful ideals that become more and more irrelevant to the greater society around him. Moving from one old friend to another, this essential fact becomes all too apparent to him yet Malle, deviating from the source book, still invites the possibility of redemption in Alain’s life.

    Not until the very end when he ultimately makes his choice can we genuinely tell if he’s going to live or die. Again, it is Ronet’s gift for ambiguity that allows for this tension to exist; the performance walks a rather fine tightrope in attempting to communicate visually the turmoil of an interior life that would far more easily resonate in prose than pictures. Ronet stalks the screen with a mix of detached reserve and keen passion in his eyes as though he wants to have something or someone to cling on to but is consistently let down by those around him. I won’t give away the ending but suffice it to say that whatever Alain’s final decision turned out to be, we at least sense that he finally achieves a modicum of peace in his life which after his deceptively quiet yet harrowing inner journey is more than enough to be thankful for.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Fire Within
  • The Furies

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Perhaps best known for his transitional Westerns of the 1950’s, bridging the gap between the golden era and the most deconstructionist period of the 1960’s and ‘70s, Anthony Mann crafted one of his most psychologically intriguing films with The Furies. Now available on DVD courtesy of Criterion, The Furies features what would turn out to be Walter Huston’s final performance as a Lear-like cattle baron. Presiding over his vast frontier empire, cobbled together from territory claimed himself or taken from others known as The Furies, T.C. Jeffords (Huston) lives his life as an all-powerful, aging king. Printing up his currency, affectionately known as T.C’s, to be used in lieu of cash, Jeffords is a man who firmly believes in survival of the fittest.

    And that philosophy applies just as strongly to his own family, namely his son Clay (John Bromfield) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). Strong and ruefully independent, Vance is practically T.C. incarnate and the apple of her father’s eye. Constantly goading and teasing him, Vance never shows fear towards the old man and helps rule The Furies with a steady hand. However, the years start creeping up on T.C. ever more steadily and seemingly on the verge of losing his land if he defaults on loans from his San Francisco bank, he begins thinking of turning over the ranch once and for all. The logical and only true choice of course is Vance; however she must prove herself to the old man as always. What results is a battle of wills between father and daughter that threatens to destroy not only both their lives but leads to unnecessary blood shed and calculating betrayal.

    Essentially a Western King Lear in many ways, The Furies is certainly one of the most overtly psychological Westerns put on celluloid. While you have shootouts and cattle trains, the emphasis is squarely placed on the psyche rather than the range. Between Vance and T.C. are a plethora of supporting characters who each take sides in the titanic struggle from Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), a Mexican squatter whose family is constantly under threat from T.C. yet is one of Vance’s closest friends, to Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) the son of a former enemy whose intentions are impossible to read.

    It turns out in Rip that Vance finally finds an equal to T.C., heavy-handedly drawing on the notion that daughters secretly want to marry their fathers. At turns embracing and rejecting her, gaining confidence only to betray, Rip is the only man who breaks Vance somewhat; Vance in turn respects and desires the man for his very roughness towards her. Call it daddy issues or perhaps a very oblique sadomasochistic dynamic, take your pick, the relationship between Rip and Vance is intriguing to say the least and feels far more modern in its portrayal and dynamic than the subject matter would imply. Visually though, this film is as picturesque as you can get with wide master shots imposing themselves across The Furies itself, a vast wasteland that at times mirrors the decay and desolation of the family itself.

    And yet within the Jeffords home itself, Mann opts for somewhat jagged, claustrophobic compositions that mirror the messy relationships between all involved and one hell of a scene involving T.C.’s new girlfriend, an upset Vance, and a thrown pair of scissors. The suspense and terror in that sequence would make Hitchcock proud. Chalk full of special features like all Criterion titles including the original novel reprinted, The Furies is a damn fine if strange Western by a filmmaker whose best works were born out of this most American of genres.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Furies
  • The Ice Storm

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    1997 was a year dominated by films including The Full Monty and of course the behemoth Titanic. However, while audiences were occupied with less-than-desirable male strippers and Leonardo being on top of the world, another film entered the cinematic slipstream to less fanfare but packing enough wallop to get everyone’s clothes back on and mouths shut. Coming off of his success with Sense and Sensibility as well as previous hits like Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet, Taiwanese director Ang Lee only continued confounding critics and audience alike through his seemingly random material choices. Moving from Taiwanese family dramas to Jane Austin, Lee next tackled 1973 Connecticut via Rick Moody’s bleak novel The Ice Storm, here presented in a new two-disc special edition from the Criterion Collection.

    Many people questioned Lee’s ability to tackle a book that as its subject matter existed within a moment in time that was wholly American with Watergate, key parties, and wife-swapping on the table. However, as Kevin Kline notes during one of the special features’ documentaries, Lee was able to see past the specificities that an American director would ponder and instead focus on the story’s universality. In doing so, the film becomes less a documentary and more allegory in dissecting the spiritual ennui felt by people both unable and unwilling to connect with each other.

    Structurally, The Ice Storm has a fairly picaresque structure; after introducing to the chillingly beautiful imagery of the ice itself as well as Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), we move back in time via James Schamus’ solid screen adaptation and begin taking in the environment the characters exist in. New Canaan, Connecticut is a small town populated by well-to-do families, very likely professionals in the city who prefer Connecticut serenity to big city bustle. Two particular families, The Hoods comprised of husband Ben (Kevin Kline), wife Elena (Joan Allen), son Paul as mentioned, and daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) as well as The Carvers made up of husband and wife Jim and Janey (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) and sons Mikey and Sandy (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd).

    As neighbors in the surrounding countryside, the Hoods and Carvers interact in a number of ways both appropriate and secret. Ben and Janey have an illicit albeit rather pedestrian affair where both appear to experience the most basic of physical pleasures with even that being a stretch. Mikey and Wendy are classmates as well as partners in furtively beginning to explore their own sexuality awkward make-out sessions and a now classic sequence of the two fooling around, clothes on, with Wendy wearing a Nixon mask. Throw into the mix Sandy’s own sublimated sexual desire for Wendy which comes out in violent acting out and you have a triangle that’s messy to say the least. As awkward as these encounters are though, they do mirror the desire of the film’s characters for some degree of genuine connection in their lives.

    They all feel so cut off by their location, social status, and the changing world around them and as a result push the limits of the natural order as Lee sees it. Elena is caught shop-lifting and acting out while trying to re-establish her identity in a world increasingly open to women’s lib, Janey’s sexual dalliances only mirror the mess her life is with a husband hardly at home, unhappiness in her home life yet unable or unwilling to leave and start anew, etc.

    We spend much of the film’s beginning observing these two families drift further and further out until the ice storm of title begins. In one night, the lives and worlds of these people changes irrevocably as a result of not only the physical storm itself but the emotional whirlwinds that they are entwined in which only a sacrifice will feed. For viewers both new and old to it, The Ice Storm is a very bleak film to watch; the story and characters are emotionally draining as they endure the seemingly unshakable ennui their lives dwell in at the beginning. Yet Ang Lee is able to take subject matter that is undeniably heavy and imbue it with a fragile beauty through both the cinematography, courtesy of David Lynch DP Frederick Elmes, and the aching music score provided by Mychael Danna. Danna’s woodwind score provides a wistful, spiritual tone that is both expressive and minimal in effect akin to the barren trees and landscape the story is set in.

    Lee handles the material with quiet confidence, never overstating any points, never pushing any melodramatic agenda, only moving the story along at a decent pace allowing the viewer to absorb both the stylistically stark landscape these characters live in and sneak in moments of subtle beauty and emotion, i.e. the expressive crane shot that shows Wendy and Mikey from above as they share a kiss (or attempt at a kiss) within an empty pool which provides unexpected weight to a delicate situation. Yet the film would not work without the ensemble work on display; comprised of many seasoned New York actors like Kline, Weaver, and Allen the adult roles are all confidently handled with no melodramatic flourishes at all. Each one is grounded in its own solid reality while still allowing for moments of sly humor to creep out (as Kevin Kline notes in one the set’s special features, the script contains a certain type of black humor that is quite potent once you latch onto its presence).

    The other side of the coin though features performances from actors, whom at the time were only children, that showed maturity and skill beyond their years especially Ricci’s which marked the turning point for her where she was no longer relegated to kids roles and began moving towards the work that would forge much of her adult reputation. Another wonderful turn comes from Elijah Wood as the spacey, spiritual neighbor whose quest to find some sort of inner peace and order leads to tragedy; Wood’s turn is both cerebral and innocent at the same time, a difficult turn for an actor at any age.

    All in all, the attention that this film was denied due to its flashier neighbors has slowly but surely found its way back home. Probably ahead of its time, The Ice Storm exhibits an emotional maturity that many “independent” films today struggle to show; this is a film that packs no punches or tries to sell you on gimmicks. It is rough and beautiful simultaneously and will either grip you by the throat or bore you if you refuse to let yourself be taken on its singular journey. Like many great films, time will strip away any contemporary fad and illuminate the timelessness of its story and themes, both of which are carefully conducted by a master director and his dramatic all-star cast.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Ice Storm
  • The Lady Vanishes

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of Alfred Hitchcock’s last films before going to work for producer David O. Selznick, The Lady Vanishes is a playful mystery/thriller that is equal parts comedy and intrigue. Released in a new two-disc special edition from Criterion Collection, The Lady Vanishes stands as another fitting addition to the company’s Hitchcock offerings. In a small, rustic train station located deep in the heart of Eastern Europe, an assorted group of English travelers are holed up waiting for the next morning’s train arrival.

    Amongst them are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), a pair of stiff upper lips whose interest lies wholly in making it back to London for an important soccer match, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a wealthy debutante traveling to her wedding, and most innocuously Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly spinster returning home after years away. These characters along with various others spend the film’s first act stuck in this small station/boarding house which allows Hitchcock the opportunity to lay the groundwork in both establishing character and throwing in some oblique jabs himself.

    The thrust of activity lies with Iris who is somewhat hesitant about her pending nuptials when she meets Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), an unruly musicologist whom Iris is forced to interact with when both are kept in the same room. Meanwhile, a British government official named Todhunter and his “wife” attempt to keep a low profile in order to disguise their actual relationship being one of husband and mistress. At the same time, Hitchcock spins a deliciously naughty yarn concerning Charters and Caldicott sharing a room with the boarding house’s maid. Hitch constantly hints at the possibility of a ménage e trois between the three characters from the maid’s end while the two Englishmen act terrified at the implicit sexual offer. As the first act draws to a close and the various characters board the morning’s train, the playful atmosphere is sharply punctured by a brutal murder. An ominous warning of things to come.

    Once aboard the train, Iris and Miss Froy share a customary cup of English tea and speak of their lives. Taken by the elderly woman’s kindly manner and upbeat charm, Iris accompanies her back to their compartment and quickly drifts to sleep. However, upon waking Iris finds that her new friend is nowhere to be found. Not only is Miss Froy missing from the compartment but from the train itself it shocking appears. Moreover, Iris is thrust up against a surreal wall as all of her fellow passengers from Caldicott and Charters, the Todhunters, and various others swear to never have seen Miss Froy in the first place thus questioning Iris’ very sanity.

    The only person willing to listen and help her is Gilbert as the pair begins their own investigation into the disappearance. Throw into the mix a mysterious doctor, political intrigue, the ever-present MacGuffin, and machinations galore and you have a first-rate thriller wrapped up in a comedy. Plot-wise, The Lady Vanishes taps into a vein of surreal paranoia not dissimilar to that used in Jodie Foster’s recent hit Flightplan. With her sanity questioned by everyone around while knowing that her friend does indeed exist and is missing, Iris and Hitchcock portend the paranoia genre that would achieve fruition later on in the works of John Frankenheimer and films like The Conversation.

    However, Hitchcock also inserts a supple sexuality into the proceedings in both the Charters and Caldicott storyline and the romance that buds between Iris and Gilbert. From their first meeting, both the audience and characters know they are destined for each other. However, throughout the film the willful denial of those desires only strengthens them and thus ratchets up the sexual potency in a manner that is both obvious and oblique. While not as complex as later masterpieces like Vertigo or Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes shows that even with relatively straight-forward and lightweight material, Alfred Hitchcock could still bring to bear his unique preoccupations with sexuality and suspense.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Lady Vanishes
  • The Last Emperor

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Between Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci faced a period of seeming artistic decline and relevance. Yet in 1987, he returned to the world’s stage triumphantly with the nine Academy Award wins that his film, The Last Emperor, garnered. Released by Criterion in a new four-disc edition, The Last Emperor is presented in both its theatrical and television versions along with a treasure trove of supplements that all Criterion fans hunger for viewing. Based on the true story of Pu Yi, the film examines the life and times of China’s last emperor from his unexpected rise to tragic fall. Pu Yi himself was crowned emperor when he was three years old in 1908. Holding court within his vast, opulent residence, the Forbidden City, Pu Yi grew up in an age where political upheavals had finally grown strong enough to overturn the empirical rule that had dominated China for centuries.

    As the Chinese Nationalist government arose, the emperor was transformed from ruler of the country to virtual prisoner in his own private city. Matters only grew worse with the rise of Mao’s Communist regime yet as the film chronicles the epic sweep of these titanic events in modern Chinese history, Bertolucci still carves out a very intimate tale of a ruler who was essentially disinterested in the world foisted upon him so early on in life. Played by John Lone as an adult in an eerily, detached performance, Pu Yi comes across often as a man with little or no internal life. He is someone who has little or no interior life due to the fact that by his name and title, his entire existence was essentially mapped out for him at birth. So after being initially taken into the Forbidden City, propped up to power only then to be stripped of said power and treated essentially as both political prisoner and pawn, Pu Yi is a man who did not live his own life but had it lived out for him. Therefore, Lone approaches the man in a way that can easily be mistaken for sheer blandness on the actor’s part but if viewed through this different prism only symbolizes the lack of control this man was subjected to his entire life.

    While Lone’s performance is in part by design somewhat blank, his childhood tutor played by Peter O’Toole is a welcome sight as he mentors the young boy within the Forbidden City; his riding through the vast courtyards on a bicycle brought into the palace is a welcome sign of playfulness within an environment that is both beautiful and foreboding. As much as the plot and characters anchor the film dramatically, The Last Emperor is an undisputed marvel in both cinematography and production design. Two of Bertolucci’s closest collaborators, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti used the story’s innate epic qualities to branch out and perform work that is on par with The Conformist in terms of effectiveness and beauty.

    Known for their expressive camera work and lighting, the team of Bertolucci and Storaro took full advantage of the Chinese’s government’s offer to allow them full shooting access to the Forbidden City itself. With sweeping crane shots and vast, wide shots, the pair communicates the palace’s sheer size precisely meant to symbolize both the opulence and power of the emperor himself. Coupled with the already ornate designs within the palace, Scarfiotti accentuates with set designs that are ornate and lavish enough to seem already existing within the space itself. With his production team and actors, Bertolucci fashioned The Last Emperor into a film that highlights his lifelong synthesis of acute political critique with deeper psychological probing. Visually grand but dramatically precise, The Last Emperor will impress you upon initial viewing with its look and will hold your attention with its substance upon a second look. Another solid addition to Criterion’s catalog to be sure.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Last Emperor
  • The Lovers

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Adding to its library of Louis Malle releases, the Criterion Collection now can count the director’s scandalous 1958 releases The Lovers amongst its fold. Presented in a single-disc edition with the customary special features and background material, this new remastered edition is a welcome addition to the collection’s overall catalog. A tale of sexual desire and expression, the film was an artistic scandal upon its initial release.

    The film revolves around the conflicting desires of Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau), an attractive French bourgeois woman in her early thirties. Married to a provincial newspaper tycoon (Alain Cuny), Jeanne is a haughty, bored woman who finds excitement in her life via frequent trips to Paris to visit her rich girlfriend Maggy (Judith Magre) and enjoy the city’s urban excitement. As the tale begins, we learn of Jeanne’s budding affair with prominent polo player Raoul Flores (Jose Luis De Villamonga), a snobbish overwrought Spaniard with old-fashioned notions of chivalry and machismo to boot.

    The story then follows Jeanne entirely from her perspective as she attempts to engage her husband romantically in their provincial home, only to suspect him of having his own affair, to her increasingly frequent jaunts to Paris and its idealized glamour. Jeanne herself is a woman conflicted in life by her inner emotional needs and material wants, while she is fully aware that passion has withered away in her marriage (as does her husband) she is afraid to jeopardize the material wealth and privilege that their union affords her. Thus she is forced to get her ya-yas out by leading this double life that paradoxically everyone is fully aware of yet chooses not to openly acknowledge.

    What up to this point is a sort of comedy of manners takes a decidedly more serious tone, when the husband finally calls Jeanne out and invites not only Maggy but Raoul to spend the weekend with them in the provinces. Understanding all too well the humiliation meant to be wrought upon her, an unexpected salvation comes in the form of Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), a young Frenchman related to socialites in Jeanne’s circle. After driving her back to her estate from Paris by chance, Bernard is introduced into the Machiavellian emotional games this tight circle has planned for each other. Yet, attraction of a sort flares up within Jeanne and this new man leading to an ambiguous and shattering denouement.

    While there are a number of standout performances alongside Malle’s confident direction and Henri Decae’s beautiful cinematography, the undisputed key to The Lovers success is Jeanne Moreau. Already a Malle stalwart after previous working together in Elevator to the Gallows, her role in The Lovers made Moreau a genuine cinema star and for good reason. Moreau has always been an acquired taste in regards to physical attraction, not possessing the natural gorgeousness of a Bardot she has always had a more cerebral appeal to viewers especially through those haunting eyes of hers. Her beauty and attraction comes less from a mere surface appeasement and more through an exuding of deep intelligence and passion that coupled with her still-unique face beats out those surface girls any day. A modern-day counterpart to this sort of combination of inner and outer attraction would certainly be France’s Isabelle Huppert.

    And yet, this film showcases Moreau’s surface perhaps more lovingly than any other film due to Decae’s sumptuous black and white photography which in the film’s famous seduction sequence appears as though directly lifted from an old Hollywood studio melodrama. As was mentioned before, the film was an artistic scandal upon its release due to a variety of factors. First was its rather frank portrait of female sexual pleasure and brief nudity which occurs relatively late in the film, yet is perfectly setup by the rather cerebral machinations of the film’s first half.

    Moreover, Moreau fashions a portrait of a woman who engages in her affairs without any sense of personal shame or guilt, she feels she is finally becoming the woman she longs to be emotionally and neither Moreau nor Malle imbue the portrait with any sort of judgment. Much like characters in Jean Renoir’s films, Jeanne (the character) is simply observed by the viewer who is allowed to make his or her own opinions for sure however the film adamantly refuses to take a position either way. In this refusal, both actress and director openly embrace the ambiguities of such decisions with a clarity that remains sharp some fifty years after the film’s release.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Lovers
  • The Milky Way

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Furthering their collection of Luis Bunuel releases, the Criterion Collection now adds The Milky Way to a line of titles already including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Viridiana and That Obscure Object of Desire to name a few. All they need do now is add The Exterminating Angel, his middle period films, and everything will be right in the world. The Milky Way feels like a cross between Don Quixote and a theological debate; picaresque in nature while emphasizing an overarching quest, the film follows two pilgrims named Jean and Pierre who attempt to carry-out the centuries old pilgrimage to the Spanish holy city of Santiago de Compostela. Penniless and left to travel on foot, both beggars make the journey from their native France into Spain while along the way encountering the Devil, Christ, Mary, and a various assortment of crazed priests, religious zealots, stigmatic children, crucified nuns, and other assorted characters.

    Sometimes oblivious to the absurdity of the crazies they encounter and other times simply bemused, both men act as guides across history while Bunuel seizes the opportunity to investigate the history of Christian heresies while taking as many stabs at organized religion as he possibly can. What results is funny, ribald, and above all engaging; Bunuel is a director that can make you laugh and think and much of his best work can make one do both simultaneously. The Milky Way can certainly meet this specific task. For an atheist, Luis Bunuel has crafted some of the most intriguing and entertaining films about faith and religion to date. Educated by Jesuits as a child, Bunuel frequently dissected the hypocritical dogmas and deceits of the Catholic Church; very often the most pious and holier than thou clergy prove themselves to be both vicious and self-indulgent in Bunuel’s cinematic universe.

    The Milky Way is a perfect linchpin in that it acts as a bridge between many of the films he crafted before that followed relatively linear plots tilted with surrealist themes and imagery, i.e. The Exterminating Angel, Belle du Jour, etc. and the late masterpieces that became increasingly disinterested in maintaining linearity and instead become increasing episodic or picaresque while driving towards overarching themes and ideas such as The Phantom of Liberty, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc. Much of this later work, it should be noted, probably would not have succeeded nearly as well without Bunuel’s collaboration with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who also appears in film as the renegade clergyman Priscillian.

    The Milky Way still maintains a sort of narrative through line though via the two pilgrims Pierre and Jean, whom the viewer can latch onto as both they travel through a temporally warped landscape that shifts from the present day to the distant past and back again without rhyme or reason other than Bunuel’s own interest in examining individual heresies as they present themselves in the story. Both pilgrims are great fun to view because they exist without self-righteous piety; they simply try to survive on a day-to-day basis in order to complete their journey. While they seemingly believe in God, they are not above stealing or other activity that may not seem pious but without hurting anyone in their pursuit of survival, can one really consider such acts to be wrong? Pierre and Jean drink, joke, and sometimes blaspheme but only jokingly and who can say for sure that God doesn’t have a sense of humor and can’t take some ribbing.

    What the film succeeds at in greater degree is giving a visual presentation to heretical questions such as the validity of the Holy Trinity. Can God really be divided into a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Are all three equally distinct yet the same? Does Jesus truly exist within the Holy Communion? Isn’t it possible for him to have had brothers and sisters? Is it possible for Christ to be both fully human and fully divine? These are all questions among many others that Bunuel attempts to illustrate visually as well as examining the hypocrisies and fanaticisms that various religious sects have exhibited throughout time be they Priscillians’ focus on earthly pleasures for a divine purpose or the theological struggle between the Jansenists and Jesuits which Bunuel finds perfect comic expression for in a fencing duel between two men, each representing different sects, fighting it out both with swords and theory. And yet there are other comedic jabs that make one laugh and give pause for thought almost simultaneously.

    For example, when one pilgrim discusses how his mother once dissuaded him from shaving off his beard Bunuel cuts to a scene of Jesus at home with Mary and Joseph. With his kid brothers and sisters running around, Christ is seen before a mirror sharpening a razor for a nice shave. As he gets ready for the first cut, Mary gently dissuades him not to. On a surface level, the scene is a fun, visual gag but on another level it makes you question the visual representations that have become associated with Christ and how ingrained they have become within people, both believers and non-believers.

    Throughout the film, Bunuel successfully plants a number of similar depth charges in order to lure the viewer into thinking about such questions without becoming didactic and boring. In truth, many of the theological questions and arguments presented will go over your head at first if you are not a theologian or at least a seriously practicing Catholic. However, with repeated viewing and some investigation the jabs become ever more pronounced and enjoyable to watch. Ultimately, The Milky Way is as fascinating a religious film as any of the overblown Christ epics (including Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ) because of its absolute attention to detail and accuracy. As the end credits reveal, all the heresies investigated in the story are authentic which only underlines the comedic and often tragically violent absurdity that religion and fanaticism has spawned throughout the ages.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Milky Way
  • The Naked City

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Expanding on its film noir library, the Criterion Collection adds yet another worthy title to a line-up that includes such works as Pickup on South Street, The Killers, Night and the City, etc. Provided by director Jules Dassin, The Naked City arrives as the newest addition to the collection’s crime cinema thread. Dassin, who’s films Rififi, Night and the City, and Thieves Highway are already in the collection, helms this gritty noir which holds up New York City as essentially its prime character. If Robert Altman had directed a New York crime film set in the 40’s, it would probably have come out looking a lot like this feature.

    While the film itself operates under a standard noir plot of young woman being murdered for mysterious reasons leaving detectives to figure out why, the real focus of this film is on structure itself. At the onset, the frame opens to a wide, overhead shot of New York City, while the film’s producer Mark Hellinger begins his voiceover narration that constantly chimes in throughout the proceedings. Hellinger discusses the vastness of the city itself and on a more technical note, how everything shot was done so on-location and not on a soundstage.

    One must remember that at the film’s release in the late forties, Italian neo-realism had burst forth as a fresh, invigorating style in world cinema with its focus on invoking reality which included shooting in real locations to capture authenticity. Attempting to translate this originally Italian idiom to the American landscape, Hellinger and Dassin likewise chose to film on real-life city streets and locations.

    While this choice undoubtedly leads to a richer, more captivating look, an additional benefit is allowing the viewer of today a deep, nuanced glimpse into the city as it existed within that bygone landscape. The plot itself as was mentioned above involves a police investigation into a young woman’s murder. The lead detective Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) fits perfectly into the slot of wise, world-weary detective who’s seen and knows all. After listening to Fitzgerald’s thick Irish accent for a while, one begins to wonder whether or not his importance is in being merely a detective or being Irish as well with his quick wit and humor. While the tale follows a fairly predictable path, the final chase sequence through the Lower East Side is pure action and filmed with a kinetic energy and realism that rivals the best that Hollywood can offer today.

    The opening sequence itself for that matter is worth viewing alone as the camera swoops down into the city itself, filming all variety of people and places from Wall Street to lonely factory workers, as though one were sitting in an anatomy class detailing the human body. What adds to this mini-travelogue is hearing the inner thoughts of the various individuals as we observe them within their place in the city. This sweeping movement of inner monologues brings to mind Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire in which the guardian angels in that film travel around the divided city of Berlin, listening in on the thoughts of others to better understand them.

    While the film’s trip around the city leads inevitably to the murder at heart, the real value is observing the city’s myriad facets beforehand. Hellinger makes it absolutely clear that New York itself is not only a character but, in the end, the lead character for without her none of what we have seen would have even been possible. After the film’s release and Academy Award wins, the film was adapted into a successful television show which makes perfect sense as evidenced by the film’s final tagline, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them.”

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Naked City
  • The Naked Prey

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For many years, Cornel Wilde was an athletic Hollywood actor that turned in solid if at times uninspired performances in the old studio system. And then he basically turned his back on those well-worn conventions and pushed forward into an entirely new and idiosyncratic direction. In the Sixties, he became both director and star of a series of tough explorations into both the natural world and the nature of man itself.

    Like John Cassavetes, Wilde surged by seizing up the means of production and involving himself in projects that fulfilled him creatively in a way that old Hollywood simply could not do. Among his directorial works, perhaps the best known and memorable is his sojourn into Africa and man’s primal instinct for survival in The Naked Prey, finally available on DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection and based on an American legend involving trapper John Colter’s escape from Blackfoot Indians (which is read by actor Paul Giamatti in one of the disc’s special features).

    More interested in crafting an allegory than conventional tale, Wilde himself stars as a character simply referred to as ‘Man’. The plot unfolds in the early to mid nineteenth century in what appears to be East Africa. Wilde’s character leads a safari into the bush, seeking out elephants to hunt for both ivory and sport. His benefactor, an arrogant, racist European (played by Gert Van Der Bergh) offends a group of African natives by refusing to offer them a small gift as is customary to do in those parts. Man advises against the insult, realizing the trouble that may result. However, the hunter’s arrogance brushes reason aside and they continue on with their hunt. After bagging a considerable amount of elephants, Wilde’s party is attacked by the very same tribesmen, led by their leader who was directly insulted (played by Ken Gampu) and captured.

    The survivors are then brought to their attackers’ village, subjected to various tortures before death results. Only Wilde is offered a slim chance to live; stripped naked, he is given a running head start before being hunted down by a group of warriors for sport led by Gampu’s character. What’s expected to be a simple rundown and kill instead turns into a fevered chase as Wilde’s character proves quite formidable to his pursuers. One by one, warriors die as the frantic game of cat and mouse between Wilde and his pursuers grows increasingly tauter.

    One of The Naked Prey’s unique virtues, and that of Wilde’s directorial work, is its sheer literary simplicity in terms of plot and character. Names are set aside, motivations are left unexplained, and dialogue is virtually non-existent in many sequences. Wilde essentially strips away all sense of subtext in order to present the viewer with a purely visual and visceral experience. The widescreen camerawork fully displays the African savannah in both its beauty and harshness; the scenes shift between those concerned with the immediate action with views of animals surviving in their environments, much of it having to do with hunters and hunted struggling against one another which acts as a perfect if obvious metaphor for Man’s own predicament.

    With a noticeable lack of dialogue, the film’s sound design is balanced by a series of sound cues which are composed of rhythmic drum beats and other assorted African instruments which evokes the primal beat of nature itself, unwaveringly brutal but strong. Much of the film concerns Man himself shedding his conventional, European trappings and reinserting himself into the punishing natural world as he attempts to hunt down food and survive the various obstacles, i.e. weather, plant life, thirst, etc. that lie in his path besides those pesky killers constantly on his trail.

    Yet as their journey comes closer towards its inevitable end, a strange bond develops between Wilde and Gampu’s respective characters. Both men realize that they have transcended any and all artificial cultural differences and have become one in relation to bonding with the primacy of Nature. Both men understand what it means to be human after living both as and amongst the animals. A welcome addition to Criterion and a genuinely interested exercise into pure, uncluttered visual cinema.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Naked Prey
  • The Seventh Seal

    Review by Todd Konrad

    A stark contemplation of death and human existence, Ingmar Bergman's `The Seventh Seal' is an uncompromising drama that is spiritually and philosophically provocative for its time. Rereleased by Criterion, in a newly-remastered edition, the film perpetually holds its place in modern film history. In the Fourteenth Century Swedish knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), have returned to Sweden after ten years away at the Crusades to finally return home after enduring much struggle and bloodshed. Block handles the return with disquiet and melancholy as his experience has left the presence of God devoid in his life and is troubled by his silence as a symbol of existential meaninglessness. Jons, however is devoid of Block’s worry as he believes in living within the moment as it arrives and any thought of life beyond his daily needs to survive is superfluous at best. Soon after arriving on the Swedish coast, Death (Bengt Ekerot) literally is waiting for Block.

    On the verge of losing his life, Block strikes a bargain with Death, challenging him to a game of chess to be played as he and Jons continue their trip home. If Block wins, then he will be released from Death’s grasp and allowed to continue living. Ironically, while Block understands that his fate is inevitable no matter what, the game at least provides him a pretext to continue moving forward and distracts him from the desolation wrought upon the countryside by the Black Plague. In essence, his purpose has been renewed if for a short time; God may be silent but Death is all ears as it were. Von Sydow’s performance is a study in dignified stoicism that elicits the anguish of uncertainty he feels towards God and his seemingly meaningless existence while still pressing forward with life, despite its inevitable end. Bjornstrand’s fatalistic indifference though is a perfect counterbalance for Von Sydow, while Block ruminates Jons simply is, nothing more or less. His final speech though is deeply moving despite his previous disinterest and provides greater depth to a man who seemingly had none.

    However, despite the main focus on Block and Jons, the film also follows a pair of traveling players attempting to survive the Plague with their young son, whom they soon come into contact with the knight and his grim associates. They are not the most sophisticated of people, however, their innocence and good nature does provide Block with a sense of warmth and hope, if not for himself then at least for their survival. Seen now years later, it’s hard not to think of the amount of parody The Seventh Seal has inspired, notably from Woody Allen in Love and Death. So much of the film’s iconography has become overexposed that it can be hard to take seriously in our time now. But, Bergman and his cast’s conviction in both the story and the themes it explores carries one through the melodrama and still contains enough power to make this one of the more important foreign films of the last fifty years.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Seventh Seal
  • The Small Back Room

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad.

    Revered British filmmaking Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (better known as The Archers after their production company) have been Criterion Collection stalwarts for years with classics of theirs like The Red Shoes, The Thief of Baghdad, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp holding esteemed positions in the catalog. Keeping up the tradition, Criterion now adds The Small Back Room to its Archer collection. Made after the lavish Technicolor triumph that is The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room is a sharp one eighty in almost every aspect and thrillingly so. Set during the tumult of World War II, the film follows the life and work of British bomb-disposal expert and scientist Sammy Rice (David Farrar).

    Rice and his co-workers assist the British war effort in London by working for a shadowy government research office dedicated to creating new weapons for the military. Because of his acute expertise on explosives, he is sought out by one Captain Stuart (Michael Gough long before becoming Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman series) to investigate a new German bomb being deployed on the home front against the citizenry. In addition to solving the puzzle of this new weapon’s design, Sammy is also involved in the R&D efforts for a new artillery cannon being pushed upon the military brass by his superiors despite design flaws both he and a top Army officer have noted. And on top of all that, there is Susan (Kathleen Byron).

    The office secretary to his boss (played by an irresistibly oily Jack Hawkins), Susan is Sammy’s neighbor, friend, lover, and rock. Undoubtedly bold for its frank depiction of unmarried lovers struggling to stay together, The Small Back Room is a mish-mash of genres from romantic drama, political thriller, psychological character study, as well as a straight ahead war picture with visual touches of film noir. It is decidedly non-fantastical as Powell and Pressburger’s other films were despite the expressionistic visual tone that occupies much of Sammy’s inner sanctum. Missing a foot (although never explained it is hinted at being lost via past combat) and a compulsive alcoholic, Sammy’s daily struggle is to keep his head above water and try to live as an honest man in an increasingly hypocritical world.

    The political backroom machinations undertaken by his boss and other government officials seeking higher position are as incisive today as anything seen on the now-concluded (but never forgotten) series The Wire. Back then as now, politicians are willing to do whatever is necessary and politically expedient to achieve their ends, morality for them is just a word not a concept whereas Sammy lives the other way around. So in this respect the film is deceptively anti-establishment while still maintaining a entertainment façade that provides another layer of subtext to everything else unfolding on-screen.

    In addition to his professional tribulations, not to mention trying to figure out the mystery of the new bomb (which leads to an excruciatingly tense sequence when our man is forced to disarm one of them), Sammy constantly struggles with his self-worth in regards to Susan. She is the best thing to have happened to him and he knows it but can’t bear to ruin her life with his endless doubt and depression. As Susan, Byron turns in an equally steely performance as a woman living both in despair and love; she adores Sammy and only wants him to reach the potential she and everyone else sees within him but he refuses to recognize. Byron is charming, resourceful, and undeniably strong as perhaps the only person able to call out Sammy on his bullshit and still love him without condition.

    The pleasure derived from watching The Small Back Room arises from the Archers ability to devote an entire picture to the inner struggle of one man’s psyche, both from external influence (his profession and the pitfalls it entails) and internal (alcoholism, crippling self-esteem issues, depression) and watch to see if he can come out of it somehow on top or allow the abyss to swallow him whole. It’s a fascinating little gem that deserves an equal rank with Powell and Pressburger’s other masterpieces and thanks to Criterion it has that opportunity now.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Small Back Room
  • The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

    When it comes to spies, James Bond has come to be defined as our cinematic favorite. With plenty of amazing adventures throughout the decades, the image of a spy being a dashing adventurer, capable of killing the bad guys and sleeping with the sexy women in distress, is one that has remained relatively firm despite real-life evidence to the contrary. I mention Bond specifically as another British spy fiction writer besides Ian Fleming has made an equally compelling, if not as commercially popular, contribution to our understanding of modern espionage. His name of course is John Le Carre, and perhaps his single-best known novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, was adapted into a chilling, all too real, classic by director Martin Ritt.

    As West Berlin’s man, Leamas is all too acquainted with his enemy’s tactics and begins feeling weighted down by his constant counterintelligence efforts. Understanding that the key to really crack the other side from an espionage standpoint is to remove East German Intelligence Chief Mundt, Leamas’ superior Control (Cyril Cusack) fashions a risky gambit for his agent. He tasks Leamas with infiltrating East German intelligence as a defector in order to get close to Mundt and discredit him.

    Leamas wearily obliges as the years of lying and mistrust have broken him down morally, all that’s left for him is his drink and the comfort that death will probably come sooner rather than later. As the plan is set into motion, Leamas is passed along from spy to spy getting ever closer to his target. Le Carre himself notes in one of the set’s special features that this process is perhaps the film’s most realistic portrayal. The chain of innuendos leading to secret meetings which lead to ever higher personnel is portrayed in as mundane a fashion as possible.

    Eventually, Leamas is brought into contact with Fiedler (Oskar Werner) a top enemy agent who has his own suspicions about Mundt himself and is happy to oblige Leamas in exchange for information. Only when the pieces finally fall into place does Alec realize his true role in Control’s plan by which time it is impossible to reverse the consequences. Directed by Martin Ritt, well-known for his socially relevant dramas, the film’s thematic ambiguity is captured in wonderfully textured shades of gray, lending starkness to the proceedings that obviously play off of the exuberant colors and playfulness of James Bond films.

    Offscreen tension between Burton and Bloom must have existed as the pair had been involved in a well-publicized affair before Burton married his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor. In addition, friction between Ritt and Burton escalated as the director was keen to deny his lead’s characteristic flamboyance. The result is one of the actor’s best performances as the weariness and years of drinking is fully displayed on that tired face while keeping the character’s pent up rage barely under the surface, always hinting at it but rarely letting it burst.

    With Leamas being Irish and Fiedler a Jew, both men understand that their racial and class backgrounds automatically set them apart as lowly outsiders in their profession. While Control embodies the Cambridge, upper crust manner of Kim Philby-era spies, Mundt embodies the Aryan, blonde haired, blue eyed haughtiness befitting a former Nazi (as is discussed by Leamas with Fiedler). Together, both men realize that with this mission they have an opportunity to transgress those divisions and contribute in a manner equal to that of their superiors. By the end, Leamas is left broken and betrayed; by doing his duty he has destroyed himself. Quite the opposite of Ian Fleming’s man I must say.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
  • The Thief of Baghdad

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad Released a year after The Wizard of Oz as Technicolor and other color film formats first hit the viewing public, Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad perfectly captures the newfound freedom of expression color brought and the willingness to push this new possibility to its furthest level at the time. In its own time, The Thief of Baghdad was a technical marvel as special effects began to improve allowing such feats as a flying horse and a giant genie to exist and interact freely with the human characters in a relatively seamless fashion while maintaining a sweet, whimsical air that still holds up well today.

    Available on DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection’s new two-disc set, the film now has an opportunity to further spread its reputation by reaching new throngs of fans, both children and hopefully adults as well. The story itself is as simple as any robust, fairy tale should be. In the distant past, Prince Ahmad (John Justin) ruler of all Baghdad realized that despite his position in life he was essentially cut off from the very people he held dominion over. Seeking to bridge this disconnection, he is advised by his Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) to travel at night into the city’s streets and walk amongst the people in disguise.

    However, Jaffar’s intentions are far more sinister as he seizes upon the opportunity to capture the prince during this excursion and declare himself ruler of all Baghdad. Stuck in imprisonment, Ahmad meets the young, scrappy thief Abu (Sabu) and together the pair escape and fight to restore Ahmad’s place on the throne. Along the way, they are subjected to Jaffar’s dark machinations, encounters with mythical beings and forces, and love in the form of a beautiful princess (June Duprez). Technically speaking, the film is a genuine feast for the eyes due to production designer Vincent Korda’s sets. Within Baghdad’s bazaar itself a barrage of color and movement overwhelms the viewer with bright, clashing shades abounding both in costumes and scenery while displaying citizens involved with local trade, cooking foods, etc. all designed to impress the viewer a sense of exoticism that has generally (if not entirely always correctly) been associated with the East.

    And yet mixed in with these dense thickets of movement and local flavor, the film also works the classic studio era use of soundstages also as palaces are rendered in full, mock reality both appearing authentic to the characters themselves but radiating their true artificiality to the viewers themselves not unlike most theater. And yet despite the extensive special effects wizardry that the film exhibits, a major factor in its longevity lies within its performances; the chief standouts being Sabu’s and Veidt’s roles.

    While Justin and Duprez convincingly portray their feelings for each other in classic Hollywood melodramatic style, Sabu and Veidt imbue their characters with more involving subtext that not only grounds their work but allows it to be far more relatable. As Abu, Sabu plays the classic diamond in the rough; bringing to bear his acute athleticism, his introduction to the audience while being chased through the streets of Baghdad quickly illustrates first his keen wit which proves invaluable throughout the story as well as his agility which matches the action as well as representing his youthful energy and resilience. On the other end of the continuum, Veidt’s Jaffar undoubtedly provided a blueprint for future villains of this sort not to mention Disney’s own animated Jaffar to battle Aladdin and Robin Williams er Genie. Equal parts of cool, Machiavellian cunning and seething sexual tension, Jaffar is the ultimate opportunist who throughout the tale never ceases to exploit any and all openings for his own success.

    Yet it is Veidt’s creepy seductiveness that lends the performance its deepest weight; behind those eyes hidden within black robes is a fiery passion and desire to be satisfied and in control. It is a piercing gaze that magnetically draws both the characters and viewer in, fully knowing the treachery that lies in wait. While Sabu and Justin’s performances may be aimed at wide-eyed innocents, Veidt’s Jaffar is strictly for the adults. All in all, this beloved classic still holds up despite the advances in special effects technology because of its hand-made look and the innocent, insouciant energy of both its performers and story. An unmitigated classic finally receiving the royal treatment.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Thief of Baghdad
  • The Third Man

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Already an established classic and cineaste favorite, Carol Reed’s film The Third Man is treated to a meticulous re-release from the Criterion Collection. This new reissue is complete with a new digital transfer, additional documentaries about the film’s production and legacy, the original Graham Greene treatment, etc. Yet as with any film’s re-release, the extra features don’t mean a thing unless the movie itself can deliver the goods to the viewer. Thankfully, The Third Man continues to deliver since its release in 1949 and still shows no significant signs of irrelevance.

    The Third Man begins with an unidentified narrator musing over the remains of Vienna after the World War II. He discusses how the city has been divided into four sectors, each one governed by a separate Allied power, with the city’s center policed by an international force representative of each group. We see what remains of the city, breathtaking landmarks marked by bombings and detritus. The narrator sentimentally reminisces about the bustling black market trade that existed after war’s end when supplies were scarce and how men like Harry Lime and Holly Martins were caught up in such dirty business. We then meet Holly Martins himself (Joseph Cotton), a broke, pulp Western novelist down to his last nickel and dime. Martins came to Vienna at the behest of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who promised him work and opportunity. Expecting to see his friend, Martins searches around until he learns that apparently Harry was recently killed in an auto accident.

    Distraught and practically stranded, Martins is despondent until he meets one Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), a British military policeman who it turns out was hunting after Harry for some reason or another. From that point forward, Holly meets Harry’s old accomplices including Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s former girlfriend who still carries a rather bright torch for the man despite his absence. Reed and writer Graham Greene only heap more misfortune upon Holly as he inevitably falls in love with this alluring woman, yet fails to acknowledge her romantic disinterest in him. As Martins begins to dig into the circumstances of Harry’s death, he soon learns that all is not as it appears to be. He not only thinks his friends’ death wasn’t an accident but cold-blooded murder, digging with the ferocity of a dime store detective. And yet once again the rug is pulled out beneath both Holly and the audience as we indeed learn Harry’s true fate in one of the most famous scene reveals in movie history.

    Faced with deception, both committed against and by him, Holly is forced to choose between friendship and what is right. Culminating in a heart-pounding chase through the Viennese sewers, The Third Man contains of plethora of styles and emotion running the gambit from film noir to romantic melodrama to light comedy. While many have falsely contributed the film’s success largely to Welles’ influence, it is fair to say that The Third Man, much like Chinatown, succeeds because everyone involved was on top of their game from the top down. Carol Reed as director exhibits nothing but confidence in his shot choices, able to bring sprightly energy to chase sequences through well-placed cuts and shots while also able to settle down and allow subtle melodramatic dynamics to come through, especially in the exchanges between Holly and Anna, which are heartbreaking in their pathos. Next to Reed is Graham Greene’s screenplay which effectively communicates the sense of moral ambiguity lurking within the ruined city, an ambiguity that each character engages in. No one in The Third Man comes across as either squeaky clean or pure malevolence, everyone exists within a spectrum of gray and that is largely due to Greene’s own sensibilities.

    After them, special word is required of Robert Krasker’s chiaroscuro lighting scheme. He perfectly captures the shadowy moral atmosphere by expressively casting the bombed out ruins in tightly focused, expressive shards of light. One can almost touch the wet, stone roads the characters walk, that’s how specific Krasker’s lighting scheme is along with Reed’s decision to use a variety of tilted angles which jars the image and places the viewer off balance, symbolically reflecting the same predicament the characters find themselves within.

    Last but certainly not least are the performances themselves. With Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, you have the wide-eyed American innocent who is tainted though by doubt; he acts as the audience’s surrogate as he is tossed from character to character, each more deceitful than the next while constantly battling his own conscience as the truth gradually reveals itself. Alida Valli was a young starlet when she made this film, as Anna she easily seduces one with her striking looks and somewhat aloof manner, yet beneath her steely veneer lay a woman emotionally tormented by her love of the wrong man and her complete commitment to him. Holly’s own futile infatuation for her only adds further grist to the mill and reminds him of how strong his friend Harry’s hold really is.

    The only man able to resist Lime’s charm though is the very person bent on bringing him down as Trevor Howard portrays Major Calloway with dogged determination to get his man. He is someone all too willing to make a deal with the devil to get his man, and that same determination only perpetrates the tragic finale. And then you have Orson Welles himself as Harry Lime; listed as one of the AFI’s top 100 movie villains, Welles commands the least amount of screen time in the film yet his presence is undeniable from the first few frames to the very end.

    Blessed with a part akin to Michael Madsen’s star turn as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, Welles’s entrance is one of the best in film history because he literally has to do nothing to establish himself before the audience. With practically every character talking about him before his arrival, all the man needs to do is show his face and shut up which he does with typical Wellesian panache. After that, he only has a classic scene with Cotton in a Ferris wheel car during which he lays down his famous cuckoo clock speech and finally the chase through the sewers. The film’s crowning jewel scene-wise indeed is the scene between himself and Cotton. In the zone, Welles portrays Lime as a supremely confident, amoral rogue; a man who is willing and able to charm anyone as long as they serve his purpose while smugly ignoring the consequences around him. There are few cinematic portraits of complete cynicism and moral decay that can match what Harry Lime portrays in that scene.

    In the end, the parts become greater than the whole and one is left with one of the twentieth century’s best films all hyperbole aside. While some may question the idea of a reissue, it is of little consequence as long as the movie still delivers. To this day, the film is still screened theatrically in Vienna and with the city as yet another central character besides its other obvious strengths it isn’t hard to imagine why.

    For more information on this title, to go www.criterion.com.
    The Third Man
  • The Threepenny Opera

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Following on the heels of their recent release of G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the Criterion Collection now adds Pabst’s screen adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s stage sensation The Threepenny Opera. Adapted and refitted from John Gay’s original play The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera stands as a classic critique of capitalism, greed and morality The screen version’s plot adheres pretty closely to the original tale as crafted and adjusted by Brecht and Weill. And as with Pandora’s Box, Criterion has restored the film with a new high-definition transfer that removes practically all scratches and pops which allows the visuals to present themselves with crystal clarity.

    Set within the seedier environs of Victorian England, the musical’s antihero is Mackie Messer (originally referred to as Macheath), a vicious, amoral thief and killer with a proclivity to use knives in his work. His character is the basis for the classic Bobby Darin hit “Mack the Knife”. In the tale though, Mackie schemes to be with Polly Peachum, the daughter of Peachum who controls the beggars and thieves within the city. Disgusted by Mackie’s actions, Peachum schemes to destroy this vile man and forces Mackie to execute his own machinations whilst on the run from the corrupt authorities and parties out to destroy him.

    Adapted from the Brecht/Weill play that had been an absolute phenomenon when first produced, Pabst wonderfully executes his vision of a morally corrupt world that allows such characters like Mackie and Peachum to thrive in it virtually unopposed. His expressive black and white photography exudes dread and mystery while the fairly realistic production design evokes a world that is physically run down and perfectly conforms to the moral decay the characters are caught up within. Rudolf Forster’s portrait of Mackie seamlessly evokes the sinister charm and underlying malevolence that that character symbolizes. Ready to cut your throat as he is to tip his hat to you, Mackie is a monster that would perfectly fit in today’s world cutthroat business. He is the center of a world that prizes style over substance, the very reason he can get away with the crimes he does is due to his dapper manner.

    All that plus a bevy of great tunes to top it all off. What’s more, this new edition includes not only the famed German version that Pabst directed but also a French-language version that he directed as well so one literally ends up with two for the price of one. In addition, this new edition features the standard audio commentary (provided this time around by scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler) as well as a new documentary that chronicles Threepenny’s transition from the stage play to cinematic adaptation. Unsurprisingly with personalities as tempestuous as Brecht, controversy and lawsuits were leveled against many of the principals involved. However, despite all the troubles and flared tempers, the final result is still a pretty solid adaptation of this well-respected work and now thanks to Criterion is able to be properly presented to new legions of both theater and film buffs for their enjoyment.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Threepenny Opera
  • The Two of Us

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    French director Claude Berri is most well-known for his two companion films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Yet his career reaches far back into the realm of the French New Wave as evidenced by his 1967 debut feature The Two of Us. Newly released by the Criterion Collection, The Two of Us is a poignant study of survival and friendship in World War II France. The film also provides insight into Berri’s own past as he himself was the story’s inspiration. As a child, Berri himself lived in the French countryside hiding his Jewish heritage in order to survive until the war ended. Twenty years after his ordeal, the heart of that experience became the seeds of his film, creating in the process a debut on par with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

    The story unfolds within Nazi-occupied Paris nearing the end of the war. Claude Langmann (Alain Cohen) is an eight-year old Jewish boy living with his parents in the city. In the very beginning after running into some mischief which forces the family to move, he is asked whether or not he realizes what is going on in the world they live in. Without revealing it to his family, Claude lets the audience know that indeed he is aware of the war going on around them; he simply chooses not to acknowledge it. As it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a low profile especially due to Claude’s mischief-making which consistently threatens their survival, Claude’s parents decide to send him away to live in the countryside until the country is liberated and they can be reunited. He is sent to live with a friend’s parents, an old couple affectionately referred to as Grampa (Michel Simon) and Grandpa (Lucie Fabiole).

    However, before he leaves, Claude is instructed to act as a Christian within his new environment. He is given a new last name and instructed the Lord’s Prayer to further cover the ruse. When he reaches the quiet countryside, he takes to his new caretakers immediately. Grandma is a warm, affectionate woman and Grampa is a kid at heart, playful and rambunctious. However, Claude also learns of Grampa’s anti-Semitism and support of the collaborating Vichy government. With a portrait of Marshall Petain proudly hung on his family room wall, Grampa’s position is clearly established and he is certain not to back down from his opinion. Simon creates a fully three-dimensional portrait of Grampa as a man who easily spouts off vicious and insulting remarks about Jews and government enemies yet displays genuine tenderness, at first towards his rabbits which he begs the boy not to eat out of respect and eventually for the lad himself as their bond grows tighter.

    The film clocks in at a brisk eighty-seven minutes with the majority of that time focused on Claude and Grampa themselves. In a startling debut performance, Alain Cohen is able to embody Claude’s innocence with pinpoint precision. The key to his performance is simply being a young boy, there is no overwrought effort or wooden affectations in what he does. Claude isn’t good or bad, he’s simply a young kid and by simply doing what comes natural to a young boy, Cohen succeeds wonderfully in his role.

    The relationship that develops between the two main characters is wonderful to observe as it unfolds due to its relaxed, genuinely warm dynamic. You never feel as though you are watching two actors pretending to care about each other; the way they walk, talk, and hug each other is entirely natural if not honestly felt by the two individuals themselves. When the war finally does come to an end and Claude is retrieved by his parents it makes the separation all the more poignant. Yet one does not feel cheated by the film whatsoever. With his feature debut, Berri crafted an honest, complex, but ultimately hopeful film about survival and love in the face of hardship. A brilliant little gem waiting to be rediscovered.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    The Two of Us
  • This Sporting Life

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For many young moviegoers, Richard Harris holds a special place in their hearts as beloved Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. While this enchanting and gentle role is executed with delicacy, Harris’ own career first soared playing a man as far from Dumbledore as the sun is from the moon. Directed by British legend Lindsay Anderson in his own feature debut after an extensive documentary career, Harris is a marvel of brute ferocity in This Sporting Life.

    Harris plays Frank Machin, whom we first meet on a desolate, muddy rugby field in Yorkshire; a talented player for the local team, we watch Frank and his teammates scrap and battle before finally having his front teeth knocked out by an opposing player. Anderson films the action tight, allowing every grunt and hit to register defiantly; the game’s sheer physicality is powerfully visceral and works upon the senses well. After the game, Frank is taken by the team’s handlers to have his teeth fixed before attending a holiday after-party. In between these scenes, Anderson uses a series of flashbacks to layout Frank’s previous life and how he came to be in his current position and fame. We watch him slag away in a Yorkshire coal mine, digging away at the rock walls covered in dirt. While the team is drinking at a local pub, Frank is also in attendance and has a brief altercation with a pompous player. After hustling himself into a team tryout with gritty determination, he wins a place on the team and very quickly becomes accustomed to both the money and sudden adulation his newfound celebrity affords him.

    However, the one person whom he desperately seeks to impress the most will have none of it. A widow and Frank’s landlord, Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) spends her time in a complicated game of cat and mouse with Frank; aware of his affections towards her but bearing a torch for her dead husband she is constantly forced to maintain a face of respectful civility while being tormented by Frank either through his hamfisted wooing or being lashed out at as she turns him down time and again. Roberts is a perfect foil to Harris’ dominating, physical performance; quietly resolute and conflicted, she allows the pain and confusion she feels to register on a young faced too quickly aged by personal tragedy. Hammond is the needle to Frank’s fragile bubble and he knows that not only does his fame and money not impress her but that her disinterest illuminates how false and fleeting those luxuries are in the long term. Not only does Mrs. Hammond’s emotional barrier begin to finally break Frank down spiritually but he also realizes that his climb up the ladder is regarded as more of a fluke than accomplishment and that at any point he can and most likely will be sent back to where he came from.

    Alienated from the world, Frank barrels forward through life; destroying everything and everyone around him because he is unable to stop himself from doing so until it is too late. Apart of the ‘kitchen sink’ school of British cinema, This Sporting Life is a fine addition to such British modern classics as Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, etc. All of them were pivotal in examining as well as criticizing the staid class system that had dominated Britain while glorifying the working class’ struggle for acceptance and success. While the subject matter is undeniably rooted in gritty realism, courtesy of David Storey’s original novel, Lindsay Anderson elevates it to a different level through his artful composition and complex flashback structure.

    By investigating his past and painfully observing his present, Anderson forces the viewer to not only identify with Frank but observe the seeds of what will no doubt be a painful future which he has no chance of escaping. Harris himself is a marvel to behold and his performance could easily be counted as the best of the ‘young angry men’ that dominated British cinema both in his gritty, working-class demeanor as well as the obsessive ambition and emotional conflict that defined that generation culturally.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    This Sporting Life
  • Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara box set

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Further adding to their impressive list of box sets, the Criterion Collection now adds the acclaimed yet oddly forgotten works of Japanese maverick Hiroshi Teshigara with a new box set. Highlighting the fruitful artistic collaboration with acclaimed Japanese novelist Kobo Abe and revered composer Toru Takemitsu, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara contains the director’s first three features which caused a seismic shift in postwar Japanese cinema with its open embrace of Western influences merged with Japanese traditional arts that was the core of the country’s avant-garde scene. Containing the director’s short films as well as an informative documentary among its special features, the box set presents three films that together form a thematic triptych devoted to investigating personal identity and alienation in the modern world.

    The set’s first film is Pitfall, a strange mixture of disparate film genres from ghost story, social realism, police procedural, to capitalist critique. Adapted from Kobo Abe’s stage play, the plot involves a migrant coal miner and his son, on the run from their previous employer in order to find whatever freelance work available. While moving from one desolate landscape to the next, his son notices that they are being followed by a mysterious man in a white suit. As their journey continues through an abandoned mining town, devoid of all life with the exception of one female shopkeeper, the stranger attacks the miner killing him in the process. Released from his body, the miner’s spirit materializes observing everything around him while not realizing why he was killed. Trapped in limbo with other unfortunate souls, he seeks to find out why he was killed.

    Meanwhile, events switch gears as police and local reporters investigate a possible connection between the murder and a miner’s union dispute with one of the leaders bearing an uncanny resemblance to the unfortunate victim. As characters’ fates begin to intertwine, one is left with a surreal and poignant look into social alienation as well as a look into the moral corruption imbued within industry. Mixing documentary footage with carefully constructed production design and camera work, Teshigahara’s feature debut eschews any sense of cinematic stoicism that had been apart of Japanese film before. Instead, he favors a bold, complex style that reflects his own cultivated aesthetics and non-traditional influences like Western surrealism.

    The second film included is widely considered to be Teshigahara’s masterpiece, Woman In The Dunes, again adapted from Kobo Abe’s own successful novel. Garnering an Academy Award nomination for its director, the plot follows a young entomologist who has traveled to a remote desert area outside of Tokyo to seek out and classify a previously unknown species of sand beetle. Collecting specimens and enjoying the momentary isolation from city life, he muses about the various forms and identifications imposed upon every individual in society and how those materials are often seen as the only valid form of identity in our modern world. After chatting with some local villagers who inform him of missing the last bus back to the city, he is offered shelter and rest at a local widow’s home which is located in the bottom of a deep sand dune.

    Enjoying the woman’s hospitality as well as her naïve outlook on life, he nonetheless wakes up in the morning to discover that the ladder used to lower him into the dune has been removed. With no other way available to climb the steep walls, he is effectively trapped with the woman in the dune. He soon discovers that he was lured to her home in order to provide her help in clearing away the sand that collects in and around her home. Without doing this seemingly endless task, the sand’s weight will destroy the home and kill the pair. Furious and despondent towards his imprisonment, the young man plots and schemes to escape from the dune at first.

    However, as time passes, all of his former preoccupations begin to strip away as his socially imposed and regulated identity dissolves in favor of a more simplistic, honest yet brutal way of life. He also grows increasingly attracted to his female companion, falling for her earthy sensuality and spirit. Other than the two main characters, the film’s unspoken yet vital third lead is the sand itself which Teshigahara films with acute detail. Appearing both solidly imposing at times only to give way to quicksilver, liquid flows the sand is constantly shifting which imbues it with an organic sense of movement and energy that is surreal and beautiful to observe.

    The final film in the set is The Face of Another, once again based on a Kobo Abe novel. This time around, the plot involves Okuyama, a badly burned and disfigured engineer (played by Japanese legend Tatsuya Nakadai) who takes part in a radical experiment conceived of by his psychiatrist. The engineer agrees to a face transplant procedure that is perfected by his psychiatrist, allowing him to shed the ominous white, bandaged mask that he is confined to wearing and rejoin society as a functional participant. However, instead of precipitating a redeveloped bond with society, Okuyama instead grows increasing alienated from everyone around him as he discovers and acts on the darker impulses that his newfound freedom with the mask allows him to indulge in.

    As the mask’s influence grows stronger, Okuyama questions his own sense of identity as well as his place within a world where he no longer truly exists. A philosophical sci-fi thriller, The Face of Another did not fare nearly as well with critics and audiences upon its release; however, Teshigahara faced the fate that many artists have when presenting the public with a new work after a phenomenal success: anything else afterwards inevitably pales in comparison. Yet while not as fully coherent as Woman In The Dunes, the film is certainly an improvement upon Pitfall and further explores the same themes of alienation and identity that the previous two entries touched upon with great visual design and a plethora of philosophical questions to mull over.

    Taken all together, the three films feel more like chapters of the same master work with strong thematic threads running throughout which creates a unifying consistency that is akin to Eric Rohmer’s own filmic series (i.e. Six Moral Tales). These three films also illustrate the deep artistic synergy that director, screenwriter, and composer exhibited as without the enormous contributions of each one in the final product, none of the films would work stylistically or thematically. Essentially highlighting the cream of Japan’s artistic avant-garde after the American occupation, Teshigahara’s films showed a changing of the guard in which Kafka, surrealism, and modernism had become absorbed into the Japanese aesthetic and produced works that were unlike anything before and no doubt exerted considerable influence afterwards.

    While aging perhaps in terms of production design and other technical elements that are inevitably open to wear through time, the ideas and risks taken in these films still possess vitality and pose questions that have yet to find definitive answers. Another solid collection offered up by Criterion that no doubt will further consolidate Teshigahara’s position in post-war Japanese cinema and allow new, curious viewers to check out films that stunned and shocked audiences upon their initial release.

    For information on this set, go to www.criterion.com.
    Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara box set
  • Trafic

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For decades now, French filmmaker Jacques Tati has been chalked up by many as simply a French Buster Keaton; while the somewhat deadpan delivery of Tati’s signature character Mr. Hulot (played by the director himself) as well as the bevy of meticulous timed and executed visual gags are somewhat akin to Keaton’s own inimitable style, it would be false to label the Frenchman a mere copy of the inimitable American. Continuing to add to their library of Tati films (which is a small number to begin with), Criterion now adds Tati’s second to last project, Trafic, to a collection that includes M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and Playtime.

    In order to genuinely appreciate Trafic for what it is, viewing of those three previous titles is paramount. Throughout the course of those three charming works, we are introduced to and follow Tati’s alter ego, Mr. Hulot. A tall, reed thin man who never travels without his pipe, tan raincoat and pointy hat, Hulot comes to represent the old world charm of Europe before World War II. Meant to signify a gentler, more pastoral existernce, Hulot trots around with his signature bent, loping stride observing the world around him as it changes from agricultural to fiercely modern and technological. Starting with Mon Oncle and continuing through Playtime and Trafic, Hulot is further pushed into the background of proceedings as his films point out the filmmaker’s distrust of technology and musing on the ways and customs stamped out in the so-called name of progress.

    By the time we meet Hulot again in Trafic, he appears to have come to grips with the cultural paradigm shift by working as a designer at an auto factory. With a huge, international automobile convention looming in the wings, Hulot’s company is preparing to showcase its newest camping model. Along with a fashion-forward public relations representative (Maria Kimberly), Hulot personally accompanies the car on its trek to Amsterdam as one calamity after another besets them and further puts them behind schedule for the show. Essentially a road film, Tati uses the opportunity to turn his eye towards automobiles as the latest sector of technology to be skewered in his work. The satire reaches its highest level (if not most successful) at the auto show itself as manufacturers from all over showcase their latest models and works, speaking to the blind fascination people feel towards these machines.

    On a more charming note, the largest amount of sight gags come in when Hulot and company are held by Customs with the car during which time they show the plethora of special features designed to make this the perfect camping vehicle. From a pop-out tent to detachable taillights for flashlight usage, to a car horn that doubles for an electric shaver, the car itself speaks to the silliness much modern technology is shaped in while still delivering charm in such a way that you laugh at it both satirically and good-naturedly. Along the way the pr agent learns to loosen up after attempting to embody the modern, chic businesswoman, with a costume change for every occasion.

    In the end though, one watches Trafic because he or she simply wishes to see an old friend in Hulot. Indeed that is the pleasure in watching Tati’s films, gaining a familiarity with the man and character such that the longer you watch them the more they become like home movies. Not obvious hits or ground-shaking cinematic statements, but light confections that always deliver the right tone overall despite the cold undercurrents that run through the later work. Indeed, all Tati fans will be running to grab this new copy of Trafic and for the uninitiated, should provide at least an excuse to go back and check out all the other Hulot titles as well as this one for some good natured fun.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Trafic
  • Two-Lane Blacktop

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    On paper, the setup sounds insane. Singer-songwriter legend James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, and Peckinpah muse Warren Oates all together in a road movie, driving across country in a race for their cars. Yet this potent mix came together in Monte Hellman’s existential classic Two-Lane Blacktop now available from Criterion in a new two-disc special edition. Hellman is a director that came out of the late 60’s boom in youth film that also spawned films like Easy Rider. Known for the pared-down productions with existential underpinnings in his best work, Hellman has always been more of a critical darling than above-ground hit. But the admirations of not only film critics but also modern directors like Quentin Tarantino secured Hellman’s position on cinema history, and films like Two-Lane Blacktop have a lot to do with that.

    It’s the early 1970s and blazing across the Southwest from East LA are two young men and the machine they devote their lives and destinies to. The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are two-man operations who run a souped-up ’55 Chevy from drag race to drag race, all the while earning money to constantly stay in forward motion. After one such race in the film’s beginning, they come across a young Girl (Laurie Bird), stranded by her hippie associates, who decides to tagalong with the pair in the Chevy’s back seat. As they continue wandering along the highways, they encounter a middle-aged enthusiast like themselves, GTO (Warren Oates), who drives along in the aforementioned vehicle impressing hitchhikers he picks up in his travels.

    Constantly running into one another, GTO finally loses his cool and challenges his counterparts to a race. The setup: the first car to reach Washington D.C. first takes possession of both cars’ pink slips, thus taking complete ownership of both vehicles. That’s about the height of obvious dramatic tension in this unique if at times exasperating film. Yet the film’s beauty arises not out of catering to audience expectations but willfully denying them in favor of expressing abstract thoughts via visceral imagery. If one were to boil the film’s essence down to a single idea, the oft-repeated line “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” is appropriate, even more so as the song it hails from “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson becomes an unofficial anthem for the story.

    Indeed the Driver and Mechanic are urban nomads, modern cowboys constantly moving away from all notions of conformity and social rule by staying on the road. However, both men choose to focus their attention and purpose on the Chevy itself. That vehicle becomes the catalyst for self-improvement and ascension, both Mechanic and Driver consistently tweak and discuss the car’s performance and potential; as they do so, they continue working towards reaching their own inner potential as human beings. The carefully balanced trinity of Machine, Mechanic, and Driver though is quickly thrown into a state of flux with the Girl’s arrival.

    Symbolizing the Other in every imaginable fashion, she attempts to constantly understand and impose her will on the two men she rides with. She represents modern society both in its pursuit of control but also in the promise of happiness as well, as she engages in romantic liaisons with both men. The struggle thematically escalates into a battle between self-realized destiny and outwardly-imposed control.

    Acting as mirror, GTO is a sad wanderer; devoid of purpose yet seeking to always impress he is a man who leaves everything behind when his old life crumbles down in pursuit of youth itself. It is the quiet desperation of a man realizing his own increasingly fragile mortality and struggling to cling onto any shred of vitality available so as to always remember the energy of youthful possibility. As both cars continue their dogged race, any acrimony between them subsides for the race really isn’t between these men but with themselves. That ultimately is what Two-Lane Blacktop is about, the freedom of individuals to willfully create their own destinies despite any hardships such a decision can and does create. A great road movie and philosophy lesson all in one.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Two-Lane Blacktop
  • Under the Volcano

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Perfectly capturing the Hemingway-esque tone of his best films, John Huston fashioned a late masterpiece out of Malcom Lowry’s minor classic novel, Under the Volcano. Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection in a new two-disc edition, complete with the standard bonus documentaries, interviews, commentaries, etc., Under the Volcano stands as one of Huston’s final films anchored by Albert Finney’s thunderous performance. Followed only by Prizzi’s Honor and his last film, the James Joyce-adaptation The Dead, Huston returned to form after years of mostly mediocre projects with this dark elegy.

    The film essentially unfolds as a character study of a drunk staggering through the last day of his life. Albert Finney plays Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul stationed in Mexico within a small, rural village. When we first meet Geoffrey, he is staggering along the village’s dirt streets amidst the Day of the Dead celebration. A soiled tuxedo hang off of him and hiding behind sunglasses, Geoffrey wanders, staring at the sugar skulls and sardonically observing the joy and happiness associated with death. Geoffrey’s life is willfully spiraling further into the bottle without any inkling of self-redemption. We learn that his beloved, younger wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has already left him at this point and all that remains is for the bottom to finally drop out from beneath him.

    However, fate mischievously steps in as Yvonne unexpectedly returns home to be with her broken husband. Better yet, Geoffrey’s younger, cavalier half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) returns as well to visit his brother’s disintegration. What makes both the story and these particular performances fascinating to watch is the purposeful restraint exhibited by Hugh and Yvonne. They know exactly what is going to happen to Geoffrey, however rather than attempting to dissuade him in some melodramatic fashion they stoically allow him to drink himself to death before their eyes.

    They understand, despite their own pain, that this is what Geoffrey wants and there is no sense in trying to save him now. So rather than visiting to save Geoffrey, his loved ones come instead to pay their last respects. Meanwhile, they are forced to endure Geoffrey’s drunken paranoia and derision; undertones of an illicit affair abound and everyone comes together not out of care but duty. Think of it as Leaving Las Vegas ahead of its time; it’s said that Nicolas Cage studied Albert Finney’s Oscar-nominated performance in Under the Volcano when preparing for his own turn as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas.

    Indeed, it is hard to imagine few other actors with the strength and skill to perform this grueling spiritual dissolution; tailor made for notorious drinkers like Peter O’Toole or Richard Burton, Finney believably slurs and stumbles his way through without overdoing it. The self-loathing and depression pours out from his acidic glares as the character hopes for change but sees only the light fading away at the end of the tunnel. Sublime without resorting to grandiosity, Finney imbues his character with that same sort of Hemingway-esque penchant for self-destruction that both the author and Huston himself found themselves locked into in real life.

    Huston exhibited unseen ambition in his later years by even tackling Lowry’s novel which had been deemed “unfilmable” by all those who attempted to adjust the fevered dreams and stream of consciousness strewn throughout the novel. While purists may scoff at Huston’s excising of this surreal material and instead shift the story into a more dramatically conventional direction, it does not diminish the discomfort of watching a man slowly kill himself before your own eyes. Huston even injects a sublime, ironic humor into the tale through his gleeful appropriation of the Day of the Dead and its iconography. We are left to witness a celebration and a wake simultaneously, a simple combination which ultimately provides the dramatic core of this entertaining yet heart-wrenching film.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Under the Volcano
  • Vampyr

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Carl Theodore Dreyer has been a frequent contributor to Criterion’s library, with The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Gertrud, etc. already holding a valued position. Now, they can add one of his genre excursions with one of the most beautiful and expressionistic horror films you will ever see in Vampyr. Produced in 1932 with a German-speaking cast working from a Sheridan Le Fanu novel, Vampyr follows a young paranormal enthusiast named Allan Grey who comes to stay at a small village one night while traveling. Upon his arrival, he begins noticing strange visions and apparitions that defy explanation.

    From shadows that seemingly have lives of their own to an old man wielding a giant scythe while tolling a bell, the entire area bodes an ominous energy that ensnares all that come upon it. Allan eventually makes his way to an old castle in the area where one of the owner’s two daughters is stricken by a mysterious disease sapping her of all life. Her father suspects that her illness is caused not by some rare virus but instead by a vampire that haunts the village and has seized upon her as its latest victim. Through chance and circumstance, it eventually falls upon Allan and the girl’s sister to get to the bottom of this mystery and ultimately save them all from the machinations of this vampire and its human minions.

    What makes Vampyr so intriguing to view is the sheer beauty and emotional weight that it carries rather than falling back on cheap theatrics which thankfully at this time hadn’t arisen yet in the horror genre. Vampyr, like Murnau’s Nosferatu, are genuinely terrifying works as both rely on heavy atmosphere to communicate an increasing sense of dread rather than shocking the viewer with flashes of blood and guts. The moody musical score employed and diffused lighting scheme work in concert to evoke a dream-like subtext but one of anxiety rather than joy. In addition, Dreyer’s camera work is so fluid that it forces the viewer, alongside Allan, to peer around every corner in anticipation of something malevolent lying in wait. It really is a joy to look back on films produced in both the silent era as well as early sound era as Vampyr was and realize the high level of execution and composition already displayed in what was still a very young art form.

    Yet Dreyer’s confidence in his camera work is unquestionable and the film works best when no dialogue is spoken at all, allowing the images to smoothly glide across the screen. One of the most eerily beautiful sequences comes when Allan investigates the local inn and in one smooth, tracking shot, a litany of shadows are projected onto a wall in various levels of revelry with joyous music playing and voices piping through the sound mix. The camera tracks along the way not unlike a Fellini dolly shot with the shadows staying in place and the camera itself providing the motion itself.

    Both the coordination between movement and image as well as the playfully creepy undertones of the shadows themselves is a wonder to observe and would work just as well in a modern horror film today if done right. In the end though, it’s not the story or acting that really elevates Vampyr (although neither are shabby by any means) but by Dreyer’s ability to use pure cinematic technique to communicate unfiltered emotion. In that sense, it is a welcome companion to his other works and another fine addition to Criterion’s ever-growing library.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Vampyr
  • Vengeance Is Mine

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In 2006, Japanese cinema lost one of its modern masters when Shohei Imamura passed away. Trained under Japanese legend Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura’s works came to embody the Japanese new wave in cinema along with his contemporaries like Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, etc. who chose to break away from the traditional approach favored by Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and others like them. With a career punctuated by equal attention to both fictional narratives as well as acclaimed documentaries, Imamura dug deep into the morally bankrupt, post World War II culture that Japan adopted in his eyes. In 1979, after nearly ten years of producing only documentaries, Imamura returned to the fictional narrative with one of his very best films, Vengeance Is Mine. Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection in a new, digitally restored transfer, Vengeance Is Mine is now available for fans of the late master’s work and clearly illustrates his precise, storytelling skill and ability to elicit engaging performances from his actors.

    Vengeance chronicles the real-life killing spree of one Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), who in late 1963 went on a 78-day run from the police precipitated by his remorseless slaughter of two Japanese deliverymen. By the end of his journey, Enokizu murdered five people in cold blood and swindled thousands from both victims of his various confidence schemes as well as those he murdered. The tale chronicles Enokizu’s journey in flashback form, not unlike Citizen Kane, where the flashbacks are governed by the main character’s psychological status rather than a strict temporal ordering of events. The story begins with Iwao’s capture by the police and his escort to the local jail where he is to confess his crimes and thus clarify the record of his journey.

    The story then shifts to the first murders Iwao, posing as a hitchhiker, catches a ride with two deliverymen and lures them to a secluded field where he slaughters both via hammer and knife. Imamura avoids any employ of shock techniques when photographing the killing itself, instead shooting the merciless bludgeoning and stabbing as objectively as possible in order to not dull the real horror that is occurring before our eyes. He then disposes of the bodies and sets out on the run to destinations unknown, leaving the viewer with no understanding in regards to either his actions or intentions. Clues begin to emerge however as to how this seemingly normal, intelligent man could go over the edge in such a manner.

    The story then cuts back to Iwao’s childhood, when as a young child, his family was forced to turn over its fishing boats to the militarizing Japanese navy who were preparing for war. Iwao’s father, a strict Catholic, at first hesitates against the domineering officer demanding his property only to be humiliatingly slapped before his family and neighbors repeatedly. Full of anger and resentment, young Iwao attacks the officer himself only to be punished by his father and forcing the man to capitulate weakly before the officer, forced to not only surrender his boats but essentially grovel before the officer in shame. Incensed by what he sees as weakness perpetrated by tradition, Iwao comes to despise his own father due to the man’s constricting rules and resultantly grows into a wild, sociopathic young man.

    After spending time in reformatories and jail, Iwao takes on young wife Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho), whom he starts a young family with only to end up in jail on a fraud charge for two years with his wife and children leaving him. While incarcerated, Iwao’s father pleads for Kazuko to return to his family which she does only after acknowledging the erotic, slightly incestuous bond that developed between the two of them. Never fully explored, their relationship creates further resentment between father and son. What infuriates Iwao further is his father’s refusal to give into his carnal desires as governed by his pretentious Catholic piety, instead sending Kazuko to have sex with other men as a way for him to enjoy her by proxy.

    While never fully acknowledged as the trigger, this turn of events seems to finally push Iwao over the edge and sends him forth on his spree. During his travels, he becomes close to a female inn owner and her decrepit mother; both women have their own moral crosses to bear. While posing as a university professor, Iwao grows attached to this pair, especially the owner whom he seemingly falls in love with, only to have the circumstances of the man hunt brought to bear upon them, leading Iwao to take the only course he finds expedient.

    By journey’s end, Iwao is caught by the police and the film’s narrative thrust effectively ends. However, when asked by the police why he ran, Iwao confesses that it was the only way for him to be free. That becomes the real key to both the character and film, Enokizu’s resentment and hatred towards the stifling, hypocritical traditions that were strangling Japanese society finally boiled over and killing those people was the only way he was able to release that pressure. Essentially a stab to the heart of his own culture, Iwao nonetheless is confronted with his own sense of impotence as he comes to believe that the only people he should have killed were those that hurt him the most, who surprisingly were left alive despite his spree.

    In exploring the tumultuous psychological world of Iwao Enokizu and its rapid decay, Imamura employs a narrative structure that chronicles the man’s psychological journey from the initial carefree joy brought on by the first murders to the eventually depression and regret felt after his capture. In between though he films Enokizu flatteringly, portraying him as an individual with an irrepressible lust for life, women, money, etc. He is gregarious and passionate when he wants to be but easily takes this over the edge becoming violent and belligerent.

    Adding these layers to the written character is Ken Ogata in a masterful performance that is on par with Hannibal Lector in terms of both charm and terror. In the end though, Imamura uses Iwao as his own critique against the social hypocrisy underlying Japanese culture, especially regarding sexual desire which was a subject constantly explored in Imamura’s oeuvre. Bristling with energy and black humor, Vengeance Is Mine is a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection and further reminds us of Shohei Imamura’s talent and importance in postwar Japanese cinema.

    For more information on this title, go towww.criterion.com.
    Vengeance Is Mine
  • Walker

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    What makes Alex Cox’s subversive cult, political film Walker all the more fascinating and difficult to dismiss is that Cox lays out before the viewer a tale that is documented truth. With the aid of Rudy Wurlitzer’s script and his own frenetic, punk rock energy and style, Cox assaults the viewer with a barrage of absurd comedy and Peckinpah-esque blood splattering. Practically every bloody massacre and moral outrage the film lays out has its roots in historic record and permanently stained a nation that one hundred years later found itself plunged back into war, partially supported and fueled by the same flawed philosophy that the film’s main character comes to symbolize. In this current era of Iraq and U.S. foreign policy and power run amok, Walker stands as a reminder that this current conflict is only a current link in a chain that stretches back generations.

    Ed Harris plays William Walker, an American renaissance man who in the nineteenth century led various careers in law, medicine, politics, journalism, etc. However, he came to be primarily defined as a soldier of fortune, when he was chosen to aid in the suppression of civil unrest which was seemingly crippling the Latin American nation of Nicaragua. Walker’s mission though is conceived less out of benevolence and more of pragmatic, economic concern. Walker is tapped by none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt (in a fantastic supporting performance by Peter Boyle) to quell the insurrection and secure a friendly government; a government which will allow Vanderbilt valuable trade access essential to his ever-broadening business.

    So with a band of misfit mercenaries dubbed “The Immortals”, a group of men seemingly no better than common criminals, Walker arrives in this new land armed with democratic principals, plenty of firepower, and the Lord on his side of course. Dressed in full black, Harris resembles a crazed, pious missionary more than willing to crack open skulls and ravage entire communities if it will further the cause of American democracy and religious principle. As time passes though, Walker’s ambitions steadily grow as he envisions himself the only man capable of leading this nation of supposed savages. A coup erupts and Nicaragua is faced with its newest dictator; and one who legalizes slavery to boot. And yes, the events described here sound brilliantly outlandish and would be easy to dismiss if they weren’t true.

    And yet we are reminded that these events did transpire and it remains disappointing yet unsurprising that this nugget of U.S. foreign policy isn’t further discussed today. Critically smashed upon arrival in 1987, Walker can be viewed with today’s eyes as a prescient gaze into the unfortunately, timeless philosophy of foreign intervention and subsequent exploitation. Given the royal treatment via this Criterion DVD release though, Walker’s earlier corrosive reception is briefly discussed by none other than Cox himself. In an all-too brief special feature, the director pours over press clippings that outline the overall dismissive tone that greeted the film, from charges of outright leftist propaganda (the film was supported by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during its conflict with the Contras, who themselves were supported by American interests) to the standard gripe of excessive blood and violence.

    Appearing on-screen in a quaint cabin, Cox reads off the spirited jabs in a bemused tone without any apparent sense of rancor towards the critics. And it isn’t hard to understand his position as current events have essentially reaffirmed the film’s position and ideas. To compare Walker’s outlandish, manifest destiny outlook to George W. Bush’s ‘democracy spreading’ is an easy jab to make but it also speaks to how such misdeeds are as much to be blamed on systemic rather than individual causes. In both cases, the morally neutral hands of capitalist gain and nationalistic ethnocentrism simply found human surrogates to carry out their bloody work.

    Individuals may rise and fall but if the systems that allowed them to flourish remain intact then any sort of long-lasting change is impossible. Bold, crazy, energetic, political, these are all apt adjectives to use in describing Walker and above all else, entertaining in a bold, crazy, and philosophical way that is. After the credits roll, it’s hard to imagine anyone else today tackling this subject in such an idiosyncratic matter and if he still doesn’t receive the respect he should from critics, Alex Cox can know that at least history has proven him right both for better and for worse.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Walker
  • When A Woman Ascends The Stairs

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The oeuvre of Mikio Naruse has gained its notoriety primarily from the sheer lack of attention paid to it by the world cinematic community until after the filmmaker’s unfortunate death. With an extensive body of work to rival that of his peers Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc., Naruse clearly had the skill and drive of his peers yet due to fate the broad, worldwide critical attention lavished upon said peers eluded him. However, as often happens in the worldwide critical community, films and subsequent careers are rediscovered and history corrects itself. Released on DVD for the first time in America, Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends The Stairs has finally received the opportunity to showcase both itself and its director, whose work still remains relatively unseen to the general film public. The film stands as both an engaging dramatic work as well as a fitting introduction to Naruse, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

    The film stars Hideko Takamine as Keiko, a bar hostess in Tokyo’s prosperous Ginza district. A widow working to support herself unassisted, Keiko holds a valued position in the night time world of the Ginza; her charm and rarefied manners set her apart from the younger, socially permissive girls she works with. As a result of her standing, she is referred to as ‘Mama’. Yet despite her obvious skill and admiration from both her colleagues and the various businessmen she entertains, Keiko is a woman unsatisfied with her lot in life. Growing older in a society that places strict limits on a woman’s progress, Keiko soon reaches the age where she must either take on a husband and settle down or establish her own bar. With limited options available to her socially, Keiko sets out to establish for herself a fully independent existence for herself via the options available to her and Naruse allows the viewer to follow her journey through its many twists and turns.

    Along the way she encounters a variety of interesting characters from the love-lorn manager and manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) who secretly longs for Keiko to vivacious, sex kitten Junko (Reiko Dan) who eschews traditional Japanese inhibition for an emotionally open manner befitting her Western preoccupation which leads to her own unexpected windfall. And then there are the businessmen themselves, ranging from bankers to executives, these men constitute the core of the Ginza’s thriving night life business and are chased after constantly. Keiko, however, holds sway over all of them precisely due to her more traditional manner and virtue as she politely shuns all immodest advances brought before her by these men. Surrounded by young girls corrupted by Western culture and all too easily swayed, Keiko provides these men with genuine competition as they all seek what they cannot have. Intelligent and cunning, Keiko uses this desire to her advantage as her chief leverage over these men to capture their coveted business.

    However, in spite of her lure over these men professionally, Keiko cannot escape the increasingly isolated world she exists within. Constantly burdened by the advances of her patrons, preyed upon by her demanding mother and simple-minded brother financially, and knowing that time and opportunity are quickly passing by without obstruction, Keiko slowly abandons her sense of confidence and composure allowing desperation, both economic and spiritual, to set in. With numerous business opportunities failing to coalesce and personal turmoil affecting her, whether from a friend’s suicide to familial pressures to romantic rejection, the doors begin to shut themselves before Keiko’s eyes and she slowly resigns herself to her fate. By the end, with her world practically torn asunder, she soldiers on with her work, boldly putting on a confident front while, one suspects, she is merely facing her fate head-on, resigned to the fact that she may endure but shall never truly succeed.

    While Naruse could have easily let the film descend into a weepy melodrama, certainly the elements exist for that to occur, he crafts a film that celebrates this woman’s spirit and drive to succeed while also accepting the inevitability of failure. With Takemine, he has an actress capable of acute emotional control and performance, often communicating her conflicted feelings of hope and depression with her eyes and face. Takemine worked often with Naruse and perhaps it is because of this very sense of inner dignity she is so adept at conveying that he became a muse for him. Takemine portrays Keiko as a woman who is all too aware that the game is rigged against her, yet she knows she is intelligent, cunning, and empowered by her sexuality which she uses as a weapon without remorse against these men, not by its expression as her fellow geishas do but by its repression. She understands the value of playing hard to get and despite her own advice to the younger girls about this virtue, she is the only one able to use it to her advantage.

    Yet despite her desire to succeed socially, she sacrifices her emotional life and is tortured by loving men she cannot have, be they her deceased husband whose presence she misses or by certain businessmen who do win her affections yet turn on her and crush her fragile shell further. Naruse conveys this sense of modern melancholia through the nuanced, realistic performances of his actors, as well as his stylized sets which show a Japan fully enraptured by Western capitalism and brushing aside the old ways and customs, thus denying their own sense of being for success in the same way that Keiko sacrifices her soul for her own niche in this economically new yet still paternalistically driven society. Like Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, Keiko comes to symbolize not only the struggles of Japanese women seeking independence within their society but of Japan itself sacrificing its heritage and culture for economic success and the materialistic spoils that follow. A powerful and a fitting introduction to the casual film enthusiast of Naruse’s work. One can only hope that more such reissues are to follow.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    When A Woman Ascends The Stairs
  • White Dog

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Controversial upon release and Samuel Fuller’s last Hollywood film ostensibly, White Dog has suffered for the past twenty-five years from a reputation of racial hatred and exploitation. In truth, it is one of the most vitriolic, anti-racist films ever made. It binds a director known for his brutal, in-your-face, visceral style with a subject that befitting his talents. Released on DVD finally courtesy of the Criterion Collection, White Dog finally has the chance to speak for itself after all these years and set the record straight. Starring Kristy McNichol as rising Hollywood actress Julie Sawyer, the plot begins innocently enough when coming home one night, Julie almost hits a lost, pure white, German shepherd with her car.

    She despondently loads him into her car and takes him back to her home to care for him. However, after bringing the dog home with her Julie is attacked and nearly raped until the dog bares his fangs and shows what he can really do to someone's flesh and bone. And of course it doesn't stop there, after threatening her boyfriend as well, Julie finally understands the dog's true nature when she takes him to a commercial shoot. Upon seeing the black skin of her friend and co-star, the shepard again attacks and viciously mauls the defenseless actress.

    Fuller captures the attack and ensuing horror in Peckinpah-esque slow motion, not only to burn the attack itself into your brain but more important record the moment in which the dog is triggered and what the trigger tragically is. Julie has taken in a "white dog", an animal specifically trained to attack and kill black people, which was a very real phenomenon in the American South. Distraught but unwilling to put the animal down, Julie takes the dog to a animal rescue shelter for exotic animals and motion picture usage. Ran by old Hollywood stuntman Carruthers (Burl Ives), the shelter is Julie's only hope to have the dog cured before he can attack anyone else.

    Head trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) takes on the challenge as both a trainer and black man; he has long taken interest in trying to "cure" a white dog and sees an opportunity to succeed where others, including himself, have failed before. What results then is not some sort of implicit acceptance of racism by glorifying the dog's attacks, as many would have liked to have believed upon the film's release but rather an absolute denunciation of the mentality that would turn an innocent animal into a killing machine. The animal is merely a tool, nothing more or less, we are the creator and in recognizing the cruelty that dog inflicts on others, we realize the responsibility lies with us.

    Co-written with future LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson, Fuller brings his characteristic hard-ass attitude to the film’s sound and look. Dialogue can be somewhat terse amongst the alpha males while the camera work, especially as noted in the attack scenes, is no-nonsense but effective. Perhaps the most chilling image is of a young, black child playing in the street with the dog in the area; you feel afraid for this young boy but even when tragedy seems averted know that that adorable, white dog is a time bomb waiting to explode.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    White Dog
  • WR: Mysteries of the Organism

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    How can the energy released by sexual orgasm be connected to political systems? This question, very roughly stated here, is a primary focus of Dusan Makavejev’s classic documentary-fiction hybrid WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, the film poses this question among others in its investigation of both sex and politics. Using the teachings of maverick psychologist/philosopher Wilhelm Reich as his guide, Makavejev touches upon subjects including Stalinism, sexual revolution, alternative therapies, and Reich’s own mysterious theories involving the ‘orgone’ or sexual energy that all humans possess and are mostly incapable of fully releasing.

    Mixing interviews, stock footage, and a fictional subplot echoing many of the documentary concerns, WR makes associative leaps, both intellectually and stylistically, that are also used by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. The first track, if you will, concerns the documentary-like study of Dr. Wilhelm Reich. A one-time colleague of Sigmund Freud, Reich became increasingly interested in the pursuit of the mysterious ‘orgone’ which he described as an energy underlying all matter. Within humans, orgone was most readily released via successful sexual orgasm so his efforts became increasingly fixated on both more effectively harnessing this energy, either through his own inventions or via more focused and all-encompassing orgasms.

    From his work, other scientists and therapists took the lead and developed their own methods based on his work to further improve individuals’ sexual enjoyment as a means to greater overall satisfaction in life. Makavejev interviews several of these ‘experts’ and films therapies including breathing sessions, etc. Whether one believes in such matters or not, Makavejev does capture the genuine fervor and respect these people have for Reich’s work and its importance in guiding them along a path to greater spiritual and physical happiness.

    The film’s second track however, involves a fictional tale which chronicles the lives of two Yugoslavian young women living in Communist-era Yugoslavia. Milena (Milena Dravic) is a fervent revolutionary, spouting off Reich’s ideas about sexual freedom being essential to social revolution while, at the same time, engaging in little or no sex herself. She is essentially all brain while her roommate Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) leads by example, freely having sex with whomever she fancies; effectively demonstrating the lack of inhibition and embrace of free love that Milena speaks of while being unconscious of its political dimension.

    Milena soon meets a Russian figure skater named Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), after Lenin of course, who exemplifies the pure Communist while betraying his fatal flaw, a complete disconnection from his sexual instinct, the very same instinct that is amplified within Milena who soon sets out to seduce the skater to both comic and ultimately tragic result. Essentially, the film addresses the question first posed by making the connection between sexuality and politics.

    Namely, that repressed sexual energy which easily fits into Reich’s theoretical construction of ‘orgone’ leads to repressive political conditions. Reich himself made this connection between repressed sexuality in post-WWI Germany leading to the rise of fascism and ultimately, the Nazi party. The idea simply is that this natural energy, if not released via sexual expression, has to come out in some other way and more often than not, has arisen in repressive governments. Makavejev illustrates this point by using an example closer to home, making the connection between Stalinism and sexual repression. Using a Soviet propaganda film about Stalin himself, the dictator is cast as a strong, virile presence, representing power; power that is conferred upon him by misplaced energy.

    In making his point, Makavejev also utilizes numerous other characters both real (Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein, Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis) and his imagined constructs. Vladimir perfectly illustrates the misplaced sexual energy as his fervor for Communism is confronted by the lustful feelings that Milena awakens within him. Unable to deal with this new sensation, Vladimir brings about destruction but in doing so is finally freed. In the end, the film raises questions both intellectually but also stylistically about the merger of documentary and fiction and how each one can effectively complement the other when tackling difficult subject matter. A dense film that requires multiple viewings to really dissect it, WR: Mysteries of the Organism is an interesting experiment both visually and thematically that will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    WR: Mysteries of the Organism
  • Yi Yi

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released in 2000, Yi Yi: A One and a Two became the first American commercial release for Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang. Yang himself had been known as one of the best-kept secrets in Asian cinema as a whole; hailing from the same cultural landscape as Ang Lee and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yang’s work had been known to members of the film cognoscenti and film festival crowd but not much further than that. With Yi Yi however, the film received praise across the board and announced Yang’s presence on the world stage. With his deft touch and intimate humanism on display, it is not hard to understand why this film was showered with praise.

    In terms of story, the film follows the exploits of the Jian family in Taipei over a year’s time. The family is composed of a multitude of different characters that each follow their own paths, which converge and diverge over the course of the year. The main members are the father, NJ, a computer engineer who is a partner in a software company with his brother-in-law A-Di, his wife Min-Min, and their children, teenage daughter Ting-Ting and eight-year old son Yang-Yang. The bulk of the film’s action revolves around these characters with other background family members and friends moving in and out of the story. The closest filmmaker to Yang who utilizes such a wide number of characters both interacting with each other as well as anchoring their individual storylines would be Robert Altman in his kaleidoscope ensemble pieces, to give you a better idea of the overall character interactions within the piece.

    In opposition to Altman’s controlled, jazz-like chaos however, Yang moves his characters in and around each other with almost mathematical precision. He maintains a precarious balance of both being in control of the film’s structure while still allowing his characters the freedom to move around and avoid creating a cold, stilted experience. In short, he allows his direction to be precise yet warm. Such controlled yet breathing structures tend to be more effective in novels rather than film, yet Yang allows this sort of epic, novelistic way of unfolding his story to guide his characters and best explore the themes and overarching goal of the piece itself.

    Unlike many modern films which utilize complex plot structures to convey their themes, Yang approaches his story and characters with a sublime, confident touch. There are no fast cuts, blaring music, or other visual shock devices to clutter up the frame. When he does use stylish tricks, they are employed subtly so as not to draw attention to their presence in and of themselves but to more effectively communicate the point. A perfect example of this occurs deep within the film; the family’s father, NJ, out on a date with an old flame of his in Japan. While the two talk of their first date together and the awkwardness they felt towards each other, NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting is out on a first date with her girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend.

    As NJ and his ex talk in voice-over about their amorous trepidations, Yang cuts between the old couple pacing along with that of his daughter. By cutting back and forth between the two couples with the running dialogue, Yang illustrates the commonality of all couples tentatively engaging in their first serious relationships, simultaneously having the older couple look back on their first serious encounter with longing and sentimentality while the younger couple discovers those emotions for the first time and reacts to them nearly identical to the older couple.

    While this is one example of the few stylistic flourishes he uses, Yang prefers to use fairly minimalist approach in regards to staging his scenes. He rarely uses close-ups, preferring to keep his subjects in either wide or medium shots, so as to keep the audience aware of the environments they are in. Along with that, his camera movement is kept in check as well, with the exception of some traveling shots detailing the city to create a sense of place and atmosphere to better envelop the viewer, he tends to prefer creating movement via editing instead, again cutting between characters at times with near mathematical precision.

    With this hands-off approach to covering his characters, Yang allows them to reveal themselves to the camera rather than forcing performances to come out. There are many moments of silence as Yang quietly observes the family members in moments of contemplation, time passes with seemingly no overt action except these people having moments to reflect on the changes going on around and within them. While some may view these moments as boring, they allow the viewer to better experience the trials these people pass through more exactingly by filming them in real time and capturing the rhythms of real life rather than the hastily frenetic pace of film life.

    Whether it be NJ’s reflections on his past and flirting with the idea of second chances, Ting-Ting reconciling her idealized notions of love with the realistic aspects of actual infatuation, or Yang Yang’s tentative explorations of the larger world around him via his photography and nascent stirrings of sexuality as he becomes aware of the other sex, each of these characters undergo separate journeys that Yang weaves together. Beginning the film with a raucous wedding and ending it with a solemn funeral, Yang uses these two events to cap off the story and provide the finishing touch to this tale whose overarching goal is to tackle the difficult yet ultimately revealing task of exploring life itself.

    In creating this incredibly warm yet incisive family epic on the eve of the new millennium, one can only hope that Yang’s film will be seen as a rallying point for similar future endeavors by other filmmakers. In an age where flash often trumps subtlety as a means to communicate complex ideas and emotions, Yang clearly shows that at times the simplest and most sublime approaches in creating films can often lead to a deeper and more profound understanding of the messages meant to be communicated rather than by choking them with too much technique and panache. It is a lesson that more filmmakers should be aware of and thank the cinema gods for having someone around like Edward Yang willing and able to show the fruits of such lessons.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Yi Yi
  • Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Two Films by Akira Kurosawa box set

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of the most lauded actor/director collaborations in film history certainly has to be that of legendary Japanese artists Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. Up there in the same ranks with such teams as Fellini and Mastroianni as well as Truffaut and Leaud, these two men forged a symbiotic creative relationship that resulted in perhaps the best work of their respective careers. In regards to Kurosawa and Mifune, the pair collaborated on a number of now classic films including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, etc. Yet, in terms of popularity and establishing a lasting iconic character, their most fruitful collaborations were the complimentary films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Remastered and re-released both separately and in this new box set, the Criterion Collection has brought these two titles back to the forefront for new film enthusiasts to enjoy and appreciate in a new light.

    The first film in the set is Yojimbo, the film that launched Sergio Leone into great popular success when he remade it a few years later as A Fistful of Dollars. Yojimbo’s plot has been ripped off frequently enough that describing it now would almost be a joke, yet one should be aware that nearly all clichéd ideas had perfectly respectably starts somewhere (in this case, Kurosawa adapted the film from a Dashiell Hammett story). The plot begins when Mifune’s character Sanjuro, a wandering ronin, comes across a desolate village in his travels. The village itself is caught in a power struggle between two bosses, Seibei, a local brothel owner, and Ushitora, a sake brewer who was once Seibei’s number two man but has since split with him.

    Sensing the opportunities for himself in such a volatile environment, Sanjuro concocts his own plan to rid the town of the gang violence and profit from it himself. He soon sets about playing each boss against the other in exchange for his own services as a bodyguard (Yojimbo in Japanese translates to ‘bodyguard’). Through his machinations, Sanjuro is able to raise his profile for greater amounts of money while working towards the destruction of both sides. He even goes as far to disrupt a peace agreement between the two sides while a government inspector comes to the village. Realizing that such peace reduces his own stock while allowing the others to prepare for bloodier skirmishes, he quickly breaks the agreement, while killing some henchmen along the way. Everything seemingly falls into place for Sanjuro until Ushitora’s younger brother Unosuke, played by Japanese veteran actor Tatsuya Nakadai, arrives and begins to put two and two together. From there, Sanjuro must survive and finish his job while not getting killed in the process.

    After Yojimbo’s phenomenal financial success, as in today’s market, a sequel was inevitable. And Kurosawa delivered that sequel a year later in the less bombastic but more tightly focused Sanjuro. In this continuation, Sanjuro happens upon a group of young samurai who are attempting to rid their clan of the corrupt officials seeking to take control. Innocent yet foolhardy, these samurai lack the intelligence and strategy to combat the size and strength of this conspiracy. Reluctantly, Sanjuro agrees to help these men save their kidnapped clan leader and restore order. In doing so, Kurosawa creates a more pleasantly comic piece as the samurai attempt to reconcile their own callow notions of bushido with Sanjuro’s admittedly idiosyncratic yet practical ideas of being samurai. Often distrustful of him because of his odd ways, the samurai still follow his lead because they sense the experience this man carries with him.

    As the film progresses, Sanjuro and his companions formulate a plan to save the kidnapped leader and as Mifune infiltrates the enemies’ camp to gather information, the parallel to Yojimbo is clearly established. Yet while his actions in Yojimbo create an impression of not wishing to get one’s hands dirty, Sanjuro’s actions in this second film reflect a deeper world-weariness; a wish to not have to shed blood while understanding that that may be the only option available. This point is profoundly illustrated in the film’s climactic duel between Sanjuro and his opposite Muroto, once again played by Tatsuya Nakadai. Both astonishing for its contradictory mix of stillness and abrupt violence, this particular duel puts the final point on the film and reminds the audience of death’s constant presence in these men’s lives.

    In the end, the anchor between the two films is Sanjuro himself. Utilized as a model for later screen performances, perhaps most notably John Belushi’s classically silly Samurai character, Sanjuro established a new form for the samurai hero. Eschewing the classic, stoic chivalry associated with previous samurai performances, Mifune imbues Sanjuro with a realistic pragmatism not seen before. While he is exceptionally skilled as a swordsman, his preferred method of attack is psychological rather than physical, preferring to instead set his enemies against each other in the hope of mutual annihilation simply so that he isn’t forced to do it all himself.

    His appearance is slovenly and he demands payment before action, knowing that despite the surface offensiveness such actions instill in others, that such trivial manners are unimportant when it comes down to the business at hand. World-weary and cynical, Sanjuro comes across as a perfect combination of hero and anti-hero; possessing the deeply hidden noble nature to rise to the occasion and help those in need, yet being smart enough to not get yourself killed over something if it isn’t truly worth it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.
    Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Two Films by Akira Kurosawa box set


Dark Sky Films

  • Shiver

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    From the producer of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage comes the new horror feature Shiver, courtesy of Dark Sky Films. Mining the same vein of atmospheric horror cinema to come out of Spain and Mexico these past few years with people like Guillermo Del Toro at the forefront, Shiver is long on creepy and short on gore, making it all count. The plot line revolves around troubled teen Santi, your typical awkward teenager who just so happens to have a near-deadly allergy to sunlight. Sporting a constant hoodie, Santi deals not only with hormones but the fact that a nice afternoon could possibly burn his face off.

    Heeding medical advice, Santi and his single mother relocate to a remote village, deep in the mountains where he can go outside in greater frequency. They take up residence in an old, stone manor rented out by the local grocery shopkeeper. However, upon their arrival, a series of vicious killings commences in the surrounding woods with no suspects or answers other than the arrival of this strange, new boy who just so happens to be around most of the killings as they occur. The locals become restless and taunt Santi and family as he initiates his own investigation into the deaths, which aims squarely at the former residents of their new home. Secrets are revealed, more people are torn to pieces, and plenty of chases go down.

    While on a surface level Shiver is a solid, competent horror film, pleasantly enjoyable at that, it works far better as a procedural as Santi is fairly certain who the killer is early on. The question that is begged is not who is doing the killing but why is it being done, add to that a hidden conspiracy and you have a far more intriguing thriller than slasher flick. In addition, the lush but foreboding mountain locale adds a sinister undercurrent of not knowing what lurks around the corner, essential for any good horror/thriller. The chases and killings become slightly rote after a while with seemingly no new developments pushing the plot forward until the final third begins.

    At this point, the story alters course dramatically and puts old characters in new light and increases the tension without resorts to dubious creature effects. Ultimately, Shiver will meet a horror fan’s standards of blood, violence, chases, and decent if not amazing plot. It’s a great diversion for ninety minutes with some nice twists, and you even have the option of listening to it in English or reading the subtitles. Nothing wrong with that.

    For more information on this title, go to www.darkskyfilms.com.
    Shiver
  • The Killing Kind

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of the luxuries of DVDs and home entertainment in general is providing essentially lost films a forum to finally let themselves be discovered and appreciated on their own terms. Dark Sky Films has allowed one such gem, The Killing Kind, said opportunity and it’s fair to say that horror fans will be interested in checking this nasty work out. Featuring a young John Savage and legendary actress Ann Sothern as a son and mother duo, The Killing Kind is both a typical example of 70’s exploitation cinema that ripples with psychosexual undercurrents that are fascinating to observe today.

    John Savage stars as Terry, a psychologically traumatized young man who, at the outset, is made witness to and unwilling participant in an apparent gang rape. Two years later he’s released from prison and stays with his mother Thelma (Ann Sothern) in her Hollywood boarding house for elderly ladies. Angered by his false imprisonment and still tormented by the rape, Terry attempts to put on a benign façade while his insides begin stewing with murderous intent. Soon after his release a number of individuals related to his case begin to turn up dead, whether it is the girl who falsely accused him of the crime to the judge who sentenced him to jail time.

    Meanwhile, a nubile, young woman named Lori (Laverne & Shirley’s Cindy Williams) turns up at the boarding house and decides to stay there; immediately reminding him of his troubles, Terry begins a playfully sadistic flirtation with her whether it is spying on her semi-nude in her room at night or trying to drown her in the pool as a goof. All this while, Thelma watches her son with a weary eye as she is confronted with Terry’s animosity towards her and the smothering atmosphere he has come to loathe along with her deplorable past. However, what Terry underestimates is the advances of his repressed female neighbor (Luana Anders) who is not horrified by Terry’s sexually infamous deeds. As the bodies mount, sexual tensions and anger all come to a head with everyone’s lives shattered in one fashion or another.

    While Harrington is able to craft a suitable revenge film with the provided setup and manic intensity of young Savage, the story actually resonates better as a tale of sexual desire and frustration. After being accused of a rape he didn’t commit, Savage’s Terry becomes spiteful towards sex itself as it becomes irrevocably linked to his own personal suffering. Therefore, in his quest to stamp out his perpetrators he also works towards extinguishing his own sexual desires.

    Meanwhile, Anders’ character is a woman emotionally dominated by her elderly, decrepit father and sexually closed off. She feels that her only means towards personal liberation is for someone like Terry, whom she believes is a convicted rapist, as a man powerful enough to shatter those emotional barriers by literally breaking her down physically and sexually conquering her. While such actions merely displace one form of dominance for another, she feels that Terry is still the only one capable of enlivening her existence.

    Special mention also goes towards Cindy Williams in her fresh and believable portrait of a young woman who is emotionally innocent yet sexually mature. In so many roles that she has done since, Williams has seemingly always had to downplay her looks and femininity whereas in this role, she is not only allowed to be attractive but desirable. Unfortunately for her character, that same libidinous essence brings her nothing but trouble from Terry. Savage himself is a pleasure to observe as his melodramatic outbursts ranging from anger to disgust are plausible and amusing. Yet he also exudes the necessary nubile sexuality of a young man in peak physical condition, which ironically attracts the sort of attention he tries to avoid completely. A nasty psychosexual gem worth taking a look at.

    For more information on this title, go to www.darkskyfilms.com.
    The Killing Kind
  • Them

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A sensation when released in Europe, the modern thriller Them arrives in the U.S. now courtesy of Dark Sky Films in a new DVD edition. Directed by filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud, this lean, low-budget, DV gem both captivates and enervates as well as any classic Hollywood thriller in a brief seventy-seven minutes. A young French couple, Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen), live in the Romanian countryside in a somewhat dilapidated yet spacious estate. After spending a quiet evening and dinner with our protagonists, strange noises begin to pierce through the night. Lights flicker on and off, the power is cut and suddenly phantom flashlight beams streak through the windows. It becomes all too apparent that Clementine and Lucas are being systematically cut off from everything around them by unknown assailants.

    This rather simple setup is ingeniously worked by directors Moreau and Palud because it taps into a universal fear, the fear of one’s home being invaded by outsiders. Rather than play up the action with buckets of blood, Them skillfully works the viewer with a constant ratcheting of suspense. The terror comes simply but brilliantly from being unable to see what’s around the corner. This concept works because the filmmakers place us in a strict first-person point of view with Clementine and Lucas; we see what they see plus as the story unfolds rather closely in real time the sense of dreadful waiting also play upon on the viewer’s nerves. As the home invaders close in upon Clementine and Lucas, we begin to see brief glimpses of them; hooded figures traipsing around in the shadows constantly playing games with the couple while methodically moving in on them.

    In one chilling moment, Clementine opens up the bedroom door to survey the empty hallway as Lucas is downstairs investigating. Soon the door handled is violently shaken and after an attack upon him, Lucas stumbles back into the bedroom. As Clementine lets Lucas back in the once empty hallway is suddenly filled by one of the hooded figures standing perfectly still. We are left to wonder whether or not this is a real person we briefly glimpse or some sort of apparition. It is a brief image but works perfectly in the same way in Halloween when after Jamie Lee Curtis thinks she has killed Michael Myers in the bedroom, he quietly springs up behind her in the background. Them falls very concisely into the same class of films like The Haunting where what you don’t see more often than not plays upon your fears better than what you can.

    Although the film was shot on a relatively low budget which shows by its lack of bombastic theatrics, it is perfectly filmed and modulated within its constraints to maximize its effectiveness. The script is nearly non-existent once the action begins because in a real situation like this there is little or no need for extemporaneous conversation. In this respect Bonamy and Cohen realistically portray a couple who are terrified out of their wits yet muster up enough courage to try and survive, not out of some slapped on sense of revenge but basic human necessity. Bonamy perfectly executes her role as the threatened woman, complete with terrified expressions and screams yet does not play into the stereotypically hysterical victim. She is scared but holds enough of her wits to constantly try and find a way out of their predicament. Cohen as well demonstrates the natural and understandable fear and hesitation someone would feel in these circumstances as well, despite one’s own sex, without appearing weak or indecisive.

    Perhaps the film’s most theatrical but unrealistic scenario involves the final chase through a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels with flickering lights, a grimy facsimile of hell minus the flames. It is this sequence that while enjoyable feels the most standard and in that regard least satisfying part of the film, only because the lead-up to this moment contains un unvarnished realism that the majority of big-budget scare fests can’t come close to. Once the identity of the attackers is revealed, the viewer is left with a choice to either be surprised or annoyed, both responses are understandable and you almost wish it had been left an enigma to puzzle over once the credits finish rolling. A lean, muscular thriller that will keep you guessing and thrilled to the end as well as demonstrating the power of carefully executed restraint.

    For more information on this title, go to www.darkskyfilms.com.
    Them


Document Films

  • Eight Miles High

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Not a readily recognizable name today, German supermodel Uschi Obermaier was a hellacious wild child in the 1960’s European counterculture. With dalliances in both radical politics and rock and roll excess, her life has now become the subject of the entertaining biopic Eight Miles High, now on DVD courtesy of Dokument Films.

    Embodying Obermaier in all her unfettered glory is German actress and model Natalia Avelon. It’s fair to say that without her the film would collapse entirely, her Uschi is a whirling dervish of sexual energy and the boundless need for self-expression. Starting off in the early ‘60s in her family home, Uschi and her best friend dance to the latest rock and roll tunes hitting the airwaves while being stifled by her traditionally conformist parents. Only when she is discovered in a local nightclub by a photographer does she finally gain the impetus to leave her home once and for all.

    Traveling on the road like a hippie gypsy, she eventually makes it to Kommune 1, the notorious radical group led by Rainer Langhans and his band of merry intellectuals. Upon meeting Rainer, she is struck by his open-minded attitude (not to mention his penchant for being naked all the time) and the free love espoused by the group. However, this bunch of philosophers soon runs into a wall when their newest member challenges them with her actions rather than merely living by their words. She and Rainer begin a passionate affair which only serves to splinter the group into factions, those believing in her commitment to the politics of their time and those who think she is there to simply screw around and have fun.

    What they don’t realize is that Uschi is the counterculture they so heavily debate about, a living embodiment of the struggle for freedom and personal identity that Rainer’s like can intellectualize all they want but actually are unable to become themselves. In time, her dalliance with politics comes to an end when she has none other than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones fighting for her attention. As with the ‘60s itself, politics dovetailed into art and music with Uschi as she made the transition to the Stones. Eventually, she would come to the attention of another reckless German adventurer, Dieter Bockhorn, who would take Uschi as his own and their lives would intertwine for years to come.

    All in all, the supporting players are unable to hold a candle to Avelon’s powerhouse performance. Imagine Angelina Jolie only with the sexuality maxed out and none of the self-conscious posturing she has been prone to in recent years. Avelon is wild, undeniably sexy, and wonderfully self-confident as Uschi, entirely in command of her emotions and unwilling to submit to any man entirely. Those that love her must accept her as an equal or be gone. She constantly tests her lovers’ meddle, unwilling to bow to their antiquated macho customs, the men in her life are simultaneously befuddled and enraptured by her. Uschi is a one woman sexual revolution unto herself, constantly naked and comfortable with being so around others.

    It’s difficult not to empathize with Rainer and Bockhorn’s ability to forgive her obstinacies. The film’s period look and feel is perfectly realized by director Achim Bornhak and his production team, with plenty of paisley, knee-high boots, and flower power costumes spread throughout. And of course, plenty of explicit sex, drugs, and some rock and roll doesn’t hurt either. As a special note, if you are offended by nudity at all, either male or female, then perhaps this is not the movie for you. But if you can get past that wrinkle then Eight Miles High is a fascinating and invigorating study of an amazing woman, free in every sense that happens to be true. The best of almost all possible worlds.

    For more information on this title, go to www.dokument-films.com.
    Eight Miles High
  • Puppy

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    At turns creepy and undeniably charming, Puppy is a modern thriller with both a grindhouse set-up matched with genuine emotional involvement for its characters. Produced on a relatively shoestring budget and break-neck schedule, director Kieran Galvin turns in a little gem of perhaps the sweetest yet dangerous love story seen in a long time. Liz (Nadia Townsend) is a young, irresponsible woman who lives out her life under the protective veil of lies to survive. When her sister and brother-in-law tire of her selfishness and its consequences, she sets out by herself to commit suicide. Just about done with the job, she is saved by a lonely truck driver named Aidan (Bernard Curry) without knowing.

    What should be a new lease on life however turns into a nightmare when Liz awakens in Aidan’s country house, tied up and mistaken for his missing wife. Frightened by his psychotic delusions and unable to get past both him and his attack dogs, Liz decides to do the best thing she can: lie. She indulges Aidan’s fantasy all the while plotting her escape; however, as time moves on and she learns more about her mysterious captor what began as a charade slowly becomes all too real. On its surface, Puppy looks like a solid, seamy thriller like Misery yet in actuality is a heartfelt love story. Townsend’s performance as Liz is genuinely intriguing to behold as she commands the screen with deft intelligence, constantly plotting her next move while managing her false identity to Aiden.

    And yet, as the plot unfolds and Liz spends her time longer and longer at the house a strange degree of normalcy ensues. Curry as Aiden leaves no slack though either, at turns frightening and pathetic, one is constantly left off balance over which mood will show up on the screen next which lends a genuine level of terror to the subtext. Townsend and Curry are fabulous individually and together conduct a tight dance of illusion and subterfuge with each other as they reveal secrets to each other and become both captives and captors of each other.

    Plot twists abound as well as emotional twists while Liz tries to figure out what is going on in Aiden’s head including her own place in his life as she reevaluates her feelings towards him. Being a good thriller, there is action and a murder or two in it but that never gets in the way of the characters’ constantly evolving relationship and the ramifications it leaves on both of their lives. With standout performances, a lean compositional style courtesy of Galvin’s direction, and genuinely unexpected twists and turns, Puppy is a fun, involving piece of work that makes you root for two people to be together even though the honest money says they should probably kill each other.

    For more information on this title, go to www.dokument-films.com.
    Puppy
  • RFK Must Die

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    1968 is, in many ways, the turning point of modern American politics and culture. In a decade that optimistically began with strives in social equality, ’68 became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Troop escalations in Vietnam had reached ridiculous proportions which in turn led to numerous and sometimes violent clashes between the anti-war movement and the Establishment. A country was divided and those divisions grew ever more pronounced with the shocking assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis that year. Riots abounded and the spiritual as well as social leader of the Civil Rights Movement was gone. It seemed as though the headway made in those early years was being systematically obliterated by an increasingly obstinate government. As the year progressed, the only hope left seemed to rest within former Attorney General Robert Kennedy as he campaigned for his party’s Democratic nomination.

    However, that final hope was extinguished on June 5, 1968 when Kennedy was shot and killed after a speech given inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. While the official story has always contended that shooter Sirhan Sirhan acted alone, doubts have always swirled around RFK’s death as they do around his older brother’s assassination as well. Documentarian Shane O’Sullivan attempts to answer a myriad of unanswered questions that continue to haunt that night at the Ambassador and in doing so, attempts to uncover a far more sinister plot in his film RFK Must Die.

    O’Sullivan is systematic in his investigative methods as he attempts to break down the official explanation piece by piece and point out inconsistencies otherwise unexplored by others. He questions the decision to have Kennedy hustled through the back kitchen, where anyone could easily have access to the man briefly, rather than a more secure route as would be standard procedure. Regarding the shooting itself, O’Sullivan looks into the notion of additional recovered bullets that were never officially entered into evidence. If more bullets were fired than the official amount recorded, does that mean that more than one shooter was on-site besides Sirhan to deliver the fatal hit?

    The first section of his investigation is very much concerned with examining the details of the actual shooting itself and the physics of what is said to have occurred and what may actually have happened. O’Sullivan conducts his inquiry methodically by interviewing both eyewitnesses and experts as well as gaining access to a plethora of documents that seemingly counter the official details given regarding the shooting. From that point, O’Sullivan attempts to investigate the social context in which the shooting occurred in order to seek out motive. In doing so, both he and the viewer observe the rather tumultuous relationship the Kennedys maintained with the U.S. intelligence community; in doing so, we learn of Robert Kennedy’s deep distrust of the CIA as well as that organization’s hatred of both Robert and John Kennedy greatly stemming from their mishandling of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

    A secret rather conspiratorial history begins to emerge of rogue CIA officials who contend that the best Kennedy is a dead Kennedy after being betrayed numerous times while trying to enact change in foreign regimes. O’Sullivan interviews a number of retired CIA operative as well as other personnel from that time and soon potential players being emerging as possible ringleaders. The film examines these men and presents a somewhat plausible motive for their extermination of Kennedy.

    However, one of the film’s strengths is to not fully play into the Oliver Stone-esque political machinations O’Sullivan’s evidence points to as he often presents conflicting examples to evidence he provides and seemingly believes in. Identities of taped individuals are sometimes questioned as are pieces of evidence allowing the filmmaker to inject a much-needed sense of healthy skepticism into the case that he presents as if to say “this is what I think and the evidence seemingly proves it, however it is not an open and shut case”. In the end, RFK Must Die emerges not only as an interesting look into the tragic death of a beloved figure but also succeeds as a thought-provoking thriller which raises more questions than solves but taps into a sense of conspiracy which should be treated both with interest and healthy skepticism.

    For more information on this title, go to www.dokument-films.com.
    RFK Must Die
  • This Filthy World

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    When it comes to adopted monikers, “The Pope of Trash” really does have a crass grandeur that suits its subject. For thirty years now, filmmaker, artist, and iconoclast John Waters has toured the college lecture circuit and night clubs with his own one-man show in addition to filmmaking career. Evolving out of the self-promotion trips he made when screening his early films in disparate communities and local theaters, Waters spent the next few decades crafting and honing this act. Seeking to have a recording of it for posterity, he and fellow filmmaker Jeff Garlin got together and produced the film, This Filthy World, released on DVD by Dokument Films.

    A vaudevillian paean praising the glory of filth and anarchy, This Filthy World is about as pure a John Waters film as you can get without being bothered by a plot and actors. What Waters does over the eight-six minute performance is communicate the same insouciant fervor for outrage that his cinematic work from Pink Flamingos to A Dirty Shame has glorified for generations of young, pissed-off kids who understand the thin line between anarchy and comedy. Moving across fairly standard topics like early childhood influences, walking the audience through each of his films with appropriate back stories, etc., Waters peppers these fairly basic topics with anecdotes and observations that have to be heard in order to be believed.

    For example, when discussing the notion of signing autographs and excuses some stars use to get out of them, Waters amusingly relates how at one book signing he was lucky enough to have a female patron remove her blood-soaked tampon for him to autograph on the spot. Disgusting yes, but ever the gentleman, Waters did sign it. How could he not? For ardent Waters fans, many of these stories will be familiar like his fascination with criminal trials and his penchant for sitting in on them. At one point he elaborates that during the Watergate trial, a number of fellow trial goers were comparing notes as to what other high profile trials they’d attended while waiting for a seat at the Watergate trial to open up. Charles Manson and the like were bandied about until a little old lady said confidently, “I was at Nuremberg”. Now if that isn’t true then it certainly does sound like something you’d hear a character say in a John Waters movie.

    Despite the stories though, the man himself is just as intriguing. Dressed in an impeccable suit while cradling his microphone in a rather phallic manner, the director works the black-mass inspired set-dressed stage (courtesy of long time production designer Vincent Peranio) and audience like an old-school vaudevillian. His raconteur ease in relating his tales and night club performer’s sense of timing definitely shine through and reveal the polish that this act must have gone through in order to reach its present state. Most importantly though, This Filthy World ultimately allow Waters a platform to directly communicate his central belief in art as a dangerous, subversive force essential to a healthy society.

    In his own childhood, “art meant dirty” and Waters pines about how we have essentially forgotten that potent connection today. If art means anything to John Waters it is the means through which genuine cultural provocation is possible. First hippies and then uptight, politically correct foes, Waters has attacked them all with glee and fans love him all the more for it. In a politically correct society, the only remaining way to access real truth is to dig towards the bottom of the barrel because while you may not think it’s clean at least it’s honest. John Waters always scoured that bottom in his work and This Filthy World helps one understand why.

    For more information on this title, go to www.dokument-films.com.
    This Filthy World


Dragon Dynasty

  • The City of Violence

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    When it comes to bloody, revenge films, the Koreans appear to have a corner on that particular market at the moment. Whether it be Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy or Johnnie To’s thrillers, there’s a vitality within the Korean cinematic landscape regarding this genre that almost hearkens back to the Jacobean dramas of England. Another such example of this work has reared its head up in Ryoo Seung-Wan’s The City of Violence which makes its American debut courtesy of The Weinstein Company’s martial arts label, Dragon Dynasty. Touted as the next Quentin Tarantino by some, Seung-Wan’s film can somewhat justify this comparison in the outlandish action sequences that appear like deleted scenes from Kill Bill’s frantic, one against the world martial art showdowns.

    The story details the increasingly absurd pursuit of vengeance by two old high-school friends. One’s a cop, the other’s a local hood, both are brought together by the murder of their mutual friend by local thugs. However, things become complicated as they soon learn their friend’s murder was part of an insidious land-grabbing scheme initiated by none other than one of their very own. Disgusted and steeled by this tragedy, both men swear vengeance upon their friend’s killer and set out on a merciless pursuit of justice. To elaborate further on the plot would belabor the point as films in this genre more often than not do not need overly complex plot points to drive them forward.

    What makes The City of Violence work lies within its very title, the action is non-stop when events begin to pick up steam. More often than not, the film utilizes the frenetic action inherent in mismatched confrontations. Confrontations like Uma Thurman’s single-handed slice and dice display in Kill Bill: Volume 1. There is something comic in watching two men literally take on around a hundred thugs in the film’s midpoint climax. To set the stage right, imagine gangs of hockey players, skateboarders, school girls, and other assorted folks running after you while attempting to knock your head off with stupendous aerial kicks and thundering blows.

    This is exactly the predicament our two protagonists face when conducting their investigation one night in an oddly-deserted downtown; of course it is a perfect location for such an over-the-top rumble to occur within. In fact, by the time the film ends and the protagonists have exacted their proverbial pound of flesh of course, one on one fights become positively boring. Yet what saves the film from being simply a series of dynamic set pieces is the focus on friendship and loyalty which extends back to the characters’ childhoods.

    Ultimately it comes off akin to Stand By Me without the dead body but it still creates enough pathos to make one invest some emotional commitment to these people rather than simply rooting them on to bash more heads in and cut people up with knives. In the end, The City of Violence delivers exactly what it wants to and needs to do. To ask for more than that is possible but certainly not necessary and Seung-Wan does provide enough frenzied pyrotechnics to make that Tarantino comparison at least palatable. If Quentin or anyone else decides to remake the film in Hollywood, then we’ll really know if it’s successful.

    For more information, go to www.dragondynasty.com.
    The City of Violence
  • The One Armed Swordsman

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Jimmy Wang Yu plays the titular character; after his own father is murdered while protecting the fencing master they serve, he is taken in by the master’s family and trained in that particular school’s style. However, after a brush up with the teacher’s own daughter and a pair of conniving upper-class students, Wang Yu is severely injured after his arm is mercilessly cut off. Injured and despondent, he eventually falls within the care of a local peasant girl who falls in love with the young man and seeks to tame his wild, violent ways.

    A broken man, Wang Yu loses all will to live until he is finally nursed back to health and discovers an ancient manual detailing a fighting style perfectly suited to his new condition.Meanwhile, the master’s old enemy plots to finally kill him with the use of an ingenious new weapon, a sword lock that allows its user to trap the victim’s sword rendering it useless, leaving the victim defenseless and open to a final death blow. As the master’s students begin dropping like flies, Wang Yu discovers the plot and races to save his former adopted family to fulfill his sense of duty and honor, armed with this new, deadly style.

    According to film critic David Chute, The One Armed Swordsman was important in helping kick off interest in not only handicapped martial arts movies but specifically one-armed movies. As odd as that may sound, it does make sense because what lies at the film’s heart is the notion of transcendence. Here you have a swordsman, brimming with skill and hubris as well. Cut down in foolish anger and seemingly robbed of his gift in life, the main character is confronted with very relatable notions of self-worth and despair.

    It is only when he allows himself to be consoled by another and given the confidence needed to forge ahead that he discovers a way to regain his self-esteem if you will. Constantly underestimated, Wang Yu uses that fact to surprise and destroy his enemies efficiently. Not only that, but as Cheh’s plot thickens Wang Yu realizes that his handicap actually provides the answer to his enemies’ secret weapon. So the theme of personal transcendence is directly tied in with adaptation. First the bad guy develops his new weapon with which to defeat his enemy’s students only to find out that this seemingly crippled student himself is able to adapt to this new weapon and he alone proves himself worthy to combat those who threaten his loved ones.

    Wang Yu’s performance is dripping with brooding masculinity cut from the cloth of James Dean and young Marlon Brando; Chang Cheh himself was a self-professed fan of Dean and American film in general along with his fascination towards Japanese cinema and its focus on realism. This in turn provided Cheh with a new direction to move in cinematically, while fights in previously made films were often ballet like Cheh instead emphasized a grittier, more visceral style especially when it came to blood.

    In a Chang Cheh film, expect to see a hero dressed in white being cut down by his enemies and drenched in blood. Self-sacrifice was par for the course in his films and this visual trope became an obvious signature style for the director. Yet The One-Armed Swordsman also deals with the notion of class, Wang Yu is a man unsettled in life because his entire existence is marked by a self-knowledge that he is socially unequal to those he has lived with.

    Signaled both in his manners and dress, the character’s lower-class roots provide an obvious clash with the manner-born, snobbish nobles that his teacher instructs in addition to himself. While he is taken in like a son and treated with obvious affection by the teacher, Wang Yu is still never fully embraced and only discovers genuine love when he finally meets a woman coming from his own social class. Featuring wonderful swordplay and action while serving up a subversive commentary on class and authority, The One-Armed Swordsman is a breathtaking classic.

    For more information on this title, go to www.dragondynasty.com.
    The One Armed Swordsman


Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

  • A Very British Gangster

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    It’s damn near impossible to deny the gangster’s allure in popular. Whether it’s the maverick attitude, ruthless disregard for others, or the ability to make waves of money the so-called “easy way”, gangsters survive and thrive in all cultures, always have, and probably always will. Filmmaker and BBC journalist Donal MacIntyre spent three years following and recording the exploits of one such man, Dominic Noonan, one of England’s most notorious, living gangsters. The fruits of that labor have come home to roost in the Sundance Film Festival’s Official Selection, A Very British Gangster released now on DVD courtesy of Anywhere Road and Echo Bridge Home Entertainment.

    For American viewers brought up on images of gangsters (real and imagined) like John Gotti and Tony Montana, Noonan is a bit of a shock when it comes to his manner and methods. Leader of the most powerful gang in Manchester, England, Noonan holds court over the depressed neighborhoods and housing projects like a feudal lord overseeing his manor. With his imposing physical build, bald head, and often brutish demeanor, Dominic easy commands respect as a bruiser yet underscores that bravado with sensitivity and working-class care for his family and those less fortunate in the community than himself.

    Aided by his brother Dessie (reputed to be a vicious killer, charged with many murders but convicted of none) alongside an ever-revolving crew of loyal, teenage boys who act as his personal guard, Dominic is portrayed as a misunderstood civic leader who lives as a gangster to pay the bills and help his fellow citizens out. Perhaps the best way to sum up his personal philosophy towards his home and family lies in the acronym he often goes by, Lattlay Fottfoy, which succinctly stands for “Look After Those That Look After You, Fuck Off Those That Fuck Off You”. That bit of idiosyncrasy aside, MacIntyre records Noonan’s own musings over his life as a gay man living as a gangster, including the horrible childhood abuse he endured in private school as he was subjected to both physical violence and rape from the older students.

    Yet, despite the horror of this abuse, one can’t help but be equally disturbed by the chilling, matter-of-fact musings of retribution he took upon those boys when he was older. In that brief scene, Noonan illuminates how he turned his own personal degradation into the ruthless will needed to torture and most likely kill these boys, presumably years after the abuse occurred. Noonan’s calm insinuations of taking an eye for an eye are genuinely frightening to observe and gives one justifiable pause. As with the Sicilian mafia, the Noonans understand and uphold the personal values of family, be they by blood or association, and hold disdain for anyone attempting to break up the peace they impose upon the community as well as throw them behind bars.

    The film’s structure follows Noonan’s daily activities from settling minor community disputes, financing and building seemingly legitimate businesses from a local bank to a personal security service, to his interactions with family and friends. Amongst the secondary cast of characters Gangster portrays in vivid detail are Noonan’s blood relatives and children, in particular his youngest son and a nephew who dreams of becoming a famous singer. One particular poignant sequence involves these two young men fishing in a canal, surrounded by concrete and seemingly abandoned factories, discussing the merits of going to prison for family versus strangers as though they were debating soccer. While both boys recognize their family’s power and respect it, neither one wishes to subject their lives to prison or death before they have a chance to truly live.

    MacIntyre punctuates the flow of events with a constant stream of arrests and trials that Dominic is subjected to endure. Constantly shaken down and taken to trial, Noonan finds ways to beat nearly all charges against him; whether or not that is due to underhanded tactics or not is never broached, probably the best for MacIntyre’s safety one can assume. As MacIntyre and Noonan discuss these events and Dominic’s past, a satisfying cat and mouse game unfolds as Dominic is willing to admit certain crimes like robbery (going so far as how he would take down an armored car they drive past, hypothetically of course), while throwing attention off his numerous murder and racketeering charges. We understand that we’re dealing with a bad man, but are definitely kept in the dark enough to not fully appreciate how bad he may truly be.

    And yet, Dominic’s charm proves very often to be his greatest weapon. Because while one can logically understand the crimes he perpetrates against the very people he says he cares for and glimpses hints of a deeper, cool malevolence, Noonan’s off the cuff charm and teddy-bear demeanor with loved ones cuts into that logical Teflon and asks you to forgive him. If there were any criticisms that were to be made, they would namely involve MacIntyre himself. Too often, he interjects himself a bit too much into the proceedings when perhaps a more distant touch would be beneficial. One senses at times that Dominic allows the filmmaker in as much as he does because the gangster realizes this guy is barely a threat or even a blip on his radar.

    On top of that, certain sequences are shot with an overly, cinematic style, asking henchmen to walk down narrow alleys into carefully, constructed crane shots and the like. While sequences like that undoubtedly lend a visual panache, it can make you question just how much the filmmaker is recording what goes on around him rather than shaping a flashy movie. These minor quibbles aside though, A Very British Gangster is an informative and thoroughly entertaining look into a criminal culture that rarely is thought of across the pond.

    For more information on this title, go to www.echobridgehe.com.
    A Very British Gangster
  • Heckler

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve always had fun watching Jamie Kennedy work even if I’m not a particular fan of the project he’s involved in. He’s a comedian and actor that has worked steadily for years now and has developed his own undeniably unique voice in comedy whether you enjoy it personally or not. That being said, his latest project Heckler, produced by Kennedy and directed by Michael Addis, is an informative and entertaining look at the world of entertainment criticism from a performer who is just as famous for getting the shit beat out of him by critics as well as making his fans laugh their asses off (which should be a legit mark of success for a stand-up I would think).

    Compared by some to The Aristocrats as yet another documentary to expose heretofore unexamined facets of professional comedy, Heckler first starts out with Kennedy turning a light on the world of hecklers themselves and the comedians who have to endure them. This first main segment of the film mixes interviews with esteemed contemporary comedians like Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Craig Ferguson, Roseanne Barr, Dave Attell, etc. with Kennedy himself working out his own material on stage only to be harassed by usually less than astute kids and mouthy, drunk girls.

    Watching the performers discuss heckles they’ve received and their responses in turn, one really glimpses the no-holds-barred, deathmatch that can result from these kinds of encounters. Knowing that their stage confidence and audience control hangs in the balance, comics have no choice but to shut down the heckler before he or she ruins the entire show. The tension feels like something out of a prison film where either you shank your cellmate or next time in the shower you get a special surprise after he knocks the soup out of your hand.

    And yet as horrible as the distractions from stand-up hecklers are, Kennedy correctly points out that at the very least stand-up have the ability to face their attackers and smash them in the face which is a luxury denied in this new world of anonymous Internet criticism motivated more often than not by head trips than genuine interest in critiquing work responsibly. This idea sets up the more expansive investigation of the film itself, namely pulling down the assumption that all film and professional criticism should be taken as unbiased gospel.

    Time and again, Kennedy goes after film critics that have bashed his own recent films and exposed many as power-tripping, mean-spirited, scumbag shut-ins that no doubt will smash this film when they get their hands on it.. To be fair though, one could argue that he is just using this film as an opportunity to expose these guys because he has an axe to grind with them.

    That would be somewhat reasonable to say however his citation of mocked director Uwe Boll as a universally loathed director is a nice counter to that point; supposed critic after critic lambasts Boll as being an awful filmmaker while freely admitting they have never seen his movies or care to yet remain adamant with their views. So while a small piece of Kennedy probably enjoyed getting his comeuppance towards these kinds of guys, we at least know he’s exposing them as pieces of shit in general and not just towards him specifically.

    Kennedy himself is fun to watch as he discusses the frustration of dealing with people trying to take him down as well as the journey he takes in being able to distinguish legitimate criticism that examines his work for better or worse rather than the paid haters who make it their business to smash performers personally rather than professionally. Set for release on September 9th courtesy of Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, Heckler is a funny, cutting doc that not only will entertain Jamie Kennedy fans but give the regular person an insight as to the majority of what passes for criticism today and allows you to distinguish the responsible from bullshit. A fun film worth repeat viewings.

    For more information on this title, go to www.echobridgehe.com.
    Heckler


Facets Video

  • All My Good Countrymen

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Continuing to dig up heretofore forgotten gems of the Czech New Wave, Facets Video now can proudly add to its library the Cannes-awarding winning film All My Good Countrymen. Produced during the brief cultural thaw in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring, the film enjoyed international attention and fanfare only to be banned a year later by authorities when Soviet forces invaded and seized control of the country. Viewing it all these decades later now that the Soviet Union has fallen, director Vojtech Jasny combines a rich, humanism with lyrical yet cutting commentary on the changes wrought upon Czechoslovakia by Socialism. The story begins in May 1945 at the end of World War II as a small Moravian village celebrates its freedom from German oppression as well as praising the Red Army forces that facilitated its liberation.

    We are introduced to a stirring cast of villagers from farmers to thieves, all of whom share a certain lust for life that is both understandable after enduring Nazi hardship and enlivening to the soul when observing. They sing, dance, and drink themselves into a pleasant stupor, hoping for better changes to come under Stalin without guessing the problems that lie ahead. The plot then jumps ahead three years to Winter 1948, the pastoral spring with its possibility has ended and a deep freeze sets in; a number of villagers are assigned important Party positions by the local government and rather than working in the spirit of brotherhood and equality that the Party is meant to represent, these men instead use their newfound power for material gain at everyone else’s expense.

    The largest farm in the village is seized to become a collective farm as former friends divide up the spoils amongst themselves; the elderly watch in muted stoicism, aware of exactly what is happening around them but knowing there is nothing to be done for change. Rather than focusing on one single character throughout the proceedings, the film’s main character is actually the village itself which in turn represents Czech society and life behind the Iron Curtain. As those in power plot to only further enrich themselves and consolidate their control, countless innocent lives are ruined by either false imprisonment, trumped up charges, or having their livelihoods seized from them. Many good people die or are forced into exile along the way as they try to better themselves under an increasingly oppressive yoke.

    And yet, Jasny always finds spaces to inject music and merriment into the proceedings; these celebrations more and more adopt a surrealism that is both lyrical and genuinely subversive, with the best being near the end when a group of revelers quite mysteriously don animal masks and dance around in the dead of winter. No explanation for this spontaneous revelry is given which makes it all the more disturbing to watch. As characters come and go, we recognize their very ordinariness as identical to our own which makes the hardships they endure that much more touching. What begins as a flicker of hope only descends into disappointment that stretches on for years as the village endures, praying that perhaps someday it will be returned to some state of freedom that existed in the spring of 1945. A genuine lost treasure that undoubtedly will gain new footing with this release with critics and further illuminate the uninitiated into the wonders brought about by the Czech New Wave.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    All My Good Countrymen
  • Another Sky

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Like popular music or writing, cinema provides certain individuals who are able to sustain long, fruitful careers and there are just as many who are able to produce one gem in an entire career unable to ever reach the same heights. A celebrated author and screenwriter, Gavin Lambert carved his own respected niche within the film industry. However, when it came to perhaps the most glory-hungry profession, directing, he only managed to bring to life one solitary film but what a film it is. Evoking the exotic, dreamlike North African landscape made famous by writer Paul Bowles, Gavin Lambert’s Another Sky is a precise and lyrical meditation on isolation and spiritual metamorphosis.

    The story begins in Morocco, high in the Atlas Mountains within a small village. A traveling troupe of musicians arrives and begins performing the in village square when suddenly a young woman quickly exits her hut and stares out at the troupe. She gazes with anticipation however after a moment, her expression resigns. Her voice then speaks to us, expressing the longing she feels towards a man who performed the same song as the troupe five long years ago. She speaks of the man she lives with and the environment itself, informing us of her origins residing not within Morocco but England. We learn that her name is, or more precise was, Rose (Cathering Lacy).

    Rose arrived in Marrakesh five years before to be a paid companion to a wealthy, British woman named Selena Prouse living in luxurious exile. Less of a maid and more of a purchased friend, Rose abides by Selena’s wishes for accompaniment and maintains certain chores. Yet she is also allowed a great deal of time for herself, which is utilized in exploring the strange environment all around her. Prim and socially restrained, Rose ventures forth into the streets of Marrakesh as a curious student willing to take pictures of the locals but too inhibited to diving right into local customs. She realizes all too quickly how genuinely alien this environment is to her sensibility yet acknowledges the flip side of that particular coin.

    Besides spending her time in the city streets and squares, Rose also hob knobs with Selena’s chic, expatriate crowd composed of rich, bored socialites be they English, French, American, etc. At one particular party thrown by one American, Rose meets and is entranced by a local musician named Tayeb who plays at the event. Entranced by his looks and manner, Rose begins to disconnect herself from the proper European world she comes from and becomes increasing seduced by this other world. The initial connection between Rose and Tayeb is further stoked by nightly meetings arranged by Rose’s guide and friend Ahmed. With her infatuation growing ever stronger, Rose finally decides to consummate her feelings with Tayeb. The aftermath however brings greater trouble than pleasure.

    Ashamed of giving into her lust, Rose decides to break things off with Tayeb only to learn of his sudden departure from the city. Unable to be at peace until she formally breaks things off, Rose impulsively chases after her object of desire, leaving everything behind and journeying ever further into the desert. Another Sky’s central theme of an individual being seduced and engulfed within an alien world applies to Gavin Lambert’s own life. Born and raised in England, Lambert also embraced the expatriate life, living for a time in Morocco within the same circles as Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, etc. as well as living in Hollywood itself. In many ways, he parodies the clichéd rich, expat, jet set crowd with his increasingly buffoonish depictions of Selena and her French lover; highlighting the racist manner in which they regard their environment, the country would be wonderful if it weren’t for the people.

    Rose thus understands how artificial and repressed her own upbringing is and in her search for Tayeb subtly awakens to the spiritually honest and resigned way of life those around her live in. Shot in stunning black and white photography by Walter Lassally, the film exudes a dreamlike calmness which further reflects and supports the point that the story we observe comes directly out of Rose’s own memories. In the end, Rose is a woman who endured longing and loneliness only to find serenity in the most unlikely of places.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Another Sky
  • Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Respected as one of the foremost explorers in conceptual and body art, American visual artists Bruce Nauman has cultivated and retained an essential, unexplainable mystery in both his work and life. Interested less in exploring the man’s life directly, the documentary Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think does exactly that. It forces the viewer to grapple with Nauman himself as well as the elemental themes in his work not through conventional biography but by presenting the artist’s myriad of mixed media pieces and forcing the viewer to come to grips with them. Directed by German filmmaker Heinz Peter Schwerfel, Make Me Think itself comes off as nearly a Nauman piece in and of itself, constantly showcasing the man’s various video and installation pieces through solitary monitors in desolate industrial locations.

    There is a constant emphasis on Nauman’s methodology of making the viewer not only aware of him or herself when observing his pieces, but also creating the paranoid suspicion that Nauman himself is watching you. Featuring assorted interviews from various art world figures like fellow conceptual artist and legendary gallery owner Leo Castelli, the film attempts to shed light on Nauman by confronting his work alone; Nauman himself never appears on camera for interview and only provides scant commentary on his work. Yet the basic human themes of life, death, pain, pleasure, and physical being are paramount to his world.

    His use of mixed media, particularly video and film, speaks to the increasingly mediated world of information we live in today both emphasizing the possibilities of expression as well as the emotional disconnection that is the price to be paid. Perhaps the most interesting works showcased in the film are the corridor and fixed space pieces. Walking down a tight, neon yellow corridor, observed by surveillance camera, one enters a room with a table and chair upside down, cemented to the ceiling. The image itself is disturbing and yet as the film points out, Nauman uses the space precisely to make you aware of being in a space in the first place, forcing you to confront his presence looking down on you as you come to grips with the imagery you’re seeing as well as knowing he has you exactly where he wants you.

    Schwerfel’s presentation is wonderful in preserving the enigma behind not only the man but the pieces themselves. Tonally, it almost comes off as some quasi-Kubrickian meditation on art and life with the emphasis on form and mystery. Clocking in at around seventy minutes, Make Me Think is a fairly concise film but like a philosophical dialogue, it packs a plethora of ideas and conflicts. A fascinating and eerie introduction to the man and his art, Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think is recommended for those interested in modern art. It’s interesting to ponder what Nauman would do if hired to direct a feature film; with artists turned filmmakers like Julian Schnabel in the world now, one can only hope and wonder.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think
  • Eliana, Eliana

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Over the past few years, the critical community has witnessed a fervent up swell within Asian cinema. Whether it be South Korea, mainland China, Thailand, etc., a genuine fire has been lit within the film industries in this part of the world and are producing works that rival both Europe and America in terms of quality, character, and spirit. Now added to the mix is Riri Riza’s Eliana, Eliana, which has now highlighted Indonesian cinema and put cineastes on notice. Released by Facets Video, Eliana, Eliana brims with urban energy and sublimely illustrates the generational tension between a free-spirited daughter and her equally controlled mother.

    The film follows the journey of Eliana, a young Indonesian woman who fled from her family and an arranged marriage in West Sumatra to settle for the big city frenzy of Jakarta with her friend Heni. As the film begins, five years have passed since Eliana left home and our first glimpse of her is as she is reprimanded for injuring a male customer at the hotel she works for. We can overhear the man’s painful complaint and her boss’s back pedaling while observing Eliana herself. Unbothered and defiant in her posture, one immediately understands this woman; she will not allow herself to be pushed around by anyone and can give as good as she gets. However, what she is unaware of is that her mother, whom she has not been in contact with for five years, arrives in Jakarta in search of her young, misguided daughter. Simultaneously, Eliana’s roommate Heni, who essentially is her sister, goes missing and spends her time with a mysterious, young girl whom the viewer only learns of as the tale progresses. When Eliana finally arrives home, she discovers her roommate gone, her mother waiting for her, and the landlord hunting her down for the missing rent.

    Unused to the city’s energy, Eliana’s mother is at first overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle and seeming discourteousness of those around her; those naïve reactions only reinforce the latent tension that still exists between mother and daughter. During a wonderfully uncomfortably dinner out, Eliana’s mother reveals the purpose of her trip to town; after years of disconnect and worry she feels that it is time for her daughter to finally come home and rejoin the life she so abruptly abandoned. Eliana, on the other hand, is hesitant to return due to her desire for freedom and the chance to break away from the regimented, overbearing existence she endured before. The constant push and pull is what drives the film’s dramatic engine while simultaneously engaging in this nighttime odyssey through the city, trying to track down Heni and understand why she was abandoned by her friend and what this means to their relationship. As the night draws to a close, Eliana must choose between family and tradition and the single life and personal freedom.

    The film itself benefits from the extensive on-location shooting in Jakarta itself which first provides a punchy, visual energy as well as reflecting the bubbling tension between Eliana and her mother as well as gives the film instant production value. Produced for little money, the project instead rises to the challenge and like the best independent film is driven by genuine character and conflict rather than overblown CGI shots and irritating MTV editing. With performances that are stellar and an emotional undercurrent that is both inspiring and complex, Eliana, Eliana once again reflects the general taste that Facets executes in bringing new, exciting titles to the public and stands as one of the best family dramas of the new millennium.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Eliana, Eliana
  • Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In a candid document of both unvarnished honesty and emotional self-flagellation, Japanese documentarian Kazuo Hara considerably stirred Japanese society with his film Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974. The project’s subject matter is ripped from Hara’s own personal life as he examines the exploits of his former lover, an iconoclastic woman named Takeda Miyuki. Miyuki herself is a revelation and honestly too good to be true, forgive the cliché. We learn early on from Hara’s own voiceover narration that Miyuki is Hara’s estranged wife; the pair initially fell in love and married leading to the birth of their son.

    However, Miyuki soon tired of being trapped in such traditional conventions and not only left Hara but took their son and took on a female lover. One of the movie’s opening salvos is a scene in which Miyuki chastises her lover and berates Hara on-camera as well. The director operates with a faux fly-on-the-wall sensibility that captures the venom Miyuki spouts towards her lover as we watch a relationship in its final throes. Hara’s overall style lends itself to this sort of unvarnished honesty yet it is anchored by considerable aesthetic concerns and methods. The out of sync sound and jumpcuts attempt to convey an amateurish, home movie, visual tone yet the director also intercuts various intertitles which provide background and commentary towards the action itself along with Hara’s own voiceover narration. The result is both intimate and visually fractured; a home movie made by an Abstract Expressionist it feels life.

    Miyuki is unapologetic about her actions and emotions, seemingly unable to lie or play to the camera for sympathy. Attempting to breakthrough strait-jacketing social mores, Miyuki attempts to live a life in systematic defiance of the rules and expectations her culture places upon her. After the breakup with her lover, Miyuki next begins an affair with an African-American GI which leads to her becoming pregnant with his child. In a scene which still shocks today, not only due to content but open honesty, Hara films the actual childbirth from beginning to end recording the quicksilver swell of emotions from physical pain to emotional joy. Hara captures it all with an unblinking eye and lays it on the table for the viewer to either watch or avert. Overcome with joy, Miyuki contemplates her life with this new child only to contend with her mother’s racism during a phone call in which Takeda clearly does not take kindly to the suggestion of killing her mixed baby.

    Yet while Hara attempts to keep a certain degree of personal distance to the proceedings, he is constantly brought to bear upon the film as apart of this world, not merely recording it. One of the film’s more amusing yet biting subplots involves Hara and his own producer/sound recordist Sachiko Kobayshi whom we learn is having an affair with Hara at the time. Takeda slices mercilessly into the young girl, berating Hara at every point and constantly pointing out his shortcomings while the director keeps her face clearly in frame to speak such words. It would be easy to accuse Hara of cynical opportunism here, on the one hand he’s being depicted as some sort of distant whoremonger yet it churns out great footage loaded with drama so why would you turn the camera away? Whether he’s attempting to play himself up as a humble observer or subtle opportunist is left for the viewer to judge but it is a point that’s worth considering.

    Yet despite his own involvement in the various narrative episodes that comprise the film’s overall arc, Hara wisely keeps the camera focused on Takeda herself and the fascinating and uplifting journey she makes. Moving from rather solipsistic motivations to becoming increasingly active socially, her journey from angry individual to sociopolitical radical is more captivating than most Hollywood and indie scripts that are written today. From leaving Hara she starts a daycare center for prostitutes’ children, distributes pamphlets to women working the streets leading up to working in a feminist commune and stripping in a local GI bar to earn a living. If this story were picked up and produced by Hollywood, you’d have a feel-good, awards season tale. The greatest shock and pleasure of it all is this actually happened and still has the power to shock and provoke decades later.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974
  • Musician

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    So many films and stories about musicians lead you to believe that with a little hard work and some sacrifice you too can live a life of luxury, paid in untold millions with the adoration of fans worldwide. However, what these films all tend to gloss over are the countless hours of busting one’s ass and hustling as much as possible to simply get enough gig money to keep the bills paid and maybe see if they can not only book another show but have people come to it. Ken Vandermark stands in for the legions of working musicians across the country and world for that matter, players who don’t earn Rolling Stones or U2 money but are as dedicated to their art for the simplest reason possible, they love what they do and can’t see themselves do anything else in life period.

    Another entry in his documentary Work series, filmmaker Daniel Kraus records Vandermark’s legendary persistence, work ethic, and artistic tenacity in Musician, available on DVD now courtesy of Facets Video. For a little background on Vandermark this is what you need to know going into the film, he’s a jazz musician so already there’s a mark against him as far as the big bucks are concerned. He has released into the world well over one hundred albums with the aid of many different groups and spends nearly nine months out of the year ceaselessly on tour. Instead of cashing in on the soft jazz, elevator music scene or straight-ahead, bop-inflected tunes, Ken follows the muse into avant-garde, improvisational free jazz which makes an already rough gig virtually impossible economically with him making not millions at a crack but rather mere thousands or even hundreds.

    It would be hard to convince him to quit though when one gazes upon the concise focus Vandermark puts into his music; as the film opens, we see him in the basement of his Chicago home, bare floors with a music stand in front of him holding sheet music, his saxophone on his lap, carefully working out the melody for a new composition. As he plays the phrases in short bursts, working on the rhythm and overall flow, Kraus’ camera almost imperceptibly closes in on Vandermark as he makes each notation on his sheet music, erasing notes, adding new ones in, all in the service of bringing fresh work to his loyal audiences. Cut to the saxophonist with one of his myriad bands standing in front of a packed, live audience blasting away notes furiously at the crowd as the song that the viewer observed him piecing together in his basement reaches apogee.

    These two interrelated sequences illustrate the thematic core of Musician, that real art and creative expression doesn’t arise from just sitting around, waiting for the muse to show up and fill you with energy. Realistically, the best out there wake up every day and bust their asses grinding it out trying to get something solid down, be it a song, poem, painting, what have you until a spark finally hits and the creative high is satiated. Another great facet of Kraus’ film is underscoring the importance of DIY perseverance in the music business as Vandermark often times is his own accountant, promoter, producer, etc. He answers every call himself, struggles to keep all the bills paid, acts often as his own roadie, and finds just enough time to spend with his wife in order to keep their relationship alive.

    Musician’s beauty and importance lies in recording every gritty detail with understated lyricism such that we come to accept and adjust to the working musician’s life as one of constantly tightrope walking between fulfilling one’s creative hunger and staying alive materially. The musical performances themselves that punctuate the film’s running time are about as far out as jazz has the guts to go and will turn many off but it should make you appreciate even more Vandermark’s tenacity in trying to make a go in performing perhaps the world’s least commercially palatable music and not having to work a day job to survive.

    And yet, one can feel the exhilaration in his performances as though each gig is a spiritual exorcism, cleansing him of all the financial hardships he endures in order to bring his vision to audiences worldwide in as pure a fashion as possible. After watching this film, it would not be inappropriate in this critic’s opinion to ask Kraus to drop the rest of his upcoming projects and stay with Vandermark for the rest of his life. Alas, while that clearly will not be possible at least this brief glimpse will act as a litmus test for any and all aspiring artists, no matter what the discipline. If you can endure the kinds of struggle Ken Vandermark faces every day in his career, then you may just have the right stuff after all.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Musician
  • Noriko’s Dinner Table

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Director Sion Sono perfectly notes in an interview included on Facets’ new DVD release of Noriko’s Dinner Table, that the film should not be considered any sort of direct continuation of his previous film, the burgeoning cult classic Suicide Club. Rather correctly, he labels the film a “companion” meant to fill in the gaps and provide a parallel perspective to that other film’s grisly events since it includes plot points that occur both before and after Suicide Club’s storyline. It is possible though to enjoy this unique fusion of horror, black comedy, and existential questioning on its merit as quite simply a movie that could never be made in Hollywood period, perhaps even in America itself since the so-called “independent film” scene is increasingly becoming a lesser-priced arm of the studio system’s content-conservative output.

    Structurally broken up into a series of extended, nearly picaresque sequences, the tale first begins to unfold around the arrival of young Noriko Shimubara in Tokyo after running away from her seemingly idyllic but boring life in the Toyokawa province; the first section revolves around Noriko’s home life and how she arrives in Japan. Living with her overbearing, journalist father, normal mother, and younger sister Yuka, Noriko finds herself drifting through the days with little or no excitement or passion in her life. Feeling isolated from not only the outside world in general but from those around her, she finally finds a degree of solace by joining an online community called Haikyo.com. In the normal world, Noriko is an intelligent but withdrawn teenager while online she spawns an entirely new identity and is quickly drawn in by other girls just like her striving for connection.

    Eventually she forms a deep bond with a user known as Ueno54, a community moderator and de facto guru. It is Noriko’s growing pull towards Ueno54 that eventually leads her to Tokyo and the beginnings of a new life. The film’s second major thread concerns Noriko’s younger sister Yuka and her attempt to track her sister down, which eventually leads to her own initiation into Haikyo.com and beyond. Meanwhile, Noriko finally meets Ueno54 who turns out to be an enigmatic girl named Kumiko. Becoming fast friends, Kumiko brings Noriko further into the fold by introducing her to an eccentric cult basically consisting of a flock loyal to Kumiko, in which young girls like Noriko are brought in and used as paid companions for johns who have lost loved ones. The prostitution itself is odd though because it involves an intensively elaborate game of role playing, essentially the pleasure being derived via emotional release rather than physical exertion.

    The third main thread consists of Noriko and Yuka’s father attempting to track his girls down in Tokyo; this section plays the most conventionally and answers questions posed in Suicide Club itself while still bringing up its own new mysteries. After an interesting but fairly slowly mid-section, the film’s violent climax and denouement involve the aforementioned dinner itself after the father devises a scheme to bring not only his daughters but Kumiko together to save his family. Suffice it to say identities are questioned and shattered, worlds come down, and of course copious amounts of blood are shed. While the tinges of ultra-violence and unexpected gore certainly make their mark within the story, the film’s deeper intrigues lie within the mutability of identity that rises amongst all the characters. The role playing aspect Noriko enters into quickly spirals into the sort of complete psychic breakdown that all cults desire in order to impose their will upon suggestive subjects.

    Moreover, the overall gamesmanship represented by Kumiko’s “companion” service and the final dinner itself have a deeply ritualistic nature akin to Jean Genet plays like The Blacks or The Balcony where the characters are not defined by any sort of innate identity but by a sort of meta-role they assume to serve a larger ceremonial purpose. But of course, if that all sounds too surreal there is at least one shocking moment of horror that fans of the first film will be all too familiar with, the only hint being it involves a massive group suicide the likes of which is difficult to imagine. Ultimately, both this film and its predecessor attempt to make comments on the general malaise existing in Japanese society for such horrid acts to occur in the first place as well as philosophically contemplating suicide in a considered, unflinching manner which any Western production these days would probably never have the support to do. A fractured, schizophrenic film stylistically that does sag at times under its more ponderous interludes, Noriko’s Dinner Table though is still a fascinating attempt to use the tools of modern genre cinema to investigate ideas normally stuck in old, arthouse fare.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Noriko's Dinner Table
  • Paul Bowles: Halfmoon

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Drawing upon the works of famed expatriate author Paul Bowles, Paul Bowles: Halfmoon showcases a trilogy of his short stories that distill the essence of his interesting and challenging work. Acting as host for this anthology of his works, Bowles himself appears onscreen to introduce each segment and his intention behind each tale. As a host, he is urbane yet enigmatic. One never loses the sense of Bowles himself being apart of his work, which gives it an authenticity and truth that is all the more intriguing.

    The first tale, “Merkala Beach”, has the stated purpose of showing the benefits of smoking cannabis to drinking alcohol. A statement made by Bowles himself at the tale’s beginning. The episode follows two Arabic friends, Lachen and Idir, as they go about their daily routines in Tangiers. One is an avid drinker and the other smokes kif, a local cannabis consumed by the youths. The episode illustrates the subtle difference between their natures as a result of their respective drugs. One is impatient and aggressive, ready to fight if necessary. The other is calm and circumspect, unwilling to get into serious trouble as it is a waste of time and energy. Eventually the two come to a crossroads that shatters their relationship with lasting consequences.

    The second tale, “Call at Corazon”, illustrates the subtle cruelty and attacks that loved ones can and do launch against one another. The episode takes place in the Amazon, where a newlywed, English couple are enjoying their honeymoon. From the start, both are at each other’s throats but politely. They launch subtle jabs at each other, questioning the other, in an attempt to dominate the other. As their barbs intensify, the episode comes to a climax involving utter betrayal and cruelty. The war ends but no one wins.

    The third and most metaphysical tale, Allal, begins with a birth. A young Arabic boy, Allal, is born without knowing who his father is. As a result, he grows up to be persecuted and scorned by those around him. Paid to make bricks and left to fend for himself, he is a mistreated youth waiting for an opportunity to strike back. That opportunity comes in the form of a snake charmer passing through Allal’s village. Scorned by the villagers for his pets, the man stays the night with Allal who tells him that if it drinks majoun, a snake will follow one’s command. Sensing this to be his chance, the boy hides one of the charmer’s snakes for his own purpose. Eventually, in a sequence worthy of David Lynch, the boy merges with the charmer’s snake. By taking this new form and the freedom it brings, the boy sets out to avenge himself with tragic results.

    Over the course of these episodes, the central theme becomes clear. Bowles’ work illustrates his idea of human nature being essentially cruel. This is illustrated beautifully in the harsh settings that he employs in his work, most notably his adopted home of Tangiers where the desert can swallow anyone up, without feeling or trouble. By returning to nature, one returns to his or her natural condition which is to survive. And more often than not, according to Bowles, survival does not equate to kindness or morality, which this anthology clearly and effectively illustrates.

    For more information on this film or to purchase, go to www.facets.org.
    Paul Bowles: Halfmoon
  • The Bill Douglas Trilogy

    For many film fans, the name Bill Douglas probably won’t ring any bells and that is a shame. It’s a shame because with his famous childhood trilogy, consisting of My Childhood, My Ain Folk, and My Way Home, Douglas proved himself to be one of the more interesting talents to come out of the British film industry during the Seventies, alongside contemporaries like Alan Clarke or Peter Greenaway. While he did produce one feature afterwards, the bulk of his fame and critical acclaim lies with those early shorts. Together, they comprise a triptych of autobiographical insight that only Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series can match. Facets Video is responsible for a new DVD release of these films under the title, The Bill Douglas Trilogy.

    The trilogy functions as a fly on the wall account of young Jamie’s life living in an impoverished Scottish mining town in the late ‘40s. While the first short introduces us to his immediate and extended family, i.e. half-brother, maternal grandmother, irresponsible and weak-willed father, demented and cold paternal grandmother, etc. Douglas lays the groundwork needed to make us feel for this young boy. Poor, illegitimate, and starving, Jamie constantly struggles to find love and comfort without condition. After a tragedy strikes in the beginning of My Ain Folk, Douglas uses Jamie to further explore the strained psychodynamics on his father’s side.

    The most intriguing character to emerge is the grandmother herself, who at turns is dismissive and downright hateful towards the boy yet cannot ignore that he is her son’s child. We also come to learn more about the father himself, who is unrepentantly callow towards his family and relations with women. It is only when Jamie finally ends up in state care that one feels a sense of relief for him. The finally act as it were, My Way Home, is a fitting end and change of pace. Rather than being stuck in the same squalor, Douglas though Jamie whisks us to Egypt during his service in the RAF. There he becomes friends with a compassionate, upper-class colleague who recognizes our protagonist’s potential and provides a glimmering opportunity that can either make or break Jamie’s future.

    Taken altogether, Douglas’ trilogy is a concentrated look at one man’s life as he overcomes poverty, physical and emotional abuse, and the disdain of others to find a glimmer of hope presented to him. Much of the storyline mirrors Douglas’ own life, especially the squalid Scottish background and family relations. The biggest consolation that one can be left with after watching the trilogy, realizing that much of what you’ve seen actually happened, is that Douglas was strong and lucky enough to come out on the other side and get it all down on celluloid. As good as any autobiography and certainly more compelling than many fictional dramas spun today, The Bill Douglas Trilogy is recommended for those unafraid to look at the sour side of life.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Bill Douglas Trilogy
  • The Bloody Child

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A welcome fixture on the underground film scene for the past twenty-five years, Nina Menkes has consistently challenged and enthralled viewers with her intricate and always attention grabbing forays into both time and form. While the current Hollywood may hesitate in embracing her with open arms, those filmmakers and enthusiasts in the know understand and appreciate the skill that Menkes brings to the table. When one receives praise from publications like Cahiers du Cinema and filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, you know you’re definitely putting something out into the air that can hold its own weight against the typical mainstream fare that’s here today and gone tomorrow. Released by Facets Video, the uninitiated now have the opportunity to view for themselves what is perhaps Menkes’ most highly praised work The Bloody Child. An essential pick for people who like their movies to push boundaries, both formally and spiritually, while taking them along for the ride.

    The story is based upon a real-life incident that caught Menkes eye back in the early 90’s around the time of the Gulf War. While on standard patrol, two military police came upon a Marine digging a grave in the middle of the desert near dawn. Sensing trouble, they further investigated the scene until they discovered in the back seat of the Marine’s car lie a murdered woman. The victim was later to be revealed as the Marine’s pregnant wife. Using this small, practically overlooked news item as a starting point, Menkes spins a web of conflicting circumstances and scenes, held together by a fragmented temporal schema. Essentially the plot boils down to the following elements inspired by the news item, two MP’s discover the Marine digging a grave for his dead wife and then take the man into custody, holding him at the crime scene until the proper measures are taken.

    The crime scene itself becomes the core space that the film occupies providing atmosphere, with flashbacks and flash forwards punctuating the slow, banal waiting that both the participants and viewers are subjected to as the scene is locked down. With this stage effectively established, Menkes then further fragments the narrative down by flashing before the viewer the events both leading up to the killing, and what appear to be events taking place in the aftermath. A further ingredient introduced into the mix is a mysterious, naked woman occupying some sort of dream space, perhaps representing the victim’s spirit observing the actions while whispering spells and chants in a childlike voice. Are we meant to think that what we are witness derives directly from her point of view? It certainly is possible as such a device has been used before, notably in Sunset Boulevard.

    The other main character in the story is a young female Marine captain played by Menkes’s sister and frequent collaborator Tinka Menkes. In charge of the scene, yet essentially ostracized due to her gender by the hyper-masculine environment she occupies, the captain is left to witness and muse over the events that have transpired. Tinka exudes a calm, detached demeanor that both reflects the environment that she occupies yet through her body language and especially her eyes, we always sense that the wheels are turning and more is going on internally in her psyche yet due to her circumstances, this woman is unable to allow those thoughts a voice with which to exit.

    Flashes of blood and bored posturing are frequent as Menkes uses these as signifiers of a world created by both hyper-masculine violence and the emotional disconnect that allows such acts to arise and more importantly increase in severity without any regards to conscience; a particularly punishing image is that of a MP burying the Marine’s face in his wife’s remains, particularly her womb. Smearing the man’s face in blood while defiling the victim’s body, the captain coldly watches as her colleague tortures this man with a near-childlike degree of glee hidden within his outward contempt. These flashes are however punctuated by silence and banality as the remaining guards joke and chit chat while a corpse deteriorates in the midday sun and a man covered in blood sits restrained in a car as if it were nothing to think about. The viewer is left horrified by both the carnage itself and the manner in which it is casually disregarded.

    In the end, Menkes’ latticework of temporal shifts allows the viewer to take into account the myriad of circumstances and emotions that can lead to such a brutal crime, while essentially keeping the tragic aftermath clearly in the forefront. A formal tour-de-force as well as spiritual and emotional investigation, The Bloody Child clearly proves that despite hardships faced, the underground and avant-garde are still alive and kicking and we should be all the more happy for it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Bloody Child
  • The Fifth Horseman is Fear

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced in 1964, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear stands as a newly rediscovered gem from the Czech New Wave. For a brief moment in the early 60’s, the communist government of Czechoslovakia experienced a cultural thaw knows as The Prague Spring. Barreling into the breach was a bevy of artists including playwright and future Czech president Vaclav Havel and filmmakers such as Milos Forman, Jan Nemec, etc. A virtual wellspring of new, innovative films sprung forth during this moment of cultural freedom and invention. However, as Soviet tanks rolled in and deposed the more liberal regime in place, so the doors shut on the Czech New Wave itself and many of its films were forgotten. It is our luck though that these films are beginning to resurface, and The Fifth Horseman Is Fear is a great example of why these titles are worth looking at now.

    Set during World War II, the film follows an aging, Jewish doctor as he works for the Nazi-occupied government doing inventory work by keeping records on property commandeered by the state from its Jewish citizens. In a chilling allusion to the Holocaust that has no doubt begun by the time the film is set, the viewer is shown myriads of clocks, pianos, etc., all collected and being accounted for. You think of all the people who played those instruments and kept time on those clocks and how they met their fates in gas chambers while the monsters who put them their kept track of their petty goods.

    On one eventful day, the doctor is contacted by a neighbor of his, who is hiding a wounded partisan in his apartment, for help. Forbidden to practice medicine, the doctor agonizes but eventually operates on the wounded man. However, to alleviate his pain and keep him from being discovered, the young man needs morphine which is scarce to come by. So the doctor must set out to find the morphine needed to keep this partisan safe while protecting himself in the process. Not only that, he must also keep the man’s presence hidden from Nazi agents hunting the partisan down and who are prepared to punish all those who aid the man’s hiding, which eventually includes many of the doctor’s own apartment neighbors.

    While the film is formally set during the Nazi occupation, director Zbynek Brynych states the connection so thinly that one can clearly view the film more importantly as a statement on Communist occupation and control. The main underlying purpose of the film is to subtly illustrate the effective use of fear by the Communist regime to keep its citizens cowed and suspicious of each other, in order to avoid any and all government reprisals. The doctor’s neighbors clearly sympathize with his plight and do aid him, but are forced to do so in the most covert manner in order to avoid suspicion by the tenement’s superintendent, himself a Communist party member and committee leader.

    Yet one sees that even this man’s position is guided more by governmental fear than ideological fervor. Finally, there are the assigned Nazi agents themselves who do not appear in traditional SS or Nazi attire but show up in black suits and neck ties. With such a non-descript look and cool, professional manner. They subtly but effective assert their power over the characters by their presence and are able to employ it effectively. It is easier to imagine these men as KGB agents than members of the Gestapo and that is the point the director is trying to subtly but directly make.

    Throughout the film, the concept of self-imprisonment via fear is effectively explored. In fact, many of the characters are able to survive and get through their lives with little trouble by simply keeping themselves in state of constant self-alertness. As soon as troubles arise, they quickly think of how to protect themselves and sell out others in order to avoid the wrath of a government with little or no moral apprehension to executing them. The threat is kept so palpably tangible in their lives via propaganda that they cannot ever allow themselves to loosen their guard.

    By keeping everyone’s eyes squarely on themselves alone, it allows people to stay disconnected and thus allow the government to more easily maintain complete control. By rejecting this fear and openly defying the government and its rules, the doctor stands as an example to the liberation one has in be free and true to one’s self as well as the danger such personal choice and defiance brings. That is ultimately the most intriguing and important theme that this film so effectively illustrates through its timely story, engaging characters, and stark, expressionistic cinematography that visually communicates the psychological isolation and angst that citizens of a repressive regime experience in order to survive.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Fifth Horseman is Fear
  • The Films of James Broughton

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    With a career that lasted for forty years, filmmaker James Broughton left his own idiosyncratic stamp on the world of avant-garde cinema. Beginning in the late forties, Broughton covered subjects ranging from group portraits to filming his own poetry. Released from Facets Video, the Films of James Broughton box set covers the man’s career from his early, silent pieces to his final works with collaborator Joel Singer. For fans of Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, etc., the works of James Broughton are definitely worth looking into and thanks to this new set, that opportunity is now easily available.

    The first disc covers Broughton’s earliest efforts. The set begins with a short titled Mother’s Day, an examination of childhood accomplished by illustrating the absurd familial rituals conducted by a group of children raised by a self-absorbed and uncaring mother. With its frequent jump cuts and unconscious allusions, Mother’s Day would have made a great double feature with Ashes in the Afternoon in 1948. The majority of these films are fairly whimsical and sketch out motifs, i.e. the use of large casts, the pursuit of love, that are more abstractly investigated in later work. One of the disc’s highlights, The Pleasure Garden, a wonderful fairy tale originally commissioned in Britain, follows a group of social misfits overcoming social repression in a secret garden of sorts. The Pleasure Garden eventually won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

    The second disc moves into Broughton’s middle period, during which Broughton began shifting from fairly literal investigations of love and community to more abstract works that invoke nature and the human form. One piece that exemplifies this pursuit is The Golden Positions, a thirty-two minute tableaux featuring naked men and women in various poses. While on the surface this may appear to appeal to more vulgar tendencies, the film actually stands as a celebration of the human body. In this context, prurient thoughts fade away and an innocent tone of wonder arises as the viewer gazes upon the possibilities of human form and movement. Broughton also employs more mythic symbols and themes in these pieces, evoking the Garden of Eden and Greek mythology at times.

    The final disc marks Broughton’s last films, produced with collaborator Joel Singer. While these final films continue the pursuits of his middle period, they slowly gather a calm, elegiac tone. Highlights include Song of the Godbody, an intimate appreciation of the flesh which is a logical extension of The Golden Positions, as well as Scattered Remains, Broughton’s last film. Over the course of viewing this retrospective, one feels a sense of living and changing over time as Broughton did over his own career. From the early, formal experiments to the later, more spiritual sketches that came at the end. By the end, Broughton proves himself worthy of inclusion in such company as the aforementioned Anger, Deren, Warhol, etc.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Films of James Broughton
  • The Murder of Fred Hampton

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party along with fellow Panther Mark Clark were killed in a shootout that occurred in Hampton’s own apartment in the dead of night. Found shot to death in his bed, Hampton’s death was initially ruled as justifiable homicide by the police officers who made the assault. However, evidence soon proved that not only were the officers unprovoked but Hampton and his associates were coldly gunned down and attempted no real resistance. Around this same time, filmmakers Howard Alk and Mike Gray were in Chicago shooting a film that was following the activities of Hampton and the Black Panther Party chapter. Both men were quickly called to the crime scene by Hampton’s lawyers to photograph the crime scene itself. What resulted from all that footage is the chilling documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, released by Facets Video.

    What the film works perfectly as is an incisive sociological document of a time all too quickly and easily reduced to liberal nostalgia. Rather than being simply reduced to a montage of slogans and Panthers sporting leather jackets and shotguns, the film takes an appropriate cinema verite stance and rather than imposing a stiff structure upon the proceedings and subjects allows the Panthers to speak for themselves. The most fruitful result of this laid back approach is the portrait of Hampton himself that surfaces before his untimely murder.

    It is easy to see why he would be seen as a threat to the governing power structure; articulate and compassionate, Fred Hampton was a man with a clear message and natural magnetism that drew people to him. What’s more, rather than taking a stereotypical stance of the black man railing against white society his war was not based on race but on inequity. In his mind and words, a ‘pig’ could be a white man, black man, Latino, Asian, it didn’t matter what the skin tone was; what mattered was the willingness to uphold an oppressive system that maintained its power base by keeping those same groups divided.

    Hampton’s wish was that all oppressed peoples would organize together and combat this divisive regime. With that notion in mind, Hampton’s goals are more aligned to a Martin Luther King Jr., rather than a mere black pro-violence militant as law enforcement attempted to paint him as. What’s more, the filmmakers do effectively, despite a sense of bias, illuminate the government’s attempts to portray Hampton’s murder as a result of officers responding in self-defense rather than blasting away at a man bed-ridden and effectively unable to defend himself. When building their case to refute the state attorney’s account of the incident, Hampton’s lawyers investigate the crime scene and forensic evidence closely.

    Bullet holes and dark, blood stains abound in Hampton’s apartment leaving such visceral traces that it becomes rather easy to imagine the gunfire ripping through his door and walls and finally being sprayed with the lethal bullets on his own bed. What results effectively is an episode of CSI decades before the idea ever came up in a network meeting. By analyzing bullet patters, trajectories, etc., Hampton’s lawyers were able to prove that the police fired into his apartment pro-actively and not as a result of self-defense as the officers had claimed. Memorials and speeches to move forward result however, despite this it is impossible to ignore Hampton’s presence once he is gone. So strong was his personality that it is easy to understand why this murder was such a blow to the Black Panther Party as one of their most dynamic spokespeople was essentially assassinated for simply trying to unite his community.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Murder of Fred Hampton
  • The Witman Boys

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A fascinating period drama with highly stylized visuals and an emotional punch worthy of Russian literature, The Witman Boys is a welcome discovery for fans of foreign cinema constantly looking in the cracks for challenging movies to watch. Part period piece, part horror, and part sexual psychodrama, the film follows the emotional maturation of a pair of boys who clearly haven’t received enough love in their lives. Transpiring in 1914 Hungary, the Witman family is a seemingly well-to-do family with everything together on the outside but with a seemingly turgid home life.

    After what is probably a normally terse dinner, Mr. Witman suffers the unfortunate fate of dying from a heart attack in front of his wife and boys. The boys’, Janos and Erno, rather blank reaction to his passing should clue one in to how much time all three spent together. They are more interested in what will happen to his dead body than whether or not he is in a better place or not. Teenagers with Janos being the elder, the Witman boys live out their days in school and at home, developing a particularly strong interest in biology especially when it comes to dissections. Soon enough their mother accepts the advances of another man and the boys are left to fend for themselves, finding release in unexpected and macabre activities.

    Animals mysteriously begin disappearing from town as both Janos and Erno indulge their ‘scientific’ interests and begin killing and dissecting various victims, likely as a means to come to grips with death in a way that makes sense to them emotionally if not morally correct. In addition, through chance, Janos comes into contact with a prostitute that works out of the local brothel. Feeling genuine warmth for the first time, Janos confuses her sexual advances for emotional intimacy and soon becomes hooked on her as someone to provide the very sort of nurturing denied to him and Erno by their mother. Director Janos Szasz handles these sequences with delicacy as both boys achieve a sort of sexual awakening; beginning to act on their impulses without fully knowing what to do, and using the prostitute as a surrogate mother.

    Janos especially hardens as the film progresses, turning from a somewhat disaffected teenager to a defiant personality willing and open to challenge those in his way. It’s odd to watch how both he and his younger brother develop a sort of shared sociopathic mindset, as though we are watching a pair of Hannibal Lectors or Ted Bundys develop before our very eyes. The convergence of the brothers’ disaffection for their mother, their deep if misplaced love for their prostitute, and the growing interest in vivisection at any means leads to a tragic if not entirely shocking denouement.

    To say The Witman Boys is a heavy piece of work is an understatement; from the stylized, emotionally overwrought lighting which bathes everyone and everything in either deep shadow or dark browns and reds to the puzzling storyline, the film holds the majority of its power in suggestion rather than shock. Rather than showing an animal be gutted, it is spoken about or merely implied which transfer the horror visually from the screen into the viewer’s imagination which almost always proves to be more potent. In addition, this strategy of suggestion ensures also that when action is finally taken it registers with the full shock that it deserves. Chock full of realistic performances and a certain dark humor, The Witman Boys is an unorthodox gem for sure but one that’s certain to stay in your memory for some time.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    The Witman Boys
  • Three Crowns of the Sailor

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Made in 1982 by famed Chilean director Raul Ruiz brought to the screen one of the most interesting ghost stories of recent decades with Three Crowns of the Sailor. Combining elements of folklore, ghost story, and narrative sophistication, Ruiz spins a yarn that is less interested in entirely making sense and more interested on taking the viewer on a journey as interesting and exhausting as that of the main character.

    The tale begins on a dark night, when young student Tadeusz kills his friend and benefactor; the owner of an antique shop. After the murder, the young man roams around the night contemplating what to do next. It is at this point that he meets the sailor, a man who seemingly knows of his troubles and offers him work and escape aboard a departing ship. The price for this is however, three Dutch crowns and the boy must listen to the sailor’s tale of how he came to be aboard this ship and the places it has taken him since. The boy agrees and the tale begins.

    It is at this point where the film enters the phantasmagorical. The man we learn is an out of work sailor, looking for work and a way to escape his home of Valparaiso. He eventually meets a mysterious blind man who offers him a spot on the very ship mentioned to the student in the beginning. After the blind man is murdered, the sailor accepts the offer and leaves to set sail. Once aboard he notices strange things, such as men appearing to commit suicide and then reappearing on deck the next day, and his shipmates sweating worms, etc. The sailor eventually realizes that he is aboard a ghost ship, always on the move going to ports of call around the world.

    Over the course of his travels, the sailor meets a variety of strange characters, such as a Singapore professor who ages backwards, an impoverished African longshoreman who claims he is from the tribe chosen personally by God, etc. To describe the characters in this film would be to deny their very essence and power. They are people who have to be seen, to be experience, in order to be understood. As the tale progresses, the sailor becomes more and more confused, unable to truly distinguish reality from fantasy.

    One of the more interesting aspects of this film is that the main act of it is making the viewer aware that a story is being told. The story itself or the contradictions within it seemingly matter less than the acknowledgment of the actual act itself. We are told the same segment from different angles and points of view, such as the sailor’s return to Valparaiso where he has either been hit by a car or entered ill repute by avenging his sister, etc. This is a story of seeming dead-ends but can only be seen that way if you’re interested in the final destination only and not the journey itself.

    A tactic that Ruiz uses to distinguish the real world of Tadseuz listening to this tale and the fantastic world that the sailor relates is through the use of color. The real-time segments are shot in a noir-like, chiaroscuro black and white, which tries to keep the seeming real world entrenched in cold, concrete reality. However, when we turn to the sailor’s world, the film has a luxuriant, almost lurid color scheme. Reds and oranges abound as this is a world full of life, despite however strange it may be.

    In the end, the final transaction between the sailor and student is made. The film comes to an official close. However, this is a film that lingers in your mind akin to the ghosts who linger aboard their ship, existing in a world that is neither real nor unreal, trying to figure out where they stand. In the end, one must not view but experience Ruiz’s world him or herself because words simply cannot due justice to a work as complex yet simple as this.

    For more information on this film or to purchase, go to www.facets.org.
    Three Crowns of the Sailor
  • Tickets

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In the world of cinema, one of the standard, if less examined, subgenres is the portmanteau film. Often utilized as more a showcase for individual directorial talents, in most cases new filmmakers, the portmanteau has had little exposure in American cinema overall, with the exception of films like Four Rooms and New York Stories. The form itself is simple enough, a series of individual story segments directed by separate filmmakers are tied together by a simple, common theme to give the final film coherence. One of the major shortcomings of this sort of film is more often than not, the individual segments, while interesting, often do not coalesce together well enough to avoid the patchwork feel that many of them inevitably evoke. However, one of the newest additions to the genre, Tickets, successfully avoids this problem and is engaging both as a whole and in its individual stories.

    In looking at this collective piece of work, the first matter that needs to be examined is the list of filmmakers who contributed to this project. Helming the individual episodes are esteemed foreign directors Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach. All three filmmakers share the privilege of winning the prestigious Palme d’Or, with Loach being the latest to win in 2006 with his film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. All three men’s individual episodes coexist within the shared space of passenger train traveling from Germany to Rome. The main structural device used to give the overall film a coherent framework is the filmmakers’ insistence of setting each of their stories within a specific time frame of the train’s journey.

    Olmi’s episode, “The Professor” marks the first leg of the trip. The basic plot follows an aging scientist who’s taking the train home to make his grandson’s birthday party. The old man is booked his ticket on the train by a lovely female assistant at the company he does consultant work for. Once aboard the train, the old man begins to craft a letter to the assistant, expressing his fondness for her and looking back on his own life in the process. As he does, the viewer is given insight to the man’s inner world as well as the outer world of the train as the various passengers board and settle in for the long journey ahead. The episode juggles time as the old man thinks about the younger woman and his journey to being aboard this particular train as well as his own fantasies and memories as he takes the time to reflect on his life and opportunities passing him by as he does nothing. By the segment’s end, the old man breaks out of his own inner reverie and steps forth to act in a situation worthy of Olmi’s humanistic characters.

    The second leg of the trip belongs to Kiarostami in an episode referred to as “The Widower”. The main participants in this episode are a young Italian man and a middle-aged Italian woman. From the start the two enact a codependent relationship based on control, worthy of Beckett. From the start, the woman coerces and nags the young man to do her bidding with little regard for him or anyone else around. At one point, the pair steal a pair of first class seats and the fight the woman puts up to keep them is worthy of any modern diva’s freakout.

    While the young man apologizes for the mistake and his misgivings for taking the seat, the woman expresses moral outrage so incensed she is at not only the affront to her personally but the knowledge that they have been caught publicly and the embarrassment she feels in the moment but does not allow the other passengers to view. In the meantime, the young man strikes up a conversation with a teenage girl supposedly from the village he is originally from. As she regales him of their connections, a mutual yet subtle attraction forms between them. Constantly nagged by the older woman, the young man eventually moves off to a separate car where the audience finally learns the extent of the relationship between the pair, which leads to a sudden and dramatic conclusion to Kiarostami’s episode and the middle of the overall journey.

    Rounding out the film and bringing the train’s journey to a close, is Loach’s episode, “The Celtic Fans”. The tale centers on three young, Scottish guys traveling to Rome to watch their favorite soccer team play in a tournament being held in the city. As the episode starts, the three fans strike up a conversation with a young boy traveling to Rome to be with his father. The boy happens to be apart of a family that is featured in all three episodes. Over the course of the film, the family moves from being a cast of peripheral characters in the beginning to eventually moving to center stage by the end segment. After the friendly encounter with the boy, one of the fans realizes that his own ticket is missing.

    Worried about getting in trouble with the authorities, the three fans fume and eventually put together the location of the missing ticket. As they make their realization, they come into immediate conflict with the boy’s family and learn of the plight they are in. Loach then takes the opportunity to launch into his characteristic study of social struggle as the three agonize over whether or not to recover the ticket and save themselves or allow the ticket to be used by the family. The opportunity is taken to consider the plight of European refugees struggling to survive. As the fans debate back and forth whether to believe the family’s story or turn them in, they struggle and grow together as for the first time they consider matters and people they would never have thought of before and struggling to do the right thing, a theme that is common to Loach’s work.

    In the end, these three filmmakers craft a portmanteau that succeeds in not only highlighting their own individual styles and concerns within the context of the individual episodes, but convincingly hook together all three tales seamlessly enough that at first glance one could suppose that the film was composed by one filmmaker from one script only. In that respect, Tickets both highlights and transcends the portmanteau film format and creates a benchmark that one can only hope future filmmakers will aspire to in coming together to create a work that pays attention to the individual filmmaker styles while they are carefully crafted to lock together seamlessly to make a compelling, unified whole. Before that film comes, we can at least take comfort Tickets is there for us.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Tickets
  • Who Wants to Kill Jessie?

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced in 1966, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? stands as yet another example of the artistic vitality of the short-lived Czech New Wave. Directed by Vaclav Vorlicek and starring Playboy cover model Olga Schoberova as the title character, the film is a visually odd but ultimately warm comedy ultimately commenting on dreams and desire. No doubt, if this film’s script had been written today it would probably be snatched up immediately for Hollywood as the storyline could easily be adapted for today’s audiences.

    The film begins with an atypical married couple; the wife Ruzenka is a state-employed scientist. Her latest breakthrough is a serum that can erase images and figures from one’s own dreams. What she doesn’t realize however, is that the serum does not merely remove the imagery from the dreams alone but materializes them as physical manifestations in the real world. Her husband Jindrich is an engineer working for a local factory who is working on finding a solution to some construction problems with the factory. As he is racking his brain for a solution, he stumbles upon a popular comic strip called “Who Wants to Kill Jessie?” Within the comic strip, a Barbarella-type character named Jessie is chased by a cowboy and superman who are trying to kill her and steal her anti-gravity gloves. Seeing these gloves as the solution to his problem, Jindrich begins to pour over the comic strip trying to figure out how to create these gloves while inadvertently developing a fascination with Jessie herself.

    Eventually Ruzenka discovers her husband’s obsession with Jessie when monitoring one of his dreams. Out of jealousy, she injects her husband with the serum to get rid of Jessie. However, the serum materializes not only Jessie into the real world but her pursuers as well. What goes from here is a madcap race for Jindrich to figure out the secret of the anti-gravity gloves while saving Jessie from both her comic strip pursuers but from the clutches of his own wife as well. This leads to some wonderfully inventive devices, most interestingly the usage of word balloons by the comic strip characters that actually materialize in the real world. The effect is both hilariously engaging and still visually effective after all these years after the film’s production.

    Eventually the film’s absurdity mounts as the comic characters rampage across the city destroying everything in sight and eventually when Ruzenka is charged with the execution of Jessie and her associates and the complications that arise from attempting to destroy fictional characters. As the tensions mount, Jindrich and Jessie begin to fall in love which is ultimately uplifting to watch as the audience watches the main character’s dreams literally come true.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
  • Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In 1975, famed Italian filmmaker and poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in Rome. At the time, his death was attributed to a seventeen-year old male prostitute who supposedly killed Pasolini after the filmmaker during a violent encounter. The young man was charged and sentenced to nine years in prison, with the case being closed thereafter. However, in 2005, the case was officially reopened after the male prostitute revealed that he was coerced into confessing that he had committed the murder. This matter only reignited debate over whether or not Italian government officials were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the murder. It is the pallor of this brutal death that hovers over Philo Bregstein’s biographical documentary, Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die.

    Produced in 1981, Bregstein’s film sets out to examine both the life of Pasolini and his work while examining the facts of his death at the time. In light of the case’s reopening, this film makes for required viewing for anyone interested in the subject. At the film’s start though, the viewer is educated into the life and ways of one of Italy’s most important post-war filmmakers and artists. Pasolini began his professional artistic career as a famous poet, considered by many to be Italy’s greatest ever. The film itself features many of his poetic works over the course of events, via off-screen readings that punctuate the film as events in his life unfold. Bregstein shows that while Pasolini achieved his greatest notoriety in film, he never gave up on his poetry and in fact used it as a platform to express his thoughts and feelings on matters going on within his country; often to the ire of the government itself. One of the film’s many interview subjects is famed Italian novelist Alberto Moravia who states that for a number of years, he visited and spoke with Pasolini everyday and is the primary source who attests to Pasolini’s poetic skill and importance within the context of Italian literature.

    Eventually Bregstein examines Pasolini’s film career and the various phases the filmmaker moved through before his ultimate demise. Beginning with films such as his debut feature, Accatone, adapted from his own novel, Pasolini examined and embraced the culture of poor, Roman young men; many of whom were in rough trade practices that Pasolini, an outspoken homosexual himself, often engaged in as well. Rather than showing these young men as scum and trash, these first films showed their inherent humanity and dignity as they attempted to traverse the harsh social and economic landscape of Roman society. It was during this time as well that Pasolini helped another future Italian filmmaking legend, Bernardo Bertolucci enter the film world. Bertolucci himself worked as assistant director to Pasolini on Accatone, commenting on how both men were excited and engaged by their discovery of cinema in the moment. Bertolucci would later direct his first feature, La Commare Secca, based on Pasolini’s own novel.

    Moving from that arena, Pasolini then directed one of the most interesting and effective films on Christ, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which recast Jesus as a Marxist hero; a fighter for the people. No doubt, this portrayal did caused controversy and did not alleviate people’s hostilities towards his political and sexual practices. Eventually, Pasolini moved onto his more literary phase where he films adaptations of literary classics such as Oedipus Rex, The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, etc. By doing so, Pasolini engages the modern audience into viewing these stories and myths via fresh perspective and allows them the opportunity to apply their lessons and themes to their own lives and times. After this particular series however, the filmmaker directed his final and most controversial piece, Salo. Based on the work of the Marquis de Sade, Salo is Pasolini’s indictment of Fascism via the depraved sexual cruelty of the Fascist leaders within the piece, thus taking the opportunity to attack the regime that he grew up under as a child himself.

    At this point in the film though, Bregstein dives headfirst into Pasolini’s death. One of the more graphic aspects of the piece is the director’s decision to show the actual crime scene photos of Pasolini’s body. Attempting to support director and friend Bernardo Bertolucci’s claim that the male prostitute alone did not have the physical strength to inflict the wounds himself, Bregstein shows Pasolini’s beaten and bloated corpse. The viewer can easily see and seemingly agree with the assertion that no lone person could inflict this sort of damage on another person. The images themselves are horrid and depressing as one sees the mangled remains of an artist who produced work both culturally and politically important to his own country. Especially when viewed in conjunction with interviews with Pasolini himself that Bregstein uses to open the film, the final remains are unavoidably tragic to bear.

    In the end though, one can see that despite the lurid and despicable nature of his demise, Pier Paolo Pasolini forged his place in the pantheon of not only Italian but world filmmakers. His films commanded a clear political edge while never losing sight of the humanity and potential for human beings to rise above the difficulties set before them. A poet, a filmmaker, a human being, Pasolini was all of these things and no matter whatever else may be said about him what cannot be denied is that he was a man committed to showing us the truth, no matter what consequence that may and ultimately did bring.

    For more information on this title, go to www.facets.org.
    Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die


Fantoma Films

  • Fassbinder Collection I

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of the most prolific and problematic filmmakers in cinema history, Rainer Werner Fassbinder crammed more creative work down the throats of society in as short a time as anyone else has ever dared to. Directing forty-three films in roughly fourteen years, Fassbinder was truly a force to be reckoned with. In addition to his prolific film work, he wrote and directed plays, television, etc. As would be expected though, such a bright light burned out relatively quickly with his early death at age thirty-seven. Yet despite his early demise, the work itself remains to be rediscovered and appreciated. To aid in that effort, Fantoma has released Fassbinder Collection I which contains two of the master’s early works, Whity and Pioneers in Ingolstadt.

    The first film in the set, Whity, is typical of Fassbinder’s first career phase in which he played around with conventional genres and stood them on their heads. Set in the American West, Whity concerns the decadent Nicholson family and their black manservant nicknamed Whity. However, in addition to being their faithful servant Whity is also the illegitimate son of the family’s patriarch, Ben Nicholson. At the film’s onset, the Nicholson family consists of Ben, his young wife Katherine, and his two sons Frank and Davy. Each member has their own dysfunctional cross to bear. For Katherine, it is her greed towards the family fortune which allows her feign faithfulness while cheating when she can. We come to find that Frank is a homosexual crossdresser, indulging in his fetish in secret and Davy is a mentally handicapped young man, possessing the mind of a child.

    Whity attempts to serve his family proudly and in doing so, indulges in his own self-hatred and loathing. He proudly succumbs to the callow wills of the Nicholson, including humiliation and frequent beatings. His only escape is his affair with a local saloon singer and prostitute, Hanna (played by frequent collaboration Hanna Schygulla). As the plot thickens, each one of the Nicholsons attempt to enlist Whity in killing the others off to meet their own individual ends. Whity is left trying to negotiate the whims and murder plots of his family while trying to maintain his own sense of identity and loyalty.

    The set’s second feature, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, was Fassbinder’s first film to play in both the New York and Cannes Film Festivals, bringing the filmmaker his first taste of major international attention. Pioneers concerns the exploits of two women, Alma and Berta, who live in the small German town of Ingolstadt. The film begins with the arrival of an attachment of German soldiers ordered to build a wooden bridge across a river at the town’s edge. While working on this construction detail, the soldiers seek to cure their boredom by drinking and carousing with the local female population. Berta and Alma plunge themselves into this potentially dangerous mix with equally opposite results.

    On the one hand, Alma seeks to merely enjoy herself freely with the soldiers so she chooses to engage in random sexual encounters with the men. At first, she does so for the sheer physical pleasure and excitement and yet as time goes on, she turns it into her own profitable business for a time. Her actions bring her momentary and economic gain yet she is subjected to the scorn of the town’s women. However, Berta travels along a much more complicated path than her friend. A relatively innocent and beautiful woman, Berta believes in true love and falls deeply for a morally bankrupt and emotionally unavailable soldier. She is enraptured by the man, but in typical Fassbinder fashion, is victim to his emotional whims and suffers from it. It is this subplot that is often cited as Fassbinder’s first attempts to inject the Hollywood melodrama of Douglas Sirk into his own methodology. While this first attempt is promising, Fassbinder would put his Sirkian melodramatic sense to greater use in later films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun.

    After watching both of these films, one gets a taste of Fassbinder’s early work and the direction he slowly began to move towards. After eschewing most of the genre preoccupations of his first films, he moved more towards melodrama and tragic love stories. It is within this arena that Fassbinder really found his creative niche and was able to come up with far greater works, both in terms of technical complexity and emotional resonance. As far as where these films stand, they both create their own enjoyment and point the way forward. For both these reasons, they are important to watch if one wants to begin grasping the lasting importance of Fassbinder’s cinema.

    For more information on this title, go to www.fantoma.com.
    Fassbinder Collection I
  • Fassbinder Collection II

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One of the most prolific and problematic filmmakers in cinema history, Rainer Werner Fassbinder crammed more creative work down the throats of society in as short a time as anyone else has ever dared to. Directing forty-three films in roughly fourteen years, Fassbinder was truly a force to be reckoned with. In addition to his prolific film work, he wrote and directed plays, television, etc. As would be expected though, such a bright light burned out relatively quickly with his early death at age thirty-seven. Yet despite his early demise, the work itself remains to be rediscovered and appreciated. To aid in that effort, Fantoma has released Fassbinder Collection II, in addition to their previously released Collection I, that features films from his middle phase, Martha and In A Year With 13 Moons.

    The set’s first feature, Martha, is both black comedy and indictment of the institution of marriage wonderfully shot by legendary cinematographer and Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus. The film concerns Martha, a middle-aged spinster, who is happy in career and in no rush to be married. While on vacation with her father in Rome, the old man dies suddenly of a heart attack. Finally freed of her father’s domineering ways, Martha finally feels freed emotionally and attempts to live her life under her own rules. Eventually though, she falls under the spell of her brother in law’s own brother Helmut, a building engineer who entrances Martha immediately. Impulsively, she falls head over heels for this man who quickly seduces and marries her.

    However, beginning with their honeymoon, Martha begins to notice things about Helmut she never thought of before. Slowly but surely, he begins to dominate his new wife first physically through their sexual encounters. As things progress, he begins to take control of her life, first having her fired from her job and then forbidding her from certain activities. Quickly, Martha sees the error in her ways and tries to cope with her new existence while seeking a way out. The film gains both its humor and horror from Martha’s escape from one dominating man to then fall in love with one just as bad if not worse. Fassbinder’s commentary on the inherent control exerted within marriage is palpable and gives one pause when considering proposal to a significant other.

    The second movie in this collection is one of Fassbinder’s undisputed masterpieces, In A Year With 13 Moons. Produced shortly after the suicide of his own lover, Fassbinder mined his skill to create a film that is both heart wrenching and hilarious. The film’s central character is Elvira (in an awe-inspiring performance from Volker Spengler). Elvira’s story began when she was still Erwin, a German man who fell in love with a fellow male co-worker, Anton Saitz. As a response to Erwin’s advance, Anton merely says that it’s too bad that Erwin wasn’t a girl. With those words spoken, Erwin leaves his wife and child, flies to Casablanca for a sex-change operation, and returns as Elvira. This information is revealed as back story as we observe Elvira, now a prostitute trying to survive after giving an interview about her sordid past.

    From this point, the film follows Elvira over the last few days of her life as she attempts to pick up the pieces and reexamine her own life and events that led her to her current predicament. Spengler’s performance as Elvira is both sensitive and difficult to watch. It is clear to anyone who observes him that he is indeed a man, yet Spengler invests his character with a deep sense of dignity and feminine pride. So while the viewer is never fooled, one still can believe in the idea of Elvira as a real woman because of the matronly manner in which she carries herself. The film is also invested with some moments of real black humor.

    At one point, Elvira is hiding in an abandoned building, attempting to eat, and comes across a man attempting suicide via hanging. The two chat and eat, while paying relatively little notice to the noose hanging until the moment itself comes. In another delicious example, Elvira and one of her female friends travel to the Catholic orphanage where Erwin spent much of his time as a child and where the viewer learns the circumstances of his bitter childhood. Once there, he is reintroduced to the nun that cared for him at the orphanage, the two not having seen each other for decades. Elvira is introduced and the nun pays no heed to the obvious shock of the situation, allowing Fassbinder to mine the absurd humor of the moment while pointing out the nun’s emotional understanding and lack of judgment.

    Eventually, Elvira works up the courage to confront Saitz, now a successful and ruthless businessman. Their encounter unexpectedly leads to a surreal but enjoyable musical number, lifted from a Jerry Lewis film. From there, things begin to slowly spiral out of control as Elvira further loses her tenuous sense of identity and begins to fall prey to both doubt and depression. By the end, Elvira’s fate is of little shock yet you hope that somehow she can pull out of it. Neither fully a woman or man, Elvira lived her life in a personal, painful hell; unable to be truly loved while pouring herself out until nothing remained.

    Fassbinder sympathizes with Elvira yet is never maudlin about it; we never forget that she lives in a world of her own making yet still we have to root for her because there’s no reason someone so seemingly good-hearted must suffer such abuse and rejection all in the pursuit of genuine love. Perhaps that’s the final point to be made. No matter what, In A Year With 13 Moons is a great way to close out this second Fassbinder box set and is a film that is not forgotten easily, whether one wishes to or not.

    For more information on this title, go to www.fantoma.com.
    Fassbinder Collection II
  • Red Angel

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced in 1966 by Japanese filmmaker Yasuzo Masumura, Red Angel stands as a harrowing document to both the unflinching brutality and spiritual razing of war. The film takes place in 1939 during the Japanese invasion of China. The main character is Nurse Nishi, played by Ayako Wakao, a young, fresh nurse sent to a field hospital in China for her first assignment after arriving in country. Being assigned to general duty, it is not long when she is attacked and raped by a group of injured soldiers convalescing in the field hospital. Asserting their own primal urges over the timid young woman, the soldiers take advantage of Nishi both physically and spiritually as well.

    One of the film’s strongest assets and statements is showing the unflinching carnage that war creates via its scenes of battle wounded soldiers. Scene after scene we see men spouting blood, loosing limbs, suffering and crying in anguish in lurid detail, denying us the opportunity to look away or ignore the consequences of warfare, despite the rationales given. After her initial assignment at the field hospital, Nishi is eventually sent to another medical outpost near the front lines to assist the beleaguered staff. There she comes into contact with Dr. Okabe, played by Shinsuke Ashida, the head doctor and surgeon of the facility. Upon arrival, Nishi surprisingly comes into contact with the soldier who raped her before. Instead of seeking revenge on the man by refusing to help him, she pleads with Okabe to do their best to save him. While the soldier ultimately dies, Nishi’s essential humanity shines through despite the savagery that she sees and experiences in her work. And that savagery reaches its full bloody scope in Dr. Okabe’s treatment methods at the hospital.

    Lacking sufficient medical supplies, equipment, and staff to properly treat his patients, Okabe is essentially forced to amputate the limbs of most of his patients in order to offset further infection and save their lives. This method is shown in one particular scene in which Nishi assists Okabe hack off a soldier’s leg in order to stave off gangrene. Strapping the man down and applying only local anesthetic, the viewer watches Nishi struggle to hold this wounded soldier down while Okabe applies his saw to the man’s leg. We hear the tearing sounds of the saw cutting through bone until eventually the leg is detached completely and set aside. The attention to detail of the procedure would be fit in any slasher film or Quentin Tarantino flick for shock value, that it’s used here only highlights the horror and hopelessness facing both the patients and medical staff.

    Soon, Nishi grows closer to Okabe and the two enter into a tenuous relationship. She learns of his addiction to morphine, used to alleviate his own depression and feelings of helplessness in terms of treating the soldiers under his care. He is a man that feels that even by saving lives, he is still destroying them as he reckons that how can a man truly be a man if pieces of him are hacked off even if done so to save his life. His inner turmoil regarding to this notion of incompleteness and masculinity applies to his own self as he suffers from impotence brought about by the morphine he injects himself with. Despite these shortcomings, Nishi still cannot help but be drawn to this man who despite his own feelings of worthlessness and compromise does all that is possible to save these people under such horrible circumstances.

    After her assignment to Okabe’s unit, Nishi is sent back to the field hospital and comes into contact with one Private Orihara, played by Yusuke Kawazu. Orihara is one of Okabe’s saved patients and victims as well; in order to save his life both of his arms were amputated. Nishi comes across him among her patients and is taken aback by his acceptance of his predicament and thankfulness to Okabe for saving his life. A man who struggles to hold onto his decency despite such obstacles like Okabe, Nishi spends time with this man and eventually begins to service him sexually. It is this aspect of the film where Masumura delves into deeper psychological and erotic terrain in examining the unusual sexual relationship between these two people.

    Pleading with Nishi to help him fulfill his own physical urges which he has now become incapable of completing, she agrees to bare her body to this man and performs certain acts on him to alleviate his anxiety. In doing so, she begins to more fully explore her own sexuality and in particular, submissiveness to this man as she does what she can to physically please him, seeing it as a way to care for him not physically but emotionally. The sequence where the pair are in a hotel room she has rented for a tryst is not only an intimate look into the emotional connection between these two people but is suffused with an erotic charge as the actions between them take on an almost fetish-like quality. Eventually, the relationship between them leads to tragic results, however it allows Nishi to further examine herself and her intentions in the context of war.

    At this point, the film enters into its final act as Nishi returns once again to Dr. Okabe’s post. Learning that he is being sent to the front lines to a village under Japanese control, she sets out to go with him knowing that the chances of their return is slim. While there, they discover that the village is on the verge of being overrun by Chinese forces and is being subjected to a cholera outbreak. With the walls closing in around them, both Nishi and Okabe finally open themselves up to one another both emotionally and physically, in moments of exquisite intimacy exposing their weaknesses and professing their love for one another.

    The final attack eventually comes and both characters finally face the complete brutality and savage callousness of combat itself with their lives in the balance. In the end though, what matters most is Nishi’s journey through this living hell and how she both changes emotionally and yet retains her unshakable sense of decency. She is the lone figure of hope in a land where men die and those that survive question their own worth and masculinity as a result from their physical and psychological wounds. As such, the film dives into an examination of traditional masculinity and how that leads to both violence and torment for those who buy into such philosophy. When all is said and done, Masumura’s Red Angel enters the ranks of other distinguished war films in showing both the harrowing violence and struggle for spiritual strength and morality that faces those face down in the bowels of war.

    For more information on this title, go to www.fantoma.com.
    Red Angel
  • The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume I

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released by Fantoma and restored via painstaking work conducted by the UCLA Film Archive, the collected works of groundbreaking filmmaker Kenneth Anger are now available for viewing. For years bad VHS transfers frustrated both ardent fans and newcomers to Anger’s work, yet they continued to show up and check out his cinematic experiments due to their underlying beauty and strangeness. Filmmaker, author, and occultist, Anger’s films reflect his own personal obsessions and interests.

    Rejecting mainstream Hollywood conventions in terms of both style and content, Anger investigated such areas as homosexual desire, drugs, and the occult, very often inventing entire quasi-religions and cults in his films to showcase his deeply held fascinations with such beliefs. Beyond that, he was an early experimenter with pop music and film; often merging classical music along with catchy pop and folk songs into iconoclastic juxtapositions which perfectly gelled with his hallucinatory imagery. Volume 1 contains Anger’s first films in which he began formulating the visual and sonic vocabulary that would reach their perfection in such later masterpieces as Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising.

    The first selection, Fireworks, is an amazing debut that is credited as one of the first open cinematic depictions of gay desire. A silent film, Fireworks illustrates the inner fantasies of a young, gay man living in the late 1940’s. With overtly suggestive imagery such as a Roman candle standing in place for a penis, Anger clearly lets the viewer know that his main character is not interested in relations with any foxy, young chicks. From there, he proceeds along a Cocteau-esque journey into his subconscious including but not limited to, a sadomasochistic gang-rape by a bevy of young, virile sailors. Disturbing yet fascinating to watch, what makes Fireworks even more astounding is that it was produced in 1947. Decades before Stonewall and the gay rights movement, Anger was prescient in his honest if fanciful depictions of gay male desires in a society that still regarded homosexuality as a mental illness.

    Rabbit’s Moon, presented in its original length, is a wonderfully lyrical study in miming and 1950’s pop music. Coming off as a near Disney-esque ballet, the film combines fairy-tale like imagery with a deft use of pop songs to create what could easily be called a proto music video. Puce Moment is a campy celebration of gaudy color and movie star glamour with the main character sorting through a plethora of over the top, gauche gowns that she is debating to wear at a party. Again utilizing pop and folk music, Anger has the parade of dresses fly into the camera’s lens; each one gyrating with frenetic energy and wild, bright colors that directly transmits their vibrancy from the fabric into the audience itself.

    Eaux d'Artifice is an elegant study of European Water Fountains which stands as a counterpoint to Rabbit Moon in terms of musical score. Whereas Rabbit Moon has a lyrical, breezy energy due to its pop soundtrack, Eaux d’Artifice relies instead on classical music to dictate the pace and energy. Doo wop musings are traded for harpsichord elegance while the various fountains are filmed tastefully, highlighting the decadent stone work and water dances that flow from these baroque structures.

    Finally, the first volume ends with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film marks the first real stirrings of Anger’s mythological strain, tied in with famed witch Aleister Crowley’s beliefs and imagery. What results is a lurid bacchanal populated by decadent specters and mysterious demons, all seeking out their own pursuits of pleasure whilst engaging in mysterious occult rights. Dressed in bright colors and expressionist lighting, the film transmits its own uniquely carnal and mysterious atmosphere into the viewer’s subconscious via the disturbing production design. You almost feel as though you are watching some sort of home movie meant for only a select, secret few to observe.

    In the end, this first volume is a wonderful relief to both fans of Anger’s work as well as allowing the uninitiated a proper viewing of works that in turn have inspired filmmakers counting David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, etc. It also anticipates the singular merging of film and music that would result in the music video era and MTV. Unique, dark, and attention-commanding, Kenneth Anger’s underground films have been lauded for generations and with this new collection, new viewers have a chance to finally understand why.

    For more information on this title, go to www.fantoma.com.
    The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume I
  • The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume II

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Completing their cycle of Kenneth Anger releases, Fantoma has recently unveiled its Films of Kenneth Anger Vol. II. With the landmark Scorpio Rising as its centerpiece, Volume II delivers on the anticipation that Volume I created with Anger’s later films that further delved into his own cinematic universe of equal parts pop music, black magick and mysticism, and bold visual stylings. Kicking off the set is Scorpio Rising itself; long hailed as a landmark in experimental and gay cinema the film observes the rituals of a homosexual biker band that are the cinematic brothers of Jean Cocteau’s motorcycle-driving angels of death.

    The bikers in this film are high priests of outlaw sexuality and deviancy, worshipping at the altars of impulse and death. Visually, Anger draws inspiration from Marlon Brando’s performance in The Wild One and James Dean himself. And to make sure the association sinks in, clips of both Dean and Brando flash across the screen in brief cuts as Anger’s biker boys slowly don their leathers allowing the filmmaker to linger over their semi-naked torsos and bodies making the homosexual undertones fairly blatant. After a period of preparation, the individual bikers ride atop their steel horses to an underground party where events that have up to this time been rather playful and benign gradually turn dark.

    As soon as the participants arrive in the secret location, clothes come off and a leather and chains bacchanal begins. Allusions to oral sex and related activities abound and one particular reveler is pinned down by his fellow bikers and forcibly abused and doused with mustard. The violent undertones become more apparent soon as Nazi imagery and flashed of Adolf Hitler intrude upon the frame. Fun has devolved into fascism, with the mood growing increasing violent. In a way, it is as though Anger is commenting on the same sense of theatricality that the Nazis themselves practiced with their intricate mythologies and formal stylings. As time moves on, the crew again rides atop its bikes towards an appropriately fatalistic conclusion.

    Additional films in the set including a 1979 redux of Rabbit’s Moon which is one of the highlights of Volume I. Reduced in length and featuring an updated soundtrack, this alternate version is not as engaging as the original however it does provide a valuable lesson regarding the importance of marrying music and images together and how even minute changes can drastically alter the mood and effect of a particular work. Clocking at just over two minutes, Kustom Kar Kommandos is brief but conveys the erotic connection between man and machine as Anger closely lingers over a classic 50’s custom car and the owner who assembles and shines up his beautiful ride.

    Both Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising dive right into Anger’s preoccupations with mysticism and black magic with the first recording a live performance Anger himself presided over invoking supernatural spirits while the second is a highly stylized ritual film that combines Egyptian myth iconography and Aleister Crowley black magick that could easily fit into a Marilyn Manson concert. As a bonus, this edition also features a short Anger directed as recently as 2002 which is a short documentary recording an art show featuring drawings by infamous magickian Aleister Crowley. Taken as a complete set, The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol. I & II provides an easily accessible entrée into this underground filmmaker’s critically influential oeuvre with beautifully restored pictures and commentary recorded by Anger himself. Soon to be a staple of experimental film enthusiasts and film school classes, these movies are definitely worth taking a risk on.

    For more information on this title, go to www.fantoma.com.
    The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume II


First Look Home Entertainment

  • Disappeared

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Seizing upon every parent’s worst fears, Disappeared is a nuanced thriller anchored by an emotionally fraught script and top-notch performances. Ray Winstone plays Harry Sands, a successful London businessman who is a self-made success both personally and financially. Married to a beautiful wife and father to a grown son and daughter, Harry’s life is one of sublime contentment. That is until he soon loses contact with his loving daughter Olivia while she is away in Istanbul and finds out she has gone missing. Frightful of the worst possible outcome and hitting nothing but dead ends from the British authorities, Harry decides to travel to Istanbul himself and find his daughter.

    He soon learns from Olivia’s roommate that instead of doing charity work, as he was led to believe, Olivia worked as an exotic dancer in a local, seedy nightclub. Initially fearful for his daughter’s physical safety, Sands soon begins giving into his darker fears and tendencies. Istanbul becomes a virtual land of horrors for a man sucked into his own paranoia coupled with prejudice. As he attempts processing this wave of conflicting feelings and information, Harry Sands changes from a distraught father to a sort of avenging angel, seeking to save his daughter from the unseen heathens that no doubt have besmirched her person and his own by proxy.

    All too quickly, events begin spiraling out of control as Harry digs deeper into the city’s thriving prostitution trade to find Olivia. As he moves seemingly closer to the truth though, secrets begin surfacing about Olivia that shake Harry’s world and force him to rethink his entire quest and life. Shot in a slick, atmospheric style Disappeared benefits greatly from the exotic locales the plot is set in. The contrast between sedate London and the open-air mystery and allure of Istanbul provides a visual clash that allegorically alludes to Sands’ own inner turmoil and loathing. In a singularly impressive and compelling performance, Ray Winstone continues the plumb the depths of his dramatic skill to wonderful result. As Harry Sands, Winstone builds his character upon a bedrock decency that is continuously challenged by both the events surrounding Olivia’s disappearance as well as his own emotional ambivalence which ranges from understandable paranoia to outright racism.

    Like a modern-day Ethan Edwards, he storms about self-righteously looking for his little girl barely suppressing the growing venom he feels towards the underworld figures and deeds that he believes Olivia became caught up within. Winstone has always been a powerhouse actor with both a considerable physical heft that commands authority as well as a demeanor which exudes power; yet in this particular role he also shows a vulnerability that audiences familiar with his work do not readily associate with him. Because in the end, after all the anger, fear, and trouble subsides what we are left with is a simple man who wants to make sure his little girl is safe only to confront the difficult task of finally letting his girl become a woman.

    For more information on this title, go to www.firstlookstudios.com.
    Disappeared
  • Sleeping Dogs Lie

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Yes, before you ask this is the movie about the dog who receives a blow job directed by the weird, screaming guy from the Police Academy movies. That is the kind of description most associated with the surprisingly poignant comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie. With that out of the way, one can get past all the hype surrounding this film and really get down to its dramatic and comedic core without any fuss. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, a cult figure known for both his acting and directing work (check out Shakes the Clown, you may be offended by it but you certainly won’t see any other drunken clown movie done better).

    An official selection of the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Sleeping Dogs Lie became an instant indie hit and for all the right reasons. A small movie, shot with no money on digital video, beat the odds and garnered both attention and respect from critics and fans worldwide. Available on DVD from First Look Home Entertainment, the film is sure to become a cult classic not only for its salacious hook but also for the wonderfully nuanced performances and intriguing investigation into honesty and morality.

    The film stars Melinda Page Hamilton as Amy, a young preschool teacher with nothing but success in front of her. She just also happened to perform oral sex on her dog one night in college. Besides that incident though, she came out rather well-adjusted. The apple of her parents’ eye, she also has a loving, attractive fiancé in John (Bryce Johnson). Gearing up for a weekend at her parents, Amy considers her deep secret and whether or not she should reveal it to the man she is about to marry. While she has never told anyone else in her life or experienced a desire to fellate another dog, Amy’s life has worked out well enough with that info kept close to her vest.

    Upon arrival at Amy’s parents’ house, John gets a further glimpse into his girl’s home life and the individuals who shaped it from her loving, homemaker Mom (Bonita Friedericy) to her masculine, sardonic schoolteacher Dad (Geoff Pierson) to finally her depressed, meth-addicted younger brother Dougie (Jack Plotnick). Each one has their own individual quirks, not counting the whole meth addiction in Dougie’s case, but overall are good people. All this time, Amy seeks out advice from all those around her including her coworker Ed (Colby French) and her mom about revealing secrets and learns one or two odd ones herself along the way. Finally the moment arrives and Amy decides to reveal her past college indiscretion to John. However, the results are not exactly what she hoped for; disgusted and upset, John pulls away from her and more importantly, her brother overhears the confession and uses it as a spear to pierce the bubble of perfection surrounding Amy in her parents’ eyes.

    From that point forward, the movie switches gears from a mild gross-out like comedy to a poignant meditation on the meaning of honesty and the unexpected consequences that may result from it. While the film proudly displays its low-budget indie roots through its rather spartan look and digital video cinematography, its real heart lies in the extraordinary work of its actors. Hamilton is a pleasure to watch, exuding an effervescent pleasantness and sharp wit while also able to convey genuine emotional anguish as events unfold within the story.

    Geoff Pierson is also a welcome addition to the film, already having a strong working relationship with Goldthwait via their television show Unhappily Ever After. Firing off deadpan jokes with the best of them while easily able to shift into serious dramatic work when it counts, Pierson is a joy to watch and a real discovery for those familiar with his comedic ability only. Standing in ostensibly for Goldthwait himself is French as Ed, a lovable, slightly overweight guy who’s caring for Amy not only brings joy to both their lives but additional complication as well. Finally, there is Goldthwait himself as director. Exercising a light touch in both dramatic and comedic scenes, Goldthwait makes the most of his limited production budget and crafts a modern parable of honesty that in its own odd way plays like an offshoot of The Iceman Cometh. Funny, sad, romantic, and altogether bizarre, Sleeping Dogs Lie genuinely belongs and thrives within the independent film world as the little movie that could.

    For information on this title, go to www.firstlookstudios.com.
    Sleeping Dogs Lie
  • Smiley Face

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    After the dark waters travailed in his previous film, Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki decided to take a markedly light turn for his latest film, the stoner comedy Smiley Face. Many have commented on a new cult classic here; a case could certainly be made for it. You have manic hallucinations, the Communist Manifesto, skull-fucking, and the lynchpin tying it all together, copious amounts of weed. Stoners take heed; the intellectual drug comedy you’ve been waiting for…if you actually have been waiting for one is here.

    Acting as both guide and heroine, Anna Faris plays Jane F, a twenty-something wannabe actress grinding it out in Los Angeles. Jane is a stereotypical slacker in the sense that she pines over vast dreams of glory and success but is unable to get her act together long enough to make actual headway. Instead, she enjoys hitting the bong, taking very comfortable and frequent naps, and of course eating whatever food’s available while still maintaining a trim figure. As the story begins, ironically at the letter Z, Jane is stranded by herself in a Ferris Wheel car up in mid-air, impossibly torched, and ends up engaging with noted actor Roscoe Lee Browne who stands in as the film’s voice-over narrator about where she is and questioning how the hell she got there.

    With this situation understood as the end of a particularly long and eventful day, the plot circles back to the day’s beginning where Jane gets herself into trouble with her psychotic roommate (Danny Masterson) by eating a batch of mysterious cup cakes meant for his sci-fi convention. Already high from a bong hit or two, Jane unthinkingly digs into the inviting baked goods and finds out that this special batch has been laced with an unthinkable amount of weed. Fearful of her roommate’s reaction, Jane comes up with a quick plan, the first of many throughout the day which don’t exactly proceed smoothly, of buying more weed from her local dealer (played by a dreadlock-sporting Adam Brody), bake new cupcakes with weed, pay the power bill, and payback the dealer by the afternoon as well as make it to an audition her beleaguered agent actually managed to book.

    Well, suffice it to say, Jane’s natural laziness and groggy state sabotage all of her planned goals. Thus she’s left with no cupcakes or money to pay everything off as well as making it to her audition. Screenwriter Dylan Haggerty’s script only further exacerbates Jane’s plight further via a series of clever yet silly sequences which has the heroine chasing across LA in order to meet her deadlines and raise money on the fly, which includes a plot to sell an original copy of the Communist Manifesto accidentally obtained from Mrs. Cunningham no less (you’ll understand if you watch it).

    A film driven chiefly by performances, Smiley Face stands out as a fantastic vehicle for comedic actress Anna Faris to really display her chops and fashion a hilarious yet entirely believable stoner caught up in a spiral of her own ineptitude. Faris rarely has had a chance to combine her comedic skills, already proven in projects like the Scary Movie franchise, with intelligence and taste. Who else could pull off discussing laissez-faire economic principles with a white, dreadlocked dealer stoned and make it all completely believable? In another example, at one point late in the day Jane spouts off defiantly in front of a meat packing plant’s staff about the tyranny of class stratification and Marxist thought only to realize that said diatribe is taking place in her mind and that the actual words spoken are meandering stutters that almost have a point but simply aren’t coming through due to the pot-induced brain haze.

    This sequence works solely through Faris’ ability to convey the annoying pseudo-intellectual clarity potheads are notorious for while displaying the nonsensical, profanity-laced, jibber-jabber that’s funny and almost conveys a point. Besides Faris though, a number of other good supporting performances round out the film including Masterson’s serial-killer suggesting roommate (a far but welcome cry from his That 70’s Show days), Brody’s rather amiable drug dealer, and a believably geeky yet love-sick admirer of Jane’s played by John Krasinski. With Araki’s signature precise direction, Haggerty’s hilarious, on the mark script, and Faris’ inspired mania, Smiley Face is a chill but delightful comedy that is perhaps the best depiction of a pothead’s slow but strangely inspired state of mind. Fun to watch sober, probably more so after a bong hit or two.

    For more information go to www.firstlookstudios.com.
    Smiley Face
  • The Proposition

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Set in an unfamiliar expanse, written by a legendary cult musician better known for his Leonard Cohen-esque vocals and moody, gothic lyrics, and evoking a mood and spirit familiar yet alien to audiences, The Proposition, written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat does what the westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone did in times past, take perhaps our most traditional and ‘American’ of film genres and turned it on its head to explore issues previously unexplored. Now available on DVD from First Look Home Entertainment, The Proposition stands as a modern Western classic for the new millennium.

    The plot (term being used loosely) begins when Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) surrounds and captures two members of the infamous Burns gang, Charlie (laconically portrayed by Guy Pierce) and his younger brother, Mike (Richard Wilson). Upon capture, Stanley offers his proposition to Charlie – if he agrees to hunt down and kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), then Stanley will agree to let both Charlie and Mike go free. Arthur and his gang are responsible for the slaughter of the Hopkins family in the town that Stanley defends, along with other heinous deeds. Charlie has nine days to complete this task. Ironically, the end of the time table coincides with Christmas. If Charlie can kill Arthur by the end of that time, then he and his brother are free, if not, they will hang. From that point forward, the film follows a dual track, on the one hand, the viewer follows Charlie as he journeys across the Australian outback, seeking out his older, seemingly merciless brother and their tense reunion (including running into an eccentric bounty hunter played in a scene-stealing performance by John Hurt), and on the other, we view the lives of Captain Stanley and his wife, Martha (Emily Watson) as they attempt to hold onto their values and struggle in the unforgiving Australian outback and the pressures they face.

    After the initial charge of Stanley laying out his deal and Charlie venturing forth to fulfill it, the film takes on a meandering yet hypnotizing pace. With Charlie, we watch him ride across the desolate, bleached desert landscape that is unlike Ford’s Monument Valley but more akin to Leone’s Almeria backdrops for his classic films. Throughout the film, one never loses the visceral evocation of this land’s harshness. All the characters, with the exception of Martha, are covered in dirt and sweat suggesting not an aversion to bathing but suggesting to the audience that no matter what you do, the desert will impose itself on you. As the actors and crew mention in the DVD’s making of featurette, several scenes had to be shot at night because of the unbearable heat with Ray Winstone himself admitting his attempt to acclimate to such harsh conditions on a trip to Dubai before shooting began. Woefully though, his efforts were in vain and he suffered nonetheless but at least his misery had company.

    It is this choice to evoke both the scorched beauty of the outback along with the filth and sweat of the inhabitants within that is effectively shot by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. The grit and grime of the characters brings back memories of Leone’s filthy yet compelling outlaws and townfolk. Not content to be simply a screenwriter, Cave also composes the film’s score with alternating quiet passages of him speaking along with harsh, scratching noise that combines traditional Aboriginal music with Morricone dissonance.

    One of the unstated themes of the film is the relationship between man and nature. More specifically, the choice to accept and learn to live in harmony with one’s surroundings or attempt to adapt and bend those surroundings to one’s will. It is in this arena that Hillcoat and Cave present the viewer with two characters symbolizing both extremes of this dialectic tension. On one side, lies Arthur Burns, who played by Huston, comes across as a sort of Australian Kurtz, living in his own heart of darkness, yet unlike that character has seemingly reached a degree of inner peace and calm. There are endless shots of his sitting cross-legged, staring out over the horizon marveling at how truly wondrous and vast this land is. Arthur knows it’s a hard land, yet by accepting it and giving himself over to it, he is ultimately at ease with it despite the hardships it brings.

    Stanley, however, along with slimy government official Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) can think of nothing more than tempering this desolate country to suit their own narrow needs and desires. They are in a constant war of making their traditional English values and ideals relevant in a place that can easily crush those values with its unrelenting heat and desolateness. While Arthur can move among this landscape with ease, Stanley and those he represents are imprisoned by it, clinging to the makeshift bastions of civilization that keep them from being swallowed up.

    Another implicit but equally relevant theme that the film also addresses is the historical treatment of Aboriginals by the English colonials. While this is a theme that has been tackled in Australian film before, notably in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith directed by Fred Schepsi, it is a topic that has never been fully addressed to American audiences. The Aboriginals figure into the story as the human symbols of this land and especially in terms of how the colonials treat them according to their own values. The Aboriginals, as treated by Stanley and the government forces he represents, are savages to either be pacified or obliterated. At one point, Fletcher talks to Stanley about the death of a trooper as retaliation for some of their own people being slaughtered. Fletcher clarifies for Stanley that if he is to kill one Aboriginal, he better makes sure to kill them all to avoid another trooper’s loss. Juxtapose this to Arthur’s gang, where his right-hand man ostensibly is an Aboriginal who is more than willing to kill not only white troops but Aboriginals who collaborate with them as well.

    While the film is rife with visual grandeur and engaging subtext, the main thing that keeps this film from rising from simply a good Western to a great one is its very looseness of plot. While the simultaneous plotlines pull the viewer along, the film feels like it negates the sense of urgency that is created by Stanley’s proposition. Rather than creating a tighter pace which would underscore the seriousness and race against time that Charlie faces, the film loses this pacing as it devotes time to other scenes and subplots that while interesting to view, do not add as much to the overall plot and would more than likely allow the film to play better if cut. Despite this issue however, the performances, setting, and story more than compensate.

    In the end, we are left with a new, worthy addition to the Western genre. Both the actors and filmmakers have crafted a film that while staying true to many of the conventions of this most American of genres, have also brought a flavor and cultural imprint that is uniquely Australian by tackling issues and themes that are unique to that region, spells out similarities to our own culture and history that should not be ignored.

    For more information on this title, go to www.firstlookstudios.com.
    The Proposition


First Run Features

  • A Bigger Splash

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Artist biographies have been a constant subgenre in film for decades. Whether melodramatic flourishes like Lust for Life or more current, realistic portraits like Pollock, the common tale of the misunderstood artist always possesses sufficient juice to grab attention. In addition, the array of documentaries and television programs based around artist biographies are endless. However, few films consciously attempt to blend both documentary and fiction narrative so seamlessly that the boundaries between each essentially disappear. Essentially a fictional documentary for lack of a better term, Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash is an intimate portrait into the life and work of legendary British painter David Hockney.

    The plot line as set by Hazan and company essentially lays out the breakup of Hockney and his longtime lover and model Peter Schlesinger. The film begins two years after the breakup itself when Hockney has already completed a series of works that prove in years to come among his most enduring and vibrant paintings. We meet the man as he dotes over his new lover and chats away. What one notices about Hockney when first viewing is his unique physical appearance and demeanor; visually symbolizing the boy wonder his rather angular faced is framed by a thick owl mop of dyed blonde hair and dressed with a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses. His appearance belies a sort of social costume just as much as Andy Warhol’s platinum blonde hair and seemingly affect less demeanor was utilized in the same manner.

    The film then shifts back two years to the very moment of Hockney’s breakup. Immediately, one understands that this split not only affects the pair themselves but ripples out into their shared stable of friends which include such luminaries as Ossie Clark and Henry Geldzahler. Hockney and his circle represent a sort of last gasp in regards to the Swinging London days which by this point had all but vanished. Yet like many disillusioned hippies in the US, Hockney and his friends appear to be the last to know although they suspect the change that’s already come and gone. Tensions and discomfort arises as many almost feel compelled to choose sides, as happens in any serious breakup yet we often do not have a chance to witness such matters between real people up there on the big screen.

    As a way to cope with the emotional turmoil that results, Hockney goes back to work and begins working on a new series of paintings. Prominently featuring Schlesinger as his model once again, this new set is imbued with an energy that is magnetic. One painting in particular featuring two Peters in separate positions occupies the bulk of the actual creative work shown. Apparently, Hockney worked on this particular piece for over six months until dissatisfied with the result, he destroyed it and started again from scratch. Understandably, Hockney’s art dealer expresses constant anxiety and prodding as he waits for new paintings to sell to an overly ravenous world of collectors. However, amazingly Hockney completes this centerpiece work in approximately two weeks to his satisfaction. When asked about it, he simply states that the two months of work and trouble with the first version allowed him to bang out the second version in practically no time at all.

    Along with the more formal documentary scenes of David painting, Hazan also includes several dreamlike sequences that appear as though Hockney’s famed California pool paintings have come to life with Schlesinger front and center in them as both subject and muse. These scenes have a surrealistic touch that is more likely to be viewed in a Bunuel film than your standard art doc. Yet while fictional in nature, they cut to a deeper truth on the matter of inspiration and creative process that merely discussion alone would not be able to penetrate.

    These sequences also bring to mind the incredibly formal, almost anti-realistic style that the film is composed of, with well-lit and shot sequences, impressionistic editing, and dramatic music placement that imbues some scenes with almost operatic emotion. It is this incredibly formal, slick manner which cuts against the more traditional, fly on the wall documentary approach and makes one believe that you are watching a fiction movie with people using their real names.

    Yet the conceit works brilliantly and perhaps allowed the participants to be even more intimate and open as there are indeed many scenes with frontal nudity and even one sequence between Schlesinger and an unnamed male so graphic in its depiction of male sexuality that it led to the film being banned initially. In the end, the viewer is allowed perhaps as honest a glimpse into both an artist and human being as possible and has a peek into the strange, abstract world that fuels the inextinguishable creative spirit.

    For information on this title, go to www.firstrunfeatures.com.
    A Bigger Splash
  • Her Third

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced in the early seventies when German cinema had reestablished its cultural and artistic relevance after essentially forty years in the wilderness, Egon Gunther’s Her Third burst onto the scene. Both a farcical comedy and weighty melodrama, the film is a successful mix held together by the phenomenal performance of Jutta Hoffman as the film’s heroine. Reissued by First Run Features, Her Third is a film that is both of its moment and transcends its moment with a story and characters that could easily hold its own ground against modern films.

    The story revolves around the romantic machinations of Margit (Jutta Hoffmann), an East German engineer, twice married and with two daughters. Seeking to ease the burdens on both herself and her children, she plots along with a female friend named Lucie to attract the attentions of a single male colleague. The film proceeds to intercut between Margit’s attempts to woo this man while examining the life circumstances which led her to this point. The first episode involves her initial desire to become a nun and her exploits while at a local convent. Respectful of those around her and seemingly attracted to one in particular, Margit attempts to adjust to the isolated world she is groomed for yet feels increasingly disillusioned with the freedom she would give up in doing so. Her anxiety ultimately leads her to leave the convent and establish her own life in a local town, working at a chemical factory.

    Happy with her decision, she then proceeds in the second major episode to meet the man who would become her first husband. Infatuated with this man who was her physics professor, Margit commits herself to him and as a result, they have a beautiful daughter. However, fate intercedes and the marriage comes apart leaving Margit single and having to take care of her daughter alone. In time though, she meets the man who would become her second husband, a blind scholar played by future Academy Award nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl, whom she also falls in love with yet due to his disillusionment and drinking their marriage dissolves as well but not before bringing yet another daughter into the world. As time marches onward, Margit raises her two daughters rather successfully and through hard work and study ascends to a high position in the local chemical factory, respected and valued amongst her peers.

    Yet despite her independent nature, Margit still pines for a man to be both her lover and father to her girls. However, the film only hints at another alternative for Margit’s love life as her relationship with Lucie deepens emotionally while collaborating in this scheme. In one particularly charged yet tender moment, both women sensing the other’s vulnerability embrace and kiss one another. It is as though a veil has been lifted and for a brief moment, Margit finds a solution to her desires that completely bypasses the need for another male in her life, who up to this point have certainly been less than reliable.

    That the relationship does not move forward as a modern film today would allow it to, becomes one of the film’s glaring weaknesses. By essentially eschewing an inherently interesting as well as emotionally dramatic thread in favor of a man can fix anything, an opportunity is wasted. Yet perhaps in making this decision, the director is commenting on the viability of such alternatives that end up being discarded in similar fashion because they did not conform to societal norms. Either way, Hoffmann’s strong, confident portrait of an independent woman attempting to survive in a repressive male patriarchy resonates as strongly now as it did then and would probably be the envy of actresses lucky enough to view it now. A welcome rediscovery and fantastic gem of a film worth seeing if you can.

    For more information on this title, go to www.firstrunfeatures.com.
    Her Third
  • Methadonia

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The common perception when it comes to serious drug abuse and later kicking the addiction is that through tireless work and focus, one can become clean and pick up with their life seemingly uninterrupted. However, the perception and the reality, as is not uncommon in life, contradict one another. This dichotomy is easily illustrated by the consequences of heroin addiction and kicking it with the man-made opiate methadone. Filmmaker Michel Negroponte examines the world of ‘methadone maintenance’ and the unintended consequences that this substitute drug has brought forth in his documentary Methadonia.

    In a somewhat classic documentary approach, the film follows the exploits of a support group composed of former addicts all taking part in methadone maintenance. The idea behind the treatment is fairly simple. Essentially choosing the lesser of two evils, methadone occupies the same chemical trigger spots that heroin goes after when it reaches the brain. Because the methadone essentially beats it to the punch, the heroin has nowhere to go and thus dissipates out of the user’s system, weaning him or her off the drug. The rub however came when addicts figured out that by taking a certain class of pharmaceuticals known commonly as benzos in conjunction with their daily methadone dose, that both drugs chemically react to produce a high that approximates what one would feel from a heroin fix. Thus many methadone users face this conundrum of taking a drug to get them clean yet indulging in this counterproductive high that is available via perfectly legal substances. The resulting state from this reaction is referred to as ‘methadonia’, where patients exist essentially in a dream state, halfway between sobriety and being high. The physical symptoms resemble drunkenness to a certain degree with slurred speech, incoherent thought, etc.

    The film chronicles the exploits of this group as they struggle to maintain their daily existences while fighting the urges of giving into the high and allowing the methadone to enclose their lives as completely as heroin once did. A number of individuals are interviewed from a pregnant couple fighting to hold onto their baby while trying to stay clean to old addicts whose bodies and spirits have been broken down by years of abuse. The most interesting subject is a former heroin addict named Steven who comes to symbolize the core struggle methadone patients face daily.

    As the film begins, we first meet Steven on the street ravaged by methadonia, his speech is practically incoherent, his thoughts scatter, and he occasionally nods off while speaking, another common side effect. This behavior leads to his subsequent dismissal from the group itself as he is unable to focus. However, the film constantly returns to Steven as he attempts to turn his life around towards permanent change. He finds the love of a supporting woman and slowly rebuilds his life.

    After securing employment and getting off the streets, Steven attempts to kick methadone completely thus cutting the cord still linking him to his self-destructive past. However, we soon learn that methadone is as difficult a drug to kick as heroin is; moreover, the clinic that supplies Steven with his medication weans him off in such a painful manner so as to practically keep him hooked rather than get him finally clean. This struggle symbolizes the control that private pharmaceutical industries have over people in Steven’s position, acting essentially no better than the corner dealers that supplied them with heroin in the first place.

    In the end, the film’s style and approach is wholly unsentimental. With the exception of Steven’s story and the inherent dramatic elements that occupy it, this is as brutal and bracing a portrait of methadone maintenance as is possible. No one is judged either rightly or wrongly, we simply see the daily circumstances of these people’s lives and how normal life seems so close yet so very far away.

    For more information on this title, go to www.firstrunfeatures.com.
    Methadonia


Genius Products

  • Sicko

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    When the average person thinks of Michael Moore, he or she is presented with usually one of two options; either he’s a courageous, satirical left-wing champion for the disenfranchised or a bleeding heart, pompous zealot blinded by ideology. Whatever one’s personal opinion of the man, he has always forced his viewers to take a side thus stripping away the layers of supposed objectivity that documentaries have always sought to maintain. After the extreme partisan reactions, not to mention overwhelming box office success, of his previous Bush-bashing effort Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s position as a controversial documentary filmmaker was completely cemented and few thought he’d be capable of ever coming close to a ‘fair and balanced’ portrayal in his work.

    Fast forward to present and Moore has returned with perhaps his most controversial and potent work yet, the health care industry expose Sicko. The greatest controversy the film stirred upon its initial release was its overwhelming endorsement from both sides of the political spectrum. Democrats and Republicans alike were able to set aside their own reservations and praise Moore for bringing his usual satirical eye onto an issue that affects all citizens, the corrupted American health care system. Moore cleverly establishes the film’s tone by examining a group of Americans who have been broken both physically and financially through the myriad inequities of the HMOs. A married couple is shown driving across country to stay with their daughter in Denver after exhausting their life savings on mounting medical bills; striving to maintain some sense of dignity after surveying the spare room that is now their last refuge, the tears are barely held back.

    Another man, injured in a horrific table saw accident, slices off the tips of his middle and ring fingers on one hand. When taken to the hospital for treatment, his doctor runs down the costs of reattaching his finger tips; sixty-thousand dollars for the middle and twelve-thousand for the ring. In an absurd moment, the victim is forced to choose which tip he’d like to have back since reclaiming both is obviously out of the question. In addition, various other cases are touted before the viewer illustrating Moore’s central point that the HMO system’s interest is not in caring for its customers but instead maximize profits by denying claims and sometimes sentencing people to their deaths as a result. Former insurance industry employees relate tales of examining individuals’ claims, looking for any loopholes to cut down the money paid or flat out deny assistance.

    Moore’s camera lingers over their faces as these people attempt to maintain composure while obviously masking intense feelings of guilt and disgust towards both themselves and the companies they served. Perhaps the most tragic group Moore interviews (or exploits depending on your view) are the volunteer 9/11 workers; many of whom risked their lives to assist in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero and as a result developed a plethora of respiratory problems. However, Moore in his characteristically sarcastic manner points out that while America praised these efforts, its government refused to provide adequate medical assistance to these people because they were not government employees.

    Footage of firemen being praised and held up after the attack is cut against sheer indifference five years later as these same ‘heroes’ are forced to scrape up every available nickel through raffle tickets and t-shirts in order to cover their medical bills. At this point, Moore shifts his attention from domestic matters to international investigation as he travels from country to country, examining their own nationalized health care systems. Starting with our benevolent northern neighbor Canada, Moore makes his first on-screen appearance in the film as he visits his own Canadian relatives; speaking with Canadians who have both suffered serious injuries and waiting in a hospital waiting room, our neighbors speak with a matter-of-fact pride about their national health care system which facilitates top-notch treatment for free. The idea of paying for serious treatment is as foreign a concept to these people as love of soccer is for Americans.

    However, they are only the tip of the nationalized health iceberg as Moore travels to both England and France afterwards. Each one seems stranger yet better than the next; in England all medical prescriptions are available for the same low fee, despite dosage size and medication type. Again, serious surgery is covered freely and above all else, a cashier in the hospital that Moore visits is charged with not collecting but doling out money to patients who came via public transportation and seek reimbursement. In France, again all surgery is covered, day care is high quality and free along with paid recovery time, and government nannies which assist new mothers at home free of charge. Moore reacts to these federally provided benefits with understandable incredulity while the foreigners react in the same manner to his questions of paid health services. They have not known any other way of living and in turn, neither have Moore or the viewer for that matter. It all comes across as too good to be true and perhaps it is depending on your viewpoint. However, Moore continuously returns to the central question of, if socialized medicine can work abroad then why can’t it work here?

    On top of that, he uncovers newer ways that HMOs deny medical care to needing patients most sickeningly by dumping hospital patients from their facilities to free clinics with callous ease. In the most damning minutes of film, video footage recorded outside a free clinic captures an elderly woman still clad in her hospital gown mindlessly shuffling along the sidewalk. Unaware of her surroundings, she is cast off like trash and left to helplessly wander until a nurse finally brings her inside. This bit of footage encapsulates the core belief that if an individual can’t pay for their treatment, then they are essentially human detritus in the insurance companies’ eyes. Moore however wholeheartedly disagrees with this assessment; by showing the viewer that socialized medicine can and does work even in less wealthy societies than our own, the perceived need for the HMO system is completely undercut and exposed for the money-seeking operation that it is. Moore’s push for universal health care asks for not only a political but philosophical shift in America; it throws down the gauntlet and asks that in order to be a truly great nation, the least among us must be held up as fairly as the greatest.

    For more information on this title, go to www.geniusproducts.com.
    Sicko


Heretic Films

  • Head Trauma

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Following up on the success of indie hit The Last Broadcast, director Lance Weiler once again grabbed a hold of the directorial reins and produced his new feature Head Trauma. Returning to the thriller genre which he successfully mined with The Last Broadcast, a film that easily predates and perhaps improves on the faux documentary style that The Blair Witch Project utilized to become an unexpected cultural phenomenon, Weiler continues to shock and scare although from a different angle this time out. While superficially more conventional, Head Trauma plays its audience like a fiddle through its surrealistic flourishes and sparse, muscular style.

    The film follows one George Walker (Vince Mola), a shabby homeless man who after years spent toughing it out in the streets returns to his childhood home after his grandmother’s death. Learning that the property has been willed to him, Walker decides to seize upon the opportunity to straighten his life out. However, he soon runs into a myriad of obstacles that plague his progress. First of all, a sleazy neighbor and childhood enemy impedes George’s efforts to hold onto the property by alerting the authorities to its poor living conditions. Forced to essentially clean up the house or watch it torn down, George must restore his home quickly enough to stave off foreclosure. However, he is aided in his efforts by his next door neighbor Roberta (Meryl Lynn Brown) and her grandson Julian (Jamil A.C. Mangan). George also reconnects with an old female friend named Mary (Mary Monahan); the pair awkwardly reminisce about their close friendship which constantly bordered on becoming something more. The subtle love story that develops between George and Mary is pitch-perfect in its handling; Weiler chooses not fall into the familiar cliché of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. In George’s case it’s more along the lines of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then boy meets girl again but they’ve moved past each other without admitting it.

    So while the familiar thread of the prodigal son returning home invests much of the film, a more sinister edge reveals itself after George suffers a serious head injury while renovating the house. From that point forward, he is plagued by nightmarishly real visions of a hooded figure stalking him. Quickly these visions begin to interfere with George’s daily functions as he loses himself between reality and these hallucinations which become increasingly more real and frightening to his psyche. Unable to live in this state, George begins to investigate and starts unraveling the events of his past, the reasons that forced him to leave so many years ago. As the truth begins slowly revealing itself, George’s nightmares increase in frequency until he finally understands the reason behind them and understands what he must do in order to stop them.

    By placing us in George’s increasing fragmented and schizophrenic point of view, Weiler seizes upon a recent tradition in modern independent films going back to Memento and further back, Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven, where the viewer is placed into a world that it is completely unsure of. Due to the realistic detail of hallucination and the tension that arises resultantly, Head Trauma is less a film about out and out scares and more focused on conveying psychological dread. By the time the truth itself is revealed, it feels less like a door swinging wide open than an onion whose last layer has been peeled away. In understanding the truth, George sacrifices everything in his life that could bring him normal happiness but this price is willing paid for the chance to finally have a clear and peaceful mind.

    For more information on this title, go to www.hereticfilms.com.
    Head Trauma
  • The Last Broadcast

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Both an intrepid trailblazer and undervalued classic, Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos’ The Last Broadcast proves that sometimes no matter how good an idea is, fate can still rob it of its true glory. Essentially a terrifying thriller and sharp critique of reality television, The Last Broadcast met with a fair degree of success when first released. However, it mushroomed into the cultural zeitgeist when it was essentially appropriated a year later in the form of The Blair Witch Project, whose style and subject matter cuts a little too close to what Weiler and company pulled off a year before. A great film deserving of a mass audience, Heretic Films sets out to make that dream come true with its DVD release of The Last Broadcast.

    The film is presented as a faux documentary produced and directed by one David Leigh (David Beard). Leigh’s film is an investigation into the brutal murders of two local cable access producers within the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The producers Locus Wheeler (Lance Weiler) and Steven Avkast (Stefan Avalos) along with production assistants Jim Suerd (James Seward) and Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers) were filming an episode of their program, Fact or Fiction, investigating the so-called Jersey Devil purported to live in said location. During their live broadcast, strange events occur and the individuals begin to disappear only to meet their bloody slaughter. By the end of that night, only Jim Suerd remains alive. Accused of being the killer, Suerd proclaims his innocence and Leigh proceeds to follow the group’s footsteps and launch his own investigation to find out if indeed Suerd is innocent. The question then posed is if Suerd didn’t kill those people then who did?

    The Last Broadcast works as an effective psychological thriller in creating an entirely believable world that the viewer can become lost in. Indeed, if one were flipping through the channels at home and came upon this movie midway through, that person would be hard pressed as to whether or not what they were watching was indeed a fictional work. The look, production design, attention to detail, etc. all come together into creating this complete immersion for the viewer to slip into, which then allows the opportunity for terror and anxiety to creep in. As Leigh delves deeper into his investigation and plays the broadcast footage, echoes of Blair Witch become nauseatingly obvious.

    While it would be sour grapes to chastise that film for its lucky timing and story, one viewing of The Last Broadcast brings into perspective just how well produced the former is rather than the latter. On top of that, the former was wise enough not to try and spin it off into sequels. The performances by Beard as the dry, inquisitive documentarian is spot on in its erudition and lack of humor. He comes off about as well as your average documentary host and that is exactly what the part needs. As far as Weiler and company do in their performances, they are both believable in their reactions and deft at evoking real dread which translates ever more effectively to the viewer through the believable setup.

    Reminiscent of not only copies like The Blair Witch Project but also possessing a complex plot draped in near reality like Man Bites Dog, The Last Broadcast is intelligent, tense, and altogether enjoyable. On top of that, the film possesses a genuinely refreshing DIY spirit that hearkens back to independent films of yore but unlike many low-budget indies, this one is actually fun to watch and leaves you with your money’s worth. With unexpected twists and turns up to the very end, few viewers can complain about the work these first-time filmmakers achieved with their underground classic.

    For more information on this title, go to www.hereticfilms.com.
    The Last Broadcast


IFC Films

  • Brothers of the Head

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Tales of rock n’ roll excess and destruction have become a dime a dozen in today’s age. With the constant barrage of Behind the Music programs and our overall voracious consumption of all insider entertainment news, stories of bands making it and falling apart no longer have the emotional sting as they may have had in decades before. Yet filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have brought into being a fictional rock biopic unlike others viewed before. While many of the clichés remain, there is enough originality and emotional truth in their film, Brothers of the Head, that one questions whether the Siamese twin led band featured actually existed.

    The film concerns the tragic tale of conjoined twins Tom and Barry Howe (played respectively by real-life identical twins, Harry and Luke Treadaway). At a young age, the boys are snatched up by an enterprising and unscrupulous impresario, signed away like Charles Foster Kane by their family, believing the pair have a chance at a better life than can be provided in their rural British home. Once taken into their new guardian’s care, the pair are drafted into a new project. They are to be trained musically to front a rock band, presumably to quickly cash in on the boys’ physical oddity. To that end, they are provided with a producer, a sadistic manager, and a backing band with which to hone their skills and put together this particular entertainment package. Christened as “The Bang Bang”, the Howe brothers play along with the poppy rock format that they are originally taught to perform. However, fueled by their managerial mistreatment and contempt for the initially mocking audience, their music becomes unintentionally aggressive and the band morphs into a formidable 70’s punk rock outfit.

    From that point, the viewer follows the band’s journey from climbing the heights of success to their inevitable plummet from grace and the lives crippled by it. Of the two brothers, Barry is easily the more combustible of the pair and is wonderfully played by Luke Treadaway. Initially an overly shy boy, the constant physical and psychological abuse he endures strips away any semblance of innocence and leaves him a defiant, snarling viper akin to a youthful Johnny Rotten. He is the first to dive into excess yet his close fraternal relationship inevitably pulls Tom into the abyss as well. Further complicating matters is the romantic relationship between Tom and a British investigative journalist, Laura Ashworth, that causes friction within the group and provides further momentum towards the inevitably tragic end for the band and brothers.

    Utilizing their documentary skills to the fullest, Fulton and Pepe create as believable a mockumentary as can be imagined. Rather than being played for laughs, the filmmakers craft a fictional drama that lacks any light at the end of the tunnel, yet we are fascinated by the journey and the characters involved. To further complicate the viewer’s perspective, the directors compose the film with supposed cinema verite footage shot by a documentarian hired to record the band’s lives, scenes from an unfinished Ken Russell biopic, etc. and interviews with not only older versions of the individuals in the film’s main storyline but with people like Ken Russell himself. This constant layering of material creates an incredibly believable story and maintains the illusion so thoroughly, that one constantly has to remind his or herself that everything they are watching is fabricated.

    In the end though, the story falls back to the brothers themselves. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of their story is revealed via interviews with the older survivors of this ordeal. One person after another is confronted with the knowledge that they watched the boys destroy themselves yet willing let it happen. Their excuses and self-justifications for why they did so elicit both anger and understanding; like people in real life, of course they knew better but they simply didn’t do what was best for their friends.

    If there is one major criticism to be put against the film it is that the faux documentary format robs the viewer of the brother’s own subjective viewpoints. We constantly view them from the outside and learn much that way, but the deeper emotional drama and connection between the two would have been more easily and interestingly portrayed if we could see the world completely from their eyes. This comment aside though, the film is finally both another stinging indictment of media exploitation and a sober addition to the mockumentary genre.

    For more information on this title, go to www.ifcfilms.com.
    Brothers of the Head
  • Factotum

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Over the years, there have been countless films, both fictional and documentary, delving into the exploits of one Charles Bukowski. The wildly-admired underground writer whose prose and poetry have inspired countless fans including luminaries like Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Barbet Schroeder whom Bukowski collaborated with on the 1987 film, Barfly. Enshrouded in a hyper-masculine, larger than life persona, accented by his heavy drinking and gambling, Bukowski can be an intimidating role to play for fearful actors. Yet in Bent Hamer’s adaptation of Bukowski’s novel, Factotum, Matt Dillon meets the challenge head on.

    In the film, Dillon plays Henry Chinaski who figures as Bukowski’s literary alter ego throughout the course of his work. Chinaski is a drunken derelict aspiring to a writing career. He drifts carelessly from one menial job to the next, exerting considerable effort to get his foot in the door yet becoming complacent once it’s in. In Chinaski’s world, the nine to five world of most people is beneath him; he refuses to buy into the superficial pleasures and conceits that normal society pushes onto the rest of us. For Hank, writing is the sole pursuit that he was meant for. Over a constant narration, Chinaski discusses his respect for the purity of writing as he slaves away endlessly over his stories and sends them out to a literally magazine, clinging to the hope of being published. Interestingly enough, the magazine he writes for, Black Sparrow, and its publisher John Martin would play a pivotal role in Bukowski’s own life as his work was picked up and championed by Martin.

    The film really becomes then a chronicle of distractions that Chinaski engages in while committed to his true calling. One of the first hustles he becomes involved with is a little gambling business he and one of his co-workers Manny (Fisher Stevens) cook up by taking bets at the local horse track for the other employees. Of course, in typical Bukowski fashion, Chinaski uses his newfound earnings to quit his steady job and move back into his routine of drinking and writing. Alcohol plays an important part in both his life and those around him. The person who becomes closest to reigning Hank in is his on again, off again girlfriend Jan (in a wonderful performance by Lili Taylor). Like Henry, Jan is a woman who merely plods through her life with a lack of direction. She bounces from job to job, simply to keep the bills paid and keep a roof over her head but besides that she devotes herself to Hank completely. Taylor invests her character with a downtrodden magnetism coupled with blunt sexuality regarding her amorous desires for Chinaski.

    Unwilling to be tethered down, Chinaski breaks free from Jan and again bounces around Los Angeles working more odd jobs and meeting various characters including Laura (in a brief but memorable performance by Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei), a young drunk under the care of a European benefactor. She and Chinaski have a brief fling; the sexual chemistry between Tomei and Dillon during their on-screen encounter almost makes one wish Tomei and Taylor had switched roles. As it stands though, both women are effective as souls unable to keep this particularly gruff rolling stone from gathering any moss.

    The real accolades however belong to Dillon himself as Chinaski; finally reaching an age where such characters are within his range, Matt Dillon gives undoubtedly one of his best performances ranking up with his work in Drugstore Cowboy. Playing an iconic figure as Bukowski is no small order, yet Dillon is aided by his knowledge that he isn’t playing Bukowski per se but Chinaski. The line between the two is small yet most likely provided enough distance for Dillon to attack this icon. As Chinaski, Dillon projects the world weariness of the man as he struggles to live life completely on his own terms, pursuing his dream honestly and purely. While at times his performance is plagued by a degree of stiffness, overall Dillon is able to capture the essential dignity of Charles Bukowski while not shying away from his self-destructive tendencies. It would be interesting to see more Bukowski pictures produced with Dillon portraying the man over time, akin to a James Bond series for alcoholic authors, only to see Dillon further sink into the man’s skin and bring to celluloid the adventures and thoughts of America’s best-known and appreciated underground writer.

    For more information on this title, go to www.ifcfilms.com.
    Factotum
  • This Film is Not Yet Rated

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For the past forty years, American cinema has been governed by the now familiar MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). As a so-called improvement to the previous Production Code, the MPAA is marketed under the premise that it is a “voluntary” system for filmmakers to submit their films to in order to receive a rating (ranging from family friendly G to the most restrictive NC-17 which designates explicit sexual content). However, what was never revealed before was how this supposedly “voluntary” system was and to a greater extent tantamount to censorship. Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick was brave enough however to dive headfirst into the absurd and secretive world of the MPAA with his work This Film is Not Yet Rated, ironically earning the film an NC-17 rating itself.

    Dick’s overall strategy essentially boils down to shedding light both on the organization itself as well as the myriad of hypocrisies that it reinforces. One of the first points made is the stringent secrecy under which the MPAA functions. Its raters are touted to be average parents of school age children according to the group’s officials, including former figurehead and Washington lobbyist Jack Valenti. Yet the identities of these individuals are kept under wraps. Moreover, no other experts such as psychologists, film critics, etc. are allowed into the proceedings; individuals who could provide proper context and perspective on films under review are barred from participation.

    Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg, as both Dick and the viewer discover. In addition to the lack of transparency in the initial review process, the director also discovers that no standard criteria exist for the raters to abide by. Therefore, films that easily straddle the fence between less and more restrictive ratings can often be placed into a category truly unrepresentative and as many filmmakers know getting an NC-17 is essentially the kiss of death. An NC-17 rating essentially entails box office failure as few theater owners are willing to screen a film sighted as containing explicit sexual content or films that do not submit to the ratings board altogether and are released without an official rating. A myriad of independent filmmakers including Atom Egoyan, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith and Wayne Kramer among others are interviewed giving testimony to the struggles they endured when projects they submitted for a rating were slapped with an NC-17.

    Their experiences are united by the board’s vehement objections to the sexual content their films contained. For example, Kimberly Peirce talks about notes she received from the board concerning what designated her breakthrough film, Boys Don’t Cry, as an NC-17 film. She tells Dick that one of the comments she received was that a female character’s orgasm was lasting too long within a particular scene. Struck by the inane oddness of this particular gripe, Peirce then says that she realized that what the board was actually opposed to was the brazen display of a woman’s sexual pleasure whereas most Hollywood fare tends to focus on the man’s pleasure but practically ignores the woman.

    In addition, Dick illustrates the bias against overt homosexuality through a clever montage in which similar scenes depicting the same sex acts are played side by side. However, the scene depicting a particular act engaged between two member of the same sex instantly earned an NC-17, whereas the very same act between a heterosexual couple more often than not skirted away with an R. Further adding to the extreme bias against honest, cinematic portrayals of sex is the MPAA’s policy of treating extreme violence with R ratings when certain scenes clearly belong to a far more restrictive category.

    What Dick also notices is that the MPAA tends to align itself with the major studios in opposition to the independent film scene by either providing weaker ratings for studio fare than its respective independent counterparts; or giving the studio producers very specific notes as to what to change to guarantee a weaker rating whereas independent producers are provided with fairly vague suggestions as to what to cut. Aiding Dick in his investigation is his own team of real life detectives, a pair of lesbian private detectives aided by one of the women’s nieces. While an undeniable comedic element arises from their stakeouts and cloak and dagger exploits, it shows just how difficult it is for regular people to gain information about the organization.

    A further strand is explored when at a certain point Dick submits his film to the MPAA for its own rating. Not surprisingly, the film ends up being slapped with an NC-17 which allows the filmmaker to experience for himself the same difficulties that his interview subjects faced when appealing to the board for a ratings change. By the film’s end, Dick does strike a blow by revealing the identities of the then-current ratings board as a way of shining some light into a system designed and maintained to be more secretive than the CIA.

    The film’s real value has come in post script when the controversy over the film’s release and subject matter led to real change occurring within the MPAA itself. While spokespeople told the media that it was planning on adjusting its standards anyway, no one doubts the pressure the film placed on the MPAA to change its ways. For example, one new change allows filmmakers to cite scenes from other films akin to questionable ones in their own work when appealing which the film stated was not allowed before. In the end, This Film is Not Yet Rated lives up to the oft-stated aim of conscious filmmaking to bring about change. While the full extent of change may not have been earth shattering, it still shows that a little movie with a goal and the guts to pursue it to the end can indeed succeed.

    For more information on this title, go to www.ifcfilms.com.
    This Film is Not Yet Rated
  • Wordplay

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As integral to the daily newspaper as the sports section and want ads, the daily crossword puzzle occupies its own special niche in the hearts of those who work them on a daily basis. For many, it is the only intellectual challenge that actually brings one pleasure rather than frustration, although that can surely occur as well. Up to this time however, no one has really investigated the interesting world of crosswords and the rare breed transfixed by them. However, that has certainly changed with the introduction of director Michael Creadon’s Wordplay to the masses. Both an investigation and love letter to these quirky little puzzles and the people who play them, Wordplay is a delightful sojourn not easily forgotten.

    The film’s starting point and relative anchor is Will Shortz; acting as both the New York Times crossword puzzle editor and appearing on NPR as the “Puzzle Master”, Shortz had devoted his life and career to the pursuit of challenging and entertaining crosswords. He stands as the film’s symbolic embodiment of the ultimate crossword player, however he is quick to point out the criticisms leveled against him during his tenure at the Times. Those viewpoints however are not shared by the variety of celebrities who are fans of Shortz’s puzzles and play them daily including, Jon Stewart, former president Bill Clinton, senator Bob Dole, the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns, and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. Each one shares their views as to why they find their shared pursuit entertaining and intellectually engaging, often offering candid insights that may not normally be drawn out. The film returns to Shortz often and interestingly, our perception of him adjusts as the film plays itself out. At first seemingly odd by being obsessed with these puzzles, as the viewer beings to better understand and appreciate this world so does the viewer’s impression of this man who soon becomes all the more normal at journey’s end.

    However, the film splits its time between Shortz and a number of other assorted puzzle enthusiasts. Creadon profiles them individually, briefly investigating their lives and skills while simultaneously observing them train for the annual crossword tournament that is held in Stamford, Connecticut. A tournament that coincidentally enough was started and officiated by Will Shortz himself. In this aspect, the film reminds one of Bud Greenspan’s Olympic documentaries, as Creadon follows these various people’s lives, knowing that all their paths will intersect in the heat of competition. We then watch the tournament itself, with many of the individuals profiled reaching the final round itself. At that point, one is already hooked into the inherent drama of the moment, irregardless of the sport and inevitably people will choose their favorites to root for.

    A nice trick that the film pulls off to further engage the viewer is by actually projecting the individual puzzles on the screen for one to play along with, akin to a mutant form of Jeopardy. By the film’s end, a winner is declared, hearts are broken, and people begin to prepare for next year. The viewer however is left not only with the knowledge and history of crossword puzzles, but with a mosaic of individual lives linked together in a unique yet common pastime, most closely resembling the daily puzzles they devote themselves to.

    For more information on this title, go to www.ifcfilms.com.
    Wordplay


Image Entertainment

  • A Tout de Suite

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Evoking both an time and cinematic landscape, Benoit Jacquot’s A Tout de Suite functions as both sensual thriller and compelling coming of age story. Cut from the same cloth as 60’s and 70’s classics like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Breathless, Band of Outsiders, etc. A Tout de Suite combines both the road movie and thriller genres effectively while capping it off with a uniquely resigned European flavor. Released by Image Entertainment, A Tout de Suite is a journey definitely worth taking if adventurous.

    The film begins in Paris in 1975, narrated by the lead protagonist Lili (Isild Le Besco) who reveals the tale from her own memory. Lili is a 19 year-old bourgeois art student living with both her older sister and father in the city. After she hastily breaks up with her young lover, both she and her girlfriend meet a suave Frenchman named Gerard and his Moroccan associate Bada (Ouassini Embarek) at a café and invite the pair to a club later on that night. Lili is captivated by Bada, both his look and presence are mysterious to her own life and upbringing and she develops a crush on the young man.

    After meeting that night at the club, Lili brings Bada back home and spends the night with him. From girlish infatuation to full-blown lust, Lili falls head over heels for him. Her newfound devotion is quickly put to the test though when she learns that Bada, Gerard, and another associate are implicated in a botched bank heist leaving both Gerard and other civilians dead. Now hunted by the authorities, Bada and his partner seek asylum and Lili is all too willing to provide it. Without considering the consequences of her actions, she decides to run off with her boyfriend and the others, giving into love as it were.

    The film then follows Lili, Bada, his partner and that man’s girlfriend traveling across Europe to both escape from the authorities and momentarily enjoy the fruits of their theft. Staying at the most expensive hotels and shopping lavishly in Spain and then Morocco, Lili appears not to have a care in the world, fully content to let things happen around her as long as she has her man by her side. The trip begins to sour though as the heat intensifies over their capture and money begins to run low. Resultantly, Bada’s friend becomes increasing hostile to Lili as he views her as a distraction and nuisance that can lead to their capture.

    Eventually upon their arrival in Greece, Lili is cut loose from the pack after a minor run-in with local customs officials. It is at this point that the fantasy ends and reality sets in for the young girl. Adrift in a foreign country with neither money nor means of survival, Lili grows up quickly as she fends off advances from sexual predators and attempts to stay put in Athens, believing that Bada will return for her. As time passes and no one arrives, Lili begins to adjust to a new life for herself while still holding out hope that the man she loves will indeed return for her someday.

    With its black and white photography and youthful tone, A Tout de Suite feels like a lost Nouvelle Vague film from the early 60’s. Indeed a comparison to such New Wave fare like Breathless or Band of Outsiders would not be without merit. However, despite the stylistic similarities with those classics, what really makes this film work are the performances, most importantly Besco’s emotionally honest portrait of Lili. Entering the story as a youthfully insouciant, spontaneous free spirit, Lili is a girl who enjoys moving with the moment without giving thought to the consequences of her actions both to herself and others. Her impetuousness allows her to go on the lam with Bada without realizing the dangers she allows herself open to. It is only after her betrayal that she matures quickly from girl to young woman, reversing her course in life while still holding a candle for perhaps the only man she will ever love.

    In her portrayal, Besco infuses Lili with a youthful sensuality akin to a Scarlett Johansen. Lili is a sexual being and never lets us forget it with both her penchant for being nude and her moments of brazen sexuality. Jacquot portrays such moments honestly without exploitive intention and the gamble works. In the end, he fashions a film based on a true story that is both stylistically fresh and strong as well as dramatically captivating.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    A Tout de Suite
  • Caligula: The Imperial Edition

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    There are certain films whose place in history is based not on the finished product but instead the making of, and more often than not butchering, process. Films that when finally seen show the scars of production interference and fighting. Famous examples include Erich von Stroheim’s original nine-hour cut of Greed as well as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons where a third of the film was completely cut and destroyed with a replacement ending slapped on the end. The story of Caligula is mired in examples of producer interference, budgetary excess, hubris, etc. With a script constantly being butchered both to appease interfering producers and a production design over the top even for Fellini, Caligula appeared to be a project doomed to fail but all the more fascinating for it.

    Available in butchered edits for decades, Image Entertainment finally took up a new cause and released Caligula: The Imperial Edition. Comprised of three discs containing both the unrated, uncensored cut as well as the pre-release version, Image’s new set brings the viewer as close to the original vision as possible. In addition to the included cuts, documentaries on the film’s making, new interviews and audio commentaries abound. All work in league to not only entertain but educate the viewer of this project’s controversial history which is equally as fascinating as the film itself. The film’s plot feels almost incidental. It follows the ascendance of Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) to emperor and the decadence/violence that his reign has come to represent not only in his own time but throughout history afterwards.

    We are first introduced to the character as he playfully frolics with a half-naked, nubile girl whom we later learn is his sister. Soon he is called before his uncle, the aged Emperor played by none other than Peter O’Toole. Decrepit and spouting open sores upon his face, O’Toole is a perfectly disgusting mirror to the inner repugnance that lies within his nephew’s soul. Their first encounter within a bath house further establishes the film’s visual tone, opulent sets clad with nubile, naked young women and men whose purpose is to do nothing else than be naked and provide eye candy. In addition to O’Toole, British acting legend John Gielgud also appears as Nerva, an old advisor to the Emperor who fears of Caligula’s ruthlessness. Thankfully, both the character and actor are given little screen time and thus saves them from the freak show that is only warming up.

    Quickly afterwards, the Emperor dies under less than honorable circumstances and a new leader is christened. Atop the seat of power with his wife/sister, Caligula sets out to consolidate his base and systematically kill off his competitors with glee. In one particularly ghoulish sequence, Caligula and his minions sit outside above an open courtyard while his enemies are buried up to their necks in dirt. In the background, an enormous rolling machine of spinning blades slowly edges forward like a lawnmower from hell. As heads are quickly and hilariously lobbed off, the spectators throw vegetables at the victims adding asinine insult to injury. The machine, alongside the absurdly, opulent sets, are the work of art director Danilo Donati who can only be thought of both as genius and madman.

    Visually stunning yet maniacally gauche, the sets remind you of a late Fellini film without any sense of restraint or taste. Yet they are perfect visual representations of the utter descent into balls-out decadence that Caligula represents. If this film is lacking anything in abundance, it is certainly modesty. Yet this is what makes it so fascinating; Caligula is not just recreating its subject matter, it becomes its subject matter much like how Coppola stated that Apocalypse Now was not about Vietnam but was Vietnam. Within this vortex of insanity, genuinely interesting performances do struggle to make themselves known. McDowell is a pleasure to observe as he gives as broad and over the top a performance as such a figure deserves.

    The maniacal glee that served him so well in A Clockwork Orange as lead droog Alex is ratcheted up the nth degree, so much so that both roles become cinematic cousins to each other. Certainly Alex would approve of the scene where Caligula rapes a newly wedded couple right after their ceremony, both the man and woman. McDowell disgusts you by violating this couple with nonchalant sadism, yet you can’t look away you have to see just how far he will push. In addition, a young Helen Mirren makes her presence felt as second wife Caesonia; devilish and charming, she provides an able foil for McDowell when given more to do than appear naked on-screen.

    And yet no review of Caligula would be complete without discussion of pornography; produced in part by Penthouse owner Bob Guccione, the film is famous for Guccione’s own insistence on hardcore sex scenes being added to the mix. Stories abound of how small film crews would sneak onto the set in secret and film this footage to be included without the director’s permission. In the new cut included, the most graphic sequence involves a lesbian sex scene which appears more graphic than what you probably see in pornography today. Jenna Jameson would probably watch this scene and say “I think this might be a bit too much”. Rather than be offensive it simply distracts from the haphazard plot and honestly contributes nothing to the proceedings.

    After watching Caligula it’s easy to imaging wanting to take a shower afterwards; it is so messy and revolting at times that its very existence is hard to fathom. Yet the very fact that it has survived and is being re-released demonstrates the unique staying power this project has; a filmmaker today could easily produce a fictionalized version of Caligula’s making and unmaking without fear of narrative boredom or material. Despite the cliché, this movie really does need to be seen in order to be believed and if you’re really brave maybe you’ll watch it again.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    Caligula: The Imperial Edition
  • Encounters at the End of the World

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In recent years, German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s most intriguing work has come courtesy of his documentaries rather than fiction fare. A rather obvious example of this is the scandalous Grizzly Man, which was both commercially and critically successful, as well as a myriad of other such docs that the director continues to ceaselessly pump out. Another recent example is his latest to arrive on DVD, Encounters at the End of the World, released courtesy of Image Entertainment and Discovery Films.

    Like so much of Herzog’s best work, be it documentary or fiction, Encounters operates under the general theme of man’s attempt to cope with nature on its own terms. From Aguirre, The Wrath of God to Grizzly Man itself, Herzog has always been fascinated by the mysterious, dangerous aura that surrounds the natural world. His cinematic travels have taken him from the deserts of Africa, the jungles of South America, to the final frontier of Antarctica itself as in Encounters. Herzog was invited to check out the research facility McMurdo Station by the National Science Foundation after looking over footage sent to him by a colleague recording ocean life beneath the ice sheets there. Captivated by what he saw, Herzog accepted the invite and with a small crew began filming upon arrival.

    McMurdo itself, upon first sight, was a bit underwhelming for the filmmaker; the winter had not quite set in yet and the station’s collection of giant shacks and muddy slosh gave the facility the look and feel of an Old West frontier town. To be fair, the staff populating McMurdo isn’t too far off from those frontiersmen and women of old. Like Herzog, the station’s staff is a vast collection of restless adventurers who have all somehow collected at the bottom of the world among other like-minded eccentrics. Be they descended from Mayan royalty, linguists turned botanists, or a penguin researcher who after years of observing his subjects in near isolation can no longer fully relate (or seemingly has the interest) to relate to human beings, preferring his penguins instead.

    On top of the various human profiles that Herzog complies throughout the piece, Encounters really dazzles when contending with the Antarctic landscape. Panoramic ice sheets cover the horizon in a perpetual sea of white, constant winds brushing across the surface, while underneath said sheets an entire alien world exists in deep blue waters. The imagery is poignant and deeply engaging, leaving scenes that will stay with you long after the film ends. One particular sequence that comes to mind involves a lone penguin that, instead of heading back to the shore with its hunting pack, instead travels towards the interior for no discernible reason.

    In the vast expanse, this little, lone figure waddles along intently, even encountering researchers who allow it to pass them by without trouble. Herzog films the penguin as it pushes further into the interior, aware that it will surely die in what is perhaps the oddest form of suicide ever witnessed. It is certainly fitting that a filmmaker as philosophically perplexed by nature as Herzog is should capture such a scenario on film that begs pondering well after viewing. That said, Encounters at the End of the World ultimately brings a new spin to a continent that becomes far more alive and dangerous than other penguin movies would lead you to believe. Through his ever-watchful eyes and questioning mind, Werner Herzog helps reshape one’s own perception of the last continent and appreciate what an amazingly dynamic environment it truly is and the men and women who risk life and limb to carry out their work at the bottom of the world.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    Encounters at the End of the World
  • Exiles

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Capturing the Best Director award at Cannes, filmmaker Tony Gatlif lets the sparks fly in his sensual road film Exiles. Drawing upon his own North African background, Gatlif presents the viewer with a precise, yet free flowing journey across the European and North African landscape. Less of a traditional road picture and more of a spiritual pilgrimage, Exiles holds treats for the eyes, ears, and souls. Now available from Image Entertainment, Exiles is a triumph of style balanced with substance and a welcome introduction to Gatlif’s oeuvre.

    The film concerns the exploits of Zano (Romain Duris) and Naima (Lubna Azabal), a young Parisian couple of Arab descent. Opening to a captivating rhythmic pulse of electronic music and traditional Arabic rhythms, we first meet the pair after a session of lovemaking. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal Zano from behind, naked while overlooking the city from his loft while Naima lies on the bed, listening to the music. Staring vacantly over the Parisian landscape, Zano asks Naima if she wants to go to Algeria. What follows is a trek across the French countryside, either by hiding aboard commuter trains or walking along the abandoned, scenic roads leading towards Algeria. After leaving France, they continue their trek through Spain, namely Seville. They are entranced by the thriving Gypsy culture that exists there, each recognizing the shared culture and ties that bind them together despite their language differences and local customs.

    While there, they come upon a pair of Algerian siblings traveling towards Paris in order to attend university. It is here where the couple, namely Naima, begin to open up about their shared ancestry. While Zano embraces the opportunity to meet new people and further discover where he comes from, Naima instead feels increasingly alone. We learn that Zano’s family originally fled Algeria decades before, only to settle in Paris and live a comfortable life. Groomed to be a great musician, Zano lost all enthusiasm for his art when his parents died in a tragic accident. In a very concrete sense, his journey is that of the prodigal son returning home; the bonds are too strong to be ignored and it is time to close the circle so to speak. Raised somewhat ashamed of her Arab background, Naima is a woman who fully embraces her insouciant, French heritage which as the pair moves closer to their destination causes increasing complications. She is constantly questioned by those around her about where she comes from and why she does not understand her culture better; in making these accusations these people essentially asking her why she does not know herself.

    Naima comes to symbolically represent the new European youth torn by culture, as immigration intensifies and Europe transforms into a new melting pot, the centuries old boundaries of nationality and culture are breaking down yet the will to maintain those distinctions often creates undue tension on those born of both worlds. Naima herself states it succinctly when she says that no matter where she goes, she is always an alien. Increasing unsure of her place in the world, Naima still defies the odds with her sheer bravado and passion. Azabal imbues her character with infectious passion and gravity; she may be a little crazy but she always remembers that she is alive and no matter what struggles she faces as long as she understands that she will survive.

    Above all else, Gatlif’s direction merits praise in regards to his sublime, visual grace. Here is a man who photographs every landscape, every tree, every piece of fruit with a vitality that is nearly Felliniesque. His visual understanding is called upon to conjure up a frenetic, hothouse environment, especially in the relationship between Zano and Naima. In one particularly striking sequence, the pair take on temporary jobs picking nectarines in a Spanish grove. Already upset at one another for past indiscretions, the pair are prodded by the luscious fruit and turn eating nectarines off the tree into an erotic performance. Biting at the fruit wantonly, they externalize their rejuvenated lust for one another in a pure, feral manner. In the end though, the film is about returning to the source; by finally acknowledging and understanding where they come from Zano and Naime come to understand themselves and find a path to move forward in their lives together.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    Exiles
  • Mikey & Nicky

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Mikey & Nicky stands as perhaps the best John Cassavetes film that the legendarily independent actor-director never produced himself. Yet it crackles with the exact sloppy, loose but entrancing energy of his best work while partnering him with Peter Falk, another stalwart of such Cassavetes films such as A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, etc. Directed instead by Elaine May, Mikey & Nicky works as both a standard gangster picture while incisively plumbing the psychological depths of these two men, unafraid to display both the good and the bad. Available from Image Entertainment in a new DVD release, Mikey & Nicky stands as an oft-ignored gem all too ready for general rediscovery.

    The story unfolds over one long, Philadelphia night. Nicky (John Cassavetes) is a low-level gangster who has embezzled a substantial amount of money from the local mob boss and after the murder of his co-embezzler is an emotional wreck. Paranoid and afraid, he calls upon his best friend and fellow hood Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him out of this situation. When Mikey arrives, he is forced to contend with Nicky’s paranoia as Nicky is unsure whether or not Mikey has come to genuinely help him or hurt him. It soon turns out that Nicky’s fears are not unfounded, little does he know that a hitman (played by veteran character actor Ned Beatty) indeed is on his trail, waiting for Nicky to show up at a rendezvous point set up by none other than Mikey himself.

    While these plot turns evoke standard crime film conventions, the film’s value lies in transcending these tropes and instead delving deeper into the relationship between Mikey and Nicky themselves over this long night. Emotionally raw, we observe Nicky as a rather selfish, careless individual nonetheless imbued with wonderful spirit and likeability. He’s a bastard but one that you can’t help but fall in love with and forgive despite any wrongs he perpetrates. In many ways, Mikey is Nicky’s shadow. He too, is a rather unsavory character in many ways yet deep down is a decent human being who chooses to do the wrong thing to secure his own and his family’s safety and well being.

    Together they really are two peas in a pod, drinking, smoking, laughing in a way that only real, and not pretend, friends can do; no doubt Cassavetes and Falk’s real life friendship provides the believable texture in these exchanges which makes them all the more poignant given their characters’ circumstances. They joke, they complain and banter like a pair of little kids in grown man bodies which makes them appear ever more weary as they understand the situation they have found themselves in. Yet, we also sense the animosity that exists between them as well, as Mikey clearly explains to Nicky how he has always been made to feel ignored and misabused by Nicky’s careless ways.

    The inner conflict Falk portrays is wonderful in that he truly loves this man he is with and genuinely considers him his best friend, but must also contend with the knowledge that he is bringing him to his death. What makes this tension even greater is that as the relationship between the pair disintegrates, Mikey appears to be ever more willing to lead the hitman to his target whilst still holding on to his warm feelings for Nicky. By the end, the audience is made to both laugh and cry at the events of this long night.

    Along with the stellar work of her male leads, May conveys a visual world that is both complex and banal simultaneously. Empty streets and dive bars are filmed with careful attention to lighting and design, so as to portray their slightly decayed, lived-in look which only heightens the emotional weariness the two leads contend with themselves. In the end though, it is the performances that make this film shine and its realistically complicated portrayals of betrayal and friendship still resonate and allow it withstand any and all momentary fads. Destined to become a genuine classic, Mikey & Nicky has to be seen in order to be believed.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    Mikey & Nicky
  • Neither the Sea Nor the Sand

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced in the early 70’s, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is an interesting if at times flawed love story that approaches gothic horror. Indicative of its time through its looks, the film is nonetheless an interesting examination of the frequently used trope of love conquers all. While consistently invoked in both serious melodrama and frivolous romantic comedies, rarely is the idea of love without any boundaries including that of death honestly contemplated. While this film does have its share of problems, it presents the scenario of loving someone whom has already passed literally and struggling to maintain said love while observing what they are decay before your own eyes.

    The film begins on the British Isle of Jersey on a windswept, barren coastline; Anna Robinson (Susan Hampshire) is a young woman who has come to the island in order to sort out her feelings over a failing marriage. While observing the distant waves, she meets Hugh Dabernon (Michael Petrovitch) a native islander and lighthouse keeper. Sparks fly immediately as she is drawn in by Hugh’s mysterious and pensive manner.

    In truth, Hugh comes off as a second-rate Heathcliff more often than not, yet one suspects that the focused attention he pays to Anna is more than she ever receives in her home life and perhaps that’s why she falls for him as quickly as she does. Through a brief courtship, the pair soon become lovers with Anna prepared to discard her entire old life to simply spend her remaining days on the island with this new man. After making this very decision, the pair decide to celebrate by taking a holiday in Scotland. However, during their time spent there tragedy strikes and Hugh meets an unfortunately sudden death.

    Anna is left crushed yet that very same night she encounters the impossible. She finds Hugh alive, now mute but alive and waiting for her to arrive. Through some unexplained mojo, Hugh literally rises from the dead due supposedly to Anna’s undying love for him. Unable to leave her behind, his spirit remains and inhabits his body. The pair quickly leave Scotland and return to their home in Jersey where Anna seeks to keep Hugh hidden in order to avoid further complications with the locals. While on the surface, this predicament falls into the standard love conquers all routine, what is unanticipated is the state of Hugh’s body. While his spirit may be alive, his physical form is indeed dead willed on in a pseudo-zombie state. Anna now faces a real conundrum, can she still have genuine feelings for a man who is literally falling apart before her and our own eyes.

    When they first arrive back to the island, Anna does not fully inter this problem and in a scene that is tastefully shot and cut, it is intimated that she indeed does have sex with this corpse. We do not view any actual acts yet the tone is clear and it is quickly forgotten by the filmmakers, either to focus on the greater questions at hand or perhaps to simply avoid grossing out the average viewer who may be troubled by this act. Soon enough though, Anna’s clutching affection for Hugh begins to shift towards disgust and terror as she is plagued by this lover who’s body is constantly disintegrating and beckoning her to join him in his fate so that they may be together in the afterlife. She is left to choose over literally life and death, all depending on how far she would go for her one true love.

    With clumsily filmed love scenes, clunky music cues, and at times wooden performances, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is hardly a perfectly executed film. Yet despite its various technical flaws, it is a film rich with ideas when it comes to questioning standard tropes of romantic love. The macabre manner in which these questions are raised strikes to their very core and forces us to seek out the tough answers from ourselves. In the end, this film is an interesting meditation on the power and commitment of love.

    For more information on this title, go to www.image-entertainment.com.
    Neither the Sea Nor the Sand


ITN Distribution

  • A One Time Thing

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    One could argue that the romantic comedy is one of the most difficult genres for any filmmaker to try his or her hand at. The delicate mix of pathos and humor can only be achieved by an intelligent, well-written script and actors who are able to interpret such material with intelligence and commitment, in order to make believable the often-absurd circumstances that inhabit such films. Many attempts are often filmed and released but ask anyone one and you realize that only a select few have the right stuff. One such film that can be added to the successes now is Karl Fink’s A One Time Thing.

    Holding the film’s reins is Casey Hill, played with sublime effervescence by Jane Sibbett. Hill is a successful career-driven businesswoman with seemingly everything she wants, a great job, loving fiancé, etc. Her dreams are on the verge of coming true when she unexpectedly comes home to find her loving, fantastic fiancé cheating on her with another woman in their own bed. Enraged and shattered, Casey throws her man out and as a way to alleviate her suffering and avenge herself, she seeks to have herself a wild and fun fling. She seemingly finds the perfect man for the job, however she soon finds out that she should have been careful for what she wished for.

    The other man that comes into Casey’s life is Geoffrey, played by Patrick Cassidy. Geoffrey is a warm, sensitive, and caring single guy who meets Casey and becomes apart of her plan for sweet revenge. Cassidy plays the role with ease, displaying subtle comedic charm and a calming screen presence. After the plan’s consummation, literally, Geoffrey soon learns that they are now bound by more than a night’s fling. Upon learning the result of their night together, Geoffrey strives to become apart of Casey’s life in a positive and loving manner, two things that Casey wants none of…or so she thinks at first.

    Together, Sibbett and Cassidy make a wonderful onscreen couple, their chemistry is evident and their skills as actors allow them to play even the most absurd situations with confidence and honesty. Sibbett really shines as she emotes both solid dramatic presence and yet displays great comic timing, allowing her to turn in a performance that is complex and honest. She portrays Casey as a real woman, facing down middle-age along with the possibility of a new beginning. Whether she chooses to accept that opportunity or not is only to be found by watching this engrossing and genuinely charming romantic comedy.

    For more information on this title, go to www.itndistribution.com.
    A One Time Thing
  • Italian Stallion

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In show business there is a time-honored rule that a gig is a gig. Because one never knows when that ‘big break’ will hit, any work that can gain you exposure is good work to have. Theoretically, this idea makes perfect sense and indeed may bring success. However, there are just as many jobs that one may take early on in a career that looking back seem not only odd but invoke the occasional grimace. In 1970, a young twenty-four year old actor named Sylvester Stallone was cast in a small, sexploitation flick called Party At Kitty And Stud’s; he was paid two hundred dollars for his effort and racked up another one of those all too-important screen credits. He did what many other actors would do, he took the gig because at least it was real work. The film went unreleased and that seemingly was that.

    Fate as it would have it though, would shake the dice in Stallone’s favor and all too soon he finally landed his big time break in The Lords of Flatbush. From there, fortune smiled down on Stallone even further with his monumental success in Rocky. However, Sly’s skeleton in the closet also made its appearance as well, when Party At Kitty And Stud’s was reedited and released as Italian Stallion. The story itself is rather simple; Kitty and her main man Stud (Travolta) are in lust and the two of them host a wild and crazy orgy with a number of all too willing females and a fellow male. Enough said, there’s no need to look for any deeper subtext here. Looking back at the film now, it’s actually an amusing romp in a number of different ways.

    First off, viewers can observe Stallone as a young, strapping actor first starting to make his way in the show business jungle. While obviously green, he still commands the screen intently; no matter how odd or ridiculous the situation may be you can’t keep your eyes off him and can sense the charisma that would later blossom into worldwide success. Further more, the film looks and feels like a picture that Dirk Diggler and the whole Boogie Nights crew would produce; it is supported by a groovy, 70’s soundtrack complete with cheesy organ and horn work, which amusingly enough tends to quote the famous “Gonna Fly Now” theme song from Rocky.

    And then there are the actual sex scenes themselves, there’s something about watching overall average looking people performing in awkward sexual poses that is both amusing and innocent; a nice remedy to the emotionless, methodical exercises that pass for adult films now. And where else can you ask, “where did that naked black woman come from?” And why did she bring that dog? By and large though, the film may not be number one on Stallone’s resume but it does have value as a kooky little time capsule back to a time when an innocent actor was trying to spread his wings in a tough industry and a reminder of smut’s gentler, softer side. As was mentioned before, the film’s an amusing piece of kitsch to observe and certainly beats watching Over the Top on any given day.

    For more information on this title, go to www.itndistribution.com.
    Italian Stallion
  • Rapturious

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Film director and former Jerky Boy Kamal Ahmed follows up his 2003 film, God Has A Rap Sheet, with his latest effort Rapturious. Starring Robert Oppel in the title role, the film follows the journey of "Rapturious" (Robert Oppel) an up and coming rapper with a promising career along with a serious drug habit as well as a traumatic past. As the film begins, the viewer is transported to a small Arizona town in the 1800s when he was previously incarnated as a vicious serial killer and rapist. He is finally apprehended by the law and left swinging from a tree by a noose.

    The story then moves into present day where Rapturious is given a new drug by his dealer (Hoya Guerra) to try out. As soon as he takes the drug, he begins to have a number of strange and extremely violent hallucinations in which he is murdering those around him. As these hallucinations grow more intense, he is soon stalked by an unknown force that leaves him cryptic messages as to his real origins.

    As he grows closer to losing his mind and alienating all those around him, Rapturious begins investigating his own past and as he finally uncovers the truth of his existence and those who are attempting to hunt him down he comes to understand that not only his life but his very soul are in danger. Realizing what’s at stake, Rapturious is forced to on the offensive and in doing so spirals further down into the abyss.

    Featuring a convincing lead performance by Oppel, Rapturious also boasts a cast of such talents as horror movie icon Debbie Rochon as the rapper’s manager, Cinque Lee as a local music journalist, Joe Bob Briggs as a psychologist investigating Rapturious’ case as well as Ahmed himself in a brief cameo as a taxi driver unsure of which accent to commit to. While the film contains shades of explicit, slasher-like horror, it works more effectively as a supernatural thriller as the majority of violence occurs not in the real world but within Rapturious’ own tortured psyche.

    With an opening sequence out of an old Western movie juxtaposed against an urban, New York sprawl, Rapturious is an interesting mélange of both hip-hop and horror. Directed with a steady hand and featuring performances that you remember once it’s over, Rapturious is an enjoyable horror film for those fans who like their movies a little off-kilter. With both this film and his previous directorial efforts behind him, Kamal is steadily shedding his Jerky Boy image and starting to step up to the plate in making films that are both entertaining and jarring to the viewer.

    For more information on this title, go to www.itndistribution.com.
    Rapturious
  • That’s the Way of the World

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Unavailable for thirty years, That’s the Way of the World laid dormant waiting for its opportunity to shine. Finally, it has returned and like a fine wine has grown in taste and depth; unknowingly prescient in regards to the complete commercialization of the record industry, That’s the Way of the World acts both as compelling drama and social critique. And it’s got the tunes to back that up man. Featuring a then relatively unknown Earth, Wind and Fire, the film pulsates with the kind of gritty funk and soul that both music and film today rarely comes close to touching. Couple that with an outstanding performance from a young Harvey Keitel and you are in business.

    The film concerns the exploits of one Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel); a young, hungry music producer, Buckmaster is the prized musical Svengali with the moderately successful A-Kord Records. A man who refuses to bow to commercial pressures, Buckmaster’s passion and skill goes into bringing out the best sound possible from his musical charges. As the story begins, he is in deep collaboration with an up and coming band simply referred to as “The Group” (Earth, Wind and Fire). Knowing that his musical protégés are primed and ready to break out, Buckmaster is abruptly reassigned by the new, overzealous company president to produce a new act that has just been brought on board. A family group, The Pages are setup to be the company’s next big thing as the public seemingly responds to wholesome, family acts. Unimpressed with their demo, Buckmaster initially refuses to work with the group until he is all too easily reminded of who holds the strings in the company and the consequences of his disobedience.

    Forced into a corner that he can’t break out from, Buckmaster agrees to the job and sets out to work. At first unimpressed, he soon allows his studio wizardry to reshape the group’s sound until he himself becomes impressed, especially with the group’s female lead Velour (Cynthia Bostick). However, appearances soon begin to crack; Buckmaster soon learns of The Pages’ past indiscretions as he himself romantically falls for Velour and the sudden success brought on by their collecting work. His relationship with The Group also frays as well as they both understand the lack of attention and respect being paid to them by the powers that be. As the pressure continues to mount upon him, Buckmaster risks losing all faith in the music that he loves until he hatches a plan that not only will affect The Pages and The Group, but his own life as well knowing that sinister forces lurk in the background.

    Brimming with pizzazz, That’s the Way of the World broadcasts the infectious energy of the Seventies itself with the music and decadent lifestyle. Yet it also points out the then-growing importance of style over substance and that a good image can be better than a good sound. In a society entranced by formula-driven pop groups and American Idol, the point may seem obvious but that’s only because the worst implications of the film’s critique have come to pass. The film is solidly supported by both the dramatic weight provided by Keitel’s undisputed acting skill and the powerful, spiritually funky sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire who used the film’s soundtrack to catapult them into the big time. Thirty years may have been a long time but the final product proves that it was certainly worth the wait.

    For more information on this title, go to www.itndistribution.com.
    That's the Way of the World
  • Valley of Angels

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As far as the movies go, thrillers and action movies are a dime a dozen. As genres they have been solid standbys for good entertainment since Cagney and Bogart came onscreen. Yet it is all too easy to make a thriller that is high on violence and attitude and low on story and character. And now in the post Tarantino era, it seems like every hip, young director comes on the scene with his crime opus that is supposed to set the world on fire with cooler than liquid nitrogen dialogue and badass gun fights. But if there’s one thing every filmmaker should realize is this, there is only one Tarantino and the multitudes of copycats trying to follow in his footsteps have easily proven the point. Thankfully, a new talent has sprung up from the ranks and has crafted a debut feature that is both as confident and skillful as Reservoir Dogs, while containing the spiritual contemplation often inherent in Scorsese’s films. The director’s name is Jon Rosten and his film is the ironically titled Valley of Angels.

    The tale follows the tragic journey of Zachary “Zeus” Andrews (George Katt). Slinging drugs to the young and rich in the urban LA wasteland, Zeus is a young man bereft of guidance or purpose. Constantly searching for a path out of the moral decay he exists in, he finally sees his chance in Lisa (Caroline Macey) a young, innocent woman who is the first person to bring Zeus any sense of spiritual peace. His plans to start his life anew with her are interrupted however by more sinister forces. Bullied into a dangerous task by his supplier Hector (Danny Trejo), Zeus is forced to dodge bullets and keep those around him safe and alive or else face not only his own death but Hector’s wrath, which is considerably worse. As events quickly spiral out of control, Zeus is backed up against the wall and must find a way out of this situation not only for himself but for his loved ones as well.

    Anyone who has watched enough small-budget, independent film knows that the one element that can make a project sink or swim is the acting. You can have the best script, production design, special effects, etc. but when it comes right down to it, if you don’t have the right people on screen saying those lines and making you believe them, then the film more often than not is sunk. Thankfully, Valley of Angels avoids that problem brilliantly and instead delivers both a heart-pounding thriller and meditative drama. Leading the charge is newcomer George Katt, an actor who, if the fickle movie gods are just, will break out and breath fresh air into a young, American acting generation that is practically bereft of anyone with the smoldering yet sensitive intensity of a Brando or De Niro. Katt is able to portray street-smart grit and guile as well as moments of sublime gentleness. If one were to find a reasonable correlative to compare him to, a young Harvey Keitel springs to mind.

    Backing Katt up in a supporting but no less important role is the ever-intriguing Danny Trejo. As Hector, Trejo tears into every scene with a fist-clenching intensity. Constantly on the edge of snapping, he not only puts Zeus put the audience on point as well. No doubt that Trejo’s own background as a former drug dealer and criminal colors his acting choices and lends an authenticity that can only be earned in real life not studied in acting class. In this respect, Trejo is a throwback to classic actors like Lee Marvin, Alain Delon, etc. men who led full, rough lives before coming to acting and whose toughness was never questioned by the audience. Additionally solid support also is provided by Renee George as Zeus’ tough, materialistic girlfriend Sandra and Heather Trzyna as his insouciant, younger sister Natalie.

    Besides the top-notch performances, first time director Jon Rosten confidently creates a believable and suspenseful world for his characters to inhabit. Unlike many first-time directors who eschew story and character for flashy camera tricks to garner quick attention, Rosten understands the underlying importance of story and pace. Any and all action is supplied in order to move the story forward which creates a lean and confident narrative for pros like Katt and Trejo to sink their teeth into and move around in. A fantastic debut peopled with up and coming stars, Valley of Angels is a taut, intelligent thriller from a young director who easily has the chops to break out and be the next big thing without disappointing you in the process.

    For more information on this title, go to www.itndistribution.com.
    Valley of Angels


Janus Films

  • Three Children’s Classics by Janus Films

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In an interesting and certainly welcome move, practically legendary distributor Janus Films is releasing on DVD three unique and critically-acclaimed children’s films two of which available in that format for the first time. Two of the titles, The Red Balloon and White Mane, belong to the oeuvre of French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse whose documentarian background underlies a deeply visual stance in portraying his subject matter via pure cinema. The first title in this trio of films though is Paddle To The Sea; based upon the Caldecott award-winning children’s book, the film garnered itself an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short.

    Coming in at a mere twenty-eight minutes, Paddle nonetheless packs a wealth of substantial imagery and pathos into a deceptively loose package despite the tight running length. Outside of a lone lighthouse on the Canadian coast, a small, seemingly non-descript toy boat washes ashore. The lighthouse’s keeper discovers it and we are immediately catapulted back in time via the film’s narrator to the mountainous Ontario wilderness. A little boy, curious and with an idea, decides to carve a small, wooden toy canoe. With a carved Native American set into the helm, the boy carves the underside with the simple words “I Am Paddle To The Sea – Please Put Me Back in The Water”. With a strip of lead embedded underneath to always keep it upright, Paddle is released by the boy down a steep, snowy incline and its journey begins as it bobs along a myriad of rivers and streams.

    As Paddle continues along its journey, be it from gently floating through reed-heavy marshes to tumbling over Niagara Falls in a fantastic sequence the little boat encounters a myriad of characters. From frogs and snakes moving across its bow to a number of close calls with curious children, Paddle always moves forward with consistency and insistence. The film’s genius is in making the viewer identify completely with the little boat, whose ambiguous visual nature via the helmsman allows one to project emotions of fear, excitement, joy, etc. upon it. Also, the filmmakers’ ability to intimately film the boat’s surroundings whether it’s a snowy plain, Detroit’s harbor, Niagara Falls, etc. imbues the imagery with an elemental power and child-like wonder for the environment. It is as though we are seeing these vistas for the first time and it is easy to become transfixed by them.

    The second film, White Mane, is the first Lamorisse title and certainly the most kinetic of the set. In a rugged region within the south of France called the Camargue, lives a vast array of wild horses which run free across the plains unfettered by humanity. Standing above them all though is White Mane, a beautiful, powerful white stallion that exists unbroken defiant to the world and rules of men. As the story begins, a group of local herders try against all odds to capture and break this elusive creature. Wily and strong, White Mane fights off their attempts while a young fisherman named Folco becomes enamored with the animal.

    A young boy living in a poor village, Folco is mesmerized by White Mane’s power and defiance as he himself struggles to survive within soul-breaking constraints. Through persistence and pain, the young boy earns the stallion’s respect and the privilege to ride him as an equal. However, the herdsman will not be denied and what results is a fast-paced, action-packed race that would easily be a highlight in any Saturday afternoon Western. The horses’ power and speed is effectively captured through rapid-fire editing and tight camera work. Both horse and boy run not only to escape their pursuers but to escape the tyrannies of human society itself, striving to find a simpler world where both man and animal can exist as equals together.

    The final film is the Academy Award and Palme d’Or winning story The Red Balloon, recently used as inspiration for Hou Hsiao Hsien’s movie Flight of The Red Balloon. The story is as simple as can be imagined yet visually The Red Balloon is an example of pure, unfettered cinema relying exclusively on the stringing together of deceptive but powerful images locking together to communicate narrative. A young French boy on his way to school finds and unties a large red balloon tied up atop a street light. The boy of course climbs up the pole and unties the balloon. From there a symphony of movement begins between the pair, as the balloon bounces to and fro merrily with the boy providing him pleasure without effort.

    However, the real magic begins when the boy lets go of the string and yet the balloon continues to follow, at times teasing the boy but always at his side and seemingly acting under its own sentient will. As many allegories go though, this brief period of bliss must of course be punctured by the cruelties of real life. Despite the interruption of fantasy by the real, Lamorisse ties up the tale with a finale visually rich and emotionally satisfying to no end. Fully restored visually, the film communicates a Paris long gone while the balloon itself is rendered in a glorious, deep red symbolizing life and energy. Each one a perfectly polished gem of differing energy, taken together these three classics communicate the wonder and joy of childhood innocence and the need to hold onto the positive in life despite the consistent push upon us by reality and society. A great collection that should inspire the current and future generations as it has those in the past.

    For more information on these films, go to www.janusfilms.com.
    Three Children’s Classics by Janus Films


Kino Video

  • 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    With 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Michael Haneke further explored the themes of modern social alienation and media-inspired violence that perpetrated his earlier films The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video. Reexamining those same themes with a broader range of characters, 71 Fragments stands as a stylized essay on a nation all too easily disconnected from itself and the individual and social damage that result from such a state. Released by Kino Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is now available for both fans of this Austrian auteur’s oeuvre as well as the uninitiated as well.

    The film itself is less of a coherent narrative and more a stylized tableaux chronicling the exploits of a disparate group of Austrians, whose fates increasing grow closer together until a final, shocking convergence is reached. Among those involved in the story is a successful couple who are frustrated by their adoption of a young girl and her continuous resistance to them, a young woman who has a strained relationship with her elderly father while preventing him from seeing her own daughter, an engineering student who is placed under tremendous strain by both his studies and athletic pursuits, and a Romanian boy who escapes to Austria only to be left homeless, constantly stealing and hiding in order to survive.

    Haneke presents his characters in brief scenes, which are quickly separated by black fadeouts further highlighting their disjointed manner. Interwoven with these segments as well are Austrian news broadcasts of the then-current Balkan war with reports of daily shelling and massacres occurring, communicated in a cool, collected tone so as to downplay the genuine horror inherent in the events. In his approach, Haneke strays from his earlier, more narrative guided pursuits and really makes 71 Fragments in a spirit of pure experimentation while covering a broader canvas than his previous works had attempted before.

    Stylistically, the film resembles the latter work of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, especially 21 Grams, in its adoption of fragmentation as a film structure. Haneke himself states in an interview located on the DVD that his reasoning for filming such short scenes was to convey the idea that as individuals we are only privy to the events and sensations immediately around us, which also leads to a greater possibility of social disconnection which is at the heart of his entire body of work. As the individual storylines eventually converge, Haneke blindsides the audience with fast, brutal action which one begins to sense earlier on but hopes it will not end up the way that it does.

    With this final track laid, Haneke closed the book on his ‘glaciation trilogy’ (a term he grew frustrated with as he later admitted) and moved on to other projects like The Piano Teacher and Funny Games. Yet, his initial trilogy of The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance laid the groundwork for both thematic pursuits and stylistic techniques that he would only further refine as time went on and his reputation as a world-class cinematic provocateur grew.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
  • Benny’s Video

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    After the success of his feature debut, The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke produced the second installment of what would become known as his “glaciation trilogy” with Benny’s Video. This film brings into sharp examination the notion of media violence which is a theme he would mine ever deeper in later works like Funny Games. Yet this initial incursion is both startling and deeply provocative. Released on DVD by Kino Video, Benny’s Video provides yet another opportunity for the uninitiated to understand why Haneke has emerged as one of Europe’s more critically acclaimed and controversial directors of the past twenty years.

    The film opens with an amateur video of a pig being shot in the head with a specially-designed butcher’s gun. The initial imagery of the pig itself being dragged squealing until the gun itself is butted against its forehead and discharged is disquieting enough. Yet after we view this footage initially, Haneke plays a trick on the viewer and the tape itself is rewound again and played in slow motion. This time around the viewer can observe in every detail the act itself, most disturbing are the distorted cries coming from the pig. Slowed down, the initial squeals now sound all too human almost like crying. What we can glean from this initial sequence is not only the documented act itself but the knowledge of someone’s conscious manipulation of it, via the video equipment itself for pleasurable viewing.

    We soon learn that this unseen viewer is none other than Benny (Arno Frisch), a 14 year old boy who’s the only child of a middle-class Austrian family. Haneke makes frequent use with his stock bourgeois families that are successful financially yet are either hampered by a lack of emotion or carry secrets throughout his works. Benny’s own personal hobby is that of the video medium, tapes, cameras, etc. He frequently rents movies from the local video store and has his room rigged with surveillance cameras to record everything around him. Benny is a boy whose mode of experiencing life is explicitly mediated through video. One can see that this addiction has led to an emotional distancing from events in real life because if it’s not on screen then it really hasn’t occurred in Benny’s world, or perhaps more accurately it is unimportant unless recorded and available for playback.

    Numbed by the banal routine of school, Benny finds his only stimulation through his video experiments and is enthralled by the pig footage he recorded himself. Living the fear perpetrated by critics of a youth numbed by perpetual depictions of violence, Benny innocently invites home an unknown girl while his parents are away for the weekend. The two discuss the movies, school, etc. innocently enough until Benny decides to show her his favorite movie. Disturbed by the footage and the boy’s increasing bizarre behavior, the girl wishes to leave but not before Benny shows her the very same gun used to shoot the pig; a gun which he stole from the farmer himself. Without emotion, Benny then shoots his young guest in cold-blooded fashion, rendered all the more disturbing by Haneke in his choice of depicting the shooting and eventual murder via a television screen hooked up to one of Benny’s cameras. The viewer is thus placed into the position of Benny himself as he or she can coldly observe a murder taking place before the camera’s unblinking, merciless stare. Afterwards, Benny attempts to clean up the blood left by the girl, dragging her corpse along the ground akin to the pig’s body being dragged in the video ironically.

    Soon after, the boy’s parents come home and discover the awful truth about their son’s crime. Yet instead of turning the boy into the authorities, Benny’s parents come to the decision of covering up the boy’s crime. Since no one knew the girl or saw her with Benny, then it would be all too easy to pretend as though it never happened. From this point onwards, the film shifts gears as Benny is taken to Egypt by his mother on a trip while his father disposes of the girl’s remains. As always though, Benny takes along his video camera and records everything, feeling that until he can watch it back on tape nothing in his life has truly happened.

    With this incisive portrait of humanity’s capacity for emotional disconnect and the depravity this may cause, Haneke achieved ever greater success with Benny’s Video in the worldwide critical community. As with his entire oeuvre, the film constantly challenges the viewer to think by often placing him or her directly into the antagonist’s point of view. Haneke does so because he understands that explaining matters to the audience has far less power than forcing them to experience the action itself as directly as possible. Another impressive entry in Haneke’s canon, Benny’s Video simply has to be seen in order to be believed and understood.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    Benny's Video
  • Billy Wilder Speaks

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Filmed before his death, legendary Hollywood director Billy Wilder sat with Academy Award winning filmmaker Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) and participated in a two week long interview process. It is said that Wilder refused Schlondorff permission to screen the footage until after his death. Despite this morbid condition, Wilder proved to be refreshingly candid in recounting his remarkable career. Wilder’s candor, wit, humor, and wisdom all shine through in the resulting documentary film, Billy Wilder Speaks.

    The first thing one notices when observing Wilder reminiscing with Schlondorff and crew is the man’s sharp mind which proved to be one of his best assets not only as a director but as an immigrant in America as well. Born in Austria, Wilder originally started out in the German film industry as a screenwriter. He recounts how the times he spent in Berlin during the 1920’s were among the best experiences in his entire life. However, with the rise of Nazi Germany in the 30’s Wilder fled Europe for his own safety and ended up in Hollywood.

    Resuming his screenwriting career upon his Hollywood arrival, Wilder struggled at first, having to contend with English as a second language, but through focus and persistence he did well for himself in the studio system. Wilder’s star significantly rose when he collaborated with fellow German émigré and director, Ernst Lubitsch. Together, they collaborated on a number of films perhaps most famously Ninotchka. Wilder speaks anecdotally of the differences between Lubitsch’s signature style and his own directing methodology which would develop soon after breaking with Lubitsch. Wilder would move onto his own directing career which would include such acknowledged classics as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Stalag 17, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, etc.

    Another important area Wilder talks about is the filmmaking process itself. For example, he speaks at length about his work with actors, particularly Marilyn Monroe. Wilder illustrates her fragility and how he was forced to work around her idiosyncrasies in order to achieve the best performances possible. He talks about the importance of the script itself to the filmmaking process, how he dealt with actors, and perhaps most interestingly his dealings with the studio officials themselves.

    When asked whether or not he would have been a director if not well-compensated, Wilder laughs and jokes about how there was no other way to deal with crazy actors and idiotic studio execs if he knew that he wasn’t being well paid for it. In a quiet but wise tip to future filmmakers, he talks about trying to secure the most money possible in his negotiations with the studio because he knew that they would pay him the least amount possible. A good tip for anyone out there today willing to subvert their own interests for a chance in the Hollywood driver’s seat.

    Besides these interesting anecdotes he shares about his career and the myriad of films he wrote and directed over his respected career, one cannot avoid the charm of the man himself. A short, jovial man with thick glasses, speaking conversationally in both English and German. Wilder comes off less a legend and more of a favorite uncle in the presence of Schlondorff. His wit is as keen and acerbic in person as in his film work. One can easily feel his skill as a writer in how he phrases his thoughts and ideas with precision and lucidity while preserving humor.

    Ultimately, Schlondorff records not merely stories about Hollywood and the movies but an impression of this man’s soul and creative spirit. After watching this film and then one of his films, one can more easily hear and feel Wilder’s guiding spirit in both the dialogue and characters he sketches precisely, illustrating both their charm and faults with the eye of a disenchanted romantic. If only there were more filmmakers like Billy Wilder in the world today.

    For more information or to purchase this title, go to www.kino.com.
    Billy Wilder Speaks
  • Funny Games

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has been a fixture on the international film scene for nearly twenty years now following the critical acclaim and success of his 1989 feature, The Seventh Continent. Since that time, he has garnered numerous accolades and derision for his personal brand of unrelenting, provocative cinema that aims to shake audiences out of complacency and bring about self-examination and hopefully change. After the success of his so-called ‘glaciation’ trilogy, Haneke stepped up his assault with 1997’s Funny Games. An undeniably brutal yet engaging work, Funny Games challenged notions of cinema violence and attacked the audience’s implicit enjoyment of such actions in a comfortable context. Currently being remade for Hollywood by Haneke himself, many wonder whether or not this remake will be able to hold up against the original assault of the deceivingly titled Funny Games.

    The film opens with a scenic, aerial shot of an SUV traveling along a country road with classical music playing in the background. In between the musical cues, we hear a couple playing a guessing game as to which composer created the cued songs. Playful banter ensues as the vehicle continues winding its way along towards their lake home where presumably they are going to spend their vacation time together. Eventually, the camera closes in on the vehicle’s interior and we meet Haneke’s typical, middle-class family composed of Anna (Susanne Lothar), her husband Georg (Ulrich Muhle) and their young son Georgie.

    Happy and playful whilst engaging in their aural pursuit, we get a clever hint of the insanity to come when the film’s title flashes across the screen. From that point onward, a psychotically frenetic score by avant-garde composer John Zorn abruptly kicks in and assaults the viewer. We still witness the calm interaction between the family members yet this new score constantly distracts and sets up a tension that blooms into fruition later on. As the SUV closes in on its final destination, Anna catches a glimpse of their neighbor outside with a sportily dressed young man. Anna and her neighbor quickly chat before heading on, noticing a decidedly grim tone in their friend.

    Soon enough they arrive to the lake house and as they are unpacking and setting their boat up, two young men innocently arrive on their doorstep. Claiming to be their neighbor’s family, Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) appear to be polite, clean-cut, young men from obviously well-to-do pedigrees. Paul even assists Georg and Georgie to set up their sail boat, while Peter sets in on Anna herself with his own plan. In a sequence reminiscent of Pinter, Peter innocently asks Anna for eggs to take next door for cooking. Breaking the first set, the man insists on bringing over a second set all the while subtly unnerving Anna with his increasing odd demeanor.

    Soon, she is faced with both men asking for yet a third set after the second was supposedly broken by the family’s dog who after constant barking at the pair mysteriously disappears. Georg himself eventually arrives and the pair’s initial friendly countenance is shed in favor of a defiantly sinister manner. One thing quickly leads to another and Georg is attacked by the pair, culminating in his leg being broken with his very own club.

    Taken hostage now, the family is forced by the duo into a series of sadistic games, entailing both physical abuse coupled with psychological and physical torture. These victims soon learn that this pair has murdered their neighbors and their very own dog as well, without remorse not counting how many other unfortunate souls that probably have fallen prey to them as well. After the initial game of entry ends, Paul and Peter propose their ultimate game to the family; they bet that within the next twelve hours all three people will be dead in turn, the family is forced into betting that indeed they will survive.

    Quickly assessing that their fate is most likely sealed either way, Anna, Georg and Georgie are nonetheless forced into playing right into their captors’ hands. What follows is a series of tortures that slowly picks the family apart, both in numbers and their individual psyches as the killers delight in their game and press their power over the family to ever more sickening and depraved heights.

    Structurally, Haneke fashions his film in a decidedly Brechtian mode by utilizing such techniques as direct address as a way to distance the audience from the action into contemplating the overarching ideas he is both expressing and attacking. Most disturbingly is Paul’s reoccurring asides to the viewer him or herself. At times, he stares directly into the camera and speaks to the viewer for instance, when the bet is initially proposed he directly asks the audience who’s side they are on and then surmises that they are most likely siding with the family.

    In this manner, Paul makes the viewer understand that these games are being conducted not merely for Peter and his own pleasure but for your pleasure as well, yes you sitting back and safely watching the proceedings on screen. Haneke in one fell swoop forces the viewer to acknowledge complicity in these proceedings and comments on the unspoken role of general audience complicity that enables films laden with such cruel acts to be produced in the first place. In this aspect, Haneke’s film and critique anticipates that of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence whose intentions are remarkably similar in spirit if not exact technique.

    So, on the one hand, Haneke forces us to think about our part in condoning such acts to be committed in service to our entertainment but also points out the unseen consequences of media violence. For example, many of the crueler physical tortures and murders occur off-camera, forcing us to either imagine the scene which imbues it with greater power or he places his camera on the faces of those watching, allowing us to enjoy either perverse pleasure via the killers or the emotional torment inflicted on the victim’s loved ones which introduces a psychological element into the proceedings that is normally left untouched in other gore fests.

    The final, most shocking blasphemy occurs however when in a brief moment of luck, Anna is able to retaliate against her torturers only to watch her effort be summarily reversed. In a matter of minutes, this fleeting moment of victory is cruelly snatched away and both the family and audience are left completely dejected and hopeless. In the end, no one is left unscathed either on screen or those watching it. Like Pasolini’s Salo, the viewer is as much to blame as the torturers themselves yet Haneke finds hope in this accusation in that the viewer is left to think about what he or she has seen and hopefully change in some small way for the better as a result. No greater request can be made from cinema than that.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    Funny Games
  • Mother and Son

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Christened by critics as the cinematic and spiritual successor to Andrei Tarkovsky, Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov indeed proves his worthiness with sublime skill in his film, Mother and Son. Experimental in form and abstract in theme, the film has been praised by various figures, i.e. Susan Sontag, Nick Cave, Paul Schrader, etc. Bold in terms of its directness and unapologetic sentimentality, the film stands as both testaments to Sokurov’s directorial skill and to the deeper, primordial themes it explores. Whatever one’s final opinion may be of it, Mother and Son is a film unlikely to be easily forgotten by those fortunate and curious enough to take a chance on it.

    The film begins in an idyllic landscape, seemingly untouched by civilization with the exception of a lone train that travels along in the distance and a small wooden cabin where the aforementioned characters live. The two leads, an ailing mother (played by Gudrun Geyer) and her adult son (played by Aleksei Ananishnov) reside within this small cabin in the middle of this pristine land. It is evident that the mother is on the verge of death, visibly frail and mentally slipping, she attempts to hold onto every last breath and thought she is capable of knowing the fate that draws inevitably closer.

    Her son attends to her needs dutifully and does all he can to make her final moments easier. Together they engage in oblique conversation, rarely speaking directly of the consequences her death will create. Instead, he tries to bring whatever comforts he can for example taking her for a walk in the countryside to observe the landscape and take in the land and views around them.

    Despite his good intentions and efforts, the son gradually but painfully accepts his mother’s mortality. While he may accept it as an inevitable, natural function, one senses that this does not fully alleviate his pain and heartbreak. Indeed, when the moment finally comes, the only comfort he has is his knowledge that in time, he inevitably shall share his mother’s fate and in that moment perhaps they will be reunited in a better world. As the film’s relatively basic narrative draws to a close, one cannot help but feel the basic emotional connection to these two characters.

    The beauty of Sokurov’s tale is that its characters are so basic that one can substitute themselves and their family into it with little ease. The mother and son are not fully formed individuals but rather abstract representations; they are every mother and every son. As such, they are utilized by Sokurov in an attempt to create as strong and direct an emotional connection as possible with the viewer. The film does not attempt to create any overly intellectual constructs to ponder over, it is concerned with striking at the viewer’s heart rather than mind. It is in this aspect, that Sokurov can truly be seen as Tarkovsky’s successor in his boldness to connect to the viewer’s emotions as directly yet honestly as possible.

    When watching this film, one would be foolish to overlook the pure visual beauty itself. Using an assortment of techniques and an unbelievably pristine countryside, Mother and Son contains some of the most lyric and painterly images ever committed to film. Comparisons to other visual feasts like Days of Heaven bear little weight as the film surely surpasses all competition in this regard. The film feels and looks as though it were shot in some heavenly otherworld, unavailable for mere humans to tread upon.

    Yet the employ of such beauty juxtaposed against such weighty themes as mortality enriches the final work with a complexity that other visual candy seen today is unable of achieving. In the end, the film feels as though they are watching a true dream unfold before their eyes. As cinematic trends come and go, it is refreshing to know that such works of pure visual and emotional art are still being produced; films that because of their timelessness will exist with as much power years from now as they did when first projected upon the movie screen. As close as cinema can come to true spirituality, Mother and Son ultimately is not meant to merely entertain but enrich the soul and this is what finally elevates it to art.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    Mother and Son
  • The Second Circle

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    After the critical and popular success of his one take masterpiece, Russian Ark, the cinematic world in general stood up and lauded the efforts of that film’s maestro, Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. However, prior to that film’s release, Sokurov had already built his reputation as the spiritual and stylistic heir to Russian legend Andrei Tarkovsky. With its meditation on death and austere yet enchanting visuals, Sokurov’s The Second Circle easily bridges the gap between Tarkovsky’s cinematic canon and further establishes Sokurov’s own unique voice. Released by Kino in a new director’s cut, The Second Circle is perfect for those seeking a cinema of spiritual renewal.

    The film concerns the journey of a young, nameless Russian man who returns to his father’s village after he learns of the man’s death. Traversing a blinding snowstorm in the film’s opening sequence, the young man crosses into a place cut off not only physically by the treacherous physical environment but spiritually dead as well. He returns to his father’s home, now a filthy, ramshackle place, and is left to arrange the funeral preparations as well as getting his father’s things in order.

    In preparing for his father’s burial, the young man is forced to deal with the absurd governmental bureaucracy, represented by a cold, female undertaker who while feigning empathy is more concerned with having the corpse’s paperwork in order and making sure the young man can pay for the necessary burial accoutrements. The young man is wounded not only by his father’s loss but the callousness of those around him as he tries to keep both his own dignity and that of his father, as the old man’s corpse is treated by others simply as meat and all humanity stripped away.

    The film’s arc ends up resting on the efforts of the young man to finalize the necessary arrangements while undergoing a spiritual rebirth via the preservation of his father’s memory and dignity which in turn reinvigorates him as well. Like his other works, including Mother and Son, Sokurov gives his film and characters further power by denying them a specific context in which they exist. Meaning that he gives few of his characters names or clearly defines the exact settings they exist in, thus giving them a sense of timelessness and symbolic flexibility that allows them to be substituted in a multitude of settings. Thus the very lack of specificity allows Sokurov’s tales an air of uncommon universality.

    Also, Sokurov once again creates a fantastic visual correlative in the way he shoots and stages his scenes. The cinematography is stark yet transfixing as he finds a blend of natural light that evokes a mood of decaying stillness, which is also supported by the fairly measured pacing created by editing. In this, Sokurov keeps the viewer fully immersed in the timeless, elegiac setting and atmosphere so that one slowly identifies and changes along with the young man. Yet another feather in the cap of Russia’s current cinematic master, The Second Circle is yet another fine example of Sokurov’s mastery of evoking precise moods to convey specific emotional and spiritual epiphanies.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    The Second Circle
  • The Seventh Continent

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    For nearly twenty years now, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has been a fixture on the international film scene with his particular brand of bracing social critique. After working in the Austrian television system for years, Haneke made the transition to feature film with his 1989 release The Seventh Continent. Received by critics with acclaim, The Seventh Continent became the first entry in Haneke’s glaciation trilogy, a series of films which chronicle the emotional and psychological damage caused by an emotionless culture driven by violence and mass media. Released by Kino Video, The Seventh Continent is now available on DVD for both fans of Haneke’s work and the uninitiated.

    Based on a true story, the film chronicles three days in the lives of a bourgeois Austrian family; however the twist that Haneke throws in is that each day represents a year in these people’s lives. So the tale begins in 1987 and ends in 1989, yet the viewer is only privy to one day’s events during each particular year. While this may seem an odd choice on the surface, its purpose and effectiveness become clearer during viewing. The family itself consists of Georg (Dieter Berner), a competent engineer, his wife Anna (Birgit Doll) and their young daughter Eva.

    When we first meet the family it is not through some intimate situation but via their daily routines. In fact, the opening sequence is beautifully rendered as a tableau of rituals and chores, i.e. doing the dishes, going to work, etc., without the character’s faces being revealed. What we are shown are close-ups of hands, disembodied voices, etc., all cut together in quick succession in Eisenstein fashion. In fact, the only personal information we learn about each person is disclosed via letters written to Georg and Anna’s respective parents; however these letters are written is such a cool, matter of fact tone as to suggest a progress report rather than communication with a loved one.

    Yet despite the virtuoso control executed the effect is a bit chilling in that the viewer is denied opportunity to acquaint themselves with these people outside of what they do. One begins to sense that their collective existence does not move far beyond the routines they are forced to maintain. The only person who seems to be able to sense this disconnect is Eva herself who acts out in school regularly; in one particular situation she feigns hysterical blindness to her teacher and classmates.

    In fact, her performance is so well played that one almost believes that she indeed is blind until tricked by her teacher in revealing the lie. Yet this is ironically mirrored later on when Anna learns of Eva’s deception and in a warm, understanding tone asks her daughter if she did indeed perpetrate this lie at school without fear of punishment. Meekly, Eva admits what she did and her reward is a sharp slap across the face. As the first day draws to a close, the viewer gets a good sense of the malaise creeping into these people’s lives while hoping that fate will turn things around for the better.

    As the second day dawns, events seem to be moving positively for them; Georg receives a promotion at his job for better money and prestige, etc. However, there is still this strong, nagging sense of disconnection that no matter how well things appear to go, they are still stuck within this vortex of coldness and despair. Eventually, the normally collected Anna breaks down emotionally and we sense that the balance has finally tipped in favor of some unseen, tragic path. Indeed, the third day consists of the family’s decision to free itself through self-annihilation. The methodical manner in which they pursue this ultimate course of action is shocking as they literally destroy all aspects of their lives in order to finally achieve peace.

    By the film’s end, no one is spared, the audience included. However, what gives this act even greater power is that Haneke refuses to impose any artificial explanation as to the specific motivations that led to this final solution. He understands that by explaining it away to something like financial troubles or adultery or anything of that sort cheapens the act because it makes it more digestible to viewers. In leaving the motivation open though, the audience is forced to question why these people committed these acts and thus engaging them in a serious discourse, which has been the aim of Haneke’s work all along. A terrifying work in both the brutality committed and the cold manner in which it is presented, The Seventh Continent is an assured first feature and set the groundwork for themes and methods that Haneke would explore in later films.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kino.com.
    The Seventh Continent


Koch Lorber Films

  • Fratricide

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A cycle of both vengeance and redemption is what Yilmaz Arslan’s film Fratricide offers anyone willing to sit down and watch. Recipient of the Locarno Film Festival’s Silver Leopard award, the film examines both the cultural isolation and tribal feuding experienced by immigrants attempting to make their way in Western Europe. Released by Koch Lorber Films, Fratricide is yet another examination of Europe’s new melting pot and the inner strife that may result accordingly.

    The film follows the journey of two young Kurds attempting to survive and hopefully make their fortune in modern Germany. Azad (Erdal Celik) is Kurdish teenager who at the film’s beginning departs from his rural home in order to make his living in Germany; his journey paid for by his older brother who works as a pimp. Upon arrival in his new environment, Azad is taken in by a local youth hostel ran by local Kurdish community leaders. The hostel essentially acts as an oasis for new immigrants trying to adjust to the rather unwelcome social environment the city presents. While staying at the hostel and earning a living as a barber, Azad meets Ibo (Xevat Gectan), a young Kurdish boy whose parents were murdered in their home country.

    A fast friendship soon develops between the pair as Azad looks after Ibo like a younger brother, in stark contrast to the combative relationship he has with his own older brother. Fate rears its cruel neck in however when one night the pair run into two Turkish brothers on a commuter train. After getting into a heated argument, Azad and Ibo escape but are not forgotten by the pair. Coincidentally, one of the brothers Ahmet (Oral Uyan) stumbles upon the pair again one day. A scuffle breaks out and before anyone has a chance to stop it, a murder is committed. From that point onward, the story spirals uncontrollably into a vortex of revenge and despair.

    Both sides swear vengeance against the other and retribution naturally ensues, driven not only by loss but ancient tribal tensions as well. In the end, everyone loses and no one is left unscathed. While there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, it is bittersweet at best. Like Head-On, Fratricide exists within the new Europe, a contentious melting point of diverse cultures stemming from the recent waves of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. While America has often contended with its multicultural existence, it is nowhere near as difficult as in Western Europe where centuries-old homogenous cultures now find themselves being forced to adapt outside influence.

    The tension and distaste that the native societies bring upon the immigrants creates the isolated environment that only fuels further strife. In their own way, Azad and Ibo are pursuing the American Dream in trying to reinvent themselves in a new land and strike out for their own fortune. However, they also contend with taking care of their families back home financially, which the film makes a rather acidic point about. Whether it is earned working as a butcher or prostitute, money is still money and for that reason alone the families at home nor the Europeans who exploit them have no qualms over how they earn it. Despite the inflicted cruelty, Fratricide still maintains a rather innocent, humanistic core in the relationship between Azad and Ibo. Their bond is forged in the harshest of times and the love they feel for one another is palpable and touching. It only shows that no matter how horrible things can get, love is still capable of beating the most poisonous hate.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    Fratricide
  • Hostage

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Inspired by a real-life incident in northern Greece, Constantine Giannaris’s film Hostage acts as both an effective thriller and social commentary. The film chronicles a bus hijacking in northern Greece and the ordeal that both the hijacker and his hostages endure while striving to survive. Released by Koch Lorber Films, Hostage provides yet another example of their willingness to release pertinent, arthouse films to the US market.

    The story begins on an average workday in Northern Greece. Young Albanian immigrant Elian Senia (Stathis Papadopoulos) steps aboard a local commuter bus along with a bevy of other Greek citizens making their daily work transit. Shortly after the journey begins though, Senia brandishes a live grenade and automatic rifle. Quickly taking the bus and its occupants hostage, so begins the journey that will lead these situation to an inevitably tragic end. Once the hijacking occurs, Elian immediately gets a hold of the local television station to let the people know of his actions. With the aid of his hostages’ cell phones, he is able to establish contact with the media in order to inform them of his intentions and reasons for hijacking the bus.

    While the ultimate motivation is slowly revealed within the story via flashbacks, Elian essentially has taken these people hostage in order to restore his honor as a man. Setup for a crime he didn’t commit and brutalized by the system, Elian sees this as the only way possible to regain his self-respect. Demanding a half million euros, Elian seeks to return to his native Albania and resume life with his family. While the story is primarily focused upon him and his struggle, the film also focuses on the hostages’ travails as well. Exhausted and scared, these individuals at first detest this Albanian, easily spewing venom at him which alludes to the greater social strife that exists between these two ethnic groups, until eventually they begin to side with their captor.

    While this switch may be a standard trope in hostage films, it does take on an additional resonance as the passengers begin to understand and sympathize with Elian’s plight. They see that he is only a young man trying to restore his dignity in the only way he can while facing nothing but hostility. As their collective journey from Greece to Albania nears its end, they develop a special bond with this man which changes not only his life but their own lives as well.

    Hostage is able to maintain its tense atmosphere by essentially operating within a claustrophobic vacuum when following the story on the bus itself. We can see the sweat and fear registered in everyone’s eyes as they are unsure whether they will survive this ordeal or not. This tension is broken up mainly by Elian’s flashbacks, which reveal how he came to this point, as well as a subplot involving his mother being transported to meet Elian and safely talk him down. Anchoring the story though is Papadopoulos’ performance as Elian; he plays the character as a brash mix of bravado and naiveté, outwardly exercising his power and masculinity to maintain control while revealing the inner pain and child-like fear he feels over what he has done and how the authorities will retaliate. A tense yet emotional film, Hostage follows one man’s descent into the abyss and the empathy of those around him observing it happen but unable to stop it.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    Hostage
  • La Belle Captive

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Alain Robbe-Grillet has carved out his own interesting niche within the greater film community, despite his primary work as a leading French avant-garde author. A leading proponent of the noveau roman movement, Robbe-Grillet achieved his greatest notoriety as the screenwriter for Alain Resnais’ arthouse classic Last Year in Marienbad. After that film’s success, Robbe-Grillet began to produce his own projects as well including 1983’s La Belle Captive. Released by Koch Lorber Films, La Belle Captive is a compelling mystery, steeped in surreal eroticism.

    The story begins one night with special agent Walter Raim (Daniel Mesguich) assigned to a secret mission by his employer Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Claire). His mission is to deliver a coded an important letter to a French aristocrat, however Walter is sidetracked when he comes across a mysterious young woman inside a local nightclub named Marie-Ange (Gabrielle Lazure). Walter is immediately smitten by Marie-Ange, captivated by her physical beauty as well as her enigmatic manner. After some playful dancing, Walter remembers his mission and sets out to complete it when he comes upon Marie-Ange sprawled across the road unconscious and injured. Immediately, he carries her into his car and speeds away to seek out help.

    Along the way, Walter notices a sprawling villa and thinking quickly pulls up for immediate assistance. Once inside however, he notices a surreal cabal of businessmen who quickly eye Marie-Ange and begin to encircle her, sinister intentions abound as Walter is forced to defend this young woman from this pack of increasingly odd men while seeking assistance from a doctor among their ranks. Eventually, the pair retire to a bedroom where they are quickly locked in for the night. Confined and alone, Walter and Marie-Ange give into their physical temptations and make love to one another. However, Walter begins having strange visions of a Rene Magritte painting titled “La Belle Captive (The Beautiful Prisoner)”, while engaged in the act. In the morning, Walter wakes up to an abandoned, derelict villa with Marie-Ange missing and a severe neck wound. He then sets out to find out what happened to her.

    However, visions of the Magritte painting begin to push ever further into his psyche as the image’s details begin to manifest themselves in real life and very quickly Walter begins to question whether she really exists at all. Was it a dream or is he simply beginning to lose his mind? Recalling his work with Resnais, Robbe-Grillet’s film is an amusing and erotic meditation on both memory and desire. Lazure’s performance as Walter’s impossible object of desire is both cool and libidinous as she appears like a phantasm before him, constantly luring Walter to continue his search but remaining forever distant only creating further tension within his mind. Mesguich’s Walter is a characteristic French throwback to Humphrey Bogart with his beige raincoat and calm manner in the beginning, which makes his psychological breakdown all the more interesting to observe as reality begins crashing around him and he can no longer tell what is and is not real.

    Structure-wise, the film recalls Luis Bunuel’s late films and their insistence on dream logic, i.e. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, etc. While Robbe-Grillet utilizes this technique admirably it still does feel a bit cloying at times and his scenes of erotic seduction have a tendency to either hit or miss. Yet, the film succeeds in translating the tone and focus of his literary work onto the big screen and for that alone, La Belle Captive is worth viewing not only for those already familiar with his work but as an introduction to both his intriguing cinematic and literary worlds.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    La Belle Captive
  • The Five Obstructions

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The cinema of Lars von Trier has always possessed a rather strict, formalist edge. One of the founders of Dogme 95 as well as its public figurehead, von Trier is rather fond of rules. He often sets specific creative limits on himself when tackling a project as a means to enhance rather than inhibit his creativity. These rules often come across as intellectually amusing mind games, however von Trier is one of the few directors who chooses to make his rules known to the public rather than following them silently as most other directors normally do. Tackling the documentary form for the first time, von Trier applied his particular brand of mind game to his own cinematic idol, Jorgen Leth in a film experiment unlike any other attempted before. The entertaining and enlightening results of their unique collaboration culminated in what are simply known as the Five Obstructions.

    The intellectual counterpart to von Trier in this exercise, Jorgen Leth, becomes the focal point of his collaborator’s machinations as he attempts to dodge the creative challenges set before him and show up the notoriously difficult von Trier. Yet one would be remiss when watching the film to notice the reverence that von Trier holds for his idol and the influence that Leth’s cool, detached yet precise style undoubtedly had on Lars himself. The film begins with both men meeting at von Trier’s home to watch Leth’s 1967 film, The Perfect Human, one of von Trier’s favorite films by his own admission. Afterwards, they commence with their unique plot. Together, they will remake The Perfect Human five times, with each version reined in by specific, technical challenges. As a result, each new resulting version is referred to as an Obstruction.

    On the surface, each obstruction is meant to cripple Leth’s creative juices by consciously taking him out of any comfort zone and holding him to rather bizarre limitations. For example, the first obstruction is marked by a rule of no single edit lasting longer than twelve frames. This conflicts directly with the basic film ratio of twenty-four frames per one second of screen time. By cutting the frame count in half, one would expect a disorienting, spastic movie yet Leth digs deep and uses this seeming crutch to his advantage and crafts a unique variation on his original work.

    This sets the essential rhythm of the overall piece. Lars supplies the rules that Jorgen must abide by, seemingly to disable and discourage his mentor, and Jorgen uses these rules against von Trier to birth new variations and discourage his nemesis. Yet as the film continues and years literally pass over the course of this collaboration, threads of a deeper plot slowly unravel before the viewer’s eyes. Over the course of time, Leth shakes off his reticence and depression exhibited while producing the first obstruction and by the time he reaches the final version, he is a man reborn. Both creatively and spiritually, Leth is revitalized by his renewed passion to direct; the constant challenges to him leveled by von Trier to seemingly crush him appear to have the opposite result. Whether this result is intentional is up to the viewer to discover for him or herself.

    In the end, The Five Obstructions plays out as a cinematic rebuke to the old adage that one can never go home again. By revisiting his literal and figurative past via The Perfect Human, Leth is provided with the opportunity to both muse and transcend. Leth is able to muse on his own affinity for the perfect human character in his film, a man physically and seemingly socially perfect yet disconnected from humanity and his own emotion, substituting intellectual curiosity for passion. Through these experiments, Leth sheds his intellectual shielding and reignites his passions for life. Von Trier and Leth essentially trick one into expecting an amusing and intellectually stimulating parlor game and instead leaving emotionally connected and engaged, cinematic therapy for the soul if you will. Perhaps this is the greatest message that Lars wishes to leave the viewer, that the head and heart do not necessarily have to be opposed to each other in either filmmaking or more importantly life in general.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    The Five Obstructions
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced at the height of the French New Wave, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is both an exquisite salute to the classic Hollywood musical as well as one of the finest romantic films ever put on celluloid. Winner of the 1964 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize and nominated for several Academy Awards, the film is buoyed by French composer Michel Legrand’s enchanting score, including the now classic song “I Will Wait For You”. Another aspect that separates the film from other musicals is its insistence on all dialogue being sung, hence there are never any awkward transitions into traditional song sequences as the film essentially becomes one long song. The film is bold in both its form and mature handling of romantic themes. Yet Demy and his talented cast created a cinematic confection that has remained as enchanting today as it was upon initial release.

    The film’s plot involves the complicated romance between two naïve French youths, Genevieve and Guy (played respectively by Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo). In the film’s first act, we meet the two lovers and gain some insight into their backgrounds. Genevieve is the daughter of an umbrella shop owner, her mother, and assists her with the day to day sales while still being a loving child. Guy is an auto mechanic who lives with his ill aunt, essentially his foster mother after the death of his own parents years before. The two meet in secret so as not to upset their respective families, yet while together they display their tender affection for each other openly and without restraint. Their initial idyll is soon challenged by outside complications. First is the introduction of another eligible suitor named Roland Cassard, a jewel dealer whom assists Genevieve’s mother out of financial ruin and slowly takes interest in the young girl. Another more furtive challenge is Guy’s drafting into the French Army and shipment to Algeria to fight in the war. Before he leaves though, he and Genevieve spend one last night together which marks the end of their innocence but only the beginning of their respective journeys.

    The film’s second act then focuses squarely on Genevieve and her family situation. By this time, she has become pregnant by Guy and is struggling with her mother to keep things afloat. As time moves on and she becomes restless, Cassard appears and makes overtures that simply cannot be ignored. Regretfully but understandably, she agrees to become his wife. Without knowing it though, Guy himself is on his way back to Cherbourg. The final act itself concerns the return of Guy and the process to rebuild his own life after losing Genevieve and finding new love in the process. The film’s finale is both glorious and heartbreaking but one that is impossible to forget or under appreciate.

    What gives the film its legs is the mix of energy and exuberance coupled with the mature handling of romance that mirrors real life than the standard fantastical route of standard musicals. The entirely sung score and bold color design inspires vitality and freshness, bordering on surrealism, yet still clearly communicating the characters’ ideas and intentions clearly. Over the film’s course, both Guy and Genevieve learn about real love and loss rather than living in the ideal infatuation that brought them together originally. While there are no weak performances in the entire piece, the film draws its center from Deneuve’s performance as Genevieve. One of her first important performances, Deneuve imbues her character with the mix of sweet innocence and world-weary understanding that she would bring to later performances with equal acclaim. We follow her emotional journey as she moves from child to adult and experience the pains and sacrifice she must make in order to go on with her life. An insane yet realistic mix of tragedy and comedy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is sure to tug on the heart strings of anyone who has ever loved and more importantly ever loved and lost.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
  • Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart in Winter)

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Produced near the end of his career and life, French director Claude Sautet left the world with an intimate and heart-breaking examination of love in Un Coeur En Hiver. Starring Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Beart, and Andre Dussollier, the film follows the exploits of an unusual love triangle developed between the lead characters. Following the emotional shifts with deceptive simplicity, Sautet illustrates the emotional torment love creates among these three distinct characters. With no clear heroes or villains portrayed, the main characters attempt to sort out their emotional lives to the best of their abilities. That we the audience may view their faults honestly yet without inviting judgment, gives the film an emotional honesty that is vital to the work’s overall success.

    The film concerns the two main characters, Stephane and Maxime (played respectively by Auteuil and Dussolier). Both men are business partners involved in a lucrative musical instrument shop, catering to the elite in European classical music. Stephane is a skilled artisan and repairer of musical instruments, most notably violins, and Maxime is the dealer and overall business brain. The pair possess an amicable friendship with one another, yet Maxime is the more adventurous and spirited of the pair while Stephane is more aloof and unconcerned with social matters. Gently yet not incredibly warm, he observes Maxime with a voyeur’s distant gaze. Their relationships, both social and business, operate rather smoothly until the introduction of Camille, a classical violist played by Beart.

    Camille quickly becomes romantically involved with Maxime, the pair soon move in together and their prospects initially look well. However, she is slowly but surely drawn in by Stephane’s emotional disengagement, mistakenly interpreting it as subtle seduction. As a result, she slowly but surely falls deeply in love with this man, while still involved with Maxime. What she does not know however is that Stephane himself intended to seduce Camille for his own amusement. Willing to trap her emotionally without feeling love for her, Stephane quietly yet assuredly engages in his ploy. However, even he cannot anticipate the intense desire Camille develops for him which quickly turns on her as she realizes his ruse.

    From this point onward, the center collapses as the trio weathers through the emotional repercussions of Stephane’s betrayal. Sautet handles his characters with quiet respect; he reserves no judgment towards any of them. As the viewer, we develop sympathies with the characters but we are not asked to outright judge them. Sautet merely presents the situation, allows us to view what is happening, and come to our own conclusions. Despite his rather troublesome actions, Stephane himself is a man confused. He is not an evil man, rather he is a man who has lived his life so disconnected from his emotions that this has led to an inability to genuinely empathize with others, until the fallout begins.

    As the film continues, and the relationships change, these three characters explore their individual emotional turmoil as well as their attitudes towards each other. By the film’s end, everything has changed yet stays the same. Sautet leaves us with three characters whom rather than stereotypically breaking apart and fading away, continue to coexist with one another. Yet, this is done with the utmost knowledge of what has come before and each person is left enlightened yet broken inside. Realistic in its depictions and sympathetic to both good and bad, Un Coeur En Hiver is a quiet, charged character study of the emotional and relational tumult that love can and often does create.

    For more information on this title, go to www.kochlorberfilms.com.
    Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart in Winter)


Liberation Entertainment

  • Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Coinciding with the release of Ron Howard’s cinematic adaptation of Frost/Nixon (penned by The Queen and The Last King of Scotland scribe Peter Morgan and starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, reprising his Tony Award-winning role as Nixon), Liberation Entertainment is making available on DVD the original Frost/Nixon interviews. The first release, with the complete series of interviews planned to follow, covers the actual Watergate interviews themselves.

    To provide a bit of back story for those unfamiliar with these sessions, Sir David Frost had persuaded former President Nixon to participate in a series of taped interviews after his resignation from office. While accusations of checkbook journalism have been leveled against Frost (perhaps rightfully so), he was able to allow a man who had stayed virtually silent for three years after his resignation to candidly speak about what happened . In this new edition, Frost himself provides a brief introduction regarding this most important session, filmed over two days in separate tapings. In this opening statement, he discusses the shooting schedule itself as well as Nixon’s overall performance on both days leading up to the former President’s implicit admission of guilt by the very end.

    The introduction itself is a perfect primer when going into the program itself, ninety minutes of two talking heads quietly sparring over facts and recollections. As Frost outlines in his introduction, the first day’s shoot showcases Nixon on the defense attempting to give away as little personally incriminating evidence as possible. He states that his intention is to merely go over the record with Frost and either confirm known facts or clarify perceived misstatements. Using his legal background as shielding from incriminating verbal traps, Nixon bears with Frost as the host reads off his clipboard and proceeds through the Watergate cover-up efforts by the White House in exacting detail. What, in other instances, should play out as a friendly conversation instead takes on the trappings of a formal deposition.

    Time and again, Nixon shifts blame away from himself, stating that any instances of disrupting investigations or withholding facts was meant as only political coverage, not criminal in motivation. Frost continues pushing forward with the secret White House tape transcripts straight from the Oval Office, repeating sections verbatim and grilling the President as to his intentions in these instances; Frost constantly tries laying traps for Nixon to fall into, asking hypothetical questions and hoping for a bite. The cat and mouse game between both men is subtle but intense as the prize is admission of responsibility. The first session ends with Nixon somewhat effectively stonewalling Frost, or at the very least keeping him at bay.

    The second session marks a decided shift in the former President’s attitude, whereas before he was ready to battle semantically in order to protect himself, the second taping finds the man in a far more conciliatory mood. When discussing the firings of key Watergate conspirators H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon speaks with regret, tears seemingly on the verge of being released. Framed in tight close-up, his facial expressions belie a deep well of pain and regret over letting the lies become so completely entangling. In retrospect, it appears rather obvious how these interviews could lend themselves towards theater since that’s essentially what they were for the millions who watched the original broadcast. Nixon’s demeanor continues softening until we reach the climax itself, with Frost making his final strike and goading the President into submission. It is genuine real-life drama, especially in the context of a nation watching Nixon finally break and feel some sense of closure after years of deceit.

    For more information on this title, go to www.libent.com.
    Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews
  • One-Eyed Monster

    Let’s face it, whether you like it or not, Ron Jeremy is a legend. Yes, THE Ron Jeremy, with his adorable hedgehog looks and perennially worshipped equipment, is a god among men due mainly to the fact of his ability to have sex with the most beautiful women around looking the way he does. And why is that? Because he’s been one of the “largest” men in porn for years and when you have the goods like that and know how to use it then it doesn’t matter how the rest looks. It’s fitting then that the new horror comedy One-Eyed Monster takes square aim at Mr. Jeremy’s business and along the way provides a fun and sometimes poignant commentary on the industry itself.

    Featuring a cast comprised of both veteran adult talent (Jeremy, Veronica Hart, and Carmen Hart) alongside mainstream actors like Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Amber Benson and veteran character thesp Charles Napier, the plot unravels in a standard, out in the middle of nowhere, wilderness cabin where a small film crew is preparing to shoot a new adult feature. Led by the arrogant director, mousy makeup girl, fresh and experienced performers, as well as crew, the group is overseen by Jeremy and Veronica Hart, ostensibly playing themselves as aging stars well past their prime and know it. While preparing to shoot the first scene, a mysterious light bolts through sky and possesses Ron himself.

    As he films his scene, the mysterious entity takes control of Ron’s manhood and promptly detaches itself from the legend’s body with a thirst to kill. Yes that’s right, Ron Jeremy’s possessed penis is bent on massacring everyone in sight in order to satiate its own insane hunger. It’s a stretch yes but this is honestly one of the funniest, most clever spoofs to come along in a while because both the actors and filmmakers acknowledge the inherent absurdity of such a situation but play it entirely straight. So rather than handling the detached killer penis angle as some sort of Troma wink-wink, nudge-nudge in-joke, the film is able to generate a degree of genuine suspense in wondering who is going to get it next and how it’ll happen.

    Thankfully, most of the attacks are tastefully shot leaving more to the imagination with barely a display of the penis itself unless necessary, sort of like Jaws if you’ll pardon the comparison. If that weren’t enough, Napier provides a great send-up of that classic’s famous Indianapolis speech; however instead of Quint sardonically recalling the death of his fellow sailors to hungry sharks, Napier’s crazed Vietnam vet discusses how his platoon in ‘Nam was taken down by another maniac penis and his gambit to defeat the beast. Again, Napier plays the monologue utterly straight which makes you laugh that much harder.

    While the whole killer penis angle provides the movie’s narrative thrust as it were, there’s also a great subplot involving Jeremy and Veronica themselves which proves as interesting yet subtle. Staring into a mirror, dissecting every line across her face, Veronica feels that her time in the spotlight has come and gone yet how is supposed to let that attention and adulation go? A porn star is still nonetheless a star right? Her musings with Ron on this subject underscores what must be a concern in an industry where looks and sex appeal are ninety-nine percent of the job. Ron’s response must mirror his own actual approach to work and a self-awareness as to why he has become the cult icon he is now.

    He lets us know that he is actually in on the joke and that makes you appreciate him even more. Not only that but the rapport between the duo is genuine and touching, you really do feel like you’re watching a pair of old friends musing over what once was while reticent to accept just how times have changed and moved past them. Ultimately, One-Eyed Monster will definitely make you laugh if you don’t take yourself too seriously, will scare you if don’t take yourself too seriously, and will make you ultimately care about these people if you do give them the respect to take them seriously and not dismiss them as just porn stars.

    For more information on this title, go to www.libent.com.
    One-Eyed Monster
  • Shotgun Stories

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    The joy of being a film fan in this day and age is the abundance of quality films that continue shuffling down the pipeline be they independent or studio-based. However, with an increasing tight and competitive market and weak economy the flipside of this cornucopia is that far too many works unfortunately end up slipping through the cracks at an ever-increasing rate that sells short both the filmmakers and audiences yet to take them in. One can only hope that Jeff Nichols’ directorial debut Shotgun Stories does not suffer a similar fate. Released by Liberation Entertainment and Genius Products, Shotgun Stories is a gripping glimpse into the dark heart of family namely jealousy, resentment, and hatred lurking beneath the American heartland.

    Interestingly enough, the most imposing character in this Southern Gothic tale is never glimpsed on screen except for the presence of his casket. Once upon a time, in a small town in southern Arkansas there was once a man named Hayes who lived a hard life. A drunkard among other things, he eventually fathered three boys with a local townswoman and with little concern for them at all named them quite simply Son, Boy, and Kid. However, Mr. Hayes soon tired of this squalid existence and left his family to hook up with another woman in town. Together, they started a successful farm, had four more children (all boys), and by God, Mr. Hayes found Jesus and quit the bottle. It is important to know the circumstances behind this man’s callous decision for it will come to affect the lives of all those left in his wake.

    As the story begins we meet the first Hayes clan, perfectly introduced by the eldest Son (played by Michael Shannon) walking outside the front door of his house, wife evidently gone for the time being, to wake up kid brother Kid, who’s holed up in a tent on the front lawn like it’s no big deal. From this alone, we catch a glimpse into the hard life these men have lived economically further illustrated by middle son Boy’s decision to live in a van by the river with his dog Charlie.

    From the trio’s manner, it’s clear that no handouts have ever been received and all hold large chips on their shoulder from their father’s abandonment, coupled with their mother’s uncaring rearing. Soon enough though, Son learns from his mother that dear old Mr. Hayes has died. While the second Hayes clan is gathered and grieving before their father’s coffin, Son and his brothers decide to attend and before their half-brothers and all those gathered air their grievances against the dearly departed upsetting all and tarnishing the man’s name.

    From there, the noose begins to slowly tighten as a blood feud that has lain dormant for decades finally surfaces. Threats escalate to action in a slow, methodical manner that allows director Nichols to ratchet up the paranoia while following the lives of both clans as they attempt to get ahead ever so slowly in the desolate backwater they’ve been consigned to. Whether it’s Son’s attempts at card counting and holding onto his wife, Kid’s attempt to get serious with his girlfriend, etc., all these paper thin dreams are threatened by the kicked bees nest that the old man’s funeral let loose. As the film’s tone grows darker, the inevitable violence begins, ever escalating until all bad blood is settled one way or another.

    Credit again belongs to Nichols who, perhaps with Green’s assistance, is less interested in crafting an arty revenge thriller than a realistic exploration of bad decisions and consequences that can easily derail lives. That both groups of men are half-brothers adds a somewhat Biblical edge to the hatred yet both director and actors refuse to reduce these characters to one-note stereotypes. Special mention here goes to actor Michael Shannon as Son; tall, lean, with a determined stare, Shannon has been steadily rising in the ranks of independent film with acclaimed work on films ranging from Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Bug, Cecil B. Demented, and the upcoming Revolutionary Road.

    Shannon imbues Son with a straight-ahead, laconic presence befitting, he doesn’t speak much and when he does it counts. He effortlessly moves from cool menace to understated gentility while never betraying the character in favor of actorly flourishes as many others are prone to do. In an earlier decade, Son could have easily been played by a Tommy Lee Jones or Ed Harris and Shannon’s work here would certainly match what those gifted actors could bring to this role.

    Many people fancy themselves prognosticators after the fact but let it be said here that someday Michael Shannon will win an Academy Award following in the footsteps of other actors like Kevin Spacey and Philip Seymour Hoffman. He simply is that good and like Spacey and Hoffman before him it’s simply a matter of timing and material. Shotgun Stories in short is the kind of thoughtful, well-shot, confident indie film that many producers loudly exclaim they wish they could make but never throw the dice and do so. All that remains now is the audience brave enough to sit down for an hour and a half and take the journey that awaits them with this small, brilliant blast of fury and power.

    For more information on this title, go to www.liberationentertainment.com.
    Shotgun Stories


Lionsgate

  • Diva

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Equal parts melodrama, suspense thriller, and high fashion shoot, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film Diva has been a cult favorite for decades now. Lionsgate, seeing a chance to kick off a new product line, releases a brand new special edition of this French thriller as apart of its new Meridian Collection. Catering to the same level of consumers that check out Criterion Collection titles, the Meridian Collection sets itself up to at least compete with that venerable line with titles such as this. Plot-wise, Diva is a mash of opera, thriller, romance, etc.

    The story follows a young French postman (Frederic Andrei) who, being an avid opera enthusiast, secretly tape records an aria performance by a famed American soprano (Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez). While trying to impress a young Vietnamese girl, the tape falls into the wrong hands and is offered up to Taiwanese bootleggers eager to sell the recording to the masses since said soprano has heretofore never recorded her performances before. Meanwhile, while servicing his route, the postman unexpectedly bumps into an abused prostitute who slips him another tape containing incriminating evidence over a nefarious drug and prostitution ring.

    Throw in some crooked cops killing everyone standing in their way to find the second tape, a blooming (and rather impossible) romance between the postman and soprano and a daring chase through the Paris Metro and you have the ingredients for an overwrought but enjoyable yarn. Included in the various special features are interviews with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Beineix himself, various cast and crew, etc. In the end, Diva is a well-made genre stew that never shies away from its own earnestness. Instead it drives at full tilt into the dramatic grandeur associated with the opera itself with overall satisfying result.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgatedvd.com.
    Diva
  • Game Box 1.0

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Charlie Nash (Nate Richert) is a young, professional video game tester whose life is in the midst of a downward spiral. After the tragic, accidental shooting of his girlfriend Kate (Danielle Fishel), Charlie’s life has become increasingly isolated from his friends and co-workers as he desperately clings onto memories of a happy past. However, a mysterious, new game console and headset arrive on his doorstep one day which unwittingly leads Charlie on a journey of adventure and ultimately self-discovery.

    What Charlie finds on his door step is a prototype copy of a new game console called Gamebox 1.0; intrigued by its prospects he begins playing the game. Utilizing state of the art virtual reality technology via a special headset, Gamebox allows the user to be fully immersed in a three-dimensional world in order to actively participate in the game. An additional feature allows Charlie to download images of friends into the system which are then used as character skins for various characters within the myriad of individual games the system presents. At first, he is taken by the mind blowing graphics and game play, however he soon realizes that more sinister actions are afoot. While interacting with the game’s AI, he soon learns that any physical damage he accrues in the game translates equally to his own physical existence.

    Moreover, even after disengaging from the game play via removing the headset, he becomes permanently linked to the system so that even in his daily routine he begins drifting back into game play. His objective to beat the game and thus free himself is to protect a special suitcase and its courier from a myriad of villains including one psychotic, ninja-obsessed crimelord who stalks them through the various game levels. Adding further complications to the mix however is the courier’s programmed resemblance to Kate; entranced by her Charlie does everything in his power to protect this character while dealing with his own conflicting feelings over his girlfriend’s loss.

    In a sense, the courier allows Charlie to exorcise his guilt by allowing him one more chance to be with the one he loves. Even worse, the psychopath chasing them resembles the corrupt police officer who shot Kate and whom Charlie must protect both the courier and himself from while fighting to survive and escape the increasingly hellish environment.

    With its Tron meets Grand Theft Auto design, Gamebox 1.0 is a perfect action flick for the video game connoisseur; its incessant action and game-like plot will be easily appreciated and applauded by geeks everywhere. Moreover, its conceit of a real person trapped within a virtual environment links it to successful predecessors like The Matrix and The Lawnmower Man.

    At the film’s heart though are the solid performances by Richert and Fishel; able to simultaneously portray the real-world depressed loser and the virtual dashing hero, Richert is adept at being cool and nerdy with little trouble and Fishel transcends her Boy Meets World persona in order to play a character with greater complexity and spunk than previously allowed. A fun, entrancing action yarn for the Xbox generation; Gamebox 1.0 sets out to entertain and that’s exactly what it does.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgate.com.
    Game Box 1.0
  • Luis Bunuel 2-Disc Collectors Edition

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Released as a two-disc set, Lionsgate steps into the world of art cinema with the release of two largely-forgotten films by Spanish master Luis Bunuel in a new Collector’s Edition. Known for both his early Surrealist provocations (i.e. Un Chien Andalou) and later masterpieces like Belle du Jour and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel marked his time and continued to strengthen his craft during a long stint in the Mexican film industry after his exile from Spain due to the Francoist regime that had taken power. These two films bookend that middle period and show a director plying his trade with material not quite up to his artistic standards but still making an impressive go at it and largely succeeding.

    Marking Bunuel’s first foray within the Mexican film industry, Gran Casino in many ways is as prosaic and “normal” as any other standard melodrama. The plot involves two escaped convicts, Gerardo (Jorge Negrete) and Demetrio (Julio Villareal) who stumble upon a languishing oil rig owned by an Argentinean oil man. Due to strong arm tactics by local thugs, the rig lies on the verge of ruin until Gerardo and Demetrio appear, akin to knights in shining armor, and help resuscitate it back to life. Flush with newfound funds, the oil man travels to the local casino only to disappear under mysterious circumstances. Soon afterwards, the owner’s sister (Libertad Lemarque) arrives and immediately suspects the convicts of foul play. However, mutual attraction develops between both herself and Gerardo. Together, they secretly investigate her brother’s disappearance and attempt to fight off the forces that seek to bring only ruin and bloodshed to their lives.

    Some may consider the movie’s lack of trademark Bunuelian surrealist imagery and themes cause for dismissal but instead it should shed light on the director’s solid abilities for storytelling and pacing. Instead of needlessly throwing in signature visual tropes to jazz things us, Bunuel instead holds the film together with a solid plot, effective pacing and the ability to stage both musical and dramatic sequences with a technician’s confidence and skill. If Luis had directed films with this skill in the old Hollywood studio system, he’d never be out of work.

    Within the plot, Bunuel does throw a smattering of class and economic consciousness regarding the oil rig’s attempted takeover by foreign, capitalist powers; while the political undertones do register well enough, Bunuel does not develop them too acutely perhaps for the better as his work has rarely been overtly political and more often than not has been all the better for that very reason. Performance-wise, Negrete and Lamarque turn in admirable work; while not shining with obvious star quality, the tension between their characters is believable enough to make the eventual romantic revelation palatable enough at least for a melodrama. By and large, Gran Casino may not be classic Bunuel but it does prove that the director could make films out of his comfort zone and still make them effectively.

    The set’s second film, The Young One, is by far the more superior and ‘Bunuelian’ of the pair. Crossing Robinson Crusoe and Lolita with a bit of Marxism thrown in, The Young One was Bunuel’s last film before directing Viridiana, the project that ignited his return to the global film community and set the stage for the last phase of his career and life. A young black jazz musician (Bernie Hamilton) is on the run for his life after being accused of rape. He travels by boat to escape his pursuers only to wash up on a small island off the Carolina coast utilized for game hunting.

    On the island live the hired game warden (Zachary Scott) and a young, budding teenage girl (Key Meersman) who has been raised upon the island by her now-deceased grandfather. When the musician makes his presence known to the girl after the warden leaves for a supply run, a friendship is formed. A friendship that leads directly to conflict when the game warden returns; learning of the fugitive’s stay on the island, both men enter into a war of wills not only for their own survival but for the attention of the girl herself whose burgeoning sexuality becomes more pronounced.

    Produced while Bunuel was exploring Marxist issues in his work, The Young One features a critique of both class and race as these men come face to face with the ugliness of racism and capitalist disregard. They come to realize that as individuals they have more in common than they have been conditioned to believe. However, the film’s real power lies in the sexual tension created by the girl herself. When the musician first comes across her after she has showered, his physical desires respond to her ripening body while contending with her still-innocent mind and soul. The warden, on the other hand, dives right into this desire and forces himself upon the girl; practically raping her, Bunuel examines themes of young lust and perverted desire that Kubrick’s Lolita hints at but doesn’t point out as strongly as Bunuel does here.

    The psychosexual subtext also allows Bunuel’s fetishes ample room to spread out and further color the landscape with his own personal style of kink. More about desire than politics, The Young One is a great balance of solid Hollywood filmmaking laced with personal desires and idiosyncrasies that would become more prevalent in his later films. Taken together, this duo of Bunuel films bookends what essentially is Luis Bunuel’s middle period. After the success of his early assaults like Un Chien Andalou and Las Hurdes, Bunuel’s work in the Mexican film industry allowed him to stay active with steady work despite the sorts of projects he took on at times.

    However, it is fair to say that had this opportunity not presented itself, Bunuel may not have been prepared to create such works as Viridiana and thus ascend to ever greater heights in his career. In the end, what remains are two unpolished gems that do hold their place within the Bunuel canon; while they may not be bursting at the seams with genius as his later films appear to do, these films still prove that even with standard dramatic fare Luis Bunuel remained a focused and professional craftsman who almost always found a way to inject his unique voice into even the most mundane material.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgate.com.
    Luis Bunuel 2-Disc Collectors Edition
  • The Doom Generation

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    A story as simple as it is refreshing; a teenage couple Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) and Jordan White (James Duval) meet one Xavier Red (Jonathan Schaech), a bleeding drifter who interrupts their make-out session after being attacked near their car. Reluctantly taking the stranger in, the trio then sets out across the country encountering a slew of psychopathic killers and quick-stop workers. In every town they visit, some crazed local mistakes Amy for an ex-girlfriend and tries to kill her.

    Violence ensues and yet another person is violently slaughtered. As the body count increases, the boundaries between the three characters begin breaking down as they learn from each other, both sexually and spiritually. Filled with twists and turns, the film chronicles the flowering of new relationships as the world around appears to be sinking into an ever deepening whirlpool of nihilism.

    Looking back on it now, Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation perfectly captures the pop cultural temperature of the early 1990’s. An affectionate if twisted tale, Araki takes time to examine the fascination with convenience store culture, pop cultural references (i.e. The Brady Bunch), as well as a kitschy fascination with the end of the world. Moreover, Doom Generation plays into a familiar plot structure not only utilized by Araki but by other directors of the New Queer Cinema, the road picture.

    As in his previous film, The Living End, Araki utilizes the road picture format to follow the events and tribulations of his lead characters. However, Araki makes a clear distinction upfront about this being a “heterosexual” film both as a joke in its defiant declaration but also as a knowing acknowledgment of his own concerns and work as an open, homosexual director. Despite the opening hetero declaration though, Araki infuses the subtext with a plethora of sexual imagery and connotation both heterosexual and homosexual until both strands finally meet.

    In terms of performance, The Doom Generation packs a solid trio of lead players flanked by a series of increasing weird, violent characters that are out to rip them to pieces. First and foremost you have Rose McGowan as Amy Blue, a foul-mouthed teenager that perfectly fits in with the 90’s zeitgeist. Quick-witted yet profane, Amy is unafraid to neither dismantle a person verbally nor defend herself from accusation. She also exhibits a practically unapologetic sexual appetite, while she does love her boyfriend Jordan; she simply can’t resist the skills that Xavier brings to bear while also learning some new tricks along the way. Jordan himself, as played by Araki stalwart James Duval, is really the heart and innocence of the piece.

    Intellectually and spiritually open, Duval plays the character as a sort of holy fool; accepting of both Amy and Xavier despite their sexual dalliances he strives for a new sort of union between the three of them while also becoming aware of his own bisexual desires. Finally, you have Jonathan Schaech as Xavier Red; in what has so far been his best performance Schaech imbues Xavier with an anything goes, maverick spirit be it in regards to sexuality, violence, etc. He is the guide to the trio’s collective journey together, moving them along from one predicament to the next allowing them to forge an even tighter emotional bond.

    The consummation of his work results in their complete embrace, both physical and spiritual as they allow sex to fully reveal who they are both to each other as well as themselves. However, don’t think for an instant that the movie is some sort of New Age exploration in spirituality and sex alone. The Doom Generation also works as a sharp, black comedy packed with gore that is both disturbing and hilarious. From the accidental convenience-store death via shotgun to bar fights and beyond, the movie is unafraid to mine depraved violence for shock value. Araki effectively infuses much of the horror with an absurdist quality so that when the final act is punctuated by genuine brutality and terror, the rug is swept out from under you and what was viewed before as funny now registers as both frightening and sad.

    In the end, the road trip continues towards an uncertain future perfectly mirroring life itself. With a solid cast and handle on the times it was produced in, The Doom Generation stands both as a wicked black comedy as well as a time capsule to a decade that now feels as alien as the horrors it projects on screen. Gone now is the youthful exuberance and risk-taking in much American independent film, yet hopefully new viewers down the line will take a cue from films like this, produced in bolder times, and take chances as only independent filmmakers have the opportunity to do.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgate.com.
    The Doom Generation
  • The Kill Point

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    As its initial foray into scripted drama, SPIKE TV’s original series The Kill Point shows the same degree of testosterone-laden, crime drama that infuses its stylistic forebears like The Shield. Available now on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate, the entire series plays out like an extended, emotionally-wrenching, gun opera. Award winning actor John Leguizamo plays “Mr. Wolf”, an ex-Iraq war commander who leads a team of his former troops to commit a high-stakes bank heist in broad daylight.

    Just as victory comes close to fruition, events quickly spiral out of the veteran’s tight control and soon enough, what should have been a precision smash and grab job descends into a frantic hostage situation with lives on the line. It is at this point that the series’ other lead and Wolf’s counterpart, Horst Cali (Donnie Wahlberg) is introduced. A hard-nosed hostage negotiator who is nearly impossible to intimidate, Horst assesses the situation and tries to figure out the safest and most expedient way to keep those hostages alive.

    Pressure mounts on both Horst and Wolf as hours pass by and various parties, both outside and inside of the situation try to circumvent both of these men’s efforts in order to achieve their own ulterior motives. As both men reach their breaking point, enemies only continue to mount and through it all a test of wits and wills bond these men together as only combat can. Leading the charge in this grippingly-shot thriller are the dual performances by Leguizamo and Wahlberg. A supporting actor always in search of the perfect leading man part, Leguizamo is electric as Wolf. Playing a man with the world bearing down upon his shoulders while ready to kill at a moment’s notice, Leguizamo effectively channels the character’s steely resolve while betraying the psychological churning that chips away his psyche.

    Wahlberg’s Horst is a perfect mirror to Wolf, a man unafraid of pressure or challenge. Wahlberg’s stoic command proves a valuable asset while playing a character trying to save lives amongst unseen enemies recklessly endangering others for their own gain. As both characters learn more about each other’s pasts, a deeply felt camaraderie develops and both actors react well to each in this context not unlike the complicated relationship between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.

    However, it is wrong to think that with a name like The Kill Point there won’t be any action. Shot using big-budget Hollywood action angles and aesthetics, The Kill Point’s set pieces unfold in a constant, unwavering adrenaline rush. Deft camera work brings the viewer in close with the action, feeling as though stray automatic fire may whiz past his or her head. In the end though, the pressure-cooker tension, focused performances and balls to the wall action serve up a cerebral and visceral thriller that over nearly eight hours never slackens both in pace or excitement.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgatedvd.com.
    The Kill Point
  • The Red Violin

    By IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Spanning centuries, continents, and cultures, the title character in Francois Girard’s adventure through music, The Red Violin, can be simply thoughts of as ‘the little violin that could’. One of the initial releases of Lionsgate’s new Meridian Collection, The Red Violin has been a sort of arthouse staple for the past ten years now. Gathering acclaim and featuring one of Samuel L. Jackson’s more refined character portraits (although the signature screaming still shows up from time to time). The tale itself begins in a Montreal auction house where a series of cherished classical instruments is up for sale.

    Last amongst the lots for bid is the cherished ‘Red Violin’, the final instrument made by a famous Italian craftsman akin to Stradivarius. Sought after for literally centuries, a glut of interested parties begins bidding on the instrument for various reasons. Cut to Renaissance Italy where the instrument maker himself awaits the birth of his child while his wife receives troubling visions about her own mortality and journey she shall take. Tragically, both mother and child die in childbirth and beset with grief, the craftsman fashions the red violin in honor of his wife using means that are unorthodox to say the least. From there, the instrument begins its journey over the centuries.

    First it ends up in the hands of a young orphan raised by monks, who upon learning of his exceptional skill with the violin, entrusts him to a wealthy musical benefactor intent on presenting him to the royal court in Vienna. Tragedy however strikes the young child and the instrument makes its way into the hands of a famed English violinist years later. Enraptured by the instrument’s sound as much as the affair he conducts with a noblewoman (Greta Scacchi) which of course does not end as well as hoped. Again, time further passes until the violin makes its way to China at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, constantly on the verge of destruction by political zealots while being protected by those opposed to Mao’s rejection of all Western culture and music.

    Finally, it reaches the hands of rare instrument appraiser Charles Morritz (Jackson), who suspecting the instrument’s true origin and secret embarks on a clandestine quest to protect the instrument while preserving its very essence, understanding just why it has been so important to so many people over the years. Visually stunning, The Red Violin is a bounty of period-piece production design, from the Baroque salons of Vienna to the florid airiness of English estates all the way to Mao’s drab and repressive China draped in red and brown with everyone carrying the special little red book.

    In addition to the instrument itself providing the main through line for four very different tales, composer John Corigliano’s original score is able to tie together these various threads through the use of a special melody associated with the instrument itself while also setting the mood of each section with score composed in styles appropriate to each period and place. In terms of performance, the main word that can be used is tasteful; even Jackson himself takes to his part with an air of elegance and class that he rarely allows his audience to see but which hints at how multifaceted and effective a performer he is when he chooses to be.

    Perhaps the most fun occurs between Greta Scacchi and Jason Flemyng as the aforementioned noblewoman and violinist. Their sometimes sensuous and downright randy exchanges provide a bit of much-needed dirt to the film’s overall polished veneer. In the end, The Red Violin is a remarkable feat of storytelling, both technically and thematically, with style and elegance to boot without making one feel that he or she is watching an episode of Masterpiece Theatre.

    For more information on this title, go to www.lionsgatedvd.com.
    The Red Violin


Magnolia Pictures

  • Color Me Kubrick

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Throughout the 1990’s there were two Stanley Kubricks, one who was a world famous movie director and…one who wasn’t. Yet while the real Kubrick spent much of his final decade as a well-known recluse there was another man about town all too willing to enjoy the fruits of Kubrick’s labor namely his celebrity. This forms the core of director Brian Cook’s satiric farce Color Me Kubrick. With John Malkovich at the helm in one of his most inspired comedic turns, Color Me Kubrick is comedy, critique, and ultimately love letter to Kubrick himself.

    At the film’s center is Alan Conway, a middle-aged, gay conman played by Malkovich. ConwayConway worms his way into the lives of businessmen who lavish gifts upon him as well as unsuspecting young men whom he tricks into securing drinks and sexual favors from them. The film follows Conway as he moves from victim to victim, adjusting his routine to whomever he is around. If he happens to be around a man whom he fancies sexually, he adopts a delightfully swish manner as he talks about production meetings and costume designs for films he is not making. Or at other times he adopts a schmaltzy New York accent, as though he had jetted in from some engagement in the Catskills. passes his time passing himself off as Kubrick to an all too susceptible British public.

    In either guise, he bursts forth with manic confidence in his role fully committing to the moment while knowing next to nothing about the director’s films or life. His trademark intensity is channeled towards pure camp, enough so that one begins to imagine what he could do under the direction of John Waters. Despite the obviously forced manner of his presentations, he still manages to convince those around him that indeed he is the director in spite of appearing nothing like the man nor having the most fleeting knowledge of his work.

    His success stands as testimony to just how far Kubrick the person kept himself out of the public eye. Yet according to those who knew him, Kubrick himself had heard of Conway and even kept a file on the man according to a making of documentary included with the film. While this tidbit is not included in the actual film, it would have added another layer to a film that despite its comedic strengths stretches itself thinly in terms of plot and character. As good as Malkovich is, he cannot hide the fact that the viewer learns next to nothing about Conway the man himself, other than that he is a clear alcoholic and seemingly has no moral dilemma over essentially ruining people’s lives with his long-standing and personally profitable ruse.

    Yet despite the thinness of this foreground plot, in the background the film works as an oblique tribute to Kubrick himself. Cook wisely places a number of Kubrick references within the film’s structure from utilizing much of the music from the director’s films like the William Tell Overture from A Clockwork Orange (also spoofing that film’s opening sequence as well) along with the waltzes from 2001, etc. There is an amusing tension between listening to classical works made famous by the master director used to underscore the most mundane events in Conway’s life.

    In a way, Cook intimates that the filmmaker himself is watching over Conway through his presence which constantly reminds one of the difference between the real and the fake. Most damning though is the attack against blind celebrity devotion that is acutely skewered by the filmmakers and by Conway himself who abuses it to no end. With wonderful supporting turns by veteran actors like Leslie Philips, Honor Blackman, Richard E. Grant, and Jim Davidson as a low rent Liberace type with designs set on Vegas, Color Me Kubrick is a fair comedy made all the more strange that everything is based essentially on a true…ish story.

    For information on this title, go to www.magpictures.com and www.colormekubrick.com.
    Color Me Kubrick
  • Fay Grim

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    In 1997, American independent filmmaker Hal Hartley offered up to the cinematic community his first epic (epic for an indie film), Henry Fool. Starring Thomas Jay Ryan as the title character, the film transpires over a period of years as he meets and befriends a lonely garbage appropriately named Simon Grim. During this time, Henry regales the garbage man with his insane and pompous views on life and himself all contained within his Confessions, Henry’s magnum opus contained within a series of standard notebooks. Henry’s fervor inspires Simon to write poetry, quickly becoming a critically and commercially lauded poet worldwide. The drifter also falls in love and marries Simon’s emotionally fragile sister Fay (Parker Posey), resulting in a son. As the tale ends, Henry is left fleeing from the law.

    Picking up the story ten years later, Hal Hartley explores the aftermath of Henry’s actions and the effects he has on the lives of those bewitched by him in Fay Grim. Released by Magnolia Home Entertainment, the film shifts its focus on Fay herself and the journey she sets out on to find her husband, discovering herself in the process. The tale picks up ten years after Henry’s flight from the law, leaving behind his wife Fay and their son Ned (Liam Aiken) now a teenager on the verge of academic expulsion. In the intervening years, Fay’s brother Simon (James Urbaniak) was convicted and sentenced to prison resulting from his aid to Henry’s escape. Fay, on the other hand, has lived in a perpetual fog as she and Ned attempt to get by on Simon’s royalty checks while living under scrutiny both from the authorities and the local community. All the while hoping her son does not turn out like his irrepressible and irresponsible father.

    One day, she is approached by Simon’s publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery) and questioned about Henry’s infamous (and now missing) notebooks. With interest in Simon’s poetry subtly declining, Angus convinces Fay that the next big thing will be these notebooks as Henry’s legend has grown in stature due to his connection with Simon. Angus is interested in locating and publishing the notebooks and questions Fay about their possible locations. However, she soon learns that Simon’s publisher is far from the only person interested in the missing books as one CIA agent named Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) makes an unexpected visit. Informing her of Henry’s death, Fulbright discloses to Fay that Henry’s missing notebooks are of vital importance to national security and that he is currently attempting to collect all the missing volumes. He locates a pair of them in Paris, however due to French law only the deceased’s spouse can claim the remaining belongings and Fulbright taps Fay to bring those notebooks back to him. Sensing an opportunity to help herself besides her country, Fay agrees to the plan on condition of Simon’s early release from prison.

    Terms agreed, Fay sets out for Paris not realizing the slew of characters and situations prone to retrieve Henry’s books by any means necessary even murder. Meanwhile, after his impromptu release, Simon sets out with both Angus and Ned to investigate the importance of Henry’s notebooks and soon becomes embroiled in a Chinese puzzle box of conspiracy theories, innuendos, double-crosses, etc., all the while realizing Henry’s secret past as a secret government agent. As the notebooks begin surfacing, bodies begin dropping around Fay as espionage agents, both friend and foe, begin chasing after her and the notebooks in her possession. However, instead of curling up and accepting defeat, Fay Grim does the unexpected and starts playing all sides against each other, learning from the very people trying to kill her and all the while hoping to reconnect with her husband, whom she learns isn’t quite so dead after all.

    A blend of absurd comedy and tense suspense, Fay Grim is pure Hal Hartley as he attempts to operate on a more epic canvas whilst retaining his characteristically stylistic dialogue, bizarre characters, and technical complexity. In fact, much of his dialogue is so stylized that it often leads to awkward moments for his actors speaking it. Because he continues to work with solid professionals like Posey and Goldblum, the words work overall however there are still moments where the interaction between his characters feels stilted as a result of the absurd dialogues they are spouting. Yet, Hartley is able to turn into the skid and recognize the strange, funny quality of this predicament and mine it for all its worth. While the results do not always work, they still remind you that only Hal Hartley goes out on this kind of limb and more often than not, succeeds.

    However, no matter how awkward the script is at times, Fay Grim is really Parker Posey’s film from beginning to end. Her character is put through the wringer and comes out stronger, both spiritually and mentally, as she loses her initial naïveté regarding the world around her and grows up before our eyes. Supported by seasoned pros like Urbaniak and Goldblum, Posey soars as she plumbs the depths of Fay’s character with her trademark intelligence and skill. She makes Fay’s transformation from desperate mother to strong secret agent believable and intriguing.

    Also making a brief appearance as Henry again is Thomas Jay Ryan; with considerably less scenes Ryan practically dominates the film’s plot like a modern-day Harry Lime while still coming off as the blowhard that the character’s fans know and love. In the end, the film ends on a similarly open note as the first movie did leaving open the possibility for yet another episode following the lives of Henry Fool and the Grims. That Hartley has kept his key cast for both films allows them to age with us, which only deepens both the story itself and the connection between spectator and character. Hopefully in ten more years, we’ll see what happens next.

    For more information on this title, go to www.magpictures.com.
    Fay Grim
  • Man on Wire

    Winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Man on Wire has been one of the most talked of the year and for good reason. Its examination of Philippe Petit’s implausible wire walk between the World TradeCenter’s Twin Towers made the news at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (as well as winning the Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Documentary). A mixture of your typical talking head interviews and dramatic, noir-like recreations, Man on Wire wears many hats at once; it is a historical document, tense thriller, and sublime celebration of the towers themselves. In order to start any discussion on both the film and act itself, one must consider Petit himself.

    A lithe, nymph-like man, Philippe Petit was a talented street performer who had graduated to wire walking out of his own interests. Without formal training, he taught himself the dangerous art form after being transfixed by the image of the towers themselves before their construction. As he notes in an on-camera interview, Philippe was in a small dentist’s office one day and while perusing the assortment of magazines and newspapers came across an article discussing the towers’ conception and construction. Faced with only an image of what the final structures would look like, he immediately imagined a wire strung betwixt them and crossing over it. He is transfixed by this image and becomes instantly dedicated to its execution, no matter the cost; he simply must cross those towers. And from that point on, he assembles himself a loyal crew and begins plotting.

    Filmed in noirish, black and white with a Seventies suspense feel, this side of the film revels in the inherent danger Philippe and his band of merry conspirators faced, knowing that it they were caught jail and possibly worse was guaranteed. Divided into two teams, the group snuck its way into the towers and faced various obstacles, coming close to capture several times, before finally setting up the rigging to allow the famous walk. Marsh and Petit’s own interviews (along with that of his fellow co-conspirators) lays out the frame for what’s really a good heist film, not dissimilar to the Ocean’s Eleven films, in which part of the enjoyment comes from laying out the various challenges to be overcome and observing the plan’s overall execution. The overall effect is akin to watching a mathematics problem be solved step by step on screen. The stories of guards showing up unexpectedly, finding places to hide, team members falling short of expectation, etc. humanizes the story and highlights just how close they all came to being shut down.

    Even though the film ultimately praises Philippe and his people for accomplishing what they knew from the beginning was probably impossible, it does allow for criticism of the man himself. One man’s determination can be another’s stubbornness or selfishness, as noted by chief collaborator Jean-Francois and Petit’s own girlfriend at the time. She notes that when they first came together, there was an unspoken agreement that she would devote herself to him and that her own interests were of no value. While the film in part is meant to praise the wire walk itself and its significance during its time, thankfully it does so without brining mention to the horrible events of 9/11. Ultimately, Man on Wire stands as both a testament and an elegiac monument to a moment in time when the impossible briefly became possible.

    For more information on this title, go to www.magpictures.com and www.manonwire.com.
    Man on Wire
  • Outlaw

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Brimming with punk energy and aggression, Outlaw is a British answer to the vigilante genre so exemplified and executed within American film that it is taken for granted. Whereas we have things like Death Wish and Dirty Harry to feed our thirst for righteous blood-letting, British cinema and society developed along lines where such tendencies weren’t necessarily acted upon. Set in the modern day, Outlaw essentially posits a question of what would happen if British citizens, long unable to own personal firearms, etc., had the will and resources to take the law within their own hands. Leading the pack is Danny (Sean Bean), an Iraq war veteran who returns home only to find his wife has left him and returning to a country in which he has no purpose and the rule of law has essentially given way to bullies and criminals.

    After a chance encounter with a deranged security officer at the motel he holds up in, Danny begins coming into contact with a group of similar men who feel the disintegration of morality and find themselves victimized as a result. Gene (Danny Dyer) is a young businessman constantly bullied by those around him and is assaulted on the way to his wedding by a pack of hoodlums that he is unable to seek vengeance against himself. Cedric (Lennie James) is a district attorney who, by prosecuting the local drug kingpin, finds his family endangered and life ripped apart by the very man he is trying to imprison. As we meet these individual men along with a number of others, a general sense of disorder is offered up by the filmmakers so that one naturally begins rooting for these men to organize themselves together and take arms. With much coaxing a band of brothers is eventually forged with the local kingpin becoming the focal point of their attacks.

    The fascination comes in watching men like Gene and Cedric, people who live their lives in avoidance of violence, trying to unleash their animalistic sides and lash out as strongly against their enemies as they themselves have been hit before. Along with the assistance of a savvy police detective (played by Bob Hoskins), the band of outlaws begins making a dent in the local drug trade however all too soon, retribution is meted out by the kingpin and those within his employ including the police. Not only that, but fractures begin appearing within the group as well when the level of violence begins escalating to unanticipated levels.

    What appeared cut and dry when they formed soon gives way to a web of moral ambiguity with some begging for reason while others want to ramp up the attacks and bloodshed. By introducing this moral dimension, filmmaker Nick Love elevates Outlaw from being mere action schlock to a work that at least attempts to ask hard questions while undoubtedly delivering upon the violence and action it implicitly promises. For action movie fans, this film does not disappoint; enough beatings, stabbings, and shootouts should feed that particular hunger for violence yet there is enough substance and good performances (especially from Bean and James) to make this a full film and not a collection of set pieces. Gritty and hard-hitting both physically and emotionally, Outlaw is a solid genre exercise that kicks ass and takes names later like the best of them.

    For more information on this title, go to www.magnetreleasing.com/outlaw and www.magpictures.com.
    Outlaw
  • The Architect

    Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

    Adapted from David Grieg’s stage play, The Architect utilizes the interweaving of social and personal plot strands common to such current films as Crash. Utilizing a solid cast of character actors including Anthony LaPaglia, Viola Davis, and Isabella Rossellini, the fi