Saturday, September 30, 2023

BOOM! (Joseph Losey, 1968, UK)


An aging heiress isolates herself from the world, courted by Death, fighting against the dying of the light. Joseph Losey directs this Tennessee William’s melodrama with technical brilliance, utilizing subtle tracking shots and deep focus compositions, allowing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to create in the moment: artists composing Art...but not always good Art.

Taylor plays Flora GoForth, a woman whose emotional polarity opposes Capote’s delicate heroine Holly GoLightly, heir to the misfortunes of millions of dead and millions of dollars. She is surrounded by the booming sea atop a steep cliff, like Zeus perched upon Mt. Olympus and just as disconnected from the world. Into this delirium stumbles Angelo Del Morte, subtly characterized by Burton, a struggling artist whose desires to force emotional contact with the aging and tumultuous Madame. The story becomes one of intent, good or evil, as the consequences are predetermined.

Taylor’s performance is aggressively exaggerated, infusing GoForth with a despicable intensity that is difficult to overcome. But her soft eyes betray a frightened humanity hiding behind the power of abuse and entitlement. Taylor wanders too close to Camp instead of forthright melodrama but Burton eases into his role with elusive charm, grounding the film before it careens out of control entirely. Though their synergy is electric and shocking, the fault lies in the fact that Taylor is too young for her role and Burton too old! The story begins to make sense if imagined as HAROLD AND MAUDE instead of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLFE, as GoForth should be much older than her suitor whose jeweled intentions are often questioned and condemned. He is Death given flesh: a harbinger of doom or angel bringing peace?

Final Grade: (C+)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

THE LAST METRO (François Truffaut, 1980, France)


A Jewish playwright is forced to hide in the dank underground of his own theatre, and he directs his play listening to echoes and whispered secrets as his wife drifts farther away into her double life. Director François Truffaut creates a play within a play within a film, and the love triangle reflects this deep masquerade, as the characters must act out their parts to survive, losing themselves in the brutal nexus of fiction and reality. 

During the Nazi occupation of Paris, an Anti-Semitic critic vomits his propaganda through the media and attempts to gain control of the Montmartre Theatre and its beautiful owner, the gentile wife of the “missing” playwright. The gorgeous Catherine Deneuve imbues Marion Steiner with a fiery inner strength and charm, an independent woman torn between her husband and the new actor Bernard Granger, a rock-solid performance by Gerard Depardieu. Granger is a member of the Resistance and uses his talent to secret information and contraband to his cohorts, his egotistic façade hiding his true political motivations. But soon Bernard can no longer hide his anger at the inane verbiage spouted by Daxiat and his actions threatens the company and his own life by revealing his true colors: blue, white, & red. Lucas directs the play through a proxy and the play THE VANISHING LADY is a huge success…but the two leads begin to love and despise one another. 

Truffaut is concerned with the faces hidden under the makeup and shadowed by stage light and seeks to uncover the hidden agendas and aspirations of human nature, using the play set amidst our violent history as a metaphor concerning the value of art imitating life. His characters all hide behind some barrier: a dank cement wall, the social graces of high society, or the idol banter of male egotism. THE LAST METRO is filmed in glorious saturated colors, giving the film itself a stage-like atmosphere, which further confuses the senses. As the film ends and reconciliations are made, Truffaut cuts to life as an act, seeking truth through the paradigm of Art. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

SING A SONG OF SEX (Nagisa Oshima, 1967, Japan)


Four lascivious young men are on the verge of adulthood, their indistinct and indiscriminate futures like bawdy lyrics sung in the thick smoke of burning desire. Director Oshima Nagisa defines a superficial reality before it disintegrates into a fantasy of violent sexuality, revolution, and impotent murder.

Here in Oshima’s vision of Japan, the disenfranchised youth mirror their western counterparts, consumed by lurid advertising like insects drawn to sugary confection, where a once proud country is relegated to American folk songs, Woody Guthrie anthems proclaiming foreign lands now subsumed by the peaceful protestors whose words echo hollow over still waters. The four young men exist in an existential vacuum, a void where a mysterious woman is nothing more than a number, dehumanized into pornographic fantasy. These students recognize their sensei as nothing more than human, an older version of themselves perhaps, living a lie of social mores…so they take the path of social anarchy. Drunken words awaken nihilistic desires, and soon the wandering narrative becomes a murder mystery and police procedural, a smokescreen for the ethereal unreality as substantial as snowflakes.

Finally, a lecture discusses the racial tensions between the Japanese and South Koreans while the young girl who is nothing more than number 469 is murdered in a classroom, moments before a gang rape. The oppressed know no boundaries, either by nationality or race, and the four young men shall inherit this pessimistic world: but they may not want it.

Final Grade: (B)

Saturday, August 19, 2023

CROSS OF IRON (Sam Peckinpah, 1977, UK)

Two soldiers brought together by war but separated by birthright: one's honor forged by sacrifice and the other's honor sacrificed upon an iron cross. Sam Peckinpah's only war film is more than an orgy of shrapnel and bloodshed, it is an incisive characterization of the German soldiers fighting for God and country, men sunk in the misery of a failed campaign who curse their Nazi Übermensch yet stand up for one another. Peckinpah transcends cliché to present the Axis side of the Second World War that is not much different than our own: men fight and die while the generals dictate murderous doctrine.

The opening credit montage of black and white stock war footage is juxtaposed with German children chanting a playful rhyme, testimony to the virulent indoctrination of Hitler Youth who grow into violent men. Peckinpah then cuts in narrative scenes while adding blood red color to the swastika, triumphantly carried in Romanesque parades. Soon, we're on the eastern Front with a rag-tag band of German soldiers ready to ambush a Russian artillery unit. After a fierce firefight, they capture a young boy and bring him back to their bunker. Peckinpah confounds expectations in the first act as he leads the story towards melodrama, tough soldiers bonding with an enemy child, and tears it apart with the shrapnel of irony: the boy is released and shot by his own troops. All sentimentality is gone, and the film thrusts each character (and the audience) into senseless and explosive vignettes that begin to form a corpus delecti.

The conflict involves much more than enemy soldiers: this is about class warfare. Sgt. Steiner is an elementary warrior whose victories are written upon his sunken visage, a face hollowed out from the ravages of combat, as if he is being eaten from the inside by virus. He has earned his Iron Cross by luck and leadership, sharpened like a steel bayonet in the bloody trenches. He is contrasted with Capt. Stransky, a Prussian noble whose milk fed life is one of entitlement without honor or merit. He demands a medal to further his military career and social standing, his manhood like a decoration to be flaunted. Through error and trial Stransky and Steiner carry out their orders, while one is action the other stagnation. Sgt. Steiner is the one who leads Capt. Stransky into the breach, towards certain death, and into the fertile fields where the iron crosses grow.

Final Grade: (B+)

Friday, August 4, 2023



Alfredo Garcia is the Patron St. of Money; the purveyor of one broken down man’s ticket to salvation…but the price soon becomes too high. Director Sam Peckinpah begins the film with a languid camera pan across a beautiful lake, the soft musical score underlining this heavenly estate, before focusing upon a young pregnant woman relaxing casually on the shore. As she is lead to the family Patriarch, we could be witnessing a scene from the late 19th century: a huge mansion full of servants and guards, the women sullen and servile. But young Teresa is tortured into revealing the identity of father of her baby and in one wonderful edit, the anachronistic illusion is shattered by modern cars racing down the dirt lane, their goal a million dollars for the head of Alfredo Garcia.

The journey takes us to Mexico City where Bennie, an acquaintance of the fugitive, decides to sell himself out for a ticket to the “good life” in the form of $10,000 dollars. He visits the promiscuous Elita, who can lead him to his cohort, and he unwittingly involves his girlfriend in this nihilistic tale of revenge, duty and greed. The first half of the film is a travelogue, as Bennie and Elita grow together, their past a dark mirror that casts no shadow, their future to be shared in Holy Matri-Money: but Elita is hesitant to desecrate the grave of her one-time lover, to tamper with the spirit of the dead. They are being stalked by two sweaty men in a green car, its rapacious reflection like the color of money whose evil root strangles Elita’s life: this sets Bennie on a path of violent redemption and gunpowder justice.

One of Peckinpah’s most intense films, Bennie transforms from hunted into carnivore, delivering the rotting head of Garcia not for the money…but to follow the bloody trail to the vicious source. As he degenerates into madness, he holds conversations with his compadre, though the only response is the buzzing of flies and reeking perfume of death. The savage shootouts are vintage Peckinpah, an orgy of slow-motion blood and rapid gunfire, the camera capturing this unrelenting destruction, a convulsing vivisection of human nature. Bennie finally faces the family Patriarch, and while Teresa and her baby watch, he murders the old man and his entourage: his moral duty towards Elita has been fulfilled. Bennie finally understands that revenge is a dish best served in cold blood...even if it’s his own.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, July 22, 2023

THE WILD BUNCH (Sam Peckinpah, 1969, USA)


“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
-Dylan Thomas

Pike Bishop leads his men towards a bloody baptism; from his violent pulpit he preaches the end of their era, anachronisms whose surcease is inherent in Lyle’s nihilistic growl of “why not”. The opening credit sequence creates a visual metaphor concerning these renegades: children playing with fire, deadly scorpions trapped in a cage being consumed by ants. Pike and his men are about to be ambushed and eaten alive by this new society commanded by a different type of criminal, a hive mentality that obliterates the old west and ushers in the fat thieving Land Barons and Railroad Men. 

Deke Thornton, Pike’s one-time partner and now a man who has sold himself to the railroad, pursues them: as Dutch proclaims, it’s not your Word…but who you give it to that counts. Director Sam Peckinpah has crafted one of the great Westerns, a story of honor and friendship among thieves, allowing us compassion for these bastards who once rode the high country imparting their own harsh judgment upon the weak. The film is structured as a chase with crosscutting between Pike and his pursuers, with our anti-hero always one step ahead, and as fate has it he is able to make one final score before he retires. 

Peckinpah dims the line between right and wrong; each character only casts a subtler shadow of corruption. As the infighting reaches a crescendo, Pike realizes that a house divided must fall, and by force of will he is able to keep his gang together to steal guns from the US Army. He even allows Angel to take a case of rifles for his own people at the cost of Angel’s share of gold: an honorable gesture that ultimately leads to their destruction. Peckinpah’s classic slow-motion brutality and frenetic action is counterpoint to the long takes and heartfelt dialogue that balances the narrative, allowing Pike and his men to become human beings and not mere caricature. This becomes very important because we must understand their commitment to Angel when he is captured and tortured; after all, they had the gold and could have disappeared into the Mexican ether. Instead, after each has expunged their last carnal pleasures (except Dutch), Pike’s eye mirror vengeance and he accepts his death…but not peaceably. They know that this is the end game, Mapache isn’t going to give Angel up at any cost, and the final gunfight is a masterfully choreographed initiation into the cruelty of oblivion. Though their pursuers end up with the bounty, it’s the Wild Bunch that has the last laugh. 

Final Grade: (A)

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

KNIGHTRIDERS (George Romero, 1981, USA)

King William is a creative anachronism who desperately tries to decipher the code of honor in this modern world of polluted morality. Director George Romero eschews zombie politico for a character study involving a troupe of Renaissance performers, a group of misfits and self-imposed outcasts who joust upon their iron steeds, living upon the fumes of chivalry.

Romero begins the film with a fluttering prophecy like some evil incarnate, a black bird descending to the earth. This is Billy's (King William) vision as next he is seen in naked repose beside his buxom queen, then flagellating himself in a lake. Surrounded by skeletal trees, this could be a scene from the 6th century. It's not until a low angle shot reveals his horse to be a motorcycle and he kicks it to life, its growl cracking the air like a burbling Jabberwocky. The film is essentially plotless and focuses upon the struggle of this group's existence in a society that doesn’t care to understand true freedom and honor. They travel the country roads of Pennsylvania and perform for a few dollars to small towns where the cows outnumber the people. The conflict involves Billy and his nemesis (and cohort) Morgan, who wants to “sell out” to a promoter for fame and glory. The strength of the film is in its ability to allow peripheral characters to develop; though these insights don’t advance the plot it grounds the story in human drama.

The motorcycle jousting scenes are wonderful and well-choreographed, often composed in medium shot (with close-ups reserved for weapons striking bloodied armor and shields), so the crashes and stunt-work can truly be the days before CGI! Ed Harris infuses Billy with a pompous and knightly conceit yet makes him fallible and human, full of anger, despair, and love for his friends. Tom Savini is the Black Knight Morgan, but he too has many dimensions and is not a total cad and earns the respect of his King. On paper, the film seems like a guilty pleasure, a campy romp through Camelot but it rises above the superficial: this is a sad tale of sacrifice and nobility in a world haunted by corporate zombies.

Finally, a joust decides the once and future King as Morgan accepts the crown and the heavy responsibility of leadership. Like King Arthur, Billy then disappears into history and becomes a myth for those who loved him.

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, July 2, 2023

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (John Frankenheimer, 1962, USA)


“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” 

Major Marco and another member of the platoon are savaged by the same vicious nightmare after their return from Korea. Sgt. Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of extreme bravery, but their terrible dream contradicts this fact. In reality, they are the victims of brainwashing, their minds scrubbed clean and reprogrammed with new memories, and Raymond Shaw is made into a machine of flesh and bone that can murder without guilt or remorse. As Marco begins to unravel the mystery, he must get close to Shaw and find the key to unlock the secret, he must cut the wires and pull the plug before Shaw carries out the Communist coup-de-tat. But the truly diabolical nemesis is Shaw’s mother, Eleanor Iselin who is despicably portrayed by Angela Lansbury: this is one of the most villainous characters in film history! 

Director John Frankenheimer and his DP Lionel Lindon film in deep focus with wonderful compositions, which heightens the frightening reality from the Korean battlefield to Madison Square Garden. The sweaty close-ups make the tension palpable as the plot progresses to its unforgettable and violent conclusion. The nightmare sequence utilizes a 180-degree camera pan that doesn’t contain a single edit: from the bored soldiers and the flowery old ladies to the Communist leaders discussing their sinister plan. He then cuts from various perspectives to create a surreal dreamlike quality to the proceedings. When Raymond Shaw murders the two soldiers with a gentle “yes, mam” it is truly chilling. The plot builds slowly revealing Raymond Shaw’s cold detached character and his hatred for his mother and stepfather, which will contrast with the only empathetic connection he ever makes with Jocelyn. A minor plot involves Marco’s love interest with Rose whom I think is a Russian agent. Her taut dialogue with Marco in his depressed mental state is almost hypnotizing, her name evokes the “flower sequence”, and she seems to serve no other purpose to the narrative. 

Marco helps to free Raymond from his mental bondage but it’s Shaw’s realization that he was made to murder Jocelyn and her father that truly sets him free. The Queen of Diamonds destroys Raymond’s mind, but his soul is redeemed by his eternal love for Jocelyn, his Queen of Hearts. With two gunshots, he finally earns his Congressional Medal of Honor…the third gunshot breaks your heart. 

Final Grade: (A+)

Saturday, June 24, 2023

KAPO (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1959, Italy)


Edith sacrifices her own identity, becomes the very thing she despises in order to survive, and in death is finally liberated. Director Gillo Pontecorvo contrasts the Holocaust of millions of victims with the insignificant life of one teenage girl, evoking the axiom of Joseph Stalin (a murderous statistician himself), “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”.

Pontecorvo distills the innocence of a young woman into one-hundred proof tragedy; her burgeoning sexuality replaced by animal instinct, drunk on the need to survive. The film begins as Edith finishes her piano lessons and walks home, her Star of David not an icon of her faith but a cruel brand sewed upon her lapel. She turns a corner, and a crowd has gathered outside her building where a truck belches poisonous fumes into the thick air, and German soldiers force screaming families into the vehicle. A bystander adjusts Edith’s collar to reveal her brand so she doesn’t draw the attention of the Nazi brutes: this action foreshadows the narrative theme as Edith must eventually forsake her heritage. Suddenly, Edith’s life is changed forever as she witnesses her parents being beaten and taken away; she rushes to their side and becomes just another number, flesh and blood relegated to a brief pencil stroke in the ledger of history whose balance shall always remain in the red. And this is only the first three minutes of the film!

Pontecorvo’s neo-realistic style evokes Rossellini’s War Trilogy, utilizing actual locations and realistic set designs, allowing an almost documentary look into the tragic conditions of a concentration camp. Though professional actors are used, Pontecorvo eschews glamorous highlights and instead focuses upon their filthy existence, covered with sores, dirt, and the grime of death. An eerie score haunts the grey images of this hopeless life, a creaking and disjointed nightmarish echo that reverberates listlessly, unable to discern waking life and delirium.

Edith sees her parents being led to the gas chambers, but she is given a second chance to live: she must assume the identity of a dead woman and conceal her Jewish legacy. She is now Nichole, a Polish criminal punished to hard labor, her secret now the mark of the Beast tattooed on her forearm. But Edith gradually becomes this other person, possessed with a fierce desire to live, and soon becomes involved with German soldiers and is promoted to a domineering Kapo: she thrives while those who suffer their burden of faith physically diminish until it is better to throw oneself upon the electric fence than live another moment. Pontecorvo shows Edith’s change with a calm detachment, unwilling to judge this determined young woman, and breaks convention by allowing the German soldiers to behave with complex virtues, not relegated to clichéd barbarians.

Unfortunately, the masterful first 45 minutes become tainted by trite melodrama in the second half, as Edith/Nichole falls in love with a Russian POW. But her actions speak louder than the deadly chatter of a MG 42. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, June 19, 2023

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991, France)

The silent stars above and the mummer of falling leaves below contrast the division between our body and spirit, and the secret connection between two kindred souls. Though we are social beings, raise families, love and empathize with others, we live and die truly alone, isolated within coffins of flesh, blood, and bone: Our fleeting identities abstract and impressionable and our innermost desires and thoughts surface from unknown convoluted depths.

Weronika and Veronique are two separate people who have never met, share no genetic history, and whose lives only cross momentarily through the lens of a camera. Yet each feel that another half exists, a divine bond unbroken by distance or time, that they are not alone in this vast existential cosmos. Kieslowski’s film is divided like these twin personalities: The first half hour follows Weronika, a Polish singer whose beautiful life ends abruptly during an operatic performance. The final hour is an intimate portrayal of Veronique, a French music teacher and her slow spiral into spiritual malaise. She feels empty, as if a vital element has been lost. Her relationship with a puppeteer reflects her loss of identity: this slow insidious manipulation reshapes her into a new wooden form.

Kieslowski films with many color filters, he drenches the mise-en-scene with golden hues, cold blues, and lush greens. These colors are prismatic reflections of their innermost feelings: emotions given form and substance. Though the film lacks formal structure, it is not meant to be a linear narrative: this is the abstract portrayed at 24 frames-per-second, accompanied by the music of dreams. 

Final Grade: (A)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

THREE COLORS: RED (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994, France)


RED is the color that courses through our veins, it is the connective tissue between every living animal: a lonely woman, a vindictive Judge, or a whimpering dog. It is both passionate and diabolical, reflecting the love’s embrace and its emotional tempest. I believe Kieslowski also means it to represent our karmic debt, our responsibility not only to other creatures but also to some unknowing, uncaring faceless creator. It is also the color of the lonely Valentine, involved in a relationship with an angry and possessive voice who spits his venom through the phone, who holds her emotionally hostage with words and accusations. Her relationship with Kern, a retired Judge, is disconcerting at first: he seems to exist in his own insular reality, a vampire feeding off the secret conversations of his neighbors. But Valentine returns to his home seeking understanding and Kern redemption: he is inspired to reveal his crimes to the police and suffer the Justice he once meted out as Judge. 

Through their frequent encounters, they become emotionally entwined and Kern soon begins to seek his own salvation through her happiness. He knows Auguste is a spurned man, a ghost of his own former self whose life is reflected upon broken glass, because he listened to his conversations. Kern plays god (the ultimate Judge?) by subtly manipulating events to ensure that Valentine and Auguste have a chance encounter and the possibility for a deep love…a chance never allowed him. Kieslowski immerses the characters and environment in varied reds that carry subliminal meaning: from Auguste’s Jeep to a twenty-foot-tall mural of Valentine, a loose sweater, a doorway, or dog-eared notebook. The film’s tumultuous climax connects the two couples from BLUE and WHITE but leaves their involvements undefined; it also brings Auguste and Valentine together captured forever in a 4:3 frame. And The Judge watches this on his television: who but god would create beauty amid needless destruction? 

Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, June 15, 2023

THREE COLORS: WHITE (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994, France)


WHITE allows Karol Karol the absurd protagonist, like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, to impose his own cruel justice upon his malignant obsession. In LOLITA, Humbert destroys Clare Quilty, the abductor of his own deviant fixation while Karol destroys Dominique who is the thief of his manhood. The color white is more indicative of Karol’s surrender to this compulsion for vengeance than it is gaining equality because her punishment seems too harsh. Her dominance is obvious in the beginning courtroom drama and her later threats to frame him for burglary; she also maliciously taunts his supine physique. She leaves Karol alone and undefended in a strange country, barely able to speak the language, and does so seemingly without remorse. But Karol is a survivor and a chance meeting gives him a new start on life. 

Kieslowski’s second film of the THREE COLORS trilogy seethes with a dark sprightly humor, and the irreverent narrative stretches credibility but draws moral boundaries like plots on a surveyor’s map. Karol walks the fringes of criminality but never seems to be a despicable person; he always appears the eternal victim, acted upon by uncontrollable outside forces. When he finally gains success, it is through his own inventiveness though he takes advantage of “country-bumpkin” landowners. His rise from the gutter to glitter is mostly luck and circumstance; his choice to sacrifice his empire is nothing short of sadistic revenge. Again, Kieslowski floods the film in the titular color; snowy landscapes and the pale empty sky are omnipresent. Superficially, this film is the most playful of the trilogy but it seeks to poison this palette: WHITE is innocence, purity and cleanliness smudged with the blackest of intentions. Though he sheds a tear at the end, it is an ambiguous emotion, its intent undefined. Karol’s revenge is a dish best served cold…like ice. 

Final Grade: (B)