Wednesday, November 6, 2019

STRANGER BY THE LAKE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2014 for The Oregonian


At a remote French getaway, gay men cruise each other for anonymous sex, leading to brief liaisons and unfulfilled passions.

There, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets both Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a straight man seeking conversation, and Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome swimmer with whom Franck becomes infatuated. They make a kind of awkward love triangle in Alain Guiraudie's erotic thriller, Stranger by the Lake.

When Franck sees Michel kill a lover, his determination to have him only intensifies.

The action stays centralized, with the men prowling through the woods, sneaking away to share secrets and then coming into the light to pretend nothing happened. Guiraudie’s telling is fairly cold-blooded, but the choreographed dance of desire and disappointment still manages to intrigue.



Saturday, November 2, 2019

WHEN WE WERE KINGS - #998


In Zaire, ca. 1974, two fighters arrived from America to participate in Rumble in the Jungle. Former champion Muhammad Ali was looking to take back the title belt by besting then-champion George Foreman. It was a huge event, bringing a worldwide spotlight on Africa that had never really been seen before.

Filmmaker Leon Gast went along for the ride, filming the lead-up to the fight, the celebrations and the preparations, capturing the whole of the experience, not just the main event. More than twenty years later he cut the material together as a documentary feature. When We Were Kings is a historical record. Time and distance has given perspective--as evinced by the contemporary commentators on hand, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee--and in some ways, the story plays out better minus the suspense of who will win. This was a significant moment in time, with both fighters representing something in the cultural landscape.


Here, Ali is seen as the underdog, but also the people’s champion. For Africans, he is a symbol of self-determination and victory. He is friendly and embracing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Foreman is seen as unapproachable and single-minded. He is the gruff commercialist, even though Ali is all that much better at selling himself. Ali is a folk hero, and the Rumble almost takes on the mythic quality of the individualist toppling the system. It certainly is a David and Goliath moment.


Though, not all is perfect in Africa, and When We Were Kings does not shy away from it. At the time, President Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country with a false air of democracy. His dictatorial nature and the gulf between leader and followers, rich and poor, hangs over everything. In some way, this all has to please him, too. This makes Ali’s activism all the more inspiring to the people of Zaire. Here is a man who has punched at authority and won.


And to be fair, Foreman probably deserves a little more credit for getting to where he was. When We Were Kings has a definite bias in favor of Ali. Foreman might have fared better under a more sympathetic lens, but it’s not just Gast who is looking at these two men, it’s everyone around them. As the fight is delayed by six weeks due to Foreman suffering an injury during a practice bout, the whole thing turns into a pressure cooker. The winner, we will see, is the man who can handle that stress better. It’s interesting to consider the light-hearted figure George Foreman would later become.

Gast keeps the commentary to a minimum, favoring the necessary over the flowery. Mailer’s explanations of fight technique and his memory of the play-by-play is most essential if you’re not a pugilism aficionado. He and Plimpton were on the scene covering the match for their respective press venues. As a blowhard raconteur, Mailer is perfectly suited to making the large seem relatable.


This is the second Muhammad Ali documentary I watched this year. The other was HBO’s two-part What’s My Name, a career-spanning examination of the man’s journey from Cassius Clay to champion to activist and the cycle of victory and defeat that came to define his later career. The Zaire period was touched on in that film, but When We Were Kings goes much deeper. It makes me wish there were more docs of its kind to fill out the history that What’s My Name establishes--like supplemental footnotes, “for more go here.” Between the two movies, I’ve found an even greater respect for a great man. When We Were Kings is not just about the spectacle of a sports event, but about the business and societal needs that inform it. It’s about an artist trying to maintain his integrity when all around him would exploit him. It’s about the struggle of people of color to find their own way when the greater machine would rather grind them down.


It’s also about a celebration. Ali’s triumph wasn’t entirely his own, but also a triumph for his supporters, admirers, and peers. Hence folks like James Brown, Bill Withers, and BB King heading to Africa to perform at a three-day music festival presented in conjunction with the Rumble. This was documented, as well, and while touched upon in When We Were Kings, Criterion fans are a treated to a second full-length documentary on their discs: the 2008 concert film Soul Power.

Directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Soul Power chronicles the efforts to put the show on, while also highlighting the best performances. The bill is a combo of the visiting American acts and the best that Zaire has to offer. For the artists involved, it’s a kind of musical exchange. As Withers notes, the Americans can present how they’ve evolved the African sound their mutual ancestors brought across the ocean, while also witnessing how those sounds continued to evolve on their own in the homeland.

Interestingly, the concert faced some of the same challenges as the boxing match--Mubutu was against it, Foreman’s injury threw off the timing--but is more celebratory by nature. This is the party before the war. You might even consider watching it first, as your own lead into the main event.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

PERSEPOLIS - CRITERION CHANNEL

I reviewed this movie twice for DVD Talk. Both pieces appear below.


THEATRICAL RELEASE, DECEMBER 2007:

The new animated film Persepolis has a truly international pedigree. The French-made feature is an adaptation of a two-part comic book memoir by an Iranian ex-pat, Marjane Satrapi, and though her story is framed by a sequence set in a French airport, the main feature takes us from Iran to Vienna and back to Iran again, before the young artist leaves the country of her birth once and for all.

Persepolis takes place mainly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is an imaginative child who loves Bruce Lee and American pop music. She is inquisitive and rambunctious, as children often are, and she is also a witness to history. In 1977, Iran went through a cultural and political revolution, and being born to politically minded parents, Marjane is in a unique position to hear all about what is behind the various factions that have a stranglehold on her country. Her uncle, in particular, tells her much about the history of Iran's conflict. He is a political dissident who has only recently been released from a long prison sentence he served for being a communist. He gently tells her vivid stories of his struggles, inspiring the young girl's rebellious spirit, the very thing that may ultimately contribute to her own loss of innocence.


Once the revolution turns sour and the hardline Islamists take control of the country, things get gradually worse for the citizens of Iran. The country's women, in particular, lose more and more of their rights. Eventually, Marjane's parents send the now-teenage girl (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) to Vienna, but Europe doesn't turn out to be a friendly paradise either. This disastrous tenure abroad wasn't the girl's idea anyway. Like the rest of her family, she is a patriot, and she loves her homeland--but even upon returning, she is forced to accept that her vision of Iran may never be possible.

Marjane Satrapi's story is one that provides rare insight into a country we don't get accurate portrayals of very often. It could also be an overly charged, issue-driven story if she had chosen to make it so, but instead Satrapi has tied her own personal journey from child to woman to the story about the changes that went on all around her. First in the comic book and now in this animated movie, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi has shown how the struggles of a country and of the individual within that country go hand in hand. In addition to her exploring identity issues, we also see the various romantic travails that define her as a woman. There is no great difference between the hope of love dashed on the rocks and the hope of a better tomorrow smashing face first into fascism. That Satrapi manages to maintain her wit and see the humor in personal foibles keeps Persepolis from getting too heavy, while the storyteller's ability to sometimes step back and let events speak for themselves ensures that the overall meaning of the piece doesn't lose its importance.


Persepolis is the best kind of literary adaptation. The movie maintains the look and feel of the original comic book while still making the material work in an entirely new medium. The appeal of the Persepolis books (recently collected as one definitive volume) came from their conversational tone, and the comic book medium was well suited to show the imaginative nuances of a child's questions about the world. Thus, a cartoon was the ideal choice for bringing such a work into theatres.

The animators manage to create a style that both mimics Satrapi's original drawings while also improving on them. Personally, I didn't care all that much for her cartooning in the book. Though Satrapi's linework has an individual flare, it struck me as somewhat amateurish. The drawing style in the movie takes her primitive, blobby illustrations and slicks them up, giving them movement and vitality. It still looks just like her work, but now better drawn.


Plus, they aren't afraid to take advantage of the fact that Persepolis is a cartoon. Sure, the subject of the story can be rather serious and this is a movie made with older audiences in mind, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers need to wear a stuffed shirt to the party. Concocting an appealing black-and-white style and employing old cinema techniques like iris fades and flickering edges, they evoke a feeling of nostalgia for early Silly Symphonies [review] and silent film. They also use traditional Iranian art styles to keep the history Young Marjane learns about her country from dragging down the forward motion of the story. It is a great example of craft and material walking hand in hand. The artists exaggerate the line drawings when necessary and use dark and shadow to convey the doom and foreboding that gripped Iran in Satrapi's youth. She and Paronnaud also know when to keep it simple, such as the many conversations between the girl and her much wiser grandmother (Danielle Darrieux). If it weren't for the rather corny "Eye of the Tiger" sequence in the final third, I'd be inclined to call Persepolis a note-perfect film.

So, forget preconceived notions that might leave Persepolis off your viewing list. Forget any prejudice about cartoons, black-and-white film, or subtitles. Persepolis is one of the best movies of the year, and missing it would be to deprive yourself of something you really shouldn't do without.

DVD RELEASE, JUNE 2008: 


Persepolis was one of the major indie success stories of 2008. Produced in France, it was adapted from two comic book memoirs by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant who moved to Europe in her early 20s. Co-directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud, the black-and-white animated movie successfully took the crude drawings and personal storytelling of the comics and transferred them to the movie screen, making a story that was surprisingly evocative of the books while also being dazzling cinema.

The story of Persepolis is really a story about being stuck between two worlds--between Iran and Europe, personal belief and mandated zealotry, the freedom of childhood and the burden of being an adult, escapist fantasy and harsh reality, the realistic falseness of cartoons and the synthetic realness of memoir. In the only color sequences in the film, the "present day" of the story sees Satrapi (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) in an airport, trying to decide whether to leave France and return home to Iran after many years in exile. She is stuck by her indecision in a massive construct that is literally everywhere and nowhere. An airport can be a portal to any place you want to go, but really, you feel like you're not standing on any particular country's soil.


The narrative the shifts to the late 1970s when Marjane is just a child, unaware of the turmoil her country is heading for. Her heroic uncle (Francois Jerosme) teaches her about the history of Iran and her family, but the little girl would rather see Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies and listen to Iron Maiden than fight a revolution. The Satrapi parents (Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) are intelligent liberals who want to work toward effecting change, and Marjane's grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) is the voice of wisdom, having seen it all before. Worried that Marjane can't have a life if she stays in Iran, they send her to Austria as a teenager. In one of the most poignant twists in the story, however, the Europeans are just as intolerant and closed-minded as the fundamentalists who are vying for power back home. Wherever you are in the world, people can be small. Judge not lest you be judged.

This excursion rattles the girl, and she returns home for one last try. Here, though, she becomes a woman, having to find her way out of her funk and figure out where she belongs and what she desires. A disastrous marriage and some close calls with religious leaders finally send her away again, never to return. That is, unless she decides to get on that plane.


Persepolis is alive with virtuoso storytelling. While the script is so good it could have been told in any medium, the choice to animate this feature not only preserves the artistic feel of the comic book, but it provides Satrapi and Paronnaud a visual fluidity they might not have had otherwise. They make the most of the possibilities of animation, showing the world through young Marjane's eyes, bringing her daydreams and nightmares to life, and employing techniques out of Iranian folk art and early classic cartoons. Judgmental old women turn into snake-like creatures, their necks stretching to swirl around Marjane to interrogate her, their black robes filling the entire scene. Grisly visions of war are drawn using bold lines and invasive perspective, like a Russian propaganda poster, while scenes of death are often shown in a distance, framed in an iris, like a dark pageant. These are all methods that could be construed as pretentious or showy in live action, but that feel natural in animation.

That said, the greatest strength of the movie is the same as all of Marjane Satrapi's comics: the humanity of her writing. Drawn or not drawn, Persepolis is a story about people. Sure, a curtain is peeled back and we are allowed a glimpse into a culture and a country that is not our own, but in doing so, Satrapi is showing us how borders don't really make us all that different. We all have the same concerns, fears, and dreams. We may come from two different worlds, but we're still on the same planet.


 I also reviewed Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's second film, the live-action Chicken With Plums. Read that review here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

SELECTED SHORTS VIII - CRITERION CHANNEL


Periodically I will gather together my takes on shorter films I’ve watched, looking at the variety of subjects and styles available; a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.

You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


24 Frames Per Century (2013; Italy; 3 minutes): Director Athina Rachel Tsangari builds an intriguing, sorta cute, but slight tribute to the power of cinema, showing the mechanical worries of two film projectors working side by side on a seaside cliff to send images out into the great expanse. Commissioned by the Venice Film Festival, it plays more like an introduction than a stand-alone piece. One wonders what Jean-Luc Godard, whose Contempt [review] Tsangari draws on, would make of this. Would he enjoy the irreverence but dismiss the sentimentality?


Fit (1994; United States; 8 minutes): Another from Athina Rachel Tsangari, this one playful and clever, a surreal examination of one woman’s obsession with making things fit--onto objects, into her body, wherever they need to go. Leading from a dream where her boyfriend’s mouth doles out marbles by the...well, mouthful, into a day that begins with one of her socks shrinking and no longer covering her foot. It’s neurotic and a bit off-kilter, but enjoyable to see what she’ll pick next and where she’ll stick it. The droll narration only adds to the fun.


Baby (1954; United States; 5 minutes): An early work from the recently departed D.A. Pennebaker. This one is simple: the documentarian took his young daughter to the zoo and followed her as she explored. The camera takes in the sights, looking at each animal and also riding the carousel with the same childlike wonder as its star. Very charming.

[Also available on the Don’t Look Back Blu-ray [review].]


Sacrilege (2017; France/Switzerland; 14 minutes): Saoud (Mehdi Djaadi) is top dog in his French neighborhood. He’s got the freshest kicks, the dopest rhymes, and can walk the talk--that is, until he is unexpectedly accused of robbing the mosque where he and his friends worship. Saoud denies the accusation, but slowly the mob grows and stands against him, the words they once hung on now appearing empty.

Director Christophe M. Saber packs a lot of character and drama into Sacrilege. He establishes who his lead is quickly, and then delineates the roles of the social circle that surrounds him. But what is particularly impressive about Sacrilege is how it defies our perception and our narrative prejudices. We have certain expectations when watching a story like this, and each viewer may also come with their own added preconceived notions based on the people involved (hip-hop, Muslim, French...take your pick). That Sacrilege keeps leading us one way, only to flip our position with the next protestation, not only keeps this short film riveting, but forces us to ponder what we just saw.


Pioneer (2011; United States; 16 minutes): A simple concept executed well: a widower (singer/songwriter Will Oldham, also seen in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy) tells his four-year-old son (Myles Brooks) a long bedtime story about how their bond has spanned history, with separations and returns and the intrusion of the outside world adding twists along the way. That’s it. It’s a story so contained, you almost can’t believe they didn’t try to break out of it.

But writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints [review]) trusts the magic in his script, and possibly even more the charisma of his lead. Oldham is all-in here, spinning a yarn with conviction and panache. He turns life and death, age and experience, on their heads, to create a world of possibility for his young son, and it’s impossible not to buy in yourself.


N.U. (1948; Italy; 12 minutes)/Sunday in Peking (1956; France; 22 minutes): An early documentary from Michelangelo Antonioni (L’avventura [review], N.U. spends a day following street cleaners around Rome. (The title is the abbreviation of the Italian name for the sanitation service.) There is no real narrative, we hop from worker to worker, with the black-and-white photography giving us a wonderful glimpse of the city as it was then--including how dirty. You’ll marvel at the inconsiderate actions of many citizens, and what a thankless task trying to clean up after them can be. Yet, there is something noble in the workers diligently carrying on.


Far from Rome, we have Peking, here shown in full color by Chris Marker (La jetee [review]. Sunday in Peking is almost like a educational travelogue, showing us street scenes from around the city. What is key to Sunday in Peking beyond the photographic document, though, is Marker’s narration. The project began with the filmmaker as a fanciful child looking at a picture in a book, a site the film crew immediately visits. This is very much filtered though Eastern eyes, albeit one of a foreigner with political sympathies in Mao’s regime (the leader even makes an appearance). It comes off now as both respectful and naïve, as it shows many lovely aspects of culture but questions nothing about what lies beyond the tourism.

[N.U. is also available on the Red Desert Blu-ray [review], which makes sense thematically.]


Fry Day (2017; United States; 16 minutes): A portrait of a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood surrounded by any number of Big Bad Wolves. Lauren (Jordyn DiNatale, Lez Bomb) is an enterprising teenager with a grand idea: on the eve of Ted Bundy’s execution, she takes her Polaroid camera to the place outside the prison where onlookers have gathered and sells photos for $2 a pop. There she runs into Keith (Jimi Stanton, The Punisher), a cute boy from her school. He convinces her to go with him and his friends to get some food, and things start to take a bad turn from there.

The genius of Laura Moss’ short film is how easily it slides the audience into this predicament. It takes a while for us to suspect Keith means harm, we go along just as casually as Lauren--who wears a paper Bundy mask around her neck, lest any of us forget just what some men are capable of. When we start to realize that more is going on here than it seems, it’s too late, we’re trapped in it, and we can only hope it won’t go as bad as it could. Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien understand these boys and their pack mentality, including having one of the young men seem more smart and thoughtful. He’s the one who would say he was just along for the ride. And Keith’s final act is perhaps the worst manipulation of all. One kind gesture is all he needs to keep a wedge in the door should he ever get back in.

By that point, Fry Day has made us sick to our stomach, exposing how easy victimization of this kind can be, and even how complicit we are in our own dreamy narrative expectations. This makes the last shot all the more devastating. There’s part of us that still wants to trust, when it’s no stretch to think Lauren has no trust left.

Would make a good double feature with Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

BARBARA - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.


It's East Germany, 1980, and Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss, A Most Wanted Man [review]) has been assigned to a provincial hospital where, she's told, she can pay back all the farmers and laborers who worked so she could have an education. There, she can also have a watchful eye kept on her, either by the head of the hospital, the almost too-perfect Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) or by the local Communist Party authorities. Barbara, it would seem, is a woman not to be trusted, known for putting on airs, and unable to adhere to the party line. Hence, her being forced to symbolically pay off her symbolic student loan.

Writer/director Christian Petzold (Phoenix) unveils Barbara as a mystery. The early portion of the film leaves us wondering what the doctor has done to earn such disdain. Random home inspections would suggest that she is a dangerous criminal, yet they also leave her hurt and humiliated. Barbara is an inscrutable woman. She is unfriendly to her co-workers, and she doesn't seem to engage in much of a social life, if any at all. At the same time, the good doctor is dedicated to her job and appears empathetic to her patients. When a troubled young girl (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) lands in the hospital after days of hiding in the forest to escape from a labor camp, everyone else is ready to believe she is crying wolf. Barbara spots her legitimate symptoms, however, and takes the girl under her care, creating a bond that will not easily be broken.


As it turns out, the Communists do have a reason to suspect the exiled medical practitioner. Barbara has a relationship with a man from West Berlin who is helping her prepare her escape to the other side. Though one would think the biggest hurdle for her flight to freedom would simply be making the plan without getting caught, as Barbara progresses, so too does its main character's position grow more complicated. As she gets more involved in life at the country hospital, she has to be on guard to prevent her new relationships and her sense of duty from distracting her from what she really wants.

Petzold's narrative is not flashy, nor is his mis-en-scene. Cinematographer Hans Fromm shoots the film in natural light and avoids tricky camera moves or self-conscious framing. Likewise, Stefan Will's score is so subdued as to be almost nonexistent. In fact, I am having a hard time recalling anytime when the music actually dominated the soundtrack or drove the scene. Both Fromm and Will are Petzold's regular collaborators, and together they build Barbara with a meticulous craftsmanship, stacking the story piece by piece, never telegraphing the next move or relying on exposition to get the job done. This is a film where the architects would rather leave you wondering at their choices than explain what isn't necessary. Barbara is full of drama but is never melodramatic, and though the story has its share of twists, they are never forced nor contorted.


It's Nina Hoss who really drives the film, though. Even more than the momentum of the story, it's her performance that leads the viewer from point A to point Z. Though Barbara chooses to keep everything in and push everyone away, there is still something about how Hoss portrays her that makes you want to know what fuels this engine. Perhaps it's just that we're in the same boat as Dr. Reiser, and we believe that there is more than meets the eye. The cold exterior hides a warm interior, and there is something about her that compels us to want to get through the barriers. Barbara only really lets her guard down once. It's a good piece of writing, a scene where Barbara reacts with surprising vehemence when it's suggested by her colleague that she's abrupt. It's a moment well played by Hoss. It's vulnerable and honest, and also a little bit funny. For all the effort she's made to build her own wall between herself and her countrymen, a caring, feeling woman is still on the other side of the divide.

If there's any failing to Barbara, it's that maybe the final resolution is the one thing in the film that is a little easy to see coming. At the same time, I think Petzold protects himself in how he sets up this inevitability. When Barbara examines Reiser's library, it's the director reminding us that, like all genres, stories about doctors require a certain amount of convention. What the patient teaches the doctor, or what the doctor reveals about the patient--or in the case of Barbara, perhaps a little of both as we finally discern which character is really which.



Tuesday, September 17, 2019

THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT - CRITERION CHANNEL

Here is London, giddy London 

Is it home of the free 

Or what?


If you asked someone at random to make a cartoon version of 1960s Swinging England based entirely on whatever vague pop culture knowledge they carried in their brain, The Knack...and How to Get It would be the result.

Released in 1965, this Richard Lester film takes a play by Ann Jellicoe and twists it into a madcap movie full of slapstick and experimental camera moves and tricky editing, all to create a feeling of youthful frenzy and sexual excitement. It’s about one or two steps away from being too much, while also being very much of its time. The Knack...and How to Get It means well, but it hasn’t aged well.


The film stars Michael Crawford, who was ahead of this modern superhero thing when he played the lead in Condorman back in 1981 (mentioned here because it was a movie I loved, age 9). Here he plays Colin, an uptight schoolteacher who rents his upstairs room to Tolen (Ray Brooks), a fashionable playboy who parades an endless string of conquests up and down the stairs, past Colin’s room. Fed up and lonely, Colin looks to his tenant to learn how to pick up women, to get “the knack.”


As the deal is being struck, two other wandering souls are on a collision course with this pair. Tom (Donal Donnelly, The Dead [review]) has been kicked out of his boarding house and is soon to take advantage of Colin’s other room to rent. And Nancy (Rita Tushingham, A Taste of Honey [review]) is fresh off the train, lost in the city, seeking the YWCA. She will eventually catch Colin’s eye--though it’s Tom who actually invites her around. All three men start competing for her attention, with Tolen being the most aggressive. His knack isn’t taking no for an answer. But more on that in a second...

Richard Lester was fresh off A Hard Day’s Night [review] (and years away from Superman III) when he made The Knack...and How to Get It, and when you consider that, it’s easy to see why he was chosen to make a youth comedy of this kind. One of the more effective flourishes he adds to the source material is a tongue-clucking Greek chorus of disembodied voices judging the four kids wherever they go. Every face he captures on the London streets has something going on behind the eyes, and Lester layers these random reactions over the soundtrack like imagined whispers only the paranoid can here. The real locations and documentary-like shooting style lends a potency to the device, while simultaneously adding to the feeling that The Knack...and How to Get It is very much of its moment. In its way, the film feels like a big prank.


Lester attempts to keep things unpredictable even when off the streets, when on set or focused on his leads. Extreme angles, choppy editing, humorous cutaways, and even some fun with subtitles--all of this lends to The Knack...and How to Get It having a zippy pace, but also a contrived sense of urgency that spills into the dialogue. The director fails to let the words breathe, and so his actors kind of tumble over one another to the point where their lines start losing meaning. There’s nothing to invest in here, no one to buy into. The men all seem selfish, and neither they nor the filmmaker really ever stop to get to know Nancy.

Which is weird, because the foundation of Jellicoe’s narrative is more satirical than Lester’s zany presentation gives it credit for. From the moment Nancy steps onto the London pavement, she is sexualized. Men leer at her, some even warn her away, and all the while she is searching for what should be a safe haven for women like her, only to never find it. Tom comes closest to treating her like an individual, but by film’s end, he’s joined the pack. It’s likely no coincidence that Jellicoe named the male characters the way she did. Colin to Tolen to Tom--you can smoosh them all together.


But where things get really weird in The Knack...and How to Get It is in the final act, when Nancy, seemingly fed up with this treatment, starts loudly accusing Tolen of rape. Not in any serious manner or in a way that causes us to wonder if she believes it to be true--we saw, he didn’t do it--but more in a sing-songy impish fashion. She repeats “Rape, rape, rape” over and over, taunting the men, who immediately lock arms in fear for their reputations. It’s hard to imagine that this was ever a tasteful routine, though a generous reading could likely find a way to explain how the exaggeration upends the situation by removing power from the men and shining a light on their lecherous behavior. I find none of that in Lester’s staging, however, and there is little to redeem it in the baffling ending. Sure, Tolen is ostracized for being a creep, but why is Colin rewarded when he not only had the same intention of getting Nancy to bed, but also participated in trying to silence her?


All of this causes one to leave The Knack...and How to Get It pondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” Outside of its photography of period London and jazzy John Barry score, there isn’t much that holds up here. It’s a bit of a lark, at least for the first hour, but like so many practical jokes, it fizzles under its own caprice.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND - #735


Made immediately after The Shooting in 1966 [review], Monte Hellman’s second western, Ride in the Whirlwind, lacks the existential poetry of his previous effort, but it searches for the same dread. This time around, the movie not only stars Jack Nicholson, but he also wrote the script.

For Ride in the Whirlwind, the star adopts the role of Wes, a world-weary cowboy traveling cross-country with two of his friends. Their journey starts with a predictive portent: a man has been hanged along their trail. Yet, the trio ignores the warnings, as well as all the other suspicious signs, when they come upon a cabin that’s been staked out by a gang of five gunslingers. They are hospitable to the strangers, most especially their one-eyed leader Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), who offers them food and shelter, but underneath all the politeness is an obvious eagerness for the visitors to move along. They don’t. Not even when introduced to a convalescing man who is said to have fallen on his knife. You can’t get more obvious than that.


Things go from questionable to terrible the next morning when a posse chasing Dick’s gang arrives. They open fire on the cabin from the hills, and Wes and company are caught in between, having spent the night sleeping with the horses. It’s an ingenious set-up. The innocent riders are trapped, susceptible to bullets from either side, and with no way to distinguish themselves from the bad guys. Blocked from any easy escape, they are forced to head into difficult mountain terrain. One of their number (Tom Filer) is shot before he even makes it to his horse. Wes and Vern (Cameron Mitchell) have no choice but to flee on foot. Can they survive long enough to get beyond the violence and find horses to carry them to safety?


Ride in the Whirlwind is a tense 80 minutes. Even before the gunplay begins, there is palpable nervousness surrounding everything. Something bad will happen, it’s just a question of where it will come from, who will kick it off. The enclosed desert landscapes don’t provide much relief, with the horizon blocked off and a heavy wind consistently pushing against everyone and everything. Most film crews would shut down in such conditions, but Hellman makes the most of it. There is a punishing inevitability at work, Wes and Vern can only get so far.

The final third of the film is set on a small farm, run by an elderly farmer (George Mitchell) who is as tough as his life is hard. He lives alone with his wife (Katherine Squire) and his daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins, returning from The Shooting). Vern and Wes take them hostage, with plans to steal their horses come nightfall. The presence of the young woman adds another layer of tension to the movie. The famer is afraid the men will harm her, and she seems intrigued by them herself. It’s perhaps the best example of Hellman’s technique of withheld release. Just as we waited for Dick and the outlaws to reveal their true nature back at the first cabin, we wonder here how this fearful anticipation will pay off, if our “heroes” will take further advantage.


Because at this point in Ride in the Whirlwind, we are unsure of how much we should continue to lend our sympathies to Wes and Vern. Though we believe them to have been wronged, we don’t know them all that well when the attack happens. This means we aren’t clear of how good they really are, of how close the line has been when they cross it. They continue to insist they aren’t criminals even as they eat the family’s food and rationalize they are justified in stealing their only horses. Nicholson’s script doesn’t make it any easier by holding back info on both Dick’s gang and the men chasing them--referred to throughout as vigilantes. This means the “good guys” aren’t the law, they are some other form of justice. If they are justice at all.


As a viewer, this puts us in the position of wondering what we would do in a similar situation. Would we surrender and hope the “law” buys our story, or do we resort to whatever it takes to survive, effectively becoming exactly what our persecutors believe us to be? It’s a moral quandary that retains its relevance. Ride in the Whirlwind’s allegory is illustrative of all manner of prejudice, and can be applied to class, race, or what have you.

Hellman doesn’t leave his audience with many answers. There are no winners in Ride in the Whirlwind. And if there is any fault in the film, it’s that maybe there should be. It doesn’t feel like enough pays off to give the movie’s end much impact. Unless that’s the point, to not feel a sense of triumph or success, just measured relief.