Saturday, March 17, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009.

I haven't seen a lot of movies from Luis Buñuel's Mexican period, but what I have been able to catch suggests to me that this fruitful work time often saw the surrealist director turning to more conventional stories rather than the looser, more anarchic films that bookended his creative career. 1956's Death in the Garden (La morte en ce jardin) is no exception. Based on a novel by José-André Lacour, it's one half political drama, one half adventure movie, with a lot of steamy melodrama mixed in.

Death in the Garden is set in a remote South American village that has sprung up around the area diamond mines. A military revolution is underway, and the new ruling class demands that the independent miners move off their claims, surrendering their land to the government. This inspires heated protests that threaten to split the town. The scoundrel Chark (Georges Marchal) unexpectedly wanders into this charged atmosphere on his way to Brazil. Where he's coming from is never really explained, though after he drifts into the bed of Djin (Simone Signoret, Diabolique [review]), the town madam, she gives him up to the police. They claim that the money belt he is wearing is full of stolen cash. It's not clear whether this is true. Chark resists his arrest, but he never really denies the charges.

Amidst all this are an upstanding priest (Michel Piccoli, Belle de Jour [review]), an old prospector (Charles Vanel), and his deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Girardon). All three are looking to get out of town, but the situation explodes before they can. Chark escapes from prison and joins the violent uprising, and the easily identifiable prospector, who is named Castin, is branded alongside Chark as one of the instigators and a bounty is placed on both of their heads. Castin has a pretty sizable cache of diamonds, and he's in love with Djin, who will help him escape and become his wife in hopes of inheriting his riches. She books herself passage on a pimp's boat, sneaks Castin and daughter on board, and is then much chagrined when Chark, who has a grudge against her, hijacks the ship. Oh, yeah, and the priest, Father Lizardi, is there, too.

That's a lot of plot for one movie, and that's just the first half. The cops take off in hot pursuit after the fugitives, and Chark and his crew run aground midway between the village and Brazil. They have to take the rest of the journey on foot, contending with a hostile jungle they are not prepared for. Greed and their natural selfishness begin to take over as they revert to animalistic ways. It's kind of an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em scenario. Humans in the wild will become wild. Here the old rascal Buñuel gets playful, filling the speakers with the cries of jungle creatures, the sounds hedging in on the wanderers as much as the trees. It's a harsh environment where the strongest isn't always the most obvious candidate. Chark--whose name is meant to sound like "Shark," just as Lizardi is a "lizard"--kills a snake, and the snake carcass is set upon by fire ants. The closer you get to the ground, it seems, the deadlier the predator.

Buñuel stages all of this potboiler action in an exaggerated fashion. The melodrama is cranked all the way up, nuanced acting taking a backseat to bald, on-the-face-of-it emoting. Though the early part of the picture has political undertones, with Buñuel and his writers taking aim at oppressive governments and the exploitation of the working class, even before the group gets to the jungle, it's clear that man is hopelessly divided. It's every crook for himself, regardless of class. Amusingly, this means some personality switch-ups. Chark grows compassionate, becoming protective of Castin's daughter, whereas Castin becomes selfish and nihilistic. Not that he doesn't have plenty of reason to hate Chark. The tough guy ends up stealing Djin, who has softened under his impromptu leadership. While before she was willing to marry Castin for his diamond bag, she surrenders the lost jewelry she finds at the site of a plane crash to Chark as a symbol of love and partnership. Through it all, Lizardi is caught in the middle, constantly compromised--or at least caught in compromising positions. Prior to leaving town, he was found in Djin's bedroom, a humiliation he must endure rather than reveal he is there to see a wanted man.

Death in the Garden is fun to watch, full of Buñuel's trademark pranksterism and evocative imagery. He plays it larger here, enjoying the wide emotional expanse the potboiler provides him. I do think, however, that the more focused first half is more interesting. The communist-leaning message gives Death in the Garden some bite, and the action sequences and dirty dealing make for an exciting plot. The jungle trek, on the other hand, feels more conventional and overly long. The broad strokes don't work as well on the confined canvas.

Things pick back up in the final reel, when all the craziness starts to take its toll. With the Promised Land in site, the last vestiges of civility drop. It's a cynical ending, paying off on Buñuel's conceit that the bad will make good and the good will go bad, and actually full of quite a few surprises. In fact, regardless of the familiarity of the territory or even the slowness of some of the walking through it, Buñuel rarely makes the predictable choice. I assume he picked such typical stories for the intended purpose of making them atypical, and he does just that. You know, it strikes me that if this script had been shot in Hollywood at the same time as Luis Buñuel was shooting it down in Mexico, it could have been a fairly decent Raoul Walsh picture. As it is, it's a fairly decent Luis Buñuel one and worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Originally written for in 2014.

The Young Savages was the second directorial feature from John Frankenheimer, a pioneer of live television, and his first of four collaborations with Burt Lancaster. That it's the weakest of their team-ups should not be altogether surprising then, as Frankenheimer goes through some growing pains trying to apply his learned techniques and the social drama of his TV work to a larger canvas.

Lancaster stars in The Young Savages as Hank Bell, formerly Bellini, an Italian kid from a tough New York neighborhood who is now a respected district attorney. Hank is assigned a case involving three kids from his old block, including the son of one of his old girlfriends (Shelley Winters). The boys are the members of a street gang, and they are charged with a vicious stabbing of a blind Puerto Rican teenager. They claim self-defense, a story that doesn't add up. While racial tensions rise, Hank and his boss (Edward Andrews) push for the death penalty.

As Hank begins to build his case, he is pulled from many sides. His ex asks him to keep an open mind about her child, while the dead boy's mother cries for justice. Hank's partner (Telly Savalas) maintains a cynical cop's-eye view of the matter, while Hank's wife (Dina Merrill) angrily chides him for being so politically vicious. Not to mention the Italian and Puerto Rican gangleaders who send their minions to apply their own kind of pressure. This all weighs on the prosecutor as he tries to sift through the evidence and testimony. Not everything is as cut and dried as it seems.

The interviews Hank conducts with the various witnesses comprise some of the best stuff in The Young Savages, especially as Frankenheimer takes his actor to different sections of New York, shooting life on the streets in at least some attempt to counterbalance the near-cartoonish portrayal of urban juvenile delinquency. The script tackles racism with an admirable frankness, never shying away from either the unctuous bigotry of the killers or the more seemly criminal behavior of some of their Puerto Rican rivals. One gets the sense that finding the balance Hank seeks is also important to Frankenheimer. Throughout the eventual trial, when Hank is questioned about his seemingly bizarre prosecutorial tactics (he appears to be tanking the case), he insists he is just trying to find the truth.

The problem is, The Young Savages lacks the same rigor its fictional D.A. shows in his pursuit of a righteous outcome. One can feel the filmmakers straining to find ways to justify their own bias by adding challenging elements to bolster the counter-argument. This devil's advocacy comes off as overly convenient and slightly disingenuous. An attack on Hank's wife, for instance, compels her to question the empathy she has shown the accused, while Hank's own confrontation with street toughs gives him concerns about his personal bloodlust. These sequences make sense in the grand scheme of the dramaturgy, but they are poorly integrated in the whole and seem only minor distractions from a film that is not at all shy about its driving point. (Which, is not wrong in and of itself; have a point of view! It's fine!)

And it's not Hank that tanks the trial, it's Frankenheimer and his writers. Things never get messy, nor are there any unpredictable revelations. The bits we see only hit the right points and are come by too easily, hurrying too fast through the complexities that have been cultivated, rushing to bring us to Hank's inevitable redemption. At least in the eyes of the concerned white women in his life. His bosses, the press, and the victim's family? Not so much.

Still, there's a lot to like. Frankenheimer pulls of some artfully amazing shots, and his general storytelling skills are so facile, the movie never really lags. The way in which the action moves between different settings is so well choreographed, the narrative picks up a real momentum, almost like you're being led through a maze. Lancaster is really strong, as well, providing a stoic wall for other characters to bounce off. I also really liked Merrill, who allegedly never got on with Frankenheimer; her scene where she drinks too much and makes fun of Lancaster's character is edgy and funny. The actress has a good drunk shtick.

The Young Savages is also very earnest, and that both works for it and against it. As silly as its knee-jerk liberalism feels at times, the sheer force of belief combined with the talent behind it wins out. The Young Savages still has a relevancy in its dissection of race and systematic justice (or lack thereof), even if it doesn't still crackle with the same energy as 12 Angry Men [review] or other contemporaries.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

WEEKEND (2011) - #622

A chance flirtation that leads to a one-night stand ends up as a weekend-long affair that should affect both men involved for a lifetime.

Knightfall’s Tom Cullen plays Russell, a lifeguard in Nottingham, England, who lives a semi-closeted life alone in a high-rise flat. One night he leaves a gathering of his straight friends to go to a gay bar, where he spies Glen (Chris New). Though Glen doesn’t appear to return his interest, cut to the following morning, and the two have spent the night together. As is his wont, Glen tape-records Russell’s impressions of the previous evening’s activities for an art project he’s developing where men he sleeps with speak frankly about their sexuality--something he says gay men rarely happens in public. Straight society being as pervasive as it is, real talk about other types of sex are stifled. The conversation stirs something in both men, moving their connection from a fling to something more substantial.

Weekend is the debut feature of 45 Years-director Andrew Haigh [review], and in its way, it is the realization of the fictional Glen’s proposed ambitions. A sort of gay Before Sunrise, Weekend is an intimate glimpse of the private affair of two lovers who never expect to be together, and indeed, know that they can’t. Glen is going to leave England for America on Monday. So, the pair packs as much into their 48 hours as they can--including an extended night together, staying up and getting plastered, sharing memories, and revealing their hidden secrets. And it’s not just about their feelings and desires, but frank conversations about the sex they have had, separately and with each other. Glen being who he is, no personal act can pass without some rearview scrutinization.

The dynamic between the two men fits the paradigm of most romantic movies. One lover, Glen, is outgoing and dynamic; the other, Russell, is more shy. In this case, though, it informs who they are in ways that are different than the heterosexual paradigm. Glen’s openness has allowed him more experiences, while Russell’s reserved nature means he has kept this aspect of his life mostly to himself--and that affects how they fit not just within gay culture, but the straight world, as well. That said, Haigh doesn’t do anything as predictable as suggest that one knows himself better than the other. For Russell and Glen, how they choose to live their lives not only fits their personality for the good, but in the negative sense, it creates a certain barrier, a façade they can hide behind. And in both cases, that gives them an “out” when it comes to lasting intimacy. Both are avoiding long-term relationships for individual reasons, and both end up proving dangerous to the other’s perceived emotional safety.

Like Richard Linklater before him, Haigh doesn’t contrive typical plot machinations to keep his narrative going. Weekend doesn’t have a MacGuffin that the director can keep calling back to, nor do the characters end up in predictable situations to force reaction or change. Rather, conversation carries the action--though Weekend is less talky than Before Sunrise. Sure, the chatter turns to personal philosophies as the men share their histories, but they aren’t pondering bigger truths like third-year communications majors as a matter of course. They don’t even appear to be trying to impress one another with verbal or mental gymnastics; they are just getting along. Both Cullen and New are comfortable not just on screen, but with one another, erasing any impression of either script or improv from the their performance and instead just being.

Haigh and his tiny crew achieve a similar feeling visually. The camerawork is observational rather than designed. Photographed entirely on location, the public scenes often appear to be shot on the fly. It’s hard to tell if the other people are extras or just passersby. In the film’s emotional climax in the train station, watch the folks moving around the actors. Many appear to be aware that Russell and Glen are the focal point of something (presumably that big camera just over there). Even more fascinating is the careful, slow zoom towards the pair as they say goodbye, shot from the other side of the fence, some of the dialogue drowned out by natural ambience. Are the off-screen reactions we here from unseen commuters real or planned? It doesn’t really matter in the long run, but it’s indicative of just how immersive Weekend’s reality turns out to be.

Similarly, the physical connection between the actors appears to be just as real. Their lovemaking appears spontaneous and full of passion, serving as punctuation to the emotional connections they form. Here, Haigh is doing Glen one better--he’s not just talking about gay sexuality, he’s showing it.

In the end, however, for anyone watching Weekend, the sexual orientation of its main characters will not be as important as the humanity they share. Such is the importance of representation, and it’s where Haigh’s realism truly counts. Like another of Linklater’s films, Boyhood [review], the absence of typical screenwriter cause-and-effect means we forget the set-up and become fully invested in the lives being witnessed, moving us past pretense and preconceptions to feel something more profound. A good romantic film should leave us feeling more invested in the very idea of love than we were when we started the picture. It doesn’t matter if the lovers end up together--no one would call Roman Holiday [review] lacking in romance, for example--but how they end up in the perception of the viewer. In this, perhaps above all, Weekend is immensely successful. Were there to be a sequel, an Another Weekend, we would care how Glen got on in America, and who Russell ended up with next, and if such a sequel never come, then fine, because they will remain with us--and with each other--all the same.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

I’ve covered a couple of them in the past--namely Kitty and Dawn, films directed by the actresses Chloë Sevigny and Rose McGowan--and going forward will check in from time to time to sample their library. Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films.

Art (2014; Romania; 19 minutes): A philosophical meditation on the moral quandaries of film representation, Adrian Sitaru’s Art centers around an audition for what is purportedly a movie that would depict the dangers faced by victims of human trafficking. Two filmmakers are looking for a teenage girl to play a prostitute, specifically a scene pantomiming fellatio for the camera, and after they decide one young actress has the qualities they are seeking, they try to convince her mother to let her star in the film.

What follows is a back-and-forth about the meaning of exploitation and abuse, and whether or not money and intent equals art. Some of the directors’ rhetoric strays toward the uncomfortable, and one can only question who has the girl’s true interest at heart, if anyone, and whether or not she is even capable of deciding for herself. Sitaru is self-reflexive without being cute about it, and without crossing his own line into exploiting the girl by making the actual actress do any of what is being debated for real. What makes it interesting is the denouement, following the departure of the women, when the filmmakers turn on each other, and we begin to question what even their own personal motivations are.

Unfortunately, Sitaru doesn’t end Art where he should, tagging on an ambiguous, esoteric finale that is either some kind of justification for his own ambitions or a bad joke about the pretentions of his colleagues. Or perhaps he just watched the most recent Twin Peaks. It’s a trick that distracts from the larger point rather than enhancing its meaning.

Love You More (2008; England; 15 minutes): A slice of teenage life, with a boy and a girl coming together to listen to the only copy of the Buzzcocks’ single “Love You More” for sale in the local shop. Starring Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful) and Andrea Riseborough (Birdman [review]), Love You More does much with very little. This is all about the quick coupling that develops from a shared interest, when love comes at 45rpm and sex lasts the 1 minute and 51 seconds between the first groove to the last. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson would eventually abandon the restraint employed here to direct Fifty Shades of Grey, but that’s the way of punk rock isn’t it? The naïve rush eventually gives way to the cynical cash grab, and the first time is impossible to recapture.

Also worth noting: Love You More was written by Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer and Notes on a Scandal.

Ártún (2014; Iceland; 20 minutes): Like Love You More, this Icelandic coming-of-age story is set to a punk rock soundtrack. Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s mini movie follows three boys from their small town to the city to meet up with some girls and bribe them with cigarettes for kisses. Young Arnar (Flóki Haraldsson) is eager to grow up and be with a girl, but he’s still a little bit behind his friends. Thus, for him, this venture is all bravado, which soon turns to anxiousness as things look to potentially go better than expected.

Guðmundsson (Heartstone) quickly establishes his world, capturing the isolation of the rural community with a few well-chosen details. The boys don’t come from much, and they suffer abuse. Thus it quickly becomes obvious that Arnar’s sexual longing is really born of a need for general affection, a fact that Guðmundsson manages to convey with a disarming tenderness, even as he undercuts it with basic human cruelty.

Tord and Tord (2010; Sweden; 11 minutes): A fox returns home to find a mirror image of his apartment where a rabbit who shares the same name (hence, Tord and Tord has taken up residence. Created via stop-motion animation evocative of Wes Anderson, this little film is an askew fairy tale from Niki Lindroth von Bahr. It doesn’t add up to much, but the look of it is charming and the length just right for those looking for a quick amusement.

Five Miles Out (2009; England; 18 minutes): Director Andrew Haigh (45 Years [review]) creates a mysterious puzzler. Sent on a trip with relatives to escape troubles at home, Cass (Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass) meets a prickly young boy (Thomas Malone) on his way to a secret cave accessible only by swimming through an underground tunnel. Fearful for the boy’s life, she initially dissuades him from going, and then sits guard the next day when he finally does.

The tension during that wait is excruciating, especially if you can imagine the darkness that must await the youngster once he is below the surface. Haigh is all about holding back here, letting Richards only hint at her emotions. Just like we don’t know what is down in the hole, we can sometimes only guess what the girl must be experiencing.

Also available on the Weekend Blu-ray [review]. Likewise for Haigh’s 2005 six-minute short Cahuenga Blvd, a sketch in verité that doesn’t have nearly the emotion or intrigue of the auteur’s later work.