Archive for the ‘1980s films’ Tag

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)   Leave a comment

 

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Kirsty, Julia, and Pinhead are back!

Hellbound: Hellraiser II starts immediately after the first film ends. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) wakes up in a mental hospital and tries to explain to doctors and the police why there’s so much blood at their house and everybody’s dead. Oddly, they’re not buying the cenobite story. Nutty Doctor Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who interned with the Marquis de Sade, runs the sanitarium. He also has a wacky hobby. He collects puzzle boxes, phrenology diagrams, and spare body parts. Needless to say, he has a bangin’ social life. The doctor asks the police to bring a blood-soaked mattress from Kirsty’s crime scene house. Yep, it’s completely normal for law enforcement to hand evidence over to some guy who collects kinky dead people stuff. Anyway, the authorities bring Channard the nasty mattress and since he’s done extensive research on nasty mattress dead people retrieval, he knows what to do. Channard’s a sadistic bastard so he brings a highly delusional patient to his home, plops him down on the bloody mattress and waits for the magic to happen. It does. Julia (Clare Higgins), emerges from the depths and steals the poor schizophrenic’s guts and Channard’s heart. Well, maybe the heart is the wrong organ.

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“I’d walk through the gates of Hell for a good Chardonnay.”

Julia’s not ready to settle down, at least not until she gets a face. To that end, Dr. Channard drags his hopeless cases over to Julia so she can eat their innards and get some skin so they can consummate this affair.

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“Bring me the head of a manic depressive.”

Dr. Channard has been yearning for this kind of depravity his whole life. We see flashbacks to the doctor’s misspent youth as a torturer of small animals and scenes of him experimenting on patients. He’s not a right guy. Of course, by now, we all know Julia’s no prize either so the doctor had better watch his back.

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Breaking up is hard to do.

At the same time Dr. Channard and Julia are playing the balcony scene from Romeo and Dahmer, Kirsty and another patient, Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), battle with the cenobites in a weird Escher-like rampart opened by the puzzle box. Full of tortured souls, long hallways, and candles, the dungeon houses the cenobites, their victims, and Uncle Frank. Remember Frank (Sean Chapman) from the first Hellraiser film? He’s been lounging around Pinhead’s playhouse waiting for a little action.

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I think I had this calendar once.

There are a couple side stories too. Tiffany is a gifted puzzle-solver the evil doctor imprisoned in his asylum to help him open the box. She’s compelled to do puzzles of all kinds and instead of curing that compulsion, Channard encourages it.

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Cenobite Puzzle Boxes: You can’t stop at just one!

There’s also Kyle (William Hope), a young resident at the hospital, determined to help Kirsty.

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“Sooo then the guy with nails in his face showed up? Mmmkay.”

That’s when some major stuff goes down. Kirsty, Julia, Frank, Dr. Channard, and the cenobites act out And Then There Were None in the Escher drawing. It’s bloody and thrilling and full of cool, disgusting effects. Dr. Channard’s torture is downright ghastly.

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“Candy bar!”

The writers, Clive Barker and Peter Atkins, interject some humanity into this morass as well. Kirsty and Tiffany are our heroes, of course, but they find an unlikely ally and that adds depth to the film.

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“Does anyone have an aspirin?”

I like Hellbound: Hellraiser II a lot. For a long time, the first film in the series was my favorite, but this one is edging it out. I like it more with each viewing. The acting, especially in the first two films, is far better than in a lot of gory films of the period and the story and characters are riveting. Christopher Young’s music even won a Saturn Award. The best part is you get a lot more cenobite for the buck. The filmmakers must have known they had a good thing so they didn’t hide the leather-clad freaks. Giving Pinhead and his merry band more screen time works a treat. This is a fun one.

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“Anyway, we opened the box.”

 

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Blood Simple. (1984)   Leave a comment

abby

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett

Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson

What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?

The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating.  He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions.  Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon.  Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.

Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.

The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.

Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.

The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words.  McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.

This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.

The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)   3 comments

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Becker (Eric Roberts), a marketing genius, travels to Sydney from the United States to boost sales of Coca-Cola in Australia.  He’s a hired gun, of sorts, sent by Coca-Cola headquarters to drum up business. The laid-back executives at the Sydney office don’t know what to make of him, but are told by the brass, “Don’t try to understand him. Just know that he doubles and triples sales.” Staff in the Sydney branch decide, wisely, to leave him alone. Given free rein, Becker looks for weaknesses in the Aussie market. A distribution map of the country shows a glaring hole in Coke sales.  Rural Anderson Valley sells no Coke at all. Becker heads to the region to find out why. In Anderson Valley, Becker meets T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), an autocratic businessman who makes his own brand of soft drinks and controls the soda market there.

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The tutti-frutti is made of wombats.

T. George’s passion and entrepreneurship impress Becker. His old-fashioned, but well-run factory turns out delicious products and employs many of the town’s residents. Still, even T. George is no match for the Coca-Cola machine.  The writing’s on the wall. Becker wants to bring in Coke and squeeze T. George out of his own territory.

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Stand up, Matilda’s waltzing.

The Coca-Cola Kid has a simple plot and could take place in Australia or even rural Mississippi or Maine if it stuck with the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach. It’d also be an average film and be over in thirty-five minutes. What takes it to the next level are the characters and tangential stories Frank Moorhouse weaves into the screenplay. One involves an aboriginal didgeridoo player, Mr. Joe (Steve Dodd) and other local musicians; another, a hotel bellman (David Slingsby), in a subversive political organization who mistakes Becker for a CIA agent. A third story revolves around Terri (Greta Scacchi), Becker’s secretary in Sydney and her chaotic home life and history.

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Tonight on Kris Kringle Yoga…

You’ll see familiar faces in The Coca-Cola Kid. Some Australian ‘that guys’ make appearances along with musicians Ricky Fataar and Tim Finn.

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Ricky Fataar and Steve Dodd in the studio

Finn also wrote the original songs and the faux Coke ad which features Mr. Joe on the didgeridoo. It’s a catchy tune.  Bill Kerr was a popular and well-known Australian actor and I noticed at least two cast members from The Road Warrior.  Rebecca Smart plays the precocious DMZ beautifully. Greta Scacchi’s role is not as fleshed-out as it could be, but she does a nice job with it as a flaky working mom with a complicated backstory. She and Roberts have great chemistry. Finally, Eric Roberts, plays Becker as a perfectionist who sees Coca-Cola as an extension of the Unites States and espouses its virtues with evangelical zeal.  He’s thrown himself into his work and eschewed a personal life.

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Brown and bubbly

He’s not like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross though. He has a tender heart and Roberts has the acting chops for it. In the 1980s, Eric Roberts made some terrific films.  Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Runaway Train, and The Coca-Cola Kid all show his talent and range.

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Becker in a vulnerable moment

During Becker’s mission, he meets a string of quirky, unpredictable characters which bring to mind the Bill Forsyth films Local Hero and Comfort and Joy.  As I thought more about it, I realized one of the offbeat players in The Coca-Cola Kid is Australia itself. Director, Dusan Makavejev lets the camera linger on the scenery as well as the actors. Like Local Hero, the place has a personality. It’s foreign to Becker. Everyone speaks English, but they all function so differently from the businessmen Becker deals with that it throws him. His neat, orderly world changes and it hits him hard. He generally rolls in, sizes up the competition, makes changes, and jets home to Atlanta to await his next assignment. He doesn’t get involved in the private lives of his employees. He doesn’t meet odd people.  He doesn’t get excited or upset. He does his job, then leaves. The funky wonderfulness of Australia and its people gets to him. It got to me too. I saw The Coca-Cola Kid when it came out in 1985 and I hoped Australia was like this.  Maybe it never was, but I like it anyway.

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Absence of Malice (1981)   2 comments

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Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) has a problem. A year into his strike force’s investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of Joey Diaz, a popular Miami union leader, Rosen has no leads. To shake things up, he decides to pressure local liquor wholesaler Michael Colin Gallagher (Paul Newman) into telling the feds what he knows. The trouble is, Gallagher doesn’t know anything. Gallagher’s deceased bootlegger father and his uncle, Malderone (Luther Adler) have mob ties, but not Gallagher. He’s an honest businessman. That doesn’t stop Rosen from leaking a story naming Gallagher as a suspect in the Diaz case to Megan Carter (Sally Field). Carter, a reporter for the Miami Standard newspaper, writes the story and her paper publishes it on page one.

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Then, it begins. The accusation slowly begins to destroy Gallagher’s life. His workers strike. His customers cancel their accounts. The IRS dissects his finances. His business falters.

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“Why no Ziggy this week?”

Gallagher asks Carter where she got her information, but she won’t reveal her source. The newspaper staff stonewalls him and he gets no answers from the feds. Frustrated, he continues to dig into the matter and keep his business afloat until a tragedy forces him to act. When the controversy hurts his close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon), Gallagher gets angry. He’s a smart man so he exacts a thinking man’s revenge.

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Director, Sydney Pollack and writer Kurt Luedtke get the plot humming along nicely, then it stalls. You’re sucked in from the beginning and then Sally Field shows up and puts the brakes on. In this strong ensemble, she’s miscast. I can’t buy her hard-boiled reporter any more than I can buy her romance with Paul Newman.

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“You say the nun FLEW?”

They have no chemistry and her jaded journalist has no credibility. I wonder if their romance was an afterthought added by producers to appeal to a wider audience. Anyway, the rest of the cast works a treat. Newman does a fine job as a gruff good guy who gets screwed and fights back. We like him. We’re outraged when he’s attacked and cheer him on when he reacts. Melinda Dillon is absolutely brilliant. Her voice, carriage, and even the way she holds a cigarette tell her story.

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It’s a beautiful and poignant performance. She deserves her Oscar nomination. Then there’s Bob Balaban. He does weasely like no one else. Rosen, his self-righteous, arrogant federal prosecutor, worms his way onto your bad side and his quirky elastic band wringing is inspired.

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“It’s my ball and if I can’t pitch I’m going home.”

I can’t think of this film without picturing Rosen’s odd little habit. Luther Adler as Gallagher’s mobster uncle is a lot of fun too. He clearly enjoys his role. I saved the best for last. Wilford Brimley as Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells makes this movie. He has about eight minutes of screen time, but commands your attention for every second of it. His straightforward and logical approach to the case along with his homespun manner and way of speaking renew your faith in the justice system. Wells doesn’t listen to any excuses or rationalizations. In this world of half-truths and shades of gray, he’s a black and white breath of fresh air.

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“Dammit. This courthouse has no Quaker Oats.”

The idea that a federal agency can rip an honest man’s life apart on a whim is scary. Add in a little sloppy journalism and it’s a nightmare. ABSENCE OF MALICE exposes the ‘ends justify the means’ mentality in our judicial system. It also shows the press’ desire to get to print first despite little proof a story even exists. Absence of malice, by the way, refers to the public figure doctrine in law. To win a libel suit, the plaintiff must prove the defendant knows the statement is false, but prints it anyway with reckless disregard to the truth. Without that proof, the plaintiff is powerless.

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The fine acting, relevant topic, and fleshed-out characters make ABSENCE OF MALICE an entertaining and thoughtful film. I recommend it.

Thief (1981)   4 comments

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne

Frank (James Caan) works alone.  He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves.  They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept.  They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value.  It’s a tidy operation.  Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses.  Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts.  It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.

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All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections.  At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him.  Frank likes running the show.  Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate.  The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more.  Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people.  For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky.  When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.

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“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”  Oops, wrong show.

The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre.  Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on.  LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does.  In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn.  In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”.  He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob.  Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side.  THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms.  Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.

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Sean on Jupiter

Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character.  Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter.  As odd as it sounds, he’s honest.  As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him.  When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable.  He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times.  In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.”  James Caan revels in this role.

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“Quit calling me Sonny.”

Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film.  The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT.  More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free.  THIEF looks great too.  Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.

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Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities.  When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him.  He knows he’s free.

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This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.  Here’s the link.  THIEF  The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre.  If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film.  It’s a lovely place.

The Road Warrior or Mad Max and Lord Byron Walk into a Bar…   2 comments

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“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air”

From the poem, “Darkness” by Lord Byron (1-5).

A world war devastates the earth and reduces the people to their basest selves.  They loot and riot and kill leaving only nomadic scavengers traveling alone or in packs.  Those who thrive on chaos, have a chance.  Lord Byron’s poem speaks of darkness.  The blinding, incessant sun of Australia’s desert belies a darkness of a different sort that has descended on those left alive after the firestorm.  As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, “Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.”

“And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d”

From the poem, “Darkness” (10-13).

In the film, civilization and order fall apart in the aftermath of war.  There are no cities.  Max (Mel Gibson) drives endlessly through the vast Australian desert searching for food, water, and gasoline.  Gas, necessary for the modern Bedouin lifestyle, now holds more value than diamonds or gold.  Without it, there’s no relief from the harsh climate.  Without fuel, to paraphrase the narrator at the start of the film, they’re nothing.  On foot, a man could fall prey to the sun, starvation, or animals, often the two-legged kind.

“the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.”

From the poem, “Darkness” (32-37).

With so many souls living only to find food and fuel, the world, in this case, the Australian bush, becomes a mechanized LORD OF THE FLIES, in which everyone else is Piggy.  What keeps THE ROAD WARRIOR from becoming a series of car crashes and bloody melees is the humanity director and co-writer George Miller allows to seep through the twisted wreckage.

THE ROAD WARRIOR has great action sequences which must have kept every Australian stunt man employed for months.  The film has convincingly evil villains who deserve their violent ends, but it’s the virtue in many of the other characters that we remember.  THE ROAD WARRIOR is not just relentless, pounding action with occasional bon mots.  All right, it is relentless, pounding action without many mots at all, bon or otherwise.  Miller doesn’t need them.  He lets us know the characters using minimal dialogue and screen time.  He even allows the bad guys to have some depth before killing them off in spectacular ways.  Because we’ve met these people, we’re drawn into their world.  Their lives matter to us.  In the midst of this chaotic, desolate scenario, we care about a feral child, a quirky pilot in need of dental work, and a fiercely loyal mongrel dog.

“The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay”

From the poem, “Darkness” (45-49).

Why do we care?  George Miller, along with fellow writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, shows us little glimpses of goodness in his bleak version of the future.  He demonstrates this goodness using a musical toy and a child, an expression of horror while witnessing a senseless murder, a dog’s loyalty, and a leader who keeps his word.

Oddly, that decency in the face of tragedy brought to mind another film about desperate people on a road trip from hell.  As I watched Mohawk-sporting cretins in assless chaps run amok in the Australian desert, I thought of THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  Yes, I mean John Ford’s sweeping chronicle of the Joad family’s trek from their Oklahoma farm to the promised land of California.  The film shows a family forced to scrounge for food and a place to live surviving despite constant assaults by evil brutes and cruel circumstance.  All through their discouraging journey, Ford allows small rays of light to pierce his dark tale.  The nobility of John Carradine’s homespun preacher, Ma Joad’s treatment of starving children in the run down camp, Al’s longing for a girl, and Tom’s dance with Ma as he sings Red River Valley all prove the clan has lost everything but what makes them human.

Miller could have been reading Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” when he wrote THE ROAD WARRIOR.  The poem’s post-apocalyptic tone fits Miller’s vision of a dark future.  He could also have been reading Steinbeck or Golding.  The point is, despite its reputation as a rollicking action film, THE ROAD WARRIOR is much more.  It’s an uplifting tale full of heroes and villains and hope and enough car wrecks to keep a claims adjuster busy for months.

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This article appeared originally in The Brattle Film Notes.  Brattle Theatre

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987)   Leave a comment

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“Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question.  Um…well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile.  Uh…like what?  Okay…um…For me, uh…ooh…I would say…what?  Groucho Marx, to name one thing…uh…um…and Willie Mays…and um…the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and um…Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…um…Swedish movies, naturally…Sentimental Education by Flaubert…uh…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…um…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…uh…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…uh…Tracy’s face…”
Woody Allen in MANHATTAN (1979)

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Damiel (Bruno Ganz) spends his days watching, listening.  He hears people’s biggest fears and greatest failures.  When they are at their lowest, he is at his best.  He soothes them without words or caresses, but with kind thoughts and spiritual clarity.  Damiel is an angel.  Sent to West Berlin to observe the people there, Damiel discovers something about himself.  Listening to stories of love and heartbreak isn’t enough.  He’s dissatisfied with his voyeuristic role and longs to be human.  In his words, “…it would be nice to come home after a long day and feed the cat like Philip Marlowe.”  That simple wish becomes fervent desire after Damiel sees Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lonely and beautiful trapeze artist working at a ramshackle traveling circus.  He empathizes with the lovely woman and longs to be with her.  Soon, he can think of little else.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!
  Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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Despite the apparent simplicity of the plot, WINGS OF DESIRE touches on issues director Wim Wenders could only guess about in 1987.  Issues like isolation, longing, and empathy mean something entirely different today because of the technological advances we’ve made since 1987.  In a way, we have the power to be angels or devils as we watch and compliment or insult or simply acknowledge the work or opinions of others.  We fly anonymously from one country to another in an instant and hear the thoughts and hopes and prayers of scores of people in the course of a day.  Like Damiel, we hear a cacophony of voices in our heads.  It’s exhausting.

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Perhaps it’s feeling the weight of so many regrets and so much sadness that makes Damiel want to chuck the wings, join the human race, and hear just one voice echoing in his head, his own.  Maybe he wants to taste streusel or kiss a baby or pet a dog.  The fact that he wants to give up his wings at all based on what he hears speaks volumes about his capacity for hope and his desire to, as he puts it, “for once just to guess instead of always knowing.”

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Maybe he’s pushed over the edge by his friend, his compañero, Peter Falk.  Falk plays himself, an actor in Berlin to shoot a WWII movie.  Falk feels the presence of Damiel and his angel friend, Cassiel (Otto Sander).  That’s odd because as a rule, the only ones who see the pair are children.  Falk even encourages Damiel to become human when he says, “There’s so many good things.”  He describes some simple pleasures.  “To smoke and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.”

peter
Just one more thing…

Wim Wenders’ bleak vision of life without contact, surprise, or change is made real by the grays of Henri Alekan’s cinematography interspersed with stark WWII footage and by the hangdog expressions of most of the people Damiel and Cassiel encounter.  In fact, the only people who appear to enjoy themselves are children and Marion’s circus-performer friends.   Later, color explodes onto the screen, WIZARD OF OZ-like.  Music plays a big part in WINGS OF DESIRE as well.  Early in the film, the music is spare.  We hear strings and short bursts of an angelic choir.  As the film progresses, we’re treated to a song by Crime & the City Solution and nightclub performances by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

nick
Nick Cave and Cassiel.

Now I’ll wax poetic about Bruno Ganz.  I watched WINGS OF DESIRE in German with English subtitles so I know I missed some nuances of language, but I didn’t miss a single emotion because Ganz communicates so well with his eyes.  I could feel his yearning to touch Marion; to be a part of her life.  I could feel his childlike glee as he sat with the little ones and watched the circus.  I could feel how much he wanted to feed Philip Marlowe’s cat.  Otto Sander as Cassiel was all restraint and pent up emotions and the entire cast was full of faces.  They weren’t shined up for filming.  They were expressive and real.

ganz
Those eyes

In many ways, Damiel’s need to be human rings a bell.  Like Damiel, we long for simple things; a crisp fall day, a good meal, a friend’s smile.  Instead we get a close-up picture of a leaf on Instagram, a website full of recipes, and a former classmate’s wedding photo on facebook.  Are we angels?  Hardly.  We do a lot more observing than joining in though so maybe making a list of things that make life worth living isn’t a bad idea.  I’ll start.  Hugging my daughter, scratching my dog’s head, eating a Macoun apple, singing a song, picking up rocks at the beach, drawing a picture…all do it for me.  I smiled just making the list.

bike
This piece appears in slightly different form on the Brattle Theatre’s blog.  Here’s the link.  BRATTLE

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