Capsule Reviews: May 1 – May 8

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981) – 5/5

De Palma’s masterpiece succeeds brilliantly both as paranoid political thriller and personal rumination on the profound power – the sympathetic magic – that results from putting sounds and images together. Features one of the most emotionally devastating finales since Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.

Murder a la Mod (Brian De Palma, 1969) – 2.5/5

Early experimental film already clearly indicates De Palma’s preoccupations with voyeurism and the potential of narrative cinema to alter the perceptions of the viewer. The story depicts a murder and cover-up from various viewpoints, played for sizzle or slapstick, depending on the observer.

Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948) – 4/5

Mann’s powerhouse noir follows escaped con Dennis O’Keefe as he crosses paths with a gangster (Raymond Burr) who owes him money, getting involved along the way with two women (Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt). Cinematography by the legendary John Alton, who in one scene fills a cabin’s interior with the heavy, symbolically charged shadows of fish netting.

They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947) – 4.5/5

Fierce Brit noir finds down-on-his-luck former RAF pilot Trevor Howard getting caught up with a gang of black market operators who use an undertaker’s establishment as a front. The ringleader, Narcy (short for Narcissus, and played by Griffith Jones), is one of the most sadistic heavies this side of Richard Widmark’s giggling psychopath Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. The rooftop climax has Howard and Jones slugging it out among the letters of a massive RIP sign.

The Damned (Luchino Visconti, 1969) – 4/5

Putting the opera in dysfunctional family soap opera, Visconti uses the internecine and incestuous dealings of the Essenbeck family, wealthy and powerful steel magnates, to chart Germany’s entanglement with, and ultimate embrace of, Nazism. Decadent and perverse, like all of Visconti’s best, this set the standard for an entire subgenre: Nazisploitation films.

Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964) – 4/5

Antonioni’s first color film extends his preoccupation with alienation and anomie into the pathological. Suicidal Monica Vitti wanders a desolate, yet strangely beautiful, industrial landscape, shuttling between her factory manager husband and his best friend, played by Richard Harris. Only her connection to her child seems to hold out any chance for meaning or permanence.

Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, 1957) – 4/5

Showing Visconti in early, Romantic mode, this adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights has Marcello Mastroianni encountering the lovelorn Maria Schell contemplating suicide on a bridge, then charts the rise and fall of their brief relationship. The fantastic set design reconstructed an entire neighborhood of Livorno (standing in for Saint Petersburg) right down to the canals. Luscious black-and-white cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno and swirling, enchanting musical score by Nino Rota.

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001) – 4.5/5

Given that Breillat’s exploration of sibling rivalry and attachment unfolds like a modern-day fairy tale, it comes as no surprise that lately she has turned her hand to fascinating revisions of classical tales like Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty. From its vivisection of sexual manipulation to its out-of-left-field final act events, Fat Girl packs a wallop.

Crazy Love (1987) – 3.5/5

A rarity from the Mondo Macabro cult DVD label: a tender, melancholy film. Adapted from a short story by Charles Bukowski, this Flemish feature depicts three pivotal nights in the life of its protagonist, examining respectively his burgeoning sexual curiosity, an especially cruel instance of its rejection and the lengths he goes to in order to manage a modicum of intimacy.

The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974) – 4/5

Reuniting Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling five years after Visconti’s The Damned, Cavani’s film explores the sadomasochistic relationship between a former SS officer working in 1957 Vienna and a camp survivor now married to an opera conductor. Psychologically nuanced and politically acute, the film offers the distinctly cold comfort that history tends to repeat itself.

Insidious (James Wan, 2010) – 2.5/5

A refreshing change of pace, considering the charnel house of contemporary horror cinema, even if not entirely successful, Wan & Co.’s haunted house chiller provides the requisite scares (and even some laughs), a template suggesting the influence of Raimi’s superior Drag Me to Hell. Both films lack anything resembling a subtext – and thus any real raison d’être beyond pure entertainment – but as such it works well enough.

Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960) – 3.5/5

Getting dragged to hell is precisely what happens to the theology student protagonist of this oddity. Years before Jose Mojica Marins’ This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, Nakagawa shows in graphic detail the torments and tortures awaiting the damned in a decidedly Buddhist version of the underworld. Wild shifts in tone, elements of slapstick, and wholesale surrealism render this an instant classic.

In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976) – 5/5

Oshima was always an iconoclast – he famously commented at one point that he disliked the entirety of Japanese cinema, including his own earlier films – but in this film he moves into material that, given the country’s censorship laws, couldn’t even be screened in Japan: a claustrophobic chamber piece that mixes art film and hardcore pornography. The point, however, isn’t to titillate, but to chart the transgressive trajectory of a sexual obsession, a scenario that ultimately leads to the interpenetration of sex and death.

Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981) – 4/5

Tavernier’s transposition of Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 to colonial West Africa is a stroke of genius. Shot through with black humor, and filmed with some stunning Steadicam set-pieces, the story of a supposedly simple-minded sheriff who’s actually a calculating sociopath proves thematically similar to The Killer Inside Me, and thus sets a clear precedent for how to film a Thompson novel, given the latter’s nearly complete failure.

The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1964) – 5/5

Devastating portrait of the last days of an alcoholic who fails to dry out and then succeeds in killing himself. Based on a 1931 novel inspired by the life and death of suicidal Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. Star Maurice Ronet was evidently a bounteous boozer in his own right, blurring the line that much further between fact and fiction.

The Funeral (Abel Ferrara, 1996) – 3/5

Self-destructive masculinity set against the backdrop of a Prohibition-era gangster clan (Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Vincent Gallo). Ferrara’s trademark tortured religiosity features front-and-center as a key aspect in the daily lives of the family’s long-suffering womenfolk. Ferrara and regular screenwriter Nicholas St. John refuse to hit the well-rehearsed beats of the genre and the film concludes with a truly shocking finale.

Dead Bang (John Frankenheimer, 1989) – 3/5

Not as all-around entertaining as its predecessor, 52 Pick-Up, this late-period Frankenheimer is a much more straight-forward action film about a dogged LA detective’s (Don Johnson) investigation into the murder of a patrolman, which ultimately uncovers an interstate organization of white supremacists.

Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff, Orson Welles, 1965) – 4.5/5

Welles mashes up five Shakespeare plays, basically everything he ever wrote that so much as mentions the character of Sir John Falstaff. Looking like a particularly dissipated Santa Claus, Welles mumbles and sputters his way through the film – coming across like a somewhat better-intentioned version of Touch of Evil’s Hank Quinlan. Eschewing most of his flashier cinematic tricks, Welles indulges in some marvelous, chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography. The rapid-fire editing and hand-held camerawork elevate the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence to a kind of giddy, muddy verisimilitude – it’s a clear precursor to the likes of Braveheart et al.

Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) – 2.5/5

Fundamentally a social problem film – complete with the requisite upbeat ending indicating that, despite all its evident flaws, the socio-economic system that caused the Great Depression means well and works better than any other – Wellman gets a lot of mileage out of the excellent train sequences, offering up a gritty realism that the rest of the film’s manifest melodrama quite effectively neutralizes.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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