Capsule Reviews: May 13 – 15

Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986) – 3.5/5

Lashing together strands of road movie, screwball comedy and domestic thriller, Demme’s day-glo dramedy works best in its first two acts – as gamine Lulu (Melanie Griffith in a Louise Brooks wig) spots mid-level moneyman Charlie (Jeff Daniels) skipping out on his lunch tab and seduces him into playing hooky from his humdrum existence. Of course, and this is the secret to the film’s modest success, nothing is what it appears to be with either character. The film hits its high point at Lulu’s 10-year class reunion, with its playful juxtaposition of Bicentennial red-white-and-blue rigmarole and post-punk cover-band soundtrack, courtesy of The Feelies, whose extended musical numbers prefigure the performative predilections on display in Demme’s later Rachel Getting Married (2008), before segueing into its final act with the introduction of Lulu’s ex-con ex-husband Ray (Ray Liotta), which throws the film into something like a radical tonal gearshift. Though Demme pitches the moral antithesis between the two men at a “meta” level, with Ray clad all in black (and tooling around in a big black car, to boot) and Charlie decked out in white, it’s a shame the film squanders the opportunity to explore Ray as a male equivalent to Lulu’s force for anarchy, instead opting to hammer him thin, turning him into nothing more than a caricature – a vengeful, abusive career criminal with no redeeming characteristics other than his mercurial charisma.

Snapshot (Simon Wincer, 1979) – 2/5

Would-be cult film from Australia proves a subpar rendition of the John Carpenter-scripted Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) with its focus on a naïve fashion model and the various breeds of lechers, parasites and outright head-cases that surround her. Wincer’s direction is workmanlike and unexceptional. The writing suffers from a lethal case of indecision – shifting from comedy to satire and, eventually, into an attempt at a psycho-stalker thriller, while succeeding at none.

Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989) – 4/5

Script from David Rabe (whose Streamers [1983], directed by Robert Altman, also dealt on a quasi-allegorical level with the insanity of the Vietnam War) succeeds in particular on two counts: first, the flashback structure, working explicitly at the level of a dream, allows for a subversive layer of ambiguity to creep into proceedings that might otherwise seem blatant and even stereotypical; second, constructing its discourse out of precisely the sort of clichéd, axiomatic verbiage that captures characters doing their damnedest to sound like characters out of a war film (and thus prescient of the wave of Iraq War documentaries that show soldiers in the thick of battle liberally quoting from the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket [1987]), a technique De Palma would resuscitate for his 2007 multimedia military meditation Redacted. De Palma’s assured direction makes full use of his stock-in-trade effects – split-screen predominates and, in the brilliant latrine bombing scene, an extended tracking POV shot puts the viewer in place of the perpetrator. The air-raid-on-the-bridge sequence is both morally devastating and aesthetically rapturous – swooning soundtrack and extreme slow-motion mesh together, as the film’s protagonist fails to save the doomed female (witness, as this technique’s sine qua non, Blow Out [1981]).

Rasputin, the Mad Monk (Don Sharp, 1966) – 2.5/5

Christopher Lee, sporting a straggly fright wig and glue-on beard, camps it up as the titular crazed clergyman in this mid-period Hammer exploitation/historical film. Caring not a fig for accuracy – an earlier biopic Rasputin and the Empress (1933) had been subject to litigation for its alleged poetic license by Rasputin’s assassin, Count Yusupov – Sharp’s film plays up Rasputin’s Svengali-like skills (hypnosis as well as faith-healing) and ramps up the sex (fleeting glimpses of lovely lead Barbara Shelley in the altogether) and violence (the brutal finale, Rasputin’s gore-drenched dispatch). Intimations of sadomasochism between the two leads does little to dampen the lurid approach.

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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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