Capsule Reviews: June 24 – July 11

For Your Height Only (Eddie Nicart, 1981)

Queen of Black Magic (Liliek Sudijo, 1983)

Two from cult DVD label Mondo Macabro’s schlockmeister of choice, producer Dick Randall.

Hands down the more amusing entry, Height towers over the competition—if by competition you mean James Bond parody films starring Guinness World Record holders for shortest adult actor: Weng Weng (born Ernesto de la Cruz and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a shrunken Dario Argento) may have been listed at a mere 2’ 9” tall, but the little feller packed a lot of wallop into his diminutive frame.

Weng plays Agent 00, assigned to dismantle the criminal organization of one Mr. Giant, who has abducted renowned scientist Dr. Kohler in order to use his newfangled N-Bomb to nefarious ends. Whatever that is and does. It’s never explained. Plot is hardly Height’s strong suit. That would be atrocious fashions (leisure suits, fluorescent floral-printed shirts) and even more atrocious dialogue (dubbed, at somebody or other’s behest, into a variety of comically inappropriate accents—Southern drawl, Queen’s English, minstrelsy), yielding this gem of Beckettian minimalism (during a pep talk given to a gang of drug dealers by one of Mr. Giant’s henchmen): “Happy pushing!”

Along the way, Agent 00 gets to try out a positively Bondian array of gadgets and gizmos: an “anti-poison” ring, a remote-control hat (riffing on Goldfinger’s henchman Oddjob) and, my personal favorite, a tiny jetpack. (Once activated, it only sputters and belches smoke, rendering the cable supports clearly visible; it also doesn’t help that Weng shifts mid-flight so that he’s facing backwards.)

Queen of Black Magic comes across like a lesser Mystics in Bali—not as jaw-droppingly funny and weirdly earnest in its advocacy against pagan black magic practices. (It was apparently sponsored, in part, by the Indonesian government toward that purpose.)  Nevertheless, if you’re curious to know how Indonesian Light and Magic (aka “FX guru” El Badrun) managed to depict a major character ripping his own head off, this just might be the movie for you…

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) – 5/5

Full-length review coming soon.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952) – 4/5

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minelli, 1953) – 3.5/5

By their very nature, musicals are often sketchy propositions, hanging their narrative arcs on the slenderest of threads, content to mark time until the next show-stopping number comes along—a shattering burst of unreality that dispels whatever air of normalcy or decorum has been established.

This matched pair of MGM musicals proves both the exception and the rule. Whereas Singin’ in the Rain boasts a strong narrative through-line, as well as plenty of laughs at the expense of early silent cinema, The Band Wagon contains several stunning set pieces that more than compensate for the rather humdrum behind-the-scenes shenanigans aiming to satirize Broadway pretensions. Both films carry the day on the strength of formal, aesthetic properties—the almost abstract plasticity of the mise-en-scène on display in spades during each film’s central number (“Broadway Melody” in the first, the latter’s “The Girl Hunt”); the endlessly shifting camera (particularly in Minelli’s film); the bold, Surrealist use of Technicolor.

Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010) – 1/5

Should have been called Unwatchable. Although “inspired by” true events, and occupying an atypically blue-collar viewpoint, Tony Scott’s ADD-addled visual style cannot compensate for the wanton predictability and inevitable enervation of the narrative. Even the potshots at corporate malfeasance lack teeth. Factor in a $100 million budget and you have an algorithm for pointlessness.

The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) – 3.5/5

Douglas Fairbanks’ acting tends toward the histrionic—all overblown reaction-shot posturing and wild gesticulation—but there’s no denying the raw physicality on display in the film’s many action set-pieces. The stunning set design, reeking of exoticism, if not outright Orientalism, and imaginative special effects in this loosest of 1001 Nights adaptations compare favorably to the 1940 version, co-directed by Michael Powell. Features an early appearance by Anna May Wong as a scheming slave girl.

The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) – 3.5/5

Fifteen years later, Walsh directed this excellent gangster drama, following its protagonists (James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart) from the trenches of WWI through the flush of criminal success after the Volstead Amendment inaugurates Prohibition into the depths of the Great Depression. Walsh keeps the camera moving, snaking through the many speakeasy crowd scenes, often ending in a high-angle crane shot that serves to fix the gangsters within their milieu. Employs voiceover narration and time-setting montage work (some of it wonderfully expressionistic) in an attempt to lend an air of objectivity to the otherwise standard rise-and-fall narrative arc.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011) – 1.5/5

Full-length review forthcoming.

Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) – 4/5

Second of three memorable films based on the novels of David Goodis (the other two being the Bogart/Bacall vehicle Dark Passage [1947] and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player [1960]). Tourneur and DP Burnett Guffey capture the mean streets of LA and the snowy wastes of Wyoming with equal aplomb (not to mention, in the latter case, grandeur). The climactic showdown involving a snow plow owes an obvious debt to Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), while its snowbound mise-en-scène both recalls Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) and anticipates Truffaut’s film. Recounted (in proper noir fashion) as a series of flashbacks, the story finds Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft one step ahead of criminals (Brian Keith, Rudy Bond) who, the year before, killed his friend while fleeing a bank robbery.

Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964) – 3.5/5

Proves the inverse of Karl Marx’s famous quote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Plying the tragic in the face of Dr. Strangelove’s farce, Lumet uses every trick in the book—claustrophobic close-ups, low-key lighting and an unerring eye for shot composition involving groups of agitated men (a skill no doubt honed during his earlier 12 Angry Men [1957])—to punch up what amounts to solemn, preachy material. Counteracting the Henry Kissinger-designated policy of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), star Henry Fonda was one of the original members of the Hollywood branch of SANE (aka Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and his ethical fingerprints are all over the film. Unfortunately, rather than take the “military-industrial complex” at their word and, like Strangelove, posit the underlying absurdity and madness inherent in the Arms Race, Fail-Safe bends over backwards to emphasize the nobility, self-sacrifice and well-intentioned nature of everyone involved, from Fonda’s Commander-in-chief to the generals at SAC on down to the men flying the B-52s that carry the H-bomb payload.

Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) – 4/5

A study in minimalism, Hellman’s existential road movie stands as the ne plus ultra of a sub-genre that flourished briefly in the late 60s/early 70s (see, in particular, Easy Rider and Vanishing Point). Pioneering the character-as-function approach later used by the Walter Hill heist/chase film The Driver (1978), Blacktop stars musicians James Taylor (The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic), as well as Laurie Bird (The Girl) and the always-fantastic Warren Oates (G.T.O.). Their lives as stripped-down as the ’55 Chevy they race, The Driver and The Mechanic wander the American back-road landscape seemingly at random, their movements dictated only by the need for spare parts and a forum to prove their mettle. At once, an inspection of the national obsession with cars and speed, a study in interpersonal disconnect and an exploration of the price of human autonomy (as famously stated in the lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”), Hellman’s film concludes abruptly and apocalyptically, taking advantage of the medium’s formal properties to imply the ultimate cost of a rootless, bootless and nomadic way of life. (In a word, to quote another renowned singer-songwriter: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”)

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) – 4.5/5

Sirk doesn’t seek to transcend melodrama (whatever that might mean) so much as to employ it as a Trojan Horse, sneaking maximum levels of social criticism and visual sophistication into a “woman’s picture.” Sirk and DP Russell Metty’s color palette ranges from autumnal oranges and browns to wintry whites and blues—often a scene’s emotional tone hinges on a progression or alternation between the two registers—shot through now and again with a vivifying verdure or the ardent red of a dress (as this incarnation of desire passes from mother to daughter). Bolstering this color-coding, Sirk and Metty make the most of reflective surfaces and frames-within-the-frame (a patterned screen’s function as a divider attains metaphorical status). The social commentary works on two levels—the first depicts the gossip-mongering and familial hectoring provoked by Rock Hudson’s and Jane Wyman’s May-December romance, while the second suggests (through a running bit involving a TV salesman) the isolation and atomization imposed upon the body politic by film’s rival medium, hauntingly visualized by a slow track-in on the TV set to reveal Jane Wyman’s despondent figure trapped within its glassy, glossy surface.

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1947) – 4/5

In Ophuls’ stylish, well-observed and nicely detailed melodrama/noir hybrid, based on a novel, The Blank Wall, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and remade as The Deep End (2001), matriarch Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) is forced to shield her bitchy art-student daughter first from the clutches of oily older man Ted Darby and then, after his accidental death, from a blackmail scheme involving suave Martin Donnelly (James Mason), with whom Bennett becomes a bit (improbably) smitten. As was his wont, Ophuls moves the camera almost constantly, tracking his characters’ every move, creating a prevalent atmosphere of entanglement and entrapment that is reinforced, in a clever bit of visual metaphor, by twice turning the balustrade of the family staircase into the bars of a prison cell. The first instance occurs before the confrontation with Darby and signals impending danger, while the second constitutes the film’s final shot, audaciously reinforcing the notion first suggested by Donnelly that her family itself constitutes a kind of prison for Lucia Harper. Certainly, this idea is buttressed by the family dynamic: absentee father, ingrate daughter, feckless father-in-law, Poindexter son who receives the lion’s share of Lucia’s displaced anger and aggression.

Gunman’s Walk (Phil Karlson, 1958) – 3.5/5

Any similarity between this Cinemascope Western’s depiction of the legacy of violence and racism rampant throughout the Old West and John Ford’s The Searchers (1955) is not entirely coincidental, since both films were written by frequent Ford collaborator Frank Nugent. Granted, Karlson’s film would not fare well in a point-for-point comparison, yet it has its own enticements. Van Heflin excels as the horse-trading patriarch and Tab Hunter tosses aside his surfer boy image as the gun-crazy favorite son. By pitting father against son in the climactic showdown, the story attains a level of quasi-Biblical resonance, and it’s a remarkable moment when Heflin subsequently breaks down in sobbing tears.

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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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