stalker (andrei tarkovsky, 1979)

I recently took part in a poll asking for our favorite “road movies”, such films being loosely defined. My top five, in order, were Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless, L’Avventura, Y Tu Mamá También, and The Wizard of Oz. Topping the poll was Badlands. My own fave, Bonnie and Clyde, finished third. Second was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which gave me an excuse to add another of his films to my list. I admit I was hesitant ... I haven’t exactly loved the ones I’ve seen, and Stalker is almost three hours long.

To recap: I liked Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, thought less of The Mirror, and have terrible memories of Solaris. For me, Stalker was closer to the first two than the latter two.

There is a plot to Stalker, but I don’t think anyone cared about it too much. It plays a bit like an artier, more philosophical version of Linklater’s “Before” movies. There are essentially three characters, known by their professions ... The Stalker (a guide who takes seekers through The Zone), The Professor, and The Writer (the latter two being the seekers). As they walk through The Zone, they partake in philosophical discussions about not only their own lives, but also the state of all humankind. It’s three hours of existential angst that sinks deep, not only because of the acting and dialogue, but also because of the look of the film, which is at times beautiful but it almost always stark. Add the setting, some kind of post-apocalypse world of blasted landscapes and leftover tanks that look like dinosaurs. It is bleak ... this is a bleak film, with little room for any kind of hope. The vagueness of the narrative, and the lack of explanation for what has happened to the physical world, forces us to narrow our focus to the discussions with the three men.

And it isn’t always easy to remain interested in those discussions. Some are better than others, but eventually you wish the damn thing was about an hour shorter.

As usual, Tarkovsky makes the film he wants, and leaves it to us to come to him ... he’s not coming to us. Take this segment from the film’s Wikipedia page:

Upon its release the film's reception was less than favorable. Officials at Goskino, a government group otherwise known as the State Committee for Cinematography, were critical of the film. On being told that Stalker should be faster and more dynamic, Tarkovsky replied:

“[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”

The Goskino representative then stated that he was trying to give the point of view of the audience. Tarkovsky supposedly retorted:

“I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”

Fine aspirations. But my name is neither Bresson nor Bergman, which leaves me once again in the awkward position of trying to figure out a work by an artist who doesn’t care if I get it figured out or not. And this makes Stalker into one of those films that I admire much more than I actually like it. And my admiration is muted by Tarkovsky’s lack of interest in that admiration. Most critics can get past this ... it’s #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

by request: biker boyz (reggie rock bythewood, 2003)

Bythewood and his wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, have done a lot of work on television (most recently with Shots Fired). Prince-Bythewood has a bit more film work, including Beyond the Lights. What I’ve seen of their work is good enough to make me interested in what’s next. Reggie wrote and directed Biker Boyz, Gina was a co-producer.

Biker Boyz has one of those “everyone is in it” casts: Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Lisa Bonet, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Kid Rock, Meagan Good, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Kadeem Hardison, Eriq La Salle, and more. All of the cast are good, even Kid Rock. But Derek Luke makes the movie worth watching, rising above the clichéd plot to deliver a powerful performance as an 18-year-old with daddy issues.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t up to what Luke offers. Based-on-a-true-story of underground biker gangs (they aren’t the Sons of Anarchy variety) who race each other, trying to be The King of Cali. Think The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles. Two things happen in Biker Boyz: people race motorcycles, and people try to get in touch with their inner selves. The latter is simple boilerplate ... kid’s father dies, King of Cali tries to watch out for him, kid rebels, etc. It’s nothing you haven’t seen 100 times before, which means those motorcycle races better be good. But they aren’t. They’re boring. All of them look the same, and because they are short (kind of like drag racing), the individual races don’t leave much room for the buildup of suspense.

Still, Derek Luke is terrific. He’s been around ... his first film was Antwone Fisher, for which he won several awards, and over the past fifteen years he’s been in all sorts of things, some of which I’ve seen ... playing Katie Holmes’ boyfriend in Pieces of April, turning up in a Tyler Perry movie, in the first Captain America movie, and lots more. And he’s been active in television, as well ... among other things, he had a short run in The Americans. So I’ve seen him, but I didn’t recognize him in Biker Boyz. Partly it’s that he was 29 years old when he played the teenager in Biker Boyz, but he looked the right age. So I find it hard to believe that Luke is now 43 years old, and he played an important part in 13 Reasons Why, which a lot of us have obsessed over the year. If I’d seen Biker Boyz in 2003, I’d say “look out for that Derek Luke, he’s good!” Instead, he’s been good all along and I didn’t notice.

Biker Boyz isn’t awful, but there is nothing new, and I could take it or leave it. 6/10.

And here’s a brief scene with Derek Luke from 13 Reasons Why:

don't breathe (fede alvarez, 2016)

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and his team, working on a budget of $10 million, turn out a picture that grossed more than $150 million. Don’t Breathe does such a good job of using atmosphere to deliver thrills that you don’t mind that the story is nothing new.

Three young burglars try to rob the house of a blind Army vet with money. It doesn’t go as planned. The blind man is very resourceful when it comes to dealing with intruders. He also has a few secrets. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a good job of parceling out information, so that we know the blind man suffered greatly from the loss of his daughter, but the ramifications of this are held back until just the right moment. This is standard stuff for horror films, but the movie is almost done before the predictability takes over.

Stephen Lang as the blind man is the best thing about Don’t Breathe. He is both frightening and sympathetic, at least at first, and he convinces us that he can do the physical acts he performs despite being blind. The three robbers aren’t the usual klutzy doofuses ... they just overreach, and aren’t expecting that blind man to be such a powerful opponent. It’s fun to see Dylan Minnette a year before 13 Reasons Why, and Jane Levy plays ... well, if you don’t know who she plays, you haven’t read much theory about modern horror. (Hint: think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.)

Everything is compact and efficient. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque offer some elegant visuals in the early going, taking full advantage of what amounts to an old-dark-house setting. And it doesn’t exactly peter out at the end. It’s just that the “surprises” come more and more quickly, so that you begin to expect them, which takes away the scariness. If Don’t Breathe sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. But it doesn’t transcend its genre, so it’s not a must-see if you aren’t a fan to begin with. 7/10.

film fatales #27: wanda (barbara loden, 1970)

When I was a film major in the early 1970s, I wanted to make movies that combined fiction with a cinéma vérité approach. My first short film was decent enough ... it told the story of a recently-divorced woman, and nothing much happened. It was, I can see now, a bit like Wanda.

In 1970, Wanda was historic. It was the first feature film written, directed, and acted in by a woman. It was a low-budget picture ... Loden shot it with a crew of four including herself, and the only other professional actor in the film was Michael Higgins. It got some attention in Europe, winning Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. But it was mostly ignored in the States, and other than the occasional praise from film critics, it was little discussed.

There are many reasons for this, but it needs to be noted, as the film has finally been re-discovered, that even if Wanda had gotten more publicity at the time, it is unlikely it would have become a cultural icon the way other low-budget films of the day like Easy Rider did. For Wanda is aggressively uncommercial. Loden made the movie she wanted, and what she wanted was more a realistic slice of life than something like Bonnie and Clyde, to which it was compared (both being about robbers on the run). In one interview, she stated, “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Later, she called Wanda an “anti-Bonnie and Clyde” picture.

Wanda is an admirable movie. Loden does an excellent job in the title role, and the look and feel of the film helps create a perfect vision of a woman with no prospects. Wanda’s life is one of desperation, but she acts in an almost casual manner, as if her acceptance of her life precludes any active attempts to change it. Bonnie and Clyde is partly about the heroes' desire to make their mark on the world, to be famous. Wanda is completely uninterested in this. And, to the extent Loden achieves her goals, Wanda the movie also seems uninterested in making a mark. Or rather, Loden wants an audience, but only if they come to her ... she is not going to mess with her vision just for a bigger audience.

Which is why I call Wanda an “admirable” movie. It isn’t often that we get such a successful film in terms of fulfilling the artist’s desires. But Loden’s anti-slick stance doesn’t leave a lot of room for a viewer to climb in. I was reminded of some of Agnès Varda’s films, like Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7, but they don’t close off the audience as they tell the stories of the central characters. Loden makes Wanda into an impressively unique film, but unlike something like Cleo from 5 to 7, I don’t have any strong desire to watch Wanda again right away. Once is enough, at least for now.

Wanda should be seen. And Loden’s life is interesting on its own (a good way to dive into this is via Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which recently featured an episode on Loden as part of Longworth’s “Dead Blondes” series). #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Here’s an artifact of the times: Loden on The Mike Douglas Show, with Mike’s co-hosts, John and Yoko (the last few minutes are John and Yoko performing):

To give context to some of the questions, Loden's husband was Elia Kazan.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

the southerner (jean renoir, 1945)

Jean Renoir’s peak was so great that it’s possible for the rest of his work to be a bit forgotten. There are hardly two better films than Grand Illusion and especially The Rules of the Game, both from the late-30s as Europe fell apart. Renoir ended up in Hollywood for a few years, and The Southerner is generally regarded as his best American film. That sounds like damning with faint praise, which is unfair, for if The Southerner is a notch below The Rules of the Game (as almost every movie is), it is still a rewarding look at a poor sharecropping family in Texas, remarkable for its matter-of-fact treatment of its characters. As usual, Renoir sidesteps being too judgmental with people ... there are no “bad guys”, just people who aren’t as good-natured as others. The farmers meet adversity, but it’s natural adversity ... the soil and the weather and the immense hard work necessary to grow things like cotton.

It is always clear that the farmers’ work is made more difficult by their lack of money, but Renoir doesn’t turn them into exaggerated stereotypes of the poor. They are just folks. He also refrains from turning the movie into a narrow screed. There is a social stance in the film, but it’s under the surface. As he often does, Renoir somehow manages to let us in on his own point of view without making it apparent.

Zachary Scott was an interesting choice for the male lead. He had only just begun in pictures, and his screen persona was formalized when he played a sleaze ball opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. But The Southerner came out the same year as Mildred Pierce, and perhaps contemporary audiences had less trouble seeing Scott as a farmer, at least, compared to those of us who think of sleaze when we think of Zachary Scott. In fact, Scott was from Texas, and he gives an authenticity to the picture ... he seems like he belongs with that land. Betty Field plays his wife ... I’m not sure why her career wasn’t bigger, but here, she is believable out in the fields with her husband. The same can’t be said for Beulah Bondi, in her mid-50s when the picture was made, but seemingly playing a granny in her 80s. Every thing she does is annoying, and she is in a lot of scenes. If Scott and Field underplay, Bondi makes up for it by chewing the scenery.

Renoir got an Oscar nomination for Best Director (the only one he ever received, although he did get an honorary award when he was in his 80s). He lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend. Robert Aldrich worked as an assistant director, one of his earliest credits. These days, Aldrich is known as the guy Alfred Molina played in Feud.

The Southerner is more than just a movie you ought to see. It’s worthy in its own right. 8/10.

the best offer (giuseppe tornatore, 2013)

I try to avoid spoilers, and sometimes I am very successful. I had no idea what The Best Offer was about. I knew it had Geoffrey Rush, and I knew it was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made a film I liked OK, Cinema Paradiso, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I didn’t know the plot. I didn’t even know what language it was in.

I mention this because the biggest problem with The Best Offer is its almost complete lack of originality. It harkens back as far as The Blue Angel (1930), through the film noir years, all the way up to 2013. The story of an aging man falling for a young, beautiful, and mysterious woman has been told many times, and for The Best Offer to stand out, it needs to either do the same old thing in an excellent manner, or to present a twist or two to keep our attention. It does neither.

And yet the truth is, I barely noticed these things until I was well into the film, and I suspect this was because I came to it cold. I wasn’t thinking, “This better be as good as The Blue Angel”, because I was barely thinking anything at all. I took the movie at face value, and maybe that’s the best way to approach any work of art.

But gradually, I saw the film settling into the patterns of a dozen movies from the past, and the experience of watching became rather empty. If I’d known more about the film in advance, I might have seen the emptiness much sooner, but I was intrigued ... until I wasn’t.

It looks luscious, and Rush is good enough to make the silly plot believable. Donald Sutherland wiggles his eyebrows occasionally. Sylvia Hoeks didn’t do much for me as the young apple of Rush’s eye. For all of the attempts at mystery, ultimately I didn’t think it was mysterious at all, other than the fact that nothing makes sense.

Ennio Morricone did the music, if you’re a completist when it comes to his work. And there is nothing awful about The Best Offer, if you want to while away 131 minutes. But I’m going with 6/10.

the screaming skull (alex nicol, 1958)

I should create a new category for movies like this. Call it “Creature Features”. There are no actual creatures in The Screaming Skull, but it’s the kind of movie that turned up on late-night Creature Features TV shows. It was done by the MST3000 guys. That kind of movie.

Often, the trivia is more interesting than the actual movie, so here goes. Director Alex Nicol also appears as a mentally challenged gardener, which makes sense, as Nicol had been acting throughout the 50s (The Screaming Skull was his first directorial effort). Female lead Peggy Webber is still with us (91 years old) ... she is a big figure in radio and appeared in Welles’ Macbeth. She is nicely summarized in the title of an article about her from 2015, “Radio Theater's Peggy Webber Is 90 — and Cooler Than You”. The producers used their tiny budget well, as there are only five characters, and all of the action takes place in the same place. It’s not the kind of cheapo movie where no one knows what they are doing ... the camera is always where it belongs, the acting is acceptable, and the music is helpful. That music is by Ernest Gold, who won an Oscar two years later for Exodus. The cinematography is by Floyd Crosby, who had himself won an Oscar all the way back in 1931 for Murnau’s Tabu. (And he’s the father of rocker David Crosby.)

And with that, I’ve dispensed with most of the trivia. Well, I could mention that this American International Picture was released as part of a double bill with Terror from the Year 5000.

And the movie? As I mentioned, it’s competent. It doesn’t suck. It’s over in 68 minutes. But it’s also clichéd, obvious, and boring. It’s Gaslight without the entertainment, and if that’s a spoiler, well, this is a B-movie from almost 60 years ago, I think the spoiler time period has elapsed on this one. 4/10.

the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.

Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.

There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.

But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.

Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.

I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)

a woman, a gun and a noodle shop (zhang yimou, 2009)

In 2009, Zhang Yimou’s recent filmography included such movies as the Oscar-nominated historical adventure Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both nominated for Oscars. Steve Fore had some smart and pointed critiques of Hero in the comments thread. He noted that his early-90s films were Zhang at his peak, but after that, he seemed to succumb to the desire to please the Chinese leaders. He wrote, “House of Flying Daggers, is Hero lite, a deliberately ‘entertainment’-oriented martial arts action movie that all but screams ‘NO POLITICS HERE, NO SIRREE BOB.’”

The point is, I’m thinking of Zhang for his epic adventures, but he may have already spilled over to the entertainment side of film making by 2009. Which better explains why he made A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.

This movie is a remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. He dumps the plot into an earlier century, in China, but it is recognizably Blood Simple. To be honest, I saw the Coens’ movie so long ago I barely remember it, but I’ll take everyone’s word that Zhang is taking off on the American movie.

To be sure, I don’t see what the point is of this remake, but an artist goes where their muse leads them, I guess. The film looks great, as all Zhang’s films do. But I like to have something besides pretty pictures when I watch a movie. A Woman contains a lot of slapstick, which isn’t normally my cup of tea. I never shook the feeling that some of the humor was funnier if you were part of Chinese culture. The actors who perform most of the slapstick just annoyed me. The twists and turns of the plot didn’t interest me.

The best things I can say about A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is that it wasn’t made for me, so YMMV. But my mileage says 5/10.

anything goes (robert lewis, 1956)

Musical with a nice pedigree, but it falls flat. In the 1930s, the play, with Ethel Merman, ran for more than a year. A movie came out in 1936 with Merman and Bing Crosby. Twenty years later, here comes the remake, and Bing Crosby is back. But the plot has nothing to do with the original. In fact, other than the title, the two movies have only one thing in common: several Cole Porter songs. Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor ... what could go wrong?

Well, this movie is dreary. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. You get Porter classics like “Anything Goes” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, but not much else. Zizi Jeanmaire does a ballet number that stops the show, and I don’t mean in a good way. The plot, a farce about love, lacks sizzle, which makes sense when one of the couples of Bing (53 years old) and Zizi (32 years old).

Gaynor is the best thing about the movie, the only person with a pulse. I’m reminded of a Randy Newman article in Rolling Stone back in the early 70s.

Once he went to see Liza Minnelli rehearse a TV dance number, and after it was over she asked him how he liked it.

"You were a real Mitzi Gaynor out there," he replied, an assessment that apparently did not impress Liza. "But I always liked Mitzi Gaynor," Randy explained later with a shrug.

The great Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson points out that the best film version of the song “Anything Goes” remains the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

Here is the whole movie, if for some reason you are dying to see it: