Wings of Desire

August 31, 2012

Ganz over Berlin.

In Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders has created a beautiful visual universe, a unique world that somehow combines the lush black-and-white of such heavenly Hollywood fantasies as Here Comes Mr. Jordan with the more down-to-earth realities of Wenders’ modern Germany. It’s a world both rapturous and unfulfilling, lyrical but also sterile.

Which are exactly the contradictions that Wenders wants. Wings of Desire is Wenders’ most magical film, an unexpected flight into Capraesque fantasy from the director of such angst-ridden modern-day movies as The American Friend and Paris, Texas.

Wenders’ main character here (the screenplay is by Wenders and Peter Handke) is a melancholy angel, played by the superb Bruno Ganz. This angel spends his time watching people, jotting down their behavior in a notebook. He and the other angels, who dress in long overcoats and wear pony tails, pass through Berlin and observe, and are seen only by little children.

These angels are immortal. They move through eternity, but they do not feel anything. One day Ganz commiserates with a pal angel (Otto Sander); “I’d like to feel some weight to me,” he says, and dreams of someday being able to touch and taste things, take off his shoes under a table and stretch out his bare feet. It is possible for these angels to take the plunge into the world of the living, but they would lose their immortality.

Ganz eventually comes to the decision to become human, fueled in part by his infatuation with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin); while watching her perform, he sees her in a brief, vivid flash of color (the cinematography is by Henri Alekan, who four decades ago photographed Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). Also on the scene is an American actor (Peter Falk), who is shooting a World War II movie in Berlin. Falk, who is called by his own name in the film and even subject to a couple of “Columbo” jokes, establishes an odd bond with the lonely angel.

At two hours and 10 minutes, Wings of Desire is undoubtedly too long for any conventional telling of this story. But Wenders’ films do not bow to any conventional rules, nor should they. This movie drifts along at its own spellbinding pace, its languid narrative an inextricable part of its impact and meaning.

The opening hour is a dreamlike survey of Ganz’ travels through the angel world. One of the most striking aspects of this existence is the angels’ ability to hear the thoughts of humans; thus the soundtrack is filled with the unspoken fears and dreams and desires of people.

The movie becomes giddy when Ganz finally casts his lot with humans. Yet there’s nothing silly about his eventual encounter with the sad trapeze artist, or his conclusion upon sampling earthly reality that “It happened once, and so it will be forever.” One of the great things that this lovely movie communicates is the sense that eternity is going on right now.

First published in the Herald, June 23, 1988

Must’ve run out of space, or I would’ve mentioned Nick Cave. This movie’s a beaut.


August 30, 2012

Word has it that the fascinating Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi was so intrigued by Robert Altman’s A Wedding that he decided to try his hand at the same story.

A Wedding, film audiences may recall (and not many people do, since the blessed event was barely consummated at the box office), takes the usual Altman cast of eccentrics and turns them loose—that is, throws them together—with rambunctious results. Among the series of social and sexual gaffes that followed, Altman tried to toe the line between comedy and commentary. He’s done that before, with success, but A Wedding went wrong somewhere, in a sour way.

Don’t worry—Zanussi’s version is not just Marriage—Polish Style. The format of Contract is the same as A Wedding: mix together a bunch of people who have little in common outside their happenstance connection with the bride and groom, get them in the same house, and let ’em simmer for a while. Sooner or later, the lid will blow off.

The hosts are the groom’s father (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and step-mother (Maja Komorowska), a well-to-do couple who own a house nestled in the country. The itinerary is such that a civil ceremony is performed one day, the church ceremony the next, and the big reception immediately following.

Well, the bride’s father doesn’t make it to the civil ceremony. The host’s ex-wife icily announces her intention to spend the night in a convent rather than be a guest of the man she despises. Then the groom’s aunt (Leslie Caron) arrives, having smuggled a dog in under her lush fur coat, and loses her wayward daughter at a hotel.

These problems are small potatoes. At the church ceremony, the bride is suddenly seized by second thoughts. She excuses herself mid-sacrament and flags down the first car that drives by. As the husband follows, the parents are already smoothing things over. “Everything’s fine,” they insist, as they will keep insisting against all odds and against all evidence throughout the tumultuous reception ahead.

Zanussi handles the ensuing adventures with a nimble hand, but the comic format is deceptive. Contract systematically shreds its characters of their trappings of wealth, glamour, and propriety in which they have wrapped themselves. The bizarre hijinks of this crew are all aimed toward that end, and Zanussi—whose Ways of the Night, a more solemn examination of people at ethical loose ends, had a Seattle arthouse run earlier this year—is adept at maintaining the orderly balance of fun and confusion.

His chief collaborator is Maja Komorowska, the actress with whom he has worked often. As the hostess, she glides into every awkward situation—and there are many of them—and manipulates things back into a nervous status quo. She’s like the kid who runs back and forth, patching holes in the dike, not realizing the entire structure is about to give way. It’s a splendid performance.

The end of the film is deliberately enigmatic; it’s reminiscent of the sea monster at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Somehow, this final mysterious visitor gives the characters a challenge, a rebuke, and maybe even a small, ironic blessing. Any film that has that many possibilities in its last moments has done its work well.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

This movie, made in 1980, was one of the reasons Zanussi was considered an exciting figure at this moment. In a footnote to Seattle theater history, Contract was the first movie that played at the Market Theater in the Pike Place Market, an eccentric and wonderful place to see stuff in the mid-Eighties.

Wolf at the Door

August 29, 2012

Wolf at the Door chronicles two decisive years (1893-4) in the life of Paul Gauguin from his arrival back in Paris after painting in Tahiti, until his return to the South Pacific. It was, according to the film, Gauguin’s last fling at trying to live in civilization, and it was a complete failure.

Gauguin is played by Donald Sutherland, who plays it intelligently, if never thrillingly. I suppose this performance is somewhere between a couple of previous cinematic approximations of the Gauguin character—the different approaches of Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life and George Sanders in the fictional The Moon and Sixpence.

Sutherland does not attempt an accent or anything like that; the movie is a potpourri of nationalities before and behind the camera, as is the case with most international co-productions.

When Gauguin arrives in Paris, he has nothing but the superb canvases upon which he pours his brilliant genius. Naturally, it follows that his one-man show is a disaster (everyone hates his work), and he has no idea how to support himself. (The film includes a flashback to the moment some years before when he walked away from his family and a lucrative job as a stockbroker to pursue painting.)

At the lowest moment, an inheritance arrives, which will support his time in Paris. Gauguin tries to organize a colony of artists who will return with him to Tahiti, though this dream falls apart. He also dallies with many women, including a Javanese girl who models for him and shares his room.

It is an interesting period in his life (it included an encounter with a cranky August Strindberg, played by Max von Sydow), and the movie is a trim enough telling of it. It’s seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old neighbor girl who idolizes and romanticizes Gauguin.

The movie is essentially a Danish production, directed and produced by Henning Carlsen, a veteran Danish filmmaker.

Carlsen’s Scandinavian scrupulousness keeps the film tidy and decent. But that approach is hardly suitable to deal to Gauguin’s raging primitivism, and a fuller account of the artist’s life awaits a gutsier, more romantic film—and, probably, a more volcanic actor.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Henning Carlsen is still alive; he did adaptations of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger and Pan, 30 years apart. I’d watch this movie again, because the story of Gauguin is so hard to resist, but I do remember being disappointed by Sutherland’s take on the role.

Confidentially Yours

August 28, 2012

Francois Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours would like to be a good bottle of champagne: giddy, nutty and dry. But Truffaut may have left the cork out of the bottle too long.

He’s been devoting his time to dark, serious movies lately—such as the little-seen The Green Room and The Woman Next Door—and perhaps he’s forgotten how to create his special kind of magic.

Not that Truffaut has ever been merely bubbly; but even in primarily dramatic movies such as Jules and Jim and Day for Night, he conveys a wonderful sense of the joys of life and the movies, although those joys sometimes turn out to be fleeting.

Confidentially Yours self-consciously tries to recapture some of the magic; it’s a knockabout whodunit, with lots of clever twists and turns and a pair of engaging performances from Fanny Ardant and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It’s being pushed as a kind of homage to the American film noir genre that Truffaut loved so much when he was a young film critic. Actually, this movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the feverish fatalism of film noir; it’s much more of a lark. And Truffaut has always been too loose-limbed a director to really recreate an American style, which he tries to do periodically. He’s much more successful on his own idiosyncratic turf.

Anyway, Trintignant plays a businessman who is accused of murder. The evidence is persuasive: First his wife’s lover is found shot to death; then just a few hours later, Trintignant’s wife is herself the victim of the killer.

We can’t be absolutely sure that Trintignant is not guilty; that’s part of the tease. So the focus shifts to his feisty secretary (Ardant), who determinedly sets out to find the murderer herself—while the boss hides out in the rear of his realty office.

Misadventures ensue as Ardant somehow bumbles her way to the solution. Confidentially Yours is something of a showcase for the leggy Ardant, who is Truffaut’s current discovery. She gets to go undercover, crack wise, and generally handle herself as a Rosalind Russell-style girl Friday, whose combative relationship with her boss may be hiding more affectionate feelings.

She proves more resourceful than the local police—who aren’t amused when she keeps turning up at the scenes of murders.

If the police are not amused, the viewer may be, as Truffaut alternates the detective work with whimsical interludes. It’s all sort of cute and predictable, and it’s enjoyable as a cat-and-mouse exercise, if a rather flat one.

But Truffaut seems to be trying a bit too hard to make up for his recent moody work; as though he were nudging the audience and saying, “See? I can still be charming.” There were times when I had the feeling we were being clobbered over the head with light-heartedness. And that isn’t a good feeling.

First published in the Herald, January 26, 1984

Truffaut did not survive the year, and this was his last film, although nobody knew that at the time. I have never watched it again. If it’s not one of his best films—and his best films are among the best anybody ever made—at least it stands as a tribute to a woman, and a tribute to movies, which are two things Truffaut knew something about. I think I know what I mean by “loose-limbed” style, even if I don’t express it particularly well in the space of a newspaper review. Truffaut was rigorous, but even when he would do a Hitchcock or a science-fiction picture (or a film noir, as in Mississippi Mermaid), the results didn’t really resemble the work of his models, but they did look like Truffaut movies.


August 27, 2012

Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.

First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.

Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.

But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.

St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”

In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.

But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).

It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.

Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.

An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)

It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?

Road House

August 24, 2012

Let’s get the official tsk-tsking out of the way: Road House is a violent, tasteless, unbelievable movie that has no redeeming social value whatsoever. With that said, we can talk about how much fun it is.

Road House is shameless, but it’s also irresistible. Patrick Swayze, who hasn’t had a film released to theaters since he struck gold with Dirty Dancing two summers ago, stars as “the best cooler in the business.” Translation: he’s a glorified bouncer who gets hired at bad clubs and bars and turns them around. He weeds out the deadbeats, throws out the drunks, chases the dope dealers.

But this fellow is a bit odd. As he’s fond of pointing out, he has a degree in philosophy. He instructs his burly crew of bouncers to be nice to troublemakers, “until it’s time to not be nice.” And when he’s insulted, he simply comments, “Opinions vary.”

After an opening sequence in which we see his brand of Zen pugilism (he sews up his own wounds), Swayze is hired to manage a rundown roadhouse in a small town outside Kansas City. After he arrives and begins to clean the place up, he comes to realize that the town is run by an evil landowner (Ben Gazzara), who has his hands in everybody’s pockets and his goons on everybody’s backs. Inevitably, Swayze is going to have to teach this guy a lesson and make the town safe.

Does this sound a little bit like a Western? It should, because Road House is unabashedly a Western in modern dress, with plenty of elements of Shane and High Noon. As if we couldn’t tell, Swayze’s new girlfriend, a blond gorgeous doctor, greets him with, “So you’re the new marshal in town.”

Swayze receives a bit of help from his mentor, the now-graying king of the bouncers (Sam Elliott, who has played a few cowboys over the years, in a sly performance). The movie skillfully mixes Swayze’s martial arts, his philosophizing (“Pain doesn’t hurt,” “Nobody wins a fight”), some kissy face, good roadhouse music, as well as at least one fistfight every six minutes. It doesn’t come close to being respectable, but Road House is a brawling good time.

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

I know what you’re thinking: I underrated it. True. Some movies hit the sweet spot where the ridiculous becomes sublime; Road House, you are it.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

August 23, 2012

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a little like the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. You know the thing is aimed primarily at 11-year-olds, and the characters are all idiotic, but jokes keep whizzing past that are neither idiotic nor pre-adolescent.

In fact , this movie is pretty funny. But where “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was sly, Bill & Ted is goofy. It makes certain demands on the viewer; you’d better have a high tolerance for cretinous dialogue and vacant, glassy-eyed stares.

Bill and Ted (played with unfailing vacuousness and in perfect Valley-speak by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are two high-schoolers who are flunking out of history class. When the teacher asks who Joan of Arc was, they’re stumped: “Noah’s wife?” And they wonder whether Marco Polo refers to a watersport.

For some reason, these two dorks are chosen by an emissary (George Carlin) from the 27th century, who lends them a time machine in the form of a telephone booth. With this, they’re able to travel around through the centuries, pick up interesting historical figures, and come back in time to present a really bodacious final report, and thus avert the most dreaded F.

That’s the concept. And there aren’t many complications along the way. The movie, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and briskly directed by Stephen Herek, touches down in a variety of historical locales but never stays long enough for anything to get stale. From the wild West, the boys take Billy the Kid; from ancient Greece, Socrates (“a most bodacious philosopher”). They grab Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Sigmund Freud (who is greeted in the Vienna of 1900 with a friendly, “How’s it goin’, Frood-dude?”).

There’s also room for some low comedy when the time travelers return to the presnt and deposit the great figures in a shopping mall. Billy the Kid and Socrates try to put the make on a couple of babes (this doesn’t sound like the Socratic method), but Freud ruins things by showing up at the wrong moment, corndog in hand (though sometimes a corndog is just a corndog). “Way to go, egghead,” Billy snarls.

The movie’s characters are so moronic they become strangely endearing after a while, and it’s all over before it wears out its welcome. In short, most bodacious.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

A genuinely funny movie. I guess I couldn’t figure out a way to make the duo’s pronunciation of “Socrates” understandable, which is a shame. And just a few days ago, Reeves announced that he’d signed on for a new sequel, which might be a good idea if only to alter the memory of the DOA Bogus Journey.