Dir. Werner Herzog, 1982
Herzog is often mocked for his Germanic depression, but he is just as capable of showcasing man’s triumph as his hubris and defeat. As Strozek has Kaspar Hauser, as Grizzly Man has The White Diamond, so Herzog’s legendary tragedy Aguirre, the Wrath of God has the soaring Fitzcarraldo.
Klaus Kinski plays the titular character, a failed railway entrepreneur mooching off his wife and obsessed with bringing the opera to the roadless, isolated, Amazonian rubber foundry of Iquitos. To accomplish this, he buys a seemingly inaccessible parcel of land rich in rubber, cut off by rapids on one side and hostile natives on the other. His secret plan? To get to the land by dragging his boat over the mountainous narrows between two rivers.
This film is as famous for it’s awesomeness as for its troubled production, which lasted four years, cost the lives of two labourers, and saw the departure halfway through of the movie’s original star, Jason Robards. However, it is impossible to imagine Fitzcarraldo without Kinski or the unconscionable effort on the part of Werner Herzog to make this film against all odds. In both the story and its creation, the human spirit triumphs; but the thing about the human spirit is that there’s more than one. A+
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971
Nothing can quite explain the shock, revulsion, terror, and ultimate disappointment that comes from watching Melvin Van Peebles’ genre-launching blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Much of the movie is still shocking today, featuring scenes of wildly offensive stereotypes, sex scenes with actual prostitutes, including one involving a child, zero-dimensional characters, and a willful abandonment of filmmaking convention in all its forms.
The paper-thin story concerns Sweetback (Van Peebles), a sex performer who frees a black panther from the clutches of corrupt cops. Now on the run himself, Sweetback, who has only five lines, must find his way through the streets of Los Angeles, a rotating cast of sexual partners, and a prolonged abandonment of narrative to escape to Mexico.
Van Peebles made this movie with everything in his power. He contracted gonorrhea on set, and spent his workman’s comp to buy more film. With it’s random intercuts, repetetive musical cues, interminable cross-fades, psychedelic colour filters, montages showing the same scene over and over from every possible angle, and dynamiting of the fourth wall, it brings nothing to mind so much as the end result of a sullen teenager seeing whatever he can do with 2 hours of footage and 1000 hours on Final Cut Pro. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would be avant-garde if someone had come to their senses and reined in Van Peebles’ incomprehensible directorial vision to result in something less visibly shoddy. A noble fiasco, through and through. D+
Dir. Greg Mottola, 2013
HBO’s Clear History is an odd bird. A rare original comedy film from the network best known for more dramatic fare, Clear History stars Larry David as a fictionalized version of himself called Nathan Flomm. In 2003, Flomm is a marketing executive who disagrees with his partner (Jon Hamm) on the name of their new electric car, the Howard, and withdraws his shares. In the process, the Howard becomes a hit, and Flomm misses out on a billion dollars. Humilliated, he moves to Martha’s Vineyard, where he becomes a beloved member of his community under the name Rolly DaVore. When Hamm’s character builds a ghastly house on the Vineyard, Rolly sees an opportunity to get even.
Despite the deft work by all involved, Clear History is very much a television movie. Larry David chose to make the film this year instead of making a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and though the film is very similar (the different narrative lets David do some things he couldn’t on Curb), it’s hard not to walk away from this feeling like another season would have been better. B-
The Makioka Sisters
Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1983
In 1983, Toho commemorated its 50th anniversary by producing The Makioka Sisters, a sprawling prestige adaptation of a 1940s serial novel, featuring some of the most notable actors in Japan. The result was mixed.
Set in 1938, The Makioka Sisters focuses around a family of four sisters who sold their late father’s kimono shop some years ago. The oldest sister Tsuruko is distant from the others, but is wary of moving to Tokyo with her husband. The second oldest Sachiko takes care of the rest of the family and is concerned with marrying off the younger sisters: traditional Yukiko, who is approaching old maid status after a well-publicized illicit romance, and free-spirited Taeko, who only wants to make dolls for a living and spend her life with a man she loves.
Although adapted from a novel, director Kon Ichikawa prefers to use visuals to tell his story, with its four seasons representing four sisters. Most notable of all is that the three older sisters always wear kimonos, while Taeko dresses like a modern western woman, more suited to the streets of Tokyo or New York than her family’s dark, antiquatedly spacious bungalow.
If only the dialogue was so good. After praising the visual storytelling, The AV Club’s Scott Tobias called the film out on its “oft-turgid melodrama,” and I am inclined to agree. This film would have been just as effective if it was silent. C+