Hôtel Terminus (1988)

Hotel Terminus.jpg

“Why condemn a man who’s set to die any day now? … We’ve got better things to worry about than these old problems.”

I never expected to know so much about Klaus Barbie. Before this movie, I only vaguely knew him as the Butcher of Lyon. If there’s one thing I can say about Hotel Terminus, it’s that the movie is detailed. Comprised mostly of interviews, the film rounds out every contour of this famous Nazi’s life with first-hand accounts from those involved, while also touching on some grander themes in the process.

The film is a mostly sequential rundown of the chapters in the life of Klaus Barbie: the “Butcher of Lyon” who tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo during the reign of the Third Reich. Following the war, Barbie was given special protection by the United States who used him as an intelligence operative before he was finally sent to France to face trial for his crimes during the war. Filmmaker Marcel Ophüls speaks to Barbie’s friends, victims, associates, and just about everyone who was involved in a prominent portion of Barbie’s life. The documentary is a sweeping account on the life and times of an evil man. It touches on subjects including his torture methods, the French resistance movement, anti-Communist intelligence operations, and French judicial procedures.

Ophüls himself is one of the most interesting things about the movie. He works in a pseudo Michael Moore style, knocking on doors and demanding interviews, often finding himself in trouble with angry Nazis who want him off their property. When you hear Ophüls speak, there’s a passion to his voice. While it sometimes bothers me that the movie is four and a half hours of details, it doesn’t bother Ophüls one bit. It’s like there’s a burning conviction to find out about every second of Barbie’s life, and it’s an impressive flair that he has as a documentarian.

I also found the subject of Barbie’s trial interesting. Ophüls interviews Barbie’s lawyer, a greasy figure preying on technicalities and misinformation to try and free a clearly sinister man. There’s also the question of the time that has passed. Barbie spent the majority of his life in Bolivia escaping persecution, and his health has deteriorated by the time of the trial. Many of his victims still wanted justice, but some French people found it unnecessary to try and fight this battle given the passage of time. Barbie seems to stand in for all of the old Nazis or otherwise despicable war criminals that have lived far past the time of their misdeeds.

I did have to split the movie into two chunks while I was watching. There are so many details, specific dates, times, and people that it’s easy to get lost in it all. The section about the French Resistance, especially, was a little murky for me. I thought the CIA interviews surrounding Barbie’s post-war actions were a lot more engaging, and they’d be very relevant for anyone wanting to hear more about US Intelligence operations. The film is very well made, and I appreciate that it’s mostly first-hand accounts, but I did feel a general fatigue of substance after so long.

Overall, though, I can’t help but admire the ambition and dedication of Ophüls in crafting this movie. It’s one of the finest, most “complete” documentaries I’ve ever seen in terms of rounding out a story. It’s not something I’ll revisit again, but for its structure and information as a historical reference, I definitely found it worth watching.

Films Left to Watch: 835

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Silver Lode (1954)

Silver Lode

“We’re not going anywhere.”

“If you don’t, you’re gonna be a real dead cowboy.”

I’ve got four movies on the backlog, and Silver Lode seems to jump out the most now that I sit down to do some writing. It was a blind pick, mostly just to round out my knowledge of westerns since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the genre. I think this is the first one that really clicked with me right away. I’m a sucker for tight, single-day stories in the tradition of The Tempest or Training Day, which I’ll be writing about soon. There’s this precision to the action of Silver Lode. It’s a smart, simple concept that is executed with suspense. It’s not as bloated as The Searchers, and I think that’s why it resonated with me more.

John Payne stars as Dan Ballard, a well-liked man in the town of Silver Lode. It’s Ballard’s wedding day, when he is interrupted by the fiery lawman Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) who has just rode in from another town. McCarty (McCarthy? Hmm…) claims that Ballard is a killer and needs to be brought in for justice. The rest of the film follows the townspeople as they congregate into a mob, slowly turning against Ballard and becoming sucked into the frenzy of, uh, McCartyism.

I like Silver Lode because it isn’t so ambitious. I think a lot of the “great Westerns” have something grand to say about American life. While the allegory of the movie is obvious, it doesn’t overshadow the story. The primary goal with this one seems to be suspense and entertainment. The story is smartly built around the mob itself, slowly turning from one side or another, leaving you feeling just as uncertain at times. There’s not a lot of soul, but the movie keeps its runtime down by packing it with actions and accusations to the beat of a ticking clock. There’s a sense of finality in every scene where you know this can’t last long before somebody loses their life, and the ending delivers appropriately.

I also really enjoy the psychological case study of the movie. It’s such a dominant, isolated part of the film that you’re reminded of 12 Angry Men (which wouldn’t hit the big screen for several more years). McCarty has little evidence against Ballard, but Ballard doesn’t have any evidence himself. Even though he’s a beloved figure in the town, the people start to turn without cause. There’s something primal about the movie, how this violence emerges in the characters without time for pause.

I also feel compelled to praise the formal decisions of the movie, particularly for standards of a 1950 Western. Countless shots are done through windows or other sorts of framing, acclimating the viewer to feel like a spectator in the town instead of an omniscient presence. There are also several interesting long shots and eccentric camera angles that always keep the film visually engaging.

Silver Lode is a clever gem of American cinema. It’s tight, fast, and heaps of fun. Before I even saw one, I’ve always had this idea of how fun a Western would be. I think this idea of the simple, one-conflict Western has been muddied by the classics (mostly for good reason), but it’s so nice to see the genre used for this kind of effect. The Searchers is a sharp film, but for newcomers to the genre, I’d suggest Silver Lode be your first viewing.

Films Left to Watch: 836

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tongues Untied (1989)

Tongues Untied

“In this great, gay Mecca, I was an invisible man. I had no shadow, no substance, no place, no history, no reflection. I was an alien unseen and seen unwanted.”

There’s a power surging through Tongues Untied. It demands the attention of its viewer, and it is successful through the use of wondrous poetry and compelling images of the gay black experience in America. It’s a concise but important film that addresses a severely underrepresented topic in cinema, and it does so in a beautifully personal way.

The film is mostly comprised of either poetry or anecdotes from gay black men recounting their experiences. These narrations are complemented by video footage, typically recreating or poetically representing the narration itself. It’s another documentary/poetry video similar to my last watch Koyaanisqatsi, although the films are hardly similar beyond that point. While Reggio was seeking a grander, more philosophical experience about the human condition, Tongues Untied director Marlon Riggs is far more “micro”, using the personal as political.

The movie is surprising in a lot of ways. It’s clearly a low-budget, small-team passion project with its low-fi camera quality and its scarce collection of actors, but this only enhances the movie. It feels like something you’d stumble upon on an old VHS tape, as if it were made for the smaller, more intimate viewing experience. There are also several pieces of footage in the film that surprised me, namely an old Eddie Murphy stand-up clip that is very dated and homophobic: highlighting the complicated issue of identifying as both black and gay in America where discrimination seems to come from everywhere.

The poetry is well-written and emphatically spoken. Although the movie can get repetitive in its structure, it never seems boring due to the passion behind every word. There’s touching imagery and a mastery of the English language from every speaker, willing the audience to sympathize with the hardships expressed. The movie is also sexually charged, with an unapologetic display of lust and love in a number of the stories, which was really great to see.

Tongues Untied is short (around 50 minutes) but undeniably significant. It uses hard-hitting cinematic techniques to build a powerful, often sensual plea for love and respect. It’s an excellent example of the power of the cinematic art.

Films Left to Watch: 837

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)


“It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” -Godfrey Reggio, director

Scored by Philip Glass and completely without narration, Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental documentary that explores the imbalance of the world: how humans have grown apart from nature and built a separate way of living. While it’s somewhat unorthodox (although still very accessible), I found it to be an insightful work of visual poetry that lands its message clearly and beautifully.

The first portion of the film glorifies the wonders of nature. Director Godgrey Reggio mostly uses landscapes or other wide-shots that he will employ for most of the film, giving it a very “macro” feeling. He’s mostly uninterested in the nuances of a person’s life or the wings of a particularly butterfly. His scope is the world, both natural and unnatural. The second portion of the film moves into the postmodern human condition: the hustle of city living and the machines we’ve built from nature. Towards the very end, we get the implications of this disconnect: a sad series of images documenting the despair that often goes along with our way of living.

I claimed that the movie is accessible because it still feels like a familiar work of poetry. The only thing strange about it as a documentary is that it doesn’t use narration (not completely uncommon) and it has a grander, more philosophical intent. Reggio builds his case using images, and he selects them wonderfully. His landscapes and cityscapes are so impressive that you won’t just ponder the imbalance of man and nature, you’ll be reminded how beautiful the world can be sometimes.

Philip Glass is invaluable to the film’s distinct mood. I found myself audbily laughing at the fun, zippy tunes of quick urban life and “hmm”-ing at the more somber moments of reflection. Reggio clearly worked closely with Glass to match image with music, because the movie seamlessly sways you from one reaction to the next without ever feeling heavy-handed. I imagined the movie would be sadder when I read the synopsis, and it is sad, but there are moments of joy, wonder, and impassioned observance of the world that really make it more dynamic than it seems. The music also has this beautiful symmetry, beginning with a deep, lulling chant of the film’s title and ending with the very same in a different context, suggesting a powerful unity between man and nature despite the disconnect.

It may take five or ten minutes to really get on board, but by the end of the film, you’ll be lulled into a wondrous appreciation for the world around us and Reggio’s measured talent as a documentarian. I felt more like I was reviewing fine literature than work of film, and that’s something I love about films like this: their poetic hold on the cinematic medium. For a thoughtful, meditative experience, I would certainly recommend Koyaanisqatsi.

Films Left to Watch: 838

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Passion of Joan of Arc

“You claim that I am sent by the Devil. It’s not true. To make me suffer, the Devil has sent you… and you… and you… and you.”

Some films are bathed in magic. I first heard about this movie about a year ago when I heard its incredible story: that the only original print of The Passion of Joan of Arc was destroyed in a fire, until Dreyer’s actual original (before censorship) was recovered in a mental institution in Oslo. It’s an entrancing tale for an entrancing film: a spiritually charged tour de force from the legendary Carl T. Dreyer.

The movie depicts Joan of Arc’s final hours. She is interrogated by a slew of religious officials who implore her to denounce her self-proclaimed miracles. In one of the greatest performances in cinema’s history, however, she refuses. Renee Jeanne Falconneti weeps and argues her way from an uncomfortable interrogation to a fiery death in a jarring affirmation of faith.

I once argued that Sunrise is the finest silent film: one with enough artistry to rise above its silly contemporaries and to rival any film that has since followed. I would now throw The Passion of Joan of Arc into the discussion as well. It’s more experimental than Sunrise, and I think the payoff is greater as a result, even if it’s a hair less entertaining for me. That said, it’s a brisk film. You’ll probably spend more time pondering Dreyer’s formal choices than anything about Joan of Arc, and the movie is short enough to reward you for doing so. You could take a “film school” reading of the movie without sinking too much of your time away.

In any case, you’ll notice right away that 90% of the film is shot in close up. It makes for one of the most personal movies you’ll ever see, and it would seem like a poor decision if it weren’t for Falconneti. Her eyes are the key to the movie. Every teardrop is heartbreaking, and it’s like you can hear every shriek through the screen. The movie is acted over-dramatically, as silent films always are, but it has the humanity that these other spectacles laugh. Häxan is entertaining, but it’s not human. Joan of Arc feels human. I kept waiting to get tired of all the close ups, but I just found myself wanting more. Every second Falconneti fills the frame, it’s cinematic bliss, and Dreyer takes full advantage of this talent.

It’s not really my niche, but I still found myself glued to my humble TV screen during this movie, which begs to be seen on a bigger screen. It’s one of cinema’s greatest treasures in my opinion, and I’d really recommend the Criterion release for what it’s worth. (In case you’re curious where to start, I watched the movie at 24 fps with the Voices of Light score, and I found it very affecting. I’m curious to try a different score in the future, maybe at 20fps as well.)

Films Left to Watch: 839

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hoop Dreams (1994)


“My mother, God bless her, she’s always said in America you can make something of your life.”

There’s nothing like a fine documentary, and Hoop Dreams is one of the finest. The premise hooked me right away. I often wonder about all the young people in America with dreams of playing big-league athletics. I saw it constantly in middle and high school, and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to hit a point where you realize you just aren’t going to “make it.” Hoop Dreams hits this question, and many others, in such a powerful, ambitious way by following the stories of two young men through their high school years. I hate basketball, and I loved this movie.

The film leads into its two subjects, juveniles in Chicago with dreams of playing in the NBA, by starting from as far back as time will seem to allow. A man recruits young pick-up ball players to attend the well-known St. Joseph High School for basketball. The two heroes of our story, William Gates and Arthur Agee, hope to end up like the NBA great Isaiah Thomas who started at St. Mary’s in a similar circumstance. We then follow their struggles and passion for ball all the way to their college selection process.

I like to think in statistics, and Hoop Dreams really helped me see what a gamble it is to become a great basketball player. Talent is an obvious factor, but countless other complications seemed to serve as roadblocks for Gates and Agee. Financial aid failing to come through, sporadic injuries taking away months of practice, and countless other random occurrences served as tiny tragedies on the road for these two boys to chase their dreams. In a way, Hoop Dreams feels like a classic American tragedy: the basketball equivalent of Death of a Salesman, if you will. I’ve always believed that making a career out of athletics was mostly a meritocracy, but now I’m not so sure.

Director Steve James also has a beautiful eye for context. Everyone’s story gets told: Gates and Agee’s families, their friends, the basketball coaches – everyone has a dream. It’s a wonderful scope that drags the movie past the three hour mark, but it’s worth it. It elevates Hoop Dreams from an insightful film about achieving greatness to an epic evaluation of the American dream.

I imagine that this movie rings true for anyone who once dreamed of playing major-league athletics, but it will likely resonate to anyone who ever dreamed. It’s a moving, profoundly honest portrayal of the hardships we face in the hopes that we might become something special, and what happens when our delusions inevitably fade.

Seriously, this movie is beautiful, and you have to see it.

Films Left to Watch: 840

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

“I ‘ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things.”

I think the remarkable thing about Night of the Living Dead, the first great zombie movie, is that it digs so deep; it’s hardly a movie about zombies at all. Every review or essay takes a different approach to breaking apart its careful, nihilistic tension, taking a different stab at what Romero is saying about the world. He’s confessed that the rebellious spirit of the 60s found its way into the movie, and it adds a richness that great horror should always strive to achieve.

The dead are – uh – walking, and it’s up to Ben (Duane Jones) to stop them. Well, he mostly just wants to stay alive. He boards up a house where he is joined by a handful of strangers trying to achieve the same goal. In a struggle for power inside the house, Ben and Harry (Karl Hardman) find themselves at odds, and Ben finds that his biggest threat may just be the living.

I’ve written numerous times about my love for single-setting films, and this movie largely fits the bill, with little deviation from the barred-up house where the characters take refuge. I’ll reiterate what a fun character study this creates, like a game theory problem where everyone wants something and thinks their ideas are the best in the room. The movie reads more like 12 Angry Men than The Walking Dead, and it’s all the better for it. There’s this tinge of discomfort, of pieces not quite fitting, and it makes for some of the most unsettling scenes horror has to offer.

Sometimes I spoil endings and sometimes I don’t. It’s probably a bad habit, and I should just make a decision one way or the other. Part of me thinks if you haven’t seen a 50 year-old movie, you’re on your own avoiding spoilers. Part of me, though, also doesn’t want to spoil anything about the ending to Night of the Living Dead. For this reason, I’ll just say that it got me. It’s a knockout, gut-punch ending that rings true in a somber, surprising way.

After one viewing, Night of the Living Dead has carved a place among my favorites. A lot of movies are beloved for establishing genre tropes, but this movie doesn’t just establish them, it does them better than anyone while also subverting them in a discomforting way. It’s creepy, consuming, and loads of sinister fun.

Films Left to Watch: 841

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment