Articles by

<Michael Atkinson>

02/20/13 4:00am

Alraune (1928)
Directed by Henrik Galeen
February 21 at Spectacle, part of its Anti-Valentine’s series

A rare and odd exposed nerve from the German Expressionist explosion, this movie has an almost pathological root in German legend—the one about the mandrake root (“alraune” in German) growing in gallows soil and fed by the ejaculate of hanged men. Director Galeen was adapting Hanns Heinz Ewers’s novel, in which a scientist (Paul Wegener) investigates genetic destiny by impregnating a hooker with just such spunk, then acts as the offspring’s father until she grows up to be a hellzapoppin Brigitte Helm. Here, in a sense, is the Nazi preoccupation with racial engineering and inheritance, but twisted into a father-daughter Frankenstein story whose monster is a selfish (read: self-determining) teenage tramp who escapes from her convent and just wants to have fun, even if that means driving her patriarch crazy with jealousy and lust.

Wegener makes for a formidably mountain-faced demagogue, but the movie’s main engine is Helm, instantly famous as the robotrix in Metropolis a year earlier. No other actress ever moved exactly like Helm; ferrety, lurid and as slouched as a Harryhausen homunculus, she manifests her character’s dramatic peaks like she’s leading an experimental dance version of Salome, radiating sexual power with every twist and saunter. It’s a slow film—and one that was remade two years later with sound, to no substantial advantage—but it builds to a stunning landslide of sexual compulsion and incest mania, and was unsurprisingly censored in many countries, including Great Britain.

Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm

01/30/13 4:00am

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Directed by Peter Weir

January 31 at Lincoln Center, part of its Celebrating the Australian Film Revival

However you dress it—as the earthbound B-side of a Surrealist dream-film, as a koan-puzzle whose very lack of a solution is the source of its beauty, as a drowsy parable on childhood’’s end and feminine unattainableness—Weir’s career-making sophomore film has the unquantifiable allure of an opium jag. Impenetrable believe-it-or-nots like this are usually strange-but-true, and Weir knew it, subtly playing up the seemingly factual aspects (and dreamily doting on the interpretive aspects) of Joan Lindsay’s Borgesian tale, in which three Australian schoolgirls circa 1900 inexplicably vanish into or around the titular rock site during a St. Valentine’’s Day outing.

It’s a stupefying true story that never happened, envisioned as an idyll of linen, blonde hair, pollen-heavy breezes, and cosmic portent. Weir shoots the rock itself in looming fragments and discombobulating corridors—as somewhere between the monolithic house in The Haunting and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch—but what chills and thrills is the movie’s dance between the literal and the elusively metaphoric. Any number of this-means-that lit-class readings can be applied to it (most of which would, at any rate, mix-n’-match large ideas about lost innocence, natural forces and repressed sexuality), and yet none suffice, whether you find yourself lamenting the tragedy of Miranda (Anne Lambert), the ethereal tamale who seems most conspicuously drawn toward the Whatever It Was, or of Sara (Margaret Nelson), the sullen poetess left behind, who loved Miranda and wanted only to get lost with her. The movie swoons with all its might, and it’s hard to resist doing the same.

Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm

01/16/13 4:00am

Metal & Melancholy (1994)
Directed by Heddy Honigmann
January 22 at Spectacle

This doc was in its way the paradigmatic late-century road movie, traveling in endless U-turns around the depressed streets of Lima and reflecting the Peruvians themselves: relaxed, persevering, nakedly emotional, and tougher than old seat-leather. The portrait you get of Lima’s enormous cabbie subculture often approaches a sort of dystopian vision—a demolished society surviving out of their cars and by way of often surreal gypsy-cunning, less predatory Mad Max than a real-world auto-version of Jiri Menzel’’s junkyard farce Larks on a String.

By the ‘90s, after years of hyperinflation and Fujishock, poverty has apparently forced most of the city’s population to slap a $1 taxi sign on their families’ jalopies’ windshields and prowl the streets. Bureaucrats, scientists, teachers, cops, even movie actors (including a player from The City and the Dogs) all augment their dismal incomes by hacking, and by simply plopping the camera down in the front seat next to the drivers and paying for innumerable two-buck trans-Lima jaunts, Honigmann also reawakens the road movie’s old and mysterious meditation on our vexing and symbiotic relationship with the interior of the automobile.

One cabbie sings to his car to keep it running; another devoutly maintains a decimated bomb that no one can steal because it would fall apart without the right rituals. It’s a cruel gerbil-wheel tour of the Transitional City’s badlands that might make even Travis Bickle blanch: Honigmann visits a communal grave stacked high with bloodied children, and if the smell lingers in her nose too long, her seasoned-hack cohort shruggingly tells her, use her own sweaty clothes to clean it out.

Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm

11/14/12 4:00am

The Kids Are Alright (1979)
Directed by Jeff Stein
Wednesday, November 14, part of BAM’s “A Quick One While the Who’s in Town”

Rock at its best needs no ambassadors or missionary intermediaries. But if there were ever one film that captured, as if in amber, the winged, defiant exuberance of the mid-century bopping, headbanging, guitar-wrecking lifeforce that is rock and roll, it’’s this six-pack of canned champagne, Jeff Stein’’s historic archival record of The Who, released in 1979. I don’’t think the irreverent and back-biting law firm of Townsend, Daltrey, Entwistle & Moon has any competition as the greatest rock band of all time, for myriad reasons, but suffice it to say no one has ever rivaled their fusion of powerhouse personality, analog technical virtuosity, sincere folk ambition, reckless abandon, and famous in-person combustibility.

What’’s most important, though, is the simple fact that The Who were both fun and funny, a fire-ice-water-air donnybrook in perpetual thrash, a party band who played searching ballads and blues standards as if they were napalm strikes, and the most spirited exemplars of the rock-life aesthetic pop culture has ever known. They were uniquely made for movies, in other words. Stein, a mere fan at the time, culled 15 years’ worth of footage—there was no shortage, from what might be the most extroverted band of the pre-Internet age—and provided no commentary, allowing the boys to simply tell their tales and trash their stages. Moon, dead at 32 midway through production/compilation, is more than a movie’’s worth of irrepressible human tragicomedy all by himself, and Stein’’s film is the most pungent not-exclusively-aural record we have of his existence. It’’s a blessing.

08/29/12 4:00am

The Entity (1982)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Friday, August 29, at 11:59 p.m., part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Midnight Movies

There may not be, outside of David Cronenberg’s wonder cabinet, a more nitro-powered horror-movie metaphor hell than the one fueling this 1982 ordeal, trailing into the Reagan era long after the post-Exorcist zeitgeist had gusted through. Supposedly based on a true case, the thing centers on Barbara Hershey as an ordinary working-class woman who is repeatedly attacked and violently raped by a huge, invisible being. Aurally and visually calibrated like a Taser, Sidney J. Furie’s movie doubles-down on the ‘70s-genre grittiness (the aging, prolific director knew his postwar realism) and then wallops you with unrelenting trauma; the bizarre prosthetic effects, of Hershey’s body being manhandled and fucked by unseen hands and—*gah*—body parts, would be merely one of the most lashingly Surrealist visions in American movies if it weren’t also deeply upsetting on so many levels that it’s like the movie is writing its own library of outraged feminist theory.

Symbologistically speaking, it’s a volcano in constant eruption, with a Charles Bernstein score that rattles your teeth. (20th Century Fox didn’t know how to sell this baby, but the poster did use the word “threatening,” which is accurate.) The anxiety the movie produces was too hot to handle, and after delays it was dumped, only to be semi-rediscovered by Austrian experimentalist Peter Tscherkassky in 1999, reedited as his renowned short “Outer Space.” It remains unnerving and savage, arguably the most eloquent movie ever made in Hollywood about the struggle of the sexual underclass.

05/23/12 4:00am

Battle Royale (2000)
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

It was inevitable, after The Hunger Games‘s bajillion-buck haul, that someone would now give Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary dogfight of a movie the American release it never got a dozen years ago. The Columbine shootings were only a year or so old, and no American distributor would touch Battle Royale with Dylan Klebold’s stilled, cold hand. For once you could hardly wonder at their collective timidity: something like the 120 Days of Sodom to the dainty Fifty Shades of Grey of Suzanne Collins’s bestsellers, Fukasaku’s film is a cataract of shredded taboos, and watching it you can feel the holy-shit violations in your spine.

If introduction is required, peg the movie as a dystopian-sport nightmare, in which an economically depressed and crime-ridden Japan has passed a law relegating an entire class of high schoolers to an abandoned island for three days, from which only one can return. Each gets a random weapon, which could be an Uzi, a GPS or a pot lid. The territory (from Koushon Takami’s Tolstoy-sized novel) is far more loaded than Collins’s because here these emotionally unsteady uniformed teens all know each other intimately, and the ensuing massacre—counted down for us, one body at a time—becomes a Dantean tribulation by which every past slight, crush, snub, insecurity, and bullying incident is brought to its unholy fruition. Surly teenage boys matter-of-factly shotgunning super-cute teenage girls in the back is tragically de rigueur. In what might be the ultimate veins-in-your-teeth expression of the national psychosis that is Japan’s school culture, the unleashed and defenseless id of childhood is transformed into institutional no-prisoners combat.

Which is another metaphor-monster, already nursed rousingly by Peter Watkins and Roger Corman: the killing game as a stand-in for official warfare; here, the kids actively resist, like conscientious objectors, until the circumstances crafted by the state prove overwhelming. Fukasaku, 70 at the time, was a manic Japanese New Wave figure, given to hyperbolic gangster sagas, but his penultimate film (a dire Battle Royale II came out in 2003) cuts away the fat and accumulates like a death march, punctuated by open-jugular irony and often played for laughs that stick in your throat. (Four girls, helplessly banding together to cook a meal, quickly devolve into a bulletspray John Woo bloodbath in plaid skirts; one hottie, after riddling an eager boy who then confesses to having always loved her, cries, “But you never even talked to me!”)

Takeshi Kitano, as the group’s ex-teacher and the “program”‘s laconic emcee, is merely the uncaring face of a system that has no face; effortlessly iconic and finally self-eulogizing, Fukasaku’s movie boils down the universal into a sour reduction pulp no American YA franchise could ever hope to touch. Defying nearly every movie rule while speaking only the brutal truth, it might just be the best teenager movie ever made.

Opens May 25 at IFC Center

05/02/12 4:00am

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Directed by Jacques Rivette

The Zeno’s paradox of New Wave masterpieces, Jacques Rivette’s 1974 hypnogenetic spellbinder Celine and Julie Go Boating is a universally worshipped counter-classic that giddily resists critical exegesis. No other great film may be as difficult to characterize. Break it down into summary and you risk sounding like an compulsive Aquarian Age geek lost in his own acid flashes. There is a decidedly Feulliadean Paris, as empty and mysterious as an abandoned playground; the two unacquainted eponymous Parisiennes (vampy Juliet Berto and frumpy Dominique Labourier); a mysterious house they either discover or know about already; and a unchanging Henry James melodrama unfolding inside involving a child, her father (Rivette producer Barbet Schroeder), two untrustworthy women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier) and a nursemaid, enacted by either Celine or Julie as they enter or exit according to unknowable laws. Once it is discovered that the house’s ghostly tale—which replays endlessly, and which is both a movie-within-a-movie and The Movies—ends with the murder of the child, the girls decide to intervene.

In many ways the French New Wave’s phantom outlaw, Rivette has crafted his own sphere over the decades, a haunted metropolis dripping with undecipherables, intuited connections, senseless but contagious suspicions, etc., and Celine and Julie is the springiest, zestiest tour of that city, a heroic dream in which there is no “reality”—a characterization that could almost define the film as a staged documentary about cinema, if we wanted to settle on one way of looking, and we don’t. Stirring and infectious, Celine and Julie is almost an accident, an amateurish, whimsical epic that is only and entirely “about” the peculiarly, almost frighteningly delicious act of watching it, and if you let it it could change everything, least of all how you think about movies.

Opens May 4 at Film Forum

01/18/12 4:00am

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927)
Directed by Esfir Shub
January 19 at Anthology Film Archives’s “The Compilation Film

Bullwhip documentaries tearing a ruling class apart are so easy: just compile a heap of self-promotional footage left behind by the rulers themselves, and let the judgments rain down like hail, a natural and inevitable autocritique, with fangs. This past year’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is the most recent and probably most punishing example, but the first of this subversive subgenre was this 1927 ribbon of agitprop, assembled by Esfir Shub in the full flowering of Soviet montage-fever out of the early-century castings left behind by the czar’s empire.

In actuality the film has little to reveal about the Romanovs per se—they were not, apparently, a family given to home movies and “human interest” family newsreels—and sticks close to the ribs of a familiar historical tale: long-term injustice + lop-sided build-up to war + WWI in all of its hellacious derangements = revolution. But no film tosses up a window on what caused the Bolshevik uprising quite as intimately as Shub’s—Eisenstein’s grotesquely corpulent fat cats are here, too, but they’re not lens-distorted actors, just real politicians, millionaires and generals, with names. That many or maybe all of them had their heads on pikes by 1920 is Shub’s largest elision; here, the passage to full-on Soviet-ness happens bloodlessly, with a burst of flag-waving and happy marching. Still, insurrectionary fury and elan pulses out of the movie organically, and it’s a timeless vibe: much of what’s here was virtually reenacted last year, in the Middle East and even amid our own Occupiers.

09/09/11 11:20am


This afternoon and tonight, the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off “Transitions: Recent Polish Cinema.” Jan Jakub Kolski’s Venice screens on Sunday afternoon, and closes out the fest on the night of Thursday the 15th.

Never released theatrically in this country, the magic-in-the-dirt films of Polish taleteller Jan Jakub Kolski are rare, golden wonder cabinets of rough-hewn conjurement, reimagining Poland (particularly during WWII) as a dangerous fairy tale, clotted with mossy overgrowth, shadowy unknowns, mythic apparitions, fecund wildlife, and incipient doom. See 1995’s Playing from Plates if ever the chance arises, which it may never; in the same sense, the Walter Reade presentation of his new film, Venice (2010), might be your one and only shot. Adapted from stories by Polish lit star Wlodzimierz Odojewski, the film begins in 1939 with an eleven-year-old in military school sent by his narcissistic mother to his aunt’s country estate, where he waits out the first years of the war in classic coming-of-age style, dreaming of someday going to Venice and ending up happily recreating the City of Bridges in the mansion’s flooded basement.

Peppered with glimpses of the forgotten things lost in the floodwaters, and visualized with Kolski’s characteristic lambent beauty (in this era of CGI gilding, he gets blasts of flaxen light the old-fashioned way—he films them), Venice is a paperweight-globe mini-world filled with other mini-worlds, all fashioned as escapes from the world of warcraft gradually impinging from the foggy landscape beyond the lawns and leafy country roads. Kolski films all have this narrative form (even his adaptation of 2003’s version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia), as myths are spun like webs and then destroyed by reality. Kind of like movies.

07/13/11 12:04pm


This week, BAM salutes the late horror and sci-fi screenwriter (Alien, Total Recall) Dan O’Bannon; his first feature film, Dark Star, which he edited and cowrote with debuting director John Carpenter, and in which he also costars, plays tonight.

Science fiction means idiot robot toys, armed combat and George Lucas echoes for us now, but in Nixon era, it was all about the head candy—disquieting, metaphoric ideas about Right Now, laboratory-mutated as nightmare fables about What’s to Come. Forget about being horror’s conjoined tech-geek twin—the genre’s DNA has always crossed most with satire, and its farcical potential has rarely been exploited as ingeniously as in John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974), a low-budge squib that was expanded, like Lucas’s THX 1138, from a short the boys made at USC.

Beautifully built, literally, out of styrofoam packing, car models and ice cube trays, the film visits astronauts stuck on an endless interstellar mission and going insane, troubled by boredom, a beach-ball alien they foolishly adopted out of guilt, and a sentient world-destroying bomb that’s stuck in the cargo bay and has decided to detonate in a suicidal funk. Shaggy but far wittier than anything Carpenter’s done since, the movie revitalizes and dresses down the lonesome-techno-future thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey in ways that are still razor-sharp, and without the evolutionary pretensions. Clearly, O’Bannon thieved strands of this for Alien, itself a structurally satiric rip through biological imperatives and human techno-arrogance, but the film remains a miraculous demonstration of what can happen with a truly piquant battery of barbed concepts and little else.