4 Shots From 4 Luis Buñuel Films: Illusions Travels By Streetcar, The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert, Belle de Jour


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is the 120th birthday of the great Spanish surrealist filmmaker, Luis Bunuel!  Continuing the tradition that we’ve just started here at the Shattered Lens, that means that it is now time for….

4 Shots From 4 Luis Buñuel Films

(This post, I should add, was a true pleasure to put together because Luis Buñuel is truly one of the most visually inspiring directors of all time.  If you haven’t seen a Luis Buñuel film, 2020 is the perfect year to discover him!)

Illusion Travels By Streetcar (1954, dir by Luis Buñuel)

The Exterminating Angel (1962, dir by Luis Buñuel)

Simon of the Desert (1965, dir by Luis Buñuel)

Belle de Jour (1967, dir by Luis Buñuel)

The Things You Find On Netflix: The Last Thing He Wanted (dir by Dee Rees)


As I watched The Last Thing He Wanted on Netflix, it occurred to me that smoking cigarettes and slamming down phones is no substitute for a personality.

The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon and, over the course of the movie, she smokes a lot of cigarettes and slams down a lot of phones.  That’s because Elena is supposed to be a veteran D.C. journalist.  She works for The Atlantic Post, which is an awkward name for a newspaper.  (In the novel on which this film was based, Elena worked for The Washington Post but I assume that plot point was changed to avoid upsetting Jeff Bezos.  That’s the sort of thing that gets this film off to a bad start.)  Hathaway is never exactly believable as a hard-boiled journalist who is known for uncovering government scandals and reporting from war zones.  She is, however, believable as a talented but miscast actress who watched a lot of old journalism movies before showing up on the set of The Last Thing He Wanted.  The end result is a performance that feels like cosplay.

Anyway, the film itself is a mess.  It takes place in 1984 and starts out with Elena getting yanked off of her usual Central America beat and assigned to instead cover the presidential campaign.  This leads to a lot of scenes of Elena lighting cigarettes and slamming down phones while talking about how difficult it is to be a journalist when you’re working for a spineless organization like the Atlantic Post.

Elena is estranged from her father, a dissolute drunk named Dick.  Dick is played by Willem DaFoe, who deals with the fact that he really doesn’t have much of a character to play by chewing up every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  (At times, it seems like Willem DaFoe has been replaced by someone doing a poorly conceived Willem DaFoe impersonation.)  Dick is suffering from dementia and he keeps forgetting that his wife is dead.  Dick needs Elena to do something for him.  It turns out that Dick has set up a “huge deal.”  Elena assumes that it must be a drug deal but it turns out that Dick is actually a small-time arms dealer.  So now, Elena is transporting weaponry through Central America and — surprise! — it all links back to the very story that her editors at the Atlantic Post didn’t want her to cover in the first place.

Soon, Elena is flying all over the place and meeting a rogue’s gallery of anti-communist rebels and arms dealers.  In a different film, they would all be fascinating characters but, in this one, it just comes across as being more cosplay.  Ben Affleck shows up a few times, playing some sort of Washington D.C. fixer and he’s absolutely the worst actor to cast in a film like this because the film’s vaguely-defined liberalism brings out his worst instincts as a performer.  The character’s written to be an enigmatic rogue but Affleck appears to be incapable of playing him as being anything other than just a one-note Republican.  (Whenever Affleck is cast in a role like this, you can see him thinking, “How would Matt Damon play this scene?”)  Toby Jones also makes an appearance and you’re excited to see him until you realize that he’s just going to be recycling his Truman Capote imitation from Infamous to no great effect.  There’s a lot of good performers in The Last Thing He Wanted but they’re left stranded by a script that doesn’t seem to know why any of them are there.  It all leads to an absolutely terrible ending, one that proves that combining voice over narration with slow motion is not always the brilliant narrative technique that some directors believe it to be.

The Last Thing He Wanted was directed and co-written by Dee Rees and it has all of the flaws but none of the strengths of Rees’s previous Netflix film, MudboundMudbound was frequently ponderous and predictable but it was redeemed by some beautiful images and some unexpectedly nuanced performances.  The Last Thing He Wanted is ponderous without being much else.

Mardi Gras Film Review: On Hostile Ground (dir by Mario Azzopardi)


Uh-oh!  New Orleans might be in trouble!

In the 2000 film, On Hostile Ground, John Corbett plays a geologist named Matt Andrews.  Matt has been asked to investigate why two giant sinkholes have suddenly opened in New Orleans.  The mayor’s press secretary, George Regan (Peter Stebbins), hopes that Matt will just do a perfunctory investigation and then declare the sinkholes to be no big deal.  After all, it’s nearly time for Mardi Gras and it would be an economic disaster to cancel this year’s celebration.  One can only assume that, like most movie bureaucrats, Regan has never seen Jaws and therefore doesn’t understand the folly of saying, “We can’t close the city during tourist season!”

However, Matt’s a geologist and he holds himself up to a higher standard.  He doesn’t care about whether or not people get to celebrate Mardi Gras or not.  In fact, just listening to him talk and watching him work, you get the feeling that Matt was probably the guy who, during previous Mardi Gras celebrations, would say, “You guys go without me.  I’ve got to get some work done.”  Anyway, Matt does some investigating and discovers that New Orleans is basically about to collapse into the Earth.  It could happen tomorrow or it could happen 3,000 years from now but it will happen.  Matt also points out that, even if the entire city manages to not sink into the Earth, the sinkholes could cause the levees to collapse and then the entire city would be flooded.  (This movie was made before Katrina.)

Regan hears Matt out and then decides to hide all of his evidence and let Mardi Gras go on as planned.

Can you guess what happens?

There’s a few things that I immediately noticed about On Hostile Ground.

First off, my family lived in Louisiana for about a year and a half.  I’ve been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  I can usually tell when a film has actually been shot in Louisiana as opposed to some place nearby like, say, Georgia.  Watching On Hostile Ground, I noticed that it appeared that at least a few of the Mardi Gras scenes had actually been filmed in New Orleans.  There wasn’t quite as much Mardi Gras footage as I was expecting but what there was appeared to be authentic.  However, whenever the action moved outside of the French Quarter, I couldn’t help but notice that the surroundings looked very Canadian and that very few of the extras sounded like they had ever spent any time anywhere near the Big Easy.  In short, it quickly became obvious that the majority of this made-for-television film was shot in Montreal and Toronto.  Canada really can’t pass for Louisiana, much as how they could have never shot an episode of Degrassi in New Orleans.

The other thing I noticed is that, despite New Orleans being below sea level, Matt and his fellow geologists had no trouble finding dry underground caverns underneath the city.  It reminded me a bit of that old X-Files movie where the kids find an underground cavern right outside of Dallas.  Some things just aren’t going to happen, okay?

Anyway, this is one of those low-budget disaster films where everyone refuses to listen to the scientist and disaster follows.  This is the type of film that, nowadays, would probably be made by the Asylum for the SyFy Network.  That said, the Asylum version would probably be a lot more fun because there would be probably be like a sea serpent or killer Mardi Gras floats or something.  This one is just kind of dull and spends too much time on build-up without enough pay-off.

On Hostile Ground is not really worth sacrificing any beads for.

 

Love On The Shattered Lens: Xanadu (dir by Robert Greenwald)


“What the Hell did I just watch?” I asked myself as the end credits rolled for the 1980 film, Xanadu.

Xanadu is one of those films where words just fail you.  It’s a musical and it stars Olivia Newton-John, who has a good voice even if she’s also kind of a bland screen presence.  The music is really good.  I love the main song and it’s definitely one that has gotten stuck in my head every time that I’ve heard it.  Of course, for the longest time, I thought Olivia was singing, “One-a-due.”  (Seriously, I’m the worst when it comes to mishearing lyrics.)  But no, I later discover that she was singing about Xanadu and who would have guessed that Xanadu would turn out to be a roller disco?

Yes, it’s a very strange movie.

Xanadu starts out with a mural of nine women coming to life.  The 9 women are the Muses.  You may remember them from Greek mythology.  They exist to inspire artists who inevitably end up falling in love with him without realizing that a muse is not allowed to love back.  This leads to a lot of great art but also to a lot of broken hearts.  Olivia Newton-John plays a muse named Terpsichore but she prefers to be known as Kira because …. well, wouldn’t you?  For centuries, Kira has inspired great works of art.  She’s worked with Michelangelo and probably a few poets as well.  As someone who majored in Art History, I’m thankful for Kira because, without her, my degree would be totally useless as opposed to just slightly.  In the year 1980, Kira has again entered the mortal world so that she can inspire …. a roller disco.

Yeah, okay.

Listen, I could probably go on for about a thousand words about how disappointed I would be to go from inspiring the Mona Lisa to inspiring a tacky roller disco in Malibu.  But it doesn’t seem to bother Kira so good for her!  Of course, Kira is a bit distracted because she’s broken the number one rule of being a muse.  She’s fallen in love with an artist!

Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) is a painter whose job involves painting larger versions of album covers so that they can be displayed in the windows of record stores.  Sonny dreams of being an independent artist but instead, he’s stuck recreating the works of others.  He feels like his life and his work are going nowhere.  However, once he sees a picture of Kira, he is immediately inspired.  And then, when Kira skates up behind him and kisses him, he’s in love!

Yay!

The only problem, of course, is that Sonny is a human being and Kira is a mythological creature.  If Sonny was destined to fall in love with a creature from Greek mythology, I guess he should be happy that it was one of the muses and not Medusa.  But anyway, Kira says that she’s not allowed to be with Sonny so Sonny tries to talk Zeus and Hera into changing the rules.  Whether or not he succeeds is kind of left up in the air.  I think a bigger problem would be the fact that Kira is immortal whereas Sonny comes across like he’ll probably end up snorting too much cocaine before the 80s are over.  But that’s never really brought up in the film.

Around the same time that Sonny meets Kira, he also meets Danny (Gene Kelly!), who is a former big time band leader who now spends his time hanging out on the beach and dreaming about opening up a roller disco.  It turns out that, when Danny was a young man, he was also inspired by Kira.  Danny and Sonny join forces and soon, Xanadu is a reality!  Danny fantasizes about a 1940s style nightclub.  Sonny fantasizes about a generic “rock club.”  They may have two different visions but fortunately, they both agree one one thing: everyone has to wear roller skates.

Xanadu is one of those films where not much really happens but it’s still incredibly busy.  Danny keeps on dancing.  Sonny keeps on painting and bitching about how his life isn’t going anywhere.  Kira keeps on roller skating through everyone’s life.  As I said, the music’s great but the storyline …. well, to be honest, I thought the film’s story was fun as an example of something that could only have seemed logical in the late 70s.  I mean, it’s an incredibly stupid film but Gene Kelly’s in it and, even at the age of 68, he was still such an dedicated old trouper that you can’t help but smile whenever he breaks out a few moves.  Add to that, Michael Beck and Olivia Newton-John do make for a cute couple, even if both of them were reportedly miserable during filming.  They just look like they belong together, in a California beach community sort of way.

Xanadu’s a big mess of a movie but it’ll make you dance and it’ll make you sing.  All together now: One-a-due, One-a-due something want to do….*

Mardi Gras Film Review: Dixiana (dir by Luther Reed)


Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a legendary party.

If you doubt me on this, just watch the 1930 film, Dixiana.  Dixiana is all about Mardi Gras.  I mean, there is a plot of sorts but it’s pretty easy to guess that, for audiences in 1930, the promise of a spectacular Madi Gras finale (filmed in technicolor, I might add) was the main appeal of this film.  Dixiana itself takes place in the 1840s so there you have it.  90 years ago, RKO Pictures made a lavish movie about a Mardi Gras celebration that had happened nearly 100 years earlier.  That’s quite a legendary party, no?

As with many pre-Code films about the Antebellum South, it can be a bit awkward to watch Dixiana today.  This is a film that opens on a plantation, with Cornelius Van Horn (Joseph Cawthorn) and his son, Carl (Everett Marshall), discussing how much they enjoy listening to the slaves sing about the Mississippi River.  They’re amazed that the slaves can sing so beautifully about water.  (It doesn’t occur to them that the song was actually about going up the river and finding freedom.)  Cornelius and Carl, we discover, are actually from Pennsylvania.  Cornelius has recently remarried, to the snobbish Birdie (Jobnya Howland) and both he and his son have only recently moved down to her native Louisiana.  Carl and Cornelius are still getting used to life in and the customs of the South.  Cornelius, for instance, explains that he regularly frees some of his slaves and he imagines that’s why they’re always so happy.  But if he really wants them all to be happy why doesn’t he just free them all and maybe stop buying slaves all together?  Let’s just say that Dixiana is not the film to watch if you’re looking for an honest look at American life before the Civil War.

Anyway, if you’re still interested in seeing the film after reading all of that, the majority of Dixiana takes place in New Orleans.  Carl goes into town, does some gambling, and sees a show.  He is immediately smitten with a performer named Dixiana (Bebe Daniels) and he asks her to marry him.  Even though her two best friends, Peewee and Ginger (played by the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey), are weary, Dixiana accepts his proposal.  Carl takes Dixiana back to the plantation with him.  Unfortunately, he also takes Peewee and Ginger and they soon let slip that they’re all circus performers.  Birdie is scandalized.  There’s no way her stepson is going to bring shame on the family by marrying a circus performer!

So, Dixiana and her friends head back to New Orleans.  The circus no longer wants her so Dixiana is forced to work in a gambling hall that’s owned by smarmy Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde).  Montague has his own personal interest in Dixiana but she’s still in love with Carl.  So, Royal plots to not only have Dixiana crowned as the Queen of Mardi Gras but also to trick Carl into accept a duel with him.  Montague, of course, plans to pull an Aaron Burr and cheat.  Meanwhile, Peewee and Ginger steal money, kick each other in the backside, and fight a duel of their own….

And really, none of that matters.  In the end, the film’s storyline is mostly just busywork.  The main reason that anyone would want to see this film is for the final 20 minutes, which is when the grainy black-and-white cinematography is replaced by gloriously vibrant technicolor and the Mardi Gras celebrations begin.  There’s singing.  There’s dancing.  There’s even Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, making his film debut and dancing up a storm.  Seriously, 1840s Mardi Gras looked like it would have been fun to attend, even if it does sometimes seem more like a lively cotillion as opposed to the orgy of alcohol poisoning that everyone knows and loves today.

Dixiana is one of those films that’s fallen into the public domain and, as such, it tends to turn up in a lot of cheap DVD boxsets.  There’s quite a few prints out that are completely in black-and-white and which don’t feature the sudden change to color.  That’s a shame because, whatever flaws this film may have, it does make good use of that technicolor during the final 20 minutes.  It’s big and lavish and gorgeous to look at and it’s easy to imagine the valuable escape that it provided for audiences at the start of the Depression.

Today, Dixiana is probably most interesting as a historical document.  It’s not quite as racy as one might expect from a pre-code film but it’s a good example of the type of lavish musicals that were popular among audiences who, in the 30s, used the film as a way to escape from the grimness of reality.  And, if nothing else, it’s proof that Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a big deal.

Love on the Shattered Lens: Coffy (dir by Jack Hill)


It may seem odd to describe Coffy as being a love story.

After all, this is a film that is perhaps best known for a scene in which Pam Grier (as Nurse Coffin, a.k.a. Coffy) shoots her lying boyfriend in the balls.  Coffy is often described as being the epitome of 70s grindhouse, a film in which Pam Grier takes on drug dealers, the Mafia, and a corrupt political establishment with a combination of shotguns and shanks.  Coffy is perhaps Grier’s best-known films and it features one of her best performances.  There’s nothing more empowering than watching Pam Grier take down some of the most corrupt, arrogant, and disgusting men to ever appear in a movie.  It’s a violent and gritty film, one that opens with a drug dealer’s head literally exploding and never letting up afterwards.  There are many different ways to describe Coffy but it’s rarely called a love story.

But here’s the thing.  A film about love doesn’t necessarily have to center around romantic love.  Coffy is about love but it’s not about any love that Coffy may have for her boyfriend, the duplicitous politician Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw).  Instead, the love at the center of this film is the love that Coffy has for her sister, who died from a heroin overdose.  It’s her sister’s death that leads to Coffy first seeking revenge but that’s not the only love that motivates Coffy.  There’s also the love that Coffy feels for her community.  Throughout the film, we hear about how the black community is being destroyed by the drugs that are being pushed into their neighborhoods by white mafia dons like Arturo Vitronia (Allan Arbus, who was once married to the iconic photographer, Diane Arbus).  It’s not a random thing that, for all of Coffy’s anger, she saves her most savage revenge for the members of her community who are working with the white mobsters, men like the pimp, King George (Robert DoQui), and her own boyfriend, Howard.

Throughout the film, Coffy says that she feels like she’s “in a dream” and Pam Grier gives an intelligent performance that suggests that, even after her mission is complete, Coffy will never be the same.  She’s not a natural killer.  She’s a nurse and it’s her job to save lives.  But when she sets out to get revenge on those who killed her sister and who are destroying her community, Coffy shows no mercy.  When she violently interrogates another victim of the drug trade, Coffy shows the junkie no sympathy because sympathy isn’t going to solve the problem.  Coffy is determined and the reason why she succeeds is because none of her victims realize just how serious she is.  Coffy uses her beauty to distract them and then, when they aren’t looking, she strikes.  By the end of the film, she’s walking alone on the beach and the viewer is left to wonder what’s going on inside of her head.  After all the people that Coffy has killed, can she ever go back to simply working the night shift at the ER?  After you’ve seen life and death at its most extreme, can things ever go back to the way that they once were?

And listen, I’m generally a pacifist and I’m not a huge fan of real-life vigilante justice and I’ve signed many petitions against the death penalty but it’s impossible not to cheer for Coffy.  Pam Grier gives such a committed performance that it’s impossible not to get sucked into her mission.  (It helps, of course, that most of the people who she targets are legitimately terrible human beings.)  The brilliance of Grier’s performance comes in the quiet moments.  Yes, she’s convincing when she has to shoot a gun and she delivers vengeful one-liners with the best of them.  But the film’s best moments are the ones were Grier thinks about how her life has become a dream of violent retribution and where she allows us to see the love for her sister and her community, the same love that is motivating all of the bloodshed.

Coffy is a rightfully celebrated film.  For once, a cult film actually deserves its cult.  It’s one of the best of the old grindhouse films and, in fact, to call it merely an exploitation film actually does a disservice to how effective a film Coffy actually is.  It’s just a great film period.

Love On The Shattered Lens: The Path of the Wind (dir by Doug Hufnagle)


The 2009 film, The Path of the Wind, begins with a man being released from prison and discovering that living in the real world can be just as confining.

Lee Ferguson (Joe Rowley) has spent the last few years locked up, convicted of killing a man.  It was a spontaneous fight and Lee didn’t intend for the man to die but that doesn’t change the fact that Lee is responsible for taking another man’s life.  He was a model prisoner and he intends to be a model citizen.  Fortunately, he’s inherited a nice house and a good deal of money from his father.  He’s also got a job waiting for him, as the well-meaning manager of the local grocery store has agreed to give Lee a chance.

From the minute he leaves the prison, Lee feels out-of-place in the world.  He’s still struggling to control his temper and, because of his past, he’s hesitant about letting anyone get too close to him.  He knows that if he tries to get close to anyone, he’ll eventually have to tell them why, despite his obvious intelligence and education, he’s currently working as a stocker in a grocery store.  And, after he tells them that he’s been in prison, he’ll then have to explain what he did to find himself in that situation.

Still, on his first night of working at the grocery store, he meets a young woman named Katie (Liz DuChez).  When he first sees her, Katie is being harassed by her violent ex-husband.  Lee chases the man off.  It turns out that Katie runs the local video store and she thanks Lee by offering him all of the free movies that he wants.  Eventually, Lee works up the courage to go to the video store and gets a bunch of western DVDs.  Later, he reveals that he not only doesn’t have a DVD player but he’s not totally sure what a DVD player is.  I guess Lee was in prison for a while.

It takes a while but Lee and Katie finally start to date.  Katie opens up about her past as a stripper and Lee finally tells her about the time that he spent in prison.  (It turns out that Katie already knew.)  They fall in love but there are still problems.  For one thing, Katie is rather religious whereas Lee is a committed agnostic.  Secondly, Katie refuses to have sex unless she’s married.  Lee, meanwhile, really, really wants to get laid….

Of course, that’s not all that’s going on in The Path of the Wind.  There’s about a different dozen storylines running through The Path of the Wind and the film doesn’t do a particularly good job of juggling all of them.  Along with having to deal with Katie’s psycho ex-husband, Lee also has to deal with not one but two evil coworkers and his bitter sister.  This is one of those films where a lot of plot points are raised but then mysterious abandoned.  There is one effective scene, in which Wilford Brimley shows up as the father of the man that Lee killed.  Brimley’s only in the film for a few minutes but he brings so much natural authority to his role that he basically takes over the entire movie for the limited amount of time that he’s on screen.

The film’s a bit of a mess but there’s a low-key sincerity to it that’s kind of likable.  According to the imdb, it was made for a budget of $100,000 and, with the exception of Wilford Brimley, the cast is largely made up of amateurs.  That said, both Joe Rowley and Liz DuChez have enough screen presence to be watchable and, even if the dialogue sometimes sounds a bit awkward, they have a likable chemistry and you can believe them as a couple.  Add to that, the film does attempt to deal with a very real issue, the difficulty that ex-cons face trying to rejoin a society that often values punishment and revenge over forgiveness and rehabilitation.  This is an amateur film but it may hold your interest.