Tag Archives: Road movie

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: TOUKI BOUKI (1973)

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DIRECTED BY: Djibril Diop Mambéty

FEATURING: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang

PLOT: A young misfit and his girlfriend take off for Paris, committing a series of petty thefts on the way to fund their trip.

COMMENTS: This landmark film from Senegal, newly released by the Criterion Collection in a stunning HD restoration, begins with cowherds leading their flock through the pasture. An idyllic scene, but it soon turns dark… dark red, to be exact. The cows are on their way to be slaughtered—a scene that we are made to witness in all its gory detail. As the blood splatters and covers the slaughterhouse floor, the screen turns a sickening red usually reserved for grimy 1970s pseudo-snuff films. Although we never learn the exact circumstances, it’s a memory burned onto the protagonist’s psyche that will be recalled later at a crucial moment.

The central story of Touki Bouki is straight out of films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But director Djibril Diop Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting. After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-conscious French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris,” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order.

Even so, Touki Bouki isn’t a political film, either. Although he didn’t have any formal film school training, Mambety had a knack for visual poetry, observing his surroundings and making evocative connections without the need to impose any explicit political ideology on top of it. For example, in another graphic scene not suitable for the squeamish, a goat is slaughtered—likely for sacrificial purposes. A woman takes off her coat, revealing nothing underneath. An inverted cross-like ornament glimmers in the hot desert sun. Waves crash beneath the edge of a cliff. There is a feeling of mystery, danger, and desperation. Mambety doesn’t feel the need to explain, distilling his imagery into poetry–conveying life as a waking dream not easily understood.

As the story begins to unfold, these dreamlike qualities take over. Mory and Anta embark on a road to nowhere, committing petty crimes and entertaining imaginary admirers. A deranged Tarzan disciple, one of the few white people in the film, is seen caterwauling at birds in a tree, only to come down and steal Mory’s motorcycle. Mory and Anta are able to steal a huge amount of money from a tribal benefit to support the building of a monument for Charles de Gaulle, right from under the eyes of the police officer in charge of guarding it. We don’t see the crime itself, only the lovers’ triumphant escape with a gigantic trunk full of cash. Later, Mory steals an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from a gay playboy’s mansion, as a decadent party goes on outside.

The line between the real world and the lovers’ fantasy world is always blurred. Memories collide with the present, and time is all but nonexistent. When Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses an allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dream sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic-defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.

Even for those who have seen Touki Bouki before, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release upgrades the experience. Along with a vivid 2K restoration of the film itself, there are interviews with admirers such as and Abderrahmane Sissako, as well as Mambety’s brother, Wasis Diop, who worked on the production. But the biggest revelation here is Contras’ City, Mambety’s debut short film from 1968. A feverish tour through the city of Dakar, this tongue-in-cheek city symphony explores the clash between different cultures and religions. There are soaring views of architecture, occasional moments of harsh realism, but always laced with the sharp sarcastic edge that also defines Touki Bouki.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Rüdiger Vogler, ,

PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.

COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.

So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.

In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.

But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.

However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like Continue reading CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

CAPSULE: SOMETHING WILD (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Straight-laced businessman Charlie impulsively hops into a car with wild gal Lulu, who takes him on an extended adventure that exhilarates him until her psycho ex-con ex arrives on the scene.

Still from Something Wild (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I must be missing something about Something Wild. I get why people enjoy it: likeable cast top to bottom, sexy Melanie Griffith, easy to follow story that’s comfortably familiar but still manages to surprise. What I don’t get is its cult movie reputation, Criterion Collection-worthiness, or recommendation for coverage on a weird movie site.

COMMENTS: Something Wild is a masculine mid-life crisis daydream, with Melanie Griffith as the manic pixie dream girl on a meth binge who leads “closet rebel” yuppie Jeff Bridges into a wonderland of forbidden pleasures and the danger that accompanies them. Casual drinking and driving, handcuffs as a sex toy, cruising down the highway in a convertible, picking up hitchhikers, shoplifting, dash-and-dines, singalongs to unthreatening rock and roll hits, jealous stares at the wild babe on your arm, winning the girl’s heart away from the abusive bad boy jock—all the joys of the late teenage years are here, for a middle aged man who really knows how to appreciate them to savor. Bridges’ Charlie is a solidly nice guy, who remains so in our eyes even after he abandons his wife, children and colleagues. In real life Griffth’s kooky free-spirited Lulu would be an alcoholic sociopath destined for a bad end. In the movie’s reality, however, the mismatched couple have nothing but sexy wacky adventures—at least, until Ray Liotta springs onto the scene like a blade out of a switchblade to add a dose of the dangerous reality that would face any two people who let their hormones lead them this far astray.

Maybe the mild kinkiness and the tone-shift (which is frequently overstated in its impact) seemed fresh in 1986—although maybe not, considering that was the year that gave us Blue Velvet. If there’s anything remarkable about Something Wild, it’s the way that the script and direction keep us so darn comfortable with Charlie and Lulu’s outré adventures, grounding them in the conventions of realist romantic comedy while teasing us that we are glimpsing the exotic pleasures of the hedonist set. Offbeat and sexy, this is a fine comfort movie to watch while munching popcorn on the sofa—but it’s not hard to find something wilder. Just browse the sidebar here.

Look for cameos by directors John Sayles and . Extras on the relatively bare Criterion Collection disc include the trailer, a 30-minute interview with director Demme, and a 10-minute discussion with screenwriter E. Max Frye. This is not to be confused with 1961’s less-known but arguably weirder Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a rape victim in a fugue state, which is also in the Criterion Collection.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Demme is a master of finding the bizarre in the ordinary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

241. PIERROT LE FOU (1965)

“Velazquez, past the age of 50, no longer painted specific objects. He drifted around things like the air, like twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the nuances of color that he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony. Henceforth, he captured only those mysterious interpenetrations that united shape and tone by means of a secret but unceasing progression that no convulsion or cataclysm could interrupt or impede. Space reigns supreme. It’s as if some ethereal wave skimming over surfaces soaked up their visible emanations to shape them and give them form and then spread them like a perfume, like an echo of themselves, like some imperceptible dust, over every surrounding surface.”–opening lines of Pierrot le Fou, supposedly from the book on modern painters Ferdinand reads throughout the film

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING,

PLOT: Ferdinand, who is married to a wealthy Italian woman and has recently lost his television job, leaves a bourgeois cocktail party early and skips town with babysitter Marianne, with whom he had coincidentally had an affair years before. After knocking out an intruder, the two go on a crime spree and end up living on a remote island, but Marianne grows bored and wants to return to city life. Things get complicated when Marianne, who claims her brother is a gun runner, kills a man in her apartment, and the lovers are separated.

Still from Pierrot le Fou (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pierrot le Fou is a (very) loose adaptation of Leonard White’s pulp novel “Obsession.” In the novel, the babysitter is much younger than the man she runs away with, creating a “Lolita” dynamic; when Godard decided to cast Belmondo and Karina, the nature of their relationship had to change.
  • “Pierrot” means “sad clown,” a stock character from commedia del arte. Pierrot is archetypically foolish, in love, and betrayed by his lover.
  • Two days before the film was to shoot, Godard still had no script. Some of the film was therefore improvised, although, according to Anna Karina, the extent to which the film was made up as it went along was later exaggerated.
  • Godard and Karina were married in 1961; by the time Pierrot was released, they were already divorced.
  • The film was booed at its debut at the Venice Film Festival, yet went on to do well at international box offices.
  • Director has a cameo as himself in the cocktail party scene, where he gives his theory of the essence of cinema.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The despondent Ferdinand, speaking on the phone, grabs a paintbrush and begins daubing his face blue. Once finished, he goes out into the Mediterranean sun, carelessly swinging two bundles of dynamite—one red, one yellow—around his body. He’s off to end the movie.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Topless cocktail party; scissored dwarf; Pierrot is blue

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Inspired by a film noir plot, but shot in a sunny primary-color pop art style that banishes all shadows, Pierrot le Fou is a bittersweet contradiction, and a story that refuses to sit still: it’s a road movie, a romance, a comedy, an adventure, a musical, a satire, a meditation, a surreal fantasy, and a postmodern lark (sometimes, it’s all of these in a single scene). Godard’s personality holds it all together with a lighthanded unity that he would seldom pull off.


Video review of Pierrot le Fou from Lewis Senpai (MoviesEveryday)

COMMENTS: “Fou” means “crazy” in French. Ferdinand’s lover, Marianne, calls him “Pierrot” throughout the film, although he constantly Continue reading 241. PIERROT LE FOU (1965)

LIST CANDIDATE: MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: River Phoenix, , William Richert

PLOT: A young, narcoleptic gay prostitute searches for his mother, with the help of a slumming fellow hustler who is heir to a fortune.

Still from My Own Private Idaho (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: My Own Private Idaho weaves two weird premises together: the story of a narcoleptic searching for his mother and a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” The movie then adds surreal touches and sets it all inside the world of gay street hustlers.

COMMENTS: Sometimes the line between a “glorious mess” and a plain old-fashioned mess can be very thin, and very personal, indeed. I couldn’t really argue with anyone who sees Idaho as an eccentric gem, but the film has always seemed more like a failed experiment to me. A “Henry IV” adaptation set in the world of street hustlers might have made a good movie (although Idaho suggests that a different approach, with less actual Shakespearean dialogue and no Keanu Reeves, may have been required). Similarly, a bittersweet indie about a narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mom might have made a good movie. But when slapped together, the two storylines don’t really work; Idaho feels like an interesting story that keeps getting interrupted by a high school class’ Shakespeare rehearsal.

River Phoenix, only two years away from his fatal overdose, is beautifully cast as the fragile prostitute who falls into a spontaneous slumber when stressed (and the life of a street hustler does tend to arouse the occasional stressful situation). He’s dreamy, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, isn’t very good—but in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point in his career, the world did not yet know that Reeves was a bad actor, and the same pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms that would earn him well-deserved jeers for his portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Dracula play here as a campy stylistic choice. Since his lean torso and boyish sensuality suit the character physically, his weak-jawed, ersatz Prince Hal somehow fits into the entire subplot’s unreal design. It’s a case of a director turning an actor’s weakness into the film’s strength. William Richert is fine as Bob, the Falstaff substitute. Regular readers will want to keep their eyes open for weirdo favorites (in a rare seductive role) and (in a more substantial and stranger part).

Mild surrealist touches (the hustlers carrying on a conversation from the covers of male jerk mags) jostle with gritty street realities and scenes lifted almost wholesale from “Henry” to form a concoction that is occasionally interesting and touching, but which also feels cobbled together and frustratingly inconclusive. Idaho does, however, unquestionably tilt toward the weird end of the spectrum. The Criterion Collection upgraded this catalog title to Blu-ray in October, 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cracked and beautiful… a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit.“–Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to Continue reading 203. WILD AT HEART (1990)