Category Archives: Road Movie

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is as painfully funny as it is to watch it (I consider him the founding father of  the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”). Criterion’s extras are skimpy, but the 2K restoration is fabulous.

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray reissue: The Last Detail ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Last Detail – Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama set the bar pretty high for all “buddy films” to follow (and to this day, few can touch it). Jack Nicholson heads a superb cast, as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, a career Navy man who is assigned (along with a fellow Shore Patrol officer, played by Otis Young) to escort a first-time offender (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth. Chagrined to learn that the hapless young swabbie has been handed an overly-harsh sentence for a relatively petty crime, Buddusky decides that they should at least show “the kid” a good time on his way to the clink (much to his fellow SP’s consternation). Episodic “road movie” misadventures ensue.

Don’t expect a Hollywood-style “wacky” comedy; as he did in all of his films, Ashby keeps it real. The suitably briny dialog was adapted by Robert Towne from Daryl Ponicsan’s novel; and affords Nicholson some of his most iconic line readings (“I AM the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”). Nicholson and Towne were teamed up again the following year via Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This edition sports a fabulous 4K restoration (the audio is cleaned up too, crucial for a dialog-driven piece like this). Loads of extras-including a sanitized TV cut of the film, just for giggles.

SIFF 2017: Lane 1974 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This episodic road movie/coming of age story may be too episodic for some tastes, but for those of a certain age (ahem), it hearkens back to the quietly observant character studies that flourished from the late 60s through the mid-70s  like Scarecrow, The Rain People, and Harry and Tonto. Writer-director SJ Chiro adapted her screenplay from Clane Hayward’s memoir. 13 year-old Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss), her little brother, and their narcissistic hippie-dippy mom (Ray Donovan’s Katherine Moennig) adopt a vagabond lifestyle after they’re kicked out of a Northern California commune. Schloss delivers a lovely, naturalistic performance as a budding adolescent coming to the sad realization that she is the responsible adult in the family, and that her mother is essentially the self-centered child.

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of  grows on you.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.