> Volume 4 > Number 23

Volume 4, Number 23

This Week's Reviews:  Werckmeister Harmonies, To End All Wars, Little Otik, Domestic Violence.

This Week's Omissions:  Bad Company, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Capsule Reviews:  The New Guy, Undercover Brother.

Béla Tarr

Lars Rudolph
Alfréd Járai
Peter Fitz
Hanna Schygulla
Irén Szajki
Éva Almássy Albert
Sandor Bese




The Devil's Backbone
Del Toro, 2001

The Harmonists
Vilsmaier, 1999

The Marriage of Maria Braun
Fassbinder, 1979

The Princess and the Warrior
Tykwer, 2001

Szabó, 2000

Werckmeister Harmonies


[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Werckmeister Harmonies, major plot points including the ending are given away. It is recommended that this only be read after watching the film.]

The last century in Hungarian history is something that is rarely touched upon in the American history books, which stick to the idea of Germany, Austria, Italy = 'bad,' while England, France, America = 'good,' with many hints that Russia plays 'good' but was really 'bad.' However, the dynamics of Europe during the two World Wars and the Cold War that soon followed are so much more than a black and white story of 'good' and 'bad.' In Werckmeister Harmonies, the acclaimed Hungarian avant-garde filmmaker Béla Tarr looks at a nation still paying for its past, despite trying to forget it.

After attempting to divide from a dual monarchy with Austria during and after World War I, the country would be attacked from all sides. To make up for their new vulnerability without the Austrian army on their side, the Hungarian government entered into alliances with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, later declaring war on the Soviets and Americans. But they were with the Axis Powers out of need, not want, and soon tried to withdraw when Hitler began deporting Jews. The German forces then occupied the nation until the Soviets liberated Budapest. Communist rule followed, and then a new nationalism that brought democracy.

Taking this into consideration and looking at the atrocities committed in the name of nationalism by Slobodan Miloševic in Serbia, Tarr and longtime partner Ágnes Hranitzky decided to use this to adapt the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by Lászlo Krasznahorkai (who has collaborated with Tarr on his previous two films Damnation and Sátántangó). It is a perfect marriage -- Eastern European environs as a backdrop to Krasznahorkai's long prose and Tarr even longer takes.

The film, which was made over the course of four years with seven cinematographers, captures the weariness of a Eastern European night. The way the modern light posts shine off of homes that seem stuck in the 18th century has an evocative effect on the audience -- some directors use smoke and fog to make mystery, Tarr need only rely on his natural surroundings. This is the rare black and white film that seems impossible to ever have been in color, in equal parts because it would ruin Tarr's tableaux and because the modernity of color would seem anachronistic. Late in the film, a tank and a helicopter are used and the sensation they evoke does not come from some deus ex mechina commotion, but instead from the way these mechanical advancements have no place in the little town Tarr is filming.

At the center of Werckmeister Harmonies are the many prevailing threats coming into his rustic Hungarian village. The title refers to the work of Andreas Werckmiester, who believed that God sent harmony for mankind down from the stars. A character in the film, György Eszter (Fitz), spends much of his time obsessing over Werckmiester's 12 tone octave. But soon Werckmeister is questioned -- disharmony befalls the world as people try to fill the emptiness created by time and knowledge. Not only do we learn of the mechanical problems of the city (faulty phones, electricity), but of the political discord that has taken over the villagers.

At the center of the political reformation movement is Tünda Eszter (Schygulla), György's estranged wife. Using their nephew Janós (Rudolph) as an errand boy, she effectively destroys his innocence. A mailman with an interest in astrology, Janós could not care less about the platforms she and the fellow reformers are calling for -- in his wide eyes are a hope that life goes on without a hitch, forgetting any problems that might occurred in the early hours.

The turning point in this town's existence comes inside a steel truck. Everyone refers to it as a circus -- one that has been known to provoke riots in other cities -- but it is actually just a stuffed whale with some odds and ends. Rumored to be in charge is The Prince (Bese), whose is only shown as a short shadow inside the truck -- an embodiment of foreign insurgence. The climax to this is, in fact, a riot, which brings the distressed of the village to march into the local hospital and destroy everything they can get their hands on, inducing memories of the varied styles and stories of Fritz Lang and Andrei Tarkovsky. The sequence ends when the rioters come upon the image of a naked and shaking old man, who carries the baggage of the past in his withering body that has seen not only his own deterioration but also the deterioration of his homeland through various regimes.

With only 39 shots, little dialogue, and moments that seem to take up an entire film canister (the 39 shots comprise 145 minutes of screen time), Tarr makes far more use of metaphors than anything literal. The opening scene is an 11-minute sequence involving Janós orchestrating an explanation of the solar system of eclipses using the tavern drunks for the moon, planet, and sun -- later in the film, Tarr uses the camera in a similar fashion, first as the entity orbiting its soul, then as the soul looking out at the destruction of its orbit.

For a film that is, ultimately, a figurative look at the way politicking (both past and present) begets further travesty, it becomes all the more ironic to consider the way the film shows some form of hope within its volatility. As the camera pushed back from the stuffed whale lying dead and forgotten in the streets, the viewers are reminded that its destruction came from violence and will probably further influence violence. There is hope: the whale and its keeper (dual monarchy and the Hapsburgs, nazism and Hitler, communism and Stalin, nationalism and Miloševic) have been destroyed. The fear is that the vicious cycle never ends.

David L. Cunningham

Ciarán McMenamin
Robert Carlyle
Kiefer Sutherland
Yugo Saso
Mark Strong
Sakae Kimura
Masayuki Yui




Chicken Run
Park and Lord, 2000

Enemy at the Gates
Annaud, 2001

Grand Illusion
Renoir, 1937

The Last Castle
Lurie, 2001

We Were Soldiers
Wallace, 2002

To End All Wars


My favorite war film -- hell, my second favorite film ever -- is David Lean's classic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean was the master of epics, turning Pierre Boulle's interesting but rather dry novel into an engaging look at the different way people react to life as a wartime prisoner. Alec Guinness, William Holden, James Donald, and Jack Hawkins headlined a cast that perfectly took the audience into the world seen by thousands of Allied soldiers during World War II.

Like River Kwai, the new film To End All Wars takes place in a Japanese POW camp, has many different nationalities under duress, and follows the construction of the Burma-Siam railway. But the similarities end there, as David L. Cunningham's film turns out to be a self-righteous journey through unsatisfactory pathos.

The film begins with a little déjŕ vu -- a British squadron comes into the Japanese POW camp, chins high and soulfully assured that they will not break, for they are the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a Scottish regiment under the proud lead of Colonel McLean (Cosmo). Even if there's no whistling of "Colonel Boggie's March," they still soon find that keeping those chins up and that soul under lock and key is nearly impossible with the inept Captain Noguchi (Yui) and the sadistic Sergeant Ito (Kimura) in charge.

Early on, Cunningham establishes his stars from within the Argyll ranks. Campbell (Carlyle) is the belligerent second in command, ready to pull everyone together and get out; Reardon (Sutherland) is the selfish American trader, dealing with the locales to make a little cash off of his fellow prisoners; Dusty (Strong) is the informed bible thumper, trying to establish some collective among the ranks; and Ernest (McMenamin) is the worldly pacifist, intent on keeping the peace among all the conflicting interest.

Much of the film deals with the many ways Ito and his men torture the enemy soldiers under the pretense of their devout loyalty to the Rules of Bushido. Men are chained to ground for days, beaten with poles, and brutally executed in front of everyone else. Living for his precious Bushido, Ito sadistically becomes the torturer of everyone on the camp, including his own men. His devotion is so acute that his closeness caused his own ultimate fall within the ranks of the Japanese army, who placed him as second fiddle in a prisoners of war camp as a punishment.

Cunningham and cinematographer Greg Gardiner make all the use of sepia filters in an attempt to give the film a gritty look similar to Steven Soderbergh's Mexican sequences in Traffic. But instead of bringing to mind the tenacity of war, the film just gives the impression of an editor taking the high-usage-technique from Breaking the Waves but using urine in place of the gravel.

Though there are moments in which the film is bearable, little achievement within comes from the technicians behind the scenes. Other than Paul Sylbert's production design, most of the workers seem to be working on the film as their NYU admissions film -- so emotional about what they are doing that they fail to notice that it is all crap. This is especially true with Trevor Jones' score, which comes from the Spy Game School of Bad Movie Music where composers learn to rely on ethnic music whenever they cannot use a choral.

Oddly enough, the film actually ends with an absolutely perfect finale, bringing a modern look at the forgiveness that has brought Allies and Axis together since WWII. As the credits rolled, I could feel the film's first deserved moment of emotion -- this would mean more if it didn't remind the audience how good the film could have been had Fred Schepisi or Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev been brought on to cover the event shown in the end instead of wasting time with two hours of hackneyed melodrama.

Most of the characters are well played, which does help as the film teeters through a third or fourth reminder that Ito is "a bad man." That does not mean that writer Brian Godawa brings some great characterizations -- instead he just makes a group representative of every contrivance the writer could come up with to fill the screen. Adapting from Ernest Gordon's memoirs of his time in the camp, the film comes off as the Hollywood version of a perfect story, downsized and muted by hours of screenwriting conferencing.

Cunningham and Godawa are so blatant that my notes from To End All Wars are mostly filled with the clichéd characters moving around the frame. I was especially disturbed as I wrote down that a character was the "Jesus figure" in the early moments of the film. In case anyone else in the audience did not catch the mirroring early on, though, Godawa makes sure to literally crucifiy him before the movie is over.

Jan Svankmajer

Jan Hartl
Veronika Zilková
Kristina Adamcová
Jaroslava Kretschmerová
Pavel Nový
Dagmar Stríbrná
Zdenek Kozák




A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Spielberg, 2001

Freddy Got Fingered
Green, 2001

Osmosis Jones
Farrelly, 2001

Rosemary's Baby
Polanski, 1968

Stuart Little
Minkoff, 1999

Little Otik


At 67, Jan Svankmajer is in the middle of one of the most unconventional careers in modern cinema. His outré oeuvre includes only four feature films, but he has proven to be one of the biggest names in Czech surrealist shorts. 27 in all, his works are often confrontational attacks on the cinematic status quo, turning stop-motion animation into an art that could only be equated to the works of a young Luis Buńuel. In recent years, his style has been heavily present in the works of more prominent Western names like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.

There's a knee-jerk reaction that automatically comes with mention of Svankmajer's Alice, Faust, and Conspirators of Pleasure, which were often tough sells beyond their delightfully absurd humor. His latest film, Little Otik, ups the farce and lowers the sadism a bit; all along, Svankmajer creates what is, by far, his most accessible work. Of course, considering his previous works, that certainly does not mean that Svankmajer is moving into Garry Marshall territory.

If Faust made the audience reconsider everything they thought they knew from Marlowe, Goethe, and Gabbe, and if Alice turned Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland on its head, Little Otik is certainly a work that will make audience members have a new view of Grimm's Fairy Tales. When Jakob and Wilhelm were collecting stories for their fairy tale anthology, they evidently did not pick up any from Czechoslovakia. Or maybe they did and thought the story of Otesánek was too ridiculous for even them.

The age-old story tells of a lonely, infertile married couple who begin raising a tree stump as their baby. The child, err, trunk comes to life, begins to eat uncontrollably, and finally devours its own parents. As it walks across the Czech countryside, Otesánek begins to continue eating everything and everyone it can get its hands on. Ultimately, though, it finds gluttony brings a stomach-churning demise.

Svankmajer does not stick with the story, though he does play the original tale as an animated background reminder of what he's aiming for. His leads, Karel (Hartl) and Bozena (Zilková), are still infertile, though their milieu is more about the way children are everywhere within their environment, but not in their carriage. Karel sees babies constantly: they are fished out of bins and wrapped in newspaper, they sit in the hollowed middle of a watermelon, and, most importantly, one seems to be in the shape of piece of wood he removes from their summer home.

Though he fully acknowledges that the trunk is not a real baby, he chooses to use it as a way to pacify his non-partum depressed wife. After making some fine cuts and whittling in some features, he gives the hunk of wood to Bozena, who immediately begins treating it as if it is a real child. The film never really discerns whether she is doing so from a need for the baby or from an actual fit of madness, but her doting of the trunk, named Otik, takes an extreme as she clothes it, washes it, and powders it. At the same time she becomes angered at Karel's neglect of his own son: he has gotten behind in varnishing Otik.

At the core of Little Otik is an insatiable hunger that Svankmajer uses to great effect. Otik does not simply become an eating machine, but almost mirrors the actions of his neighbors, the Stadlers (Nový and Kretschmerová), who go through the daily routine of eating gobs of food that look neither identifiable nor edible. Their daughter Alzbetka (Adamcová), the only one who does not devour whatever is put on her plate, is the only person who sees what Karel and Bozena are hiding as they move their perambulator around without letting anyone touch the child within.

Equally, important, though, is the feeling of castration that Svankmajer emphasizes. Karel is so distraught over not being able to procreate that he sees himself standing in a line for those fish netted babies and must use a piece of wood to momentarily associate as his baby boy. Even when brandishing a weapon to take away that immaculate child, he is broken by his inability to kill his own son -- even if unable to really create him, Otik is still representative of his manhood. Svankmajer perfectly foreshadows Karel's/Otik's real enemy by introducing the apartment building caretaker (Stríbrná) as she inserts her finger into the soil and drops her seeds -- she stands as the feminine and fertile counterpart to an emasculated Karel.

Most of Otik's scenes use Svankmajer's signature stop-motion as Otik's mouth (a hollow knot) salivates and his arms (growing roots) reach for the food in front of him. The director makes great use of these scenes, which reach a scatological absurdity that only he would attempt. When Otik is onscreen, especially in an uproarious introduction to a state social worker, the audience can almost see Svankmajer's marionette strings slightly shaking as he too laughs at what he is perfectly pulling off.

Frederick Wiseman




Domestic Disturbance
Becker, 2001

Apted, 2002

Life and Debt
Black, 2001
Hegedus and Noujaim, 2001

The War Zone
Roth, 1999

Domestic Violence


Earlier this year, I went on a holiday in Florida. Though most of our time was spent in Orlando, we made sure to visit the Florida west coast and see the sea. Deciding on Clearwater, we took a road trip through Tampa, where I was surprised at the place's odd marriage between Houston and rural Georgia. Below the skyscrapers were little areas so maltreated that you could almost see their impending condemnation notice being nailed on.

Inside these small dwellings, Frederick Wiseman was at work on Domestic Violence, his latest documentary for public television, a look at the way police, victims, and therapists try to piece together a way out of violent situations. In the earliest moments, Wiseman follows Tampa police through various calls that vary from a small scuffle over children in a swimming pool to a woman sprawled across the floor of the entryway in her home as she bleeds from a knife puncture that went through her cheek. As a bystander in the latter situation puts it: they do it and they stay because of addiction to both alcohol and each other.

As miserable as these moments may sound, they are only the beginning as Wiseman turns his camera away from the cops dealing with the victims and moves towards the therapists standing with open arms. At The Spring, men, women, and children come with all their accessible belongings move in hoping that they may be able to make their abused lives part of a distant past. None of these people -- most of whom are women, though the therapists acknowledge the occasional men -- will forget it, but at least they have the ability to move on.

Most of the impact found in Domestic Violence comes from the idea that every person appearing in the film's middle section has made the most important choice of their lives -- by walking out on the situation, they have moved out of the mental and physical beatings and into a world where people actually want to listen to them speak their opinion. The happy tears that swell in one woman's eye are indicative of this: she has just told her life story to a caseworker who was willing to care.

Catharsis is one of the underlying themes in the film, as the women give long monologues on their own private histories to others who have shared similar circumstances. Wiseman perfectly stays backed-off, his camera never feels intrusive even though the people are telling things that the audience has no real right to know. And then it comes to us; these people are not giving out the information to other women, two filmmakers, and a camera because they want some Warholian recognition but because it makes them feel better. Emptying their hearts of all the pain and torment that has preceded their entrance into The Spring does not pit us as voyeurs but as involuntary therapists.

Frederick Wiseman has often worked under these depressing pretenses. Nearly all of his 35 documentaries deal with social problems ranging from welfare to public housing. His vérité style makes the audience feel like we are huddled in the corner watching on, which exacts the effect of the work. No one is allowed to speak to the camera, no one is even recognized outside of the identity we get from what we see on the screen. And yet the people of these films, nameless as they may be -- a result that Wiseman surely intends -- are memorable. Long after the credits have rolled, we still remember the 70-year-old woman who has decided to leave her husband after 50 years of abuse. I'd dare say that for the rest of my life, when I come across a film or story involving domestic abuse, I'll think of her headstrong, aged face.

The last chapter in the story is a return to the streets of Tampa. The sun has fallen (though the film was made over the course of two months, Wiseman shows it like the events of a single day) and the offices of The Spring are closed for the night. As battered women rest inside The Spring without worry of someone entering and knocking them against the walls, the police are still patrolling the streets, trying their best to stop these occurrences before they go too far. We only see one more police intervention, but this time we are not brought in the aftermath but instead at its beginning. Three hours earlier, we might not have understood exactly what this meant to the people involved; after hours of hearing similar people tell of similar real life nightmares, we understand its magnitude all too well.

Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for The New Guy and Undercover Brother (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre).  Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."

The New Guy

(Dir: Ed Decter, Starring DJ Qualls, Eliza Dushku, Zooey Deschanel, Jerod Mixon, Parry Shen, Eddie Griffin, Ross Patterson, and Lyle Lovett)



Road Trip's DJ Qualls, a rail-thin former Calvin Klein model, plays the white version of Urkel in The New Guy, where he attempts to do what Jaleel White still hasn't done: convince the world that a geek persona can be overcome. Whether Qualls does this or not may seem like a sidebar to the film's unhesitant attempts to use that Road Trip-style comedy while ridiculing all the clichés. What comes to the screen is much like Not Another Teen Movie, as the insults on its own species make for an often unfunny romp at the most masochistic form of cinematic masturbation.

Undercover Brother

(Dir: Malcolm D. Lee, Starring Eddie Griffin, Aunjanue Ellis, Denise Richards, Chi McBride, Chris Kattan, David Chappelle, Gary Anthony Miller, Neil Patrick Harris, and Billy Dee Williams)



John Ridley and Michael McCullers turn in a screenplay for Undercover Brother that successfully produces the laughs that most spoofs seem to miss. Having fun with every black and white stereotype and making terrific use of cameos, the film turns into the dream movie for any fan of early blaxploitation who felt Quentin Tarantino was too serious with Jackie Brown.  The main problem, though, is Eddie Griffin, who turns in another painfully unfunny turn ruining many of the sight gags and pitch-perfect lines Ridley and McCullers have toiled over.




Reviews by:
David Perry