Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977). There’s certainly no reason to expect anything less than inspired lunacy from a Werner Herzog movie, especially one he made back in the nineteen-seventies when thew rules of cinema were falling away like worn paint from a waterlogged wall. Stroszek follows a German man whose perilous romance with a prostitute causes him to move with her and his elderly neighbor to, of all places, rural Wisconsin. From there, Herzog’s examination of the general travails of the downtrodden trying to forge better lives takes on the added harsh tinge of the false promise of the American dream for immigrants as prosperity is dangled like succulent bait and then yanked away. Herzog films it all with an amused detachment and his affection for the off-kilter drives the film ever forward, growing more beautifully absurd at every turn.
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (Jeff Margolis, 1979). After mentioning this film in a recent review of a more recent stand-up comedy concert film, I thought it might be worth revisiting to see if my recollection of it as a genuinely great movie was accurate. I stand by it. This is in no small part because Richard Pryor is in peak form, playing language, facial expressions and physical movement like notes in a thrilling hard bop jam session. In fact, Pryor slips so effortlessly in and out of characters–each one markedly different, each one sharply drawn in mere moments–that the film becomes evidence that Pryor could have become one of the greatest character actors of his generation. Margolis doesn’t get too tricky with his direction; he simply tries to capture the surging genius of his subject. It’s to his credit that the film is without a misstep in this respect.
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963). Purely phenomenal, demonstrating every bit of Kurosawa’s vaunted mastery of the filmmaking form. Toshirō Mifune stars as wealthy executive at a Japanese shoe company who is the target of a kidnapping plot, which immediately goes awry as the criminals mistakenly nab the child of one of the executive’s servants rather than his actual son. The first hour or so of the movie could be a play, taking place entirely in the apartment of the executive as he wrestles with the moral dilemma before him. The film eventually expands to include elements of the thriller, the procedural and the sweaty psychodrama, Kurosawa deftly choreographing each storytelling shift. The potency of the film–the intensity of the emotions, the shifts of the plot that never feel manipulative, the quietly inspired accumulation of details–is completely disarming. Kurosawa is so well known for his samurai epics that it sometimes get lost that he had the capability to tell any story dazzling well with a camera.
Becoming Chaz (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2011). This documentary about the sole offspring of Sonny Bono and Cher beginning the transition from a female-bodied person to a male-bodied person made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival before taking its inevitable place as an anchor of the documentary wing of Oprah’s network folly. The open-hearted exploration of the issues surrounding a transgender life are presented here more as mundane everyday challenges rather than matters of grueling heartache, a decision that only adds poignancy. Bailey and Barbato have collaborated on a multitude of projects, including other documentaries, the most notable of which might be the slyly wonderful The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Noble as it may be, Becoming Chaz lacks the rambunctiousness of the pair’s best work, maybe in part because Bono’s direct involvement as a producer mandates a certain overt earnestness. It’s fine enough work, especially as it achieves its apparent goal of being a valuable primer of overarching transgender concerns. It lacks a drive to give it real urgency, though.
Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968). An aging movie star is contemplating retirement against the wishes of many of those around him who count on his continued activity to maintain their own occupational security. Meanwhile, a young man buys himself a weapon, and it slowly becomes clear that he is preparing for something awful, a tragic expression of the mental instability that has crept up upon him. The film intercuts between the two storylines until they finally converge with a visual punchline that’s pretty ingenious. This was the film Peter Bogdanovich directed for Roger Corman which allowed him to graduate to major studio efforts and make a true masterpiece. Targets has a quirky charm all its own. Boris Karloff is mordantly marvelous as the movie actor and Bogdanovich has some nice scenes with him as the burgeoning director who boozily tries to convince him to stick around for one more picture. Bogdanovich is especially strong as he alternates between sequences that exhibit very different tones. It would be easy for the film to feel problematically off-balance, but Bogdanovich turns it into a virtue, charging the film with grand unpredictability and accompanying tension.