A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: December, 2012

“Dust Devil” (1992)

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November (and December), I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of, Bede Jermyn (also of, Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month(s) is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

Next up is Mike’s selection, Dust Devil, and here’s the review…

"Dust Devil" poster

It’s hard to feel sorry for all of the bad shakes director Richard Stanley has gotten over the years, when you don’t really care for his movies to begin with. He’s had a hard time realizing his visions on film (or, in the case of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, he was canned before he even could), and when they do reach the screen, they’re what can best be described as “interesting failures.” Dust Devil is, without a doubt, one weird ditty, bringing a mystical slant to the murderous hitchhiker myth. But though Stanley spares no expense when it comes to disturbing content, Dust Devil serves it all up in one lukewarm mass instead of a simmering stew.

From out of South Africa’s searing sands comes a product of our world’s dark past. Robert John Burke (Thinner) plays the Dust Devil, a wandering vagrant who preys on the weak of will and harvests their souls for his own otherworldly objectives. The latest unfortunate to cross his path is Wendy (Chelsea Field), a woman fleeing an abusive marriage. The Devil works his black magic and sets about draining Wendy’s spirit, but she’s not about to give in that easily. There’s some fight left in her, and with a native cop (Zakes Mokae) on the trail, there’s hope yet of sending the Devil back to the hell from whence he came.

I’m the last to whine about a filmmaker using unconventional tactics and structure to tell an otherwise straightforward story. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spent most of Dust Devil wanting Stanley to get to the goddamned point. I love his main conceit, that not only is Burke’s character a shapeshifting spirit condemned to wander the earth and tortured by physical desires he can never satisfy, he can’t even kill anyone without a catch or two. The Devil only takes a life once he’s extinguished all hope within a victim, which would make for some stalking sequences both incredibly suspenseful *and* thought-provoking.

But you see, Dust Devil never arrives at that point. Sure, Burke’s performance is solid enough that you’re suitably freaked when he snaps a woman’s neck in the midst of coitus, but to the extent that Stanley wants to bring equal parts gore, mysticism, and emotion into the picture, nothing clicks together like it should. Instead of an epic confrontation between a lady who’s had almost all of her will to live sapped away and a demonic force designed to snuff out that last bit of light, we get a crybaby running from a cowboy who needs a shower. The droning narration keeps telling us about how ancient the Dust Devil is and how his MO works, but Stanley comes up short in terms of showing the audience that diabolical manipulation at work. Both the Devil and Wendy are shafted of the development the film so obviously wants to give them, with the filmmakers’ efforts ultimately yielding a dull supernatural slasher that’s fairly full of itself.

As I mentioned before, I’ve basically never liked anything Richard Stanley touched (Hardware, The Theatre Bizarre, etc.), so take my griping with a grain of salt. Dust Devil falls right in with his grimy, often unpleasant approach to genre cinema, so if that’s your bag, then you’re likely to leave with your expectations satisfied and your outlook on life dimmed. Good on Stanley for trying to break the mold, but Dust Devil was a mite too stuffy to put the fear in me.

“See the Sea” (1997)

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November (and December), I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of, Bede Jermyn (also of, Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month(s) is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

Next up is Sam’s selection, See the Sea, and here’s why he chose it for me:

“A.J. is a bitch to pick movies for. He’s seen EVERYTHING, or certainly he’s well on his way; every day, he seems to announce on Twitter that he’s seen some other obscure thing. This being the case, sending only a very short list of films for him to pick from for this Blog-a-Thon was a gamble, and I did half expect him to throw them back at me while cackling, ‘Seen all those, have you nothing more original?’ Happily, that wasn’t quite what happened, and even more happily, the one he hadn’t seen is something I love to press on people.

Francois Ozon is by far my favorite working filmmaker. I’ve seen every one of his features and haven’t given any of them lower than a 4/5. He’s now a reasonably well-known cult name, off the back of films like 5×2, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool (and its frequent airings of Ludivine Sagnier’s breasts), but this film, shot just before his feature debut, Sitcom, remains an underseen curio. At 51 minutes, See the Sea is neither short nor feature, but whatever it is, this taut little thriller about an obsessive relationship between a young mother and a hitcher camping in her garden intrigues from the off and only tightens its vice-like grip up until the shocking ending. I really hope A.J. likes it.”

And now…the review…

"See the Sea" poster

“Unexpected” is what I’d use to describe director Francois Ozon’s work. The man never neglects a curveball, be it the dark subject matter of his otherwise frothy musical 8 Women or showing a relationship in reverse with 5×2. 1997’s See the Sea runs less than one hour, but it packs in that conservative length its share of beard-strokingly intriguing plot developments. The flurry of ambiguous turns Ozon takes can be daunting to sift through, but See the Sea is well worth a look-see, for how much it leaves you wanting to delve more into its mysteries.

Sasha (Sasha Hails) is a little lonely. She’s set up at a modest abode near a gorgeous beach, but with her husband currently away for work, the days spent with their ten-month-old daughter tend to drag on. Thus, while not precisely jumping at the chance to let moody vagabond Tatiana (Marina De Van) pitch a tent in her yard, Sasha appreciates the company and invites her to do so anyway. Tatiana’s presence turns out to have quite the effect on Sasha, inspired by the girl’s tales of her experiences to explore her own inhibitions and vent all those years of unfulfilled dreams. But she does so unaware of Tatiana’s true colors, to which she remains oblivious even as the drifter slowly insinuates herself into her domestic life.

Ozon does such a good job of hiding what See the Sea eventually becomes, I hesitate to allude that it even has twists. From the start, there’s a feeling that something isn’t right, and playing upon that unease is how Ozon hooks the audience. But it isn’t enough that he does a clever job of disguising his final few scenes, so he intregrates his sleight-of-hand into deceptively simple doses throughout the picture. You don’t know if See the Sea is going to end up as a thriller, a forbidden romance, or what have you, just that the film’s events pique your curiosity and that where they take you isn’t going to be very pleasant territory. What matters is that there’s a dozen different ways to read this story, and Ozon imparts with plenty of material over which to mull.

What I can say about See the Sea is that its pair of leads comprise two sides of the same coin, and the actresses in these roles compliment each other very well. Hails is quite good at playing a repressed housewife without burdening herself with the tropes and stereotypes that usually accompany that archetype. Sasha’s longing is sorrowful, and scenes in which she takes charge of her sexuality (which include an impromptu quickie in the forest with a total stranger) aren’t played for exploitation in the slightest. Then there’s De Van, who does a solid job just playing a tough girl who really has seen it all, but where her performance really shines is in keeping the straightest of faces even as Tatiana’s motives creep further to the surface.

I’m not sure why Ozon stopped See the Sea at the 51-minute mark. It’s enough for him to get the job done, but it was a little disheartening to see him cut and run just when the plot’s most challenging stages were upon him. Still, See the Sea is a taut little beast, both a sharp piece of work on its own and a fine example of how Ozon can bamboozle you and make you like it.