“It’s my cozy room,” the man says, proudly touring his neatly arranged basement. This is where he comes to relax and be himself, surrounded by the things that make him happy: his brass musical instruments, his well-stocked bar, his Hitler paraphernalia. Wait, what? Down here in this Austrian man-cave, forbidden portraits of the Führer share space with uniforms and other Nazi bric-a-brac. You know—cozy. This is one of the many sanctuaries explored in In the Basement, Ulrich Seidl’s unsavory documentary. The baleful Austrian filmmaker (of the grueling Paradise trilogy) turns his gaze downstairs, where all the strange and dark impulses that lie beneath the civilized veneer are blossoming in full weirdness.
The name still has mileage: Toss Frankenstein into a title and you’re promising a modicum of chills, plus at least one creation scene in a laboratory. But ever since Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein loosened the stitches from Mary Shelley’s monster, moviemakers have had a hard time finding a fresh take on the mythology. Victor Frankenstein suffers this fate as well. Handsomely mounted and energetically acted, the film is far more bearable than the inane Van Helsing and other recent monster reboots. Yet it doesn’t seem to fulfill any particular need, except nostalgia.
The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) takes the perspective of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a circus hunchback drafted into apprenticeship by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s most famous creation has withstood all manner of affronts to its dignity over the years, ranging from Abbott & Costello to nuclear pink cereal to Robert De Niro seemingly doing an impression of Curley from the Three Stooges. This one, though, boy, I dunno.
Despite a lively titular performance from James McAvoy, Victor Frankenstein comes off as sloppily paced, overly knowing, and mostly inadvertently hilarious in its naked attempts to shape the source material to appeal to the kids these days, with their origin stories and shared cinematic universes and whatnot. This Dr. Frankenstein knows parkour.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Detective Story is a precinct-house Oedipus Rex; and though I have neither seen nor read Sidney Kingsley’s original play, I am certain that the Attic overtones are his work, not that of Yordan and Wyler. In the film, Kirk Douglas puts in one of his finest performances as the uncompromising, obsessive detective who learns, reluctantly, and to his horror, that his crusade against evil swings past the wide assortment of criminals who come daily to precinct headquarters to be questioned and booked and ultimately focuses on himself. Oedipus’s relentless inquisitiveness is equally divided between Detective McLeod (Douglas) and his gruff supervisor (Horace McMahon). Teiresias appears as a lawyer (Warner Anderson), in possession of key evidence but reluctant to share the truth he knows. Iocasta is McLeod’s wife, with a carefully guarded secret about her past (ineptly played by the miscast Eleanor Parker, in the only job of acting in the film that falls short of splendid). Even the shepherd, who gives the final bit of evidence that seals Oedipus’s doom, appears in the person of an oily racketeer (Gerald Mohr) who shares Mrs. McLeod’s secret. The film also boasts an assortment of messengers and a Chorus of helpful fellow detectives who place McLeod’s suffering in perspective. But, though the unities are generally maintained, the turgid ritualism of Greek tragedy is exchanged for a seriocomic realism by the introduction of a most interesting and well-played bunch of pathetics and grotesques: the witnesses and arrestees of an evening’s work in the precinct.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974, from the TRACKING SHOT column]
Parallax View doesn’t usually reproduce MTN ephemera such as the catch-all column “Tracking Shot.” Howsomever, this note of mine regarding the brief passage of Blake Edwards’s The Tamarind Seed through town engages an issue which, sadly, is anything but ephemeral. –RTJ
In the lead article of this issue, Kathleen Murphy confesses to some presuppositions that disposed her against The Tamarind Seed before she went into the theater. She did go into the theater, which a lot of generally intelligent and discerning filmgoers aren’t even considering as an option, given the plethora of signals surrounding the movie—the casting, the advertising, some of the damning-with-faint-praise “favorable” reviews.
As further evidence of what is keeping people from giving a chance to a film we frankly regard as singularly fine, we quote the following throwaway from a film potpourri column in a recent number of the new Seattle Sun: “The pathetic return of Julie Andrews (who sometimes wears a slip) and Omar Sharif (who always wears a smirk). If there was a prize for bad directing, Blake Edwards would win it with this.”
The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens.
Its portrait of rural poverty was something western audiences could relate to more than India’s distinctive urban culture and the customs, clothes, and score—Ravi Shankar on the sitar—suitably exotic color to a story that critics liked to call universal. That in part explains why this film was embraced internationally while other films from India failed to break through. Maybe it helped that it affirmed western perceptions of a country and culture that was little understood. But Pather Panchali is also an astounding debut of great power and poetry that is undiminished today. Ray put his passion into the film and created a nuanced and delicate film. Ray brings their environment alive in breathtaking scenes, especially Apu’s magical encounter with a train, billowing smoke in its wake like a mythical creature driving through his forest home. And he creates full, complex characters. While we see them through the wide-eyes of Apu, we do not get a simplified or reductive portrait.
The restoration of most (long story short, the three-hour reissue version, not the original six-hour serial) of Otto Rippert’s 1916 Homunculus has Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell joining in on a lengthy post. Thompson offers the background, placing the film in the context (visually and narratively) of the early experiments in fusing expressionism and cinema. (“For Expressionist filmmakers, elements of the supernatural or the legendary could motivate highly stylized mise-en-scene. In contrast, these 1910s films often used relatively realistic mise-en-scene. Location shooting, straightforward period costumes, and skillfully executed trick photography introduced the fantastic elements into the milieu of a concrete, seemingly everyday world.”) While Bordwell looks at the film itself, finding a provocative, wide-ranging film where even the element that seems the most dated—the mannered title performance of Olaf Fønss—is part of a larger, more elegant design. (“It’s now clear that by focusing just on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) we have limited our sense of the wide-ranging visual discoveries of German cinema. Homunculus belongs with the splendid string of films that includes Der Tunnel (1915), Algol (1920), I.N.R.I. (1920), and the outstanding pair of 1919 films by Robert Reinert, Opium and Nerven.”)
“He was a romantic who had a special way of visually enfolding the lovers in his movies that is almost Frank Borzage-like, and he glorifies very different women in what must be the best close-ups of their careers: look at some of the close-ups of the melancholy Sylvia Sidney in Behold My Wife! and then look at the close-ups of the wised-up Joan Bennett in 13 Hours by Air and see how Leisen gives them the same glamorizing treatment without ever losing what makes them so individual.” Dan Callahan joins the small but devoted list of fans who feel Mitchell Leisen’s visual intelligence, humanity, and consistency of vision make him a far greater talent than his seeming perpetual ranking as not one of the best but tops among the rest.
“You could marvel that it took Chabrol so long to get around to making an anti-Vichy film. But you could also note that he had been gunning for the Vichystes all along and just hadn’t been so blunt before. In fact, Story of Women should feel very familiar. He had made this movie at least twice before.” David Kalat traces the almost clockwork evolution—three films each made and set about a decade apart—that led to Chabrol’s indictment of the Vichy regime.
“You were in the house, calling my name, but I couldn’t find you. Then there you were, lying in bed, but it wasn’t you. It looked like you, but it wasn’t.” For Third Rail the frequent collaborators Christina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin offer provocative takes on Lost Highway. Álvarez López, in conjunction with a new video piece, considers Lynch’s skill at plunging us, moment by moment, into subjective space. (“What happens here, in a strictly narrative sense, can be easily summarized in one sentence; but the imprint it leaves on Fred’s psyche must be cinematically experienced.”) While Martin shows how well Lynch’s method fits in with some cutting-edge philosophical takes on the different bodies we inhabit. (“To paraphrase it: cinema (Brenez says) has the dual power both to concentrate the most complex of phenomena into a single, readable gesture or moment; and also to take what we have assumed to be transparent, straightforward, everyday things and make them seem suddenly, fantastically, strange and complex. This dual process is what David Lynch achieves, miraculously, virtually all the time.”) Via David Hudson. (.pdf warning and, given the choice of stills, NSFW.)
Nathalie Morris salutes I Know Where I’m Going at 70—and the gin and Dubonnet cocktail it celebrated just as it was going out of style.
“Come away around 4.30, weary rather than exhausted as I’ve contributed very little, my only suggestion being that Alex Jennings, who is eating an egg sandwich, should drop some of the egg down his pullover, as I invariably do. The costume department seize on this as a piece of cinéma vérité and egg is accordingly smeared down his front. It hardly seems a day’s work.” Alan Bennett diaries his days on the set of The Lady in the Van, amused as ever at how the British carapace, encountering upset (madness in the case of Mary Shepherd, the bustling of a film crew for his neighbors), refuses to crack, instead adapting the disorientation as a new routine. Spoilers for the film’s new ending.
“There is plenty to question or criticize about what “Star Wars” wrought, but in May of 1977, it was Lucas figuring out how to make nostalgia seem futuristic by taking it into space. It was a sign that event movies would truly have to be Events, and a warning that the era of the big expensive best seller adaptation was ending. It was also a reminder that you can’t engineer a hit or a cultural watershed moment.” Jessica Ritchey looks back to Spring, 1977, when 20th Century Fox was juggling a risky rinky-dink space opera no one knew how to sell, and a prestigious sure thing, the adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight, offering a specific example of the Old Hollywood that Lucas had a major part in upheaving.
Quentin Tarantino’s insistence on filming The Hateful Eight in 70mm—and the Weinstein Co.’s willingness to indulge him—didn’t just have consequences during filming, but in the months since, as the company’s been rounding up mothballed projectors and refurbishing them so that theaters can actually show the damned thing, as Hiawatha Bray reports.
“He is, in short, having the sort of late career that eminent movie actors tend to have, popping up for a scene or two in commercial stuff that needs a touch of gravity, and receiving, as famous old actors do, the honor of “last billing”: after all the lesser players have been listed, a stand-alone credit that reads “And Max von Sydow.”” Terrence Rafferty salutes von Sydow as the greatest living actor, digging into a few parts that especially live up to the billing—Bergman and Troell, of course, but also, for Hollywood, a pair of very different priests in The Exorcist and Hawaii. Coincidentally, while I’ve no problem with von Sydow granted the title, my own choice for the movie’s best living actor, Donald Sutherland, also gets a profile, courtesy of Robbie Collin. (“Sutherland grins. It’s a hungry grin, wide and wolfish, and it makes the air seem to prickle with danger, regardless of whether you see it on a wet, black night at Glasgow airport or anywhere else. Easing from one memory to the next, the actor rewinds to 1962 and his first film audition. Afterwards, he was contacted by the director, writer and producer, who told him that even though they had “admired his work”, they couldn’t use him for the part. ‘We’d always seen this fella as a guy-next-door character,’ the director said, ‘and to be absolutely truthful, we don’t think you look like you’ve ever lived next door to anybody.’”)
“I love the way you wrote about it because you wrote about it very simply and personally. I so recognized that thing you said about, “I didn’t want to be an asshole,” you know? I want to be polite. We’ve got to stop being polite. If I ever had children, which I don’t, the first thing I’d teach a girl of mine is the words “[fuck] off. “” The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Actress Roundtable remains a good read, with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Brie Larson, Jane Fonda, and Jennifer Lawrence (receiving praise above from Helen Mirren) talking with Stephen Galloway about both the struggles of the career and the joys of the profession.
“I did despair, I have to say, and that was very hard. I really did think: it’s all over now. I don’t know how on earth I lived, I don’t know how on earth I earned money. But it certainly puts iron in the soul. I just thought: ‘Oh well, that’s it. If my career is over then The House of Mirth is not a bad note to end on.’” Terence Davies talks with Adrew Pulver about the years of frustration when he couldn’t get Sunset Song financed, and how his career prospects have changed enough to almost make him sound optimistic—which is a weird fit with Davies, it’s true. (He also, along with Alan Bennett, is the second person this week to reference Barbara Goalen, suggesting the model was a bit of an icon for gay Englishmen of a certain generation.)
An auction of some marvelously preserved movie posters offers the opportunity not only to sample several acknowledged classics, but a wealth of charmingly illustrated one sheets for cartoons. Via Mubi.
Criterion presents a gallery of Guy Maddin collages, each charged with the unmistakable nervy, sexualized frisson that sparks his films.
Indian-born actor Saeed Jaffrey was a star of stage, radio, TV and movies in a busy career that spanned 50 years. He was Fulbright scholar who studied in America and settled in Britain and an Indian actor in a pre-multicultural entertainment industry, which meant limited opportunities on stage and screen in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a regular presence on BBC World Service radio. A major role in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) charged his career and he went on to star in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players (1977) and Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning Ghandi (1982), the TV mini-series The Far Pavillions (1984) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984), and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). His international profile attracted Bollywood producers and he made dozens of film in India through the 1990s before settling back to Britain, where he was back to a mix movies, TV, and radio roles. He passed away at the age of 86. Naseem Khan at The Guardian.
The Romanian Film Festival in Seattle is back for a second edition at SIFF Cinema Uptown this weekend and it opens on Friday, November 20 with a screening of Aferim!, Romania’s entry for the Oscars and winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It runs through Sunday. More details on the festival and a complete schedule (with guests noted) at the Romanian Film Festival website.
The weekly links page is compiled and curated by Bruce Reid, with obituaries curated by Sean Axmaker, and other contributions from friends of Parallax View.
Isn’t it time for Andy Kaufman to stop pretending he died in 1984, and return to his place in the comedy world? One of Kaufman’s prime pieces of conceptual theater—embodying a belligerent anti-comedian named Tony Clifton—has been honed by somebody else in his absence. Gregg Turkington has carved out his own queasy niche in comedy with his horrible alter ego, Neil Hamburger. Armed with stale material, an octopus-like combover, and a habit of clearing the phlegm from his throat in the middle of his punch lines, Hamburger is an offensive creep whose style of joke-telling was outdated in 1968. Turkington has rolled out this character on records and online—sometimes in front of live audiences who are clearly not getting the anti-joke.
Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.
Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.
Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Francesco Rosi’s attempt to adapt the method of The Mattei Affair to the career of Charles “Lucky” Luciano fails almost completely. What made the earlier film such a morally disturbing and aesthetically challenging experience was its formal complexity as a real-life mystery story in which the levels and processes of the narrative act became implicated in the hypotheses and half-truths it hoped to sort out. No such structural complexity informs Lucky Luciano. Sections of the movie are compelling, partly because they are imaginatively filmed, partly—the greater part—because they provide us with fascinating historical dirt: e.g., the connivance between Vito Genovese (Charles Cioffi) and the United States Army after the liberation of Italy. But whereas the fractured chronology and mixture of narrative modes served in Mattei Affair to render the very abundance of its mountain of evidence meaningful, here the method merely produces a muddle.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The situation is hopeless. The film became a box-office phenomenon the day it opened. The public said Yes and the candyass critics said No and the frothing-at-the-mouth daily reviewers scuttled to assure the public it was right. You just know what those snits at the little film magazines are going to say. They’re going to say No. Big deal. If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich? All right, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I thought it wasn’t a very good movie.
I read The Exorcist during a summer more disengaged than most, a time when I didn’t have very much to do and felt guilty about not doing it. A discerning friend later observed that the book seemed to him “one of the finest trash novels ever,” and while it had never occurred to me to invoke the stern god of Literature, I knew he was quite right. As narrative, it belonged firmly in the couldn’t-put-it-down class, and no one had to feel ashamed of succumbing to its spell. The film, written for the screen and produced by the man who’d so cozily chilled the summertime reader’s blood, had every right to exert the same spell. But it doesn’t.
“While Lime’s high ground, as it were, is meant to be ironic (the film hints as much early on when the porter at Martins’s hotel [Paul Hörbiger], with a weak grasp of the English language, gestures towards hell above and heaven below), the manner in which he is brought down to the restricted domain of the camera at eye level, to be trapped and destroyed, doesn’t necessarily suggest a better view.” Martin Zirulnik revisits The Third Man, and finds a movie careful to articulate its horizontal and vertical spaces—and to make clear how little even the purportedly clear-eyed Harry Lime perceives the real, desperate Vienna kept to “the margins of the screen.”
“In its very human focus, the “Rocky” series is, oddly, the closest analogue that American cinema has produced to François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle. But, whereas Doinel’s fictional life was defined, as any self-mythologizing Frenchman’s would be, in terms of his relationships with a series of stunning women, Rocky must measure himself always in his workplace: the ring. Across four decades, we’ve witnessed a full-blown, epic saga of a man perpetually considering, but never achieving, retirement.” With Creed soon to arrive as a presumed handing over of the reins, Andrew Bujalski looks back over Sylvester Stallone’s career-making creation Rocky Balboa, six movies charting the writer/director/star’s savvy growth of his character from loveable loser to definitive winner to old, alone, and surrounded by death.
Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s close reading of a scene from Nuit et jour shows how Chantal Akerman could make even the smallest, most seemingly conventional gestures resonate. Via Mubi.
It’s got a big ensemble cast, but if you want a measure of what Spotlight does very, very well, keep an eye on the new guy. In the film’s opening minutes, new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at The Boston Globe. In Schreiber’s canny performance, Baron is woefully free of warm ’n’ fuzzies; he’s a blunt outsider in a clubby town—he came from Miami, for crying out loud. We spot him as a corporate stooge who will surely act as antagonist to the Globe’s band of reporter heroes, those hard-talking pros with their sleeves rolled up. In a story full of hard-won disclosures, Baron’s gradual emergence as a beacon of journalistic integrity and moral conviction is perhaps the movie’s subtlest revelation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
It’s come to be almost a given that American communal life is pervaded with violence, contained or at large. Those filmmakers who aren’t examining contemporary urban jungles from vantage points of nihilistic glee or despair turn to the American rural past to disprove any vestigial illusions we might have had about the noble savage or the pastoral innocent. From Mean Streets to Badlands, from Bad Company to Thieves like Us, from Payday to Buster and Billie, the lay of the land remains the same: brave new worlds gone wrong, gone brutal, gone back from innocence either by accident or in cold blood. America, the home of hillbilly and ghetto crazies, killers pure in heart, traveling city streets and country backroads, dwarfed by skyscrapers or the prairie, always caught, mostly dead—the last American heroes.