Film Review: ‘Annie’

18 December, 2014 (05:08) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Musicals | By: Robert Horton

Cameron Diaz, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Nicolette Pierini

Musical-theater purists can be almost as fussy as Star Wars fanatics, so expect a certain amount of kvetching over the new adaptation of Annie (previously filmed in ’82). The beloved 1977 Broadway show gets a thorough reworking, with rewritten lyrics, funked-up music, and a time-shift to the present day. (The comic-inspired original was a Depression-era fable, complete with cameo by Franklin Roosevelt.) Though it’s going to get lambasted, this new Annie is actually kind of fun on its own terms, with a rapid-fire pace and actors who aren’t afraid to be silly.

The role of Annie usually goes to girls who sound as though they’ve swallowed Ethel Merman’s trumpet, but here the part is played by soft-voiced Quvenzhané Wallis, the kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Elsa & Fred’

18 December, 2014 (05:07) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine

Fifty years ago Shirley MacLaine was doing adorable-pixie roles in movies like Irma La Douce and What a Way to Go! and Christopher Plummer was, well, the Captain in The Sound of Music. Both actors are doing just about the same thing in Elsa & Fred. She’s still an unstoppable force of life, and he’s still moping around the house. MacLaine doesn’t break into a chorus of “My Favorite Things” to shake him out of his doldrums, but she does insist that they re-create the fountain-jumping scene from La Dolce Vita. Which is not a bad way for an old curmudgeon to get his mojo back, it turns out.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

17 December, 2014 (07:12) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Azog, because even Orcs have a place in this film

If you see the names Thranduil, Tauriel, Azog, and Thorin Oakenshield, and you know instantly who they are and how they fit into Middle Earth, then you are probably ready for the third part of the Hobbit trilogy. If you can’t place the names, please consider rewatching the first two films and probably the entire Lord of the Rings box set as well. Because it’s going to get very thick around here.

Peter Jackson’s crowded final film of the J.R.R. Tolkien universe begins in mid-breath. Fiery breath: The flying dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) was loosed at the end of Part Two, and his flaming rampage is in full swing as Five Armies commences.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Videophiled: Barbara Steele and ‘The Long Hair of Death’

16 December, 2014 (14:31) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

LongHairofDeathThe Long Hair of Death (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) – Raro Video, the American arm of an Italian home video company, is one of only a couple of disc labels with a tightly-defined mission, in this case a focus on classics of Italian cinema that ranges from auteur masterworks to genre landmarks and cult items. The Long Hair of Death (1964) is one of the latter, a moody Gothic horror from genre stalwart Antonio Margheriti (whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) starring Barbara Steele, the British actress who became the most striking and mesmerizing star of Italian horror cinema in the sixties.

The preferred genre of the prolific Margheriti (whose films were often signed with the anglicized pseudonym Anthony Dawson, as it is here) was science fiction but, being an Italian director in the genre pool of the sixties (and later the seventies and eighties), he did it all: peplum, fantasy, crime, action, westerns, and of course horror of all kinds. His Gothic horrors of the sixties are among his best and this, his second collaboration with Steele (after Castle of Blood, 1964), is a minor beauty of the genre, a medieval revenge film with an innocent burned for witchcraft, a corrupt aristocracy, a curse, a ghost, and a sweet, sweet revenge. Steele is the eldest daughter of the woman framed for murder and burned alive and as she sacrifices her maidenhood to Count Humboldt to stop the trial by fire, his cruel son Kurt (George Ardisson, looking like Italy’s answer to Doug McClure with bad attitude) ignites the “test” blaze, which is quite literally a maze of bundled straw surrounding the accused It’s a great scene, with the woman scrambling up on a cross in the center of the inferno as pyres rage around her to spit a curse upon the family, and Steele soon follows, murdered to cover up the sins of the Humboldt family. Only when her innocent young stepsister Lisabeth is grown into a young beauty (Halina Zalewska) and forced into marriage to the scheming Kurt does Steele return, this time as the embodiment of her mother. She takes the name Mary and poses as a seductive traveler who immediately becomes of object of Kurt’s obsession. She turns seductress and appears to encourage Kurt to murder his wife but her true motivations are more insidious.

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Review: Jaws

16 December, 2014 (06:11) | by Rick Hermann, Film Reviews | By: Rick Hermann

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

Jaws begins with a chillingly realistic sequence of shots that are at the same time metaphysically portentous and eerily beautiful. The camera pans slowly across a group of college people singing and drinking around a beach campfire, cuts a fluid swath along a bluish twilight New England sand dune, eases into a placid sea behind a pretty girl, and follows her as she swims fatefully out over those murky depths where we all know what is waiting. As the girl splashes innocently against a postcard sunset, we cut to a couple of quick shots whose point of view is somewhere below the water, evilly hovering, gazing up at the girl’s form and the dusk sky which swims and shimmers above her like an out-of-focus image of another world. The underwater camera and the presence it represents move progressively closer, intercut with shots of the girl from the surface, until finally she gets this funny look on her face, bobs once or twice like a cork floater on a fishing line, and goes shooting through the water at shark speed. And then she’s gone. There’s this silence, this beautiful fading sunset, a few harmless waves lapping the beach….

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Presenting Thanhouser, the Greatest American Independent Studio of the 1910s

15 December, 2014 (16:04) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

The title to Ned Thanhouser‘s documentary, The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema, isn’t mere hyperbole.

Veteran stage actor and theater manager Edwin Thanhouser (the director’s grandfather) made his move from live theater to making movies for the growing market of cinema in 1909. By 1918, as the industry grew beyond Thanhouser’s ability to keep pace, he closed it down. In those nine years of the studio’s existence, a period in which it produced over 1,000 shorts, features and serials, the industry changed dramatically. The stranglehold of Patents Trust over the fledgling industry was broken, short films gave way to features, the center of filmmaking relocated from New York to California, Hollywood was born, the grammar of narrative filmmaking evolved from tableaux scenes and simple continuity editing to complex patterns of shots to tell complicated stories, and the reign of the studio brand gave way to the birth of movie stars.

‘The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema’

According to the film, which is guided by historical research of Q. David Bowers, Thanhouser accounted for twenty-five percent of the independent films made in the United States at the peak of its success. The Thanhouser brand was a recognized mark of quality to audiences and distributors alike and two Thanhouser shorts, The Cry of the Children (1912), which addressed child labor in American factories, and The Evidence of the Film (1913), one of a number of Thanhouser films that incorporates the filmmaking process itself in the storytelling, were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Yet only a few years later, the once-vibrant Thanhouser was in danger of becoming old-fashioned and behind the times. The story of Thanhouser is in the story of the rapid transformation of American movies in the most creatively and commercially dramatic era of American cinema.

Continue reading at Keyframe

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Videophiled: ‘Out of the Past’ on Blu-ray

14 December, 2014 (18:43) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Noir, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

OutPastBlurayOut of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – In a genre full of desperate characters scrambling and plotting to grab their slice of the American dream, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a hard-boiled tale of betrayal with an unusually haunting quality. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the classic doomed not-so-innocent of the American cinema, a former private detective whose life is forever changed when he falls in love with the wrong woman: Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the runaway mistress of a gangster (Kirk Douglas, all shark-like smiles). He’s been hired to get both her and the small fortune she stole back. She has other ideas and immediately seduces him, sending him on a long road to a fatal dead end.

Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece has been called the greatest film noir of all time and I wouldn’t argue the claim. It’s certainly one of the quintessential expressions of the genre, a hard-boiled story of betrayal and revenge with its compromised PI, vindictive gangster, coldly conniving femme fatale, and flashback structure narrated by the wounded hero. It opens in an idealized rural Eden, flashes back to the corrupt city and an exotic escape south of the border, and crawls into a snake-in-Eden thriller of deception, regret, and scarred-over emotional wounds, and it’s beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s resident expert in shadowy atmosphere and clear-eyed perceptions.

The photography alone is reason enough to get the Blu-ray; in a genre of hard shadows and stark graphic imagery, this film contrasts the dark scenes of murder and treachery with the rural escape and the wooded retreats, an ideal that is slowly corrupted when the city crooks arrive. But this is one of the noir essentials and features perhaps Mitchum’s greatest role. He delivers more than merely a performance: his sleepy-eyed sneer and laconic delivery create the quintessential bad boy with a good soul and resigned acceptance of his fate. And Greer is blithely seductive as the alluring but hollow object of his obsession. “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

It’s a beautifully-mastered disc from an excellent source print, with no visible scratches or damage. The image is crisp and sharp and the contrasts are excellent, pulling out the details in the light and in the shadows. It features the commentary track by film noir expert James Ursini recorded for the 2004 DVD release.

More Blu-rays from the Warner Archive at Cinephiled

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Review: The Return of the Pink Panther

13 December, 2014 (11:13) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

MGM whacks some of the most splendid moments out of The Wild Rovers, your lovely first Western ever, then has at The Carey Treatment so badly with the shears that you’d prefer your name weren’t on it; so you find other backers and make one of the best movies of the ’74 season, The Tamarind Seed, and the intelligent audience it deserves won’t go near it because your wife’s the star and her name’s a joke in all the cleverest households. There’s no blaming Blake Edwards for covering his bets by hieing back to proven ground with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and The Return of the Pink Panther. Return is a hit commercially and—to the extent that non–Woody Allen and non–Mel Brooks comedies are taken note of—critically, and that must feel good to Edwards. It feels good to me, too, as long as I don’t dwell on the lurking injustice of it all. (It’s hard not to graft an auteurist allegory onto the credit titles, wittily animated by the Richard Williams Studio. The cartoon Pink Panther returns to attend the gala première of the film version of his return, capers about in such serially secure guises as a Mickey Mouseketeer and the Frankenstein Monster, and ends the film by donning director’s garb and turning his crank camera on the audience, winking through a final iris-shot to leave a pink haze of elegantly blown cigarette smoke: an evanescent image appropriate to the assured whimsy both Edwards’s mise-en-scène and—another “return”—Henry Mancini’s Edwards scores effortlessly sustain.)

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Film Review: ‘Wild’

12 December, 2014 (18:16) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Reese Witherspoon and Michael Huisman

Maybe there’s something in Cheryl Strayed’s writing voice that has enthralled readers of her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, an account of a solo walking journey. If so, that voice hasn’t translated to the movie version.

The film stars Reese Witherspoon, who also produced it. You can see why the star wanted the material: it’s a big role, full of bad behavior and attitude and acting-out. We meet Cheryl Strayed (she made up the last name) as she embarks on hiking a thousand miles of the PCT. We also see plenty of flashbacks to an unhappy life — promiscuity and drug abuse are highlighted — and track the sad fate of Strayed’s mother (Laura Dern).

Continue reading at The Herald (paywall alert)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 12

12 December, 2014 (10:29) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Boogie Nights’

Grantland’s series of articles on Paul Thomas Anderson are timed to the release of Inherent Vice, but most are good enough to prompt the question: Why can’t every week be Paul Thomas Anderson week? In fact that’s already so; most of the articles getting attention (like Alex French and Howie Kahn’s oral history of Boogie Nights, a marvelous read crimped by some major holdouts starting with Anderson himself) first went up a year or more ago. But who cares when reading such good stuff as Molly Lambert’s fine ode to the San Fernando Valley, a location that Anderson has made as distinctly his own as any filmmaker has (“simultaneously urban, suburban, and industrial; at once run-down and brand gleaming new”) or John Lopez’s take on the director’s indebtedness to and divergence from Robert Altman (“for all the ways in which Anderson’s early films beg, borrow, and steal from Altman, their tributes to his ethos felt tightly controlled, like an audacious apprentice trying to do the master one better”) that the former dates itself with a Mad Man reference?

Mubi spots the new issue of cléo, dedicated to the premise that feminists are perfectly capable of partying down. Kathleen Kampeas-Rittenhouse salutes the surprisingly progressive portrayals Clue’s three leading ladies manage to sneak into the picture (“[A]lthough the film never explicitly addresses the claustrophobic sexism of 1950s America, each female guest’s secret identity reveals a struggle to wrest power from a male-dominated society.”). Eleni Deacon shows how many stereotypes Election’s Tracy Flick flips in the course of her lonely campaign (“Being a nerd may exacerbate Tracy’s day-to-day exclusion at Carver—but being a nerd-in-command also excludes her from prescriptive classifications as the victimized, undesirable dork.”). And a roundtable considers the complicated pleasures of makeovers and free-for-all parties in ’90s teen comedies. Also some good interviews: Julie Taymor discusses adapting Shakespeare (“I do a lot of adaptations of myths or folk tales or early stories, and I think that’s because there are a limited number of great stories in the world. When they’re truly great, then they can be done many ways over and over again.”), and Sally Potter talks about collaborating and what she learned from the cold reception to her debut feature (“I hold no bitterness about the failure of The Gold Diggers, because in the end it became the sweetest triumph.”).

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Film Review: ‘Top Five’

11 December, 2014 (05:43) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Gabrielle Union and Chris Rock

If Chris Rock’s movies were as good as his interviews, he’d be racking up year-end critics’ awards right about now. The comedian has been smart and funny—riffing on politics, race, and Hollywood—in his publicity marathon for Top Five, a starring vehicle he also wrote and directed. But at some point, the actual film has to open, and, well—too bad. This one is a marked advance over Rock’s previous directing fling, I Think I Love My Wife (2007), a stillborn remake of Eric Rohmer’s French New Wave classic Chloe in the Afternoon. But it’s much less savvy than his stand-up observations.

The story unfolds over the course of a long day in New York, as a once-popular comedian named Andre Allen (Rock) desperately promotes his new movie.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘The Great Invisible’

11 December, 2014 (05:39) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘The Great Invisible’

Is a documentary an information-delivery system or a work of art? This question keeps dogging the makers of nonfiction films, and director Margaret Brown takes a stab at having it both ways in The Great Invisible. Brown, who made the affecting 2004 portrait Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, has here tackled the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—and most important, its aftermath. Brown does due diligence in reminding us of the devastating 2010 explosion at the offshore oil rig, which killed 11 workers and caused extensive damage to the ecosystem of that part of the Gulf of Mexico. One of the film’s eeriest tools is home-movie footage shot on the rig before the disaster, a cheerful tour through the state-of-the-art (but still dangerous) structure.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

11 December, 2014 (05:36) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale

The gulf between Moses movies can be measured in beards. For The Ten Commandments (1956), Charlton Heston unrolled a splendid carpet of chin-hair; for the latest incarnation, Christian Bale offers realistic, scraggly whiskers that might belong to the third apostle from the right in any average biblical epic. Exodus: Gods and Kings prefers angst over showmanship, and the picture suffers accordingly.

Surely the film’s director, Ridley Scott, has been waiting all his life to get a crack at the florid yarn-spinning of the Old Testament.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Review: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings

10 December, 2014 (07:27) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

One’s lip needn’t tremble with forthrightness in suggesting that W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings is John Avildsen’s most likable movie; on the amiability meter, Joe and Save the Tiger leave nowhere to go but up. But as sneak-preview audiences already begin to murmur about the overselling of Nashville (I’m inclined to say that’s their problem, and will undoubtedly contribute to it in MTN 43), it may be time to put in a word or two in behalf of this very easy-to-take summertime divertissement. Burt Reynolds jovially represents himself as a Chevy-driving stick-up man who is so effective at convincing service station attendants to part with the money in the till that he generally has them wishing him to “come back again, y’ hear.” He specializes in one chain of stations, with the result that a fire-and-brimstone, black-garbed ex-lawman is hired to run him down. Thunder claps when this fellow (played by Art Carney with what we might call austere relish) closes his notebook; he’s an ex-lawman only because his former constituents had the temerity to expect him to enforce the law on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, while ducking out on an earnest local cop who wants to nail him on a traffic violation, W.W. Bright (Reynolds) falls in with a country-western band that can’t get out of the toolies. At first for a lark, then—to his own bewilderment—in earnest, he begins to promote them. How to support the outfit while waiting until they’re good enough to take the Grand Ole Opry by storm? Well, heck, that oil company just opened a li’l ol’ bank right down the road…. W.W. is every bit as heavyhanded about its hick comedy as its two sententious predecessors were about their solemn concerns, but once one gives up on the notion of directorial finesse and settles back to enjoy the broad humor, it’s quite a pleasant show.

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Videophiled: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ versus ‘Time Bandits’

9 December, 2014 (16:59) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

GuardiansGalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.

It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.

But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.

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