Review: American Graffiti

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.

Keep Reading

Violent Cop - Photo credit: Film Movement

Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

violentcopViolent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

Keep Reading

Memento Mori - photo credit: Palisades Tartan

‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

Continue reading on Keyframe

Neruda - Photo credit: The Orchard

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

Keep Reading

Shin Godzilla - Photo credit: Funimation

Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

Continue reading at Keyframe

The Haunting

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, October 21

“Each table is crowded with sinister figurines as well as examples of that creepiest of all nineteenth-century fads, dead flowers under glass. The rooms seem to oppress the characters with all these things. The main staircase and the hallways are emptier, it’s true, but who wants to hang out in the hallways, where every door looks alike and is ready to swing shut without warning?” Farran Smith Nehme gets her seasonally appropriate production design love on, praising (for Library of America) how Robert Wise, cinematographer Davis Boulton, and designer Elliot Scott crafted images in The Haunting to somehow match Shirley Jackson’s implicitly sinister prose; then at Film Comment saluting one of the essential elements of Hammer horror. (“Every time characters walk outside or ride in a carriage, on their way to investigate, to rescue, flee or pursue—no one is ever just out for a walk or a drive in a Hammer movie—the wheels send dead leaves flying and half-bare branches curl toward the road like fingers. The travelers clutch their wraps and look up at menacing, usually gray skies. And when they arrive, what should greet them, but the sets of Bernard Robinson.”)

Film Comment also has Steven Mears on Deboarah Kerr’s unique aptitude for playing governesses (“This reciprocity (or, at worst, codependency) [with her charges] infuses all of her governess portrayals, and is one reason why her creations are miles apart from Julie Andrews’s impeccable Mary Poppins or concurrent TV domestics like Shirley Booth’s Hazel and Alice from The Brady Bunch: Kerr’s nannies need their children, perhaps even more than they’re needed by them.”); and Margaret Barton-Fumo applauds Harry Nilsson’s soundtracks, from Skidoo’s tellingly old-fashioned tunes to Popeye’s on-the-money raggedness, as well as the rare “concert” films the stage-fright afflicted Nilsson only allowed to be filmed without an audience.

Keep Reading

Kuroneko - Photo credit: Janus Films

Seattle Screens: Japanese horror in 35mm and ‘The Battle of Algiers’ restored

The Japanese horror classic Kuroneko (Black Cat) (1968), directed by Kaneto Shindo, is both an eerie ghost story and a ferocious horror tale of righteous revenge. Set in feudal Japan, in a bamboo forest perpetually shrouded in fog and shadow as ethereal as the ghosts that seem to float through it, the film chronicles the spirits of two women, raped and murdered by scruffy samurai who are more like feral bandits, driven to revenge themselves on all samurai, which they lure to their ghost house, itself a spirit that moves through the forest like a supernatural creature. It’s one of the greatest of Japanese ghost stories, a horror film of elemental drive, feminist rage and visual grace. It plays three shows at Grand Illusion this week from a 35mm print.

Also at Grand Illusion in 35mm is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), a quartet of ancient ghost stories. It may not be strictly speaking a horror film—it’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images—but it is breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The 160-minute film plays twice this week.

Keep Reading

Certain Women

Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

The Gang's All Here

Yes, We Have No Bananas: ‘The Gang’s All Here’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley Footlight Parade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!

Keep Reading

Simone Simon in 'Cat People'

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Keep Reading


Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Mortuary (2005)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Shown: Price Carson

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, October 14

October as always brings horror to movie blogs, with two pieces this week aiming to rehabilitate Tobe Hooper. Noel Murray’s the more conventional of the pair, saluting the director’s command of cinema and his deliberate assaults on audience expectations while letting everything Hooper directed after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 fall under the one-sentence dismissal of “hackery,” while offering some well-grounded insights into how Hooper’s unconventionality and seeming distracted air onset probably harmed his career. (“The problem—at least from Cannon’s point of view—is that while Hooper was evolving as a craftsman and artist, he was moving away from what the horror fans of the mid-‘80s expected. […] Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars in particular are self-conscious throwbacks to the more theatrical and expressionistic genre pictures of the ‘50s and ‘60s.”) While Mike Thorn goes all-in, claiming masterpiece status for the likes of Mortuary and The Mangler. (On the latter, it “showcases an even more mature, sophisticated, and focused artist, though, wearing its crazed aspirations in every scene like a badge of honor. However, it’s worth noting that the film doesn’t simply revel in formal excess; rather, it finds the potential for serious and damning social allegory in its source text.”) Not to pick sides, since Murray’s piece is damned fine and the better observed of the two, but if you can’t go whole hog unsubtle in your praise of Tobe Hooper, when can you?

“When characters sleep, the plot of the film comes to a standstill. All we can do is wait. That Kiarostami deliberately lingers over these moments of narrative vacancy reveals more than his aversion to Hollywood pacing. As he explained in [a] 1997 interview: ‘Whenever I make a film, it’s the content that determines the film’s style.’ And the content that makes up most of Kiarostami’s work is the granular moments of the everyday: a car ride, a walk, a boy trying to get his mother’s attention, an idle taxi driver waiting for his passenger to return, and, of course, sleep.” Kiarostami made more than a few tongue-in-cheek comments over the years about putting his audiences to sleep, but Xueli Wang argues that when you consider the many scenes of slumber in his films, and their warmly soporific pacing, you get less a joke than one of the keys to Kiarostami’s cinema.

Keep Reading

The Double Life of Veronique

Seattle Screens: Festival season – Twist, South Asian, Polish Film Festivals

Twist 2016, the Seattle Queer film festival, has its opening night at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Thursday, October 13 with the world premiere of Seattle artist Clyde Petersen’ debut feature Torrey Pines and continues through Sunday, October 23 with screenings and events at the Egyptian, NWFF, 12 Ave Arts Building, Pacific Place, and other venues. The closing night film The Pass screens at Cinerama on Sunday, October 23. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

The 11th Annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival opens on Friday, October 14 with a screening of Aynabaji (India) at Seattle Art Museum, moves to SIFF Film Center for a weekend of screenings, and screens films at Thompson Hall at the UW, Carco Theater in Renton, and other venues through Sunday, October 23. It closes with Waiting, a Hindi-language film from India. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

The Seattle Polish Film Festival plays at SIFF Cinema Uptown this weekend with screenings of Cellin Gluck’s Persona Non Grata, Tomasz Wasilewski’s The United States of Love, Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes, and revivals of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) and The Double Life of Veronique (1991) among other films. It plays through Sunday, October 23. Complete schedule and other details at the website here.

Keep Reading

Rachel Weisz in 'Denial'

Review: Denial

“Not all opinions are equal.” How good it is, in this our time of cultural lunacy, to have these words definitively spoken. The fact that the phrase is uttered in a not-especially-great film is perhaps disappointing, but you gotta start somewhere, and movies have been known to lead the cultural conversation. Even when they’re not great.

Denial is written by the esteemed David Hare and directed by the journeyman Mick Jackson, so you might be able to guess where it soars and where it staggers. Hare, the unsparing author of Plenty and Skylight, based the script on Deborah Lipstadt’s experience in the world of Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is a New York-raised academic (she once taught at the University of Washington) who was sued for libel in British court in 1996 over her book Denying the Holocaust, which named English author David Irving as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The UK legal system mandated that Lipstadt had to establish that what she said was true—a situation that essentially put her legal team in the strange position of proving the Holocaust happened.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Sleeper

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. Taking Off was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.

Keep Reading