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by Robert C. Cumbow


Review: A Doll’s House

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The Garland–Elkins production of A Doll’s House is one of two screen adaptations of Ibsen’s play to be released this year, presumably to cash in on the women’s liberation market. Joseph Losey’s film, which will reach Seattle by way of the video screen, is an adaptation for the screen in every sense of the term. Garland’s effort, on the other hand, is more a film recording of Elkins’s Broadway production of the play, starring Elkins’s wife Claire Bloom. The exasperating thing about it is that it can’t make up its mind whether to be a filmed play or a movie. The stifling atmosphere of confinement, especially important to a play in which the seen world onstage represents a world in which the protagonist is trapped, is retained for about the first third of the film, Garland keeping all the action within the walls of Torvald Helmer’s house. Thereafter, we get exterior shots, first glimpsed through windows and finally photographed by cameras in the street. Garland yields to the temptation to cut away to Krogstad’s shabby flat, and yields again; and before the film is half over the mystery of the outside world and the sense of confinement in the inner world are both lost. Presumably the increasingly frequent glimpses of a world beyond the Helmer household are intended to move us smoothly toward Nora’s departure from her husband’s house and her entry into that outer world. But this is a violation of the play itself, on two counts. First, Nora’s break from Torvald and her children is sudden, not gradual. And second, her departure is based not upon a growing awareness of the other world but a stifling disenchantment with the inner world, which, in the play, is the only world she sees and moves in.

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Erasable Bond

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

Watching the last three James Bond films in close succession, one constantly sees contrasts. Not so with the first two films of the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, which frequently play together as a double feature. They invite comparison rather than contrast, their parallels in plot and style having established a “James Bond formula” with which viewers quickly became familiar, expecting its recurrence in subsequent films. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice fulfilled the expectation.

But the juxtaposition of the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which also have circulated as a double bill, impresses the viewer more with differences than similarities, provoking one to redefine his notion of exactly what a James Bond film is, or is supposed to be. And the most recent offering, Live and Let Die, compared with its two immediate predecessors, comes off decidedly third-best.

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East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

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Summer of ‘91: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Point Break’

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in ‘Point Break’

In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.

Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.

Continue reading at Slant

Review: I.F. Stone’s Weekly

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

After nearly being consigned to oblivion by its would-be distributors, I.F. Stone’s Weekly was withdrawn by its creator, 26-year-old Jerry Bruck, and rereleased for a small engagement in Washington, D.C. Its popularity led to a New York showing, and then a San Francisco run which broke all records for the exhibiting house. Bruck and his modest, 62-minute, black-and-white documentary have unpredictably become the sensation of the year. How to explain the phenomenon? Certainly not in terms of cinematic achievement, for there are no particularly new or inventive techniques employed in the film. In fact, Bruck frequently indulges in some rather worn ones (an Amherst ceremony honoring Stone is intercut with a Marine Corps parade honoring Lyndon Johnson and news footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, while the Amherst choir sings on), and uses them sometimes unfairly, as when he loads the dice in Stone’s favor with news film of Ron Ziegler and Tom Jarriel playing tennis under the watchful eye of Tricia Nixon Cox while Stone’s voice describes how mainstream journalists play ball with the White House. Not that the device doesn’t work. It’s good for a jolt—which is precisely why it shouldn’t have been used. Jarriel is one of the least collusive of Washington pressmen, and to resort to a misleading visual pun to indict him cheapens an otherwise solid film.

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Review: Joyce at 34

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Joyce at 34, the half-hour personal film accompanying I.F. Stone’s Weekly at the Movie House, is touted as a feminist film. Believe me, the cause has had better exponents. This little piece of autobiography concerns the 34-year-old filmmaker’s decision to have both a baby and a career, and chronicles the first months of her life as a working mother. The film presents arguments for and against having both job and child in the form of ill-thought-out “soul-searching” and selfrighteous emotionalism insulting to the intelligent viewer. The conclusion is right, but the approach is both shabby and wrong. There is a lot more to feminism than a gaggle of self-serving yentas talking over coffee about raising children and finding jobs during the depression.

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Review: Ten from Your Show of Shows

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.

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John Ireland Remembered

[The O Canada Blogathon runs February 1-5]

The first time I saw John Ireland must have been in Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren, 1951). My dad was a sucker for movies about the US Cavalry, and made me one too. The film had a profound impression on a five-year-old me—mainly for the stunning moment when Lloyd Bridges gets tattooed straight up his right side by three arrows in quick succession (a special effect whose timing and execution are still stunning 65 years later)—but also for the face and bearing of John Ireland. Even if it would be a while longer before I learned his name, I’d point him out as “that guy” whenever he showed up in something else I was watching.

Ironically, he’d already done his best-known work by then; but I’d be well into adulthood before the benefits of film societies, rep houses, videotape, and eventually digital redistribution would afford me the opportunity to catch up with the films of his meteoric rise: A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945), My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), Railroaded! (Anthony Mann, 1947), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949), All the King’s Men (Robert Rossen, 1949). Not a bad first five years.

Look at him in Red River as Cherry Valance, comparing pistols with Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth, two vital young screen actors trying each other out in a scene suggesting a future confrontation with Garth (and with Clift) that never comes. Lurking in the background of the film, fall guy for a fake set-up, Ireland’s Valance transfers his animus to John Wayne’s Tom Dunson, calling Dunson out at what he alone thinks is the climax, only to get the barest flyswat of a gunshot from Dunson, who whirls, shoots, and turns back to his relentless march toward Garth without ever breaking stride. We don’t even know whether Valance is killed or only wounded, so peremptory is his dismissal. But the strength and dignity of Ireland’s investment in Valance remain among the most remarkable features of this most remarkable film. (Of course, offscreen, he’s the one who married Tess Millay—well, Joanne Dru—his second marriage, and it lasted eight years, 1949-57.)

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Parallax View’s Best of 2015

Welcome 2016 with one last look back at the best releases of 2015, as seen by the Parallax View contributors and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.

Soren Andersen

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Spotlight
3. The Revenant
4. Ex Machina
5. Chi-Raq
6. Steve Jobs
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
8. Goodnight Mommy
9. The Martian
10. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
(more at The Seattle Times)

Sean Axmaker

1. Clouds of Sils Maria
2. Carol
3. Phoenix
4. Taxi
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Spotlight
7. 45 Years
8. Mustang
9. Jauja
10. Ex Machina
And ten more that almost made the list: Brooklyn, Experimenter, Girlhood, Inside Out, It Follows, Love & Mercy, The Martian, Queen & Country, Sicario, Timbuktu
Also lists at Village Voice Film Poll and Keyframe

David Coursen

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Chi-Raq (Spike Lee,US)
Leviathan (Russia, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad, US)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US)
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, US)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine)
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Honorable Mention: Carol (Todd Haynes, US)

Bob Cumbow

(in no intending order)
Ex Machina
Slow West
The Big Short
Bridge Of Spies
Also: The Walk, Mr. Holmes
Endings: PhoenixCarol
Disappointments: SpectreThe Hateful 8
Surprises: Mission Impossible: Rogue NationPredestination
Guilty Pleasure: San Andreas
Actors: Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Ronald Zehrfeld (Phoenix), Rooney Mara (Carol), Saorise Ronan (Brooklyn), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Emily Blunt (Sicario), Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies), Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes)
Director: Christian Petzold (Phoenix)
Music: Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies; Carter Burwell, Carol; Howard Shore, Spotlight; Alan Silvestri, The Walk; Andrew Lockington, San Andreas

John Hartl

45 Years
Ex Machina
Bridge of Spies
Inside Out
99 Homes
A second 10: The Walk, Joy, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Phoenix, Tab Hunter Confidential, Rosenwald, I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Big Short, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Most miraculous restoration: The Apu Trilogy.

Robert Horton

1. 45 Years
2. Son of Saul
3. Bridge of Spies
4. Experimenter
5. It Follows
6. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Ex Machina
8. The Assassin
9. Spotlight
10. The Duke of Burgundy
The second 10, just missing: The droll Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe not as good as the fanboys say, but definitely good; the straightforwardly lovely Brooklyn; Viggo Mortensen in the magical Jauja; Bone Tomahawk; Mississippi Grind; the devastating documentary The Look of Silence; The Hateful Eight; the pictorially astonishing The Revenant; and—why not—Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
(via Seattle Weekly)

Richard T. Jameson

1. It Follows
2. Clouds of Sils Maria
3. Spotlight
4. Bridge of Spies
5. Room
6. The Assassin
7. 45 Years
8. Son of Saul
9. Jauja
10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Close and by all means a cigar: Bone Tomahawk, Brooklyn, Blackhat, Mad Max: Fury Road, Phoenix, Ex Machina, Sicario
Pix: Saiorse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Brooklyn; Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, 45 Years
(via Framing Pictures)

Jay Kuehner

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2. Carol (Todd Haynes)
3. Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
4. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
5. The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid)
6. Heaven Knows What (Benny and Josh Safdie)
7. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)
8. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
9. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
(via Keyframe)

Moira Macdonald

(in alphabetical order)
45 Years
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
The Third Man/ Tales of Hoffmann
(more at The Seattle Times)

Brian Miller

Favorite moments at Seattle Weekly

Kathleen Murphy

(in no intending order)
Clouds of Sils Maria
45 Years
It Follows
Son of Saul
Bone Tomahawk
Mad Max: Fury Road / The Assassin
(via Framing Pictures)

Bruce Reid

1. Experimenter
2. Taxi
3. It Follows
4. The Hateful Eight
5. Welcome to New York
6. Blackhat
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
8. Timbuktu
9. Queen and Country
10. Maps to the Stars

In my absolute favorite scene of the year Stanley Milgram sits and reads from Speak, Memory the famous opening line of how we’re all our lives suspended between oblivions. Behind him two assistants lower lab equipment into a crate with the professional solemnity of undertakers.

In my second favorite scene a figure loping down a road, dressed in a ridiculous, baggy frog costume complete with bulging eyes, is revealed to be the last-act badass whose coming has been threatened throughout the movie.

One of those films made the list below; the other, Miike’s entertainingly unhinged Yakuza Apocalypse, didn’t quite. But both show off the quality that marks my favorite movies: an apparent legibility that, looked at more closely, resists any definitive reading. The ending of Milgrim’s most famous experiment is framed (literally, through a window that carves another screen inside the screen we’re watching) as a death; but one of the movie’s many points is that lives carry on, quite fulfillingly, after their supposed defining moments have passed. And when the muppet suit comes off there’s another surprise, and a further bad guy to confront.

We’re always told that movies, capturing real people moving through real environments, tend away from the mysterious and toward the concrete in a way that the other arts aren’t hampered. Except the camera’s eye can make even concrete glow with mysteries. I fell in love with the films above for the way they tracked down hallways in prisons and apartments, refusing to distinguish between the two; for the expertly timed closing of a piano lid; for the anxious way its actors clutched fishbowls, and the nonchalance with which they grasped cameras; for clouds roiling down a mountaintop, which you’d think would be beyond a director’s control; for a skyscraper flickering in a dying woman’s eyes. But it’s not just pianos and hallways, fishbowls and clouds and cameras, or even flicker. It never is.

Andrew Wright

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Blackhat
3. Carol
4. The Hateful Eight
5. It Follows (Reviewed for the Portland Mercury)
6. Bridge of Spies (Reviewed for The Stranger)
7. Tangerine (Reviewed for The Stranger)
8. Bone Tomahawk
9. Creed
10. Sicario

Lists of lists:

Village Voice (poll and lists)
Keyframe Best Feature Films of 2015
Keyframe Daily Lists and Award 2015 Index

Film Comment
Indiewire Poll
Roger Ebert
Sight and Sound
Time Out London

Other lists
2015 additions to the National Film Registry
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Ten Best Films of … 1925
New York Times Year in Culture

Review: Zardoz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.

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Out of the Past: Detective Story

[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.

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Imitation of Life: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

American officials and the American public began to believe that the Soviet Union was bent on building a Communist empire and that it would halt its expansion only when forced to do so.
With this conviction, the American government took steps to block further Soviet expansion. From then on, relations between the two powers bordered on a state of war….
The Red Scare after World War II … had roots not only in the cold war but in long-buried currents of anti-intellectualism and in the rapid social changes attendant on the shift from depression to prosperity. …
Much of what was widely believed during the scare was nonsense. There was a notion, for example, that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the American government. … There was another notion that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the news media, the motion picture industry, and the clergy, so that news, movies and sermons had gulled the public into approving pro-Communist policies. These beliefs rested on the fantasy that the United States, if it chose, could shape the world to its will, and that, whenever anything went wrong, the fault had to lie at home.

—Ernest May, Anxiety and Affluence, 1945-1965

The wave of anti-intellectualism crested with McCarthy and washed over much of the remainder of the decade. Blacklisting had become such a threat that many filmmakers consciously made openly anti-Communist films, to preserve their reputations and obtain favors. Red Paranoia was so widespread that many more filmmakers reflected the fear of subversion and infiltration in their movies, even unconsciously. In either case, the monster movies of the Fifties in general reflect an intense fear of infiltration and dehumanization by a subversive, colonizing power (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Brain Eaters) or by a communal society bent on destructive expansionism (Them!, War of the Worlds). Creeping Communism became one of the main themes of monster movies in 1954, and the monster movies themselves became one of the main proponents of the battle against Communist ideology (or what was generally understood to be such). Its metaphors were monsters, from outer space, from under the earth or on it, bent on conquering the human race (always starting with the United States of America), and often determined to create a mindless Utopia devoid of feelings and individuality.

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Out of the Past: Dance of the Vampires

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

To call Roman Polanski’s fourth feature film a mere spoof on vampire movies is as ridiculously shallow as to call it The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Polanski’s own title, Dance of the Vampires, far better suits this ambivalently comic, profoundly troubling sortie into cinema gothic. The villain in the case is the spectacularly myopic producer Martin Ransohoff, who cut some nine minutes from the original film (including some of the best sequences, if Ivan Butler’s description of the British print is to be believed), redubbed certain of the voices (including the director’s own), and slapped that insipid title on the film for its American release. With righteous indignation, Polanski asked that his name not be associated with the film as exhibited in the United States.

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emigrants & immigrants

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Quite early in Jan Troell’s The New Land one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While The New Land represents a narrative extension of the events of The Emigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.

From the first shot of The Emigrants—the camera’s long, slow crawl over the rocky landscape of a 19th-century Swedish farm—we are aware we are watching something special; and with Troell’s hand in control of screenplay, camera, direction, and editing, we have reason to expect a one-man show, a rare level of unity and integrity in form, style, and content. In the first half-hour of the film, Troell introduces his principal characters to us through a carefully edited series of moments in their lives, selected from the passage of some five years’ narrative time. He edits not only to depict the passage of time, but also to systematically separate and dissociate his characters from their milieu: both story and style place the characters at war with their social, historical, and environmental circumstances. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) is frustrated by his family’s inability to improve their lot, and by his own vulnerability to the whims of nature and a God he cannot accept. His wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), has a firmer faith, but is troubled by doubts and plagued with guilt because her physical love for her husband keeps saddling them with new children she fears they cannot feed. Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a fledgling intellectual, disinclined to the manual labor to which he was born. Robert’s friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) is the opposite, a true man of the earth, but one who is excluded from human companionship because of his simpleminded innocence. Daniel (Atlan Edwall) is a religious visionary whose ideas earn him the scorn of the Christian establishment and a price on his head. His principal follower, a former prostitute named Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is a social outcast with no regrets, whose efforts to find her own meaning are thwarted at every turn by social and religious persecution.

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Summer of ’90: ‘Wild at Heart’

The power of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is the endurance of an Elvis Presley song (or two), the staying power of a children’s movie, and the sight and sound of a match being struck: romantically mellow, wackily comic, and deadly, darkly serious.

Lynch gets more and scarier mileage out of fire in Wild at Heart than he did out of Frank Booth’s lighter in Blue Velvet. In between the two came the game-changing Twin Peaks, which, soon after Wild at Heart, Lynch would round off with Fire Walk with Me. It’s easy to see the whole arc from Blue Velvet to Fire Walk with Me as part of a single centralizing vision, an identifiable phase of his artistic development—his “fire period,” if you like.

You find it everywhere in the reds and yellows of Wild at Heart: fire as a murder weapon; fire as the spark of recollection and of wisdom; not only a destructive force, but a creative one as well. The reds and yellows of Wild at Heart recall the reds of Hitchcock’s Marnie—the nagging, ever-present trigger to a memory that hovers just outside the border of consciousness and refuses to be grasped and confronted in all its detail. There as here we see red washes shroud the screen like the curtain between the lies we live and the truth we can’t face. Sailor tells Lula: “We all got a secret side, baby.”

Continue reading at The House Next Door