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by Robert Horton

Contributor

House of Bamboo (The Cornfield #40)

CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.

However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.

That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.

Continue reading at The Crop Duster

Parallax View’s Best of 2010

Welcome 2011 with one last look back at the best releases of 2010, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View.

Sean Axmaker

1. Carlos
2. Let Me In
3. The Social Network
4. White Material
5. Winter’s Bone
6. The Ghost Writer
7. Wild Grass
8. Eccentricities Of A Blond Haired Girl
9. Sweetgrass
10. Our Beloved Month of August

Runners up: Amer, The American, Alamar, Black Swan, Inception, Red Riding Trilogy, Somewhere, Vengeance

Best festival films I saw in 2010 without a 2010 theatrical release: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Poetry, Mysteries Of Lisbon

Best Unreleased film of 2007 finally getting an American release in 2010 (but still feels like a film from another era): Secret Sunshine

Most Impressive Resurrection/Restoration/Real Director’s Cut: Metropolis

Also see lists at MSN here and the Village Voice / LA Weekly poll. And the Best of DVD / Blu-ray 2010 is on Parallax View here.

David Coursen

A splendid year, in both quality and quantity.   These were all shown for the first time in the Washington, DC area in 2010.

The best film is a tie:
Certified Copy-Kiarostami
Carlos-Assayas

The next seven, in roughly descending order:
A Prophet-Jacques Audiard
Somewhere-Coppola
The Social Network-Fincher
The Ghost Writer-Polanski
The Strange Case of Angelica-Oliviera
Red Riding Trilogy-in total, with James Marsh’s 1980 segment putting it on the list
The Kids are Alright-Cholodenko

And for the final entry, a pairing I couldn’t resist:
Police, Adjective-Poromboiu
Winter’s Bone-Debra Granik

John Hartl

Truth proved far stranger than fiction in many of 2010’s best films. My favorite was Craig Ferguson’s devastating documentary, Inside Job, which painstakingly demonstrates just how our economy was hijacked by greed and ideology. In Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer, Pierce Brosnan gives a career-best performance as a politician clearly based on Tony Blair. In Doug Liman’s Fair Game, Naomi Watts is equally persuasive as Valerie Plame Wilson, a vulnerable spy whose marriage is nearly demolished in a political feud. James Franco wins this year’s versatility award for convincingly reincarnating two exceptionally different people: Allen Ginsberg in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s underrated Howl and a carefree rock climber in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. Jesse Eisenberg deftly captures the drive and insecurities of Facebook’s billionaire chief, Mark Zuckerberg, in David Fincher’s The Social Network. The shameless wartime exploitation of the late Pat Tillman’s heroism is the focus of Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, an excellent documentary that goes behind the headlines to suggest the personal extent of that loss. Jim Carrey’s excesses are tapped and artfully used in I Love You Phillip Morris, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s mostly true comedy about a con artist who is locked away in prison, but for how long? More fictional, but still quite strange, are Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, a brave portrait of a mid-life washout played by Ben Stiller, and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling daring to play the walking wounded in an impossible marriage.

A second 10: The King’s Speech, Animal Kingdom, Cairo Time, Life During Wartime, Toy Story 3, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, Restrepo, Cell 211, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

Robert Horton

1. A Prophet
2. Winter’s Bone
3. Four Lions
4. Sweetgrass
5. The Ghost Writer
6. Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl
7. Mid-August Lunch
8. True Grit
9. The Kids Are All Right
10. Greenberg

See also indieWIRE here and Best and Worst lists at The Everett Herald.

Richard T. Jameson

In chronological order seen, but the first two have landed in the right place and there’s a non-chronological tie at 10.

The Ghost Writer
Winter’s Bone
Please Give
The Kids Are All Right
Un Prophète
The Social Network
Hereafter
Let Me In
Sweetgrass
The American / White Material / True Grit

See also lists at MSN and Queen Anne News.

Jay Kuehner

(as compiled for indieWIRE, originally published here)

1. Sweetgrass
2. White Material
3. Carlos
4. Everyone Else
5. The Strange Case of Angelica
6. Alamar
7. Change Nothing
8. Restrepo
9. The Anchorage
10. Daddy Longlegs

Kathleen Murphy

(as originally presented at the Frye Art Museum Critics Wrap)

1. The Ghost Writer
2. Winter’s Bone
3. Let Me In
4. Sweetgrass
5. A Prophet
6. The Social Network
7. Please Give
8. The Kids Are All Right
9. White Material
10. Black Swan

See also MSN here.

Andrew Wright

(as originally presented at the Frye Art Museum Critics Wrap)

1. A Prophet
2. Inception
3. True Grit
4. Red Riding Trilogy
5. Winter’s Bone
6. Hausu
7. The Ghost Writer
8. Four Lions
9. Greenberg
10. Let Me In

More lists:

Village Voice / LA Weekly Poll (and individual lists here)
indieWIRE Critics Survey
Movie City News list compilations (individual lists are here)
BFI 2010 Critics Poll

And the year in review from select publications in print and on the web

New York Times Year in Review
Los Angeles Times Year in Review
SF360 Top Ten Lists and Year in Film
The Onion AV Club
Slant Magazine
MSN Movies

Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

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Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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Review: The Wanderers

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

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Review: The Changeling

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. I’ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: The Big Red One

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Can’t Stop the Music

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Disbelief. Right in the middle of the “Y.M.C.A.” number, which is right in the middle of Can’t Stop the Music, one feels one’s mouth actually hanging open. Good grief! Is this really happening? Members of a musical group called the Village People (who play streetwise dudes recruited to form an impromptu ensemble of singers/dancers) and Valerie Perrine (their manager) and Bruce Jenner (a tax lawyer with the hots for Perrine) sweep into a real Y.M.C.A. and begin performing all manner of athletic endeavor, all to a disco beat. And its all just awful. I don’t mean just the shots that you might be visualizing now—slowmotion splitscreen guys twirling through the air, a line of men diving sideways into a swimming pool à la Busby Berkeley. Those are there, all right, but we’re also treated to wildly awkward shots, like a group of nude guys horsing around in the showers (yup, you see everything down to their knees), or a whirlpool bath shot of Perrine’s breasts bobbing out of the water. These shots are even repeated during this montage—to Dolby music, mind. What makes them so jarringly out of place (uh—the shots, that is) is the uncertainty and the weirdness in the shifts from candy-flavored lightheartedness to an uncomfortable kind of wishful frankness. The problem with this sequence is the problem with the movie: Are we to view this pursuit of high spirits as sincere, or is the whole thing supposed to be a joke?

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Review: Best Boy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

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On Staring Into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2
Aguirre, the Wrath of God

And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

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