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Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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Jimmy the Gent

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

The American Film Institute tribute to James Cagney (CBS-TV, March 18) was enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Through a barrage of film clips and above all through the poise and presence of Cagney himself, the event somehow managed to keep the man’s best qualities in the air, even as that air was thickened with a fog of Hollywooden self-congratulatory egotism. Showbiz extravaganzas like this one have a way of becoming exercises in self-publicity, and the various contributions of George C. Scott, Doris Day, George Segal, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra (most of all) and others tended to make much of the affair into a showcase for the payers of tributes, with the tributee more or less left to be part of the audience.

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Roughhouse Comedy: ‘The Cock-eyed World,’ ‘Me and My Gal,’ ‘The Bowery’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to What Price Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.

Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”

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Two Raucous Silents: ‘What Price Glory?,’ ‘Sadie Thompson’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

What Price Glory?, like the successful play from which it is drawn, works with some of the era’s anger is directed less toward war itself than toward some of the era’s topical themes—in particular, as the title implies, the disillusionment that had befallen many of the youthful participants in World War I. But especially as directed by Raoul Walsh, the film version thrives on comedy that is sometimes satirical and often ribald. And that comedy only occasionally intersects with the anti-war feeling implied in the title.

Eileen Bowser has written that the film is “the archetypal celebration of war as a game played by roistering comrades.” Certainly, the central Flagg-Quirt relationship, with combative friendship and devotion to duty as its key elements, seems to work in that direction. But while the film never approaches the radical disgust that Dos Passos, Hemingway, Céline and others expressed toward the war, it does evoke a more complex and less romanticized attitude than Bowser indicates. The warriors—some of them, anyway—are romanticized, but the war isn’t, one of the results of which is an interesting tension between personal flamboyance and public destruction.

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue: Revisiting Raoul (Walsh)

Raoul Wash

My contributions to MTN#45 (the “Raoul Walsh issue”) were riding the crest of what was, at the time, my freshly discovered enthusiasm for Warner Brothers films of the Thirties and Forties, including especially William A. Wellman’s pictures from the pre-Code era, Raoul Walsh’s films from some of the best years of his career (1939-1949), and almost anything with James Cagney in it. I’d already written about some of this in “Life with Warners” (MTN#6). Me and My Gal (Fox, 1932) and Gentleman Jim (Warner Brothers, 1942), first encountered amid a wonderful flood of studio-vault re-releases circa 1970, were the tipping points for my ventures into Walsh territory.

In 2015, those enthusiasms have continued vitality for me, and I’m still very interested in Walsh. But I’m less inclined to view Walsh’s directorial persona (or Walsh the auteur) in the relatively exclusive terms laid out in MTN#45. Part of this is a matter of my having come to think of Walsh and a number of other favorite directors among his contemporaries—Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway—less as movie authors than as gifted overseers of the “genius of the system.”

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue (1974)

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?

Raoul Walsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.

In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.

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No Hiding: Mohammad Rasoulof

Mohammad Rasoulof is the very model of the filmmaker as defiant activist, an Iranian artist who confronts injustice and repression through his cinema knowing full well the consequences of such an act.

‘The White Meadows’

In the 1990s, when Iranian cinema first broke out of film festivals and museum programs and started appearing in arthouses, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi worked within the severe government-imposed limitations on subject matter (everything from politics to physical contact between the sexes) by focusing on films about children and rural life. Other filmmakers hid messages and social commentary in genre trappings and metaphor.

With The White Meadows (2009), Rasoulof confronted Iran’s oppressive culture through the metaphor of a surreal and savage Gulliver’s Travels journey, an allegory that was not lost on audiences. The next year he was arrested, along with fellow cinematic rebel Jafar Panahi. And like Panahi, he responded with another cinematic provocation. The even more audacious Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) strips away the metaphor to portray Iran’s government as an authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. These two films are among the most daring—and the most powerful—Iranian films of the past few decades.

Continue reading at Keyframe

The Top Ten Films of the Next Decade

[In 2010, I penned this whimsical piece as an April Fool’s Day feature for a site—which shall remain nameless—that no longer preserves the legacy of its contributors. Five years later I revive it for another run for the April Fools. I present it as written with no adjustments to subsequent history, which means the Dennis Hopper reference remains in tribute. Enjoy! – Sean Axmaker]

What a long, strange trip it will be. Markets peak and crash like yo-yos. Snowfall in Florida. Canada’s startling leap into geopolitical domination. China’s merciless foreclosure on the southern provinces of Mexico. North Korea’s transformation into the world’s largest theme park. The rise of New Jersey. The bankruptcy of California. The rise of curling from cult oddity to America’s new favorite pastime. Sarah Palin’s embarrassing slide to shopping channel sales personality. Steven Seagal’s surreal political run before signing on as Sarah’s on-air sidekick.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well okay, you can make this stuff up, and that’s the fun of looking ahead. I mean, why wait until the last minute to make a ten best list? To get a jump on the rush, we’ve put on our prognostication caps, hit the flashforward button and come back from the future with this snapshot of the ten best films of the 2010s. We were just as surprised as you at the results.

Neo is back!

The Matrix: Devolution (The Wachowski Siblings)

After the bizarre journey of Larry Wachowski’s transformation into Lana and a hermit-like retreat following the debacle of Speed Racer (only recently resurrected as a subversive blast of cinematic surrealism), the Wachowski Siblings relaunched their brand with a return trip to the virtual world that made their fame and fortune. Drawing liberally from the New Testament, the French New Wave, and various volumes of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” Devolution pairs the messianic Neo with a sassy Southern society lady (Sandra Bullock, back with Keanu Reeves for the first time since Speed) who gets caught in the program while playing what she thinks is a cutting edge version of Fantasy Football. Impressed with his ability to surf the web and dodge bullets at the same time, she tries to adopt the jacked-up orphan and ends up marrying him rather than face deportation. The virtual romantic comedy of cyber-geddon took the country by storm: Titanic meets Tron with a dose of southern comfort and a flashback soundtrack that turned “Freedom of Choice” and “Mongoloid” into anthems for the new generation of techno-rebels.

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Luchino Visconti’s Activist Cinema

‘La terra trema’

Luchino Visconti is one of the most fascinating artists of Italian cinema. The child of Italian aristocracy, born in a Milan palazzo with a family title that went back centuries and a family fortune built on landholdings and industry, he embraced Marxism with the zeal of a revolutionary but channeled his activism into theater and cinema. He apprenticed as an assistant to Jean Renoir and, just as the ambitious young filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague would a decade later, wrote for a film journal that challenged the orthodoxy of the cinema of his day as a prologue to embarking on his own filmmaking career.

His reputation today rests largely on his beautifully sculpted his portraits of life in the aristocracy and the social world of the rich and titled in films like Senso (1954), The Leopard (1934) and Death in Venice (1971), worlds he knew intimately from his own life, yet he began his film career with a film that has been called by some the first masterpiece of neorealism. I think of Ossessione (1942), an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (in fact, he never secured the rights to the book), more precursor than neorealist exemplar, a shot across the bow of Italy’s cinema of distraction made under Mussolini’s rule. He defied censors with a tale of lust, adultery and hothouse passions among the working class, yet it was thanks to the political and social connections of his titled family that the film was even released in Mussolini’s Italy.

If Ossessione anticipates the movement, La terra trema (1948) is one of its defining films and greatest triumphs.

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The bars on the window: Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’ makes an overdue return voyage

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]

[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]

My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.

Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and The Girlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. Zabriskie Point (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in The Passenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.

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Rene Clair’s Hat Trick

A triumvirate of early sound comedies—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—made René Clair’s reputation as France’s master of modern screen comedy. They explored the possibilities of the new audio dimension as an expressive element without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery of the height of the silent era. To American audiences, it was like Clair burst forth upon the international scene fully formed. But that’s because his final silent film—and his first comic masterpiece—The Italian Straw Hat (1927) did not arrive stateside until much later, and then in a version cut by an entire reel.

‘The Italian Straw Hat’

Filmmaking was not Clair’s original ambition. He intended a literary career and didn’t consider film a serious undertaking. When he took bit parts in a few films as a lark (including a couple of late serials by the great Louis Feuillade), he changed his name to separate it from his journalism and writing, from Chomette (his given name) to Clair (“light”). But he got bitten by the film bug and started rubbing elbows with the artists of the avant-garde, which led to an invitation to direct a short film to play between the two acts of a Dadaist ballet by Francis Picabia. Entr’acte (1924) is filled with cinematic tricks and playful imagery and it features appearances by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Auric and a score by Erik Satie. Those are impressive credentials and Entr’acte is a landmark of avant-garde cinema of the twenties but apart from a brief revisit to non-narrative filmmaking in La Tour (1928), his love letter to the Eiffel Tower, it’s not where Clair’s heart lay. For that, look to his directorial debut Paris qui dort (1923), a comic fantasy set in a Paris that has been frozen in time by a science fiction ray gun (a prototype for Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray?).

Continue reading at Keyframe

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Oscar Predictions

Last year it seemed so easy: 12 Years a Slave was the pre-ordained Best Picture winner, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett had acting awards locked up, and nobody was going to deny Frozen in the animation category.

Well, the 87th annual Oscar race has been a little more fun. Even though certain movies have been winning regularly with groups such as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice (I’m a voting member in the latter), I do think there’s actual suspense about the big prizes this year. It could turn into something because of the way the votes might split. Boyhood stands as the odds-on favorite, and critics’ awards seem to favor it. But Birdman has won some key prizes, including the nod from the Directors Guild.

‘Boyhood’

More complications: The late-arriving American Sniper is the only one of the Best Picture nominees to qualify as a real box-office smash. That does count for something with Academy voters. And then there’s the Selma kerfuffle. Oscar commentators and political pundits took umbrage at the film being shut out of most categories, especially Best Director, even though it was nominated for Best Picture. Could there be a strong response to the perceived snub (as there was when Argo didn’t have director Ben Affleck nominated, but the movie won Best Picture after all)?

Continue reading at The Herald

Oscar Upsets

Set out to write about Academy Award upsets and right away the ground starts shifting under your feet. Oh, some neck-snappers we all remember—like Jack Nicholson coming out to present the award for best picture of 2005, opening the envelope, and saying, “Whoa.” Moments when the title of the movie everybody figured to win suddenly wasn’t the one being read aloud.

But those are ya-hadda-be-there moments. Looking back over Oscar history, you encounter what we might call upsets-in-reverse—instances when a movie or a performance that has long since become part of the racial unconscious did not, in its day, win proper recognition. Then you find yourself in a sort of “What did they know and when did they know it?” situation. How could they have been so blind? We’ve collected some of that kind of upset as well.

Upsets come in all valences, triumphant and appalling. Truly the ways of Oscar passeth understanding. But that needn’t spoil the party.

1939
It was Hollywood’s golden year. StagecoachMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonNinotchkaThe Wizard of OzOnly Angels Have WingsYoung Mr. LincolnWuthering HeightsOf Mice and MenGunga DinMidnightDrums Along the Mohawk … Love Affair … The Four Feathers (OK, made in England, but still). Yet it was the making of one movie that obsessed fans all year long, and when it ended up with a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, no one doubted that David O. Selznick’s nearly-four-hour Technicolor megaproduction Gone With the Wind would take the brass ring. A lot of brass rings, including best director for Victor Fleming despite the fact that some half-dozen directors (preeminently George Cukor and Sam Wood) had worked on the film. Most of the major players were nominated (including Thomas Mitchell, albeit for Stagecoach, not GWTW); newcomer-to-Hollywood Vivien Leigh won best actress as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel edged fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland for best supporting actress. Yet what was wrong with this picture? Although novelist Margaret Mitchell had written the book visualizing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gable had to settle for a nomination merely (best actor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips; we’d have given it to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart). The King took it like a man, of course. But watch GWTW today and try telling us all that Selznickean flapdoodle would be tolerable without Gable’s movie-star gravitas to center it.

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“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”

That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt. Dov’s you should take very very seriously. The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both. Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness. I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder. Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed