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Film Reviews

Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

I first saw The Hireling last summer, during a week full of events filmic and otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the chief impressions I carried with me were the sight of Sarah Miles near-deathly white, a strained smile on her face and wet rosy bruises beneath her eyes, and the feeling of having watched some schematic playing-out of the old English class warfare game. Perhaps, after my recent second viewing has receded into the past, these formerly overriding impressions will reassert themselves. But I’m inclined to doubt it. The film is an exemplary study of how class structures both create opportunities for privileged intimacy between two persons of different castes and certify the ultimate withering of such relationships; there can be no more succinct image of the hopelessness of the lower-class lover’s situation than the final scene of the chauffeur slamming his prized Rolls-Royce (which he hires out, along with his services) into first one wall, then another, then another, in a claustrophobic courtyard. This level of the film is very clear—and ‘schematic’ isn’t really a fair word to apply; ‘lucid’ is more like it. The fact is that, as the film plays—at least, as it plays a second time—the social comment simply does not stand out starkly. The societal system is there, almost palpably; but it’s merely one part of the film’s structure. Of equal importance—and, with the social theme taken more or less for granted, of greater importance—are the richly inhabited, sympathetically nuanced performances of Shaw and Miles, and the abiding sense of Alan Bridges’s sensitive, detailed, impeccably craftsmanlike realization.

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Review: The Last Detail

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.

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Review: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Lo and Behold

Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.

As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

Ben-Hur

The trend towards perpetual remakes and reboots is a growing pox upon Hollywood. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, someone taking another crack at Ben-Hur isn’t the worst idea in the world. Although William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar magnet (itself a remake) certainly has its gargantuan virtues, it also features more padding than any unimpeachable classic can be expected to bear.

While this new version tightens things up, it unfortunately suffers from both a curiously passive central character and the faith-based dramatic flattening that seems to be a hallmark of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. (Jesus, a compellingly enigmatic, barely glimpsed agent of change in other versions of the story, is a bit of a screen hog here.) The plot still has enough juice to work, but only just.

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

Review: Serpico

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”

What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.

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Seriously Though, What Have You Done to Solange?

Have you heard about Solange?

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.

The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Review: Anthropoid

Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy in ‘Anthropoid’

Spy movies come preloaded with expectations, promising many scenes of shadowy people doing shadowy things. The historical thriller Anthropoid thankfully knows the trappings of its genre well, telling a compelling, unexpectedly moving story that’s rife with secret knocks, signal mirrors, and hastily decoded messages.

Based on true events (the ungainly mouthful of a title is explained early), the plot follows two soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who air-drop into Czechoslovakia in 1941 with orders to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the aptly nicknamed Butcher of Prague. As they make contact with the local resistance and attempt to shadow their target’s movements, they must also come to grips with the fact that their various plans are distinctly lacking in exit strategies.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: Our Little Sister

Our Little Sister

Three adult sisters stand on a small-town road, gazing at the discharge from a nearby chimney. “Smoke from a crematorium is so old-fashioned,” one of them remarks—not as a put-down, but more as a dreamy observation. The ashes inside the chimney are what remains of their father, but the sense of detachment is understandable; he abandoned his family 15 years earlier to be with another woman and have another child. The sisters have come to his town for a dutiful funeral visit. As quickly as possible, they will return to their seaside city of Kamakura, where they share a house.

They will not get away without complications, which is how Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful new film (based on Akimi Yoshida’s award-winning graphic novel Umimachi Diary) takes flight.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Group Marriage

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Group Marriage serves up the Stephanie Rothman exploitation-flick mixture pretty much as before: half commitment, half indifference. But whereas I enjoyed her Student Nurses, this one left me cold. It’s partly the actors, I think. The student nurses and their beaux, however shallowly characterized, looked like fairly lively, attractive people. But who could identify with Group Marriage‘s crew of plastic Angelenos? The three men of the film’s group marriage are a jock lifeguard, a piggish young male chauvinist who markets glibly “sick” bumper stickers, and a spineless social worker who mouths jargon and wilts under the situation-comedy glare of his blowhard supervisor. The three women are not exactly charismatic, either, though one of them is endowed with a token knack for fixing car motors and another is represented, unconvincingly, as a lawyer. Rothman introduces us to the third in a blind-date–type scene that might have been directed by some arch-M.C.P.—Dean Martin, say. The bumper sticker entrepreneur has been led to expect a “dog”; when she walks in and he lays eyes on her breasts, he instantly goes ape. Bo-o-o-ing! She remains throughout the movie merely a pair of big tits. For all Rothman’s nods in the direction of women’s liberation, no attempt is made (if you want to get heavy about all this) to raise her consciousness, nor that of the pig kid; yet both are viewed as interesting, OK people.

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Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

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Review: Don’t Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice

Are there people who don’t know what improvisational comedy is? Writer/director Mike Birbiglia seems to think so, because he begins his new film Don’t Think Twice with a short history of the development of improv and an explanation of the rules, the way each new onstage inspiration requires a “Yes, and … ” response from the other player in order to keep the sketch going. This primer makes the film stumble out of the gate, but all right, the rare individual who chooses to see a film about improv comedy without knowing how it works will be up to speed. Happily, the film does not feel the need to explain itself thereafter, and we are free to enjoy a pleasantly low-key comedy-drama credibly laced with disappointment and frustration—and the occasional onstage high.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Little Cigars

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Far be it from American-International to leave off supplying product, however hackneyed, until the last gasp is wrung from audience and genre alike; so in Little Cigars we have still another of those unstable meldings of comedy and crime, with a bit of violence thrown in. This low-budget late entry has a couple of extra things going for it, though. Curiosity value, above all. The titular Little Cigars, it turns out, are a troupe of midgets. In both senses of the word, they perform the genre’s customary capers. And a good thing, too. It would be hard to find in what goes on around these “little people” onscreen anything you might call a performance, exactly—least of all from full-size thesp and leading lady Angel Tompkins, though she does try her goodnatured best and has ample natural endowments for her stock floozy role as Cleo.

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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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Review: Bad Moms

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn are ‘Bad Moms’

The thing I hate most about Bad Moms isn’t its relentless crudeness, or its waste of talented actresses, or the way it hides bland middlebrow homilies in the naughty wrapping paper of an R-rated Girls Gone Wild premise. No, the thing I hate most comes during the end credits, where bad movies usually stash the blooper reel. No outtakes here; instead we get a mini-documentary of the film’s actresses—out of character—filmed with their real-life mothers. On its own, the segment has charm, and I assure you that I take great personal comfort in knowing that these successful women have mothers who are proud of them. But the segment serves no purpose, except to provide another way to soften the outlines of an allegedly edgy comedy.

You didn’t see this kind of crap at the end of the Hangover pictures. And not coincidentally, Bad Moms is written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote the first Hangover movie.

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Blu-ray: A Touch of Zen

TouchZenA Touch of Zen (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), King Hu’s romantic chivalry adventure, is a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, a magnificent epic with grand battles fought with the grace of a ballet with swords, and the most significant cinematic inspiration for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The three-hour film took the uniquely Chinese genre of wuxia pian (literally “martial chivalry”), a genre he practically defined with Come Drink With Me (1966) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967), into the realms of poetry and epic adventure. 45 years after its completion, A Touch of Zen has been restored and it is as glorious and grand and dreamily beautiful as ever.

The very opening tells you that this is something different, from the ominous spiderwebs stretched across the dark to a sunrise over the mountains of the rural inland in a remote part of China. There’s six or so minutes of scene-setting, glorious images and music that flow with a sense of grace, before we see a sign of civilization. It’s almost like an intrusion on the purity of this world. Almost. That same slow, sublime storytelling continues as a poor but honorable scholar, Gu (Chun Shih), sets up his shop and welcomes a stranger, who sits for a portrait and asks about some of the recent arrivals in this remote village. When the stranger slips away to follow one of these newcomers, we observe the trajectories of the followed and the followers and see an intelligence network of spies and agents emerge from the lazy rhythms of the sleepy town square. Every new arrival adds to the web, especially a young woman, Yang (Feng Hsu), who moves into the haunted manor next door and a blind beggar (Ying Bai) who suddenly seems to be everywhere.

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