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Review: Lights Out

Lights Out

YouTube is bursting at the seams with horror shorts, the vast majority of which traffic in the same old jump scares and photoshopped demon faces. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, however, managed to distinguish itself from the lurching masses, brilliantly capitalizing on its limitations to present one indelibly shivery concept: namely, a silhouette that creeps closer whenever the lights go off. The James Wan-produced feature-length expansion can’t match the compressed primal frisson of the original, but it contains more than enough flickeringly lit yelps to justify its existence. How many variations can be successfully run on the same gag? Quite a few, as it turns out.

Continue reading at Portland Mercury

Review: Café Society

Café Society

In Annie Hall, Los Angeles is “a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” That was 40 years and 40 Woody Allen movies ago, and the humor that worked back then—L.A.’s mind-set summed up thus: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and plate of mashed yeast”—has mellowed with time. For Café Society, Allen remains skeptical about La-La Land, but this portrait of a New York lad trying his luck in 1930s Hollywood is sticky with nostalgia: wrapped in lush costuming, honeyed by golden California light, and scored to the vintage toe-tappers that Allen continues to love. Satirical arrows are dutifully aimed, but the overall gorgeousness makes the target a soft one.

The lad is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), whose Uncle Phil (Steve Carell in a good turn) has become a successful movie agent. Bobby gets stuck with menial jobs, but he’s able to observe chic pool parties and meet movers and shakers.

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Blu-ray: ‘Batman v Superman’ – Dawn of the DCU

BatmanvSuperThe smartest thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) is its revisionist take on the destruction that concluded Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman as a harder, more troubled hero in a darker big screen superhero universe than previous incarnations. After an unnecessary (but at least relatively brief) recap of the origin of Batman laid under the opening credits, we are plunged back into the battle and this time Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the protagonist. This perspective comes from the ground. He’s simply an agent of destruction in the sky as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck with a hint of stubble and gray in the temples) roars through the street in what is surely, at least under the hood, the civilian answer to the Batmobile. Man of Steel quite rightly was slammed for its insensitive portrait of epic destruction in an urban center without a thought for the victims below and Snyder, in all his heavyhanded Olympian grandeur, seemed just as oblivious as Superman. Both were so caught up in the personal fight with the demons of Krypton that neither could be bothered to notice civilians crushed like ants in a battle of the titans.

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Review: Day for Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Truffaut’s Day for Night is a delight. It’s a film about some people making a film, with Truffaut himself playing the film-within-a-film’s director, but there’s only a little cinematic selfconsciousness in it. Above all, it is a very charming entertainment. Few, if any, of Truffaut’s films have had such a heady feeling of joy and pleasure all the way through. And few, if any, of the various films made about filmmakers and filmmaking have been so self-effacing. Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese play the actors in the film of one M. Ferrand (Truffaut) and each to some extent has been given a role (in Day for Night) which evokes his “real-life” image. But while Truffaut gives the Ferrand character three dream sequences in which a small boy—Ferrand and/or Truffaut as child?—steals some Citizen Kane stills from a theater display, the film is not really Truffaut’s 8 1/2.

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Review: Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen and family in ‘Captain Fantastic’

In Captain Fantastic, the winner of this year’s SIFF Golden Space Needle award, Viggo Mortensen has found a role that fits his own reluctant image as a movie star. His character, Ben, withdrew from society years ago to enjoy a communal hippie-hang in the Washington woods. He and wife Leslie (Trin Miller) went off the grid for political and philosophical reasons, and the couple has raised a brood of children whose survivalist expertise outstrips their knowledge of everyday life in the outside world. Ben is skeptical of the System, the Man, and other capitalized sources of authority; he wants to stay out of view and raise the kids as “philosopher-kings.” The favored life skills he has instilled in his family include killing deer with bow and arrow, rigging a water cistern, and playing musical instruments at night instead of gazing at TVs or laptops.

Not every actor could pull off this combination of Thoreau and MacGyver, but Mortensen is utterly credible—in part because the actor himself has so frequently seemed to withdraw from the camera’s gaze, even when he’s at the center of a movie.

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Review: The Infiltrator

Bryan Cranston is… ‘The Infiltrator’!

It may be impossible to completely screw up an undercover cop movie, with the very nature of the premise guaranteeing some vicarious hopscotching over the morality line. Judged on plot alone, The Infiltrator is a solid, mid-level walk on the seedy side, with enough based-on-fact dirty business to hold the interest. When you factor in a terrific-even-for-him lead performance by Bryan Cranston, however, it zooms up the ranks into something well worth leaving the couch for.

Continue reading at Portland Mercury

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.

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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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Japanese Gangster Movie Freakout!

Tokyo Drifter

The explosion of Japanese gangster films in the 1960s was the great genre freakout of the era, and the rest of the world missed out on it for decades. While films by Kurosawa andKobayashi and Naruse played film festivals and art cinemas, and those by Oshima andImamura drove the Japanese New Wave, the domestic industry was turning out samurai movies and erotic dramas—which spawned the even more disreputable “pink films”—and colorful, high-energy gangster films. Where the samurai movie as a type had some cachet and international exposure, thanks to a decades-long history and a sense of being “the Japanese western,” the gangster movie was modern, urban, and immediate—a pop-culture response to economic anxiety and youth culture. At first these films failed to break out of the Asian market, either as arthouse curiosities or commercial genre artifacts. They were practically unknown in the west until the stateside “rediscovery” of Seijun Suzuki in the 1990s led fans to further exploration in the genre.

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of the nation’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. They were shot quickly and cheaply, cast from a stock company of actors who would become genre icons (Jo Shishido, Testsuya Watari, Akira Kobayashi), and driven by the energy and anxiety and nihilism of the “sun tribe” genre of youth-gone-wild movies—Japan’s answer to the teen-rebel drama—that also proliferated in sixties. No one at Nikkatsu topped the insanely prolific Seijun Suzuki.

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Review: A Cat in the Brain

A Cat in the Brain

Few filmmakers had a more direct line to the viewer’s gag reflex than the late Lucio Fulci, who spent his entire career devising new ways to show people being taken apart. A Cat in the Brain (1990) may not be Fulci’s defining work—that most likely remains the Lovecraftian brain muncher The Beyond (1981)—but it may well be his most interesting. An ersatz with chain saws, it takes a deeply ambivalent look at the director’s films and methods, without skimping on any of the grody stuff that made him famous. Warning: The title is not just a metaphor.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: The Fits

The Fits

One way you can spot a strong new movie director is by listening to what she does with the soundtrack—not the music, although that’s part of it, but the whole sonic enchilada. I like a lot of things about The Fits, and the first thing that got me was the way it sounds. As the film evokes one Cincinnati girl’s bumpy journey into the mysteries of adolescence, the soundtrack ripples with densely layered noise: the slap of feet on a hardwood floor during dance practice, the rhythmic meeting of boxing gloves in the workout room, the specific way a song echoes in a big empty school gym. The noises are realistic enough, but when they’re piled atop each other, it all sounds like a dream.

The Fits is written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, who developed the story with editor Saela Davis and producer Lisa Kjerulff. But “story” isn’t the right word, because The Fits is more an immersion into one girl’s point of view as she tries to figure out her identity during a peculiar time at her school.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Year of the Dragon

Mickey Rourke and John Lone, 'Year of the Dragon'
Mickey Rourke and John Lone, ‘Year of the Dragon’

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), September 4, 1985]

Year of the Dragon is supposed to be one of those movies people either love or hate. The picture’s been out several weeks now and, while no one seems quite to love it, the hate vote has been pouring in. Spokespersons for the Asian American community have charged director Michael Cimino with grotesquely distorting life in New York’s Chinatown and fostering a sociopolitically retrograde, “Yellow Peril” image of Orientals, American and otherwise; last week, a $100 million class-action suit on behalf of Asian Americans was filed against Cimino, producer Dino de Laurentiis, and the distributor, MGM/UA. Cimino-baiters have restyled the multimillion-dollar production “Dragon’s Gate” in bloodthirsty reference to the director’s studio-busting 1981 misfire Heaven’s Gate. And viewers of every stripe have taken an intense dislike to the movie’s nominal hero, a brutal, obnoxious, foulmouthed, racist, sexist New York cop whose obsession with toppling the new “Godfather” of the Chinese mafia takes a murderous toll among his own intimates.

These reactions are easy to understand. Moreover, the film has a raft of flaws, some of them glaring, that decisively disqualify it as “a good movie.” The script (by Cimino and Oliver Stone) yammers and hammers away at its points rather than, for the most part, allowing them to emerge from the flow of the action with force and complexity. In structural terms, the scenario loses touch with several characters planted early on, then yanks them back out of limbo just in time to fulfill some hasty dramatic function in the closing reels.

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Review: Happy New Year

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Claude Lelouch’s latest film begins with the last five minutes or so of A Man and a Woman, the credits of Happy New Year appearing over them. As Anouk and Jean-Louis go into their spin and freezeframe clinch at the railway station, we cut to a closeup of several thoroughly disgusted thugs offering the Gallic version of the razzberry; the camera whips back, a fatuous administrative type beams that “this film has been my way of wishing you all Happy New Year,” and we see that it has just been shown to a group of convicts. To one who spent several months sitting on the other side of a lobby curtain feeling “Lub-a-dub” turn his brain to jelly, the prison context of the joke is delightfully apt.

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Blu-ray: ‘99 River Street,’ ‘Shield for Murder’ and ‘Hidden Fear’

99 River Street99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), released in 1953, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s and arguably the greatest film by Phil Karlson, the toughest film noir director, and certainly his most beautifully brutal, a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag. Karlson developed the film with John Payne, the former star of musicals and light romantic comedies who remade himself as a tough guy star. They had worked together in the lean, mean, twisty cult film noir Kansas City Confidential (1952), a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino, and hatched the story for this follow-up together.

The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blow and come up with a new plan. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.

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