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Review: Logan Lucky

The Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.

The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event.

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Review: Scorpio

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.

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Review: Wind River (1)

I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.

A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.

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Review: Wind River (2)

Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)

Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Breaking Point’ on Criterion

The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.

The Criterion Collection

Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.

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Review: Roma

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Roma is a product of Fellini’s self-indulgence. He puts everything he’s loved about Rome, and himself, upon the screen, in semi-documentary style, with the only unifying factor being a weak autobiographical framework. It’s like a big home movie shot by lovingly nostalgic professionals. The color is exquisite, and many of the individual segments are unforgettable. For instance, at one point we’re treated to an ecclesiastical fashion show, complete with red-carpeted runway, announcer, lively organ music, and increasingly fantastic outfits modeled by nuns, priests, bishops, and a pope (whose robe comes with flashing lights). During scenes of Rome of thirty years ago, a rather insipidly handsome actor plays Fellini as a young man, making his way through lusty dinners in a piazza and even lustier evenings in whorehouses. There’s a graceful transition from past to present in the film—showing much of the director and his crew in the later parts—ending in a nocturnal zoom through the city by a motorcycle gang. Apocalyptic? Who knows? Fellini never gets further than suggesting bits of meaning; one gets the impression that that isn’t his point. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be his point, less so than in The Clowns, Roma, a conglomeration of episodes—visually fascinating as they may be—leaves even seasoned Fellini lovers a little cold.

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Review: Live and Let Die

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Sean Connery knew when to get out. The new James Bond film is a poor-kid’s followup to the modest achievements of the preceding seven Fleming adaptations (I’m not counting the multi-director fiasco Casino Royale, backed by a different producer). The double-entendres fairly double over with arthritis, the girls and the bad guys are a dreary lot, and the big set-piece, a motorboat pursuit through twisty inland waterways, is a protracted steal from The Mechanic. Sex was real—i.e., had something to do with emotions—only in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and why hasn’t Peter Hunt directed anything since?), but even the Playmate-style romps of the other Bond flicks had some verve and wit about them; here either the couplings are all but accidental or the implicit logic behind them threatens to plunge the film into a neurotic introspection that the writer, the director, and the star are unprepared to risk.

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Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.

In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.

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Review: 13 Minutes

Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s exploration of Adolf Hitler’s final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject’s unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel’s return to the time frame, unfortunately can’t quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character’s defining moment.

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Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

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Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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Review: Landline

Jenny Slate’s opening monologue in Obvious Child is the kind of thing that weeds out the uptight among us. Its indecorous references to bodily emissions and the gunky realities of sex are meant to set up her character as a truth-telling stand-up comic, but also serve notice that the movie itself will take no prisoners when engaging taboos and uncomfortable subjects. Fair enough, as Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion. But I also suspect that Obvious Child wants to keep pace with the tone of 21st-century comedy, an explicit style (usually R-rated, as in pictures like Neighbors and Baywatch) that puts sex and scatology at the crude center of the joke. It’s the comedy of poop and genitalia, the sort of thing that would send Wes Anderson to his fainting couch.

Slate and Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre have reunited for Landline, and while it’s a much less adventurous film than their first collaboration, the urge to be smutty is still in place.

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Review: Oklahoma Crude

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

What I kept thinking about throughout Oklahoma Crude was: What’s George C. Scott doing in this? Why, given the stature and range of selection that (I assume) follows on a virtually one-man triumph like Patton, would he choose to lavish himself on such an unimaginative, dramatically undifferentiated project? Perhaps that categorization implies the answer. Perhaps Scott felt an inconsequential programmer might be fun, affording a different kind of pleasure, if not necessarily satisfaction, from an Uncle Vanya on Broadway or a misfired topical melodrama like Rage on the screen. The only nice things in Oklahoma Crude—and they are very limitedly nice—are Scott’s corn-fed, sappily goodnatured reactions to some stilted sexual antagonism forced on a deadpanned Faye Dunaway. She plays a humorless harridan whose gallopingly unsatisfactory experiences with society at large and men in particular have led her to mount a last stand of the free-enterprise ethic on a hill that may or may not sit over a pool of oil in Oklahoma, a little before the First World War. He’s a larcenous no-account who’ll do just about anything and cheat absolutely anybody for money, but ultimately he finds himself falling in some kind of love and acquiring enough of a set of principles that he stays to help her in her fight against the big oil companies trying to run her off her land.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The Hireling is, I believe, Alan Bridges’s first film. Aside from rather too frequently belaboring the contrast between indifferent wealth and pathetic poverty in the early part of the film, Bridges manages to pretty much avoid the stylistic excesses to which debuting directors are often prone. However, his muted, somewhat eviscerated approach works both for and against this adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel (Hartley also wrote The GoBetween which Joseph Losey brilliantly translated to the screen). Bridges’s tone is occasionally just right for this enervated tale about the relationship between a neurasthenic aristocrat (Sarah Miles, whose performance won her a special citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and her stolidly correct hired chauffeur (Robert Shaw), but cumulatively it begins to wear on one’s nerves like a too precisely, albeit tastefully, furnished room. Too much order, too little deviation from a predictable pattern—but admittedly, the style recapitulates the theme. For Leadbetter the chauffeur, with all of his emerging middle-class virtues—manliness, discipline, common sense–hasn’t got a prayer of playing Mellors to Lady Franklin’s Constance Chatterly, or of disturbing in any felt way the insulated world in which his lady lives, if not thrives. Fresh out of a sanitarium, Lady Franklin is still whey-faced and rheumy-eyed with grief over her husband’s untimely demise. What she needs, and what she gets from Leadbetter, whose car and company she hires, is human contact without threat or expectation, the kind of unjudging acceptance that only therapists and servants of a certain era can provide. As she violates class convention after convention in her pursuit of sanity and begins to bloom with renewed health, the disorder of passion enters the doggedly disciplined life of Leadbetter, who turns gradually sick with jealousy and desire. What feels to him like the intimacy of shared experience between man and woman is merely the intimacy one may cultivate with a favored, though ultimately invisible, servant.

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