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Film Reviews

Review: The Train Robbers

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Burt Kennedy is one of those fitfully interesting but dreadfully unreliable minor talents whose films are saved—when they are saved—by (frequently unassimilated) quirks in his style and treatment. Hannie Caulder, that bizarre European-based western of last year, included a wealth of outrageousness that seemed to presage a return to grace and a renewal of promise for Kennedy the director: Raquel Welch strutting around the desert naked under a poncho, Robert Culp prancing auspiciously out of the wilderness in El Topo hat and granny glasses to teach her how to shoot; brothers Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam forming a manically inept criminal trio who nevertheless managed to be lethal for two of Hannie’s menfolk; Christopher Lee as a gaunt and happy gunsmith and family man living on the seashore; and a never-identified stranger in elegant black who materialized wordlessly now and again to collaborate in Hannie’s adventures.

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Review: Lucky

Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.

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Blu-ray: ‘Vampyr’ on Criterion

An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.

Criterion Collection

Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.

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Review: The Ruling Class

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Any movie that runs two-and-one-half-hours-plus yet doesn’t have one glancing at his watch has to have something going for it. And The Ruling Class does, as long as deep thoughts about the medium don’t enter into it. The medium gets kicked about as freely as most other conventions: theatrical. social, familial, and the resulting film has the exuberance one might associate with a first-rate college revue. The collegians involved include some of the most reliable mainstays of the British stage and screen, and the genre is that mainstayingest of them all, the what-fun-it-is-to-roast-the-upper-classes genre that has made the fame and fortune of many a literary radical. The difference is that The Ruling Class shows itself to be aware of the implicit, frequently unacknowledged corollary: and-whom-could-we-pick-on-if-they-weren’t-around? The answer turns out to be: just about anybody.

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Review: Ex Libris: New York Public Library

No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.

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Review: The Heartbreak Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

It’s possible to see The Heartbreak Kid as a kind of funhouse mirror reflecting the foibles and delusions we all share to some extent. A glance into such a mirror may provoke healthy, rejuvenating laughter or the kind of wearily hip sniggering which passes, in some circles, for wisdom. Elaine May, Neil Simon (screenwriter), and Bruce Jay Friedman (who wrote the original story) have all been guilty in their time of making shallow incisions in the human psyche and calling these forays major surgery. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those who work within the purlieus of the sick joke, the genre of black humor, or the kind of New York–spawned drama that is too often slickly, pseudosophisticatedly dependent upon the diminution of human beings to the level of pathetic, momentarily amusing insects. The Heartbreak Kid is frequently pervaded by a certain nastiness, albeit the well-meaning nastiness of a child methodically taking a butterfly apart to see how it works—or a director pushing her characters to such extremes of behavior that they cease essentially to be human and become one-dimensional butts of cruelly extended jokes.

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Review: American Made

American Made doesn’t entirely stand on its own as a movie, but it provides some kick for two reasons. One is the project’s based-on-fact nature: Its cavalcade of unlikely encounters and officially sanctioned malfeasance—peopled by a cast of historical figures that includes future jailbirds Oliver North and Manuel Noriega and future president George W. Bush—is truly incredible. This is the story of Barry Seal, a former TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot who flew drug shipments for the Medellín cartel and managed to get involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (and, the movie strongly suggests, was working at the behest of the CIA, too).

The other reason American Made is frequently lively is the presence of the actor who plays Seal, one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. It may have snuck up on us, but Tom Cruise has now been a major movie star for almost 35 years (Risky Business came out in ’83), a longer run at the top than many legendary stars. Cruise is good in American Made, throwing himself into the film’s gonzo narrative with his usual gung-ho energy. This is a black comedy, and irony isn’t Cruise’s most natural mode, yet by playing Seal as a slightly dimwitted cheeseball on the make, he gets into the movie’s you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff spirit.

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Blu-ray: French classics ‘The Love of a Woman’ and ‘Spotlight on a Murderer’ from Arrow

Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.

Arrow Academy

Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.

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Review: Friend Request

Friend Request is all about the dangers of Facebook and social media, so maybe it could have gotten a pass in 2011. The alarm—which has nothing to do with Facebook’s controversial algorithms or alleged biases—seems a little outdated now. Do college students still use Facebook? If so, they will find the sorts of lessons here that a 1959 movie might have noted about the barbaric allure of rock and roll.

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Blu-ray: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017) is, if you’ll pardon such an obvious comment, a wonder of a superhero movie, a film that doesn’t transcend the genre but most certainly sets a high bar, especially next to the ponderous, humorless films of the new big screen universe of interconnected DC Comics heroes.

Warner Home Entertainment

Gal Gadot debuted as Amazon princess warrior Wonder Woman in the turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brightened the film immediately. The spirit we glimpsed there carries this origin story, which sends us back to the 1910s and the hidden island paradise of the Amazons inadvertently invaded when American pilot Steve Trevor (an earnest yet spirited Chris Pine) flies past the invisibility field and crash lands on the beach, the first man ever to set foot on the island. Diana is intrigued to say the least but more compelled by news of a world at war and, after the inevitable assault by German forces after Trevor, is convinced of her purpose: stopping the god Ares from destroying all of mankind through warfare. She leaves the island against the wishes her mother (Connie Nielsen, commanding and regal). Steve’s not so convinced of that stuff about ancient gods and eternal Amazons but he has no doubt as to her abilities as a warrior or her commitment to justice and he knows a valuable ally when he meets one.

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Review: Jeremiah Johnson

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

It is not my wont to criticize a film by comparing it unfavorably with the novel, short story, or play from whence it came. If the source material suffers a directorial sea-change and becomes something rich and different, a viable entity in itself, so much the better. But it is most disheartening to happen upon a novel which fairly begs to be filmed, to wait impatiently for its announced appearance on the screen, and then to be confronted with a film which does irreparable violence to those very qualities, scenes, characters, that made the source ripe for cinematic treatment. Guy Green’s adaptation of John Fowles’s metaphysical mystery The Magus was such a disappointment, and so is Sydney Pollack’s screen version of Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man (with additional material from two short stories whose titles and authors I lack), Jeremiah Johnson.

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Review: Paris, Texas

[Originally published in The Weekly, December 19, 1984]

In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a film employed to throw a cultural frame around Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, a character says to Abe, “Never saw a man look at a river the way you do.” No filmmaker has ever looked at a road the way Wim Wenders does. He sees it in all its purity and directness of line, its beauty as a brave and silent sign of man’s efforts to impose coherence and continuity on the awful indifference of landscape; sees above all, perhaps, the beauty of its effective invisibility. We don’t really look at roads, even as we rely upon them absolutely as the arterials of modern life, the reminders that, as sedentary beings who live out most of our lives in place, we never entirely shake free of the atavistic allure of being a nomadic race.

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Blu-ray: Jackie Chan begins in ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master’ from Twilight Time

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master (Twilight Time)

Twilight Time

Boyish, baby-faced Jackie Chan trained at the famed Peking Opera Academy, had an early career as a stunt man, supporting player and fight choreographer in scores of Hong Kong films, and was unexpectedly chosen as “the next Bruce Lee” in a series of stiff, serious revenge adventures. This misguided attempt almost ended his shot at stardom before it began; Jackie’s charms have everything to do with his outgoing personality and self-deprecating humor, and an acrobatic fighting style schooled in Chinese Opera. After a series of super-serious action film flops his career was practically written off. Then producer Ng See Yuen paired the young performer with director Yuen Woo-ping for a pair of films that played up his strengths. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Hong Kong, 1978), Jackie plays a menial servant in a school for martial arts who saves the life of an aged vagrant (director Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tin, aka Simon Yuen), who just happens to be a martial arts master on the run. Cut to training sequence, toss in the sight gags, and unleash Jackie’s Chinese Opera style. It was the first time that Jackie got to display his gymnastic martial arts style and his facility for physical humor and it was a success, which of course demanded an immediate follow-up.

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Review: Rebel in the Rye

Rebel in the Rye is not as terrible as its title, so we can say that for it. Given that its subject had a razor-sharp ear for titles himself—I mean, who can top For Esmé–With Love and Squalor or A Perfect Day for Bananafish?—you might expect a little better from a movie that purports to tell the story of J.D. Salinger. Alas, the title is just the first misstep in a well-meaning but ham-handed attempt to get at Salinger’s mystery, an attempt made fitfully bearable by an intriguing central performance and the tweedy atmosphere of mid-20th-century literary America.

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Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.

Lionsgate

Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.

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