Browse Category

Film Reviews

Review: ‘Son of Saul’

Geza Rohrig (right) in ‘Son of Saul’

Saul is temporarily alive. A Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz, he has been designated a Sonderkommando; instead of being killed upon arrival, he was made part of a detail that aids Nazi guards in the process of murdering people at the extermination camp. By the time we are introduced to Saul, he has been at this for some time, so his eyes are already vacant and his soul already battered. Whatever thin crust of humanity he has left is about to express itself in a gesture that is almost entirely pointless. Except to him.

This specific horror is portrayed in Son of Saul, a film that—in its own claustrophobic way—is as astonishing as the big-as-all-outdoors spectacle The Revenant.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: The Internecine Project

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, August 1974]

The Internecine Project seems to be biding time on theater screens until a place can be found for it on the CBS Late Night Movie (it’s hardly likely any network would want to waste prime time on it). Everything about it promises negligibility, and the promise is kept: a less-than-super star (Coburn), a female lead whose potential has scarcely ever been fully realized (Lee Grant), some character actors who stopped getting—or making—good parts some time ago (Andrews, Hendry), a forgettable British sub-leading man who muffed his one big chance (Jayston—Nicholas of Nicholas and Alexandra), an anonymously pneumatic foreign blonde (Christiane Kruger), an English hack with conspicuously unimaginative pretensions to distinction (Hughes), and above all the tiresomely formulaic genre in which doublecrosses are so taken-for-granted by the audience that no degree of geometric complication can do more than increase the boredom. Geoffrey Unsworth unaccountably signed on for it, but his frosty images hold no surprises, and between Hughes’s dully tricky direction and the gross miscasting of Grant as an intellectual glamour girl (more filters and soft-focus are used on her than on Lucy in Mame), he is sunk with the rest of the crew. Indeed, one almost suspects a destructive round-robin behind the scenes keeping pace with the one onscreen.

Keep Reading

Blu-ray: Richard Lester’s ‘The Knack’ and more

KnackWhy isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).

Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.

Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.

Keep Reading

Review: 45 Years

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in ’45 Years’

It might be grounded in kitchen-sink reality in many ways—here is a small English town, here are its unglamorous citizens, here are the everyday habits of two people who have been married a long time. But my favorite film of 2015 has an undercurrent of the fairy tale about it, as though a touch of dark magic were animating the crisis at the movie’s heart.

This is Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years—now you know how long the couple has been married—and maybe it’s more ghost story than fairy tale.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s ‘The Assassin’

AssassinThe Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’s Red Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.

Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.

Keep Reading

Review: 99 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99 and 44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.

Keep Reading

Review: 99 and 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of The Manchurian Candidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.

Keep Reading

Review: Aferim!

‘Aferim!’

Along with its more obvious qualities, Aferim! is a portrait of people starved for conversation. The cascade of chatter begins with a constable named Costandin (Teodor Corban), who is riding along through the Wallachian countryside in the mid-1830s in the company of his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). Costandin is a veritable fountain of bullshit, his torrent of dialogue peppered with folklore, aphorisms, riddles, poetry, and biblical quotations. The greenhorn Ionita occasionally gets a question in, but generally absorbs/endures his father’s jovial monologues during their journey on horseback through a mostly sunlit but somehow haunted landscape. The two are searching for an escaped Roma slave at the behest of a cruel nobleman.

Continue reading at Film Comment

Review: Ip Man 3

Donnie Yen in ‘Ip Man 3’

Ip Man 3  hails from a genre that, since the heyday of Bruce Lee, actually has made some inroads in the U.S.: the martial-arts picture. Still, this movie will open in only a handful of theaters stateside, and will be treated casually, if at all, by a media geared toward English-language releases. But wherever in the world it plays, it will play like gangbusters. Built around cheerfully broad emotional deck-stacking, well-spaced fight scenes, and charismatic actors, Ip Man 3 delivers its punches with confidence. Far from the grit of exploitation flicks, it looks terrific, full of vivid color and period design; the fighting has the precise spatial logic associated with action director Yuen Woo-Ping (of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix renown). The movie even has a role for Mike Tyson, who is not among its more charismatic actors but whose presence speaks to the film’s no-translation-necessary worldwide appeal. Tyson’s presence is akin to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showing up in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death—less a matter of “Why?” than “Why not?”

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: We All Loved Each Other So Much

[Originally published in The Weekly, October 12, 1977]

The Pizza Triangle opens with an all-male reenactment of a crime of passion before a judge and jury. Everything else but the final scene is flashback, a reconstruction of the cockeyed lovelife of a bungling leftist, a streetwalker, and the protestor’s best buddy, a pizza chef. The prostitute first sees the protestor while she is riding in a delirious, fluorescently colorful circle above a makeshift amusement park; he is lying on some rubble. She disembarks, walks over to him, and kisses him back to life. They become a couple. She meets the buddy. Everyone is friends for a while. Then she and the buddy make love. Alliances form, shift, realign. Everyone gets older. The three inadvertently meet again after time has passed and the girl and buddy have married. There is a clumsy fight, fully as graceless and absurd as—and much more moving than—its comic reenactment; the original is funny, too, but the woman ends up dead.”

That’s from a review I wrote six-and-a-half years ago. You’re reading it now because Ettore Scola, the director of that idiosyncratic 1970 comedy, is the guy who made We All Loved Each Other So Much, and because I was struck, upon rereading the piece, how true it also seems of the newer film. Make it a girl and three men instead of two, expand the time frame by a couple decades, change the lethal reunion into a self-designated “ambiguous conclusion” wherein three old friends discover a fourth is not what he pretended to be, and you have much the same film, in style, essential scenario, and sadly comic spirit.

Keep Reading

Review: Down and Dirty

[Originally published in The Weekly, 1979]

…Another, more peculiar Italian film has opened this past week: Ettore Scola’s Down and Dirty. A surrealistic comedy bedrocked in a card-carrying realist milieu, it deals with a dirt-poor Italian family living in a shantytown. The catch is that the family numbers in excess of twenty—in-laws, outlaws, legitimate and illegitimate children—and they all live in one (1) crumbling hutch on a mudflat. Although their occupations include housekeeping, nursing, pursesnatching, and several varieties of prostitution, they have one thing in common: they all hate papa Giacinto and he hates them.

Story is rarely the long suit in Italian movies and Down and Dirty is no exception. Having established the basic situation—embellished by the fact that Giacinto has received a sizable insurance settlement for the loss of one eye, money that he must constantly shift from hidey-hole to hidey-hole and guard with a sawed-off shotgun—Scola simply plays it and plays it. He gets away with this, keeps it all interesting, because he has a truly grotesque sense of humor and boundless capacity for visual invention within carefully maintained limits.

Keep Reading

Nonconformists: A Report on Two Italian Films

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

Partner is the film Bernardo Bertolucci made following Before the Revolution and prior to The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem, and Last Tango in Paris. It is nominally based on Dostoevsky’s The Double. There are some really extraordinary things in it, but it is also the least satisfying of the five Bertolucci films that have found their way to the United Stares (his first feature, The Grim Reaper, is not in distribution here). While there are sometimes two Pierre Clémentis on screen at once, the movie and the character suffer less from split personality than from multiple fractures. Clémenti plays Jacob, a young intellectual haunted by his own double; and here, as elsewhere, Bertolucci is concerned with the gap between political awareness and political action. But despite the film’s basic conceit, he has failed in Partner to find illuminating forms and figures for this very contemporary emotional ailment. The double device signifies in only the most obvious ways: mostly it provides opportunities for Bertolucci to create some fascinating shots. Toward the end, we are told that the revolutionary side of Jacob is a part of all of us that may some day find expression. But this neither suggests nor compels much conviction, especially since Bertolucci, his film, and the characters trail off into self-doubt … at which point the film ceases to continue.

Keep Reading

Review: Anomolisa

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film ‘Anomalisa.’

“Scrambled is my favorite eggs style. What about yours?” The speaker is Lisa, a lonely, sincere, somewhat vapid woman sharing breakfast with a well-regarded expert on customer service, Michael Stone. The line is vintage Charlie Kaufman: The Oscar-winning screenwriter has an uncanny ear for small talk and eager inanities—the chintzy conversation of the 21st-century mall-dweller. Kaufman risks the acid reflux that can result from writing these characters; there’s a fine line between the despair he conveys over the way we live today and out-and-out contempt for it. But his dialogue is so sharp you can’t help appreciating these people despite themselves (or you’ll be so impressed by the moviemaking experiment—the fact that Adaptation becomes exactly the kind of movie the on-screen Kaufman doesn’t want it to become, for instance—that liking the characters won’t matter).

Anomalisa is lemon-sucking sour, but there are enough gimmicks—and enough lacerating humor—to make the film memorable.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s nouvelle vague magnum opus ‘Out 1’ restored and reclaimed

Out1BoxJacques Rivette’s Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.

That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.

Keep Reading

Review: Zandy’s Bride

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

It may be a peculiarity of my character that a little of Jan Troell’s unassumingness goes a very long way. There’s something very admirable—and certainly “grownup,” to anyone passionately concerned that the movies grow away from Melodrama and towards Life—about his talent for capturing the offhand beauties of a field, a rock, the picturesque yet undecorative angle from which the whimsy, at once gentle and profound, of a pregnant woman indulging in her last reverie on a swing is observed and defined. The New Land begins (at least, as it is shown in this country) with a slow, obscurely motivated zoom-out from a deep stand of trees somewhere in 19th-century Minnesota, the sound of … an axe? a gun? a wheel? … reverberating within. Anything could be happening there—something surely seems to be happening there—and in its own good time the land and the film may reveal that something to us.

Keep Reading