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Review: Man on a Swing

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Man on a Swing is one of those anomalous films with a few pretensions to major standing scattered amid the telltale half-measures and slipshod surfaces of a B-picture. Exhibits A, C, and D (B having just been spoken for): Joel Grey, who was probably embarking on this film about the time he carried home a Supporting Actor Oscar for Cabaret last year; Cliff Robertson, an actor of apparent intelligence and integrity who followed up on his own Best Actor award (for Charly) by writing, producing, directing, and starring in his own modest, intriguing movie J.W. Coop, and lending himself to such commercially unlikely but very distinctive experiments as The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid; Frank Perry, onetime Brave Independent Artist who launched himself with the privately financed David and Lisa, then went on to such heav-veee projects as Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Play It As It Lays. Doc (which was pre-Lays) marked his first excursion into genre territory—and a sour, humorless, genre- and self-debasing excursion it was. Man on a Swing indicates a slight improvement: Perry turns in unassuming, if also undistinguished, work on this story about the investigation of a sex murder in a small town firmly entrenched in Middle America.

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Review: The Shallows

Blake Lively

At a time when more and more promising directors are quickly swallowed up by the remorseless blockbuster machine, there’s something admirable about a filmmaker like Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night), who is seemingly content to stay a rung or two down on the respectability ladder and continue refining his chops. The Shallows, Collet-Serra’s new primal screamer, may not be his best work—that honor still falls to the wonderfully sick Orphan—but its single-minded devotion to getting viewers to grip their armrests is really something to see. Clocking in at a lean and mean 86 minutes, it takes its deliberately simple premise and comes close to knocking the damn cover off of it.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: De Palma

“And that’s when I came up with the flying utensils.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, right? If the speaker is a Disney animator, you might be visualizing a charming sequence of movie magic. But no—the speaker is Brian De Palma, so this out-of-the-blue comment can only lead to something perverse. His fans will know that the notorious director is talking about Piper Laurie’s death scene in Carrie, his 1976 horror hit. On the page, the telekinetic Carrie gives her mother a heart attack. Speaking to us in the documentary about him, De Palma rolls his eyes over how uncinematic this would be. Why have a character simply clutch her chest and fall over when you could send an arsenal of flying cutlery toward her, crucifying the evil witch in her own contaminated house?

This is one of dozens of stories in De Palma, a feature-length interview in which the filmmaker, 75, tells anecdotes, copiously decorated with clips from all his films. The tidbit about Carrie is typical of the documentary at its best: It’s a colorful story, but it also underscores De Palma’s keen, sometimes lurid grasp of what cinema is. That scene in Carrie may be over the top, but it is cinematically alive in a way that De Palma’s better-behaved colleagues rarely touch.

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Review: The Sugarland Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.

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Review: Innocence

Julia Blake and Charles Tingwell

Paul Cox’s paean to the power of love opens on a boy and a girl biking down a country path, so magnetized by their young lust they must hold hands even as they ride. She’s blooming, dressed in richest blue and red; as they kiss hungrily on a bridge, she anchors her hand on a metal floodgate wheel. The camera lowers, to show that the stream’s current can’t be stemmed. It flows swiftly onward, its movement—echoed by the accelerating train that soon separates them—wiping away their youth. Forty years, two marriages and several children later, Rose (Julia Blake) and Andreas (Charles Tingwell) reunite and find they’ve fallen in love a second time, not as old, fading folk but as continuations of the joyful boy and girl they once were. Cox visually makes an eternal Nowness for these four characters, mixing memory and present rediscovery, lovemaking in the woods and in a home filled with the accumulated treasures of a lifetime, ripe and fallen flesh.

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Review: Man of Flowers

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]

Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers begins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.

The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.

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Review: The Other Side

When Walker Evans traveled into 1930s America and photographed the people hit hardest by the Depression, he captured the perseverance and dignity of poor folks in the rural South. A similar journey is traced in the new documentary The Other Side, but here perseverance has become hostility and dignity is in shreds. In modern-day West Monroe, Louisiana, the faces are distorted by methamphetamine and alcohol, animated by fear, and given definition by resentment toward an enemy (the black man in the White House, gun-safety advocates—any enemy will do).

For two-thirds of the film’s running time, we follow Mark and Lisa, lovers and lost souls. They cook and sell meth, sometimes tenderly injecting each other. We first see Mark waking up naked along a roadside, the first of the film’s startling images; director Roberto Minervini shoots the scene as though it’s the first morning in an American Eden (the sculpted photography is often in direct counterpoint to the squalid living conditions).

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Review: Ten from Your Show of Shows

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.

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Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

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Review: Maggie’s Plan

Maya Rudolph and Greta Gerwig

It’s possible that the author of Death of a Salesman might have fathered a child with a gift for the rapid-fire style of screwball comedy. But in her films as writer/director, Arthur Miller’s daughter has remained true to his somber mood. Rebecca Miller seems entirely at home in the heaviness of her 2005 drama The Ballad of Jack and Rose (which starred her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, no laugh riot himself). And when hilarity breaks out in Miller’s Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), it’s like a desperate bark from someone drowning.

Miller’s new film, Maggie’s Plan, has the contours—and the far-fetched storyline—of a screwball comedy, and although it misses the happy rhythm of that ditzy film subgenre, it substitutes something intriguing.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Alfredo, Alfredo

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Dustin Hoffman is seen without being heard in Pietro Germi’s Alfredo, Alfredo, but the disadvantage is minor, so adroitly does he adapt himself to the characteristic and very photographable behavioral style of the harried Germi male, made iconically vivid and familiar by Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style. As there and in subsequent films like Seduced and Abandoned and The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians, Germi employs hectic, sardonic, sometimes slapstick comedy to exemplify the very real agonies that result from the clash of love, sex, and social strictures in his native land. Whereas Divorce Italian Style satirized an existing dilemma, Alfredo celebrates historical progress: something like divorce American style has finally replaced the last resort, upholding the Unwritten Law, and the new picture actually begins with the protagonist in the lawyer’s office preparing to shed his less-than-ideal spouse. Not that divorce is the be-all, end-all, and cure-all in Germi’s scheme of things: he and his hero conclude the film with shaky optimism at best, almost certain that the new marriage being made in the final scene will also prove unworkable.

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Review: A King in New York

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Charles Chaplin’s 1956 English movie A King in New York begins with a mob surging into a palace shouting “We want the head of Charlot!” Or so the auteurist ear registers it for a moment—actually it’s Shahdov, not Charlot, the people want the head of. But Shahdov is played by Charlie Chaplin. Same difference. A King in New York has long been spoken of as Chaplin’s cinematic kissoff to the country that turned thumbs down on him and his Monsieur Verdoux in the late Forties when he became too politically outspoken—the wrong sort of politics—and found himself in a paternity suit as well; an assistant Attorney General of that country denied the British-born Chaplin a reentry visa after he’d gone abroad in the early Fifties, and so the man who was once the best-loved figure in the United States and probably the world elected to sit out the rest of his life in Switzerland.

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Review: Weiner

Anthony Weiner in the documentary ‘Weiner’

Even the title of the documentary is a punch line. It could’ve been given a tragic title like The Last Crusade, or something soberly ironic like Public Service, or maybe the Raymond Carver-esque You Would Know If This Was Your Underpants (taken from perhaps the greatest thing Wolf Blitzer ever said to anybody on CNN). But no, the documentary is called Weiner, and its title character is just going to have to live with that. As he will have to live with many things for the rest of his life.

Anthony Weiner is a former seven-term U.S. representative (a New York Democrat) whose career collapsed after a 2011 sexting scandal. He sent indelicate messages to women who were not his wife, some of which included explicit photographs of himself, or parts of himself. Before the scandal broke, Weiner was a lively—indeed fiery—congressman, prone to splendid displays of temper on the House floor. He was also a reliably eloquent and bellicose guest on cable-news shows.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Dillinger

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

That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.

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Blu-ray: ‘Dillinger’ by Milius

John Dillinger was the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters and his exploits (and attendant newspaper coverage) made him a romantic anti-hero to many of the folks who felt betrayed by the bankers and businessmen of the country.

DillingerDillinger (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), the 1973 gangster film and directorial debut of John Milius, plays on that image of the gentleman gangster who courted the public and the press while he robbed banks across the American Midwest. It was one of the best of the many period gangster films that poured out in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and made anti-heroes of outlaws.

Warren Oates stars as Dillinger and it is great casting; not only does he resemble the real-life gangster but he brings a rugged charm to the role, whether cautioning bystanders and bank tellers during the robberies (“This could be one of the big moments in your life,” he says at one point. “Don’t make it your last”) or genially bantering with the press after he’s arrested the first time. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis, the Midwest FBI agent who made Dillinger a priority as his fame became an embarrassment for the Bureau. The film covers his brief rampage across the Midwest states, his romance with Billy Frechette (Michelle Philips), his flamboyant prison break, the supergang that included Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and the bloodthirsty Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and his bloody demise outside of a Chicago movie theater in 1934 in the company of “the lady in red” (played by Cloris Leachman). Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, and Frank McRae co-star as members of Dillinger’s gang through the years and Milius gives them all distinctive parts.

Milius was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood when he made the film for AIP, taking a cut in exchange for the chance to direct, and AIP (famed for drive-in pictures) poured money into this film in hopes of a mainstream breakthrough and a little prestige. Though small by studio standards, it was the biggest budget of any AIP picture to that time and Milius creates a terrific evocation of the era and delivers impressive action scenes, shoot-outs, and car chases on a tight budget.

Arrow’s edition is restored in 2K from the original 35m interpositive and features both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film with commentary by film historian Stephen Prince and new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon (10 minutes), director of photography Jules Brenner (12 minutes), and composer Barry De Vorzon (12 minutes), plus an isolated music and effects track and bonus booklet.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled