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Review: American Graffiti

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.

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Violent Cop - Photo credit: Film Movement

Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

violentcopViolent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

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Neruda - Photo credit: The Orchard

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

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Certain Women

Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.

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The Gang's All Here

Yes, We Have No Bananas: ‘The Gang’s All Here’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley Footlight Parade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!

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Simone Simon in 'Cat People'

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

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Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

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Rachel Weisz in 'Denial'

Review: Denial

“Not all opinions are equal.” How good it is, in this our time of cultural lunacy, to have these words definitively spoken. The fact that the phrase is uttered in a not-especially-great film is perhaps disappointing, but you gotta start somewhere, and movies have been known to lead the cultural conversation. Even when they’re not great.

Denial is written by the esteemed David Hare and directed by the journeyman Mick Jackson, so you might be able to guess where it soars and where it staggers. Hare, the unsparing author of Plenty and Skylight, based the script on Deborah Lipstadt’s experience in the world of Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is a New York-raised academic (she once taught at the University of Washington) who was sued for libel in British court in 1996 over her book Denying the Holocaust, which named English author David Irving as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The UK legal system mandated that Lipstadt had to establish that what she said was true—a situation that essentially put her legal team in the strange position of proving the Holocaust happened.

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Review: Sleeper

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Sleeper is the funniest new film I’ve seen in years. Taking Off was the last recently made film that left me laughed out, and Sleeper reduced me to complete helplessness. In it, writer-director-actor Woody Allen projects himself into the year 2173 as a result of having been frozen for preservation some two hundred years earlier. The picture abounds in delicious detail, almost entirely of a satirical nature, but I’ll pass up the temptation to cannibalize his wit by recounting any of it, and talk instead about the progress his career is making.

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Review: American Honey

American Honey, the first movie set in the States by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), finds the director working with some fairly ludicrous self-imposed hindrances: a largely untrained cast, Shia LaBeouf at his most methody-bedraggled, and a nearly three-hour running time. That she makes these all meld together beautifully feels like some kind of weird alchemy, really.

Continue reading at The Stranger

The Birth of a Nation

Review: The Birth of a Nation

The provocation begins with the title, a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: Nate Parker’s Sundance smash takes its name from a famous film released 101 years ago. Not just any film, but a cinematic titan of its era:The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s mammoth Civil War film sold more tickets than any other movie, inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and caused enormous controversy as soon as it was released. The film is a synthesis of Griffith’s profound cinematic eloquence and some appallingly racist material, the latter having frequently dominated the conversation about Birth. Parker is reclaiming the title and adjusting film history. Fair enough, but if you’re going to reach that big, you’d better deliver.

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Review: The Outside Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The American cinema owes the French cinema—which is to say French critics and audiences as well as French filmmakers—an enormous debt. And so do any American cinephiles whose cataracted vision began to clear only after Gallic enthusiasm pointed the way to a discovery of our national cinematic treasures. Why, the film noir, one of the richest veins in our movie mines, bears a French moniker; and French cinéastes have emulated that particular tradition time and again, from the commercial likes of Borsalino to the more personal genre work of the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Melville to the radically stylized, self-aware poetry of Godard’s Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou. The progression syntactically implied there is stylistic rather than chronological: Borsalino, an enjoyable piece of period fluff concocted by Jacques Deray, postdates the others. It would be nice to say that Deray’s first American-made film added new dimensions to the genre; that a foreign filmmaker practiced in shooting French-based derivations of our native genre might reveal to us unsuspected strains of exoticism gleaming out of the domestic bedrock. But no.

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Review: Magnum Force

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Don Siegel he’s not, but in this sequel to Dirty Harry Ted Post has directed his first middlin’-good feature film. A Gunsmoke–Have Gun, Will Travel regular in the half-hour heyday of those series, Post has done less-than-promising work for the big screen: Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment. Someone—not necessarily Post—has been attentive to those critics of Harry who cried “Fascism!” and has programmatically set out to do a film with Clint Eastwood/Harry Callahan against some avowed fascists—or perhaps we must say superfascists since Harry himself still casually avows “There’s nothing wrong with shooting—just so the right people get shot.” And indeed, Eastwood’s own integrity as an actor and as a mythic figure remains untarnished: Magnum Force is the first non-Leone, non-Siegel, non-Eastwood picture in which he manifests some real style instead of sleepwalking into place to pose for the one-sheets.

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Dekalog: Four. Photo credit: Janus Films

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Dekalog’ from Criterion

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film

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Deepwater Horizon

Review: Deepwater Horizon

The miracle of Sensurround was uncorked in 1974 as part of the gimmicky release of Earthquake. Universal Pictures wanted to add something extra to the glut of disaster pictures in the marketplace (this was the epoch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), so Sensurround was born. Theaters added huge speakers, booming bass notes were embedded in the soundtrack, and the ads warned that the effect would be akin to an actual earthquake: “The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.” That sold a lot of tickets, and the walls really did shake. But Sensurround was used on only a handful of films before more sophisticated audio systems came into use.

Today, technical advancements make it possible for theaters to rumble and quake with deafening authority—many movie experiences are the equivalent of getting stuck in traffic in front of a car with its thumping subwoofers tuned to the “bleed” setting. Such a film is Deepwater Horizon, a throwback to the ’70s-era disaster flick. The cheesy come-on of Sensurround is nowhere to be seen here; the filmmakers have said the movie is meant as a sober tribute to the 11 workers killed in the oil-rig disaster in 2010. But Deepwater Horizon follows the Earthquake formula, and its sound effects spare nothing in pursuit of tooth-rattling.

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