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Review: The Magnificent Seven

There are, I understand, people who can drive around a mesa in the American Southwest and come upon a vast, stunning expanse of pure Western landscape and not hear the music from The Magnificent Seven in their heads. Sad, but true. The catchiness and ubiquity of Elmer Bernstein’s thrumming music (which Marlboro licensed for their TV campaign peddling a manly, nicotine-loaded lifestyle) is so definitive it instantly summons up the Old West—or at least the cinematic version—in its first few beats. That music is the Western movie.

Bernstein’s score is amusingly hinted at during the remake of The Magnificent Seven, but you’ll have to wait until the end credits for a full nostalgic airing of the main theme. The original music is too heroic and unconflicted for a 21st-century Western, which Antoine Fuqua’s new film certainly is: Multicultural in its casting and pointedly political in its choice of bad guy, The Magnificent Seven is a 2016 movie all the way. In fits and starts, it also manages to be a pretty enjoyable Western.

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John Lithgow and Lolita Davidovich in Brian De Palma's 'Raising Cain'

Blu-ray: ‘Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition’ with a De Palma-blessed Director’s Cut

raisingcainbdRaising Cain: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – Jenny (Lolita Davidovich, all soft curves and dreamy smiles) is married to “the perfect man,” says her best friend Sarah (Mel Harris). At first glance Carter (John Lithgow) seems exactly that: a thoughtful husband, a doting father, a child psychiatrist who put his practice on hold to stay home and raise their daughter while she, an oncologist, worked as the family professional and breadwinner. So what’s she thinking when she slips off with Jack (Steven Bauer), a handsome widower of a former patient she hasn’t seen in years, and makes love in the park where her daughter plays? Okay, that’s no secret. The first shot of the Raising Cain: Director’s Cut (1992/2012) puts a Valentine’s heart around her entrance, a cheesy video effect in an upscale boutique that taps right into romantic dreams that her “perfect” husband is failing to satisfy. When this dreamboat sails back into her life and Carter spies their affair, we have a pretty good idea where this is headed. And we couldn’t be more wrong.

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Orson Welles on 'Chimes at Midnight,' on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ and ‘The Immortal Story’ debut on Criterion

chimesmidChimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015. The re-release was a revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”

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Review: Cops and Robbers

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Cops and Robbers is another of those teddibly clever caper comedies whose subject and bid for commercial success are both safely swaddled in kuntemperairy muhlayz. It’s more enjoyable than most, enough so that the casual moviegoer looking to drop out of reality for a couple hours will be reasonably satisfied. The opening is amusing, and stylistically a harbinger of things to come: seen as if from across the street, in the gritty-spongy color cinematography that has become a certification of authenticity (and, frequently, an excuse for sloppy direction and framing), a policeman enters a New York liquor store one evening and holds it up: leaving in his customary, just-walking-my-beat,-putting-in-a-day’s-work saunter, he disappears around the corner while the frantic storeowner hesitantly calls “Police!” and tries to communicate his complete perplexity to a bored derelict who’s been leaning against the store window the whole time. Days later, the cop (Joseph Bologna) delightedly confesses the deed to his neighbor and fellow officer (Cliff Gorman), adding that since it happened he and his wife have had fantastic rapport in the sack. Eventually the two decide to try one together—but no liquor store, no coupla hundred bucks—something big. Before long they have agreed to grab $10 million in bearer bonds and sell them, for 20 percent of value, to the Mafia. And they do it.

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Review: Papillon

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

Like Franklin Schaffner’s previous picture Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon improves markedly in the second half. Not that, in the manner of a true roadshow, Papillon has an intermission (at least not in its present berth at the Coliseum—don’t take bets on the second run). And in some respects that’s what it looked to be, a roadshow: 150-minutes running time, reported $13,000,000 cost, bestseller origin. But the producers’ spectacular ambitions are undercut time and again by two factors: by the fact that the essential dramatic interest inheres in the grotesquely confined agonies of one man and, beyond that, in the unlikely (which is to say, in entertainment terms, likely) friendship and love of two men; and by the very nature of Franklin Schaffner as a director—that he is also one of the producers serves not so much to contradict my idea of Schaffner the director as to index an ambivalence that is the richest source of tension in the movie. Schaffner came from TV, and while he has few of the obnoxious visual affectations of the TV-trained director, he tends to restrict the most significant actions and relationships in his films to spatial arenas that could be served very adequately by the tube rather than the Panavision screen: the real convention hustle in The Best Man takes place in hotel rooms, hallways, and basements; the tensest moments in his strange and (to me) very sympathetic medieval mini-epic The War Lord are confined to a small soundstage clearing or that besieged tower; the battle scenes in Patton are hardly clumsy, but the real show is George C. Scott; and Nicholas and Alexandra comes alive only after the royal family has been penned up under the watchful eyes of Ian Holm and then Alan Webb, far from the splendor of St. Petersburg or the shambles of the Great War.

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The Beatles

Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

Do we need another documentary on The Beatles? Yes, they are music legends, rock royalty, and a popular culture phenomenon, and they have been duly studied, appreciated, dissected, and celebrated practically from the moment they set foot on American soil. Is there anything left to say?

Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years hasn’t much new to add apart from perspective but that makes all the difference. The title is a ungainly but accurate. After sketching in the birth of the band, it follows the familiar career arc from club favorites to pop hitmakers to sophisticated songsmiths pushing the boundaries of our conception of rock and roll in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which (apart from a fitting coda) is where this study ends. The focus, however, is on their non-stop activity from their first chart success to their last live concert.

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Review: Disorder

Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Disorder'
Matthias Schoenaerts in ‘Disorder’

For many years I have suffered from tinnitus, which is a great Edgar Allan Poe-ish word for “ringing in the ears.” (I know now we’re supposed to say we “live with” conditions and syndromes, but I suffer from mine, thanks anyway.) Having tinnitus creates an unreal soundscape; for me, along with various pulses and crackles, I often think I hear conversations or music happening somewhere. Or maybe there are conversations and music happening—who can tell, with all the noise going on?

In Alice Winocour’s Disorder, the protagonist Vincent suffers (really suffers) from much more than just tinnitus. This military veteran has PTSD and hearing loss, and his shaky nerves make it unlikely he’ll see active duty again. One thing that drew me into Winocour’s odd film is the sonic depiction of how Vincent hears the world: The soundtrack hums with high-frequency whirring and insectoid buzz, which is all the more maddening to Vincent because he often has to pay close attention to dangers that might be approaching.

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Review: Santee

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Santee is a very unremarkable program western with a familiar plot complication: a former lawman, now bounty hunter, runs down and kills a bad fellow, only to have the man’s adolescent son swear vengeance on him; the bounty killer takes the boy under his wing, mainly to keep him where he can see him, and gradually (so tradition has it) the lad comes to love and respect him, and to assume the place of the son killed long ago.

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Review: Sully

Tom Hanks in 'Sully'
Tom Hanks in ‘Sully’

The opening sequence of Sully is a nightmare: a damaged airplane crashes in New York City. The dreamer wakes and sits up in bed, panting in the dark. He turns his head slightly, and his eyes are softly illuminated by a little band of light. This is an old-movie technique that goes back to the silent days; it’s as simple as it is effective.

The old-fashioned touch indicates the preferred method of director Clint Eastwood, who has crafted an admirably trim, plain film out of a very square subject. Because Sully chronicles the 2009 Hudson River landing executed by US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by a white-haired Tom Hanks), the film requires one big sequence of digital spectacle: the six minutes of flying that took Sullenberger’s passenger jet from LaGuardia Airport to the surface of the Hudson on a freezing January day. (Two minutes into the flight, the plane’s engines were disabled by contact with a flock of geese.) But the majority of the movie is utterly unadorned—mostly shots of people walking and talking in nondescript hotels and generic conference rooms.

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Review: Macunaíma

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

The allegedly quintessential Brazilian film begins solemnly, from the absence of color. The screen is black. No sound, no music, nothing. Finally, in white letters, something to lip-read: a preamble heavy and hackneyed as the baritone of the late, great Lowell Thomas…. In the depths of the Brazilian jungle, bla bla bla … all is utter silence, bla bla bla … except … An ungodly shriek rends the air and the audience’s eardrums. Sudden extreme closeup of ancient hag—ugh, what a mug on this old party! Medium shot: the crone (wait, maybe it’s a man, outlandish drag)—she—he—bends clumsily. W-a-a-a-a-w! Grande Otelo (an adult actor), fullgrown and black as the ace of spades, thuds bawling onto the turf; and Macunaíma, with a cry of comical outrage, is born.

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Review: Morgan

Morgan
Morgan

As we slide into the late-summer multiplex doldrums, movies with neurons to spare are especially welcome. The clinical cautionary tale Morgan happily fits into the latter category, moving past some early familiarity to become a smart, sneakily ambitious thriller.

Set in the not too distant future, the story follows a no-nonsense corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) sent to a secluded forest compound to assess the status of a rapidly developing artificial humanoid (The Witch’s terrifically spooky Anya Taylor-Joy). As she and the swiftly dwindling team of scientists—including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a perfectly assholish Paul Giamatti—soon discover, the experiment has some significant gray areas.

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Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans

From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?

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Review: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

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

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is Sam Fuller’s Godard movie. The title is gradually pieced together (cf. Pierrot le fou), there is a scene in a movie theater where the hero grooves on hearing John Wayne in German in Rio Bravo (cf. Boetticher’s Westbound with an Apollinaire soundtrack in À bout de souffle and Jack Palance’s orgiastic response to a cinematic bathing belle in the screening room of Le Mépris), there is a plethora of clique-y movie jokes (e.g., a one-scene appearance by Stéphane Audran as a certain Dr. Bogdanovich), and the director’s wife is featured in all her punishing ineptitude (there’s even a nearly subliminal flash of her playing a scene with Akim Tamiroff in Godard’s Alphaville). Besides these factors, none of which is exactly ignorable, the movie parodies its own narrative homeground to a fare-thee-well. After a bang-up opening in which a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin named Charlie Umlaut all fall in Beethovenstrasse, in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into a very jagged rhythm, Fuller gives us a shot of a pair of bare soles being wheeled down the corridor of a morgue. Looking above and beyond them (which is hard), we see Glenn Corbett and a West German cop and, of course, a morgue attendant; Corbett’s voice is droning on, in four lines piling up enough hyperchromatic exposition to occupy most films for a reel. Indeed, for a moment we can’t be sure whether Corbett is telling this to the German cop or doing a Spillane-style voiceover for our benefit.

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Review: State of Siege

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Several months after its intended opening and a good seven or eight months behind the rest of the country, State of Siege has arrived. If the event is somewhat anticlimactic, it was scarcely expected to be otherwise. Costa-Gavras’s previous picture, The Confession, while exemplarily evenhanded in terms of the director’s career (leftist totalitarianism getting slammed as hard as rightist totalitarianism was in Z), was a tedious experience, and even the stellar-cast Z, emotionally and physically stirring while one sat before it, has tended to grow minor in retrospect. On the consumer-report level it must be noted that State of Siege affords a better time than The Confession without quite coming up to Z for sheer excitement—although in its limited way the new film essays a more complex problem, politically and aesthetically, than either of its predecessors. Based, like them, on a true series of events, the kidnapping and assassination of American policeman Daniel Mitrione in a South American police state, the film seeks to depict the political alignments of the society in which the crime takes place, the sometimes convoluted strategies of the various factions, and the ultimate ineffectuality of the terrorism on both sides. That any complexity will be admitted by the filmmakers is not immediately apparent: the Tupamaros who kidnap Mitrione (here called Santore) are young, unspectacularly photogenic, intelligent and dedicated, while their advocates—journalist O.E. Hasse and parliamentarian André Falcon—are urbane, witty, and unflappable; their rightwing counterparts are apoplectic, shifty-eyed, shrill, self-interested. Costa-Gavras has straightforwardly defended this bias by suggesting that the Left has a, er, right to its own “John Wayne–type entertainments.” And certainly one needn’t be a rabid rad to turn on to the film; the less-than-radical viewer will—if not be radicalized—at least pick up some salutary political education, as in a voiceover montage where one government minister after another climbs out of a series of interchangeable limousines and, on his way to a top-level conference, is identified as director of this or that or those corporations, many of them American companies, some of them virtual political and economic dynasties—and these men are the government of Uruguay.

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Review: Southside with You

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in 'Southside With You'
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in ‘Southside With You’

The first laugh in Southside with You is a close-up of a cigarette in a man’s hand. We laugh because we know this movie is about the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and we recognize this close-up as a droll joke about the 44th POTUS and his curiously stubborn—curious, that is, for someone famously in control—bad habit. The cigarette indeed belongs to the young law student Obama, seen here on a warm summer day in 1989 as he prepares to meet his co-worker (who’s also his superior) for an outing.

This early moment in Southside with You, and the assumption that the audience is in on the joke, indicates both the film’s strength and weakness. Nobody can experience this movie as merely a pleasant portrait of two young African-Americans on the town; we know who they are—or who they will be—and we see the film through that historical prism. The movie repeatedly confirms that the young Obamas were extremely smart, deeply committed people. It’s like an extended version of a convention video, crafted to please the faithful and maybe haul in a few uncommitteds.

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