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Review: La Bete Humaine

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

Beginning in this issue, and continuing whenever occasion warrants and space permits, MOVIETONE NEWS will include a retrospective quickie or two among the normal short notices on current cinema. In the past MTN writers were able to comment on older films only in advance of seeing or reseeing them—that is, as part of our regular service on the local repertory houses, You Only Live Once. While we intend Quickies to continue emphatically along lines already established, we hope in this small way to quietly insist once more that a movie is a movie is a movie, and that the cinema is eternally in the present tense. —Ed.

Jean Renoir, son of the great painter and a great artist in his own right, is—by temperament—somewhat at odds with the naturalism of Emile Zola, though he has twice made highly regarded films from books by Zola (his second film was Nana, 1926). But his modernized La Bête humaine is proof that Zola could be an inspiration as well as a cogent and productive challenge to both the generosity and the irony in Renoir’s libertarian vision. The film’s modern setting gives the naturalist’s deterministic psychology a special twist: Renoir’s people here are heirs to Zola’s, and yet as selfconscious and self-aware moderns living in the age of psychoanalysis, their applications of deterministic views to their own lives restates the problem in a newer and even more challenging way. When Gabin and Simon embrace in the rain, the embrace is undercut by their haunted (and separate) gazes: they are already anticipating the destiny which their fatalism nourishes.

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Review: After the Storm

Sometimes a storm is just a storm. But this is rarely true in movies. If clouds gather on the horizon, it’s usually an omen about relationship troubles or a giant monster approaching, or possibly a twister leading the way to the land of Oz. Instead of trying to disguise the significance of the storm in After the Storm, director Hirokazu Kore-eda embraces it. For a filmmaker known as a subtle storyteller, this is downright heavy-handed. But if this film isn’t Kore-eda at his best—see Our Little Sister and Nobody Knows for that—the experience of watching it is frequently wonderful. Kore-eda has gotten to the point where even when his work isn’t top-drawer, it’s exceptionally nice to be around.

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Review: High Plains Drifter

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

As a director, Clint Eastwood cannot be simply written off as mindlessly imitative. He is far too intelligent in his eclectic appreciation of what works in the films of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Eastwood has not yet subsumed what he has learned from his mentors into a coherent vision of his own. Thus, High Plains Drifter, like Play Misty for Me, occasionally promises more than it cumulatively delivers. Eastwood’s main problem here—both as director and as actor—is that he never quite gets together how he wants to come at a story which must wed a Leone-like revenge motif with a scathingly satirical examination of a town inhabited by rejects from High Noon. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name carried within his very character implicit hints of more-than-human motivation, so that at times he resembled nothing so much as a warrior Christ. Eastwood clearly had his former role in mind when he made High Plains Drifter, but that doesn’t save him from alternately overemphasizing his demonic hero’s supernatural origins and almost completely losing sight of them as he begins to focus more and more on his blackly humorous exposure of the town of Lago’s communal sins and deceits.

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Review: Beatriz at Dinner

In Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek’s face is cleansed of glamour. But even more noticeable is the expression she wears: empathetic yet often empty, as though a life of being around affluent people had trained her character to wear a mask of watchful neutrality. This is apt, because she plays Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant who works as a holistic healer in Hollywood—her clients are the very rich, albeit the kind who believe in mind-body interventions and shamanism. Beatriz’s poker face is all the more impressive because her brand of medicine requires her to take on the pain of her patients, rendering her something like an old-fashioned saint.

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Review: My Cousin Rachel

Is she or isn’t she? This is the question, and the tantalizing draw, of My Cousin Rachel, a new adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel. The story is the sort of genteel-gothic potboiler that du Maurier mastered in Rebecca, and like that novel it features a woman arriving at a mansion where mystery awaits. But this forceful new arrival is far from the meek, unnamed bride of Rebecca—she herself is the source of the mystery.

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Review: Paris Can Wait

In the notes I jotted down while watching Paris Can Wait, I find these words scribbled: “Everything is off.” I don’t remember what specific scene or moment I was referring to, but I know what I meant. The timing is awkward, the camera doesn’t seem to know how to frame people for anything other than scenic effect, the actors sound uncertain. Odd shifts in tone are randomly distributed throughout the action. But wait, you might be asking, isn’t that “technical” stuff that only critics care about? To which I would say (if we can carry this imaginary conversation a little longer) that these shortcomings are not technical stuff, they are the movie itself, and they are the reason Paris Can Wait feels baggy and unoriginal. Everything is off, at the granular level.

Having said that, I get that Paris Can Wait might be liked by some viewers, in the same way you might like a bad painting of cheese because you just really love cheese.

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Blu-ray: ‘Rumble Fish’

 

Francis Ford Coppola described Rumble Fish (1983), his screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, as “an art film for teenagers.” He shot it right after making The Outsiders (1982), also adapted from a Hinton novel, but where that was a lush, operatic tale, Coppola made Rumble Fish in stylized black and white, like a teen noir seen through the eyes of a kid who has mythologized the idea of street gang chivalry to the point that he can’t see the reality through the idealization.

Criterion

Matt Dillon is teenage tough guy Rusty James, a good looking, recklessly charming high school kid in the shadow of his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), trying to live up to a reputation that his brother wants only to live down. He’s an aspiring juvenile delinquent with a boozer dad (Dennis Hopper) and a nice girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who attends Catholic School across town. Rusty James (always the two names, like a brand) is, of course, from the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial grit of a Tulsa that time left behind and this culture of bars and boozer and packs of kids who imagine themselves as real gangs is steeped in its own mythology, or rather Rusty is steeped in the mythology that no one else seems to revere.

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Almost everything worth anything in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is geared toward spectacle. You want to see ghost sharks? We have great whites and hammerheads, rotted away but still capable of taking a bite out of Captain Jack Sparrow’s dinghy. Want to see Sparrow escape from a guillotine? A rescue sends our drunken hero somersaulting while still strapped into the contraption, the blade sliding up and down toward his neck as it tumbles head over heels. Want to see an entire building dragged through the streets of a Saint Martin town while Sparrow rides it? It’s here. This movie doesn’t have much in the way of plot or character, but maybe this franchise has simply returned to its origins as a Disneyland ride: disconnected sensations, strung together at regular intervals.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a very expensive gamble on the continued life of this series, which seemed exhausted with the ho-hum On Stranger Tides in 2011.

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Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

Shout! Factory

The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.

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Blu-ray: Logan

Can a comic book superhero movie tell a human story? Logan (2017) makes the case that the genre is not limited to spectacle (though this film does offer some accomplished—and violent—action scenes), end of the world stakes, or world-building chapters in a massive franchise.

Fox Home Video

Set in the near future of 2029, which is a lot like today but a little more automated and a little more depressed, a world worn out and run down with a population to match, it presents Logan (Hugh Jackman), the former X-man also known as Wolverine, in hiding. He works as a chauffeur for hire under the radar while looking after an ailing Xavier (Patrick Stewart in a fearlessly vulnerable performance). Once immortal, thanks to healing powers that have kept him young for years, Logan is now breaking down and wearing out, his body ravaged by disease he can no longer combat, while Xavier is slipping into dementia and losing control of his once-finely focused mind. A dangerous thing for a telepath of his power, even more dangerous in a culture where mutantkind has been hunted to near extinction. And while Logan saves money for an escape from their Mexican compound, a kind of fantasy involving a boat and a life on the high seas, the government is on the hunt for them and for a silent young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who is a pint-sized Wolverine in her own right. It’s no spoiler to say that Logan, nudged by crotchety old man Xavier, becomes a reluctant protector to the girl who, at least on a genetic level, could be his daughter.

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Blu-ray: Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

The Stepford Wives meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in Get Out (2017), the directorial debut of writer / comedian Jordan Peele, a tricky and successful mix of social satire, modern horror, and savvy commentary on race as experienced by a person of color in a largely white society.

Universal Home Video

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a photographer with a promising career and a gorgeous, supportive girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), and after months of dating, he’s finally meeting the parents for a weekend stay. Her parents are white, liberal, and affluent, and on the drive over he finds out that she hasn’t told them that he’s black, which makes him a little uneasy. No worries, they are warm and welcoming, perhaps a little too overeager to make him welcome. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a chatty hugger who launches into his spiel of how he would have eagerly voted Obama in for a third term. Mom (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who seems to be sizing up all those suppressed feelings, a suburban Earth Mother who seems just a little too eager to hypnotize him. They make a point of just how much they don’t see color, which of course only accentuates how much he stands out in this upstate social pocket where the only other black faces are groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They have been with the family so long they have become part of the family, explains Mom. Just maybe not quite in the way you assume.

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Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

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

The French Connection was about as good as a movie can get without reflecting the creative concentration of a single controlling artistic presence. Ernest Tidyman’s script evoked a convincing sense of a behavioral reality realized and sustained in pungent language that sounded as if it were spoken by people, not characters in a screenplay; William Friedkin’s direction paced that reality perfectly and extended it in patterns of action and movement; Owen Roizman’s camerawork achieved precision while staying limber and unaffectedly nervous, and Jerry Greenberg’s editing wired the whole thing into a dynamic narrative experience. One tended to accept producer Phil d’Antoni’s claims that it was his film: at no point did the picture flag, owing to the expert collaboration of a committee of accomplished artisans, but neither did it suggest (save perhaps in Gene Hackman’s performance) that its aspirations were anything but shrewdly commercial. The Friends of Eddie Coyle recalls the earlier—and better—film, especially in relation to its director. Nothing in William Friedkin’s earlier projects pointed toward The French Connection (nor did they seem related to one another). And, like Friedkin, director Peter Yates has never manifested anything but a technician’s interest in earning his wage: Bullitt, John and Mary, and Murphy’s War are comparable only in a consistent failure to get inside any of the characters and, especially in Bullitt and Murphy, a tendency to substitute facile rhetoric (McQueen’s indefensibly complacent “Bullshit!” to Robert Vaughn, followed shortly by Vaughn’s retreat behind a copy of The Wall Street Journal) for serious moral perspective.

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Review: Melvin and Howard

[originally published in The Weekly, November 5, 1980]

Middle of the night in the Nevada desert, a little ways off the Tonapah Highway. Melvin Dummar has left the main road to take a whiz. Decent young fella: even at this remove from civilization, he steps around to the blind side of his truck and looks both ways before undoing his fly. A moment later he’s back in the cab of his pickup, wheeling around to return to the highway, when his headlights sweep something. Sprawled in the dust is an old coot in a flying-jacket, with silver hair like a fright wig grown tired: a streak of dried blood below his left ear seems the natural complement of all the other stains upon his costume and person. He says he’s Howard Hughes.

Melvin and Howard is the title of this movie, and a fit and proper title it is. But the film is scarcely more “about” the putative relationship of the legendary billionaire and the gas-station operator who almost got a share of his estate than, say, All the President’s Men was about Richard Nixon and his helpmates. Less than a reel is taken up with Hughes and Dummar’s nocturnal passage to Las Vegas (where the old man asks to be dropped at the service entrance to the Sands Hotel, and bums his Good Samaritan’s last quarter); and only the last reel or so is devoted to Melvin’s receipt of “the Mormon will,” seven or eight years later, and the celebrity it brings.

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Review: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

It’s easy to pick on something like a celebrity cameo to measure a movie’s hollowness. So if I tell you that soccer god-turned-style icon David Beckham pops up halfway through the new King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I trust it will stir plenty of anticipatory ridicule. Beckham submits to uglifying makeup scars for his role as some kind of medieval taskmaster here. (Same 21st-century Eurotrash haircut, though.) The thing is, Beckham’s brief appearance is actually one of the livelier moments in King Arthur, especially because it accompanies the celebrated—you might say legendary—moment when Arthur royally yanks a sword from a stone.

If a celeb cameo supplies a highlight in a movie, the movie is probably in trouble. Such is the case with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. Ritchie does something unexpected here: Although he broke through to the blockbuster arena by blanding out his style in a couple of Sherlock Holmes movies, he’s gone back to his roots. The bro-centric camaraderie and Brit-lingo of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch is attempted here, as though the knights of the Round Table were just another group of lads deciding where to get the next pint.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’

“A singular work in film history,” begins the description on back of the case of Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s astounding Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (France, 1975).

The Criterion Collection

That is no hyperbole. Jeanne Dielman is a painstaking, excruciatingly exacting portrait of the life of a perfectly organized homemaker, an epic portrait of a quotidian life where every gesture through the 200-minute study becomes important and the slips in routine reverberate like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s astounding to realize that Akerman was only 25 when she put this uncompromising vision on the screen. It’s almost as astounding that this landmark work took so long for finally arrive on home video in U.S. Almost impossible to see for decades (it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1983 and was rarely revived in the years since), this singular work made its DVD debut in 2009, presented by Criterion in a magnificent two-disc special edition. Criterion has now remastered the film for its Blu-ray debut.

Middle-aged widow and single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives a carefully structured life with a clockwork routine. She wakes up before dawn, sees her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) off to school, cleans every last dish in her tiny and spotless kitchen, then continues on with the errands and duties of her day. One of those duties just happens to be servicing an afternoon client as a part-time prostitute. Jeanne is all business when the bell rings and she puts the pot on low simmer to welcome her client for the day. It’s creepily expressive the way Akerman frames her head out of the shot when she answers the door, matching Seyrig’s inexpressive formality with each man.

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