Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.
So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy.
[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
Slither ends up being one of the major disappointments of the season because, for about half its length, it promises to be one memorable movie, and once it starts falling apart we experience a very painful sense of the diminution of large possibilities. James Caan plays a former high-school football star and unsuccessful car thief who, freshly out of prison, reluctantly pauses to have a beer with a fellow parolee and finds himself cast in a giddy American nightmare. Unseen assassins shoot up a sealed house in a golden-sunlit, bee-buzzy corner of the South while a golfing commentary drones on TV; a dying man passes on a name and an address ostensibly worth a fortune, then blows himself to smithereens; a farmer gives a hitchhiker a lift, then drops him off in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t share the farmer’s economic burdens; a barefoot iconoclast with her whole world in the back of her station wagon picks up the hero, beds him at a motel after making sure he doesn’t have VD, then scares him by trying to hold up an all-night diner…. It goes like that, eccentric but not quite senseless, charged with intuitions of a rampant American madness that fairly emanates from train depots, dusty roads, potato cellars, trailer parks, noontime offices. A comically sinister potentiality pervades everything and everybody while—this is the best part—never giving the feeling that it’s all some sort of Message for us.
Future teen heartthrobs seeking to change their images would do well to consider the example of Robert Pattinson. Cast in the first Twilight movie in 2008, playing a sparkly-skinned vampire with a romantically morose attitude, Pattinson exploded into dreamboat status overnight. Perhaps understandably, he moved through the sequels like a man who’d been sentenced to them as punishment. He endured the grind of those movies and the glare of a media machine fascinated by his romance with co-star Kristen Stewart (in case you missed it, I’m sorry to report the union is kaput). Then Pattinson got to pick his follow-up projects, and the results have been promising.
He’s done two pictures for David Cronenberg, including a confident lead turn in the wickedly sardonic Cosmopolis, plus a handful of supporting roles that allowed him to escape the vampire’s kiss (including the bookish explorer in The Lost City of Z and Lawrence of Arabia in Queen of the Desert). He became the unlikely toast of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when his performance in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time wowed the Riviera. For good reason: Pattinson carries the movie, elbowing his way through a series of increasingly frantic situations during a long, freezing night in Queens. He has gone full sleazeball, sporting a scuzzy goatee and a wounded animal’s impulses.
It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.
In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.
The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.
Movies that worm their way into a disturbed character’s head can be a discomfiting experience, especially when they’re done really well. (I firmly believe that Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is a great film. I also believe that you’d have to work pretty hard to get me to ever watch it again.) The British import The Ghoul is a clever, deceptively chilly example of narrative unreliability, presenting an increasingly askew perspective in a way that’s somehow both off-putting and absorbing. It lingers.
Writer/director Gareth Tunley wastes no time in establishing the basis for an intriguing psychological thriller: As a favor to his former partner, an off-duty cop (Tom Meeten) poses as a depressed patient in order to covertly gather information on a murder suspect from a psychiatrist.
The Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’sLogan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.
The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event.
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The GirlGetters, YouMustBe Joking, TheJokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, TheNightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in TheNightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.
I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.
A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.
Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)
Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.
The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.
Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Roma is a product of Fellini’s self-indulgence. He puts everything he’s loved about Rome, and himself, upon the screen, in semi-documentary style, with the only unifying factor being a weak autobiographical framework. It’s like a big home movie shot by lovingly nostalgic professionals. The color is exquisite, and many of the individual segments are unforgettable. For instance, at one point we’re treated to an ecclesiastical fashion show, complete with red-carpeted runway, announcer, lively organ music, and increasingly fantastic outfits modeled by nuns, priests, bishops, and a pope (whose robe comes with flashing lights). During scenes of Rome of thirty years ago, a rather insipidly handsome actor plays Fellini as a young man, making his way through lusty dinners in a piazza and even lustier evenings in whorehouses. There’s a graceful transition from past to present in the film—showing much of the director and his crew in the later parts—ending in a nocturnal zoom through the city by a motorcycle gang. Apocalyptic? Who knows? Fellini never gets further than suggesting bits of meaning; one gets the impression that that isn’t his point. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be his point, less so than in The Clowns, Roma, a conglomeration of episodes—visually fascinating as they may be—leaves even seasoned Fellini lovers a little cold.
[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
Sean Connery knew when to get out. The new James Bond film is a poor-kid’s followup to the modest achievements of the preceding seven Fleming adaptations (I’m not counting the multi-director fiasco CasinoRoyale, backed by a different producer). The double-entendres fairly double over with arthritis, the girls and the bad guys are a dreary lot, and the big set-piece, a motorboat pursuit through twisty inland waterways, is a protracted steal from TheMechanic. Sex was real—i.e., had something to do with emotions—only in OnHerMajesty’s Secret Service (and why hasn’t Peter Hunt directed anything since?), but even the Playmate-style romps of the other Bond flicks had some verve and wit about them; here either the couplings are all but accidental or the implicit logic behind them threatens to plunge the film into a neurotic introspection that the writer, the director, and the star are unprepared to risk.
Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.
In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.
Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s exploration of Adolf Hitler’s final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject’s unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel’s return to the time frame, unfortunately can’t quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character’s defining moment.
The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.
Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.