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Review: Colossal

The big concept within Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is clever enough that the movie might’ve rested on it alone. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about a woman who steps into a kiddie park in her hometown and causes a giant reptilian monster to emerge in South Korea. So it’s got that going for it. But once Colossal sets its conceptual hook, it pushes its zany premise into authentically uncomfortable territory. It’s actually about something.

The woman in question is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a frazzled millennial at loose ends. Scolded by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) about her incorrigible partying, she moves out of their New York apartment and back to her parents’ house in a town upstate.

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Review: Sacco and Vanzetti

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

When challenged that the American and rightwing villains in his State of Siege were too thoroughly villainous and the leftwing revolutionaries too absurdly decent and clean-cut, Costa-Gavras disingenuously replied that he saw nothing terribly wrong in that: why shouldn’t the Left indulge itself with black-and-white entertainments when the Right had been doing so for years? Sacco and Vanzetti can cop the same plea, but it has plenty more to recommend it. John Simon named the film on his 1971 Ten Best List because, he maintained, it dramatically brought to light a reprehensible miscarriage of justice callously perpetrated by officials of the government which ought never be forgotten.

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Review: Raw Meat

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.

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Review: The Assignment

I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.

A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude.

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Review: White Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.

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Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

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Review: Raw

The last time I had a barf bag handed to me at a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s Martin, probably in 1979. I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick. This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters in order to collect the ailing and garner press interest. John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that even one report of viewers becoming physically sick at his movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.

The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around Raw demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly, this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see. Sure enough, when the movie opened in L.A. last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.

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Review: Savages

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Savages is consistently appealing, intermittently brilliant, and—in the end—very nearly inconsequential. Though given elaborate and oblique treatment, its basic idea is a simple one: the “savage” mud-people whom we see in mock-silent-movie fashion at the start are more or less interchangeable with the elegant, conspicuously “civilized” moderns who inhabit the huge mansion which is the film’s single most dominating presence. This notion is almost not an idea at all—though not completely irrelevant, even as rhetoric—but fortunately James Ivory and company use it less as the film’s “point” than as its underlying assumption. And in that light, we are given an extended charade which makes playful and amiably inspired use of a filmic idiom that is part Buñuel (esp. The Exterminating Angel), part Resnais (esp. Last Year at Marienbad), part Theatre of the Absurd (in its use of language for disturbing comic effects), part “experimental” film (in its resurrection of some ancient avant-garde devices). The question of influences is important because Savages often leaves the impression of being unique but not very original—just derivative enough for its multitude of small delights to become faintly dubious. It is “surrealistic” but lacks a genuinely surrealist intensity. On the other hand, even though it has a campy-chic Art Deco look to it, Walter Lassally’s color cinematography achieves a nostalgic sensuality which becomes the film’s most compelling emotion (here the spirit of von Sternberg might be invoked, but only on the margins).

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Review: T2 Trainspotting

Danny Boyle loves his bag of tricks: the split-second cuts and the techno-pop and the crazy, strobing light show. Like a director of TV commercials who has only 30 seconds to sell a story, Boyle hypes everything. Take the gimmicky Who Wants to Be a Millionaire structure of Slumdog Millionaire, or Leonardo DiCaprio night-swimming through phosphorescent plankton in The Beach. Or, most notable, take Trainspotting, Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough. In bringing to life the junkies and reprobates of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle devised a carnival of jokes and pop anthems and sudden sadism. It might have been a wee bit soulless, but it hit a nerve—or certainly a vein.

Boyle’s career has been predictably restless since then, jumping from sci-fi (Sunshine) to Bollywood lite (Slumdog) to overbearing kiddie cuteness (Millions). Oddly enough, or maybe not, his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was possibly his most impressive achievement, a dazzling exercise in cramming all of British popular culture in a giant blender and spewing it back at an overstimulated yet grateful audience. Given his wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a little surprising that Boyle embraced a sequel. But here’s the hopelessly titled T2 Trainspotting, and a chance to see what’s happened to characters who held little promise of evolving much from the first film.

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Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.

Twilight Time

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Review: Private Parts

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Anybody out there remember, by any chance, Michael Powell’s 1959 flick Peeping Tom? (A disingenuous question, that: he who see Peeping Tom, he remember it, all right all right. Repress the mother, yes, possibly; but forget it? No—as they say—bloody way.)

Well, freak fans, it’s arrived at last, will you welcome please, a good hand now, folks, here he is, Son of Peeping Tom. No, correction: let’s try to get this right: Peeping Tomasina.

Not all that good a hand, though. We haven’t equaled the original yet, not in toto. For starters, the opening stinks. (The opening scene, that is, not the stylish titles.) And the ending is no rose, either; it smells, in fact, just a little like … bad faith. Well, bad judgment anyhow. Or plain laziness.

Still, Paul Bartel’s new feature Private Parts picks up one hell of a head of steam once it gets going. And if some (that word again!) freak of local distribution should cause it to drop suddenly (translation: “be dumped”) into an unsuspecting Seattle theater this year, you might do worse than soldier through that poorly-directed, -written, -scored and -acted opening for the sake of its later felicities.

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Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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Review: Beauty and the Beast

The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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