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Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

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Review: Paper Moon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.

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Review: My Life as a Zucchini

The winners of the Best Animated Feature Oscar tend to be the big hits of the year: Inside Out and Frozen received Academy gold in recent years, for instance. Since the category was added in 2001, only Spirited Away, by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit interrupted the series of top-grossing multiplex smashes. What’s interesting about the category is that every year one or two outliers get nominated, just because the slots have to get filled. So usually a couple of teeny-tiny films get much, much more attention than they otherwise might have, thanks to the million-watt glare of the Oscar spotlight.

This year’s Oscar went to Zootopia, a breezy and lightweight Disney outing that had some hilarious moments and the expected ration of schoolhouse lessons about tolerance. One did not really expect the small fry to win, so it was reward enough that the New Agey parable The Red Turtle and the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini got their moment in the computer-generated sun.

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Review: Lady Ice

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.

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Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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Review: Logan

Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.

I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.

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Review: The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Two things are tentatively okay about The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: A lot of it is filmed on location in some piney mountain country, and the film thereby falls heir to those vagrant chills that any horror movie shot in a real place with some sense of isolation about it can count on. Besides that, screenwriter Bob Homel has some completely irrelevant but amusing moments as a goodtime Jesus freak. Regrettably he is outpointed on the laugh meter by the star werewolf whose behavior before launching an attack invariably recalls Groucho Marx crouching on the opera-box railing and calling “Boogie! Boogie! boogie!” in mid-performance. As for the detestable sub-adolescent of the title, all he had to say at any point was: “All right, sheriff, then answer me this: why is the werewolf always wearing Daddy’s jacket?”
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Review: Mon Oncle Antoine

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

“Quebec, the asbestos-mining region, not too long ago.” A gray arc of mineral dust flumes through the air and a red pickup sits at the brink of a cliff. A middleaged man gets out of the truck and crawls underneath, grumbling profanely about the lousy maintenance; a conventionally handsome, cleancut young man gets out the other door and observes. Uncle Antoine, of course, and the sensitive young protagonist looking on as if already lost in reflection upon a present that is becoming the past. No. The man is not anybody’s uncle and, although he will come to loom as a symbolic figure in the film, he is not even a major character. The young man we shall not see again. Such an opening is characteristic of Mon Oncle Antoine, and also characteristic of its singularity. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes will surely get up and leave Mon Oncle Antoine. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes deserve to miss the rich experience that rewards those willing to let the life of Claude Jutra’s movie and Uncle Antoine’s town define itself in its own very good and lived-in time.

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Review: Dark Night

No subject should be off-limits for filmmakers willing to take a plunge. The degree of difficulty, however, tends to increase sharply with the weightiness of the premise. Dark Night takes an extremely provocative topic—a seemingly random mass shooting—and applies a heavy layer of arty artlessness to the material. Despite a number of striking images (Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is never less than severely beautiful), it rarely feels like it’s been thought through enough to really jell.

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Review: A United Kingdom

As variations on “We can’t see each other anymore” go, this film’s plot has novelty: After enjoying a wonderful first date in postwar London, the young woman makes it clear to the young man that she would like to see him again. He hesitates, clearly preparing to tell her the truth about something. The sad thing is, he explains, his grandfather was a royal personage and his parents died young, so he really must return to his native country and be—you know—the king. This is not the beginning of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy from the 1930s, but a slice of history based on the story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from Selma), the royal heir of Bechuanaland—now called Botswana—and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the Englishwoman he married.

In A United Kingdom, the marriage of a black African man and a white British woman is an important part of the plot, and for the first half-hour or so it appears this is what the film will be about.

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Review: The Stone Killer

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

It hardly matters what side of the moral fence Charles Bronson is on in a Michael Winner film. Whether he’s a noble savage hounded nearly to death by dregs of the American melting pot (Chato’s Land), an executive gun done in by his Mafia employers and an ambitious protégé (The Mechanic), or most recently, in The Stone Killer, a new centurion waging a crusade against urban Huns and Vandals—Winner’s undeviatingly nihilistic environment dead-ends him every time. Though Winner laces his increasingly ugly films with heavyhanded liberal preachiness, his central character rarely discovers any ethical position except the dubious one of executioner. Maybe Winner is after the notion that killer societies make murderers of us all—but I doubt it: he wallows too comfortably in his visions of the most brutal ways of dying. You need a long spoon to sup with the Devil, and The Stone Killer further substantiates one’s suspicion that Winner, on some level of consciousness, has begun to relish that which he superficially reviles.

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Review: The Long Goodbye

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.

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Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Review: Toni Erdmann

Movie comedy lacks a wild streak. We get funny films occasionally, and certainly there are performers who can get nutsy in short spurts—as Melissa McCarthy’s instant-classic White House press-briefing sketch on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live proved. But the storytelling in most comedies now is tame and tidy, or merely a framework in which comedians can improvise. It’s so rare that a modern comedy takes off in the style of a His Girl Friday or Some Like It Hot, where the story devices accelerate and the whole thing goes aloft in a dizzying and demented trajectory. Silver Linings Playbook is a notable recent example of that kind of glorious madness.

The German film Toni Erdmann, Oscar-nominated in this year’s Best Foreign Language category, is a true wild one. It doesn’t achieve craziness in the rocketing manner of a Hollywood screwball comedy, but by its own slowly zany method.

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