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Review: Julieta

He is now 68, but in recent years Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t been making films like an old master. His astonishing The Skin I Live In (2011) blended identity politics with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, in a mix that apparently disturbed even his ardent fans (I think it may be one of his greatest films). I’m So Excited (2013) was either too silly or not silly enough in its embrace of zany comedy. But then who wants Almodóvar, once the bad boy of international cinema, to behave like an old master?

Like it or not, Julieta has an unmistakably masterly touch. This is a controlled, sure-handed drama, made so that every scene is in place. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design impeccable. Almodóvar’s expressive use of color is wonderful to watch—he might be making a Technicolor Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s. I wonder if this mastery itself could explain why the movie, strong in many ways, also feels just a bit vacuum-sealed.

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Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

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Blu-ray: Clara Bow meets Gary Cooper in ‘Children of Divorce’

Flicker Alley

Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.

It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…

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Blu-ray: Laird Cregar is ‘The Lodger’

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Laird Cregar is The Lodger (1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.

While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.

This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.

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Review: Blume in Love

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

During one phase of their rising-and-falling marriage Susan Anspach says to George Segal, “We’re always putting somebody down.” One of the conspicuously consistent things about Paul Mazursky’s three films as a director—Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love—is that he doesn’t put anybody down. The frantic chicness of the assumed lifestyles in B&C&T&A was the source of many laughs, but there was a winning innocence about the whole enterprise, on the characters’ part and on Mazursky’s, that saved the film from the sterile socioaesthetic oneupmanship that claims most endeavors in that risky genre. It was the director’s innocence that sustained Alex in Wonderland even amid the protracted, slavish, unimaginative gaucherie of those sub-Fellini pastiches and stillborn “Hooray for Hollywood” highjinks. And the colors of innocence and naïveté continue to fly in his latest film, and they help make Blume in Love a distinct pleasure to behold and share.

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Review: 20th Century Women

There’s a talking dog in Beginners, the 2010 movie that won Christopher Plummer a supporting-actor Oscar. To be precise, the dog speaks in subtitles, which might make the premise easier, or possibly harder, to take. As a general rule I am not opposed to talking-canine scenarios; for instance, the title pet of the cult picture A Boy and His Dog makes a strong argument for the idea. But in Beginners, it was one thing too many in a film that already pushed the boundaries of cuteness.

Its writer/director, Mike Mills, returns with 20th Century Women, a movie with an attractive premise and cast. It’s set in 1979—a cool time to be young, despite what you may have heard—and it puts three distinctive actresses at the forefront of a coming-of-age story.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Train to Busan

You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.

Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.

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Review: Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The best thing about Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George is some yeah-that‘s-the-way-it-looks nighttime photography by Walter Lassally. A minor technical footnote, to be sure, and not enough to redeem the sloppy ugliness of Darren McGavin’s directorial debut. The plot is very confused, and the leaking of that plot to the audience is even more contused and slew-footed (the absence of several performers listed in the credits—e.g., Thayer David as a minister—suggests that some desperate wholesale cutting has taken place at the last moment). Central to the enterprise is Ron Howard (American Graffiti‘s Steve) as a mysterious gangling youth who hops off a truck in a Maine coastal village early one morning and starts making several people uncomfortable just by his presence. Cloris Leachman drops her oatmeal because he looks like the illegitimate son she farmed out to a family of religious freaks years before. Bobby Darin goes on the prod because he’s been keeping company with Leachman, his employer at the dockside diner, and the encroachment of a new male threatens him. Patricia Neal, Leachman’s sister, starts snarling because (1) she snarls at everybody, (2) she snarls especially at males, and (3) her dewy-eyed daughter Tessa Dahl is given to staring out the window at the boy.

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Review: Payday

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Probably what the people who made Payday had in mind was an exercise in a sort of cinematic new journalism—an objective, but highly commercial, look at life as it is played out on the highways and in the hangouts of the country-western music circuit. Certainly producer Ralph J. Gleason, record company VP and Rolling Stone contributing editor, possesses the sort of credentials which would enable him to authenticate the milieu, as well as accurately assess its box-office potential in the wake of such films as Marjoe, Carry It On and Don’t Look Back—not to mention the current romantic fervor for country-western singers who have served time, been dopers, picked cotton—in short. Seen hard times. Audiences obviously get a charge out of nosing about the behind-the-scenes lives of big-name entertainers, satisfying their healthy or unhealthy curiosity about the necessarily diminished or tarnished identities of performers once they are no longer magnified by that magic circle of limelight. Then too, lurking in even the most sophisticated minds is the old cliché that these showbiz folks, for all the glory, lead really sad (or better yet, depraved) lives.

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Review: Paterson

If Paterson, New Jersey, already seems overblessed with great poets—William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg both laid claim to the place—Jim Jarmusch believes it may have room for one more. In Jarmusch’s Paterson, the bard in question is a bus driver, an agreeable young man who organizes his life according to a timetable. He has to; he’s a bus driver. But he also writes poetry, and periodically we see his poems projected on the screen. They are written in the off minutes of his job, and they have the beguiling lightness of words written in off minutes. Despite the appearance of casualness, we can see that these words are carefully and precisely chosen.

That is of course a description of the peculiar charm of Jarmusch’s own movies, which—from Stranger Than Paradise to his 2013 gem Only Lovers Left Alive—have projected a superbly crafted shagginess. Paterson joins this list, and is one of the most pleasurable movies in recent memory.

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Review: Notes on Blindness

Visually depicting sightlessness is a tough task for even the most inventive of moviemakers. (Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, in which Tilda Swinton and others talk over a hypnotically static shade of the title color, remains the experimental gold standard.) The re-created documentary Notes on Blindness takes a distinctly proactive approach to this dilemma, utilizing a steady array of clever effects to depict the rapidly deteriorating vision of its subject. While the film’s other device of having actors lip-synch from existing tape recordings may seem clunky in theory, the sounds and images come together beautifully in practice.

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Review: I Could Never Have Sex with Any Man Who Has So Little Regard for My Husband

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

I Could Never Have Sex with Any Man Who Has So Little Regard for My Husband is a private party that never gets off the ground for the characters or the audience, although it may have been lotsa laughs for the people who made it. I haven’t read Dan Greenburg’s “sex novel” or his autobiography of sex-play, Scoring, or anything else but a couple of similarly oriented pieces (I mean…) in Playboy; but this movie has nothing new to tell anyone about why friendly couples swap or don’t swap, and there’s nothing new about the way that nothing is related to us. The main characters, with the probable exception of Andrew Duncan’s stuffy lab type, are fairly sympathetic, but the performances are klutzy in a like-us-because-we’re-klutzy way that has worn out its welcome by now, considering how many non-actors and non-directors figure they can get by on it. The situation: two couples take a vacation home for the season on Martha’s Vineyard where they encounter the new marital morality at one of a series of institutionalized parties and gingerly play at bringing the game home with them. Comfortable friendship and the sanctity of marriage prevail in the end, as far as the main characters are concerned, while the screenwriter and producers stroke each other off by taking walk-on (but much-discussed) parts as the local swingers of record. A home movie all the way.
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Review: Mystery of the Wax Museum

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

For years recorded as lost by more than one film history, the original Mystery of the Wax Museum (remade in the Fifties as House of Wax) suddenly popped up on channel 13’s Dr. Zingrr hour with its 1933 Technicolor intact, even. Or perhaps not so intact: frequently one seemed to be watching a standard black-and-white flick on a color TV with the red turned up, and it’s difficult to say whether this reflected the natural pallor of two-color Technicolor, the fading of the dyes over the intervening decades, or bum transmission and/or reception. Whatever the precise causes of the effect, there was more of a thrill in seeing a resurrected title out of legend than there was in anything Michael Curtiz and company had wrought onscreen.

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Review: Hidden Figures

If it were more purely about the workplace and less about the homefront, Hidden Figures might have an even stronger case for shining a light on unknown American history. The history in this case surrounds NASA and the lives of three black women who set a new standard for the status of African-Americans in the space program. The three women only occasionally overlap, but we meet them in an outstanding opening scene as they carpool to NASA’s Virginia site in the early 1960s. A minor problem stops the car, which is really no challenge given the mechanically minded women driving it; the ladies bide their time with jokes and easy, confident banter as they tinker with the engine. Then a police cruiser stops by, and the freeze that descends over the scene is immediate. The cop isn’t especially menacing; but these are black women and a white police officer in the Jim Crow South, and that is enough for instant watchfulness.

A terrific moment, which though defused sets the tone for what is to come. Throughout Hidden Figures the reality of being black and female is presented as a struggle that never ends.

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Review: Elle

Paul Verhoeven’s American phase was too nasty to last, really, with movies like RoboCop and Starship Troopers giving the audience what they initially thought they wanted, and then cranking up the vulgarity to hysterically uncomfortable levels. (Even Hollow Man, the Dutch director’s weakest project, had a main character who pervs out immediately upon receiving superpowers.) Verhoeven’s films outside of the states, however, tend to swap the 2×4 for a stiletto. Elle, his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, is a breathtakingly twisted piece of work, utilizing a tremendous central performance by Isabelle Huppert that bridges some markedly taboo fault lines concerning power and sexuality. And somehow the damned thing is also funny, usually at the least opportune moments.

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