Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Review: Watership Down

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a “Black Rabbit” of death, a sort of grim leaper.

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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Last Call for Nearly 30 Criterion DVDs (and one Blu-ray)

Just in this week on the Criterion website: Criterion is losing the rights a number of titles in their collection in March. (See the original post on Criterion Currents here.)

The curtain is soon to fall on Criterion's lavish DVD of Powell and Pressberger's "The Tales of Hoffman"

The home video rights to a number of films from the StudioCanal library will go to Lionsgate at the end of March. The Criterion editions will go out of print (or on moratorium, as they say in the video industry) and will be unavailable commercially on the U.S. until Lionsgate puts out their own editions.

As you may know, Criterion has direct access to the Janus film library, a tremendous collection of international classics that makes up the majority of its releases, but they also license many films from other studios and collections. Those contracts last for a period of time and then are up for renewal, and in this case StudioCanal did not renew with Criterion. It’s likely nothing personal, just business, as they say, and perhaps not even something they have a choice over. Lionsgate has been releasing a lot of StudioCanal films (coming up later this month are Blu-ray editions of Kurosawa’s Ran, Godard’s Contempt and the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers) and this just may be a contractual part of their relationship. (This is, mind you, merely supposition on my part and not based on any inside information.)

Regardless, a number of Criterion titles (including a couple of box sets) will be unavailable by the end of March (see list below) so Criterion is offering a deal through their website: an extra $5 off each of these titles while supplies last. You can also continue to purchase them through Amazon and other traditional merchants until the end of March (or until the current stocks are depleted, whichever comes first).

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The Way You Don’t Die: The Hurt Locker

[expanded from a review originally published on seanax.com, July 2009]

“Tell me something. What’s the best way to disarm one of these things?”

“The way you don’t die, sir.”

Jeremy Renner scans the terrain
Jeremy Renner scans the terrain

Set in the current Iraq war, after the proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” and the transformation of a battlefield army into an occupation force, The Hurt Locker follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) as it gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms.

James doesn’t follow the rules. Every bomb is a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad.

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True Fiction: Kathryn Bigelow on ‘The Hurt Locker’

The Hurt Locker premiered in the one-two punch of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2008 and then made the long march through subsequent film festivals until its theatrical release in June 2009. Director Kathryn Bigelow shepherded the film through each showing, giving interviews every step of the way. She knew it was a hard sell. There had still not been a commercially successful film of the Iraq war and the low budget, independently-produced The Hurt Locker had no stars and no obvious promotional “hook.” It was simply a brilliant film, and we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the box-office.

Kathryn Bigelow in B&W
Kathryn Bigelow in B&W

I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Bigelow May 2009, when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. I had seen the film in Toronto and the shellshock had still not subsided, but I had been a fan ever since Near Dark and was thrilled to finally get a chance to ask her a few questions. Unfortunately time was limited and there was so much to discuss about The Hurt Locker that we never had the opportunity to talk about her other films. Maybe on my next rotation…

You start the film off with a quote by Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” There’s a real simplified reading of that comment, which is that likes the challenge and he thrives on the thrill. But I think it’s more complex than that. He’s the best at what he does and he’s at his best under pressure. He’s in charge and, for all the danger, he’s as in control as he ever is. When he gets back, he’s lost.

That’s beautifully put. I couldn’t improve on that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that Chris Hedges has written, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” it’s a great book and required reading. He talks about that you’re looking today at a volunteer military and one of the many things he confronts is, war’s dirty little secret is some men love it. This isn’t everybody, it’s just a particular type of psychological state with some men, there’s a psychological allure that combat creates, some kind of attractiveness, and it does create an almost addictive quality that they can’t replicate in any other way and are lost in any other context. However, in the case of Sgt. James—and again, I’m not extrapolating and saying there’s hundreds of thousands of Sgt. James—but the case specifically with Sgt. James is combining that kind of bravado and recklessness in his swagger and demeanor, but with a profound skill set. He is perhaps not the best diplomat but he does keep everybody alive. So it’s exactly what you said, what enables him to do what he does so well. There’s a kind of attraction, there’s a kind of addiction, there’s what I would call a price to his heroism and what that sacrifice has been for him is a flight from intimacy. He can’t be a hero in the sense that he’s the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect bomb tech. That doesn’t exist. There’s a real cost to his ability.

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Black Arts

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.

A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in "Near Dark"
A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in “Near Dark”

Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.

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The Loveless Worlds of Kathryn Bigelow

First things first: We’re not jumping on the Bigelow Bandwagon here. We’ve known from the beginning. We saw the promise in The Loveless and Blue Steel and the genius in Near Dark and Strange Days, defended Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker against detractors who saw them as nothing more than shallow pandering to the mainstream action movie market, and now watch with satisfaction the triumph of The Hurt Locker and with amusement the teapot tempest over the implications of a Best Director Oscar for Kathryn Bigelow.

bigelowportrait-trim
Kathryn Bigelow

The issue is whether it is more politically incorrect to honor a woman for excelling in the making of films viewed by many as fundamentally “women’s movies” (say, Jane Campion) or to honor a woman (say, Kathryn Bigelow) for breaking out and excelling at making films that appeal chiefly to men. Nora Ephron sought to neutralize the dilemma in her apt comment that when you make a movie you’re not a “woman director,” you’re a director. But Ephron herself doesn’t make very interesting movies, and her observation may suggest why. Why shouldn’t we expect a woman director to make films that are about—or at least sensitive to—a woman’s point of view? Don’t we expect a black, or a Turkish, or a disabled director to bring to his art the unique perspectives of his experience? Isn’t that what artists—at least the best ones—always do?

For too many years, it’s been standard to characterize Bigelow as a maker of “action movies,” “men’s movies,” or “movies that appeal to men.” The growing body of critical work on Bigelow’s films, however, takes a different view, one that invalidates both the Bigelow-Campion debate and Ephron’s nullification. Read almost any serious study of Bigelow and you are likely to encounter the phrase “the female gaze.” And rightly so. Bigelow is compellingly drawn to the things that make men and women different, the things that separate them. When her films focus on predominantly or exclusively male communities, they betray an interest in how the absence or rejection of women affects male behavior and consciousness.

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A Sort of 10-Best-Films-of-2009 List from My Niche

I’m not an adventurous filmgoer.

Meaning I’m very seldom in the house for a first-run Hollywood picture.

Rio Bravo - revived
Rio Bravo - revived

There’s generally a lag of a few years – during which a film acquires something of a reputation, or maybe I caught part on it on television – that I’ll check it out more fully.

And then – if it really makes an impression – look for a theatrical revival.

Such was the case – and to the credit of the Egyptian Theater here in the Seattle area – that I had the opportunity to catch up to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction at weekend midnight screenings.

The following pages of this cover file introduce the other four file uploads, plus other work samples through which I hope to persuade you to sponsor my plan for a stereoscopic three-dimensional news beat.

Then there are the films and filmmakers that I’ve admired maybe even back as far as when I was a little kid watching them on the late show.

And have always wanted to see in a theater at least once before I die.

So the best revivals of 2009 that I’ve seen, is the theme of my ten-best-films list.

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Review: The Europeans

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

When Hitchcock had to set a spy movie in Switzerland, he decided that the most effective way to exploit the milieu would be to honor an armchair tourist’s idea of the place. Hence, he built his plot and key sequences around those geographical and cultural phenomena most readily identifiable as Swiss: mountains, lakes, the manufacture of chocolate, quaint shrines, a demonstration of yodeling. Richard Lester tries to get away with the same approach to Cuba in 1959. Rum, cigars, sugar cane, the Morro, nightclubs, salsa, the U.S. Navy on more or less residential shore leave, a Latin lover and Latin love for sale: if it’s part of the pop iconography, grab it and play it for all its worth—because there’s not going to be much else to play with. That might do for Switzerland; Batista’s Cuba on the eve of Castro is quite another matter. One doesn’t have to be rabidly political to want a more substantive index of governmental corruption than a scungy police detective taking bribes from everyone in sight, or a self-promoted general (Martin Balsam) keeping fat on the income from Havana’s parking meters (said loot stashed in a strongbox chained to his dotty mother’s TV). Likewise, the proverbial fat sweaty American entrepreneur (Jack Weston) swooping down on every target of acquisitional opportunity, and a couple of bland accountants from an unspecified U.S. agency come to balance the books of the Committee for Anti-Communist Activities, are pretty unimaginative representations of the American presence, and deployed just as unimaginatively. Not that the politically correct side comes off much more flatteringly or interestingly: Fidel is (necessarily, I suppose) only a newsreel image on a video monitor, the Fidelistas are low-comedy, if well-meaning, goons beating about the cane fields, and the most dramatically important rebel is a punk (Danny De La Paz) who just wants a hifalutin excuse to shoot somebody—his sister’s aristocratic despoiler (Chris Sarandon), a British mercenary come too late to do anyone any good (Sean Connery), or any poor schmuck who gets in the line of fire.

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Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer

Watching an Eric Rohmer film was famously described by Harry Moseby, the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, (1975) (in a line quoted in both Rohmer’s Wikipedia entry and his New York Times obituary), as “like watching paint dry.” It’s my favorite movie line about a film-maker, and—along with de Niro’s bounty-hunter in Midnight Run (1988) telling Charles Grodin’s garrulously thieving accountant “I got just two words to say to you: ‘shut the fuck up’”—one of my favorite post-Mitchum tough-guy movie lines. Part of the fun is that it’s so incongruous to have Rohmer’s name come out of the mouth of an American movie tough guy, played by an actor whose roots in the action cinema include parts in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and became a star portraying iconic cop and francophobe extraordinaire Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971). Crime fiction and its creatures were virtual touchstones for Rohmer’s fellow New Wavers: Godard (Breathless, 1959), Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), and Chabrol (from long before he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl, 1979); heck, even Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) has a murder mystery. But Rohmer, after a debut feature set on the down-and-out (if not quite mean) streets of Paris in The Sign of the Lion (1959), mostly placed his characters in a resolutely unthreatening world, for the most part in settings that are sunny, cheery, and comfortably bourgeois.

Making Rohmer’s world even less congenial to the laconic Hackman character is its pervasive logorrhea: Rohmer’s characters talk, and they talk, and they talk, long enough for several coats of paint to dry in all the rooms of all of their homes and vacation houses. It can be quite exasperating, particularly when the characters wallow in apparent self-absorption (not much leavened by self-awareness, something present in inverse proportion to verbosity). So it’s easy to sympathize with Harry (even before we learn his wife is doing some après-Rohmer extra-marital trysting). Even for the non-Harrys among us, Rohmer requires patience and a tolerance for slow spots if not quite a fondness for stasis. But when the best of his films reach their end, (that is, when the characters finish talking), the denouements often put things into new and surprising, sometimes exhilarating, perspectives amply rewarding the audience’s patience.

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Review: Butch and Sundance: The Early Days

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are undeniable similarities between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Richard Lester’s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman’s brother James, contained several seemingly deliberate takeoffs on Butch and Sundance in the dialogue, misadventures, characterization and relationship of Robin and Little John. In Butch and Sundance: The Early Days we encounter the same kind of buddy-comedy once again, with the two young men (Tom Berenger, William Katt) consistently rejecting heterosexual love in favor of their own interdependence. The departure from Butch Cassidy’s two little sons is much harder for Butch than the farewell to his wife (Jill Eikenberry); and there is a scene in which Butch and Sundance—not Butch and Mary—are treated as the boys’ parents. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days also shares with Robin and Marian an emphasis (generally uncharacteristic of Lester) on landscape to delineate character. Lester and László Kovács create the film’s best moments out of such memorable phenomena as the sand-palace mesas among which Butch first proposes partnership to the Kid (then walks from one edge of a mesa to the other, and asks, silhouetted in longshot, “How do I get outta here?”); the snowdrifts among which the Butch-Sundance relationship becomes cemented in a tradeoff of heroic sacrifices, and behind which they gradually disappear in a visual denial of the heroic stature they sought to achieve by bringing diphtheria serum into an infected area; or the floodwaters that make a creek out of the main street of Butch’s hometown, where Sundance faces the trauma of killing his first human being.

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Review: The Electric Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

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