Dragons and Tigers at VIFF 2009

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Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

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The Reckless Moment: Max Ophuls’ Masterpiece of Middle Class America

The thirty-second year of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual Film Noir Cycle, “the granddaddy of the world’s film noir festivals,” opens with one of the most unheralded masterpieces of shadowy American melodrama: The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by continental stylist Max Ophuls (shortened to “Opuls” for his American screen credits). Known for his visual taste and elegance, his ravishing style and his delicate portraits of impassioned, impossible love in a world of fickle lovers and social barriers, the Austrian director came to America (like so many European artists and intellectuals) in the early years of World War II and (again, like so many fellow film artists) struggled to find his place in the Hollywood system. He only directed five films in his ten years in America (one of which he was fired from before completing). The Reckless Moment was his last before returning to Europe.

Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home
Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home

Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, The Reckless Moment is a mix of crime drama and what Hollywood once called a “women’s picture,” a label they applied to almost any film that took a woman’s perspective. One-time ingénue Joan Bennett makes a confident transition to the role of Lucia Harper, a wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas. She’s a modest woman but a defiantly protective mother who doesn’t flinch when confronting the oily gigolo who has seduced her increasingly assertive and independent minded daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and puts herself in harm’s way to cover up the man’s death and a potential scandal. When that only brings on blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a darkly attractive and quietly menacing Irish thug who demands thousands of dollars for incriminating love letters, she discovers that she is essentially powerless in this society to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side.

Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget (Bennett’s star had faded and it was only Mason’s third American film) for Columbia, which specialized in the budget-minded first run picture. The film is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Ophuls masterfully shapes it all into a portrait not just of suburban middle class security shaken into chaos when it collides with big city corruption, but of the social prison of middle class family.

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Review: The Great Santini

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Orion’s The Great Santini has been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’être is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine super–fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechum—an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron command—and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-serious—but also deadly-serious—orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechum—self-styled The Great Santini—and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely loving—as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.

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Review: Rough Cut

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

A gas burner fills a huge balloon with hot air, sending it adrift above a palatial estate, whose lawn mills with partying rich folk: a suitable image to begin Rough Cut, a lightweight entertainment that insists on consorting with only the richest tastes. Don Siegel is poaching on Blake Edwards territory here, and we don’t need Burt Reynolds imitating Cary Grant, or David Niven imitating himself, to remind us that the line that links To Catch a Thief with Rough Cut cuts straight through The Pink Panther. Counterpointing the Big Caper—which really doesn’t get underway until past midfilm—is the burgeoning love of Reynolds’s Jack Rhodes (even the name implies a kinship with Hitchcock—Grant’s John Robie) for rich kleptomaniac Gillian Bromley (Lesley-Anne Down). The film is at pains to make her as icy and unpredictable as her Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale counterparts, but the effort is strained by a script bankrupt for new ideas. Gillian says, “I steal things … because it’s exciting and dangerous,” and Jack proceeds to assure her that it’s “to fill a void in your life.” They don’t imply that she’s sexually unfulfilled, they just say so; and the sex motif is carried through with a string of double entendres that are hopelessly lame, not because they aren’t appropriate to the characters and the situation, but simply because they are so old and unfunny. A line like “I have to go now, something just came up” no longer draws snickers or even hohums, but dumbfound amazement that someone would still think it clever. The plot itself so slavishly follows genre formula that the “surprise” ending is tipped off well in advance, even though its justification is confined to a single comment on the part of … well, the operative character.

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Review: The Changeling

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. ‘ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Zulu Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

It comes as no surprise that Douglas Hickox directed hundreds of commercials before starting on feature films: he has means, but not ends. When it comes to assembling the departments of a large unit into some semblance of professional order, or arranging a succession of individually striking, or at least flashy, images, Hickox knows how to operate. But in the metaphysical areas of film art he is deficient; and he is by no means sure how to tell a tale straight, either. If a script is good, Hickox isn’t bad; but if it’s bad, he’s no good, at least not where it counts. Piling on what he hopes will be taken for virtuoso displays of technique, and cover for a storyline going to hell, is simply no substitute for narrative tightness, logical plot and character development, lucid exposition or a fluid sense of movement; and we haven’t come near the realm of ideas yet. Arresting compositions here and there in Theatre of Blood, or a brisk way with crowds of extras in real, busy places in Brannigan cannot, for a single instant, blind one to the embarrassing fact that Hickox has made a terrible mess of the plots and the people. Set-pieces interest him but whole movies, it would appear, do not.

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Review: My Bodyguard

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The critical adulation that greeted last year’s Breaking Away was symptomatic, in retrospect, not so much of a need to return to intelligent “little” films as of an acclimatization to the smallness, safety, and literary limitations of the TV movie. Breaking Away’s strong suit wasn’t anything particularly cinematic, but a witty, entertaining script that tended to carry the viewer through a series of artificial crises. The same is true of My Bodyguard. Alan Ormsby’s dialogue—however unlikely in the mouths of 15-year-olds—is nothing if not clever. But Tony Bill, in his directorial debut, always opts for the safety of the TV-approved crisis-and-resolution, and the trite-and-true device. The story of the close relationship between a small, smart rich kid and a slow, gentle giant of a student who becomes his protector against bully extortionists in a Chicago high school unfolds in nothing more inventive and honest than a series of tired-since-the-Sixties montages. First, rich kid pursues giant through unfamiliar streets; second, rich kid and giant seek—and find, in cutesypoo voicelessness—the last part needed to complete the motorcycle giant is working on as a dream project; third, rich kid and giant ride motorbike through a positively idyllic downtown Chicago; and fourth, rich kid loses giant and tries to find him in a nocturnal search through, again, unfamiliar surroundings. Interwoven with this basic device is an irrelevant subplot in which Ruth Gordon typically overdoes her eccentric-old-lady shtick, and the closest we come to a connecting thread between the two is the notion of the old lady as a foil to the gentle giant: old person “afraid not to live” counterbalances young person afraid to face life.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Coal Miner’s Daughter is an American success story in the best biopic tradition, whose virtues lie in John Corso’s superb production design and in several strong performances that gently mix humor and romance with the darker side of human relations. The title of the film pays lip service to the importance of her father, Ted Webb, in the life of country singer Loretta Lynn, but the promise of that kind of psychological insight is never borne out in the film itself. Levon Helm’s strong, sensitive portrayal of the astonishingly young yet prematurely old coal miner Webb keeps him in our memories (particularly his walk, straight and proud, yet stiffened by his trade and growing a little frail) for longer than screentime actually allows him; but the latter part of the film is devoid of any clear link to Ted. The real center of the film is Mooney Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets us right into the film by betting, in the opening sequence, that he can drive his jeep to the very top of a high, steep slag heap, and, of course, winning: the same way he wins the affections and the hand of young Loretta (Sissy Spacek), and the same way he drives her to the top of quite a different heap—only to find himself confronting the syndrome of the male housewife.

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Review: Fame

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Whether Fame will tally up as a hit of this flabby movie summer is not clear at this moment, but the film is having some kind of success. In Seattle the picture opened soft and swiftly built, through word-of-mouth, to better-than-average b.o. Moreover, a portion of every audience can be relied upon to burst into applause after the concluding “I Sing the Body Electric” number, in which all (save one) of the featured students in one graduating class of the New York High School of the Performing Arts step forward, rise into frame, are cut to or panned to for their consummate, energy-into-organicity moment in the limelight. It should be what the whole film has been building toward: the culmination of its hither-and-yon camerawork and cutting, the certification of the purposiveness of its dynamics, the triumphant affirmation of the glory of the individual as part and parcel of a surging communal celebration. And excuse me but I’m going to fwow up because, beautiful as these notions may sound, they are not fulfilled by the conclusion, or legitimately anticipated by any element, of Fame. Keep Reading

Review: Honeysuckle Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Honeysuckle Rose is apparently so sure of its audience that it isn’t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether you’re one of this popular singer’s fans, you can’t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if that’s not too strong a word) during someone’s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainer’s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friend’s something-or-other). Willie can’t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friend’s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rose can cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the film—chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasn’t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesn’t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movie’s big emotional scenes.

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Review: Carny

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Three people warned me off Carny before I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I can’t articulate that feeling any more now that I’ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but I’m glad I saw it. Not that it’s a really terrific movie—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s easier to list the reasons I didn’t have for liking Carny than the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashville meets Freaks on Nightmare Alley (but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, it’s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story, and Carny is just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesn’t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. And—again, as might be expected of a documentarist—in this film, character is inseparable from performance.

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Review: McVicar

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

McVicar isn’t a bad film, but it emphatically fails to be the brilliant one it could have been. Director and co-writer Tom Clegg not only hasn’t solved the problems inherent in the material, he hasn’t faced them; maybe he didn’t notice they were there. The story is that of John McVicar, criminal, jailed in the mid-Sixties for armed robbery, who escaped twice from jail, committed more robberies whilst out, and ended up, in 1970, recaptured and facing a 26-year sentence. This time McVicar devoted his term inside to changing his life. He enrolled as an external student and gained a first-class degree from London University – a dazzling achievement in the circumstances and a central fact, surely, in his story. Yet Clegg, instead of exploring the contradictions and hidden brilliance of the man, ignores this side of him, ignores the crucial last stretch (which led the real-life McVicar to get earliest possible parole in 1978), and bungs in the relevant information only at the very last moment as a closing caption. McVicar becomes just another crime movie, one which ends at the point where it should have become really interesting. Not only that: Clegg adds at the outset another caption suggesting that his film has been heavily fictionalised, as if he had no faith in the intriguing story.

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Review: The Big Red One

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Violette et Francois

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Jacques Rouffio has managed this cautionary account of the non-paying aspects of petty crime very slickly indeed. Violette (Isabelle Adjani) and François (Jacques Dutronc) are two highly irresponsible, lazy, unthinking, shallow and immoral young people, but following their adventures doesn’t overdistance us from them. It’s not that we like them: for all the charm of Adjani and Dutronc, their sheer silliness is, from the outset, mildly repellent, and Rouffio doesn’t cheat to win our sympathy. But they are convincing, they’re like people we all know sometime or other, maybe even like (hush!) ourselves now and then, and Rouffio never ever gets self-righteous about their outrageous and generally deplorable conduct. Which in turn means that he never gets patronising, and this in turn has the useful effect of preventing us from getting too far removed. We don’t feel that we could be doing something more useful than spending a hundred minutes watching these unpleasant wretches, and thus we don’t feel that maybe Rouffio could be doing something more useful than making a film about them, either. Further, his technique is very assured, the film is good-looking, and there are some invigorating presences in the supporting cast: it’s really nice to see Serge Reggiani again, and there’s a particularly good cameo by Lea Massari (ageing gracefully). Thus, Violette et Francois is an entertaining movie, and a moving one, too, with considerable moral shrewdness.

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