Film Review: ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

11 December, 2014 (05:36) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale

The gulf between Moses movies can be measured in beards. For The Ten Commandments (1956), Charlton Heston unrolled a splendid carpet of chin-hair; for the latest incarnation, Christian Bale offers realistic, scraggly whiskers that might belong to the third apostle from the right in any average biblical epic. Exodus: Gods and Kings prefers angst over showmanship, and the picture suffers accordingly.

Surely the film’s director, Ridley Scott, has been waiting all his life to get a crack at the florid yarn-spinning of the Old Testament.

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Review: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings

10 December, 2014 (07:27) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

One’s lip needn’t tremble with forthrightness in suggesting that W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings is John Avildsen’s most likable movie; on the amiability meter, Joe and Save the Tiger leave nowhere to go but up. But as sneak-preview audiences already begin to murmur about the overselling of Nashville (I’m inclined to say that’s their problem, and will undoubtedly contribute to it in MTN 43), it may be time to put in a word or two in behalf of this very easy-to-take summertime divertissement. Burt Reynolds jovially represents himself as a Chevy-driving stick-up man who is so effective at convincing service station attendants to part with the money in the till that he generally has them wishing him to “come back again, y’ hear.” He specializes in one chain of stations, with the result that a fire-and-brimstone, black-garbed ex-lawman is hired to run him down. Thunder claps when this fellow (played by Art Carney with what we might call austere relish) closes his notebook; he’s an ex-lawman only because his former constituents had the temerity to expect him to enforce the law on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, while ducking out on an earnest local cop who wants to nail him on a traffic violation, W.W. Bright (Reynolds) falls in with a country-western band that can’t get out of the toolies. At first for a lark, then—to his own bewilderment—in earnest, he begins to promote them. How to support the outfit while waiting until they’re good enough to take the Grand Ole Opry by storm? Well, heck, that oil company just opened a li’l ol’ bank right down the road…. W.W. is every bit as heavyhanded about its hick comedy as its two sententious predecessors were about their solemn concerns, but once one gives up on the notion of directorial finesse and settles back to enjoy the broad humor, it’s quite a pleasant show.

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Videophiled: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ versus ‘Time Bandits’

9 December, 2014 (16:59) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

GuardiansGalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.

It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.

But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.

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Ten Silent Movies to Make You a Silent Movie Fan

8 December, 2014 (12:49) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, lists, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.

You say that you’re really into old movies and you can’t get enough of the classics but you just haven’t found a way to love silent cinema? You say that all your friends are doing the silents and you feel left out? You say that you too want to be part of the early cinema crowd but just haven’t found your way to loving the movies before sound?

‘The New Gentlemen’

Even among many classic cinema buff, silent movies can appear alien and unfriendly, a duty more than a treat. And it shouldn’t be that way at all. In their day, silent films were a universal entertainment, a truly popular art that transcended language and culture.

There are those who think of silent films as primitive and naïve. Some were, to be sure, but movies grew up quickly in those early years. Those primitive experiments and one-shot gags matured into feature films in under two decades, and the knockabout slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops gave way to the comic grace of Charlie Chaplin and the invention of Buster Keaton just a few years.

And then there’s those scratchy, poorly-preserved prints that were often presented at wrong projection speeds that made everything look sped up and absurd. It’s hard to appreciate let alone recognize the scope and technical wonder of the silent extravaganzas under such conditions.

Thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, a new spirit of cooperation between international film archives, and new digital tools, those days are fast disappearing. Silent cinema is getting a makeover and audiences are finally getting a chance to see the glamor and splendor that original audiences saw when they went out to the flickers.

There is a universe of films, genres, moods, sensibilities and styles to be discovered in the thirty-plus years of cinema before the introduction of sound changed the way films were made and experienced. This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest or the most important silent films (though there are some of both sprinkled through), but rather a selection of the most entertaining and engaging films of the era. Consider it a place to start your appreciation of the glory and grandeur that was the cinema before sound.

From the recently restored version of ‘A Trip to the Moon’

A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
You want to get an idea of how lavish and creative the so-called primitives could be? Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneering special effects artist and a fantasist with an unbound imagination, but more than anything else he was a showman and A Trip to the Moon is his most ambitious spectacle. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of the sole surviving hand-painted print of the film by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, we can now see what enthralled audiences at the turn of the 20th century: a picture-book fantasy brought to life as a work of pure, playful imagination with crazy special effects and delirious color. Accompany this with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and you might just come away with a new appreciation for the early years of filmmaking. And if this inspires more interest in the pre-feature era of filmmaking, try the fantasies of Ferdinand Zecca and the work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the most versatile filmmaker of her era.

Continue reading at Keyframe

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Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Conformist’ restored and reinvigorated

7 December, 2014 (12:49) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

ConformistThe Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) opens in the deep blue of dawn, an intense, vibrant azure with a hint of ultramarine that blankets the city like an ocean. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois Italian who just wants to disappear into the fabric of his society, specifically Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, and under the glow of this overwhelming blue he heads off to oversee the political assassination he has been called to facilitate. This is the temperature of his dispassionate nature, the calm of conformity that he desires, but even under this comforting ocean of reassurance, he remains anxious and out of place, a pretender to this society who wears his convictions like a suit. It’s all about appearance.

I focus on this blue because until now, it has never enveloped me so as I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). I’ve seen the film on 16mm college prints, on 35mm revival prints, and on Paramount’s DVD from a decade ago, but this restoration brings out Vittorio Storaro’s colors with a richness and a depth I’ve never seen before. For the first time those hues have reached through the screen and into my experience.

Color is central to the experience of The Conformist, pushed to intensities beyond what we could call natural yet nothing so actively artificial as the great MGM Technicolor musicals or as symbolically loaded as Antonioni’s Red Desert. It’s not some much unreal as hyper-real, a subjective reality as seen through the eyes of Marcello, a man seeking comfort in conformism and compromise. Those blue filters create a deep blue ocean of a sky, a perpetual twilight that is at once calming and unsettling. If it represents Marcello’s ideal state of stasis, it threatens to drown him as much as comfort him, and its chilly atmosphere suggests his amoral compromise. He may desire Anna (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of his former professor, but it sure isn’t love, and he’s quick to shut off any human connection to her when his mission as an agent / informer for the Secret Police comes to fruition. He has no love for his own beautiful, shallow, and silly petite bourgeois wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), who is “all bed and kitchen,” he tells his best friend, a blind radio personality who spouts Fascist propaganda on a daily basis.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 5

5 December, 2014 (12:02) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Chris Rock

“But look, most movies suck. Absolutely suck. They just do. Most TV shows suck. Most books suck. If most things were good, I’d make $15 an hour. I don’t live the way I live because most things are even remotely good. But when you have a system where you probably only see three movies with African-American leads in them a year, they’re going to be judged more harshly, and you’re really rooting for them to be good a little more so than the 140 movies starring white people every year.” A not insignificant portion of genius is having the voice that’s needed when the times demand. So consider Chris Rock the man of the moment, whether penning an article for The Hollywood Reporter on breaking through Hollywood’s color barrier or bringing clarity and humor to just about every subject discussed in an interview with Frank Rich. (“The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”)

“Nearby in the compact Theatre District, movies and stage plays of all kinds were playing at the four other cinemas and the fifteen-odd theaters. Tillie’s Punctured Romance, for example, a comedy featuring Charlie Chaplin, had audiences in stitches at the Bowdoin Square Theatre, while Paramount Picture’s The Eternal City, a melodrama set in Rome, was being shown at the Boston Theatre. But nothing in town compared to the spectacle at the Tremont where, with that night’s performance set to start at 8:10 p.m., the marquee lights in front were ablaze.” At the Tremont that night: the Boston premiere of Birth of a Nation. As Dick Lehr reports in an excerpt from his book on the film and its controversies, the racist violence on the screen would be matched outside the theater by counter-protesters and angry cops.

Salon’s book section also features excerpts from recent celebrity biographies. So here’s Marc Eliot on John Wayne’s final months as public figure, with conciliatory gestures to President-Elect Carter from the “loyal opposition” and a triumphant appearance at the Oscars; David Henry and Joe Henry on Richard Pryor’s dealings with NBC (compromised but well-rewarded) and Chevy Chase (seething animosity); and Richard Zoglin on how Bob Hope in his later years thought everything from The Tonight Show to the Reagan White House should be at his beck and call.

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Videophiled: ‘Dawn’ of ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’

4 December, 2014 (16:45) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

100ftjourneyThe Hundred-Foot Journey (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a film for our culture: a feel-foodie drama of racial tolerance, cross-cultural acceptance, and fusion cuisine. It’s produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey and directed by Lasse Hallstrom (the classiest of contemporary feel-good filmmakers) and it stars Helen Mirren as the bastion of fine French cuisine and unshakable tradition in the prettiest little village in the South of France you’ll ever see in a movie.

The journey of the title is the distance between Mirren’s French restaurant, a one-star Michelin bastion of the region, and a new Indian restaurant opened by an immigrant family headed by Om Puri and represented in the kitchen by Manish Dayal, who learned the art from his late mother. There is a very underplayed romance between Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, the young sous chef of Mirren’s establishment, but it is so understated you wonder if it’s actually catching fire at all.

There’s not a beat here that you will surprise you, nary a narrative turn you won’t see coming. While the proprietors go to war, hammering the Mayor with hassles about noise, zoning, and all sorts of nuisance complaints, Le Bon introduces Dayal to French cooking and it turns out that he’s a natural. Competition turns into cooperation and Mirren sponsors his entry into the world of competitive cuisine.

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Film Review: ‘The Babadook’

4 December, 2014 (05:11) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Robert Horton

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman

How did this children’s book get into the house? Nobody seems to know. But no matter—it’s here now, and there’s no escaping it. Books are like that; you open them, and they become part of your life, for better or worse. This one—it shares its title with the movie we are watching—is called The Babadook, almost an anagram for “bad book,” and that’s the effect it has on Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman). They’re especially vulnerable to its dark magic. Among other issues, the death of Sam’s father some years earlier is very much in the background of the scary little tale that unfolds.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: Point and Shoot

4 December, 2014 (05:09) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Matthew VanDyke

Maybe each generation gets the Lawrence of Arabia it deserves. T.E. Lawrence was a childhood hero to Matthew VanDyke, the subject of the documentary Point and Shoot. Growing up in a sheltered existence in Baltimore, VanDyke was a big fan of the British adventurer—or at least he liked the idea of Peter O’Toole riding on the back of a camel. Steeped in that image, and mixed up with video games and reruns of an outdoorsy TV series featuring a rugged Aussie swashbuckler named Alby Mangels (Google him to discover a pre-Crocodile Dundee crazy man), VanDyke decided he would find adventure himself. Socially awkward and afflicted with OCD, VanDyke nevertheless set off for Arabia with a motorcycle and a camera.

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Film Review: The Sleepwalker

4 December, 2014 (05:06) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Gitte Witt

The infrastructure of The Sleepwalker is as carefully arranged as the brick modernist estate where all the action takes place. Above that framework, unfortunately, is a vague exercise in arty mystery and perplexing behavior.

We are in the woods of Massachusetts, where this stunning getaway is home to Kaia (Gitte Witt), currently remodeling her late father’s house with the help of boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott, from Girls). The extremely abrupt arrival of Kaia’s sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis, who looks like a hippie Modigliani portrait) makes for an unwanted houseguest; then Christine’s fiancé Ira (Brady Corbet) shows up in search of his errant, and pregnant, companion. Long-simmering tensions and old family secrets will now be served in the main room, along with too much alcohol. And, oh yes, Christine sleepwalks.

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Review: The Drowning Pool

3 December, 2014 (09:19) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of The Drowning Pool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (The Moving Target). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although The Drowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, The Drowning Pool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.

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Videophiled Collection: ‘Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection’

2 December, 2014 (23:24) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Stanley Kubrick | By: Editor

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection (Warner, Blu-ray) – There are no remastered editions or new-to-Blu-ray discs in this box set of eight Kubrick classics, from the 1962 Lolita to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but this ten-disc set does include the previously-released supplements on each film plus it features two new-to-disc documentaries and one new-to-Blu-ray featurette, along with a lovely 78-page book of stills, storyboards, production art, script pages, and other production paraphernalia from the featured films. Which makes it, if not exactly essential (if you’ve already invested in past Kubrick box sets), at least a terrific cinephile gift set. Here’s the skinny on the films and the extras, which is currently available as an Amazon Exclusive.

Kubrickboximg

You have to admire the audacity of Kubrick to adapt Lolita (1962), Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young teenage girl in the age of pre-ratings censorship. (The ad campaign turned that into a selling point, with the tag line: “Can you believe they made a movie of Lolita?”) Kubrick and Nabokov (who adapted is own novel) raised the age of the grade school “temptress” and left most of the seduction to suggestion, and still made a more provocative and sensitive film than the 1997 remake. James Mason is almost pathetic as the repressed author Humbert Humbert who continues to justify his infatuation with teenage Lolita, yet he’s never less than human. Sue Lyon is Lolita, Shelley Winters her blowsy mother and Peter Sellers (soon to be cast by Kubrick in multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove) is the creepy Clare Quilty.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

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Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘Verdun’ restored

30 November, 2014 (09:50) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Editor

CabinetCaligariThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, streaming) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. Directed by Robert Weine, it features Werner Kraus as the tyrannical Dr. Caligari, a sideshow barker in cape and top hat who commands the sleeping Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the carnival’s star attraction, to rise at night and do his bidding, a literal sleepwalker who is both monster and victim. With its painterly sets of jutting beams, leaning walls and heavy black lines painted on flats and arranged to suggest both a skewed sense of depth and a forced perspective that flaunts its artificiality, the film dropped audiences into an aggressively unreal world and celebrated its theatrical artifice as a vision of madness and horror. It set the style for a movement, influenced a generation of filmmaker from Fritz Lang and Universal horror movies, and created images so vivid they are still referenced today. This is a movie that has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations (the Image DVD from Film Preservation Associates and the previous Kino DVD from an earlier Murnau Foundation edition) have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material.

The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which previously spearheaded the astounding restoration of the definitive Metropolis) undertook the comprehensive digital restoration of this landmark using for the first time ever the original camera negative as the primary source (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of November 28

28 November, 2014 (10:19) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Nastassja Kinski

While the recent career of Nastassja Kinski has taken some odd, intriguing turns worthy of attention, the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s retrospective of her early work has writers remembering that decade or so when she was the most consistently surprising of It Girls, walking through her movies with an erotic air so languorous you barely noticed how deftly she kept stealing them. Melissa Anderson has a brief overview of the films that best used her qualities of “deep wells of serenity and stillness behind a feral sexuality.” Peter Sobczynski goes in at greater length (appropriate considering she’s his “all-time favorite actress”) and gets some thoughts from Kinski herself on a few notable efforts. (“My love for animals, and that animal side inside of us. When or how would I ever be able to be that close to panthers, those big cats that belong to the wild, yet are only for us to see in zoos, sadly? How would it be to interact with them, and touch them and be so close to them? That to me was beautiful, like a dream.”) Via David Hudson.

The new issue of LOLA has begun rolling out its contents. Joe McElhaney surveys the work of German and Eastern European émigrés in Hollywood, finding everyone from Lubitsch to Dieterle to Sirk looking in two directions at once, “one eye focused on America, the other looking back at their cultural origins.” Dorian Stuber and Marianne Tettlebaum consider how To Be or Not to Be makes its great unspoken detail—Greenberg’s Jewishness—the one you can’t help noticing. (“Whereas his fellow actors are conscious that they must play roles other than themselves in order to survive, Greenberg realises that he must play a role simply in order to be himself.”) And Lesley Stern offers an academic tour of movies about performance—The Band Wagon, The King of Comedy, Bamboozled, among others—to trace the self-conscious acting style she terms “the diva gesture.” Via Mubi.

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Film Review: ‘The Homesman’

26 November, 2014 (05:20) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Westerns | By: Robert Horton

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank

Tommy Lee Jones, as actor and director, clearly cares a lot about the Western. Is there an audience that cares with him? The once-dominant genre has declined so steeply since the 1970s that each new one is an event, and Jones has become one of the few people still riding herd on the form. (Though ailing at the movies, the myth of the West is alive and well in American politics, currently full of gun-totin’, hog-castratin’ candidates.) The Homesman is so good it makes you wish Jones could somehow make a Western a year, just to keep exploring the pockets of American frontier experience that still need filling in. This one offers a series of new wrinkles, beginning with its route: The story goes from west to east, the opposite of most Westerns.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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