Review: Scalawag

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Kirk Douglas becomes yet another star to learn he ought to stay in front of the camera. His directorial debut lacks style, wit, pace, visual distinction, common sense—lacks even naïveté, which might have proved at least modestly winning. Indeed, the picture serves up some very ugly doses of casual death-dealing by a motley crew of constantly guffawing pirates who, with peglegged Douglas in the lead, scramble around Alta California in pursuit of treasure and G-rated good times. The suburban audience I saw Scalawag with had come mostly for the second-run cofeature, Charlotte’s Web, to judge by remarks overheard, but they responded to Douglas’s shambling efforts with that programmed laughter they learn from canned tracks on TV. As a performer, Douglas has usually fared best as some kind of scoundrel (his best performance, Lonely Are the Brave, is a conspicuous exception), especially such early triumphs as the malevolent, latently homosexual gangster in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and the Machiavellian producer in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), as Howard Hawks observed in connection with The Big Sky (also ’52), when he tries to sell himself as a nice guy he is less than convincing. Scalawag asks us to delight in a nice scoundrel, but director Douglas leaves actor Douglas stranded.
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John Ford 1895-1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

JOHN FORD
1895-1973

Can I believe my friends all gone,
when their voices are still a glory in my ears?
No, and I will stand to say no, and no again.
For they remain a living truth within my mind.

—from Philip Dunne’s screenplay of How Green Was My Valley

“…What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot.” —Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

• The aftermath of the shootout in Ford’s first feature: Harry Carey stands behind his horse looking offscreen at the man he killed and reflectively cleaning his hand on the horse’s tail—Straight Shooting
• Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) trying to smooth his awkward bulk and uncouth presence into the lineaments of innocence and communal grief at the wake of Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)—The Informer…
• Ben Johnson’s glorious rides in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn…
• The Lost Patrol: Mackay and Cook (Brandon Hurst and Alan Hale) set off across the desert to bring help; in longshot they disappear, the sands seeming to ripple in the moonlight, until a shadow engulfs all….
• Dinner with Sandy (Donna Reed): a moment out of war in They Were Expendable
• Drisc (Thomas Mitchell) pacing the deck and turning abruptly for a last look after the corpse of Yank (Ward Bond) has been buried at sea—The Long Voyage Home
• Granville Thorndyke’s (Alan Mowbray) farewell to the old stationmaster (Francis Ford) before skipping out of Tombstone: “Good night, sweet prince!”—My Darling Clementine
• Barry Fitzgerald’s reverential observation of the broken honeymoon bed in The Quiet Man: “Impetuous! … Homeric!”…
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Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Public intellectuals,” as a species, once roamed the American airwaves. If you flipped on a talk show in 1963 or 1971, you might easily have heard Norman Mailer or Lillian Hellman or William F. Buckley orating at great length and with enormous erudition on the issues of the day, whether the subject was modern art, baseball, or the Vietnam War. There was the presumption that some people were so learned they could spout off on just about anything and come up with penetrating thoughts.

We’ve pretty well demonized the term “intellectual” in America since then—certainly no political candidate would ever dream of using the word as a self-description.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: ‘Something Wild’ (1962) on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

Not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, the 1962 Something Wild (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from rape.

The film opens on the assault, a non-explicit scene that communicates both the violence of the rape and the terrible sense of violation and helplessness felt by Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a New York middle-class girl who is attacked on the way home from school. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. The tactile presentation of the physical details (a skirt shoved up over her thigh, a sharp rock poking into her leg, bending to pick up the modest crucifix ripped from her neck and tossed to the ground) doesn’t just channel the sensory experience, it suggests the fragments of the ordeal that Mary Ann’s mind latches on amidst the horror of violation. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.

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Blu-ray: ‘His Girl Friday’ meets ‘The Front Page’ on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.

The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.

Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.

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Blu-ray: Long Way North

Shout! Factory

Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.

First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.

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Review: Emily

In movies about relationships, the small details need to ring true. Emily, the feature length debut from director Ryan Graves, takes a tiny-by-design story and earnestly goes deep, exploring the destructive impulses, badly timed stabs at nobility, and increasingly mixed signals of a couple on the brink. Without showy declarations of intent or roof-raising histrionics, it captures how people can be perfect together, until they aren’t.

Continue reading at The Stranger

The Offspring of Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is inarguably one of the landmarks of American cinema. The distillation of the storytelling techniques, editing ideas, framing and visual composition, and nuanced approaches to performance that Griffith spent years exploring and experimenting with in short subjects and mid-length films, it was the longest and most ambitious American ever made when it was released in 1915 and it took American audiences, critics, and filmmakers by storm. It also features demeaning caricatures of African American characters (all played by whites in blackface) and grotesque distortions of the post-war Southern history and it portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of white culture in the face of emancipation. It is, in the words of journalist Jelani Cobb, “The most pure, honest, unfiltered distillation of white racist thought of that time.”

The Independent Lens film Birth of a Movement is a reminder that criticism of Nation‘s racist politics is not a recent phenomenon.

Continue reading at the Independent Lens blog on PBS.com

Moments out of Time 2016

Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year’s films

* Green Room: Hillside Astoria street, spike-haired dude texting at curb…

* Death notice at hockey practice, Manchester by the Sea: at a distance, the rhythms of bruised recognition and awkward sympathy…

* Thrilling camera follow in Hell or High Water as the brothers Howard race home from the first bank heist. Then, after a moment, a capper: crane up to see the ditch prepared to receive getaway car…

* Things to Come: Riding on bus, weeping after learning of her mother’s death, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) sees her ex-husband (André Marcon) walking on the sidewalk with the new woman in his life, and bursts into laughter….

* Elle: Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) reaction to her mother’s bombshell that she intends to marry her boy toy: half tickled and wholly appalled…

* In Arrival, Amy Adams’s preternatural stillness: in sync with the unknown, whether endangered alien or doomed child…

Arrival

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 27

“Men, and the occasional group of women, are consistently on the move in The Red and the White, and are just as frequently prevented a full and complete escape. Such a teasing freedom is part of the film’s caustically cruel wargame, and it is indicative of Jancsó’s stance on the futility and specious systematization of wartime methodology.” Jeremy Carr runs the gambit in his two articles for Mubi, praising the high-art antiwar formalism of Jancsó’s The Red and the White on the one hand, and the genre stylings of Jack Hill’s Spider Baby and Pit Stop on the other. (“On the surface, Spider Baby and Pit Stop appear to situate themselves comfortably within their rudimentary genre zones, primarily through keynote visuals. Spider Baby has its house of horrors infested with cobwebs, creepy critters, skeletons, shadow play, and the always menacing proliferation of taxidermy, while Pit Stop is a gearhead’s delight, with motor part close-ups and dynamic images of spinning tires, tightly-gripped steering wheels, and junkyard montages. But then, these films become something else. The people begin to matter, the eccentric stories become engaging, and the situations, though alien to the average audience, become so fully realized they achieve widespread application.”)

“This is the greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley.” “It’s the other way around.” “Oh, well, don’t get technical at a time like this.” David Bordwell gets highly, and entertainingly, technical on His Girl Friday, breaking down the behind-the-scenes matter of where the title comes from and the onscreen brilliance of Hawks’s deep focus and selective editing continuity.

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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.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

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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Blu-ray: ‘Sudden Fear’

Cohen Film Collection

Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.

Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.

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