Caliban in Bodega Bay

19 January, 2015 (05:37) | Alfred Hitchcock, by Robert C. Cumbow, Essays, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

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Videophiled: ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’

18 January, 2015 (16:53) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

BitterTearsThe Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted his own stage play for this modern twist on The Women, the great all-woman Hollywood classic of sex and social conventions in high society. Margit Carstensen is successful fashion designer Petra von Kant, who lives alone in her stark apartment with Marlene (Irm Hermann), her silent, obedient secretary / servant / girl Friday, whom she alternately abuses and ignores.

Once divorced—by her decision, as she proudly describes the experience to her friend the countess—and once widowed, leaving her a grown child (she at one point berates parents who don’t raise their children properly, then explains she hasn’t the time for her child but takes comfort in knowing she is at the best schools), she falls in lust with a callow, shallow, lazy young married woman, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) who left her husband in Australia to return to Germany. Petra treats the seemingly naïve blonde beauty as part protégé, part pet, but the calculating kitten takes Petra’s money and gifts and social introductions with a cold calculation.

It all plays out in Petra’s stark apartment—a bedroom/workroom with a bed on white shag and a work area below with naked dress dummies, an easel and a typewriter—and Michael Ballhaus’ prowling camera finds Marlene silently hovering on the borders of Petra’s dramas, looking on through doors and windows like an adoring lover from afar. Handsome with a touch of aloofness (the dress dummies sprawled through each scene add a note of alienation), it’s a quintessentially Fassbinder portrait of doomed love, jealousy, and social taboos, bouncing between catty melodrama and naked emotional need.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus oversaw the digital restoration, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative and supervised by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. It’s a tremendous leap in quality from the previous DVD release a decade ago, with strong color (essential to appreciate the art direction and lighting) and a great level of detail and crispness. The Criterion debut of the film features a new video interviews with Ballhaus and the original featurette “Outsiders” featuring new interviews with actors Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla, plus a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc about director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the film, and the 1992 documentary Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, originally made for German TV and featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech. It includes a foldout insert in place of a booklet with an essay by critic Peter Matthews.

More reviews of recent Criterion releases at Cinephiled

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Wait, wait! First the Golden Globes, THEN the Oscar nominations.

18 January, 2015 (13:24) | by Sheila Benson, Commentary, Television | By: Sheila Benson

I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two matching shoes.

To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category? I’m talking about the sublime Olive Kitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest, the initial good will of  Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her Fargo Oscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed

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Videophiled: ‘Kinoshita and World War II’

17 January, 2015 (09:27) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Editor

KinoshitaJapanese director Keisuke Kinoshita made 50 films in a 50-year career, including Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and the original The Ballad of Narayama (1958), both of which Criterion has released on disc. Kinoshita and World War II (Eclipse, DVD) presents his first five films and offers a rare glimpse into the propaganda films made in Japan during World War II.

After a long apprenticeship at Shochiku (and a brief stint in the army), Kinoshita made his directorial debut in 1943, well into World War II, when the filmmaking industry was enlisted in the war effort to produce patriotic movies. Where directors like Ozu and Kurosawa managed to skirt the excesses of nationalistic propaganda (the respected veteran Ozu through films about family values and responsibility, the newcomer Kurosawa through period pieces), Kinoshita applied with humanistic sensibility to rousing calls for patriotic action.

In any other era the deft little Port of Flowers (1943), a light-fingered comedy about two con-men who try to bilk money from the inhabitants of a small island with shares of a phony shipyard, could have come off as a Capra-esque comedy of a guileless small town community winning over the corrupt big city crooks with their idealism and generosity (and a little help from a twist of fate). Here, that twist is the declaration of war, which ignites the patriotic responsibility of the shysters and shames them into supporting the war effort. Apart from the propaganda, it is a light, amiable little film with a warm sense of community and purpose, but the message becomes more insistent in The Living Magoroku (1943), which takes on the need for agricultural production, and Jubilation Street (1944), which follows the inhabitants of a Tokyo street forced to relocate for the war effort.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 16

16 January, 2015 (10:48) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Editor

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo

At The Guardian, two stories of comedians confronting a world that lives down to their expectations. Craig Brown’s article is primarily a tribute to Duck Soup, and its profound use of nonsense to attack and destroy the straight-laced and proper. (“After their arrival, nothing is allowed to remain in its rightful place, or to be what it is meant to be. Everything is transformed into something else. The world has become a pun.”) But Brown ends with an account of Harpo’s visit to the USSR three days before the film’s release, and a border stop that reminds you how terrifying and humorless the real Freedonias are. While in an excerpt from his book on Richard Pryor, Scott Saul looks back to the night in 1977 that the comic, headlining a benefit concert to promote equal rights for the gay community, fumed backstage over performances he found tepidly conformist and behavior from the organizers he considered flat-out racist. So Pryor took the stage and delivered what’s still the most unapologetic, confessional embrace of gay sexuality any straight comedian has made (“You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair. You’ve got the right to suck anything you want!”); and then, the audience in the palm of his hand, squeezed till they booed him off the stage.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman talks to Kyle Buchanan about working with Wes Anderson and the stories behind nine iconic shots from their collaboration. Which as you may expect have less to do with technical matters (though there’s an amusing reveal about the submarine set from Life Aquatic) than waiting for Anderson to arrange things so that every hair—literally, in the case of Royal Tenenbaum’s suicide scene—is in place.

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Film Review: ‘Blackhat’

16 January, 2015 (10:15) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Chris Hemsworth

Given a junky script and inert lead actors, director Michael Mann does what he can with Blackhat. The result is an occasionally intoxicating mess of a movie.

It’s about a world-class hacker. Which means the whole thing takes place as he sits at his keyboard and never leaves his parents’ basement. Just kidding. However, it is never explained why our hero needs to traipse across half of Asia if he’s supposedly a genius hacker who can re-wire a financial system through his smartphone.

Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) begins the movie in prison for past hack attacks. Sprung by an international plan to catch a cyber-terrorist responsible for shutting down a Chinese nuclear reactor, Nick joins a skeptical FBI agent (the great Viola Davis, who has a few signature moments) and a Chinese lawman named Chen (Leehom Wang, a cool singer-actor) on the case.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: ‘Paddington’

16 January, 2015 (09:59) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent

Adopting a bear is not recommended as a real-world option, even if the bear is small and cute and stranded on the platform at a London train station. Make a note of this. In the non-real world, the concept of bear adoption has worked out just fine for Michael Bond, the English author of the “Paddington” stories. (He’s still around, age 89.) Since debuting in 1958, his books about the amiable bear from “darkest Peru” have been consistently popular with kids and grown-ups alike.

Paddington has popped up as a TV character before, but — somewhat surprisingly, given the success rate of films based on familiar kid-friendly characters — not in a movie. Paddington rectifies this omission. And this mostly British production is a winningly bright and funny feature, as befits the lovable main character.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: ‘American Sniper’

15 January, 2015 (05:29) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Bradley Cooper

There was a time when American Sniper would’ve been an ideal Oliver Stone project—a story of the battlefield and the homefront, of ideals and damage. Its subject is Chris Kyle, the sharpshooter whose action in four Iraq War tours reportedly made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. A Texas rodeo rider before he joined the Navy SEALs, Kyle was nicknamed “Legend” by his fellow soldiers and the “Devil of Ramadi” by Iraqi fighters. His life had a lurid ending—a terrible irony that reframes his story in a larger context of troubled veterans and PTSD.

Imagine Oliver Stone’s high-strung emotionalism and blunt-force style brought to bear on this scenario. Now imagine its opposite: That’s Clint Eastwood’s deliberately neutral take on the material, a measured directorial approach that is likely to disappoint those looking for either a patriotic tribute to the troops or a critique of war and its effects.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Appropriate Behavior’

15 January, 2015 (05:26) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Desiree Akhavan

Because Desiree Akhavan has been cast in a recurring role on the new season of Girls, her visibility and pop-culture credentials are about to be certified in a new way. And good for her. But this 30-year-old writer/director/actress had already staked out her position in the Voice of a Young Generation sweepstakes as creator of the web series The Slope and the indie feature Appropriate Behavior, a success at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Maybe Girls needs her more than she needs Girls.

Now Appropriate Behavior opens for its regular run, after garnering a nomination for Best First Screenplay in the Independent Spirit Awards.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

 

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Moments out of Time 2014

14 January, 2015 (08:30) | by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, lists | By: Richard T. Jameson

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

We perpetrated the first “Moments Out of Time” in ecstasy over the cinematic splendors of 1971—The Conformist, The Last Picture Show, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, et al. It ran in our Seattle Film Society journal Movietone News (“The trees creaking in the wind: the murder in The Conformist…“), where it became a much-anticipated annual feature ’til the journal wrapped in 1981. We’ve missed memorializing a few years since, but have enjoyed at various times the hospitality of Film Comment, American Film, Steadycam, Movies/MSN, and Cinephiled. A comprehensive “Moments” library is maintained at Parallax-View.com.

‘Cold in July’

  • Under the Skin: disembodied face lies in a lap, gazing upward, its eyes blinking…
  • SQÜRL’s banshee screech, “Funnel of Love,” over the first ravishing images—including turntable as flat circle of time—of Only Lovers Left Alive
  • “I was once considered a great beauty,” confides Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge extraordinaire, The Grand Budapest Hotel….
  • A dollhouse town and the relentless cheer of a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep), on the edge of the crazy-making emptiness of the American frontier, The Homesman
  • What to say, politely, to an Iraqi woman after your team has burst into her Fallujah home? “Hello….” Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, American Sniper
  • Birdman: After Mike (Edward Norton) blows up the performance, Riggan (Michael Keaton) storms offstage snarling, “Get him out of here!” Annie the P.A. (Merritt Wever) softly asks, “How do you want me to do that?”….
  • Threesome rocking out to “Gloria” on car radio: a rare communal moment of joy in Two Days, One Night
  • The Better Angels: Abraham Lincoln’s second mother (Diane Kruger) balances on one foot, wavering over a fallen tree trunk, the sun blazing a bright halo around her head….
  • In Exodus: Gods and Kings, a tiny white stallion, rearing beneath a heavens-high curve of tsunami….

Continue reading at Keyframe

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Videophiled: ‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’

13 January, 2015 (17:11) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Middle of Nowhere (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) – As Selma opens wide to great reviews, Ava DuVernay’s second feature comes to disc, a small story about a woman who put her aspirations on hold when her husband goes to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drops out of medical school and takes a nursing job so that she can be at home for daily calls from Derek (Omari Hardwick) and make the two hour bus ride from the Los Angeles suburbs to the prison every week. Ruby’s mother (Lorraine Toussaint) isn’t shy about letting her disappointment show and Ruby spends more time with her sister (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother raising a young boy, to avoid such issues. She believes Derek regrets his mistakes and he probably believes so too, but as he becomes illegible for early parole the reality proves to be more complicated. Which is really what the film is about: life is more complicated than the parameters she has fenced around it. Ruby’s commitment to her husband’s support comes at a cost beyond mere professional success, and his past doesn’t go away so easily.

This isn’t about dramatic revelations and charge confrontations. DuVernay, who also wrote the original screenplay, has made a film about those moments lived between the decisions and is able to show Ruby coming around to see what has been obvious to others. She makes Derek a complicated and nuanced character in his limited screen time—the films stays with Ruby through her story, seeing only what she does—neither judging nor forgiving him as Ruby discovers that his mistakes are not over. The restraint leaves some issues a little vague and unsure, such as Derek’s child from a previous relationship and his past (and present) involvement in the gangs, which can be frustrating, but this isn’t his story. It’s about Ruby and the choices she makes.

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Review: Brannigan

12 January, 2015 (11:52) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

There’s some terrific supporting material in that cast list, but everybody onscreen looks, and has excellent reason for feeling, pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Brannigan is the sort of picture that gives John Wayne movies a bad name. Come to think of it, Brannigan is a bad name: it’s locked right in on the monolithic image of Wayne as 110-percent American tough guy with two fists and only one operational brain lobe, and whenever it takes four scriptwriters to come up with that kind of arithmetic, somebody’s in trouble.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 9

9 January, 2015 (09:59) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links, Seattle Screens | By: Sean Axmaker

Walter Matthau

“It’s an attitude that hits with the opening notes of David Shire’s score, a rolling atonal jazz-funk cacophany that can legitimately be called brassy because there’s a hell of a lot of brass in it. It’s a warning that this city is an irritable, stressed-out motherfucker, and you better watch yourself. This is a city that enjoys being obnoxious….” Flop House co-host and Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan scores just the right mix of seen-it-all smartass and third-rail crackle in praising Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as the quintessential portrait of ‘70s New York. His well-observed criticisms of Scott’s remake are also the only reason to check out The Dissolve’s roundtable on the movie.

Another year, another issue of Movie, the University of Reading’s fine film journal. Two articles on Lubitsch this time out, with Andrew Klevan breaks down the pattern of linked oppositions that make Trouble in Paradise “a model of economy, crisp, cogent, and condensed,” while Josh Cluderay examines the vagaries of adaptation by praising what Lubitsch and Sam Raphaelson added to the László play that inspired The Shop Around the Corner, and how Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich drained so much from the story by leaving crucial elements out of their musical remake In the Good Old Summertime. Elsewhere pieces on two directors that, no matter how great, could hardly be accused of aping the Lubitsch touch: Katerina Virvidaki shows how the voiceover in Malick’s The Thin Red Line has less to do with philosophical argument than ambiguous, allusive dramatic relevance to the characters; and Julian Hanich explores the riches of Roy Andersson’s deep-focus frames. Also a tribute to and some selections from recently deceased Jim Hillier, a contributor to the journal since 1970. (All .pdfs)

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Film Review: ‘ Selma’

8 January, 2015 (09:43) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo

The most suspenseful scene in Ava DuVernay’s Selma does not depict the dramatic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, nor an Oval Office facedown between Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Lyndon Johnson. No, the real cliffhanger happens during a twilight domestic scene between King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The husband’s alleged extramarital affairs are the immediate concern, and at this crucial moment in the civil-rights struggle, two married people must acknowledge a few intimate truths. The storytelling takes a pause, the gifted actors operate on a slow simmer, and Selma conveys a tingly sense of the way the march of history turns on human give-and-take in humble rooms.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

8 January, 2015 (09:37) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Robert Horton

Sheila Vand

It sounds like something that fell from a branch of the Tarantino tree: Surely a movie promoting itself as an Iranian vampire/spaghetti-Western indie featuring a skateboarding undead heroine must be doing its thing with tongue firmly in cheek. But hang on, because A Girl Walks Home is not too interested in genre spoofery. This debut feature by Ana Lily Amirpour (who grew up in Bakersfield of Iranian ancestry) is a very studied mood piece, dryly humorous and more inclined toward the arthouse than the drive-in. There will be blood—and it will be sucked—but Amirpour has more on her mind than horror.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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