Review: My Life as a Zucchini

The winners of the Best Animated Feature Oscar tend to be the big hits of the year: Inside Out and Frozen received Academy gold in recent years, for instance. Since the category was added in 2001, only Spirited Away, by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit interrupted the series of top-grossing multiplex smashes. What’s interesting about the category is that every year one or two outliers get nominated, just because the slots have to get filled. So usually a couple of teeny-tiny films get much, much more attention than they otherwise might have, thanks to the million-watt glare of the Oscar spotlight.

This year’s Oscar went to Zootopia, a breezy and lightweight Disney outing that had some hilarious moments and the expected ration of schoolhouse lessons about tolerance. One did not really expect the small fry to win, so it was reward enough that the New Agey parable The Red Turtle and the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini got their moment in the computer-generated sun.

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Review: Lady Ice

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.

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Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 3

High Noon had a lot going against it. Foreman had never written a Western. Zinnemann had never directed one. Foreman’s screenplay, inspired by a short story in Collier’s magazine called “The Tin Star,” by John W. Cunningham, had no beautiful vistas, no Indian raids, no cattle stampedes.” And then there were the H.U.A.C. hearings, writer Carl Foreman’s insistence on defying the committee, and producer Stanley Kramer’s more cautious, cover-my-bases approach. Glenn Frankel follows up the story of The Searchers with a look at another classic western of the period, and the politics surrounding it.

“Given this manic productivity, there might be an attendant assumption that more than a few of the films are fuzzy-headed experiments or sly conceptual jests in the style of those early movies from Warhol’s Factory, but all are masterful productions, moving at a stately pace and totally inimitable in their mixture of artifice, raw cruelty, and chill dispassion. He had a system nobody else possessed and taxed it to its limits. ‘There’s this strange compulsion to work which is certainly a strength and a weakness,’ as he admitted in an interview two months before his death, ‘I’d say I’m a manic depressive and I just try to be depressive as seldom as possible.’ His mother adduced a different kind of desperate energy at work: ‘Rainer,’ she said, ‘simply didn’t count on growing old.’” In an excerpt from This Young Monster, his biography of the director, Charlie Fox does a dazzling job connecting Fassbinder’s legendary output and equally prodigious intake—of drugs, acolytes, prostitutes, and scandals—with his innate rebelliousness and his queering of mainstream cinematic tropes. Via Criterion.

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Review: Logan

Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.

I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.

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Review: The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Two things are tentatively okay about The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: A lot of it is filmed on location in some piney mountain country, and the film thereby falls heir to those vagrant chills that any horror movie shot in a real place with some sense of isolation about it can count on. Besides that, screenwriter Bob Homel has some completely irrelevant but amusing moments as a goodtime Jesus freak. Regrettably he is outpointed on the laugh meter by the star werewolf whose behavior before launching an attack invariably recalls Groucho Marx crouching on the opera-box railing and calling “Boogie! Boogie! boogie!” in mid-performance. As for the detestable sub-adolescent of the title, all he had to say at any point was: “All right, sheriff, then answer me this: why is the werewolf always wearing Daddy’s jacket?”
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Review: Mon Oncle Antoine

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

“Quebec, the asbestos-mining region, not too long ago.” A gray arc of mineral dust flumes through the air and a red pickup sits at the brink of a cliff. A middleaged man gets out of the truck and crawls underneath, grumbling profanely about the lousy maintenance; a conventionally handsome, cleancut young man gets out the other door and observes. Uncle Antoine, of course, and the sensitive young protagonist looking on as if already lost in reflection upon a present that is becoming the past. No. The man is not anybody’s uncle and, although he will come to loom as a symbolic figure in the film, he is not even a major character. The young man we shall not see again. Such an opening is characteristic of Mon Oncle Antoine, and also characteristic of its singularity. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes will surely get up and leave Mon Oncle Antoine. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes deserve to miss the rich experience that rewards those willing to let the life of Claude Jutra’s movie and Uncle Antoine’s town define itself in its own very good and lived-in time.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 24

We’ve been MIA for a couple of weeks due to various reasons and we’re a little late getting up today (due to the editor spending much of the day in bed fighting a cold) but we’re back now.

“When we settle into her hotel lobby, Heckerling—who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history—tells me the story of the Jewish cinematographer Karl Freund. When he was living in Berlin in the 1920s, Freund shot two of the most visually iconic German films of all time, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He then fled to the United States at the end of the decade, and he spent the final years of his career shooting I Love Lucy, among other projects, for which he designed an innovative lighting setup that some sitcoms still use to this day. Heckerling wonders, though, if someone as entrenched in the glamour of early film as Freund ever could have been satisfied working in the emerging medium of TV. ‘Who knows how he was feeling,’ she says. ‘But I look at IMDb and see what people started doing and where they ended, and you go, well, it’s a different game. And that’s how it’s happening now…. I don’t know,’ she says, speaking as much of herself as Freund. ‘You gotta, like, bob and weave and figure it out.’” Even being one of the most successful women directors of all time hasn’t shielded Amy Heckerling from the sexism of the industry, from producers rejecting scripts because they don’t believe women could have decades-long friendships to her lengthy stay in “director jail” following some ill-fated films. But as Lindsay Zoladz reports, she’s still out their bobbing and weaving.

“Director Michael Curtiz often clashed with Crawford during shooting, complaining that she insisted on glamorizing the woman whose daughter calls her a “common frump.” But the veneer of gentility and obsessive care for her looks that clung to the actress—born into miserable poverty as Lucille LeSueur—perfectly suits Mildred Pierce, who sells cakes and pies out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons, even when her husband is out of work. True, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary, downtrodden housewife, but could a woman who builds a chain restaurant empire, makes a fortune, and marries the scion of a fallen old-money clan, all out of desperation to please a snobbish daughter, ever be described as ordinary?” Imogen Sara Smith praises Mildred Pierce as a triumph for Crawford, and as one of several films upending the “false assumption” that noir was inherently misogynist, while the genre was always willing to root for women like Mildred who were ready and willing to work.

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Video: Framing Pictures – February 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Kathleen Murphy, Richard T. Jameson, and Robert Horton discuss the 2017 Oscar race in the February edition of Framing Pictures, just the thing to prepare for the presentation of the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The Seattle Channel records and presents many of these a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

Keep up with the discussion at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Review: Dark Night

No subject should be off-limits for filmmakers willing to take a plunge. The degree of difficulty, however, tends to increase sharply with the weightiness of the premise. Dark Night takes an extremely provocative topic—a seemingly random mass shooting—and applies a heavy layer of arty artlessness to the material. Despite a number of striking images (Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is never less than severely beautiful), it rarely feels like it’s been thought through enough to really jell.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: A United Kingdom

As variations on “We can’t see each other anymore” go, this film’s plot has novelty: After enjoying a wonderful first date in postwar London, the young woman makes it clear to the young man that she would like to see him again. He hesitates, clearly preparing to tell her the truth about something. The sad thing is, he explains, his grandfather was a royal personage and his parents died young, so he really must return to his native country and be—you know—the king. This is not the beginning of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy from the 1930s, but a slice of history based on the story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from Selma), the royal heir of Bechuanaland—now called Botswana—and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the Englishwoman he married.

In A United Kingdom, the marriage of a black African man and a white British woman is an important part of the plot, and for the first half-hour or so it appears this is what the film will be about.

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Review: The Stone Killer

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

It hardly matters what side of the moral fence Charles Bronson is on in a Michael Winner film. Whether he’s a noble savage hounded nearly to death by dregs of the American melting pot (Chato’s Land), an executive gun done in by his Mafia employers and an ambitious protégé (The Mechanic), or most recently, in The Stone Killer, a new centurion waging a crusade against urban Huns and Vandals—Winner’s undeviatingly nihilistic environment dead-ends him every time. Though Winner laces his increasingly ugly films with heavyhanded liberal preachiness, his central character rarely discovers any ethical position except the dubious one of executioner. Maybe Winner is after the notion that killer societies make murderers of us all—but I doubt it: he wallows too comfortably in his visions of the most brutal ways of dying. You need a long spoon to sup with the Devil, and The Stone Killer further substantiates one’s suspicion that Winner, on some level of consciousness, has begun to relish that which he superficially reviles.

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Review: The Long Goodbye

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.

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Noir City Seattle 2017 – Film by Film

Noir City 2017 is titled “The Big Knockover” and the theme is heists: big, small, and inevitably doomed. It kicked off Thursday, February 16 with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the godfather of the heist film, and Criss Cross (1949), the darkest, most truly noir-ish heist film ever.

I wrote a preview for The Stranger this week but I and other Parallax View critics have covered a number of these films in past reviews and essays. So here some capsules and notes on the films of this year’s festival, many by me, with links to longer pieces where available.

All screenings at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Thursday, February 16

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – 7:00 PM
“Even as the perfect crime collapses in betrayal and the irrational impulses of human nature, The Asphalt Jungle is a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, a film that both embraces the romance of the criminal code and acknowledges the mercenary impulses of outsiders and upstarts who have no code.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Stream On Demand

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Review: The Son of Joseph

It is always exciting when a filmmaker comes out of nowhere with a fully formed and distinctively new way of seeing the world. It adds intrigue, and a certain amount of wonder, when that filmmaker is in his 60s. Actually, Eugène Green was a youthful 50-something when he made his first feature in 2001, but it’s his two most recent pictures that have garnered international exposure: La Sapienza, a 2014 look at a married couple against a backdrop of architectural history, and his latest, The Son of Joseph. Green’s style is formal, almost stilted: Characters pose in front of luscious European settings, reciting their lines with sincerity but little melodrama; when the conversation becomes especially intimate, the people speak directly at the camera. Most movies use naturalism as a way of getting to something real. Green goes the opposite direction, with the same goal.

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