Review: Live and Let Die

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Sean Connery knew when to get out. The new James Bond film is a poor-kid’s followup to the modest achievements of the preceding seven Fleming adaptations (I’m not counting the multi-director fiasco Casino Royale, backed by a different producer). The double-entendres fairly double over with arthritis, the girls and the bad guys are a dreary lot, and the big set-piece, a motorboat pursuit through twisty inland waterways, is a protracted steal from The Mechanic. Sex was real—i.e., had something to do with emotions—only in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and why hasn’t Peter Hunt directed anything since?), but even the Playmate-style romps of the other Bond flicks had some verve and wit about them; here either the couplings are all but accidental or the implicit logic behind them threatens to plunge the film into a neurotic introspection that the writer, the director, and the star are unprepared to risk.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

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Blu-ray: Colossal

Colossal (2017) is the oddest and most inventive film to come out of the new wave of giant monster movies. It stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an out-of-work writer turned reckless party girl and black-out drunk who is kicked out of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her exasperated boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her dreary hometown and moves into her empty, abandoned family home. She runs into her childhood best friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), pretty much the only pal from her generation left in town, and gets a job waitressing in the sleepy bar he inherited. Unanchored and lacking any plan, goal, or motivation of any kind, she continues drinking her nights away with this new crew until she wakes up one morning (after another alcohol-fueled blackout) to find out that a towering Godzilla cousin has stormed Seoul, South Korea. As it continues to appear every morning (American time) at the same time, she discovers that she has a connection to the creature, one that goes back decades.

Universal Home Video

Let’s leave it at that; discovering the twists is part of the fun of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen one already, but that only scratches the surface. What first seems to be a cosmic comic lark, a goofy twist on the monster movie, gets dark in a very human way without losing the film’s creative charge or director Nacho Vigalondo’s sense of humor and poetic justice. Spanish filmmaker Vigalondo has a talent for genre mash-ups, creating fresh takes on familiar science-fiction tropes, and this film (his English language debut) is his smartest, edgiest, and most accomplished to date. Hathaway plays against her image as the likable but unreliable and unraveled Gloria, as does Sudeikis, whose easygoing manner and generosity covers up a damaged soul. She’s a mess but he’s an even bigger one and there’s nothing cute about. Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell co-star Oscar’s reliable barflies and after-hours drinking buddies.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 4

“This eventually leads to one of the only purely erotic sequences in To’s body of work, in which Yam’s and Lin’s characters share a cigarette on a leisurely drive in a vintage Mercedes convertible. The narrative purpose of this or any other sequence in Sparrow is secondary at best. It’s all about the musicality that’s the essence of To’s style. Anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of film craft would do well to study the guy.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s appreciation of Johnny To’s Sparrow is alert to the film’s playfulness and homages, while subtly making the larger point that perhaps something essential has gone missing in a film culture where masters can no longer make such inconsequential delights in between their grand statements.

“But Wenders also perceived the sympathetic faces of angels watching over Berlin everywhere he went (most notably the Friedensengel monument) and found that he was inexplicably drawn to angelic symbolism in other realms: a song by The Cure, a painting by Paul Klee, elegies by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wasn’t sure where it was all going, but the seemingly disparate imagery of dilapidated Berlin and serene angels had begun to fuse in his mind.” That contrast that became the crux of Wenders’s Wings of Desire also informed the soundtrack, from Jürgen Knieper’s mournful, ethereal score to the collection of pop tunes, as Clare Nina Norelli explicates.

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Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.

In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.

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Review: 13 Minutes

Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s exploration of Adolf Hitler’s final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject’s unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel’s return to the time frame, unfortunately can’t quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character’s defining moment.

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Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

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Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

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

“Last year, a series of Fulci’s films and several exhibitions of postwar Italian painting coincided on New York’s cultural calendar. Shows of Schifano’s work and that of several other figures in the Italian avant-garde of that period, such as Alighiero Boetti, Giulio Paolini, Alberto Burri, and Fabio Mauri, colonized uptown art galleries. Downtown at Anthology Film Archives, the Italian film programming collective Malastrana presented “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist,” an October showcase of 15 films by the Italian director. Though it’s safe to say there was little overlap in the crowds viewing the post-war paintings and those reveling in grindhouse gore, the two seemingly distant bodies of work bear a number of distinct points of comparison and reference.” Chris Shields points out the numerous debts and points of contact between postwar Italian art and the postwar Italian horror film, particularly the bleak, “texturally obsessed” landscapes of Fulci.

“Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.” A newly translated excerpt from Evgenii Margolit’s 2012 book The Living and the Dead places Boris Barnet’s A Good Lad as the wellspring of Soviet war films—despite its unorthodoxy and official banning. Via Mubi.

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Review: Landline

Jenny Slate’s opening monologue in Obvious Child is the kind of thing that weeds out the uptight among us. Its indecorous references to bodily emissions and the gunky realities of sex are meant to set up her character as a truth-telling stand-up comic, but also serve notice that the movie itself will take no prisoners when engaging taboos and uncomfortable subjects. Fair enough, as Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion. But I also suspect that Obvious Child wants to keep pace with the tone of 21st-century comedy, an explicit style (usually R-rated, as in pictures like Neighbors and Baywatch) that puts sex and scatology at the crude center of the joke. It’s the comedy of poop and genitalia, the sort of thing that would send Wes Anderson to his fainting couch.

Slate and Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre have reunited for Landline, and while it’s a much less adventurous film than their first collaboration, the urge to be smutty is still in place.

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Review: Oklahoma Crude

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

What I kept thinking about throughout Oklahoma Crude was: What’s George C. Scott doing in this? Why, given the stature and range of selection that (I assume) follows on a virtually one-man triumph like Patton, would he choose to lavish himself on such an unimaginative, dramatically undifferentiated project? Perhaps that categorization implies the answer. Perhaps Scott felt an inconsequential programmer might be fun, affording a different kind of pleasure, if not necessarily satisfaction, from an Uncle Vanya on Broadway or a misfired topical melodrama like Rage on the screen. The only nice things in Oklahoma Crude—and they are very limitedly nice—are Scott’s corn-fed, sappily goodnatured reactions to some stilted sexual antagonism forced on a deadpanned Faye Dunaway. She plays a humorless harridan whose gallopingly unsatisfactory experiences with society at large and men in particular have led her to mount a last stand of the free-enterprise ethic on a hill that may or may not sit over a pool of oil in Oklahoma, a little before the First World War. He’s a larcenous no-account who’ll do just about anything and cheat absolutely anybody for money, but ultimately he finds himself falling in some kind of love and acquiring enough of a set of principles that he stays to help her in her fight against the big oil companies trying to run her off her land.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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Review: The Hireling

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The Hireling is, I believe, Alan Bridges’s first film. Aside from rather too frequently belaboring the contrast between indifferent wealth and pathetic poverty in the early part of the film, Bridges manages to pretty much avoid the stylistic excesses to which debuting directors are often prone. However, his muted, somewhat eviscerated approach works both for and against this adaptation of an L.P. Hartley novel (Hartley also wrote The GoBetween which Joseph Losey brilliantly translated to the screen). Bridges’s tone is occasionally just right for this enervated tale about the relationship between a neurasthenic aristocrat (Sarah Miles, whose performance won her a special citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and her stolidly correct hired chauffeur (Robert Shaw), but cumulatively it begins to wear on one’s nerves like a too precisely, albeit tastefully, furnished room. Too much order, too little deviation from a predictable pattern—but admittedly, the style recapitulates the theme. For Leadbetter the chauffeur, with all of his emerging middle-class virtues—manliness, discipline, common sense–hasn’t got a prayer of playing Mellors to Lady Franklin’s Constance Chatterly, or of disturbing in any felt way the insulated world in which his lady lives, if not thrives. Fresh out of a sanitarium, Lady Franklin is still whey-faced and rheumy-eyed with grief over her husband’s untimely demise. What she needs, and what she gets from Leadbetter, whose car and company she hires, is human contact without threat or expectation, the kind of unjudging acceptance that only therapists and servants of a certain era can provide. As she violates class convention after convention in her pursuit of sanity and begins to bloom with renewed health, the disorder of passion enters the doggedly disciplined life of Leadbetter, who turns gradually sick with jealousy and desire. What feels to him like the intimacy of shared experience between man and woman is merely the intimacy one may cultivate with a favored, though ultimately invisible, servant.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 21

Good Morning is inarguably the least loved and least representative in the Ozu oeuvre. But as is often true of early comedy in more or less anybody’s oeuvre—whether or not they’re known as comic artists—Good Morning is one of the seeds from which Ozu’s later works grow, a sort of first principle. It is perhaps a more intricately structured investigation of what we can say through the walls of time and age and experience erected even between parents and children, siblings, lovers. It is a chamber piece for all the human linguistic instruments: fart and sigh, small talk and drunken ramble, all the possible declarations of weakness, suspicion, compromise, and love of which you could conceive.” I’d say Annie Julia Wyman’s initial statement up there is much more than arguable, but past that her praise of Ozu’s celebration of the wordless means by which we convey love—including, yes, farts—is spot on.

“It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!” Mark Le Fanu traces the oppressive state of mind under which Tarkovsky conceived Stalker as a hidden religious allegory, and briefly recounts the horrifying ordeal of the shoot, in which the third time (filming the picture) might have been the charm but also the reason so many of the crew, director included, succumbed to cancer.

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Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is, undeniably, about the famed World War II evacuation. But it’s also very much about how Nolan makes movies, and how he wants us to watch them. Like other adventurous projects such as Memento and Inception, his new film is a weirdly structured but tantalizing jigsaw puzzle, its pieces assembled with the ingenuity of a maniacally complicated cuckoo clock. It’s not enough for Nolan that his three storylines unfold side by side—they must track along different time frames, too. The movie is like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but focused on a single military event with characters who eventually overlap.

In 1940, Dunkirk was both a humiliating defeat for the Allied forces—the German army having routed the British and French to the sea—and an unlikely morale boost. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach relied on a withdrawal “navy” partly made of countless small boats and ferries, many piloted by brave civilians crossing the English Channel. The story became the very model of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

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