Review: The Passenger

4 March, 2015 (08:10) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Long after any sane deadline for MTN 41—with half the pages already slapped down, in fact—Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, formerly Profession: Reporter, formerly either The Final Exit or The Fatal Exit, I can’t remember which, was sneak-previewed in Seattle. Within a few days—just before this magazine comes out—it will have opened at the Music Box Theatre for what may well be a short run—short because people who grooved on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and The Last Detail and maybe even Easy Rider may be frustrated by Nicholson’s low-key incarnation of a character with so little edge that he keeps sliding right out of the frame. It merits longer, more seasoned consideration; but for the moment, something ought to be said about it.

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Videophiled: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I’

3 March, 2015 (17:27) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Editor

HUngerGamesMockThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2014, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.

By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.

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Morricone Encomium

2 March, 2015 (06:00) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Essays, Film music, Westerns | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]


I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

28 February, 2015 (09:44) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

WildAngelsBefore Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

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

27 February, 2015 (09:11) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links, screenings, Seattle Screens | By: Bruce Reid

“Yes, extras must meet a threshold level of professionalism; they must show up on time and do what they’re told; they must own a variety of clothing items (most bring their own wardrobe). But there are thousands of them, capable of showing up on time and walking when they’re supposed to walk. It’s unskilled labor for skilled people.” Hillel Aron reports on the life of Hollywood’s background actors—extras, as they’ll always be called no matter how much they prefer the former term—and how the many real gains made by unionizing and joining in with SAG have led to a two-tiered system: those who can make a serious living from essentially part-time work, and everybody else, hustling for the leftovers. Via Longform.

UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies has released their second Hollywood Diversity Report, with the far from startling conclusions that a gleamingly homogenous set of people behind the cameras (film studio units overseen by 96% white and 61% male heads; studios themselves headed by a clique 94% white and 100% male) hasn’t led to much breakthrough in diversity filmed by them. Austin Siegemund-Broka offers a rundown; the report itself, by Drs. Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón, is available as a .pdf.

“Welles wasn’t moved. He told Selsman that ‘[saying the financiers will balk] is like saying the world is round. Of course, backers do not reduce the conditions under which they promise money. You certainly know as well as I do that in these cases—which occur all the time—it is the producer and the packager who must make the sacrifice.’ He characterized Selsman’s response as ‘mistaken tactically and morally.’ He also claimed Selsman was avoiding him. ‘It seems very clear that Oja and I have continued to work hard entirely on a speculative basis… this cooperative spirit has not been met from your end.’” In a two-part article, Matthew Asprey Gear details the behind-the-scenes drama of Sirhan Sirhan, an Executive Action-style political thriller/exposé that was being rushed to production in 1975 when co-star Orson Welles took the reins and revised the script in his own image. Some of the players still insist on laying blame at Welles’s feet, citing his undeserved reputation for scuttling his own projects; but despite the arrogance of some of Welles’s demands, Gear’s firm that responsibility lies with a series of half-honored promises and handshake deals that likely would have collapsed even without the Great Man’s imperious presence. (Part II here.)

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Film Review: ‘Song of the Sea’

26 February, 2015 (05:06) | Animation, by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘Song of the Sea’

It didn’t cop the Oscar on Sunday, but the good news is a few hundred million people have now heard of Song of the Sea. The Best Animated Feature category often includes a title or two that—while utterly obscure by Disney or DreamWorks standards—are at least as impressive in the realm of cartoon art. This year Disney’s lukewarmly received Big Hero 6 was a bit of a surprise winner, its triumph perhaps the result of votes being siphoned off by two tiny but acclaimed competitors, Tale of the Princess Kayuga and this one.

Song of the Sea comes from an Irish company, Cartoon Saloon, whose previous feature The Secret of Kells (2009) also snagged an Oscar nomination.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘A Fuller Life’

26 February, 2015 (05:03) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Samuel Fuller

If you are already a fan of Samuel Fuller’s uncompromising pulp cinema, you’ll be delighted by this new documentary tour covering the life and career of the director,writer, and producer. If you’ve never encountered one of his two-fisted yarns, you’ll almost certainly wonder how you got this far without stumbling across this flabbergasting character. A Fuller Life is ingeniously designed. The screenplay is drawn entirely from Fuller’s posthumously published 2002 memoir, A Third Face, spoken on and off camera by a gallery of intriguing readers: cast members from Fuller’s Big Red One (including Mark Hamill), fellow filmmakers such as Wim Wenders and Buck Henry, and the inescapable James Franco. Fuller’s scandal-sheet-ready prose is accompanied by (very brief) clips from his pictures, plus some fascinating footage he shot as an infantryman during World War II.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Focus’

26 February, 2015 (04:55) | by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Will Smith

A good con-artist movie isn’t that much different from a good con. It’s all about distraction and sleight of hand, creating a false narrative to draw the viewer’s attention away from the real plot playing out behind the feint, and leaving behind a story that the mark can hang on to.

In Focus, Will Smith is all arrogant confidence as Nicky, the veteran pro who runs his jobs like a coach fielding a champion team. He’s not interested in one big score, but in racking up points in a rapid-fire succession of plays throughout the game.

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Review: French Connection II

25 February, 2015 (08:37) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

I liked The French Connection a lot in 1971, but I’m rather afraid to look at it again because I think I remember most of what’s there. Not that I don’t remember many other films vividly, films I’ve no doubt I can revisit any number of times and find them and me enriched every time. But there’s something about the feel of the first French Connection, the strategy of the film as a film, that makes me suspect I’ve savored most of what it had to offer—and that was no meager portion—during my two first-run visits. French Connection II isn’t as functionally perfect as its predecessor, but I suspect—stress, again, suspect—that its interstices leave contemplative room I might occupy again with profit. Put it another way: French Connection (I) struck me as a brilliant package film, a producer’s picture in which director, screenwriter, cameraman, editor, et al. were hitting their marks with breathtaking precision and enough originality that cries of “Manipulation!” seemed silly—indeed, ungrateful. FC-II, sequel or no, comes off as more of a felt work, and what I make contact with through it is a director.

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Videophiled: Oscar winners ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Big Hero 6′ on disc and VOD

24 February, 2015 (17:00) | Animation, Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller).

Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.

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In Black & White: gawlDurgnat

23 February, 2015 (09:16) | Alfred Hitchcock, Books, by Robert C. Cumbow | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

THE STRANGE CASE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, or The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. By Raymond Durgnat. MIT Press. 429 pages. $15.00.

For me, Raymond Durgnat has become, over a period of years, The Man You Love to Disagree With. Not that he doesn’t often strike exactly home, or express wonderfully well what oft was thought. It’s just that he nearly always qualifies or obfuscates his arguments into obscurity or outrageous contrivance. The margins of his newest book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.

Subtitled The Plain Man’s Hitchcock, the book is both exhilarating and exasperating: exhilarating because it is the most complete and ambitious critical examination yet of Hitchcock’s entire body of work, and bids fair to become a definitive source for future Hitchcock criticism; exasperating because in more than 400 pages it never manages to become what it could have been. For one thing, it is hardly a “Plain Man’s Hitchcock,” since the facts on Hitchcock’s life and work, together with a good but simplistic summary of all previous Hitchcock commentary, are confined to two prefatory chapters; the specific analysis of the films, which comprise nearly 350 pages of the text, are neither comprehensive nor—even in the attempt—definitive.

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Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

21 February, 2015 (06:32) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews | By: Editor


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 20

20 February, 2015 (09:45) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links, Seattle Screens | By: Bruce Reid

‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’

Tough loners, intricate plots, and “irresistible” location work: Jonathan Kirshner takes a look at Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan, Le Doulos, and Le Deuxieme Souffle, three films that “can be dubbed [the director’s] “noir improvisations,” a nod to Bertrand Tavernier’s observation that Melville approaches filmmaking like a jazz musician, reinterpreting and experimenting with the standards—in this case, with the classic templates of film noir and the codes and conventions of cinematic gangsters.”

“A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream….” The announcement that the director’s cut of Mark Christopher’s 54 would screen at the Berlin Film Festival was greeted mostly with mild surprise that the 1998 flop had enough of a cult to indulge such rehabilitation. But however the new edit turns out, the story of the film’s making is your classic Hollywood should-have-been-a-success story; Louis Jordan tells this latest variation, with Christopher’s ambitions insufficient to ward off Harvey Weinstein’s anxious interference with a film he feared too gay and too morally ambiguous to show in theaters.

“‘Fundamentally farcical,’ he explained, ‘We didn’t have the spirit of seriousness, but we were serious.’ Later he cued up a still from Laurel and Hardy’s Wrong Again: ‘That’s the Dziga Vertov Group, two guys forced to act as the third leg of a piano with a horse on it.’” Max Goldberg offers highlights of a recent talk by Jean-Pierre Gorin about the goals of his and Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group, which Gorin paints as more playful and formalist than has generally been accredited; though part of that might stem from what Gorin acknowledges as the mission’s failure.

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Oscar Predictions

20 February, 2015 (09:05) | by Robert Horton, Essays | By: Robert Horton

Last year it seemed so easy: 12 Years a Slave was the pre-ordained Best Picture winner, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett had acting awards locked up, and nobody was going to deny Frozen in the animation category.

Well, the 87th annual Oscar race has been a little more fun. Even though certain movies have been winning regularly with groups such as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice (I’m a voting member in the latter), I do think there’s actual suspense about the big prizes this year. It could turn into something because of the way the votes might split. Boyhood stands as the odds-on favorite, and critics’ awards seem to favor it. But Birdman has won some key prizes, including the nod from the Directors Guild.


More complications: The late-arriving American Sniper is the only one of the Best Picture nominees to qualify as a real box-office smash. That does count for something with Academy voters. And then there’s the Selma kerfuffle. Oscar commentators and political pundits took umbrage at the film being shut out of most categories, especially Best Director, even though it was nominated for Best Picture. Could there be a strong response to the perceived snub (as there was when Argo didn’t have director Ben Affleck nominated, but the movie won Best Picture after all)?

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: Girlhood

19 February, 2015 (05:48) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Karidja Touré

There’s no parallel between the American film Boyhood and the French film Bande de Filles, except that a clever marketer thought it would be useful to have Girlhood be the title for the latter movie. Can’t blame them for that one, but Girlhood stands on its own as a thoughtful, nonjudgmental look at a lost teen who finds definition over the course of a few rocky months. Her name is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a wary girl whose mother works nights as a janitor. (She’s barely seen in this youth-ruled scenario, set in a poor, immigrant-filled banlieue outside Paris.) Marieme’s older brother is a bully, and she seems to have made herself as plain and anonymous as possible. One day at school she falls in with a trio of cool girls, led by the glammed-up Lady (Assa Sylla), whose habits include shoplifting, taunting other groups of girls, and connecting over their shared sense of displacement. A lip-synching scene to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” shows their powerful bond better than 20 pages of dialogue could.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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