Film Review: ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

6 August, 2015 (10:02) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Barry Ward

As political filmmakers go, Ken Loach makes the admirably committed John Sayles look like a tenderfoot. Now in his sixth decade of filmmaking, the British director shows no signs of softening his stance, even amid recent rumors of a possible retirement. A dedicated social-concern standard-bearer in his films and a strident activist in his life, Loach is capable of balancing his passions when he’s on his game (see My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, for instance). When he’s not, his films can get talky and obvious—and alas, Jimmy’s Hall finds Loach working with stilted material.

Loach and his frequent screenwriter Paul Laverty return to Ireland, the setting for their beautiful The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).

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Film Review: ‘The Look of Silence’

6 August, 2015 (09:58) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Adi Rukun

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing earned an Oscar nomination and a raft of astonished reviews. There were skeptics, however, who questioned the film’s nausea-inducing strategy of encouraging the mass murderers of Indonesia’s mid-1960s genocide to proudly re-enact their atrocities for the camera. That’s a point worth raising, but with the release of The Look of Silence, we glimpse Oppenheimer’s larger canvas. This film—not a sequel, but a complementary project—has an interrogator.

Instead of the neutral camera-eye of The Act of Killing, we see the new film from the perspective of Adi Rukun, an optometrist (born in 1968, after the slaughter) whose older brother was tortured and killed during the purge.

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Film Review: ‘The Wanted 18’

6 August, 2015 (09:50) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘The Wanted 18’

Taken separately, there is nothing wrong with political documentaries, animation, or talking animals. Put them together, and you have my kryptonite. So my lack of enthusiasm for The Wanted 18 can be taken with that in mind, especially if you like all of the above. The very slim 75-minute film is based on an incident that took place during the First Intifada: In 1988, as part of a general organized pushback against Israel, some Palestinian inhabitants of the town of Beit Sahour purchased 18 milk cows from a sympathetic Israeli farmer. This way, the population could produce its own dairy products and stop relying on Israel for that part of its diet. Not being dairy farmers, there was a good deal of bumbling involved, which makes for some mildly amusing reminiscences from people who were there. Then the Israeli authorities decided to stop the project, and a hunt ensued as the Palestinian milkmen tried to hide the bovines for a couple of increasingly bizarre weeks.

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Blu-ray: ‘Night and the City,’ ‘He Ran All the Way,’ and more film noir debuts

5 August, 2015 (15:14) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

NightandtheCityJust days after the final night in the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” series—eight successive Fridays dedicated to film noir—comes the debut of four examples of the distinctly American film genre on Blu-ray, two of them making their first appearance on home video in any form in the U.S.

Night and the City (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (1951), starring a wonderfully weaselly Richard Widmark as a two-bit American con man in London, is one of the greatest film noirs set in a foreign capital. Widmark’s Harry Fabian is a restless hustler at the bottom of the underworld food chain. His long history of failed get-rich-quick schemes hasn’t dampened the naïve enthusiasm that this one “can’t lose,” much to the dismay of his long-suffering girlfriend (Gene Tierney). His latest scheme, however, pits him against London’s wrestling kingpin (Herbert Lom) and he uses everyone within reach to put his precarious plan together, including the corpulent nightclub owner (Francis L. Sullivan) who hires Harry to tout his club around town and the owner’s calculating wife (Googie Withers), who drafts Harry into her plot to escape her husband and open her own club. She should know better than to put her trust in a man blinded by his own fantasies of success built on other people’s money.

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Review: The Night Porter (2)

5 August, 2015 (10:09) | by Rick Hermann, Film Reviews | By: Rick Hermann

If the first half of The Night Porter at last manages to set an acceptable pace by way of intercutting between the present and past lives of the characters, the latter half sags beneath the weight of a narrative gone sour and Liliana Cavani’s gropings for some way to end the thing. It is here, as Bogarde and Rampling are besieged inside the former’s apartment by his Nazi ex-comrades (they mean to have Rampling killed because she knows too much of Bogarde’s past and his association with them—a threat whose seriousness is never made quite tenable in the screenplay), that the Bogarde character loses any credibility he might have had as a sexually hung-up, former Nazi torturer with a soft spot in his heart and a streak of childish perversity which makes his villainy seem more ridiculous than menacing. Down to their last Hershey bar and half-empty jar of strawberry preserves, they still live to make love, spending the rest of their time lying about with starved, listless expressions or wide-eyed stares of encroaching madness. Bogarde wipes the kitchen table a lot—a reference to how, earlier, he had nervously wiped the table inside the restaurant while talking to Mario, another face out of the past whom Bogarde himself subsequently murdered because he knows too much; Rampling slithers and scrounges like a hungry cat.

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Review: The Night Porter (1)

4 August, 2015 (04:48) | by Peter Hogue, Film Reviews | By: Peter Hogue

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The Night Porter is a strange, richly textured affair, and one sign of its dark brilliance is its success in holding some imposing limitations at bay. For one thing, its plot is highly contrived: an Austrian hotel night porter (Dirk Bogarde) is a Nazi war criminal; he is preparing for an annual meeting of old Nazis who have organized in order to continue escaping detection; but his standing with the group is put in jeopardy by the arrival at the hotel of a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he had had a sadomasochistic love affair. Matters are made even trickier by the somewhat devious contrast of the couple’s unconventional eroticism and the Nazi group’s hypocritical puritanism. But Liliana Cavani’s graceful and intelligent direction and the performances of Bogarde, Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti and Amedeo Amodio give the proceedings (script by Cavani and Italo Moscati) a depth that they might not have otherwise had.

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A Passion from Hammer: ‘Dracula Has Risen From his Grave’

3 August, 2015 (03:40) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

The tiny German village lies quiet in the early morning sunlight as a young boy enters the church, genuflects, crosses himself, and walks to the bell rope. With appropriate reverence, yet with the casualness of one who has performed this ritual many times before, he gives the rope a pull. Only this time, nothing happens. Confused, the boy braces himself for a mightier tug on the rope; but suddenly he yanks his hands away as if they have been burned. On the back of his hand is a drop of blood, and as his eyes move upward, he sees a scarlet band trickling down the bell rope. With a silent scream, he runs to fetch the village priest (Ewan Hooper). Though he is a mute, the boy expresses his agitation as best he can, and the priest follows him hurriedly to the church. Ascending the stairs to the belfry, the priest approaches the bell and pushes on it. Out swings, head-first and suspended from the clapper, the freshly killed body of a young woman.

Thus begins the most uncompromisingly religious vampire film I have seen, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Despite the fact that Terence Fisher gets all the publicity, and many assignations of auteurship, this lively film by second-stringer Freddie Francis gets my vote as the best of the Hammer Dracula films (though two more recent vampire ventures, Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970, and Scars of Dracula, 1972, have received limited distribution in the United States and have thus far escaped my viewing).

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Cemetery Without Crosses’

1 August, 2015 (02:46) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Westerns | By: Sean Axmaker

CemetaryCrossA spaghetti western with French seasonings, Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) is a Franco-Italian co-production shot in Almeria, Spain, the definitive badlands landscape of the Euro-western. The director, screenwriters, two stars, and even composer are French and the supporting cast largely Italian. And while this is not shot in the widescreen dimension of CinemaScope, de rigueur for genre, is features the familiar conventions: taciturn anti-hero, bleak desert setting, spare style, mercenary characters, and a culture so steeped in corruption that the closest we get to justice is justified vengeance.

French movie star turned filmmaker Robert Hossein helms the film and casts Michèle Mercier, with whom he starred in a successful series of historical romances in France, as a frontier wife widowed in the first scene. The Rogers clan, the ruthless land barons of the territory, have been trying to drive them out of. When Maria’s husband and his two brothers rob the Rogers, they have all the excuse they need to execute him right in front of her eyes. Hungry for vengeance, she seeks out Manuel (Hossein), who lives in the saloon of a ghost town that looks like the abandoned set of some earlier western, not just empty but being reclaimed by the wind and the sand. He says that he’s hung up the gun but is coaxed into taking her job, in part by her husband’s share of the robbery, in part by whatever unspoken past is churned up in their long, lingering glances.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 31

31 July, 2015 (10:52) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links, Obituary / Remembrance | By: Bruce Reid

Sayed Badreya

“‘I die in Iron Man,’ says Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian man with a salt-and-pepper beard. ‘I die in Executive Decision. I get shot at by—what’s his name?—Kurt Russell. I get shot by everyone. George Clooney kills me in Three Kings. Arnold blows me up in True Lies…’ As Sayed and Waleed and the others describe their various demises, it strikes me that the key to making a living in Hollywood if you’re Muslim is to be good at dying. If you’re a Middle Eastern actor and you can die with charisma, there is no shortage of work for you.” Jon Ronson talks with seven actors of Middle Eastern descent on their current status in Hollywood—a paucity of good roles, but steady work if you’re willing to play terrorists. (Speaking of stereotyping, the article’s very title gets one thing wrong: one of the actors featured—Anthony Azizi, who blames the industry’s hang-ups on xenophobic hangover from when Omar Sharif dated Barbra Streisand—isn’t, in fact, Muslim-American.) Via Movie City News.

“At a cursory glance, he’s no different than any other movie nut. He enjoys a good potboiler, citing the Denzel Washington-led Equalizer remake and TV’s The Blacklist, Chicago PD and Law and Order: SVU as recent viewing highlights. He loves too many movies to pick a favourite, but he knows damn well that he hated 2013’s Will Smith vehicle After Earth. ‘It was so bad!’ he laughs. ‘And I was very frustrated, because I know if they gave me a fraction of that money, I could’ve done so much more.’” One old solution to the stereotype problem—taking up the camera and telling your own stories—is finding its latest manifestation in Columbus, Ohio, where Charles Bramesco finds Samatar Haji, filmmaker and co-founder of Olol Films, who’s been supplying the Somali émigré community with exploitation features and documentaries of their very own.

“But by continuously policing their ambitions, the Duplasses have been able to build an entire ecosystem for making the kinds of character-driven dramedies that the industry has all but abandoned. Mark concludes his keynote by reiterating his admonition to ignore the false lure of Hollywood success. Take it from him: Even if you become an indie-cinema celebrity with dozens of films and a successful HBO series under your belt, the cavalry is not coming. But then he gets to the kicker. ‘The good news is, who gives a fuck about the cavalry?’ he says. ‘Because now you are the cavalry.’” Jason Tanz profiles Mark and Jay Duplass, whose combination of pragmatism—their feature debut, The Puffy Chair, was built around some available props—and share-the-wealth generosity have led to a production career whose moderately-scaled Midas touch might stumble only if the two work themselves to death.

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Film Review: ‘Boulevard’

30 July, 2015 (02:30) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Kathy Baker and Robin Williams

It only takes a quick scan of Robin Williams’ filmography to see how unusual his movie career really was. He cashed in his Mork-fame with Robert Altman’s fantastically weird Popeye and a winning lead role in a literary fantasia, The World According to Garp. Every time he scored huge with pure comedy, à la Mrs. Doubtfire, he quickly turned to melancholy parts that suggested an urge to save the world. (He and his Awakenings co-star Robert De Niro have the same clenched, uptight body language when they move across the screen.) And the past 15 years are riddled with creepy, depressed little indies in which he played throttled men who were sometimes quietly desperate, sometimes malevolent: One Hour Photo, The Final Cut, The Night Listener, and World’s Greatest Dad. Never widely distributed, these strange portraits emphasized what was tightly wrapped and uneasy about Williams—something that was always there, even in his big successes.

Boulevard, completed the year before Williams’ suicide, is one of those portraits.

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Film Review: ‘Our Man in Tehran’

30 July, 2015 (02:17) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

The real Kenneth Taylor

Shouldn’t the documentary come first, followed by a fictionalized feature “inspired by true events”? Not in this case. Ben Affleck’s Argo introduced many viewers to the Mission: Improbable that sprung six U.S. diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Argo was a Hollywood entertainment all the way, even copping the Oscar for Best Picture. Now comes a Canadian documentary that drops the brassy drama of Argo for a more straightforward approach. Its title refers to the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Kenneth Taylor, who not only sheltered the American escapees during their hiding but also fed information to Jimmy Carter’s government for the (ultimately, tragically) botched attempted rescue of the other hostages.

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Film Review: ‘Court’

30 July, 2015 (02:00) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Vira Sathidar (at right) on trial

The movie is simply called Court, and the generalized title is as potent here as it is with Kafka’s nightmare novel The Trial. The storyline follows the process of a specific case in India, but the movie’s reach is big enough to imply that an entire legal apparatus is under indictment. In the early going, a white-bearded folksinger named Narayan Kamble is arrested in mid-performance. (He’s played by non-actor Vira Sathidar, a vivid real-life Pete Seeger type.) The charge against him has something to do with the idea that one of his songs inspired a sewer worker to commit suicide on the job, although there’s zero evidence that the death wasn’t a workplace accident due to hazardous conditions. That Narayan’s songs are acidly anti-government is not mentioned in the prosecution’s case.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

29 July, 2015 (08:17) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews | By: Robert C. Cumbow

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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Review: Don’t Look Now

27 July, 2015 (11:21) | by Rick Hermann, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Rick Hermann

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’t Look Now, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Here Is Your Life’

26 July, 2015 (17:32) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD | By: Sean Axmaker

Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.

It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.

Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.

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