Blu-ray: Sacha Guitry’s ‘La Poison’ on Criterion

Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.

The Criterion Collection

Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.

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Blu-ray: ‘Early Women Filmmakers’ – An anthology from Flicker Alley

A year after Kino’s superb Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers collects and curates the work of women filmmakers in the U.S. and Europe before World War II.

Women ironically had more opportunities in the early years of filmmaking, not just as directors but as writers, editors, and producers, than they did after the coming of sound. Alice Guy- Blaché directed one of the first narrative films ever produced, telling a story rather than simply staging a scene, and become the very first studio head—not just female studio head, but first ever—when she took charge of Gaumont in 1896. Anita Loos was perhaps the greatest writer of pithy, witty intertitles in the silent era, an art form that is still not given it due, and Frances Marion one of the most successful and powerful screenwriters of the silent era. June Mathis was so successful a writer of epics and dramas that she had power over casting and production and shaped Rudolph Valentino into the biggest romantic screen superstar of his era.

Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley’s set, produced by silent film preservation godfather David Shepard (who passed away earlier this year), presents the films of 14 women directors made between 1902 and 1943. The collection of shorts and features includes fantasies, dramas, comedies, animation, and avant-garde films from some of the most important filmmakers of the silent era as well as less known women filmmakers.

The six short films by Alice Guy-Blaché show her evolution from an inventive fantasist of early cinema to a sophisticated storyteller who used dramatic compositions and editing to tell complex stories. Lois Weber’s short thriller Suspense (1913) shows an even greater technical and narrative sophistication, from a three-way split screen to extreme angles to dense crosscutting. Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922), considered to be the first feminist film, brings avant-garde elements to melodrama and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an avant-garde landmark.

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Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]

It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 1

“Earlier this year marked another 40th anniversary: that of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), which back in May was remembered in a flurry of appreciations and think-pieces. The two films remain tied together in history. They share a composer and a concept artist, and Hollywood lore holds that Spielberg and a beleaguered Lucas traded box office points on the movies as a bet, each certain that the other would have a bigger hit. Star Wars is by far the more momentous event; it’s still the artistic and financial model for how a successful franchise can be launched, expanded, marketed, merchandized, and exploited to infinity. (It was a messy risk that yielded a magnificent sensation; a studio nowadays should be so lucky). But Close Encounters is the more interesting anniversary, precisely because it is difficult to imagine a blockbuster quite like it appearing in multiplexes today. It is an extravaganza whose modus operandi is primarily—and close to entirely—one of revelation. ” Duncan Gray’s appreciation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets at how the two sides of Spielberg’s childishness—the humanist awe and the oft-clunky naiveté—can’t be separated in his finest films, for better and for worse.

“Out of that wonderful ’60s and ’70s generation of American horror directors, no one was more blatantly indebted to the classic EC Comics, drive-in fare, and the full-color overindulgence of the Hammer and Corman schools of horror than Hooper. His movies are deliciously unsomber, unambiguous, and grotesque, without the classical taste and formal rigor of John Carpenter or the scrappy Rust Belt sociopolitical sensibilities of George A. Romero to ground them. So of course the metaphors are obvious….” If you want to understand Tobe Hooper’s art, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky argues, skip the masterpieces and the acknowledged better-then-they’ve-a-right-to-be entertainments and check out Spontaneous Combustion.

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Review: The Trip to Spain

Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.

So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy.

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Review: Slither

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

Slither ends up being one of the major disappointments of the season because, for about half its length, it promises to be one memorable movie, and once it starts falling apart we experience a very painful sense of the diminution of large possibilities. James Caan plays a former high-school football star and unsuccessful car thief who, freshly out of prison, reluctantly pauses to have a beer with a fellow parolee and finds himself cast in a giddy American nightmare. Unseen assassins shoot up a sealed house in a golden-sunlit, bee-buzzy corner of the South while a golfing commentary drones on TV; a dying man passes on a name and an address ostensibly worth a fortune, then blows himself to smithereens; a farmer gives a hitchhiker a lift, then drops him off in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t share the farmer’s economic burdens; a barefoot iconoclast with her whole world in the back of her station wagon picks up the hero, beds him at a motel after making sure he doesn’t have VD, then scares him by trying to hold up an all-night diner…. It goes like that, eccentric but not quite senseless, charged with intuitions of a rampant American madness that fairly emanates from train depots, dusty roads, potato cellars, trailer parks, noontime offices. A comically sinister potentiality pervades everything and everybody while—this is the best part—never giving the feeling that it’s all some sort of Message for us.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 25

“Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.” After a retrospective on the director, Patrick Holzapfel finds a key to the muted (and thus more dramatically and symbolically potent) sense of the miraculous in Jacques Tourneur, and it has to do with resignation. Via David Hudson.

“Reviewing Drafthouse’s Blu-ray of Wake in Fright (1971) for Sight & Sound (May 2013), Michael Atkinson describes Ted Kotcheff’s film as ‘a wrenchingly odd piece of work… that could’ve easily, with some tweaks, emerged as a dark comedy’. When I finally caught up with this remarkable film, what immediately struck me was how closely it anticipated an actual black comedy: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Another of those chance juxtapositions I described in last month’s column? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. For Scorsese was one of Wake in Fright’s earliest champions; after selecting it as a Cannes Classic in 2009, he described the film as ‘a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and it left me speechless.’” Brad Stevens finds more points of contact than a first glance would suggest between Kotcheff’s brutal dissection of Aussie machismo and Scorsese’s long-dark-night-of-the-yuppie-soul.

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Review: Good Time

Future teen heartthrobs seeking to change their images would do well to consider the example of Robert Pattinson. Cast in the first Twilight movie in 2008, playing a sparkly-skinned vampire with a romantically morose attitude, Pattinson exploded into dreamboat status overnight. Perhaps understandably, he moved through the sequels like a man who’d been sentenced to them as punishment. He endured the grind of those movies and the glare of a media machine fascinated by his romance with co-star Kristen Stewart (in case you missed it, I’m sorry to report the union is kaput). Then Pattinson got to pick his follow-up projects, and the results have been promising.

He’s done two pictures for David Cronenberg, including a confident lead turn in the wickedly sardonic Cosmopolis, plus a handful of supporting roles that allowed him to escape the vampire’s kiss (including the bookish explorer in The Lost City of Z and Lawrence of Arabia in Queen of the Desert). He became the unlikely toast of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when his performance in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time wowed the Riviera. For good reason: Pattinson carries the movie, elbowing his way through a series of increasingly frantic situations during a long, freezing night in Queens. He has gone full sleazeball, sporting a scuzzy goatee and a wounded animal’s impulses.

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How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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Blu-ray: Jackie Chan in ‘Railroad Tigers’ and ‘Kung Fu Yoga’

It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.

Well Go

In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.

The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.

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Now That You’ve Seen the Solar Eclipse, Watch These Movies

The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.

In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.

Continue reading at Fandor

Video: Framing Pictures for August 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid dive into two new films: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Then, Jeanne Moreau’s recent passing sparks a conversation about the love of film, the love of talking about film, and why cinema captivates us.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

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

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 18

At Film Comment, praise for an overlooked director and one of the most famous movie stars who still hasn’t gotten his due, as Nick Pinkerton looks at the career of Gerd Oswald (“In depicting incessant small-talk as a kind of water torture drip on a delicate sensibility, [Crime of Passion] pulls up just short of R.W. Fassbinder and Michael Fengler’s 1970 Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? And the connection between these two German filmmakers a generation apart, both deeply invested in the experience of domestic despair, is not so obscure as it may seem—both favor compositions with characters facing front-forward, creating an effect both confrontational and alienating.”). While Sheila O’Malley offers her latest fine defense of Elvis Presley on screen even when he’s not strumming a guitar (“In the final years of Presley’s contract, nobody was paying attention anymore. Sadly, some of his best movies come from this period. Many of them are not musicals, outside of the title songs. There’s a looseness to them, a roiling chaos lacking in the Elvis Formula movies. Presley is unleashed, his persona naturally expanding to include more eccentric shadings.”)

“Kendig is nobody’s idea of a superspy, though. He’s not slick. He’s not even smooth. What he is is the smartest guy in almost every room he puts himself in. Intelligence is a key component of the Matthau persona. His incarnation of The Odd Couple überslob Oscar Madison is the only one that makes you believe the character really could be a newspaper writer. In The Fortune Cookie, his due-for-a-comeuppance shyster is a little too smart for his own good. And so on.” Glenn Kenny has a few insightful lines about Hopscotch’s bridging the ’70s paranoia thriller and the gung-ho ’80s variations, and some deserved nice words for Ronald Neame, but he never pretends the film’s chief attraction could be anything other than Walter Matthau. Singing, yet.

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Review: The Ghoul

Movies that worm their way into a disturbed character’s head can be a discomfiting experience, especially when they’re done really well. (I firmly believe that Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is a great film. I also believe that you’d have to work pretty hard to get me to ever watch it again.) The British import The Ghoul is a clever, deceptively chilly example of narrative unreliability, presenting an increasingly askew perspective in a way that’s somehow both off-putting and absorbing. It lingers.

Writer/director Gareth Tunley wastes no time in establishing the basis for an intriguing psychological thriller: As a favor to his former partner, an off-duty cop (Tom Meeten) poses as a depressed patient in order to covertly gather information on a murder suspect from a psychiatrist.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: Logan Lucky

The Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.

The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly