Until the female lead is revealed to be a grossly mutating shapeshifter who devours animals in order to keep her human appearance from dissolving into gooey ick, Spring could be mistaken for a relaxed little indie about budding love. In fact, the film’s idea seems to come from a jokey proposition: What if you were watching one of those walking-and-talking indie romances in the style of Richard Linklater’s Before series, and it suddenly turned into a horror flick? Though slowed by artiness and a certain overly earnest attitude, Spring manages to catch some of the appeal of such a genre-blending experiment.
Luchino Visconti is one of the most fascinating artists of Italian cinema. The child of Italian aristocracy, born in a Milan palazzo with a family title that went back centuries and a family fortune built on landholdings and industry, he embraced Marxism with the zeal of a revolutionary but channeled his activism into theater and cinema. He apprenticed as an assistant to Jean Renoir and, just as the ambitious young filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague would a decade later, wrote for a film journal that challenged the orthodoxy of the cinema of his day as a prologue to embarking on his own filmmaking career.
His reputation today rests largely on his beautifully sculpted his portraits of life in the aristocracy and the social world of the rich and titled in films like Senso (1954), The Leopard (1934) and Death in Venice (1971), worlds he knew intimately from his own life, yet he began his film career with a film that has been called by some the first masterpiece of neorealism. I think of Ossessione (1942), an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (in fact, he never secured the rights to the book), more precursor than neorealist exemplar, a shot across the bow of Italy’s cinema of distraction made under Mussolini’s rule. He defied censors with a tale of lust, adultery and hothouse passions among the working class, yet it was thanks to the political and social connections of his titled family that the film was even released in Mussolini’s Italy.
If Ossessione anticipates the movement, La terra trema (1948) is one of its defining films and greatest triumphs.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD), the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, opens with a spectacular dragon attack on Laketown and tops it with a battle that nearly dwarfs the Middle Earth-shattering war Lord of the Rings trilogy (pun intended). It’s Elf and Man against Dwarf, but for the Orcs it’s personal. Which, as any fan of the original novel “The Hobbit” will tell you, pretty much misses the point of the story. But then Jackson isn’t interested in a faithful interpretation of Tolkien’s novel as much as backfilling a prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, transforming the novel’s story of legacy and destiny warped into greed and hubris, a grand fantasy adventure with dragons and trolls and Shakespearean dimensions, into the initial stirrings of the evil Sauron and a war that will engulf the world and all the races.
That pretty much sidelines Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the ostensible hero of the tale, while redirecting the focus to characters who never appeared in the original novel or in Tolkien’s universe at all, namely the above-mentioned Orcs with a grudge against Thorin (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf who would be king. The final half of the film, which is already the third film in the telling, is an enormous battle and, yes, it is impressive as a physical thing. It’s also exhausting and overdone, with two Orc villains who prove comically unkillable. These guys are fiercer than the next generation Orc-Goblin hybrids that Sauroman breeds in Lord of the Rings.
[Originally published in Queen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]
[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]
My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.
Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and The Girlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. Zabriskie Point (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in The Passenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
Vivid reds dominate this Quebec-made study of corruption, from its cruising opening night shot of a sleek black car, taillights aglow, arriving at contractor Vincent Padovani’s chic Montreal home, to the grayish morning-after tableau, wide-angle, in which bored dignitaries wait in the rain, under black umbrellas, for their infantile mayor to cut a long red ribbon spanning the expanse of Padovani’s brand-new slate-grey superhighway. The police-sergeant/chauffeur who jumps out of the sleek black car and scurries around to open the passenger door for his boss (a minister of transportation) wears French cuffs and a hood-y maroon shirt. The minister is ushered into Padovani’s tasteful diningroom where a small, genteel dinner party is underway to celebrate the completion of the highway, with its lucrative, business-as-usual “spreading of contracts.” Outside, the red-shirted cop leans on the limo, lights a cigarette, and prepares to wait it out. After a few moments, he too is ushered into the house, by Padovani’s righthand man Dominique—but his place is belowstairs. Here he meets a couple of other garishly attired policemen, attendant on other Padovani cronies, and an impassively babyfaced gunman apparently attached to the household, and two drinks-serving young women engaged for the evening to seryice one of the upstairs party guests: the mayor. The basement quarters where these flunkies congregate and await various summonses from upstairs are irregularly lit with patches of Mean Streets neon poolhall red. This opening sequence is absorbing, and the counterpoint between below- and abovestairs generates some suspense. But subsequent spurts of away-from-the-dinner-party action—an intimidating visit to a rival gangster’s lair, a vicious attack on militant students planning a protest demonstration against the highway, the roughing-up of two inquiring reporters—somehow fail to satisfy.
Antonioni and P. T. Anderson are the chief subjects of the new Senses of Cinema. No need here to choose age before beauty: Hamish Ford argues the early-60s quartet blend modernism and realism in a way that makes writing their subject off as “ambiguity” far too simplistic a reading (“Once more, any distinction between modernist tendency to abstraction and realist interest in a particular environment and temporal moment emerge as entirely artificial, their fusion now absolutely seamless.”) Similarly, Dan Edwards finds Chung Kuo, Cina more subversive a portrait than has generally been acknowledged by everyone but the regime that denounced it; and Antony Sellers traces the long history of one of Antonioni’s most tantalizing unrealized projects, The Crew. Moving on, Daniel Fairfax thinks Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master isn’t so much brutish as literally canine (“under the firm command of his master, he alternatingly plays the role of faithful companion, submissive pet and vicious attack dog”); while the journal’s Cinémathèque Annotations section runs through about a half-dozen apiece of the two directors’ films. Much, much more besides, including the rectification of an oversight so surprising I wouldn’t have thought it to be true as Jeremy Carr does the honors placing Roman Polanski in Senses’s Great Directors pantheon.
Also out with a new issue, desistfilm, whose articles, one contributor notes, tend more to sketches than fully argued theses. Brief, maybe unformed, but intriguing, in other words; such as Jaime Grijalba suggesting Scottie has doubles of his own in Vertigo; Claudia Siefen on how Psycho has characters mirror the audience’s gaze right back at us; Victor Bruno on the symmetrical representations of order, deception, and truth in a pair of De Palmas; and Adrian Martin unearthing some secret history (“the only kind of history worth a damn”) by going to bat for Isidore Isou’s mostly forgotten 1951 manifesto, “Aesthetic of Cinema.”
One measure of a good horror movie is not how often you jump when the monster bangs out from behind a door, but how often you find yourself nervously peering at dark corners of the screen. It takes only a few minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse to make you dread what might be lurking in every unlighted nook or out-of-focus background. It’s been a while since a movie made me feel that way, but David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows creates that kind of constant anxiety. Even the startling opening shot—a 360-degree pan around a normal suburban street, no monsters in sight—instills the idea that something might be there, threatening, even if we can’t see it at the moment.
For people of a certain age, these names may act as a time machine back to the 1970s: The Amazing Randi, Uri Geller, Peter Popoff. All come tumbling back to life in An Honest Liar, an unexpectedly fun (but sneakily forceful) portrait of a rationalist.
That’s not the way James Randi would have been described when he started out. He was a magician—the Amazing Randi, a modern Houdini with a slightly ’50s beatnik vibe—who transformed himself into a full-time debunker of spiritualists, faith healers, and other charlatans. This documentary’s got a clever through-line about deception as regards Randi’s private life and his longtime partner, artist Jose Alvarez. But its main appeal is in demonstrating how skepticism and reason can be rewarding philosophies for passing through life.
[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Is the making of many potboilers a prime way to fashion an auteur? If so, a veritable Pantheon of those critics’ darlings must have matriculated by now at the humming factories of Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. Plenty of scope over there for that magical tension between a director’s “personality” and the miserable formulaic projects he keeps getting saddled with by his producers. I sample the product occasionally at Vancouver’s two chief outlets for Chinese movies, but my experience so far is that any new movie directed by, say, Lo Wei (and nine out of ten new Chinese movies do seem to have been directed by Lo Wei) resembles the last movie directed by Lo Wei only insofar as both are unimaginative and totally predictable hack jobs. English critic Tony Rayns, who has made “the labyrinth of Hong Kong cinema” his special province, performs prodigies of genre analysis, structuralism, semantic reading upon these movies; if only seeing them proved half as much fun as reading about them! Still, I’m grateful that Rayns steered me to Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (MTN 35), which combined genre conventions and sheer outrageousness in surprising ways. And having recently caught two-thirds of Chang Cheh’s epic martial-arts trilogy (Men from the Monastery / Heroes Two / Shao Lin Martial Arts), I can now share some of Rayns’s enthusiasm for this director.
Vice & Virtue (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
The first of the best films of 1975 has been and gone, and won’t be back, at least at your naborhood theatre. Love among the Ruins appeared on ABC-TV on March 6; reportedly, an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier ensures that it will never be released theatrically. One can only hope that the film will soon be leaked quietly to 16mm nontheatrical distributors (as, for instance, is the case with Losey’s A Doll’s House), for it’s a treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserves better than to become merely a memory itself.
A triumvirate of early sound comedies—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—made René Clair’s reputation as France’s master of modern screen comedy. They explored the possibilities of the new audio dimension as an expressive element without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery of the height of the silent era. To American audiences, it was like Clair burst forth upon the international scene fully formed. But that’s because his final silent film—and his first comic masterpiece—The Italian Straw Hat (1927) did not arrive stateside until much later, and then in a version cut by an entire reel.
Filmmaking was not Clair’s original ambition. He intended a literary career and didn’t consider film a serious undertaking. When he took bit parts in a few films as a lark (including a couple of late serials by the great Louis Feuillade), he changed his name to separate it from his journalism and writing, from Chomette (his given name) to Clair (“light”). But he got bitten by the film bug and started rubbing elbows with the artists of the avant-garde, which led to an invitation to direct a short film to play between the two acts of a Dadaist ballet by Francis Picabia. Entr’acte (1924) is filled with cinematic tricks and playful imagery and it features appearances by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Auric and a score by Erik Satie. Those are impressive credentials and Entr’acte is a landmark of avant-garde cinema of the twenties but apart from a brief revisit to non-narrative filmmaking in La Tour (1928), his love letter to the Eiffel Tower, it’s not where Clair’s heart lay. For that, look to his directorial debut Paris qui dort (1923), a comic fantasy set in a Paris that has been frozen in time by a science fiction ray gun (a prototype for Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray?).
[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.
“With the woman’s dainty toes center screen, the foregrounded width of the image, and the lovingly worn texture of the film itself—one of Grindhouse’s gimmicks was that it would look like a crummy old 35mm print unearthed from some dusty, ill-maintained archive—Death Proof is from its very first shot the ultimate Tarantino fetish film.” Michael Koresky has a lovely reading—formalist, but alive to humanist ironies and complexities—for “the lowest-grossing, least discussed, and perhaps most misunderstood work” of Tarantino’s career.
“Classical Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, subject of a recent retrospective at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is charged in pages upon pages of film history and criticism with codifying modern Hollywood spectacle, often through the lens of Old Testament biblical narrative. However, bookended by his prolific (and oft revered) silent work, and his late career showmanship are a string of virtually un-regarded films that push the director’s ideology into something bordering Naturalism.” Daniel Watkins looks at the unique tug-of-wars between civilization and the call of the wild in DeMille’s This Day and Age, Four Frightened People, and Reap the Wild Wind.
The opening sequence of Wild Tales sets up a Twilight Zone-style series of revelations, compressed into just a few minutes. Passengers riding on a suspiciously underfilled plane begin to realize that there might be a reason for their presence there, beyond the obvious business of getting to a destination. Writer/director Damián Szifrón wants to get his movie started with a bang, and he does—in fact, the rest of this anthology feature doesn’t live up to the wicked curtain-raiser. But there are enough moments of irony and ingenuity to explain why the Oscar voters made this Argentine entry one of the five nominees in the Foreign Language Film category (it lost to Ida).