Film Review: ‘The Liberator’

2 October, 2014 (05:01) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Édgar Ramírez

The Great Man school of biography is alive—if not particularly well—in The Liberator. A quick glimpse of unloving parents, a tragic lost love, reluctant heroism, sweeping battle scenes, and of course a charismatic international star: All are part of the once-over-lightly treatment.

The great man in question is Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the George Washington of South America; the star is Édgar Ramírez, whose dashing performance as the Jackal in the three-part Carlos bagged him roles in Hollywood projects like Clash of the Titans and Deliver Us From Evil. Because the Venezuelan-born Bolívar’s goal was nothing less than the liberation of an entire continent from colonial rule, there’s a lot to cram into a two-hour movie. This means historical complexity is sidelined in favor of scenes in which Bolívar is nobly seated on the back of a charging horse, or clutched in the embrace of a beautiful woman while assassins lurk outside the hacienda. The images are handsome, but they don’t make much sense.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: ‘Southern Comfort’

1 October, 2014 (15:51) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It’s 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors–a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft–are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They’ve got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.

Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Review: ‘French Connection II’

30 September, 2014 (09:28) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

The main strength of William Friedkin’s The French Connection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a French Connection of quite a different cut.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Unknown Known’

29 September, 2014 (08:24) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The title of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, a profile of the life and career of former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, is a direct reference to Rumsfeld’s most famous TV appearance. Discussing the evidence (or rather, the glaring lack of evidence) linking Iraq with weapons of mass destruction provided to terrorist groups, which was the stated reason for invading Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters: “there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” It was a cagey piece of analysis, both a true assessment of the nature of intelligence and an obfuscation of the administration’s intelligence failure, in line with another sophisticated excuse offered up to the press: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” A decade later, the evidence is still absent and Rumsfeld is still refusing to admit that the United States invaded Iraq without provocation or justification, merely suspicions ungrounded in any firm evidence.

It is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara who oversaw the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. Like that 2003 documentary, Morris engages with a former Secretary of Defense, discussing a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch and the indefensible misconduct and scandals involving American soldiers and officer.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Review: ‘Bug’

28 September, 2014 (13:16) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Because it tries to become a new film every 15 or 20 minutes, Bug seems about three times as long as its hour-and-a-half. The effect is, I am sure, the unintended result of both cast’s and crew’s having no idea at all what they wanted to do with the film. It begins as an effort to fuse the horror picture with the disaster epic: in the first reel we have a heat wave, an earthquake, several horrible conflagrations, and the emergence into human affairs of a plague of subterranean beetles capable of starting fires by rubbing together their flinty appendages. The beasties subsist on carbon, which they lap from inside the exhaust systems of automobiles. Bradford Dillman plays Jim Parmiter, a neo–St. Francis of a biology teacher who bemoans humanity’s loss of the primordial power of communication with the animals. He finds his hobbyhorse in the firebugs and in a reversal of the usual invaders-from-beyond formula tries to find a way of keeping the bugs alive when they begin to die from reduced pressure on the earth’s surface. He preserves one female firebug in a diving helmet and mates her with a common cockroach, naming the hybrid species for himself and for the Greek god of fire: Parmitera hephaestus. First the bugs destroy their parent, the last of the firebugs; then they reveal themselves to be carnivores, eating only raw meat, and only as a group; then they show themselves capable of communication with Parmiter by arranging their bodies on the wall so as to spell out words; then they are once again no different in appearance or behavior from their mother, eating carbon and making fire; and finally they prove capable of tactical organization, flight, and divination, luring Parmiter to his Promethean doom in the fault through which their forebugs entered the world. Both they and the good doctor sink into the earth, and the fault seals up again.

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Videophiled Classic: Blake Edwards’ ‘The Party’ on Blu-ray

27 September, 2014 (07:36) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The Party (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) reunited Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers after a falling out during the second Pink Panther movie for a difference kind of comedy: a modern sound version of a silent movie comedy. They don’t pretend it’s a silent film, mind you, but rather build a series of visual gags on a basic premise—Peter Sellers as an accident-prone East Indian actor accidentally invited to dinner party by an A-list Hollywood producer—and then let the comedy bits sequences evolve, build on one another, and guide the story, like a feature version of a Chaplin short.

It opens with Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an imported actor wreaking havoc on the set of an American adventure picture (the phony “Son of Gunga Din”), and then watches him slowly bring chaos to a party in a magnificent modern Hollywood home. This place is complete with indoor ponds and an electronic control panel that operates retractable bars and floors throughout the home, like a modern version of Keaton’s The Electric House. Though Edwards started with a script, he largely gave the film over to improvisation, developing gags into sequences and letting them escalate and evolve with a skewed kind of logic.

This is an era when Caucasians still routinely played ethnic roles but despite the “brownface” make-up and accent, Sellers is less an ethnic caricature than a benevolent, well-meaning outsides to American culture in general and the Hollywood business world specifically. Almost upstaging Sellers is Steve Franken as a waiter who keeps knocking back drinks he’s supposed to be passing out guests and ends up stumbling through the party in a drunken daze. Claudine Longet co-stars as a sweet-natured young actress who sings a song at the party and connects with Sellers and Gavin McLeod stands out as a crude Hollywood producer. This isn’t as fall-down-funny as the best Pink Panther movies but it has a kind of purity and comic grace to it all, like an elaborately choreographed dance of physical comedy, and Edwards executes it with colorful design and sets it to superb Henri Mancini music. It’s the closest American answer to a Jacques Tati film I’ve seen.

It debuts on Blu-ray and gets a new DVD release from an excellent new HD transfer. The film has dynamic set design and a bright color scheme and the colors pop in this edition. Both discs carry over the featurettes and interviews from the earlier 2004 DVD release. The 24-minute “Inside The Party” covers the inspiration and production of the film and the 16-minute “The Party Revolution” looks as the pioneering video playback technology that Edwards used for the film and both feature interviews with Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, associate producer and actor Ken Wales (who are also interviewed in separate profile pieces), and some of the supporting actors.

More from Kino Lorber Studio Classics at Cinephiled

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, September 26

26 September, 2014 (09:07) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in ‘A Place in the Sun.’

“His apartment, which he rented for 10 dollars a month, was described by friends as “beat up” and by him as “terrific.” He survived on two meals a day, mostly combinations of steak, eggs, and orange juice, and he eschewed nightclubs, instead spending his spare time reading Chekov, classic works of history and economics, and Aristotle, whom he praised for his belief in happiness, or the “gentle art of the soul.” When he wasn’t reading or exhausting himself in preparation for a part, he liked to go to the local night court and attend high-profile court cases just to watch the humanity on display.” Anne Helen Petersen relates the fastidious privacy and long public crack-up of Montgomery Clift. Don’t miss the photo gallery that’s appended, a marvelous collection of intimate portraits and wild west vistas snapped by Clift. Via Movie City News.

A search through the archives rewrites history once again, as MoMA prepares to screen an unfinished 1913 film from Biograph pictures that not only stars the great Bert Williams but is believed to be the oldest surviving feature with a black cast. Via Phil Campbell. No, not that Phil Campbell, the other one.

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Film Review: ‘The Boxtrolls’

26 September, 2014 (08:47) | Animation, by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘The Boxtrolls’

One of the impressive things about The Boxtrolls is how quickly it establishes just what exactly boxtrolls are. It’s complicated: Boxtrolls are odd gnomelike creatures that live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge, living off the town’s rubbish and clothing themselves in discarded boxes.

Cheesebridge is a vertiginous 19th-century hamlet, apparently in England. This is key, because the film’s cheeky humor and dark satire is in a British vein that stretches from Monty Python to Wallace & Gromit.

Continue reading at The Herald

Film Review: ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

26 September, 2014 (08:44) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews, Musicals | By: Robert Horton

Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Given his distinctive and ultra-dramatic stage presence, it makes sense that a documentary portrait of Nick Cave would not be the usual thing. And 20,000 Days on Earth is not the usual thing.

At first this film appears to be a rumination on where the Australian-born rock star is these days: 20,000 days of life puts him in his mid-fifties, and we meet him in his home in Brighton, England, where he lives with wife Susie and two sons. The movie then winds from one random stop to the next. Cave is seen sitting in what appears to be a therapy session with real-life psychoanalyst Darian Leader, musing on his former life as an addict and his relationship to his father.

Continue reading at The Herald

Film Review: ‘Take Me to the River’

26 September, 2014 (08:39) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews, Musicals | By: Robert Horton

Bobby (Blue) Bland and Li’l P-Nut

There’s been a steady drumbeat of music-history documentaries this century, paying proper homage to the great players of pop music. These movies are invariably tuneful and nostalgic. Actually, there have been so many of these — “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Muscle Shoals,” the recent Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Twenty Feet from Stardom” — that you might suspect the genre is a little played out.

But no. Even a wobbly offering like Take Me to the River contains irresistible moments of musical pleasure.

Continue reading at The Herald

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hangmen Also Die’ restored on Blu-ray and DVD

25 September, 2014 (07:31) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

hangmen3

Anna Lee

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinemaphiled

Review: ‘Smile’

24 September, 2014 (15:44) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The bilious purple lettering of the credits prepares us for Conrad Hall’s photographic style through the first half or so of Smile: motion aside, everything appears as it might in a drugstore-developed roll of Kodacolor snapped on a picnic. Smile takes us to Santa Rosa, California—cinematically immortalized as the iconographically ideal American smalltown in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—and plunges us eyeball-deep into American camp, several strata below kitsch. The Young American Miss beauty pageant, or rather the sub-pageant designed to yield a contender to represent the state of California, is tooling up. Bruce Dern, as a used-car and trailer dealer known to one and all by the loaded moniker “Big Bob” Freedlander, is deeply touched to learn that Barbara Feldon, a one-time Young American Miss now in charge of marshalling the girls, has provided a special gold nametag for him as head judge. His ole buddy—and Feldon’s hubby Nicholas Pryor—is less than enchanted with her nonstop pageant trip, which condemns him to evenings of TV dinners and booze, and with the initiatory ordeal approaching him: on the eve of turning 35, he must kiss a dead chicken’s ass while his brother, over-the-hill business pals cheer.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Big Red One’

24 September, 2014 (09:49) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller | By: Sean Axmaker

Director, writer, pulp fiction author, raconteur and all-around maverick character Samuel Fuller was as proud of his military service as any of his artistic accomplishments. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, he enlisted in the armed services after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He joined the infantry and, as a rifleman in the First United States Infantry Division (aka “the Big Red One”), he participated in the Allied assault on North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Sicily, landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, took part in the liberation of France and Belgium, and marched into Germany, where his squad helped liberate the Falkenau Concentration Camp. “I began a journal in North Africa,” he shared in his autobiography, A Third Face. “If I survived, I was going to write about my war experiences.” His experiences informed The Steel Helmet and numerous other war films but it was forty years before he put his own story down, first in the novel The Big Red One, published in 1980, and then in the film that came out the same year, in a compromised form that was partially restored in 2004.

The Big Red One is Fuller’s most autobiographical film, at once an old-fashioned war thriller and a portrait of the insanity and senseless destruction of combat, and the most expensive and ambitious production of his career. It charts the journey of his own real life unit (1st Infantry, 1st Platoon) through the experiences of four riflemen. Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward play the “four horsemen,” as their tough, taciturn Sergeant (Lee Marvin) names them, the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn over the four years of combat. The rest are simply “dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs,” explains one of the riflemen, and in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, the only glory in war is survival.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Review: ‘Undercovers Hero’

23 September, 2014 (08:29) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

Undercovers Hero is a mess. In the great tradition of messes, its title doesn’t make sense, although it does serve to convey a category of leeringly mutual understanding between filmmaker and filmwatcher, exploiter and exploitee. If the title actually referred to anyone, it would have to be Undercovers Heroines, thereby designating the half-dozen or so filles de joie who service the clientele of a Parisian brothel that is almost a national shrine and who, when history, duty, and coincidence converge to form a ramshackle ménage-à-trois in the France of 1940, turn Free French agents and begin giving their Nazi occupiers sendoffs beyond their wildest expectations. But far from being Undercovers Heroines, Undercovers Hero isn’t even Soft Beds, Hard Battles, the movie that the Boulting brothers (once-beloved auteurs of Private’s Progress, I’m All Right, Jack, etc.) made in 1973. What was surely already a queasy playing-fast-and-loose with both underground legend and the (if we may make so irreverent) conventions of history has been bludgeoned into a new misshape so puerile, so predictable, so facilely dumb that it crushes rather than enhances any hope of healthily satirical payoff.

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Review: The Sunshine Boys

22 September, 2014 (14:23) | by Rick Hermann, Film Reviews | By: Rick Hermann

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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