Blu-ray: ‘Used Cars’

4 October, 2014 (12:18) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The opening of Used Cars (1980) has the ominous, wind-scoured character of a modern crime film in a desperate southwest town where a Sergio Leone western wouldn’t be out of place. The camera cranes down from a high shot over a struggling used car dealership, where a few pathetic beaters line the lot, and slowly glides over to one car with someone is crammed under the dashboard. The only sound is the lonely wind–the kind of strangled, desolate howl you get in dustbowl dramas and desert survival thrillers–and the grunts of the man struggling with the mechanics under the dash. And then we see the odometer turn back, shaving some 40,000 or so miles from the record. The title hits the screen, a brass band jumps in with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and the unidentified mechanic wriggles out to reveal Kurt Russell in a cheap, loud suit making his rounds to mask the sorry condition of the cars on the lot. It turns out that this is a crime movie after all, or at least a film of multiple misdemeanors and bald-faced misrepresentation, and the perpetrators are the good guys.

The second feature from director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Used Cars comes right out of the screen comedy culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the underdogs snubbed their collective noses at authority, propriety, property and privacy laws and anything else that crossed their paths in slobs vs. snobs comedies like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984). Used Cars is raucous and reckless and far more gleefully corrupt than any of its brothers in rebellion …

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 3

3 October, 2014 (10:25) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links, screenings | By: Bruce Reid

Chicago’s own Bill Murray

Ray Pride (with “additional contributions” from Brian Hieggelke) offers a rundown of the film talent located between the coasts, with his list of 50—Count ‘em 50—key players in the Chicago movie scene.

Speaking of Chicago talent (number two on Pride’s list, in fact): Unreturned calls to a 1-800 number, regretfully declined invites to Cannes, limo rides to Indian reservations; as St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi describes it, the process of getting Bill Murray to star in your film is as drolly surreal as the performance he’ll almost certainly deliver. Via Movie City News.

The new issue of multilingual journal La Furia Umana offers lengthy, interesting interviews with avant-gardists Anthony Stern (“Film is always about time, but the recording of time needs to be re-looked at. You don’t really want to spend all that time living in real time, you want to spend it in artificial time.”) and Lav Diaz (“All interpretations are valid, it is a composite of so many things. As I said, it’s an abstraction, it is a Filipino voice from somewhere in time and space.…”). But the meat of the issue is a collection of shorter pieces, old and new, about a filmmaker whose engagements with the periphery of the mainstream are arguably more radical than either, Monte Hellman. Victor Erice and the journal’s editor Toni D’Angela offer heartfelt “postcards” to the filmmaker; Hellman’s frequent screenwriter Steven Gaydos lists ten things he’s learned from the man (“Hollywood talks in terms of “four quadrant movies.” Monte talks in terms of four finger tequila shots.”); Brad Stevens praises Hellman’s overlooked vampire short Stanley’s Girlfriend; and from Hellman himself, a bracingly minimalist runthrough of his oeuvre (“THE SHOOTING: How many different ways can you shoot three people on horseback?”) and a pair of rhyming photographs, secular and spiritual, though I suspect part of the point of the latter is how little different they are.

“I’ve got poetry in me. I do. I’ve got poetry in me. I ain’t going to put it down on paper.” Matthew Dessem points out that McCabe & Mrs. Miller didn’t just spring fully-formed from the thigh of Zeus; Edmund Naughton’s source novel McCabe not only possesses many of the film’s qualities, they were put back in by co-scenarists Altman and Brian McKay after earlier passes at the adaptation went a whole other, more conventional way. (And yes, that opening quote throws another writer in the mix.)

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Film Review: ‘Gone Girl’

3 October, 2014 (09:36) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Ben Affleck

You’ve got to admire the confidence of Gone Girl: this truly odd movie coughs up a bizarre story line mixed with comic social commentary, but it never loses its swagger. Being the eagerly awaited adaptation of a best-selling page-turner will encourage that kind of attitude, I guess.

Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel has a few twists up its bloodied sleeve, but we’ll be discreet here. The story begins with the disappearance of Amy (Rosamund Pike) from her unloved Missouri home, and escalates into a media circus as suspicion is cast on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck). Nick has the help of his sister (Carrie Coon) and a celebrity lawyer (Tyler Perry, excellent), but his status in the public eye is dismal. Meanwhile, we see excerpts from Amy’s diary, which fill in the picture of a marriage gone sour.

Continue reading at The Herald

Film Review: ‘Tracks’

2 October, 2014 (05:56) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Mia Wasikowska

Mia Wasikowska’s face, body language, and vocal delivery are in perfect harmony with the countryside that surrounds her in Tracks: human figure and landscape are equally mysterious and unforgiving. The place is the Australian desert, where in 1975 a young woman named Robyn Davidson determined she would walk the 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.

In writing a National Geographic article and subsequent best-selling book about the trek, Davidson offered little explanation for her impulse, and the movie is blunt about acknowledging that no coherent justification can be made on that score. She just needed to do it. Wasikowska’s skeptical gaze and stony delivery are ideal for this tough character, and the actress never makes a bid for likability.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Film Review: ‘Kelly & Cal’

2 October, 2014 (05:03) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Juliette Lewis and Josh Hopkins

Kelly is a onetime ’90s riot grrrl, now a domesticated new mom and prisoner of suburbia. Who better to play the part than Juliette Lewis, a survivor of such wild-child projects as Natural Born Killers and Strange Days and a veteran musician known for her theatrical caterwauling?

Lewis lends lived-in credibility to the otherwise bogus Kelly & Cal, a stilted indie without a compass. Kelly is new to the neighborhood, shunned by the local ladies (they suggest she consult their website if she’d like to join their social group), and ignored by husband Josh (Josh Hopkins), who’s at the office all day. And so she starts hanging out with local teen Cal (Jonny Weston, from Chasing Mavericks), a paraplegic who makes it clear he’s interested in Kelly’s body as well as her sassy punk-rock attitude.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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