Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Back when I could afford to attend big outdoor sporting events, I invariably got gooseflesh during the pregame al fresco performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Husky Marching Band does an especially bombs-bursting-in-air version. So maybe I’m a sucker for this kind of thing already, but I do think the deployment of the U.S. national anthem at a key moment in War for the Planet of the Apes constitutes one of the most truly spine-tingling moments of the movie year thus far. The gesture might sound pretentious—this is a sci-fi fantasy about monkeys, after all—but allegorical genre flicks have always thrived when told in big, broad strokes. Recall that the 1968 Chuck Heston Planet of the Apes, one of the greatest popcorn movies ever, tapped the Statue of Liberty for its trippy final image.

We are now three movies into the latest reboot of the Apes franchise, and finally in a groove.

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Review: Wedding in White

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

Wedding in White begins in a cellar and, spiritually, stays there. Not a single vagrant ray of light is permitted to fall on the blighted existence of Jeannie, whose mushroom pallor is only one manifestation of the death-in-life she lives in a benighted house in a benighted Canadian town during World War II. In the role Carol Kane recalls one of those prematurely faded, utterly resigned children who would drift into one’s class in the middle of a school year, sit in silence, make no friends, fail at studies, and probably be gone before the year was out, trailing after a parent who couldn’t find a job. Jeannie has parents and the father has a job and they stay in a charmless, frighteningly permanent place, a self-perpetuating system unto themselves. Jim (Donald Pleasence) measures manhood solely in terms of uniforms worn, women swived, and bottles emptied; a veteran of the first war, he now mounts strutting guard at a local POW camp and spends most of the off-duty time we know about stumbling around in the company of an old crony. A son comes home on leave bringing a case of beer and a buddy of his own, who summarily rapes the daughter of the house and beats a hasty retreat in the morning. How she comes to be the target of opportunity and how her family and community handle the aftermath make for a kind of sociological horror film.

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Review: The Day of the Jackal

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

The critical ascendancy of Fred Zinnemann has always bewildered me. Still more bewildering is the question of how to engage his inadequacy in critical terms. How about this? Fred Zinnemann is the sort of filmmaker who gives good taste a bad name. His work is pretentious, and the pretentiousness is of a special kind: a pretense to delicacy, to discretion; an ostentatious avoidance of emotional excess and dramatic patness. Even in a film taken from a prize-winning historical play, A Man for All Seasons (1966), with a screenplay still rife with pregnant lines and deftly turned speeches, one kept having a sense of the event—if not necessarily the point—passing one by, so that when a last-moment narrator ticked off the ignominious comeuppances of Sir Thomas More’s persecutors following upon his dispatch, one chuckled not only at the intended irony but also at the unintentional one: that this turning of the tables of historical justice (or irrelevance) didn’t quite matter either.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

Freshly returned from their pilgrimage to Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer three articles outlining their fresh discoveries and welcome reacquaintances, from large-format experiments that actually predate moving pictures to the latest from Agnès Varda. Whether breaking down the humor in an early Ophüls or reveling in the fine early adaptors to sound from Mexico, the pair remind us that marvels lay scattered throughout the history of film, waiting to be revealed by the light.

“How to be adequate to this time of being in-between and not yet decided? This is what S?mai seems to have asked himself. The question determines the style of the film, which is in constant flux. Comedy is life seen in long shot, tragedy is life seen close-up, Chaplin said. What to do when it is precisely a question of avoiding the choice of genre? S?mai’s answer is to adopt a perpetual middle distance. In this middle distance, not enough is seen to let us say with any certitude that we are seeing an event and that we know what an event is. At the same time we also see too much, so much that we have to look away, as if the event were too powerful, overwhelming.” Chris Fujiwara finds Shinji S?mai’s Typhoon Club a perfect match of meaning and methods, its own transcendence of genre reflecting its lead character’s aim to rise above the social demands of his school. Via David Hudson.

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Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Funny without being tongue-in-cheek and epic without being ponderous, Spider-Man: Homecoming is what a summer movie should be. This latest installment in the Marvel comics blockbuster-verse is as bouncy as its web-spinning hero. Instead of numbly moving the plot forward for the sake of the Marvel corporate plan (I mean “storytelling initiative”), it seamlessly tucks itself into the ongoing Marvel thing without feeling obligatory. This is the way you do it.

We’ve seen a lot of Spider-Man in recent years, including Sam Raimi’s trilogy with Tobey Maguire and two installments with Andrew Garfield. Our current incarnation, played by Tom Holland, debuted last year in Captain America: Civil War, of which teenager Peter Parker’s mentorship under Tony Stark, aka Iron Man’s superhero-mentoring program, was the most engaging part. Teen angst loomed large in previous tellings of Peter’s story, but Homecoming makes the radical suggestion that high-school years might also be fun—even if you’re struggling with the newfound powers of being Spider-Man.

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Review: César and Rosalie

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

There’s no good reason why this film shouldn’t be entitled César and Rosalie and David since that’s a much more complete and accurate indication of what’s going on herein. Rosalie (Romy Schneider) is the mistress of César (Yves Montand), a vulgar but dynamic and likable junk tycoon given to explosive demonstrations of affection one moment, rage the next. She has a child, a little daughter, by a painter named named Antoine whom she married after the love of her life, another artist named David (Sami Frey), bugged out to the States without a word of explanation. After five years David returns as unexpectedly as he departed; Rosalie, without ceasing to love César, finds she’s still interested. César, doing his utmost to appear subtle and to take things in stride, belatedly catches on and threatens to make a shambles of all their lives. The film proceeds along familiar enough lines with Rosalie gravitating first to one man, then to the other. It is the violently changeable César who finally concedes that he cannot cope with “imagination,” as personified by David, and that Rosalie cannot be content without both of them; he invites his rival to share their seaside idyll. At that point Rosalie finds herself confronted with a particularly incongruous Jules-and-Jim relationship in the making and clears out entirely—only to return, a year later, just as the two men have settled into a mutually supportive (though not necessarily homosexual) lifestyle. And at that questionable juncture, the film terminates.

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Blu-ray: ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on Blue Underground

Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.

Blue Underground

The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.

Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.

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Review: O Lucky Man!

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

One of the most interesting things about O Lucky Man! is that it is readily comprehensible at the same time that it consistently achieves a sense of mystery. Nearly three hours in length, it is another social-consciousness film from Britain’s Lindsay Anderson, and it’s also much more than that. A picaresque tale for the 1970s with strong political leanings, it’s also a satire, a set of Brechtian parables, a rock film, an ironic pilgrim’s progress, etc., etc. Like Anderson’s If…, it has Malcolm McDowell in the lead as a character named Mick Travis. But the character is different here, and while the politics of If… turn up now and then, O Lucky Man! goes well beyond both of Anderson’s previous feature films (the other being This Sporting Life). Along the way, Anderson through the persona of Mick takes on big business, imperialism, the police, the class structure in Britain, Cold War politics and paranoia, scientific irresponsibility, and bourgeois hypocrisy, while also building a sweeping vision of human limitation.

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

“The sheer pleasure in filming that can be found in just about all of Gréville’s works touched me at the time and still moves me today: fleetingly present in commissions (Le port du désir, 1954, deceptively present, and containing a beautiful underwater sequence, in Dorothée cherche l’amour, 1945, which also has a very well-directed gunfight); and sustained throughout his best works (Secret Lives, Noose, Pour une nuit d’amour, Le Diable souffle, Remous, Brief Ecstasy, parts of L’Envers du paradis, 1953, and L’Accident). This joy in filming bears no relationship to the visual brio of a Duvivier, the dazzling rigor of a Jean Grémillon or a Max Ophüls. It privileges surprise, the pileup of ideas, the flow of images that recalls wordplay, without ever being in danger of excess or ridicule. Gréville doesn’t recoil from special effects, doesn’t hesitate to divide the screen in two like a checkerboard in which the heads of his characters are inlaid, or set doves into flight above the Panthéon (in Menaces), and this audacity often pays off, even if it may make proponents of the sober and the natural smile.” Edmond Gréville enjoyed a long career in both France and England, but his films have mostly fallen to obscurity; a status, Bertrand Tavernier’s impassioned advocacy insists, in need of correction.

“So determining how much of the plot originated with Stannard and how much with Hitchcock would be difficult. (Hitch took no cowriting credit, but then he often didn’t, though he was almost always closely involved with the scripting of his films.) It could be that the director picked up ideas here that he would go on to repeat and develop in his later work or, equally possibly, that the plot of The Lodger allowed him scope to explore preoccupations that he had already been mulling over.” Philip Kemp emphasizes The Lodger’s role as the first Hitchcock film worthy of the title Hitchcockian—though he overreaches in claiming this begins Hitch’s fascination with blondes, a trope the director literally kicked off his career with in the opening scene of his debut The Pleasure Garden.

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Review: The Beguiled

The opening of The Beguiled is lush on every level: Mist hangs in the moss-draped trees as a young girl goes out mushroom-picking, her singing underscored by an uncanny low rumble. We’re in the Civil War South, so that rumble must be battle, a muffled sound that barely intrudes on the idyllic scene. This is director Sofia Coppola in signature mode, creating voluptuous sights and sounds that disguise a serious deficiency of ideas. The Beguiled may be the most inert of Coppola’s films, a vapid cruise through an isolated hothouse. Along with its other shortcomings, it’s not nearly as interesting (and nowhere near as perverse) as the 1971 film that precedes it, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood.

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Review: Two People

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Two People represents the triumph of cinematic presence and naturally lush surfaces over script and selling campaign. Well, not quite a triumph, perhaps, but Two People is a much better movie—or experience to be had at the movies—than most descriptions of it have indicated, least of all its own Segal-like sell and Lelouchian outtakes. Peter Fonda, who handled his own self-directed star turn in The Hired Hand with unexpected modesty, takes a truly stellar leap toward attractiveness as a Vietnam deserter who has wearied of life in various exiles and has elected to go home and serve his time in order to get his own life back. Indeed, the whole film yearns toward taking a self-purging step beyond the puerilities of the Easy Rider school of contemporary self-loathing (and amid all that film’s virtues there certainly were more than a few puerilities).

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Review: La Bete Humaine

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

Beginning in this issue, and continuing whenever occasion warrants and space permits, MOVIETONE NEWS will include a retrospective quickie or two among the normal short notices on current cinema. In the past MTN writers were able to comment on older films only in advance of seeing or reseeing them—that is, as part of our regular service on the local repertory houses, You Only Live Once. While we intend Quickies to continue emphatically along lines already established, we hope in this small way to quietly insist once more that a movie is a movie is a movie, and that the cinema is eternally in the present tense. —Ed.

Jean Renoir, son of the great painter and a great artist in his own right, is—by temperament—somewhat at odds with the naturalism of Emile Zola, though he has twice made highly regarded films from books by Zola (his second film was Nana, 1926). But his modernized La Bête humaine is proof that Zola could be an inspiration as well as a cogent and productive challenge to both the generosity and the irony in Renoir’s libertarian vision. The film’s modern setting gives the naturalist’s deterministic psychology a special twist: Renoir’s people here are heirs to Zola’s, and yet as selfconscious and self-aware moderns living in the age of psychoanalysis, their applications of deterministic views to their own lives restates the problem in a newer and even more challenging way. When Gabin and Simon embrace in the rain, the embrace is undercut by their haunted (and separate) gazes: they are already anticipating the destiny which their fatalism nourishes.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 23

“Though Le trou is remarkably more austere, it is still in the tradition of all of Becker’s previous movies, built as they are out of lost time. A constellation of glances, gestures, and acts of physical grace, the film is an unlikely blend of styles. If the overwhelming feeling is for the pleasure derived from the professional way Becker’s inmates treat their escape, there is also a flipside feeling of moments spent relaxing between key sequences.” Christopher Small burnishes the reputation of the still underrated Jacques Becker by the most direct means available to an auteurist cinephile: direct comparison (of three of Becker’s films) to Howard Hawks.

“Like Leos Carax, Jarmusch is a filmmaker of romantic and poetic fantasy conceits in which a certain nostalgie de la boue always plays a part. But unlike Carax, Jarmusch’s sense of fantasy is always grounded in at least a superficial sense of banal reality; even his century-old vampires occupy the recognizably mundane quarters of Detroit and Tangier. Paterson is of course less obvious as a fantasy than Only Lovers Left Alive, yet its utopian vision of small-town America as a friendly multiracial community in which every person appears to be some sort of artist is clearly sustainable only as a defiant poetic conceit that flies in the face of a Trump-led America, however gentle its multiple articulations might be.” Cycling through Jarmusch’s tendencies as a minimalist, fabulist, and poet Jonathan Rosenbaum places Paterson‘s everyday utopia in the director’s ouvre with his typical keen observation–barring the odd assertion that Rizwan Manji is Latino. Via David Hudson.

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Review: After the Storm

Sometimes a storm is just a storm. But this is rarely true in movies. If clouds gather on the horizon, it’s usually an omen about relationship troubles or a giant monster approaching, or possibly a twister leading the way to the land of Oz. Instead of trying to disguise the significance of the storm in After the Storm, director Hirokazu Kore-eda embraces it. For a filmmaker known as a subtle storyteller, this is downright heavy-handed. But if this film isn’t Kore-eda at his best—see Our Little Sister and Nobody Knows for that—the experience of watching it is frequently wonderful. Kore-eda has gotten to the point where even when his work isn’t top-drawer, it’s exceptionally nice to be around.

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Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy and its Screen Incarnations

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite tearjerker, I answer Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy – and its mostly faithful offspring. In all of its screen incarnations, it’s an epic tale of thwarted romance that unfolds over a period of several years.

If the original six-hour French-language trilogy—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936)—sounds unfamiliar, you might remember it in the form of Joshua Logan’s condensed American remake, Fanny, which played for many weeks in the summer of 1961 and earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Charles Boyer), cinematography and music. In this most famous version, Leslie Caron and Horst Buchholz play the frustrated lovers whose lives are irrevocably altered by one crucial decision that drives the narrative and accounts for most of the heartbreak.

The 1932 "Fanny
The 1932 “Fanny”

The films tell essentially the same story of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny, who have grown up on the Marseilles waterfront and are clearly meant for each other. But he’s driven by the desire to find adventure at sea, and after one night of passion she helps him escape on a ship that’s not likely to return soon. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy merchant, Panisse, who has never been able to have children and is happy to have a “seven-month baby.” After the child is born, Marius returns and nearly restarts their affair. But Marius’ father, Cesar, stops them, and the story’s real heartache kicks in.

Although the Pagnol films have been available for some time on DVD, the 1961 Fanny only recently made its disc debut. The extras include the first CD release of the original soundtrack album, based on the melodies of Harold Rome, who captures the unrequitable longing of the central characters.

The first American adaptation of Pagnol’s films, MGM’s underrated Port of Seven Seas (1938), was an all-star event behind and in front of the cameras. Written by Preston Sturges, it was directed by James Whale, scored by Franz Waxman and photographed by Karl Freund; the actors included Wallace Beery as Cesar, Maureen O’Sullivan as Fanny (renamed Madelon) and Frank Morgan as Panisse. Although it’s in legal limbo and won’t likely turn up soon anywhere, it was revived several years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental and unnecessarily swift (it runs only 81 minutes), it’s a more-than-reasonable adaptation, with an especially poignant turn by Morgan, just before he transformed himself into the wizard of Oz.

There’s also a mid-1950s musical stage version, called Fanny, which is the source of the Rome music. The songs, which were turned into background music in the 1961 film, include Marius’ hymn to impatience, “Restless Heart,” and Panisse’s late-bloomer anthem, “Never Too Late for Love.”

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