Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

Keep Reading

Review: Paper Moon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.

Keep Reading

Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

Continue reading at Independent Lens

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 10

“These tropes cumulatively function as what philosopher Robert Pfaller has termed “interpassivity”: they cynically perform our annoyance at seeing the same old thing again for us. We can walk out of these films feeling satisfied, refreshed, and maybe even a little superior for seeing how the mechanics of movies work. And yet, this facsimiled dissent does not result in movies with original ideas, but instead in things like The LEGO Batman Movie, or, say, Miller and Lord helming the forthcoming Han Solo movie. Not unlike a punk buying a T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on it from Hot Topic, we fool ourselves if we believe this humor to be as subversive as it pretends to be.” Along with the death of cinema itself, the death of comedy is a constant in the world of criticism; Violet Lucca offers the latest iteration, with at least some words of praise thrown in for those modern directors who know how to build a joke.

“Once united, Phelps and O’Gaffney propel a series of semi-discrete set-pieces, starting with an inevitable Great Escape from the camp, facilitated by the white-on-white camouflage of wearing the Arabic prisoners’ white robes in the German snow. From there, Two Arabian Knights features high-speed train stunts, a second adventure for our hapless protagonists as naval stowaways, a romance with a shipwrecked Arabian princess (who else but Mary Astor?), a palace invasion, a gun duel, and a third and final getaway. However discontinuous in action and ambience, these rarely feel like loosely strung vignettes, mostly because Milestone’s hold on tone and his connection with his game, jovial actors tie things together.” Staying at Film Comment, praise for one forgotten comedy comes from Nick Davis’s appreciation of Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights. While Mark Harris doesn’t exactly excavate a forgotten film, he does remind us that Persona played so badly commercially in its ’67 release at least in part from Bergman fatigue, however much a break the film made with his past efforts. (“As Variety’s critic succinctly put it when he got his first view of Bergman’s Opus 1, ‘big themes are still his forte.’ The severity and rigor with which Bergman attacked these issues and his complete lack of interest in packaging them ingratiatingly for his audience both dates the movie and makes it enduringly fascinating.”)

Keep Reading

Review: My Life as a Zucchini

The winners of the Best Animated Feature Oscar tend to be the big hits of the year: Inside Out and Frozen received Academy gold in recent years, for instance. Since the category was added in 2001, only Spirited Away, by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit interrupted the series of top-grossing multiplex smashes. What’s interesting about the category is that every year one or two outliers get nominated, just because the slots have to get filled. So usually a couple of teeny-tiny films get much, much more attention than they otherwise might have, thanks to the million-watt glare of the Oscar spotlight.

This year’s Oscar went to Zootopia, a breezy and lightweight Disney outing that had some hilarious moments and the expected ration of schoolhouse lessons about tolerance. One did not really expect the small fry to win, so it was reward enough that the New Agey parable The Red Turtle and the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini got their moment in the computer-generated sun.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Lady Ice

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Tom Gries has at least one unpretentiously good film to his credit in Will Penny; if reports of Lady Ice‘s production troubles are accurate, then Gries, as the third director assigned the project, cannot be held entirely responsible for the myriad failures of this sloppily assembled pastiche of dubious leftovers from the slushfund of slick caper-cum-competitive-couple movies. Reverse the Dunaway-McQueen roles in the disastrous The Thomas Crown Affair so that Donald Sutherland gets to play insurance investigator to Jennifer O’Neill’s rich (and therefore) risk-hungry diamond thief, throw in an off-the-wall Bullitt-style car chase, and leaven the whole lumpen mess with some pathetically phony allusions to the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, emancipated female surrounded by dopey male chauvinists—and you’ve got the less than appetizing recipe for Lady Ice. Jennifer O’Neill rates only contemptuous yoks as she lays claim to superior feminine sensibilities while coming on like the original tanned plastic Barbie Doll ever ready with vapid visage and mindless giggling. One hopes in vain for Sutherland, who’s turned in some madly fey performances in his time, to contribute some subversively ironic distance from the ongoing embarrassments of Lady Ice, but he manfully pretends to be titillated by O’Neill’s nonexistent challenges and lopes gracelessly through his assigned paces as a Columbo of the insurance circuit.

Keep Reading

Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

Keep Reading

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

High Noon had a lot going against it. Foreman had never written a Western. Zinnemann had never directed one. Foreman’s screenplay, inspired by a short story in Collier’s magazine called “The Tin Star,” by John W. Cunningham, had no beautiful vistas, no Indian raids, no cattle stampedes.” And then there were the H.U.A.C. hearings, writer Carl Foreman’s insistence on defying the committee, and producer Stanley Kramer’s more cautious, cover-my-bases approach. Glenn Frankel follows up the story of The Searchers with a look at another classic western of the period, and the politics surrounding it.

“Given this manic productivity, there might be an attendant assumption that more than a few of the films are fuzzy-headed experiments or sly conceptual jests in the style of those early movies from Warhol’s Factory, but all are masterful productions, moving at a stately pace and totally inimitable in their mixture of artifice, raw cruelty, and chill dispassion. He had a system nobody else possessed and taxed it to its limits. ‘There’s this strange compulsion to work which is certainly a strength and a weakness,’ as he admitted in an interview two months before his death, ‘I’d say I’m a manic depressive and I just try to be depressive as seldom as possible.’ His mother adduced a different kind of desperate energy at work: ‘Rainer,’ she said, ‘simply didn’t count on growing old.’” In an excerpt from This Young Monster, his biography of the director, Charlie Fox does a dazzling job connecting Fassbinder’s legendary output and equally prodigious intake—of drugs, acolytes, prostitutes, and scandals—with his innate rebelliousness and his queering of mainstream cinematic tropes. Via Criterion.

Keep Reading

Review: Logan

Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.

I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Two things are tentatively okay about The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: A lot of it is filmed on location in some piney mountain country, and the film thereby falls heir to those vagrant chills that any horror movie shot in a real place with some sense of isolation about it can count on. Besides that, screenwriter Bob Homel has some completely irrelevant but amusing moments as a goodtime Jesus freak. Regrettably he is outpointed on the laugh meter by the star werewolf whose behavior before launching an attack invariably recalls Groucho Marx crouching on the opera-box railing and calling “Boogie! Boogie! boogie!” in mid-performance. As for the detestable sub-adolescent of the title, all he had to say at any point was: “All right, sheriff, then answer me this: why is the werewolf always wearing Daddy’s jacket?”
Keep Reading

Review: Mon Oncle Antoine

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

“Quebec, the asbestos-mining region, not too long ago.” A gray arc of mineral dust flumes through the air and a red pickup sits at the brink of a cliff. A middleaged man gets out of the truck and crawls underneath, grumbling profanely about the lousy maintenance; a conventionally handsome, cleancut young man gets out the other door and observes. Uncle Antoine, of course, and the sensitive young protagonist looking on as if already lost in reflection upon a present that is becoming the past. No. The man is not anybody’s uncle and, although he will come to loom as a symbolic figure in the film, he is not even a major character. The young man we shall not see again. Such an opening is characteristic of Mon Oncle Antoine, and also characteristic of its singularity. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes will surely get up and leave Mon Oncle Antoine. People who get up and leave movies that don’t zap them within ten minutes deserve to miss the rich experience that rewards those willing to let the life of Claude Jutra’s movie and Uncle Antoine’s town define itself in its own very good and lived-in time.

Keep Reading

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 24

We’ve been MIA for a couple of weeks due to various reasons and we’re a little late getting up today (due to the editor spending much of the day in bed fighting a cold) but we’re back now.

“When we settle into her hotel lobby, Heckerling—who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history—tells me the story of the Jewish cinematographer Karl Freund. When he was living in Berlin in the 1920s, Freund shot two of the most visually iconic German films of all time, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He then fled to the United States at the end of the decade, and he spent the final years of his career shooting I Love Lucy, among other projects, for which he designed an innovative lighting setup that some sitcoms still use to this day. Heckerling wonders, though, if someone as entrenched in the glamour of early film as Freund ever could have been satisfied working in the emerging medium of TV. ‘Who knows how he was feeling,’ she says. ‘But I look at IMDb and see what people started doing and where they ended, and you go, well, it’s a different game. And that’s how it’s happening now…. I don’t know,’ she says, speaking as much of herself as Freund. ‘You gotta, like, bob and weave and figure it out.’” Even being one of the most successful women directors of all time hasn’t shielded Amy Heckerling from the sexism of the industry, from producers rejecting scripts because they don’t believe women could have decades-long friendships to her lengthy stay in “director jail” following some ill-fated films. But as Lindsay Zoladz reports, she’s still out their bobbing and weaving.

“Director Michael Curtiz often clashed with Crawford during shooting, complaining that she insisted on glamorizing the woman whose daughter calls her a “common frump.” But the veneer of gentility and obsessive care for her looks that clung to the actress—born into miserable poverty as Lucille LeSueur—perfectly suits Mildred Pierce, who sells cakes and pies out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons, even when her husband is out of work. True, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary, downtrodden housewife, but could a woman who builds a chain restaurant empire, makes a fortune, and marries the scion of a fallen old-money clan, all out of desperation to please a snobbish daughter, ever be described as ordinary?” Imogen Sara Smith praises Mildred Pierce as a triumph for Crawford, and as one of several films upending the “false assumption” that noir was inherently misogynist, while the genre was always willing to root for women like Mildred who were ready and willing to work.

Keep Reading

Video: Framing Pictures – February 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Kathleen Murphy, Richard T. Jameson, and Robert Horton discuss the 2017 Oscar race in the February edition of Framing Pictures, just the thing to prepare for the presentation of the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The Seattle Channel records and presents many of these a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

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

Review: Dark Night

No subject should be off-limits for filmmakers willing to take a plunge. The degree of difficulty, however, tends to increase sharply with the weightiness of the premise. Dark Night takes an extremely provocative topic—a seemingly random mass shooting—and applies a heavy layer of arty artlessness to the material. Despite a number of striking images (Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is never less than severely beautiful), it rarely feels like it’s been thought through enough to really jell.

Continue reading at The Stranger