Review: Scorpio

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

Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.

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MC Squared: David Patrick Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’

“I think these things matter.”—David Patrick Lowery, Some Analog Lines, 2006

The first thing that strikes you is the frame.

The classic 4:3 ratio, but with rounded corners, looking for all the world like shape of the old family-vacation slide shows of two generations ago.

In fact, we’ve seen this before. Movies sometimes start with that slide-show effect to evoke a series of memory captures, perhaps filling us in on a past that will become important to us when the movie slips into a more conventional, more contemporary frame to give us the film-proper.

But this is no prologue. This is the film, and the frame ration stays for the full running time, rounded corners and all.

The last film I remember that immediately confronted me with an unexpected frame and then defiantly kept to it—celebrated it—for its entire running time was Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s overhaul of the western, with which David Lowery’s A Ghost Story shares a relentless sense of being lost rather than destined.

A Ghost Story is, among other things, a meditation on the frame and its possibilities. The frame is an apt metaphor for the condition of Lowery’s ghost, stuck in space but free in time, like, perhaps, a note painted into a crack in the grain of a wooden wall-frame, or a message hidden under a rock to be discovered—or not—by some yet unimagined other.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 11

“The distinctive tone of Minnellian melodrama rises out of the protagonist’s frustrated attempt to sublimate desire into art and transform the real with the imaginary. This project is doomed, but it provides the films with an impressive stylistic ‘excess’ or melodramatic delirium. It also makes the artist a lonely figure. We occasionally feel this loneliness in the more optimistic musicals, which transform the world through song and dance, but in the melodramas the characters never fully reconcile life and imagination. Especially in such films as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Lust for Life (1956), and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), Minnelli seems to recognize that the utopian force of art can never transcend its social and psychological circumstances. The melodramas are therefore the most revealing examples of his work—the place where the paradoxes and contradictions of his aestheticism become apparent.” James Naremore offers a distillation of his exemplary book The Films of Vincent Minnelli, charting in 4,500 words why, undeniable as the consistency of his themes may be and howsoever strong a lineage he drew from modern art, the director’s oeuvre remains so critically controversial and impossible to pin down as the unalloyed stylings of a master. Via (as so much this week is) David Hudson.

“The woman the clergyman obsesses over, played by Génica Athanasiou, is—Sandy Flitterman-Lewis has argued—less an object of desire than a “force of desire”. She resists consumption by the spectator, and Allin’s clergyman is too weak to compete with her. Whenever he attempts to capture her, the director intervenes to save her from his touch: he grabs at her neck, and the neck becomes a house; he puts her face into a bottle, but when the bottle breaks we find his face inside. With a surrealist disdain for the normal bounds of filmed reality, Dulac uses editing and superimposition to protect Athanasiou’s character.” Chelsea Phillips-Carr shows how prescient Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman truly was, as both surrealist experience and a feminist rejection of male desire—for the audience as much as her eponymous priest.

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Video: Framing Pictures for July 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid discuss the “B” movies–Baby DriverThe Bad Batch, and The Beguiled–and the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock (spurred by the release of Hitchcock’s breakthrough film The Lodger on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD).

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.

The next conversation convenes at 7pm on Friday, August 11.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

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

Review: Wind River (1)

I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.

A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

 

Review: Wind River (2)

Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)

Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Blu-ray: ‘The Breaking Point’ on Criterion

The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.

The Criterion Collection

Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Review: Roma

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

Roma is a product of Fellini’s self-indulgence. He puts everything he’s loved about Rome, and himself, upon the screen, in semi-documentary style, with the only unifying factor being a weak autobiographical framework. It’s like a big home movie shot by lovingly nostalgic professionals. The color is exquisite, and many of the individual segments are unforgettable. For instance, at one point we’re treated to an ecclesiastical fashion show, complete with red-carpeted runway, announcer, lively organ music, and increasingly fantastic outfits modeled by nuns, priests, bishops, and a pope (whose robe comes with flashing lights). During scenes of Rome of thirty years ago, a rather insipidly handsome actor plays Fellini as a young man, making his way through lusty dinners in a piazza and even lustier evenings in whorehouses. There’s a graceful transition from past to present in the film—showing much of the director and his crew in the later parts—ending in a nocturnal zoom through the city by a motorcycle gang. Apocalyptic? Who knows? Fellini never gets further than suggesting bits of meaning; one gets the impression that that isn’t his point. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be his point, less so than in The Clowns, Roma, a conglomeration of episodes—visually fascinating as they may be—leaves even seasoned Fellini lovers a little cold.

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Review: Live and Let Die

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

Sean Connery knew when to get out. The new James Bond film is a poor-kid’s followup to the modest achievements of the preceding seven Fleming adaptations (I’m not counting the multi-director fiasco Casino Royale, backed by a different producer). The double-entendres fairly double over with arthritis, the girls and the bad guys are a dreary lot, and the big set-piece, a motorboat pursuit through twisty inland waterways, is a protracted steal from The Mechanic. Sex was real—i.e., had something to do with emotions—only in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and why hasn’t Peter Hunt directed anything since?), but even the Playmate-style romps of the other Bond flicks had some verve and wit about them; here either the couplings are all but accidental or the implicit logic behind them threatens to plunge the film into a neurotic introspection that the writer, the director, and the star are unprepared to risk.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Blu-ray: Colossal

Colossal (2017) is the oddest and most inventive film to come out of the new wave of giant monster movies. It stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an out-of-work writer turned reckless party girl and black-out drunk who is kicked out of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her exasperated boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her dreary hometown and moves into her empty, abandoned family home. She runs into her childhood best friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), pretty much the only pal from her generation left in town, and gets a job waitressing in the sleepy bar he inherited. Unanchored and lacking any plan, goal, or motivation of any kind, she continues drinking her nights away with this new crew until she wakes up one morning (after another alcohol-fueled blackout) to find out that a towering Godzilla cousin has stormed Seoul, South Korea. As it continues to appear every morning (American time) at the same time, she discovers that she has a connection to the creature, one that goes back decades.

Universal Home Video

Let’s leave it at that; discovering the twists is part of the fun of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen one already, but that only scratches the surface. What first seems to be a cosmic comic lark, a goofy twist on the monster movie, gets dark in a very human way without losing the film’s creative charge or director Nacho Vigalondo’s sense of humor and poetic justice. Spanish filmmaker Vigalondo has a talent for genre mash-ups, creating fresh takes on familiar science-fiction tropes, and this film (his English language debut) is his smartest, edgiest, and most accomplished to date. Hathaway plays against her image as the likable but unreliable and unraveled Gloria, as does Sudeikis, whose easygoing manner and generosity covers up a damaged soul. She’s a mess but he’s an even bigger one and there’s nothing cute about. Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell co-star Oscar’s reliable barflies and after-hours drinking buddies.

Continue reading on Stream On Demand

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 4

“This eventually leads to one of the only purely erotic sequences in To’s body of work, in which Yam’s and Lin’s characters share a cigarette on a leisurely drive in a vintage Mercedes convertible. The narrative purpose of this or any other sequence in Sparrow is secondary at best. It’s all about the musicality that’s the essence of To’s style. Anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of film craft would do well to study the guy.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s appreciation of Johnny To’s Sparrow is alert to the film’s playfulness and homages, while subtly making the larger point that perhaps something essential has gone missing in a film culture where masters can no longer make such inconsequential delights in between their grand statements.

“But Wenders also perceived the sympathetic faces of angels watching over Berlin everywhere he went (most notably the Friedensengel monument) and found that he was inexplicably drawn to angelic symbolism in other realms: a song by The Cure, a painting by Paul Klee, elegies by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wasn’t sure where it was all going, but the seemingly disparate imagery of dilapidated Berlin and serene angels had begun to fuse in his mind.” That contrast that became the crux of Wenders’s Wings of Desire also informed the soundtrack, from Jürgen Knieper’s mournful, ethereal score to the collection of pop tunes, as Clare Nina Norelli explicates.

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Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.

In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: 13 Minutes

Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s exploration of Adolf Hitler’s final days, succeeded by going deep, fully acknowledging its subject’s unimaginable monstrousness while also locating an aggrieved peevishness that made him fascinatingly, horribly relatable. (Can a zillion YouTube parodies be wrong? Well, yes, but not in this case.) 13 Minutes, Hirschbiegel’s return to the time frame, unfortunately can’t quite manage the same burrowing feat. Although its depiction of courage under titanic pressure is both harrowing and heroic, it never really pinpoints the central character’s defining moment.

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand