Review: The Assignment

I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.

A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude.

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Review: White Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.

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Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 31

“For Rubin, working with Ramis and Murray wasn’t intimidating as much as reassuring: It felt like Hollywood had recognized him for who he was, like it had realized what he could do. ‘It was like, Finally,’ he says now. ‘This is where I belong.’ And then it never happened again.” S. I. Rosenbaum profiles Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin, who’s managed to repeat in real life the movie’s wringing of a happy ending out of eternal recurrence, following decades of rejected scripts with a decampment from Hollywood and a Broadway musical based on the film.

“Earlier in the week, the cast and crew had been shooting pyrotechnics-heavy action scenes in Maple Ridge Forest. The scenes mainly involved stunt guys repeatedly leaping out of the way of explosions. ‘No accidents,’ Boll reported happily. He was wearing a gray wool sweater and a Dungeon Siege baseball cap. ‘Well, a few people in hospital, but that’s usual for me.’ He laughed, and proffered a packet of biscuits. ‘Cookie?’” Visiting Uwe Boll on the set of what he claims is his final film, Darryn King finds the worst director in the world still fuming at critics, albeit in a more philosophical mood than when he pummeled them in a boxing ring.

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Review: Raw

The last time I had a barf bag handed to me at a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s Martin, probably in 1979. I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick. This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters in order to collect the ailing and garner press interest. John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that even one report of viewers becoming physically sick at his movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.

The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around Raw demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly, this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see. Sure enough, when the movie opened in L.A. last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.

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Review: Savages

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Savages is consistently appealing, intermittently brilliant, and—in the end—very nearly inconsequential. Though given elaborate and oblique treatment, its basic idea is a simple one: the “savage” mud-people whom we see in mock-silent-movie fashion at the start are more or less interchangeable with the elegant, conspicuously “civilized” moderns who inhabit the huge mansion which is the film’s single most dominating presence. This notion is almost not an idea at all—though not completely irrelevant, even as rhetoric—but fortunately James Ivory and company use it less as the film’s “point” than as its underlying assumption. And in that light, we are given an extended charade which makes playful and amiably inspired use of a filmic idiom that is part Buñuel (esp. The Exterminating Angel), part Resnais (esp. Last Year at Marienbad), part Theatre of the Absurd (in its use of language for disturbing comic effects), part “experimental” film (in its resurrection of some ancient avant-garde devices). The question of influences is important because Savages often leaves the impression of being unique but not very original—just derivative enough for its multitude of small delights to become faintly dubious. It is “surrealistic” but lacks a genuinely surrealist intensity. On the other hand, even though it has a campy-chic Art Deco look to it, Walter Lassally’s color cinematography achieves a nostalgic sensuality which becomes the film’s most compelling emotion (here the spirit of von Sternberg might be invoked, but only on the margins).

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Why ‘Bones’ Was One of the Most Interesting Love Stories on TV

After 12 years and 245 episodes, Bones is coming to an end. I know that will come as news to some of you. I mean, that’s the show with Zooey Deschanel’s older sister and the guy who played the brooding vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? It’s really still on?

Ever since it debuted on 2005 as yet another CSI lite, the series has flown under the radar of TV critics and the cultural conversation alike. It’s a breezy procedural most likely to be stumbled across while channel surfing daytime cable TV (where it seems to be in endless rotation on TNT), which means it gets no respect. And that’s a shame. Behind the technology geek-out, the horror effects played for gross-out humor, and investigations through quirky social subcultures, Bones quietly and slyly spun one of the most interesting love stories on TV.

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The Love Story of Bones’ Booth and Brennan in 12 Episodes

It took 12 years and 245 episodes to tell the story of Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth on Bones, the Fox series that comes to an end tonight. For those who are curious but lack the time, patience, or commitment to take the journey in its entirety, we’ve put together a guide to the highlights and turning points in their relationship told in 12 episodes, all available on Netflix.

“The Man in the Fallout Shelter” (Season 1, episode 9)
The show’s first Christmas episode quarantines the team in the lab over the holidays. Along with the inevitable seasonal bonding between characters who are, at this point, barely more than colleagues, we meet (through a glass barrier) Angela’s blues-guitarist father (ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons) and Booth’s young son, Parker (Ty Panitz). The first is the coolest addition to the Bonesiverse (seriously, this guy becomes an enigma bordering on mythological trickster). The second is our first peek into the personal life of Booth and an introduction to the most important person in his world. The team’s chemistry really starts to bubble here.

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Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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

Like so many other film sites, the new Senses of Cinema is in a Golden Anniversary mood, looking back at the films of 1967. Unlike most, it casts the net well beyond the expected subjects. There’s the expected pieces on Accident and PlayTime, but also Alexia Kannas on Branded to Kill (“Suzuki’s explosive treatment of the crime genre assumes you understand the formula’s conventions already: it dispenses with clear narrative continuity in favour of fragmentary impressions that are electrified by the film’s formal style”); Kat Ellinger on This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (“As he gnashes his teeth, delivering diatribe after diatribe—all strongly aligned with Nietzsche’s philosophy on The Superman–it becomes clear [Coffin Joe’s] anger stems from a hatred of the human race in its present form, regardless of gender”); and Anton Bitel and Emma Westwood on, respectively, student films by Lynch (“And so a filmmaker was born, and the sick men of this debut would lead inexorably—after an even more elaborate short, The Grandmother (1970)—to the sick baby in his extraordinary first feature Eraserhead (1977), revealed under its swaddling bandages to be all insides”) and Cronenberg (“According to Mr Silent Type, they need not be concerned about what goes down the drain but what will come up from it. Given Cronenberg’s forthcoming propensity for the viscerally morbid, this serves as possibly the first instance of ‘Cronenbergian’ horror….”). In addition, Dean Brandum crunches the numbers from Chicago exhibitions to get a sense of why British cinema couldn’t sustain its popular momentum after that annus mirabilis.

Elsewhere in the issue Jeremi Szaniawski traces the connections between Sukurov’s “power tetralogy” and Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (“In both Sokurov’s tetralogy and Serra’s unofficial sequel, the details (costumes and set design) are highly realistic, and serious research has gone toward documenting the facts portrayed (famous sources are quoted in the dialogues, etc.). But both directors also take poetic license in creating a universe of their own, giving us at once a compelling historiographic account, a pure work of auteurist vision, and a playful historical recreation, with touches of bizarre humour and an ineffable absurdist spirit interspersed throughout.”), Andrea Grunert salutes Toshiro Mifune (“Deeply rooted in the tragic hero narrative, Mifune’s heroes lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. As Isolde Standish demonstrates, the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.”), and Ventura Pons, Julien Duvivier, and Dennis Hopper get added to the journal’s Great Directors.

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Review: T2 Trainspotting

Danny Boyle loves his bag of tricks: the split-second cuts and the techno-pop and the crazy, strobing light show. Like a director of TV commercials who has only 30 seconds to sell a story, Boyle hypes everything. Take the gimmicky Who Wants to Be a Millionaire structure of Slumdog Millionaire, or Leonardo DiCaprio night-swimming through phosphorescent plankton in The Beach. Or, most notable, take Trainspotting, Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough. In bringing to life the junkies and reprobates of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle devised a carnival of jokes and pop anthems and sudden sadism. It might have been a wee bit soulless, but it hit a nerve—or certainly a vein.

Boyle’s career has been predictably restless since then, jumping from sci-fi (Sunshine) to Bollywood lite (Slumdog) to overbearing kiddie cuteness (Millions). Oddly enough, or maybe not, his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was possibly his most impressive achievement, a dazzling exercise in cramming all of British popular culture in a giant blender and spewing it back at an overstimulated yet grateful audience. Given his wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a little surprising that Boyle embraced a sequel. But here’s the hopelessly titled T2 Trainspotting, and a chance to see what’s happened to characters who held little promise of evolving much from the first film.

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Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.

Twilight Time

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Review: Private Parts

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Anybody out there remember, by any chance, Michael Powell’s 1959 flick Peeping Tom? (A disingenuous question, that: he who see Peeping Tom, he remember it, all right all right. Repress the mother, yes, possibly; but forget it? No—as they say—bloody way.)

Well, freak fans, it’s arrived at last, will you welcome please, a good hand now, folks, here he is, Son of Peeping Tom. No, correction: let’s try to get this right: Peeping Tomasina.

Not all that good a hand, though. We haven’t equaled the original yet, not in toto. For starters, the opening stinks. (The opening scene, that is, not the stylish titles.) And the ending is no rose, either; it smells, in fact, just a little like … bad faith. Well, bad judgment anyhow. Or plain laziness.

Still, Paul Bartel’s new feature Private Parts picks up one hell of a head of steam once it gets going. And if some (that word again!) freak of local distribution should cause it to drop suddenly (translation: “be dumped”) into an unsuspecting Seattle theater this year, you might do worse than soldier through that poorly-directed, -written, -scored and -acted opening for the sake of its later felicities.

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Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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