Review: Julieta

He is now 68, but in recent years Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t been making films like an old master. His astonishing The Skin I Live In (2011) blended identity politics with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, in a mix that apparently disturbed even his ardent fans (I think it may be one of his greatest films). I’m So Excited (2013) was either too silly or not silly enough in its embrace of zany comedy. But then who wants Almodóvar, once the bad boy of international cinema, to behave like an old master?

Like it or not, Julieta has an unmistakably masterly touch. This is a controlled, sure-handed drama, made so that every scene is in place. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design impeccable. Almodóvar’s expressive use of color is wonderful to watch—he might be making a Technicolor Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s. I wonder if this mastery itself could explain why the movie, strong in many ways, also feels just a bit vacuum-sealed.

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Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

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Blu-ray: Clara Bow meets Gary Cooper in ‘Children of Divorce’

Flicker Alley

Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.

It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…

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Blu-ray: Laird Cregar is ‘The Lodger’

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Laird Cregar is The Lodger (1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.

While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.

This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.

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Blu-ray: ‘Sudden Fear’

Cohen Film Collection

Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.

Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.

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Review: The Public Eye

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The Public Eye begins with promise but finally has little to recommend it but some nice pictures of London. It is a sappy, soppy, misguided movie unlike anything I ever expected to see released under Sir Carol Reed’s signature. The story concerns David, a dignified, intellectual British accountant, who has met Belinda, a hip American waitress of simple philistine tastes, has dazzled her with his knowledge and culture, and has wed her. As the film opens, David retains a private detective agency to follow Belinda, who has been going out by herself a great deal, much to his suspicion. Though innocent of infidelity, she quickly establishes an intimate relationship with the detective. The two never speak or touch, cementing their peekaboo “affair” by following each other through London, day in and day out. The wife’s affections are going begging, it seems, because David’s arts-and-cultural-activities lifestyle has begun to bore her. Explaining this to David in his first few scenes as the private detective Julian Christoferou, Topol is charming and winsomely comic. But soon afterward he turns marriage counselor and determines to make David “worthy” of Belinda by spouting facile speeches about “love,” “sharing,” and “fee1ings.”

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Review: Blume in Love

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

During one phase of their rising-and-falling marriage Susan Anspach says to George Segal, “We’re always putting somebody down.” One of the conspicuously consistent things about Paul Mazursky’s three films as a director—Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love—is that he doesn’t put anybody down. The frantic chicness of the assumed lifestyles in B&C&T&A was the source of many laughs, but there was a winning innocence about the whole enterprise, on the characters’ part and on Mazursky’s, that saved the film from the sterile socioaesthetic oneupmanship that claims most endeavors in that risky genre. It was the director’s innocence that sustained Alex in Wonderland even amid the protracted, slavish, unimaginative gaucherie of those sub-Fellini pastiches and stillborn “Hooray for Hollywood” highjinks. And the colors of innocence and naïveté continue to fly in his latest film, and they help make Blume in Love a distinct pleasure to behold and share.

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Reimagining Sherlock Holmes

It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.

It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 20

“The widespread tendency to unambiguously reject Jew Suss is surely rooted in an assumption that its surface antisemitism was unambiguously accepted by German cinemagoers, who supposedly took Faber at face value. But is audience response ever so crudely schematic? Although one might have expected Harlan to at least go through the motions of making Faber an identification figure, there is little onscreen evidence to suggest we should regard him as anything other than a tedious snob. Emotionally, the film is entirely committed to Süß, whose passion and energy provide a welcome relief from the dull conventionality of Faber’s romance with Dorothea. The camera frequently adopts Süß’s viewpoint, swooping forward to show us exactly what he is seeing as he spies on the Duke through a concealed hole.” As a rule, the effort involved in overthrowing a conventional wisdom should be proportional to the rock-solid unanimity with which the position is held. So Brad Stevens’s attempt to rehabilitate Veit Harlan’s Jew Suss and Opfergang are ultimately too roughly sketched and half-formed to blast apart the monolithic reception to the Nazi’s second favorite director; but as introductory salvos they make for provocative reading.

“To make the performance of a tedious, exacting, time-consuming task riveting to watch, it is only necessary for the activity to be illegal. This is the lesson of heist movies, in which rigorous attention to process and stripped-down purity of focus are wedded to crowd-pleasing elements of suspense, violence, and hard-boiled patter. The caper film typically takes the audience step by step through the planning and execution of a crime that is at once a military-style campaign, a mechanical puzzle, a work of art, and a job. The crowning irony, and the link to film noir, is the way the three P’s of a successful heist—precision, patience, professionalism—are inevitably swamped by messy human failings: greed, distrust, panic, sloppiness, spite.” Imogen Sara Smith surveys some of the great (and, given the article’s sponsor, appropriately Criterion-released) examples of noir’s near-cousin, the heist film. While Criterion’s most recent rediscovery, Jack Garfein’s ahead-of-its-time-for-1961-and-still-daring-today rape melodrama Something Wild, is saluted by Sheila O’Malley. (“[Schüfftan’s] street photography in the film captures New York in a way that had not been done before. There are times when the city seems frighteningly empty, an eerie landscape void of humanity. At others, the crush of crowds presses in so insistently that it’s a claustrophobic nightmare. Something Wild, among its many other merits, is a great New York movie, capturing the city—and its different neighborhoods—at a certain moment in time. The second half of the film, however, takes place almost entirely on the one set that was built—Mike’s basement apartment—and Schüfftan is equally brilliant at utilizing the cramped space, its bars of light and shadow, its one mostly empty room, its depressing little kitchen.”)

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Review: 20th Century Women

There’s a talking dog in Beginners, the 2010 movie that won Christopher Plummer a supporting-actor Oscar. To be precise, the dog speaks in subtitles, which might make the premise easier, or possibly harder, to take. As a general rule I am not opposed to talking-canine scenarios; for instance, the title pet of the cult picture A Boy and His Dog makes a strong argument for the idea. But in Beginners, it was one thing too many in a film that already pushed the boundaries of cuteness.

Its writer/director, Mike Mills, returns with 20th Century Women, a movie with an attractive premise and cast. It’s set in 1979—a cool time to be young, despite what you may have heard—and it puts three distinctive actresses at the forefront of a coming-of-age story.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Train to Busan

You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.

Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Roger Corman’s ‘Death Race 2050’

Death Race 2050 (2016) – After Paul W.S. Anderson’s humorless Death Race, his 2008 remake/reworking of the Roger Corman-produced cult movie Death Race 2000 (1975), there’s something oddly satisfying in getting a genuine remake produced by Corman himself in the impudent spirit of the original.

Death Race 2050 is a modern B movie, produced directly for the home video market (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) on a minimal budget, and director / co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has no illusions of what he’s making. In the best Corman tradition, he delivers the grunge action movie goods and a little more. It’s not necessarily a “good” movie—it’s ragged and choppy and scattershot, with broad, cartoonish gags and easy jabs over pointed satire—but it’s also fun, unpretentious, cheeky, energetic, gleefully trashy, and filled with junky spectacle.

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Review: Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The best thing about Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George is some yeah-that‘s-the-way-it-looks nighttime photography by Walter Lassally. A minor technical footnote, to be sure, and not enough to redeem the sloppy ugliness of Darren McGavin’s directorial debut. The plot is very confused, and the leaking of that plot to the audience is even more contused and slew-footed (the absence of several performers listed in the credits—e.g., Thayer David as a minister—suggests that some desperate wholesale cutting has taken place at the last moment). Central to the enterprise is Ron Howard (American Graffiti‘s Steve) as a mysterious gangling youth who hops off a truck in a Maine coastal village early one morning and starts making several people uncomfortable just by his presence. Cloris Leachman drops her oatmeal because he looks like the illegitimate son she farmed out to a family of religious freaks years before. Bobby Darin goes on the prod because he’s been keeping company with Leachman, his employer at the dockside diner, and the encroachment of a new male threatens him. Patricia Neal, Leachman’s sister, starts snarling because (1) she snarls at everybody, (2) she snarls especially at males, and (3) her dewy-eyed daughter Tessa Dahl is given to staring out the window at the boy.

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Review: Payday

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Probably what the people who made Payday had in mind was an exercise in a sort of cinematic new journalism—an objective, but highly commercial, look at life as it is played out on the highways and in the hangouts of the country-western music circuit. Certainly producer Ralph J. Gleason, record company VP and Rolling Stone contributing editor, possesses the sort of credentials which would enable him to authenticate the milieu, as well as accurately assess its box-office potential in the wake of such films as Marjoe, Carry It On and Don’t Look Back—not to mention the current romantic fervor for country-western singers who have served time, been dopers, picked cotton—in short. Seen hard times. Audiences obviously get a charge out of nosing about the behind-the-scenes lives of big-name entertainers, satisfying their healthy or unhealthy curiosity about the necessarily diminished or tarnished identities of performers once they are no longer magnified by that magic circle of limelight. Then too, lurking in even the most sophisticated minds is the old cliché that these showbiz folks, for all the glory, lead really sad (or better yet, depraved) lives.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 13

“Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” The same goes for visual compositions. In this Front Page, the right shots take the place of the almost right shots—and the result is galvanizing. When the lens takes in a two-shot of opposing journalists instead of a wide shot of the entire company, or when a star reporter who’s “going New York” spits out his new address to his colleagues, then writes it on the wall in one unbroken move—instead of delivering his speech in a flat profile—it’s not just great “filmed theater,” it’s also a real live movie.” Criterion’s latest double-feature redeems the entire notion of remakes, while restoring luster to the never-really-seen original. Michael Sragow reports on how Milestone’s The Front Page is finally seen anew thanks to the recent discovery of the director’s preferred American release cut; while Farran Smith Nehme reminds us that His Girl Friday has never needed such building-up, regardless of how Hawks came by the idea of the gender flip. (“Remarriage plots are the most grown-up variation [in the screwball comedy toolkit], because these are the movies that say two people can be perfectly suited and still louse it up. Matching (or, if you will, marrying) this device to The Front Page, so famous for its bite and cynicism, resulted in the most bracingly adult screwball comedy (and romance) of them all. Hawks and Lederer found a fresh spin on the remarriage comedy, making the question not how the wandering spouse will find her way home but how she’ll get back to work.”)

“I suggested earlier that one has to cut through layers of superimposed cultural meaning to get down to what The Witch is. And this interlude in which I’ve described Eggers’ fastidious focus on craft might make it sound like I’m about to assert that The Witch is a tightly controlled aesthetic exercise rather than an ideological statement—a painting rather than a thesis paper. But I don’t think Eggers is a “formalist,” if we’re defining formalism as privileging the aesthetic over the thematic. He uses craft as a conduit for empathy. It’s telling that Eggers praises Bergman’s technique in the same breath as he praises Bergman’s compassion—and Sven Nyqvist’s. To call a cinematographer “compassionate” is to assert that the camera’s gaze can be loving, dignifying; it is to assert that the act of photographing people, and portraying them honestly and generously, carries moral weight.” For Lauren Wilford, once the inevitably over-simplified political and feminist readings of The Witch have faded away, the movie can be taken for what it is: a debut promising a great, idiosyncratic career.

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