Over the years the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh have been acquired by Disney, so the muscle of the world’s savviest media corporation stands behind the winsome cartoon bear. If that doesn’t already seem like a mismatch, it will after you see Goodbye Christopher Robin, a British film about the origins of Pooh. This gentle movie examines what happens when a cartoon character becomes a media phenomenon.
Human Flow is not a documentary by a journalist, or a traditional activist. If it were, it might be 25 hours long, with abundant background on the history of the world’s current refugee disasters and a guidebook on how these terrible problems—the worst since the end of World War II, with 65 million people displaced—can be addressed. Instead, Human Flow is a film by an artist, albeit one famous for his dissidence against his country’s government. This is Ai Weiwei, whose art-world celebrity has only been enhanced by his battles with Chinese officials (he’s now based in Berlin). With Human Flow, Ai does something that has recently ignited debate in documentary circles: He takes a terrible subject and makes it beautiful.
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Save the Tiger is the sort of film that can give a well-intentioned film teacher nightmares. It’s so easy to imagine an equally well-intentioned, beginning student turning in a scene-by-scene breakdown of the narrative that faultlessly demonstrates as serious a thematic—indeed, didactic—purpose and as constant and consistent a stylistic application as one could ask to discover—all without realizing that the film itself remains dead, dead-ended, its conclusion foregone from the first. Producer Steve Shagan’s screenplay themes the viewer right into the ground with its highly unspontaneous collection of invocations of what we have lost as a nation: baseball played on real instead of plastic turf, oriental-dream movie palaces featuring The Best Years of Our Lives instead of skin flicks with selfrighteous, socially redeeming narration, garments cut by a master craftsman, Cole Porter, a sense of what World War II was all about (or even a memory that it was fought)….
The New York Times Magazine offers a pair of profiles that emerge more complementary than you might expect. Alexander Chee finds Park Chan-wook committed to his modest domesticity, as fond of photographs and cats as Chris Marker, and proud of his self-taught sense of filmmaking. (“When you say you go to a film school in America or France, you would probably go to a lecture where they teach you about German Expressionism and show you what these German Expressionist films are…. But in Korea there was no systematic education I could be exposed to. It was sporadic, haphazard. And maybe that’s why my films have ended up in this strange form, where it feels like it’s a mishmash of everything.”) While the mercurial Amy Adams, as profiled by Manohla Dargis, is steelier than her doe-eyed image suggests, if invariably polite, just as protective as the South Korean master of her personal life, and just as notably autodidact—about her feminist sensibilities. (“When a writer friend pitched Adams to a studio for another project, the limits of Spielberg’s largess became conspicuous. The studio’s response, as Adams described it to me, was: ‘Oh, the homely girl from Catch Me if You Can.’ That’s preposterous and offensive, and typical of the industry’s sexism. Adams, however, didn’t frame it that way: ‘I can’t blame anything other than I did not do my best at that point. I don’t think I inspired confidence.’”)
Another intriguing pair as Geoffrey O’Brien does double duty for Criterion on Welles’s Othello (“You may begin to wonder how much we even need the words. Here and elsewhere, Othello communicates as the most eloquent of silent films. It could be thought of, to borrow a phrase from Duke Ellington, as a “tone parallel” to the play, with Shakespeare’s language forming only one strand of a mix in which music (Angelo Francesco Lavagnino developed his score in close collaboration with Welles), sound effects, visual design, and human faces each count for at least as much.”) and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (“Yet the more intimately present this reality becomes, the more ephemeral and ghostly the people in it seem. The past never stops being the past; the images freeze and recede into a frame, beyond our reach. That effect of doubleness is compounded by Kubrick’s recurrent visual trope of slow zooms moving back from the action to reveal the indifferent landscape within which it is taking place. Those reverse zooms signal an incursion from the future, a telescope traveling through time as much as through space.”)
[originally published in October 2013, this review has been revived to honor Danielle Darrieux, who died this week at the age of 100 – ed.]
The European films of Max Ophuls are elaborate dances of romance and seduction in a world of social constraints and fickle lovers, and his 1953 The Earrings of Madame de…, considered by some critics one of the perfect pictures of cinema, is the most elegant of these melancholy waltzes. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story in time and space and black and white.
Danielle Darrieux is the Madame de… of the title, an old-world socialite in 19th century Paris in a marriage of convenience to confident, cultured diplomat Charles Boyer. She plays the Countess as a supremely poised actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, such as fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or to stop a confrontation at a dance. Boyer gives the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Together they master the illusion of the perfect social pair while spending their free time dallying with flirtatious suitors and casual lovers, but the illusion is shattered when the Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) enters the picture.
Vincent Van Gogh’s life has been fodder for many movies, and it’s easy to understand the appeal: The painter embodies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist, and the subject offers meaty visual possibilities. Plus, the drama! How many biopics build to a scene where the hero slices off part of his own ear? Not many actors can pass up the chance to play that, and the role has served strong performers such as Kirk Douglas (in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life) and Tim Roth (in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo). I will argue that the cinema’s best Van Gogh was not seen but heard; in Paul Cox’s lovely 1987 film Vincent, John Hurt recites Vincent’s letters while images of the paintings fill the screen. Yes, everybody’s letters would sound magnificent read aloud by Hurt, but he really brings out the intelligence and sensitivity within Vincent’s raging spirit.
The painter is again little-seen in the animated Loving Vincent, which attempts a unique approach.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is the second reboot of the first superstar of the 21st century superhero boom since Sam Raimi’s hit trilogy and this time Sony (who still owns the movie rights) has handed the creative reins over to Marvel Studios and allowed them to integrate the webslinger into the Marvel Comics Movie Universe.
Tom Holland actually made his big screen debut as Spider-Man, once again a hapless high school kid just like in the original comics, in Captain American: Civil War, recruited by Tony Stark to be his secret weapon against Captain America’s rebel heroes. After holding his own in his big league try-out, Holland carries Spider-Man: Homecoming with the youthful spirit of a high school brainiac nerd with the fresh charge of superpowers he’s still mastering, the unseasoned hero eager to impress reluctant mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and make the leap from the streets of Queens to the big leagues of The Avengers.
This film wisely dispenses with the whole origin story and reintroduces us to the rookie wall crawler by revisiting his Civil War coming out party from the excited kid’s point-of-view via Parker’s camera-phone. It’s a perfect entry into this variation on the Marvel house style, capturing not just the charge but the culture of social engagement of a high school kid, a YouTube take on superhero spectacle in the first person.
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Burt Kennedy is one of those fitfully interesting but dreadfully unreliable minor talents whose films are saved—when they are saved—by (frequently unassimilated) quirks in his style and treatment. Hannie Caulder, that bizarre European-based western of last year, included a wealth of outrageousness that seemed to presage a return to grace and a renewal of promise for Kennedy the director: Raquel Welch strutting around the desert naked under a poncho, Robert Culp prancing auspiciously out of the wilderness in El Topo hat and granny glasses to teach her how to shoot; brothers Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam forming a manically inept criminal trio who nevertheless managed to be lethal for two of Hannie’s menfolk; Christopher Lee as a gaunt and happy gunsmith and family man living on the seashore; and a never-identified stranger in elegant black who materialized wordlessly now and again to collaborate in Hannie’s adventures.
The new issue of Screening the Past, as always, features some interesting articles about the history of Australian film, including Dirk de Bruyn’s praise of the sparse, often years in the making works of experimental filmmaker Lynsey Martin (“That Light and Dark was initiated in 1973 and completed 25 years later defines and overwhelms this film and tests its content as a forgotten memory. Somehow the film folds in on itself, embracing all that frustration and darkness of the lost open-ended unfinished works. The period of its making bridges all of it.”) and Lesley Speed’s unearthing of the lost origins of Ozploitation (“That Australian exploitation films are part of mainstream local cinema is exemplified by the career of director P. J. Ramster…. By 1925, P. J. Ramster Photoplays was one of the “more established” local film companies and the director used his prominence to support the local industry by calling for a government quota requiring exhibitors to screen a percentage of Australian films. Whereas American “exploiteers kept fairly low profiles” because “little” was “to be gained by notoriety, Ramster’s career reflects a more contradictory combination of prominence and low critical regard.”).
But the issue kicks off with a dossier on the still overwhelming influence on many filmmakers of Stanley Kubrick. Peter Krämer shows the strong influence of 2001 on the making and marketing of Avatar (“There is an implied promise here that eventually all of humankind might learn to evolve to a higher level through its interaction with the life forms of Pandora, in the same way that in 2001 the transformation of astronaut David Bowman into a “Star-Child” was meant to signal that humanity could develop into a more highly evolved state”), Yeqi Zhu traces the long shadow of The Shining over Hong Kong horror films (“[T]he post-‘golden age’ Hong Kong horror films influenced by The Shining increasingly shift their focus from the realm of the supernatural towards ‘realistic’ and psychological reworkings of Kubrick’s film”), while Stella Louis considers his influence on the genre in the west (“The same observation can be applied to the house in Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997), the desert in Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002), the high school in Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003), or the film set in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). They are all presented as maze-like, labyrinthine spaces”). Other aspects of the director’s legacy are explored in James Fenwick’s look at the curation of museum exhibits devoted to Kubrick (“The curation of Stanley Kubrick: Cult Auteur played into a trend for the need in Kubrick fandom to acquire a closer experiential understanding of Kubrick and his films. It is part of the fetishising of Kubrick, with the exhibition being part of a series of exhibitions that offer new perspectives via a tangible physical look at objects that Kubrick possessed and worked with and to use these to re-consume and re-interpret his work”) and Filippo Ulivieri’s account of collaborating with Kubrick’s assistant Emilio D’Alessandro on what would be one of a flood of memoirs from collaborators (“By comparing the varied views of Kubrick, I began to think that he behaved quite differently in and out of his directorial work. When he was developing a story with a writer, or setting up a budget with the financiers, or testing the actors, or directing his crew – then he indulged in whatever strategy he felt was needed for achieving the desired result. I believe this might account for a feeling of aloofness and bewilderment in some of the memoirs.”)
Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.
An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.
Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Any movie that runs two-and-one-half-hours-plus yet doesn’t have one glancing at his watch has to have something going for it. And The Ruling Class does, as long as deep thoughts about the medium don’t enter into it. The medium gets kicked about as freely as most other conventions: theatrical. social, familial, and the resulting film has the exuberance one might associate with a first-rate college revue. The collegians involved include some of the most reliable mainstays of the British stage and screen, and the genre is that mainstayingest of them all, the what-fun-it-is-to-roast-the-upper-classes genre that has made the fame and fortune of many a literary radical. The difference is that The Ruling Class shows itself to be aware of the implicit, frequently unacknowledged corollary: and-whom-could-we-pick-on-if-they-weren’t-around? The answer turns out to be: just about anybody.
“A Girl’s Own Story stands out for the concrete stylistic choices elaborated in each scene, but also owes much to an overall tone: passionless, desolate. This atmosphere is soaked in the experience of a world that is too small and gives too little, a world filled with boring rituals and sickening family dynamics. Costume, décor, and sound play an important role in the depiction of this milieu. Listening to the film attentively, one can appreciate that there are many details unifying its soundscape: music cues that are never gratuitous; voices coming from TV sets; animal, electrical, and human background noises. However, the main dialogue sounds raw, as if projected into a void space.” Cristina Álvarez López offers a sympathetic reading of Jane Campion’s A Girl’s Own Story that remains somewhat in awe how fully-formed and still ambitious the director was in this 25-minute short.
“And what does that puppet master have to say about the accusations of sexism and promoting real-life violence addressed in Tenebrae? He actually seems to agree with them. This film is an utterly despairing, nihilistic vision of art and artists as unable to achieve anything positive in the world. If art can change the world, in Tenebrae, it can only damage it. I’m sure this was adopted as a devil’s advocate position, and the film’s early scenes express it with dark humor, but by the time the film’s final 10 minutes turn into a parade of slaughter, it cuts pretty deeply.” Steve Erickson argues for an appreciation of Argento that doesn’t just acknowledge the filmmaker’s misogyny before passing over it, but keys into the director’s self-awareness of the issue as a way of making his films even more despairing, no-escape labyrinths. Via David Hudson.
No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
It’s possible to see The Heartbreak Kid as a kind of funhouse mirror reflecting the foibles and delusions we all share to some extent. A glance into such a mirror may provoke healthy, rejuvenating laughter or the kind of wearily hip sniggering which passes, in some circles, for wisdom. Elaine May, Neil Simon (screenwriter), and Bruce Jay Friedman (who wrote the original story) have all been guilty in their time of making shallow incisions in the human psyche and calling these forays major surgery. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those who work within the purlieus of the sick joke, the genre of black humor, or the kind of New York–spawned drama that is too often slickly, pseudosophisticatedly dependent upon the diminution of human beings to the level of pathetic, momentarily amusing insects. The Heartbreak Kid is frequently pervaded by a certain nastiness, albeit the well-meaning nastiness of a child methodically taking a butterfly apart to see how it works—or a director pushing her characters to such extremes of behavior that they cease essentially to be human and become one-dimensional butts of cruelly extended jokes.