Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Review: Convoy

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

Convoy continues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoy rumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroes—these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner) at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Sam Peckinpah

Lost “Weekend”

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 20 Number 2, March-April 1984]

Mandeville Canyon is a quiet, curvy stretch of road a good ten miles from Hollywood, lined with well-appointed homes generously separated by shrub and woodland. Where the grade begins to increase, as if the road aspired to eventually climbing out of the surrounding high hills, one’s eyes cast leftward toward a graciously imposing bluff. Ranks of white fence dominate the near horizon and reappear brokenly through the trees on the hillside beyond. From the road they’re the only visible sign of “Robert Taylor’s little cabin where he used to ride horses—in point of fact, a sprawling ranch house replete with baronial dining rooms, parlors, studies, bedrooms, and enough bars to keep the clientele of a metropolitan watering hole happy.

This particular late-afternoon in December 1982, the peace of Mandeville Canyon is not secure. As we park along the roadside and climb out for the walk up the long lane, an abrupt burst of light-machine-gun fire rips the twilight. We are undismayed; indeed, the effect is reassuring, even charming. Someone is tuning up for another night’s shooting on The Osterman Weekend, the first theatrical-movie version of a Robert Ludlum bestseller and the first film Sam Peckinpah has directed in five years.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Brass Target

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Scrapers of cinematic barrel bottoms, stand advised: John Hough has laid incontestable claim to his long-sought title, the new James Goldstone. This department confesses to having been remiss in not calling your attention to the first change in the wind, the old James Goldstone’s 1977 realization of Rollercoaster, a Sensurround disaster pic so inoffensive, even moderately competent in execution, that it alienated the taken-for-granted audience for such fare and failed at the box office. At this time we can only conjecture whether Goldstone’s unanticipated lurch toward respectability will continue unchecked or prove an aberration in an otherwise execrable track record. Meanwhile Hough, the most flagrantly conscienceless hack to appear in the past decade (Sudden Terror, Treasure Island and above all the loathsome Dirty Mary Crazy Larry), has seized the day.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Valery Todorovsky rocks on in ‘Hipsters’

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 9, 2010]

When it comes to cinema, for some of us (not naming names here), the terms “Russian” and “lugubrious” tend to be interchangeable. So encountering a movie like Hipsters is either liberating or deeply unsettling to one’s core values. This rollicking musical comedy, or comedy with lotsa music, is a hoot.

It’s 1955, and Moscow—or at least a portion of its teens verging on 20somethings—does not believe in tears. On the other hand, quite a few party-line Communist youths do, and some of them are marshaling to conduct a night raid: a group of self-styled “hipsters” their age have gathered in a remote outbuilding to play jazz and dance. When the celebrants twig to the raid and try to escape, scissors-wielding apparatchiks lay hold of them and set about shearing their hair, which is done up in decadent fashion perceived to be Western. One gorgeous blonde (Elena Glikman) breaks free and runs into the adjacent park, with fervent reformer Mels (Anton Shagin) in pursuit. Even though the dance has been broken up, rambunctious jazz music continues on the soundtrack and scores their chase through the trees, tracked by a rushing camera in CinemaScope ecstasy.

Actually, Mels isn’t necessarily all that fervent in his commitment to repression. It’s more a matter of his having been browbeaten into it by his party supervisor and sorta-girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya), a dark-haired zealot who gives every indication of being a stunner if only someone were to melt her severity a little. He catches up with the fleeing blonde, who identifies herself as Polza, which a second later isotopically transmutes into “Polly.” Even nicknames are vehicles for decadent Western influence, and it’s not long before Mels has become (say it isn’t so, comrade!) “Mel.”

Hipsters is one of two films representing SIFF 2010 Emerging Master Valery Todorovsky. The other, the 1998 Land of the Deaf, was not available for preview.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Old Gold

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]

Some authentic rarities this week in this week’s SIFF archival programs. Saturday, May 29, 1 p.m. at Harvard Exit brings Senso, a 1954 film by Luchino Visconti that’s come to the screen in several versions — including one with English dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles! Alida Valli stars as an Italian countess who, in the midst of widespread war and nationalist protest in 1866, enters upon a doomed love affair with Austrian officer Farley Granger. (The director originally hoped to cast Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando in the roles — the first of many changes forced on him.) For all but the most devout of Visconti fans, the film is legendary mostly for its Technicolor, which should fully validate the title in this Film Foundation restoration.

Nothing rare about On the Waterfront (Sunday, May 30, 1:30 p.m., Harvard Exit), but if you’ve somehow managed to miss Elia Kazan’s Oscar-sweeping Christ allegory of betrayal and redemption on the New Jersey docks, here’s your chance to atone. This was the 1954 engagement that kept Marlon Brando occupied, giving the performance many have hailed as the finest in American cinema; certainly it’s among the most definitive and memorable. The whole cast is extraordinary (three supporting-actor nominees: Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger), and Leonard Bernstein contributes his sole original score for a dramatic motion picture.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings III

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 2, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy light up the third week of the festival

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck, USA, 2009; 91 mins.)

Buried in this all-over-the-map meditation on Japan’s fascination with insects are lovely, nearly mystical moments. Did you know that there’s actually a country where little boys beg their daddies to buy them a handsome horned beetle, and families travel out into the country to enjoy the nocturnal beauty of fireflies? A place where festivals celebrate and aficionados enjoy the “crying” music of crickets and cicadas? The Japanese love their bugs (not just Mothra), which show up all over the place in pop culture, art and philosophy. An animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Jessica Oreck is no filmmaker, but she gives us an often stunning snapshot of a national psyche that’s capable of embracing the poetry of insects, whose brief lives reflect our own transience. —KAM

Ondine (Neil Jordan, Ireland/U.S.A., 2009; 111 mins.)

It would be silly, of course, to build a movie around the question of whether a beautiful woman pulled from the sea in a West Cork fisherman’s net might be a mermaid. But a selkie, now—a creature with the capability of transforming from seal to woman and back again—that’s another matter entirely, and a fine vehicle for writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, The Miracle) to once more travel the border where fantasy and scuffed-up reality trade valences.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings IV

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 9, 2010]

Notes on the final week by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

Protektor
(Marek Najbrt, Czech Republic/Germany, 2009; 98 mins.)

The World War II years remain an inexhaustible source of dramatic material, and as our culture grows ever more amnesiac, it’s probably salutary that filmmakers keep trying to find ways into the period. Set in the Prague of 1938-42—from Hitler’s bloodless occupation of Czechoslovakia to the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich and the ensuing Nazi reprisals—Protektor eschews the conventional big-picture approach to focus on a married couple whose lives are being transformed. Hana (Jana Plodková), a glamorous movie actress primed for stardom, sees her career aborted because she’s Jewish; the non-Jewish Emil (Marek Daniel), one among a staff of announcers for the state radio station, becomes a star after his chief rival is sidelined for political outspokenness. Effectively under house arrest, Hana contrives ways to recast her life as her own imaginative movie—posing in grab photos flouting the many anti-Semitic prohibitions posted everywhere, and getting back into the cinema literally, by sneaking into the moviehouse next door. Emil, freer to roam, keeps getting seduced personally and professionally, each seduction becoming another kind of trap.

Oh look, I just recast life as imaginative movie, making Protektor seem a more provocative film than it is. In fact of point, the narrative and the chronology hop around to little coherent purpose, and the way the images are optically magicked at every turn is more masturbatory than illuminating. The film’s closest brush with distinction is its suggestion how accidental history and becoming a part of history can be. (Better you should rent the chilling 1943 Lang-Brecht movie Hangmen Also Die!) —RTJ

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings II

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out the fest’s second week

The Hedgehog (Mona Achache, France, 2009; 98 mins.)

This quietly affecting French fairy tale features one of the most adorable children ever, a grave-faced prodigy whose thick, curly blond hair always gets in her eyes, complicating the removal of her spectacles. Like the hero of Harold and Maude, young Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic, excellent) plans suicide, which she’s scheduled for her upcoming birthday. Her metaphor for life, based on the behavior of her wealthy, empty-headed family, is a fishbowl in which hypocrites and neurotics bang uselessly against the glass until they die. A prepubescent Sartre armed with deadpan wit, this kid films everything and everyone, adding to the documentary that will be her legacy.

Then Paloma comes to know Mme. Michel, her apartment building’s apparently lumpen concierge, and an exotic new tenant named Ozu (Togo Igawa), parental stand-ins who don’t fit her “fishbowl” philosophy. (As Mme. Michel, Josiane Balasko deserves special praise for the way she lets light slowly leak from her character’s armor, and the rictus of her homely face relax into expressiveness.) The tender connection that grows between the prickly yet internally elegant “hedgehog” and the namesake of a director who famously immortalized familial relations is wonderful in and of itself — but it also becomes an unexpected exemplum for our youthful nihilist. A Gallic fable about seizing the day, The Hedgehog weaves gentle magic, but pulls no punches when it comes to life’s dead stops, as cruel and heartbreaking as the image of a bright child pulverizing pills in preparation for her final hour. —KAM

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Truly Golden Oldies

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Hand me a film festival catalogue and the first thing I’m going to look for is the archival stuff.

It’s not just that the odds (and classical discipline) favor an older movie being better than a new one. A lot of worthy films have never received their just due, or have dropped out of circulation. Some have been given up as lost: no prints or negative known to survive.

Still, miracles happen. Some “lost” films have been sitting in the studio vaults all along, in mislabeled cans. Or a print may turn up in a Mittel-European or South American archive, its title translated into something unrecognizable. And sometimes people — whose grandfather used to be a projectionist, say — find the darnedest things sitting forgotten in the attic.

Festival screenings are often the best opportunities we’ll ever have to catch up with such movies. They also offer the chance to watch restorations of movies we’ve seen, but seen only in cut or bashed-up or dupe prints, or via improperly formatted TV or home-video presentations. And don’t shortchange the privilege of encountering them on the big, communal screen they were intended for.

In a spirit of “celebrating the landmark films that continue to shape our cinematic future,” SIFF 2010 is presenting nine vintage feature films, two documentary looks into movie history and three silent pictures with live musical accompaniment.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings I

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out opening-week films

Prince of Tears (Yonfan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2009; 122 mins.)

Who knew that about the same time (the early 1950s) McCarthyism was peaking in the United States, a parallel reign of terror was sweeping the supposedly free island of Formosa. The official bugaboo in both cases was Communism. McCarthy wrecked careers, but on Formosa suspicion of collaboration with the Red Chinese across the Taiwan Strait could get you imprisoned or executed — sometimes right on the spot.

Prince of Tears aims to illuminate this period by way of something very like a fairy tale, centered on a family torn asunder by historical forces and personal pathology. Sounds worthy and interesting. Unfortunately, writer-director Yonfan looks to be the anti–Hou Hsiao-hsien; unlike that Taiwanese master, he has no interest in ambiguity and no talent for the kind of patient, non-manipulative observation that allows connections and truths to be discovered out of the corner of one’s eye (or not at all). Everything is simpleminded — and no, “fairy tale” doesn’t have to mean simpleminded — as amped up and brainless as the surges of flagrantly heightened color that occasionally inflame the pretty landscape. Oh yeah, Yonfan’s an art director, too. —RTJ

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