Ken Loach, that old British leftie director, keeps up his commitment to the poor and disenfranchised with The Angels’ Share, his latest collaboration with equally socially conscious screenwriter Paul Laverty. It’s set in the familiar Loach environs of troubled youth, the unemployed, and the eternal underclass—here specifically the slums of Glasgow. But after the political dramas Route Irish and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach instead builds an underdog, offbeat comedy on the scruffy camaraderie of some two-time losers. He directs it with warmth and affection.
Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has his past carved into his face like a road map. He’s got a prison record, a history of violence, and a short temper. But now he’s also a young father desperate for a fresh start, even while admitting he’s “stuck in the same old shite”—at least until his community-service supervisor (John Henshaw) introduces him to the venerable Scottish tradition of distilling whisky. Then Robbie discovers he has a nose and a knack for fine spirits.
Ricky Jay is arguably the greatest master of sleight-of-hand and legerdemain in America today, but he’s more than an old-school magician with contemporary wit. He’s an actor, sure, a familiar presence in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, yet he’s also a historian of magic and showbiz oddities, a collector of stories and lore. He’s an author, raconteur, and showman who prefers to work as “a close-up magician,” as he’s called in Molly Bernstein’s admiring documentary. He is a wonder with cards, his tool of choice; and the nonchalance of his presentation makes his mastery all the more riveting.
It’s back. The Seattle International Film Festival, the biggest, the longest, and the best attended film festival in America, opens on Thursday, May 16 with Joss Whendon’s Much Ado About Nothing. That was announced a few weeks and news that the director and much of his cast (drawn from various orbits of the Whedonverse) would appear with the film on opening night helped make this the fastest sell-out opening event SIFF has seen.
Announced today is the closing night film: The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s new feature with Emma Watson as the ringleader of a gang of teenagers who target celebrities to rob via social networking tools, simply for the kick of rubbing up against the famous while taking them for all they are worth. It’s based on a true story and seems ready made as a tale for our celebrity-obsessed times.
In between these films is 24 days of screenings with over 200 feature films (that includes the four Secret Festival screenings), 67 documentaries, and 175 shorts. (SIFF is an Academy qualifying festival for live-action, animated, and starting this year documentary shorts.) 18 features make their respective world premieres.
Gala showings include two films with Seattle connections: Touchy Feely from Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton (which kicks off six days of screenings in Renton) and Decoding Annie Parker, which dramatizes the true story of cancer research breakthrough guided by UW geneticist Mary-Claire King (played in the film by Helen Hunt).
Other galas and special event screenings include The Way, Way Back from writers / directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “Gay-La” event G.B.F., Fanie Fourie’s Lobola from South Africa (the centerpiece of the African Pictures section), Populaire from France, Papadopoulos and Sons from the U.K., Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies with Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilder, and the documentaries Twenty Feet from Stardom, Inequality for All, and Somm.
Thanks to a grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, SIFF will present a special section of 15 films from Africa, including the North American premiere of Last Flight to Abuja from Nigeria: the first Nollywood film to play SIFF.
In honor of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Parallax View offers a festival flashback: the Movietone News report from the 20th SFIFF.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
The 20th San Francisco International Film Festival was … lively.
A half-dozen outstanding films from Europe were perhaps the most newsworthy events (and my list does not include the two popular successes of the festival, Truffaut’s Small Change and Kurosawa’s DersuUzala,whose screenings I was unable to attend). But it was also a memorable festival because of its stimulating variety. Last year’s program was singularly dull, and even its high points seemed to confirm a sense of despair and dead ends, artistically and otherwise. [See “Out of Season”, MTN 46.] But this year San Francisco not only came up with good movies; it also managed to be festive in a way that livened one’s sense of the art and its possibilities.
Films by Alain Tanner, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Miller, Eric Rohmer, and Marco Bellocchio all demonstrated that, contrary to well-founded rumors, the cinema is not dead yet. And there was more: Hollywood on Trial, a documentary, became the catalyst for some revealing “political” moments; Pierre Rissient’s One Night Stand drew an audience reaction which suggested that Nouveau Puritans are everywhere, still; a goodly number of short films reaffirmed the value of work being done in that less-publicized area of filmmaking; and recent Spanish cinema, thanks to some special screenings, began to look like a significant factor in current moviemaking.
But it’s the website of Tony Macklin that’s the real treasure trove. Macklin, former editor of Film Heritage magazine, has been posting the (crudely captured, fair warning) recordings of his interviews here; the most recently posted, up just this week, is a dandy 1973 chat with Andrew Sarris; previous subjects include Altman, Eastwood, Peckinpah, Poitier, Sylbert, Head…. Just look; there’ll be somebody you’re dying to hear talk.
Matthew Spektor’s stint as a director of literary acquisitions (i.e., the guy who read and recommended books), starting with Coppola and DeVito, taught him that Hollywood does actually know what they’re doing; and what they’re doing is tossing the middle class on the scrap heap.
“Post-modernism before the fact—trash-mashing the ghastly with the frivolous, history and horror trumped by consumer products, the grim and the soothing, the high and the low together, sleeping in one Procrustean bed.” At This Long Century Mark Rappaport has a typically allusive, thought-provoking essay on the stills from Children of Paradise that beguiled him as a youngster, and the magazine he found them in: a 1945 issue of Life juxtaposing grim stories of the surrender of Germany with slick, bouncy adverts.
Imogen Smith revels in the melodramatic (and actorly) pleasures of Lewis Allen’s So Evil My Love, wherein “theft, forgery, blackmail, murder, sickness, alcoholism, adultery, and betrayals that have no name corrode this world from the inside, like a drug that numbs as it kills.”
Physical perfection has been an ideal for as long as there has been civilization, celebrated in games and competitions, extolled in song and story, captured in paintings and, since the late 19th century, photographs and movies. That inspiration continues today. In Pain and Gain, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson pump iron to sculpt themselves into the bodybuilder ideal, modeling themselves on such specimens as Arnold Schwarzenegger, WWE champions and Mr. Olympia winners. Where they get off track in their pursuit of the American dream is when they put their hard bodies into the service of an ill-advised plot involving extortion and kidnapping. All that muscle seems to have gone to their heads when it should have gone to straight to the abs and pecs.
That ideal of rippling musculature and hard definition across the arms, legs and chests was not always the model of masculine perfection. The muscleman of earlier eras with bulkier and brawnier, more like a beefy circus strongman or barrel-chested wrestler, and the image evolved thanks to the examples set by fitness gurus like Jack LaLanne and bodybuilders like Steve Reeves. Here’s a look at the changing image of fitness and strength and physical perfection on the screen, from the strongman of the silent days to the beefcake heroes of Hollywood spectacles to the oiled-up warrior in the new Hollywood version of the ancient world soldiers and gladiators.
Giovanni Pastrone’s lavish historical epic stirs warriors, pirates, slaves, a volcano eruption, a demanding god and an orphan girl tossed to the fates into a tale of the ancient world before Christ. The story is pure stage melodrama, but the sets and pageantry is magnificent, unlike anything seen on the screen before, and it launched a worldwide passion for cinematic spectacles. It also launched the cinema’s first muscleman hero: Maciste. Played with jolly passion by the brawny Bartolomeo Pagano, who developed his impressive figure working as a longshoreman in Genoa, Maciste was a gentle giant of a strongman and a brawny teddy bear of a hero, and Pagano brought Maciste up to the present in a long-running series of lively adventure films that blurred the line between onscreen hero and offscreen persona.
When the muscleman movies made a comeback in Italy in the ’60s, they were called Hercules or Samson or Goliath in the U.S., but back in Italy, most of them were the beloved Maciste. None of the subsequent actors succeeded in recapturing the big kid charm of Pagano.
Circus acrobat, clown, cabaret star, artist, actor, and for a brief time director, Pierre Etaix (pronounced eh-TEX) is one of the great comedy treasures of France. It wasn’t meant to be a secret, but his relatively small body of work as a director—he made five features (four comedies and a documentary) and three comedy shorts between 1961 and 1971—was out of circulation for four decades due to legal issues. They were freed only in 2009, restored in 2010, and rereleased in France to great acclaim. Seeing them for the first time is a revelation.
His debut short Rupture (1961), a nearly wordless one-man show with Étaix as a jilted lover whose entire world quite literally comes apart around him while he tries to write a response to a break-up letter. He won an Oscar for his second short film, Happy Anniversary (1962), where he’s on the losing side of a war with modern urban life while his wife awaits his return home. The dialogue is spare to say the least—his films could play sans subtitles and be just as effective—and he uses music just as sparingly. The audio punchlines are all in the cartoonish sound effects pumped up to a surreal prominence.
His masterpiece is Yoyo (1965), an almost silent comedy that in fact begins with an evocation of the silent era and ends with a wry jab at sixties TV culture. Étaix directs, co-writes (with Jean-Claude Carrière, his collaborator on every film except his documentary), and stars in two roles: a ruined millionaire who joins the circus with a beautiful trick rider and his own grown son, who becomes a celebrated clown and returns home to restore the neglected mansion. It’s quite gentle and sweet, with a quiet yearning under his masterful comic performance and hilarious comic inventions, but Étaix is a gag man first and foremost and “Yo-Yo” is filled with brilliant and sublime gags and physical humor.
As both filmmaker and comic screen persona, the obvious comparisons are to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton: the silent movie clown in a sound world. He worked with Tati as a gag writer and cartoonist, creating Tati’s trademark caricature used on many of his film posters, and he is a master at shaping a visual gag with the grace of a dancing master and the imagination of a cartoonist. His hangdog expression, poised between curiosity and measured focus, has the shadow of Keaton’s stone-faced resilience in the face of adversity.
But where Tati refuses to let the confounding modern world phase his optimism, and Keaton overcomes adversity with inspiration and tenacity, Etaix simply endures, resigned to every setback and compromise in a modern social culture he can never quite fit into. In that, and in the way Etaix keeps rolling his visual punchlines into a new gag, he shares a sensibility (if not exactly a temperament) with Jerry Lewis, a director he admired so much he wrote a book about him. Like Lewis, the Etaix protagonist is a man at odds with the world around him. He is, however, much more discreet and elegant in the way he loses his tangles with social conundrums and physical obstacles.
Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ
[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]
Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.
The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). MajorDundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Despite its director’s solid critical and commercial reputation and a Cannes Festival showing, TheNickel Ridearrived in Seattle well over a year late, as a first-run second feature to a new film being ballyhooed via the moronic action-film come-on. (That the new film happens to be a fine one, meriting very different advertising and going largely unseen by its proper audience as a result of its unpleasant sell—Robert Aldrich’s Hustle—ismomentarily beside the point.) It’s easy to see why the film has been neglected by its distributor and downplayed by reviewers: a “depressing” story, set mostly in a dim, unglamorous locale, unfolding apparently within a generic context where hard and/or shrill action melodrama is the normal order of business—crime and those who practice or live on the edge of it—but without delivering the customary goods at the customary rhythms of shock and bruised relief, shock and bruised relief….
And to be perfectly fair, we ought to point out that TheNickel Rideis more an honorable failure than, when ya get right down to it, a good movie. Like so many of his contemporaries, from prestigious directors like Penn to the younger program picturemakers with a view to being “taken seriously,” Mulligan has turned to the film noir as a framework for spiritual dissection of the world we seem to be living in and some of the ways we elect for going about it. His frames, his spaces, his people’s movements bespeak a selfconsciousness and seriousness as impeccable as, say, Antonioni’s. Indeed, a good deal of TheNickel Rideconsists of Jason Miller’s dark, massive, weary head sloped to a telephone receiver at the extreme right or extreme left of a wide Panavision rectangle hung in some gray-brown second-story space. Miller plays Cooper—Coop, if you want to be iconographic about it, though Mulligan manages not to insist—the “key-man” who holds the means of access to clandestine warehouses more violent types rely on as places to dump their freshly ill-gotten gains until the heat’s off. Cooper is also the long-established Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a godfather to his neighborhood where fixing fights and staking petty heist artists appear to be the most extreme forms of criminal behavior. It’s a job, and as Cooper leans milky-blue–suited through the gashing early-morning sun and pauses to listen to a bar-owner pal gripe about the rat race before hauling a carton of milk up to his office, anyone who has ever grown accustomed to the rituals and rhythms of a neighborhood while babysitting a store or office there will feel the correspondences in his gut.
Jackie Chan’s landmark action spectacles “Police Story” and “Police Story 2” debut on Blu-ray stateside this week on a double-feature disc (reviewed on Videodrone here). These films were blockbuster smashes in Hong Kong and international hits everywhere except the U.S., and they changes the course of Hong Kong film industry.
If you like this brand of action cinema – and what’s not to like? – here’s a list of a dozen more landmarks from the madcap glory days of Hong Kong action cinema from “Police Story” to 1995. All of these were released on disc stateside (a lot of great Hong Kong action is still only available as imports) and while some are out of print, they can usually be found at surviving video stores that cater to fans of cult movies. Support one today! Those available on streaming services are also noted.
This is not a definitive list, mind you, just completely subjective a starting point: a dozen gonzo action films with a delirious sense if kinetic logic that made Hong Kong cinema of the eighties and early nineties the cult destination for films fans the world over.
Armour of God (renamed Operation Condor 2: The Armour of God for American home video) (1986, Echo Bridge Blu-ray and DVD / Netflix streaming) – Jackie Chan’s globe-trotting parody of the “Indiana Jones” films remains bright, colorful, and great fun. As befits an international adventurer, Jackie spends more time in grand set pieces and elaborate stunts than actual hand to hand combat, but the slam bang finale has more kinetic action than most American films offer in an entire feature. Try to get the Hong Kong import because the American version is cut.
A Better Tomorrow (1986, Anchor Bay DVD) – While not John Woo’s first films, I consider this gangster thriller the first “John Woo” film: his articulation of speed and movement, runaway-train pacing, and razor precise editing explode onto the screen unlike anything he’d created before. His elemental themes of ideals and family, duty and honor, emerge from the story of a high level triad and his younger brother, a rookie cop oblivious to his elder’s activities, but supporting player Chow Yun-fat shines them off the screen with his cool charm.
The Killer (1989, Vivendi Blu-ray and DVD) – The suave and silky Chow Yun-fat is the soulful hitman in the explosive crime thriller that established John Woo’s international reputation. Woo balances high octane action, hard edged violence, operatic melodrama and stylized editing that would make Peckinpah catch his breath into a magnificent obsession of an action movie classic.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991, Sony DVD) – Tsui Hark’s sweeping martial arts epic is a historical action picture as new wave pulp. Jet Li rose to stardom as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung: healer, teacher, and wicked scrapper when his mild mannered ways are pushed to the limit. That’s easily done when the British, the Americans, and the French bring gunboat diplomacy to 1875 China. The history is pure flag waving heroics, but the set pieces are masterful, the color and the choreography are magnificent, and Jet Li get almost airborne while fighting on ladders swooshing back and forth in a grain elevator.