Wednesday, September 27, 2017

From The Dispatch:
Like its predecessor, it is long, loud, and has a nasty streak a mile wide, bludgeoning the audience over the head with constant, overly CGI-enhanced action sequences that feel more like cartoons than fights with actual stakes. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by recent films like “Atomic Blonde,” whose bruising action scenes feel more grounded and actually mean something. Every punch is felt and has real consequences for the narrative. The action scenes in “Kingsman” feel like the gee-whiz daydreams of a pre-teen boy playing with action figures.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, September 25, 2017

GUN FURY (1953, Twilight Time)

Raoul Walsh made some iconic films in his time (White Heat and The Public remain two of the touchstones of the gangster genre). This 3D not one of those. Made near the end of his long career, and starring Rock Hudson and Donna Reed, Gun Fury is a pretty standard issue genre picture about a former Union soldier left for dead after a stagecoach robbery, who rides out to take vengeance on the former confederates (remember when they were the bad guys?) who kidnapped his fiancee.

The hokey 3D cinematography has left the film tinted an odd shade of blue, but beyond its cosmetic issues, the film just isn't that interesting. Hudson is a strangely bland hero, Reed a lifeless heroine. Only the villains provide any real life to the proceedings - with Philip Carey and a young Lee Marvin chewing the scenery as two of the heavies.  The problem isn't that it's bad; it's a perfectly serviceable western adventure, but it never rises above the level of a middle of the road shoot-em-up that feels decidedly mediocre.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

LAWMAN (1971, Twilight Time)

On the surface, Michael Winner's Lawman appears to be a typical western template - a group of cattle rustlers guns down a man during a drunken, rowdy night, and are pursued by a straight-shooting marshal (Burt Lancaster) who is determined to bring them to justice. What isn't typical is the subtext that Winner (Death Wish) weaves throughout this gritty morality tale that is made up more of shades of gray than black and white. Lancaster's titular lawman, Jared Maddox, is judge, jury, and executioner, more concerned with gunning down his targets than actually bringing them in for a trial. His targets, under the employ of a wealthy cattle baron, are willing to negotiate, as the patriarch has had enough killing on both sides. And the town's marshal, Cotton Ryan Cotten (Robert Ryan), is on the baron's payroll and so tired of bloodshed that he would rather avoid rocking the town boat than seek justice.

Lawman is a tale of police brutality and small town corruption as much as it is a shoot-em-up western, a film where no one is truly good or truly bad. Rather than give us stereotypical western outlaws, Winner paints the story's villains as three dimensional people, so much so that we often find ourselves sympathizing with their plight. And while Maddox appears to be a pillar of lawful virtue, he is almost a terrorist in his own right, descending on the small western town like a deadly whirlwind, bringing violence to their once sleepy streets. One could read the film as just another western of lawful good versus chaotic evil, but Lawman is so much more than that. It almost presages Unforgiven's elegiac take on the genre's violent implications, acknowledging that just because someone wears a badge doesn't mean they're the hero.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SEPTEMBER (1987, Twilight Time)

Everyone is in love with someone, but no one is in love with the person who is in love with them in Woody Allen's achingly beautiful September. Overshadowed, perhaps, by Hannah and Her Sisters from the previous year, it is an often forgotten gem of Allen's career. Modeled after the unrequited romantic entanglements of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, September is arguably one of Allen's most emotionally astute dramas. Gone are Allen's neurotic hallmarks (although the film is not devoid of humor), focusing instead on the deeply human wants and desires of his characters.

The story centers around Lane (Mia Farrow), a woman recovering from a suicide attempt at her family's vacation home. She is in love with Peter (Sam Waterston), a struggling writer, who is in turn in love with her best friend, Stephanie (Dianne Wiest). Too busy to notice that the kind older gentleman next door (Denholm Elliot) is also infatuated with her, Lane spends the weekend warring with her overbearing mother (the incomparable Elaine Stritch) and her distant father in law (Jack Warden). Allen shifts between the wants and needs of each character, exploring their deepest desires and their most private faults. Each character feels fully developed and completely real. It's one of Allen's most free-flowing films, drifting in and out of each character's story without a strong central plot, drawing us into their unique stories before reaching one of his most beautifully burnished crescendos.

It's telling that the film is called September - the first month of autumn, as each of the film's characters seem to be poised at a crossroads in their lives. It is a film that feels haunted by sense of inevitable change, of passing time and chances fading away, like summer turning slowly into fall. Allen's writing has never been better than it is here, crafting a lovely and knowing look into the very nature of attraction and the self-sabotage that often goes with it. September is an incredible film, and perhaps the most beautiful and moving film Allen has ever made - a perfect storm of acting, writing, and direction that subtly seeps into the heart and lingers long after the credits have rolled. A little known but hugely powerful triumph.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

SPACECAMP (1986, Kino Studio Classics)

A group of young space-campers are accidentally launched into space in Harry Winer's 1986 adventure, SpaceCamp. Lead by Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), an astronaut who is stuck teach kids at the camp while impatiently waiting for her chance to go to space, the kids must learn to work together in order to survive their dire circumstances, and return the space shuttle to earth. It's an outlandish scenario, of course, but a spirited adventure, nonetheless, featuring a delightful score by John Williams and a great group of kids that includes Leah Thompson, Tate Donovan, and Joaquin Phoenix in his film debut (here credited as "Leaf").

SpaceCamp was a box office flop in 1986. Its release was delayed for months due to the Challenger disaster earlier that year (due to a similar malfunction as the one that causes the accidental launch in the film), and when it was finally released, audiences just weren't ready for such a lighthearted film about something that had so recently turned to tragedy. Still, with some time and distance, SpaceCamp has proven to be a charming and highly entertaining film, that captures the childlike thrill of space travel through the eyes of those whose wide-eyed dreams of becoming astronauts at last become a reality.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Friday, September 15, 2017

THE LOST WORLD (1925, Flicker Alley)

In 1929, a mere four years after the original theatrical release of The Lost World, the widow of one of the film's original financiers struck a bargain with First National to remove it from circulation and destroy all known prints. The theory is that that First National hoped to avoid overshadowing the release of the similarly themed new sound epic, King Kong, which would also feature visual effects by the one and only Willis O'Brien, ensuring that the silent Lost World would not be compared unfavorably with this new visual effects extravaganza. Thankfully, their efforts failed, and thanks to years of effort to piece together the disparate elements culled from various incomplete prints, we have a nearly complete restoration of The Lost World in all its glory.

Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who makes an appearance at the beginning of the film), The Lost World is the story of a professor who puts together a ragtag team of adventurers to journey into the Amazon in order to prove to the world that the dinosaurs he claims to have seen truly exist.  It's not among the finest of silent films, but it's undeniably fun, despite an uncomfortable blackface performance that will make modern audiences cringe. Yet what makes THE LOST WORLD so remarkable is its special effects. O'Brien's stop motion animation is every bit as stunning here as it would be in King Kong eight years later. Kong may be the better film, but Lost World paved the way for it.

THE LOST WORLD (deluxe Blu-Ray edition)
The film is a grand old-fashioned adventure and special effects showcase that makes a direct appeal to the young and the young at heart. It doesn't always hold up, and its pacing has a tendency to drag, but it's so visually impressive that it continues to endure today. It's hard to underestimate the influence of this film, as it continues to inspire modern films from Jurassic Park to Up.

Flicker Alley's new Blu-Ray is a typically impressive affair, loaded with special features and featuring a striking new transfer. The most notable special features are two early short films by O'Brien, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. O'Brien directed the stop-motion short film, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., for Thomas Edison in 1917, about two cavemen who are competing for the same woman. and while it may be rather primitive even by 1917 standards (this was, after all, two years after The Birth of a Nation), what is most impressive about it is the animated figures. An early example of just how truly talent O'Brien was, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. is an  astonishing showcase for for his craft. The figures are incredibly fluid, even believable, outshining the otherwise roughly-hewn film.

A much more cohesive showcase of Willis O'Brien's talents, this short film, coming merely a year after the much rougher R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is a bit of a dry run for  The Lost World. Framed as a story told by an uncle to his nephew, we are introduced by an explorer who is shown a lost world of dinosaurs by a mysterious ghost in an abandoned cabin. Feels like a tall tale that would be spun at bedtime to amuse children, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is both outlandish and wildly entertaining. Its impressive stop motion presages O'Brien's triumph on The Lost World seven years later, yet stands on its own as a spirited and evocative adventure.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

REBECCA (1940, The Criterion Collection)

Alfred Hitchcock's first American feature was also his only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It's no wonder either; working with uber-producer David O. Selznick, fresh off the success of 1939's Gone with the Wind, Hitchcock was given his most lavish budget and production resources of his career up to that point. The result is a fascinating hybrid of the two icons' styles, one that is neither fully Hitchcock or fully Selznick, yet still manages to bear the signature stamps of both.

Rebecca, based on the novel by  Daphne Du Maurier, features the sumptuous grandeur of a Selznick picture, and the macabre hallmarks of Hitchcock. Yet Hitchcock was famously exasperated by Selznick, and one can't quite escape the feeling that this wasn't quite the film Hitchcock wanted to make. Yet despite the thick layers of Selznick gloss, Rebecca is still a chilling Gothic romance, a ghost story with no ghosts, in which the never named Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is haunted by the memory of her new husband's first wife, Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine (left) and Judith Anderson (right) in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA.
We never see Rebecca, not even in pictures or paintings, yet her spirit hangs over every frame, as the new Mrs. de Winter is constantly compared and contrasted with the woman who came before her. And no one is more disappointed by the new Mrs. de Winter than the mansion's grim head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose relationship with Rebecca clearly went much deeper than that of servant and master. Hitchcock never shied away from homosexual themes (see Psycho and Rope for further examples), yet never is it more blatant than it is in the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Much of Hitchcock's personality is woven into the subtext of the film - slathered in Selznick gloss on the outside, teeming with dark psychological character drama on the inside. It's like a horror film in which nothing frightening ever really happens - the horror here being a haunting memory of a domineering human whose influence manages to extend beyond the grave. It is telling that Hitchcock never tells us the new Mrs. de Winter's name - Rebecca is the only name that really matters, denying the new Mrs. de Winter an identity of her own until the bitter end.

While Rebecca may not quite be top tier Hitchcock, it's impressive just how much of his personality he was able to infuse into the film in spite of Selznick's heavy hand. The sparkling wit of his British pictures is noticeably dialed back here, but it still manages to make some notable appearances. Hitchcock would go on to make better films in his ensuing decades working in America, but Rebecca remains an unusual gem in his career, a meeting of two cinematic titans who made a film that managed to feel like a product of both and neither of them at the same time.

The new Criterion Blu-Ray is an improvement on the already excellent MGM disc from 2012, and has a much smoother quality, featuring more striking contrast in the black & white cinematography; not to mention an entire second disc of special features that make this a must-have for Hitchcock fans.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TOM SAWYER/HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1973/1974, Twilight Time)

Colorful musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic tale, featuring toe-tapping numbers by the legendary Sherman Brothers and a score by the one and only John Williams. Presented by Reader's Digest, Tom Sawyer certainly has that sunny, all-American, and yes, abridged feeling of an issue of Reader's Digest; but there's also something undeniably charming and even innocent about its wistful view of a bygone era. While the songs may not be as memorable as the Shermans' best works (you likely won't be coming out humming the tunes like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but under the eye of director Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), Tom Sawyer has the sweep of grandeur of a musical in the classic Hollywood style, even if the songs don't always fit comfortably into the narrative.
Johnny Whitaker (left) as Tom Sawyer and Jeff East (left) as Huckleberry Finn in TOM SAWYER.
The direct sequel toTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn sees Jeff East reprise his role as the titular character, setting off on the Mississippi with runaway slave, Jim (Paul Winfield). By nature a darker story than Tom Sawyer, so its musical numbers seem even more shoe-horned into the narrative. Glosses over many of the book's racial themes in its quest to be a cheery musical, but the leads are strong (especially Winfield), and Harvey Korman and David Wayne inject some much needed energy in the film's second act as a pair of wily con men.

The problem with this pair of Reader's Digest films is that they just don't lend themselves naturally to the musical format. The Sherman Brothers make a valiant effort, but the songs just don't stick, and often feel out of place. Tom Sawyer benefited from its all-American sunny disposition and happy-go-lucky lead (East can't quite carry this film like Johnny Whitaker did as Sawyer), but Huckleberry Finn feels like its just trying too hard to make this story happy, when its saddled with the weight of America's original sin. Come for Winfield's soulful performance and a spirited second act, but overall this adaptation of Huck Finn doesn't quite live up to Mark Twain's original work.

TOM SAWYER - ★★★ (out of four)
HUCKLEBERRY FINN - ★★½ (out of four)

VARIETÉ (1925, Kino Lorber)

This rarely seen gem of silent German cinema is at once a melodrama and a stunningly designed work of art that rivals many of its contemporaries in terms of sheer cinematic ingenuity. While not part of the German Expressionist movement that was going on around the same time, there are certainly elements of German Expressionist design present in Varieté, especially at the beginning. This sordid tale of a trapeze artist (the great Emil Jannings) who leaves his wife and child for a beautiful dancer (Lya de Putti) is a soap opera at heart, but director E.A. Dupont has a true artist's eye. His evocation of the pageantry of the circus, and the pulsing energy of the fair, is nothing short of dazzling. And thanks to the gripping performances of Jannings and de Putti, Varieté becomes something much more than its story suggests. As was typical for many films of its era, it turns into something of a morality play by the end, but Dupont imbues the proceedings with haunting sense of ambiguity. It's an almost operatic tale of personal tragedy, made great by Dupont's keen visual innovations and sense of character.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), steps behind the camera to direct one of his own scripts for the first time for Wind River; a murder mystery set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the desolate, snow-covered plains of Wyoming. His only other directing credit was the critically maligned 2011 horror film, Vile, but if Hell or High Water proved anything, it's that the man can write. While Wind River isn't quite the film the Hell or High Water is, there's still a strong sense of purpose and place, of the hard boiled inevitability of violence in a place that has fallen through the cracks of society at large.

Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a hunter with a haunted past who finds the body of a young woman in the middle of the frozen wastelands. Ill-equipped to handle a murder investigation, the tribal police calls in the FBI, who sends a rookie agent named Jane Banner to handle the case. When it becomes clear that they will be receiving no outside help, Jane asks Cory to help her track down the men who raped the young woman and left her to die, leading them both into the dark underbelly of a town that has been left to die every bit as much as their frozen murder victim.

Sheridan establishes an atmosphere of isolation right from the outset, and the film is anchored by strong performances by Renner and Olsen. There are a few moments that seem to betray Sheridan's relative inexperience behind the camera - a major dialogue scene is shot by a stationary handheld camera, resulting in a distracting lack of focus rather than the intended feeling of authenticity. And the film's postscript, informing us that there is no database for missing Native American women, is undercut by the fact that the film isn't really about that. So the film never quite earns the gravitas that it seeks, but as a tough-as-nails police procedural, it works. Wind River is an often gripping murder mystery that aims to be a deeper exploration of the plight of those on society's fringes (not unlike Hell or High Water). While it never quite matches its own ambitions, Sheridan still manages to deliver a crackerjack mystery that relies on characters rather than twists, turns, or shocks.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WIND RIVER | Directed by Taylor Sheridan | Stars Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, John Bernthal | Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.