Wheel Wonder (This Week’s Movie)

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Kate Winslet: Wonder Wheel (Jessica Miglio, Amazon Studios)

Link to my reviews published this week in the Herald and Seattle Weekly.

Wonder Wheel. “If Allen seemed half as engaged with the material as Storaro obviously is, we might have something here.” (Herald link here.)

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Movie Diary 12/6/2017

The Charge at Feather River (Gordon Douglas, 1953). Made in 3D and a big grosser in ’53. Guy Madison leads a group of cavalry misfits to rescue two kidnapped white women before the Indians attack (a perfectly justifiable attack, as the whites are breaking another treaty). Lots of rote plotting and characterizations, but very snappily done by Gordon Douglas, the year before he turned out the excellent duo of Them! and Young at Heart. Guy Madison is all “I could be somewhere else, but I’m here now,” which is oddly appealing. Max Steiner’s music works overtime, with a walloping main theme. This is not the first appearance in filmdom of the Wilhelm Scream, but it is the one that gave the recorded cry its name, as a character named Wilhelm gets an arrow in the leg. Also, Vera Miles plays the kidnapped white woman who actually wants to stay with the tribe because she’s going to become Mrs. Chief Thunder Hawk, and let me just say that Vera Miles’ attitude, bearing, and gaze suggests a whole different, more intriguing movie than Charge at Feather River is up to.

Pillars of the Sky (George Marshall, 1956). Also a rescue-the-kidnapped-white-women movie (Dorothy Malone and Olive Carey here). Jeff Chandler on the case, Lee Marvin occasionally doing an Irish accent, Ward Bond as the preacher educating the Walla Walla and Nez Perce Indians, Michael Ansara as the most belligerant of the Native chiefs. Pretty slow overall, but it gets explicit about the white Americans breaking another treaty.

Movie Diary 12/5/2017

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, 2017). A terrific physical performance by Vince Vaughn, a very carefully-ordered screenplay by the director, a patient approach to storytelling. This is pulp fiction of the highest order. It would almost be respectable if it weren’t for the skulls being crushed in detail. Zahler directed Bone Tomahawk, another remarkable-on-its-own-lurid-terms movie.

Movie Diary 12/4/2017

BPM (Robin Campillo, 2017). Catching up on things I missed this year. This one – a hurtling story of some ACT UP agitators in Paris – is coming closest to getting on a Top Ten list for me. It has an incredibly fluid forward motion, and a marvelous sense of how people can be something other than heroes or villains (the ACT UP protestors are the movies’s protagonists, but we are allowed to see the excesses of their protests). It’s a true ensemble, with Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in a commanding performance at the center of it.

Nocturama (Bertand Bonello, 2017). The first half is a David Fincher-like execution of a terrorist attack by a group of young people in Paris; the second half is a Breakfast Club-like interlude as the conspirators wait out a long night in a department store. Fascinating idea for a movie, and never less than engrossing.

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017). Lovely performances and lots of keenly bittersweet observations in Gerwig’s solo directing debut. I guess this has a 100 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is near-unprecedented in that score. That makes sense – there is very little here to dislike, which is one of the things that makes me suspicious about it.

Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater, 2017). Something of a long-delayed sequel to The Last Detail, with Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne in roles that echo (but have different names from) the roles played by Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young in the original. An interesting experiment, although you really miss the screw-loose quality of Hal Ashby’s film, especially as embodied by Nicholson’s indelible personality.

Thelma and Jane (This Week’s Movies)

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Eilie Harboe: Thelma (courtesy SF Studios Norway)

Links to my reviews published this week in the Herald and Seattle Weekly, and etc.

Jane. “A fascinating treat.” (Herald link here.)

Thelma. “Cold and calculated, but some of its scenes are potent.” (Herald link here.)

Movie Diary 11/29/2017

DundeePoster4Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965). A truncated but beautiful film. I see no reason not to run my review of the “Extended Cut” release. This originally ran in the Herald, April 22, 2005.

Four years before Sam Peckinpah directed one of the greatest American movies, “The Wild Bunch,” he nearly wrecked his career. The crash was a picture called “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah’s first big production, which went over budget and over schedule during an intense Mexico shoot, resulting in a heavily-edited version being released in 1965—which Peckinpah disowned.

“Major Dundee” has always carried the reputation of a ruined film—a not-bad western that should have been better. Peckinpah bitterly called it a “maimed child.” After years of research and work, “Major Dundee” has been restored to a somewhat fuller version. It’s not the whole movie Peckinpah envisioned (some of his planned scenes were never even shot), but it fills out the story and connects loose ends.  It’s titled “Major Dundee—The Extended Version,” because nobody thought it should be called a “Director’s Cut.” Whatever it is, it’s a magnificent film.

The story, set in the waning days of the Civil War, presents two marvelously conflicted main characters. Major Dundee, played by Charlton Heston, has been exiled to New Mexico after an unspecified screw-up at Gettysburg. In his new post, he’s really a glorified jailer—but that doesn’t fit his image of himself. An Apache raid on a settlement gives Dundee the chance to find glory by chasing the Indian leader. But with his small detachment of men, he needs to bolster the war party by recruiting Confederate convicts and assorted miscreants from the prison he oversees. Chief among the recruits is Dundee’s ex-friend Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), Irish immigrant and Southern patriot. He and Dundee each think the other has betrayed his country—and their friendship.

The busy cast is filled out by an astonishing roster of great character actors, many of them Peckinpah regulars:  James Coburn in a key role as a one-armed scout, Jim Hutton as an initially awkward young officer, Michael Anderson, Jr., as a boyish bugler,  Senta Berger as an Austrian widow stranded in a small Mexican town, and the wonderfully unsavory gang of Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler as Tyreen’s rebel boys. Brock Peters plays the leader of a platoon of freed slaves, who volunteer for the mission because they’re tired of cleaning stables. Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor add atmosphere as only these veterans of cowboy pictures can.

As Dundee leads his posse into Mexico, he seems to lose interest in the original purpose—to rescue some kidnapped boys—and becomes obsessed with continuing the quest. Critics have compared this character to Captain Ahab, but he’s also an Alexander of the Old West, pressing on into uncharted territory after the goal has been forgotten. (Anyone looking for a Vietnam analogy will not be disappointed, either.)

Charlton Heston and  Richard Harris, two actors not known for subtlety, are splendid in the key roles. Heston’s tendency to declaim and strike poses is just right for the vainglorious Dundee, and when the character breaks down in a Mexican brothel Heston is right there with him. Harris nimbly blends defiance with a strict code of honor.

Their relationship, intense and mysterious, is the heart of the film. But Peckinpah gets everything else right, too:  the outdoor spectacle, the sneaky humor, the big action scenes, the tiny touches whereby a peripheral character is suddenly granted his moment in the sun. The restoration includes 13 minutes of previously unseen footage. A musical score that Peckinpah despised has been erased, and a new score by Christopher Caliendo commissioned for this version.

There is something about Sam Peckinpah’s blasted romanticism that inspires not just appreciation of his films but something like devotion. I hadn’t seen “Major Dundee” since a childhood TV showing, but thanks to this restoration, I am happy to declare myself devoted.

Movie Diary 11/28/2017

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017). The Tangerine filmmaker is a gifted director of children and other non-professionals, clearly. And there are some storytelling devices here that really devastate, especially in the withheld-information department. Florida remains a marvelous movie subject. If I didn’t feel a little too frequently nudged toward buying the film’s everyone-is-human-and-isn’t-that-great message (a sentiment worth espousing in cimema, I hasten to say), I think I’d like it more.