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.

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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.

Movie Diary 11/27/2017

Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017). There’s something almost clinical about the many, many borrowings going on in this coming-of-age/horror picture, but it borrows from the best. Even if it’s a rather cold exercise, it’s well executed. (full review 11/29)

Jane (Brett Morgen, 2017). A documentary on Jane Goodall that salvages some long-thought-lost footage from the 1960s, taken by Hugo van Lawick, the National Geographic photographer who later married Goodall. Among other very appealing things about this movie, it’s a tribute to film – nothing against the digital splendors of Blue Planet and the like, but the 16 mm jungle footage here is luscious and rich. (full review 11/29)

Breadwinner Preview (This Week’s Movies)

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The Breadwinner (courtesy Cartoon Saloon)

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

The Breadwinner. “The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.”

A Christmas movie preview.

Movie Diary 11/22/2017

Fort Massacre (Joseph M. Newman, 1958). Quite a cynical script (by Martin Goldsmith, the credited writer on Detour) for this cavalry Western about a cruel sergeant (Joel McCrea) left in command of a small group of resentful soldiers. The troupe includes John Russell, Denver Pyle, and Forrest Tucker. There’s good location work and some decent management of the widescreen frame. McCrea’s a wonderful actor, although the anti-hero profile doesn’t sit too naturally with him.

Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950). Compared to Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, this is a hang-out movie, with its regular song-making and emphasis on community over plot. It’s a beaut, with some prime John Wayne material and great stuff for the stock company.