Capsule Review “Wild Guitar”

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Ray Dennis Steckler’s rock n’ roll melodrama never quite rises above its shoddy origins as a promotional vehicle for B-movie mogul Arch Hall Sr.’s son, Arch Jr. Junior plays a standard archetype: The hayseed who comes to Hollywood in search of stardom. Inevitably, he meets a girl, encounters adversity and uncovers the dirty secrets of showbiz. The plot is hopelessly contrived, the acting shockingly bad (needless to say, Arch Hall Jr. did not become a star). But Steckler, who would go on to make the camp classic The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living Who Stopped Living and Became Zombies, proves himself a consummate filmmaker with a keen visual sensibility.  The film’s best scenes possess the same energy, vitality and sheer creativity found in French New Wave films of the same period. Unlike some other low budget auteurs, Steckler never made the leap to the mainstream. Still, Wild Guitar (1962) is a clear, if flawed document of his considerable talents.

Capsule Review: “Scarface”

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If the eighties were a movie, it would be Scarface (1983). Brian DePalma’s blood-soaked remake of the Howard Hawks classic may seem like an overwrought retread, and was largely treated as such upon its initial 1983 release. Many critics derided the decision by DePalma and screenwriter Oliver Stone to go bigger, if not necessarily better, than their source material.  Every theme implicit in the Hawks original (the immigrant story, the dark underbelly of the American dream, male hubris, brother-sister incest) is made explicit. All subtext becomes text. Italy becomes Cuba. Bootleg liquor becomes illicit cocaine. Guns become rocket launchers. With its punchy dialogue and operatic twists and turns, Stone’s script is about as subtle as a sledgehammer (or delicate as a chainsaw, as it were). Is Scarface good? Let’s call it an acquired taste. This reviewer enjoyed it as a delicious piece of cinematic pop art, one that both mirrored and foreshadowed the most outrageous excesses of the decade from which it emerged. At the very least, it is a cultural force to be reckoned with. Al Pacino’s scenery-chewing performance as Cuban-American gangster Tony Montana turned the character into a hip hop icon. And DePalma’s neon-and-pastel limned vision of life in the fast lane is truly a sight to behold. 

Capsule Review: “The Howling”

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Give Joe Dante’s cult horror-comedy its due: It’s a film only Joe Dante could make. But despite some impressive scenes and Dante’s delightfully caustic sense of humor, it’s not one of the director’s best. What starts as a powerful allegory for sexual trauma, when a fetching female news anchor (Dee Wallace) is assaulted by a strangely furry man who has been stalking her, eventually morphs into a satire on cults, pop psychology and the desire to go “back to nature” to escape the restrictions of modern life after she relocates to the woods for what turns out to be some rather unorthodox therapy.  Both halves have their redeeming qualities, but they’re so tonally mismatched, one wonders if they don’t belong in separate films. Many of Dante’s jokes simply don’t sit well when juxtaposed with the film’s legitimately distressing depictions of violence against women. And the practical effects look cheesy and retrograde when compared with those in An American Werewolf in London, released the same year.

Capsule Review: “The Earrings of Madame de…”

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Max Ophuls did not make films so much as orchestrate them. And there’s not one note out of place in the cinematic symphony that is The Earrings of Madame de…, about an aristocratic woman who self-destructs in her fitful pursuit of happiness. The plot hinges on the titular pair of earrings, which exchange hands many times but always somehow make it back into the hands of Louise (Danielle Darrieux), the wife of a prominent French general (Charles Boyer) and lover of an Italian diplomat (Vittorio De Sica). The jewelry serves as both a narrative device and a symbol of her burning desire. Desire for what exactly? It’s hard to say. Louise is such a fascinating character precisely because she does not know what she wants and thus, despite her best efforts, can never attain it. Ophuls may have specialized in so-called “women’s films,” but his work was never bound by genre conventions, instead exploring the complex relationship between the sexes and surveying the inscrutable realms of the heart.  His camera was equally liberated, as evidenced by the breathless tracking shots and dazzling setpieces in this film. Earrings is many things, but it works best as a timeless commentary on the insatiable nature of desire and the tragedy of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing–until it’s too late.

Capsule Review: “She Had Her Gun All Ready”

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The World Trade Center makes a surprisingly poignant appearance in Vivienne Dick’s She Had Her Gun All Ready, a seminal film of the No Wave movement that emerged from New York’s punk scene in the late 1970s. Using only a Kodak Super-8 camera, Dick explores the growing rivalry between two woman (played by punk icons Pat Place and Lydia Lunch) while taking the viewer on an impressionistic tour of New York City–a version of the city that has, for better or worse, been lost to time. In this respect, the film almost feels like a documentary or a home movie, following its characters from a derelict tenement on the Lower East Side to the World Trade Center to Coney Island, where Dick stages their climactic confrontation aboard the Cyclone roller coaster. But like many other No Wave films, it’s also a testament to the power of imagination and creativity to overcome the most limited of means. Anyone can make a movie, but perhaps only Dick could make the low rent equivalent of Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Capsule Review: “In the Mood for Love”

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Wong Kar-wai’s portrait of heartbreak in 1960s Hong Kong is both exquisitely stylish and effortlessly romantic. The director clearly loves both the time and the place, lavishing almost as much attention on decor and costumes as he does leads Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, playing neighbors who come together after discovering their spouses are having an affair. But despite Wong’s fidelity to period detail, this is no mere exercise in nostalgia. The film unfolds like a fond memory, tracing the arc of this unusual relationship in a series subtle gestures, poignant moments and missed opportunities, interspersed with trips to the nearby noodle stand. Wang’s direction says what his characters often don’t, evoking first their sense of isolation, then liberation as they grow closer; his use of mirrors, for one, could easily fill an entire essay. In the end, reality intrudes, love fades and a feeling of unbearable loss overwhelms the film. But the memory lingers on.

Capsule Review: “Night and Fog in Japan”

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While groundbreaking at the time of its release, Nagisa Oshima’s revolutionary soap opera is often as boring as watching paint dry. An uninvited guest shows up at a wedding attended by several former student radicals and, over the course of the night, exposes some of their most unflattering secrets. The result could have been a fascinating portrait of how personal hang ups undermine a noble political cause, motivated by Oshima’s own disillusionment with the Japanese Left. Instead, the film gets bogged down in petty drama and tedious debates over party doctrine. Still, if you can slog through all the Marxist-Leninist babble, Oshima’s brilliant direction is a worthwhile consolation prize. HIs fluid long takes, minimalist staging (particularly of the various protest scenes) and complex flashback structure are a marvel of craft and precision, especially for a filmmaker so young in his career.

Capsule Review: “Interview with the Vampire”

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Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s best-selling novel (she also wrote the script) is, at the very least, a triumph of gothic atmosphere and hunky homoeroticism. In fact, the presence of two of Hollywood’s leading matinee idols (three if one counts Antonio Banderas) seems to have distracted many critics from the fact that this is a superbly crafted and well-acted costume drama from an era when offbeat auteurs could still command big Hollywood budgets. Tom Cruise both channels and transcends his larger than life movie star persona in the role of Lestat, a centuries old vampire trying to make the most of immortality. The film kicks off with his indoctrination of Louis (Brad Pitt), a lovelorn New Orleans plantation owner, into the life of the undead, which allows the two men to remain beautiful and ageless from the 1780s to the 1990s. If the film has a weak link, it’s Pitt, who leans a bit too much on his pretty-boy good looks. Jordan also neglects some of the story’s more troubling themes of race and gender (ever notice how most of the vampires’ victims are black and/or women?) that might be too off-putting for mainstream audiences. At the same time, he teases at another provocative idea: That movie stars are vampires of a sort who can achieve eternal youth–but only on the silver screen.

Capsule Review: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”

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Francis Ford Coppola’s reinvention of the Dracula myth could be classified in two ways: A classic horror movie for the MTV generation and a love letter to past cinematic giants–among them, George Meiles, F.W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau. On both counts, it succeeds remarkably well, despite some poor casting decisions that hold the film back. (Indeed, while some have tried to plead his case, Keanu Reeves is almost never the right choice for leading man). Coppola relied almost exclusively on old school practical and in-camera effects to achieve his lush, operatic vision, giving this Dracula a timeless quality shared by few other Hollywood films of the era. (The one exception: His overuse of certain techniques–gray, rain-soaked imagery, fast-motion cinematography, hallucinatory montage–that occasionally make the film feel like a goth rock music video.) At the same time, he also plays up the sexual undercurrents inherent in vampire lore, without shying away from its grotesqueries. Credit Gary Oldman’s wide-ranging lead performance, which helps transform Dracula into a tragic and romantic figure, as well as a horrific one.

A few thoughts on Sidney Lumet’s “Network”

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While long acknowledged as a classic, Sidney Lumet’s Network feels newly relevant in the age of Trump, America’s first celebrity president, and the only who has successfully turned “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” into a winning political platform.

As film critics Farran Nehme and Michael Phillips pointed out on Twitter this week, the film is not without its flaws. The sexual politics are atrocious, with cold-hearted news executive Diane Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) taking most of the blame for the fictional network UBS’s decision to sacrifice quality and integrity for ratings and relevance.

The social commentary is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky paints his satire in broad strokes, and some of the jokes are undoubtedly a bit too on the nose– most notably Christiansen’s decision to greenlight a series called the Mao Tse-Tung Hour, in collaboration with a band of left wing terrorists.

And yet, in many respects, no film better captures the current state of the American media, in which the line between news and entertainment is increasingly blurred and popular outrage is the coin of the realm.

Indeed, Network seems to anticipate everything from Fox News to The Daily Show. Once, the idea of Johnny Carson or David Letterman devoting large swathes of their late-night talk shows to lecture the audience about politics would have seemed ridiculous. Now Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel do so on a regular basis.

Nehme and Phillips both unfavorably compare Network to Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, and the parallels are unmistakable. Certainly Andy Griffith’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes and Peter Finch’s Howard “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” Beale share the same DNA, as characters who use mass media to stoke the people’s anger.

But where A Face in the Crowd is a more classic tale of demagoguery–It Can’t Happen Here meets Howdy DoodyNetwork is something else. The film explores the, in some ways, more profound idea that television can sublimate revolutionary impulses, making them trendy but harmless (maybe even useful) to the powers that be.

People may open their windows and scream into the night, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” just as Howard Beale tells them to in Network’s most famous scene. But the film makes clear they want to be angry more than they want to do anything about their anger, and the powers that be realize this.

So does Trump, who earned the support of many disaffected Americans with his brash, populist rhetoric, but as president has mostly embraced the status quo vision of the Republican Party.

Such enduring truths are why Network remains an essential, if imperfect film. Contrary to what Gil Scott-Heron said, the revolution will, in fact, be televised. But the screenwriters of the world will have trouble adapting this scenario to reality.