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Seven Psychopaths (2012)
This film is painfully unfunny and runs like it's four hours. There is exactly one scene -- Woody Harrelson in the hospital room -- that has any cinematic value. Also, Tom Waits does a decent job. The planned silences after "laugh" lines were filled with ... silence. Drama, suspense, laughter, clever dialogue -- none of that here. Chris Walken appears to believe he's on SNL again, doing an imitation of Kevin Pollak's imitation of himself. Sam Rockwell has been great in other things, like the Chuck Barris vehicle, but here he has nothing to do but goof around and spout poorly written lines. The filmmaker's self-indulgence is staggering.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
The night I saw "Tinker," four people walked out halfway through it. Another person was heard to say, "This movie sucks." So it's not for everyone. But for the right viewer, it is two hours well spent. Each scene is brisk and highly polished. Skillfully assembled, the whole really shines. Perhaps its most effective storytelling device is a series of flashbacks to an office Christmas party. These, largely wordless, fill out the tale. And "wordless" is key. Many of the scenes don't have a lot of dialogue, and when people do talk, every word counts. So what this film mainly requires is attention. Without it, you will miss one of the best things about "Tinker": Gary Oldman's microscopic performance.
Young Adult (2011)
This film thinks it's a whole lot smarter than it is. Trotting out the hoary, smug idea about how small towns are stultifying and full of stupid people is the least of its problems. Everything in it rings utterly false, starting with the name Mavis and continuing to the distillery in the garage, the women's band, and the utter cluelessness of the husband. There's not a single laugh in the whole film. The crowd I saw it with included a lot of skinny jean, corduroy hat, clove cigarette types, and even they sat in stupefied silence. The problem with Charlize Theron's character is not that she's mean, it's that she's shallow. On the plus side, Patton Oswald is a decent actor.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
Best car chase, period.
It is now clear that the true golden age of American film was from the mid-60s until just before the release of Star Wars. Before then, there was too much Hays Code-constricted pap. With Star Wars, the green light was lit for most films to be directed at children and morons, a practice which continues to this day. THE SEVEN-UPS, truth be told, contains a couple hackneyed lines of dialogue -- "We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way" is one -- but I'm damned if I can find anything else wrong with it. (In fact, that line may not even have been stale when this film was made.) THE SEVEN-UPS demonstrates all that was right with the best films of the golden age: sparse dialogue, realistic acting, real locations (winter in a dirty New York has never looked better/worse), propulsive stories, and, yes, the best car chase ever filmed. Bill Hickman is the driver Scheider is chasing (you will recognize him from Bullitt), and the structure of the chase is fairly similar to the McQueen one, but I prefer Scheider's facial intensity here, the pacing, the terrific close-ups of the schoolchildren, and the shattering conclusion. (That VW bug going about 2 mph always bothers me in the Bullitt chase.) A stringy, screechy score by Don Ellis sets the perfect mood. THE SEVEN UPS: bleak, grim, action-oriented, grown-up. This is a film that couldn't be made today; there's no "gimmick" for the kiddies or preposterous ending. Thank you, Philip D'Antoni, Roy Scheider and Tony Lo Bianco: for as long as cop films are watched, THE SEVEN-UPS and its 1970s brethren (e.g., THE FRENCH CONNECTION), will set the standard.
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
A beautiful film
I get tired of hearing how "they don't make them like that any more," but it's hard to imagine THE SAND PEBBLES being made today. If a current movie is three hours long, you can bet it's because the director has fallen in love with himself, not because the material merits it. THE SAND PEBBLES succeeds on just about every level: It is a compelling and complex story; it is beautifully filmed; the acting is mostly excellent; and there is a tremendous score. (Can you imagine a film today having an overture? Rampant adult ADD prohibits it.) The three hours gives you time to get to know the characters, sink into the Chinese setting, and become involved in the story. Just a little thing to notice, right at the start: Watch how McQueen fiddles with his napkin in the formal dining room. He's out of place, and doesn't know what to do with it; it's the kind of physical bit that McQueen does so well to elaborate his character. Credit must also be given to the late Richard Crenna. His captain of the San Pablo is a complex and conflicted character, and Crenna, while carrying off a largely formal role, delivers a very nuanced and moving performance. THE SAND PEBBLES is a movie for grown-ups, largely forgotten today but well worth your time.
Let's start with George Lucas's work as a director: Is it possible that he was on the set when Samuel Jackson filmed his scenes? Other than in camp films, I have never seen a more wooden, preposterous performance. In fact, Ian McDiarmid does the only decent acting in the entire movie. As for the action scenes, they are utterly unexciting, filled with the kind of disorienting jump cutting where you never know what you're watching or even where you are. Flabby, lazy, unoriginal. And besides, does anyone ever suspend disbelief any more when these CGI things come on the screen? Fake, fake, fake. Characters you can care about? Sorry, nothing there either. The unintentionally hilarious dialogue doesn't help: Padme: "Ani, you've been feeling a lot of stress lately." What is this, the Dr. Phil show? And Yoda still annoying is. The movies have passed Lucas by; he still thinks he can recycle the same old formula, phone it in, and cash in. Well, yes, he can cash in; but I have seen more sophisticated entertainment (and I am not kidding) in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Everyone betrays everyone
It is certainly possible to look at STRAW DOGS as nothing more than a simple story of a man defending his house, his animalistic insides unleashed by a group of Cornish hoodlums. On that level alone it is a terrific piece of film-making backed up with highly textured acting from the two principals. But there are layers and layers and layers in this film, and that is what makes it art, and a masterpiece. Peckinpah himself told people that Dustin Hoffman was the heavy, and the movie was a portrait of a bad marriage. Try watching with those two facts in mind, and the film takes on a whole new complexion. The Criterion Collection two-disc set of STRAW DOGS is excellent, from the Peckinpah documentary to interviews with Susan George and the producer, to the audio commentary track. I agree with other reviewers who stressed that Peckinpah wasn't interested in "solving" problems; he wanted us to look at ourselves, and cringe.
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 contains a lot of laughs for a cop-action film; that was a surprise. It also has a terrific, bleak winter feel. The precinct could just as well be on the moon. There were enough hand-held shots to give it the occasional documentary feel, but not so many that it became annoying and headache-inducing. Hawke turns in a competent, not particularly flashy performance as the police sergeant down on his luck; and the supporting actors -- including especially a cool and controlled Fishburne and an over-the-top Leguizamo -- are solid. This is the kind of sandpaper-rough action flick that used to be made in the 1970s (think THE SEVEN UPS) but has been virtually extinguished because of Hollywood's propensity for comic-book schmaltz (think DIE HARD). Whatever its faults, ASSAULT and its French director deserve praise for providing 2005's grown-up action flick. (And thanks to David Mamet for last year's, SPARTAN.) Could the 70s be coming back? We can hope.
The Mating Call (1928)
Sex, lies, and the Order
THE MATING CALL was shown on TCM on Dec. 15, 2004, marking its apparent first screening since 1928. The silent film is something of a morality play, complete with a returning soldier who has lost his wife (to an adulterer); a morals police force, the Order, in dark cloth hoods (except for the leader, who wears satin); one woman drenched by a bucket of water and another caught skinny-dipping; and some provocative eyebrow acting. Evelyn Brent radiates sex as Rose, while Thomas Meighan seems mostly confused as the farmer who needs a replacement woman -- and goes to Ellis Island to get one! THE MATING CALL, directed by James Cruze (I COVER THE WATERFRONT), ably entertains while carrying a rather more serious theme on hypocrisy.