The Seasoned Ticket #29

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

I hope to be seeing Clint Eastwood’s new film as director and actor, The Mule, as soon as possible; the film opens this weekend but was not screened in advance for the press. This raises the odd possibility that there’s someone at Warner Bros. who thinks that critics aren’t generally pretty interested if not downright enthusiastic about what Eastwood is up to. Or maybe the Clintmeister himself decided to take a pass this time. Whatever – it’s odd.

The opening coincides with the news that Eastwood’s longtime onscreen and offscreen partner Sondra Locke died, age 74. I don’t have my copy of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film handy, but if I’m remembering correctly that’s where Thomson writes a keen assessment of the Eastwood-Locke collaboration, which resulted in a few pretty fine movies, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet, and a few that are not so good. I reviewed one of the latter titles in my first months as the film critic for the Herald, a little number called Sudden Impact, the wildly popular Dirty Harry episode that featured a catchphrase subsequently appropriated by the President of the United States at the time. Here’s that review, from 35 years ago to the day, Dec. 14, 1983, in which I venture the argument that as a film director, Eastwood doesn’t seem entirely awful.

 

Sudden Impact

Clint Eastwood, who has directed eight films since 1971’s Play Misty for Me, has shown an interest in making smaller, more personal movies lately. And since he still reigns as one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, if he wants to make a small, personal movie, he can make it.

But some of his pet projects have fizzled with audiences accustomed to Eastwood’s gunslinging or his comedic partnerships with orangutans. Bronco Billy died in the summer of ’81, and Honkytonk Man disappeared last Christmas. Eastwood—who has displayed competency behind the camera—is no dummy (even though some of his critics have accused him of being as animated as the average ventriloquist’s prop). He knows his fans love to see him stalking the streets of San Francisco in the guise of Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

Just in time for the lucrative Christmas season, then, arrives Sudden Impact, the new “Dirty Harry” installment, the first one since


 in 1977. Eastwood produced and directed this entry, as well as essaying the role of Harry Callahan once again. Clint’s hair may be a little thinner on top these days, but he still has the steely gaze and the steady walk that embody Callahan’s brutal code of justice—a code that doesn’t always sit too well with Harry’s superiors at the San Francisco Police Department.

Sudden Impact isn’t 10 minutes old before Harry’s wiped the floor with a whole bushelful of assorted Bay Area punks, psychos, and culturally backward types. But he doesn’t look for trouble, he says; it just seems to follow him around. The bloodletting gets so bad that the department sends Harry off to the sleepy coastal town of San Paulo, to check up on a lead in a murder case, and mostly just to get him out of San Francisco. He doesn’t know—although the audience does—that the murderer is in San Paulo, right under his nose. We learn early that the strange series of murders is being perpetrated by a painter (played by longtime Eastwood leading lady Sondra Locke) who is avenging the 10-year-old rape and beating of her younger sister and herself. So she’s got her code of justice, too; clearly a woman after Harry’s heart. And sure enough, the two find themselves in a tentative romantic involvement.

But there can’t be too much time devoted to the mushy stuff in an action movie such as this one, and Eastwood shrewdly piles on the gun play. He’s done a pretty good job of it, considering the fact that the script is a fairly old-hat series of showdowns. As usual, the bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re vermin, engaging in every kind of animalistic behavior. By the end of the movie, the audience was cheering each extermination.

It’s a good finale—a whirring, spinning shoot-out at a carnival. Eastwood may not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows how to stage a fight. And Sudden Impact may not be great cinema. But Eastwood fans are going to like it.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

BETTER WATCH OUT for an all new SHRIEK

by Evan Peterson

This Sunday, SHRIEK: Women of Horror presents our annual holiday party with Better Watch Out, a Christmastime killer thriller!

Some thoughts on the film and spoilers below.

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New Releases for December 11!

It’s another glorious New Release Tuesday!

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The Seasoned Ticket #28

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

This week brings one of the year’s most critically lauded films, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which opens at the Northwest Film Forum. If you can avoid knowing what the film is actually about (and I’m going to leave plot out of this brief appreciation), Burning unwinds with a tantalizing, sometimes mystifying, what-the-hell-is-this quality, at least until it eases into its central mystery. There is the ghostly spirit of Antonioni hovering over the scenario, but without ever making us feel that we are rooted in a South Korean milieu and experience.

As elusive as Burning can be, it’s an utterly compelling watch. Along with Lee’s touch with mise-en-scene (sometimes dreamlike, but sometimes very specific and pointed), the film is carried by the three actors who form its triangle: Ah-in Yoo as the slack-jawed, farm-bred fellow who says he wants to be a writer (a job he does not seem suited for, frankly), Steven Yeun as a worldly Mr. Cool, and Jong-seo Jun, in her film debut, as the young woman who enchants them.

Burning is Lee’s first feature since the 2010 film Poetry, a layoff that will, with any luck, not be repeated. Looking back to Poetry, I have my review handy, and see that some of the distinguishing aspects of that movie are also at play in Burning.

 

Poetry

It’s quiet for almost its entire running time, but Poetry, by South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, gathers incredible power as it moves toward its devastating finish. It’s one of those movies you want people to know about, even if its appeal is difficult to describe.

On a basic level, the film is about a woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee, in a tender performance) raising her grandson. She works as a caretaker to a stroke victim for a few hours a few times a week, and although she doesn’t have much money, she always makes the effort to look dignified and put-together. A terrible tragedy, with appalling overtones, touches Mija’s family. Her ability to deal with this issue is shadowed by the suspicion—confirmed by a doctor—that Mija’s memory lapses are the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Where does the poetry come in? Mija enrolls in a writing class, and she determines to finish just one poem by the end of the course. But where to start? How do you begin writing a poem about a flower when you’ve never done it before?

Without getting precious about it, Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) provides a kind of road map for finding that poetry. Not by showing us pretty things—as the wise man Steve Martin once observed about comedy, poetry is not pretty—but by showing us the world straight-on, beautiful things as well as unpleasant. By some mysterious alchemy, what we see on the screen takes on a poetic murmur: a bus ride out of town, badminton played under streetlamps at night, a sunlit classroom. The fact that we know Mija will lose these images one day as she deteriorates adds to the sense of how valuable these things seem.

And yet, awful issues must be dealt with. While the film trains you to pay attention to small beauties, we will also notice cruelty, such as the callousness of others involved in the tragedy, or the way people tend to stop noticing Mija even while she is still talking to them.

And through all of this, while trying to solve the serious problem at hand, Mija continues to struggle with how to write that poem. Where is this “poetic inspiration” you always hear about? Why isn’t anything magically popping into her head?

By the time we reach the end of the film, we can observe that life has been teaching her how to write the poem all along. Writing a poem, as Mija’s instructor says, is a matter of learning how to truly see. So is watching a fine movie such as this.

 

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

New Releases for December 4!

It’s another glorious New Release Tuesday!

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Movie Postmortems: GREASE 2

by John S. 

This is the final entry in the Movie Postmortems series. It will be replaced by a new series called X Marks the Spot, which will feature mini-reviews of films in specific sections of the vast treasure map that is the Scarecrow movie collection. Join the hunt.

THE CASUALTY: Grease 2

THE CASE HISTORY: 1978. The cinematic adaptation of the popular 1971 Broadway/off-Broadway musical “Grease” is a gigantic hit. It becomes the most commercially-successful film of that year, besting even Superman. The soundtrack to Grease also lands in the #2 spot for annual sales, just behind the album for Saturday Night Fever. However, Grease is not just popular at the box-office. It is also one of the best-reviewed films of 1978 – and hailed as one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Naturally, talks of a sequel begin.

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The Seasoned Ticket #27

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

The Grand Illusion brings The Great Buster, a documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich, for a two-week run, starting Nov. 30th. The film is an unabashed celebration of the career of Buster Keaton, one of cinema’s geniuses, using lots of clips and enthusiastic interviewees as disparate as Dick Van Dyke and Werner Herzog. For newcomers to Keaton’s work, it will provide a cascade of astonishments; for Keaton lovers, it’s a satisfying overview.

One thing the film covers that’s often glossed over in discussions of Keaton’s work is the wilderness period of the 1930s, when Keaton lost his creative independence. I found a review I wrote (for an online company that shall remain unnamed) of a 2006 DVD collection consisting of Keaton’s shorts at Columbia Pictures, a reminder that there are moments of glory even in these generally mediocre films. The title of the set is The Buster Keaton Collection, which is also the title of other Keaton packages, so buyer beware.

The Buster Keaton Collection

An entire missing segment of Buster Keaton’s career is filled in with the release of this collection, which comprises the ten shorts Keaton made at Columbia Pictures in 1939-41. If you’re a Keaton fan (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) this section of the great man’s work has always been in dispute—and above all, hard to see. After his career collapsed at the beginning of the 1930s, Buster Keaton struggled to find a niche in Hollywood, and the Columbia contract was essentially his last sustained opportunity to headline in films on a regular basis. It was a difficult fit from the start: Keaton did not have the artistic control he enjoyed over his 1920s classics, and director Jules White (who helmed most of the Columbia shorts) had a radically different view of comedy from his star. White guided the hijinks of Columbia’s busiest comedy stars, the Three Stooges, and his leadpipe-to-the-noggin style did not mesh well with Keaton’s measured, logical approach.

If one dials down expectations, some of the Columbia shorts (around 16-17 minutes long) are enjoyable in the baggy-pants style of the Three Stooges. And when it comes to searching for signs of the old Keaton, there are usually one or two blossoms poking out of the overall bluntness. Mooching through Georgia, a Civil War spoof, has moments of silent hilarity and a Keatonesque note of fatalism as Buster is marched to his own execution. Nothing but Pleasure has a terrific sequence involving a drunk woman who wanders into Buster’s motel room, and Buster’s efforts to get her into a Murphy bed. [As the Bogdanovich documentary makes clear, this is a slapstick routine Keaton frequently used onstage.] She’s Oil Mine features a breathtaking gag in which Keaton is spun around like a tire iron in order to get a pipe unstuck from his finger. Keaton, in his mid-40s, is still in athletic form, although thanks to alcohol and disappointment he looks older than his years.

Commentaries adorn the shorts, and there’s useful 25-minute documentary giving the general outline of Keaton’s life and details on the Columbia arrangement. It’s refreshingly honest about the mixed quality of these films, and contains excerpts from his silent shorts that suggest how far the genius had slipped. In that sense, while this DVD package honorably presents a moment from film history (and with fine technical specs all around), the actual watching of these shorts is tinged with sadness. The casual moviegoer curious about Keaton should go elsewhere; the completist will want to buy it; the amateur historian will want to give a look to see what the “missing years” were all about.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

New Releases for November 27!

It’s another glorious New Release Tuesday!

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Support Scarecrow on Giving Tuesday!

Support Scarecrow on Tuesday, November 27! Giving Tuesday is an international effort to rally support for non-profits and as you’re making plans, please keep Scarecrow in mind. Your year-end support will help assure that we’re there for you throughout 2019 and beyond. Donor support also funds outreach programs that thousands of families, seniors, and movie lovers rely on every year.

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