SHRIEK Returns: UNDER THE SHADOW

For the heat of August, SHRIEK: Women of Horror brings you the excellent Persian film UNDER THE SHADOW. A mother and daughter living in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war must learn to trust one another to survive war, religious fascism, misogyny, and menacing supernatural entities. Part of SHRIEK’s commitment to feature more films with people of color in front of and behind the camera, please join us for this conversation. If you loved THE BABADOOK, we’re betting you’ll love UNDER THE SHADOW!

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New Releases for August 14!

It’s another glorious New Release Tuesday!

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The Seasoned Ticket #14

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.

 

Spike Lee’s got a new movie out this week, and by most accounts it’s a humdinger. I haven’t seen BlacKkKlansman yet, but I’m rooting for it, partly because I like it when directors whose work I don’t esteem very highly turn around and surprise me. I mention that very phenomenon in my 1998 review of Lee’s He Got Game, which I think is one of his best films—maybe his best, actually. It’s certainly superior to the Lee-Denzel Washington collaboration on Malcolm X, a mess of a film that has accrued considerable prestige since its release. This review was written for Film.com, which means it’s vanished into the ether, unless you can get the Internet Wayback Machine to work for you.

He Got Game

It sounded like a wrong turn for Spike Lee: a movie about basketball (too easy), with a central character named Jesus (too allegorical), combining the music of Public Enemy and Aaron Copland (too cute), starring Denzel Washington (too obvious). For those of us who have decidedly mixed feelings about Lee’s movies, He Got Game had all the earmarks of the director’s most self-indulgent tendencies.

I like it when filmmakers surprise me, and as surprises go He Got Game is something close to triumphant. It begins wobbily, with the Americana of Copland’s stirring orchestral music underscoring a series of shots of different teenage kids, in heartland and ghetto, playing hoops in their playgrounds or backyards. Is this a movie, or one of Lee’s Nike commercials? The sequence ends, as the music soars into a crescendo, with a remarkable shot (in both the movie and basketball sense) of girls and boys playing on an outdoor court, as an elevated train passes through the background. That had me sitting up in my seat.

The rushed opening scenes of the movie proper introduce us to Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), a bitter convict. The warden (Ned Beatty) has an unusual proposal: the governor will commute Jake’s sentence if Jake will convince his son to attend the governor’s college alma mater. This matters because Jake’s son is Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen, a second-year player for the Milwaukee Bucks), merely the top high school prospect in the country. Jake, released on furlough to his old Coney Island stomping grounds, has seven days to talk his son — who happens to be estranged from his father — into enrolling at the school.

The simplicity of this idea provides the arc and the anguished ethical dilemma of an Arthur Miller play: At what price can a father sell out the dreams of his son? Yet Lee, rightly I think, uses this strong theme not to squeeze out the obvious agony of Jake’s situation but as a rack upon which he can hang the various issues and details of Jake’s milieu.

Thankfully, Lee doesn’t spend all that much time with the temptations and corruptions of college athletics (most of the audience was not born yesterday), but he’s razor-sharp when he does, as when Jesus considers a casual bribe from his high school coach, or gets a tour of expensive cars with an obnoxious agent. Most of the time, Jesus is dealing with his ambitious girlfriend (Rosario Dawson, from Kids) or trying to avoid his cruel father.

Jake, installed in a fleabag apartment, circles slowly around his objective. In his spare time, he comes to know the battling couple next door, a hooker (Milla Jovovich) and her pimp (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). Here’s another surprise: the hesitant relationship between Jake and this battered girl should be the stuff of cliché, but somehow Lee and the actors get around it. Their moody dialogue scenes are generally accompanied by the melancholy of Copland’s music, and Denzel Washington is so into the core of Jake’s frustrated character that he keeps a true line throughout; there’s no effort to make Jake a nice guy, or a misunderstood hero.

There is a sadness about this movie that survives the flashy NBA material (lots of cameos by the Jordans, Barkleys, and Pippens of the world) and the overstated final sequence, which finds Lee overreaching by half. Malik Hassan Sayeed’s dense cinematography feeds this sadness, whether the camera is surveying the dark interiors of Jake’s seedy room or capturing the diffuse sunlight of a pier at the seaside.

He Got Game isn’t perfect, but there is something new here in Spike Lee’s work; the hectoring tone is mostly gone, and so is his here’s-a-snazzy-camera-angle-for-its-own-sake approach to composition. (Also gone is Spike Lee, as there’s no acting role for the auteur here.) Instead of punching the high melodrama of the piece, Lee actually throws away some of the big revelations in the middle of conversations, keeping his focus on character rather than story. Twelve features into his still-young career, Lee has earned his all-star status, for ask yourself this question: Who else would have, could have, made this movie?

 

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 Seasoned Ticket #13

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.

 

Last week I dug up a 2000 interview with John Frankenheimer; this week it’s my 1998 review of JF’s Ronin, which just ended a revival at the Grand Illusion Cinema. This review is from Film.com, and I sing the praises of the movie until the end, when I profess disappointment. I don’t remember the disappointment, because my memory has firmly placed this one as a return to form. This is one reason I think it’s interesting to read old reviews.

 

Midway through Ronin, there’s an isolated scene with Robert De Niro and Natascha McElhone sitting in a parked car, staking out a house. They met a few days before, and are completely focused on the job at hand: retrieving the valuable contents of a certain briefcase. When a car approaches, they lock lips, imitating lovers, until the danger passes. They separate. A few beats go by. Then they turn to each other and kiss again, this time for real.

There’s been no build-up of romantic tension between these two, and there will be no subsequent reference to this interlude. Perhaps this gives a taste of the super-cool tone of Ronin, an action picture that recalls the cold, gray spy movies of the ’60s, as well as the French thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville (the title is a cousin to Melville’s Le Samourai). The ultra-professional mercenary De Niro and a handful of hired guns, all strangers to each other, gather in Paris at the behest of Irishwoman McElhone. She won’t tell them who she works for, nor what the briefcase contains. De Niro reveals nothing about himself, although he does strike up a simpatico mutual respect with a French agent (Jean Reno). He and Reno have a much stronger emotional attachment, in fact, than he has with the Irishwoman.

There’s also a vaguely Eastern European technical guy (Stellan Skarsgard, very droll), a nervous Brit (Sean Bean) who talks too much, and an American driver (Skipp Sudduth). The last fellow is the Star Trek designated victim; we know he’ll get killed off because he’s not an international star. The quest for the case takes them from Paris to Nice to Arles (where a nifty sequence is set in the crumbling old Roman arena, the Place Du Forum d’Arles). The car chases alternate with scenes of cold-hearted professionals doing what cold-hearted professionals do between bursts of action: they sit around and stare at the walls.

You can sense the hand of David Mamet in some of this (he doctored the screenplay under the pseudonym Richard Weisz), in the spareness of the characters and the clipped dialogue. At one point De Niro is shot, and must tell Reno how to pull the bullet out — while he’s doing it. This sado-masochistic comedy scene is one of the movie’s high points: “Don’t take the bullet out unless you got it,” De Niro says through a grimace. This happens at the home of an old contact (Michel Lonsdale). He takes the opportunity to explain the title: the Ronin were samurai whose masters had been killed, and thus were doomed to wander from one hired job to another.

This all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So why does Ronin feel like a disappointment? Director John Frankenheimer, whose recent work on HBO has won him Emmys, is primed for a comeback. And much of Ronin has the control of a smart, veteran director, who knows how to take time and distance to create mood. The opening scenes, seemingly drained of color, burn like a slow fuse, and Frankenheimer understands the weariness of old warriors out on yet another meaningless job. A car chase through Paris captures the terror of real speed, despite distracting echoes of the death of Princess Diana. And Frankenheimer pulls off a sniper scene at an ice show (complete with Olympic dish Katarina Witt) that invites direct comparison to the brilliant finale of The Manchurian Candidate.

But the starkness of the characters, the deliberate cool of the design, takes a toll. Ronin doesn’t have the clean existential majesty of a film like Le Samourai, with a few too many concessions to popular taste (including a bizarrely inappropriate final burst of narration, which sounds very tacked-on). Thus the characters are never quite as wordlessly fascinating as they’re clearly supposed to be, except for the simmering Natascha McElhone, whose breakthrough role this is. Credit Frankenheimer with a professional job well done — this is a far cry from the hired-gun disaster of The Island of Dr. Moreau — but the old feeling isn’t back just yet.

 

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

The Seasoned Ticket #12

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 back John Frankenheimer’s terrific 1998 film Ronin for a brief run this week. This reminds me of the time I interviewed the man in 2000, for a piece originally published in the Herald and republished, well, right here and now.

One of the cool things about John Frankenheimer is that he really looks like a classic American director. Tall, and still athletic-looking at the age of seventy, Frankenheimer has a white-haired, hawk-faced largeness about him.

Of course, it probably helps that I am meeting him in a Seattle hotel room so big it seems positively Roman-emperor-scaled. The director is here to do publicity for his new thriller Reindeer Games, but I am delighted to discover him just as willing to talk about his previous films.

Reindeer Games, coming on the heels of Ronin, represents something of a return for John Frankenheimer. In the 1950s, he was one of the bright young talents of the golden era of television, and his extraordinary string of successes in the early sixties brought him great acclaim: Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, and above all the political thriller par excellence, The Manchurian Candidate. Since then, he has bounced around a bit, scoring the occasional commercial hit and residing in Europe for a number of years. He regained his form this decade by working in edgy cable movies, a graceful return to TV.

I ask Frankenheimer about his visual style, which continues to be dynamic. “I don’t want this to sound like a cliché,” he said, “but I’m a person—all my life—who thinks with my eyes. I’ve always been an extremely visual person…I draw fairly well. I’ve spent a lot of time in art museums, studying painting. So when I read a script that I like, I start to see a vague impression. With this movie, what I saw was this bleak landscape. That that was really a character in this movie.

“I tend to see things in black and white. So what I’ve tried to do in all my movies is reduce the color. There’s a palette is of real earth tones… all the costumes are very neutral. The sets are painted colors that don’t intrude. All the set dressing was chosen for lack of color. Then, at the end of the day, what we do is take the film into the laboratory and de-saturate it. That’s very important to me. I feel [black and white] is much more dramatic and much starker. It tells the story much better. I don’t like color. Except when it’s used by somebody like David Lean.

“Also I think in terms of compositions. All my compositions are done to make you feel a little bit uneasy. And to provoke suspense, tension. I never want you to get terribly comfortable watching one of my movies.”

In nearly every aspect of describing the Reindeer Games working process, Frankenheimer spoke with the meticulous care of an old-school craftsman. “I call it kind of hyper-realism,” he said. “It’s not documentary, it’s making things realer to me than they are. There’s a lot of camera movement, a lot of things going on in the frame.”

I had to ask Frankenheimer about The Manchurian Candidate, a movie so ingrained in the American consciousness that it is linked in some people’s minds with the JFK assassination—and has even been mentioned lately in connection with John McCain (with the sinister and completely unfounded theory that a POW might be brainwashed into entering politics at the behest of a foreign power). Frankenheimer described the excitement of Candidate, a 1962 picture, being re-released to theaters in the late 1980s. “We were able to sit down and negotiate a contract to re-release the movie. And they said, okay, we’ll put it out on videocassette. And Frank Sinatra said, ‘No, I really want it in the theaters. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ And they said, ‘Well, we really don’t feel it warrants the expenditure of the two million dollars it would take to advertise this to put it out in theaters.’

“Sinatra said, okay. And he reached into his pocket—I was in the room when he did it—and he took out a check, he wrote it out for two million dollars, handed it to these guys and said, ‘I want it in theaters. If you have a problem, just use this.’

“Well, of course they never did have to use it, because it was a huge hit. But that’s how it got into theaters.”

I asked him whether he had identified with the Robert De Niro character in Ronin, an experienced criminal on a job. “My contention is this,” he said. “An amateur only does something when he or she wants to do it. A professional does something when he or she doesn’t want to do it. There have been times in my life when I did not want to be on a movie set. But I was there. Yeah, I definitely did identify with the De Niro character. Very much so.” If “professional” is the right term for John Frankenheimer, he carries it well.

 

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