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THE FORGOTTEN ARTWORK OF SILENT FILMS

By now most film buffs know how good silent movies looked, in contrast to popular opinion based on the scratchy, washed-out excerpts shown on television for years. But in watching Olive Films’ Blu-ray release of William S. Hart’s Wagon Tracks (1919) I was thunderstruck by its sheer physical beauty. Not only does Joe August’s camerawork bring this story of an 1850 wagon train—and one man’s quest for revenge—to vivid life, but the narrative title cards are artfully illustrated. At first, these “intertitles,” as they have come to be called, were strictly functional. Some of them bore the logo of the releasing company (Keystone, American Biograph, D.W. Griffith), but over time filmmakers realized there was no reason not to make them attractive. Thus began a tradition…

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BRYAN CRANSTON TESTS HIMSELF IN ‘WAKEFIELD’

Bryan Cranston’s career has gone into overdrive since he caught fire on Breaking Bad. Having recently brought screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and President Lyndon Johnson to life on film, he’s now tackling a fictional character unlike any he’s played before. Wakefield is an admittedly odd but consistently intriguing film. Cranston plays a successful insurance man who commutes every night to the suburbs of New York City through Grand Central Station. One evening he forgets his keys, but instead of trying to get into his house he seeks refuge in his garage. As he looks at his wife and daughters through a second-story window he begins an interior dialogue that reveals long-suppressed resentment, jealousy, and pent-up anger at his beautiful spouse (well played by Jennifer Garner). As…

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ALIEN: COVENANT

The alternate title for this latest space thriller might be Alien: Again, for while it provides plenty of scares and visual effects, it is basically a retread of what we’ve seen before…not only in Ridley Scott’s original Alien but his most recent prequel, Prometheus. An intrepid (and well-cast) crew explores an unknown planet only to find themselves victimized by gruesome monsters who invade their bodies and emit lots of goo. Another lesson already learned in Prometheus: don’t trust Artificial Intelligence, even if it is cloaked in the form of Michael Fassbender. The new movie introduces us to his souped-up superior, a lookalike who conducts philosophical conversations with his dangerous doppelganger. There is an air of pretension to this aspect of the film, especially considering that…

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THE DEATH OF VHS—AND WHAT WE’VE LOST

Amidst the various “in memoriam” pieces for 2016 one name was missing: not an actor or a filmmaker, but a format familiar to all of us–vhs. Several sources reported that the manufacture of videocassette recorders, or vcrs, was discontinued by Funai Electric of Japan, which sold its products under the Sanyo brand here in the U.S. Sales had dropped to 750,000 the previous year. That doesn’t seem like such a tiny number but it was small enough to discourage the company from continuing. With the demise of video recording devices comes the eventual extinction of the tapes they played. Most companies stopped producing commercial tapes in 2003. That doesn’t mean that tapes have disappeared. Millions of people still own and use them. Like many of…

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PARIS CAN WAIT: C’EST SI BON

Not every film is intended for a wide audience, and I don’t expect everyone to be swept away by Eleanor Coppola’s romantic travelogue Paris Can Wait. It focuses on people of a certain age and takes its time meandering around France at its most picturesque . The set-up is simple: a charming fellow escorts a movie producer’s wife from Cannes to Paris, taking every possible detour along the way. They stop to admire beautiful scenery and indulge in sumptuous meals; after enjoying an impromptu picnic, they even imagine themselves recreating Manet’s painting “Le Dejeneur sur l’Herbe.” Being of that certain age and highly susceptible to the charms of Diane Lane, who plays the female lead, I enjoyed this attractive bon-bon and suspect that others of my…

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SNATCHED FROM THE JAWS OF COMEDY

A film starring two A-list comediennes should, at the very least, be funny. Snatched fails on this count but also seems to have other ambitions. It wants to impart some thoughts about mother-daughter relationships and the contrasting goals of women of two generations. This frustrating movie was written by a smart woman, Katie Dippold (whose credits include Parks and Recreation, The Heat and the new Ghostbusters) and directed by savvy filmmaker Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, Fifty-Fifty, Warm Bodies). So how did it go so terribly wrong? I can’t begin to guess. Amy Schumer plays an obnoxious person who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. With two non-refundable tickets to Ecuador and no friends who are willing to travel with her, the only solution is to…

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New And Notable Film Books: May 2017

  MAKEUP MAN: FROM ROCKY TO STAR TREK, THE AMAZING CREATIONS OF HOLLYWOOD’S MICHAEL WESTMORE By Michael Westmore with Jake Page; foreword by Patrick Stewart (Lyons Press) Here is a highly entertaining memoir by one of the leading practitioners of makeup artistry in Hollywood. His family once dominated the profession; that story was detailed in The Westmores of Hollywood, published some forty years ago. Michael recounts the highpoints of that family saga but then moves on to tell his own colorful story. From The Munsters to Rosemary’s Baby, from the original Rocky and Mask to an amazing run of 600 Star Trek episodes (in its forms), he has seen and done it all. Patrick Stewart writes in his foreword, “We respected and adored Michael. He…

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BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY

I’m a sucker for stories about the music business in the 1960s, when it was centered around 1650 Broadway and the Brill Building in Manhattan…yet I was unfamiliar with Bert Berns before I watched Brett Berns and Bob Sarles’s compelling documentary about Brett’s father. I certainly know many of his hit songs, and so do you: “Twist and Shout” was a hit for the Isley Brothers and then for The Beatles. Paul McCartney sings Berns’ praises on camera here, and Keith Richards says he wishes he’d met the man who wrote so many great rock ‘n’ roll anthems. (He also produced many hits, like the timeless “Under the Boardwalk.”) Berns was a Character with a capital C and so were many of his cohorts, including…

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RISK: A DISAPPOINTING PORTRAIT OF JULIAN ASSANGE

A filmmaker would have to be inept to have access to Julian Assange and not come away with interesting footage. If you saw Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s intense, Oscar-winning feature about Edward Snowden, you would rightly expect something in the same league in her portrait of Assange called Risk. Instead, the results seem superficial and even redundant, especially if you’ve seen Alex Gibney’s fascinating 2013 documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. It is no secret that the filmmaker changed the tone of her film after its debut at Cannes to reflect her negative feelings toward her subject, but the results still come up short. In many ways the most interesting aspect of this film is her intermittent narration, which she identifies as production journal…

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: FUN ON A GRAND SCALE

There is no reason Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 should be as good as it is. It’s a sequel, which means almost all of the concepts and characters that were fresh the first time around are now familiar. What’s more, writer-director James Gunn faced the same challenge Joss Whedon did when he tackled the second Avengers movie: how do you take a ragtag team that has finally coalesced, break them up for the story’s take, then bring them back together in a convincing and entertaining way? Yet somehow he has pulled it off in this long but loud, colorful, action-packed film. It’s more serious and emotionally ambitious than the first picture but just as enjoyable. The opening scene, featuring Kurt Russell, throws us a curve:…

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