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last update 26.Feb.08
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Cruising   3.5/5
cruising Based on a true story, this notorious film sparked protests in 1980, and it's interesting to see that it would possibly get the opposite reaction today. It holds up remarkably well--a taut thriller with intriguing undercurrents.

In a racially charged New York City, the whole city is pressuring the cops to catch a vicious serial killer who's preying on members of the gay S&M subculture. The police Captain (Sorvino) asks young cop Steve Burns (Pacino) to go undercover as bait, since he fits the victims' profile. And he can't tell his girlfriend (Allen) about the assignment. As he sinks deeper into his role, he befriends a neighbour (Scardino) and notices two potential suspects: a cute waiter (Acovone) and an athletic student (Cox).

This is the kind of bold filmmaking that just isn't done anymore. A movie like this would be in the headlines for its scandalous subject matter, but Friedkin approaches the setting with a remarkably matter-of-fact tone, never sensationalising the characters or their counterculture activities. He also highlights the cops' rampant corruption, thuggery and homophobia in provocative ways. Besides one extremely odd interrogation sequence, the only thing that rings false is the deep self-loathing he reveals in all of the gay characters, including Steve.

Pacino is superb, really getting under the skin as a man who's happy to explore another side of himself, then goes a bit further than he wanted to. Is he discovering the scene or himself? The script never pushes him over the brink, which is a shame (although Pacino might not have dared to star in that movie). But it's still compelling to watch him quietly grapple with his own identity at one of the more extreme ends of the social spectrum.

Throughout, Friedkin keeps the film rough and gritty. His direction is surprisingly unflinching, with details of the S&M scene explicitly on screen and even explained at times as Steve learns his way around. There's also a palpable sense of menace with the killer on the loose. And despite a few 1970s editing effects, the film looks raw and urgent, and 25 years ahead of its time.

dir-scr William Friedkin
with Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, Richard Cox, Jay Acovone, Joe Spinell, Gene Davis, Allan Miller, Ed O'Neill, James Remar, William Russ
pacino release US 8.Feb.80
reissue UK 25.Feb.08 dvd
80/US Lorimar 1h38

18 very strong themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Killer of Sheep   4.5/5 SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
killer of sheep Charles Burnett's master's thesis film, shot in the mid-70s and only recently released, is a timeless document of American life that deserves the accolades it has received, including a place in the National Film Registry.

It's a slice-of-life look at a working-class black family in Los Angeles. Stan (Sanders) labours in a slaughterhouse by day and then tries to make ends meet with his buddy Gene (Cherry). They avoid illegal scams, but their attempts at honest work often fail. Meanwhile, Stan's wife (Moore) longs for physical intimacy from her husband, waiting impatiently for his attention. And their kids, pre-teen Stan Jr (Drummond) and 5-year-old Angela (Burnett), are in a world of their own.

Despite the gritty setting, the film centres on the internal dignity of characters who take life as it comes. These aren't people wallowing in poverty (they're not specifically poor), but their lives feel often as pointless as the sheep Stan works with. Burnett films this with a sparky sense of earthy humour and a haunting blues-soaked tone that's echoed in the rich song score. The film's centrepiece scene is a slow dance to Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth--a tender and powerfully moving comment on this couple's search for love, integrity, dignity and soul.

The dusty 16mm cinematography makes the film feel timeless, and many of the scenes are documentary in nature (or at least improvised)--often wordless, examining the daily rut with coarse wit and an aching sense of longing for more in life. This is beautifully revealed through cheeky camera angles, poetic editing and a strong sense of physicality. As a whole, it's beautiful, sad and charming, all at the same time.

Being a student film, it's also extremely scruffy and sometimes clunky, with uneven acting and some stiff dialog. But this only lends to the film's relevance and importance as both a milestone of American neorealist cinema and as a document of a specific place and time. And by looking at issues of racial and economic inequity as a fact of everyday life, rather than preaching from a soapbox, Burnett has made an understated masterpiece that feels fresh and relevant even 30 years later.

dir-scr Charles Burnett
with Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Jack Drummond, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Charles Bracy, Slim, Delores Farley, Dorothy Stengel, Tobar Mayo, Chris Terrill, Lawrence Pierott
sanders release US 30.Mar.07,
UK 20.Jun.08
77-07/US Milestone 1h23

12 themes, language, some violence
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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror  
5/5   Eine Symphonie des Grauens
nosferatu One of the most influential films ever made, this very first adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (although completely unauthorised) shows horror techniques that are still in use almost a century later. And it's still one of the scariest, most unnerving films ever made.

Hutter (Wangenheim) is an estate agent asked by his boss Knock (Granach) to travel to Transylvania with documents so Count Orlok (Schreck) can buy a house in their German town. Hutter's new wife Ellen (Schroeder) is terrified of being alone at home while he travels, so she stays with friends (Schnell and Landshoff). Meanwhile, Hutter arrives at Orlok's castle, and his immediate fascination soon turns to dread at the strange night-time goings on. Then news of a deadly plague reaches Germany just as Orlok travels to take possession of his new home. And Ellen.

This film is much more complex and involving than virtually every Dracula movie made since, anchored by a truly freakish performance from Schreck as the long-nailed, pointy-eared, chipmunk-toothed vampire. He's a seriously nasty piece of work; we believe he's actually been dead for centuries, and is up to no good at all. There's nothing remotely charming here, and Schreck's legendary performance has never been matched. The other actors are surprisingly natural for a silent film, with offhanded dialog, a visual sense of humour and detailed interaction that continually catches us off guard.

But it's Murnau's expert filmmaking that makes this an indelible classic. He deploys all kinds of creep-out effects (things we see all the time now in J-horror movies), insinuating shadows and mind-bending make-up to keep us on the edge of our seats. And the newly rediscovered original orchestrations, unheard since 1922, are sheer magic. As is the colour tinting, original German title cards and brilliantly pristine print (it's unlikely that it looked and sounded this good when it was originally released). It's worth seeing on a big screen if possible, or at least in a proper home cinema. Meanwhile, we'll keep waiting for someone else to get this story right.

dir FW Murnau
scr Henrik Galeen
with Max Schreck, Gustav v Wangenheim, Greta Schroeder, Alexander Granach, GH Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, John Gottowt, Gustav Botz, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz, Albert Venohr, Eric van Viele
schreck release Ger 4.Mar.22
restoration UK 19.Nov.07 dvd
22/Germany 1h34
PG themes, suspense, violence
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The Sound of Music   5/5 SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
The Sound of Music With a pristine new print on the big screen, it's like you've never seen this film before. The raw emotion and sheer energy are as strong now as when the film won five Oscars in 1966. Sure, it's a little cheesy and nostalgic, but it's also a great story.

In Salzburg, Maria (Andrews) is a rebellious nun whose Mother Abbess (Wood) tells her to go work as a nanny for Captain Von Trapp (Plummer), single father to seven rambunctious children (Carr, Hammond, Menzies, Cartwright, Chase, Turner and Karath) who aren't responding to his military rule. Being a bit rebellious herself, Maria bonds with the kids and begins to draw out the musical abilities instilled before their mother's death. She also begins to thaw out Von Trapp's cold heart. Meanwhile the Nazis are on the march in Austria, and they want Von Trapp to join them.

There are several reasons why this is such an enduring classic. Firstly, the Rogers and Hammerstein songs are almost pathologically catchy; they don't stop the story, but rather propel it through internal insight and lively emotions. Meanwhile, the characters are all so vivid that we can identify with just about all of them, even the ostensible villains of the piece (and there are several, at varying levels of villainy).

The cast enthusiastically sinks their teeth into these roles. Even the children are more rounded than most movie kids. And Andrews has never been this engaging--Maria is such a blast of pure mischievous resourcefulness that we can't help but fall as madly in love with her as the captain does. The scene-stealing baroness (Parker) doesn't stand a chance! And the actors effortlessly carry us from comedy to romance to suspense.

This digitally restored version startlingly reveals Wise's beautiful, epic-scale direction. It's so sharp and clear that we feel like we've never seen many of the scenes before. All of the murky visual shadows have been removed, and even the sound has a remarkably crisp edge. More than 40 years later, this is one of those rare films that's memorable both for its sheer quality and its classic campness. And it's worth discovering all over again.

dir Robert Wise
scr Ernest Lehman
with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Charmian Carr, Nicholas Hammond, Heather Menzies, Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase, Debbie Turner, Kym Karath, Daniel Truhitte, Ben Wright, Portia Nelson, Marni Nixon
andrews and the kids release UK 29.Mar.65
reissue UK 26.Sep.07
65/US Fox 2h54
U themes, some suspense
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2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall