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Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards may not be the animator’s best film, but it’s arguably his most ambitious. The movie takes place millions of years after a nuclear war has destroyed virtually all life on Earth. From the ashes an anti-technological utopia has emerged, led by gentle fairies and elves, and other magical creatures who had chosen to remain in the shadows of the old world. Far away, hideous mutants who are descended from the all-but-extinct human species embrace the machines developed ages ago, and plot to use them in order to regain control of the Earth.

Avatar, an ancient elf wizard, leads a quest to destroy his twin brother Blackwolf, the leader of the mutants. Blackwolf has discovered a secret weapon from antiquity that will give him the power to crush the magical armies. This weapon — Nazi propaganda films — serves to both bolster the morale of his ghastly army and to intimidate the magical folk who oppose him. Fighting under the banner of the swastika, the mutants crush all opposition, and Avatar desperately tries to reach his brother’s redoubt in the province of Scortch before it’s too late. He is aided by warrior elf Weehawk, the buxom, scantily-clad fairy princess Elinor (this is a Bakshi film, after all) and assassin-robot-turned-good-guy Peace.

There are some interesting ideas in Wizards and some really great visuals (at one point we see the interior of a temple where an ancient Coca-Cola sign and a jukebox are among the relics worshiped) but the movie is also decidedly uneven. Bakshi’s rotoscoped battle scenes (taken from Alexander Nevsky, among others) don’t mesh very well with his own animation, and it’s clear the movie’s meager budget wasn’t able to support the story he wanted to tell. While there are some scenes with impressively painted backdrops, too many sport quickly-done, smeary backgrounds, and other scenes are played before stark black-and-white sketches.

In spite of its shortcomings, Wizards is a fascinating picture. Released just a few months before Star Wars, it’s a good example of what most science fiction in the 1970s looked like in the pre-George Lucas era. It’s a movie big on ideas and short on cash; there’s an unmistakable hippie vibe that runs through through it, and an anti-technology streak so broad that movies themselves are painted as a danger to peace and freedom — an unusual idea to encounter at your local cinema.

Bob Holt provides the voice of Avatar, playing him as a sort of stoner Peter Falk. Jesse Wells does the best she can with a part intended primarily as eye candy, and Mark Hamill has a cameo as a fairy king named Sean. Perhaps the best vocal performance in the movie is the splendid narration provided by an uncredited Susan Tyrrell. — Michael Popham

 

WIZARDS screens Monday and Tuesday, August 3 and 4, at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.

 

 

 

 

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Review by Trylon rural diegeticist Ben Schmidt

There’s a moment in The Last Picture Show where a young man named Sonny hops into his old, busted-up truck and drives it out of town. It’s late at night. And as Sonny rolls down Main Street, he looks through the windows of the decaying buildings he passes, the pool hall, the diner, the movie theater…there isn’t much else to see. We get the sense he’s decided to leave what little there is here behind.

But at the very edge of town he stops. Leaving his truck idling in the middle of the road, he hops out and sits against the driver’s side door. From here, the sparse lights of the small town of Anarene shimmer, floating in the vast, dark emptiness of North Texas. From what we’ve seen so far, the town he’s grown up in holds little promise. But the world beyond may hold even less. So back he turns, for while this withering town might feel like a prison, it’s at least one familiar to him.

Despite this largely being Sonny’s story, it’s Anarene itself that serves as The Last Picture Show’s tragic hero. The film opens on one of its empty streets, and a slow pan allows us to take in the regret and emptiness that threatens to swallow everyone who calls this place home.

It’s here, by way of Sonny, we meet Sam the Lion, who tends the pool hall where the young men play billiards and the elders play dominos. Weathered and wealthy, Sam owns the few small businesses that keep this small town from being carried off by the wind.

This pool hall serves as a second home to Sonny, a home shared with his best friend, Duane. Together they co-captain the high school football team. Enduring a less-than-stellar season, the two have become a convenient focus for much of the townsfolk’s frustrations.

Sonny soon crosses paths with Ruth, the long-suffering wife of the football team’s coach. Perhaps Ruth sees what we see in Sonny, a depth and kindness that’s surprising for a man so young. Or just a man at all. Meanwhile, Duane just generally suffers at the hands of Jacy, Anarene’s most popular girl, who always seems to be eyeing something better.

But damn, see here’s where I fear an amateur, pithy synopsis can’t rightly sell a film like The Last Picture Show. Because what the poor souls of Anarene do or don’t do here is moot. It’s how they react to what’s being done to them– their lusting, longing, raging, and settling–that serves to captivate us.

Though released in 1971, director Peter Bogdanovich chose to shoot the film in stark black and white, a choice encouraged by Orson Welles. Brilliant, as color would have contended with the raw emotion on display here. Often striking, the cinematography enhances the sense that the world of these characters has all but been spent. Though honestly, the more brilliant (and much more subtle) decision was the extensive use of diegetic music (captured from real radios and record players on location) throughout the film. Often (or perhaps only) featuring songs by Hank Williams, it makes for a haunting soundtrack, one that keeps us uncomfortably tethered to the ceaseless discontent, regret, and agonizing heartbreak on display in The Last Picture Show.

It’s a wonderful film. — Ben Schmidt

 

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW screens Friday and Saturday, July 31 and August 1 at 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, August 2 at 5:00 and 7:15.  Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.

 

 

 

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Review by Trylon contract assassin Ben Schmidt

The Killer isn’t the only killer in The Killer. This ‘89 entry into John Woo’s filmography also features a tough cop who plays by his own rules, and a washed-up Triad who serves as the Killer’s mentor and friend. But as this story of regret, betrayal, and redemption unfolds, it quickly becomes clear why Chow-Yun Fat is so deserving of the titular role.

More on that in a moment. First, let’s shovel some plot:

The film begins in a church filled with many candles and many pigeons. The Killer waits here, enjoying the calmness and stillness, as his friend arrives with a job. Luckily, someone needs to be killed, so the Killer goes off to kill him.

We arrive at a nightclub. The Killer enters and makes his way past a young lady, a singer, towards the back of the club where bad guys and their henchmen are wont to reside. The Killer kills his way to his target, kills his target, then begins to kill his way out of the club. Ain’t no thang, until that young singer flees right into the line of fire.

That sucks because up until this point the Killer was doing a pretty super job. To his credit, Woo (who also wrote the script) doesn’t waste our time having characters monologue about how good the Killer is. We witness it. Head held back, pistol pointed down and away at a particular angle, Yun Fat’s Killer exudes an oddly precise physicality as he moves and turns and dives and fires through oodles of bad guys. In mere moments, we believe he’s the best. And it’s this performance, in the context of Woo’s direction, that keeps things engaging.

It’s during the last, tense moments of this literal shoot-out that the Killer errs, firing a pistol, point-blank, directly in front of the young woman’s face. This split second reaction leaves the two alive, but her corneas badly damaged. We later learn this injury will lead to permanent blindness if the young singer does not quickly receive an expensive operation.

This leaves our Killer racked with guilt. He begins to frequent the (other?) nightclub where she (Jennie) sings for a living. A thwarted mugging brings them closer. Soon the Killer is attempting to carry out one last hit in order to pay for her eye surgery; an attempt to make things right fuels the entire latter half of the film.

Through it all, it’s easy to focus only on all the stunts and gunnery on display in The Killer. They’re the makings of a reputation that’s always preceded John Woo. But to focus only on bullets is to ignore half of what’s so enjoyable about The Killer. The other half makes up the wondrous, weirder side of John Woo (a side that seems much rarer in his later work). Like the random freeze frames that occur throughout the film, often while two characters are just chatting away. Or the prune-colored, sniping-from-boat disguise perfectly complemented by a salt-and-pepper fake mustache. Or “Shrimp Head” and the face/off in Jennie’s apartment that manages to be both tense and ridiculous. Or poor, surprisingly-stabbed-not-shot-right-in-the-back guy.

Woo’s film ends up feeling like a musical in that it unfolds completely at the mercy of its own logic and rhythm. That being said, your ability to enjoy the screening largely relies on your willingness to relax and follow Woo’s lead.

For this is not a writer/director concerned with whether or not you agree that handsome, legendary Triad assassins should unwind with a combination of star-gazin’ and harmonica playin’. In this film they most certainly DO. And that’s as off-kilter as it is fantastic.

Much like The Killer itself. — Ben Schmidt

 

THE KILLER screens Monday and Tuesday, July 27 and 28 at 7:00 and 9:15.  Advance tickets are $8:00 and you can purchase them here.

 

 

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One one level, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike is the baldest sort of early Soviet propaganda. The villains are cigar-chomping, top-hatted Capitalists who own a factory in Tsarist Russia, ca. 1903, men who laugh heartily over the money they make exploiting the workers. The factory owners’ despicable henchmen (who have nicknames like “The Fox” and “The Bulldog” and “The Owl” and who look just like the animals they’re named for) are factory stooges who spy on the workers. The police and the firefighters and the army are depicted as the misguided servants of the Capitalist regime, mindlessly attacking the men and women who are their most natural allies. And the workers themselves are uniformly noble and righteous and therefore a bit dull, with little to differentiate them.

But against all odds, Strike is a dynamic and fascinating film, brought to life by the young director’s ambition and his incandescent talent. This was Eisenstein’s first feature, and he runs with it as if this is not just his first film but his last, making every scene compelling and every shot memorable. On purely visual terms, this is the Run Lola Run of 1925, with Eisenstein using the motion picture camera as a bag of tricks that seems inexhaustible. He does everything he can think of, and we get the dizzying sense of what it must have been like to make movies in the very early days of film, when anything seemed possible and everything seemed worth trying: Eisenstein employs double exposures, arch angles, oddball wipes, process shots, POV’s, fourth-wall-breaking asides, even cross-cuts between literal and symbolic images of butchery to get his points across. He shoots into lights and into shadows, layers numerous images on top of each other to create remarkable tableaus, and uses the editing table as a montage-a-matic, presaging the tactics he would use later in his career.

Originally envisioned as the fifth in a series of eight films celebrating the rise of the Soviet Union called “Toward the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Strike was the only one that got made, but it’s just as well – this muscular, kinetic film makes perfect use of Eistenstein’s “collective protagonist” tactic and contains the sense of righteous, incendiary outrage that makes every good propaganda film work.

This silent classic is a must-see on the big screen, comrades, but as an added bonus all 7:00 screenings will feature live accompaniment by The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra MN. – Michael Popham

 

STRIKE screens Friday and Saturday, July 24 and 25 at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, July 26 at 5:00 and 7:00. Advance tickets are $8.00 ($10.00 for live accompaniment shows) and you can purchase them here.

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Review by Trylon senior railroad bandit Thorn Chen

The outlaw Zhang Muzhi (played by the director, Jiang Wen) arrives in town, impersonating its mayor. In order to get his way, he has to oust the incumbent warlord, the villainous opium merchant and human trafficker Huang Siliang (Chow Yun-fat), who currently has the place on lockdown. In the middle there is Ma Bangde (Ge You), the real mayor, who was strong-armed by Zhang to surrender his title in a railway heist. It’s bandit versus bandit in a game of gunplay, deception, and theatrical posturing. As their plots against each other crescendo, it becomes clear that whoever better manipulates public opinion will decide the day.

The setting is 1920s China, a time of unrest. Warlords vie for control of land and influence. Bandits ride around on horseback, searching for fortune. Government officials follow, greedily chasing their share of the loot. Such is the mythos of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, a film that combines, with characteristic immoderation, the extravagant action sequences of a spaghetti Western with the plot of a theatrical intrigue. A good part of the film is dialogue driven, focusing on discussions of strategy and layered with sharp witticisms that are, unfortunately, mostly inaccessible to non-Chinese speaking viewers. The plots are then translated into fast paced and often-outlandish action, all taking place in a carefully crafted mise-en-scène that more closely resembles the set of a board game than a real life Chinese village. The board game effect is accentuated by the film’s turn-taking rhythm but contradicted by its absurdist imagery: a courtyard filled two feet deep with guns, a steam-powered railroad car that is nonetheless drawn by a pack of stallions (to take two examples). Lines like “let the bullets fly for a while,” delivered coolly by the swashbuckling Zhang, are pure statements of the film’s parodic brilliance. They show the utter groundlessness of the hero’s macho charisma, yet they encourage us to enjoy it nonetheless. This is the spaghetti Western tradition at its best.

The film is not simply a parodic Western intrigue set in China, however. Yes, there’s plenty of intrigue, action, and cool guy posturing, but also an equal amount of political commentary, literary criticism, and cultural navel-gazing. No doubt you’d have to watch it more than once, or twice, to get it all. When it came out in 2010, Let the Bullets Fly broke the box office record in China, taking full advantage of the rapid expansion of the Chinese film industry in lieu of the boom in domestic consumer spending. It did so by creating a multi-layered texture exploding with action, comedic moments, and barely hidden political commentary, deeply satisfying to intellectuals and the popular audience alike. Critics have speculated about the film’s other meanings: is it an allegory of Mao’s victory over the nationalists? Or is it a film lampooning the current corruption of the communist party? A statement on the character of the Chinese people? An indictment of the rush for riches in the wake of economic reform? The cool thing about Jiang Wen’s film is that it is available to all these interpretations at the same time. This is one of those cases where the director tries to satisfy everyone at once, and succeeds. — Thorn Chen

 

LET THE BULLETS FLY screens Monday and Tuesday, July 20 and 21 at 7:00 and 9:30 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.