Z

France (1969): Political/Thriller/Historical
127 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

How a political murder is made to look like an accident. Costa-Gavras's extraordinary thriller--one of the fastest, most exciting melodramas ever made--was based on contemporary events in Greece. The picture never loses emotional contact with the audience; it derives from the traditions of the American gangster movies and prison pictures and anti-Fascist melodramas of the 40s. The young Greek expatriate director uses a searching, active camera style that's a little too self-consciously dynamic, and his staccato editing style and the use of loud music to build up suspense for the violent sequences put a lot of pressure on you. He gets you in his grip and squeezes you to react the way he wants you to. The story is based on the Lambrakis affair, as it was presented in fictional form in the novel Z, by the Greek exile Vassili Vassilikos. In 1965, Lambrakis, a professor of medicine, was struck down by a delivery truck as he left a peace meeting; the investigation of his death uncovered such a scandalous network of corruption and illegality in the police and in the government that the leader of the opposition party, George Papandreou, became Premier. But in 1967 a military coup d'état overturned the legal government. The movie re-enacts the murder and the investigation in an attempt to show how the mechanics of fascist corruption may be hidden under the mask of law and order. It was shot in Algeria, in French, as a French-Algerian co-production, with a score by Mikis Theodorakis (who was under house arrest in Greece at the time), and a script by Jorge Semprun, an exile from Spain. When the picture is over and you've caught your breath you know perfectly well that its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart fascist filmmaker, if there were one. Luckily there isn't. With Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas, François Périer, Renato Salvatori, Charles Denner, Pierre Dux, Marcel Bozzufi, Magali Noel, and Georges Geret. The cinematography is by Raoul Coutard. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

Zabriskie Point

US (1970): Drama
112 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Antonioni's American-made movie is about a semi-political boy (Mark Frechette) and an uncommitted girl (Daria Halprin) and how everything they encounter of American life is cruel and rotten. (They meet in Death Valley.) When the boy is (implausibly) killed by a "pig," the girl sees what must come: the destruction of America (which turns out to be a ravishingly pretty apocalypse). It's a very odd sensation to watch a message movie by a famous European artist telling us what is wrong with America while showing us something both naïve and decrepit; if it weren't for this peculiar sense of dislocation and the embarrassment you feel for Antonioni, this would be just one more "irreverent" pandering-to-youth movie, and (except visually) worse than most. He can't animate the young performers--he can't, it seems, truly connect with them. He falls back on the youth mythology so popular in the mass media (the young are good guys and the older white Americans are bad guys), and this rigid, schematic point of view doesn't fit his deliberately open-ended, sprawling style. The movie seems unconsciously snobbish--as if Antonioni thought America should be destroyed because of its vulgarity. With Rod Taylor. Cinematography by Alfio Contini; script by Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, and Clare Peploe. Produced by Carlo Ponti; released by MGM.

Zachariah

US (1971): Western
93 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

A rock Western, and, as if that weren't mixture enough, it also tries to be both spoof and morality play. Nothing quite works, yet it's a relaxed and generally inoffensive movie; the hero (John Rubinstein) has an open, smiling manner, and the menace (Elvin Jones) does a smashing drum solo--the high point of the film. Directed by George Englund, from a script by Joe Massot, and an improvisational troupe of four called The Firesign Theatre--they didn't like the way the script had been edited, and referred to the movie as "Zacharooka." With Pat Quinn (the Alice of Arthur Penn's ALICE'S RESTAURANT). A Cinerama release.

Zandy's Bride

US (1974): Western
116 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

The Swedish director Jan Troell proved his enormous talent in the two-part epic THE EMIGRANTS and THE NEW LAND, but he had terrible luck when he worked on Hollywood projects. His first, the Western ZANDY'S BRIDE (which was drastically shortened), was a commercial failure and his second, the 1979 HURRICANE, was an all-around fiasco. Set in California's Big Sur region in the 1870s, ZANDY'S BRIDE, with Gene Hackman as the cattle rancher Zandy and Liv Ullmann as his mail-order bride, is a respectable piece of work. But it feels too worthy: the story material simply isn't original enough for the unrelieved serious tone. Troell's background isn't theatrical, and he doesn't provide the pleasures that people expect from a Western--the comic and romantic sweetening, the fun. Zandy is a hard man and close-mouthed; his bride suffers from loneliness and from his brutal indifference to her feelings. It's almost impossible to warm up to the glum Zandy; Hackman seems defeated by the way the character is written, and Ullmann is left to carry the picture. And either because of the script (by Marc Norman, based on the 1942 novel The Stranger, by Lillian Bos Ross) or the re-editing, the melodramatic action that develops has very little to do with the core of the movie--which is the wife's gradual civilizing influence on Zandy. With Eileen Heckart, Susan Tyrrell, Sam Bottoms, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Santos. Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth; produced by Harvey Matofsky, for Warners.

Zardoz

UK (1974): Science Fiction
105 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Sean Connery in a loincloth as the only virile man in an elitist commune of the future, dominated by hyper-intellectual immortal women. John Boorman, who wrote, produced, and directed this lushly photographed piece of twaddle, appears to be worried about mankind's losing its fighting strength. With ideas skimmed off the top of various systems of thought, ZARDOZ is a glittering cultural trash pile, and probably the most gloriously fatuous movie since THE OSCAR--THOUGH the passages between laughs droop. With Charlotte Rampling, whose gimlet eyes and sensual hauteur inspire Connery to found a new race, and Sara Kestelman as May. Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Zaza

US (1939): Drama
83 min, No rating, Black & White

Overdressed, stultifying "period" picture, heavy on recriminations and renunciations. Claudette Colbert is miscast as a rowdy wench, the darling of the French music halls, who becomes involved with a married gentleman--Herbert Marshall, so respectable and courteous and boringly nice that his adulterous duplicity is scarcely believable. Colbert wears big feathered hats and works herself up to the appropriate tantrums and spasms of nobility, but it's all mild and lifeless. (The script, which had to be laundered to get through the Hays office, fades away.) Bert Lahr blooms (briefly) as Zaza's manager, and Helen Westley, liquored up and besequinned, plays her greedy stage mother; Constance Collier and Genevieve Tobin are also in the cast. George Cukor directed; the musical numbers have a little more flair than the rest of the movie. Screenplay by Zoë Akins, from the play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon. Produced by Albert Lewin; Paramount.

Zazie dans le Métro

France (1960): Comedy
88 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette

Movies are said to be an international language, but sometimes a film that is popular in one country finds only a small audience in another. This anarchistic, impudent comedy (from Raymond Queneau's novel), a great success in France in 1960, was hardly heard of in the United States. The film, which is like a Mack Sennett 2-reeler running wild, seemed to be peculiarly disturbing for American critics and audiences alike. To Americans, ZAZIE seemed to go too far--to be almost demonic in its inventiveness, like a joke that gets so complicated you can't time your laughs comfortably. The editing, which is very fast, may be too clever; some critics have suggested that for Americans this comedy sets off some kind of freakish, fantastic anxiety. Putting it as squarely as possible, Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times: "There is something not quite innocent or healthy about this film." Yet it's like Alice in Wonderland: Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) is a foul-mouthed little cynic, age 11, who comes to Paris for a weekend with her uncle (Philippe Noiret), a female impersonator, and nobody and nothing are quite what they seem. Louis Malle, who directed, includes satirical allusions to LA DOLCE VITA and other films, and a parody of his own THE LOVERS. Many of the modern styles in film editing, which were generally thought to derive from Alain Resnais or Richard Lester, have an earlier source in ZAZIE. In French.

Zelig

US (1983): Comedy
79 min, Rated PG, Color and Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Woody Allen's intricately layered parody--a mock documentary about a celebrity of the 20s, Zelig the Human Chameleon (Allen), who takes on the characteristics of whatever strong personalities he comes in contact with. The film seems small, and there's a reason: there aren't any characters in it, not even Zelig. Allen shafts the almost universally accepted idea that everyone is someone. This is a fantasy about being famous for being nobody. The whole movie is an ingenious stunt: it has been thought out in terms of the film image, turning the American history we know from newsreels into slapstick by inserting the little lost sheep Zelig in a corner of the frame. Zelig's story couldn't have been told any other way--the pathos would have been crushing. The documentary fakery dries it out and keeps it light. Zelig is always just glimpsed and the movie darts on. It's made up of artful little touches. With Mia Farrow as Zelig's analyst, and Stephanie Farrow and Ellen Garrison. Narrated by Patrick Horgan; cinematography by Gordon Willis; edited by Susan E. Morse. Orion; released by Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Zero for Conduct

France (1933): Drama
44 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

School as seen through the eyes of children. Jean Vigo's 44-minute comedy-fantasy about a schoolchildren's revolt is one of the most poetic films ever made and one of the most influential, both in theme (as in Truffaut's THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS and Lindsay Anderson's IF…) and in its leaping continuity (as in Godard's BREATHLESS). Vigo, himself, was clearly influenced by Abel Gance's pillow-fight sequence in NAPOLEON. In French.

Ziegfeld Follies

US (1946): Musical/Dance
110 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Vincente Minnelli directs an extraordinary cast in this plotless, often tedious MGM musical revue. It features a peculiar Hollywood-40s style of decor (chorus boys with jewelled antler-shaped branches, chorus girls clad in vermillion, and so on). Some high spots: Fred Astaire dances "Limehouse Blues" in a set left over from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY; he and Gene Kelly do a routine together ("The Babbitt and the Bromide," by George and Ira Gershwin); and Judy Garland appears at her most lighthearted in the dance-and-patter number--"A Great Lady Has an Interview." The other performers include Lena Horne, Fanny Brice, Victor Moore, Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Keenan Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, Lucille Bremer, James Melton, Hume Cronyn, Edward Arnold, and William Powell as Ziegfeld up in heaven dreaming this big bash. The fastidious are advised to head for the lobby while Kathryn Grayson sings "There's Beauty Everywhere" against magenta foam skies. Produced by Arthur Freed.

Ziegfeld Girl

US (1941): Musical/Dance
131 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

An odd, rather fascinating MGM musical that mixes melodrama with big production numbers. The story involves Judy Garland, James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, and Dan Dailey, as a sadistic prizefighter who gives Lana Turner a bad time. (Dailey is scarily good.) The cast includes the great dancers Antonio and Rosario, who were known at the time as The Kids from Seville, and Tony Martin, Al Shean, Charles Winninger, Ian Hunter, Jackie Cooper, Eve Arden, and Edward Everett Horton. Produced by Pandro S. Berman; directed by Robert Z. Leonard; the dance numbers were staged by Busby Berkeley; the costumes are by Adrian; the script is by Sonya Levien and Marguerite Roberts, from a story by W.A. McGuire; the songs, from various sources, include "You Stepped Out of a Dream," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," and "You."

Zoo in Budapest

US (1933): Romance
85 min, No rating, Black & White

A lovely, romantic fantasy, with the radiant Loretta Young as a girl who runs away from an orphanage, spends the night in a zoo, and meets a handsome, nonconformist zoo attendant (Gene Raymond). The entire beautifully produced movie takes place during that night in the zoo. Rowland V. Lee directed, and Lee Garmes did the memorable cinematography--tranquil visions of swans and herons on a moolit lake, and, at the end, when the police arrive and the whole zoo has gone mad, a glimpse of the porcupines in a panic. With O.P. Heggie; written by Dan Totheroh, Louise Long, and the director. Fox.

Zorba the Greek

US (1964): Drama
146 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A violent old Greek (Anthony Quinn) tries to teach a tame young Englishman (Alan Bates) how to live. The central Life Force conception is banal and pushy, yet there is life force in Quinn's performance. The setting is the harshly beautiful island of Crete. Irene Papas is the magnificent widow the young man is drawn to, and Lila Kedrova plays the coquettish old ruin who thinks she can cheat death if she's still attractive enough to get a man. The director, Michael Cacoyannis, lingers too long over this great old tart, wanting a little too much of a good thing; his more serious weakness is for choreographed set pieces--theatrical "classic" sequences. He presses down too hard; the film has its moments, though. From the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis; cinematography by Walter Lassally; music by Mikis Theodorakis.

Zorro, the Gay Blade

US (1981): Adventure
93 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

A wonderful giddy farce. If you could combine the screen images of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Peter Sellers, the result might be pretty close to the slinky, self-mocking George Hamilton as Zorro. This gleaming-eyed Zorro, with his idiotic leering grin and his idiosyncratic Spanish accent, and Paco (Donovan Scott), his plump, teddy-bear servant, set out to help the people of old Los Angeles, who are being taxed to death by the villainous Esteban (that actory actor Ron Leibman, sporting a thick head of hair and a full beard, and giving a rambunctious, likable performance). Directed by Peter Medak, from Hal Dresner's script, this is the kind of silly movie at which you laugh so hard that when something misfires it's just a little rest. With Brenda Vaccaro (doing a Madeline Kahn), Lauren Hutton, James Booth, and Clive Revill. A Melvin Simon Production; released by 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

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