Review: Trouble is My Business

Disgraced private detective Roland Drake is on the verge of being evicted from his crummy little office—the glass door is scarred with tell-tale signs of a partner’s name haphazardly scraped off—when she slinks in. “She had a face that could launch a thousand ships and a body that would bring them back,” he monotones in voice-over. Played by actor/director/co-writer Tom Konkle with the hangdog presence of a born patsy, Drake has a bottle in the drawer, a fedora perched on his head, and an attitude that reaches for world-weary resignation.

That reach—like much of the film—exceeds Konkle’s grasp, but the ambition of Trouble is My Business is impressive. 

Continue reading at Noir Now Playing at The Film Noir Foundation

I Wake Up Streaming – April 2019

Amazon Prime Video

Amazon Prime Video is now streaming Charles Laughton’s great American gothic noir The Night of the Hunter (1955) starring Robert Mitchum in a fire and brimstone performance as a demonic con man in preacher man’s robes. It’s one of the most beautiful pastoral nightmares the cinema has seen.

Hulu

Hulu presents Karyn Kusama’s hard-edged Destroyer (2018, R), a neo-noir crime thriller with a sun-blasted look and a ferocious performance by Nicole Kidman as a damaged police detective (reviewed by Kelly Vance on Noir Now Playing here).

Presenting The Criterion Channel

Just four months after FilmStruck, the film-lover’s streaming service created by Criterion, TCM, and Warner Bros., ceased operations, The Criterion Channel rose from its ashes as a stand-alone service. Where FilmStruck had the mighty Warner Bros. catalog to draw from (at least for the final eight months of its existence), The Criterion Channel is built on the foundation of the Janus film catalog (home to hundreds of classics from Bergman, Chaplin, Kie?lowski, Kurosawa, Melville, Ozu, Truffaut, Rossellini, and Welles, among many others) and supplemented with film packages licensed from other studios and distributors.

The Criterion Channel launched on April 8 with over 1500 features and short films (as well as original programs and supplements from the disc special editions) in its catalog. 

Continue reading at The Film Noir Foundation

High Life: Harsh Mistress

The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.

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I Wake Up Streaming – March 2019

I just started a new monthly column for the Film Noir Foundation that searches out and showcases classic film noir available to stream. Here is the debut installment….

As any fan of classic movies seeking treasures on streaming services knows, it’s a wasteland out there. There are oases, of course, but at any given time there are fewer options for pre-1970 movies between the three major streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu—than you could find in your better neighborhood video stores twenty years ago.

Given that, there are some treasures to be found out there, especially on Prime Video. The problem is knowing what to look for. Since the shuttering of FilmStruck, there really isn’t a service that curates its catalog of classics (Kanopy, a free service offered from public and college libraries, is an exception). So, consider this your guide to streaming noir, and, for this inaugural installment, we’ll look at the options among the big three streamers.

Netflix

Netflix is first in subscriber numbers but last in its commitment to classic movies. It does, however, currently feature a couple of noir classics. Many services offer a copy of Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), with Orson Welles as a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Edward G. Robinson as the government agent on his trail. Netflix, to its credit, presents the superb Kino Classics master, which is also streaming on Kanopy.

Continue reading at Film Noir Foundation website

Uneven Beams: ‘Captain Marvel’

Saluting a megalithic juggernaut for taking risks is a bit of a mug’s game, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in a winningly funky mood lately, alternating the large-scale Sturm and Drang of the Avengers series with lighter, more idiosyncratic fare. (Yes, I realize that something like Thor: Ragnarok is light years away from being an indie film, but work with me here.) Captain Marvel, the long-overdue solo launch for the comic company’s most powerful female character, unfortunately can’t quite keep the left-field streak going, settling for a pretty familiar origin story delivery mode. While the pre-Iron Man timeframe contributes some novelty—to say nothing of some stellar soundtrack needle-drops—it often feels like a throwback in less engaging ways, as well. Still, even when mired in generic comic movie trappings, the exceedingly game Brie Larson and her ace supporting cast keep things buzzing.

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And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

From climate change to measles to the epidemic of motion-smoothing on TV sets, I know we have many, many more important things to worry about. But in the moments before your beach house is inundated by rising seas, spare a thought for the slow-motion pratfall that is this year’s Oscars ceremony.

The awards, to be broadcast on ABC on this Sunday (Feb. 24), have been bungled from the start. Let’s recap: A proposal to add a new award for Best Popular Film (alternate name: Best Movie That’s Not That Great But That Some of You Might Actually Have Seen) was quickly withdrawn after a withering reception. Then host Kevin Hart stepped down in the wake of criticism for homophobic jokes from his past. More recently, someone at the academy (or was it ABC? Or Disney, which owns ABC?) announced they would feature only two of the nominated songs during the show and would give out certain awards during commercial breaks and summarize the winning speeches later.

The aftermath: There’s no host, all the songs and categories are back in after public backlash, and the show will last seven hours. All right, maybe not seven, but ABC will have a hard time trying to make its three-hour target.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Arctic

There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in Arctic, plus an assortment of grunts. As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer/director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.

One of Penna’s best decisions was to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from Casino Royale and the TV version of Hannibal), has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen North.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Streaming the 2019 Oscar nominees

The Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday, February 24. Are you caught up on the major nominees?

Eight films made the cut in the category of best picture and a few of them are still in theaters, notably the offbeat royal drama The Favourite (2018, R), which came away with ten nominations, political commentary Vice (2018, R) which scored eight nomination, and Green Book (2018, PG-13), with five nominations in all.

Also still in theaters is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, PG), the current favorite in the animated feature category.

A number of nominated films, however, are already available to watch at home. Here’s an easy guide to what you can see and how you can see them.

Best Picture

Two of the top nominees are currently available to stream on Netflix. Roma (Mexico, R, with subtitles) and Black Panther (PG-13).

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

The Best Current Source For Streaming Classic Movies is … Amazon Prime?

What is the classic movie fan to do in the era of Netflix? For a few glorious years FilmStruck was our salvation, offering a rich, well-curated collection of films from the silent era through the 1970s, something Netflix gave up on years ago. 

So with FilmStruck dead, where can the fan of classic movies—let’s say, just for the sake of argument, anything older than 40 years—get their fix without resorting to renting each and every title on iTunes or Fandango?

The answer might surprise you. The meatiest streaming source for world cinema classics is Kanopy, a free service offered through most (though not all) public and college library systems. But there’s a limit of five streams per month and while they carry hundreds of titles from the Criterion Collection from such directors as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, the collection of classic American cinema is relatively small.

That’s where Amazon Prime Video enters the picture. 

Continue reading at RogerEbert.com

Review: Under the Volcano

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]

Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.

—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.

This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated Waste Land for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)

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Chasing the Hat

[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.

The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”

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Review: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Batman is wearing a white bat-helmet, his costume dotted with sparkles that set off his fabulous ermine cape. I think at this point there is no question that the Batman from the Lego movies has eclipsed the Dark and Brooding™ Batman of Warner Brothers’ DC film cycle. No wonder Ben Affleck is opting out of the live-action role; he can’t compete with this. As voiced by Will Arnett, the Lego Batman is vain, dimwitted, and very nearly a complete parody of the Dark Knight. It’s the closest thing we’ve come to Adam West’s great TV Batman from the ’60s, and this is a good thing.

Batman has the bling on because he’s dressed up for an outer-space wedding, which is merely one of a thousand points of light in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, a sequel to the 2014 hit.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

While the Oscars remain the one artistic award show that really matters, it’s frustrating how flawed and exclusionary they remain. Still, only certain types of movies are even considered for nominations — sure, a horror film like Get Out or a comic-book movie like Black Panther can get nominated, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule (and ones that would’ve received major backlash if snubbed). But even if a movie falls under the category of “Oscar bait,” it still requires a cash-back campaign targeted at voters to stand a chance. It’s a crummy system.

With that in mind, we threw any notion of standard Academy Awards qualifications out the window to nominate our favorite films of 2018 in some of the major categories (with entries marked with a * indicating our pick as the winner).

BEST PICTURE

Actual Nominees

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Robert’s Nominees

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BlacKkKlansman
Burning
First Reformed
Hereditary
Leave No Trace
The Rider*
Roma
Support the Girls
You Were Never Really Here

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Elvis and the Death of the American Dream, Through Movies

Elvis Presley is ostensibly the subject of The King, Eugene Jarecki’s expansive road movie of a documentary. The award-winning director drives Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce across the US, from Mississippi and Memphis to Nashville, New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and elsewhere, talking to historians, musicians, members of Presley’s inner circle, and everyday Americans. Elvis centers the film but is also a starting point for a much more wide-ranging discussion of the state of American life, and that discussion takes off in all directions. That Jarecki began his odyssey in the months leading up the 2016 election and ended up on the other side of it only adds fuel to the discussion.

Not of political identity, mind you, but of America itself. Elvis is the touchstone that centers it all, with Jarecki using his life and legacy as both a roadmap for the cultural odyssey and as a metaphor for the state of contemporary America.

And at the heart of the film is the question: Is the American dream dead, a victim of greed, excess, and increasing isolation?

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Review: Stan & Ollie

Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.

But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly