Japanese Girls at the Harbor

When Hiroshi Shimizu released Japanese Girls at the Harbor in 1933, the veteran filmmaker had already made more than eighty-five films. When he died in 1966, he had at least 160 films to his credit in a thirty-five-year career, most of them made at Shochiku, also the home of his friend and colleague Yasujiro Ozu. In his time Shimizu was both a popular director and a respected filmmaker, but after his death he was practically forgotten, even in his home country. He was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, yet after the glorious celebration of Ozu’s centenary with a near-complete touring retrospective in Japan, Shimizu received a belated “101st Anniversary” celebration at the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival, an afterthought, showcasing a mere thirteen films.

Why? Access is certainly a factor. Only a fraction of his films survive, even fewer are available on home video, and his work is rarely revived outside of Japan. Another reason may be a reputation that stuck as a director of light entertainment after his series of children’s films that he began making in the late 1930s. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes,” wrote Alan Stanbrook after a 1988 retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre, the first to showcase the director in the West. And then there was the reductive public persona that remained long after the films receded from the public.

Continue reading at The San Francisco Silent Festival website

I Wake Up Streaming – May 2019

Kanopy is one of the best kept secrets of the streaming world. A free service available through most public and college libraries, it features a robust selection of American indies, foreign films, and educational programming. And thanks to deals with Criterion, Kino Lorber, the Cohen Film Collection, and other libraries, it has perhaps the most impressive line-up of classic and foreign cinema outside of The Criterion Channel. There is a catch, however; Kanopy restricts users to a limited number of items per month. That makes it a great supplementary service, but hardly a replacement for your subscription service(s) of choice. Given that, it is a great supplement to Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, which all favor contemporary over classic offerings. And when it comes to noir, it delivers the goods.

Let’s start with Sunset Boulevard (1950), the blackest of Hollywood’s self-portraits, starring Gloria Swanson as former silent-movie queen Norma Desmond and William Holden as a failed screenwriter with a mercenary streak. Billy Wilder makes his scabrous and acidic exposé of Hollywood’s living graveyards both ghoulish and tragic.

Continue reading at The Film Noir Foundation

Implosion Round: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Pushes it to the Limit

Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.

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A Rich and Varied World: Highlights of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The great misconception of silent cinema is that it’s all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It’s the idea of “lack” they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.

That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater (“the Cathedral to Cinema,” as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations. 

Continue reading at RogerEbert.com

Nuff Said: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Nails the Dismount

Sealing the Deal tends to take low priority in the movies these days, with measured resolutions and logical endpoints largely phased out in favor of open-ended tosses to various cinematic universes. Happily, though, Marvel’s gargantuan, decade-in-the-making Avengers: Endgame largely nails the dismount, blending clever callbacks and newfound cosmic hooey into a satisfyingly constructed mass of entertainment. While it improves upon the previous installment in a number of aspects—there’s much more Ant-Man, for one thing—what ultimately impresses the most is how it allows itself to wrap things up and let a number of significant curtains fall.

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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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