The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 15

“Now that professional opportunities have expanded and marriage has lost both its inviolability and its exclusivity, what are we to make of Lisa Berndle and of a love at once heroic and wildly destructive, even delusional? One of the marks of a great film is how it changes over time as social context and you, the viewer, change. Certain themes recede, others emerge, sympathies shift, reappraisals are in order. The lens widens. Is Lisa’s besottedness a mark of daring or sheer masochism? Inspired and slightly idiotic? Is she heroine or anti-heroine? Could it be both?” Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman remains unmatched in its portrait of l’amour fou, Molly Haskell argues, because however it felt its heroine’s keening, its perception is wide enough to encompass the decency of those left in its wake.

The Harder They Come’s relationship to reggae, however, goes beyond music. The film is immersed in Jamaica’s everyday life and culture reflected through the creative beauty of reggae’s flesh and blood: Ivan’s struggle for a better life in the face of a rigid class structure; the presence of the Rastafari (in the person of the character Pedro) as righteous beacons of peace, love, and equity; the use of the Jamaican language; the argot of body movement through action and dance; and, of course, the reggae rhythm itself. Deeply and vitally engaged with all aspects of the movement, The Harder They Come is the film component of Jamaica’s reggae-influenced golden age.” Klive Walker recounts the phenomenon that was The Harder They Come, an introduction to movie screens of a country, music (reggae) and spirituality (Rastafari) that was so highly anticipated the audience at its Kingston premiere wouldn’t disperse to let in the Prime Minister.

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Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!) Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.

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Review: On the Beach at Night Alone

One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.

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Blu-ray: ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ – Olive Signature Edition

Olive Films

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 8

The new issue of The Cine-Files contains a dossier on the rewards, surprises, and occasional hazards of teaching film studies. Among others, Joshua Glick discusses how he makes his students place themselves amidst the masses of Vidor’s The Crowd (“Yes, John and Mary are back together and some form of economic stability might be possible. But can they achieve a heightened status beyond the “crowd?””); Liz Greene offers a nifty bit of pedagogy (with clips), having her students come up with a new sound design for a scene from The Elephant Man in the style of different directors; Christian Keathley uses Rosemary’s Baby to discuss directorial choice and the orchestration of visual themes (“The students’ answers are generally satisfactory, but I want them to see beyond the specifics of any one choice and to consider the ways in which individual choices sometimes fit together with others to form a pattern.”); Maggie Hennefield finds the farcical take of then current events in To Be or Not to Be speaks clearly to young, modern audiences (“There is nothing that remains unsaid in To Be or Not to Be, but everything is said in the form of rapid-fire jokes and thinly veiled sexual or political innuendos. For my students, this film exemplifies the power of comedy to speak truth (or “truthiness”) to the atrocities of state violence and populist dictatorship.”); and Patricia White discusses a lifetime of teaching, loving, and growing with Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (“Jeanne Dielman can make a formalist out of anyone, and it is a great lesson for would-be filmmakers about how setting limits can inspire one’s best work.”).

“Indeed, the majority of these films adopt stylistic practices which are not susceptible to further development, and can ultimately do nothing except close in on themselves. Most of the previously mentioned titles fit neatly into this category, and thus feel right at home alongside Walter Matthau’s Gangster Story (1959), S. Lee Pogostin’s Hard Contract (1969), Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Michael Barry’s The Second Coming of Suzanne (1973), Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985), Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2013). One-off auteurs generally favour aesthetics which are self-devouring, consuming narrative, film and filmmaker in a single gesture. The defining moment here is the final shot of Electra Glide in Blue, during which the camera pulls back from a dying Robert Blake and spends several minutes moving slowly down an empty highway, as if James William Guercio were watching his new career vanish into the distance.” Brad Stevens finds an interesting pattern of resignation and failure in the works of filmmakers with only one completed feature, and a tragic exception, in its refusal of easy nihilism coupled with a true understanding of how difficult a follow-up would be, in Barbara Loden’s Wanda.

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Review: Wonder Wheel

There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.

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Blu-ray: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection’

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.

Universal Home Video

They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.

Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”

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Review: Steelyard Blues

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on The Green Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if Steelyard Blues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 1

“Each in his way, Flaherty and Rouch were devoted to enlarging the cast of filmable humanity by concentrating on non-Western individuals. It might have been more honest for them to present their subjects as actors, which is in a sense what Rouch did. The nonprofessionals in his work give coached performances that effectively reframe the films as narrative fictions. On the other hand, non-actors were among the signifiers of authenticity—along with location photography and open-ended narratives—in the most influential of cinema movements, Italian neo-realism.” Prompted by the Lincoln Center’s series on “The Non-Actor”, J. Hoberman cycles through a list of examples—and remains, as a critic, perverse enough to end with Orson Welles and genius enough to make that work.

“One day on set [of the first X-Men movie], Shuler Donner and Avi Arad, then head of Marvel Studios, watched as an exasperated stylist, at Feige’s insistence, sprayed and teased actor Hugh Jackman’s hair higher and higher to create the hairstyle that would become the signature look of the character Wolverine. The stylist ‘eventually went ‘Fine!’ and did a ridiculous version,’ Feige recalls. ‘If you go back and look at it,’ he admits, ‘he’s got big-ass hair in that first movie. But that’s Wolverine!’ The experience stuck with Feige. ‘I never liked the idea that people weren’t attempting things because of the potential for them to look silly,’ he says. ‘Anything in a comic book has the potential to look silly. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it look cool.’” Joanna Robinson can’t quite muster up a profile of Kevin Feige, who seems appositely devoid of personality (“He’s short on kibitz” is—who else?—Robert Downey, Jr.’s take), but she lays out how the Marvel Studios producer had enough faith in Hollywood doing right by comic book tropes to change the movie landscape perhaps forever.

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Review: Thelma

There’s a fine line between paying homage to classic horror-movie conventions and outright theft. Let’s take a checklist to Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a kind of Carrie re-imagined through a Scandinavian lens. Bird flying fatally into a window? Check. Dream about a snake slithering through the grass? Check. Spooky old photographs of weird people? You bet. These devices can work like crazy (I’m a sucker for the creepy-old-photo routine), but the chilly efficiency with which Trier deploys them in Thelma feels a little by-the-numbers. This movie—Norway’s official submission in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes—is expertly made, but only intermittently moving.

The title character is a teenager (played by Eilie Harboe), off to college in Oslo and away from home for the first time. A lonely soul, she experiences seizures that can’t be medically explained. Also, strange things happen around her.

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Review: Jane

If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.

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Review: Sounder

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Nice. Safe. Inoffensive. These words adequately characterize Sounder and confirm the precise, if surely unintentional, irony of its pitch: “If you are the sort of person who sees only one movie each year, Sounder is the movie you should see this year.” Sounder has little to do with movies except in relation to those patronizing, sociologically oriented terms dear to the hearts of the Judith Crists and Richard Meyers of the world. There are strength, dignity, and a wealth of cinematic possibility in this carefully respectful and humane story about a black man who goes to jail in 1933 Louisiana for stealing food with which to feed his family, about the family that stays behind on their sharecropper spread and lives on and loves him, and about the eldest son (around 14) who becomes the focus of all their hopes, the one who may manage to do better than to survive by the received terms of life’s contract for their kind of folks in that time and place. Unfortunately, Martin Ritt’s realization of those possibilities is inadequate save in the painlessly assimilable mode of Playhouse 90 on the big screen.

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Review: The Breadwinner

When The Secret of Kells opened in 2010 it garnered respectful-to-gushing reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination in the animated feature category—a neat trick for a film from a small Irish production company, Cartoon Saloon. I liked the film too, and applauded its ambitious visual design. Still, one thing nagged a little: the suspicion, present in every minute of the movie, that it was supposed to be good for you. When Cartoon Saloon brought forth Song of the Sea in 2014, another Oscar nomination followed, and once again I couldn’t shake the feeling that with all the glittering imagery on display, the point of it was to lecture us, not least on the subject of the sacred art of storytelling. The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.

Cartoon Saloon has a new one, The Breadwinner, which is about a little girl in Afghanistan who must shirk the misogyny of the Taliban and bravely find her way through a war-torn world.

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Silents Please: the original 1925 ‘The Lost World’ and Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ on Blu-ray

Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.

The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray)
The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of November 17

“Camille Paglia is not the only one to observe that the great movie stars – of any era – are those with androgynous characteristics. The same could be said for literary characters (people always seem to forget the cross-dressing incident with Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre), for art, for architecture. Not so much yin-yang, but a fluid back-and-forth, an effortless integration, a beckoning that can be very destabilizing. Part of star power is that destabilizing effect. Kristen Stewart is the best example we have today of an actress working in that hard-to-quantify-or-even-talk-about realm. When we talk about charisma, I’d just point to Personal Shopper, one of the best films of 2017, where the majority of the film features Kristen Stewart answering and responding to texts … seriously, that’s most of the movie … and you cannot look away.” Sheila O’Malley lays out her convincing case for Kristen Stewart as the modern inheritor of Brando’s mantle.

“Emerging at the very moment that women’s filmmaking was getting under way, Deitch made Desert Hearts a milestone, the only film to use that energy to fuel a genuine lesbian cinema. Before her, lesbians could seemingly choose only between being French (Diane Kurys’s Entre nous) or a vampire (Tony Scott’s The Hunger). Instead, Deitch set out to make a big, grand, red-blooded American film. Her women would drive through the desert and gamble in the casino, strike out for a dude ranch and file for divorce. And Deitch envisioned a romance, a sexy one that most lesbians wouldn’t even have dared to dream back then. And not just one with a room of our own, but a hotel room, preferably with a naked woman in it, and nobody to interfere.” B. Ruby Rich salutes Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts as a film both inextricably of its time—a product of the feminized ‘70s and a harbinger of the independent scene to come—and able to effortlessly entertain and beguile audiences a generation later.

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