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Sean Axmaker

Review: Affliction

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, February 18, 1999]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

The Whitehouse brothers, Wade (Nick Nolte) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse, chat together in their father’s garage about their father Glen (James Coburn), a bitter alcoholic who tormented them as children with a constant barrage of insults, taunts, and outbursts of violence.

“I was a careful child,” confesses Rolfe. “I became a careful adult. At least I was never afflicted by that man’s violence.”

Wade laughs his response: “That’s what you think.”

Paul Schrader’s Affliction, from the novel by Russell Banks, is ostensibly the story of Wade, an unambitious, jocular small town sheriff and odd job man to a small time entrepreneur. But the cold, objective narration of college professor Rolfe, who holds the story at arm’s length with his writerly diction and disconnected voice, refracts the tale through his own perspective. As he puts into words his clinical take on Wade’s affliction, he unwittingly reveals his own.

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Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

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Blu-ray: ‘Dragon Inn’ / ‘Legend of the Mountain’ – King Hu on Criterion and Kino

Dragon Inn (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Legend of the Mountain (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

After the success of Come Drink With Me, the pioneering wuxia pian (“martial chivalry”) adventure that mixed martial arts, romance, comic action, and historical settings, Hong Kong director King Hu went to Taiwan for the opportunity to make films with greater freedom. Dragon Inn (also known as Dragon Gate Inn, Taiwan, 1967), his first film in Taiwan, pits a group of enigmatic strangers against soldiers sent by a power-hungry Eunuch in the court of the Chinese Emperor to murder the children of a popular government official. They all converge on a the lonely inn of the title, an isolated, windscoured building in the middle of the desert near the Dragon Gate military outpost, where they play out games of social civility between sneak attacks and martial arts skirmishes that build from clever little displays of skill within the inn to sweeping battles against the rocky backdrop of the desert and the lush mountain forests and peaks nearby.

Criterion Collection

Shih Chun, Hu’s favorite leading man, is the wily, grinning loner who swats aside arrows without spilling a drop of wine and catches daggers with chopsticks, and Shangkuan Ling-fung is a warrior woman traveling in the guise of a young man, and they team up to protect the children from the hordes of soldiers sent by the villainous eunuch (Bai Ying under a flamboyant head of white hair). Given his large cast of characters, he effectively gives the primary players distinctive (if broadly drawn) personalities and body language, making them stand out even in busy battle scenes, and his impeccable compositions keeps the film centered on our heroes even in the heat of battle.

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Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

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Blu-ray: ‘Curse of the Cat People’ from Shout! Factory

Curse of the Cat People (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.

Shout! Factory

This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.

More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.

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Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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Sex, lies and, Soderbergh

[Originally published on IndieWire on January 15, 2014]

sex, lies, and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013

Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies, and videotape or did sex, lies, and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love but took home the Audience Award and, more importantly, a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and “sex” was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.

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Method, Madness, and Metaphysical Mysteries

If you’re reading this you’re one of us. You see the patterns that no one else does. You find the answers to questions too bewildering for others to comprehend. But the deeper you dig, the more confusing things get. And then there are the shady characters who keep weaving through your journey. It’s a conspiracy, but you’re the only one who can see it! That path can lead only to madness. Or a movie. We all love a good conspiracy thriller, but we are mesmerized by a conspiracy plot where the answers one seeks may not exist in the material realm.

Under the Silver Lake, the latest film to explore a mystery that seems to defy the logic of science and reason, has been pushed back from its original June release date to December. Ostensibly it’s to give filmmaker David Robert Mitchell time to recut the movie. But could there be another, more sinister reason behind this delay? What exactly aren’t they telling us? Just who is really pulling the strings here?

Continue reading at Fandor

Your 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview

“True art transcends time” is the motto of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which opens its twenty-third edition at the historic Castro Theatre on Wednesday, May 30. What began as a one-day event over two decades ago has grown into the largest and most impressive silent film festival in the country. The twenty-three programs presented over the five-day event include twenty features (from forty-five minutes to three and a half hours in length) from nine countries, ranging from the avant-garde, to the experimental, and even 3D shorts. And all are matched with live music from some of the best silent movie accompanists from around the world.

Continue reading at Fandor

SIFF Diary – Week 1

There was a time when I threw myself into SIFF, seeing 50, 60, sometimes over 70 films between the first days of press screenings and the closing night gala (that’s still far short of some passholders who watch over 100 films over the course of the fest). Those days are over for many reasons, not the least of which is that San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which now plays out smack dab in the middle of SIFF and pulls me out of town for nearly a week. This year I expect to see something between 10 and 15 films scheduled between my day job and writing deadlines, and while that means I miss a lot of interesting films, the upside is that I treasure those films I do get to see and I have more time to ruminate over them. Here are thoughts on some of the films I saw the first. No press screenings for me this year. These were all seen with festival audiences.

Audiences split on First Reformed (US) but critics are raving and I think it’s Paul Schrader’s finest and richest film since Affliction. It also defies expectations of an American psychological drama by following a style more similar to his most beloved filmmakers: Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky among them. Keep Reading

Women Who Take Revenge

If the revenge movie is a staple of American exploitation cinema, the female revenge film pushes exploitation to extremes. At its most gratuitous it makes a spectacle of sexual assault on a female victim for the gruesome entertainment of a male audience, then celebrates righteous vengeance on the perpetrators with additional spectacle. It’s a genre dominated by male filmmakers, which makes the new movie Revenge a welcome alternative to the male gaze. Director and screenwriter, Coralie Fargeat, making her feature debut, brings her own sensibility to these conventions.

Here are some of the films that paved the way for Revenge. No, these are not the pulp thriller answers to #MeToo—grindhouse exploitation and serious art film alike, they have their sexist blind spots—but they do offer a little more complexity to the formula and, sometimes, they empower women beyond simple violence.

Continue reading at Fandor

Review: Manhunt

“For a better tomorrow,” remarks one character in a rare moment of downtime in John Woo’s Manhunt, drawing a direct connection to Woo’s 1986 break-out hit. Not that he needed to drop so blatant a callback. Released in 2017 across Asian cinemas but debuting on Netflix in the U.S., Manhunt is a self-conscious throwback to the Hong Kong films that made Woo’s reputation among action movie fans around the world––a gleefully overstuffed thriller that races through the greatest-hits-of-Woo trademarks, right down to a hardboiled cop who bonds with his nemesis as he pursues him across the city.

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Review: Anon

Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?

Continue reading at Noir Now Playing

SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 17, with the opening night gala presentation of Goya-winning feature The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Bill Nighy from Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. As in previous years, it launches at McCaw Hall and is followed by the opening night party.

24 days later, it closes on a local focus with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix) and directed by Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Sunday, June 10.

In between, 248 features (including 66 documentaries), 164 short films, and 21 VR/360 works from 90 countries are scheduled to screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline. (These numbers are subject to change as additional films may be added at the last minute, and in rare cases films may be withdrawn or cancelled).

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Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

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