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by Sean Axmaker

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 20

The New York Times Magazine offers a pair of profiles that emerge more complementary than you might expect. Alexander Chee finds Park Chan-wook committed to his modest domesticity, as fond of photographs and cats as Chris Marker, and proud of his self-taught sense of filmmaking. (“When you say you go to a film school in America or France, you would probably go to a lecture where they teach you about German Expressionism and show you what these German Expressionist films are…. But in Korea there was no systematic education I could be exposed to. It was sporadic, haphazard. And maybe that’s why my films have ended up in this strange form, where it feels like it’s a mishmash of everything.”) While the mercurial Amy Adams, as profiled by Manohla Dargis, is steelier than her doe-eyed image suggests, if invariably polite, just as protective as the South Korean master of her personal life, and just as notably autodidact—about her feminist sensibilities. (“When a writer friend pitched Adams to a studio for another project, the limits of Spielberg’s largess became conspicuous. The studio’s response, as Adams described it to me, was:  ‘Oh, the homely girl from Catch Me if You Can.’ That’s preposterous and offensive, and typical of the industry’s sexism. Adams, however, didn’t frame it that way: ‘I can’t blame anything other than I did not do my best at that point. I don’t think I inspired confidence.’”)

Another intriguing pair as Geoffrey O’Brien does double duty for Criterion on Welles’s Othello (“You may begin to wonder how much we even need the words. Here and elsewhere, Othello communicates as the most eloquent of silent films. It could be thought of, to borrow a phrase from Duke Ellington, as a “tone parallel” to the play, with Shakespeare’s language forming only one strand of a mix in which music (Angelo Francesco Lavagnino developed his score in close collaboration with Welles), sound effects, visual design, and human faces each count for at least as much.”) and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (“Yet the more intimately present this reality becomes, the more ephemeral and ghostly the people in it seem. The past never stops being the past; the images freeze and recede into a frame, beyond our reach. That effect of doubleness is compounded by Kubrick’s recurrent visual trope of slow zooms moving back from the action to reveal the indifferent landscape within which it is taking place. Those reverse zooms signal an incursion from the future, a telescope traveling through time as much as through space.”)

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Blu-ray: ‘The Earrings of Madame de…’

[originally published in October 2013, this review has been revived to honor Danielle Darrieux, who died this week at the age of 100 – ed.]

The European films of Max Ophuls are elaborate dances of romance and seduction in a world of social constraints and fickle lovers, and his 1953 The Earrings of Madame de…, considered by some critics one of the perfect pictures of cinema, is the most elegant of these melancholy waltzes. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story in time and space and black and white.

Criterion Collection

Danielle Darrieux is the Madame de… of the title, an old-world socialite in 19th century Paris in a marriage of convenience to confident, cultured diplomat Charles Boyer. She plays the Countess as a supremely poised actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, such as fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or to stop a confrontation at a dance. Boyer gives the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Together they master the illusion of the perfect social pair while spending their free time dallying with flirtatious suitors and casual lovers, but the illusion is shattered when the Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) enters the picture.

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Blu-ray: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is the second reboot of the first superstar of the 21st century superhero boom since Sam Raimi’s hit trilogy and this time Sony (who still owns the movie rights) has handed the creative reins over to Marvel Studios and allowed them to integrate the webslinger into the Marvel Comics Movie Universe.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Tom Holland actually made his big screen debut as Spider-Man, once again a hapless high school kid just like in the original comics, in Captain American: Civil War, recruited by Tony Stark to be his secret weapon against Captain America’s rebel heroes. After holding his own in his big league try-out, Holland carries Spider-Man: Homecoming with the youthful spirit of a high school brainiac nerd with the fresh charge of superpowers he’s still mastering, the unseasoned hero eager to impress reluctant mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and make the leap from the streets of Queens to the big leagues of The Avengers.

This film wisely dispenses with the whole origin story and reintroduces us to the rookie wall crawler by revisiting his Civil War coming out party from the excited kid’s point-of-view via Parker’s camera-phone. It’s a perfect entry into this variation on the Marvel house style, capturing not just the charge but the culture of social engagement of a high school kid, a YouTube take on superhero spectacle in the first person.

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Blu-ray: ‘Vampyr’ on Criterion

An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.

Criterion Collection

Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 6

A Girl’s Own Story stands out for the concrete stylistic choices elaborated in each scene, but also owes much to an overall tone: passionless, desolate. This atmosphere is soaked in the experience of a world that is too small and gives too little, a world filled with boring rituals and sickening family dynamics. Costume, décor, and sound play an important role in the depiction of this milieu. Listening to the film attentively, one can appreciate that there are many details unifying its soundscape: music cues that are never gratuitous; voices coming from TV sets; animal, electrical, and human background noises. However, the main dialogue sounds raw, as if projected into a void space.” Cristina Álvarez López offers a sympathetic reading of Jane Campion’s A Girl’s Own Story that remains somewhat in awe how fully-formed and still ambitious the director was in this 25-minute short.

“And what does that puppet master have to say about the accusations of sexism and promoting real-life violence addressed in Tenebrae? He actually seems to agree with them. This film is an utterly despairing, nihilistic vision of art and artists as unable to achieve anything positive in the world. If art can change the world, in Tenebrae, it can only damage it. I’m sure this was adopted as a devil’s advocate position, and the film’s early scenes express it with dark humor, but by the time the film’s final 10 minutes turn into a parade of slaughter, it cuts pretty deeply.” Steve Erickson argues for an appreciation of Argento that doesn’t just acknowledge the filmmaker’s misogyny before passing over it, but keys into the director’s self-awareness of the issue as a way of making his films even more despairing, no-escape labyrinths. Via David Hudson.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 29

Some giants of the experimental film scene receive attention at BOMB magazine. First, a reprint of a letter Stan Brakhage wrote to poet Robert Kelly about the inspiration and trying process of creating Mothlight shows the filmmaker’s literary style almost as dazzlingly abrupt as his cinematic. (“I began thinking that Mothlight must begin with the unraveling of a cocoon and end with some simulation of candle flame…. Much to my surprise, the cocoon was full of spider eggs, or at least what I quickly assumed was spider eggs, and not a caterpillar, or semi-moth, or moth at all; and I realized that I had committed the first (and last) intentional destruction of life in the making of Mothlight by my actions and that I would have done so no matter what had been inside the cocoon, it was a sobering moment in which all the false path I’d been insisting on was revealed clearly. I gave up, as gratefully given sacrifice, both cocoons and candle flame in that instant.”) And four brief excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s memoir “A Dance with Fred Astaire” captures the day he decided to be a dog, the impish humor of Nam June Paik, and two screenings of avant-garde films, one of which seemed to go magically only to turn to a farce at the end, and one that went from a disaster to Mekas’s idea of a “most perfect screening.” (“We stood there, still half asleep, looking at the morning, almost in ecstasy. Then Ken and myself, we pulled out our cameras and we began to ?lm. We had to do it, we had to ?lm; we were ?lled with the ecstasy of cinema. We felt we were the monks of the order of Cinema.”) Via David Hudson.

“’At first I was amused by the fact that Blade Runner was an influence,’ Scott says. ‘Then I got fed up with seeing pouring rain onscreen.’” Brian Raftery’s set visit to Blade Runner 2049 offers no great insights either to the nature of the sequel or how its predecessor earned its beloved cult, but there’s a nice, almost accidental study in contrasts provided of the somber, patient director Denis Villeneuve and the shrewdly bombastic executive producer Ridley Scott, whose every sentence, even on the page, seems wreathed in the smoke of expensive cigars.

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Blu-ray: French classics ‘The Love of a Woman’ and ‘Spotlight on a Murderer’ from Arrow

Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.

Arrow Academy

Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of September 22

A pair of fine memorials remind us what a unique presence we lost with the passing of Harry Dean Stanton. Drew Fortune rounds up a baker’s dozen of friends, collaborators, and fellow barflies to share memories of a flinty buddha who wouldn’t hesitate to cut you down to size even as he remained your boon companion. (“He’ll tell ya, ‘You’re nothing.’ Everybody would get mad, because they didn’t understand why he’d always be saying that. It’s his way of expressing that we’re all just individuals on the planet Earth—that you’re no bigger or better than anyone else. Him and Marlon Brando were tight, and he used to get Marlon all the time. He’d say to Marlon, ‘You know, we’re all nothing.’ Marlon would say, ‘What the hell do you mean?’”) And Brian McGuire, who directed Stanton in four films and acted as a special sort of assistant on the actor’s last, Lucky, recalls the headaches and concomitant great rewards that came from working with such a marvel. (“A million questions, all for just one short scene and one line! I made up answers on the fly, but Harry had yet more questions. ‘Where are we going after we leave the apartment?’ I said, ‘You’re going out to a nice restaurant for a celebration meal.’ Harry: ‘Where?’ I quickly spat back, ‘I don’t know, Harry, it’s been a long time since I had a nice meal. So you’re gonna have to pick the place.’ There was a long silence. Shit, did I just blow it? Did I go too far? Then I heard that classic old man voice say, ‘OK, I think I can do your picture.’”)

“There is beauty to burn here, and a hint of desolation in the train’s mournful horn as it pulls into Livingston, a town in the wide-open spaces of a state that has earned the nickname Big Sky Country. In and around that small town, we meet three strong-willed, uneasy women trying to shrug off or rise above or transform lives that feel too small for them. Each gets her own story in this portmanteau film, and though the women may brush against one another in passing, they will never meet. By the end, you might wish they had, if only to dissipate the loneliness that rises off them like morning fog. Reichardt weaves in comedy, in varying shades of wicked black, but she’s never one to shy from despair, even at the close of a film.” Ella Taylor plumbs the human depth behind the minimalist surface of Reichardt’s Certain Women.

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Blu-ray: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017) is, if you’ll pardon such an obvious comment, a wonder of a superhero movie, a film that doesn’t transcend the genre but most certainly sets a high bar, especially next to the ponderous, humorless films of the new big screen universe of interconnected DC Comics heroes.

Warner Home Entertainment

Gal Gadot debuted as Amazon princess warrior Wonder Woman in the turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brightened the film immediately. The spirit we glimpsed there carries this origin story, which sends us back to the 1910s and the hidden island paradise of the Amazons inadvertently invaded when American pilot Steve Trevor (an earnest yet spirited Chris Pine) flies past the invisibility field and crash lands on the beach, the first man ever to set foot on the island. Diana is intrigued to say the least but more compelled by news of a world at war and, after the inevitable assault by German forces after Trevor, is convinced of her purpose: stopping the god Ares from destroying all of mankind through warfare. She leaves the island against the wishes her mother (Connie Nielsen, commanding and regal). Steve’s not so convinced of that stuff about ancient gods and eternal Amazons but he has no doubt as to her abilities as a warrior or her commitment to justice and he knows a valuable ally when he meets one.

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Blu-ray: ‘E.T.’ at 35 from Universal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies, turns 35 with a new E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary Limited Edition (Universal) plus additional Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD editions.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.

It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.

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Blu-ray: Jackie Chan begins in ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master’ from Twilight Time

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow / Drunken Master (Twilight Time)

Twilight Time

Boyish, baby-faced Jackie Chan trained at the famed Peking Opera Academy, had an early career as a stunt man, supporting player and fight choreographer in scores of Hong Kong films, and was unexpectedly chosen as “the next Bruce Lee” in a series of stiff, serious revenge adventures. This misguided attempt almost ended his shot at stardom before it began; Jackie’s charms have everything to do with his outgoing personality and self-deprecating humor, and an acrobatic fighting style schooled in Chinese Opera. After a series of super-serious action film flops his career was practically written off. Then producer Ng See Yuen paired the young performer with director Yuen Woo-ping for a pair of films that played up his strengths. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Hong Kong, 1978), Jackie plays a menial servant in a school for martial arts who saves the life of an aged vagrant (director Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tin, aka Simon Yuen), who just happens to be a martial arts master on the run. Cut to training sequence, toss in the sight gags, and unleash Jackie’s Chinese Opera style. It was the first time that Jackie got to display his gymnastic martial arts style and his facility for physical humor and it was a success, which of course demanded an immediate follow-up.

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

Filmmaker’s annual collection of 25 new voices in independent film has arrived, a clutch of movie makers, with influences ranging from Laura Moss’s love of horror films to Jessica Kingdon’s reconnection with her mother’s Chinese heritage, to discover and, in a few cases at least, excitedly anticipate their future development.

“I’m not going to declare that Ruby Gentry is a litmus test for cinephilia, especially because the film itself fails all litmus tests. But there is something about it that gets to the heart of how movies live and why we watch them. That “something” is wrapped inside a contradictory film that ultimately gives way to the delirious powers of animal magnetism, deft shadowplay, and compositional expressiveness. If you love movies, you know the camera lets hobgoblins loose. Good taste and ideological purity are little match for a mud-spattered Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston creating a Pietà in a swamp.” Even in Caledonian exile Robert Horton feels the pulse of uniquely American films, in this case King Vidor’s strange, powerful, (typically) underrated Ruby Gentry.

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Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.

Lionsgate

Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.

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Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

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

“While the personal plotline is often seen as quintessentially Epsteinian, the lighthouse story tends to be regarded as the product of contractual obligation. In fact, one recurrent criticism made of the film concerns the use of a voice-over that guides us through this larger narrative. This voice is, indeed, very prominent, but it’s also suffused with the self-enjoyment and sense of adventure of a storyteller. If, as many commentators seem to assume, Epstein felt constrained by external impositions, he managed nonetheless to make a film that lovingly embraces both its educational character and its global spirit. If there was a burden attached to the institutional demands of the project, he subverted it, creating new possibilities for his cinema.” While many have dismissed Epstein’s UN-commissioned Les feux de la mer as fatally compromised by its government sourcing and pedagogical slant, Cristina Álvarez López finds the director thrilled to discover a new strain or two of storytelling to fold in with his more explicitly poetic mode.

“Hitchcock had never gone so far inside his characters before. And that would prove to be his creative destiny. But he was not happy on Rebecca. He and Selznick fought most of the time, and neither felt satisfied, although the film would carry off the best picture Oscar. Still, something had given Hitchcock access to his fascination with the emotional alarm preying on individuals in regular melodramas. You can tell the story of Rebecca to someone before they see the film, but they’ll still be astonished when they feel the guilt and apprehension Hitchcock has delivered. That comes from the vulnerability of “I,” the malice in Mrs. Danvers, and the uncertain authority of Olivier’s Maxim. He owns Manderley, but he is an insecure master, desperate for the reassurance that a woman may bring him—or ready to be overpowered.” David Thomson flips through the many genres—romance, mystery, ghost story—and many masters—Danvers, Rebecca, and “I” fighting onscreen, Hitchcock and Selznick tussling off—of Rebecca.

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