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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ on Criterion

The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?

I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.

The Criterion Collection

The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.

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Bernardo Bertolucci

[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]

The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.

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What to stream: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ on VOD, ‘First Reformed’ on Amazon, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ on Hulu

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

A Chinese-American professor (Constance Wu) collides with the culture of the ultra-rich in Singapore when she meets her boyfriend’s family in Crazy Rich Asians (2018, PG-13), the hit romantic comedy based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan. Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh co-star. Now on Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.

Ethan Hawke is a priest facing a spiritual crisis in the provocative First Reformed (2018, R), a personal drama from filmmaker Paul Schrader. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereNow streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Sorry to Bother You (2018, R), the feature debut of hip-hop artist turned filmmaker Boots Riley, is a social satire as comic fantasy starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who finds the secret to sales success and rises up the ladder of a soulless corporation. Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer co-star. Streaming on Hulu.

The British miniseries version of the classic Little Women, starring Emily Watson as the mother of four sisters, originally played on PBS in the U.S. and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

For something a little less serious, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet offers more cheesy films for Jonah Ray and the bots on the Satellite of Love to heckle. Six new episodes on Netflix.

FilmStruck, the premiere streaming service for American and international classic movies, ends its service after two years on Thursday, November 29. Criterion has announced a plan to restart its own service in Spring 2019 and Warner Media (parent company of Turner Classic Movies) promises to bring back its classics in a new streaming service in a year, but until then this is the end. If you’re a subscriber, time to see those films on your watchlist or browse through the catalog one last chance to stream some of the greatest films ever made.

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What to stream: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘Kominsky Method’ on Netflix, ‘The Children Act’ on Amazon

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

Netflix broke with its policy for the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, R), the American frontier comedy from the Coen Brothers. Initially planned as a six-part series featuring the likes of James Franco, Liam Neeson, and Tim Blake Nelson, it was reworked as an anthology film and released to theaters a week before the streaming debut.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of the darkest movies by Joel and Ethan Coen, and also among the silliest,” observes New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. “It swerves from goofy to ghastly so deftly and so often that you can’t always tell which is which.

Streaming on Netflix.

Emma Thompson is superb as a judge facing a conflict between the professional and personal in The Children Act (2017, R), a powerful drama adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereStreaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Michael Douglas is a has-been actor who reinvents himself as a Hollywood acting coach in The Kominsky Method: Season 1. Alan Arkin co-stars in the Netflix Original comedy from creator Chuck Lorre.

Two new British co-productions explore fluid sexuality in the modern world. The Hulu Original series The Bisexual: Season 1 stars creator Desiree Akhavan as a lesbian New Yorker in London struggling to come out at bisexual. All six episodes now streaming on Hulu.

The cheeky British comedy Sally4Ever: Season 1 from creator Julia Davis, who stars as a seductive free spirit who tempts a suburban woman into a wild affair, begins on HBO with new episodes each Sunday.

Megan Griffiths’ Sadie (2018, not rated), an independent drama about an angry teenager (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who sabotages the romantic prospects of her single mother (Melanie Lynskey) while her soldier father is overseas, is now on VOD. Shot in Washington State, the film co-stars John Gallagher Jr.

Classic picks: Sidney Lumet directs the Oscar-winning satire Network (1976, R) with Faye Dunaway and William Holden and robbery-gone-wrong classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975, R) with Al Pacino and John Cazale.

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What to stream: Chris Pine is ‘Outlaw King’ on Netflix, ‘Incredibles 2’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’ on VOD

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

Chris Pine stars in Outlaw King (2018, R) as Robert the Bruce, the 14th century Scottish nobleman who claimed the crown of Scotland and rallied his country to battle the occupying British army of King Edward I. It’s directed by David Mackenzie, who previously collaborated with Pine on Hell or High Water, and shot entirely on location in Scotland. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh co-star.

Outlaw King tells a story that is both old and old-fashioned but does it in a decidedly modern way,” writes Kenneth Turan for Los Angeles Times, who suggests “it gives hope to moviegoers who value venerable action genres and will be pleased to see them showing signs of life.”

Manohla Dargis has a dissenting view: “At least in old Hollywood, filmmakers would also try to entertain you amid the clashes and post-combat huddles, giving you something more to watch and ponder than this movie’s oceans of mud, truckloads of guts and misty, unconsidered nationalism.”

It made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in select theaters the same day it debuts on Netflix.

Pixar’s inventive superhero adventure/comedy Incredibles 2 (2018, PG) celebrates courage, family, and the challenges of raising a baby that can teleport, catch fire, and shoot lasers from his eyes with lots of zippy action and goofy gags. On Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.

Spike Lee returns to form in BlacKkKlansman (2018, R), a savvy take on the true story of a black police officer (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. It’s provocative, satirical, angry, irreverent, outraged, and very timely. Cable On Demand, VOD, DVD, Redbox.

John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (2018), a recording of the actor’s one-man Broadway show, distills 3,000 years of Latino history into a 95-minute comic monologue. On Netflix.

Classic pick: Sean Connery and Michael Caine are British soldiers of fortune in The Man Who Would Be King (1975, PG), John Huston’s grand adaptation of the sweeping Rudyard Kipling adventure. Reviewed on Stream on Demand hereStreaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Foreign language pick: Jean Vigo’s anarchic gem Zero for Conduct (France, 1933, with subtitles) celebrates the rebellious spirit of adolescent boys captivated by magic tricks and word games. Set in a strict boy’s school run by creaky, cranky petty tyrants, it’s a strange and wonderful film full of unbridled imagination, flights of fantasy, and delirious images. The first masterpiece of pre-pubescent self-actualization. On Prime Video.

Holiday essential: Every time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) an angel gets its wings. Prime Video also offers a colorized version but please watch it in the original black and white.

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Review: Touch of Evil

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

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.

It takes chutzpah to monkey with Orson Welles, even for the best of reasons, and without a doubt this unprecedented revision of Touch of Evil was undertaken with the best intentions. While I can quibble with a few details, the result is a remarkable success. Forty years after the fact, producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar winning film and sound editor Walter Murch have given Welles his due and made Touch of Evil into the film he wanted to make.

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Review: Gods and Monsters

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 1998]

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.

In Bill Condon’s God and Monsters the ghost of Frankenstein’s monster haunts James Whale (Ian McKellan) even in retirement. Whale, the debonair, openly gay British director who came to Hollywood from the London stage to make “art” and had his greatest success with a string of “monster movies,” maintained a love-hate relationship with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein almost all his life. Condon weaves the lumbering image of the misunderstood monster into the fabric of the film like a haunting memory that won’t go away.

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Blu-ray: Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (Universal, Blu-ray)

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy have traversed the trail from horror icon to camp figure and back again and sparked the imaginations of readers and moviegoers for decades. Yet call forth the images nestled in the public consciousness and you’ll find that the figures created by Universal Studios, the home of Hollywood nightmares during the great gothic horror cycle of the 1930s and 1940s, have becomes the definitive versions of the great horror movie monsters.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Universal has been upgrading and repackaging its library of classic monster movies and the franchises they launched through the 1930s-1950s on disc for almost 20 years. This new collection is the ultimate compilation. Previously released on DVD, it offers 4K restorations of all 30 films for Blu-ray, some for the first time. That means not just the bona fide Gothic horror masterpieces and monster movie landmarks previously on Blu-ray individually or in the “Legacy Collection” sets—Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy(1932), and The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) with Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., the Technicolor Phantom of the Opera(1943) with Claude Rains, and the post-Gothic, atomic-era Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) in standard and 3D versions, plus the Spanish language Dracula (1931)—but stand-out sequels such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the pre-Wolf Man The Werewolf of London(1935), Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the mad monster parties Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), and the surprisingly creepy horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) among others, with all the commentary tracks, featurettes, and other supplements from earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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Review: Vampires

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 4, 1998]

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.

John Carpenter has wanted to make a western for years. Now he’s finally made it—as a vampire film. It’s not simply the dusty, dusky southwestern setting or the Ry Cooder twinged country blues score. Carpenter turns John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul mouthed, hard drinking, whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of vampire hunters. It’s machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.

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Review: Small Soldiers

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

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.

About halfway through Small Soldiersit struck me: just who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much bigger kids – well, adults actually.

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

“Though the international fame of In the Realm of the Senses—now widely regarded as one of the most important films of the Japanese New Wave—has engendered a flurry of reviews, articles, and interviews in the decades since its scandalous premier, there is a dearth of both media and scholarly attention towards Matsuda, any interest in charting her life or hearing her experience. Matsuda’s death from a brain tumor in 2011 went unnoticed by the press; by contrast, a flood of obituaries from around the world greeted the news of Oshima’s passing just two years later, many of which prominently featured iconic stills of Matsuda as Abe. In the minds of arthouse theatergoers, her unforgettable performance in In the Realm of the Senses had become an instantly recognizable metonym for the height of Oshima’s directing powers but left no room for a consideration of the performer herself.” The erasure of Matsuda Eiko is one Erica X. Eisen aims to rectify, recounting the prejudices that led In the Realm of the Senses’s lead to suffer condemnation and even praise within a narrow, sexualized band that never constricted her director or co-star, and had her leaving the film business in less than a decade.

“Not only the hero but also the film itself is built as a conglomerate: a collage of impulses, templates, and allusions, coming from different artistic practices and fields. The credits of Woton’s Wake appear over a series of illustrations imitating the pages of a medieval book. Abundant in comic strip and cartoon-like effects, the film has traces of both avant-garde theater and puppet shows. It combines a vignette narrative with two folk songs that orally convey the hero’s story. Across the film, De Palma uses many types of experimental music (musique concrète, ritualistic chants, a tape played backwards, atonal composition). The underground spirit of Bruce Conner’s early assemblages and the junk-décors of Jack Smith are mixed with the legacy of German Expressionist cinema.” De Palma’s early short Woton’s Wake, in Cristina Álvarez López’s reading, is a heady collage of cinema history, arts high and low, and the director’s career-long affinity for society’s monsters, its protagonist the “first demiurge-artist” in De Palma’s career, one whose outré self-fulfillment, like De Palma’s itself, gleefully resists easy consumption by an audience.

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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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 25

“Five years later, Lang’s obsession with the tribunal made its appearance, and he was able to launch a frontal assault upon the real world, by opposing to the idea of transcendent justice the actuality of the man-made laws determining our daily lives. For the first time Lang openly attacked the official representation of authority, and in particular, those officials who dispense justice—a justice, moreover, regimented by laws—and the laws themselves resting upon privilege, mindless tradition, and stupidity. For the courts, in Lang’s vision, are intrinsically human, and the right to judge others is shot through with private interests. Decrees, codes, and rules are revised to suit the moment and the result is often chaos, contention, and error. When this happens, those forces existing upon the margins of society—the pariahs, the cripples, the thieves—inherit the problem of constructing a new justice. Lang’s sympathies always lie with the little man, the man of low condition, who, by whatever means at his disposal, is willing to combat the dogmas of a stultified society.” Kino Slang makes available a translation of an article first written in 1937, then revised for a 1959 reprint in Cahiers du cinema, in which Georges Franju adduces the techniques of editing, mise-en-scène, and employment of actors that Fritz Lang used to make his “almost obsessional” films so precise and personal. Via Mubi.

“I was twenty when I ingested most of Cassavetes’s work. (It was a real heavy trip.) Like many young men first encountering his films, I felt like I was being exposed to the raw truth. There was no evidence of staging or phoniness, ingredients that until then I had assumed were necessary to narrative. It seemed that the camera lens had been caked with bullshit all along, and Cassavetes was the only filmmaker capable of scraping it clean. Maybe so. But his truth is no vérité. It’s taken me until middle age (wherein most of his films take place) to appreciate that he was, among other things, a top-notch surrealist. I don’t doubt that every artistic decision he made was deeply felt in his gut, but that gut frequently led him to dissociative fugues and dream logic that could make David Lynch blush.” Keeping with what turns out to be this week’s theme of directors functioning as critics, Andrew Bujalski breaks down the climax of Opening Night to expose how disassociated from reality John Cassavetes’s “realism” was.

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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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 18

“Oh yes, [The Blue Bird] is actually totally crazy if you ask me. In that regard it is Maurice’s most radical film. He even painted the intertitles himself and managed almost every stage of the production. I think this was the closest he came to his idea of creating a complete artwork. Which is also the reason we showed it together with I Walked with a Zombie. In many ways the latter is the most accomplished expression of Jacques’ total art, although I am sure ever-modest Jacques would have abhorred a term like this. In it Jacques goes furthest in liberating himself from narrative shackles. Both films could be seen as showcases on how to create poetry within the Hollywood system.” The Austrian Film Museum’s Christoph Huber has a fascinating conversation with Patrick Holzapfel about a program he curated that paired films of Maurice and Jacques Tourneur, and the commonalities and radical differences it exposed in the father and son auteurs. Via Film Comment.

“It was precisely this history of problematic representation that [producer] Esparza sought to upend with his films, and he and a few fellow filmmakers succeeded.In the early eighties, Mexican Americans were just beginning to fulfill their dream of making their own cinema, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was one of the films that inaugurated the Chicano film movement, along with Young’s ¡Alambrista! and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981). The next ten or so years saw the full flowering of Chicano cinema with the release of La Bamba (1987), Born in East L.A. (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988),and The Milagro Beanfield War(1988), and culminating with Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi in 1992.Charles Ramírez Berg traces the history of Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, from real-life incident to folk song, academic study, and finally a film at the forefront of not only the Latin American wave but the entire independent film movement. Elsewhere, at Filmmaker, star and producer Edward James Olmos talks with Jim Hemphill about the film. (“I gave Bob [Young] the script up at Sundance, and that same year Robert Duvall was there – he gave Bob Tender Mercies to read at the same time. Bob called me up and said, ‘Eddie, I just finished reading your script, and it’s the most horrific and unprofessional script I’ve ever read in my life.’ He couldn’t find one good thing to say about it. And then he said, ‘Tender Mercies is an extraordinary script. Just incredible.’ In my mind I’m thinking, well, he’s gonna do Tender Mercies. I mean, at this point in time I am no Robert Duvall, okay? […] And Bob asks me, ‘Do you have the money for your story?’ I said, ‘I have a million dollars.’ He goes, ‘Oh, that’s more than enough. I want to do your story. Duvall’s script is brilliant, but yours is the story I want to tell.’”)

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