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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 3

In 2013 Taschen commissioned Jonathan Rosenbaum to write an original essay on each of Jacques Tati’s features for a planned book on the director. Five years later and the book is nowhere in sight, so Rosenbaum has posted his typically thorough, insightful comments on his website: Delving into the color restoration of Jour de fete (“How adding colored elements and a new character could compensate for the absence of a full-color image is an intriguing puzzle. But Tati’s compositional strategy was an intrinsic part of his genius, making him a worthy grandson of van Gogh’s framer; he was an instinctive artist with an uncanny sense of how seemingly unconnected aspects of a film could connect with one another in aesthetic terms.”); noticing the experiments careening beneath Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’s seemingly slick, entertaining surface (“Hulot, in short, could just as well be anyone else for this gag to transpire—and the notion that everyone could be funny, and not just a talented mime who dominated every shot and sequence, was central to Tati’s comic philosophy.”); exploring the satire of Mon Oncle (“Because Mon Oncle is more explicitly a satire than any of Tati’s other films, one could argue that is correspondingly somewhat less poetic and more prosaic. But one kind of poetic vision that is threaded beautifully through the entire film might be described as the poetry of disorder, and this is represented above all by the roaming paths of dogs in both neighborhoods, which are explicitly contrasted with the strict, orderly procession of cars on the highway.”); offering his latest paean to the endlessly rewarding PlayTime (“In the case of PlayTime, this might say that this became a philosophical as well as a physical vision, practical as well as metaphysical, which essentially sprang from a conviction that everyone in the world was funny coupled with a regret that not everyone had discovered it yet. Becoming a man with a mission, he saw his job as showing some people how they might better appreciate the world they were living in.”); saluting art triumphing over economically mandated compromises in Trafic (“The film’s uncommon achievement, in other words, at least on many occasions, is to blend together fictional and non-fictional elements into a seamless whole, demonstrating the Tati’s genius in organizing his materials could be every bit as adroit as his genius for either finding or inventing them. All three processes are intricately interwoven in the film as a whole.”); and arguing there’s much more going on in Parade than the documentary recording of some circus acts (“And in fact, it could be argued that Parade does have a story, even if, like PlayTime, it doesn’t exactly have a hero — or, rather, its “hero”, as in PlayTime, consists of all the people in the movie and all the people watching the movie. And to accept that as a premise means rethinking a lot of things, including what we mean by a movie, what we mean by a circus, what we mean by a show, and what we mean by spectacle in general. And in its unpretentious way, Parade gets us to reconsider all of these things.”).

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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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 27

“The pioneers who made these movies did so despite the industry’s early male domination and, for a time, they flourished. The scholar Shelley Stamp, who curated the Kino Lorber set, believes that at least two questions are worth considering when we talk about what happened to these women: “Why did they disappear?” and “Why have we forgotten them?” Speaking by phone recently, Ms. Stamp said that the disappearance happened fairly rapidly. By the early 1920s, a group of studios were consolidating power by buying up theater chains. This in turn shut out independent filmmakers, including women and people of color.” Manohla Dargis surveys the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers series playing in New York and draws our attention to some remarkable directors who contributed so much to early film before being fired from their jobs and written out of the history books for their gender.

“Wanda never falls prey to self-pity, or the chic despair of some of the woman-adrift films of the period.  There’s a kind of raw energy in the journey’s very futility. And in the fact that she remains mysterious and unknowable, reminding us afresh of the inadequacy of the categories by which we find meaning—and an illusion of mastery—in experience.” One more recent master who flirted with obscurity has since been rediscovered and hailed, and Criterion celebrates the restoration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda by asking a clutch of woman essayists and artists (including Molly Haskell, quoted above) how powerfully they were shook by the film’s unsparing portrait of a woman so silenced and hollowed out by patriarchy there’s nothing left to her but drift.

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

When one site offers two articles of note, I usually try to yoke them with a shared theme. Sometimes they make it easy (see the next entry), and sometimes Criterion has Amy Taubin on the prescience of sex, lies, and videotape on our current mediated intimacy and the future outline of Steven Soderbergh’s career (“In fact, there is barely any nudity, and the sex scenes are so elliptically edited that they are more exciting for what we don’t see than for what we do. And yet sex, lies, and videotape is something of a skin flick. Soderbergh often frames the two central characters, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and Graham (James Spader), in extremely tight close-ups, held long enough for the skin of their faces to become naked indexes of their inner lives. They blush, they sweat. We know what their cheeks would feel like if we were to touch them with our fingers as we do with our eyes. I’ve never seen—before or since—skin that alive in a movie.”); and Nick Pinkerton on the pleasures of seeing Giuliano Montaldo and his cast (Cassavetes, Falk, Rowland, Britt Ekland) rub against the grain of genre conventions in Machine Gun McCain. (“The movie’s locations, like its cast, are an ungainly mix. The exteriors testify to the fact that the Italian crew shot quite extensively in the States: The movie opens in rather uninspired fashion looking south down Park Avenue, and contains views of the streets and back alleys of New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—particularly the strip joints on Telegraph Hill. […] Interiors, on the other hand, were largely shot in Rome’s Incir-De Paolis and Dear Studios, and with these the documentary impulse is abandoned for theatrical gel-splashed impressionism—see the lemony yellow light of the Vegas hotel where Adamo goes to lean on a casino boss, or the red of the go-go bar where McCain picks up his new ladyfriend after dropping another would-be Romeo with a flat of the palm to the dome.”) In which case all I can offer is, here you go.

Movie culture dies twice over at Mubi: lugubriously and with a willful lack of kick to its perversity in Greg Cwik’s take on Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (“These are parasitic creatures, entitled and idiotic, so narcissistic even their sex feels cold. (Ellis has called the film “cold and dead,” because it is about cold and dead characters.) The Canyons is salacious but unsexy, an erotic film that turns you off. Characters are demarcated by who they fuck, by who they want to fuck, by who they fuck over; they are devoid of any semblance of morals or psychology, and this interior vacuity is, again, part of the film’s epochal allure.”); in frenzied, disjointed, typically essayistic fashion in Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, as seen by Jeremy Carr. (“But Grandeur et décadence is exceptional in that the incessant variety of pictorial means (the discordant cutting, the obstinate camera placement, the layered dissolves, etc.) seems to reflect the high-strung sensibilities of the film’s primary characters, as they likewise struggle to balance compound details in a way that is somber and frantic, constantly theatrical, and ultimately laughable. It’s a haggling strain for all involved, and Godard renders that exertion in the film’s own hysterical constitution.”).

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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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 13

“Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, this sequence unfolds within the confines of the inn, showcasing what the director can accomplish in such a stage-bound setting. Without sacrificing precision, Hu switches up his approach, alternating between stretches of languor and frantic motion, between long shots that map out zones of brewing tension and close-ups that relay the information being exchanged in the characters’ gazes. But it is Shih, with his spooky saucer eyes, who gives the section its steady pulse. His inner stillness is a blank slate onto which any mood can be projected, allowing a scene to pivot nimbly between levity and dread. Playing a character on whom nothing is lost, he’s the on-screen embodiment of what Hu sets out to create with the nuts and bolts of his film grammar: a heightened watchfulness operating underneath a tightly controlled surface.” Andrew Chan offers an introduction to the rigorous, restrained King Hu masterpiece Dragon Inn.

At Cinema Scope, a pair of looks back to interesting oddities and the times that made them. Kelly Dong recounts the bizarre intertwining of sex and death—and the incessant censorship troubles that followed—in the ‘70s collaborations of director Kim Ki-young and actress Lee Hwa-si. (“Like the women in the Housemaid trilogy, Lee’s characters are consumed by the contradictory urges to destroy men and to attain security by becoming their wives or lovers. But while those earlier films (each of which concludes with the housemaid’s murder-suicide) suggest that women’s inability to reconcile these paradoxical impulses accelerates their self-destruction as a social class, Lee’s characters constitute a rebuttal: here, opacity becomes a tool for women’s survival.”) And Adam Nayman remembers the marvelous thriller The Silent Partner—along with the Canadian tax laws that both enabled its making and seem to be mocked by the skim-from-the-robber scheme of the film’s protagonist. (“The Silent Partner makes less of an overt fuss about its setting  [than contemporary Toronto thriller The Kidnapping of the President], but nevertheless gets at something truer and more ominous about Toronto circa the late ’70s— specifically, the covetous late-capitalist mentality building up in the skyscraping shadow of the CN Tower. “Money, money, money…stacks of bills…handfuls of coins.” So reads the first line of Hanson’s screenplay, which craftily adapts Anders Bodelsen’s novel about a bank robbery that ends up resulting in two simultaneous heists, one deftly obscured by the other.”)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

“Film is a collaborative medium, or so people say, unless by “people” we mean Josef von Sternberg. To become a director is, more often than not, to reveal yourself as a control freak, but von Sternberg was the original micromanager, and his arrogance was legendary. Even long after his career was over, he was reluctant to discuss colleagues. Screenwriter Jules Furthman was responsible for much of the script of Shanghai Express, but von Sternberg always maintained that the entire treatment was one page written by story creator Harry Hervey. Von Sternberg biographer John Baxter cites the gifted Paramount art director Hans Dreier as a major stylistic influence, taking the director from a realistic approach to the “veiled sensuality” he would develop over the course of his career—and adds drily, “It goes without saying that [Dreier] receives no mention in Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” von Sternberg’s notoriously cranky memoir.” Farran Smith Nehme rectifies some of the oversights that von Sternberg’s own ego helped fuel, citing crucial contributions to the director’s Paramount masterpieces by studio mainstays, reminding you that for a director with such a monstrously exacting and domineering vision, von Sternberg could sometimes glance over found objects and imperiously claim them as his own.

“In La première nuit, shadows, rather than obscuring or blocking our vision, often allow us to see further. The metro becomes a site of enhanced visibility, prone to projections, hallucinations, lyrical associations. In a remarkable series of shots, the hero’s highly contrasted shadow is casted over a map of the Parisian metro; the black shape raises its head, following the blinking lights that signal the different stations, as if trying to decipher a treasure map. Under the boy’s enchanted gaze, the successively flashing paths traced by the various metro lines remind us of wondrous constellations of stars flickering in the firmament.” Cristina Álvarez López explores Franju’s short film La première nuit, finding a marvelous confection of documentary and oneiric fantasy, and one of the cinema’s finest portraits of first love.

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

The new Senses of Cinema features, alongside its other pleasures, a dossier on the giallo and further genre deconstructions of filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. An interview with Anton Bitel captures the pair’s humor, practicality, and intellectual ambitions (“We had a lot of pleasure when we have watched these movies as an audience, we had a very big cinematic pleasure, and we too want to create a kind of little orgasm for the audience, you know, to give pleasure. We like to take that grammar to tell our own stories, and not do, like, a fan film about giallo or western, but to take this oneiric grammar, in fact—because there is a big oneirism in this genre about eros and thanatos – and to talk about desire.”); Kat Ellinger traces their acknowledged debt to Sergio Martino (“Martino wasn’t without his own subversions when it came to giallo. Like Cattet and Forzani, he reintepreteted specific conventions which, through this re-rendering, belonged to him and him alone.”), while Clare Nina Norelli explores some of their creative resettings of famous giallo scores (“Cattet and Forzani’s recontextualisation of Morricone’s Maddalena score has transmogrified the images on screen, elevating their murder mystery narrative into the realm of the spiritual.”). Aside from his interview duties, Bitel also contributes a piece on gender viewed through Cattet and Forzani’s dual gaze (“A couple (like Argento and Nicolodi) in real life as well as joint writers and directors of all their films, they regender the grammar of their adopted genres by articulating them in a creative exchange between the sexes.”); Martyn Contario extends consideration of the genres explored by the couple to the Freudian thrillers of classic Hollywood (“[Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears] share tortured male protagonists searching for the answer to a repressed memory, hinged upon depictions of troubled minds as architectural spaces to wander.”); and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas praises the slippery role memory and association plays in their casting with a tribute to Elina Löwensohn’s starring turn in their latest, Let the Corpses Tan (“A man can be seen behind the gun, but it is a woman’s face in extreme close-up that catches our breath: her eyes, her pores, her lines, the moisture on her tongue, the gaps in her teeth, her mouth in general as she gnaws on a cigarette.”). And just when you might be wondering how Cattet and Forzani’s approach to filmmaking is economically viable, Jeremi Szaniawski chats with their producer Ève Commenge to get a sense of their very pragmatic approach to filming (“The production design of Amer and Let the Corpses Tan was similar: in both cases we were dealing with old places in ruins, threatening to collapse, we had to know exactly which places to redo. The set designer knew she had to do a fake wall in a designated place, and that it had to be 2.5 metres tall, and not an inch more. Pre-production was clear and precise, and there was no improvisation on the set.”)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 24

Criterion offers three looks at collaborations, fruitful but strained, frustrated by external forces, and consummate. Stephen Prince reflects on screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, which was stimulated by Kurosawa’s unique method of setting his screenwriters off against one another, though Hashimoto ultimately focused his complicated relationship with Japan’s military history on screenplays for other directors. (“Hashimoto had joined the front rank of screenwriters with the flashback structure of Rashomon and had surpassed that design in Harakiri. Though a screenplay furnishes a film with its scaffolding and a completed film necessarily goes beyond the script, it remains true, as Mansaku Itami and Kurosawa knew, that to make a good film one must have a good script. Hashimoto’s passionate writing helped burnish Japanese cinema with the golden luster it enjoyed for two decades after the war. He believed that a good script was self-sufficient, that it was like a musical score in its written form, and he felt when writing as if he was composing a symphony. Although he grew rueful about the possibility that his collaborative training in Kurosawa’s inner circle of writers might have inhibited him from developing a robust and distinctive authorial voice, the wonderful movies that resulted from his writing give us the best measure of his literary talent and its enduring contributions.”) Elvira Lindo’s acknowledgement of how central to Spanish culture Victor Erice’s El Sur has remained can’t help but compare the director’s ambitions for the film to the final product, whose producer pulled the financing, thereby truncating the film before the ending found in its source material (written by Erice’s then-wife Adelaida García Morales). (“Some of the aura of mystery surrounding the film might have been dispelled if the production had lasted the agreed-upon eighty-one days, instead of the forty-eight days of shooting that actually took place. Even knowing how consistently Erice has expressed frustration over the truncation of his project (and in fact, those who have had the opportunity to read the script in its entirety have proclaimed it a jewel of screenwriting), the reality is that the viewer does not experience the film as incomplete, because the South, so different from the North of Spain, is contained in El Sur as though it were a dream, inside the boxes where the girl keeps the postcards she has received from that region, signed by her grandmother and the woman who was her father’s nanny, Milagros.”) And even if you’re convinced there’s nothing new to be said about the von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration, Imogen Sara Smith manages to say it beautifully. (“Over the course of the six films they made together in Hollywood, von Sternberg took Dietrich out of the smoke and sweat of The Blue Angel’s waterfront dive and put her in ever more exotic and lavish settings—his versions of Morocco, China, Russia, Spain, with a single detour to contemporary America (Blonde Venus). Between angel and devil, he cast her as goddess, empress, adventuress. The amoral, blithely destructive Lola Lola made way for romantic martyrs in their first four American films, then fatal temptresses in the last two. But the impassivity and cool insolence remained throughout and beyond the von Sternberg films, from the nonchalant poise with which Dietrich faces a firing squad in her second American film with him, Dishonored (1931), to her seen-it-all, sibylline detachment in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). With these qualities lingers an ambiguity distilled by that dressing-room scene from Morocco: she seems above and beyond caring yet takes infinite care with everything she does.”)

“To see him in his early roles is to know that those demons were at least part of his appeal; his working-class bravado was underpinned by vulnerability. He seemed both masculine and feminine in the mold of most of the great screen idols—Rudolph Valentino, James Dean. Stardom demands actors to be broad enough for the audience’s projections, but also to be startlingly specific in their humanity. Mickey’s combination of the sensitively effeminate and the pointedly macho opened him up to all kinds of readings. Over the years, he has phoned it in and loused it up, and the quality of the films he’s starred in have ebbed and flowed. But when it’s right—as in Rumble FishAngel HeartDinerBarflyThe Pope of Greenwich Village—it’s very right.” Christina Newland traces Mickey Rourke’s inability to capitalize on the comeback The Wrestler afforded him partly on his self-destructive streak and partly, and more intriguingly, on how feminine the hulked-out actor can read to audiences. Via Mubi.

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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?

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

“Snyder and Gray would fold under questioning, ratting on one another, and subsequently go to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing; Tom Howard, a New York Daily News photographer who’d smuggled a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle, captured an image of Snyder’s body dancing in the grip of the fatal current. Their trial had been a phenomenon, bringing journalists and rubberneckers from all over to pack the benches in the Long Island City Courthouse. Among the spectators who passed through over the course of the proceedings were D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Damon Runyon, and a 34-year-old crime reporter with an insurance background that gave him insight into the ins and outs of the case, James M. Cain.” A sensational trial that inspired Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice, the many film adaptations of which Nick Pinkerton traces, from Pierre Chenel’s 1939 French film, through Hollywood’s two big, flawed stabs at the material, to, from Hungary, “the bleakest version,” courtesy of director György Fehér and cowriter Bela Tarr.

“Let’s assume that in the ’70s, Ludwig was a film out of its time—sober yet lavishly appointed, forbiddingly old guard to the point of appearing laboriously academic. Today, it is still an anachronism—one can’t imagine a historical art film even again being made on such a lavish scale—and yet the very fact that it now seems so alien to us seems likely to give the film a new lease of life and attract a new audience more eager for this kind of measured pensiveness.” Of course one of the most successful adaptations of Cain’s novel was Visconti’s debut; one of his later films, Ludwig, receives some rehabilitation from Jonathan Romney, who doesn’t deny the film’s sometimes wearying pomp but finds it a striking portrait of history as a series of self-aware theatrical poses.

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

“How far can a filmmaker push an awkward premise? What situations and complications can be extracted from it? What surprises and transformations can divert the seemingly stable course of the plot? Despite its humble appearance as a minor work made for television, The Man with the Suitcase is not short on answers to these questions. The film (which Akerman also wrote) turns its premise into a goldmine, cruising the full range of possibilities: from verbal implosion to gestural explosion; from ignoring the man when he’s present, to fixating on him when he’s absent; from controlled order to engulfing chaos.” Though its hour-long length and origin as a TV movie have tended to rank The Man with the Suitcase as one of Chantal Akerman’s minor works, Cristina Álvarez López finds it a thorough exploration of one of the director’s key themes, the value and hazard of routine.

“As the title implies, in its aggressive-casual way, A Very Natural Thing wants its viewers to share in the easygoing mundanity of gay male love. And though that title may make it seem like the film has been geared toward liberal hetero audiences as a kind of teaching moment (see this year’s “I’m just like you” normie-bullying in the narration and trailers for the otherwise sweet Love, Simon), A Very Natural Thing was primarily intended as a sight for sore eyes, a source of identification for gay viewers.” Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing has stayed off straight movie audience’s radar for the same reason it’s fairly central to gay ones, Michael Koresky argues: a casual, nonjudgmental insistence that all aspects of gay life are matter of factly, marvelously normal.

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