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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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

Like so many other film sites, the new Senses of Cinema is in a Golden Anniversary mood, looking back at the films of 1967. Unlike most, it casts the net well beyond the expected subjects. There’s the expected pieces on Accident and PlayTime, but also Alexia Kannas on Branded to Kill (“Suzuki’s explosive treatment of the crime genre assumes you understand the formula’s conventions already: it dispenses with clear narrative continuity in favour of fragmentary impressions that are electrified by the film’s formal style”); Kat Ellinger on This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (“As he gnashes his teeth, delivering diatribe after diatribe—all strongly aligned with Nietzsche’s philosophy on The Superman–it becomes clear [Coffin Joe’s] anger stems from a hatred of the human race in its present form, regardless of gender”); and Anton Bitel and Emma Westwood on, respectively, student films by Lynch (“And so a filmmaker was born, and the sick men of this debut would lead inexorably—after an even more elaborate short, The Grandmother (1970)—to the sick baby in his extraordinary first feature Eraserhead (1977), revealed under its swaddling bandages to be all insides”) and Cronenberg (“According to Mr Silent Type, they need not be concerned about what goes down the drain but what will come up from it. Given Cronenberg’s forthcoming propensity for the viscerally morbid, this serves as possibly the first instance of ‘Cronenbergian’ horror….”). In addition, Dean Brandum crunches the numbers from Chicago exhibitions to get a sense of why British cinema couldn’t sustain its popular momentum after that annus mirabilis.

Elsewhere in the issue Jeremi Szaniawski traces the connections between Sukurov’s “power tetralogy” and Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (“In both Sokurov’s tetralogy and Serra’s unofficial sequel, the details (costumes and set design) are highly realistic, and serious research has gone toward documenting the facts portrayed (famous sources are quoted in the dialogues, etc.). But both directors also take poetic license in creating a universe of their own, giving us at once a compelling historiographic account, a pure work of auteurist vision, and a playful historical recreation, with touches of bizarre humour and an ineffable absurdist spirit interspersed throughout.”), Andrea Grunert salutes Toshiro Mifune (“Deeply rooted in the tragic hero narrative, Mifune’s heroes lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. As Isolde Standish demonstrates, the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.”), and Ventura Pons, Julien Duvivier, and Dennis Hopper get added to the journal’s Great Directors.

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Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.

Twilight Time

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 10

“These tropes cumulatively function as what philosopher Robert Pfaller has termed “interpassivity”: they cynically perform our annoyance at seeing the same old thing again for us. We can walk out of these films feeling satisfied, refreshed, and maybe even a little superior for seeing how the mechanics of movies work. And yet, this facsimiled dissent does not result in movies with original ideas, but instead in things like The LEGO Batman Movie, or, say, Miller and Lord helming the forthcoming Han Solo movie. Not unlike a punk buying a T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on it from Hot Topic, we fool ourselves if we believe this humor to be as subversive as it pretends to be.” Along with the death of cinema itself, the death of comedy is a constant in the world of criticism; Violet Lucca offers the latest iteration, with at least some words of praise thrown in for those modern directors who know how to build a joke.

“Once united, Phelps and O’Gaffney propel a series of semi-discrete set-pieces, starting with an inevitable Great Escape from the camp, facilitated by the white-on-white camouflage of wearing the Arabic prisoners’ white robes in the German snow. From there, Two Arabian Knights features high-speed train stunts, a second adventure for our hapless protagonists as naval stowaways, a romance with a shipwrecked Arabian princess (who else but Mary Astor?), a palace invasion, a gun duel, and a third and final getaway. However discontinuous in action and ambience, these rarely feel like loosely strung vignettes, mostly because Milestone’s hold on tone and his connection with his game, jovial actors tie things together.” Staying at Film Comment, praise for one forgotten comedy comes from Nick Davis’s appreciation of Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights. While Mark Harris doesn’t exactly excavate a forgotten film, he does remind us that Persona played so badly commercially in its ’67 release at least in part from Bergman fatigue, however much a break the film made with his past efforts. (“As Variety’s critic succinctly put it when he got his first view of Bergman’s Opus 1, ‘big themes are still his forte.’ The severity and rigor with which Bergman attacked these issues and his complete lack of interest in packaging them ingratiatingly for his audience both dates the movie and makes it enduringly fascinating.”)

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

High Noon had a lot going against it. Foreman had never written a Western. Zinnemann had never directed one. Foreman’s screenplay, inspired by a short story in Collier’s magazine called “The Tin Star,” by John W. Cunningham, had no beautiful vistas, no Indian raids, no cattle stampedes.” And then there were the H.U.A.C. hearings, writer Carl Foreman’s insistence on defying the committee, and producer Stanley Kramer’s more cautious, cover-my-bases approach. Glenn Frankel follows up the story of The Searchers with a look at another classic western of the period, and the politics surrounding it.

“Given this manic productivity, there might be an attendant assumption that more than a few of the films are fuzzy-headed experiments or sly conceptual jests in the style of those early movies from Warhol’s Factory, but all are masterful productions, moving at a stately pace and totally inimitable in their mixture of artifice, raw cruelty, and chill dispassion. He had a system nobody else possessed and taxed it to its limits. ‘There’s this strange compulsion to work which is certainly a strength and a weakness,’ as he admitted in an interview two months before his death, ‘I’d say I’m a manic depressive and I just try to be depressive as seldom as possible.’ His mother adduced a different kind of desperate energy at work: ‘Rainer,’ she said, ‘simply didn’t count on growing old.’” In an excerpt from This Young Monster, his biography of the director, Charlie Fox does a dazzling job connecting Fassbinder’s legendary output and equally prodigious intake—of drugs, acolytes, prostitutes, and scandals—with his innate rebelliousness and his queering of mainstream cinematic tropes. Via Criterion.

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

We’ve been MIA for a couple of weeks due to various reasons and we’re a little late getting up today (due to the editor spending much of the day in bed fighting a cold) but we’re back now.

“When we settle into her hotel lobby, Heckerling—who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history—tells me the story of the Jewish cinematographer Karl Freund. When he was living in Berlin in the 1920s, Freund shot two of the most visually iconic German films of all time, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He then fled to the United States at the end of the decade, and he spent the final years of his career shooting I Love Lucy, among other projects, for which he designed an innovative lighting setup that some sitcoms still use to this day. Heckerling wonders, though, if someone as entrenched in the glamour of early film as Freund ever could have been satisfied working in the emerging medium of TV. ‘Who knows how he was feeling,’ she says. ‘But I look at IMDb and see what people started doing and where they ended, and you go, well, it’s a different game. And that’s how it’s happening now…. I don’t know,’ she says, speaking as much of herself as Freund. ‘You gotta, like, bob and weave and figure it out.’” Even being one of the most successful women directors of all time hasn’t shielded Amy Heckerling from the sexism of the industry, from producers rejecting scripts because they don’t believe women could have decades-long friendships to her lengthy stay in “director jail” following some ill-fated films. But as Lindsay Zoladz reports, she’s still out their bobbing and weaving.

“Director Michael Curtiz often clashed with Crawford during shooting, complaining that she insisted on glamorizing the woman whose daughter calls her a “common frump.” But the veneer of gentility and obsessive care for her looks that clung to the actress—born into miserable poverty as Lucille LeSueur—perfectly suits Mildred Pierce, who sells cakes and pies out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons, even when her husband is out of work. True, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary, downtrodden housewife, but could a woman who builds a chain restaurant empire, makes a fortune, and marries the scion of a fallen old-money clan, all out of desperation to please a snobbish daughter, ever be described as ordinary?” Imogen Sara Smith praises Mildred Pierce as a triumph for Crawford, and as one of several films upending the “false assumption” that noir was inherently misogynist, while the genre was always willing to root for women like Mildred who were ready and willing to work.

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Noir City Seattle 2017 – Film by Film

Noir City 2017 is titled “The Big Knockover” and the theme is heists: big, small, and inevitably doomed. It kicked off Thursday, February 16 with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the godfather of the heist film, and Criss Cross (1949), the darkest, most truly noir-ish heist film ever.

I wrote a preview for The Stranger this week but I and other Parallax View critics have covered a number of these films in past reviews and essays. So here some capsules and notes on the films of this year’s festival, many by me, with links to longer pieces where available.

All screenings at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Thursday, February 16

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – 7:00 PM
“Even as the perfect crime collapses in betrayal and the irrational impulses of human nature, The Asphalt Jungle is a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, a film that both embraces the romance of the criminal code and acknowledges the mercenary impulses of outsiders and upstarts who have no code.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Stream On Demand

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Noir City 2017 Highlights Heists and Favors Risk Over Genre Purity

Throughout the years of Noir City’s Seattle residency, the programming has taken brief detours from the mean streets of hardcore noir to explore side alleys, from early influences on noir to noir influences on other genres. The 2017 festival, which runs February 16-22 and is the biggest to date (20 films in seven days), takes more leeway than usual for “The Big Knockover,” a week of capers, heists, and holdups. A lot of the films don’t qualify as pure noir. The heist genre occupies its own corner of the crime movie universe, sometimes embracing the dark heart of film noir’s world of corruption and desperation and doom, just as often skipping into lighthearted crime comedy or slipping into cool, calculated caper spectacle. You could say that the heist film is the original antihero team endeavor, the supervillain squad combining their unique skills to a common cause—in this case, the impossible robbery. This is one of those times when we root for the bad guys.

Most of the time, anyway.

John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It’s a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston’s wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Loving’ – The couple behind the history

Universal Home Video

Loving (2016), Jeff Nichols’s portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, does more than put a face to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Their 1958 marriage was a crime in the state of Virginia because Richard (played by Joel Edgerton with a terse determination) was a white man and Mildred (Ruth Negga, vulnerable yet hopeful) was a black woman. But this is not the portrait of a defiant couple protesting all the way to the Supreme Court. The title is more than just a form of shorthand or a clever double-meaning. It is the core of the film. This is about a marriage, a couple deeply in love and devoted to their family, who just want to live together in their home state.

Their courtship is presented in snapshots yet from the beginning it’s like they’ve been together forever, laying in one another’s arms with a natural intimacy. They live in an integrated pocket of blue collar families that could be a planet away from the segregation of the cities. When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant he beams with a rare smile, like it’s the sign he’s been waiting for, even if they have to sneak across the border to Washington D.C. for the ceremony and set up a household in secret. Negga earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Mildred and Australian actor Edgerton received a Golden Globe nomination for the stolid Richard, a man who looks like a redneck stereotype under his buzz cut and tight mouth yet is like a member of her family even before they marry.

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Blu-ray: ‘Something Wild’ (1962) on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

Not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, the 1962 Something Wild (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from rape.

The film opens on the assault, a non-explicit scene that communicates both the violence of the rape and the terrible sense of violation and helplessness felt by Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a New York middle-class girl who is attacked on the way home from school. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. The tactile presentation of the physical details (a skirt shoved up over her thigh, a sharp rock poking into her leg, bending to pick up the modest crucifix ripped from her neck and tossed to the ground) doesn’t just channel the sensory experience, it suggests the fragments of the ordeal that Mary Ann’s mind latches on amidst the horror of violation. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.

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Blu-ray: ‘His Girl Friday’ meets ‘The Front Page’ on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.

The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.

Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.

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Blu-ray: Long Way North

Shout! Factory

Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.

First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.

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