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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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

“Now that professional opportunities have expanded and marriage has lost both its inviolability and its exclusivity, what are we to make of Lisa Berndle and of a love at once heroic and wildly destructive, even delusional? One of the marks of a great film is how it changes over time as social context and you, the viewer, change. Certain themes recede, others emerge, sympathies shift, reappraisals are in order. The lens widens. Is Lisa’s besottedness a mark of daring or sheer masochism? Inspired and slightly idiotic? Is she heroine or anti-heroine? Could it be both?” Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman remains unmatched in its portrait of l’amour fou, Molly Haskell argues, because however it felt its heroine’s keening, its perception is wide enough to encompass the decency of those left in its wake.

The Harder They Come’s relationship to reggae, however, goes beyond music. The film is immersed in Jamaica’s everyday life and culture reflected through the creative beauty of reggae’s flesh and blood: Ivan’s struggle for a better life in the face of a rigid class structure; the presence of the Rastafari (in the person of the character Pedro) as righteous beacons of peace, love, and equity; the use of the Jamaican language; the argot of body movement through action and dance; and, of course, the reggae rhythm itself. Deeply and vitally engaged with all aspects of the movement, The Harder They Come is the film component of Jamaica’s reggae-influenced golden age.” Klive Walker recounts the phenomenon that was The Harder They Come, an introduction to movie screens of a country, music (reggae) and spirituality (Rastafari) that was so highly anticipated the audience at its Kingston premiere wouldn’t disperse to let in the Prime Minister.

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Blu-ray: ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ – Olive Signature Edition

Olive Films

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

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

The new issue of The Cine-Files contains a dossier on the rewards, surprises, and occasional hazards of teaching film studies. Among others, Joshua Glick discusses how he makes his students place themselves amidst the masses of Vidor’s The Crowd (“Yes, John and Mary are back together and some form of economic stability might be possible. But can they achieve a heightened status beyond the “crowd?””); Liz Greene offers a nifty bit of pedagogy (with clips), having her students come up with a new sound design for a scene from The Elephant Man in the style of different directors; Christian Keathley uses Rosemary’s Baby to discuss directorial choice and the orchestration of visual themes (“The students’ answers are generally satisfactory, but I want them to see beyond the specifics of any one choice and to consider the ways in which individual choices sometimes fit together with others to form a pattern.”); Maggie Hennefield finds the farcical take of then current events in To Be or Not to Be speaks clearly to young, modern audiences (“There is nothing that remains unsaid in To Be or Not to Be, but everything is said in the form of rapid-fire jokes and thinly veiled sexual or political innuendos. For my students, this film exemplifies the power of comedy to speak truth (or “truthiness”) to the atrocities of state violence and populist dictatorship.”); and Patricia White discusses a lifetime of teaching, loving, and growing with Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (“Jeanne Dielman can make a formalist out of anyone, and it is a great lesson for would-be filmmakers about how setting limits can inspire one’s best work.”).

“Indeed, the majority of these films adopt stylistic practices which are not susceptible to further development, and can ultimately do nothing except close in on themselves. Most of the previously mentioned titles fit neatly into this category, and thus feel right at home alongside Walter Matthau’s Gangster Story (1959), S. Lee Pogostin’s Hard Contract (1969), Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Michael Barry’s The Second Coming of Suzanne (1973), Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985), Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2013). One-off auteurs generally favour aesthetics which are self-devouring, consuming narrative, film and filmmaker in a single gesture. The defining moment here is the final shot of Electra Glide in Blue, during which the camera pulls back from a dying Robert Blake and spends several minutes moving slowly down an empty highway, as if James William Guercio were watching his new career vanish into the distance.” Brad Stevens finds an interesting pattern of resignation and failure in the works of filmmakers with only one completed feature, and a tragic exception, in its refusal of easy nihilism coupled with a true understanding of how difficult a follow-up would be, in Barbara Loden’s Wanda.

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Blu-ray: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection’

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.

Universal Home Video

They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.

Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of December 1

“Each in his way, Flaherty and Rouch were devoted to enlarging the cast of filmable humanity by concentrating on non-Western individuals. It might have been more honest for them to present their subjects as actors, which is in a sense what Rouch did. The nonprofessionals in his work give coached performances that effectively reframe the films as narrative fictions. On the other hand, non-actors were among the signifiers of authenticity—along with location photography and open-ended narratives—in the most influential of cinema movements, Italian neo-realism.” Prompted by the Lincoln Center’s series on “The Non-Actor”, J. Hoberman cycles through a list of examples—and remains, as a critic, perverse enough to end with Orson Welles and genius enough to make that work.

“One day on set [of the first X-Men movie], Shuler Donner and Avi Arad, then head of Marvel Studios, watched as an exasperated stylist, at Feige’s insistence, sprayed and teased actor Hugh Jackman’s hair higher and higher to create the hairstyle that would become the signature look of the character Wolverine. The stylist ‘eventually went ‘Fine!’ and did a ridiculous version,’ Feige recalls. ‘If you go back and look at it,’ he admits, ‘he’s got big-ass hair in that first movie. But that’s Wolverine!’ The experience stuck with Feige. ‘I never liked the idea that people weren’t attempting things because of the potential for them to look silly,’ he says. ‘Anything in a comic book has the potential to look silly. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it look cool.’” Joanna Robinson can’t quite muster up a profile of Kevin Feige, who seems appositely devoid of personality (“He’s short on kibitz” is—who else?—Robert Downey, Jr.’s take), but she lays out how the Marvel Studios producer had enough faith in Hollywood doing right by comic book tropes to change the movie landscape perhaps forever.

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Silents Please: the original 1925 ‘The Lost World’ and Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ on Blu-ray

Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.

The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray)
The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.

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Blu-ray: Into the Night

Into the Night (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

Shout! Factory

After the 1970s recast film noir in shades of nostalgia (Chinatown, 1974, The Late Show, 1977) and private eye revisionism and cynicism (The Long Goodbye, 1973, Night Moves, 1975), the eighties gave it a burst of color and energy with Neon Noir. John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) doesn’t have the self-consciously chiaroscuro lighting we associate with noir (Landis uses light for clarity, not atmosphere) but otherwise he takes a classic noir story—the middle-class innocent jolted out of his protected but dull existence and plunged into a nightmarish odyssey into the urban underworld—and treats it right. It was a commercial disappointment in its day and tends to be forgotten in the annals of post-noir crime cinema but if anything it looks better today than it did in eighties.

Jeff Goldblum is our married suburban everyman Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer whose dreams of space have been grounded in cubicle land, sleepwalking through his days and unable to sleep at night. “My life is a dead-end,” he tells his carpool coworker (Dan Aykroyd), “I feel like I’m from another planet,” and things don’t improve when he finds his wife having an affair (but slinks away rather than confront her). This isn’t a man bored by his compromises to conformity, but a man unsure why he is so unfulfilled after doing everything right.

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

“Every genuine act of innovation starts with a bit of destruction. However, it’s not the medium that Lynch blows up, but the rules and conventions associated with it. He has done this many times throughout his career: with the aesthetics of analogue film and low definition cameras, with serialized narratives, and compact (even ultra-short) durations. For Lynch, exploring the possibilities of a given medium often means turning it upside down in order to shake off the expectations attached to it, to unfold it like a glove into which he places his own, particular world, to extract from this medium what seems impossible, even utterly inconceivable.” Cristina Álvarez López explores David Lynch’s radical reinvention of the sequence-shot in his contribution to Lumière and Company, Premonition Following an Evil Deed.

The two latest entries in Reverse Shot’s symposium on time feature two very different instances of the camera delicately approaching a seated man. Imogen Sara Smith highlights Anton Walbrook’s monologue in the refugee office as a distillation of all the gaps and flashbacks that make time the implacable villain in the Archers’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (“Theo can return to England, but never to the days when his wife was alive. Film, however, can rewind or replay, slow down or speed up time at will, as Colonel Blimp does with its flashbacks, its way of skipping over years as a stone skips over a pond. The challenge then is to make cinematic time feel like real time, to capture the irreversibility of age and loss, the way the past is at once inescapable and unrecoverable.”) While Nadine Zylberberg finds the key to Sofia Coppola’s whole project in Somewhere’s suspended zoom on a face encased in plaster. (“Johnny and the lifeless substance that envelops him come together, he is at once dead and undead. In Coppola’s world of existential boredom, there may as well be no difference between the two.”)

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Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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Blu-ray: Mario Bava’s ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!’

The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.

Kino Classics

Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.

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

At TIFF’s blog, a paean to the iconic crafter of movie gimmicks and a look at how little a master filmmaker can get away with showing you. Craig Caron, like most writers on the subject, can’t conceal his giddiness recounting the career of William Castle, whose mix of shameless stunts and B-movie energy maintain a sense of fun none of his current inheritors can claim. (“Named by Castle’s long-time co-producer Dona Hollaway and inspired by a faulty bedside lamp, “Percepto” was succinctly summarized by Castle as follows: ‘I’m going to buzz the asses of everyone in America by installing little motors under the seats of every theatre in the country.’”) And an excerpt from David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong breaks down the mechanics of Johnnie To’s “tell-it-once rule” of filmmaking in The Mission. (“I know of no previous Hong Kong crime film with such suppressive and elliptical narration. To uses his multiple protagonists not only to pursue different strands of action but to switch points of view in ways that hold back information from us. This is somewhat like Wong Kar-wai’s withholding of information about the affair at the heart of In the Mood for Love. But whereas Wong flaunts the fact that he’s hiding things, To is more covert. We don’t expect that a film that can dwell on men kicking around a ball of paper will be so reluctant to divulge an extramarital affair or a fake murder scheme.”)

“Existential meaninglessness, the pointlessness of moral causes, the uselessness of idealism: these were the fates they truly feared. And for Aldrich, these were the just rewards for those who sought to ignore the savagery of the world for hopes and dreams. Survival by any means was the only virtue worth espousing. But what do you do when the mission is over? Where do you go when your worldview has been shattered? These are the questions we find in Autumn Leaves, a film almost totally unique, both as part of Aldrich’s extensive oeuvre and as a product of the classical Hollywood studio system.” Nathanael Hood considers Autumn Leaves as both a daring extension of his portraits of broken men and an intriguing compromise with melodrama—right down to the rare (for the director) happy ending.

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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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