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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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

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

Arrow Academy

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

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

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

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

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Blu-ray: Wonder Woman

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

Warner Home Entertainment

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

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Blu-ray: ‘E.T.’ at 35 from Universal

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

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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

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

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

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

Twilight Time

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

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

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

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

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

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Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

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

Lionsgate

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

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

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

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

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

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

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

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

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

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Blu-ray: ‘Alien: Covenant’

You may recall Prometheus with both awe and astonishment, a film with astounding moments of beauty and horror and brilliance bumping up against stupidity and sloppiness and half-baked ideas. Alien: Covenant (2017), the second film in the Alien prequel series, takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus (2012) and continues writing the xenomorph origin story with a new cast of potential hosts (a colony ship with a population on ice waiting to wake on a new world) put through a plot that borrows elements from both Prometheus and the original films. It’s a smarter film, and if it never quite matches the conceptual and visual genius of Prometheus at its best, neither does it slip into the foolishness of its worst moments.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

This is the sixth official film (we’re ignoring the Alien vs. Predator films) in what is becoming a galaxy-spanning franchise, the second film in the prequel story, and the third directed by Ridley Scott, director of the original film. It opens with the skeleton crew awakening early, just as it did in Scott’s original Alien, and sending a search party down to a nearby planet sending out a distress signal, which this time is a verdant world teaming with plant life but, eerily, no animals or insects or birds. What it does have are the insidious spores of Prometheus (also directed by Scott) which colonize the unlikely humans as hosts for this alien life form, and a lone humanoid living in the ruins of a dead civilization: David (Michael Fassbender), the android of Prometheus who walks the wasteland like a rogue prophet and makes contact with the human team.

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Silents Please! – A ‘Knighthood’ for Marion Davies

I’d always known Marion Davies is one of the most gifted comediennes of the silent era, thanks to her collaborations with King Vidor, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), two magnificent comedies carried by Davies’ charisma and empathy as well as her easy way with comedy, and readily available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. But she became a superstar thanks to a series of costume pictures produced by newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart, who fell in love with the chorus girl and was determined to showcase her in “important” pictures.

Undercrank Productions

When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) was her biggest production to that time. She plays Mary Tudor, 16-year-old sister to King Henry VII (Lyn Harding) and a spirited princess in love with commoner Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley), an impossible given the realities of royal diplomacy. She’s promised to the aged King Louis XII (William Norris), a wizened old monarch who wins the marriage lottery. There’s pageantry galore—vast sets, a big cast, and plenty of elaborate period costumes—and a lot of plot packed into the two-hour picture. It opens on a jousting match (talk about your sweet sixteen party games!) and it features back room scheming, secret trysts, swashbuckling swordplay in the streets, a magnificent royal wedding, and plenty of comic flourishes. It co-stars an impossibly young William Powell (in his second film) as a cad of a royal nephew, and ends with a grand nighttime set-piece with knights and royal guards galloping through the French countryside and torches handpainted bright yellow that jump out from the blue tints of the black and white production.

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Blu-ray: Sacha Guitry’s ‘La Poison’ on Criterion

Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.

The Criterion Collection

Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.

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Blu-ray: ‘Early Women Filmmakers’ – An anthology from Flicker Alley

A year after Kino’s superb Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers collects and curates the work of women filmmakers in the U.S. and Europe before World War II.

Women ironically had more opportunities in the early years of filmmaking, not just as directors but as writers, editors, and producers, than they did after the coming of sound. Alice Guy- Blaché directed one of the first narrative films ever produced, telling a story rather than simply staging a scene, and become the very first studio head—not just female studio head, but first ever—when she took charge of Gaumont in 1896. Anita Loos was perhaps the greatest writer of pithy, witty intertitles in the silent era, an art form that is still not given it due, and Frances Marion one of the most successful and powerful screenwriters of the silent era. June Mathis was so successful a writer of epics and dramas that she had power over casting and production and shaped Rudolph Valentino into the biggest romantic screen superstar of his era.

Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley’s set, produced by silent film preservation godfather David Shepard (who passed away earlier this year), presents the films of 14 women directors made between 1902 and 1943. The collection of shorts and features includes fantasies, dramas, comedies, animation, and avant-garde films from some of the most important filmmakers of the silent era as well as less known women filmmakers.

The six short films by Alice Guy-Blaché show her evolution from an inventive fantasist of early cinema to a sophisticated storyteller who used dramatic compositions and editing to tell complex stories. Lois Weber’s short thriller Suspense (1913) shows an even greater technical and narrative sophistication, from a three-way split screen to extreme angles to dense crosscutting. Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922), considered to be the first feminist film, brings avant-garde elements to melodrama and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an avant-garde landmark.

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

“Earlier this year marked another 40th anniversary: that of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), which back in May was remembered in a flurry of appreciations and think-pieces. The two films remain tied together in history. They share a composer and a concept artist, and Hollywood lore holds that Spielberg and a beleaguered Lucas traded box office points on the movies as a bet, each certain that the other would have a bigger hit. Star Wars is by far the more momentous event; it’s still the artistic and financial model for how a successful franchise can be launched, expanded, marketed, merchandized, and exploited to infinity. (It was a messy risk that yielded a magnificent sensation; a studio nowadays should be so lucky). But Close Encounters is the more interesting anniversary, precisely because it is difficult to imagine a blockbuster quite like it appearing in multiplexes today. It is an extravaganza whose modus operandi is primarily—and close to entirely—one of revelation. ” Duncan Gray’s appreciation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind gets at how the two sides of Spielberg’s childishness—the humanist awe and the oft-clunky naiveté—can’t be separated in his finest films, for better and for worse.

“Out of that wonderful ’60s and ’70s generation of American horror directors, no one was more blatantly indebted to the classic EC Comics, drive-in fare, and the full-color overindulgence of the Hammer and Corman schools of horror than Hooper. His movies are deliciously unsomber, unambiguous, and grotesque, without the classical taste and formal rigor of John Carpenter or the scrappy Rust Belt sociopolitical sensibilities of George A. Romero to ground them. So of course the metaphors are obvious….” If you want to understand Tobe Hooper’s art, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky argues, skip the masterpieces and the acknowledged better-then-they’ve-a-right-to-be entertainments and check out Spontaneous Combustion.

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

“Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.” After a retrospective on the director, Patrick Holzapfel finds a key to the muted (and thus more dramatically and symbolically potent) sense of the miraculous in Jacques Tourneur, and it has to do with resignation. Via David Hudson.

“Reviewing Drafthouse’s Blu-ray of Wake in Fright (1971) for Sight & Sound (May 2013), Michael Atkinson describes Ted Kotcheff’s film as ‘a wrenchingly odd piece of work… that could’ve easily, with some tweaks, emerged as a dark comedy’. When I finally caught up with this remarkable film, what immediately struck me was how closely it anticipated an actual black comedy: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Another of those chance juxtapositions I described in last month’s column? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. For Scorsese was one of Wake in Fright’s earliest champions; after selecting it as a Cannes Classic in 2009, he described the film as ‘a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and it left me speechless.’” Brad Stevens finds more points of contact than a first glance would suggest between Kotcheff’s brutal dissection of Aussie machismo and Scorsese’s long-dark-night-of-the-yuppie-soul.

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