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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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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Blu-ray: Jackie Chan in ‘Railroad Tigers’ and ‘Kung Fu Yoga’

It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.

Well Go

In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.

The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.

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Now That You’ve Seen the Solar Eclipse, Watch These Movies

The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.

In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.

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

At Film Comment, praise for an overlooked director and one of the most famous movie stars who still hasn’t gotten his due, as Nick Pinkerton looks at the career of Gerd Oswald (“In depicting incessant small-talk as a kind of water torture drip on a delicate sensibility, [Crime of Passion] pulls up just short of R.W. Fassbinder and Michael Fengler’s 1970 Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? And the connection between these two German filmmakers a generation apart, both deeply invested in the experience of domestic despair, is not so obscure as it may seem—both favor compositions with characters facing front-forward, creating an effect both confrontational and alienating.”). While Sheila O’Malley offers her latest fine defense of Elvis Presley on screen even when he’s not strumming a guitar (“In the final years of Presley’s contract, nobody was paying attention anymore. Sadly, some of his best movies come from this period. Many of them are not musicals, outside of the title songs. There’s a looseness to them, a roiling chaos lacking in the Elvis Formula movies. Presley is unleashed, his persona naturally expanding to include more eccentric shadings.”)

“Kendig is nobody’s idea of a superspy, though. He’s not slick. He’s not even smooth. What he is is the smartest guy in almost every room he puts himself in. Intelligence is a key component of the Matthau persona. His incarnation of The Odd Couple überslob Oscar Madison is the only one that makes you believe the character really could be a newspaper writer. In The Fortune Cookie, his due-for-a-comeuppance shyster is a little too smart for his own good. And so on.” Glenn Kenny has a few insightful lines about Hopscotch’s bridging the ’70s paranoia thriller and the gung-ho ’80s variations, and some deserved nice words for Ronald Neame, but he never pretends the film’s chief attraction could be anything other than Walter Matthau. Singing, yet.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 11

“The distinctive tone of Minnellian melodrama rises out of the protagonist’s frustrated attempt to sublimate desire into art and transform the real with the imaginary. This project is doomed, but it provides the films with an impressive stylistic ‘excess’ or melodramatic delirium. It also makes the artist a lonely figure. We occasionally feel this loneliness in the more optimistic musicals, which transform the world through song and dance, but in the melodramas the characters never fully reconcile life and imagination. Especially in such films as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Lust for Life (1956), and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), Minnelli seems to recognize that the utopian force of art can never transcend its social and psychological circumstances. The melodramas are therefore the most revealing examples of his work—the place where the paradoxes and contradictions of his aestheticism become apparent.” James Naremore offers a distillation of his exemplary book The Films of Vincent Minnelli, charting in 4,500 words why, undeniable as the consistency of his themes may be and howsoever strong a lineage he drew from modern art, the director’s oeuvre remains so critically controversial and impossible to pin down as the unalloyed stylings of a master. Via (as so much this week is) David Hudson.

“The woman the clergyman obsesses over, played by Génica Athanasiou, is—Sandy Flitterman-Lewis has argued—less an object of desire than a “force of desire”. She resists consumption by the spectator, and Allin’s clergyman is too weak to compete with her. Whenever he attempts to capture her, the director intervenes to save her from his touch: he grabs at her neck, and the neck becomes a house; he puts her face into a bottle, but when the bottle breaks we find his face inside. With a surrealist disdain for the normal bounds of filmed reality, Dulac uses editing and superimposition to protect Athanasiou’s character.” Chelsea Phillips-Carr shows how prescient Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman truly was, as both surrealist experience and a feminist rejection of male desire—for the audience as much as her eponymous priest.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Breaking Point’ on Criterion

The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.

The Criterion Collection

Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

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Blu-ray: Colossal

Colossal (2017) is the oddest and most inventive film to come out of the new wave of giant monster movies. It stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an out-of-work writer turned reckless party girl and black-out drunk who is kicked out of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her exasperated boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her dreary hometown and moves into her empty, abandoned family home. She runs into her childhood best friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), pretty much the only pal from her generation left in town, and gets a job waitressing in the sleepy bar he inherited. Unanchored and lacking any plan, goal, or motivation of any kind, she continues drinking her nights away with this new crew until she wakes up one morning (after another alcohol-fueled blackout) to find out that a towering Godzilla cousin has stormed Seoul, South Korea. As it continues to appear every morning (American time) at the same time, she discovers that she has a connection to the creature, one that goes back decades.

Universal Home Video

Let’s leave it at that; discovering the twists is part of the fun of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen one already, but that only scratches the surface. What first seems to be a cosmic comic lark, a goofy twist on the monster movie, gets dark in a very human way without losing the film’s creative charge or director Nacho Vigalondo’s sense of humor and poetic justice. Spanish filmmaker Vigalondo has a talent for genre mash-ups, creating fresh takes on familiar science-fiction tropes, and this film (his English language debut) is his smartest, edgiest, and most accomplished to date. Hathaway plays against her image as the likable but unreliable and unraveled Gloria, as does Sudeikis, whose easygoing manner and generosity covers up a damaged soul. She’s a mess but he’s an even bigger one and there’s nothing cute about. Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell co-star Oscar’s reliable barflies and after-hours drinking buddies.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 4

“This eventually leads to one of the only purely erotic sequences in To’s body of work, in which Yam’s and Lin’s characters share a cigarette on a leisurely drive in a vintage Mercedes convertible. The narrative purpose of this or any other sequence in Sparrow is secondary at best. It’s all about the musicality that’s the essence of To’s style. Anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of film craft would do well to study the guy.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s appreciation of Johnny To’s Sparrow is alert to the film’s playfulness and homages, while subtly making the larger point that perhaps something essential has gone missing in a film culture where masters can no longer make such inconsequential delights in between their grand statements.

“But Wenders also perceived the sympathetic faces of angels watching over Berlin everywhere he went (most notably the Friedensengel monument) and found that he was inexplicably drawn to angelic symbolism in other realms: a song by The Cure, a painting by Paul Klee, elegies by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He wasn’t sure where it was all going, but the seemingly disparate imagery of dilapidated Berlin and serene angels had begun to fuse in his mind.” That contrast that became the crux of Wenders’s Wings of Desire also informed the soundtrack, from Jürgen Knieper’s mournful, ethereal score to the collection of pop tunes, as Clare Nina Norelli explicates.

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Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

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