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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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

“With its flashback structure, intense low-key lighting, and the rich psychological portraiture of even the smallest characters, Crossfire has the look and depth of a signature ’40s noir, but it’s really a social problem picture in drag—like a Stanley Kramer picture with style or one of those instructively anti-fascist genre films of the era such as Brute Force. Because the movie is so direct in its messaging and pleasingly two-fisted in its delivery, it’s easy to sometimes overlook the central oddness of the narrative’s inciting event. If it seems like there’s something unspoken in the circumstances around the murder—i.e., why would an unassuming man invite strange men he just met at a bar up to his apartment in the first place?—that’s because there is.” Michael Koresky’s inclusion of Crossfire in his ongoing survey of queer cinema highlights how the subject of homosexuality was so controversial it was removed in the novel’s film adaptation as the reason for the victim’s murder, yet also so resonant that the movie can’t help a gentle homoeroticism from gleaming through on occasion.

“Travel has long been one of Kaurismäki’s favorite themes. Many of his early films center on Finnish men—often alienated from society—who find a way to escape to romantic or utopian destinations, frequently by ship, as in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988). But these white men, even if they are outsiders on the bottom rungs of society, still possess freedoms that most of the world lacks. Starting with Le Havre (2011) and continuing with The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki switched course by associating travel not with native Finns but with migrants who are people of color. This has been a timely and apt choice on his part, given that we are in the middle of a global displacement crisis on a scale comparable to that of World War II.” Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope is, for Girish Shambu, both something old and something new, a continuation of the director’s recent concern with race and immigration as well as a fine addition to his career-long portraits of alienation, the hardships and rewards of labor, and dogs.

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

New at Criterion, two highly individualized takes on genre that twist the formulas to very much their own thing. Amy Taubin sings the praises of Jarmusch’s “visionary” western Dead Man (“There are several ways to read the narrative that evolves from this setup. [….] It’s irrelevant which interpretation you prefer. Each has its own logic. What all of them point to is mortality as the preeminent existential condition of our lives. Nobody is baffled that Blake doesn’t know of his namesake, the English poet, or his work, which encourages us to acknowledge our death so that we can live fully in the present moment. Nobody encourages this in his William Blake, just as Dead Man does in the viewer.”); and Philip Kemp argues for Moonrise as Borzage’s last great testament, an infusion of his mystical optimism into the seemingly incompatible host of noir (“When a director’s basic instincts and the style in which he or she is working are at daggers drawn, the results can be disastrous—or paradoxically fruitful. Few films display this creative tension more effectively than Moonrise, the last—and some would say the best—major film directed by Borzage.”).

“But that, I think, is why I love it—why I keep returning to it. The anger, egotism, and paranoia lend themselves to a movie as rich and various as the country it’s about. The movie combines prison melodrama, domestic soap opera, ESPN-esque hype reels, and the monied aspirationalism of 90s hip-hop videos to bear on a plot that twines the moral redemption of a black American felon—and the reconciliation of a father and son—with a loaded racial critique of the commerce of basketball. It’s a sprawling but enduring snapshot of its era.” K. Austin Collins is aware how over-the-top and stacked-deck Spike Lee’s He Got Game is, but on the film’s 20th anniversary flips those flaws to strengths, a way to tear into the commerce of basketball that more “realistic” portrayals wouldn’t have managed.

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

The latest issue of cléo is dedicated entirely to the maker of its namesake, Agnès Varda. In addition to Kiva Reardon’s interview with the director (“Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave.”), Sarah-Tai Black rehabilitates Salut les Cubains (“… her distinct ability to explore the curiosities and intimacies of the film image is no less apparent in Salut les Cubains than in her later, more critically attended work.”); Nouran Heshem explores the gendered take on cancer in Cléo from 5 to 7 (“Varda tackles the cancer taboo by illustrating the fraught connection between illness and gender”); So Mayer places Documenteur in a career-long trope of Varda’s reflections and teasing self-portraits (“Perhaps one of Varda’s answers, then, is that she is not alone: there are other women inventing and introducing themselves as well, observing and refracting each other.”); Joseph Pomp explores Varda’s experimental series of television shorts Une minute pour une image (“Surrealist wit consorts with a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in much of Varda’s filmography.”); and Eloise Ross finds Varda reclaiming the practice of flaneur from men in her short Les dites cariatides (“At a distance and in close-up, she films “women” who hold up balconies or the façades of buildings – all who do so without visibly bearing strain in their bodies or expressions”).

“In a tradition ranging from the kitchen-sink realist films of the late ’50s and early ’60s to the contemporary works of Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold, English movies set among the working classes have tended to have fatalistic trajectories and miserabilist aesthetics, underlining their drabness to reflect their characters’ sense of hopelessness and to visually convey a lack of upward mobility. But there’s that rainbow in Beautiful Thing, and it’s unmistakable. Years before the “It Gets Better” movement, Macdonald’s film hinted at a bright future in the most cinematically improbable of places.” Michael Koresky’s survey of Queer cinema gets to 1996, Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing, and the underappreciated subversive power of joy.

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SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 17, with the opening night gala presentation of Goya-winning feature The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Bill Nighy from Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. As in previous years, it launches at McCaw Hall and is followed by the opening night party.

24 days later, it closes on a local focus with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix) and directed by Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Sunday, June 10.

In between, 248 features (including 66 documentaries), 164 short films, and 21 VR/360 works from 90 countries are scheduled to screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline. (These numbers are subject to change as additional films may be added at the last minute, and in rare cases films may be withdrawn or cancelled).

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Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

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

“In the middle of this backstage scene, a typically Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious girl refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. At the last minute, this black hat will be put on Marta, who wears it without complaining, while her colleague is forbidden to parade. But, as we shall see, that Marta obeys here doesn’t mean she’s happy. In Chytilová’s films, each woman is irked or pleased at different things. Each woman has to find her own way to cope, resist, flee, or rebel. Each woman has to craft her own response, strategy, or escape. And there is no right decision for all, just as there is no single revolution that fits everyone.” The protagonist of Vera Chytilová’s student graduation film Ceiling, which chronicles a day in the life of a fashion model, doesn’t share the freewheeling rebelliousness of the director’s celebrated Daisies, but as Christina Álvarez López shows, she’s no less able to reclaim her agency in a world ever ready to control and punish women.

“Even those slapstick two-reelers that seem thrown together on the set by men who would never have called themselves artists were intuitively finding their way to a form. James Agee argues the case when he describes a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by McCarey that was devoted almost entirely to pie-throwing: “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.” Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping, collapsing—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending of the film with a pileup of chaos and pure motion.” Molly Haskell offers sublime auteurist salute to Leo McCarey, finding a wealth of personal experiences, pet themes, and of course his luminous humanity folded into the effortless brilliance of The Awful Truth.

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Review: Thoroughbreds

Heathers meets American Psycho” reads the drop quote on the poster of Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer/director Cory Finley. It’s a tasty little tag and accurate enough, in its way. There’s a wicked satire under the cultivated surfaces and carefully groomed front, but a chilly alienation sets this teen-killer thriller apart from the flamboyant films of the quote.

Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The WitchSplit) star as Amanda and Lily, estranged childhood friends who reconnect in unusual circumstances.

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Review: Babylon Berlin

The most expensive German TV series ever produced, Babylon Berlin, is Weimar noir, a detective drama turned conspiracy thriller set against the backdrop of decadence, poverty, and corruption in 1929 Berlin just before the Nazi party rode the swell of nationalism to power. Think Cabaret meets L.A. Confidential as produced by UFA, recreating a cultural moment that is about to implode.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a Cologne cop working with the Berlin vice squad, is a World War I vet who conceals his shellshock tremors with black market morphine. He’s a tarnished hero on a covert mission to track down a pornography ring blackmailing a politician back home, but then pretty much everyone has shadows over them.

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Blu-ray: ‘Liquid Sky’ on Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome

Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.

Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.

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Blu-ray: Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 6

“The stories also share common thematic concerns, regarding jealousy, marital fidelity, interpersonal power dynamics, and shifting loyalties across triangular relationships – often there is a Charles and a Hélène (Audran played four different Hélènes), whose relationship is disrupted by a complicating Paul. Bourgeoisie rituals come under anthropological interrogation; domestic geography is surgically precise (dwellings, simple and palatial, are meticulously designed); and there is Chabrol’s signature delight in lingering over meals, especially at crucial junctures. Almost invariably, there is murder, always, there is guilt, the weight of which is shared by more than one character.” Jonathan Kirshner runs through the dozen films of what he dubs Chabrol’s “second wave,” from Les Biches to Innocents with Dirty Hands, to signaled the director’s return to prominence after some years of indifferent work for hire. Via David Hudson.

“Clarke may have prefigured the reaction of audiences when, with the film still two long years from completion, he described 2001’s making as “a wonderful experience streaked with agony.” It was all that, and more: a feat of sustained innovation, even improvisation, led by one of the most controlling and obsessive directors in movie history. That MGM, traditionally the stodgiest of studios, gave Kubrick the freedom to set off toward an end point even he wasn’t entirely sure of—and this was half a decade before Hollywood would make a thing of indulging visionary young directors—is almost as astonishing as the film that resulted.” Bruce Handy recounts the years of rewriting, research, and overruns that resulted in Kubrick’s 2001.

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Blu-ray: A pair of ‘Ringo’s and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)

Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.

Arrow Films

In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.

Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 30

“When Haddish was 13, she and her siblings were placed in foster care; she spent almost two years living in group homes and with foster families until her grandmother gained custody of the kids. Money remained tight, so they technically remained in the foster-care system (hence the taxes line [in her standup]). When her foster-care subsidy ran out, Haddish left home. As a young adult, she became homeless three times, living in her car. ‘I think that was God teaching me a lesson over and over,’ she says. And, as often happens when Haddish reflects on the profound hardships of her life, she cuts up, laughing. ‘I wasn’t paying attention the first two times.’” Caity Weaver’s profile of Tiffany Haddish can’t help but note how performative Haddish’s genial public persona is, another dazzling showpiece from an actor talented enough to pull off anything, smart enough to know what plays, and tempered enough by life’s hard knocks to chart out her success to the dollar.

“In an essay for Artforum from 1993, Arthur Jafa recalls telling a friend, “[Menace II Society] makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby Show.” The level of violence alone is enough to make that distinction. The Hughes Brothers’ camera repeatedly takes us right up to where we don’t want to be. When Caine is shot for the first time and goes into shock, we are on the ground with him, as though we’re coughing up the same blood. Bullets have consequences. But what Jafa was also getting at is the preciousness of Boyz in comparison to MenaceBoyz n the Hood’s sense of tragedy is meant as a cautionary tale to black men making poor choices. We grieve because those choices mean the wrong people sometimes get shot and killed, or because good people get mixed up in bad situations created by bad people. In Menace, tragedy is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness.” Mychal Denzel Smith rates the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society the best of the hood films for its welding of an emotional honesty to a genre story in a way that freed it from the burdens of homilies and inspirational uplift that have weighed down so many liberal filmmakers’ depictions of race.

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Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’

The Age of Innocence (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Criterion Collection

The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of ChristKundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.

Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 23

“The starkness of Varda’s words contrasts greatly with the received wisdom that her films are serene, humanistic, and life-affirming. In an interview with Varda in Sight & Sound, Chris Darke used the word “lightness” to describe her style, but Varda disagreed: in her estimation, “lightness” tends to mean “don’t make things sad.” “Fluidity” is Varda’s own preferred term, the juxtaposition of images, words, and music to produce an emotional affect that flows tenderly and effortlessly, like water, or a gentle breeze. This is one of the reasons that her films so often feel warm and comforting—but while these qualities are certainly present in her work, she has also always strived to capture and reveal the sadness and sorrows of the human condition, the inherent horror of it, through the same subtle, ineffable approach.” Azadeh Jafari reminds us that the magic of Agnès Varda’s cinema isn’t some naïve, gentle optimism, but the way her humanity persists from scenes of gentle kindness to moments presenting the starkest terrors.

“Chytilová, her collaborator Ester Krumbachova (who co-wrote the film with the director and helped conceive its audiovisual design) and Chytilová’s cinematographer (and husband) Jaroslav Ku?era weaponize a battery of effects throughout the film: alternations between colour and black and white, images that move through a succession of colour filters, slow and accelerated motion, animation, found-footage inserts and jarring montage. None of these effects are large-scale or opulent; instead, they are driven by a low-budget, incessantly playful experimentalism. It is not hard to locate an echo of this spirit of creative play in the DIY ethos of Riot Grrrl, which was perfectly embodied in the zines that played such a central role in the movement: turning their backs on the mainstream media and its methods, Riot Grrrl zines were handmade, photocopied, emphatically anti-copyright, and distributed mostly by hand or at music shows.” Staying at TIFF’s Review, Girish Shambu connects Chytilová’s anarchic Daisies to the music and zine centered Riot Grrrl movement of the ‘80s.

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