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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

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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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 28

“Last year, a series of Fulci’s films and several exhibitions of postwar Italian painting coincided on New York’s cultural calendar. Shows of Schifano’s work and that of several other figures in the Italian avant-garde of that period, such as Alighiero Boetti, Giulio Paolini, Alberto Burri, and Fabio Mauri, colonized uptown art galleries. Downtown at Anthology Film Archives, the Italian film programming collective Malastrana presented “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist,” an October showcase of 15 films by the Italian director. Though it’s safe to say there was little overlap in the crowds viewing the post-war paintings and those reveling in grindhouse gore, the two seemingly distant bodies of work bear a number of distinct points of comparison and reference.” Chris Shields points out the numerous debts and points of contact between postwar Italian art and the postwar Italian horror film, particularly the bleak, “texturally obsessed” landscapes of Fulci.

“Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.” A newly translated excerpt from Evgenii Margolit’s 2012 book The Living and the Dead places Boris Barnet’s A Good Lad as the wellspring of Soviet war films—despite its unorthodoxy and official banning. Via Mubi.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 21

Good Morning is inarguably the least loved and least representative in the Ozu oeuvre. But as is often true of early comedy in more or less anybody’s oeuvre—whether or not they’re known as comic artists—Good Morning is one of the seeds from which Ozu’s later works grow, a sort of first principle. It is perhaps a more intricately structured investigation of what we can say through the walls of time and age and experience erected even between parents and children, siblings, lovers. It is a chamber piece for all the human linguistic instruments: fart and sigh, small talk and drunken ramble, all the possible declarations of weakness, suspicion, compromise, and love of which you could conceive.” I’d say Annie Julia Wyman’s initial statement up there is much more than arguable, but past that her praise of Ozu’s celebration of the wordless means by which we convey love—including, yes, farts—is spot on.

“It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!” Mark Le Fanu traces the oppressive state of mind under which Tarkovsky conceived Stalker as a hidden religious allegory, and briefly recounts the horrifying ordeal of the shoot, in which the third time (filming the picture) might have been the charm but also the reason so many of the crew, director included, succumbed to cancer.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.

Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.

Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?

In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.

What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?

It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 14

“The three features Berger and Tanner made together are essentially films about class. Characters are struggling to live life after political failure, finding ways to resume their resistance to a value system that remains ever-present and crushing. Berger, as a writer and as a human being—the two were never truly separated—was engaged in a similar process. His work became increasingly focused on the poor and working class following his move to Quincy, and he was searching for a form to match his subjects.” Craig Hubert traces the political and formal evolution—which would lead to the dissolution of the partnership—of the three films that writer John Berger and director Alain Tanner made together. Via David Hudson.

At Criterion, a pair of essays on crime films that couldn’t have less in common. Adrian Martin traces the history of distillation that resulted in Bresson’s final film L’argent standing alone even within such a unique filmography. (“Rather, the ominous “agent” at work here is money: the workings of an entire capitalist system boiled down to the movement of a forged note and the unstoppable catastrophe that it triggers. As money travels, it dehumanizes everyone it touches, no matter their class status or religious or ideological beliefs. What, in other hands, could be played as the premise for a screwball comedy (the phony dollar bill that caused such riotous havoc in a small-town community!) is treated by Bresson as the darkest tragedy.”) While Benjamin Mercer salutes one of Japan’s finer directors of detective films, still underacknowledged in the West, Yoshitaro Nomura. (“The director was certainly something more than an ace at operating within any given genre, often avoiding clichés, combining narrative modes in unusual ways, and wisely taking a page from Matsumoto in his eye for telling details and attention to contemporaneous social realities. Nomura’s films are perhaps most remarkable, though, for their immersive sense of place, most strikingly felt when their protagonists find themselves amid what is to them foreign terrain, if still on Japanese soil.”)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

Freshly returned from their pilgrimage to Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer three articles outlining their fresh discoveries and welcome reacquaintances, from large-format experiments that actually predate moving pictures to the latest from Agnès Varda. Whether breaking down the humor in an early Ophüls or reveling in the fine early adaptors to sound from Mexico, the pair remind us that marvels lay scattered throughout the history of film, waiting to be revealed by the light.

“How to be adequate to this time of being in-between and not yet decided? This is what S?mai seems to have asked himself. The question determines the style of the film, which is in constant flux. Comedy is life seen in long shot, tragedy is life seen close-up, Chaplin said. What to do when it is precisely a question of avoiding the choice of genre? S?mai’s answer is to adopt a perpetual middle distance. In this middle distance, not enough is seen to let us say with any certitude that we are seeing an event and that we know what an event is. At the same time we also see too much, so much that we have to look away, as if the event were too powerful, overwhelming.” Chris Fujiwara finds Shinji S?mai’s Typhoon Club a perfect match of meaning and methods, its own transcendence of genre reflecting its lead character’s aim to rise above the social demands of his school. Via David Hudson.

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