2001: A Space Odyssey - Photo credit: MGM

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in Image and Music

[This essay was originally published as the liner-notes booklet for the Rhino Records / Turner Classic Movies Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD to 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1996 by Turner Entertainment Company. Portions of the essay also later appeared in a souvenir booklet included in the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY COLLECTOR’S EDITION DVD released in 2001 by Warner Brothers Entertainment. Reprinted on Parallax View by author’s permission.]

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared on screens in spring 1968, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before. And, although the science and technology of motion picture special effects have made huge strides in the intervening years, there hasn’t been a film quite like it since. It isn’t just the spectacular – and the extraordinary believable – look of the model and special effects shots, which are as fresh and clean today as they were in 1968. It’s the courage and the audacity of the film and its maker to try something new, something provocative and challenging to the audience, something intensely intellectual yet expressed in almost completely visual terms. It had long been commonplace to regard moving pictures as a handmaiden (and poor cousin) to literature, to see language as the proper means of communicating ideas, and images as capable of expressing and arousing only feelings and sensations. 2001: A Space Odyssey dared to suggest that images might be capable of embodying and evoking real ideas about the nature and origin of human intelligence. In so doing, it revolutionized the movies and carved itself an unassailable niche in motion picture history.

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Jackie Brown - Photo credit: Miramax

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, November 4

“Who makes movies like this? And why aren’t more movies like this? Like Tarantino’s direction itself—stylish, cool, tight, but also relaxed, taking its time, in profile close-up, to show Ordell thinking, or Robert De Niro’s hilarious but deadly Louis, trying to figure out the phone, or Bridget Fonda’s stoner beach bunny sweetness mixed with amusingly acerbic shit talking, or Michael Keaton’s ATF agent chomping his gum, a little bit of a douchebag but not a terrible guy. There’s also the fantastic soundtrack adding heft and emotion to actors already doing the same. All of this surrounding Pam Grier who is, in a word, complex.” Kim Morgan’s notes for Jackie Brown are almost as much a (deserved) love letter to Pam Grier as the film itself. Via David Hudson.

“We don’t see Rio in prison, but we see how it changes him. He starts out as a carefree young bandit who perches on the counter during a bank holdup eating bananas and playfully weighing the peels on a scale, then steals a woman’s ring and uses it in his attempted seduction of an aristocratic señorita. After his time in the pen, though he still sports rakish scarves and a dazzling scarlet poncho, he has become sullen and withdrawn, brooding obsessively on revenge. When he finds his old partner in the coast town of Monterey, now a respectable sheriff with a family, he mirrors Dad’s hypocrisy, pretending to accept his lie about what happened while scheming to destroy everything he has. “A man can’t stay angry for five years, can he?” Rio asks with a wickedly disingenuous grin. Ask Ethan Edwards in The Searchers about that.” Imogen Sara Smith’s essay on One-Eyed Jacks begins by tracing the lineage of films that married the shadowed terrors of noir with the sunbaked vistas and haunted men’s-men of the western.

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Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome Edition

Seattle Screens: Black and Chrome and Christine Chubbuck

Sure, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, and the animated toy musical comedy Trolls are competing for audiences this weekend, but there’s a lot more out there.

Moonlight, one of the most acclaimed American films of the year, opens at The Egyptian. Robert Horton reviews it for Seattle Weekly.

Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome Edition, the black-and-white version of the film that George Miller called “more authentic and elemental,” plays exclusively at Cinerama for a ten-day run. Schedule and ticket information here.

The 8th Cinema Italian Style series opens Thursday, November 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown with Paolo Virzi’s Like Crazy with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. It continues for a week. Series and individual ticket available. Complete schedule and tickets here.

Premieres:

Christine Chubbuck, the local Sarasota TV newswoman who committed suicide on air in 1974, is the subject of two films opening in Seattle this weekend. Christine, from director Antonio Campos, stars Rebecca Hall as the newscaster spiraling into depression. It’s scheduled to play for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Kate Plays Christine, from dramatic / documentary hybrid from filmmaker Robert Greene, follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she attempts to get into “character” as Christine Chubbuck. It won the Special Jury Award for screenplay at Sundance. Plays through Sunday at NWFF.

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Moonlight - Photo courtesy A24 Films

Review: Moonlight

There are strong, original things in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and there are things that would fit in a cautionary ABC Afterschool Special. Sometimes the film’s style is muscular and striking, and sometimes it’s flat. But Jenkins got one thing right: He really knows how to build. By the time Moonlight reaches its third and final act (it’s explicitly divided into chapters), the film has gained power and a slow, steady momentum. The last few scenes consist of two people sorting out longstanding issues between them—and barely managing to do that—but the suspense is formidable.

We follow one troubled character from childhood to adulthood, so it’s one of those movies with three different actors—all haunting—playing the same role.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Linas Phillips

Interview: Linas Phillips, Nonthreatening Triple Threat

Linas Phillips is probably better known to fans of American indie cinema as an actor than as a filmmaker. A graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, he co-starred with Jay Duplass in Manson Family Vacation (2015) as the Charles Manson-obsessed character who drags his estranged brother on a tour of Mason murder sites. Phillips has supporting roles in Craig Johnson’s True Adolescents (2009, starring Mark Duplass) and his buddy Todd Rohal‘s Uncle Kent 2 (2015), and he appeared in the HBO shows Togetherness, working again with the Duplass brothers, and Eastbound and Down, with director David Gordon Green.

In 2006, after moving from the East Coast to Seattle, Phillips directed his first film, the non-fiction feature Walking to Werner. He became an active member of the Seattle independent scene, constantly developing projects and working with other local filmmakers trying to get their films made. “I originally came here because I wanted to change my life,” he explained. “I just checked out, I stopped everything I was doing in my life, like babysitting work and performing, and I decided I was going to learn to be a filmmaker. It was great to be in a whole new city while you are re-identifying yourself.”

Continue reading at Keyframe

Review: Bang the Drum Slowly

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

What the reviewers have said about Bang the Drum Slowly avoiding the overwrought sentimentalism of a Brian’s Song or a Love Story is only partly true. But the film does offer honest schmaltz as a viable alternative to the tasteless kitsch of previous films about dying young. The story concerns a major-league catcher, Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro), who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, and the efforts of his roommate, pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), to look after Pearson’s best interests during what they both feel will be the catcher’s last season. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are purported to be not about baseball, but rather about friendship, the baseball setting being incidental. As far as I can tell, this contention was created for the blurbs, in order not to lose the audience of people who don’t know or don’t like baseball. The novel in fact may not be about baseball, but it most certainly is about a baseball team. The meat of Harris’s novel is the behavior of a given group of baseball players and the way in which that behavior is altered, in individuals and in the team as a whole, by the knowledge that one of their number is dying. This is where the film version goes awry. In trying too hard not to be “about baseball,” it plays down the supporting characters, the ballplayers themselves, to the point where the whole impact of the novel is lost. The team concept which is central to the novel is give mere lip service in some voiceover narration from the pages of the book. The tension about the outcome of the season, which underlies every word of the novel, is nonexistent in the film. Instead we have the well-acted interplay among the pitcher, the catcher, a coach, the manager, and a whore who attempts to swindle the catcher out of his insurance money. All of this was present in the novel, of course; but it supported the larger theme of the behavior of human beings as they watch someone die, and the effect the experience has on their own, unthreatened lives.

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Blood and Black Lace - photo credit: Arrow

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Photo credit: BFI

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of Friday, October 28

“In retrospect, the authentic set of the film looks mostly unreal, and in spite of minute attention to details, even by the 1920s standards, it is a décor which looks like décor. It has an MGM quality to it. The camera never makes any attempt to hide the fresh paint on the walls (in reality, when Joan of Arc was on trial the castle was already 200 years old and ravaged by wars and natural elements). In fact, the sets were painted pink to look grey in the final film—more Frank Tashlin than “transcendental.” But was Dreyer looking for any sort of realism at the first place?” A tour of the models and photos at the Danish Film Institute has Ehsan Khoshbakht considering anew the full-scale set built for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, whose every carefully researched detail was radically fragmented, deconstructed, and “ignored” in the filming and editing.

The new issue of La Furia Umana contains a dossier on Jack Smith, including Marc Siegel’s career overviews of both the filmmaker (“While Smith found redeeming social and aesthetic qualities in all of these undervalued genre films that allowed visual spectacle and exotic settings to trump narrative and character development, he reserved a special place in his personal pantheon for the films of director Josef von Sternberg and actress María Montez.”) and one of his stars, Mario Montez (“At that point they were releasing Cleopatra [Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963] with Elizabeth Taylor. And there were these wide-screen posters in the subways in New York City. (I stole one. I used to steal posters and things like that.) I said, ‘Jack, why don’t we do a version of Cleopatra. And we’ll title it Cleo Pot Roast.’”). Andrea Lissoni argues his centrality in American underground art (“How could I summarize the essential traits of such a dense body of work, spanning film, theatre, performance, photography, visual art and life? It could all be wrapped up in one word: authenticity.”), while J. Hoberman recounts Smith’s live performances of the later years. (”At the performance [of Smith’s staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts] I attended, Regina was played by a large pink plush hippo suspended in a pulley-operated basket, Engstrand and Pastor Manders by a pair of toy monkeys, each placed on a little wagon, while Mrs. Alving had a human interpreter (NYU drama professor Ron Argelander) who sat inside a supermarket shopping cart, swathed in scarves and a thick, black veil.”) There’s an essential interview (by Renaldo Censi) with Jerry Tartaglia, the restorer of Smith’s film archive (“There never was any Normal Love movie in a complete form that he preordered. His life and his art were an ongoing process of mixture and reinvention. That is the point. The “restoration” was not a scientifically ordered procedure. It was a preservation of the works in the state that they were in at the time of his death.”), and some short, rancorous personal anecdotes from Ken Jacobs and David E. James that testify to the affronted paranoia almost inevitable when an artist as personal and rapturous as Smith is greeted mostly with censorship and harassment.

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The Hunger - Photo credit: MGM

Seattle Screens Halloween weekend: ‘The Hunger,’ ‘The Pit,’ ‘Rocky Horror,’ and Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, a con artist scheme by way of a steamy erotic thriller, opens at multiple theaters this week, including SIFF Cinema Uptown and Guild 45.

The Canadian coming of age comedy Closet Monster plays for a week at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Miss Hokusai, an animated Japanese feature from director Keiichi Hara and the creators of Ghost in the Shell, opens for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Archival and revival screenings:

Grand Illusion presents two contemporary twists of the vampire film on 35mm this weekend and on Halloween night: The Hunger (1983), the feature debut of director Tony Scott featuring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

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Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in 'The Handmaiden - Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures

Review: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea) leaves behind the austerity and cool tone of his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker to return to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy. The story of con artists in 1930s Korea, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex of a classy softcore picture. Park shifts the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial occupation, which adds national tensions to drama already roiling with class division and sexual exploitation.

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Demon

Review: Demon

Watching another culture’s horror movies can provide a fascinating glimpse into what makes them collectively tick. The Polish Demon offers an intriguing, deceptively comedic spin on the dybbuk legend, while also exploring an unthinkable whopper of a party foul. While the second half’s tendency towards small-scale conversations may occasionally betray the script’s origin on the stage, late director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s talent for whipping up barely contained group hysteria is really something special.

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

McCabe and Mrs. Miller - Photo credit - Warner Bros.

Blu-ray/DVD: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

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Review: American Graffiti

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.

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Violent Cop - Photo credit: Film Movement

Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

violentcopViolent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

In the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

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Memento Mori - photo credit: Palisades Tartan

‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

Continue reading on Keyframe