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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Review: Isle of Dogs

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wes Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation with his latest feature, Isle of Dogs. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s rigidly arranged chocolate-box technique, you can guess why animation appeals to him. For starters, it allows total control over the image, with nary a lock of hair (or piece of fur) out of place. Anderson’s fondness for squared-off, symmetrical compositions looks less strange in a cartoon (see 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) than it sometimes does in live action. And with animation, Anderson can fully indulge his decidedly non-realistic style (stretched to its live-action limit in the dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel): he can exaggerate color, design, and behavior without literalists howling.

Here’s another theory about why Anderson returns to animation in Isle of Dogs: It gives him cover for making his most dramatic film yet.

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Review: They Remain

Flip through a few recent Best of Horror collections at random, and you’re likely to hit a healthy smattering of Laird Barron. Barron, who sets many of his stories in the Northwest, is a ferocious talent, specializing in an upsetting, lysergic melding of two-fisted adventure scenarios and slithering Lovecraftian remnants. They Remain, the first filmed take on the author’s work, manages to replicate a gratifying amount of that distinctive vibe, infusing the story with large doses of free-form agoraphobic anxiety. It lingers.

Continue reading at The Stranger

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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Review: Love, Simon

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Early in Love, Simon, the hero jokes about getting together with friends and watching bad ’90s teen movies—the real joke being that Love, Simon essentially is a ’90s teen movie … with a few tweaks. Already acclaimed for being the first wide multiplex release with a gay high-schooler as its protagonist, Love, Simon dutifully follows the outline of other groundbreaking movies since at least the time of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Put another way, it’s as bland as vanilla pudding. But unless you’re completely vanilla-phobic, the movie’s unforced good feelings are easy to enjoy.

You’re probably wondering: Hasn’t this ground been broken? There have been plenty of gay teens in TV and indie movies, but let’s allow Love, Simon its distinction in opening in 2,400 theaters at once.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 16

“Some set-ups and movements of Passeio com Johnny Guitar are built as the reversed mirror reflection of those envisaged by Ray. The more one watches Monteiro’s short, the more one appreciates its evocation of Ray’s mise en scène. But this evocation is not a copy, an imitation, or a reproduction. He follows the pulsations of the scene and, caught in its wavelength, expands its resonances. He responds to those memories triggered by the soundtrack as if executing the steps of a lover’s dance.” The latest short film explored in Cristina Álvarez López’s series is new to me, but not only is Joa?o César Monteiro’s Passeio com Johnny Guitar a welcome discovery, Álvarez López’s elucidation of the film’s three and a half minutes as the quintessence of cinephilia is a stirring read.

“The climactic vanquishing of these grotesque aberrations allows life to proceed (we are freed, the straights can breed). Yet wasn’t it a little more fun with them around? Hence the central paradox of movie monsters: the horror genre implicitly asks us to identify with them, to see the world a tad askew and to want to cause mayhem and destruction to the more financially, physically, or socially privileged among us. This productively discomfiting form of identification is perhaps more acute for the queer viewer. For gays, relegated to the dustbins for most of cinema’s existence, insidious monsters can be figures of empowerment; they are often more decadent (Phantom of the Opera), worldly (Hannibal Lecter), romantic (Dracula), amusingly catty (Freddy), or bullshit-free (Michael Myers) than the supremely dull protagonists struggling to survive.” Michael Koresky’s survey of queerness in cinema hits 1932 and the topic’s most congenial genre, horror, as the unquestionable abhorrent racism of The Mask of Fu Manchu contrasts with the less cut-and-dried homoeroticism of the tortures greeted upon lead hunk Charles Starrett.

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Review: The Death of Stalin

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

If satire doesn’t draw blood, what’s the point? For years that was the problem with Saturday Night Live, which tended to make its political caricatures into lovable clods, figures of fun rather than fury. (Things have been more barbed around there lately.) In Britain, there’s a long tradition of going for the jugular rather than the jocular, and Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci wields the scalpel with cutting precision. His Oscar-nominated 2009 comedy In the Loop was a scathing look inside UK politics, and he co-created Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge, an acidly sketched broadcaster whose first TV talk show was canceled when Partridge accidentally fatally shot a guest. More recently, Iannucci created Veep, HBO’s Emmy-winning political satire.

For his latest big-screen project, Iannucci comes close to perfectly balancing comedy and savagery.

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Silents Please: Lois Weber restored and ‘The Covered Wagon’ on Blu-ray

Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)

Milestone Films

Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillip Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.

Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 9

“Inspired by theoreticians such as the Jamaica-born, UK-based public intellectual Stuart Hall and the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as much as by avant-garde filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Derek Jarman, BAFC’s work blended cascading montage and complex sonic experimentation with personal reflections on race, memory, post-colony and migration, with the rigorous yet non-didactic interrogation of official, state-sanctioned national histories pertaining to such matters.” Ashley Clark’s 50+ page monograph on the UK’s Black Audio Film Collective, written for the True/False Film Festivals Neither/Nor series, is a fine history of the collective’s official 16 years, plus the influences that fed into it and the ones it left upon others.

Including analyses and directors’ statements for key works such as John Akomfrah’s Testament (“It locates beauty and emotional resonance in its sensitive exploration of what it means to be “home””) and Reece Augiste’s Twilight City (“When I first came upon Calvino’s work, and [Invisible Cities], I was completely blown away. It constructed a gateway through which I could begin to think about London as a historical city, as a metropolitan city, and a city that has meant a lot to the Caribbean subject”); interviews with Akomfrah (“You heard about this figure [“black youth”], but you didn’t think it had anything to do with you, and then—and everyone I’ve spoken to experienced this—there’s a mirror moment when you suddenly realize: fuck, they’re talking about me! At that Fanonian moment, you think, OK, either run further away to escape this doppelganger moment, or do the opposite, which is to head towards it, to claim it, to fuse with it, or essentially to make friends with it.”), Augiste, composer Trevor Mathison (“We didn’t want to rush into a big statement—that was the main thing. In the juxtaposition between the image and the sound, that’s where you get the statement.”), and onetime intern and current BFI Southbank head Gaylene Gould (“And I remember John and the company standing really firm in the face of all that criticism [that BAFC’s output was too experimental and needed a more commercial focus], from both sides. Their attitude was: what we’re doing is bigger than now; you cannot criticize a culture without changing the form. That’s a line they’ve always stayed true to.”) Via Mubi.

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Review: Submission

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In Submission, Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle he deploys in a variety of situations. He plays a creative-writing professor at a second-rank college, and his automatic laugh comes in handy when placating inquisitive students, attending faculty parties with pedantic colleagues, or shrugging off incessant questions about when he’s going to finish his new novel. I swear Tucci delivers it so that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that moment. Acting is a precise craft but also a mysterious alchemy, and when you’ve gotten as good as Tucci has, a seamless performance like this can transform a so-so movie into a pleasure, merely for watching a veteran at the top of his game. The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, a case of sexual boundary-trampling that becomes the crux of the movie.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 2

“What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.” One imagines Kiarostami would have loved that one of the finest critical appreciations of his masterpiece A Taste of Cherry wound up taking the form of a fiction, Nicole Krauss’s Seeing Ershadi, about a disillusioned ballerina, a grieving actress, and the way both women are affected not just by the film but by the “gravity and a depth of feeling” displayed in the face of lead actor Homayoun Ershadi, with whom they both have a mysterious quasi-encounter.

The above was spotted by David Hudson, whose idea of pairing it up with Frank Mosley’s account of how he applied some key lessons Kiarostami offered in a workshop (“Do not dictate the story to your environment. Let your environment speak to you. Let it tell you the story. It will be more real, more authentic, more genuine.”) to his own film Casa de Mi Madre is so apt I’m stealing it here myself.

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Review: The Party

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

As we applaud the wave of women making (still far from equitable) inroads into film directing, let’s pause to appreciate a veteran in the field. Primarily a choreographer, songwriter, and performance artist in the early part of her career, Sally Potter began making experimental films in the 1960s. Her cinematic breakthrough was the surprise 1992 arthouse hit Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, with Tilda Swinton as the gender-hopping protagonist. Since then Potter has sometimes hit the mark, as with her hothouse coming-of-age picture Ginger & Rosa, but more often I’ve found her work insufferable. If you’ve seen the relentlessly politically correct Yes, in which all the dialogue is rhyming iambic pentameter, you know the desperate wish for large wads of ear-stuffable cotton.

It’s a pleasure to report that Potter’s newest, The Party, is a nasty little gem.

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Chimes at Midnight (1965 France/Spain/Switzerland) aka Campanadas a medianoche Directed by Orson Welles Shown: Orson Welles

An American in King Henry’s Court: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Originally published in Linguaculture, Volume 8, Number 2, 2017

Orson Welles, a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was one of the most audacious Shakespearians who ever lived. He recited soliloquies as a child, wrote a book on the plays as a teenager, and at age 17 roamed across Ireland before brazenly (and successfully) presenting himself at the Abbey Theatre as a distinguished American actor. Welles also created three of the most ambitious Shakespeare films. As an American pretender, a colonial presuming to re-interpret the greatest British writer, Welles approached Shakespeare with a mix of bravado and insecurity. This paper explores how Welles’ American nature informs these roles and, especially, his final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight (1965). In this production, Welles plays Falstaff and is understandably identified with the role, but it could be argued that he speaks more directly through Prince Hal, whose anxiety about inheriting the throne might be reflected in the way an American Shakespearian seeks to be accepted by the British keepers of the text. The words of Hal’s father, Henry IV— Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —might apply to Welles’ American-inflected depictions of kings and princes who do not entirely believe in their own royal agency. The tension between Welles‘ brashness and his fretfulness created some of the most memorable Shakespeare in the cinema.

Continue reading at Linguaculture (.pdf alert)