When you win the Best Picture Oscar, you’ve got a choice: play it safe or take a chance. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins obviously decided to gamble.
Jenkins’ follow-up to his intense 2016 prize-winner is If Beale Street Could Talk, a complex, offbeat adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. The story revolves around Tish (wondrous newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), two lovers who’ve known each other since childhood. As the film opens, Tish finds out she’s pregnant while Fonny languishes in prison—two situations we’ll eventually learn more about as the movie skips around in time.
At its most inspired moments, Aquaman plunges straight into the deep end—like when a giant octopus commences an undersea gladiatorial contest by rapping its tentacles across a collection of oversized drums, or when someone offers the movie’s villain a weapon that “converts water into beams of energized plasma.”
I mean, if a movie is going to be this wacky, you really should give in. And I wanted to.
The problem with Aquaman, the latest attempt by the DC Comics faction to match their rivals at Marvel, is that it never picks which wave to surf.
The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and of all the delightful songs from that movie, the one that really stirred my childhood self was the chimney sweep’s anthem, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” It took me a few years to understand that songs in a minor key sound darker than songs in a major key, but even as a kid I sensed that something about that tune was slightly eerie—its philosophical mood gave ballast to the movie’s floatiness.
There’s nothing like that minor-key tone in the new Mary Poppins Returns, no waft of night magic to offset the cheerful candy colors. But otherwise this is a crisply executed and refreshingly old-fashioned musical, drawn again from P.L. Travers’ Poppins books.
The new Spider-Man movie opens with an apology about being yet another Spider-Man movie, which pretty much sets the tone: This is a flip, oh-so-postmodern take on a franchise that won’t stop rebooting itself. An animated Marvel saga, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tips its hat to the existing Spider-Man movie thread while introducing the idea that multiple universes hold different Spider-Men.
That convoluted concept must be fun for some people, because Into the Spider-Verse has been winning rave reviews (and a nod for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics). I’m not raving, but the film is certainly different.
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
In Malaysia, three young Americans with little else in common are united in a shared enthusiasm for beer, women, and righteous hashish. Eventually, “Sheriff” (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) head back to New York. Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), a spacey but good-hearted sort, stays on with the notion of helping save the orangutans. Two years later, a brassy lawyer (Anne Heche) shows up in Manhattan with the news that her client, Lewis, has spent the interim in Penang prison. Arrested for a prankish misdemeanor they all shared in, he’s taking the rap for something worse:the dope stash they left him holding was a fatal few grams over the limit. Unless his fellow Americans return voluntarily to (literally) share the weight, in eight days Lewis will be hanged as a drug trafficker.
The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?
I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.
The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.
The opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a self-contained masterpiece—no surprise, considering the mind-boggling opening shots of Children of Men and Gravity, the Oscar-winning director’s two previous features. Here, our focus on a section of elegant floor tiles is interrupted by a wash of water that flows in waves across the floor, a mysterious image that turns out to be a housemaid washing up the exposed entryway at a Mexico City house, a favorite spot for the family dog to do its (apparently prodigious) pooping. As the water accumulates, the image changes, and we can now see the reflection of the sky above the entryway.
The water, the sky, the dog poop—everything will play a role in this intimate yet somehow epic film, which Cuarón has said is based on his childhood memories of Mexico in the early 1970s.
Along with its other wicked attractions, The Favourite serves as a corrective to all those fluffy period movies where pretty costumes and set design function as the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath. The art direction is plenty handsome here, too, and the film will likely collect a few Oscars for its physical production. But The Favourite uses its lavish backdrops in order to show off the nastiest sides of human behavior—this is a beautiful dinner spread with a rat as its centerpiece.
[originallywritten for NoShame Films, August 27, 2005]
Our subject is primarily life, but if you feel that life’s missing something, steal a camera and try to give life a style.
Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s third feature film, has always been one of the most elusive of the director’s endeavors: a forthrightly experimental work—”a film that comes from the head,” in Bertolucci’s own phrase, “a totally deconstructed film”—that willfully declines to satisfy audiences’ conventional expectations regarding narrative and emotional identification with characters. Nominally based on the Dostoevsky novella The Double, the movie centers on—and largely transpires in the imagination of—a rather priggish young drama teacher in Rome played by Pierre Clémenti. Clémenti also plays the wilder, looser alter ego who begins to share the teacher’s life and, to an extent, identity; both go by the name of Giacobbe (or Jacob, in English-language commentaries).
You know an actor’s in the groove when a simple grunt conveys not only an entire character arc, but a movie’s essential meaning. Such a moment comes late in Green Book, and it’s one of a thousand things to savor about the performances in this film.
The groan emerges from the beefed-up body of Viggo Mortensen, playing a Bronx wiseguy named Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip). It’s 1962, and Tony has been hired by a black jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), to act as chauffeur during a concert tour. But Tony’s duties are not merely to drive a car; as a nightclub bouncer and a guy who knows his way around a brawl, it’s understood that Tony may have to provide protection for Shirley when the trip ventures into the American South.
The Sheriff of Nottingham is throwing a big party, and Maid Marian asks Robin Hood if he’ll be attending. She tells Robin she “got an invite” to the party, and at that point I think I mentally checked out of the new Robin Hood. It’s bad enough that people use “invite” as a noun in 2018. But unless this is a Mel Brooks version of ye olde tale, using current slang to tell the Robin Hood story qualifies as an automatic tune-out.
The saga of Robin Hood has been around for almost a thousand years, and if it can withstand Kevin Costner’s accent, it can withstand this haphazard new film. The emphasis here is on a youthful Robin, an origin story that shows us how he came to be the legendary robber.
[Originally written for Queen Anne/Magnolia News, 2004]
There is a moment in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution when the protagonist, the scion of an Italian noble family, learns that a friend has taken his own life. He had been speaking with the young man only hours before and declined his fervent proposal that they go again to see Howard Hawks’s RedRiver. Bertolucci cranes up and backs off from his hero; then his camera pivots on the young man’s figure, slowly describing 90 degrees of arc around him as he looks out at a changed world.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 30, 1979]
Cinema comes so naturally to some filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci once revealed that he dreamed camera movements years before laying hands on a camera. But even without this confessional nudge, his aptitude for the medium, his kinesthetic thrall with luminosity, surfaces, colors, trajectories, is apparent in the films he has made. Opera has been a frequent touchstone in his work, existentially and aesthetically, but he doesn’t need it as a brief for grandiosity or vividness of style: it is as natural for Bertolucci to soar as it is for others to walk.
[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]
The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.
Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …
A Chinese-American professor (Constance Wu) collides with the culture of the ultra-rich in Singapore when she meets her boyfriend’s family in Crazy Rich Asians (2018, PG-13), the hit romantic comedy based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan. Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh co-star. Now on Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.
Sorry to Bother You (2018, R), the feature debut of hip-hop artist turned filmmaker Boots Riley, is a social satire as comic fantasy starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who finds the secret to sales success and rises up the ladder of a soulless corporation. Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer co-star. Streaming on Hulu.
FilmStruck, the premiere streaming service for American and international classic movies, ends its service after two years on Thursday, November 29. Criterion has announced a plan to restart its own service in Spring 2019 and Warner Media (parent company of Turner Classic Movies) promises to bring back its classics in a new streaming service in a year, but until then this is the end. If you’re a subscriber, time to see those films on your watchlist or browse through the catalog one last chance to stream some of the greatest films ever made.